Some Advice Please…

I got this e-mail on Sunday (scroll down to read) and while I do intend answering it to the best of my abilities, and while I’m very happy to detail my experience and explain how I managed to become a professional writer as well as a professional animator/artist, I’m horribly aware of the fact that I never finished college. (I had to leave through lack of funds) As a consequence I have no real understanding of the benefits ( or pitfalls) of attending a graduate course. I’m quite worried I might inadvertently suggest that attending college is not necessary when, in fact, it may be of huge benefit to this person’s future.

Explaining this, I arranged with her to make her question public, hoping to get a good, well balanced reply to her concerns. I’d particularly like to hear from those of you who have been through college, or are currently studying in college, and also those of you who are industry professionals ( you writers, editors, publishers and journalists out there) but perhaps any of you who have a similar experience to mine (who have made it as professionals without the benefits of third level education) could also chime in?

see below for e-mail

From: Sent: Sunday, March 20, 2011 3:52 AM
Subject: celine

Saw on your website that people could email you. I hope this is an honest email that does go to you, and not through the publisher or something. I have an honest question that I really want someones advice on, and in a way I feel like I see your situation similar to something that could be mine.

I am in undergraduate at an art institute currently. I have two passions, neither of which I am willing to give up. Ceramics and Writing. Here is my question. I will graduate soon, and am looking into what I can do outside of undergrad. I am thinking about going to graduate school for Creative writing, or merely taking some time off to develop my ceramic work and writing on my own. I intend to eventually go to graduate school for Ceramics, but want to wait to develop my work before doing so.

As someone who shares two passions, such as drawing and writing, I was curious, what did you go to school for? Do you think that in today’s society, I would need a graduate degree in writing to get work published? Do you have any advice for me in pursuing the writing side of my passions?


End of e-mail.

So, that’s it. Have you any advice that you can give?

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18 Responses to Some Advice Please…

  1. glenda larke says:

    My advice? Forget the creative writing course. You can learn all you need to know much more cheaply and more enjoyably by: reading a lot; writing a lot; joining some kind of crit group (local or online); reading blog posts on writing — by editors, or by authors you admire, or by literary agents handling the kind of books you hope to write.

    With regards to the crit group, be careful – find one that is critical and thoughtful without tearing people to pieces. You don’t want a mutual admiration society, nor do you want something bent on destruction.

    You are lucky: you have another talent. Perhaps you can use that to bring in an income while you hone your writing; an income from creative writing can be hard to come by for a few years. Meantime you are also out in the world learning about people and life, which will also help you as a writer.

    Having said all that, I have to admit I did not take a creative writing course. Back in my university days, there was no such thing. My first degree was in history and I went no further than that. Be warned, too, if you are a genre writer, you may find some teachers of such courses can be unbelievably scathing about genre, and will fail anyone handing in a romance or a SF story as course work. Check first!

    • I agree, Jack, Glenda seems to have expressed most of my thoughts re fiction writing courses. (Thanks Glenda) And on the genre thing, I too have heard some right horror stories ( wince!) about how genre writers are treated in university. (and also some pretty atrocious inaccuracies being touted as fact about the business of writing itself – for example the notion that you must sell short stories before you can go on to sell novels is still apparently taught in colleges today.)

      About the dangers of crit groups. I’ve never been part of a writing circle, or crit group either, but I’ve given quite a few lectures to aspiring writers and I always ask about their experiences with such groups. It seems to happen quite often that writing groups end up as talking shops/social gatherings where very little progress gets made, or dictatorships with one very dominant voice repressing the others, or exercises in pedantry mired in crippling nit-picking.

      I’m a huge believer in feed back, though, and the method that has proved most successful for me has been to bounce my work off a trusted ‘beta reader’. It can take a while to find a person you respect and trust, but when you do find that person (usually a fellow writer who will, in their turn use you as beta) it is the best way possible (in my opinion) of knowing whether or not you are best communicating what’s in your head.

