Sold “The Days When Papa Takes Me To War” to Beneath Ceaseless Skies

This is my first sale to them.  I don’t write many secondary world fantasy stories, so I’ve only had thirteen prior rejections by BCS. It’s also the first “real” story that I submitted to my MFA workshop last fall (we had an initial assignment to turn in on the 2nd week, but those weren’t workshopped in depth). It was also workshopped once through the Codex Online Writer’s Workshop. But, honestly, I didn’t make many changes after the CWW; the real rewrite was after it came out of the MFA meatgrinder. It’s the first MFA workshop story that I revised and submitted. Hopefully this mean that good things will happen for the other five that I have in reserve! This is also my first professional novelette sale. And I’ve had 111 rejections since my last sale! That’s my longest rejection-interval since 2010! That happens, though.

Thanks to everyone who read and critiqued it! I remember that during the MFA workshop I couldn’t stop smiling, because it seemed so absurd to me that Alice McDermott–a National Book Award-winning novelist–was really giving me comments on a story in which Hemingway fights Nazis with his half-insect lovechild.

Anatomy of a Semi-Mystical Workshop Experience

24resizedJust saw my friend Alex Kane’s blog post about the aftermath of going to Clarion West (which is a six-week summer workshop for SF writing that was taught, this year, by Neil Gaiman and a lot of other good writers who are about a tenth as famous as Neil Gaiman). He had a really good time and posted a very solid and moving description of a Semi-Mystical Workshop Experience.

I myself went to Clarion when I was just a lad. Only 20 years old. Couldn’t even go to the bars. It was very hot in East Lansing. And I definitely had a good time. But, well, here’s the last mention of my Clarion experience in my journal (from 17 hours before I left).*

“Perhaps the happiest moment of my Clarion experience was when I discovered that two months ago I booked my departure ticket for Friday evening rather than Saturday, as I had thought. Mentally, I never want to leave Clarion. But physically, I need to get the fuck out of here. My body is completely breaking down on me. I can’t sleep more than three hours a night due to horrendous coughing fits. I’m suffering from a low-grade fever and I think I’m getting an ear infection. Since [I’m] going to Europe on the 8th of August, it’s really great to know that I’m going to be able to get an additional night of sleep.”

This bears a strong resemblance to my feelings at the end of Sewanee and at the end of pretty much every writing workshop I’ve ever been in. I start off feeling all comradely and wonderful. But by the end, it’s become a grim, nightmareish affair. And when it’s all over, I feel only a tiny bit better than when I started. I think this might just be a personality quirk, since other people seem to have Semi-Mystical Workshop Experiences all the time.

You know what I’m talking about. It’s like, when you go to a workshop and you come back feeling inspired and transformed and utterly different as a writer.

For me, the things I’ve experienced that’ve been closest to SMWE’s have been the two learning experiences that’ve been the least like a traditional workshop.

The first was Nick Mamatas’ 9-week class. There were only 4 people in the class, so everyone could be workshopped every week, if they wanted. And I did want! There was no week in which I didn’t turn in something (although one week, what I turned in didn’t get workshopped by the whole group). And (in my recollection), for the last 5 weeks, what I turned in were stories that I’d written during the class.

Three of the stories that I workshopped in that class (“The Snake King Sells Out”, “Inside The Mind of the Bear”, and “A House, Drifting Sideways”) sold, as did several of the stories I wrote, but did not turn in, while the class was going on (“What Everyone Remembers”, “The Ships That Stir Upon The Shore”, and “No Victims”) . As did four of the six stories I wrote right after finishing the class (“Man-Eater”, “Another Prison”, “Tomorrow’s Dictator”, and “An Early Adoption”). All of these, except “A House…” and “No Victims”, were at more than five cents a word.

What made the class good is that the workshop experience wasn’t a traditional one. Because the class was so small, the workshop was fairly short (maybe 20 minutes) and instructor comments tended to predominate. In most cases, while the comments were good, they didn’t lead me to make massive revisions to the stories in question.

The other great class I took was last semester, when I took a distance-learning class with David Marusek, through a writing center in Alaska (where he lives). David is one of my favorite SF writers, so when I saw on his blog that he was offering one-on-one tutorials, I knew I had to take one.

For that class, I started by turning in a story. Then he gave comments. Then I revised the story and turned it in again. Then he gave more comments. And I revised it yet another time. And then he gave me final comments and the class was over.

For this one, the key was the second revision. For both revisions, what I ended up doing was a total rewrite (I could submit all three versions to a magazine, and no editor would know that they were related). But the second rewrite really forced me to abandon some of the lazy, poorly thought-out stuff I’d allowed to bog me down between the first and second rewrites. And the result was a much more rigorously thought-out story than I’d previously been used to producing.

