Prospectus: A Literary Offering Prospectus Logo

Blog

Join the Prospectus mailing list to receive to receive information about upcoming issues, contests, and blog posts. Facebook Logo

September 25, 2020 – What if You Do Want an MFA?

So, after two months of pondering the question, Should I get an MFA?, are we any closer to an answer? Maybe? I don’t know. I do have three observations:

  • Genre writers have less to glean from a traditional MFA in most schools. If you want to be a genre writer and want an MFA, you need to research a good school that takes genre writing seriously.
  • Low-res and no-res options are increasingly popular and better than they used to be, making it easier to get a reputable MFA for those people whose only obstacle to the degree is time and distance.
  • The only consensus the six bloggers seem to have is this: the answer to the question is personal. IOW, it’s not a matter of whether the MFA is a feasible degree or not; turns out that question is a red herring, which is probably why it’s so hard to answer. What matters is whether you fo whatver personal reasons want/need an MFA. I think this is a valuable takeaway from this discussion. The next time somebody asks you, Should I get an MFA?, the answer is simple: Do you want one?

That being said, I have only one more thing to add: once you have made the decision to get the MFA, how do you find the right program for you? I tried to answer this question as well as I could a number of years ago when I used to keep a personal blog. Looking back, I don’t seem to have changed my mind. So, allow me to repost:

Choosing an MFA Program: 10 Ideal Considerations

I’m sure you’ll have no trouble finding advice on how to choose an MFA program in creative writing, but it always strikes me as funny (in a sad kind of way!) how people who are in the process of selecting an MFA program often stop at two considerations: Can I afford it? and Can I get in? While these are certainly valid considerations, ideally you should not stop at these. MFA programs vary widely and choosing the right one can make a huge difference in how happy you are with the outcome. Below are some more things to think about.

1. Don’t automatically discount the more expensive programs just because you think you can’t afford them. Too many people these days only think of two ways of paying for their education: up front, or with loans. Student loans are particularly scary, especially when used to pay for a degree not often seen as “lucrative,” like an MFA. Who wants to graduate with thousands of dollars in debt, only to face iffy job possibilities?

Loans are only one option, however. Take the time to investigate if you qualify for other types of aid, like scholarships, fellowships, grants, and assistantships. If you belong to any kind of minority at all, milk it for all it’s worth! There are lots of awards that are not need- or merit-based, should you belong to that marginal income bracket where you can’t afford school but are not “poor enough” to qualify for aid, or if your grades or test scores aren’t the best. By far, the best kind of financial assistance is a teaching assistantship. Let’s face it: while you’re working on your GAM (Great American Novel), you’re probably going to do some teaching to pay the bills, and the sooner you start racking up experience in front of a classroom, the better.

 
Ramen
All you'll be able to buy
with your stipend.
 

The irony is that it's usually the more expensive schools that offer options other than loans. Cheaper schools don’t often have the resources to provide their grad students with assistantships, so you’re forced to take out loans to go to a school you see as “cheaper,” when you could have gotten a better deal from a more expensive school. Assistantships usually come with tuition remission and a stipend, so not only are you getting teaching experience, but you’re going to school for free and making a small profit. Of course the first thing on your mind is being able to afford your education, but informing yourself on different options can make a huge difference in your possibilities even if cost is your first priority.

2. Lots of people begin their search by looking at rankings, such as the Poets & Writers yearly list (since I first wrote this post, P&W abandoned their famous yearly ranking, in favor a more comprehensive guide; other institutions continue to produce rankings, however, so it’s up to you whom to trust.). True, there is a benefit to going to a prestigious school. People will be impressed, people who might have a role in publishing you and/or employing you. However, at the end of the day, it’s your writing that will make the impression, not where you graduated from, and, if you and that top school aren’t a good fit, all that prestige (and the big bucks that usually go with it) will go to waste. I’m not saying to ignore the issue of reputation; what I’m saying is, not to let it cloud your judgment to such a degree that you pass over a less prestigious school where you might have learned more. Schools have philosophies, and environments, faculty, all sorts of things that influence your success. I discuss what these are in greater detail below, but at this moment my point is this: choose the program that fits your needs first, whether or not it’s “top-ranked.”

3. One of the first of these other-than-prestige factors you should consider is the program’s dominant genre. Most MFA programs offer classes in the three major genres: fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. Though they will claim that each has the same weight, it’s kind of clear that there’s usually one genre that becomes centric, if only for a couple of years. It gets the most students, the best faculty, the “buzz.” Nothing sucks more than being stuck in a program where there’s a poetry reading every week packed to the proverbial rafters with groupies, while you and “the other fiction students” huddle in the back trying to see if anyone would be interested in starting a protest. Get a feel for what the predominant genre might be by looking at the faculty and their publications, and at the classes offered. Which classes usually fill up fastest?

4. Speaking of faculty. It’s incredible how often people overlook taking the faculty under consideration in their choice. Faculty is everything. If your only experience of being a student is a large, impersonal undergraduate course, you have no idea how crucial your relationship to the faculty will be in an MFA program. These people will become your gurus, your Yodas. Failure to “click” with the faculty will kill your MFA experience.

 
Yoda
Be your thesis advisor
I will.
 

First, look for faculty whose writing you want to mimic. I know, I know, you want to be original and all that. Fine. But you are going to school to learn how the faculty writes. What they value, their process, their experience is the sole object of study. No, they probably won’t teach any of their own books. But what they will see in other’s writing, in your writing, is what they see in their own. Pr. A. is famous for her snappy dialogue, for example. In her workshop, you can bet that’s going to take center stage. Sure, you will discuss other elements of writing, like setting and characterization, but you will learn most about snappy dialogue. If you think snappy dialogue is the hallmark of the hack and you would rather die than be known for your snappy dialogue, this relationship is not going to work.

There are genres within genres. If the fiction faculty is dominated by realists and your dream is to write some post-postmodern novel with pages inserted backwards and a chapter in pictograms, you should go to a school where most of the fiction faculty agrees. If you are a lyric poet, don’t go to a school where all the poets are Language poets.

If possible, sit in on a class or at least try to meet the profs to get a feel for their personalities. A professor might be a great writer, but, if meeting him sends shivers down your spine—the wrong kind of shivers—you don’t want to work with him on your thesis, do you? Writing workshops are every much tiny cults of personality. Even when a professor does his best to decenter authority, it just can’t be helped. You should like the professor’s writing, and the professor’s persona. Often, these two are so intimately linked that, if you can’t do a campus visit, you can substitute reading the faculty’s work. Don’t like it? For all that is holy, do not go to that school. Conversely, if there is an author whose work you particularly admire, consider picking the program based on where she teaches. The AWP Official Guide to Writing Programs allows you to search for a program by faculty name (sadly, they got rid of this feature since I wrote this; I recommend you Google either the name of a faculty member you want to work with and find out where they teach, or look at the faculty website of the programs in which you are interested).

5. Which brings me to my next point: consider faculty size. The smaller the faculty, the more classes you will have to take with the same professor, and the more claustrophobic the relationship will be. This can be good if you get a great match—a true mentorship situation. But a small faculty has its drawbacks. No range, for one thing. Even if you pick one or two professors as your mentors, you really want to get a couple more perspectives. If you are considering a small school, do ask if they regularly have visiting professors. Visiting professors may not stay long enough to become mentors, but at least you’ll get a new voice in the choir.

6. Also look at the literature and theory faculty. Lots of people overlook this point, but it’s actually quite important. Most MFA programs—some more than others—require you to take courses outside creative writing in literature, theory, and another language. You are, after all, getting a graduate degree. If the non-creative writing faculty is a real dud, they can quickly make your MFA experience truly miserable. Too often, I hear creative writing students complain about required courses. This seems pretty immature and narcissistic to me—writers should love reading and studying the work of others. Your literature and theory courses should not be some kind of chore you have to put up with to get your MFA. They should be an opportunity to enrich your experience as a reader. Look for a charismatic lit and theory faculty that offers courses you might be interested in taking just as much as your workshops.

7. Also look for quality in the students. One of the advantages of going to a prestigious program is that they are harder to get into, so your chances of being surrounded by other good writers are better. However, it’s no guarantee, and unfortunately it’s difficult to gauge the quality of students without a campus visit in which you can sit in on some classes. Ask about recent grads, and, if possible, read some of their work

A good workshop experience is not solely based on the quality of the students’ writing, however, but on their enthusiasm and critical expertise. The best workshop leader in the world can’t salvage a workshop if the other members are duds. Perhaps the students are self-centered, and shut down when others’ work is being discussed. Perhaps they are such bad writers that they have nothing to contribute as critics.

Look for a lively, active student body. Are there frequent campus readings? What’s the graduation ratio? Is there ... a “vibe”?

8. Speaking of vibes—do look for diversity, especially if you are a woman or a minority. Unfortunately, discrimination exists, and nothing will kill your writing spirit more than having to deal with it. Both the faculty and the students in the program should reflect the diversity level you are comfortable with. Even if there is no blatant prejudice à la V.S. Naipaul, do you really want to be the only woman, the only Latina, or the only anything in the program? You might think it’ll be good preparation for the post-graduation “real world,” but a program in which you are surrounded by diversity can help you to grow as yourself, and not just as some kind of exception to an unstated norm. Fight discrimination later—first, learn to write.

