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A guest post by Nathan Go
A couple of years ago, I made the decision to apply to MFA programs in creative writing. Compared to medical school or law school, the application process for an MFA can sometimes feel like a crapshoot, with the odds of getting into a fully-funded program hovering somewhere below four or five percent (and some programs like Iowa, Michigan, Michener—gulp—even less!). Still, it seems that every year, a few applicants manage to get admitted to a handful of programs, which brings up the question of whether the process is as random as one might initially think.
As a caveat, I’ve never served as a reader for any programs’ admissions committee (for a genuine insider look, follow Elizabeth McCracken’s Twitter and listen to everything she says!), but I happen to have been lucky enough to get accepted to several fully funded schools on my first try. Whenever someone asks me for advice, I get a little queasy, because I barely knew what I was doing back then. However, I’d like to think that I’ve had some time to reflect on the process and have spoken to many people, including students who’ve been accepted and faculty members. I’ve since graduated from my MFA and hold (at the time of writing) a Zell postgraduate fellowship in fiction at the University of Michigan.
I’ll skip the general consensus—polish the writing sample, apply to more than one school, get feedback on your materials, etc. Instead, I’ll offer some less common ones that I thought worked for me. I hope they help with your application, and I’m certainly indebted to many writers who came before me and similarly shed light on their own experiences.
Most of us writers tend to dislike being pigeonholed, or to accept the idea that there are certain themes or styles we keep reverting to again and again. I definitely struggled with this (and continue to) but for the application process, presenting ourselves in a way that is unified and meaningful can sometimes spell the difference between sticking out in the pile or not. I write a lot about the Philippines, where I grew up, and this location not only influences the setting of my stories, but also informs my thematic sensibility as well as my identity. My personal statement talked about my background growing up in a predominantly Christian and Chinese-Filipino family, the conflicts at the dinner table as a result of our ethnic and religious upbringing, and how these issues are explored in my work. My fiction samples were chosen with this in mind (of course, they also happened to be my best work at the time), and I imagine my recommendation letters further attested to my experience as an immigrant. As a result, I believe I demonstrated myself as someone who deeply cares about what I write and has something important to say about the world around me. A place or region might not be the element that binds your application materials together. It might be a style, philosophy, or occupation—but whatever it is, it should resonate meaningfully in all aspects of your work (you can even ask your recommenders to talk about it). If readers can come away with the feeling that they know you and what motivates you to write, then you only need to show that you also can write.
This might sound like a contradiction to the above, but it really isn’t. Rather, this is the part where you get a chance to display your skill and flexibility as a writer. For my sample, I chose three stories with varying styles: fabulist, comedic, and straight realist. They also differed in their lengths: short, medium, and long. What kept them all together was the setting of the Philippines, which again referred back to my personal statement and kept them from feeling haphazardly chosen. You might wonder if this is a good idea, since schools often just ask for 25 to 30 pages of creative sample, and might even say something to the effect that they’re looking for “a demonstration of sustained, quality work.” I debated with myself on the correct approach, and you might not agree with my conclusions: If programs clearly ask for just a single story, and if they feel more traditional in their aesthetics, then perhaps sending a longer story is better. However, the risk of sending one story is the risk of increasing subjectivity, and has to do more with the practical reality of the selection process than anything else. We all know that readers have different tastes, and if for some reason they don’t connect with the first few pages of your work, they most likely won’t read on. If you present them with a shorter work first, they might be willing to read the beginning of the second story, and if they still don’t like that, then the third. If each story is different stylistically, you’re increasing the chances that one of these would be appealing to the readers, and they might reconsider the stories that they passed on the first read.
I’ve heard anecdotes of applicants being turned down because the admission committee thought they were “overqualified” to be studying in an MFA program. This probably doesn’t apply to most of us, but the principle remains: administrators are looking for people they believe can get something out of the two-to-three-year experience. In other words, they’re looking for writers’ potential as much as writers’ ability. I can certainly speak to this. When I applied, I’d barely taken any creative writing workshops. I’d just started writing literary fiction and I was unpublished. I took screenwriting as an undergrad (a related field, I know) but I still emphasized the things I anticipated learning from an MFA, including the benefit of being in a community. I did not downplay my background in screenwriting (and as it happened, also journalism), but I was able to articulate how each tradition influenced me as a writer. You might be someone who’s majored in creative writing as an undergrad and knew for a long time that you want to write literary fiction. That’s okay (in fact I think that’s great!). But you still have to find a way to communicate your limitations while playing to your strengths. To a large extent, it seems to me more of an attitude check: nobody wants to be with the writer who feels privileged and entitled to a seat at the MFA table.
