On That Article from that Former MFA Professor, from a Current MFA Student

I’m currently most of the way through my MLitt in Creative Writing. When that article from a former MFA professor circulated around, all I could think is: man, I feel really sorry for his former students. Also, I’m glad my professors aren’t like that, because otherwise I’d have quit.

There have been other responses. Chuck Wendig has a one, as does Foz Meadows.

The condescension drips from that article, and is basically a load of tosh. I’m an experienced writer (I guess?), so if I’d been in a class and heard a teacher come out with these sorts of things, I’d know to ignore them. Maybe if I was brave enough, I’d call them out on it.

For a new writer, just finding their voice and figuring out what they want to write and gathering the confidence to do it, this could be very toxic.

If your main hope is that most of your students come out of the MFA to become better readers rather than better writers? That’s a problem. You should want all your students to improve their writing. Otherwise, what are you teaching them?

An MFA student is probably paying a lot to pursue the course. My MFA is £3400, and that’s a lot cheaper than many places outside of Scotland. Then there’s the wages they’re losing by not-working or working part-time to devote the time to improving their craft. It’s a big investment. The least you can do is not write off most of them as doomed to be failures. Yes, not everyone who gets an MFA in creative writing goes on to become a published novelist, or poet, or screenwriter. They might not WANT to, and that’s fine, too. Not everyone coming into the course will necessarily have the same skill sets or experience. Some might not want to write the type of literature that the teacher adores. I don’t need to pay that much money for someone to look down on me. That doesn’t mean I expect my teachers to say all my writing is brilliant. I expect them to teach me new approaches, skills, and ways of looking at my craft.

I have done a bit of creative writing teaching, mostly for teenagers at school visits, but I’ve taught most age groups now. I would never, ever tell these students they’re awful. I would point out ways to improve, say it needs more work or a different approach. I would never tear a student down. If someone had done that to me at 16, maybe I wouldn’t have books out now.

Perhaps the reason he can dismiss his students so easily is because he thinks writers are born with talent. No. No no no. Sure, some people might be more predisposed to writing than others. Some might find it easier. Some might enjoy it more. Some might be able to write a publishable novel on the first go, and some might take a few practice novels first. But no one springs from the womb ready to write a perfect novel without doing any sort of work at their craft.

I’ve re-read the aborted novel I started when I was 16. Certain bits of it were actually okay. Most of it was unfocused. There were some nice turns of phrases, and a lot of clunky ones. I had no idea what I was doing with the plot. I had fairies and cat people, and no clear reason as to why or how they fit into the world, which was sketchily built at best. My characters weren’t particularly engaging. The first line, for crying out loud, was “the sunset was as red as blood.” Pretty cliche. Years went by. I read a lot. I wrote a lot. I got better.

If you put your hands up and say “well you either have it or you don’t” then you’re giving up on teaching them anything and you’re not taking responsibility for trying to.

If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.

Really? Have you met teenagers? Do you remember being a teenager? Not a lot of us knew what we were doing. I certainly didn’t. I was just at a school visit last week and overheard a teen insisting earnestly to another boy that a condom could be used twice. As a teen, you’re learning about so many areas of your life and growing into the person who knows who they want to be and what they want to do.

As a teenager I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I saw it as a very far off goal. I was also thinking about other paths. I was pretty serious about drawing as a teenager, and not bad at it. If I’d focused my attention on art rather than writing, I might be doing that now. Maybe not.

And how many people are there who have sold their debuts in their 50s or older? Plenty. Does that mean they’ve “made it”? That’s such a vague phrase anyway–what does it even mean? For some, making it is finishing something. For others, it’s self-publishing a book to give to friends and family. Maybe they want to publish some short stories in magazines. To others, it’s selling a book to a traditional publisher for a small sum. Still others will only think they’ve made it when they made a million dollars and had a film deal. And even then they might not feel they’ve “made it.” The goalposts always change. It’s a meaningless phrase.

If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out.

That I agree with, shockingly. Yes, you should write while doing your MFA, and devote the time to it. But his response is written with blanket statements. You do not know the circumstances of all your students or what they go through. Last week my dad was in hospital. I wasn’t able to write or finish my uni reading over the weekend. Not all of your students will be able to stop working entirely. For most of last semester, I was working 30 hours a week. Most students aren’t there to piss around. They also have busy lives that can sometimes get in the way.  Sometimes they might be afraid to write, and use time as an excuse.