9. A program that has a journal attached can be of invaluable experience to those who wish to go into publishing as well as writing later. If you think you might want to do that, look for a program that offers its grad students opportunities to work on their journal.

10. Finally, consider nontraditional MFA options, like low-residency programs and doctoral programs. The low-residency option is ideal for people who are tied up elsewhere. I don’t think that’s a good idea if you can help it, however. It’s hard for me to believe you can get the same experience long-distance. Part of the joy of grad school is how it isolates you and allows you to hyperfocus on your work while being surrounded by others just as obsessed with this one thing as you are. But it might be better to do a low-residency MFA with a great program somewhere you can’t get to than to settle for a so-so program where you are.

The PhD option is really catching fire. More and more programs now offer it. If you’re torn between two lovers—writing and academia—it’s perfect. Many programs are also now offering a generalized writing MA without the strict purpose of creative writing. If your other lover is journalism, advertising, or some other related field, these might be an interesting compromise.

The ultimate trick, of course, is taking your time. Begin your selection process at least a year before you plan on going, ideally two or even three. As with any degree, you’re not just choosing one program—you should have plenty of backup selections, so you can further select, from among those that actually accept you, the program that offers you the best deal not only in funding, but also in those other things you should consider, like housing and your own personal albatrosses such as family and hatred of snow. And, of course, remember that no decision is ever final. So you messed up. You hate everyone in your program, and they hate you back. Just transfer, baby. It’s an MFA, not a prison sentence!

September 18, 2020 – The Low-Residency MFA; or, How To Earn A Graduate Writing Degree Without Quitting Your Day Job

Three weeks ago, Tara Conrad gave us the low down on the no-residency MFA. This week, JP Goggin gives us a view of a nice middle-of-the-road approach: the low-res MFA. Perhaps the low-res MFA gives us the best of both worlds; Goggin certainly seems to think so. Read on to see what he has to say about this increasingly popular option to the traditional MFA.

JP Goggin

Not long ago, I found myself with a dilemma. Though I wanted more than anything to further hone my skills as a fiction writer, I came to a painful conclusion: I had exhausted all my options. In my quest to be America’s Next Great Fiction Superstar—if you’re going after Moby Dick, you take the tartar sauce, amirite? —no stone had been left unturned. I sought out and learned from professional writing coaches. I scoured the internet for online tools and other resources aimed at improving the quality of my prose. I dedicated countless hours to cracking the code on writing exercises, and spent many evenings scribbling down short stories or novel excerpts—yet no matter how hard I tried, the quality of my work failed to improve significantly. It seemed, in my literary hour of need, that there was a question whether my skills as a writer were developed enough for me to get published, yet the only formal educational track out there—pursuing an MFA—was not an option.

I thought there was absolutely no way—either practically or financially—for me go to school full-time to earn a graduate degree. In the years since I finished my bachelor’s degree, this thing called life happened. I started a professional career track, fell in love with a wonderful girl—who looked upon my writing endeavors with a charitable eye—got hitched, and became a dad to two precocious kids. Throughout it all, on nights and weekends, I kept plugging away on the fiction front, yet, with such a monumental helping of day-to-day life on my plate, I secretly feared that my chances of becoming an established fiction writer were slipping away.

Thus, my dilemma was a difficult one: with a full-time job and family responsibilities, how could I even begin to consider an MFA as an option, if it was impossible for me to attend classes full-time? Then a writer friend suggested I investigate low-residency MFA programs. The rest, as they say, is history.

What Is A Low Residency MFA Program?

To be frank, when I first heard “low-residency MFA” mentioned, I was not impressed. The term sounded in my ears like “MFA Light,” the way the manufacturer of a household cleaner puts New & Improved on their label, but it’s the same product in a smaller bottle. For me, this initial skepticism manifested itself in a reluctance to dig into the details. An MFA of any variety wasn’t in the cards for me, I’d concluded—and to be honest, I was leery about getting my hopes up. Yet my friend persisted, and it didn’t take long for me to realize my first impressions were miles off the mark.

A low-residency MFA program works like this: rather than sitting in class five days a week, students are required to visit campus during residency periods, which for most programs occurs only once or twice a year. For the balance of the semester, each writing student is paired with a mentor. The student works from home, on their own schedule, submitting stories electronically, checking message boards or portals to fulfill assignments, and in some cases participating in online group activities with fellow students via chat or video.

Each residency period typically lasts from a week up to ten days. The purpose of the residency is to bring students together with guest speakers, faculty, and fellow students in a closed setting. Each residency is comprised of workshops, craft, literature, and industry seminars, career and professional development sessions, and administrative and educational meetings with faculty and staff.

Then, during the semester following residency, writers work with their mentors to submit an agreed-upon batch of creative writing each month, in addition to completing critical papers and working on field studies to fulfill other degree requirements. Most programs culminate with a thesis or major project to be delivered during the final semester, where the writer is required to present a selection of their work to the faculty, or to a group of fellow writers.

Needless to say, I was absolutely blown away by the prospect of being able to earn a graduate degree in writing, while keeping my day job. After a lot of late-night Google-fu, I was surprised to discover that there are over fifty distance-based MFA learning programs in the United States and Canada, many highly-respected. These programs support writers who want to pursue a variety of literary genres such as fiction, nonfiction, poetry, screenwriting, writing for young people, and creative non-fiction, including a number of programs that offer a dual-genre degree option for students who want to explore more than one interest.

Why Do Low Residency Programs Work?

If you’re at a point in life where you can dedicate the time and resources toward a full-residency MFA, then more power to you. In some cases, going to school full-time is ideal, and there are plenty of writers out there who need that space in their lives to focus on craft. The low-residency MFA, on the other hand, provides an important option for non-traditional students like myself who face lifestyle or financial challenges that make earning a traditional MFA virtually impossible. For me—as I suspect is true for others—the loss of income from quitting my day job alone put pursuit of a full-time education out of reach.

The low-residency MFA offers flexibility in other areas as well. Apart from time spent at residencies, you create your own schedule and work on your assignments when it suits you. You are free to plan writing practice and homework around the life you already live. It’s also reasonable to conclude that a low-res program prepares you for the true world of writing in a way that a traditional program doesn’t. Rather than being in a closed environment where your only focus is writing, you must learn to juggle your writing responsibilities along with other life activities, such as working full time or raising a family—the same challenges many writers face when they go out into the world after having completed their own graduate degrees.

What To Expect

After doing my due diligence, my first question was: where do I sign up? I was more than excited by this opportunity to fulfill a long-time writing goal. One thing led to another and I was eventually accepted into the low-residency MFA fiction program at Antioch University. I attended my first residency in June, 2019. I was excited. In addition to being one of the top-ranked low-res programs out there, the campus is located in Los Angeles, California. As a pasty white guy from Texas, I looked forward to getting in some beach action, and doing a little sightseeing along the way.

I should have taken a closer look at the residency schedule the staff sent me. There was little time for me to play tourist. Rather, the ten-day residency was chock-full of events that lasted from eight in the morning until well after sunset. Each evening, I returned to my Airbnb exhausted yet abuzz with energy and thrilled to be participating in such an immersive process. I would liken the residencies I’ve participated in to military bootcamp, but in a great way. There’s an intensity that comes from shared goals and cooperative encouragement within a small community that makes each residency a special experience.

At Antioch, I met people from all over the U.S. Most everyone had other life responsibilities like raising families or working day jobs—many unrelated to writing—which made the conversations we shared multi-faceted, full of interesting anecdotes, and conveyed from various, differing points of view. In addition, I was blown away by the superior quality of the mentors and speakers. Still influenced by my MFA Light thinking, I believed that instructors would pass on quality information, but might be second- or third-tier writers themselves, and would certainly not be world-class. I was completely wrong. Mentors, staff, and instructors who led seminars at Antioch have been or are currently at the top of the game in the publishing industry. Simply rubbing shoulders with and attending readings from these kinds of folks, at least for me, made the price of admission well worth it.

During each residency, I requested and was assigned a mentor through a lottery system, and the two of us worked closely together to establish a set of learning and writing goals that I would complete over the course of the subsequent semester. We also created a customized reading list for each month, and I was required to write a short response paper on each work (usually a novel or collection of short stories).

I had learned that one of the biggest benefits to a low-res program is close mentorship—and Antioch is no exception. The faculty to student ratio is extremely low—5:1 or less is the norm for most programs— so despite the lack of time spent in a physical classroom throughout the semester, I received extensive support from mentors and staff as I tackled my own writing projects. Having a variety of mentors critique my fiction has been invaluable. Such close coordination and feedback may not have been possible in a full-residency program, I suspect, since instructors are often required to work simultaneously with a larger group of students.

Many low-residency MFA programs encourage a focus on literary fiction, while others are open to exploring commercial fiction and non-fiction, popular fiction, and even films. At Antioch, my fellow writers presented a wide range of styles, genres, and subject matter—and all were supported and encouraged by the faculty. Based on my research, this openness is common across most programs—though it’s advisable to delve into the details of a specific program to see if it’s right for you.

Will a Low-Res MFA Program help your writing career?