Sometimes, perhaps because I got in on my first try, I wonder if my acceptance was a fluke, and if I was really ready for the MFA experience. Of course, I’ve heard many people who felt similarly, some who even have a lot of creative writing background under their belt. The impostor syndrome aside, I do think that it’s good to gain as much exposure to the literary world as possible before applying to an MFA program. This not only gives you a better sense of why you write and what you write (going back to my first point), but moreover it increases the likelihood that once you are accepted, you’ll know how to make the most out of your time and the resources being offered. I had a wonderful experience at the University of Michigan—indeed, I’ve never read or written more in my life than I did at that point, and I could not have asked for a better set of cohort or mentors. I have grown exponentially as a writer. Rightly or wrongly, though, I did consciously set myself apart as someone who was a beginner, who had the most to learn about writing literary fiction. This attitude has enabled me to develop in leaps and bounds. At the same time, I could see how—had I been further along in my progress—I could’ve used the MFA in a different way: writing that novel I’ve always wanted, giving more thought to the direction of my career, the business side of the industry, finding an agent, etc. I think there’s something valiant and admirable about finding yourself as a result of experimenting during the MFA years, but it might also be worth considering and being aware of the different trajectories in entering a program. As a suggestion for preparing yourself pre-MFA-application, I highly suggest going to a conference (the Napa Writers’ Conference, Wesleyan Writers Conference, and the Key West Literary Seminar being some of the more well-known ones I’ve personally attended and recommend).
My final note on the application process is less of a tip and more of a reminder. When the time comes around to February or March, and should you find yourself not getting into the programs of your choice, recuperate from the rejections and take them in stride. View the result both as a sobering reminder of the odds stacked up against anyone applying for an MFA, and also as an opportunity to become better prepared, so that if you do get in later, you will be in an improved position. Similarly, should you be fortunate enough to get into your top programs, view the achievement as the means to an end, and not the end in itself. If a study were to be conducted on MFA admittances, I’m almost sure that the findings would show that acceptances to programs are in no way predictive of future success in publishing. Only diligence and perseverance are positive indicators of writerly success, and in this sense, we all can take comfort in the fact that all of us have a fair shot if we’re in it for the long haul.
Nathan Go holds an MFA in fiction from the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan. Previously, he was a PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow. He is currently at work on stories and poems about the Philippines. Follow Nathan on Twitter.This article was originally posted on Michigan Quarterly Review blog; reproduced with permission.
Every year I get asked what I think about NaNoWriMo, and I don’t know how to answer, because I don’t want to say, “I think it makes you write a bad novel.”
This is kind of the point. You’re supposed to churn out 50,000 words in one month, and by the end you have a goddamn novel, one you wouldn’t have otherwise. If it’s not Shakespeare, it’s still a goddamn novel. The NaNoWriMo FAQ says: “Aiming low is the best way to succeed,” where “succeed” means “write a goddamn novel.”
I find it hard to write a goddamn novel. I can do it, but it’s not very fun. The end product is not much fun to read, either. I have different techniques. I thought I should wait until the end of November, when a few alternatives might be of interest to those people who, like me, found it really hard to write a goddamn novel, and those people who found it worked for them could happily ignore me.
Some of these methods I use a lot, some only when I’m stuck. Some I never use, but maybe they’ll work for you. If there were a single method of writing great books, we’d all be doing it.
What: You don’t let yourself leave the keyboard each day until you’ve hit 2,000 words.
Why: It gets you started. You stop fretting over whether your words are perfect, which you shouldn’t be doing in a first draft. It captures your initial burst of creative energy. It gets you to the end of a first draft in only two or three months. If you can consistently hit your daily target, you feel awesome and motivated.
Why Not: It can leave you too exhausted to spend any non-writing time thinking about your story. It encourages you to pounce on adequate ideas rather than give them time to turn into great ones. It encourages you to use many words instead of few. If you take a wrong turn, you can go a long way before you realize it. It can make you feel like a failure as a writer when the problem is that you’re trying to animate a corpse. It can make you dread writing.
