Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Some Questions from Kenneth...

From time to time I receive emails from people kind enough to say nice things about my work. I always appreciate that. (Thank you.) I also occasionally get questions from aspiring writers. I've tended to answer them directly, but I just got to thinking that I could also do so here, in a more general way. So, this time I'll be answering a few questions from my new friend, Kenneth. Read on if you're interested!

Kenneth asked...

Do you set for yourself daily writing goals of a certain number of pages or word count?

Uh... Kinda. Or perhaps the answer is "ideally, yes". There was a time - in grad school, writing Gabriel's Story and... well, all my novels up until the one I'm currently working on - that I did set specific word count goals. In the early days things were lean and I really had to get something published, so I wrote about two thousand words a day. Sometimes more, but usually at least that much and on a five-day work week. That slipped a little bit when writing Pride of Carthage, maybe becoming more of a fifteen hundred word goal. That's because of family responsibilities, etc.

Either count is pretty good, I think. And both quickly add up to book length manuscripts. I do recommend such goals. You don't have to always meet them, and you may not always write your best stuff while trying to. But I do find that discipline and tenacity pays off. I believe the process helps create moments of inspiration, so the more time you spend in it the better.

Having said that... I'm afraid I don't set the same sort of limits at the moment. Right now, I get done what I can when I can. In addition to my family, a lot of my time is taken up with my teaching responsibilities. I may only be in class a few hours a week, but it seems like there are always stories to be read, assignments to be graded, applications to read, letters to write, etc. It's ironic that at the same time my books are reaching more readers than ever before I'm also busier with non-writing responsibilities than ever before. I might balance things out differently in the future, but that's how it is now. I still have tenacity, and some discipline. It's just shaped a little differently now. In this, I'm no different from anybody else trying to make a writing life work.

What advice would you give to choosing an MFA program?

I guess I would say try to consider as many aspects of the program as you can. Don't just focus in on one thing. For example, a program with a great reputation might look attractive, but that doesn't mean it'll be the place where each individual will learn best. A famous writer may attract you, but just because the person is famous doesn't mean they'll make a good teacher for you.

I'd also say do the research to find out who the faculty members really are, what they've written and what they seem to be like as people/teachers. There are some prominent programs out there that just aren't going to be a fit for some writers because of a whole host of personality, style, theory issues. So don't waste your time applying to programs that don't like or support the type of writing you do. I've read applications to several programs, and it does stand out when an applicant can sincerely express an interest with working with a particular person in the program.

And after all that... take the best deal you can get. Fellowship? Jump on it. Scholarship? Same. If you can get financial aid great. If you can get a TA-ship that's terrific, too. The MFA experience is always going to be somewhat hit or miss, so I can't really recommend that anybody turn down an offer of support from one program just because they got accepted - with no perks - to another, more prominent program.

Are there common mistakes you notice in your students work or tips that you give your students?

You kidding? There are tons of common mistakes! I won't even try to answer this thoroughly. I'll just answer with the first couple of things that come to mind...

I think it's a mistake not to seek out readers and be open to the criticism they offer you. Any new writer is going to make mistakes. (Veterans do too.) Any story is going to have areas that readers might want more or less from. I am not saying to do everything thing you're told. Definitely not. Plenty of times (and for many reasons) criticism can be off-base, unfounded, malicious, or just silly. The point is as writers we need to be capable of taking it all on board, considering it, and then discarding or using what you will. You do it as student writers; you do that when working with an agent or editor; you do it when being reviewed by strangers both professional and not. It's something you should get used to early, I think. I'm always a little disappointed when I see writers wilt (or flare) in the face of criticism. Neither need happen.

Oh, and learn how to use quotation marks, attributives! Look, I'm not great with the grammar myself, but I have managed to get a reasonable working knowledge of it and/or know how to write clearly when working outside the rules. There are times, though - even at the graduate level - that I'm amazed to find aspiring writers don't know some basic things like how to attach a bit of dialog to the character that's speaking it. Such things really detract from the reading experience.

Part of why they do so, I think, is because mistakes like that suggest that the work I'm spending my time reading may just be the work of somebody who isn't truly a reader. You know what I mean? If you've read hundreds (thousands) of stories and novels - as you should if you want to be writer - you should know how to write down a conversation between two characters with reasonable grammar. You should have absorbed it over the years. When I see early signs that somebody hasn't done that I start to wonder about their seriousness as writers. I also start to wonder how much of my time I should be giving them...

And, with that mention of time, I'll conclude. I'm off to bed. Need the rest, as I plan to get up and write a smashing scene tomorrow...

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