Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Read one hundred books, write zero

I'm entering the final stretch for my second draft. I've cut my original draft by half, but at least I will soon have a 50K-word standalone novel. Not bad for eight months' work, considering that when I started I'd never completed so much as a short story, and I had to take a few months to read books on how to write a book.

Lately I've been wondering where I'd be now if I'd taken a more traditional route -- like going to grad school and getting an MFA in Creative Writing/Fiction. Never mind that I wouldn't have been able to get in; you need to submit a quality manuscript to apply, and a year ago I wouldn't have had the time or the know-how.

Assuming I could've miraculously gotten into a graduate program, where would I be now? Well, I probably would have learned a lot about the craft of writing. I would've made some valuable connections with professors and other writers. And I'd be much poorer. But one thing is for certain: I wouldn't have completed a second draft of a novel by now.

You do a lot of reading and critiquing in MFA programs. One grad school has the motto, "Read one hundred books, write one." My worry is, what if I don't like, say, 87 of those books -- but I'm forced to read and critique them? That's a lot of time I could've spent writing -- or reading books I enjoy. Right now, I only have to read books I like, or at least books by writers I want to emulate. And I guarantee that all 100 of those books are "literary fiction." Since I'm writing popular/genre fiction (medical thriller), I'm not sure how much this would help me.

Furthermore, traditional schooling goes against the main point of my experiment, which is: what if I cut out all that extraneous B.S. and focused 100% of my time and effort on actually completing a novel?

Don't get me wrong, reading and writing literary fiction is a fantastic way to improve one's writing skills -- it's just not necessarily the route to completing a novel. Once I complete my first book and go back to work, I'll consider applying to a low-residency MFA program. I know I would learn a lot, and it would force me to keep writing in the face of work responsibilities.

Finally, in case you're wondering what the difference is between genre/popular/commercial fiction and literary fiction, David Lubar sums it up in his Guide to Literary Fiction

"If you're ever in doubt about whether a story is literary, there's a simple test. Look in a mirror immediately after reading the last sentence. If your eyebrows are closer together than normal, the answer is yes."


  1. what if you only have one eyebrow?

  2. Just one of the many obstacles you face on a daily basis, my friend.

  3. ok, this comment from your unibrow friend is too funny! Love the blog and the fact that you are doing something you love:) Can't wait to read the novel!

  4. I think your route is the best one. You learn writing by writing. Excessive critique has left a lot of my talented writer friends burnt out on writing.

  5. I might be in the minority, but as a lowly English major undergraduate, I whole-heartedly subscribed to the motto "read more than you write" . . . and still do. And I also must add that I read a wide variety of some very dynamic and amazing fiction/poetry/plays (many classes had different focuses)that I guarantee I never would have found on my own, despite being obsessed with books since I began to read and working in a bookstore that encouraged me to "familiarize myself" with my sections on my shift. Some of my sections included Romance, Native American Studies, and True Crime. But in college, I read maybe one book that I didn't like on some level. And now I hate Joyce, go figure.

    And the light at the end of the tunnel is that after the program, you are free to read and write as you please, but you have a really solid foundation. There is something to be said about being "forced" to read a novel three times (once every night for three nights) and uncovering things you never would have noticed the second time, and finally, the third time. The dissection didn't take away the magic for me, it opened up whole new worlds that I had been too broad-minded to grasp on the first read.

    With that said, I think the way you are going about it is just fine! Graduate programs in many different fields are very different from undergraduate programs/my experience (politics, arrogance, being a TA for required undergrad courses, etc). Experiences count for a lot in the writing world and I think it's really great that you are doing this and learning so much along the way! You seem to be an avid reader, too. In conclusion, any kind of knowledge is power. I'll stop blabbing now!

  6. Good point. Some of my favorite books I didn't even like until I'd read them at least twice.