There’s a lot of argument (see https://brevity.wordpress.com/2016/07/11/the-mfa-is-not-a-calling-card-the-low-residency-view/ ) about how and whether an MFA from any program will help open doors in the literary world. In the long run, I think it’s fair to say that most writers, even those with an MFA under their belt, will struggle to make ends meet from their writing alone. Others argue that writers produced by low-res programs are less skilled compared to those produced by full-residency MFA programs. There’s some evidence this is not necessarily true (see https://mastersreview.com/the-low-residency-question/).

In the final analysis, I believe the answer to whether a low-res MFA is right for you can be found in your own goals, and in what you want to accomplish as a writer. There are countless opportunities out there for writers to grow—festivals, conferences, writer residencies, community workshops, and continuing education courses, to name a few. Yet if you wish to develop and expand your writing habits despite a busy day-to-day life, broaden your exposure to the work of other writers, and receive one-on-one instruction from mentors who are established in the industry, you might consider exploring whether a low-residency MFA program is right for you.

JP Goggin is a lifelong fiction writer currently hard at work on his first novel. In addition to being a retired Naval Aviator and lover of coffee, he often wonders if the hokey-pokey really is what it’s all about. He lives in San Antonio, Texas. Visit his website at jpgoggin.com.

September 11, 2020 – MFA or Not: A Science Fiction Writer's Perspective

“No publisher ever asked me for my educational history, only my bylines,” Scott Coon writes provocatively in his opinion piece on the MFA controversy this week. His observations are sure to rustle the feathers of some MFAers, but, as a genre writer, he brings us a whole new perspective to this question. Genre writing is largely disdained in most MFA programs, unless it is the literary kind that comes from the likes of Ursula Le Guin or Margaret Atwood. Coon’s straightforward approach may help you see the MFA in a whole new light.

Scott Coon

MFA or no MFA. I believe the answer depends on two things: What are your career goals? What are your writing goals?

My career goal has always been to be a writer, regardless of what else I did. It was in high school when I decided that. A lot has happened since then, a lot of plans changed. My original dream was to teach college and write. That would be my life. It never happened. After high school I spent six years in the Army and then another five earning my BA in night classes while working as a programmer. In college I saw the reality of being professors unfold in front of me. That plus the cost and time of getting an MFA or PhD made me reconsider the teaching plan.

So, I remain a programmer. For me, an MFA would have done nothing to advance my career. If you see an MFA as a way to advance your career as a writer or educator, before you invest the time, do some research and make sure you will get what you want out of it. My research tells me that for most careers, especially in writing, the MFA is unnecessary. No publisher ever asked me for my educational history, only my bylines.

As for the writing education an MFA would offer, most programs focus on literary fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. I am a genre fiction writer, but I have read many classics, science fiction and literary. An MFA would deepen my understanding of these works. However, delving into the classics can work against a writer trying to engage a modern audience. Story structure and content has changed and continues to change.

While an MFA will instill a depth of knowledge, will it teach you modern rules like the many meanings and methods of show, don't tell? That alone is a complex issue. The classics are often a bad example for a modern writer, on this and other details. By today's standards the classics fail on many fronts: information dumps, use of dialogue tags, setting a scene, tired tropes, and head hopping, just to name a few. Before I succeeded in placing my first short story, I had to stop reading the classics and start reading modern popular fiction. In the end, I bring elements of both together in my work. So, while Lost Helix is marketed as a YA sci-fi adventure mystery, it is also a story of corporate feudalism, corrupt government, indentured labor, and a family torn apart by it all.

If your goal is to teach or to write literature, creative non-fiction, or poetry, then an MFA might be for you. But if you want to engage a modern audience with your novel, an MFA could actually work against you, requiring additional study to learn how story telling has changed. The classics are wonderful, but they are not modern.

Scott Coon is an award-winning short story writer and former U.S. Army Intelligence Analyst. He served six years, rising to the rank of Sergeant. His service included a tour in Kuwait where he received a First Army Combat Patch and the Joint Service Achievement Award. Now a software developer for a major bank, Coon brings his computer and military experience into his work, along with a sense of spectacle.

His debut novel, Lost Helix, a sci-fi adventure/mystery, is available now. Scott's first published story, “Firewall,” appeared in Nth Degree Magazine in 2006. His short "Enduring Winter" was a finalist in the Writers of the Future Awards, won Second Place in the New England SciFi Writers Assn Contest 2016, and was published in Bewildering Stories, Issue 849, March 2020.

Coon shares his knowledge of writing with others and helps other creative people do the same. He hosts the Writers of Sherman Oaks Critique Group meetings and National Novel Writing Month write-in events. His YouTube channel and websites provide insights into his work and give advice to writers. His Little Creative Interview series helps to foster learning in the creative community. See his website , www.LostHelix.com, for more information and links to his papers on writing and YouTube channel.

September 4, 2020 – Don’t Judge a Student by Their Qualifications

Sometimes a question is difficult to answer because two opposite answers are true. This week, C. J. Appleby gives us a thorough rundown of both sides of the MFA (MA in the British system), concluding that whether or not an MFA is a good idea is really a matter of personal choice.

C.J.Appleby

It may seem a paradoxical title, but I stand by it. We are all students in the lesson of life. Writers are no exception. Ray Bradbury received no formal higher education and yet he is a revered author who self-taught (I apply this term loosely) through accessing library services regularly.

As a serial academic who has been in the education system, practically without gaps, I know many of my colleagues would guess my stance on this hot topic. It might surprise them to learn I believe this question to be entirely subjective.

Both from my perspective as a teacher and a student, I’ve experienced a variety of learning styles and teaching approaches. No two people are the same. To get the best result from their education, students must actively engage with resources that complement their learning preferences. A common problem is struggling under pressure, for example exam conditions, which can be combatted through qualifications that use coursework assessments or vocational training programmes and apprenticeships. This is more difficult for writers but could be achieved through internships or voluntary work experience with publishing houses.

I’d like to begin by stating all university courses for creative writing are different. No two have the same curriculum or modules. They may have similar themes surrounding form (poetry, playwriting, and prose), publishing and genres (experimental, historical, autobiographical) but the materials and approach used can be drastically different between institutions. There’s normally the option to study English literature and creative writing for those looking for a more stereotypically academic qualification than creative writing alone.

My first degree I studied at the University of Gloucestershire in Cheltenham. I chose this course because I loved creative writing. After visiting multiple universities such as Sheffield Hallam, Greenwich, and Northampton, I chose the UoG campus due to the passion their lecturers had for their subjects.

Although I chose the academic route for very personality specific reasons—a thirst for knowledge, fear of the adult-working-world, desire to escape to a new place, a hatred for exams—it coincidentally provided the best environment for my type of learning: a place to nurture myself into the writer I wanted to be.

Unlike many undergraduate students, I chose to live outside university grounds in my first year and moved into a shared house with mature students: graduate, a post-graduate, and a final-year student. Why? Purely to move my pets to university with me. Halls have strict rules.

The course itself was the structural factor in improving my literary skills. I was already an avid reader (and any aspiring writers out there who don’t read a lot will need to start if they’re to hone their skills) but I lacked the vision, confidence, and guidance to achieve the goal. My tutors were published authors, relatively small-time fiction writers but royalty-paid nonetheless. In fact, Canadian author Tyler Keevil is a writer I have on my own bookshelf still to this day, he inspired me so much. My other tutor, Martin Randall, specialised in 9/11 fiction, which influenced me heavily when trying out historical prose. D.D. Johnston is another lecturer who holds a firm place on my reading list; after reading his PhD work (now published as Peace, Love and Petrol Bombs, a novel). I felt able to experiment in other areas of writing outside of my favoured specialty of speculative genre fiction.

What I’m trying to present is the importance of a support network. This could be course tutors, peers, local writing groups, workshops, study meets, relatives, friends, published authors, professional contacts in publishing, online writing communities, or any person/group you find beneficial when challenging yourself and your writing abilities.

Without university, it would have been a longer, more painful journey to construct a regular writing routine. In secondary school, I wrote as much as I could and read whenever the opportunity arose. Mostly outside of school or during lunches. At college, I had worked 20-hour weeks and attended education full-time. My weekends were spent studying more than writing. fuelled by a generation of secondary school teachers pushing myths to the GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) students: good universities won’t accept you if you don’t get A’s in science, math, and English; you can’t get a decent job without a university degree; without good grades you will get nowhere in life.

I’m lucky I am a natural academic. Many of my peers struggled with rigid teaching environments and inflexible strategies, where schools judged students as another statistic regarding their achievement.

This isn’t limited to writers. My parents are healthcare professionals; both learned their careers on the job. As a nurse, my mother studied in a hospital on the ward. My father, now a paramedic officer, began training in a hospital and moved to being a technician in the ambulance service. A degree is not essential to learning. It is merely an expensive demonstration to prove capability, knowledge, and understanding.

Primarily the university workshops and seminars were the leading environments that impacted my learning, the shape of my writing, and taught me the hardest lesson of all: how to accept criticism and rejection.

Not everyone is going to like your work. Taste is unique. If you’re a new writer, it’s likely that you are making novice mistakes, but also it could be the first time you’ve shown another person your work. Our stories, poems, and plays are like ugly babies. We are so proud of these creations we’ve made all by ourselves that it hurts when people point out their flaws. Shrinking away from this constructive criticism is easier if you don’t attend workshops, peer review, and other forms of collaborative editorial sessions offered by universities. They are a compulsory part of the qualification and often provide the best insights on your work. This reflective skill builds our thick skin and our ability to edit our own work to a higher quality than before.

