Wednesday, January 23, 2013

On Chocolate, MFAs and Writing

Karin Huxman is my in-town writing buddy.  She's a prolific writer of both children's stories, compelling nonfiction, contemporary and paranormal fiction.  Karen has a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing.  I asked her to tell us about what's she's learned both in and outside the classroom.  Please say hello and welcome Karin to Five Scribes:
 

Actually the title is in the incorrect order of importance, if you’re a writer that is. I just wanted to get your attention with mention of my favorite treat.
 

Naturally the most important part of being a writer is, well, writing. Writing is learned by doing, and redoing, and starting over again. You can learn the basics, and most Americans do in order to graduate from high school. Writers take the foundations of our language and marry them with imagination and perspiration to create a story or a poem or an article or all the many things that writers write.
 

But you may reach a point, as I did, of plateau. In spite of encouraging responses to fiction submissions, in spite of selling magazine articles and poems, in spite of winning awards for unpublished authors I found being successful with fiction to be elusive. I have joined many writing groups both local and national. I had a marvelous critique group and critique partners who guided me. In the end, I hit a wall. I wanted to be a better writer and decided that I needed more structure and discipline in order to do so. Pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree, an MFA, in writing seemed like the natural next step.

 
Choosing an MFA program can be daunting, there are loads to choose from.

However, before you choose a program, take some time to decide if actually working towards this degree is right for you. What do you expect to gain from the time and effort you put into it? To that end, here are five pros and cons of entering into an MFA program.

 
            Starting with the cons, because I want to end on an upbeat:

 

  1. It’s expensive. Graduate degrees are. You will either need to get a student loan or work extra to afford it. Decide if the time and money will be worth the end result.
  2. There is no guarantee that having the degree will get you the publishing contract or the teaching job at the college or anything.
  3. The program you choose may be a poor fit for you as a writer and as a person.
  4. Unless the program is in your home town or a reasonable drive from where you live, you may have to relocate.
  5. Top authors who teach at your program may not be the best teacher or mentor.

 
One the positive side:

 

  1. You get to concentrate on your passion, your writing.
  2. You will create a strong network of like minded writers.
  3. Traditional programs versus low residency programs abound. There’s a lot to choose from.
  4. The best programs engage top notch faculty who will challenge and engage and motivate you.
  5. The best MFA programs will take you out of your comfort zone, you will be challenged in ways you never saw coming and you will be a better writer for it.

 
So you’ve decided that yes, you do want to get this degree… where to start? Are you a literary writer or do you long to publish in romance? Does the art and craft of writing children’s picture books feel like what you are meant to do or is the particular skill needed to write for a teen audience what really grabs you? Is there a literary void you believe your unique voice can fill? Once you’ve narrowed that down, consider whether you want a traditional college classroom setting or would be comfortable in a low residency program or even a program with online classes.
 

Since there are so many MFA programs to choose from here are a couple of links that will help you narrow down the field:



 
Once you have two or three prospective choices the real work begins. Go to the programs’ websites and really dig deep. Who is on faculty? Have you ever heard of them before? What are the requirements to apply and what are the costs involved? Is there an alumni organization you can contact to find out graduate’s happiness with the program? How much time is going to be required of you to finish the coursework and graduate?

 
I’ve had discussions with writers who think getting a Master of Fine Arts degree is a waste of time and money. In my case, the rigors of the coursework, the friends I made during the program, and the delight in setting a difficult goal and seeing it through made it worthwhile. My MFA is in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College, at the time affiliated with Norwich University in Montpelier, Vermont. The low residency program was a perfect fit for me. Since earning my degree in 2001 I have gone on to publish two children’s picture books, one of which won an EPPIE for best children’s or young adult ebook. One of my classmates is now a publisher of children’s nonfiction and my continuing friendship with her has garnered me a place as one of her nonfiction authors of the America’s Notable Women series. I continue to write poetry. Shortly after I started the program, my first romance novel was published and I went on to publish many more.

 
It all started with wanting to be a better writer. That’s what it should be about. Where you go from there is up to you. Once you decide, have a piece of lovely chocolate, pat yourself on the back, and get yourself back to the keyboard. After all, you are a writer.

Karin Huxman writes for children as K.D. Huxman, you can find her picture books, Dragon Talk and Grizzelda Gorilla at Kittycatbooks.com. She contributed to Women of the Prairie State: 25 Women You Should Know and Women of the Empire State: 25 Women You Should Know, from Apprentice Shop Books. Her romance novels are published by New Concepts Publishing, her most recent release being a reissue of her paranormal romance With an Open Mind, re-titled as Extrasensory Perception. On the web find K.D. Huxman at kdhuxman.wordpress.com and Karin Huxman can be found at myivorytower-karin.blogspot.com. Besides chocolate, Karin enjoys wine, walking and of course reading.

