Do You Need a Fine Arts Degree to Become a Successful Writer/Author?

I got an e-mail from a company called Self-Publisher’s Showcase, a company which says it aims to be a “very affordable promotional assist.” They appear to be a real company but you can decide for yourself if you want to use their services,though a look at their “About Us” section shows that none of them has a background in book publishing though their founder, Paul Martin, has a background in social media for professional use (as do I, for the record). I don’t know about Paul but you can count on me to give you social media advice for free and if you subscribe to my blog you’ll always be the first to get new social media and personal branding strategy tips.

The e-mail itself was not directly towards me, so I think I’m on someone’s list, but I don’t mind. Anyway, the website had a guest post which I wanted to talk about. Kevin J. Villeneuve is one of their “showcase” authors and in late October he wrote a post titled, “A Note to Young Aspiring Authors” (me!) which I just got but wanted to note. Here’s the passage which stood out to me:

“So what advice can I give to young, aspiring authors? Don’t get published for the money. Sure, it’s an amazing feat when someone pays you six-figures to write a book, but there are many ways that you can pay yourself to write. If you’re getting into it for the money, go get a master’s degree in literature, find a job that pays you to write, and hope that someday a publisher approaches you to write something bigger.”

Look at the second bold point. I thought it was interesting Kevin seems to think getting an MFA (Master’s of Fine Arts) is the ticket to success. Writer’s Digest seemed to think so this time a year ago. I assume this is because one has access to the professional critiques done by creative writing professors. Now to be fair I have never had a single class in literature or book writing, beyond freshman English class. This is an interesting topic which I’ll explore more in the future. But I don’t think one has to have an MFA to make it big.

It is nice to have feedback from others though I will note Chuck Sambino’s opinion from Writer’s Digest about this:

“Criticism: You might scoff, thinking you don’t need this (MFA), because you’ve lucked into a supportive, insightful writing group. Terrific! But friends, seeing how much work you’ve put into that manuscript, often hesitate to be critical. They want to be encouraging, so they’ll suggest changing scarcely a sentence. Not so in an MFA program. Red ink will cover your pages. You’ll gape in despair as you realize that, yes, your writing is crap. The advisors will encourage you, but they’ll be brutally honest about how to improve your work. This is why MFA programs are so expensive. The faculty isn’t comprised of amateurs who dabble at writing and coddle your ego, but of professionals who bring a cool eye and a scholarly approach to teaching. You’ll be exposed to smart and sometimes stinging criticism, which can be hard to take, yet is crucial to any serious writer.”

If you have an MFA or something similar, or have attended a serious writer’s course on writing, share your thoughts. Is an MFA or similar degree worth it? Or is it a waste of time and money?

Photos from Miami

*News alert: If you didn’t see the news this morning, this horrific story from Pakistan where the Taliban says in a statement coordinated an attack on a Peshawar (capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa providence, which borders Afghanistan) school in retaliation for a Pakistani army offensive against Islamic extremists in North Waziristan and in nearby Khyber Providence. However, the Taliban could have had any number of reasons, including the hatred of anything seen as “Western”. Like Boko Haram, the Taliban only tolerate “Islamic education”. Click HERE to read the story.

To my original post: Here are a few photos from Miami. In the next blog post I’ll put in my third-to-last post of 2014, talking about seven-figure advances to debut authors with no celebrity status. Is this not a big deal, a normal business risk? Or are big publishers stupid for paying huge fees to authors who have no way of guaranteeing success? can an author’s career be damaged if s/he does not help the publisher recuperate the advance? We’ll talk about this.

For those of you who are Jewish: Happy Hanukkah!

Bonus: I’ll send a Miami mug to anyone who can answer the following before this Thursday, December 18, at 2 P.M. Look carefully at the photo from my hotel room overlooking Biscayne Bay. What hotel did I stay in? Hint: The hotel was part of a well-known chain.

pre-dinner cocktail reception. Free beer! I had two Coronas with a lime wedge.

conference post-dinner dessert

home of “Mr. 305” Pitbull.

Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

View from my hotel room, Biscayne Bay

outside Vizcaya Museum and Gardens

downtown Miami late afternoon

plane from Miami to Philly was about half-empty. Friday night to Philly in December must not be popular.

My first-ever writer’s conference

As approach Thanksgiving I though I’d share a few thoughts on the 2014 Baltimore Writer’s conference I recently attended. This was my first-ever writer’s conference and looking back at it it was an interesting time. Sadly, no photos 😦

The highlights:

  • Took place at the campus of Towson University.
  • -about 125 people, mostly under 30. Mostly White but there was some diversity (more than the publishing industry, I’d guess)
  • -Four session times offered. I first went to the session called “Publish your own lit journal” The takeaways were: don’t quit your day job, set specific times to allow for author submissions, get a great cover designer, figure out the costs for physical copies if you’re selling, and make sure you have a phenomenal editor team in place to read submissions. One magazine assigns one editor per genre, another passes it around to 5-6 editors and has a “two votes and you’re out” policy. Despite the challenges facing print publishing the publishers featured were enthusiastic about what they publish, seeing it as more of a hobby or life-long fulfillment than as a way to make millions.
  • -The second session I went to a session called “how to craft a better query letter” which turned out to be about how to pitch story ideas to a local Baltimore feature magazine. The session was not that interesting to me since I have no desire to become a reporter for any local featurettes, so I went to the “creating dialogue for fiction” session, which had about half the total conference participants in it. Although I missed the beginning I got these tips:
  • -don’t use dialog in low-contect situations. Skip hellos, goodbyes, self-appraisals, and statements of feelings (can use in high-contect situations like family feuds and spousal arguments)
  • Characters only ask, say, answer, and reply. They never chortle!
  • Strike out words like “Oh, yes, well, so, um, etc.
  • Avoid dialect in dialog.
  • Avoid over-telling
  • Have characters do stuff while they talk. People don’t always sit around doing nothing.
  • 3 lines of dialogue per one character speech. Save longer monologues for specific situations.

Do you agree/disagree with any of these?

After a lunch of penne paste and grilled chicken I had a critique section! Jessica Blau, who wrote a best-seller, critiqued my work. She liked my chapter but we disagreed on some of the dialogue structure. She did catch a few errors but it would have been nicer to show her an entire book and not just one short chapter. A good experience; I’d never had work critique by anyone before. My mom doesn’t count. I was surprised only 30 of the conference attendees came to this session. Maybe they didn’t have anything they were ready to have critiqued.

There last session was by a woman named Bonnie Friedman who talked about “Envy fear, distractions, and other dilemmas in the writer’s life”. This was a forum attended by younger people who had to suffer anxiety, frustration, and a lack of support from friends or family in regards to their writing career. I know this: tell people you write and most folks are either unimpressed or they don’t think I’m spending my time wisely. I hope they’re wrong! One girl started crying and she said she suffered from anxiety issues related to her work. Later on the elevator on the way down she told me she had a mental health issue. I won’t divulge her name but let’s just say it isn’t the way you want to introduce yourself to people. Even if she was telling the truth, there’s a time and place to talk about those things and a writer’s conference with strangers isn’t one of them.

Overall I had a great time. I met a few people I hopefully will talk to in the future and  who knows: Maybe somewhere in that conference call is a person who will write a best-seller or a Hollywood blockbuster.

I’ll have a post on Tuesday, my last before Thanksgiving, providing a few fun (and little-known) Thanksgiving facts. Until then, !hasta luego!