Posts Tagged ‘MFA’

Elmore Leonard answers my questions

05.27.2009 1 comment

Last week, Elmore Leonard answered reader questions at the Barnes & Noble Center Stage, a message board thread in which prominent writers are given an opportunity to interact with fans. I’ve read a lot about Leonard’s approach to writing, thoughts on writers, and so on that it took me a little while to think of unique questions I wanted to ask. I came up with two sets of five and ended up with all of them answered (even if #9 – which is #4 of Conversation #2 – didn’t really get answered specifically, ‘no’ is still an answer).

You can visit the link above or read the following transcript. I’ve put my original questions in italics, Elmore’s responses in boldface type, and my commentary in [brackets].

Hi Elmore,

I’ve been reading your work since I was fifteen (I’m thirty now) and my friends and family always know when you have a new book coming out soon because I won’t shut up about it. Out of Sight is one of my favorite stories and I wrote an analysis about it for my final examinations to earn my MFA in Creative Writing last spring. I have a few questions for you and I appreciate the time you’re taking to answer my and other peoples’ questions.

1. I enjoy the way you introduce unique, distinct characters and then let them play with each other as the story develops (Tishomingo Blues comes to mind right away).  I wonder if, in your writing process, you first have an idea of events within the story or if you prefer to start with an idea for a character(s)? If you’ve tried both of these approaches, why do you find one more successful than the other?

— The way I approach it, I always start with characters and  then fit them into a situation or place, like a town in Mississippi for example  I usually have an occupation for a character.  Like in Tishomingo Blues, Dennis is the high diver goes who dives off an 80 foot ladder into a 20 foot wide pool that is 9 feet deep. Up on his perch, Dennis witnesses a murder down at the base. So then I think about more characters and give them names and backgrounds.

[This response doesn’t surprise me but his approach amazes me. He places such trust in his characters to push the story forward, it’s so bold.]

2. Your supporting characters are fun to read about. When you’re creating characters like The Mutt in Pagan Babies, Glenn in Get Shorty, and Arlen in Tishomingo Blues, what helps you create someone who’s memorable and compelling without stealing focus from your main story? Do you have plans for a new short story collection featuring supporting characters? You spoiled me with the tale of Chickasaw Charlie in When the Women Come Out to Dance.

— I don’t want to create an obvious character.  I want an interesting one who the reader will want to know about.  Often they are cast against the obvious type.

— I don’t really write short stories unless someone, like Otto Penzler, asks me.

[He’s talking about building a natural intrigue in his characters, a sort of something that makes the reader compelled of their own accord to learn more about them. In essence, he’s talking about character charisma. For a guy who cut his teeth delivering short story after short story to the western dime digests for twenty years, I suppose I’d want to move on to something new, too.]

3. Given your enjoyment of the film adaptations of Get Shorty and Out of Sight, did the thought of seeing satisfying film sequels spur you at all to write Be Cool and Road Dogs? If not, what compelled you to re-visit Chili and Foley?

— Definitely Chili.  I though for sure they’d want another one.  Too bad the sequel was such a terrible movie.  Road Dogs, I don’t think of it so much as a sequel.  I just liked the characters so I used them again.  But if George Clooney wants to play the part, I’m all for it.

[Part of me was afraid this would be perceived as a rude question, like I’m implying he made a cash grab. I’m glad he didn’t take it that way because I was genuinely curious. His glib answer about the film adaptation of Be Cool is unabashed and appreciated. Out of Sight is one of my favorite stories, both in novel and film versions, and I’d love to see Road Dogs turned into a film, too.]

4. I’m a big fan of listening to your work as an audio book on road trips (I think George Guidall reading Cuba Libre is particularly excellent). What level of involvement do you usually have in these presentations? What is your favorite audio presentation of one of your books? Do you ever listen to audio books for your own reading pleasure?

— None.

— Never listened to any.

— Never.

[I can’t say I’m too surprised, but I really, really like audio books. I “read” more audio books in 2007 than I read in print and I enjoy an excellent audio presentation. I thought Elmore might enjoy them, but I can also see him not taking to this form of technology.]

5. Will we see you in Minnesota any time soon? :smileyhappy:

I wouldn’t mind going to Minneapolis again, but  I have no plans.

