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NaNoWriMo Lessons: To Sprint Or…?

My first attempt at National Novel Writing Month began with my hard drive crashing two days into the challenge. Sometimes NaNoWriMo is like that—full of obstacles and challenges and complications. I wasn’t very motivated to write while my computer was sent off for repairs, so when I got it back on November 18th, I had a decision to make: was I done with NaNo or did I try to write 43,000 words in twelve days?

Everyone who signs up for NaNo surely has a moment in which they think they’re crazy. It’s a huge goal to accomplish on a tight deadline, and it takes some serious determination to finish, even in the best circumstances. In 2005 I was not looking at the best circumstances. But I didn’t want to throw in the towel.

I started by changing my expectations. I knew I couldn’t blow through a novel that quickly, so even though it would be a rebellious act in my first NaNo, I decided to work on short stories and not worry about connectivity or using the same characters or even following the same ideas. I was going to write 50,000 words of something and not worry too much about what I was writing, so long as I was writing.

That still left me writing 43,000 words in just twelve days. I wasn’t the steady writer then that I am now, but I was very good at sprinting. The first two days of my attempt to catch up had me writing about 8,000 words. It took me four more days to write another 10,000 words because—as it turns out—sprinting can leave you creatively exhausted. I learned to be motivated by count downs (“just 400 more words to go!”). I honed in on ideas that were easier to write and I clung to inspiration. Ultimately I did it. I wrote 43,000 words in twelve days. I’m proud of that accomplishment—amazed­ by it, honestly—and it’s something I never want to do again.

Even though I could binge write my way to 50K, I discovered it wasn’t the healthiest thing for me to do. The act of churning out so much in a single day left me drained, and it was much harder to preform the next day. In the last year and a half of writing every day I’ve discovered exactly how much I value consistency over high word counts. Knowing that I will write every day without it being a struggle is more important to me than writing 6,000 words in a day.

NaNo is still a sprint—I don’t normally write 50,000 words in a month—but pacing myself for the 1,667 words a day is a lot easier than stumbling to catch up at the end. Even if I get behind (which I have many times in past years), keeping the gap small is a good way to keep the NaNo goal in sight. After my first year, catching up 10,000 words could look like a breeze, but I know better. Sprinting is possible, but pacing myself is healthier.

NaNoWriMo is on my mind this month as I’m preparing for this year’s challenge. Stick with me to check out a series of posts on the writing lessons you can learn by participating in NaNo. If you’re a writer, you should really consider signing up.

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NaNoWriMo Lessons: Time

National Novel Writing Month is just around the corner! For those who don’t know, NaNoWriMo is a yearly challenge in November to write 50,000 words of a novel. It’s an event that brings together thousands of writers from around the world to practice their craft and talk about writing for a month.

I first participated in NaNo in 2005, and then took a break for several years because I was too busy to write. You know what month is incredibly busy every year? November. You know what excuse is a terrible one for not participating in NaNoWriMo? Being busy! Here’s the deal, writers: you will always be busy. Life will always get in the way of your writing. There will always be a responsibility you think you should be doing instead of writing. You may even feel guilt because you are writing instead of doing something else!

Stop it.

One of the great gifts NaNoWriMo has given me is the perspective that I can make writing a priority. That was a lesson I re-learned every year for the first few years in which I participated. I wasn’t prioritizing my writing life at any other time of the year, but during NaNo, I set aside 30–60 minutes every day to write. (Okay, maybe not every day because there was a year when I wrote 8,000 words one day because I had written 0 words for a whole week.) The only thing standing in my way was myself.

I had responsibilities chomping away at every hour of my day, but with a little extra planning I found the time to write for NaNoWriMo. One of my most productive times to write was on my lunch break. Instead of going out to eat every day, as was my usual routine, I brought lunch at least two days a week and got 30–45 minutes of writing time. I also made use of my weekly writing group (1–2 hours per week). And, sacrifice of sacrifices, I woke up 15 minutes earlier during the month of November. Some days I used that time to make lunch, but other days I got started with writing for the day. Starting my day by writing 15 minutes made me feel ahead all day. Since I was looking for a minimum of 30 minutes per day, I was halfway there!