13 comments:

Lana Williams said...

Wonderful post, Karin! Thanks so much for sharing all this great info! I have Dragon Talk and it's a joy to read with kids! I highly recommend it.

Barb Han said...

I've gone back and forth over the years over whether or not to go back for my MFA. Great thoughts here! Good luck with your books!!

Jean said...

Thanks for the links and the Pro/Cons of an MFA. Love the title, Dragon Talk. Good luck and thanks for sharing.

Jodi Anderson said...

You put the MFA pros and cons in a format that is educational and easy to understand. Thank you! Keep putting out those great books.

Lisa Potocar said...

Hello, Karin!

I've heard so many great things about the MFA program at Vermont College, especially through two of my regional peers in the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators; one who graduated from the program some time ago, the other currently attending. They actually teamed up and gave a presentation of the program at one of our monthly meetings in 2012----it was great and definitely made one want to register right away for classes! I live in Upstate New York, not impossibly far from the college to attend; so, for me, there's always that lure to it.

Actually, I have a question, or two, for you: Do you think a debut author should stick with writing in the same genre and for the same audience until they've established their name? Did the well-established authors in your MFA program offer any suggestions on this?

I wish you the very best in your future writing endeavors.

Lisa P.

Karin Huxman - Romance Author said...

Thanks, Lana, Barb, Jean and Jodi. I would have responded sooner but I was at work all day yesterday. Yep, don't quit your day job. :)

Karin Huxman - Romance Author said...

Hi Lisa,
One of my sisters lives in the Albany area and she drove to meet me at the airport in Burlington, along with my sister from MA, for my first residency, then drove on to Montpelier with me so I wouldn't have to arrive by myself. :)
That's a great question. I think you need to come to some sort of comfort zone with yourself as to what genre you want to publish in. Most of my romance novels have a paranormal bend in them. But I've also written straight category type romance. I did decide to write my children's books under a slightly different name because it is such a very different genre from adult romance. As a debut author, you may be still figuring out your place in the writer-verse. At the MFA program we all wrote for children and during the four semesters we were encouraged to explore all of the different subgenres that make up children's writing. I worked in fiction, poetry, and picture books. My critical thesis was on Harry Potter as a hero's journey. My creative thesis was, in large part, a children's fantasy novel I wrote plus poetry. The program wasn't so much about marketing but about becoming. It's a journey. So if you are a debut author, why not experiment and find the genre that really grabs you?
Any other published authors who would like to offer their opinion? This is a great question to explore, especially since publishing is breaking wide open these days.

ellaquinnauthor said...

I think this is a question each writer has to answer for his or herself. I have a BA and MS in International Relations and a JD. Shortly after I started writing, I knew I needed help, so I turned writing coach, Jerry Cleaver. He talked to me for free and told me he had many people in his classes who had MFAs and still didn't know how to write a book. He gave me several suggestions, which I took and less than 18 months later, I was pubished.

ckcrouch said...

Interesting post full of information. I don't know if an MFA would work for me either. I have a BA in Sociology which they now list as a BS with a minor in Language Arts. I've debated for years about going for a masters degree but the cost put me off. I used my GI Bill to earn the BA. Thanks for laying it all out pros and cons even the way you did it was great.

Mur said...

Karin was so right in saying that an MFA is a journey, a journey that continues even after the diploma is in your hand. I feel I not only write differently but I read differently since finishing my MFA.

Karin Huxman - Romance Author said...

Ella and Cathy, thanks for weighing in. There are so many ways in which we become better writers. Some find a personal coach works for them, others online classes and critique groups. I, too, know many writers who finished their MFA and did not know quite what to do with the experience or the education after. You would think that going to the expense of the course would be enough motivation to complete a publishable work. Some finish MFAs to go into academia, others into other parts of publishing.

And it is expensive, Cathy. You got that right. I went back to work part time, then full time to pay for it. It was a crazy full time in my life, as I was also still raising youngsters. But all of that also helped focus me on the work, the writing and the coursework, when I carved out the time to do so. I also have a very supportive spouse. :) That has been critical.

Karin Huxman - Romance Author said...

You know, Mur, I often read more critically these days. I try not to, I really want to enjoy my pleasure reading!

Karin Huxman - Romance Author said...

Lana, thank you for your kind words about Dragon Talk. I had so much fun writing it, and rewriting it, and ... :)