Also, really, saying if someone asks if they’re a “real writer” they’re obviously not? I’ve written five books and I STILL ask myself if I’m a “real writer.” Every writer suffers from impostor syndrome. A lot of us are bundles of nerves. If you say your students are not “real” writers for having doubts, then you’re a shitty teacher.

If you aren’t a serious reader, don’t expect anyone to read what you write.

Again, yes, you should read a lot if you want to write. It’s the best way to learn. But then he goes on to shame people’s reaching habits, saying you’re a Real Deal if you devour Great Literature as Judged by Him. I tried to read 2666. I like Roberto Bolaño’s shorter work, but the large tome was not for me. Reading The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe is just as challenging, if that’s your goal, but for me it was more rewarding. A lot of creative writing programs aren’t that keen on genres, being mildly tolerant to downright sneery of sci fi, fantasy, and crime. Those are all healthy areas of the bookstore. Those are all ways someone can make a living off their writing, and if they’re writing what they enjoy reading, it’ll show.

No matter what you want to write, reading across a bunch of genres will do you more favours than just reading one type of book.  Don’t shame people for reading books they enjoy. They’ll learn from whatever they read, and then maybe they’ll move onto other kinds of books. I’ll read “trashy” books sometimes. I don’t call them guilty pleasures anymore. I’ve nothing to be guilty about.

No one cares about your problems if you’re a shitty writer.

This whole response is really dismissive of child abuse and trauma. Foz Meadow’s response focuses really well on that. He really, actually said that some of his student’s writing makes them wish they’d suffered more abuse as a child. What in the world? That is an awful thing to say. Imagine someone who wrote about a very personal aspect of their life, and they see their professor wrote this load of tripe.

Even stepping aside from that bombshell–sometimes people write about things from their past, whether intentionally or unintentionally. I did it, early in my writing. I was writing what I knew. It was a good starting point. It was even therapeutic. Were the pieces incredible and moved everyone who read them to tears? No. And I was still learning my craft, so my prose was clunkier. Now my work has made people cry and laugh. But if someone had dismissed my early attempts, it would have set me back.

You don’t need my help to get published.

I really wish creative writing programs focused more on the business aspect of writing. It’s important to understand the business, how money and payment works, what you might expect from a first novel advance. Taxes! The admin side of writing takes up a lot of time (I just spent the morning wrangling my expenses. So exciting). An MFA isn’t a requirement to be published, obviously. But you’d hope by doing one you’d learn some skills that might give you an edge.

But even outside of the nitty gritty aspects, a professor should, ideally, understand the current publishing industry and be able to offer advice to students, should they ask. If a teacher doesn’t feel they know that much about the current state of the industry…maybe learn about it? It’s not that difficult, and it’s part of the job. It’s a huge task, trying to find a home for a piece of writing, and can be so overwhelming to someone just starting out.

Quote: “I find questions about working with agents and editors increasingly old-fashioned. Anyone who claims to have useful information about the publishing industry is lying to you, because nobody knows what the hell is happening. My advice is for writers to reject the old models and take over the production of their own and each other’s work as much as possible.”

You’re advising all your students to self-publish? Eh? Plenty of people still want to go the traditional publishing route, and if so, you should know enough about it to at least point them to some resources. Pretty sure my agent and editors know plenty about the industry they work in, thank you very much. Self-publishing is another valid route to take, but they should know what both paths are like and what they can expect and if it’s right for them.

It’s not important that people think you’re smart.

Yeah, I agree with that. You don’t need to bash someone over the head and go “I’m clever! I’m clever!” with your writing. It can be wearying. A lot of early writers might try that, and a teacher can show them other options or challenge them to try something else. I agree with this, that you don’t need to show an ego to write, and that entertaining writing is a good goal to work towards. “The funny thing is, if you can put your ego on the back burner and focus on giving someone a wonderful reading experience, that’s the cleverest writing.” I agree with this.

It’s important to woodshed.

And then I disagree with this again. “I spent seven years writing work that no one has ever read.” Those 7 years would probably have been more fruitful if he’d shared his work with beta readers. I personally wouldn’t have wanted to delay my writing career by 7 years for…whatever reason. “That’s why I advise anyone serious about writing books to spend at least a few years keeping it secret.” Noooooo. Fine if you want to, but this makes it seem like writing is something to be ashamed of or that no one else can help you with it (even though they just spent a bunch of money hopefully getting help on their writing through an MFA). I enjoy sharing my writing with others. It’s why I write books in the first place. And I’m grateful for the people who read my earlier, uglier drafts. My friend Erica once told me, gently, that I should probably scrap this beginning of a draft of a novel and try a different approach. She was 100% right and I knew it, but hearing it from her helped give me the courage to do that, rather than spending a lot more time on a book that wasn’t working. How can you know if you’re writing something that entertains others if you never show it to them?

