I recently read an essay about exposing MFA students too much to the business of publishing and being a writer. The theory put forth was that too much of that could stifle a student’s creativity. It was titled On Writing and the Business of Writing, so these are my thoughts.
I am tempted to go with Dorothy Parker’s theorem.
The majority of working novelists I know, never came from that literary world. We come from different places. And yes, this is the way it is for “literary” fiction but I dislike making the distinction. Is Stephen King a horror writer? Is he literary? Was Lonesome Dove a western? How about ‘academic’ literature? We used to joke among the faculty at the now-defunct Maui Writers Conference that they give awards to literary writers and checks to genre writers.
One item caught my interest where the author says you only get one debut novel. I don’t think you only have one debut. Not if you want to succeed. It would be nice to do your first one well and make it work. Rarely happens.
I’ve “debuted” several times as has almost every successful writer I know. We publish. We succeed. We fail. We reinvent ourselves and our careers and become better. We run into the “higher-sell through, lower print run” debacle with a publisher and they drop us. But we stay alive by continuing to create. Find another publisher. Find another route. I’ve done over fifty books with traditional publishing, indie published thirty or so, published with 47North (Amazon’s scifi imprint). Was one of the first on board with Amazon. And Nook. And Audible. Right now, I’m collaborating on a trilogy we’ll send to an agent. But we know we have options.
The reality is, MFA programs often seem more designed to procreate. For someone to get in the pipeline and end up, a decade later, teaching in an MFA program. Nothing wrong with that, but let’s be realistic about it.
Let’s face it, making a living as a fiction writer is hard. Yet I know a lot of people who are doing it. Many you’ve never heard of. I’ve been doing it for 32 years. I’ve written under five pen names.
The key to success as a writer, or in any field, is you commit to it and work your ass off and learn the craft and become an artist. And yes, a romance writer, or a science fiction writer, or a thriller writer, is an artist. We are story tellers.
Protecting someone from the harshness of the publishing business is probably a good idea for those starting out. After all, what do they know to write about? We learn via living. By experience and we translate that into our art.
It’s not just in the MFA world. At conferences I see more attendees going to the agent panel than the craft workshops. They believe that getting the right agent is more important than writing a good book. I also see a strong emphasis on marketing. Which is silly. For three decades my mantra on marketing is the best marketing is writing a good book. Next best? Write another good book.
In fact, a key point a new writer should learn is that if they get a two book deal, the SECOND book is even more important than the first. That’s what will often make or break you.
Perhaps, while protecting students so they can create, they should also exposed to the numerous paths possible in publishing? I’ve been making my living for over three decades and, as always, I believe right now is the best time ever to be an author. The only thing standing between an author and the reader is the internet. If one wants to get to the reader via an agent and publisher, then that path needs to be studied. But even then, there are options. Yet, self-publishing, in my opinion, is even harder than getting an agent and publisher. It’s a three-year learning curve on the business, which few have the time to do. Do you want to write, or do you want to learn a business? Remember, there is a reason all those people work at a publishing house.
Bottom line? Plan what you want to do, then do the things necessary to achieve it.
Nothing but good times ahead!