Posts by mmcnellis

I am a writer and editor pursuing her MFA in Fiction.

MFA Update: Residency Reflections

Sunsets, snow, and mountains…that’s right, I had another residency, this time in the deep arctic blast. Now I’ve attended two out of four residencies, and while I enjoyed myself immensely and am chomping at the bit to get into my work for the semester (and I already have), it was also a reminder of how fast the time passes. With two residencies down, I have only two more to go. Out of “the bubble,” that space we refer to where we’re in a safe space where all of us value the craft of writing and share pieces of ourselves, here are my reflections as a second-semester MFA student.

Peer Workshops

Something special happened in my peer workshop group–not that it didn’t in June, but I’m not writing about June’s residency right now. Not only did we find a way to help each other with our stories, but we also laughed together. There were only three people in my workshop who I felt I knew–two other women in my cohort and a woman from the class ahead of mine whom I befriended last residency.

There were three other students I didn’t get the chance to get to know last June, and it was fantastic learning about them. One of them kept astonishing me with an openness and personal courage that is nothing short of inspiring. Then, there were two students from the incoming cohort. Both great writers, and great people.

Finally, what made this group so special was the pair of mentors facilitating the twelve hours we spent together. I’m not going to name drop, but they’re pretty amazing and so is their fiction. Their insights, good humor, and approachable manner made it a joy to learn to from them.

Thanks to the feedback I received from both of them and my peers, I have decided to make a drastic change to my thesis novel that will solve the pacing issues; scenes were moving too rapidly and they confirmed for me that as readers, they didn’t have the time to get settled in them. They also confirmed that my proposed changes would solve this issue. I don’t want to get into too much detail because I don’t want to give anything away…but suffice to say instead of covering a 65-year lifespan, my novel will cover about 5-6 months.

Craft & Elective Workshops

In addition to peer workshops, part of the residency curriculum features craft and elective workshops. The craft workshops were fun and helpful. Some of the information was something I’d learned before, but I really enjoyed hearing another writer’s take on a subject and letting lessons sink in again. At other times, the information was new and entirely helpful.

Elective workshops I attended (of which we had to choose two) included discussions on the unreliable narrator, an agent Q&A, and a talk on beginnings by Zia Haider Rahman, who might just be one of the coolest people I’ve had the honor to meet. If I ever had the chance to take more classes from him, I’d jump at the opportunity.

Readings

At each residency, there are several types of readings: nightly faculty readings, nightly student readings, and a special students-only reading on Wednesdays. I won’t say who read what, but there were texts shared that required open hearts to read and listen, and I couldn’t be prouder or more honored to have participated, even as a reader.

For my own readings, I chose a portion of my short story, “Hunger,” and a rap/poem I’d written based on Hamilton: The American Musical. For that one, I got the audience involved, repeating the chorus.

Everything Else

The graduation ceremony for the graduating cohort, the dance party afterwards, the several hours spent in the game room with friends, the night of no water, the visit from the fire department when pipes burst, the tiny snowman we found, the hours chatting with friends and fellow writers, the four hours with my roommate and cohort-mate traveling to and from the hotel, and everything else that goes on residency was so enjoyable that I didn’t want to leave. At least…not until the temps dropped back into the negatives.

My next residency is in five months and two days. I’m so looking forward to jumping back into it, even though it will be my third of four residencies, and I will likely be even more sad to leave.

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Writing Prompt: Get in the Game

The other day, I went to see Jumanji. I’d enjoyed the original as a kid and was interested to see how this new version approached the idea of being sucked into a game. I actually enjoyed it and laughed a lot.

So here’s your prompt: Write a story in which at least one character gets sucked into a game (board or video). Try to make it humorous somehow. You have as many words as you want.

I’d love if you share your story here. Please paste a link to your story on your blog or on a Google doc.

Writing Goals: 2018

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Happy New Year! Lots of people make resolutions at this time of year; not me. Resolutions are too easy to break. Usually, I go with them for about two weeks and then I skip a day or two–and then it’s over. Instead, I prefer to come up with goals for the year.

I have my own personal goals, but I’m going to share my writing goals, as this is (mostly) a writing blog.

MFA Thesis

As my primary writing endeavor, this will take prime focus. If I write a chapter a week, I can finish a rough draft of my thesis novel by May 27, 2018. That’s my goal.

After residency (which is in less than a week, woohoo!), I’ll be living in New Hampshire for the semester so that I don’t have to drive three hours to campus in potentially inclement weather. I found a sublet situation with a friend from my MFA program, so I’m looking forward to some productive writing sessions.

The good news is this: While I will still be working as a freelancer, I will be able to get by with meeting my required quotas because of student loan disbursements, my tax refund, and the TA stipend.

So I’ve decided I will treat this time like a working writing retreat. It’s a great opportunity to get my rough draft hammered out. I’ll be in New Hampshire through April, which leaves a month to go of drafting when I get home, but I’m confident I’ll be able to keep up with my goal.

Short Stories

I’m still working on my goal of writing one short story each month. I missed last month by a couple of days, but as I was away for a week with family–and it was rather difficult to write over the holiday with much going on–I’m not going to beat myself up over it. I should have December’s short story drafted by the end of today, and out for submission by the end of this week.

