Archive for category Grad School

Post-MFA reflections

It feels odd, writing this now – as opposed to when I actually graduated back in January. The thing is, this is the first June since 2012 (when I started) that I’ve not had to make the trip for school. I won’t have to make that trip again – I can, and likely will (there is a separate Workshop that runs concurrent with the June Residencies that I might try to present at), but that’s the fun part. That would be as a professional gig, under different obligations than as a student.

To say there is a unexpected, heightened, sense of withdrawal right now would not be incorrect.

It’s a feeling that I’ve not had from any of my other programs. It’s the connection based on the power of stories – of exploring them, creating them and helping to make them better – shared by people with similar visions. Residencies were heady experiences, once the initial shell-shock of the first few days wore off.

Add to that that the guest speaker for this Res is Chuck Wendig, an author I have been following for the last few years. He’s actually someone that has a fairly good following within the program, at least among the Spec Fic writers.

In that vein, a few bits of Wendig-ian advice, appropriate to this initial post-MFA period that I’m going through – and a reminder to those just starting:

And oldie but goodie that I’ve shared before:

A Writer’s Prayer:

Speaking to the process:

And finally, where Neil Gaiman says, “Make good art,” Wendig offers a more blatant battle cry for the trenches:

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June Res 2014 Day 2

Thursday.

Thor’s Day.

By Thor…I needed all the help I could get.

No, that’s not quite right. I was 90% prepared, going into the morning. I had piloted the in-room technology the day before, things worked fine. I had given myself plenty of time to run out to get treats to encourage class participation. Had prepped a few side documents (a roll sheet, a notes page as a guide to remind me of points, or keep me from rambling). Then I got to the campus computer lab, and the server was being wonky, and not letting me print. In the classroom, the tech had been changed so the display was that of the overhead projector, not the mirror-display from the computer.

While the monitor issue was resolved, I was still faced with presenting without my formal notes. Good thing I had been giving serious thought to performing my presentation as I was putting it together. Add a certain degree of passion about the subject, and I was able to do a fair share of winging my way through. I ended a little on the shorter side, and the debrief included a couple of possible activities I could have used to stretch the time a little longer, but I passed, which is ultimately the primary concern.

Let me explain. Remember that “Teaching Popular Fiction” course I mentioned? Students coming out of that class do teaching presentation at their next Residency. I was lucky enough to get mine done on the first day, lifting much of the pressure and antica…..pation that might have been there had I not been slated for later in the Res.

The afternoon module I had opted for was “The 30-Minute Novel,” for Reasons. From my mentor meeting, (two days prior, before Orientation), I had been given the green light to start work on another project. During this module, I added flesh to a story skeleton I had been tinkering with, getting a clearer idea for how it may play out.

Then came a (relatively) quiet night.

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June Res 2014 Day 1

The first session is a split one. During the 3-hour morning block, there is a (mixed) “Discussion of the Common Reading” session, followed by a class-specific breakout workshop.

An aside. I think I’ve mentioned before that there is a common text selected for each Residency, that varies based on a genre schedule. January, for instance, we read NOS4A2 by Joe Hill (Horror). Two years ago, when I started, it was The Hunger Games (YA). This time, the text was The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman.

A second aside. The program is structured to cover five academic semesters. The first three are (usually) “Readings in Genre” courses. The fourth term is when students take the “Teaching Popular Fiction” course. It is the students in that course that are given the opportunity to assemble materials (handout or Powerpoint presentation) that are used for the discussion sessions for the common reading at the next Res.

I was one of the four people that worked on the materials. They went over well.

Then came our breakout session: Reading Aloud, along with a brief discussion of what we need to be prepared for in this last semester, if we plan on graduating in January.

After lunch saw the start of the formal modules. I had selected “Media Tie-ins.” They were one of my gateways, way back when (gaming related books, ST:TOS and TNG novels), that I wouldn’t be opposed to one day playing in other peoples universes.

I sat in on one of the thesis readings that night, before putting the finishing touches on my teaching presentation, set for the next morning.