At the end of the month I was less surprised that I had achieved the 50,000-word goal, and more surprised by how easy it was. I had never before consciously thought about prioritizing writing. I had prioritized projects in order to meet a deadline, but I had never tried to make time to write daily (or semi-daily) for a month. I had thought it would be an impossible task, or that I’d be either exhausted or behind by the end. But when it came down to it, finding the time was much easier than I thought it would be. It took a few years before those lessons really stuck and I stopped being so surprised, but now I never question when I’ll find the time to write, I just find it.

NaNoWriMo is on my mind this month as I’m preparing for this year’s challenge. Stick with me to check out a series of posts on the writing lessons you can learn by participating in NaNo. If you’re a writer, you should really consider signing up.

The Right Writing Group

One of my favorite things every week is going to writing group. Even though I write every day, there’s something special about meeting with other writers to write. But attending a writing group—especially a weekly one—can be a big time commitment in our busy lives. Finding the right group, a group that will be productive and help me achieve my goals, has taken some time. I first had to figure out what I wanted from a writing group, and then I needed to find a writing group that provided those things.

In my experience, writing groups tend to focus on one or more of the following:

  • offering time to write
  • networking or socializing
  • critiquing or feedback

When I first started attending writing groups, I was working a full time job (with frequent overtime) and had a calendar full of family and social obligations. I needed a writing group that would emphasize productivity over all else since often the time I spent at writing group was the only time I had to write all week.

The group I found was full of passionate, wonderful writers who participated in NaNoWriMo every year and who were seeking agents or publishers. Their attitude matched mine—aspiring to publish novels—and their experience writing query letters, self-publishing, and working local conventions formed a foundation of what it meant to be a working writer.

Over the years the group membership changed, people moved away or new writers joined the group, and the dynamic slowly shifted. If I arrived early, I could get a solid hour of work in before the meeting turned into social hour. The problem wasn’t socializing—I liked these writers!—but this was the majority of my writing time for the week, so having that time taken over by socializing was frustrating.

It took me awhile to admit it, but my writing group was no longer providing what I needed. And that’s an important thing to remember—if the group dynamic changes, it’s okay to leave.

I’m currently active with two writing groups. One group meets weekly and the other group meets monthly. Both groups are focused on productive writing tasks (which can include things like promotion, presentations, or managing author websites) and are patronized (primarily) by writers who have a goal to publish. The weekly group has the laid back style of the first writing group I joined, in which writers are encouraged to be self-directed. We poke writers who seem to be staring off into space or who appear to be off-task (we are all guilty of checking Twitter or Facebook), but we mostly chat as we get settled or when we’re packing up.

The monthly group uses twenty-minute sprints to get writers to focus, and then allows chat breaks in between sprints. I wouldn’t be happy writing like that on a weekly basis, but for a monthly group, I know to come prepared because I will be getting a lot of work done. (That monthly writing group is usually my highest word count day of the month.)

I have yet to be in a critique group outside of the MFA program, but based on my experience there, I know a critique group would have to be very special. Critique groups require a lot of dedication from all participants. The group itself needs to be big enough that if someone is sick one week, you haven’t lost the whole conversation, but small enough that you’re not piling on a ton of extra work. Also it helps if everyone is familiar with the genres being submitted for critique. While writing is writing and stories are stories, being familiar with the rules and tropes of a genre can greatly improve the confidence of the readers and the quality of the critiques.

Knowing what you want out of a writing group is the best way to find the right group. I’ve been very lucky to find such amazing writing groups, most of which I found by participating in NaNoWriMo. If you’re struggling to carve out time to write or lack motivation once you sit down, consider finding a writing group. And if you can’t find the right writing group for yourself, maybe you should just start your own.

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The Secret to Receiving Constructive Criticism

Receiving constructive criticism can be as difficult as giving it. It can be challenging to divorce personal feelings—and all the hard work put into the previous draft—from someone else’s opinion. But when I put my story out there to receive constructive criticism, I need to be open to it. I have to put aside my feelings and understand that these comments aren’t about my quality as a writer; they’re about the execution in this one specific piece of writing. Even if I think it’s my very best work, it’s only my very best work so far. Think of all the ways it can be improved! So, starting with a deep breath, constructive criticism can be the best thing for my work, especially if I’m open to change. I have a three step-method for taking in constructive criticism that includes listening to what is said, evaluating how that critique fits with my plan for the story, and then getting excited to revise!