  2. Jack Womack says:

    Glenda has it right, on all accounts.

    The one thing I’ve noticed with the published writing of fiction authors who have been in full-on postgrad creative writing courses is that it all sounds remarkably similar, no matter the program or university.

  3. sarah webb says:

    Dear Writer,
    I think it may depend on what kind of books you want to write. I write popular fiction, both for adults and children and very few authors in my genre have done any kind of writing course. I studied English at college, but never any kind of creative writing.
    I’d ditto the advice above – if you want to write, read – as much as you can. And write. And keep writing. Write for yourself, and if it’s good enough other people will want to read it too. You don’t send a cv to a publisher when you submit a book after all. The writing’s the thing. NOthing else matters.
    Kind regards, Sarah

  4. The person who emailed Celine says:

    Funny, I obviously am biased towards genre writing. Last semester I was in a short story class, and another student wrote genre writing. The other kids bashed on him non stop while he wasn’t around. Now I am in minute fiction class, and am writing more genre oriented work. The teacher is constantly pushing me away from that direction. People do frown upon anything that’s outside of “normal fiction”, especially, from what I see, on the class room level. This is one of the reasons I am really shying away from the idea of going into a university to further study creative writing.

    And yes, my creative writing teacher already made me believe that you have to get short stories and minute fictions/ poems published before a publisher would ever look at anything you wrote. This is a myth then? It sounds like you don’t need to go through publishing short stories to publish a novel?

    • *groans* I can’t believe this ‘you must sell short stories’ myth is still being taught in college, and it pains me to hear that genre fiction is still so frowned upon.
      No, you do not need to sell short stories or any thing like it to get a publisher to look at your work. Certainly short stories are an excellent way to hone your craft – they make you focus on the story/theme in hand, they force you to pare away the wordy fat, they demand that you get your beginning, middle and end in hand as soon as possible. All these things are excellent skills to have when you’re struggling with an 150k behemoth (LOLZ!) But you don’t need to have published any short stories to get a publisher to read your novel. To get a publisher to read your novel, you need to write a terrific novel! Then send it to the right person. That. Is. It.

      BTW, at the moment, the chances of getting a short story/anthology published within a big to medium house are tiny ( and even then only really open to those who are established already as novelists) Not only that, but, right now, short story anthologies are almost predominantly genre oriented! ) There are, however, plenty of online short story venues open to people. I’ll ask a friend to come along and tell you about them…

      You want to know where I got the most and the best publishing business advice? It was in the Bewares and Backgrounds Check section of AbsoluteWrite I strongly advise any aspiring writing to join up and hang around there. As usual in any group of anythings there is a lot of hot air and some folks talk the talk more than walk the walk (you need to be sharp enough to sort those types out for yourself – its not usually that difficult to spot them) but there are also s lot of experienced, published writers there, good experienced editors, many agents and a few small house publishers. All of them are more than willing to share their experiences, and point you away from the many many pitfalls/sharks/idiots that riddle the publishing industry. There are also some pretty good writing tips, conversations and links. If you hang around and get to know folks you might even find a person there that you trust enough and respect enough to eventually become a beta reader.

      Also visit this website Preditors and Editors Its an invaluble resourse.
      (I meant to e-mail this all to you. Sorry. Time and brain power are very very scarce right now, so I’m giving you all this information now. Perhaps its for the best here anyway, where others can find it too 🙂 )

    • BTW, though a few of my editors and one of my publishers tell me that they and many of their associates in the publishing business didn’t finish their degrees ( or did degrees in completely different subjects) we all agree that we are probably the last generation to be lucky enough to get away with this. I know I wouldn’t get a foot in the animation business these days without having attended some kind of college course ( as opposed to the 1980’s when I turned up on the doorstep with nothing but a reasonable portfolio and a willingness to work hard) So – all talk of creative or fiction writing aside – if you’re considering a job as an editor, or as a journalist or anything else like that, some kind of relevant course would probably help your chances of a job interview. But I would urge you to find a course that was as practical as possible and one specifically aimed at editing or journalism rather than a general English Lit course.