This month’s short story is one that’s already written and critiqued; it’s just a matter of addressing its weak points and playing up its strengths before finding it a home by the end of the month.

Writing Contests

I will participate in writing contests this year. Last year, I gave myself a $50 budget for the year; I might bump that up to $100 this year but I haven’t decided.

Either way, I will enter some contests–paid and free–in hopes of getting my writing out there. It’d be cool to place in one of them; I came close a few years ago when I got an honorable mention in the WOW-Women on Writing Flash Fiction contest in winter 2015.

Writing About Writing

I also want to pitch articles about the craft of writing this year. I pitched two last year. The one in November was accepted and I haven’t heard yet about my pitch I sent in December.

These articles can be to magazines, anthologies, or blogs–I’m not picky. Last year I pitched two; this year I want to pitch four articles.

This Blog

Finally, but not least important, is this blog. With school and my TA work, blogging daily just isn’t possible. But I’m aiming for three blog posts per week, with one of those three being a writing prompt.

What are your goals?

I’d love to know what your goals are–writing, reading, or otherwise. Share in the comments for some accountability (not that I’ll hassle you about meeting your goals).

Holiday Break

I’m taking a little break from blogging. I’ll be back after the new year! Enjoy the rest of 2017!

Net Neutrality at Great Risk

When I was in middle school, I remember using a 14kbps dial-up modem. I’d log in to AOL, listen for the familiar “You’ve got mail” notification (a rarity since I was only in middle school and spam wasn’t really a thing yet) and open the web browser. I’d type in the web address and then get up and do something else for a few minutes. By the time I came back to the computer, the frames on the website would have almost finished loading.

I didn’t mind back then that the internet was so slow. For one reason, I didn’t know any better. People didn’t have DSL or gasp–cable–yet. WiFi wasn’t a thing anyone mentioned. Heck, cell phones were large, clunky, and used primarily by business people. (I didn’t get my first cell phone until I was 17, and I shared it with my mom. It had a 20-minute battery life.)

The second reason I didn’t mind the internet being so slow is that I was only using it for fun. I was navigating to webpages about my favorite cartoons, looking at pictures of puppies, and reading about dinosaurs whenever I could. I didn’t need fast internet in order to earn a decent hourly wage as a freelance writer. I didn’t need to conduct last minute research for a 20-page paper; Google didn’t even exist yet. I had friends who I talked to on AIM, but we were used to everything taking its time, and we were fine with it.

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At Risk: Internet Speed at an Affordable Price

The problem with killing net neutrality isn’t that the internet itself will slow down: The problem is that telecom companies can elect to charge users extra for faster internet. How much they can charge depends on what enough of the population is willing to pay…but for those who cannot afford those packages, they will not have the same ready access to information and communication that we enjoy today.

Speaking of being charged for services, it’s unlikely that telecom companies would all of a sudden start charging for social media and email packages, but the danger is that they legally could charge for these things. This will make social media and email unavailable for many who cannot afford to tack on an extra set of fees each month.

I’ll just text.

I’ve heard people say this, and yes–texting is a great alternative to email. But if we let the FCC roll back net neutrality, which established that the internet is a utility necessary for everyday life here in the U.S., how long before someone decides it’s a precedent to start charging people per text message again?

Do you see the danger?

At Risk: Freedom of Information

My thirteen-year-old self didn’t care about the news, social activism, or any other topic that relied on the internet. I had a couple of Greenpeace stickers on the mirror hanging on the back of my bedroom door–i.e. I cared about the environment–but I wasn’t reading about it regularly or signing petitions to fund our national parks.

You might argue that at thirteen, someone isn’t old enough to really participate in those discussions. Fine–I will grant you the freedom to think that though I disagree–but the fact remains that without net neutrality, we risk losing the freedom of information to make up our own minds on important political debates.

Our current president is doing everything he can to misinform the masses (someone take his Twitter away, please?!), and by appointing someone like Ajit Pai to head up the FCC, he’s creating an environment wherein the danger exists that the people might lose access to information.

Again, this isn’t a change we’d see right away after the end of net neutrality. And it might not even happen…but we need to acknowledge the potential for tyranny to flourish in an environment where corporations can play gatekeeper on the information and propaganda we receive.

Basically, without net neutrality, telecom corporations can decide which websites we have access to. That’s a huge deal, especially when over $60 million has been lobbied by telecom companies this year.

Let’s not lose track of who is in whose pocket.

What can you do about it?

If you want to keep your freedoms in place–and your internet access neutral–don’t feel overwhelmed by the FCC’s ruling to roll back net neutrality on Thursday. Even as an individual, there are things you can do to reverse this.

A Reminder

Cast your imagination into the future when, like the CDC which Trump wants to silence by banning certain words from their reports (hey wait, that’s not the future), articles like this one are deemed to be less than complimentary to our misogynistic, narcissistic, megalomaniac president and his cronies. You wouldn’t be able to read it. You wouldn’t know your freedoms are at risk or how to stop it.

