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.


MFA Update: Second Semester


Six out of 20 weeks into this semester, and I’m feeling pretty good about where I am. Even though my drafting has slowed while I await my mentor’s feedback, I’ve still drafted enough work in my thesis to get me through the semester. I expect I’ll have plenty of revision work to do, but this is a far stronger position than I could have been in at this time last semester.

I had to write my first ever fiction pastiche. It was difficult to get into the voice and style of Jenny Offil’s Dept. of Speculation at first, but once I got the ball rolling, I fell into a rhythm with it and ended up having a lot of fun. What I didn’t expect was that my story went to a pretty dark place. Also, given that it was just a writing exercise, I didn’t expect to fit a whole story into ten pages–but I managed to pull that off anyway. I’ll have to see what my mentor thinks of it.

So what’s next? I’ve been working on my peer pages for June’s residency. Sure, June feels far away, but they’re due to the program in mid-April–and to my mentor on March 2. I have a few options, as I see it, for this submission:

  • I can send my first chapter of my thesis. Yes, I did that last time, but it’s been drastically revised more than once since then.
  • I can build out the writing exercise I mentioned above. Peer pages submissions can be up to 20 pages.
  • I can submit the first 20 pages of another story I’m working on, Rings of Saturn. This one involves time travel, though that hasn’t happened yet in the first 20 pages. This is what I’ve been drafting this week, for revision next week if my mentor wants to see this. I got to page 18 today, with a goal of reaching page 20 by the end of the day tomorrow, so I’m feeling good about that.

My mentor and I will discuss which of these options will make the best option for June’s residency, but it’s strange to think of it so early in the semester either way. Last semester the deadline didn’t fall until the end of term, but in the spring there’s no month-and-a-half holiday break. While I went to a June residency last year, I wasn’t in school leading up to it.

In fact, it was about this time last year that I applied for the Mountainview MFA program. Who would have thought that a year later I’d have so much fiction to work on? I’m enjoying myself, learning a lot, and meeting great people.

My next MFA update will be in the middle of next month. I’ll share my mentor’s feedback for my first submission, and thoughts about my second submission…which should be in revision by that time. Also, I should be on solid ground regarding my peer pages.


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.


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.


MFA Update: Final Feedback of the Semester

Today I received–and gave–my final feedback for my first MFA semester. My mentor wrote such a beautiful letter to me, beginning by acknowledging the work that it took to produce 120 polished pages of fiction in just five months. I specify polished because, as a veteran Wrimo, I could easily produce 120 pages in about two to three weeks…but they certainly wouldn’t be polished. She summed up some of the lessons we discussed–at a macro and micro level–and gave me some advice for moving forward and for editing the two chapters I’d sent her a couple weeks ago. Finally, she advised that I rest now, both from writing this book and from the 17th century–and for the most part, I am. I’ve started drafting chapter seven of my thesis, but only a page or two at a time, at a leisurely pace. I won’t touch these chapters again until next semester or perhaps the semester after that.

Giving my own feedback was a challenge because I realized that some of the advice I’ve received since July is still processing in my mind. Because my mentor advised me on both macro and micro concerns and ideas, there are simply some that take longer to ingrain in my mind. I mentioned, in my feedback, that I keep a running list in my head of all of her tips and suggestions, and run through it as I rework first drafts–and sometimes as I draft. This slows my writing process, but I’m okay with that because I’m churning out stronger material.

In less than two weeks, stories will be sent out for peer critique. I’m going to enjoy looking at my peers’ work because aside from occasionally sharing work among my cohort over the last semester, I’ve not had the chance to read what my fellow learners are producing for their MFA. I enjoyed the critiquing period last spring–even when stories were not of a genre I would usually read. It felt good to step outside my comfort zone, and to work with a text that was not my own. Peer critique is one of those processes that’s at the core of becoming a more effective writer because we tend to learn about our own writing from others strengths and weaknesses.

I’m also anticipating my next residency. Not only am I looking forward to visiting the Mountainview Grand Resort again (which I hear is a little creepier in the winter and I can’t wait!), but I’m eager to see my friends again and to welcome a new cohort into the fold.

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.

Fiction, MFA

MFA Update: First Semester is almost over!


It’s so hard to believe that my first semester is more than 3/4 over. I sent my third submission a week and two days ago, which means I should receive my mentor’s feedback in about five days. She’s been great about getting her comments to me within two weeks.

