10 Substitutes for taking an MFA in Writing

Slide1I’m a self-taught author. There, I’ve admitted it. I do not have an MFA and no, I did not study English at university, nor did I take a four-year program in communications. As I’ve mentioned on the blog before, I’m a Math and Computer Science graduate. But I have studied writing for more than eight years now, a process that has gradually improved my skills and given me the confidence to continue.

Below are my top ten sources for learning how to write.

This Itch Of Writing – I have found no blog that is as comprehensive as Emma Darwin’s on the topic of writing. There you can find articles on psychic distance, ten top tips for writing sex scenes, showing and telling, working with long sentences, narrators and viewpoints, plot and story and many, many more. Emma writes in a clear, succinct style and offers examples on every post. If you’re thinking of writing a novel or wish to improve your writing, subscribe to her blog.

Jane Friedman – while Jane Friedman blogs a lot about the publishing industry, she also offers many tips on writing style and curates articles from other authors on a range of relevant topics. After all, if you’re going to write a novel, you should also understand how to market it and build your platform and consider other topics like writer’s block, researching your novel, and strengthening your creativity.

Books on writing – my favourites are On Writing by Stephen King, Write Away by Elizabeth George, Write Like the Masters by William Cane, The Writer’s Book of Wisdom by Steven Taylor Goldsberry and The First Five Chapters by Noah Lukeman but I also have The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, Penguin’s Writer’s Manual and The Art of Romance Writing by Valerie Parv.

Intensive reading – prior to becoming a writer, I read novels purely for pleasure. Now I read novels like a detective combing for clues. I consider structure, conflict, pacing, language, dialogue, character development, character descriptions, plot arc, chapter endings and so on and try to figure out what works, what doesn’t work and why. My books are full of underlined passages and notes in the margin.

A great freelance editor – before self-publishing Unravelled, I went looking for an editor and to my delight, found Jenny Quinlan of Historical Editorial. Through her developmental edit, Jenny has taught me a lot about story structure, character development and other important elements. And during the copy edit stage, she helps me work on the finer points of grammar. With my latest novel, Time and Regret, I’ve also had the opportunity to work with two excellent editors on the Lake Union team.

Internet searches – beyond Emma Darwin and Jane Friedman, when I’m looking for advice while in the midst of writing, I use Google and I’m immediately handed a host of ideas and suggestions on topics as divergent as ‘how to improve pacing’ to ‘innovative ways to describe your characters’. Some articles I print for future reference – and I really should catalogue these so I can reference them again – others I bookmark and still others I release into the ether once more.

Advice from other authors – where would I be without the generous advice of other authors? I belong to several Facebook groups where you are free to pose questions of the members. Does anyone have a source for the etymology of words? What do you think of this opening chapter? How explicit should a sex scene be? Does anyone have suggestions on how to map my novel’s plot? With my blog, I’ve interviewed a large number of authors and I always learn something from their ideas about and approaches to writing.

Writing workshops – while I haven’t attended too many workshops, I have learned from those hosted by the Historical Novel Society at their annual conventions, from a one-week course on writing historical fiction put on by the University of Toronto and from Barbara Kyle’s two-day Masterclass course that included an evaluation of the first few chapters of my novel.

Reader feedback and surveys – Readers can tell you much about your writing skills. I’ve used skilled beta readers to test the final drafts of each novel. I read every review I find about my novels on Goodreads, Amazon, and reader blogs. And I’ve paid close attention to data collected from my surveys on preferences and dislikes.

Poetry – last but not least, I often consult poetry for ideas on the rhythm of language, effective imagery and the importance of choosing each and every word.

So – not an MFA but definitely an education 🙂

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET will be published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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22 Responses

  1. MARY…. I thoroughly enjoy reading your blog, A Writer of History….. please change my email address to kathbergin@aol.com , so I don’t miss any future blogs; I am in the process of selling my beach house in Ocean City, NJ, and the ‘comcast’ account is only associated with that address. Enjoy the rest of the summer….. Kath


  2. Mary, this post is perfect for me. I do not have any titles to my name; I concur that education is the most important thing. Being born in Peru, I’ve had a steep learning curve during the writing of my novel. Thank God, for amazing writer’s critique groups and workshops.

    1. I’ve often wondered about critique groups – a part of me would like that sort of support and another part of me shrinks away from it! Thanks for your interest and your comments!

  3. A wonderful post and I love that you provided some resources too. What I have learned over the years is that the more I write, the more I learn to write better. And, slowly over time, there has been changes in how I approach my writing, particularly, the short stories. I am currently working on my first novel and yes, it is through a university course, but still the most important point of the whole exercise is how I construct and then write my story.

  4. A terrific list, Mary. I heartily endorse the writing workshops. I’ve attended many and they’ve really helped me fill my writing “toolkit” as Stephen King calls it in “On Writing.” The University of Iowa Summer Writing Festival offers a wealth of workshops for writers of all skill levels working in any genre. I’ve attended 10, maybe more.

  5. I haven’t studied creative writing either, and I can’t afford any of the courses I see advertised. By this I mean I can’t afford the course fee, or the time – because I would have to work pretty much full-time to afford said course fee. I’m aware that writing is becoming more and more technical, and therefore excludes a lot of writers and a lot of talent, and probably deprives the world of a lot of literature.

    Thank you for your ‘substitutes’. I will study them all closely. I have also, this morning, been looking at http://www.writers-essentials

      1. Hi Shira … I’ve had a little look and can’t find anything with writers essentials as its name … however there are some sources if you type “authors essentials” into Google.

  6. I am an economist, with a PhD in World Economics, focused on EU affairs. And I am writing historical fiction novels. I have read everything I could about improving my writing. Some things apply to me, some don’t, but I keep reading… and writing. The 3 or 5 parts structure and the beats don’t apply to my novels, which tend to be rather family sagas, or at least they happen during a longer period of time.

    I would also recommend, with a grain of salt (as not everything applies to me), Holly Lisle’s books and articles.

  7. Thank you for that -I’m also originally a CA/math person, with a masters in the wrong area, and I’m finding the transition to novel writing to be a challenge. But I’m just starting the journey. Thanks again for your posts.
    Best, Shira

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