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June Res 2014: Drive and Day 0

The Drive. The longest slog. I left the house early enough – 10am – to make the 8 hour drive (had I gone straight through). Stopped for lunch about half-way, and traffic was moving well. No problems.

Then I missed a turn.

No, no horror stories…at least, not thosekind of horror stories.

The summer route I usually take is 95 North, then head west around Fredericksburg – on 17, to start, then winding my way up 81, through a corner of West Virginia an up into Pennsylvania. And I missed the turn off of 81 that I had intended on, and a few miles later found myself stuck in a horrible back-up. Over an hour to crawl less than five miles, around 5pm, in two-lane traffic, reminded me of driving around DC in rush hour. I watched my ETA (as figured by the GPS), creep later and later. I checked for an alternate route, made plans for a possible exit escape. Then realized that plan involved waiting it out for another 8 miles of inching along the asphalt.

Fuck that.

I took the next exit I came to, and prayed to the GPS gods to be gentle. It took me along a short, scenic route, but redirected me back toward 81…several miles farther along than where I exited, but it was back toward 81.

To say that I was skeptical, and less-than-thrilled is an understatement.

But something interesting happened. That side road brought me down a hill, not a steep one, but enough that I could get a hint of traffic waiting on 81. And there was none. A few cars zipping along southbound, but almost no cars headed north. I was returning to the highway only a few miles from where I had exited, but I had bypassed whatever accident-thing that had stopped traffic. I was soon exceeding the speed limit (a relief, after the hour’s crawl), and a few moments later I was passing the exit I had originally planned as my escape.

Arrived at the hotel a little after 8p. Soaked in the hot tub to recover from the drive (and extra tension from the delay) before dinner, and moving over to the dorms the next day.

 

Day 0: Each Residency officially starts with an Orientation session, at night, that is part mixer, part reunion, part business, and part homecoming. New students are welcomed, introduced to the faculty, the graduating students, and generally get overwhelmed right off the bat. (At least, that’s how it felt two years ago, when I started.)

But first, I had to move, and other business to handle. I spent the morning putting slides together for my teaching presentation (finally figured out how I wanted to order things that had been floating in my head for the previous few weeks), transferred from the dorm to the hotel, dropped my stuff in my new room, and lingered on campus for less than an hour before cruising back toward the hotel and a (the?) local Starbucks, to sort-of-write, before my mentor meeting at 3p.

About that. Each Residency involves students meeting with their mentors, to discuss the thesis project, the terms of the contract for the coming semester, and whatever other business may need to be addressed. Normally, there is one night exclusively dedicated to the meetings. I am lucky. The mentor that I am (currently) with, after the initial “new mentee” meeting after the assignments (in my case, was done last June), likes to meet with his folks “off schedule.” Hence the chance for a leisurely 3p meeting before the Residency has even started.

And the writing I was doing? Brainstorming. With the end of the thesis in sight, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what to work on next. My ideal involves finishing my thesis with plenty of time to spare, so much time, in fact, that I am able to work on another project before graduating. Not only that, but maybe even getting enough of it done to see how well I can apply what I have learned to a project that’s NOT the thesis novel (which, as near as I figure, should suggest that I’ve incorporated the process enough to be able to apply it to future projects as well).

Then it was back to campus, getting ready for orientation, and a class dinner after.

Then came the Residency proper.

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Jan Res 2014 Day 5

Wednesday. The last day.

This is the day where the schedule flips, with the classroom session being taught in the morning and critique sessions in the afternoon.

I took “Magic, Rituals and Religion in Horror, SF & Fantasy” with Scott Johnson (new blog), because it appeals to my world-building sensibilities, and figured it would help several of the ideas that I’ve been kicking around for the last couple of years. I’ve heard rumor of this module (it’s not a regular offering), so I figured best to grab it while I could.

(I took more notes for this one session than I did for the entire rest of the week. Safe to guess I got a lot from the session.)

After lunch was the workshop session, but only two instead of the usual three, before the graduation.

