Well, it’s official. I won’t be going to grad school in the fall. I’m trying to be classy and mature and professional about it, but it smarts. The schools I applied to–UC Irvine, Syracuse University, and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor–are incredibly competitive, and it was always a long-shot. After reading this post at The Passive Voice about the sales figures for recent Pulitzer winners (hint: most titles saw a tenfold increase in sales…from around 50 to 500 copies), I’m more certain than ever that literary fiction isn’t what I want to do. Not when the books I truly enjoy reading and writing are full of elves and ghosts and love-sick teenagers. So really, it’s okay. I don’t want your fancy diploma, anyway.
Of course, you don’t need a degree to write. I studied in high school and college, at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities and Sarah Lawrence College, with some of the best teachers in the world. My studies gave me a solid foundation and box of tools to use, but after graduation, without the structure and guidance from my classes, I lacked one thing that my mentors couldn’t teach me: discipline. It wasn’t until I decided to self-publish instead of waiting for someone–a teacher, an agent, or an editor–to give me permission to write, that I took full responsibility for my success.
As I’ve said before, while talent and discipline can’t be taught, there are still technical skills you can learn to make you a better writer. Just by reading and writing as much as possible, you’ll figure a lot of it out. You’ll also need to brush up on the business side of things–learning the ins and outs of traditional publishing, should you choose to go that route, or the technical aspects of indie publishing.
So, instead of spending two or three years studying (and potentially taking on tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt), here’s my guide to earning an Indie MFA.
A Laptop. Unlike desktop computers, laptops give you the freedom and mobility to work anywhere. Libraries and coffee shops make excellent offices, and the overhead is cheap.
Scrivener. I’ve sung the praises of this software before, but seriously, you should buy it. It’s the best.
Library Card. I can’t afford to buy every book want. I check out twenty to thirty books a month–fiction and non, kids to YA to books for actual grownups.
Caffeinated Beverage of Choice. Self-explanatory.
The Chicago Manual of Style. The single most important thing you can learn–you know, other than stuff like plot and character–is grammar. Particularly for self-published authors, poor proofreading can kill a book. Chicago is the standard for fiction. Buy the print edition or spring for a subscription to the online version.
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. A fascinating read about creativity, productivity, and the way that extraordinary people achieve success. According to Gladwell, it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert. So, you know, get crackin’.
Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott. A frank, funny, wonderful book about living and working as a writer.
On Writing by Stephen King. Whether your a fan of his work, you can’t deny that the man is one of the most prolific and commercially successful writers in history. Learn from his process.
J.A. Konrath. He’s one of the most financially successful indie writers working today. He gives straight talk about the business aspects of self-publishing.
Dean Wesley Smith. An outspoken advocate for self-publishing, Smith has several free-to-read books on his site as well as dozens of blog posts.
Holly Lisle. Her site has a wealth of articles about the craft of writing. The information about editing is particularly helpful.
Joanna Penn. Although a lot of her advice focuses on non-fiction, Joanna Penn’s site is one of the best online resources for writers.
Joel Friedlander. His site, The Book Designer, is brimming with tips on formatting, publishing, and marketing your book. Like Joanna Penn, a lot of the information is geared toward non-fiction authors, but much of it applies to fiction writers, too.
Mignon Fogarty. Also known as Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty is the person I trust most for everything related to grammar, usage, and mechanics.
Read. Don’t just read the kind of books you typically enjoy or the ones most similar to what you write. Browse the stacks at your local library and pick up anything that piques your interest. Read outside your comfort zone. Sample different genres. And don’t worry if you don’t like everything you read. Good books can be inspirational, but lousy books are great teachers, too. It’s important to learn what doesn’t work in a story, and there’s nothing quite as motivational as saying, “I could do better than that!”
Write. This should be a given, but I’ve spent much more time thinking and worrying about writing than actually doing it. Write like it’s your job.
Publish. Don’t wait for the magical unicorn princess to descend from the clouds and bless your work. (Sorry, I’ve been watching My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic in another window.) Write a story, get it to your beta readers, and hire an editor. Then let it go. You can keep tinkering with a manuscript until the heat death of the universe; books are never really “done.” But the time you lavish on lovingly polishing each word of your masterpiece would be much better spent writing your next book.