Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Do it Yourself MFA: Introduction

Hi guys :) I'm writing this post to let you know about a book and program called DIY MFA. I have always wanted to attend writing graduate school. Back when I was twenty-three and finishing up Americorps, which was what I did right after college, I applied to about ten writing graduate programs. I had paid off a chunk of my student loans (thank you, Americorps!) and didn't want to go deeper into debt, so I only applied to fully funded schools that provided full tuition scholarships/fellowships + a stipend for living expenses, which tend to be some of the most competitive programs in the country.

All of these schools rejected me. Some of the rejections were extremely encouraging, pointing out things like the average age of their students was six years older than me, that many of their students were published authors, that my writing showed promise and I should reapply the following year, etc. But when you grow up getting all As in grade school (okay, fine, except for Bs in gym), high school, and college, and then get rejected from grad school, it hits hard, or at least it did for me. Instead of reapplying, I took a writing hiatus for several years. Pro tip: don't be like twenty-three year old me.

Technically 21-year-old me, but at this point who the hell is counting ;)

Fast forward through a stint of working in social services and retail management and in a restaurant kitchen and considering becoming a teacher and a veterinarian and teaching English abroad and flapping and flailing because I couldn't figure out what I wanted to do with myself. I eventually pursued nursing, mostly because I'm a squishy INFP who needs a "helping people" component to her life, but partially because a hospital nurse's full-time schedule is three 12-hour shifts. That left a lot of free days for, you guessed it, writing. At the moment I write full-time (plus do two other part-time side jobs to help make ends meet) but there's a good chance I'll go back into nursing at least part-time. It's a rewarding profession and being a nurse has helped me become a more open-minded, culturally sensitive, and compassionate human being.

Its official. I am Luna :)

But I have never stopped wanting to do an MFA program.'s one of the few things I've always been good at! Sadly, now I've got grad school loans and I'm in even less of a position to be able to afford to borrow more moneys. (Getting older sucks like that :P) And although I could apply and possibly land one of those fellowship slots, it would require moving, which is also expensive. And to be frank, it's not so much the degree that I really want. It's the focused coursework--learning more about the craft of writing, accountability that keeps me producing pages, reading assignments that force me to read regularly and choose titles outside of my comfort zone, critical feedback from other committed writers.

So when someone asked me to write her a recommendation for MFA programs last year, and I penned my enthusiastic letters with a twinge of jealousy, I decided I was going to recreate the MFA grad school experience for myself. And I was going to make it work for me--I wouldn't have to move or go into debt, I wouldn't be limited to a slower writing pace than I'm used to, and I wouldn't be forced to write long critical papers on books that I despise. Imagine my delight to find out that someone has ALREADY created a template for people who want the MFA experience but can't do an actual program. Enter Do it Yourself MFA. Here's the official description from Goodreads:

Get the Knowledge Without the College! You are a writer. You dream of sharing your words with the world, and you're willing to put in the hard work to achieve success. You may have even considered earning your MFA, but for whatever reason--tuition costs, the time commitment, or other responsibilities--you've never been able to do it. Or maybe you've been looking for a self-guided approach so you don't have to go back to school. This book is for you.

"DIY MFA" is the do-it-yourself alternative to a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing. By combining the three main components of a traditional MFA--writing, reading, and community--it teaches you how to craft compelling stories, engage your readers, and publish your work. 

Inside you'll learn how to: Set customized goals for writing and learning. Generate ideas on demand.Outline your book from beginning to end. Breathe life into your characters. Master point of view, voice, dialogue, and more. Read with a "writer's eye" to emulate the techniques of others. Network like a pro, get the most out of writing workshops, and submit your work successfully. Writing belongs to everyone--not only those who earn a degree. With "DIY MFA," you can take charge of your writing, produce high-quality work, get published, and build a writing career.

Full disclosure. I don't know Gabriela Pereira and I am not being paid or incentivized in any way to promote this program. I simply Googled stuff like "MFA coursework" and "teach yourself MFA" and her program popped up. I bought the book, found it helpful even as an author currently working on books #11 and #12, and so I decided I would share the info with you and blog about my experience doing the program. I think this book can be helpful to writers at all stages of their publication journeys. If you like the sound of this but aren't ready to commit to buying the book, check out her website where you can score a free DIY MFA starter kit by signing up for email updates.

One of the things stressed throughout the book is iteration--trying something and then systematically analyzing your results and making changes to your procedure based on the outcome of your analysis. DIY MFA is very clear that there is no one right path for writers to take. With that in mind, I read the entire book and have developed my own ten-month program. In addition to writing, reading, and community, which Gabriela focuses on, I'm adding a fourth component--structured education. Yes, all of her components are essential in the overall MFA education, but I decided I also wanted a lecture-type component from people I view as writing experts. Here is an outline of the program I have created for myself, which I'm starting today:

My writing goals are to write and revise an average of 120 pages a month during the periods I'm intensely focusing on writing. Right now I'm planning to focus on writing in March and April and September and October. I'll still be producing pages in those other months, but on a smaller scale. Overall, my plan is to write and revise two full-length projects during this ten month period, with the option to play around with a third project as long as I'm keeping up with my DIY MFA goals.