      Also, lest I led you astray re my attitude to college. I think college is an amazing opportunity and a privilege. I think anyone who has the chance to do it, should. Its probably the only chance you’ll ever get to produce artwork or research your most beloved subjects all for the sake of it, and without worrying how it might benefit you financially. It’s also your moment to really learn the practicalities of your trade ( ceramics in your case) while giving you the room to fail and fail again in those practical techniques ( or push them to the boundaries) without your boss moaning that you’re losing his workshop money or ruining his reputation 🙂

  5. I am not a published author, or an artist that sells very well ( I can’t make a living with it)… but I have a doctorate in Law. If you have the economic means, to go to University, do it. The knowledge, the academic experience makes you a better rounded artist. Don’t do creative writing classes… do literature and history. You need to read and write. Which like the other have said is the essential thing for a writer.
    It is good to take art courses in University, but there is no need of that, to become a genius potter or a genius writer–for that– is hard work, experience and talent.

  6. Thanks for that, Mae! (just so you know – and I’m sure you do – there are very few of us who are lucky enough to make a living out of our craft. I know less than a handful of pro writers who support themselves solely through writing and, only a few artists ( all of them illustrators))

    On an tenuously related note (for the Person Who E-mailed Me really) – this is a terrific post on the nature of criticism and how it is viewed/taught in college. I share it at every opportunity – check out the comments for a link to a very interesting Noam Cmomsky article on similar subjects.

  7. You’ve already gotten some great advice, so I’ll simply address the short story issue. No, you don’t need to publish short fiction first. That’s a myth. If you are interested, however, has a listing of short story markets. It’s easy to use and lets you search based on genre, pay scale of the magazine, etc.. I highly recommend it.

    And with respect to writing, just keep reading and writing. I think you can learn techniques and such in creative writing classes, but I don’t think they can teach you how to be a writer. Just my opinion, of course.

  8. Elise says:

    Great advice so far! I am a writer and artist and I am lucky enough to live off my work. My response to the question of courses is do one if you need it. If you are unconfident or feeling isolated then a good practical writing course will be helpful. I did one in Australia and it was brilliant. I was already well published by then, but wanting to move into a new area. Being around others passionate about the same stuff but with different experience was inspiring. But choose a practical course. Ours didn’t mind genre writing at all and encouraged us to try everything. Their opinion on short stories etc was that the more you can get published, anywhere, the more serious you look as someone after a writing career. And it’s practice – in writing, in approaching publishers, in editing your work…

    I didn’t train as an artist really. I think a good folio speaks foe itself – just make sure it has what you want to do in it and has what the publishers are looking for. And do your homework. Read your genre! Be critical of your work. And do it because you’re passionate, not because it looks easy!

  9. Celine says:

    Australian publisher, Erica, e-mailed to say:

    I also didn’t finish a degree! I did one year of an arts
    degree, went travelling, fell in love, got married, had two children. Struggled for few years (picking tomatoes, living in a tent, ironing) and then got a job
    in a bookshop and finally my lucky break to be taken on as a trainee
    editor ..) In the end, it comes down to an individual’s passion and commitment to their craft and a kind of dogged
    persistence …

  10. SMD says:

    The short answer: no.

    The long answer: You don’t *need* to go to grad school to get published. You can if you want to, but know that you’re taking on a financial burden for something that will not measurably increase your chances of getting published. You apply to such programs because you want to work with someone there, you want to teach creative writing, or the program happens to be very good (and, thus, very hard to get into). You don’t go because you want to get published. Almost nobody who graduates from such programs goes on to be anything at all (except creative writing teachers). That’s not a bad thing unless you want to be published.

    Plenty of people went to college for other things or didn’t go to college at all and ended up being published (noticeably, rather than obscurely). There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s great. It shows that you don’t have to get a fancy degree to be a published writer. What it takes is a little talent, a lot of determination, and a lot of practice.

