Next Steps and Considerations

Katie Van Amburg, a recent college graduate, wrote in a few weeks ago and wanted to know what she should be doing next to further herself as a writer. Should she get an MFA? Should she work at a publishing house? These are some of the “next step” questions that a lot of writers have when they’re looking around and wondering if the writing that they do in their rooms is going to be enough to speed them toward their goals.

Is taking the next step and working at a publishing house or getting an advanced degree for you? Well, as a lady who has done both…

This is a tough answer to hear but it’s necessary: There is no magic bullet. I worked as an intern at Chronicle Books in San Francisco, and it was wonderful. I learned a lot. I also got an MFA degree and wrote a thesis, which was a completed fiction manuscript. Again, I learned a lot. But working at Chronicle didn’t get me automatically to some new level as a writer, and neither did the MFA. Neither ended directly in a publishing deal. I published a book this year but it took into consideration all of my experiences in publishing. And everything I wrote for Chronicle or for the MFA certainly must’ve played a role, but at the end of the day, the sum of all my experiences came out on the page.

Writing isn’t a linear progression. There’s no “go get your medical degree, then do a residency, then…” path outlined for it anywhere. That can be liberating, but it can also be scary because there are so many variables and fewer tangible results than in other fields.

If you do any of these things, you are doing them for YOU and to grow as a writer, not to get brownie points on your resume. Remember that. If you expect to wake up the morning after your MFA thesis is accepted and somehow be changed, it’s not going to happen. (Sorry to say, but it’s sort of like publishing a book. When I got the deal, I called Andrea. The first thing she said to me was, “That’s great, but just don’t think it will change your life.” At first, I thought she was being a bummer. Now I know she’s right. That one thing will not change your life…unless it becomes a megaselling hit and makes you lots of money. Most books are all about what you got out of writing it and then all about what you do with them. Waking up on publication day is like waking up on any other day.)

However, if you think a structured, workshop-based program will help you get to the next level, apply to an MFA and get everything you can from it. If you want to see how a publisher works from the inside out, go intern at one or work for a literary magazine or read for a literary agent. But don’t expect either of them to be more than what you make of them.

Sure, good programs and good publishers will furnish you with mentors and experiences you’ve never had before. And there’s a lot of value in that. But there’s usually no benchmark with something like this. The lessons and realizations (and then the energy and courage to use those insights when you’re back at the page) mean the ball is in your court. All of these things are just individual steps, it’s up to you to put them together into a ladder a climb it.

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  1. Cara M.’s avatar

    One thing that can be good to do is, a. write a novel, and b. join a writing group which will critique that novel. It can be tough to find a good writing group, especially one that likes to focus on novels, but getting both criticism and support from one place can be really great.

    For me, I had done the writing classes in college, which were fine, but they were really bad for encouraging people to finish anything. When I finally finished a new novel – realized that it was about 50k too long – and started to cut, I realized that what I needed to do was up my game, get advice on how to improve, figure out how to evaluate my own work. One of the best ways to learn to fix your own writing is to try to figure out the problems with other people’s.

  2. Brigid Kemmerer’s avatar

    I love this post. Mary, thank you so much for making it about the person, not about the resume. One of the great things about writing is that there are no requirements, there are no financial obligations, there are no “rules.” There are lots of options, from the working mother writing in the middle of the night because she has a story to tell (hi!) to the college student working three jobs and writing longhand in a notebook because he can’t afford a laptop. You don’t need a resume to get a book deal. You don’t need a college degree or a career in publishing to get a contract. I’m living proof, and so are lots of writers.

  3. Chris V’s avatar

    This is a very nice post. I just wanted to pop in to say that while everyone’s journey is different, I’m finishing up an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction (with a “market-ready” middle-grade novel) this January and the things I’ve learned during the course of the program have been truly mindblowing. I came out of college as a Creative Writing Major and worked in advertising for two years while writing on the side before joining this program (it’s at Seton Hill University), and I feel like I just shaved off at least ten years of toiling on my own learning the craft. There’s nothing like that hands-on experience from experts who not only tell you precisely what you need to do to improve your craft and your novel, but how to actually directly apply it. Especially those big-picture aspects that are so tough for writers to grasp. That being said, I’ve never worked in the publishing industry and of course there are other ways of learning the craft, and, yes, it’s all part of the journey and there are no guarantees that any given novel will change your life. But I just wanted add in how amazing my experience was at least in this partiuclar program. Hands down one of the best things I’ve ever done.

  4. Peter Dudley’s avatar

    Well said. At work, I often talk with people who feel they’re stagnating in their careers. Eventually we get to their Big Question: “Should I get an MBA?” My answer is always “Probably not.” (Lots of reasons; if you want to know them email me directly.)

    I can’t speak to MFA specifically, but I have a hard time seeing the practical value of the degree unless you plan to teach, or you need some letters after your name for credibility in a job. Chris’ testimony in the previous comments illustrates there can be real value in an MFA beyond that, so YMMV.

    Going back to school is (usually, I think) falling back into the comfort zone. I’d recommend stretching your experience. Don’t look for things you’re already qualified for; look for things you can grow into. The biggest growth comes from taking the biggest risks. Again, YMMV.

    As my brother said when I was 7 years old and learning to ski, “If you don’t fall down a lot, you’re not having enough fun.”

  5. Lilace Guignard’s avatar

    So many good thoughts here. The one that stood out to me was the mention of mentors. Whatever a person’s choice for the next step, an important consideration (especially for one fresh out of undergrad) is to find someone they want to learn from and apprentice themselves. This is the best way to choose an MFA program, in my opinion, and follows for work in publishing too. And some people you want to apprentice to may not have a job for you. Independent writers might be willing to mentor a new writer for lots of reasons. I’ve traded babysitting for poetry consults! Writers need yard work and house cleaning too :)

  6. Tom W’s avatar

    Just a quick thought. The day a new author’s first book debut’s is certainly a game changer. True, if one’s motive is simply to become a bestselling author or to become rich, then a bit of disappointment (i.e. reality) is likely. However, if the primary objective is to share your unique gift with the world, rejoice on publication day. And don’ allow anyone to make you feel otherwise. Regardless of your credentials or what it took for you to get there, this is YOUR day!

  7. Linda C.’s avatar

    I agree with Tom W. Being published does change your life, just not in the “I’m rich! I’m rich!” way. I work in publishing and am an aspiring writer who’s pursuing an MFA in children’s writing (Vermont). As I work toward toward the goal of being published, if I did land a deal (small or big), it would show me that I could do it, that I could do this crazy, seemingly impossible, wonderful thing.

    I just picked up your book and love it, by the way Congrats on being published!

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