Monday, November 29, 2010

Are MFA programs really such a scam?

I just read this article in the Huffington Post about MFA programs. The main thrust of the article is to go after James Frey, who has created his own packaging business for young adult novels, and is courting writers by going into MFA programs and making presentations. I completely agree with this blogger when she says the programs shouldn't let Frey in, but I'm not sure I'm down with her take that many MFA programs are out to soak their students for money, without giving them the skills they need to survive as professional writers. I think more depends on the student than depends on the program. Here is the full text of the article:

And here is the comment I wrote in response:

I agree that these MFA programs shouldn't let James Frey in for his song and dance. Nor should those students let themselves in for it. But in defense of MFA programs, I will say that I made connections in mine that have been invaluable to me professionally. And yes, I have published, and I've got a sustainable career as a writer. I may be in the minority, but I think that's because I didn't give up when the going got tough, and I've had a few lucky turns, for which I am very grateful. If not for my MFA program, I doubt I would have been in a position to be "lucky," and I might not have had the wisdom to avail myself of opportunities. MFA's aren't the only way to go, not by a long shot, but they're not all bad, either. (And incidentally, word to the wise, if you're planning on going for an MFA, get a job at the university you're attending if they offer a tuition benefit. Most do. My MFA was basically free. I had to work my butt off, but that's good prep for being a professional writer anyway.)

What do you think? Is Hillary Rettig being too hard on MFA programs, or am I being too easy on them? 


Thursday, November 18, 2010

This makes me think I'm with the right publisher.

My publisher is St. Martin's Press, which is a subsidiary of MacMillan, a company that is taking the lead in standing up to the e-book thugs of the publishing industry. Read this excerpt from an article in STANFORD MAGAZINE, written by Bridget Kinsella:

Macmillan moved to institute a different pricing model—one that reflected, as Sargent wrote in his blog, a belief that "the first release of an e-book is worth more and people will pay more for it." In general, Macmillan insisted that Amazon was an agent for its titles and the publisher had the right to withhold the release of e-book editions unless Amazon agreed to sell them at a price the publisher deemed fair. Under this plan, the e-book price of a new release generally would start at about $15—with the expectation that the price would fall to about $10 as demand waned.

Amazon responded immediately by stealthily removing "buy" capability from its listings of all Macmillan titles. Furor among authors and customers followed. (Bemusement, too. Macmillan, highlighting what was often perceived as Amazon's pettiness, took out a full-page ad in the New York Times to boost an important title likely to suffer from an Amazon "blackout" at the moment of its publicity push. The ad, for The Checklist Manifesto by surgeon Atul Gawande, '87, drolly noted, "Available at booksellers everywhere except Amazon.")

Within days, Amazon backed down. The result was the ascension of an "agency" pricing model friendlier to publishers and one that kept the playing field somewhat more level for booksellers. It was an audience of about 500 national booksellers, at a February meeting in San Jose, who rose to applaud Macmillan.

For full text, go here:

I'm glad I'm with MacMillan. I'm also glad that the publishing industry is being proactive about the e-book phenom. (I think they learned something about it from the music industry.)


Monday, November 15, 2010


I liked Amy's last post about taking time to reflect in the midst of the writing process, getting your bearings before barreling ahead to the end of your draft. I've been doing my own brand of reflection lately: the kind that comes when a draft is done (for the moment) and it's time to put it aside and take a break.

So what do I do during this break? It's time to read as much as possible. I've got a too-long list of books to read, and I'm always eager to hear suggestions, if you have any! I'm also eager to watch movies and television programs that might spark a little something in my imagination. I am contemplating another project, of which I have an intriguing opening (at least, it intrigues me) and an outline that's not quite working yet; it's suffering a murky middle. I need to read and watch and think a lot to help clear this problem up.

Taking a break is fun, rejuvenating. But I can get a little twitchy - why am I not writing? I've got SO MUCH to do, so little time to do it. I should get going, shouldn't I? But this non-writing time is part of the process, too. Best not to rush it.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Taking stock.

After a long haul of writing at a breakneck pace, I've run out of steam. The scene I've had in my mind for months, the big turning point that leads to the grand finale is now written. From here, I work my way toward my ending.

But at the moment, I'm taking a pause. I'm at the crest of the hill and I'm looking around before I get back on my scooter and head down the curving road. I'm reading, thinking, imagining. I always feel as though I'm wasting my time at moments like these, but I try not to get too down on myself about it. Most of the time I can write, and I can write fast. Sometimes, though, I can't. I need to let my subconscious replenish. But there is a pattern to these pauses, I'm beginning to realize. The problem is I'm between acts.

I tend to subscribe to the three act mode of writing fiction, borrowed from the dramatic structure going all the way back to Shakespeare, and before. I use it because it works, and it gives me a framework for thinking about my story. The three act structure goes something like this:

First Act Begins- This is the hook you use to set up your main characters. 

First Act Break - Your heroes set off on their journey, also known as, "The point of no return."

Second Act - Your heroes begin their journey.

Mid Point Break - All is lost. The heroes are at their lowest, on the verge of giving up, but they pull it together and forge onward.

Second Act Break - Heroes make a decision that brings about the final challenge to vanquish the forces that hinder them.

Third Act - The Hero faces the antagonist and risks all to accomplish goal.

Ending - Hero either accomplishes goal or fails.


Always between acts I have to take a little caesura and retool my thinking. Right now I'm at the Second Act Break. All my characters are about to compromise themselves in ways that will cost them dearly. It's always my favorite point in any book I'm reading, but when I'm writing, I have to proceed with caution. 

Leading up to now, I've been giving myself the tools I'll need to write a bang up climax and a stirring resolution. Now I have to take stock of those tools, decide which to use, which ones need spiffing up, and which ones to discard. It would be wonderful if this were an entirely conscious process; then I'd have some control. But I find, at least for me, my themes are largely under the surface, working in ways I don't consciously manipulate. I've got to let them line up they way they need before I can start writing again.

Or maybe all this is rationalization. I'm writing a book I enjoy, and I'm afraid of finishing it, because then I will have to get down to the difficult work of revision, which always takes me about twice as long to do as the actual writing of the book. But I don't think this is all rationalization, because of that pattern. Always between acts, even if I don't realize I've reached the end of an act, I mysteriously run out of steam. As long as I get back to writing soon, I'm willing to accept this pause as a part of the process.


Tuesday, November 2, 2010


National Novel Writing Month is here, and I want to give a shout-out to all of those brave, wonderful writers out there who are setting to the task of a 50,000 first draft in one month's time. Sadly, I won't be participating this year - I still have to finish up this revision, and then I need to read and recharge. But that doesn't mean I won't be thinking of all of you, and looking forward to joining next year. In fact, the novel I'm currently revising was my Nano project last November. It's gone through a few changes over the past year, and I'm thrilled to still be working on it.

So, how goes it, so far? I want to hear about your mad first-drafting, so that I may live vicariously!