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.

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!

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!

Writing Prompt: Thanksgiving

Write a scene in which your favorite literary character joins your family or friends for Thanksgiving, and create some tension. You have up to 1,000 words. Have fun!

For those who prefer to listen, I bring you…a new podcast!

In an effort to make visiting my blog a multimedia experience, I thought I’d create a podcast. These ~15-minute episodes will impart some knowledge I’ve gained from my years of writing experience. With National Novel Writing Month right around the corner, I thought I’d use my pilot episode to talk about my experiences with that challenge.

Sometimes I might share short stories or poems, too. Basically, mine is a podcast for writers by a writer. Sure, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of podcasts for writers out there…but this is the only one by me. So if you enjoy my blog, my point of view, and my experience, have a listen.

Without further ado, I bring you episode one!

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