Listen

When I get feedback from a critique, I start by reading each comment as though I’m another evaluator on the manuscript. I’m not the author when I first read a critique. I’m another objective party, taking in someone else’s comments to get the big picture of the feedback. I start by reading the summary comments and then all of the in-line comments before making any decisions about how to act on those comments.

Evaluate

Now that I’ve listened objectively, I get to be the author again! It’s important to keep some objectivity, after all the purpose of constructive criticism is to identify ways to strengthen the writing. Now, though, I start deciding how to address each comment. Should I keep the exact suggestion a reviewer made? Should I accept that something’s hinky but enact my own solution? Should I ignore the comment? Ignoring a comment is a perfectly legitimate way to respond to a critique. Someone might not “get” what I’m doing, and it’s okay for me, the author, to decide that I know what’s best for my work.

One method I use for evaluating comments is to have the comments and my story side by side in separate documents. If I disagree with a comment outright, I don’t move it to my story document. If it’s an easy fix (a grammatical error or improving word choice), I immediately do it. If it’s a trickier one or one that I’m not sure I want to make, I summarize the feedback as in-line comments on my story document and add my thoughts. At the end of the evaluation, I have all the comments I will or possibly want to respond to on my story document.

Get Excited

After every critique I walk away feeling excited to work on my story. I’ve thought about the feedback and, through evaluation, have come up with at least a few solutions to strengthen some of the weaknesses of the manuscript. Yes, I might have a lot of work ahead. Yes, someone might not have seen all of my brilliance. But I now have ideas for making the story better, and that’s a pretty exciting thing.

Talking It Out

I had dinner with a writer friend last week and after gushing about the novel I’m currently developing, I asked what he’s working on. After a long awkward pause, he finally confessed that he didn’t want to talk about it until he had a first draft.

I subscribed to this methodology once upon a time, holding my ideas close to my chest and trying not to “spend” them too soon. I once talked myself out of writing a novel because after outlining it and explaining it to a friend, I grew bored with the idea and eventually shelved it. I have completely forgotten what the idea was, which is further evidence that the reason I shelved the idea wasn’t because I’d talked about it too much, but because I wasn’t actually all that interested in writing it—or, rather, that the idea wasn’t strong enough to be a novel.

I believe that’s the case for most writers who lose their ideas in talking. I worked on the novel I’m querying for roughly three years. That is a long time to spend with the same characters, in the same world, going over their problems and relationships with a fine-tooth comb. If I had been able to “talk out” this idea, to talk about it enough to essentially “ruin” it, I assure you I would have. A year and a half of that development time included monthly meetings with my thesis supervisor where we did nothing but talk about the novel for hours. I couldn’t talk out this story because I was invested in it. Because the idea had legs and it needed to be a novel. Yes, there were days when I was sick of those characters because I had been living with them for so long, and there were days when I tossed out chapters or followed the wrong path, but I never wanted to shelve this story. In all this talking, I never lost the idea.

One of the best ways for me to work through an idea is to talk about it with trusted friends. Aside from figuring out if I actually want to write the story, articulating my ideas to someone else helps me discover plot holes, character weaknesses, and other areas that need development. Even better, once I describe a story to someone, I have a cheerleader who has insight into the idea. After that conversation they don’t just ask how the novel is going, they’ll say things like, “How’s my girl Eve?” or “Did you figure out what happens on the train?” Honestly, there’s no better motivation than having people who are invested in your story.

All of this is probably the same reason I’m part of a writing group, discuss writing with my friends regularly, and wanted to be part of an MFA program. Talking about writing (and about my writing) is motivating. But that’s not the case for everyone. Are you a talker or do you keep your ideas quiet like my friend? Every method has a benefit, what do you see as the benefit for your method?

Why on Earth Would You Write Every Day?

In 2016 I stumbled into my current habit of being an every day writer. It was a goal for a number of years, but one that I could never make stick until I discovered I had written every day for a week and then through sheer stubbornness continued to write every day. (I’m currently on day 585.) I’ve recently seen a number of posts suggesting that you don’t need to write every day, and I’ve given people the same advice when they’re fighting against intense schedules or suffering from chronic or mental illnesses (depression devours your ability to write, I get it), but I’ve benefitted from writing every day, so I want to offer a few reasons you should reconsider if writing every day is right for you.