The habits of mind I got in that class have helped me in all my fiction since then (even realist fictions). It’s just the habit of knowing what I know and knowing what I don’t know and knowing what I need to know. Now, whenever I am bogged down with a story, I try to think about what questions remain unanswered.

Anyway, I think that, for me, a good class is one that doesn’t let me get away with stuff and one that inspires me to write better stuff. And most workshops at least attempt to do that. But they also come with all kinds of other stuff that bogs you down. For instance, summer writing seminars require you to leave your home and go to a strange place. That seems very counterproductive to me. They’re also a huge social scene. Which is great, but also complicates the writing. And, finally, the workshops themselves are often punishing experiences that operate, on some level, by battering you down. When you have 22 people giving comments on your story (as was the case in my Clarion), it’s just a lot going on, a lot of opinions, a lot to take in.

My MFA workshop definitely falls somewhere in the midpoint. It inspires me to produce better work and it doesn’t let me get away with stuff. Nor is it too complicated by personalities. However, the fact that you spend years in the same program as the people you’re workshopping with does tend to take the edge off it, in some ways. Like, in most workshops, at the end of the class, you might be friends with the people, but you’re definitely not in workshop with them anymore. In an MFA program, you’re gonna be doing this together for week after week after week.

Also, the pace of an MFA workshop isn’t quite fast enough to create that euphoric cascade of realizations that is necessary for a Semi-Mystical Workshop Experience. If you’re turning in a story every month, then your blood doesn’t get up and your adrenaline doesn’t pump in the same way that it does when you’re turning in a story every week or when you need to do a complete rewrite over a weekend.

 

*My Clarion posts are the oldest thing on this journal that a person can access. I cringe when I read them. The person who wrote them seems so callow. I wonder if I’ll someday cringe when I read posts like this one?

Why you should never, ever get an MFA

phdhoodgoldpiping           After semi-randomly going on a midnight rampage and reading a whole bunch of articles about why graduate school (in the Humanities) is a terrible idea, I decided to codify some of my pithiest thoughts on the subject.

I’ve sometimes been shocked to hear my friends tell me that their English professors encouraged them to apply to PhD programs. Honestly, to me, that seems like it should be a firing offense: it’s the academic equivalent of malpractice.

The jobs just aren’t there. When you graduate in one of the humanities, you are often super-specialized. There’ll only be like three or four job openings a year for whatever it is that you do. And there’ll be a hundred applicants for it.

Another way to think about it is this: the supply of professorships is not increasing. There was a time, during the 40s and 50s (with the GI bill) and again during the 70s (when women and minorities started entering college in greater numbers) when colleges had to increase in size very fast. The supply of professorships was HUGE. That is not the case anymore. At best, the number of professorships will stay the same. More realistically, it is going to shrink. Basically you will only get a professorship if someone dies. Now, each professor advises maybe 40 or 50 students over the course of his or her career; and only the single best student is going to advance into his (or someone else’s) chair.

In fact, most professors will never have a student who becomes a professor (while others, the ones at prestigious universities, will have several). But even in the most prestigious programs, most of the students are not going to be able to become professors.

Those odds are terrible. It’s legitimately much harder to become a professor than it is to do a lot of other things. Furthermore, between the PhD and adjuncting and post-docs, you usually put in a decade of work before you realize that you’re not going to make it. And when you don’t make it, you’ve been socialized so strongly to believe that becoming a professor is the high-point of life, that not-becoming-a-professor shatters your self-esteem. Also, when you enter the real job market, you find that people generally don’t really want to hire PhDs with little work experience aside from teaching.

What it amounts to is that getting a PhD in the humanities is, from a strict cost/benefit standpoint, almost never a good idea. And it’s definitely not something that should be encouraged.

In some ways, MFAs have it a bit easier. Our degrees are shorter—only 2-3 years—so we waste less time. Since we’re less specialized are generally qualified for almost all of the jobs that open in a given year (rather than just a tiny fraction of them). And we don’t have an expiration date. You can be ten years out of your MFA and, if you publish a book, still be competitive for a teaching job.

However, on a broader level, the job market is still incredibly gloomy. For awhile, the number of creative writing programs was growing rapidly, but I feel like that’s bound to slow down shortly. And even amidst the boom, there are only 25-30 openings every year. Each gets 100+ applicants. And all of those applicants are usually published writers, with books (so they’ve already survived a pretty rigorous selection process). The vast majority of MFAs—even at top tier programs—will not get professor jobs.

