Budding fiction writer lacks confidence (no MFA) and needs help!
November 23, 2017 4:55 PM   Subscribe

Essentially 1) Do I need to know technical details of creative writing? 2) Am I disadvantaged because I don't have an MFA? 3) How do I work in relative isolation? 4) Are online writing courses useful?

I've been a long time lurker on here. Finally decided to make an account!

I'm hoping someone can help me with this. So I love writing fiction. I have written poetry that has been published in a small literary journal, I've written loads of half-finished stories, and have an idea for a novel. I've made a rough outline for the novel and have a pretty good idea of my characters and what I want from the novel. I wanted to take part in Nanowrimo but I'm chronically ill with chronic fatigue syndrome and Ehlers Danlos syndrome and 50,000 words in 30 days is just too much for me.

Here's my issue. I majored linguistics and minored in languages at college and never took any writing classes. I have friends with MFAs, and in general, I feel as though I need to study the art of writing a novel and/or short story before I write one.

I'm auditing the Coursera creative writing specialisation at the moment but I keep thinking about attending a writing course. My illnesses are unpredictable in nature and I can't sign up for regular classes so I'd need to look for online classes. I've looked at a few and they are SO incredibly expensive. Gotham writing courses are on the cheaper side, but I really need to think before I sink $425 into a creative writing course (especially since I've read mixed reviews).

I guess I want the experience of a workshop that my MFA friends talk about. I feel as though I need to know technical terms before I write. The rational side of me knows this is ridiculous and I don't need to know specifics. I just need to write for now. On the other hand, I feel inadequate. Is this just a form of procrastination?

I read a lot - so I guess I have that covered. As far as I can see - because of my illness - I'm limited in terms of my mobility/ can't plan ahead so finding a group of writers in my city that I could interact with seems impossible at the moment.
posted by dostoevskygirl to Writing & Language (24 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
What you need is the drive to write.

I don't care how much education you have, how creative you are, or how many workshops you take, if you don't write, and write to completion, you're not a writer.

Workshops are wonderful. Networking with others is stimulating and can give you feedback and insight.

But in the long run, if you're limited in time, money, or energy, focus on your writing. The most important thing a writer does...
posted by BlueHorse at 5:09 PM on November 23, 2017 [7 favorites]

As another person with chronic illness, you can totally not write and write and write and still be a writer. You can take your time. Sheer volume doesn't determine how good you are and part of being successful as a writer in a situation of limited energy is not trying to follow too much advice like that, that just depletes your energy more.

You absolutely don't need an MFA, but if you decide to go that way look for "low residency" programs where you basically never have to go in, you write from home with supervision from an advisor remotely. There's a lot of reputable programs doing this now. Reading a lot is the biggest thing and that's great that you do - pick apart what you like or don't like about work in your genre(s), even take notes, take apart books and see what makes them work.

Linguistics is going to give you a better background than you think. As someone who works on the agent side of things, some of the most interesting manuscripts I read are by people with "non-traditional" backgrounds who write because they love it and never internalized any of the sameness that sometimes comes from MFA people. Imposter syndrome is a jerk, and that's part of what's happening here. Write your novel! I want to read it.
posted by colorblock sock at 5:45 PM on November 23, 2017 [14 favorites]

Agreeing with BlueHorse. Write. I've thought about going back to get to school to get an MFA. Looking into it, I found the MFA in Creative Writing is oft ridiculed. It began to feel like the artistic equivalent of an MBA.

Find publications you like (web or print) and write something targeting those.
posted by falsedmitri at 5:48 PM on November 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

MeFiMail me.

No, you don't need an MFA to be a successful writer and, in fact, it might be better if you don't have one. The best writing doesn't come from having learned the rules of writing, it comes from the bare wire of the soul.

I mean, yes, there is a craft to good storytelling, but it's best learned on the job.
posted by 256 at 6:17 PM on November 23, 2017 [5 favorites]

1) no
2) it's an advantage
3) making sentences
4) could be but see answer 2

Finish the book. Slowly. Or fast on a good day. Write every day you're able. Keep at it, many successfully authors suggest it may take a couple tries/books. Do it for yourself and your readers.
posted by sammyo at 6:28 PM on November 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

No one ever set down their favorite book midway through and said, “This would’ve been so much better if the author had an MFA!” This is not to say that education is worthless, or that you shouldn’t jump into a program if you find yourself with the inclination and resources to do so.

