Tag Archives: MFAs

Blog Interview Part 2: Will Lavender!

Welcome to Part 2 of our interview with Will Lavender, author of Obdience and Dominance! Please feel free to shoot me some comments or questions. Is your writing process like Will’s? Have you had similar experiences? What do you think of MFAs and two-book contracts? Let us know!

6. What is the “best education” for a writer? For example, are there particular ways of reading that writers should cultivate? Would you recommend college courses, MFAs, online forums or webinars?

I actually recommend the MFA. It’s gotten a lot of flack over the years (especially recently), but my MFA experience was so unusual, and so outside the realm of anything I’d ever done, that it was highly beneficial. At no other time in your career will have you have that many eyes on your unpublished work. It can be, if used correctly, incredibly helpful.

Otherwise I think writers should always be versed in their medium. If there are novels out there that are like your manuscript, then you should know about them. I do a lot of events with aspiring writers and am often surprised at how poorly read people are. I’ll mention books—extremely popular books—that folks will not recognize. You obviously don’t have to have Penguin’s spring catalog memorized, but it’s always beneficial to know the landscape so that you can write toward it.

7. Do you get feedback on works in progress (from editors, writers’ groups, friends, colleagues)? If so, how do you recommend “managing” feedback: for example, are there ways writers can evaluate feedback to determine what to use and what to set aside?

I generally don’t like to talk about my WIPs, but what happens in publishing is that they need you to talk about your unfinished work—they don’t want to be surprised by anything, especially by someone without a strong history of sales. I’ve gone off-track a few times while working on novels and had to be reigned in by my agent and editor.

But the issue for me is that the more I talk about it, the more mystery that’s sucked out of the thing. I like to work in total secret and then to be confident in the work before I show it to anyone. I’m a firm believer that things can be jinxed, and I’ve jinxed quite a few WIPs by blathering about them.

8. Do you have a sense of how writers should address ongoing changes in the writing/publishing world (online publishing, self-publishing, death of independent bookstores, blogging)?

Writers should always keep their options open. One should never say, “I would never self-publish,” or “I hate traditional publishing,” because you never know when you might have to go that route.

Things have radically changed in publishing just in the last five to seven years. Imagine five to seven years from now. I think there will be an entirely new and unthought-of process for getting books out into the world. Yes, printed books will never die, but they’ve been staggered and the writer should respect that.

The traditional publishing model has also been staggered. When people ask me about self-publishing I always recommend starting at the very, very top. Try to get your dream agent. If that doesn’t happen, then begin to adjust your goals. If you end up having to self-publish, then you do your best with that book and start another one. I think writers make a mistake sometimes by putting their soul into a book. The best and most successful writers are those who are always looking to reinvent themselves and begin something fresh.

9. How do you make a space for writing in your personal life?

It’s difficult with two young children. I generally write on evenings and weekends, but one of the more important things about writing well is sticking to a routine. Very hard to find that when you have a family and a 9-5 job. It takes a rigor that some of these professional novelists have down but the rest of us struggle with daily.

10. Is there anything you’d advise an aspiring writer NOT to do? (Pretty broad, so take it where you will.)

This is a tough one because there’s so much advice that works for some people and not for others, and some “never do this” kind of stuff that great writers do all the time.

I think one of the main things that aspiring writers struggle with is confidence. Confidence is an innate thing, maybe, but I believe a lack of confidence is also a byproduct of “art.” It’s not the coolest thing in the world to stand up for your creation. The artist has been taught to be modest, to be almost shy, and to “let the work speak for itself.” Those that get out in front of the art—and if you’ve ever been to a book fair you’ve seen the people who adamantly try to sell their work—are labeled as hucksters while the quiet ones among us who demure are the geniuses.

But to be published, you have to be able to talk coherently and strongly about your work. And for the work to even be publishable, you have to have belief in it—not the unerring, I’ll-never-change-a-single-word-of-this belief, but more of a sense that you know what the book is going to be and how it’s going to be sold. Many writers I talk to seem unsure about their product; “Well, I’m working on a zombie novel now, but I’m thinking of changing to a…” No, that’s not a good tack. One needs to be firm about their WIP and what it’s going to look like once it’s finished.

11. What are you working on now? In what directions are you taking your career?

I’m still under the aforementioned two-book contract. The novel I’m working on now is a thriller about…well, I don’t want to jinx it. I’ll let everyone know when it’s finished.

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Filed under Interviews, Self-publishing, What Not To Do in Writing Novels, Working with literary editors

Blog Interview! Will Lavender, Author of Dominance and Obedience: This Weekend!

Saturday and Sunday, April 11 and 12, I’ll be posting a two-part blog interview with New York Times best-selling author Will Lavender, author of Dominance and Obedience. Stop by to learn about Will’s experiences working with major publishers and developing ideas for his “literary thrillers.” Chime in with your own experiences. I’m excited and I hope you are, too!

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On Having to Write about Vampires (and Alien Sex)

Apropos of my narrative about being categorized with the vampires and aliens at the most recent conference I went to, here’s a piece from today’s New Republic online newsletter in which a writer of memoirs, Stephen Akey, laments the apparent impossibility of selling anything that by comparison must be considered bletheringly unmarketable. What most resonates for me in this piece is what he tells us about “platform”: agents, gatekeepers to publication, asking “What type of platform do you have for speaking about the issues in your book?” “What is your access to the media or to major experts in your field?”