My reading goals are to average one book a week throughout the whole program, a little less when I'm doing focused writing, a little more in the other periods. I realize actual MFA programs might require more reading, but to my knowledge they generally require less writing, so this is what I meant when I said you can tailor this program to fit your own goals. I know I want to read more, but I don't need to spend more time reading than writing. 

My titles will be selected from four different groups:
  1. Free choice: YA, adult, non-fiction--whatever strikes my fancy. This is clearly the best category :)
  2. Comparison: These books will be chosen because they have something in common with one of the two projects I'll be working on.
  3. Classic/Literary: Bleh, this is the category I avoid like the plague, but because this is *my* program, I can expand my knowledge of classic literature by choosing titles that interest me, not books forced upon me by professors. I will consult MFA reading lists, but my classic/literary books can be anything that fits those categories at a high school level or above.
  4. Research: Most of my books require reading at least one or two books for research.

Ah, other people. Why do you scare me so? ;) I fully admit that I have slacked off somewhat in maintaining connections in the writing community. My plans for this element include the following:
  • maintaining relationships with bloggers and readers online
  • becoming more engaged in my local YA writers group
  • joining a local YA book club
  • attending more literary events here in Portland
  • doing more Skype and in-person visits with book clubs and classrooms
  • working more with beta-readers on my current projects
  • continuing to work as a freelance editor at Manuscript Critique Services
  • blogging once a month about my DIY MFA experience.

One of the best writing classes I ever took was the YA novel writing class previously offered by Mediabistro, but they have changed their format and no longer seem to offer workshop novel-writing classes. I also signed up for the James Patterson Masterclass last year and completed the first few lessons before getting bogged down with deadlines and holiday obligations. So, the first thing I will be doing is reviewing and completing the James Patterson class. Then Masterclass will be offering a Writing for Television class with Shonda Rhimes that I'll be taking. Finally, I have a screenwriting class in mind to take later in the year.

Maybe you are scrunching up your nose at the thought of James Patterson and Shonda Rhimes. That's fine, but there's no denying both of them are incredibly successful storytellers. I write the kind of books I want to read, and that is generally fun, commercial fiction. Just because I got all those As in high school doesn't mean I was kicking back with Jane Austen. In fact, I have NEVER read a Jane Austen book (yet.) There is nothing "lesser" about writing commercial fiction, but if you have different goals and want to create a DIY MFA with a more literary education component, you have lots of online and (probably) in-person writing courses you can pick from.

For me the goal here is to broaden my knowledge base, and I think learning about different types of writing (TV, screenwriting, etc.) will help me become a better overall writer.

So if DIY MFA is something you're interested in, check out Gabriela's website, and check back here at the beginning of each month as I review my progress from the previous month and share tips and tricks I've discovered along the way. I'm really excited about attempting this program, and after cranking out multiple books for tight deadlines that sort of killed my writing joy a little, it feels great to be embarking on a new writing adventure.

Have any of you completed a traditional or a DIY MFA? Please share your own tips and tricks in the comments. We writers gotta stick together, and I personally will take all the help I can get :D

My support team, enjoying their new multi-cat (AKA big dog) bed ;)


  1. I'm glad to hear you're finding a way to get your writing joy back!

    1. So much joy, dude! And so much productivity too. My goal for this month was to read 4 books and write 120 pages, and I'm going to end up with 5 or 6 books read and over 160 pages written :)

  2. AGH! I love this post! And it came at the perfect time. I had a dream last week and woke up with a full fledged plot for a YA book and it didn't have any the issues of my previous book.
    But of course after writing the first 20 pages on a single weekend, I stalled because I wasn't getting the MC first person voice right, so I think I just need to take the Initiate and just keep going because eventually I feel like I'll get it but I probably won't know until I have her interact with more characters and get more scenes fleshed out. I miss you tons!!!

    1. I miss you too! I'm glad the post inspired you, C!

  3. This is an awesome post! Best of luck with your DIY MFA plan. I actually read about something like this that Min Jin Lee did. She talked about it in the foreword for the 10th anniversary edition of Pachinko, and it made me want to get much better at writing and craft. It was also overwhelming reading about all the work she did to write the way she does, but an inspiring kind of overwhelming :D Will be looking into something like this in the future!

    1. Cool! I will have to look that up :) And yes, it's great that independent, self-guided people have so much information at their fingertips so that we can teach ourselves the things we can't go to school for. (I would literally go to school for almost everything if I could. I want to learn it all :D)


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