Category: All Blog Posts
Article by Patrick Stuart
The online version of The Atlantic had an interesting article recently about whether MFA programs produced better writers. Now before anyone starts throwing electronic tomatoes, the basic argument was whether any difference could be detected between a best-selling novel by an author with an MFA degree, and one without. So a couple language professors used computational analysis to determine if any differences could be found. They looked at 200 novels over the last 15 years by authors with MFA degrees, and another 200 without. To limit those without degrees, they decided to only review authors who had been critiqued by The New York Times. And the results?
The various categories included diction, syntax, style, race and gender. Long story short, there wasn’t much difference. The computer model only picked MFA authors correctly 67% of the time, which isn’t great considering that a blind guess would be 50%. And consider this: MFA programs have increased nationwide from 52 programs to almost 7 times that amount now. 20,000 people apply for these programs annually, with universities gathering $200 million in the process. So there’s a huge financial incentive to get people interested in pursuing MFAs.
Which isn’t to say that such programs are bad. On the contrary, writing a novel is only one of several uses for an MFA. And several esteemed non-MFA writers have advanced degrees in other subjects, such as Khaled Hosseini (doctor), Annie Proulx (PhD level history) and Kathy Reichs (forensic anthropologist). In other words, these are people who would probably have done well in a creative writing program anyway; they just happened to choose another profession first. But there’s also those who had successful writing careers with little to no educational background. Maya Angelou was trained as a dancer, with no college experience. William Gay worked as a handyman, painter, drywaller and carpenter before finally getting critical acclaim. And JK Rowling, the most successful writer in history, was a single mother on welfare when she wrote the first Harry Potter book.
So if you’re looking for excuses about your lack of a six-figure book deal, a missing MFA is not an option. Unfortunately, like most things (not involving questionable moral or ethical lapses), the ingredients for success are a couple cups of hard work, a pound of perseverance, and a dash of luck for taste. And for anyone with an MFA who disagrees with the findings? No soy responsable por eso. But if you’re still planning on flingin’ them ‘maters, let fly in 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . .
And for anyone wanting to check out the article, here’s the link:
Let’s face it. Looking for an agent is the pits. The very scary, Pits of Despair, Princess Bride, pits. I fumbled across my first agent four years ago, right after I’d begun writing. We met online in a chat room. She was new to agenting. I was new to writing. Why not partner up? It was a wonderful experience for a while, but a couple years in, my career had stagnated, and I was frustrated. She and I were friends, and I knew she was working hard for me, but something had to change.
I needed to break up with my agent and start again. I was a wreck at the thought. How could I give up my security blanket? Even if my agent wasn’t perfect for me, she was still there. Real. Mine. I thought about it for more than a year before I made the call. We’d just signed another digital first, no advance, minimal support contract with a publisher I didn’t need an agent to submit to, and I told her it would be my last.
And just like that. It was over. I was adrift. And terrified. But I’d taken my time (LOTS of time) making the decision to let her go, and I knew it was the right thing for my career.
So, I wrote a new cozy mystery.
I found three published friends to read for me – none of whom actually write cozy, (I still don’t have a partner who writes cozy to trade with) but my girls are good at their craft and they love me, so they chipped in and gave feedback. I made the changes and ate my weight in Ben & Jerry’s.
This was it. Nine months after the dreaded breakup call to my former agent, I was ready to query again.
Holy hopscotch! What was I thinking???
My list of ideal agents had been drafted, refined and cultivated over many months of daydreaming. Stalking my favorite authors to see who represented them. Following the agents on social media. Reading their blogs. Interviews. Tweets. I thought quite a few agents were funny. Some would be a blast to have drinks with. And then there was the One. The one who was my tip-top, out-of-my-league, dream agent. So, I started with her. Obviously. Her name is Jill Marsal co-founder of Marsal Lyons Lit. She represents so many AMAZING, successful authors. She has a law degree from Harvard. I love telling people that about her. Smart people float my boat. I wanted HER.
I sent a query and waited. I will admit that it took an extra-large glass of wine to make me hit send…at two in the morning….on a Friday night. I woke Saturday morning with a headache and regret. WHY WHY WHY??? did I think I was ready to contact my dream agent???? Stupidstupidstupidstupid….
And then I opened my email.
