Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Do it Yourself MFA: an introduction

A funny thing happened to this post when I went to write my DIY MFA Month One update. I meant to copy the text, paste it, and then edit over it so I could keep the basic framework of the introduction and my goals and just add in what I accomplished. But, uh, sleep deprivation will get you every time and I ended up editing this post and losing all of my original info.

Rather than retype all of that, the quick and dirty is that I would love to do an MFA program but I can't afford it. So I found this book that is basically the blueprint to create my own graduate program in writing and I tweaked the formula to fit my schedule and personal goals when it comes to my publishing career. 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.

It's important to note that no, you don't actually get an MFA degree at the end of this program, but as someone who already works four or five part-time jobs to make ends meet, the allure of part-time teaching isn't why I wish I could do an MFA. It's the learning stuff--I want to Learn All The Things. I want to become a better writer!

I should also say that I don't know the creator of this program and I am not being compensated in any way for blogging about this experience.

Gabriela's DIY MFA program is very methodical and structured, emphasizing the importance of iteration throughout. Her DIY MFA framework has three elements: Reading, writing, and community. Her book has a section for how to get the most out of each of these categories. I added a fourth element: structured coursework. I came up with goals for each of these categories. My goals are for me, based on my schedule, an awareness of what I can reasonably accomplish, and what I'm hoping to get out of the program. If you pursue a program like this, your goals might be totally different. Your timeframe might also be different. I am going to structure my program from today until December 31, 2017, for a total of ten months.

from DIY MFA by Gabriela Pereira

Here are my goals:

My writing goals are to write and revise an average of 120-160 pages a month. I will be working on two projects that are not under contract, in addition to doing revisions for a project under contract with Harper and ideally drafting another book that I sell on proposal.

My reading goals are to average one book a week throughout the whole program. I know to a lot of people that probably seems like nothing, but it's easy for me to get into a funk during revision periods where after reading my own manuscripts repeatedly I just don't want to even look at any other words.

My titles will be selected from four different groups:
  1. Free choice (Yay! The best category :D)
  2. Comparison (to one of my MFA projects in plot or theme)
  3. Classic/Literary (my choice based on my interests, another plus of the DIY model)
  4. Research/Non-fiction

This category encompasses everything from engaging authors, teachers, librarians, readers on social media, to attending events and doing presentations, to interacting with editing clients and beta.readers, etc. This will be the hardest category for me. Rather than have quantifiable goals here, since so many different things play into this, my aim will be to slowly increase my engagement with the reading/publishing community, especially beyond Twitter, which tends to be what I fall back on when I am too afraid to pursue more meaningful forms of interaction.

I like to learn things from other people, especially writing pros, so I will be taking three different courses during the next ten months to fulfill my coursework. The first is James Patterson's Masterclass on novel writing. The second is Shonda Rhimes Masterclass on writing for television and the third is a screenwriting class I signed up for last year but still haven't worked through. I personally think learning about the craft of story in different mediums like this is more helpful than only studying the craft of novel writing.

Maybe you're turning up your nose at the idea of learning from James Patterson and Shonda Rhimes. Well, there's no denying they're both extremely successful storytellers, and writers tend to write the kind of books they want to read. I like to read fast-paced commercial fiction--both mystery/thrillers and books with poignant prose that punch you in the feels but ultimately leave you feeling inspired. In other words, these courses are perfect for me. If you want to do the program with a more literary slant, find classes offered by more literary writers or look into taking a course at a local college.

I also entered a Write a Book With James Patterson contest. Pick me, James!
I am a lifelong student who wants to learn from the best :)

If DIY MFA is something you're interested in, check out Gabriela's website, where you can sign up for her mailing list and get a free DIY MFA starter kit. 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 continuing with 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 embracing a new writing adventure.


  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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