[Bummer. Good thing my wife bought me an autographed copy of one of his books in a Minneapolis used bookstore a week ago. But that story is for another blog post. One which will appear here next week, in fact…]

Conversation #2:

Hi Elmore,

Thank you for answering my questions yesterday and everyone’s questions this week, I appreciate it. I came up with a few more, if you’ll indulge me.

1. Where do you like to write and at what time of day? Do you write every day or have some sort of ritualistic behavior when it comes to sitting down to write? How much of your writing time is spent researching or reviewing Gregg’s research?

— In the living room all day, 10-6

— Yes

–I try to read a page or so of a previous book, it could be an old one, just to get in the rhythm of the writing.

—  I’m not sure what percentage of my time, but I always read the pages he sends me.

[Wow, that’s commitment! Yeah, he’s a professional writer so really, he gets to write for eight hours a day. I’m trying to hold myself to two hours a day, five days a week, this summer and I’m envious. I really like the idea of reading from one’s previous works to get the blood flowing, and he does so without thinking of editing. That can be difficult for me because I see so many chances to improve a story. I also like how he makes research a part of his writing time. “Writing time” isn’t all writing (though for me, maybe it should be more writing than it currently is) and I don’t think it should be; it’s also research, reading, editing, and so on.]

2. I’ve read that your Ten Rules of Writing began as a tongue-in-cheek presentation for a speech before revising them for the New York Times. And yet, I wonder which of these rules have been part of your arsenal for the longest? Do you have any particular instances in your writing career when you can identify when a writing rule first manifested for you? Is there one in particular you wish more writers followed?

— “Try to leave out the parts that people tend to skip” and “If it sounds like writing I rewrite it.”

— I think most of the rules came from reading other writers, those that use “suddenly” and “all hell broke loose.”

— That they would use “”said” when indicating dialog and not modify it with an adverb.

[Since Elmore’s Ten Rules of Writing originally appeared in the New York Times in 2001 just three days after I turned twenty-two, I have never used any word other than “said” for dialogue. I’ve since learned two other beloved writers of mine, Neil Gaiman and Stephen King, say the exact same thing. I’ve put myself in good company. I’ve also become hyper-aware of “suddenly” throughout the years and I think the leaving out “the parts that people tend to skip” is probably the one thing an aspiring writer should wrap their head around pretty quickly if they want to succeed.]

3. Who did you read when you were first starting out and how did they influence or inspire your work? Who specifically do you recommend an apsiring fiction writer read today and why?

— Hemingway.

— By being very spare in his writing, not overdoing it.

— Cormac McCarthy because he knows how to write.

[I enjoy Hemingway but I don’t read enough Hemingway. I enjoy McCarthy but I don’t read enough McCarthy. I enjoy Leonard but I don’t read enough Leonard. Do you see a pattern developing?]

4. What’s the one question you’re never asked by your fans or in interviews that you wish someone would ask? Of course, you’re welcome to answer that question here, as well. 🙂

— None comes to mind.

[I based this question off the question Stephen King asked Amy Tan and which gave him inspired direction for his memoir on craft, On Writing. It’s my one wild card in the bunch and I’m not surprised he didn’t have an answer off the top of his head, though it’s a bummer, too. Maybe some day I’ll have to come up with the question instead of asking the subject to do my work for me.]

5. What can you tell us about your upcoming novel, Djibouti?

— A documentary film maker is investigating the Somali pirates with a sympathetic point of view and soon finds out that that maybe Al Queda is involved.

[This isn’t Elmore’s first fictitious visit to Africa (Pagan Babies) and it’s clear this topical subject has his full attention. His last few books have returned to characters he’s already written about and I believe he’s excited to explore this new territory. I’m excited to read it.]

There you have it, a conversation between me and Elmore Leonard, separated by a few hours in time and a few hundred miles in distance but a conversation all the same.



Your Friday Recommendation #25

Due to a hectic schedule this week, I’m only one-third of the way through Neil Gaiman’s latest, The Graveyard Book, yet I feel pretty confident recommending it.

A toddler who comes to be named Nobody Owens wanders out of his home and into a graveyard on the night his family is slain by a mysterious man. A community of ghosts, led by Mr. and Mrs. Owens, elect to grant the boy ‘freedom of the graveyard’ and harbor him to both raise him and keep him safe. The story feels unique to me and Gaiman’s language is a sensory delight. He manages to keep the tale visually and viscerally appealing with descriptive language while keeping the story moving, and that’s besides the stylish, haunting illustrations by long-time Gaiman collaborator, Dave McKean.