Jill had received my late night tipsy query and she wanted my whole manuscript. Not a couple pages. Not a few chapters. She wanted to read the whole thing.
…… …………… <— those dots represent the part where I stared slack-jawed at my screen for two hours.
By lunchtime, I was moving in mental fast forward. I reread the manuscript from start to finish, plucking and culling, licking my thumb and smoothing flyaways until there was nothing more I could do. This was all I had in me. It was a full representation of my very best. If it wasn’t good enough, I’d try again next time, but for now, this was it.
Being Julie… I sent two more queries that night. I figured, I’d already set the thing in motion, I might as well give myself something else to fret about. It was highly unlikely Jill would want me, and I had months of waiting ahead of me while she read the manuscript. So, I sent two more queries and now, I had contacted my top three agents.
I sent the manuscript to Jill on Sunday night, after a trip to church and lots of prayers for sanity during the sure-to-be-maddening wait. I mostly hoped for feedback. When she rejected me, which I believed was 90% inevitable because she was Jill Marsal and I was….well goofy, awkward, a bumbling forty-year- old authoring dork… but her feedback upon rejection could change my game. I could use it to improve the work before someone else asked for pages. While I was at it, I sent two more queries. There. I’d contacted my top five. It was over. I could go puff into a paper bag and wait for the rejections to roll in.
My phone rang at nine am the next morning.
Jill had read my manuscript through the night and called as soon as it was business appropriate. That’s so sweet and professional of her. I would have gladly rolled out of bed to get the call at literally ANY hour, but nine am the next freaking morning worked also.
I didn’t play it cool. I didn’t ask for time to contact other agents or think it over. I dorkily barfed all my internal monologue on her. She was my number one choice. She was the one. Yes. Yes. Yes, please and thank you. Yes. “Perfect,” she said, because she’d already compiled a list of publishers who needed to read my story. I may have rolled off my couch silently. She emailed her contract for representation and while I signed and returned it, she put together a package for six presses. The next morning, she called again. Four of the six had requested to read me. The day after that, another call. She had two offers. If you’re still reading and keeping track, that made FIVE DAYS between my tipsy-query-send and a new agent with two publisher offers. By day 7 after the tipsy query, I’d signed a NICE three book deal with Crooked Lane books. And I’m still wondering when Jill will realize what she’s gotten herself into and politely flee from me.
While that was all lovely and fine and exciting, I want to tell authors in the find-an-agent boat, it wasn’t a reflection on my phenomenal writing skills that made that wild and wonderful story unfold. I probably don’t completely suck at this job, but I’m also no better than most other authors out there and I’m a LOT worse than plenty of them. Remember those other four queries I sent? I had ONE request to read. I also had a big rejection. Not a form letter, a “No thanks. I don’t see this finding a home in the cozy world today,” break-my-heart style rejection. And TWO agents just flat out ignored the query. ie: Rejection by avoidance. It’s a thing. *shakes my head*
So, you see, if I hadn’t had the wine and sent the query to Jill, I might not have an agent or a contract today, and I’d be questioning my craft, my future and my viability as an author. There’s no guarantee the one other agent who asked to read me would’ve wanted to represent me. Maybe no one else would’ve seen promise in my silly story of a woman in New Orleans making custom couture clothing for pets and solving murder. Who knows? That’s why you to have to be brave. Are you sitting on a query? Afraid to pull the trigger? Don’t be. Hit send. Have some wine if you need it, but put yourself out there and don’t stop being your number one advocate. If you need a first agent to move forward, seek one. If your current agent isn’t right, it’s okay to say so. Do the thing, whatever it is. Go for it. If I can do it, YOU can do it.
So, do it!
Julie Anne Lindsey is a multi-genre author who writes the stories that keep her up at night. She’s a self-proclaimed nerd with a penchant for words and proclivity for fun. Julie lives in rural Ohio with her husband and three small children. Today, she hopes to make someone smile. One day she plans to change the world. Julie is a member of the International Thriller Writers (ITW) and Sisters in Crime (SinC). She is represented by Jill Marsal of Marsal Lyons Literary Agency.
Julie also writes as Julie Chase. Learn more about Julie Chase books here.
Find Julie Online:
Find Me on Facebook!