(1) Build a Writing Habit

The greatest benefit I’ve gotten from writing every day is that I write every day! I never question when my next writing session will be because I know it will be tomorrow. There are days when my schedule is cruel and I don’t find time to write until just before bed, but writing every day is such a habit now that I can’t fall asleep until I’ve written. (True story: I was gone 12 hours, worked an event, got home after 11, got in bed, and even though I was exhausted, I got up when I realized I hadn’t written.)

(2) Build Writing Confidence

Because writing every day is a habit, it’s now easier for me to get words on the page. Just yesterday my writing group watched me struggle to write a blog post. I had brainstormed a few different topics and wrote on each one until the idea petered out. I didn’t finish any of those posts yesterday, but now I have starts for three more posts. I wasn’t afraid to travel down the “wrong” path or to just put words on the page and see what I like later because I was confident that at the end of my writing session I would have something.

(3) Build a Defense Against Writer’s Block

I still come up against blocks, but it’s easier for me to break through the blocks because writing is a habit. The first fifty words of the day are usually the hardest, so I decided that even on a bad day—on the busiest day, the day when I’m feeling super sick and uncreative—I have to write one hundred words. It’s harder to stay blocked when every word I write contributes to achieving a goal. And within one hundred words I’ll usually find an angle (or identify two angles that aren’t working) and suddenly I’ve hit two hundred words, then three hundred, etc. It’s also harder for me to throw in the towel since I’m not only trying to check a box that says I’ve written today, but I’m also trying to check a box for a word count goal.

 

Those are the three ways I’ve benefitted the most from writing every day, but truthfully there are times when you just cannot write every day. My previous job was demanding to the point of being overwhelming and was a contributing factor to why I wasn’t an every day writer until 2016. But it didn’t stop me from having goals and from benefitting from those goals.

If you’re in a situation wherein you absolutely cannot write every day, try to set a weekly goal for yourself, like to write three days a week. You could decide that any day counts, or you might set aside specific days (like a day you go to a writing group). I used to write for 15 minutes on my lunch break—I didn’t do it every day, but on the days I did, I returned to my desk feeling better about life because I had taken the time to be creative before going back to the grind.

Any writing goal you make and stick with gets you closer to building a habit, building your confidence, and building your defenses against writer’s block, so even if you aren’t writing every day, making a commitment to writing any days is a good foundation.

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The Changeable Plan

Almost every week I meet my friend for dinner and we go to either Barnes & Noble or the library. We spend an hour walking through the books, reading titles, touching covers, and expanding our to-read lists. In addition to an ever-increasing to-read list, I also have an ever-increasing library. And of those books there are a good many that I haven’t read. This year I decided my reading theme would be Read Your Damn Books. I made a whole plan for how many books I wanted to read, how many of them should be books I already own, how many audio books, how many graphic novels, etc. And then I proceeded to the library website and I ordered a bunch of books for home delivery because I apparently like usurping my own plans.

But aren’t all plans really just guidelines? I mean, when I made the original book list, I knew I would swap out books if I wasn’t particularly feeling a title, and that I would make new discoveries over the year. My primary goals were to read thirty books and to spend about half of my 2017 reading time consuming books from my home library. I also wanted to read at least five books borrowed from my local library and to listen to at least two audio books.

I had no idea that I’d get so invested in audio books. I’ve been listening to them while I take walks and so I’ve so far been through seven audio books. (Can I count one as “reading my damn book” since I already owned it?) My guideline of a plan obviously involves some spontaneous revision since I now have to decide how upping my audio book intake affects the number of physical books I read. Do I still need for half of my 2017 books to come from my bookshelf? Can I revise that number to just twelve? (Or ten seeing as how we’re over halfway through the year and I’ve read a whooping total of six books I own.)

I also had to scrap and revamp part of my plan. I had planned to start researching for a time travel story in the latter half of 2017, but in starting to draft my pirate novel, I realized I need to do more pirate research. So it’s back to the high seas, air, and steampunk for me. All the time travel books have been relegated to 2018—at least I already have the start of next year’s guidelines.

