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.

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.