For my last submission of the semester…

I’d really like to submit revised chapters for this next deadline, if only because I’d love to have a few rounds of revision before submitting them for the winter residency peer critique. There’s not enough time to get her feedback on them between submitting them and the deadline for the critique pages unless I send my last submission in about a week and a half. I’ve already done some editing, so that might be possible.

On the other hand, another part of me wants to press forward. I know my mentor is a proponent of doing so as well. A good compromise might be to send her new material and submit my edited material for the residency workshop.

That would be the equivalent of working on two submissions at the same time, but I think I might be able to handle it.

I taught a lesson on comma splices…

And it went really well! I’m really enjoying my role as a TA. I worked with the professor, who is one of the department coordinators, to create a 15- to 20-minute lesson on comma splices. Despite the fact that grammar doesn’t really excite the students, most of them participated willingly, though in reflection if I taught the lesson again, I might gamify it a bit and offer candy rewards.

I’m not above bribing students to participate when:

  • It’s raining out,
  • It’s the middle of the afternoon,
  • It’s on a holiday that, until that year, students would have had off from school, or,
  • It’s grammar.

Again, I like grammar. But that’s not the case for everyone, and I understand that.

I may have filled my tutoring quota…

Just kidding. I was joking with a friend who tutored last semester because all semester long she only met with six students, and there I sat yesterday with no students. I’d already met with six since the beginning of the semester.

I wish the tutoring was by appointment, but I understand why the learning center offers walk-in tutoring. I forgot to bring my Kindle with me yesterday, and yes, I was in a library. I could have grabbed a book, but I didn’t want to leave my post just so I’d have something to read.

With my luck, that would have been when a student walked in looking for a writing tutor.

The six students I’ve tutored this semester have all been great to work with, and I’ve learned a lot from them as I hope they have from me.

I may be dead tired today, but…

That doesn’t mean I’m not writing in my head. I am. I’m staring down this last submission of the semester and trying to narrow down the three mentors I will put on my list for next term. I drove up and back yesterday. It wipes me out, but I’ve decided to hold off on looking for an apartment for now because I can’t do that, work two jobs, fulfill my TA duties, and get all my schoolwork done.

Something had to give. Bye, apartment (for now)!


MFA Update: TA-ing

I love being a teaching assistant.

Since my last update, I’ve started my work as a teaching assistant. I’m really enjoying it so far! I’ve observed class for two weeks now (though I am only there one day a week and the class meets two days each week), I’ve tutored two students, and I am really enjoying my TA colloquium class.

Having taken a seminar in teaching writing for my MA, I feel as though I have the foundation and vocabulary for diving in and assessing different pedagogical strategies with my fellow TA and the coordinator of the department who is running the course.

In class, I’m enjoying listening to the students discuss readings as a class and in small groups. I can tell from their responses that they work hard to develop a clear understanding of the texts they’re reading. Right now, they’re working on memoir essays. Today they have a workshop that I wish I could attend, because I like memoir essays. They’re fascinating and employ a number of creative elements that are also required by fiction.

I had the opportunity to talk to one of the students during my tutoring hour, and was more than impressed with the work already put into this assignment.

I ended up changing my tutoring hour; originally it was in the middle of the day, but I was one of five tutors in that time slot for writing, which I thought was overkill. Now I’m tutoring in the late afternoon, and I’m the only writing tutor at that time so there’s a stronger chance I’ll get to meet with students.

That is, after all, why I’m there.

There are other tutors in that time slot, but all for math. Listening to them work with their students, I can say with certainty that I would have made a poor math teacher. Writing is a great fit, as I knew it would be. I’m passionate about teaching and want every student I work with to leave having learned something new.

I’m looking forward to teaching a class, but I know that won’t be for a little while. I don’t mind that, especially as I still haven’t moved closer to school.

I was planning to stay overnight at a hotel, and thought I found a good deal…but I stayed there one night and the place left me feeling like I needed seven showers. So now, I’m back to driving up and back in one day. I know there are friends I can stay with if I get too tired or need to do something on campus the next day, and that’s a good option.

But I’m going to move up there. True, I only have to be on campus one or two days a week throughout my TA program, but if I live closer, I can observe more classes. The more teaching styles I can expose myself to, the better.

For the next couple of months, I will be working like a dog to bank some extra cash for the move.