Without a well-formed workshop group, my sensitivity to feedback would likely still cause me frustration. To this day, I remember the discomfort I felt when my tutor pointed out my overuse of colour descriptions. He circled every colour named on the page and asked if it was necessary for the reader to know the specific shade of every object in the setting. At the time, I felt firmly that I was right. Of course, now I see that not one reader gives a hoot about how mustard yellow the wallpaper is unless it is relevant to the plot, character, or action.

The university route also offered opportunities to showcase work in university funded anthologies where students could gain experience in publishing and editorial work by managing the monthly creative writing magazine and the annual anthology of work. Without these student-led projects, four of my pieces (poems and short-stories) would not have been published at all.

There were many extracurricular bonuses like this. I read at an art gallery exhibition for feminist works, as well as at a launch party in front of 200 people, ran an online student magazine, and worked as a student journalist for an environment SU website, all experiences I would have missed without my time in university. On the other hand, you could alternatively gain similar work experience vocationally by contacting local newspapers, magazines, media organisations, and other companies. I worked for a small print magazine, PCIAW, as an editor prior to joining the education sector.

I chose to do the MA following my undergraduate experience for similar reasons. It motivated me to continue working on projects such as novel manuscripts I possibly could have lost passion for without the access to resources that further education provides. The course I am on is available online, so I no longer attend face-to-face lectures, which is rather unique for a postgraduate.

I didn’t choose Teesside University for the same glamorous reasons I chose my first university. They offered a 10% discount to anyone with a 1st class BA degree, and offered the course on a part-time basis and on an online distance platform. Secondary to this, the modules looked relevant to me. This meant I could borrow the maximum loan offered to cover my tuition (since my undergraduate degree wiped me out financially in terms of student loans, why not borrow more? But don’t get me started on that taboo topic) and learning materials while continuing to work full-time and supporting myself. I am lucky the staff who run the course are knowledgeable and that the course has run smoothly despite the recent global crisis.

Admittedly, studying a postgraduate qualification does make you look appealing to potential employers. Often post-interview I hear comments regarding how impressive my educational background is, but only because it is combined with a mass of work experience, volunteering, and extra-curricular activities.

The course itself has inspired and motivated me to finish the full first draft of a speculative novel I’ve been thinking about for a decade. I now have a flat plan to expand this into a small sub-series to be a large speculative fiction series set in an alternate world that will consider communities on a micro level for individual storylines. I’ve even begun designing book covers and collaborating with artists for potential illustrations.

It builds my confidence up by miles. By receiving the positive feedback from my peers and tutors on forums or workshop (done via Google docs sharing), it helps boost my productivity further. Without this, often the feedback writers receive is a rejection slip or automated e-mail after we subject work, which can leave us disheartened.

At the end of the day, you will know in your heart if university is the way to go. You know yourself best. If you struggle to motivate or inspire yourself, being in a social learning environment whether virtually or face-to-face could encourage you to succeed. From another viewpoint, if a social learning environment distracts you, causes anxiety or feelings of negativity, a vocational route could be more beneficial. The clue is in the little feeling inside when you weigh the options.

Appleby Ink

C.J. Appleby is a teaching assistant, freelance writer, and mental health advocate. Appleby left the University of Gloucestershire with a 1st class BA creative writing degree with honours in 2017. Since then she has worked as an editor for a print magazine and now as a teaching assistant before studying for qualified teacher's status. She has both short-stories and poetry published in the New Writing anthology series while she finalises her first novel. Currently, she studies creative writing at Teesside University toward achieving a distinction MA with honours and runs mental health peer support groups through her own community enterprise, Lighter-Minds.

August 28, 2020 – The No-Residency Option

Many people are curious about low- or no-residency MFA programs. Do they offer a viable alternative to the traditional on-campus experience? In this week’s post SNHU student Tara Conrad gives us a good picture of what it’s like to get your MFA completely online.

Tara Conrad

I am an online MFA student at Southern New Hampshire University. Having been accepted to several other MFA programs, I chose SNHU primarily because of the class offerings covering the business side of a career in writing. The other selling factor was the no residency requirements, a positive for someone unable to attend in person.

The program offers two tracks, either earning a Graduate Certificate in Professional Writing or a Graduate Certificate in Online Teaching of Writing. I have chosen the Professional Writing track. Having taken this path, I have been able to take such courses as Digital Storytelling and Brand, The Business of Writing, Copy and Content Writing, The Publishing Ecosystem, and Editing and Coaching. These classes have provided me with the skills to build my writing business. I now possess the tools to pursue not only novel writing, but also freelance writing and editing.

The faculty for the online MFA program represents an eclectic group of accomplished authors. Having input from authors of different genres has benefited my work because each one is looking at it from a different angle, helping me develop more depth in my writing.

Despite the program being in a virtual environment, I don’t feel that I, as a student, have lacked in instruction. Most of the professors are active and engaging in the weekly discussion posts. The professors I’ve had experience with have made themselves readily available through email, telephone, and Skype. I’ve had the opportunity to attend one-on-one instruction with my professors, which has only strengthened my experiences in the program. Each professor is dedicated to the program and its students. As long as the student is willing to put the time and effort in, the professors ensure each student has the opportunity to learn as many skills and lessons as they can.

Instead of a residency, asynchronous workshops are part of the class structure. Each workshop has an assignment that is uploaded and is to be read and reviewed by classmates and professors. The workshop process is the one area where I have experienced disappointment—the workshop only being helpful if your classmates are active. Often the peer reviews focus on topic choice instead of mechanical or clarity issues. However, while that is a drawback, the detailed feedback from the professors compensates for that shortcoming.

Now that I’m in the final phases of the program, the focus is on writing my novel and preparing it for publishing. I am in the first of a series of three thesis classes. Each class adds to the word count of my novel while receiving in-depth feedback from the professor. The culmination of the program will result in a completed 50-80,000 word novel as well as a packet to begin the process of getting my book published.

SNHU’s online MFA is a challenging program requiring the student to possess a genuine commitment to writing. In exchange, the student can expect to receive quality instruction and constructive feedback which will help them grow as a writer. Overall, my experience in this program has been positive, and I would recommend SNHU to anyone looking for an online MFA.

T.L. (Tara) Conrad lives in Pennsylvania. She’s mom to four adult children who make her insanely proud. She married her high school sweetheart and is living her happily ever after. Knowing her love of reading and writing, her husband encouraged the pursuit of her MFA. He is her biggest supporter in all of her writing pursuits. Tara writes about her experience with adoption and homeschooling. She is also planning to release a children’s book, co-written with her husband, in the near future. Visit her website www.tlconradauthor.com and her Facebook page to keep up with her latest news and releases.

August 21, 2020 – The Wandering Way

In this week’s post, writer Sandhya Anand reveals how hardship and tragedy moved her to write, despite having to work in different fields in order to make a living. I wish to thank Sandhya for her candor in sharing her story with us.

Sandhya Anand

Mine was a journey from a little girl's dream of becoming an evolutionary bio scientist to taking up a job as an auditor in a government setup due to financial constraints. (My dad passed away when I was 15 and it was tough for my mom to cater to my doctoral studies.)

For six years, while on the job, I continued to cling on to my dreams and ended up in the clinical research industry, but as a database QC due to my lack of knowledge in the latest wet lab research equipment.

Life took a turn when my hectic schedule and travel resulted in my child's death three days after she was born. Hope overcame depression, and I took a guest faculty position so as to have more time for my kids later.

My husband got a transfer to his hometown, and I had to choose again, career or family. I chose the latter and moved over to be a homemaker and started freelance writing. I started with publishing scientific writing but never had the guts to make my poetry public.

I moved back again to my hometown to take care of my mom, who had heart ailments, but she too left me two years back. Meanwhile, I learnt to write Tamil too and joined a peer group at a local club. We had our monthly meetings and small publications in which my writing found a place. I never thought I could write, but it was the words and ideas which found me, and often I would wake up from sleep and write a rough draft.

I had met with five accidents in the past, only one so severe which needed two plastic surgery sessions to rebuild my nose bone.

Tragedies apart, I find a fulfilling life with two happy kids and the memories of the positive people I met during my work times. Some of them are still in touch. I do a little bit of awareness campaigning against child abuse (I was a victim myself shortly after my father's death) and cyber safety.

Living through three major south Indian states with different cultures, languages, and people, I got to acquire different languages. Still, I crave to learn more since they open up the philosophy and culture too.

I am a bit introverted, especially after the accident, but I have begun to like writing. It is a way of life for me and I found no degrees could teach you how, but experiences can. An MFA may certainly help you to refine the language or get to know the market, but it is never essential. It just straightens your path. But I really prefer wandering.

Sandhya Anand is a 40-year-old freelance writer, a mom of two happy kids, a volunteer for cyber safety campaigns, and a strong advocate for children's rights. Having faced many trials in life, she learnt to rejuvenate herself from the greatest artist, nature. Career-wise she had a journey from science to accounting, then to clinical research, and finally to poetry and literature. She loves to learn many languages and, so far, has been able to master five (and is currently learning two more). Her Tamil poems have found a place in an anthology, Makarantham. Although she could present a few works in English and Malayalam at local literary gatherings, she has yet to publish one. She is currently working on multilingual fiction.

