Fiction, MFA

Earning Emotion

So far this week, I’ve drafted 20 pages for my thesis. Granted, I am writing some of the same scenes over and over in different ways, but I threw in something new too. There’s something emotional that happens early in the book, but I’ve been told that two attempts didn’t come close enough to earning that emotion.

What does it mean to earn it?

I used to think that it would take a lot of space–a lot of words on a lot of pages–to really earn emotional scenes. The scene in question–I knew it was emotional, but I thought that I could earn that with backstory. This week, I learned a couple of important things:

  • I can earn emotion in less space than I thought by finding new ways to focus on scenes and handle the passage of time.
  • At least some backstory necessary to earn emotion has to happen before the emotional moment–the climactic moment of a scene or chapter.

I knew this time I did a better job earning that emotion because while writing, I felt it. I got a little choked up. Given that I’ve written this emotional climax so many times by now and I’ve not had that reaction, I feel like this is an important difference. Might there still be tweaks to make? Yes. But I’m a lot closer than I was.

All it took was a few pages explaining how my protagonist got to that emotional climax. I thought doing so would not interest me or my reader, but by changing up my structure, I think I’ve found a way to make it interesting.

We’ll see what my mentor has to say about it later this month/early April.

Fiction, MFA

MFA Update: Thesis Structure & Language, and Peer Pages

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of speaking with my mentor again for an hour. We talked about my first submission and the peer pages I sent her last week for June’s residency. Starting yesterday, I’m exploring some new avenues after our discussion.


Thesis Structure

The books I’ve read for this semester thus far have all used structures other than straight-forward, plot-driven prose. I find it so refreshing that I want to do something like that with mine, but I haven’t landed on the sweet spot yet–or maybe I have.

We talked about the pastiche I wrote after reading Jenny Offil’s Dept. of Speculation. A pastiche, in case you’re not familiar with the word, is when you try to write in the style and voice of another author–using your own story, of course. After I’ve made some small revisions to mine, I’ll share it on my Patreon page. The great thing about this pastiche was how free I felt writing in this style.

My mentor and I discussed why this might be: Offil’s style isn’t stream-of-consciousness really, but somewhere in between that and the prose most of us are used to reading. It moves like stream-of-consciousness, but stays tethered to the plot. This, I think, creates energy that propels the story forward; I read Offil’s book in just two days because I couldn’t put it down.

I want to read more by writers who take this approach, but there are also other elements I want to see at work in fiction, so I might not get the chance this semester. Having been exposed to it though, I can say I rather enjoy reading and writing in this in-between way that acts like stream-of-consciousness but isn’t.

This semester, my mentor and I both want to focus on exploration with my thesis. To that end, I’m writing the start again (this is the fifth time I’m starting this story, but I’m having fun exploring different ways to do so) in a different way. I’m using this bridged style and also writing from both my protagonist’s POV and his daughter’s.

I still plan to include letters and another element that I want to keep as a surprise.


Thesis Language

My story takes place in the 17th century. Last semester, I grappled with whether or not to write it in the diction of the day. I have enough primary source material that I could adopt that type of diction, but after polling friends and family, I decided last term not to do so. It would be too distancing, too hard to get into. I tend to agree with them. It’s not like in a play or film where you’re immersed in the sound and visual of it as well (not to say a novelist can’t help the reader imagine those things, but it’s different), or like you’re only asking readers to do the work of reading that diction for two hours.

A novel is a much larger commitment for a reader, so the language needs to be accessible. However, mine was still antiquated, even with this consideration. I think I tend to gravitate toward that type of voice anyway–perhaps because I myself feel I’m an anachronism, or perhaps because when left to my own devices, I tend to choose to read classics. I’m used to that voice.

All the same, there’s something freeing in writing with a more modern diction, especially  in historical fiction. With each subsequent draft and revision, I loosen up more and more  on the antiquated voice and I think the result is something stronger.