Nothing gets under my skin more than someone saying “THIS is definitively the right way to write.” Because for a lot of people, it really won’t be. People want to write different types of things. Just yesterday in class, our teacher asked us what our goals are. Some want to write novels, some poetry, some short stories. One person was interested in getting into screenwriting or documentaries. One writes but her main goal is to become an editor. She’s German, so she came here to develop her writing but also to improve her English so it’s easier to get a job when she’s back home, as many German publishing companies translate works originally in English. Another wants to get into teaching and translating. Some aren’t really sure what they want to focus on yet, but are interested in discovering that through writing more. Every one of my fellow students are worthwhile. None of them should be talked down to or dismissed. We’re all “Real Deals.” We’re there, wanting to learn.

Books Read in February

frog-music1. What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (audiobook) – Laura Vanderkam. I’m not much for self-help books, but thought it would be interesting. It was, but I’m still not getting up any earlier than 9 am. Whoops.

2. Frog Music - Emma Donoghue. This was for the Bisexual Book Award, which I’m judging, so I won’t say too much. The setting of Victorian San Francisco was really interesting.

3. Waverley - Walter Scott. Read for university. I’m glad to have read it as it was so popular back in its day.

4. The Winner’s Crime – Marie Rutkoski. I was lucky enough to get this sequel to The Winner’s Curse via Netgalley. Just as engaging as interesting as the first, with another cruel cliffhanger.

5. Yes Please – Amy Poehler (audiobook). Listened and chuckled as I was walking along the street etc. It also caused me to start watching Parks and Rec. I do not regret this decision.

6. Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Simmons Roberts. Read for university and I wrote a 1k response essay to it. It’s about the in between spaces between city and countryscape, so things like industrial estates, etc, which are often ignored/overlooked.

the-paying-guests7. The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters. Another Bisexual Book Award judging book. I’m not saying much about it again, but Sarah Waters is always a joy to read.

I also read probably about a book’s worth of essays, short stories/poems, and articles for university. Some were on the Bannatyne Club in Edinburgh, of which Walter Scott was a member. He and a bunch of other rich white men re-released older, forgotten literature. A lot of people thought their plan was stupid and called them “literary scavengers.” Reading the shade they threw back and forth was pretty amusing.

I’m currently in the middle of: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins and No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S Surveillance State by Glenn Greenwald.

Total this year: 11 books.

Goal: 75 books.

A Quote on Failure & Success

Laura Lam:

I wrote a blog post on the Author Allsorts blog about failure & success.

Originally posted on AUTHOR ALLSORTS:

L’échec est le fondement de la réussite.”

I bought a bag from a charity shop with those words on them when I was fifteen. I knew enough french to know what “est le fondement de la réussite” meant, but not the first word. I showed my French teacher on the Monday.

“Failure,” she said. “It means failure.”

At fifteen, I didn’t really get it. I was such a Type A personality as a teen. I mean, I still am, but back then an A- would make me cry for an hour. I’m not joking. Perfectionism had caused problems for me–overworking myself in school, acute anxiety, an eating disorder, and a constant, internal refrain that I wasn’t good enough. How was failing even an option, much less a foundation for success?

The original quote is a paradox by Lao-Tzu, and the full saying is: “Failure is the…

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2014 Awards Eligibility

As many authors put up entries on award eligibility, I figured I’d do it, too, just in case anyone wishes to nominate my work:

Novel:

Shadowplay, January 2014, Strange Chemistry Books

Short Story:

“They Swim Through Sunset Seas” in Solaris Rising 3, August 2014, Solaris Books

If self-published work is eligible for anything:

Vestigial Tales:

“The Snake Charm,” June 2014, Penglass Publishing (novelette)

“The Fisherman’s Net,” July 2014, Penglass Publishing (short story)

“The Tarot Reader,” August 2014, Penglass Publishing (novella)

“The Card Sharp,” September 2014, Penglass Publishing (novelette)

(Note: the Vestigial Tales are on sale for 99 cents each on Amazon and pay-what-you-want on Smashwords. Feel free to download them for free if you’re short on funds, or if you can, buy them for the price of a cup of coffee. Purchase links here.)