The main thing about plans is that they have to be flexible. Rigid plans often prevent productivity. If I said I had to stick to reading my physical books and ignored that I was enjoying listening to audio books on walks I might not have finished as many books as I have, or I might have stopped walking so I could add that time to my book reading time. Sticking to my original plan would have ignored my natural inclinations and that frustration would have easily made me stagnant.

Strangely this reminds me of writing my last novel. I had an outline laid out—an excellent guideline, indeed—but I got caught in the middle, trying to force the main character to read books when she just wanted to listen to audio books (at least in this analogy). Once I let her listen to audio books, things started coming much easier. I had to refigure my plan and change a few expectations, but finishing the first draft became much easier when I stopped fighting against my plan, just like how reading over thirty books in 2017 will be much easier if I let myself continue listening to audio books. Going with the flow isn’t so easy if you’re a planner, but learning to find my own rhythm and accept that as a new plan is key to staying productive.

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The Secret to Writing Great Critiques

Writers tend to focus on getting feedback—wanting to know how others received the work and what to do to make it better. But I’ve learned a lot about writing by critiquing others’ work. It’s made me more cognizant of rhythm and meaning (understanding the logistics of a sentence), and it’s helped me figure out how to step back from my own work to evaluate things like pacing, character development, and description.

The secret to writing great critiques is in having a plan for how to approach critiques. This is the big picture for how I critique manuscripts.

In-Line Comments

Critiquing someone else’s work can be scary—I don’t want to offend them, but honest feedback is the only way anyone will improve. In-line comments are useful, not only for line edits, but also for identifying exactly where clarification and revision is needed in a manuscript. Here’s how I’m honest but also kind when delivering in-line comments:

  • Always highlight the things that are working. 

    A few hearts around a description or line of dialogue lets the writer know what they’re doing right! Being able to check off strengths isn’t just stroking an author’s ego; it can let them know what elements are most effective and can help them identify areas that don’t have to be revisited in revision. Bonus: It also reminds the author that I, the reviewer, am a supporter of their work.

  • Give specific feedback. 

    If something is confusing or unclear, maybe the word isn’t quite right or the pacing is off, I need to tell the writer why. I once received a note on a manuscript that just said “eh.” I’m still not sure what that meant. But “eh, the dialogue here isn’t quite believable” provides a direction for revision.

  • Say it with a question. 

    Sometimes the best way to phrase feedback is in the form of a question. A question can be less confrontational and can still draw attention to what’s not working. For example, if I need timeline clarity, I ask it in a question, such as “How long is this after the divorce?” If something feels forced, I might ask, “Is there a way to make this more organic?” If more sense details would help flesh out the scene, I ask specific leading questions like, “What does the pie smell like? Is the room warm? Is the blanket soft on her skin?”

  • Read it twice. 

    Preferably, I read the manuscript twice. On my first read, I (1) note moments that are fantastic, (2) identify questions and confusions, and (3) limit corrections to typos or grammatical errors that cause confusion. The first read lets me get a feel for the story without focusing on critique comments. This provides a foundation for the critique since I know where the plot is going and have an idea of the strengths and problem areas.On my second read, I go hog wild with comments. I expand and clarify questions, explain if my confusion persisted or was later clarified, offer suggestions for foreshadowing and improving pacing, and of course, provide additional line edits. When appropriate I note whether a comment is from the 1st read or 2nd read. It can be helpful to know if a reaction is due to not yet knowing how the story ends.

  • Embrace the author’s vision. 

    Sometimes an idea is so good, I wish I’d written it myself. But I didn’t and reviewing someone else’s story isn’t the place to tell the story I would write; I need to help the author tell their story. That means I have to figure out what the author was trying to do if the execution isn’t working, and help direct them in a way that will let their vision shine.

  • Leave at least 3 comments per page. 

    This is by no means a rule, but I find that I typically write better feedback if I try to make at least three comments on every page. It helps the author navigate where things are/aren’t working, and it helps me write a more useful summary letter because I’ve made so many notes throughout the manuscript. (I also try to make at least one positive comment on every page.)

