MFA Update: 6 More Days

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With my final deadline of the semester in less than a week, I’ll be focusing my efforts this week on my craft essays. I have two more to write to close out the semester, and some reading to do in order to write them. My 30 pages of fiction are written, and I’ve taken them through one round of edits. Ideally, I’d like to do one more round before sending them on to my mentor next week.

What I’ve Learned This Semester

I had such fun this semester experimenting with my thesis. I played with structure, style, and point of view. I tried everything from an epistolary approach to writing the story as though it were in an online forum. I thought about my novel in terms of a linked collection of short stories.

After all of this, I’ve come back around closer to my original approach, but I definitely learned a lot about myself as a writer along the way, including the value of experimenting with my story.

I wrote the same scenes in so many ways that I now feel confident in my approach. Oh, and my story changed. I always expect that to happen, and it’d happened already a few times…but it’s changed even more and the change is freeing.

Speaking of freeing, I found a way to loosen up my prose. I’m sure my reading list has something to do with it–prior to entering this program, most of the books I read were classics. I am still reading classics, but for many of them, the language is a bit stiffer than contemporary prose. By bringing my reading list forward in time and studying more contemporary authors, my voice has loosened up a bit.

Residency Is In 2.5 Weeks

And I’ve critiqued three stories for peer workshop, but I still have five to go. I’m really enjoying them, and am trying to finish one every other day so I have almost the whole week before residency free.

Going into my third residency, the only cause for sadness is that it means I’ll only have one more left.

This summer, I’ll be teaching a self-defense seminar because so many people in the program have expressed an interest in learning. Some of my fellow MFA candidates have some martial arts experience already, and I know of at least one who also holds a black belt. At the least, it’ll be an opportunity to move around for about an hour or so. As wonderful as residency is, it involves a lot of sitting.

I’m looking forward to the trip up to the mountains this year, too. I’ll have the company of a good friend (who is attending her fourth residency), and with good company, the ride will be great. It’s about 4-4.5 hours.

For My Third Semester

Residency is when I find out who my next mentor will be, but I’d be more than happy with any of the three I requested. Third semester works a bit differently than the first and second semesters in that I don’t have to write the ten craft essays anymore.

Instead, I’ll be writing a 10-15-page close reading essay. I’m psyched about this because to be honest, I’m a little weary of the craft essays and looking forward to sinking my teeth into the close reading. I’m eager to dive deep into a text and really pick it apart.

My goals for my thesis are to produce as much of it as I can. Aside from the 30-pages-every-five-weeks deadlines, I’d love to have a rough draft finished by the end of this year. According to Scrivener, about 270 words a day will do the trick. That’s pretty easy, especially when I know where I’m headed with my story. I’ve been writing more than that each day, so I imagine I’ll hit my goal of 75,000 words before the year is out.

I’m so glad I delayed trying to pump out a first draft. Last residency, one of the other students (who is graduating this June), cautioned me against doing that in my second semester. He advised me to have fun in my second semester and to give myself room to play and experiment with my text. This was fantastic advice and I’ll be forever grateful to him for encouraging me to slow down.

Final Thoughts

Time is passing so quickly in retrospect, but there are times when it passes so slowly in the middle of the semester. I think the next few weeks are going to fly by because I’ll be focused on preparing for residency and finishing my submission for the next week and a half. Then, the week after that, I’ll want to finish my Pride and Prejudice guides for Literature Lessons so they’re complete before I leave. Residency week always goes fast. Always.

When I get back from residency, it’ll be time to start my work for my next submission as well as planning for next fall, when I’ll be teaching freshman composition. I’ll also be teaching a creative writing class, but I have that course almost entirely worked out from when I was pursuing my M.A. I just have to look over the lesson plans and materials, and make sure everything still fits.

My main goal for next semester is to produce a complete draft. My other goals will depend on which mentor I’m assigned. I’ll post my next MFA update after residency.

Behind the Scenes: Deleted Scene

This is part of a scene from an old version of a chapter of my novel. I like the conflict between James and Zaddock, but after this semester’s experiments with my tone, style, voice, and structure, the writing feels so stiff to me. I might grab a few descriptions to reuse, but for the most part, this scene will likely remain deleted.

Two days later, the bell rang from the lookout again. I was in the stables when I heard the chimes fill the air. The horses here were majestic creatures. Abner’s own reminded me of Katherine for they were both Thoroughbreds, but Abner’s horse—called Barnaby—was different from the mild-mannered mare of my childhood. He was younger, and far more spirited. But he had the same white star pattern between his eyes that Katherine had. My father had said it reminded him of a jewel, so that’s why he named her after the queen of one hundred years ago.

Barnaby nuzzled my palm and I pat that star before leaving the stables. The lookout was on the armory, which made sense as the two long guns were perched on the lookout deck. I wasn’t technically supposed to be in the armory without permission, but my curiosity got the better of me; I wanted to see what the bell was for. I slipped inside, spotting a trio of soldiers in the midst of the room. At the moment, all of their backs were turned so I took the stairs two at a time, and almost ran into Gibbons at the top. 

“Oh, pardon me.”

“Mr. Stanworth,” he greeted with a tilt of his head. “Weren’t you supposed to stay out of the armory?” He was smiling. I was certain he recalled giving me a brief overview of the fort and it’d been he who issued that decree.

“Was I? My apologies if that’s so. You can search me if you must.”

