Thursday, October 1, 2015

#WritersLife: Ways to Improve Creative Writing Programs

#WritersLife - Amber the Blonde Writer

#WritersLife, where I talk writing in real life.

After much scheming with some of my dear writer friends this past week (Eric the Great and Donna the Magnificent), I realized that there is so much I still don't know about the publishing world. Not just the marketing and agent aspects, but also the author's life. I want to know more about revision, beta readers, critique partners, querying, and the writing community, and I wish all this information had been available during my college years.

It wouldn't take any of you long to stalk this website to see where I studied, but I'll save you the trouble and tell you. I attended UT El Paso, and below are the lists of things I wish I could have learned and would change today about its Undergraduate Creative Writing Program.

More inclusive creative writing organization

There was one creative writing organization when I was getting my degree, and it consisted of the same four people (maybe three, maybe six depending on the year) who believed in only writing realistic literary fiction for adults. For anyone who may wondering what literary fiction is, it's basically the crap you read in English classes because it's supposedly transcendent and so in cue with human intellect and understanding.

It's crap. Let's be real.

I write young adult. My best friend wrote fantasy. Another wrote romance. Some of us loved science fiction. The bottom line is that this organization, while they would read our wonderful pieces, would simply offer a meager critique before advising us to write realistic fiction and not experiment too much. They should have called themselves the Undergraduate Realistic Literary Fiction Society because that's all they would accept.

It's difficult to find programs that are willing to teach genre-specific techniques, but the organizations should embrace these students and allow them a place to free their work. Basically, writers and their works are all equal, like in every art medium. Therefore, our school organizations should reflect this concept and accept our super awesome dystopian novels (you guys knew I would throw that one in).

More acceptance of different genres

I touched on this, but why not dig a little deeper? The organization wasn't accepting other genres, so more classes should be offered. I get that not everyone wants to write contemporary and maybe some can't stand mystery (which are both fantastic so those other people are strange birdies). Regardless, courses can still be taught across semesters that focuses on reading works specific to these genres and learning what makes them tick.

I love young adult, but I read adult and children's books as well. However, when it comes to voice, plot, and characters, I learn the most from YA books because those are my examples. I took a YA Lit class my sophomore year and it was GOLD. I read genres of YA I wouldn't normally and that alone taught me so much. These courses are necessary.

Maybe offer a mystery writing class every three semesters. A science fiction class every two semesters. A romance class every four semesters. They're genre specific, so spread them out.

More workshops, please!

I don't know what other programs are like (and I'm referring to undergraduate only here), but I can count on my hands how many workshops I took part in regarding a number of my stories.

Less than 15.

Yes, 15 is more than two hands. Get out of here, math brains.

Back to the point, 15 workshops over the course of 3 years? For some, that may seem like a lot, but considering that these were stories that could not be longer than 10 pages, they were meager. My current NA novel is 250 pages. It wouldn't have been completely critiqued in that time.

I had one professor who I will name because he was great. Dr. Sirkin made us read, and I read as much with him as I do now as a reader for a literary agent. I usually hated what he gave us because I am the pickiest reader ever (although he did introduce me to Philip K. Dick and I will be forever grateful to him for that), but I read a ton. That helped my writing. That was necessary. He also made us write two stories a semester, a very feasible feat.

Few were like him. The stories I wrote for his class I could see myself publishing elsewhere. The stories I wrote for most of my classes were so specific to an assignment that they're complete garbage in retrospect. They don't even make sense, but they did get me an A: A waste of words.

It should go without saying: there should be workshops, and more of them.

Classes on various aspects of publishing

I did learn about writing throughout this program; what I learned little of was how to get these words published. I had one professor spend a week talking about small publishing because, and this is close to a quote, we probably wouldn't hit it big so we should try to publish short stories here and there and make our living doing something else.

Wow. Way to motivate, prof. I'm so happy to be contributing to your paycheck.

No. Teach us about publishing, about agents and houses and how negotiations work and how we query and how we expand our author platform. Teach us enough about writing and plotting and revising that our work has a chance to be published and hugely successful. Teach us anything at all!

Yeah, I didn't like that one. Can you tell? But anyway, just one class on this would have immensely helpful. It wouldn't have had to be required for anyone who wanted to focus 100% on their writing, and that's fine. But for those of us who want to learn about the next step, give us something to learn.

Offer a rewriting course

This last one is more of my personal interests, but I thought I'd include it for the sake of additional knowledge. I know many of my professors and fellow students wanting a grammar class, and I completely agreed with that. What about revision classes? I suck at revisions unless I have others offering some kind of feedback. Otherwise, I'll keep going in the same circle of taking out a comma and putting it back in, which helps no one.

I would have appreciated a rewriting course. Something to teach about plotting, about outlines, about revising for character development and style, and about the voice of the narrator and how it can contribute to and change the story. I believe as many writers would have appreciated a class where they are given a short story (let's say 3,000 words) and are asked to revise it to fit a certain idea, tone, or genre. That would have been fun!

One-time lectures

These would be two hour lectures (maybe less) about a certain aspect of an author's life students may want to know about. Maybe students want to set up their author platform: where do they begin? Maybe some of them are interested in self-publishing: what are the differences between it and traditional publishing? Perhaps some would like to market their published pieces: should they use more of their platform or go deep into social media?

These don't warrant a class, but they are necessary for a writer in this day and age. Even agents and editors would like to see an author with their own established author platform (unless they're a Big 5 House, then I have no idea how they work). With an online presence, there is such a broader range of getting word about your book out, and it helps to be proactive in the beginning.

At the end of the day, we need to find more variety and learn from as many different corners as we can. Writing may be a solitary activity, but this community is more social than puppies in a park. I've yet to meet a writer who didn't want to pass on advice about how they did something. 

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