The Summary Letter

The summary letter (also called a critique letter, edit letter, or end note) is a way to summarize my feedback and experience reading the piece, as well as highlight the most important elements from my critique. It can also let me fully articulate something I only touched on with in-line comments, usually issues that affect the whole manuscript, like structure, plot, character arcs, or pacing.

I usually highlight two or three strengths and two or three weaknesses in a summary letter. As previously mentioned, I want the author to know what worked well and the things that need further development. My main method for writing an end note is the “Positivity Sandwich.” Basically, I begin and end with positive feedback, putting all the critique bits in the middle. For example,

  1. Hi so-and-so,The strongest element in your story is …

    Here’s some things that weren’t working as well, why they weren’t working, and a suggestion, if I have one …

    It was so cool that … OR Again, I really loved … OR Also, I wanted to mention this awesome thing you did …

It’s a bit of a Jedi mind trick (and lots of writers are savvy to it) but it still makes me feel better to send and read feedback that begins and ends with something the reviewer enjoyed about the work. Again, it lets the author know what readers are connecting with or responding to positively.

The Real Critique Secret

The real secret to writing a great critique comes in spending time with the manuscript. There’s no short cut to analysis and no “trick” to being more effective other than giving a manuscript my full focus. The good news is that the more time I spend looking at other people’s text critically, the easier it is for me to disconnect from my own manuscript and see it as a story to be analyzed rather than My Beautiful Creation. That skill alone keeps me eager to critique manuscripts because as much as I’m writing the critique for someone else, I’m writing it for me, too.

 

I Tweet, Therefore I Write

Twitter is one of my favorite online resources for writing. It’s a great place to meet writers and find opportunities and inspiration. Everyone uses Twitter differently, but here are five ways I use Twitter to help my writing career.

1. To Connect With Other Writers

Connecting with other writers is one of the best things about Twitter. For me, having an account isn’t about promoting my own work; it’s about connecting with people and sharing experiences. Other writers remind me I’m not alone in my struggles, and they are the best sources of support, whether they’re active in my creative process and let me bounce ideas or critique my work, or are just there to share the misery of discovering I need to rewrite eight chapters of a novel.

While I already have several writer friends who use Twitter, I pick up more writers by doing events like NaNoWriMo or by tweeting about writing and tagging it #amwriting. The #amwriting hashtag is a great way to meet writers or to just offer support to a stranger. A lot of the responses I get to my #amwriting tweets are things like, “Keep at it!” or “Know what you mean,” but even the littlest interactions are opportunities to grow my writing community and make a new friend.

2. To Learn About Craft, Strategies, and the Writing Life

Twitter is my number one place for finding articles and posts that discuss various elements of writing craft and life. Sometimes I’ll hone in on issues that I’m having or stuff that I just like to read about (hello, world building and productivity), but the breadth of topics never leaves me wanting. The trick is curating a good list of people to follow who make sense for me. That means I look for Twitter accounts that link to a variety of writing topics. That includes authors like Elizabeth S Craig and Joanna Penn, and accounts that specifically focus on teaching writers like DIYMFA. Genre twitters like Mythic Scribes and Science Fiction are great for focused articles that hit on genre-specific issues. And it’s easier to find these accounts than I thought it would be since Twitter helpfully suggests similar accounts and often times writers will retweet or talk about a new account to follow. Recommendations make the Twitter world go round.

3. To Find Inspiration

I have found so much inspiration on Twitter, though a lot of that inspiration has come from outside the Writing Twitter World. Back in May I found an article on the Radium Girls of World War I, and a few years ago a friend retweeted a song that severed as the inspiration for the novel I’m currently working on. Accounts related to my genres have provided a lot of inspiration—The Victorian Society and Victorian London have been great for steampunk inspiration and research, as has History In Pictures‏, an account that posts historical photos perfect for an alternate history author. There really is a lot of inspiration available on Twitter, as long as I’m open to a new idea.

4. To Find Publishing Opportunities and Tips From Insiders

Most literary magazines and publishers have Twitter accounts, and following those accounts are a good way to stay informed about publishing trends and when literary magazines are looking for submissions. I also take advantage of free content to get an idea for what kinds of stories are being published to figure out if I have any stories that might appeal to their editors.

