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.

Beware Your Written Sources by Emma Darwin

Get-Started-in-Writing-Historical-FictionWell folks, you’re in for a treat today! Emma Darwin, author of The Mathematics of Love and A Secret Alchemy gives us a few pointers from her latest work – Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction. By the way, Emma’s blog This Itch of Writing is a superb source on the craft of writing. Over to you, Emma.


Compared to the makers of dance, visual art, opera or drama, we historical novelists have it easy: our medium is words, and most of our sources are also made of words.

Of course the physical things that have come down to us, from castles to thimbles, are also crucial to our storytelling. Whether you’re an experienced writer making the leap from writing about the present, or you’re brand-new to writing but passionate about an historical event or character, objects are one of the easiest ways of bringing that past into your present. They may even carry the traces of their time-travelling: the Tudor window blocked up by a Georgian descendant; the Medieval reliquary wired to make an electric lamp. That’s why one of the first exercises in my new book, Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, is actually called “Objects Hold Stories”.

But no pictures of the Great Fire of London, nor even a display of leather firebuckets and ladders, can recreate life for us as Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn do, evoking how humans exist and act in time as well as space: the intertwined lives of others, the hunt for news, the awful choices and their consequences, the rush of fear and the surge of hope.

And the writing of the time is crucial for developing voice: the characters’ voices as they speak and think, and the narrative voice of even the most invisible, external, “third person” narrator. Voice is the interface between the humans in the story and the human reading the story: to make that connection across time we need to find the right sounding texture, balance and rhythm, the evocative vocabulary and syntax, the convincing tone and spirit for the prose.

But the fact that our sources are made of the same stuff as what we’re trying to create is also a problem. It’s easy to feel that your prose should mimic the prose of that era, but you’re writing for readers now: their response to words and how they’re used is not the same as that of your characters’. Words have changed their meaning or vanished altogether, period phrases and sentence structures may make little sense to us. You can’t create a truly “authentic” voice, even if your novel is set at a time when contemporary novelists were evoking the realistic speech of their era (as my novel The Mathematics of Love is). You always need to read and listen, but then you must find your own fusion of past and present, the story’s own authentic-seeming voice.

And there’s another danger: that you mistake the pages of your fiction for a history book and start writing to teach or, worse still, to preach, what you want your readers to know. We’re all fascinated by the facts of the past, from how a Roman Legion actually worked, to who killed the Princes in the Tower (and yes, I’ve had my say on that one, in A Secret Alchemy) so it’s horribly easy for the fascinating information to transmit straight into your story. But unless that material is first filtered through the voices and personalities which you’ve worked so hard on (yes, even your external narrator has a personality) it’s merely data: as Rose Tremain says, “it will be imaginatively inert”.

Which is why we could all learn from how choreographers, playwrights and artists set about dealing with the past. Whether it’s Kenneth Macmillan’s ballet Meyerling or Caryl Churchill’s play Top Girls or Francis Bacon’s Screaming Popes, such artists don’t have the luxury – and so the trap – of working in the same form and medium as the material they draw on. They must break up the superficial, literal “facts”, and compost them down, before recreating them in a language which is true to their own art form. In writing fiction about history, we need to do the same.

To download a free sample chapter of Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction click here, and to buy a copy go here: HiveWaterstonesFoylesAmazon UKAmazon AustraliaIndigo CanadaBarnes & NobleAmazon US.

Many thanks for offering these insights, Emma. I’m sure Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction will be a great success.

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, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.

Killing my darlings

Kill your darlingsThe first time I heard this phrase, I had no idea what it meant. And now I can toss it around like any other seasoned writer.

Time & Regret is my third novel and having paid attention to some advice Emma Darwin offered on her blog, This Itch Of Writing, I’m in the midst of deleting the first eleven chapters of the story. Let me tell you, friends, eleven chapters represents a lot of time and effort, a lot of imagining, a lot of phrasing and rephrasing. But it has to be done.

Emma said the following:

One of the very first bits of clear writerly advice I ever came across was the short-story writer’s dictum of “Start as near the end as possible”. Later, I encountered the thriller-writer’s “Get in late and get out early”, which is a double-ended version of the same idea.


Emma’s advice came at just the right moment. With so many life events going on, I haven’t had time to write for months, but the niggling thought in the back of my mind whenever I considered Time & Regret was the need to pump up the drama. I had a few ideas but nothing had seemed right. With Emma’s post a lightbulb went on. She had nailed the problem.

So now I’m going through the first eleven chapters looking for bits that need to be woven into some other scene – character details, essential facts, a few lovely bits of description. The rest, I’m killing off. Rather invigorating I might add.

Thanks, Emma.

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available in paperback from Amazon and in e-book formats from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.