Read with me on Goodreads
Pin with me on Pinterest
Blogging at Musings from the Slush Pile
Capturing life on Instagram
Review by Patrick Stuart
In February SICCO was lucky enough to have author John Kachuba speak, where much of his presentation centered on his new book The Savage Apostle. The novel takes place during the 1670’s in the American colonies, with the crux of the story focusing on the expanding Plymouth settlement. The title of the book refers to a Christianized Native American named Sassamon who is murdered, with three members of the Pokanoket tribe then accused on trumped up charges to be decided by a white jury.
The Good: There’s a lot to like in this novel, especially if you’re a fan of historic fiction. The author spent several years researching this time period and it shows. The places and character names sound authentic, as do the settings and daily interactions of the characters, and there’s even guest appearances by historical characters such as Miles Standish, Squanto and Cotton Mather. The novel’s voice sounds transplanted from the seventeenth century so that the reader actually feels in the scene, rather than simply reading a modern description of another time period. Chapters oscillate between the main white protagonist (John Eliot) and the Native American protagonist (Metacom/Philip), and both points of view show their shared despair as Governor Winslow of the Plymouth settlers uses Machiavellian techniques to push Metacom to a fateful and calamitous decision. No matter how much might wish for a happy ending . . . unfortunately, we all know how history typically played out in these situations.
The Bad: Ironically, what makes the novel so rich in detail is what takes away somewhat from the plot. The novel is a trim 220 pages, and the plot is a pretty straightforward trial scene. Not much mystery is involved, and the decision and aftermath are no surprise. Which is the conundrum of historical fiction; how much can you deviate from history in the interest of story? Other novels from that time period do the opposite, such as The Pilgrim (by Hugh Nissenson) and The Midwife’s Tale (by Sam Thomas), where history becomes the background for the story to happen, allowing a tapestry of fiction and reality to form. Perhaps there’s more of a middle ground to investigate in future books.
Either way, John Kachuba is a promising author with a deep understanding of this vastly underrated and unexplored time period in American history. Although I felt this novel could’ve expanded into additional plot and intrigue, I definitely look forward to future work from him. Out of 4 thumbs up, I give this a strong 3.
Kandy Williams (w/a Mercedes King)
After enjoying fireworks and champagne in celebration of writing and revising your novel, the party is cut short when you realize you have to write a synopsis. Whether you’re submitting to an agent or editor, there’s no way around needing a synopsis. Along with the first three chapters, a synopsis is probably the most required item when shopping and sending your work. Being the creative type that you are, chances are good that you rank writing a synopsis up there with paying income tax and having a root canal. But have no fear. With the recent completion of my latest WIP, I went straight to the task of writing the blasted tool, skipping the fireworks and champagne all together. Here’s what I learned:
- You need a finished product. No need to dive into writing a summary until your draft is polished and has had several read-thrus. When you’re feeling solid and comfortable with where your manuscript is at, then you’re ready for the synopsis.
- Your finished manuscript makes it EASY. Yes, I went there with capital letters. With your WIP upgraded to a DMS (Done Manuscript), sit down with a notepad and skim through each chapter, jotting down the major highlights. Put down everything that jumps out to you as important.
- Longer is better. No size jokes, please. Once you have your list of highlights, put them together like a recipe and allow 1-2 sentences per highlight. At first, you may find that you have a 10 page outline. Cool. Keep it, because some agents / editors ask for a long synopsis, so you’ll be ready.
- “Trim”. Here’s the hard part. Other agents may ask for a brief synopsis (3-4 pages), and some will want a 1-page synopsis. Shave that long version down until you have both.
It took me several days to accomplish this, and I only say that so you can expect to take longer if needed. There’s no rush, because the important thing is capturing the essence of your story. Once you’ve tackled and completed this process yourself, you’ll agree with me that writing a synopsis is no longer the equivalent of battling the Kraken (sans Medusa’s head). Good luck!
If you’ve been part of the writing community for a few months or a few years, then you probably recognize the name of Jane Friedman. Not only is she considered by most to be a publishing guru for her incomparable ability to keep a pulse on what’s happening in the industry, but she’s also extraordinarily helpful to writers at every level.
Carolyn and I had the pleasure of attending Mad Anthony’s Conference, located in Hamilton, Ohio, where Jane was the all-day speaker. She was not short on material. Jane spoke about every topic, from marketing and promotion to building an author web site; how to use Facebook as an author; finding a freelance editor; tips on writing a synopsis; understanding Google analytics…..and SO much more. (Looking over my notes, I’m amazed at everything she covered!)