We need net neutrality. This fight is far from over, and every person counts. Do something to stop this, yet one more threat to the fabric of our democracy, while you still have the power to do so.

Creating a Writing Playlist

What gets you in the zone for writing creatively? For me, music a huge help. It also helps drown out the sounds of the dog barking at a falling leaf or a noisy cafe. I was talking with a friend and fellow writer the other day, and she expressed that she was beginning to appreciate and enjoy Classical music. Of course, my response was a calm smile to dance around the room.

I love Classical music, and an appreciation for it is one of the benefits I gained from my undergraduate education. Because of my adoration for Classical music (and Baroque and Romantic, which are often lumped under the Classical umbrella though they’re a different genre), I learned to play piano, which has become one of my most beloved hobbies.

My friend told me she’d been listening to Bach’s cello suites, as performed by Yo Yo Ma. This beautiful example of Baroque music is great for unleashing creativity, but now she’s working on scenes that require a different mood. We started talking about putting together a playlist and it made me think about the different ways one can use music to fuel the creative writing process.

Create a Soundtrack for Your Work

Like my friend, one way to use music in your writing is to create a soundtrack. Much like a movie soundtrack, pieces are chosen to represent the emotions in specific scenes. My friend and I discussed this at length–and discovered that historical dramas typically have soundtracks with the range of emotions she was seeking. After listening to some selections from Pride and Prejudice (the 2005 version) and The Duchess, we surmised that historical dramas starring Keira Knightley are a good way to source writing music–in case you’re planning your own soundtrack.

The real key though to creating a soundtrack is to find the the song that fits the scene. Depending on how many scenes one has in a story, this can be an extensive project in its own right.

Create a Playlist of Songs for Emotions in Your Work

I think this is more where I stand–not because I cannot come up with a list long enough to provide unique musical inspiration for every scene–but because that would be a project of such gargantuan proportion as to intimidate me right out of the process. Rather, I think I will source a few songs for various types of scenes. This may be a bit repetitive, but I don’t mind, particularly as the songs won’t have lyrics. (If I listen to music with lyrics while writing creatively, I just start typing the lyrics.)

On Tuesday, we’re going to devote some time to sourcing music for our respective playlists. I’ll share mine here on this blog, and you can feel free to use the same music if it speaks to you.

What’s your favorite Classical music?

Go ahead and include Baroque and Romantic music in with this one. You have my permission to lump them together. If you’re a writer, I’d love to know your favorite selections for getting into the zone. If you’re not a writer, what music do you simply enjoy?

So it begins…

I’m thrilled that residency is less than a month a way. This June to January stretch feels so long. I’ve had a nice one day break between the end of the undergraduate semester (my TA work) and starting working on my peer critiques. I have 150 pages of fiction to critique by Jan. 7.

It’s definitely doable, but more than that, I’m looking forward to the work. Even more than that, I’m looking forward to the actual peer critique sessions. Here’s my process:

  1. Read through a short story just to get the lay of the land.
  2. Read through again, marking what works for me and what doesn’t with check marks or underlined text.
  3. Read through a third time, making in-margin comments.
  4. Write the 1-page letter critique that goes to each author in my group.

First Read-Through

On my first read-through, I’m really just trying to get a feel for characters and the story as a whole. This is the type of read-through that prevents me questioning something only to later find out the answer exists in the story. Reading through without a pen in hand also helps me enjoy the story as a reader. After all, my job as a peer is not to edit the text.

Rather, it’s to provide a reader-response from a fellow fiction writer and MFA candidate.

Second Read-Through

For this step, I pick the pen up for the first time. I don’t write any words but just mark what works and what I feel could be improved. That’s the only purpose of this read through–registering my reactions.

I’ll mark beautifully-turned phrases, awkward word choices, etc…but I lay off grammar/typos. My purpose is not to proofread the story, especially at this stage.

Third Read-Through

This is where I will call attention to any typos or grammatical snafus. But, far more importantly, I’ll write why something works or me or doesn’t. If it doesn’t, I might offer some ideas for how a particular passage can be improved. As I read through, I’m also thinking about my big-picture reactions because that’s what I’m going to highlight in the letter.

Writing the Letter

There are some things I’m required to cover in the letter. I have to provide a one-sentence summary of the story. I have to describe what I liked and why, and offer a suggestion for moving forward that can include anything from trying a new point of view to changing the ending. These letters are a nice way to personally connect with writers in my group, especially if I haven’t met an author.

The letter will also serve as a reminder later. The night before someone’s story is critiqued, I will re-read the letter I wrote for them and glance through the comments I wrote on their story so that everything comes to mind quickly and easily.

Have you ever participated in a peer critique?

Peer critique is my favorite part of residency–and there’s so much to love, from readings to classes, from seeing dear friends to the party at the end of the week. But there’s something so unique and special about critiquing in a group in person. I was both tired and sad when it was over in June and even though it can be anxiety-producing to be critiqued, I’m still looking forward to it.

So here’s my question for you: Have you ever been critiqued in a group setting? Did you like it? Why or why not? Toss your thoughts up in the comments!