Tuesday, August 03, 2010

MA Degree Questions

Dear Rejecter,
I have been writing novels since I was about seven. I literally think about it all the time. However, try as I might I have never been able to get beyond the 40,000 word mark before losing the plot and momentum of my story and deciding to start something else entirely. I'm a journalist on a big women's glossy in the UK so it's not getting the words down on paper that's the problem, it's rather getting my plot from A to B that stumps me.

I'm currently looking into doing a part time MA in creative writing in the hope that following a structured course might help me complete a first draft, but it's a lot of money - over £6,000 for two years of study. The course I have in mind gives you the opportunity to showcase your work with literary agents towards the end of the two years. Which sounds great, but I'm unsure as to how much value the course itself would be.

My first question is aimed at you as a published author yourself, the last two as an assistant to a Literary Agent:
a) Do you believe there is any value in doing a qualification such as an MA in Creative Writing if you can already write but are struggling with plot?
b) In your experience, how many published authors have completed these kinds of courses?
c) How valuable would the contact with literary agents through the course be? Ie would they take you more seriously/ more likely to consider your novel?

Things may be different in the UK, but here are my answers for the US:

a) You get what you put into any creative writing course. Meaning, if you write a lot you'll probably get better. You could also do that without the course, but some people need structure and some people are convinced they need feedback. I got little to no useful feedback in my MFA prgram.

b) Very few. Very to none, really. Unless they went on to teach. Then they needed the degree to do that, but preferably an MFA over an MA.

c) Little to no value.

Also, $11000 (by my guesstimate of the exchange rate) for a two-year degree is insanely cheap by most American standards, unless you are earning a degree online, they are significantly more affordable.

Note: I should clarify that if taking a course makes you go from a bad writer to an insanely good writer, it has tremendous value. I've never seen that happen, but that doesn't mean it hasn't.


Carolyn said...

I returned to school to get my MA (there was no MFA program within reasonable distance of my home, and with a young child and a job, moving was not an option) and I don't regret it at all. It was the best thing I could have done for my writing and for me personally.

I started out thinking I would do an emphasis in Literature, but finished with an emphasis in Creative Writing. The lit classes were invaluable. I found the writing classes somewhat less valuable, for many of the reasons mentioned in the answer to the question posed here.

I entered the program as an already published author (which I told NO ONE in the early going). I went to school part time while working full time so it took me a while -- 1-2 classes a semester. I wrote two more books (already contracted) and sold 4 more before I finished.

What I gained from being around smart people who were thinking and talking about complicated subjects made me a better writer. For that reason alone, I would do my MA all over again, without a second thought.

The problem of not completing a book is a common one. At about 40K words a novel can often seem like a big fat mess -- it's tempting to think the project is a failure and that it would be more fun and less painful to start something shiny and new. An MFA program is probably not going to teach you how to get through that.

It's my opinion that novels that don't get finished can often mean that the writer is using a process that does not work for her. You are outlining and pre-plotting, for example, when you are really a seat of the pants writer who gets frustrated when the writing won't stick with the outline. Or, conversely, you're a writer who thrives on the structure of advance plotting and outlining and you're writing without that structure.

Getting yourself into contact with other writers, the more experienced the better, could be quite helpful, and an MFA program will certainly do that. But "talented" and "experienced" are not the same thing, and for problems with finishing, you need to be hearing from writers who have solved that issue.

In my heart, however, I don't believe an MA or MFA program will teach you to finish a novel. I suspect that is intimately tied up in whatever your writing process is, and that you must discern on your own, having listened to various solutions and approaches and tried them out for yourself.

Good luck with your decision.

Anonymous said...

I think the questioner needs to overcome this hurdle herself-- I don't see why the program would help her. In fact, from the contact I've had with college creative writing programs the professors seem to stress "writing" over stuff like plot and character, so it seems like they wouldn't help the questioner with the things she wants help with.

I think she should read a few good books on writing, specifically on plot and character. Or even a lot of good books-- she can afford them if she's got $11,000.

Then she should sit down and write.

Najela said...

I was just struggling through this myself. I'm getting my BA in Creative Writing, but I still want to actively learn writing.

In this person's case, I don't think getting an MA would help finish a novel. It might spark more ideas and give her encouragement, but I agree with anonymous. I don't think those are things that couldn't be learned through good books and an excellent critique partner.

Kate said...

Just to point out several things:

In the UK, there are no MFA programmes, only MAs.

£6000 for a part-time two year programme is fairly decent compared to other similar MA degrees in the UK. (Tertiary education is heavily subsidized in the UK, mainly because UK taxpayers make up in higher taxes and a slightly lesser educational experience, so a comparison to MFA degrees in the US is not valid or fair).

Jess said...

Have you joined any critique groups or writing circles? A lot of the value of a writers program comes from your fellow writers (professors often make a point of saying that they're writing students as well), so these might be a better alternative if financial costs of school are prohibitive.

Also, have you tried outlining before writing? Nothing set in stone, but really finalizing where you want the story to go and how it needs to get there can help keep you on track when you hit a halfway slump. It's obviously something you can edit as you go. Now instead of looking at the days writing as part of a novel, which can get overwhelming sometimes, you can look at it as a writing prompt.

Pull the next scene from the outline and write just that. Use what you've already learned about your characters from research and earlier writing, but write this scene as if it's the first chapter of the book or a short story in its own right. It may require some serious editing later, but hopefully it'll be enough to get you writing.

Anonymous said...

I assume the money in the average writer's bank account is still finite in the UK, so considering whether it's worth spending a whole lot of money on something is still valid and fair.

I think most of us were trying to help, not trying to criticize the fee structure of British universities. Easy now.

jseliger said...

I can't add much to the MFA discussion, but I can tell you that I had the same kinds of problems with plot when I started writing novels—which inspired me to write "Working out the plot with the Rejector, Carlos Ruiz Zaf√≥n, and other friends."

It's some of the advice I wish someone had given me six or seven years ago. Maybe it will help you.

SariBelle said...

You could try an online writing course and see how that goes before making the bigger leap into an MA.

You might want to check out Holly Lisle's online writing courses. I'm currently completing one and find it very useful. It addresses plotting and finishing a novel very thoroughly.

Anonymous said...

By all means, educate yourself. The rigor of a program offers discipline and the opportunity to work closely with other like-minded folks.

But please don't be the guy I saw in the coffee shop yesterday, disclaiming (loudly) about how much he hates Stephen King. "I have a MASTERS degree in LITERATURE!" "King is a hack! He doesn't write his own books!" "In my program, we trashed King all the time!"

I have a masters myself (not in lit, admittedly in one much more commercial/employable), and I feel like you get out what you put in, even in my job-oriented one. If you put in only the desire to get the degree because you will be due respect from the literary community, then you get out....not so much.

If you put in the work necessary to hone your craft, then you will benefit greatly!!

I'm not a writer, but if I were, I'd consider the masters, because I'd value the rigor and discipline, as well as the exposure to and input from other writers/critics/editors/faculty.

Good luck!

JR said...

This is not a comment about the M.A. I just wanted to respond to this writer's challenge to go beyond the 40,000 word mark. For many years, I had a similar problem, frequently brought on by a busy work schedule and inability to commit enough time to a project to stay involved in it. What helped me go beyond that was write 'throw away' scenes just to make myself more interested in the characters. I would plant them at some possible future point, anything that would be easy to write because there is constant action. I often found that I liked the 'throw away,' material and would eventually insert it into my novel. Then I had only to create a bridge of scenes to get me to the future scene that I had already written. I hope this helps, sorry if it's a bit confusing.