Advice from the published

Last week I attended a reading with Molly McCaffrey and David Bell for their books How to Survive Graduate School & Other Disasters and Cemetery Girl, respectively. They are actually a husband and wife pair who attended and graduated from the same graduate program that I am in, but back in 2000. I got to meet with them three times: once at lunch, once in class, and again at their reading. They had some incredible information to share and I thought I would pass it along here, especially since much of it had to do with continuing a creative writing education and what it really takes to get a book published.

Their first suggestion was to stay in school as long as possible, meaning earn your Bachelor’s, Masters, MFA, and PhD. The reason, they said, is because as long as you can get funding, you can stay employed, fed, and working on your craft. And the longer you in school, the more time you have to be publishing. It’s important to specify that this advice is mainly meant for those who plan to go on to teach. Many small universities won’t hire you unless you have a PhD, according to McCaffrey, which is strange considering many large universities don’t always require it. But it’s the small ones you’re going to have better luck being hired at, and the more publications you have also improves your changes of getting hired. Thus, stay in school!

The second tip they offered was to start by submitting your work to smaller magazines and once you’ve published in a few of those, start submitting to the medium sized ones, and so on. Don’t start by submitting to the large ones right away because it’s extremely unlikely you’ll be published. In fact most large literary magazines are notorious for not accepting anything from the slush pile and soliciting everything. The smaller ones are much easier to get into, and making your name in literary magazine will help you get noticed and possibly help you get that book deal.

This next time almost seems like common sense now days, but it always bears repeating. Network, network, network! Both Bell and McCaffrey said their book deals were the result, not only of their long-studied writing, but also the connections they made. Bell’s was able to get an agent and publisher by holding onto a business card for seven years, and McCaffrey was solicited for her work because of connections she had made. Just like everything else in the world, it’s always going to matter who you know. So be nice to everyone you’re in workshop with, stay in touch with professors, and hold onto business cards from people you meet at conferences. Oh, and go to conferences!

Both Bell and McCaffrey went on to get their PhDs after getting their MAs (skipping MFA because they had gone back to school so late in life and wanted to get on with working). When it came to picking programs, their main advice was to not choose the school or program based on location. And ALWAYS visit the school after you are accepted. Oh, and apply to lots of schools and take into account how much funding you can get. You should NEVER have to pay for grad school, not if you try hard enough.

Oh, by the way–More Networking! McCaffrey had some great suggestions for developing those connections, and according to Bell, even electronic ones mean something. McCaffrey suggested picking authors whose work you like and every so often (like, once every two years because you don’t want to pester anyone),  and sending them an email, letting them know how much you liked their book. Post a blog entry about it, put it up on Amazon or GoodReads. Authors love when you help them sell their book, and everyone loves feedback. These are the connections and relationships where if you need help later on down the line, you can cash in all that good will! Need a blurb for the back of your book? These are the people you’ll want to ask. But remember, don’t pester people, but a little brown-nosing never hurt.

For more tips, check out Molly’s great list of funny and (mostly) helpful Tips for Grad School.


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