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 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).

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?

Writing Prompt: 100-word Challenge

For this writing prompt, you will write exactly 100 words. Not 99. Not 101. 100.

You must include the following five words in whatever way you see fit (you can alter plurality if necessary):

  • Candles
  • Blue
  • Mustache
  • Vial
  • Drinks

Your story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Have fun! Because these are only 100 words, feel free to post your story right into the comment.

Writing Tools: 16Personalities

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I’m always on the hunt for new ways to develop characters. I have a slew of books in my home library on the subject, and a number of web resources bookmarked. The reason is that I love character-driven fiction, and my characters are really at the heart of the fiction I write. That’s not to say I don’t also enjoy plot-driven fiction because I do. But it’s the characters with whom I connect as a reader, and so I try to create the same experience when I write.

To that end, I’ve always liked personality tests for characters. One of my favorites is 16Personalities. I like it because:

  • It’s fast (takes about 12 minutes to complete)
  • It talks about personality in terms of strengths, weaknesses, and interactions with others
  • It’s free

Today, I took it for myself. I’ve never actually done that. I learned I’m not quite as introverted as I thought I was. I always thought I fit in more with the INTJ crowd, but as it turns out–and maybe this is because I’m about 17 years older than the last time I took one of these in high school psych class–I’m an ENFJ, or what 16Personalities calls “the Protagonist.”

I think, for a fiction writer, that’s rather fitting. Unsurprisingly, Elizabeth Bennet also fits into this personality type…and I’ve always connected with her on many levels.

Have fun discovering your characters’ personalities!

A New Goal: Story Submissions

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I have been sick as a dog this week. I’ve had a head cold that never made it past my throat and it has wiped me out until today. Part of the problem was that I wasn’t getting any sleep…so I wasn’t getting any better. I try not to take things like NyQuil, but I broke down a few nights ago and took it so that I could catch some zzzz. I’m going to take it tonight, too.

Because I was so under the weather, I missed my goal to submit a short story by the end of November by one day. No biggie–I sent out November’s story to two markets tonight electronically, and will submit it to the third via snail mail tomorrow (as they don’t accept electronic submissions). There were other markets I was interested in for this story, but as they’re currently closed for submissions, I’ll keep them in mind as a backup should the story be rejected by the first three markets.

Here’s my new goal–get ready because it’s coming at you in big, bold letters:

Submit one short story for publication each month.

Admittedly, I’d like to submit one every two weeks, or, if I really had my way, submit one every week. But between my MFA program, my TA work, and freelancing, I think it’s far more realistic to submit one a month. That way if I get sick and am out of fiction-commission for a week, I don’t have to feel bad.

Today is an auspicious day to begin this goal because it was seven years ago today that I got my first fiction publishing credit. A King’s Life, a work of fantasy, was published by Fictitious Magazine on December 1, 2010. After that, I stopped submitting stories for awhile. Then I got back into it during and after my MA program, when I had some success with four more publishing credits and an honorable mention in a contest.

My hope is that by setting this goal, I will consistently submit short fiction for publication and continue to build my readership.

I’m aiming for the stars.

Another important shift in my thinking is that I’m starting with the pro markets first. With a few non-pro markets under my belt so to speak, and a lot more understanding of how to produce quality literary fiction, I’m starting with the big publications. The Paris Review. The New Yorker. AGNI. Publications that I used to think I didn’t have a chance of getting into…now is the time to start striving to get in.

If I get rejected, which I probably will, there are plenty of markets I can submit my work to. But I need to stop thinking my work isn’t good enough, because that becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Better to aim high and fall than to never jump off the ground to begin with.

What are your writing goals?

If you’re a writer, what do you want to start to accomplish? Where do you see yourself as a writer? Share in the comments section–I’d love to hear from you!

When is it okay to take work below industry rates?

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This is a question every freelancer must ask herself at some point, and I’ve asked myself this numerous times over the last decade of freelancing part-time, and at least three times in the last six months of full-time freelancing.

Usually, I stick with industry rates published by the Editorial Freelancers Association. There are several reasons I like these rates:

  1. They’re not ridiculously unaffordable for most clients.
  2. They’re professional rates so that I can afford to live.
  3. They offer a range, so that if it’s work I have more experience in, I know I can ask at the higher end of the range. If it’s work I’m just breaking into, I’ll quote at the lower end of that range.
  4. This rate card updates with changes in the industry, so I know my rates are current.

But, there are some situations when I consider charging less.

Friends & Family Discount

About half of the gigs I’ve gotten in the last few years have been for friends and family members. I know that initially, their intent to work with me is to show their support for my career, even before they know where my strengths are. That, to me, is worth acknowledgment.

Another important element to consider is that friends and family are usually my best ambassadors. They’re the ones who come to me saying, “I met with a professional last week who mentioned wanting to write a book. I gave her your name.” These unsolicited recommendations are worth something to me.

Finally, even if friends or family members can need more hand-holding as clients, there’s a base element of love there. That makes it easier to be frank with them about issues and questions that crop up during the course of the project.

Ongoing Work

I wrote in a previous blog that I spend 20% of my time looking for new projects and clients. If someone can save me some of that time by offering ongoing work, I’ll often consider a discount.

This is a tricky one though because I always want to know that there will be ongoing work. Sometimes that’s not something the client can promise, and so I’m awarding their intent but not their ability to make good on that intent. It’s a risk I take when working for lower rates for this reason, but I think it’s more important to cultivate good will with clients than not to.

Just like with friends and family, happy clients make good ambassadors.

I’m New at It

I’ve only been freelancing for about ten years. That means I’m approaching a middle level in my career, and while I feel that I have extensive skill in some disciplines, I’ve not yet worked as much with others. If I’m new at the type of work the client needs, I will either quote at the low end of the EFA range or below.

Working For Free

Do I ever give up writing for free? Yes. I try not to do it often, but there are two scenarios when it makes sense to me to write pro bono:

  1. When writing for a charity or non-profit. I’ve written multiple times for JuNoWriMo, and I’ve loved every minute of it.
  2. When guest blogging on a site that will provide good exposure.

Here’s the thing about writing for exposure: I don’t like doing it when someone comes to me with a site or publication I’ve never heard of and promises that writing for them will reward me with a byline.

What I don’t mind is when I pitch a guest post to a blog that I’ve followed for months or years, and they accept but don’t pay guest posters with monetary compensation. In other words, if you want someone to write only for exposure, let them come to you.

Final Thoughts

Look, at the end of the day, I like getting paid competitive rates for my work. However, there are times when writing for less or writing for free makes sense. There are times when doing so makes me feel good.

At the end of the day, I say follow your gut…but it doesn’t hurt to have some policies in place (like the amount you discount to friends and family, for example!).