These are just two of the shifts I’m making in my thesis. I don’t mind taking this semester to explore; there will be plenty of time to draft, especially since I used to do NaNoWriMo. Yes, I originally hoped to get my novel to a sensitivity reader prior to graduation in June 2019, and that may still be possible–but if it has to happen after I’m finished with this program, that’s fine. It’s more important that I produce the best and most engaging fiction I can at this juncture.


Peer Pages

For my peer pages, I submitted the first 20 pages of Rings of Saturn to my mentor. Peer pages aren’t due to my program until midway through April, so there’s plenty of time to make changes. And I will be making one significant change.

Originally, the character in these pages was going to travel back in time to save Pompeii. I’m still going to write that story but after talking with my mentor, thinking about what she said and sleeping on it, I’m going to do with a different character.

The peer pages will be something else–a short story. She remarked that after a first read-through, she was surprised at where I took the story at the end–but not the kind of surprise that I was going for. So I’m going to explore making these twenty pages into a complete story.

I told my mentor that whenever I try to do such a thing, everyone tells me that the short story should be a novel. She said that’s a nice problem to have, and I agree, but I’m going to take the next month and change and really make sure this story is a complete short story.


Freedom to Experiment and Explore

Last semester, the mentor I worked with drilled into my head the value of giving myself this opportunity–and I couldn’t be more grateful. I’m discovering new and different ways of telling stories and strengthening my fiction. I’m learning so much and really enjoying the process as I go.

So…if you are a writer, my advice to you is this: Remember that a first draft is just that. Revisions don’t have to follow the same path; don’t be afraid to mix things up, to feel around in the dark for awhile. You may be pleasantly surprised by what you discover about yourself and your writing when you allow yourself to take a new approach to your story.

Characters, Fiction, MFA

MFA Update: Final Submission of the Semester



In just over two weeks, my final submission of the semester is due, and I just deleted what I’d written so far toward my 30 pages of fiction for that submission.

Yesterday, on my 3-hour drive to New Hampshire for my TA responsibilities, I had several chapter epiphanies:

  • The chapter about the Mystic Massacre needs to start right near the end of the event and fill in with carefully crafted flashbacks.
  • I need to flush out a conflict for my protagonist that shows that when the other men he’s working with are together, he becomes more of a bystander and less of a factor in making decisions. I need to go back and strengthen this in earlier chapters because it is at the end of this chapter that he overcomes that, in order to allow him to do what he needs to in the next chapter.
  • I need to emphasize his guilt that his actions in the previous chapter made the massacre more likely.

To accomplish all of this, I had to delete what I’d already written. This leads me to a conclusion I’ve long held but not experienced in a while:

Sometimes writing requires taking two steps forward, and one back.

This is okay. I think a writer ought to be comfortable with the delete key, and not fear it. Why continue to thrust writing on a reader that does not best serve the story? It might be lyrically beautiful, but that’s not enough of a reason to keep it.

So, that leaves me with two weeks to write, edit, and revise about 10,000 words–but I’m excited about the task.

Another major change I’ve made in my thesis is that I had planned, originally, on characterizing real people who lived in the past and influenced the events in my book. The difficulties with this approach proved to be three-fold:

  1. I felt constrained like I couldn’t take a character too far from who they really were. For a fiction writer, it’s important to have the freedom to develop characters.
  2. I wanted to make one such character an antagonist. However, I don’t think that person in history was the way I want to characterize him. This man has hundreds of descendants and I wouldn’t want to alienate them because I made their ancestor out to be a horrible person just to suit my story.
  3. There are many characters on whom I can find very little information. I felt imbalanced completely making them up on my own while other characters had definite timelines and personality traits.

For this reason, I need to rename all of my characters. This is a fun process, albeit time-consuming, as I typically like to do some research and choose names for a reason, instead of just picking them out of a hat. But I’ve already decided what I will rename my protagonist, so it’s a start.

Craft Essays and Exercises

I don’t often blog about the non-thesis work I’ve been submitting all semester. I’m not sure why, but with the semester winding down, this seems as good a time as any to write about these other elements.