Furthermore, MFAs suffer from the same problem of socialization as PhDs. When you’re here, you kind of imbibe the notion that writing is something that happens in a university. I think that makes it hard to write when you’re out there, in the world, working. I think it makes you start to feel like you’re a bit irrelevant. More and more, there doesn’t seem to be much lip-service paid to the notion that someone could work at an insurance agency and still produce good fiction. I feel like people think that if he was really good, then he’d have a professorship. So, to that extent, I think the MFA has the potential to harm peoples’ ability to orient themselves to what will be the reality of their life as a fiction writer: for the rest of your life, your writing will need to be scheduled around a job–some job–that does not involve creative writing or the creative writing industry.

So yes, don’t go to graduate school.

 

Tomorrow: I will write about why this does not make a pessimist (and, also, the circumstances under which you might consider going to grad school)

 

Some of the articles that I read between 2 AM and 4 AM on a day that I think might’ve been a Sunday?

Retrospective on my First Semester in an MFA Program

I’ve turned in all my assignments, given all my grades, filled out all my teacher evaluations, and mentally checked out from school. And I’m actually sad that it’s over. I think that the first semester went really well. I am sure that I’ll eventually get tired of this, but right now I would not be averse to doing this MFA thing forever. Let me go through the many things that I think have been great.

Time

The workload is not high. We teach three 50-minute classes a week. And out-of-class prep time is no more than 7 hours (2 hours of which are grading). So that’s about 10 hours of actual work for our stipends (which, as any googling would tell you, run to about $22,000 a year). And then the workshop is 2.5 hours but has no out-of-class commitment other than the writing that you’re already doing. Our readings class is 3 hours and maybe another 2-3 hours of out-of-class readings. And then, for various incomprehensible institutional reasons, I have to take Spanish, which is about 5 hours of work every week. All together, that’s maybe 20-25 hours of work every week. Which is great! I mean, that’s a half-time job that pays 22k a year and has health benefits.

Furthermore, since I recently started logging the actual amount of time that I spend on various tasks, I can tell you exactly how productive I am able to be. The program started at the beginning of September, and since then, I have written for an average of 10.0 hours every week (Low of 3.0; High of 15.1) and read for an average of 11 hours every week (Low of 4; High of 18). As you can see from my table, I’m a bit less productive than I was in the summer before the MFA…but not that much lower. And part of that could just be seasonal variation, too (I’ve recently crunched nine years of data and realized that I’m much more productive during the summer months)

Task

Workload (hours)

Fall ’12

Summer ’12

Teaching

10

N/A

Workshop

2.5

N/A

Readings class

6

N/A

Spanish

5

N/A

Avg. Writing Time

10.0

12.0

Avg. Reading Time

11

17

I do want to get both my writing and reading numbers up (to somewhere around 15 hours a week, each). But, as a baseline, this isn’t bad. Even amidst all the dislocation of moving and starting a new program and learning how to teach, there’s still time to get stuff done. And it’s easy time, too. I tended to get all my writing done by about 5 or 6 PM, and usually had plenty of time to hang out and see people and browse the internet and do everything else that needs doing. At times, I did feel a little strain, and a few balls did get dropped, but nothing major.

The Writing

Was a little rocky. Slush-reading and workshop, when combined, made me super self-critical of myself, and I was finding it hard to start and finish stories. I also found it very difficult to work on the revision of my novel (since, to my eyes, it looked very bad). However, I did manage to finish the requisite stories for workshop. And I think the self-critical effect has started to abate. Over December, things got much easier

Teaching

Not much to say here. The Hopkins students are better at being students than I am at teaching them. They come to class. They do the reading (or at least fake it really well). They turn in their assignments. They try to write well. And although they can be quiet, they’re really good during discussion (after being prompted). I teach 9 AM and, after the first few classes, I never really felt anxious about going in and teaching. I pretty much knew it was gonna turn out okay (even if I was teaching something I was absurdly unqualified to teach, like “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock”)

The class is a mix of people who are taking it to fulfill their writing requirement and people who are really interested in creative writing (some people are both, of course). Some of the writing is beginning writing, but…that’s okay. As I noted when talking about the slush pile, I’m really not offended by beginner’s writing. Like…you don’t need to be good at something that you’ve: a) never done before; and b) are doing for fun. If I went out and took a tennis lesson, I’d hope that the tennis teacher could look at my own pathetic attempts in the same light.

That having been said, I do see everyone in my class as someone who could potentially pursue writing as a vocation, and I try to give people the sort of advice and guidance that I think I could have used at that age. Mostly, I tell them to submit their work. Err…and to write in scenes.

I’m not a perfect teacher. I’m not even sure that I’m a very good teacher. I think that I guided my discussions too heavily and forced the students to guess what I wanted to hear. It was only as the class was ending that I started to figure out how to lead discussion with a gentler hand. But I’m new at this too, and I hope that by the time I leave here, I’ll have improved considerably.