August 14, 2020 – The Do’s and Don’ts of the MFA Controversy

In this week’s post, Ann E. Michael returns to simplify the issue we started discussing last week, i.e., whether or not getting an MFA is a good idea. Here’s how she puts the question:

Ann E. Michael

Ha! Yes or no? As usual I am all complexities and qualifiers.

No, if you think it will get you a job. Sometimes it's useful for getting a job, but if that is the main reason do not spend the moolah. It certainly assisted me in getting a job, but that was many years ago when the degree was not as prevalent; and also I did not get a job "in my field." However having a master's degree—any master's degree—did give my CV a boost.

No, if you are not a self-starter. If you're seeking motivation, don't go for an MFA. If you just want to learn how to get your work published, don't get an MFA. If you're at all lazy, don't start the process.

Yes, if you feel you need the next scaffold or boost to get your work not more polished but more crucial, more relevant--and you have to find the right fit for that to occur (a bit of a crapshoot). Yes if you are ready to hear genuine, intelligent, highly informed critique of your work and ready to transform the work you are doing.

Yes, if you feel ready to devote yourself to the study of your art and to widen your network of contacts and to introduce yourself to creative works you were unaware of before; and if you are careful about where you apply so that you find a collegial community of generous but analytical critique and, most of all, instructor/mentors who require you to read and think rigorously about what you are reading, and to respond to it. Yes if you want to find friends who really "get it" and some of whom will become lifetime readers of your work (as you will generously become a lifetime reader of theirs).

And you need to have the means. The money and the time, both. If you have a 45 hour week job and two teenagers and a small apartment--getting the most from an MFA program is going to be amazingly difficult to achieve. Not to say you can't! (I know some who have!) But do take your current life into account. And then shop programs carefully, as they differ a great deal. Don't just go looking for "big names" on the faculty. That won't help you to succeed. Look at the requirements, the flexibility, the method, the residency, etc. And seek out alums to speak to for feedback.

I got a lot out of my two years of low-res MFA study, and it has served me well. But don't take my word for it. Do your research and think long and carefully about what it is you want your takeaway to be.

Ann E. Michael is the author of 6 chapbooks—the most recent (2020) being Barefoot Girls—and two full-length collections, Water-Rites (Brick Road Poetry Press) and, forthcoming (2021), The Red Queen Hypothesis (Salmon Poetry). Her poems and essays have appeared widely in print and online.

Her books can be found on the books page of her blog, and through Prolific Press, Brick Road Poetry Press, FootHills Publishing, and Finishing Line Press.

She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College and has been running the writing center at DeSales University in Center Valley, PA for 12 years.

August 7, 2020 – To Get or Not to Get: The MFA Controversy

 
Baby With Glasses

Because I am friends with many writers and editors, a while ago I asked an intentionally provocative question on Facebook: What would you say to someone who is wondering whether to get an MFA?

The funniest and most repeated answer was the single word: “Don’t.” But wait a minute, you might ask, isn’t any kind of education always valuable? Many people who responded brought up that point, but it does depend on what you mean by the word valuable. The MFA in creative writing is the ultimate litmus test for one of the most controversial issues American education faces: What is the purpose of an education? In what I hope will become a series of posts, we’d like to explore this question in terms of the MFA.

The problem with the MFA is that, much like the proverbial course in basket weaving, it doesn’t offer much in terms of economic security, which is one of the top reasons people go to school. You don’t get handed a diploma at the end of the MFA that you then take to a writing business where you get paid to write (well, you do get a paper, but it doesn’t work that way). You could be a copy editor, but that’s not a goal I’ve ever heard anybody express in an MFA program. You could venture into journalism, but that is really another field and you could have studied that instead. Besides, most people who sign up for an MFA want to be writers, not journalists. And then there is the most popular track: parlaying your MFA into a teaching career, hopefully at the graduate level. The problem with that is a) many people would rather die than teach; and b) the teaching market, at all levels, is . . . a disaster. From the inability to find a job to getting paid miserable wages if you do, the teaching option is not the easy transition innocent MFAers might think it is.

Shelves With PostIts

So, you might ask, why does the blasted degree even exist? Because you learn. If you’re in a good program, especially, you learn from the best—not just the best professors, but also the other students, who have been selected by experts in the field as worthy. The workshop model preferred in the teaching of creative writing is a cornucopia of possibilities for growth as a writer. You learn what works, what doesn’t. You see your work in the eyes of others in a safe, supportive space, or, what the hell, in a cutthroat, competitive one. Either way, you learn, and hone, and cut, and rearrange and—become a writer.

The naysayers will say things like “you don’t need to learn how to write.” The assumption here is that writing is a talent, and you either have it or you don’t.This is the weakest of the arguments against the MFA. Yes, there is such a thing as innate talent, but every art is the combination of two things: talent and craft. You may or may not be born with talent, but craft you must learn, usually from the Jedi masters who went before you. No one laughs at the nascent chef who wants to go to cooking school or the musician who wants to learn how to read music. These artists are encouraged to study. Not sure why the writer is so strongly believed to be a product of self-teaching.

Which brings me to the next popular argument: you can create a workshop of your own, gratis. This is possible, but it is, IMHO, much more possible that you will wind up gathering a group of untrained readers and writers whose discernment is not capable of pushing you forward. I’ll never forget a girl I had in a creative writing class many years ago who introduced herself as “a famous writer.” Why? Because she wrote super-popular Harry Potter fanfiction on a website, and she had millions of likes.

This was true. I checked.

However, she had no craft at all, and if there was talent there I could not reach it through the layers of self-importance that she had coated herself with, all based on the likes she had gotten from this fanfiction page. She also said, “I’m very well read. I’ve read all the Harry Potter books.” I don’t think I need to analyze this memory any further to make my point. Besides, where’s the variety? The gurus? If you form your own makeshift MFA, you are likely to do so with like-minded readers/writers. In a structured MFA, you are pushed to encounter new ways of reading and writing constantly, and your guides aren’t people who are learning to write just like you, but people who have the acclaim of their peers. I took a class with Maxine Freaking Kumin, for heaven’s sake. What writers’ group can reproduce that?

Which brings me to the final point I want to make in this post: connections. Publishing is about connections, and you can make those in an MFA program. So there it is. An eternal conundrum. In next week’s post, Ann E. Michael is coming back to give her two cents on this topic, and I hope to find a few more experienced writers who would want to chime in for you.

Celia Alvarez, Prospectus Editor

July 31, 2020 – How to Get into Prospectus

 
Celia Alvarez
Celia Alvarez, Prospectus Editor
 

Over the last month, we’ve been hearing from editors of some pretty prestigious journals and anthologies about what does/does not impress them in a submission. So many times, as James Engelhardt points out, journals use words like “new” or “fresh” that writers can interpret in so many ways that they become useless. Our own website says, “We are looking for poetry that shows a sense of craft—content and form working together to bring thoughtful meaning to the poem.” But what does that mean? What kind of content? What is “thoughtful meaning”? Well, in this week’s post I’m going to try to answer the same two questions I posed our guest bloggers—What makes you accept a submission almost immediately? and What makes you give it the thumbs down just as fast?—in an attempt to demystify our own selection process. I am the editor, so I can do anything I want. Therefore I will answer the two questions I posed our guest bloggers together, since they are two halves of the same coin.

I think acceptances out much harder than rejections, so I don’t have “immediate” responses. However, there are a couple of weird things that get me excited. The first is the weirdest: what you have named your submission file. On our website, we stipulate that we would like you to title your file lastnamefirstname.pdf. If you have anything but that, I’m already on alert. Why? It means you haven’t read our submission guidelines carefully, which increases the chances that you are not sending us what we want.

My second quirky reaction has to do with titles. If your title is an abstract concept like “Love” or “Courage” or some kind of cliché like “Facing the Enemy” or “Climbing the Mountain,” then all hope is lost. On the other hand, if you have a peculiar title like “The Day I Tripped on a Chicken” or “My Mother on the Phone,” I get excited. It means you’re about to say something unusual.

There is one thing that is really hard for me to get past. I’ll read your poem anyway, because that’s my job, but when I see a poem all in centered lines I cringe. I’ve yet to find one that works. It shows that the poet has no idea about lineation—how to use the line to create rhythm and meaning. Same thing goes with rhyming. You have to be very, very good at poetry to write well in rhyme. Usually, rhyme is the lazy poet’s crutch. It rhymes, therefore it is poetry. No. Not now, not ever.

In terms of prose, if the story begins with a summary, or that dreaded thought, “The day began just like any other,” I’m on guard. A story told in summary is boring. It lacks immediacy. A story told from the beginning of the day to the end shows that you have no notion of plotting or building tension. You began at the beginning thoughtlessly, not by choice. On the other hand, if you begin in medias res, I get excited. You may know what you’re doing. Another hallmark of bad prose is too much dialogue. If your story reads like a script, it shows that you lack knowledge of the value of setting and characterization, that your story is thin. It can be done—a good story that’s mostly dialogue, but anything can be done if you are a good enough writer.