The craft essays are both frustrating and satisfying. I always find finishing an academic essay satisfying because it’s like solving a puzzle. I love proving my point through writing, which I know is an unpopular opinion among many. Yet, I enjoy it. Even when I’ve not loved the book I was assigned, I’ve enjoyed writing the essay. I have two more to go. I’ll write one this week, and another next week for a total of 10 this semester.

My mentor assigned me 3 writing exercises this semester, all of which I found both helpful and enjoyable. Some of them involved research, one of them involved going to a place of personal emotion so powerful that it released some of the grief I’ve been working through since the death of my father a little over a year ago. I’m working on expanding that exercise into a short story that I will then submit to literary magazines and hopefully find a home for it. It might just be the most powerful work of fiction I’ve ever written in my life–I’m not trying to boast here, but I’m simply comparing it to previous work I’ve done.

Having completed my 3 exercises for the semester, I have no more to submit, which means my 30 pages can be completely devoted to my thesis.


My TA experience is going so well. I’m really enjoying it, and yesterday I met with another professor who has welcomed me to stay at her house one night a week so I can split the drive. Speaking of driving, I was thinking about what tires me out about it. Driving up and back (a total of 5-6 hours depending on traffic, weather, and construction), isn’t what tires me out. It’s doing so as part of a 12- to 13-hour day. I’m on campus each Monday for 6 hours.

Next term, and the following term, I’ll be on campus twice a week, but only for about an hour or two each day. That means my 13-hour day will become two 7- or 8-hour days. This is a huge difference! I’ll have to try it out to see but I think I won’t mind so much driving up and back a couple of times a week. After all, I once had a 1.5-hour commute to a job I didn’t like, and I love being in the classroom.

Besides, those hours on the road give me ample time to think about my fiction, and I’ve made some pretty important decisions on that drive.

Getting back to the classroom, I’ve had some fun opportunities to teach mini-lessons, and plan to teach a few more. I’m starting to get to know the students, which I think would have happened faster were I sitting in on every class instead of every other class, and I’m frequently and overwhelmingly impressed by them. That’s not to say I had low expectations. I didn’t have expectations. I’ve tried to go into this semester with a blank slate approach as to what to expect from students, as this was my first chance to work with college students.

I also love tutoring. There’s nothing quite like working one-on-one with a student and witnessing that a-ha moment. I’ve experienced it before, but I’ll never tire of it. I liken it to a runner’s high.

I’m also really enjoying the TA Colloquium. This is a once-weekly, no-credit class that provides an opportunity to study and discuss pedagogical theories and strategies for the Freshman composition classroom. Some of the readings are challenging–this week’s caused a grammar-related existential crisis based on a 30-year-old debate about the value and approach of teaching grammar in college–but I enjoy them all the same.

The semester is half-over so my work as a TA will continue beyond the MFA semester (it will be the opposite in the spring), and I’ve really enjoyed growing alongside the students in the class I’m observing. The professor I’m working with has gone above and beyond, even finding me that housing arrangement for the rest of the term.

Final Thoughts

There’s been a lot to reflect on today, with the MFA semester drawing down. But I’ll continue my monthly update because just because the semester is ending doesn’t mean the work stops. Here’s what’s coming up between now and my second residency week:

  • Nov. 7 is the final submission deadline for this semester.
  • Nov. 10 is the deadline to submit my work for peer review at residency.
  • Nov. 14 I should receive final feedback from my mentor.
  • Dec. 11 is the day my peers’ stories are released so I can begin preparing my critiques. It’s also the last day of the TA semester and the date my teaching portfolio is due.
  • Jan. 7 is the start of my second residency; the day my peer critiques are due (though I will have them finished before then).

Also during this time, it’s my goal to make at least one round of edits to the thesis work I’ve done. I also hope to finish my work with the short story I want to submit. You can see that even though the MFA grading period will end, the work does not. For me, that’s a good thing. It’s always best not to stop and realize I’m tired until the end.