A LOT of creative people, though, have let “not having X credential or Y experience or access to Z” be the thing that kept them from even getting started on the thing they wanted to do. This kind of thinking is sooooooo easy to fall into; a lot of us grew up believing that you were either a natural-born prodigy, or you might as well not show up.

NanNoWriMo (and other speedy challenges like it) can be GREAT motivation for a certain kind of person, but if that’s not you? Do Personal Novel Writing Year, or Vignette-a-Week Until Desired Wordcount, or Morning Pages of Whatever You Feel Like (and if they advance your larger story, you can file them separately).

Just don’t let that inner gifted-school voice convince you that you have to grab some kind of official brass-ring first, as if you can’t learn as you go. That voice is a liar; tell it to pipe down, because you’re the one making the fiction around here.
posted by armeowda at 6:31 PM on November 23, 2017 [7 favorites]

Forgot to mention: you might enjoy Jerome Stern’s Making Shapely Fiction. I think some of it is previewable in Google Books.
posted by armeowda at 6:46 PM on November 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

The credential itself only matters in a very narrow set of circumstances (if you'd like to teach creative writing at a university [though those jobs are hard to get and increasingly adjunct positions], or apply for a few selective post-grad fellowships); what the MFA offers, and does exceptionally well, is a two or three year span in which you're immersed in writing -- studying it, talking about it, teaching it, being surrounded by people who care about it as much as you do. Because good MFA programs are fully funded -- low res programs the exception to this -- you can focus on your writing for several years straight, and build a community of likeminded peers, without having to worry about supporting yourself. That's the reason to do an MFA, if you choose to; plenty of people learn to write on their own, without one, and it's only in the past thirty years that the MFA has proliferated so widely. There are plenty of community workshop options, ranging from expensive things like Gotham to free, informal groups of writers with and without MFAs getting together to critique one another's work once every few weeks. Like anything, any of these can be hit or miss. Don't feel like there's any reason you can't, or shouldn't, apply to an MFA (any program worth its salt funds everyone they admit for the entirety of the program, usually in exchange for TAing one class a semester), but also don't feel like there's any reason you can't be a serious writer without one. In the meanwhile, I do feel that there's a lot of value in the workshop model (though many people disagree with that) and since it sounds like you do too, search out local writing workshops and other opportunities that are low-cost, and try them out. Remember that they'll be hit or miss; not all workshops are the right fit, and if you end up in one that isn't great don't be afraid to bow out after a few go-rounds and try again. What matters is that you're writing when you can, and that you're finishing work, and that you're building confidence about your writing process itself.
posted by tapir-whorf at 7:02 PM on November 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

There's really only one technical detail of creative writing: keep writing. MFA programs can connect you with other writers who are on the same wavelength as you--or who at least appreciate what you are up to--and can give you honest and caring feedback that will nurture your development. But surely there are other ways to find your people. The credential itself is neither here nor there.
posted by baseballpajamas at 7:28 PM on November 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

Just nth-ing that in visual arts too, an MFA is primarily viewed as licence to work on your work, rather than "instruction" per se (which is undergrad). Most artists and writers do not have an MFA, many don't have undergrad degrees in the topic, or possibly a degree at all. I know several people who've done well in creative fields and most do not have MFA's.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, if you haven't already.

You might really enjoy Sustainably Creative - it's a website/podcast/courses/working groups focused on gentle artistic habits and working at your work...well, sustainably. The founder has chronic fatigue too, and this was his answer to finding a way to work. I've also really enjoyed it as a working mom without much time.
posted by jrobin276 at 7:37 PM on November 23, 2017 [8 favorites]

One advantage to an MFA program is that faculty can connect you to people who can help you out, e.g., agents. In an article I saw on newly successful writers, every single one had an established writer he/she met through an MFA program going to bat for him/her. (As a writer with a plain MA in English, I found it exasperating in an article on achieving success - know someone famous - great advice.) But that’s publishing, which is different from writing. I would suggest Poets and Writers magazine for a way to feel more connected to the writing world.

I will say I find it very helpful to be part of a group of local writers who meet regularly to discuss our work, but your health problems may make that difficult. Online writing groups exist, but I’m not sure how to find one. The Poets and Writers website has info on connecting writers, so maybe you can find something there. It’s pw.org.