And then there’s content, or the lack thereof. I’m not saying you can’t write about love. I’m just saying that 99% of the poems or stories about love are really, really bad. They get better if it’s not romantic love, but still. They tend to be writing about feelings felt only by the writer. Nature is another big pitfall. A beautiful poem about crocuses or something, but it goes nowhere. It does not move beyond description to meaning. All writing must get at something—some revelation, and not an obvious one like “love conquers all” or “I will survive no matter what.” It has to be a revelation pertinent to the content of the piece, not some universal cliché about strength against adversity or something. I loooove a good last line, one that suddenly brings it all together and punches you—TKO! One of my favorite poems to teach and just in general is Anne Sexton’s “The Farmer’s Wife” (google it), which ends with the line “better, my lover, dead.” It’s not a love poem; it’s more like a hate poem. But it doesn’t read like one—it’s full of vivid, meaningful imagery that builds and builds to that last line. Always end on a wow. Otherwise, you haven’t ended, you’ve just stopped.

Finally, there’s language. I agree with Joanne Merriam that florid language is a killer. If you say crimson luminescence instead of red, you’re probably not thinking about your piece. You’re just trying to impress someone with your vocabulary. I like straightforward language that gets to the point as precisely as possible. If I notice the language, I want it to be because it’s wonderful wordplay or perfectly metered, not because it is a word I haven’t heard since the nineteenth century (not that I was there—you know what I mean).

So there you have it: how to impress/not impress us. How to get into Prospectus. We publish only new writers, but that doesn’t mean we publish writers who have not matured into good writers yet. We want the ones whose work is good and ready, just not getting a chance in a journal shoulder-to-shoulder with Billy Collins and Rita Dove. We want to help you fill out that glorious sentence, “My work has been published in ________.” Hopefully, that will help get you in the door at other places. That is our mission: to be your ticket in.

Celia Alvarez, Prospectus Editor

July 24, 2020 – Gorgeous but Not Florid

I had the pleasure of being in a collection edited by this week’s guest blogger, Joanne Merriam: How to Live on Other Planets. What struck me about the book was Merriam’s sensitivity toward accurate representation, something she discusses below. It might not be something foremost on a writer’s mind, but, especially today, writing must be an act of sensitivity toward others. No matter how “gorgeous” your writing may be, you are not accurately representing the world (real or imagined) if you are not writing the truth about people of all races, ethnicities, religions, classes, or sexual status.

Joanne Merriam

What makes you accept a submission almost immediately?

I look for a combination of a great opening line that makes me really interested, gorgeous (but not florid) writing, and a plot that I haven't seen before. I want a story that makes me say "wow" at some point!

What makes you give it the thumbs down just as fast?

Bad writing, of course, which might take the form of female characters or characters of color who exist only to support a male or white protagonist and have no agency or agenda of their own, or might take the form of clumsy dialogue or unbelievable world-building. Any story that makes me think the author was simply writing a revenge plot to punish one of their exes. Any story that opens with the protagonist cataloging their features in a mirror. Any story that ends with the revelation that it was all a dream. Any story that casts people of some political group as insanely and fundamentally evil and stupid. Any story which describes violence in excruciating detail.

Joanne Merriam owns and runs Upper Rubber Boot Books, publisher of Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk & Eco-Speculation (Phoebe Wagner and Brontë Wieland, eds.) and Sharp & Sugar Tooth: Women Up To No Good (Octavia Cade, ed.). She is the editor of Broad Knowledge and How to Live on Other Planets. She was born in Nova Scotia and now resides in Nashville, Tennessee. Her poetry and fiction has appeared in dozens of magazines and journals, including Asimov's Science Fiction, Pank, and Strange Horizons.

July 17, 2020 – Demystifying “New and Fresh”: Pushing, Rambling, and Tightening

In this week’s glimpse into the mind of an editor, James Engelhardt, whom I first encountered as the managing editor of that Shangri-La of journals we call Prairie Schooner, finally tells us what those two favorite words of editors—“new” and “fresh”—really mean:

James Engelhardt

What makes you accept a submission almost immediately?

Your questions remind me that editors are always saying that we’re looking for something “new” or “fresh,” and that sort of response is always frustratingly vague. But I feel like I must admit that I’m also looking for those things. Let me see if I can open it up a bit. I want to be reminded of something that I’ve forgotten. I want to be drawn into a chapter of human experience that is not my own. I want the language to work against its constraints without pushing me out.

What makes you give it the thumbs down just as fast?

There are two basic responses to this question. First, if a piece just doesn’t have the technical part down. Typos happen—of course! But the writing skills need to be strong. I can mostly recognize when an author is pushing against convention in a compelling way, and I find that work quite interesting. The second quick thumbs down happens when a piece hasn’t found its center. The poem rambles. The short fiction has extraneous scenes. The nonfiction rambles off somewhere. It’s the kind of tightening that can be hard to do, but it’s a crucial step for making a piece become the best version of itself.

James Engelhardt’s poems have appeared in the North American Review, Hawk and Handsaw, Terrain.org, Painted Bride Quarterly, Fourth River and many others. His ecopoetry manifesto is “The Language Habitat,” and his first book, Bone Willow, is available from Boreal Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press. He has been the managing editor at Prairie Schooner and an acquisitions editor at the University of Alaska Press and the University of Illinois Press.

July 10, 2020 – Dressed up As a Poem

In this week’s blog post, writer and editor Vasiliki Katsarou helps us understand the difference between a real poem (the one that gets accepted) and one that’s just “dressed up” as one (the rejected).

What makes you accept a submission almost immediately?

As an editor, I'm most drawn to image-driven work that is concise, suggestive and timeless. Like a stone thrown into water, poems that ripple and resonate are what I'm looking for— Bachelard's image that "touches the depths before it stirs the surface." I'm also partial to poems that engage with other arts. And since my publishing partner and I have both lived and worked overseas, we look for poetry that reaches beyond the borders of the academy and the Anglo-American world.

What makes you give it the thumbs down just as fast?

What turns me off are prolix poems, and any poem with an easily discernible agenda. Hackneyed language dressed up as poetry is a pet peeve.

Vasiliki Katsarou

Born and raised in Massachusetts to Greek-born parents, Vasiliki Katsarou was educated at Harvard College, the University of Paris I (Sorbonne) and Boston University. In 2014, she read her poems at the Dodge Poetry Festival and served as a Geraldine R. Dodge Poet in the Schools in New Jersey. Her poetry has been published widely and internationally, including in NOON: Journal of the Short Poem (Japan), Corbel Stone Press' Contemporary Poetry Series (U.K.), Regime Journal (Australia), Mediterranean Poetry (Denmark) as well as in Poetry Daily, Otoliths, Tiferet, Wild River Review, wicked alice, Literary Mama, and La Vague Journal.

Living midway between New York City and Philadelphia, Vasiliki directs a long-running yearly chapbook critique workshop, and monthly poetry workshop group, at Hunterdon Art Museum in Clinton, New Jersey. She's the editor of two Ragged Sky Press anthologies: Eating Her Wedding Dress: A Collection of Clothing Poems; and Dark as a Hazel Eye: Coffee & Chocolate Poems. She also edited the full-length collection Miss Plastique, by poet Lynn Levin. Earlier in her career, she helped edit the translation of Julia Kristeva's Time and Sense: Proust and the Experience of Literature (Columbia UP), as well as essays in Andrei Tarkovsky: Interviews (UP of Mississippi).

Her full-length collection Memento Tsunami was published in 2011. A poetry chapbook, Three Sea Stones, was published in 2020 in a limited edition by Lucia Press, an artist book press in Hunterdon County, New Jersey. Her new publishing venture, Solitude Hill Press, launching in late 2020, will publish an ongoing series of poetry & visual-art inflected books. For inquiries about Three Sea Stones or future projects by Solitude Hill Press, please write to books@solitudehill.com .

Three of her poems are discussed in a podcast at Painted Bride Quarterly.

July 3, 2020 – Busting Past the Acceptance Threshold

Giving a break to the “My First Time” series to introduce what I hope will become another useful series—how to grab and hold an editor’s attention all the way to an acceptance, or how not to mess up from the first word! I asked some editors I know two simple questions: 1) What makes you accept a submission almost immediately? 2) What makes you give it the thumbs down just as fast?

Lesley Wheeler

Our pal Lesley Wheeler was the first to chime in. She is an editor at Shenandoah, a journal that has been in print since 1949 and is considered one of the top 50 in the US (according to Every Writer). They have published such luminaries as W. H. Auden, Ezra Pound, William Faulkner, E. E. Cummings, and Flannery O'Connor, and, more recently, Joyce Carol Oates and Rita Dove. Here is what she had to say:

What makes you accept a submission almost immediately?

I consult with Editor-in-Chief Beth Staples on every accepted poem, so we only move fast when we both are instantly wowed. For me, the process begins when the first line makes me catch my breath. A great poem has high stakes, never lets your attention wander, and moves unpredictably. That intensity has to be present, too, not only in the ideas or story but in the language and lineation. Not every poem is astonishing in exactly this way—some sneak up on you—but the electric jolt of certain first encounters is memorable. Learning that has raised the bar for me as a writer. I now see how very many very good submissions Shenandoah receives and what power it takes to bust past the acceptance threshold. It’s rare for any of us.

What makes you give it the thumbs down just as fast?

