I’ve always known that I would be a writer. And I found myself a program that would help me make money doing it. From August 2008 to May 2010, I was enrolled in the Master of Professional Writing program offered through the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma.
Throughout the program, students had to write a screenplay, the first 50,000 words of a novel, a non-fiction book proposal, and of course, the final project that we would defend in order to receive our master’s degree. These generally varied from screenplays to novels to short story collections to graphic novels.
It was rigorous. It was intense. It was tough. But it was probably one of the best things I did to push me toward becoming a professional writer. I know not everyone can afford grad school, and with the economy the way it is, it’s not always prudent to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a program that will not always guarantee you a job. That’s why I’ve condensed my experience down to 10 points that I think are the things that have helped me the most as a writer.
So, without further ado, here are the 10 things I learned in the Master of Professional Writing program:
1. How to breakdown a scene
Before entering this program, I just kind of wrote what needed to happen in the story. Now, I’m really careful about making sure that I have a good ratio of what Jack Bickham refers to as “scene and sequel.” The scene is where the action happens. The sequel is where the character processes the action, reassesses, and establishes a new scene goal in order to achieve the overall story goal.
Sound confusing? It’s not, I promise. But if you’re interested in learning more, you should maybe get yourself a copy of this book. I promise I’m not working on commission, and I wasn’t told by my former professors to peddle this book. I just think it was really helpful.
2. Characteristics of every genre
One of my favorite classes was called Category Fiction. We were assigned 14 novels of every imaginable genre to read throughout the semester, and then we wrote short papers on each of them where we discussed the strengths and weaknesses of each. In doing so, not only did the class teach us about different genres, but we learned how to adapt techniques used in one genre to enhance our own writing--even if we thought we hated that genre.
And while I didn’t need a class to read novels, I was introduced to things I wouldn’t have made myself read otherwise. If you’re looking for the same experience, find bestsellers in every genre, and read them. You’ll be glad you did.
3. How to write a non-fiction book
At the time, this felt like pulling teeth. I had spent my whole life ready to make up stories to the joy and delight of others, but was being forced to outline a non-fiction book proposal just for the degree. But, in taking the class, I realized that the idea of writing a non-fiction book really appealed to me, especially when I realized it didn’t have to be a text book. I even wrote my book proposal about my table waiting experience at the aforementioned pro wrestling restaurant!
The major takeaway I got from writing this proposal was seeing what agents were looking for and how I needed to market myself and my work in order to make it as a writer. If you’re interested in learning about book proposals, I suggest checking out this book.
4. No one knows how to handle the industry anymore
My program had 3 very different professors who taught different subjects. One was very old school and believed strongly that finding an agent was the only way to a legitimate career as a writer. The second professor had published traditionally for many years, but had recently started self-publishing on Amazon, with quite a bit of financial success. He always advocated the possibility of self-publishing as a good way to stay relevant and make money. The third professor was quite obviously waiting for retirement. (There’s always one of those in a department, regardless of the program.) But it was odd to hear such disparate opinions from two writers who had achieved a large amount of success doing things differently. If anything, this has taught me that there is no right way to publish.
5. Everything is a war
Genre vs. Literature! Traditonal publishing vs. Selp-publishing! Pick a side!
This is probably something you’re familiar with just from reading anything about the publishing industry on the internet. But I think it was really drilled into my head during grad school how deeply ingrained this war is, and the consequences of it. The Professional Writing program was very much all about genre fiction. So we sat quietly and listened to professors sneer at literature, even though a well-rounded writer really needs to read both genre and literature.
But that doesn’t mean the war isn’t going on. There are agents and publishers who won’t touch you if you’ve self-published before. There are critics who will discount what you write completely if you’ve ever published genre fiction. Granted, it’s not all. But it’s fairly common, and happens often enough that everyone should consider the potential consequences of what they write and how they publish it.
6. The query process
I will not call myself an expert in this realm, primarily because I’ve never sent out a single query letter. I don’t think I’ve written anything worth publishing at the moment, and I know that when I have, I’ll be ready. But throughout the Masters of Professional Writing program, not only did we get to see how the process had worked for our professors and alumni, but we got to hear talks from agents about what gets their attention and what makes them throw a query letter in the garbage. Because of this, I feel confident that I’ll be able to make a pretty decent query letter that hopefully doesn’t get thrown out.
I’m sure you could probably find this information on the internet. Read the blogs of agents and editors, and of course, of other writers who have queried before.
The worst part about being a writer is that you also have to be a functioning member of society. So, you’re working on this manuscript. Great. But you’re also working 40 hours a week and buying groceries and vacuuming the house and training your dog to stop chewing on the ottoman for crying out loud! We all know people who say “Oh, it must be so relaxing to just sit down and write. I wish I had time for that.” are morons and should be publicly berated in the town square because there is nothing relaxing about sitting down at a computer at 11 PM after a full day just to squeeze out 500 words.
But in grad school, I learned that it didn’t matter what had to be done in a day because it all had to be done. What mattered was finding the balance between school work, life, and manuscript writing. I wish I could say that it made life easier, but it really just made me stop complaining and do the work. That’s really all you can do.
8. There is no easy way to write a book
I thought I would come out of the program with a clear grasp and map to follow to write a bestseller. And while I could probably talk at length about all the things that make a bestseller sell, I can’t just sit down and write one. (If I could, you probably would’ve heard of me by now.) There’s still the whole writing process, which is like running a marathon with your brain. And then, you have to edit. And then you have to go through the edits you got from your writing group and critique partners. And then, you have to set it down for maybe a week or else you’ll go crazy and you kind of want to change your protagonist now that you think about, but what if it was told in first-person point of view, only the narrator is dead and doesn’t know it?
No one ever reaches a point where novels effortlessly flow forth from their fingertips when they put their hands on the keyboard. There is no way to get around the writing, the editing, and the second guessing.
9. If the muse calls in sick, you still write
I think most writers would agree that when “the muse” is there, it’s like magic. But more often than not your muse is kind of a bum who only shows up every other month or so, and can’t be bothered to stick around for more than an hour. The rest of the time it’s gotta be you slogging through the manuscript. And it’s gotta be you sticking to the schedule you made. Don’t feel like writing that day? TOO BAD. Write. Write until you scheduled yourself to stop. Get off social media and write. You know who writes? Writers.
Writers are the people who keep writing, regardless of whether or not their professor likes it, regardless of whether or not they feel like they are creating art, regardless of whether or not they can capture the current zeitgeist that has captivated readers the world over. You will meet all kinds of people through your writerly travels who fancy themselves writers, but you will know the real writers when you see them.
10. Your professors don’t know everything
I think this is fairly obvious to everyone, but the people who teach you to do something don’t have all the answers. What they know is what they’ve been taught and their personal experience. So, it’s wise to note that as the publishing industry continues to evolve, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll have a professor who can answer all the questions that take over your brain as you lay awake in bed at night. But, if you’re lucky, you’ll get a professor who can teach you what you need to learn about writing and what you need to know in order to write YOUR book.
And if you’re really lucky, you can find this in the form of a critique partner who doesn’t require you to take out student loans.