Workshop

…is good. Alice McDermott was a delightful instructor. At Hopkins, we have her every Fall, so I’ll see her again next year. When workshop is good, there’s not really much to say about it. It’s just…workshop. You have nine peer who call you out for the things you’re doing poorly (hopefully decreasing your odds of doing them poorly again) and you have one instructor who hopefully gives you a paradigm-shifting way of thinking about things.

But when workshop is bad…shit gets crazy! I feel like bad workshops are really both a symptom and a cause of bad social dynamics. What I liked about our workshop was that: a) I didn’t feel like having a story that was well-received in workshop would make you more (or less) popular outside of workshop; and b) I didn’t feel like being popular outside of workshop would accept the reception of your story by the workshop. Now, obviously, to some degree these are false feelings on my part (since we cannot help being unconsciously affected by how much we like a person). But still, at least that effect was dampened.

Part of the credit for this goes to Alice McDermott, who leads a good workshop and does not play favorites. But most of the credit goes to my fellow students. They are awesome.

The People

I am sure that my feelings re: my classmates will eventually become more mixed, as we get to know each other better. Perhaps as soon as this winter! But right now, I like them a lot. All of the ten people in the fiction program are really friendly and interesting. I’m generally pretty friendly and get along well with most people, but I really like my MFA peeps. They’re fun to be around. Most of them decamped from Baltimore a week ago, and I miss them. I think there’s not a one of them that I don’t feel close to. They’re the super-best. (Oh, err…I like all the poets too…)

The City

Aside from the weather not being as good as it is in Oakland, Baltimore is great (for me). Traffic is light. It’s easy to find parking. It’s super cheap. I live in a two-bedroom apartment for which I pay $850 a month (I have an office!). And I can walk to campus every day: my commute is fifteen minutes of walking! Also, it’s very close to DC, where I grew up and have family and friends. And I’ve gotten to know some local Baltimore-area science fiction people, which has also been great. The SF scene around here feels very vibrant. All in all, I don’t think I could’ve gone to school in a better city (for me). However, the area around Hopkins’ campus is most definitely not a hip or a happening place. So if you’re thinking about coming here just, well…keep that in mind.

Okay, that’s it for that, I think.

Even though, in general, a person should always try to pronounce names correctly, I personally don’t care if you mispronounce my name

Whenever I meet new people, the question will always come up about how to pronounce my name. It looks and sounds remarkably like the Spanish Raul or the Portuguese Raoul, but it’s got this ‘h’ in the middle. You’re actually supposed to pronounce that ‘h’–the final result is something like Rah-hool. And inevitably it comes out that some person has been saying Raul for weeks or months or years, and they feel all embarrassed and stuff.

A person named Raul

But there is no need to be embarassed! I literally do not notice it when people say Raul. I don’t hear it at all. All I hear is my name. Nor do you get bonus points for saying it correctly. I do not maintain a mental list of people who pronounce it correctly and people who pronounce it incorrectly. In my mind, this distinction does not exist at all.

I can’t say why this is the case. It’s certainly not some universal facet of human psychology. There are many people who do notice when their names get mispronounced and who do get very touchy about it (especially when there’s an element of anglicization in the mispronunciation…although in my case it’s more of a hispanicization).

And that’s totally okay. People are allowed to feel their feelings and be offended by what they’re offended by, and that’s why I, personally, always feel really embarrassed whenever I accidentally mispronounce peoples’ names. Actually, I’m sure that I’m mispronouncing the names of some of the kids in the class, and that they’re just too polite to correct me. I mean, I keep asking them if I’m saying it right, and they’re just like, “Yeah, that’s right.” But, I mean…they said that to my very first attempt at pronouncing their name. I really don’t think that my first attempt is likely to be correct…

A person named Rahul

Maybe I’m just really self-absorbed and I never really listen to what people say. Actually, my other major conversational blindness is that I find it extremely difficult to pay attention when people introduce themselves. I have to actually steel myself for it and think, “Alright, right after you say your own name, he’s going to say his name. Try to remember it! No…no…don’t immediately start thinking about what you’re going to say next. For the love of God, please focus on his name!”

I’m getting better at it, though. I learned the name of everyone in my class in one day! That’s an accomplishment right there.

In other news, this whole graduate school thing can be kind of brutal. Even when your professors and classmates are cool and the workload is really light (just a 1/1 teaching load and three 3-hour classes with very little homework / reading), there’re a lot of balls to keep in the air. And on top of this, you also have to do enough writing and reading to continue to feel like you’re making progress as a writer. But it’s been a learning experience. I’m making progress on managing my time. The napping regime has been an unmitigated success: I’m sleeping better at night and I feel more alert and happy during the day. I’ve been monkeying around with the way in which I measure my writing. I’m moving away from a word count goal and towards a time-spent goal.

And today I had a pretty good day of writing. Thus, all is well in the world.