A slur or a comment that disparages or stereotypes a group of people will make me stop reading. Insulting cover letters are a bad move (you’d be surprised!), as are multiple submissions in the same period. Slower crashes mostly come from pile-ups of cliché and abstraction. Line-breaks that seem senseless have nixed poems, too. Little refinements happen in the editorial process, but the author’s structural choices have to show intelligence about the options.

Lesley Wheeler has served as is Poetry Editor of Shenandoah since 2018. Her new books are The State She’s In, her fifth poetry collection, and Unbecoming, her first novel; her essay collection Poetry’s Possible Worlds will appear from Tinderbox Editions in 2021. Wheeler’s poems and essays appear in such journals as The Common, Crab Orchard Review, Poetry, Ecotone, and Massachusetts Review. She lives in Lexington, Virginia.

June 26, 2020 – My First Time: Geoffrey Philp

Geoffrey Philp is the kind of poet who can stun you with a great poem or story out of anything. He is the traditional storyteller, mesmerizer, and overall cool guy. In this week’s post, he writes about his first inspiration.

Geoffrey Philp

Of course, I was in love with the girl-next-door, who was named after the wife of Ulysses in The Odyssey, which should've alerted my teenage mind that I was going to spend the rest of my life as an exile, and that my only weapons would be "silence, exile, and cunning."

Still a high school student at Jamaica College, my mornings were spent upstairs in Simms Hall, arguing about James Joyce, Albert Camus, and Bob Marley. Then in the afternoons, I'd be playing football and reasoning with some Rastafari brethren, who were well aware of my belief that the world was going to end in 1975.

And that was the main problem. She was a Catholic, and I was a Jehovah's Witness. It would never work out, they said, and they were right. So, I tried to convert her, and when that didn't work, I turned to poetry.

At first, I gave her a copy of Uncle Time, autographed by my literature teacher and mentor, Dennis Scott, which she graciously accepted. "Things are looking up," I said to myself and then tried to write my own poems. They were disasters. Luckily, she was spared from reading my juvenilia because most of them had already been vetted by Dennis, whom I imagined must have been exasperated by my attempts at verse. I don't know where he found the patience to be compassionate, but he continued to encourage me with my writing.

And I continued. I began reading Mervyn Morris, Tony McNeill, and Derek Walcott's Another Life while falling deeper in love. My mother, who was worried that I was falling away from the "truth," arranged a meeting with an elder. After out hour-long session, he told me that I had to break off the relationship with her because we would be "unevenly yoked."

I was a true believer and followed the advice of the elder. I stopped talking with her. She never knew the reason, and I’ve never told her why. I was heartbroken and had decided to give up poetry when Dennis gave our class an essay assignment to visit a museum and to write about our experience, which we had to complete by the following week. As far as I was concerned, my literary career was over, so that night, I burned all the poems in my exercise book that I'd intended to finish but never did. Eighteen-year-olds can be so melodramatic.

The next morning I went to the museum, located in the heart of New Kingston, with a clear conscience. Neither my mind nor my heart would ever be corrupted again by literature or love.

I'd gotten to the museum late, probably because of a bus strike or other some civil unrest, and the doors were about to close. I begged the custodian to let me in because I had to do an assignment, and she took pity on the poor schoolboy. She told me that I had fifteen minutes. I told her I'd be quick.

Wandering around the lobby, I didn't see anything that caught my eye until I entered the main hall where "Eve" by Edna Manley commanded the spotlight. Standing at 198.5 and 86x D60 cm, "Eve" was a remarkable work of art. It was so impressive that the guard, who was now locking up, slapped her buttocks as he was walking by and said, "Big batty gal," and let his hand linger over her mahogany derriere.

I was shocked and intrigued at the same moment. I went home and wrote the essay. But then, something else happened. I started to write a poem, which when I showed it to Dennis, he asked, "When are you going to publish it?"

I was elated that Dennis had finally liked a poem I'd written, and mailed it off to the Sunday Gleaner for publication. But just before I sent it off, I changed the dedication from her name to the more cryptic and Joycean, "To E.M.," meaning Edna Manley.

The poem was published, and the Sunday Gleaner paid me £8. But I couldn't share my joy with anyone. Many of my football friends were not interested in poetry, and for my friends at the Kingdom Hall, it seemed as if I was conforming to the "way of the world."

With the money, I bought Rastaman Vibration by Bob Marley, which three years later, after I'd survived some of the worst times during Jamaica's undeclared civil war, I made sure it was tucked away in the side pocket of my carry-on bag.

After living through the violence, I thought I was only going away from a short time until Jamaica relinquished the title of “the murder capital of the world,” and then, I'd come home. Maybe, one day.

Born in Jamaica, Geoffrey Philp is the author of five books of poetry, two novels, two collections of short stories, and three children’s books. Through DNA testing, Philp recently discovered his Jewish ancestry and his poem, “Flying African,” has been accepted for publication in New Voices: Contemporary Writers Confronting the Holocaust. He is currently working on a collection of poems, “Distant Cousins.”

June 19, 2020 – My First Time: Christine Stewart Nuñez

This week’s contributor to the “My First Time Series” begins with a quadruple beating of rejections and ends with some really wonderful advice on the value of sending out your work to the right venue (you know, like Prospectus!).

Christine Stewart Nuñez

The first time I received four rejection slips in the same day, I felt knocked out in slow motion. As I walked back into my apartment from the mailbox, I slid my finger under the first SASE and pulled out the form letter: “Sorry, but this just wasn’t right for us.” Jab to the cheek. The paper in the second SASE needed unfolding: “Good luck submitting your work elsewhere.” Cross-punch to the other cheek. I sat down at my kitchen table then, already a bit light-headed. Let the third be the lucky one, I thought, but the envelop felt light—too light to include a contract: “We receive hundreds of submissions…” The hook landed on my temple and my ears began to ring. And finally, the fourth—the upper-cut—left me slumped over the table sobbing.

When I came to, I realized that I needed to get back in the ring or risk nursing my wounds for too long. Wasn’t this part of the game, after all? For a decade, I dabbled in martial arts, studying whatever style with the closest dojo to my apartment—Thai boxing, kenpo jujitsu, aikido—resting on my teachers’ efforts to test and promote me through the ranks. I just wanted to learn without the pressure. Shouldn’t writing be the same? I’d made a deeper, longer commitment to poetry than martial arts, but practicing both offered parallels. Just like my sparring partner in the ring, literary magazine editors didn’t punch me because they didn’t like me, they were just there to practice, too, to create a magazine that reflected their tastes and moods on that particular day. The best workouts were the ones where I was matched with a sparring partner similarly skilled but just that much better than me to make me move faster, respond tighter. Sending work out, I thought, should be a process of identifying those partners.

Christine Stewart-Nuñez is the author of Postcard on Parchment (ABZ Press 2008), Keeping Them Alive (WordTech Editions 2010), Untrussed (University of New Mexico Press 2016), and Bluewords Greening (Terrapin Books 2016), winner of the 2018 Whirling Prize. She is a professor in the English Department at South Dakota State University and the South Dakota Poet Laureate. Find her work at ChristineStewartNunez.com.

June 12, 2020 – My First Time: Jeannine Hall Gailey

It’s rare to find a success story like the one poet Jeannine Hall Gailey experiences in this week’s “My First Time.” It’s definitely inspiring to know, however, that such things can happen—maybe even to you!

Jeannine Hall Gailey

I had a curious thing happen when I started sending out in the 2002–2003 poetry season—I had three acceptances, of poems at The Seattle Review, The Beloit Poetry Journal, and Can We Have Our Ball Back (an early web lit mag) and though the acceptances were months apart, all the poems came out at the same time. So it wasn't just a celebration of one poem, but three, in three very different venues with different audiences. It was a really fun way to begin "serious" publishing—I'd had things come out before in student lit mags and community newspapers and such, but these were my first "real" publications. Three years later I would come out with my first book.

Jeannine Hall Gailey served as the second Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington. She's the author of five books of poetry: Becoming the Villainess, She Returns to the Floating World, Unexplained Fevers, The Robot Scientist’s Daughter, and Field Guide to the End of the World, winner of the Moon City Press Book Prize and the SFPA's Elgin Award. She’s also the author of PR for Poets: A Guidebook to Publicity and Marketing. Her work appeared or will appear in journals such as American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, and Poetry. Her web site is www.webbish6.com. Twitter and Instagram: @webbish6.

June 5, 2020 – My First Time: Jen Karetnick

This week’s “my first time” from poet Jen Karetnick is a sweet recollection of innocence and inexperience, and offers us a look at what the process of getting published was like before the internet (just the acronym SASE—brrrr!). Most importantly, however, Karetnick offers us a valuable lesson: the work of getting published is a) work and b) all up to you. Even so, as she puts it, you should “always celebrate.”

Jen Karetnick
Photo courtesy of Zoe Cross

Always Celebrate

The summer before graduate school, when I was 22 years old, I backpacked throughout Europe with my fiancé (now husband). Well-meaning friends advised me to keep a journal to document an experience that I’d never have again. So I dutifully bought one. But I discovered very early into the trip that I couldn’t do it.

For one thing, I’m not a diarist by nature. For another, we had saved up for tickets and expenses by working in restaurants as waiters, cooks, delivery drivers. We were so strictly budgeted that occasionally we couldn’t find affordable housing or meals and slept in train stations. I was often too miserable living it to write about it.

