FINDING A ROUTE TO SUCCESS
By JOAN M KOP
In today’s topsy-turvy book world, it’s hard to know what makes the most sense or will be the surest, most cost-effective route to success. Should I attend a writing conference, buy tons of self-help writing books, get help from a critique group, a book doctor, a writing coach, and/or should I get an MFA degree, and if so, at which university? These decisions, if you’re like me and don’t have a lot of money, are dizzying. It’s near impossible not to make any mistakes along the way.
After attending writing conferences, you’re apt to come away with a surge of motivation and know-how to write that book which will no doubt become a bestseller. Conferences are often touted as a way to pitch the agent of your dreams as well as connect with other writers to make lasting friendships.
PITCHING AN AGENT
Is pitching an agent supposed to be a positive experience? After meeting with a prominent agent at a conference in Seattle one year, I left in tears. After receiving a fair amount of rejections, as a last resort, I had set my sights high in pitching him. He dashed all my hopes when he refused to accept a submission from me. I’ve since learned that most agents won’t accept new clients if the book might not be an easy sell to a publisher.
At another conference I bought two extra pitch blocks, ended up pitching agents for eight hours straight, only to realize my manuscript needed more work, it wasn’t ready yet for pitching. I spent $1500 to attend this conference? At least it will add punch to my query letter.
And as far as making lasting friendships, sure, it’s possible, but my experience has been that I mostly meet newbie authors who feel they have written a bestseller, but haven’t, or the ones who aren’t very good at writing but are extroverts and attend the conferences for the social aspect of mingling with other humans, or the ones winning all the awards who would never be interested in befriending me, a lesser writer.
As a reserved introvert, I find it difficult to bond with someone I’ve just met over one weekend. I went to many small conferences in Whitefish, Montana but never bonded with any writers until I went to a large writing conference in Seattle where I met other writers from my hometown and felt I had found my tribe.
FINDING A CRITIQUE GROUP
That tribe of writers introduced me to a critique group. The group I belong to is a spin-off from a writing class for seniors taught by Sarah Conover who promoted praising first before giving negative feedback. Called Writers-In-The-Community (WITC), it is often led by an Eastern Washington University graduate student in the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program. The leaders have included a poet from Illinois, a nonfiction writer from Egypt and a fiction writer from Maryland.
Our members include ladies in their 80s or 90s, three of whom are poets, several other fiction writers and most are experienced readers who belong to book clubs. Like many such groups, some members come just for the socializing or to learn what they can for free, but the main goal is to have each participant’s writing improve over time from the feedback. I learned that Kristin Hannah who wrote The Nightingale is in a critique group with several women whose common goal was to become New York Times bestselling authors. All of them have succeeded. I’ve wondered if they write lengthy reviews for each other’s books on Amazon.
GETTING YOUR MANUSCRIPT EDITED
I’m always looking for the best value I can get for my money. Because the market is so competitive and odds of getting an agent are 1 in 800, I’ve learned the best advice is to have your manuscript edited before you send it to an agent or get it self-published, so you don’t end up with a less-than-perfect book. This phenomenon has created a whole new market for people to make money who are hanging out their shingle as a freelance editor. So, how do you pick the one that’s right for you?
Do your homework. I’ve found a big difference in writing coaches, freelance editors, or book doctors. Research where they got their training or education, and also what they’ve edited or written as well as any experience they’ve had in the publishing industry. Get references and ask what kind of a return you will get on your money. No one in the business works for free.
WRITING COACHES, EDITORS, & BOOK DOCTORS
Just because someone has written a bestselling book doesn’t mean he/she can teach the craft to you. My writing coach, Robert Gover (now deceased), was a bestselling author, but teaching was a strain because he was never trained to teach; he had no teaching credentials.
It was a to-die-for-relationship for me, though, and I received some great advice from him. He told me that his main focus was always on the story and characters, and whether a writer created a good read with story tension. He also said the goal is to take your readers on a memorable mental journey and that you should write what you’re passionate about.
Although I learned a great deal from him, I stayed with him out of loyalty, and looking back now, I wonder if that was a mistake. I didn’t have a critique group back then and was reading a lot of self-help writing books, but I struggled with plots, especially how a character changes, and feel that sometimes it can help if you get information from more than one source. The lightbulb suddenly went on when taking a writing class from Bob Dugoni, author of My Sister’s Grave, who explained it to me in a different way.
I’ve since researched other freelance editors and book doctors (June 2018), and found that some charge $3/double-spaced page, others charge $6/double-spaced page, some charge 2.4 cents per word and some charge as much as $75/hour, others $30/hour. For my particular book, these fees amounted to about $2,000 for a comprehensive or developmental edit, covering such things as plot, characterization, dialogue, description, and pacing.
I also contacted a leader of my genre at the Seattle Writer’s Association and asked for a referral, but I never heard back from her. I then researched online and found a man who said he edited the first Stephen King novel and the man who has edited them since, as well as John Grisham novels. I also found ads for book doctors in the back of writer’s magazines, like The Writer or Writer’s Digest or Poets & Writers. And, I got a referral from a bestselling author at one of the writing conferences I attended. I ended up with several to choose from.
THE MONEY CAN ADD UP
Even though I looked on it as a learning experience each time I received an edit on a manuscript, I counted up the money I had spent. I gave my writing coach $8,290 over a period of years and found that I could have used that money instead to help pay for an MFA degree. I pondered the choice I had made, weighing the risk over reward, and contemplating the famous lines in Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” where he wrote: “I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”
CONSIDER AN MFA PROGRAM
The EWU graduate students, who I met with in my Sunday critique group, advised that the MFA program requires you to read about twenty books in a year, both inside and outside of your genre, as well as to write a book-length thesis or manuscript and be able to defend your writing. I remember an instructor at the Flathead River Writer’s Conference in Kalispell, Montana, who once cautioned me to get several books under my belt before I attempted to take an MFA course so that I would know how to defend my work because it can be grueling for a beginner.
One of the best things about an MFA program is that you develop expert life-long critique partners. One of the drawbacks, however, that remains a mystery, is that some people who do well in an MFA program, getting high grades and meeting hectic deadlines, never write anything after they leave.
Because MFA programs have increased in popularity over the years, there are many MFA programs today. Which one you should choose, depends on your circumstances, as well as location, whether you would be required to be in residency for part or all of the course, background of the instructors, prestige, and, of course, cost.
As an example, Eastern Washington University (located near Spokane, Washington) has a two-year, full residency, MFA program which in June 2018 costs $3,703.62 per quarter ($14,922.48 per year) for a full time student taking between 10-18 credits. In addition, there are $920 of mandatory fees. EWU accepts 20-24 students in the program each year and attracts a diversity of students. If I win the lottery in the near future or get help with funding, my next career move might just be to apply.
There is no one sure way to achieve success in the book world today. It can sometimes feel like a crapshoot. The best you can do is to learn from other writers’ experience, research the alternatives and go with your gut.