What: You write no more than 500 words per day.
Why: You force yourself to finish before you really want to, which makes you spend the rest of the day thinking about getting back to the story, which often produces good new ideas. You feel good about yourself even if you only produced a few hundred words that day. You don’t beat yourself up about one or two bad writing days. You give yourself time to turn good ideas into great ones. Writing feels less like hard work. (More on this.)
Why Not: It takes longer (six months or more). It can be difficult to work on the same idea for a very long time. It may take so long that you give up. Continue Reading…
Providing news and helpful information for emerging writers was one of the major motivations for starting the Aerogramme Writers’ Studio website. One of the most popular articles we’ve posted to date has been 9 Literary Magazines for New and Unpublished Writers. So, by popular demand, here are 12 more publication opportunities for writers at the start of their careers to consider.
If you haven’t submitted your work for publication before, or if you would just like some tips from the experts, be sure to read How to Submit Your Writing to Literary Magazines, a great article with lots of useful advice from the editors of Neon Literary Magazine.
is a new digital magazine of illustrated short stories. Each issue has six stories that take six minutes to read: three by widely published authors, and three by unpublished authors. Each writer is paid $100 for their work. The editors are seeking literary fiction that ‘keeps a reader engaged and excited from the first word to the last.’
2. The Wrong Quarterly
is a London-based literary magazine showcasing prose from both British and international writers. Its aim is to provide an inclusive platform for emerging writers worldwide. The Wrong Quarterly accepts fiction up to 6000 words and non-fiction up to 5000 words.
3. Quiddit Literary Journal
is part of a multimedia arts program produced by Benedictine University in partnership with NPR member station WUIS Illinois. The journal, published semi-annually, features prose, poetry and artwork. International submissions from emerging as well as established writers are encouraged.
4. Neon Literary Magazine
is published three times a year in print and online, and welcomes submissions from new and never before published writers. The magazine’s tastes tend towards the dark and the surreal. Writers are asked to include a short biography and cover letter with their submissions and poets should send several poems at once (rather than just one). Neon’s website also has a number of helpful links and resources for both emerging and established writers.
My friend Gary Provost and I created what we teasingly called the Gary Provost Sentence (with some help from Aristotle). Here it is:
Once upon a time… something happened to someone, and he decided that he would pursue a goal. So he devised a plan of action, and even though there were forces trying to stop him, he moved forward because there was a lot at stake. And just as things seemed as bad as they could get, he learned an important lesson, and when offered the prize he had sought so strenuously he had to decide whether or not to take it, and in making that decision he satisfied a need that had been created by something in his past.
This is classic dramatic structure. It works because it’s story telling that is most satisfying to the reader. Aristotle defined good drama as storytelling that defined character, created atmosphere, and advanced the action of the plot. No one has ever really substantively improved on this beautifully simple yet profound definition, though I think Norman Mailer came close when he said in a TV interview “The best fiction is where art, philosophy, and adventure all meet.”
Let’s go through Gary’s paragraph again. This time we’ll stop along the way and I’ll talk about the elements of plotting. Once you understand these elements whether you’re a literary novelist or a writer of non-fiction, or a genre writer you’ll be able to plot any story you like.
Once upon a time… something happened to someone…
This is what we call the inciting incident. In other words, it’s what caused the story to kick in. Say your story begins on Thursday. Don’t begin it on Wednesday, just to set the scene and introduce the characters, a classic amateur flaw. Plunge us right into the action the moment it starts. Why? Because nothing significant happened on Wednesday. You’re not writing someone’s life, you’re writing the story of a watershed moment in that life. The thing that happened to upset the equilibrium or the balance in his life is the thing that begins the story. That’s the inciting incident. That’s where your story should start.
…and he decided that he would pursue a goal.
There’s something this person wants. What is it? It’s the prize, the thing he’s trying to get through, all through the story. What is it that your main character wants? In the long run what does he hope to achieve?
So he devised a plan of action,…
Let’s call this The Strategy. How is our hero going to go about pursuing his goal, or prize? What’s he going to do? What’s his plan?