The Graveyard Book is perfect for me because it’s a YA book following a boy’s life in which every chapter is its own complete short story and yet connect to each other in an overall arching storyline. That’s precisely the project I worked on during my MFA days, aside from the whole ‘being raised by ghosts’ bit. I’ve found each story I’ve read so far to truly feel self-contained while also feeding into the stories that came before it, every one adding to the story. There’s enough mystery in the first few stories to keep me interested in seeing what ultimately happens to young Nobody Owens, and I hope to finish the novel next week if my likely-just-as-hectic schedule permits.

Minnesota Public Radio ran a wonderful piece on Neil Gaiman this week and the author wrapped up his book tour for The Graveyard Book in St. Paul on Wednesday night. Unfortunately for me, I work most every Wednesday evening (except next week. Pity, off by just one week!), but hopefully you made it to one of his readings. Don’t feel too bad for me, however; I’ve met the man at least nine or ten times, and at the fifth meeting he called me an official stalker.


Browsing books in the store

I was in Walgreens this week waiting for my photos and wandered around the store for a while as the technician tried to fix the photo development machinery. Try as he might, he couldn’t fix the machine but my time spent waiting ended up with me doing something I haven’t done in a long time – reading the beginning of a book in a store.

A bin of discount hardcover bestsellers marked down to two for $10 caught my eye and I cracked open “Cell” by Stephen King. (Yes, I know it’s been Stephen King Mania Week at The Scrawl this week but bear with me; it’s likely my recent mania is what made me read “Cell” over Dennis Lehane’s short story collection “Coronado.”) I read the first fifteen pages and liked what I read. King dives right into the zombie action and the gory body count reaches a few dozen by page eight or so. It feels well-written, too, so there’s something for those seeking good zombie literature. The book’s subject matter aside, what struck me most was that I decided to read the opening of a book and see if I like it.

I used to browse bookstores. Spot a catchy title or cover, recognize a writer’s name. Pick up the book and read a little bit, see if it grabs me. I did this more when I was in college, developing a sense of what kind of books I like to read. But I honestly can’t remember doing this once during my MFA days. Instead, I sought out recommended writers and titles, favorite writers and their latest work. I bought these books without reading page one and have seldom been disappointed with these “blind buys.”

It’s entirely possible that my days of browsing are over. When I go to a store I’m often in a rush and know exactly what I want to buy (poor Target rarely sees me wandering beyond the loss leaders like DVDs and basic grocery items). Plus, most of my book-buying has been online the last few years because I’m a bargain hunter; this may be the move that adds “money” to “time” in this equation. I wonder if the act of reading in the store is becoming rarer for me not because I’m adverse to doing it but because I don’t present myself with the opportunity as much, anymore. I liked giving it a try in Walgreens though, and I suspect if I want to do it again, I may actually have to schedule it. Scheduled wandering. Is this what it’s come to?

I didn’t have ten bucks on me when I read the opening of “Cell” but I may end up snatching it and the aforementioned “Coronado” later this week. Just what I need – more books on the shelf. Yet I’m a sucker for a deal and as someone who absolutely believes good writing is good writing no matter if it’s genre or Literature with a capital L, these books appeal to me.

Has anybody out there read these two titles? Any good? Also, do you read books in the store before you buy them? If so, why? If not, what’s stopping you?


Applying to an MFA program VIII: Who picks who?

Welcome to part VIII of our “Applying to a Creative Writing MFA program” series. Yesterday, we tried to find ways to make our time productive as we play the waiting game. Today, we examine how to choose the MFA program we want.

If you play your cards right, you’re going to end up being the one who gets to choose a program, instead of the other way around. Cast your net wide enough and you’re bound to catch a few fish.

And the odds are already stacked in your favor, as you control two choices in the matter while programs only have one choice. When you research programs, you’re factoring in positives and not-so-positives of each school until you whittle the list down to something that excites you. You finally apply (choose) to ten programs. Let’s say of those ten, at least four accept you’re application. Now the ball is back in your court, and you get to choose your own adventure.

A program is going to weigh your merits both in terms of how you stand alone and how you stand against other candidates. You should do the same when you get word back from programs interested in you. Decide what your most important factors are – is it cost? Location? Program content? All of the above (and then some)? For me, cost wasn’t a deciding factor because I knew I’d have to spend money to make money, but I knew which locations appealed to me and which weren’t on my radar screen, and I also found myself becoming much more interested in programs that supported screenwriting than those that didn’t.