Quite nice to see a wee list of all I published last year. A few things to come in 2015, too! :-)

Books Read in January

Not too many books this month, between my holiday, having a lot of admin work (thanks, taxes), and being in the middle of two longer books. Mainly I was looking for my comfort genre, fun YA fantasy.

1. The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski. Read it in one sitting on the plane to Hong Kong. SO much fun and I can’t wait for the sequel!

2. The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan. I was lucky enough to be sent an ARC of this and it was so lovely. Literary fiction set in a circus that plays with gender and sexuality, in a Waterworld type of setting. Definitely recommended.

3. Her Dark Curiosity by Megan Shepherd. I really enjoyed The Madman’s Daughter when I read it a few years ago, so it was nice to come back for the sequel. Really well plotted and good fun.

4. Blythewood by Carol Goodman. This is set in a boarding school, with fae, bell magic, a mysterious shadow man, and family histories. I did enjoy it but it felt like there was a lot to put in one book, and perhaps some things could have been pared down, but I’ll probably read the sequels.

I also read about a book’s worth of essays, articles, and short stories for my Masters, as well as some judging for the Bisexual Book Award.

Shadowplay on Fantasy Faction’s Top 50 Fantasy Books of 2014

Shadowplay-CoverWhoohoo! Shadowplay is number 17 on Fantasy Faction’s Best 50 Fantasy Books of 2014! It’s at 17, which is pretty damn awesome. Feels great to be on the list and see some love for Micah. They say:

Shadowplay continues Micah Grey’s story, both in terms of plot and character growth. The interplay between Micah and Drystan, the white clown, is charming and heart-wrenching in equal measure, as Micah struggles to reconcile his past life as Iphigenia with his present life as the runaway circus performer wanted for murder. Beneath this internal conflict lies another far larger and more deadly, and Micah is unwillingly caught up in it.

I loved the world Lam created. She discusses themes of social and sexual inequality and sets them against a backdrop of an advanced civilisation long lost. With its immaculate prose, haunting exposition and brilliant transgender protagonist, this series is doing important things for the genre and is an absolute must read.

Number 1 is Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb, which I wholeheartedly agree with, as that’s one of the greatest books ever written, full stop. There’s also a strong Team Mushens presence, with Den Patrick, Liz de Jager, and Jen Williams on there too. Go team! Also nice to see Leigh Bardugo, Laini Taylor, and more.

Any books on the list you’re dying to pick up?

Travel: Hong Kong

In January, I went to Hong Kong with my husband, Craig. It was our first holiday outside of North America & Europe. I also had tentative plans to set a book there, so it was also a chance to see if the setting would work. Plus, eat all the food and see all the things.

The first night, we arrived quite late, so only took the coach in from the airport (and were wide-eyed at all the skyscrapers) and found somewhere near the hotel to eat. It was a chain and the servers spoke no English, so we very much felt like Ultimate Tourists as we pointed at the menu, glad of the pictures and the English subtitles. I really liked the century egg in spicy sauce.

The next day we woke up super early thanks to jetlag, and went out exploring. We were staying in Fortress Hill and journeyed on the crowded MTR to nearby Causeway Bay, which has a lot of shopping. We wandered around, had some food (the Muji stores there have cafes in them!), bought some clothes, and gawped at everything being so tall. We then went to Din Tai Fung, one of the cheapest Michelin starred restaurants in the world, for some dim sum. It was unsurprisingly delicious. For dessert I tried ice cream frozen with liquid nitrogen for the first time. So smooth! Then we went to Sheung Wan to visit PMQ, which stands for Police Married Headquarters. That’s what the buildings were, lodgings for cops, but now they’ve been converted into shops for local artists and designers. We hung out there and the surrounding area for hours, and then went for dinner at a golf club in the hills thanks to two people Craig knew from the internet. We got to drive around and see the city at night, and then had a drink in the top floor of our hotel, overlooking Victoria Harbour. An excellent first day.

The next day we went south to Aberdeen Harbour because how could we not, living in the original Aberdeen? There wasn’t as many touristy things to do there as we weren’t interested in going to the floating seafood restaurant, but it was interesting to explore the area. We went to the local Tin Hau Temple. There are over 100 Tin Hau Temples in Hong Kong, for worshipping the goddess of the sea. In the late afternoon, jet lag hit us hard so we went back to the hotel to nap and then stayed near the hotel, buying local snacks we couldn’t get back home and watching TV in the hotel room.