Like following publishers, editors and agents are great sources of information. Recently I’ve been perking up every time an agent tweets a query tip. Many of these tips fall along the lines of “please, stop doing this specific thing,” but recently I saw a tweet from an agent (Kurestin Armada) recommending that if you receive an offer of representation and are notifying other agents who have your query, attach the complete manuscript. I wouldn’t have considered doing that, but hearing the reasoning from the agent gave me the confidence to be so bold!

5. To Find an Agent

I’ve been on the agent hunt this summer, and Twitter has been one of my key tools for discovering and researching agents. Two of the best sources for information and making connections are the #MSWL hashtag and pitch fests.

#MSWL is a hashtag for agents and editors to post their manuscript wish list. While MSWL tweets can appear at any time, there is usually a designated day during the year when the hashtag is most active. During my agent search, it’s been a powerful tool for gaining insight into an agent’s wants and figuring out if I’m right for them, and if they’re right for me.

Pitch fests like #PitMad are an opportunity for writers to let agents know what they have ready to go. During Pitch Madness (#PitMad), authors with completed ready-to-query manuscripts, pitch their book in a tweet. Agents and editors favorite tweets to show their interest. It’s a great way to find agents you might have otherwise skipped querying because—hello, they’ve already told you they’re interested in your story!

I recently participated in a sci-fi/fantasy pitch fest called #SFFpit that garnered likes from three agents—all of whom I queried. Fingers crossed!

The Not-So-Lonely Path: Sci-fi in the MFA

When I decided to get an MFA, I knew that writing genre could be a challenge. As an undergrad I was discouraged from writing science fiction, enough so that I took more nonfiction workshops than fiction and didn’t write for a year following graduation. (My realistic contemporary fiction was uninspired, but I wasn’t “supposed” to write science fiction—mentally rectifying that disconnect took some time.) I didn’t want a repeat of that experience, but also in the eleven years between my degrees I had learned a lot about fighting for myself.

After I was accepted to the MFA program—following an application that was basically plastered in warnings that I would be writing science fiction—I still thought I might have a battle. After all, even I, future science fiction writer, had left my undergraduate days brainwashed that science fiction didn’t belong in an MFA program. Even if the faculty accepted me, I could still face challenges from the students.

In my first workshop, I was surprised by the overwhelming support I received. There were a handful of dismissive critiques, but the majority of my classmates treated me like a peer and not like I was an inferior sci-fi writer. One memorable critique recommended that I not be “constrained by the genre” while another student restrained his urge to critique my story using the rigorous standards he would apply to literary fiction (that is a paraphrase, but is fairly close to the actual quote that appeared in his critique). These were the comments I had prepared for and the attitude I thought I’d have to fight. I had thought I would have to demand to be taken seriously, to argue that I was in the MFA program to make myself a better writer—which meant developing the craft of writing as it applied to characterization, description, narrative, world building, and plot. “Literary” is a just word that defines the quality of the writing, not the content, I would argue. It applies to work by Isaac Asimov, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, and Nnendi Okorafor, just the same as it does to David Foster Wallace, Junot Díaz, and Donna Tartt. I was ready for this fight!

But it never came. The handful of dismissive and confused critiques in my first workshop were the main confrontation. My classmates were curious and supportive. At a party, a student pulled me aside and quizzed me for an hour about steampunk and alternate history, just because he’d never heard of it before. Basically, my MFA classmates blew away my expectations and set a tone of acceptance not only for me, but for other students who wanted to try their hand at workshopping science fiction and fantasy.

I knew I wanted to approach the MFA on my own terms, and that I would have to work to get what I needed from it. I am lucky that the professors not only welcomed me into the program, but encouraged me to forge my own path. I still read a lot of realistic contemporary fiction for class assignments, but if I was willing to put in extra work, they were willing to let me write papers exploring point of view from robot narrators and examine the differences in structure between Victorian and Neo-Victorian literature. I always say “you get out what you put in,” and that was very much the case for me in the MFA program.

Before the MFA, I was concerned that the divide between literary fiction and genre fiction was too great. I felt like only my echo chamber understood the overlap, but the students and faculty in my program helped me see that we’ve come a long way and that when it comes to accepting science fiction as literature, I am not alone.