Storyville: Continuing Your Writing Education
So today we’re going to talk about how to continue your writing education. Whether you’ve graduated from high school, or obtained an undergraduate degree (both excellent accomplishments) there are several ways you can continue to grow as an author. Let’s explore them a bit.
One of the most obvious choices is the Master’s of Fine Arts. There has been a lot of talk about getting your MFA over the last couple of years especially. I got my MFA in 2012 in a low-res program (low residency program, where you are only on campus a few weeks a year vs. full-time, the only way many employed authors can do it), at Murray State University, in Murray, Kentucky. Do you need an MFA to be a writer? No, of course you don’t. Do you need an MFA to teach at the university level? Yes, you do. Where do I stand on this controversial subject? Well, I can honestly say that I did learn a lot in my program—reading many authors that I probably wouldn’t have on my own. I absorbed the literary fiction of authors such as Joyce Carol Oates, Denis Johnson, Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor, Haruki Murakami, Mary Gaitskill, Toni Morrison and others. It did influence my work, helping me to study the short form especially. I believe it added insight, structure, and depth to my work. If you are going this route, I would try to find financial aid (grants, scholarships, and other funding) if possible, as it can get rather expensive. I sent out 40 CVs last year, and didn’t get a single interview. So, keep that in mind. It can help you to improve, yes, but you do NOT have to have an MFA to be a successful author.
LOCAL COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES
Another way to continue your evolution as an author is to seek out local colleges and universities that offer part-time study, and/or continuing education for adults. Here in Chicago that means everything from Northwestern, Columbia College, and UIC to Roosevelt, DePaul, and the Art Institute. There are also community colleges you can tap into—quite often with more relaxed guidelines and entrance requirements. Some high schools also offer continuing education. (I taught a short story class at Libertyville High School near me.) There is a wide range of education via your local schools, so do your research. Some professors are very accomplished, at schools where the tuition is pretty high, and other programs are much cheaper (think hundreds of dollars vs. thousands of dollars) and their publishing histories vary. If you’re lucky, you may be able to track down an author you know, read, love, and/or respect teaching as an adjunct or professor at a school near you. Try to seek out classes in your genre, or that interest you, with authors that are writing the kind of work you enjoy.
LOCAL WRITING STUDIOS
If you’re lucky, and living in a big city or artistically-minded community, you may find some writing studios near you. These are typically NOT attached to a college or university, and focus primarily on writing. I have taught locally at Story Studio Chicago, and enjoyed my time doing that. Quite often these studios and businesses will allow you to focus on broad subjects (novel vs. short story) or on specific aspects of writing (setting, tension, or character, for example) or genre (literary, horror, speculative, etc.). Again, do your research and see who exactly is teaching, what books and/or stories they are going to talk about, and what they’ve published, with who, and how active they currently are in the publishing industry. Rebecca Makkai also teaches at SSC, a very accomplished literary author, as well as other authors I really enjoy reading—Jac Jemc, Bair Harper, Lori Rader-Day, and Tadd Adcox. Most of the authors will have a book deal with a big five publisher, or cool indie press. Fees are typically less than universities, but more than community colleges, and workshops can run from a day to a few weeks to six weeks to several months. Some even have ongoing workshops that meet indefinitely.
This may be one of the best ways to grown as an author, and I don’t say that simply because I teach online. Why? You can gain access to authors all over the world, as opposed to those that teach near you. If you are in a big city (NYC, SF, Chicago, LA, Portland, etc.) you probably have a lot of resources, but if you’re in a rural environment, or even in another country (I get a lot of students from the UK and Australia) you may have trouble finding a program near you, or one with authors you enjoy reading. Or, one that is teaching what you want to learn.
I’ve been teaching for several years here at LitReactor (mostly Short Story Mechanics, but also Trim the Fat, an editing class, as well as Keep It Brief: A Flash Fiction Intensive) and the response has been great. I’ve sold out my SSM class (20 students) every time I’ve taught it. We have structure, like you would in a classroom, but also the freedom to study from the comfort of your home, at any hour of the day. I’m also teaching a class online at Story Studio Chicago, called Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Horror, and Beyond (six weeks) and that’s been a lot of fun as well.
There are many other writing programs that are online now, or will be soon, such as the Gotham Writers Workshop, based in NYC (they have live in-person classes there as well) and the Sackett Street Writers Workshop (also based in NYC). See what I mean about big cities? I can speak highly of both programs, as I have several friends who teach with them.
ANTHOLOGIES AND CRAFT BOOKS
Another way to continue your education is to read, write and study on your own. That means novels of course, as well as short story collections, but one of the BEST ways (in my opinion) to really study the short form (which can also be applied to the long form) is to read the various anthologies that come out each year, especially the “Best of the Year” annuals. My favorites are The Best Horror of the Year, edited by Ellen Datlow; The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, edited by Paula Guran; Year’s Best Weird Fiction, edited by Michael Kelly (with guest editor); The Best American Mystery Stories, edited by Otto Penzler (with guest editor); and The Best American Short Stories, edited by Heidi Pitlor (with guest editor). Whatever your genre, seek out the annual that corresponds to what you write. I don’t write much science fiction, so I don’t usually read those annuals, although I should. There are several ongoing. Only so many hours in the day though, right? Same for The Best American Essays although I own a few. Because I write dark fiction across fantasy and horror, mostly, with some crime (neo-noir), as well as literary aspirations, and a touch of weirdness, those five I listed first are plenty to keep up with. Read them, study the stories that make it into the table of contents, seek out the authors that speak to you (that’s how I first ran across Livia Llewellyn, for example) and read more of their work. Look at the publications that originally published the work—magazines, websites, other anthologies, short story collections, etc. Those are now your markets, your people—get to know them!
I'll also add my four favorite craft books to this list—On Writing by Stephen King (still holds up, great mix of craft and memoir); Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction by Jeff VanderMeer (great art and graphics, excellent for speculative fiction); Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling by super-agent Donald Maass (really aligns with my personal beliefs about writing layered, intense stories with impact); and the upcoming Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction by Benjamin Percy (I haven't even read this last one, out in October, but he's one of my favorite authors so I know this will be exceptional).
The same thing goes for actually getting out of the house and attending writing conferences, although there has been a lot of controversy lately over racist and misogynistic perspectives, attitudes, panels, and sexual harassment. I’ve attended many AWP conferences, and have always had a great time. You can seek out a variety of conferences based on the genre or genres you write—World Horror, StokerCon, Bouchercon, World Fantasy, Nebulas, etc. Not only can you meet up with friends, associates and peers, but you can also attend panels, talks, and book fairs. It can be expensive, but do your research, share hotel rooms, and have fun.
Whatever you want to do with your writing career, never stop reading, writing, studying, and trying to grow and evolve as an author. I’ve written three novels, three collections, 100+ stories, edited four anthologies, and am currently Editor-in-Chief of Dark House Press and Gamut Magazine, and I still take classes (usually online), still read the anthologies, still attend conferences, and keep trying to improve. It’s really up to you, how much you’re willing to put into it. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun as well. Good luck!
(Let me know what your favorite conferences are, where you take classes besides here, and what craft books YOU love! I'm always looking to find new ways to grow as an author.)
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