No matter where you’re at in your writer’s journey, you can always learn from Jane Friedman. For more information, and when you have time to invest, head to her web site and search through the treasure of info. Thanks to Jane and event organizers Victoria Ryan and Jane Biddinger for a fabulous day!
Visit her site at JaneFriedman.com
Join us for one of THE best book events of the year! The Ohioana Book Festival celebrates authors who are born and bred Buckeyes, who set their stories in Ohio, or who have lived in Ohio for five years or more. For 2016 Ohioana is featuring over 120 authors and their work. Held at the Sheraton Hotel in the heart of downtown Columbus, from 10 am – 4 pm, the festival gives readers a chance to meet and chat with their favorite local authors. Plus, the day is jam-packed with panels and discussions that touch on a variety of subjects. This event is FREE!! We’ve included the schedule below, but you can find out more details at http://www.ohioana.org/
Panel Discussions and Roundtables
Hear your favorite authors talk about their books and their writing process, and ask them questions.
10:15 a.m. – 11:00 a.m.
Urban Fantasy and Dystopia
Matt Betts, Laura Bickle, Lissa Bryan, Josef Matulich, Terri-Lynne Smiles
Legislative Room A
Mystery, Thrills, and Suspense I
Dan Andriacco, Shelley Costa, Yolonda Tonette Sanders, Sam Thomas, Andrew Welsh-Huggins
Legislative Room B
Ohio Stories: People and Places
Christine Hayes, Doug Motz, Karen A. Patterson, Cathy Hester Seckman, James A. Willis
House Room A
Writing and Publishing for Young Readers I
Louise Borden, Tim Bowers, Julie Drew, Linda Gondosch, Rafael Rosado, Tricia Springstubb
House Room B
11:30 a.m. – 12:15 p.m.
From Another Realm: Paranormal, Science Fiction, and Fantasy
Kelley Grant, Dara Naraghi, John Scalzi, Tara Tyler
Legislative Room A
Extraordinary Men, Extraordinary Times: Roosevelt and Rhodes
Douglas Brinkley, Tom Diemer, Lee Leonard
Legislative Room B
The Power of Words: Poetry
Amit Majmudar, Michael J. Rosen, Maggie Smith, Alison Stine, Jacqueline Woodson
House Room A
Plants: In the Garden and on the Table
Pamela Bennett, Dawn Combs, Del Sroufe, Maria Zampini
House Room B
12:45 p.m. – 1:30 p.m.
How We Write, What We Write
Jill Bialosky, Mark Dawidziak, Amanda Flower, Leah Stewart, Robin Yocum
Legislative Room A
Mystery, Thrills, and Suspense II
Carrie Bebris, Duffy Brown, Karen Harper, Nancy Herriman, Kylie Logan
Legislative Room B
True Stories: The Strange and the Sensational
Jennifer Bowers Bahney, Richard O Jones, Wendy Koile, David Meyers, Jane Ann Turzillo
House Room A
Writing Nonfiction for Young Readers
Mary Kay Carson, Marianne Dyson, Kerrie Logan Hollihan, Nancy Roe Pimm, Julie K. Rubini, Carmella Van Vleet
House Room B
2:00 p.m. – 2:45 p.m.
The Creative Life
Chuck Ayers, Tom Batiuk, David Catrow, Ann Hagedorn, Mindy McGinnis
Legislative Room A
Horror, Suspense, and the Supernatural
Kevin P. Keating, Tim McWhorter, Mark Rigney, Lucy A. Snyder
Legislative Room B
Historical Fiction: Stories Set in Real Places and Times
John B. Kachuba, Lisa Karon Richardson, Cindy Thomson, R.G. Yoho
House Room A
Writing and Publishing for Young Readers II
Rachele Alpine, Carole Gerber, Anne Vittur Kennedy, Brandon Marie Miller, Marilyn Sadler, Kathy Cannon Wiechman
House Room B
3:15 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.