Instead, I wrote poems when inspired. By the time we came back to the States, thin and hungry, I had about 20 finished pieces. Most were pretty awful. But a couple I kept revising even after I started my MFA at University of California, Irvine.

No one at UCI taught me how to submit my work. I learned how to do that from The Poet’s Market, the gigantic, onion-skinned tome that was like a bible before the Internet, before online journals, before Submittable. I typed out my poems with my name, address, and phone number on the upper right-hand corner of each page, and sent them off with the required SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope). Then I waited eagerly every day for the mail, which brought rejection after rejection. USPS, how I hated thee.

The day I received my first acceptance was the day I’d also seen my first coyote in the apartment complex parking lot. It was a typical Golden State autumnal afternoon, everything tawny and dry. The envelope was thinner than usual; it didn’t contain my poems being returned. In fact, it held an acceptance note and a contract from ARTNews, a newspaper (now an online magazine) that caters to the artist, the collector, and the art lover. They had accepted one of the poems from my trip, “Annunciation,” an ekphrastic piece.

Even though I was largely ignorant about the process, I had done something correctly: I had matched up a poem’s subject matter with a magazine’s mission statement. But while I was thrilled, I was also scared to tell my professors. Were we supposed to be publishing? Were we allowed? When I eventually got up the courage to mention it, their astonishment—you had a poem published?—felt like censorship. I had more poems accepted for publication when I was at UCI, but I learned to keep success out of the workshop.

Of course, that too taught me something. Many years later, given the opportunity to design a creative writing program for middle and high schoolers in a school for the arts, I included submitting work for publication as a requirement. I taught them how to do this for nine years, and every time students had a piece accepted or won a prize, we all celebrated – together.

Jen Karetnick is the author of five full-length poetry collections, including Hunger Until It's Pain (Salmon Poetry, forthcoming spring 2023); The Burning Where Breath Used to Be (David Robert Books, forthcoming August 2020); and The Treasures That Prevail (Whitepoint Press, September 2016), finalist for the 2017 Poetry Society of Virginia Book Prize. She is also the author of five poetry chapbooks, including The Crossing Over (March 2019), winner of the 2018 Split Rock Review Chapbook Competition. Her poems have been awarded the Hart Crane Memorial Prize, the Romeo Lemay Poetry Prize, the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Prize, and two Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prizes, among others. Her work appears recently or is forthcoming in Barrow Street, The Comstock Review, December, Michigan Quarterly Review, Terrain, Under a Warm Green Linden, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and elsewhere. Co-founder and managing editor of SWWIM Every Day, Jen is currently a Deering Estate Artist-in-Residence. Find her on Twitter @Kavetchnik and Instagram @JenKaretnick, or visit jkaretnick.com.

May 29, 2020 – My First Time: Lesley Wheeler

In our continuing series, this week we bring you Lesley Wheeler, an accomplished poet who is doing a different kind of new thing: writing a novel! Read, in her ownn words, what it was like for her to make the switch:

Ann E. Michael

Unbecoming Hubris

Walt Whitman self-published his first book then anonymously issued three glowing reviews of it: “An American bard at last!” I’ve never been able to promote my career with that much confidence and brio. I gained some self-assurance through years of writing poetry, but when I sat down to draft my first novel, I knew I was a total imposter. What did I know about writing fiction? Did I have the stamina, much less the skill?

Doubt subsided once I picked up speed on the novel that became Unbecoming. I spend as much time as possible reading my way into imaginary worlds; inventing one gave me the same kind of pleasure, magnified. My main character, Cyn, is a middle-aged woman finding her way back to a girl’s sense of power and possibility, and that was my writing experience, too.

Revising, marketing, and further revising the manuscript obliterated my confidence again. I had a blast writing, but that didn’t mean the results were good. I was right the first time: I had no idea what I was doing. Even when Aqueduct Press expressed interest, I faced further radical overhauls. I had been too merciful to Cyn, undercutting the drama of her transformation. I had sidestepped scenes and problems that scared me. Like a poet, I’d overdone the pretty metaphors and thereby violated my prime directive: write an absorbing book, the kind a reader wants to spend time in and feels hopeful after reading. Unlike a poet, I generated baggy and unnecessary sentences, as if I had to account for every time Cynthia crossed a room. I kept making the draft bigger then slashing it down. I still regret axing a member of Cynthia’s English Department. There were too many characters, but cutting him out made me feel like a shortsighted administrator downsizing the humanities.

Lesley Wheeler

My breath caught when I opened my first box of books a few weeks ago. Ever since, I’ve been oscillating between panic and joy. The fear comes from guessing I’ve screwed up somehow. Every one of my poetry books contains errors or oversights I just couldn’t see back then: it’s good to outgrow your old carapaces, but books are such permanent records of everything your former self didn’t understand. On the happy side, I can’t get over my amazement that people want to read it—strangers are writing fan letters!

I did not gain magic powers at fifty, except in this one way: I wrote and published Unbecoming. A menopausal novelist, at last!

Lesley Wheeler’s new books are The State She’s In, her fifth poetry collection, and Unbecoming, her first novel. Her poems and essays appear in such journals as The Common, Crab Orchard Review, Ecotone, and Massachusetts Review, and she is Poetry Editor of Shenandoah. She lives in Lexington, Virginia.

May 22, 2020 – My First Time: Ann E. Michael

Have you done it yet? What was your first time like? Get your heads out of the gutter—we’re talking publication here. Given the focus of Prospectus on emerging writers, we thought you’d like to read about established writers’ first times. First in the series is Anne E. Michael, a beautiful poet whose latest chapbook, Barefoot Girls, is now available from Prolific Press. Read on to know in her own words what her first time was like:

Ann E. Michael

In 1980, I was 22 years old and living in Brooklyn, very recently graduated from college. Working at my temp job didn't give me enough money to spend going to clubs very often, but attending poetry readings by lesser-known and starting-out poets was cheap—and I had been writing and studying poetry for about three years. Although I was too insecure and shy to read my work at open mics, I felt enthusiastically devoted to poetry. I revised, I attended critique groups, I read as many poetry books as I could. My mentors, neither of whom was much older than I (but who were more experienced writers), encouraged me to submit poems to journals.

They also gave me terrific advice: don't start at the top (Poetry, APR, Ploughshares), but don't start at the bottom, either (vanity presses, for-pay anthologies, neighborhood newspapers). And, if possible, read the journal first. We were all broke, and spending for stamps and SASEs and all that typing of poems took time and money, so what mattered was to try to find a good fit.

For me, that turned out to be mostly little staple-bound magazines that had circulations of under 500 but which had actual editors devoted to poetry. I found them through independent bookstores and through the Dustbooks Directory of Poetry Publishers and Len Fulton's The Small Press Review. After several rounds of submissions and long waits for (alas!) rejections, a tiny magazine in Florida chose two of my weirder, slightly surreal short poems for publication.

I was so excited!

When my contributor's copy arrived, however, I felt less elated; it was a photocopy-zine on blue paper, and some of the poetry in it was not so great. But some of it was good. And there were my two poems. Two poems in print, chosen by an impartial editor.

And it was a start. My next publications were also in xerox-zines, but of better layout and organization—and with better poets represented.

Over the years, my submission rate has varied considerably. Sometimes for years I sent out nothing at all. My advice is, if you want to see your work in print, submit.

Not all of us can be Emily Dickinson.

Ann E. Michael
follow my blog at www.annemichael.wordpress.com

Ann E. Michael is the author of 6 chapbooks—the most recent (2020) being Barefoot Girls—and two full-length collections, Water-Rites (Brick Road Poetry Press) and, forthcoming (2021), The Red Queen Hypothesis (Salmon Poetry). Her poems and essays have appeared widely in print and online.

Her books can be found on the books page of her blog, and through Prolific Press, Brick Road Poetry Press, FootHills Publishing, and Finishing Line Press.

She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College and has been running the writing center at DeSales University in Center Valley, PA for 12 years.

May 15, 2020 – A Flurry of Activity

We have been working for months in anticipation of launching the new issue of Prospectus this December. Many things have changed, from the content of the website to our new submission guidelines. The most exciting change is the switch from a black-and-white, saddle-stapled publication to a full-color, perfect-bound issue. Another exciting piece of news is that we are holding our first poetry contest—“New Beginnings.” See the submission guidelines page for details, but what we are hoping for is to find the perfect poem that embodies all that one feels at the beginning of a new adventure, that mixture of anticipation, excitement, and dread that is so hard to capture. Will we meet our goals? Will we fail? Is it worth it to try? Are we ready? These are the questions that plague every person bent upon shaping the future rather than just letting it happen.

So, as you are reading this, we will be making changes, ordering materials, and overall hoping that once submissions start to roll in, we will find a special someone or many special someones to fill the pages of the new Prospectus. Oh, did I mention we’re also shooting for more pages? That means we will be able to bring you more new names to remember. In the meantime, come by our Facebook page and check out daily news items relevant to the poetry world (or just funny/interesting to me). Help us by telling others about Prospectus, and wait with us in anticipation as we get ready to get those submissions!

Celia Alvarez, Editor

© Copyright 2020, Hamby Stern Publishing LLC. All Rights Reserved.