I also strongly recommend the book Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. Also, maybe look for interviews with Laura Hillebrand, author of Seabiscuit. She wrote while disabled by chronic fatigue syndrome. She has had to do a lot to keep writing while seriously ill. You may find her story inspiring.
posted by FencingGal at 7:49 PM on November 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm a published writer with an MFA. The former has nothing to do with the latter. Most published writers I know do not have MFAs and most of the students from my MFA program have not published much.

What you need to do if you want to be a writer is to finish things. Stories, novels. Take a long time or take a month, it doesn't really matter. You need to finish something. Hell, you'd need to finish something just to apply to MFA programs, anyway.

In an article I saw on newly successful writers, every single one had an established writer he/she met through an MFA program going to bat for him/her.

This is categorically untrue. I have had three different agents, and I cold queried my first two. I had a reference for my second, but it was not through someone I'd met in my MFA program.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:55 PM on November 23, 2017 [11 favorites]

The most important thing to do if you want to learn to write is read a lot. You'll pick up most of what you need to know from that. MFA classes will teach you not to do all the little things that will cause publishing company interns with MFAs to throw your manuscripts away, like don't put exposition in dialogue (don't deliberately write an interchange between two characters because you need to reveal a pile of backstory). There are a million little things like that that you don't always learn to recognize on your own. Workshop will call your attention to POV and verb tense shifts that you might not have noticed, and you'll learn to look out for them. Writing classes make you write. If the school is any good, you'll get read by smart readers. And of course there's always the chance that you'll forge writing relationships that last a lifetime. I think that last is a pretty much verbatim lift from an MFA brochure. With a master's you can teach community college, which is fun, if not particularly remunerative.

For the love of god, though, don't spend any money on it. If they don't fund your whole flight, give it a miss. Keep reading and writing and try again the next year.
posted by Don Pepino at 9:06 PM on November 23, 2017 [3 favorites]

You mention a few different things:
- I feel as though I need to study the art of writing a novel and/or short story before I write one.
- I want the experience of a workshop
- I feel as though I need to know technical terms before I write
- I feel inadequate. Is this just a form of procrastination?
- The rational side of me knows ... I just need to write for now

I think the rational side of you is right, not just because obviously formal study isn't necessary for good writing (it wasn't even available for most of history), but because the rational side of you is thinking in terms of "for now" and not "before I write." You can always do a writing workshop or degree; it doesn't have to be before anything. It might be considerably more valuable after you've been working for a while and have specific viewpoints and know what aspects of your writing you want to work on.

So I do think it's mostly fear and procrastination. Feeling inadequacy and even terror about what you write is a classic side effect of the whole undertaking* and it's one that a lot of writers have talked about. (*Undertakings in general, probably.)

Getting feedback on writing can be good and while it might take some looking, there are apparently a lot of ways to get that feedback online and to find readers whose input you value. Working in isolation can also be good, I think: it can help you develop your own style and force you to do your own work of figuring out what it is that makes your favorite books work and how (or whether) to employ other writers' approaches in your own writing.

Which is to say that it's all good, especially in terms of the order in which you do things. You say you want the experience of doing a workshop, so I hope you get that experience! But it's definitely not something that needs to come before anything else. And as for whether you can work better in isolation or with external support, I think the way to find out is to try it both ways. You could decide to just start writing on your own, see how it goes, and only change that approach if you get seriously stuck. Or you could set yourself a goal to spend this year writing while also looking for online groups and support, and keeping an eye out for interesting workshops, and sign up for one after you've been working at writing for a year. Or you could decide you really want to do a workshop now; the point is that it's not urgent and not a prerequisite for anything.

Good luck, find out what works for you, and don't let the terror of it get you down.

(Caveat: I'm not a writer. I do deal constantly with the overwhelming urge to put off ambitious and uncertain undertakings via invented prerequisites and ruminations on inadequacy. My experience has been that completing whatever prerequisites I've come up with still doesn't leave me emotionally more ready to face the actual undertaking.)
posted by trig at 1:05 AM on November 24, 2017 [4 favorites]

I got an MFA and I am now a working writer. But this is a case where correlation does not equal causation. I learned very little from my MFA, and I regret the time and money I spent on it. Pretty much all my education and career opportunities came from elsewhere.

Writing is a crazy business and if you ask a hundred writers, you will hear about a hundred different career paths. The only thing they all have in common is that they all sat down and wrote, and kept writing until they finished something.