…and even though there were forces trying to stop him,…
This is the opposition, the conflict. Conflict is the basis of all drama. Our hero wants something, and he’s figured out a way of getting it. Something has to get in his way, something or somebody has to have a conflicting goal, and a conflicting plan C something has got to try and stop him. Nobody’s interested in reading a story about an guy who wanted a million dollars and got it. They want to read about a guy who wanted a million dollars and had a lot of trouble getting it. There are forces coming against our hero, there is conflict.
…he moved forward because there was a lot at stake.
Ah, The Stakes! What our hero wants, what plan he’s devised to get it, and what this effort will cost our hero? In chess, every move forward gains something, but it also loses something as well. Nothing of any importance in this life is free. In one form or another we always pay a price for what we most desire. In a story the stakes have to be very high. What are they in your? Life or death, lovers lost forever, friends becoming implacable enemies, something very important we can all relate to. You don’t want to write a story about a guy who is going to lose his typewriter or his comb. It’s got to be something very important, something big enough to disrupt his life, to change him from what he was into someone else by the end of the story.
And just as things seemed as bad as they could get,…
This is known as the Bleakest Moment. Things are dark and dreary for this person. Everything has gone wrong and it seems as if the forces of opposition arrayed against him have won. But somehow, from the darkness of his despair and depression, from his failures, he finds the strength to persevere and overcome against overwhelming odds.
…he learned an important lesson,
Aha, a revelation. Our protagonist comes through his Bleakest Moment with a gift C understanding. At last he sees, he understands something about life that he didn’t understand before. Stories, whether fiction or non-fiction, are about people growing and changing, about their insights into the human condition. By the end of the story, this new knowledge has changed our protagonist for the better. He is a little wiser, and a little stronger, he has a little more faith in himself, or in others, or in the bountiful nature of life. He has grown and learned a lesson.
…and when offered the prize he had sought so strenuously he had to decide whether or not to take it,…
He makes The Decision. The important thing to remember about this decision is that when he makes it, he gains something, and he gives something up. It isn’t much of a decision if someone says, “Hey, here you are. Here’s a million dollars, you can take it or leave it.” But if someone comes along and says, “Congratulations, now you can get your million dollars. But there’s one catch: if you take it you’ll never see your daughter again. And if you want to keep on seeing your daughter, you’ll never get another chance to get your million dollars you’ve just earned.” This now, is an important decision our hero must make.
…and in making that decision he satisfied a need…
Let’s call this The Hole. It is the Aengine that has been driving him to do stuff the whole of his life, and certainly for the duration of the story, though he may not even be aware of what that hole is.
…that had been created by something in his past.
This is the importance of the Backstory. The backstory simply means his past, whatever happened in his past relevant to the story you’re telling about our hero. The need or hole is something that happened to our hero before the story began. Something perhaps that haunts him. The enigmatic reference to the boyhood sled Rosebud, in Citizen Kane, for example. In someway the hero is still incomplete. He’s been injured, or he’s had a part of him taken away. Perhaps he’s lost his faith, or rejected love. Perhaps he’s a loner, someone who’s not good at sharing himself with others, and he comes into this story carrying this thing with him, needing this hole filled. And in the process of the story, the hole is filled as he comes to his realization.
Gary Provost and Peter Rubie were the co-authors of How to Tell a Story: The Secrets of Writing Captivating Tales. Thank you to Peter and to Gary’s wife Gail for granting permission to share this article, originally published at peterrubie.com, with us.Gary Provost was born in 1944 and died in 1995. He was the author of many books across a range of genres including four award-winning young adult novels. Provost was also a highly sought after writing instructor and co-founder of the Writers Retreat Workshop. He published a number of writing advice books including Make Every Word Count (Writers Digest Books, 1980). Read more about Gary Provost at garyprovost.com, a site established and maintained by his wife Gail. Peter Rubie is the CEO of Fine Print Literary Management. He is a former BBC Radio and Fleet Street journalist and for several years was the director of the publishing section of the New York University Summer Publishing Institute. Prior to becoming a literary agent he was a publishing house editor for nearly six years. He has also been the editor-in-chief of a Manhattan local newspaper, and a freelance editor and book doctor for major publishers. He was a regular reviewer for the international trade magazine Publishers Weekly, and is a published author of both fiction and non-fiction. He is a member of AAR, and regularly lectures and writes on publishing and the craft of writing. He is also a professional jazz musician who can be regularly found playing jazz guitar around New York City.