Graduation. The end of the road. This was the fourth group that I’ve seen finish the program, but this one was more…meaningful? I guess that’s the closest I can find. These are folks that were staples since I started the program. Some of them, I still remember pieces of stories they I had been involved in workshop sessions for (one of which was during my first ever crit session in the program, in those first days when I was questioning if the program was really right for me). With the amount of personal reading and stories that I’ve had to critique while in the program, the fact that I remember their stories at all, let alone some of the specifics of those scenes this far removed, says something. Outside of my own “class,” many of them were the first ones I really started connecting with. June will be different without them there.

Afterward, there was the usual packing for the drive back, with intervals of mingling in the hotel lobby, a group dinner, and starting on work for the term. And sleep. Lots of sleep.

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Jan Res 2014 Day 4

Tuesday.

Another day slow to wake, finally getting up around 7:30, but headed to campus by quarter past eight.

Workshop in the morning, much less to process since my work wasn’t being discussed. After lunch, the first of the requisite “guest speaker” sessions. This was an odd residency for the guest speaker. Normally, the guest is only here for a day, a long afternoon session for the program and a public event at night open to the public. This time, though, he’s serving as a guest lecturer for the university for the semester, so he’s also taught a few of the modules.

The session was good, a discussion about “What Makes a Genre Classic?” (which included several examples of percieved works, influenced by the fact he’s from the UK).

During the dinner break, those ofus with a “Mystery” bend went off to dinner (there are genre specific dinners/events, open to anyone in the program). It was our usual Italian place, a fair clip from campus, but an easy drive after the first trip out.

The night session, discussing “Truth in Fiction” was the usual short block for the public (about an hour), with a signing & reception after.

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The Ballot

One of the cool things that is awesome about the SHU MFA program is the exposure to different genres. This is made real by a common reading at each residency. I mentioned that the reading this terms was Joe Hill’s NOS4A2.

The works are selected for the next residency by the genre specific critique sessions. For the June Residency, the genre will be fantasy. For the second time, I have the chance to vote for the next common reading.

The Options:
Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Kevin Hearne’s Hounded
Anne Bishop’s Written in Red
Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons
Lev Grossman’s The Magicians
Helene Wicker’s The Golem and the Jinni

The official announcement will be made later today, but let me ask you: What would you vote for?

EDIT To Add (14:18p):
Personally, I voted for Bishop’s Written in Red, because it’s not been on my radar, and feels up my alley as a fantasy thriller. The Gaiman and Hearne books are already in the “To Be Read” stack, so I wanted to go for something different.

However, the final verdict: Ocean at the End of the Lane was selected.

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Jan 2014 Res: Day 3

Monday.

After the long day and late night, I was slow to wake, stumbling from bed at half past seven. By quarter after 8, I was on my way to campus. My story was on the block for the crit session. I had submitted an older piece, one that I liked, had shopped around a little, but couldn’t put my finger on why it wasn’t working. This is an example of why distance works, and a sign of my growth as a writer. Skimming through pages at the start of the session, I noticed some of the tendencies that have been pointed out in my thesis, that I am actively fixing in the novel. (Holy fuck, how many times do I have to name check the character if it’s supposed to be close 3rd? Answer: a LOT less than I did.)

Bonus: It was suggested that the piece would make a good seed point for a longer work, maybe a novel. At the suggestion of “expanding toward a novel” three possible story lines started taking shape. Two of them lend themselves to a possible installment with a series character I’ve been considering. See that? Series. (Remember the module from Saturday? And no, the series is not a romance.)

After lunch, I had a business session: Marketing and Recent Trends. This is a genre specific session, and is cyclical, changing with each residency. Each genre is done only once every six residencies. This time was Mystery (Science Fiction should be offered next January, just in time to graduate).

More thesis readings after dinner (I went to two more). This was also the night for the Science Fiction/Fantasy dinner. I intended to go to the dinner, a bit later in the evening, but the long days and late nights finally took their toll and I stayed in. I still did not call it a night until almost midnight, but was able to decompress and mentally recover and process the past few days.