There are a few other elements that don't appear in 100% of writers' stories, but do seem to occur in many of them. If I were going to sketch out an average writer's life, it would include these elements:

• She read extensively, and tried to understand what good writers did well and bad writers didn't.

• She found a group of writers who were at roughly the same level of development as her, and they read each other's work and gave feedback. She learned not just from the feedback she received but from the feedback she gave. As the writers learned from each other, they improved together, and helped alert each other to professional opportunities.

• She found more experienced writers who could help her -- either with one-time aid and advice, or with ongoing mentorship. Occasionally, this happened at the beginning of her journey, but more often, it happened when she had raised her craft to the point where she was ready for this kind of help.

I think those things are often what people are looking for when they go into an MFA program. Sometimes they find them there and sometimes they don't. (For the most part, I didn't.) But none of them are things that require an MFA.

If I were going to sketch out a plan for you, based on what you've told us, it would go like this:

1. Figure out what is a reasonable amount for you to write every day, given your time and health constraints. If you have some days where you're unable to write, it might be more helpful to think of this in weekly or even monthly terms. The key is to ignore the quality of your writing. Don't worry about writing anything good. Just focus on something objective (like word count), and make it realistically achievable. You want to set yourself up for success.

2. Stick with it until you have something finished. If you've never finished a short story, I would probably advise you to finish a few before you tackle a novel. Don't worry about quality. Your first stories are going to suck, because everybody's first stories suck. Even when you get good, your first drafts are probably going to suck, because almost everybody's first drafts suck. The point is to get words on the page. Right now, you're just practicing finishing stuff. Later, you can practice making stuff good.

3. Think about what's wrong with the story you've finished. If you have ideas for how to make it better, rewrite it. Finish your rewrite, even if halfway through, you begin to doubt whether it's helping. Again, right now, you're mostly practicing finishing.

4. If you have ideas for making your new draft even better, rewrite it again. Repeat until you run out of ways to make it better. Then repeat the above process to write and rewrite a new story.

5. Think about whether your second story is in any way better than the first. If so, you are learning on your own. Keep writing stories and learning from them and writing new ones. If not, go to step 6.

6. At a certain point, you will feel like you have learned everything you can on your own. Maybe you kept learning for a thousand stories, or maybe you wrote two stories and they were both equally bad. However you got here -- now you can start looking for people to give you feedback on your writing. You could do that by taking a class, or by trying to join an online critique group. You definitely do not need to sign up for an entire MFA program.
posted by yankeefog at 2:48 AM on November 24, 2017 [10 favorites]

I'm a writer, and while I have no ambitions at publishing, I am pretty dedicated to improving my craft. I don't think an MFA is a good use of my time and money, especially as a queer fat woman or colour who has zero interest in Serious Literature, especially anything involving straight cis white dudes. That said, the following things have been really helpful to me. On mobile, so no links, sorry!

- Reading, extensively, and out of my comfort zone. I recommend Book Riot'a Read Harder challenge; it pushed my boundaries in the best way.
- writing excuses, a podcast that is (around) fifteen minutes long and comes out weekly, has probably done as much for my writing as an MFA could. The hosts are all working writers, and the guests are amazing. I especially recommend the last three seasons.
- actually writing. Sorry, there's just no substitute for doing the work.
posted by Tamanna at 4:22 AM on November 24, 2017 [4 favorites]

This is categorically untrue. I have had three different agents, and I cold queried my first two. I had a reference for my second, but it was not through someone I'd met in my MFA program.

Really glad that you shared your experience and that it was different from what I wrote of, but my statement is not "categorically untrue." I was clearly writing about an article I read, and it is absolutely true that was the case with this article.
posted by FencingGal at 5:59 AM on November 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

4) Are online writing courses useful?

I don't know the answer to this for you, but I do know someone who completed the free MOOC from Learn Futures, Start Writing Fiction, and found it helpful, though she did also say it's fairly basic.
posted by paduasoy at 7:59 AM on November 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

I have a high school diploma, a spinal cord injury and progressive degenerative spinal disorder, and my 10th novel will be published in 2019. My second anthology will be published in 2018. I wrote two non-fiction books for tweens. I repeat: I have a high school diploma. I have never had beta readers; I've never been in a writers' group. All you need is an idea and the will to write a novel.