For years before my novel was published, I felt insecure about whether or not I was a ‘real’ writer. I don’t think this is a unique anxiety amongst unpublished authors and I responded to this anxiety in the way I think many people do: I romanticised the act of writing.
I told myself that the burden of writing fiction was thrust upon me and I had no choice but to sit each night and delve into the unknown to produce works of genius. Writing like this didn’t flow easily for me. And as a result, it was hard to read. The prose were pretentious and calculated. It was clear that everything I wrote was me begging the reader to think of me as a genius.
I told myself that if it was easy to write it meant that it wasn’t any good. Good fiction needed to be sweat over. If it was hard, it meant I’d worked at it and it was worthy.
This attitude to writing was one I’d been carrying around in my head since I was a kid. On my weekends and days off, I wrote all day. It was all I thought about. I’d obsess over the stories, especially the syntax, running through sentences over and again in my head until I’d memorised them.
I have a habit of over analysing myself, but I think I obsessed over writing as a childish way to simplify things, as I was not in an emotional position to take on the complexities of life.
It felt safer to focus on this alone, as it meant I didn’t need to focus on many of the pressures we all face, such as finding a job and becoming financially independent, or worrying about the things that may have been more specific to me, such as the Crohn’s Disease and my recent decision to no longer remain an orthodox Jew.
As I’ve spoken about previously on my blog, when I started socialising and earning my own money, I found that writing didn’t need to take on the task of carrying my entire sense of self and keeping at bay my anxieties. I felt more comfortable with my life and could relax and have fun with my writing.
As a result, my writing immediately improved, because I was treating it as what it really was, which is a form of play. In not romanticising it, I could allow myself to be crap for a little while and acknowledge that it was something I needed to learn to do, rather than some pure expression that flowed flawlessly through me.
The first short story that I had published was one that I’d ‘let go’ for and allowed myself just to enjoy the writing process. Yet still, even knowing that the healthier approach was to try and enjoy it, I still fell back into old habits.
Shortly after my first short story was accepted for publication, I needed to have a small procedure due to the Crohn’s Disease, which required that I spend a few nights in hospital. Before I began the bowel prep, I received an email from the editor of Voiceworks with the final track changes on my story.
Before I started drinking the solutions, even though I’d been fasting all day, I did the edits on my story. In my head, I marked this as my commitment to writing fiction. It showed how important this was to me, how I would overcome any obstacle to pursue this craft.
In retrospect I see this as deluded and pretentious. I should have just said I was in hospital and asked for a few more weeks on the edits. I’m sure they would have been more than happy to oblige.
I now see that occasion as a lesson in what not to do. I will never force myself to write.
Now I write every few days, while thinking of my stories every day because I want to, not because I feel I have to. If I write until two in the morning it’s because I’m having fun, not because I need to validate that I’m a real writer.
I figure if I want the reader to stay up until two in the morning reading my book, I should be able to enjoy writing it until that time. I realise now that a reader will enjoy reading the novel half as much as I enjoy writing it. I need to glow as I’m writing to know a reader will feel this as they’re reading it.
I find that writing obsessively, telling myself it’s work, a burden that was thrust upon me, snuffs out that sense of fun. And I will produce a novel I wouldn’t even want to read.
More from Eli Glasman: On How Getting a Novel Published Isn’t Just About PersistenceEli Glasman is a Melbourne based, Jewish author. His writing has appeared in Voiceworks magazine, the Sleepers Almanac and in 2013 he placed second in the Josephine Ulrick short story competition. His debut novel, The Boy’s Own Manual to Being a Proper Jew (Sleepers Publishing), about a homosexual boy in the Melbourne orthodox Jewish community, is available now from all good Australian bookstores or online.
A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.
– Thomas Mann
Don’t write for other writers. People are drawn to writing for different reasons and many people do it to seem smart. If you have a good first act, most will never recognize it, because they’re not really clear on what a first act does. They know nothing of construction, but will turn their noses up at the idea of it anyway. The less they know about it the more they will object to it.
The one thing I have noticed about people who are exceptional in their creative work is that they are always trying to get better. That’s how they got good in the first place. These people judge themselves against the best work. They aim for the top.
Just worry about the craft and the art will take care of itself.