Quoth Too Broke: I’m a pretty disciplined guy and I do some writing before or after work almost every day, but I feel like I’m missing something that maybe I could get from a workshop or MFA. The problem is that I can’t afford either one. What do you suggest for people kind of striking out on their own?
As much as I enjoyed getting my MFA and meeting a lot of great mentors and peers, you definitely don’t need one to write well or even to make connections in publishing. In fact, you may have a slight advantage as an autodidact, approaching this world with a sense of blue-collar work ethic instead of pretentiously like I did.
(Really, anything that puts you in the way of writing and getting feedback and then adjusting your work is fine.)
If I were to assign myself what I really needed to learn, this is the program I would follow:
I know you don’t have a lot of money to spare, so we’ll keep this to the essentials:
- The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, by Stephen Koch. You could probably just get away with this one if that’s all you can afford, and it is absolutely the best writing handbook I’ve ever found with all the essentials you need.
- Dreyer’s English, by Benjamin Dryer, can fill in any gaps you’re feeling in your grammar and usage education.
- A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders, could easily be an MFA in itself with some excellent close readings of the Russian masters like Tolstoy that he turns into very practical and useful advice.
- Working Days, by John Steinbeck, is his journal from writing The Grapes of Wrath. It’s the best book I’ve seen showing the actual feeling and practice of writing.
- Story First: The Writer as Insider, by Kit Reed, isn’t easy to find but it’s worth the search. Reed’s idea of storytelling as a kind of performance from the inside of a character’s head will revolutionize your work.
That’s it? No, I could list another five or six, but these are what you need to get an intuitive sense of writing one interesting sentence after another. Everything else is great for tips and inspiration, but you can go a long way with these.
I don’t have a finite length for my ad hoc MFA program, but you should probably count on doing most of this for, well, the rest of your career if you want to keep sharp and on top of it.
- Read a lot of the kind of work you want to write, and most importantly, notice things about it. Watch how paragraphs are structured, dialogue punctuated, scenes set up, and chapters divided.
- Read books from time to time that you DON’T think you’d like or want to write. This is one of the best effects of an MFA: finding connections in things you wouldn’t normally seek out.
- Outline several of your favorite stories or books on both a chapter and scene level. This sounds tedious, but you’ll get a good sense of structure from doing it. Notice what happens in the first third of a work, the middle third, and the final third. Look for the break points between them.
- Pick several of your favorite stories (up to novella length) and type them in.
Yes, I said type them in. This is the equivalent of playing piano etudes, making your fingers move in the same way as an author’s. Yes, it’s true that you’re typing in their fifth or tenth draft, but you have to slow down from reading for entertainment and start noticing things like:
- How do scenes start? What do you need to describe? How do you downshift from general time (“We lived in the Adirondacks for ten years”) to performed time (“One day in August of 1960, I think it was…”)?
- How are characters introduced and described? How do they sound different?
- How are paragraphs structured? Is there a main sentence and then supporting ones afterward with more detail?
- How detailed are the descriptions? Are there a lot of adjectives and adverbs?
- What do characters DO while they’re talking? What expressions do they make? Do they move and emote as much as you thought they would?
- How is action handled? What happens during a fight?
- How much do characters think (internal dialogue)? How much do they act?
- How do scenes end? What kind of paragraph brings a scene in for a landing?
- Assign yourself exercises every so often, like:
- Describe a character in a paragraph.
- Write a scene opening.
- Write a chapter opening.
- Write a perfectly structured paragraph (topic sentence with supporting details).
- Write a moment of tense dialogue between two people.
- Write a moment of action.
- Write a scene or chapter closing.
- Write as many first lines for random stories as you can in fifteen minutes.
- Write and complete as many works as you can as intuitively as you can.
- Plot and plan only as much as necessary.
- Stick with them to the end, even if you’re worried they are failures.
- Notice what doesn’t feel right. Talk to yourself in writing about the problem and work it out as best you can.
- Move on to the next one as quickly as possible.
- Get feedback for your stories from people who aren’t idiots.
- Though even an idiot is somewhat useful for pointing out places where you failed to lull them out of noticing any flaws in the story.
- You can join a writing group, but know that 90% of them are absolute shitshows full of people who will likely quit and who are more interested in you reading their work than in giving you good feedback for yours.
- Meet other writers and try not to be a dick.
- You can go a long way with a genuine curiosity and beginner’s mind when you begin to dip your toe into the writing world.
- You’re going to meet a lot of desperate neurotic people who, like survivors bobbing in the water near the sinking Titanic, will be flailing so hard that they may drown you by accident. Stay away.
- You will also meet a small number of wonderful people…but unfortunately you won’t know that until you give them a chance.
- Submit your work to editors.
- Don’t take their generalized comments (“I didn’t like the beginning”) too seriously.
- Only accept advice that energizes you with a thrill of recognition.
That may sound like a lot, perhaps more than you’d imagine from a workshop or MFA. There are a lot fewer parties and gatherings for sure, and a lot less entertaining drama about who is falling in love or hate with one another.
It can also be tough to carve out the time to do all of this, but honestly, you have your whole life to do it, right? I mean, yeah, gather ye rosebuds while ye may and all, but there’s nothing to say this has to get done in a year or two years or even ten.
Live the kind of perceptive and interested life that gives you something to write about.
One enormous advantage of self-education is that you can grab it from anywhere, and if there’s one thing I regret from my lifetime of studying writing is that it feels sometimes like that’s all I really know.
Learn how to cook a meal or fire a gun or sew a quilt. Walk a dog. Talk to weird old men playing checkers and then their smarter wives. Pretend to be a conservative (or a liberal) during a conversation. Believe crazy things long enough to play with them in your head and then let them go.
Be as awake as you can be as often as you can, and never forget that writing is a road, not a destination.