I tell you all this because I have often felt like, oh, I bet people with MFAs are better at this than I am! They have so many ins! I have wondered if I am doing this wrong; if my books would be better if I took some workshops... I call this the fraud muse. The fraud muse likes to make you feel bad, because it keeps you from working. Working is what makes a writer.

You can give yourself a lot of the experience and practice that you get in an MFA by writing and reading broadly on your own, as well as finding critique opportunities. The connections, I've seen, don't really amount to much. I got my agent by cold query; I sold all my short fiction by self-submission.

What helped me most was reading other people's work in my category and genre. The books I loved taught me what to do right; I books I hated taught me what to do wrong. (Right and wrong are completely subjective, of course. But reading teaches you the kind of writing you want to do, and the kind you don't.)

I also liked giving critiques on websites like Critique Circle. It taught me to read critically, and taught me to look closely at structure, character, plot, etcetera. This helped me apply that same critical eye to my own work. Sometimes it takes seeing someone else make a mistake to realize you've been making it, as well.

You don't have to know the terms and technical details of publishing to write a novel. You've been reading your whole life; you know the parts that comprise a novel. You can do it.

My first novel was a mess of pre-conceived notions, but it taught me so much about the process. Your first novel will probably also be a mess, but that's fine. That's how you learn.

Now if you want to take workshops, but cannot take them in person, then Gotham is a pretty good program. Nova Ren Suma teaches there, and her YA novels are gorgeous, strange, compelling, wonderful, and disorienting.

There's no need to bang out a novel in a month. NaNo just teaches you consistency and discipline. So instead of writing 1600 words a day to pull a NaNo... write 250 words a day. That's the length of a few texts, and that will give you a full-length novel in one year.

What's important is that you do the work. Nora Roberts calls this BICHOK: Butt In Chair, Hands on Keyboard. (Though I can highly recommend the Mac's onboard dictation software, if Hands on Keyboard is physically difficult for you.)

But the point is, you just need to do it. Whether you write every day, or only on days that start with T, you need a schedule that works for you, and you need to stick to it. That's all NaNo does: it compels you to stick to a schedule.

You can always get crits online for free, if you develop the relationships (again, sites like Critique Circle are great for this.) But you can also hire working writers and editors to get critiques, if you feel the need for professional scrutiny. Tons of authors who offer editorial services at reasonable prices.

You and I are in similar boats, but I've made it farther down the river. I'm calling back to tell you, ignore the fraud muse and put words down. You can do this. You can absolutely do this.

Do it in your own time, on a schedule that works for you, and don't let anyone (or any fraud muse) tell you that there is only one true way to be a writer. To be a writer requires one thing: that one writes.

So write. You can do it.
posted by headspace at 8:55 AM on November 24, 2017 [12 favorites]

Read a lot. Write even more.

MFA doesn't matter, it'd just jump start you on technical stuff.

Writing Excuses podcast might be useful. They talk about writing seminars fairly often so maybe check into those.

But mostly, write and have people read your writing and listen to the feedback you get.
posted by Awfki at 10:49 AM on November 24, 2017 [2 favorites]

What looks after a brief glance like a handy list of writing rules Artw linked in a front page post about science fiction:
posted by Don Pepino at 2:27 PM on November 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Chiming in to add my approval to Sustainably Creative (Michael, the host, is so good at helping us be gentle with ourselves!) and Writing Excuses.

I know a few pro writers who are experimenting with a commitment to 20 minutes a day. This expands into more time on good days, but this relatively short time (which aligns with that of Sustainably Creative) has turned out a great deal of really solid work.

I don't have an MFA. What helped me most as a writer was recognizing Imposter Syndrome for what it is, and FINISHING something.

Most of the writers whose work I most admire don't have MFA's. You might look at your own bookshelf and take a survey of your own favorites.
posted by Nancy_LockIsLit_Palmer at 6:55 AM on November 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Really glad that you shared your experience and that it was different from what I wrote of, but my statement is not "categorically untrue." I was clearly writing about an article I read, and it is absolutely true that was the case with this article.

Okay, well the idea that you need an MFA to get an agent is categorically untrue. I regularly get emails from people from my MFA program asking me for advice on getting agents. I tell them to finish their books, then consult the same webpages I did (queryshark, the absolutewrite watercooler) and cold query. It really is the best way to get an agent.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:23 AM on November 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

Thank you everyone for your wonderfully detailed and enocuraging messages. I am so grateful for each and every response.
posted by dostoevskygirl at 12:40 PM on November 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

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