Before calling it a night, I finally watched something that’s been sitting on my iPad for a while, the BBC one-off The Song of Lunch (it’s a visual adaptation of a lyric poem, starring Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson). I recommend it.

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Jan 2014 Res: Day 2

Sunday.

I was not late. I couldn’t be late. My mentor meeting was scheduled for over breakfast around 7am. That’s how my mentor rolls. The second night is reserved for mentor meetings, but he prefers to only handle his new students during those slots, and meet with his returning students at other times. For the first meeting, he takes the full hour outlining his feedback process, going over the term contract, etc. As this was my second meeting, we had covered much of the basic contract items by email, and we had covered the business we needed to discuss in about 20 minutes.

After the first Residency, students are enrolled in one “(student) teaching session” per Res, in lieu of a workshop/critique session. This was the day I was scheduled to be in a teaching session. There were discussions of adding “monsters”  in our works (not just literal things, like vampires and werewolf’s, but applying the concept to characters, or villains), about writing the “other” (technically about “Alien Races”, but “the other” outside of SF circles).

The one that piqued my interest, however, was a discussion of using technology to help writing. Scrivener was mentioned, ho-hum since it’s my current software of choice for composing. What I was really looking forward to was the potential demonstration of Dragon speech-to-text. Did you know that the average number of words per minute that someone speaks is somewhere around 400 wpm? Holy fuck! 440 words per minute. There are times when I’m doing good to get a few hundred words per hour written. Alas, technical issues sucked time away, and the demo was not to be.

The afternoon session was a discussion of world-building xenography (alien races & creatures). That was the first half of the session, with the second half focusing on alternate world positing. We were broken into small groups, and encouraged to generate an alternate reality (aka – timeline/parallel world), then each of us how we might use that world as a story setting/what kind of story we might set in that world.

That night, there was a student run wine social. I went, with the intention of putting in an appearance (important because the place where the social was being held was only opening that night for the social…to make sure the turn out was good enough for them to look favorably at hosting us again). I didn’t leave until almost 11pm, and didn’t go to bed until almost 1am.

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Jan 2014 Res: Day 1

Saturday. The day opens with a session discussing the common reading – Joe Hill’s NOS4A2, this time – followed by group specific sessions. As a 3 or 4, the session is a discussion of “theory.”

I was late to the opening discussion session, for the first time in 4 residencies. I had waited at the hotel to make sure someone had a ride to campus. A few texts went unanswered, and I finally couldn’t wait anymore. 20 minutes before the session, I drove to campus. The drive was a quick few minutes (it felt like I spent more time waiting on traffic lights than I did actually driving). Arriving on campus, I discovered the main parking lot full and had to park further out, down a hill past a construction area (I was not the only one). And it was raining. I hiked up the hill and across campus to the main building, to drop off tea for the “common area” snack table. I checked the schedule and realized the session I was supposed to be in was in another wing of the building. I hurried. Down stairs, took a shortcut through the chapel, a few turns. The session was already underway. It’s hard to ease in quietly when the door to the rom is in the front, next to the lectern.

Otherwise, the morning was uneventful. Lunch was quick. The afternoon, however, was interesting.

Starting with the 3rd Residency, there are no assigned modules*, students select their curriculum. The first session I chose for this residency? Plotting the Romance Series.

What? Shut up. The title says Romance, but the one that should be focused on is Series. Fantasy tends to focus on sweeping story arcs, usually trilogies sometimes sweeping multi-volume epics (Game of Thrones or Wheel of Time, anyone?). Some ideas I have, though, are more episodic. Pefect material for a series. I got a good sense of how to think in series terms, and how to prepare proposals for them.

That night was also the first night of thesis readings. Students are required to attend at least two readings during a Residency. I went to four in one night.

Afterward, a few of us went to a late dinner at Smokey Bones, right by the hotel. It was near midnight by the time we finished, after by the time I crawled into bed.

 

* This was true for the program when I started in June 2012. Since then, there has been a shift in the curriculum, and the “Revision” module has been bumped to be required later in the program, not during the 2nd Residency.

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