On the third day we ventured across the harbour to Kowloon. First we went to the Museum of Hong Kong. Craig and I have been to a few of these “history of the city museums” in our travels, but this one was the best. Very well organised and interesting, and I felt we learned a lot about the history, the different cultures, and festivals and traditions. When we left the museum, the weather was glorious and so we meandered along the Avenue of Stars, dodging the other tourists and looking for names we knew on the sidewalk. We wandered around the area before hopping in a cab and going north to Kowloon Walled City Park. Here’s some history of the walled city. Basically it was a military outpost and after WWII a lot of Japanese refugees went there. Its population swelled and it didn’t really have a justice system. The police stayed out of it and it was basically its own teeny tiny little country. Crime grew rampant as it was run by the Triads, and illegal construction made it a hive of people. In the 90s it was demolished and now it’s a pretty park.

After wandering around the park, we explored the surrounding area a bit. We found a bakery with a familiar looking cat on it, as two days before we found a brochure at the PMQ advertising Cream Bro, HK’s celebrity cat. We weren’t sure how famous he actually was, but there he was on the bakery. Cute! We had some sugary treats at a nearby cafe and then headed back to the waterfront. We stayed until night time and watched the light show that’s on every night, the skyscrapers flashing lights in time to cheesy music. While we waited, we saw a youth band play to a crowd, a small child on his father’s shoulders gleefully bouncing along to the rock music, and also saw a dance group perform by the water.

The next day, we went to another dim sum place, Tim Ho Wan, but had to wait about an hour to be seated. It was worth it though. The food was so delicious, and it was another Michelin star despite it only being about £20 for us to be totally stuffed. We then went back to Sheung Wan, to an area called the Mid-Levels with has the longest outdoor escalator in the world. We took that (which featured in a film we watched not long before we went to HK, Chungking Express). We wandered around, looking at the street art and visiting another temple. Then we went back to Causeway Bay and had some delicious waffles, and as a second dinner we had a picnic back in our hotel room.

Day 5: Went out for dim sum again with Craig’s friend from the internet, Abe. So good. Afterwards we wandered around, including through Chunking Mansions, another area that used to be pretty shady but isn’t really anymore. After some more wandering, we went to the Museum of Art. My favourite exhibit was of the wood sculptor Tong Sim-Kun. I preferred his realistic work to his more abstract and modern sculptures, but they were all beautiful. The weather was rainy, so in the evening we were soaked as we went back to our side of the city.

The next day, the weather was great, and so it was off to Ocean Park! It’s an amusement park to the south of the city. Since we went on a weekday, thankfully it wasn’t totally swamped. The views from the cable car were incredible, and they had lots of animals and shows. I was ridiculously excited by the red pandas and took about 200 photos of them. There was also a panda and some cute otters. We rode a few rides, but then it was getting rather crowded so we headed back to the city. We wanted to take the tram up to Victoria Peak to watch the sun set, but it looked like the wait would be an hour and a half so…no Peak. Back near the hotel, we had dinner at a tasty place called Campers, which served fresh, delicious Japanese food.

On day 7, our trip was winding down, so we had to prioritize what we were going to do with the time we had left. Initially, we were thinking of taking a ferry to Lantau Island, but instead we stayed in the city and went to Chi Lin Nunnery. It was a quiet, lovely haven right in the middle of the bustle of the city. It was so calming to stroll around, eat some vegetarian food, and see some greenery. Afterwards, it was back to exploring the city, and we ended up going to Mong Kok, one of the busiest areas of Hong Kong, which also has lots of markets.

And then it was our last day. We checked out of the hotel in the morning and stashed our bags before going back to Tim Ho Wan to have the delicious pork buns, getting there early enough we didn’t have to queue for an hour. Then we took the Star Ferry around the Harbour for a last look of the city. After some more wandering around and buying snack food to take back (and we’ve already eaten it all, darn it), we had a last meal at Campers. And then it was time for the airport and the 22 hour journey home, Cream Bro wished us farewell from an advert on a baggage trolley.

 

I’ve been back for over a week now, and finally over the jetlag. Hong Kong was definitely one of the best holidays I’ve ever been on. And it wasn’t only a holiday–I think I’ll be setting my next book there, or at least partly so. It’s the perfect setting for a near-future thriller.

For more photos, check out my Instagram.