Gibbons cocked his head to the side, and it looked like he was chewing on his cheek. “No,” he decided finally. “I trust you. I imagine you’re looking for the Lieutenant?”

I nodded. Gibbons pointed toward the door across the landing. “He’s out on the lookout with the Captain.”

I thanked him and walked past him but then stopped. “Mr. Gibbons?” When he turned from the top step, I asked, “What do you think of the Captain?”

His smile fell from his face. “Doesn’t really matter, does it? What I think? He outranks me, so I do as told, Mr. Stanworth, sir.”

“I see. Thank you.” 

Gibbons nodded and went on his way. I pulled open the door to the lookout and stepped outside. Up here, the wind curled up from the river and smacked my face. The cold made my nose tingle for a moment until it started to feel stiff and numb, even when I tried to wiggle it. I watched the tip, but what I saw didn’t connect to what I felt.

“What’re you doing up here?” Zadock demanded. 

Not my captain. “I heard the bells.”

“You are not a military man. You shouldn’t be up here.” 

Abner shook his head. “It’s alright, James. See that?” He pointed toward the river. 

“Damn Dutch,” Zadock grumbled.

“Is there no one you don’t hate?” I asked the Captain, who turned and thrust his stubby fingers into my chest. 

“I don’t hate the English. Our own kind.”

“All evidence to the contrary,” I answered, pushing his hand away.

MFA Update: Phone Chat

If you ever enroll in an MFA program–or any graduate or undergraduate program–never be afraid to voice your questions. Today, as I mentioned yesterday, I chatted with my mentor on the phone. Not only did we have some productive discussion about moving forward with my thesis, but I also got some great book recommendations and a new plan for my writing exercise.

It was going to be a 10-page letter from one specific character of mine to her father, questioning and imagining why he did certain things during her life. I liked the idea of her trying to figure out his character in this way, but I was having difficulty hitting my page target without including elements they would both already know before the letter was already written.

This is one of the pitfalls of epistolary writing that my mentor discussed with me last month–and after having experienced it, I agree with her that it can be a difficult one to avoid. However, by changing the scope and parameters of this exercise just a bit, it seems not only doable, but enjoyable and productive.

My next deadline is just under a month away. I’ve got this.

Indirect Dialogue

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I’ve been playing around with indirect dialogue lately, and I think I’m in love. To be honest, I hardly ever used this in the past, but now that I am using it, I notice a few things:

  • My stories are smoother
  • I can spend time showing where it counts
  • I don’t feel like I’m writing a play

Using indirect dialogue is like coming up from being under water and taking a breath. But before I get into discussing how it helped me achieve these three differences, there’s one thing you absolutely have to know:

What is indirect dialogue?

If you already know the answer, great! You’ll want to read this anyway because I’m going to refer to the examples later. If you don’t, no worries–I’ll get you up to speed.

I’m sure you’re used to seeing direct dialogue in a book or story. Direct dialogue might read like this:

“Mom, I want to go see a movie with my friends,” she said.

“What time does it get out?” Mom asked.

“Eleven-thirty.”

“That’s past your curfew.”

“Please? All my friends are going and I just aced that math test.”

“Oh, alright.”

Direct dialogue happens on the page like your reader is in the room (or whatever setting you’ve selected).

Indirect dialogue is reported after the fact, with just enough information to inform the reader of what they need to know, like this:

Mom agreed I could stay out later than curfew to see the movie with my friends because I aced my math test.

Do you see the difference? Great! Let’s move on to how incorporating indirect dialogue helped me improve my fiction.

Smoother Stories

In the example above, the direct dialogue takes up six lines. The indirect dialogue only takes up two lines. This helps my fiction move at the pace I want instead of being forced to plod along in dialogue that only serves one purpose.

That’s the key to writing dialogue–writing it directly requires that it perform multiple functions. Not only does it need to inform (and hopefully engage) the reader, but it should reveal something about the characters: personalities, motivations, fears, etc.

Indirect dialogue doesn’t have to do all of that. It just has to inform the reader. If you have a bit of dialogue that exists only to offer the reader info they need, consider making it indirect.

Also, the story flows better visually. Large swaths of dialogue were just weighing my work down. Now I try to combine indirect and direct dialogue so that I can get in and out of quotes quickly, and back to the story.

Space to Show–Where I Need It

I’ve written about showing vs. telling before. Showing takes up more space than telling, and it slows the pace of a story.

Sometimes, that’s what you want–to slow things down. Sometimes it’s not. Sometimes you want to slow the story, but not with dialogue.

Using indirect dialogue instead of always relying on direct dialogue means you have the space to show where it counts. Remember: Showing doesn’t need to happen throughout the story. It needs to happen where it’s important.

My Novel Is Not a Play

Plays are wonderful. I love watching them performed on stage, I love reading them, I love acting them out on the loft in my house when no one’s around. But my novel is not a play.

I don’t want it to feel like a play when I’m writing it. If I’m including play written scenes like Kathryn Davis does in her eloquent and wonderful book, Versailles, then that’s one thing–but if I’m not, it shouldn’t write like a play and it shouldn’t read like a play.

There’s more to a play than dialogue of course, and I completely admire playwrights. I think it must be difficult to convey everything that’s going on in dialogue and stage direction and no freedom to break into exposition.

Discuss

What’s your favorite passage that includes indirect dialogue? If you write, do you like to use it? Why? If you don’t like to use it, how come? Discuss in comments!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.