Publishing: The Insider’s Guide
Deanna R. Adams, Mark Clark, David M. Gold
Legislative Room A
Mystery, Thrills, and Suspense III
Alan Cupp, Mary Ellis, John Hegenberger, Eliot Parker, D.M. Pulley
Legislative Room B
The Story Behind the Story: Fiction Roundtable
M.B. Earnheardt, Robin Gianna, Sherri Hayes, KaraLynne Mackrory, Donna MacMeans
House Room A
Timothy L. Hudak, Jonathan Knight, Teddy Kremer, Diane Lang, Hal McCoy
House Room B
Review by Carolyn Melvin
WHERE ALL LIGHT TENDS TO GO by David Joy, another Edgar nominee for best first novel, is a first rate debut novel. Jacob McNeely is a young man trapped by the circumstances of his Appalachian upbringing and convinced that his destiny is pre-ordained. His violent meth-dealing father controls what goes on in Cashiers, North Carolina, including the local authorities. Jacob dropped out of high school and has been working for his father for years on the promise that his father will eventually pay him for his efforts. The high point of his life comes from reuniting with Maggie, his first love, and a girl bound for bigger and better things.
Initially, I found it difficult to get into the book. Joy is a very descriptive writer, and in the beginning, he made use of a number of clichés. As I got further into the book, I was swept away by his use of language, sense of place, ability to catch the reader off guard with brutal and often upsetting incidents, and heart-pounding pacing. I highly recommend this book.
We enjoyed a great time with local writing guru Nita Sweeney. Not only did she share about her vast life experiences, from living in New Mexico and being discipled by author Natalie Goldberg to working as a lawyer for ten years, but she also passed along various tips for the writing life. One way Nita manages to be productive is by committing to writing intervals. She started by setting a timer for ten minutes, a length that wasn’t intimidating or too demanding. She found that once she started, the writing flowed well beyond the ding of the egg timer. One concern that writers often grumble over is having enough time to write in the go-rush-run style of everyday life. When Nita talked about taking care of her ailing mother, Nita said she forced herself to learn how to write during all the hours she spent at the hospital and in doctor’s offices, waiting on appointments. With sound-blocking headphones, and her mother peeking at her laptop screen to keep her accountable, Nita was able to use that time for writing and even looked forward to having that dedicated time. Meditation, mind mapping, and setting writing goals with fellow writing pals have also been instrumental for her. Having completed NaNo over the last several years, Nita has plenty of memoirs and manuscripts she plans to polish and shop in the near future. We can’t thank Nita enough for coming and encouraging us to “continue under all circumstances”.
Review by David Ploskonka
I read a lot of books on writing. My nightstand almost always has one or two books from the library about how to write a better novel, better characters, better anything. And I’ll tell you what – most of them are terrible. If I had a dollar for every book chockfull of bad advice or painful clichés, I could buy my own publishing house.
But that is precisely why I get so excited when I find one that is good. And let me tell you, I’ve found a good one.
The Scene Book: A Primer for The Fiction Writer by Sandra Scofield is jewel: detailed, concise, practical, and full of great examples. Scene Book explains that every good piece of fictional writing requires good scenes. Its central premise is that to write a good scene you must understand the following:
- Every scene has an EVENT
- Every scene has a FUNCTION and a FOCAL POINT
- Every scene has a STRUCTURE
- Every scene has a PULSE
The author then unpacks all of this over the course of 14 chapters. Each of these chapters include instruction, actual scene examples, and analysis of what works in those scenes, making each chapter a mini-course in scene construction. Scofield even has the best explanation of the differences between conflict and tension that I’ve ever seen.
Most of the scene examples come from the “literary” genre and include examples by people like Raymond Carver, Richard Stone, and Joy Williams. While I love these writers, this is not what I write. But no matter—I found the examples elucidating enough that I did not need them to match my genre of choice. Whether I am writing or revising, I find myself reaching for The Scene Book over and over to help me out of jams. I fully recommend it!
Table of Contents Below
The Scene Primer:
- The Basics (Ch. 1)
- Event and Meaning (Ch. 2)
- Beats (Ch. 3)
- The Focal Point (Ch. 4)
- The Heart of a Scene: Pulse (Ch. 5)
- Tension (Ch. 6)
- Negotiation (Ch. 7)
- Images (Ch. 8)
- Some Useful Scene Skills: Scene Activity and Character Response (Ch. 9)
- Scene Openings (Ch. 10)
- Big Scenes (Ch. 11).
- Moving to Independent Study: Reading for Story and Scene (Ch. 12)
- Evaluation (Ch. 13)
- Scenarios (Ch. 14).Sample Scenes