    The biggest rule about writing is that you write. You can learn all the skills you need to be publishable from reading books (fiction and non-fiction), learning from people you respect by looking at how they do things or reading what they say about the craft, and actually writing. Experiment. Find your limits, cross them, then come back. You should always test yourself and try new things (new styles, new themes, new whatever) until you find what you are good at and can hone your craft into that. And then you just write. Write. Write. Write. That’s it.

    But even then, you may not get published. That’s how the game works. I suppose you could try to self-published, but that’s a separate beast altogether. But if you keep at it, eventually you’ll make it if you’ve got something worthwhile to say.

    I used to want to be a creative writing major, but I switched when I realized that a CW degree is more useless than an English degree. That’s why I’m about to get my MA in the latter (and then a PhD) and why I’ve avoided CW programs altogether. A good critique workshop or group will do you wonders.

    And that’s all from me…

  11. I realize I’m a little late to the game, but here are my two cents. I get paid to both write and illustrate. Not a lot, you understand, but it’s a living that I enjoy enormously. I do have a graduate degree, but not in CW. I think there is a place for CW graduate programs, for the right student, at the right program, with the right teacher. It’s one way to hone your work and it’s one way to make what could be very valuable contacts in the industry that you’re going to call home (frankly, it was the most important thing about MY graduate program).

    It is not the only way.

    If you are a genre writer, graduate work is likely a quick route to depression and perhaps alcoholism. The wrong instructor can inflict irreparable damage that will take years of therapy to overcome. Grad schools are churning out students with almost no regard to the employment climate. They have quotas to fill and you, my friend, are a mark in their ledger.

    Almost all the writers and artists I know make their money in related work: they are college professors, or copywriters, or like me, they hire their keyboards for other public texts (me, I do museum exhibit and web writing). Their hearts might live in their fiction, or poetry or plays, but it’s not what puts food on the table.

    A graduate program is a great pre-fab way of getting instruction, feedback and contacts all in one easy step. But it costs money and time (don’t underestimate lost wages in taking a grad program). It may not get you any further ahead. And there are no guarantees that idiots in your program won’t hate on your work. I’d do your research, talk to recent grads, and if possible, consult with an online assessment site such as Rate My Professor to get a bead on the instructors.

    Good luck!

  12. Andie says:

    I won’t pretend to be an expert, as I have only published a few short pieces locally, but not a novel (yet). I have a dayjob in an office. And I’m from the Netherlands, so I don’t know much about the school system, but I’d like to put in my two cents worth. I agree with Mae to take English or history or maybe other classes that have your interest (a foreign language, Classics, psychology?). If there is a particular genre you’d like to write, you can let this help determine your choice of classes. Maybe you can form a small writing group with a few like-minded friends, but it’s not absolutely necessary imo.
    Finally, and perhaps I’m stating the obvious, and are you long past this, but I would also like to advise you to read a few good Creative writing books, a general one and one about your genre(s) and, if you feel you could use some specific advice about f.i. writing dialogue, plotting or creating characters, there are those too. You could also check out the website of Writer’s Digest or the NaNoWriMo website, which have many features about different aspects of creative writing.
    Wishing you the best of luck with your ceramics and your writing,

  13. Barrie says:

    There are quite a lot of creatives who practice in more than one area of creativity, Audrey Niffenegger is one, (The Time Traveller’s Wife) she draws/collages and writes.
    I myself am a visual artist and recently (8 years ago) decided to write, I still draw though, the drawing and writing are different aspects of my creative enquiry.

    So I’d say study ceramics full time and write in your spare time as well. It takes quite a while to get the writing thing happening, to reach a stage of ability that will satisfy you and your readers. And as other posters have said, read a lot. Oh, and keep a notebook, most important, ideas will turn up out of the blue and you need to write them down straight away otherwise they will just bugger off, they are the germs of future projects, you need them.

    All the best, Barrie

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