Because my current project is nonfiction, I’m particularly sensitive to the purported need for a “platform.” I’m fortunate in that I do have access to some “experts” in  my field (and at times have passed for one myself), but I’ve been asked the same question about works of fiction. Yes, I’m sure it would be easier to sell a novel by Regis Philbin than one by one of us unknowns, at least (possibly, since Mr. Philbin might well be a stellar wordsmith) until it gets read.

But I’m not a carpenter by birth or trade, and labor as I will to build something akin to a sound platform, I’m imagining ending up with something more akin to a three-legged seesaw. I’m reminded of an admonition I found somewhere–wish I could tell you where: “Less tweeting, more writing.” Yet, I am rather enjoying picking up my HTML book and envisioning the Web site on which I will advertise and sell my otherwise doomed works of fiction. It will be vibrant, informative, interactive, irresistible. If only I could figure out how to add a background layer to my new logo in GIMP. . . .

Stop reading blogs and get back to work, you.

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Filed under Finding literary agents for writers, looking for literary editors and publishers, Money issues for writers, Myths and Truths for writers

Coda to “I believe I’ve been gone for a while”

I had a conversation Thursday afternoon of last week with one of our part-time instructors, who, with an MFA, just got a full-time job teaching CW and will be leaving us. He is an exceptional example: lots of credentials and publications. He asked me how I balanced my creative writing and my academic life. I said, “I don’t.”

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Filed under Teaching writing, Writing and teaching writing

I believe I’ve been gone for a while. . . .

. . . . as will be obvious from the dates.

I find that I’ve had many (silent) visitors in the meantime.

Here’s what happened: Spring term was hell. Two faculty searches. Major curriculum overhauls (state-mandated). Two sections of research writing that, for the most part, were disasters (more on that down the road, at least if I can get to it before it all starts up again in August). Regular committee work; many, many student complaints to adjudicate in my role as a writing program administrator (co-administrator–thank God for my counterpart). Since classes ended in May, we’ve been frantically interviewing to fill our part-time slots for fall (we can no longer offer three sections due to the provisions about benefits in the ACA). Two months into “summer” with less than six weeks of relative peace left, I find myself back here with all sorts of promises to self about being more diligent. We’ll see.

Yesterday, I had a long phone conversation with a newly minted MFA in creative writing who wanted to make sure we had received her application for a part-time teaching position. Yes, we had; we’d filed it under “not qualified for our job.” She was delightful to talk to, but I doubt she was delighted with me.

She wasn’t qualified because the only thing she’d ever taught was a poetry class. I told her we need people with experience teaching college composition. We didn’t quite get into the details as to why that matters, but I did suggest the truth: it matters because until you’ve faced four papers in fifteen weeks (multiple drafts as well as various pre-writing work for each), you can’t know what teaching college composition will be like for you. We don’t have the time or resources to teach someone who’s never done it how to structure and conduct a college writing class. We look for people with backgrounds in college composition through their graduate work, or failing that, people who have taught enough to know what they’re getting into and who can “talk the talk” to us in an interview (“How would you structure an assignment sequence to move students from personal writing to academic writing?” “How do you see the role of grammar instruction in a college writing course?” “What do students need to be able to do when they leave a first-year writing course?” Etc.) While we do make mistakes, we can usually tell in the first few sentences of the answers to such questions whether we will be able to offer the applicant a job.

But I also told her she ought to consider very carefully whether, as an aspiring poet (I think she actually had been told in some contexts that she could earn a living publishing her poetry), she really wanted to teach.

I have mainly my own experience to go on. Yes, I have a relatively good job in that it’s secure (tenured) and pays enough for a safe life and some luxuries, and has good benefits. But it has meant the death of my own “creative” writing. I’ve published academic journal articles–I like writing them, and I’m good at them–but as I told the young woman, I haven’t seriously worked on my “own” writing in ten years.

I told her, “You need a job that you can walk away from at the end of the day. One you can tailor to your own work habits (evenings if you write best in the mornings and vice versa). One that makes minimal emotional demands on you. I told her, “If you teach writing, every bit of emotional energy you can generate will be invested in students’ writing–other people’s writing.” For me, only the release of summer allows enough of that energy to bubble up again that I can even do something like this. Once school starts again, my job seizes my life. A lot of it has to do with trying to get my mind around what “writing” “is” and “means” for people who’ve never written, who almost never read, who fear writing or have no experience of it as a way of getting things done in the world, for whom, sometimes, a sentence is a mystery. And who don’t realize that writing is work. I can’t make it easy for them. Not being able to make it easy for them makes it hard for and on me.

My experience doesn’t match everyone’s. We do have people with MFAs who continue to do their own work and who find that they LOVE teaching. That it energizes them, expands them. I told the woman to apply to the community colleges (which, around here, readily hire people with no experience) and see what teaching feels like. But in the meantime–I told her, and I mean it–jobs for MFAs are few and far between. We have ten people on staff who can teach creative writing, and they covet those classes. If we were to hire someone specifically to take them over, we’d hire someone very well-published with lots of publishing contacts who could professionalize our program. Not a just-graduated MFA. Many of our students want MFAs–for what? A lifetime of teaching first-year comp part-time for less than $15,000 a year?

I could go on quite a bit more. But I believe I had begun several stories. If I am a good girl, I will work on catching up on them. For now, to close: the aspiring MFAs in our program have no idea what “real” publishing is like. They don’t want to know. Maybe that is as it should be. Maybe no one would ever write a word if they did know. And that would be quite a loss.

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Filed under Myths and Truths for writers, Teaching writing, Writing and teaching writing