It’s the same with getting an agent, by the way, if you’re at that stage already; many young writers are just so excited to get an agent they don’t realize they could potentially be picking from a crop of agents who want aboard the money train, if only they play their cards right (and that means research).

Today’s Action Item: Create a pro / con list!

List your top three grad school choices at the top of a sheet of paper, then draw lines so you have three separate columns. Now, separate the columns into two sections, one to list pros and one to list cons, for each grad school. Brainstorm as many pros and cons of attending those schools as you can. Think about the program concentrations, the costs, the city, if your favorite extra-curricular activity is available (I wanted an established improv community in the area), and so on. Give this exercise ten minutes of your time per school, and take a look at the results, side by side. Has anything changed your mind?

Tomorrow I write about my personal experience applying for and being accepted into a Creative Writing MFA program.


[tags]mfa application, creative writing mfa, grad school application[/tags]

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Applying to an MFA program VII: The waiting game.

12.28.2007 1 comment

Welcome to part VII of our “Applying to a Creative Writing MFA program” series. Yesterday, we sent off our application(s). Today we make our time productive as we play the waiting game.

One reason you might have for entering an MFA program instead of writing on your own is to create formal structure around your writing. On your own, your writing schedule may or not be regiment, and your feedback may be limited. Soon, you’ll be writing under deadline and with both instructor and peer feedback coming your way. Right now is your opportunity to work out what sort of ideas you want to write in that environment.

If you haven’t been stockpiling story ideas, reading great books, and doing some honest-to-goodness writing, now is the time. Many workshops allow room for short stories and developing novels, though in my experience short stories are the more typical fare. Take the kind of fiction writing which challenges you and embrace it. If you don’t write short stories, try writing one. If you’ve only written shorter pieces, maybe it’s time to take a crack at your first novel. If you’ve only delved into the fiction world, give creative nonfiction a try. Examine the classes offered in some of the programs you applied to; see how varied your experience will be and write to those particular genres. For example, if you want to concentrate on fiction, does the program offer open-fiction classes for any content? Do they have a novel-writing class? A short-story-only class? Prepare yourself for particular classes.

The point is, you should be practicing, and right now, in the precious months leading up to your program, you can write whatever you want. You don’t have to worry if an instructor is limiting you to particular prompts, or if your classmates are sick to death of your vampires-in-space saga. You’re already moving forward in your life, so you might as well embrace it as you await the official word that some program out there has decided they’d like to see what happens when you take a new step forward in your life as a writer.

Today’s Action Item: Write, write, write!

If you’re waiting to hear where you’ll soon be studying writing, there’s no better way to spend your time than by writing. Begin a fresh project, draft an old favorite story gem gathering dust, try a writing prompt, create a new 100-word short story, just get some writing under your belt!

Tomorrow we examine how to choose the MFA program we want.


[tags]mfa application, creative writing mfa, grad school application[/tags]

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Applying to an MFA program VI: It’s in the mail!

12.27.2007 1 comment

Welcome to part VI of our “Applying to a Creative Writing MFA program” series. Yesterday, we had a word on why visiting grad schools is worth your time, effort, and money. Today we send off our application(s)!

You’ve been drafting your personalized letter of intent, tweaking your resume and vita, plunking down cash for transcripts, and making the most-intricate database you’ve ever worked with, and now it’s all about to pay off. Finally sending is your moment to breathe in your accomplishment, because you have accomplished something. You’ve chosen to do something new with your life, and spending a few hundred bucks on application fees and materials makes it all the more real. Take a moment and update your database to reflect the date you sent your materials; you should always track your correspondence send/receive dates, so you know if you’re being speedy (and which programs are, too).

We’ll keep it short today, because you should spend time on your application, not reading, but I will add this:

Triple check your application before sending it!

Make sure all of the correct materials are in the correct envelopes, addressed to the correct programs. If you send the wrong materials, or your application is incomplete, what obligation do they have to help you out? Sure, it would be nice, but they’re busy and they told you what they needed. If you can’t handle an application, do you think they want you in their program? You might as well apply for a trucking job without ever driven anything bigger than a Crown Vic.

Today’s Action Item: Send off your application!

Okay, so today’s action item figures on you having all of your ducks in a row by now. If you’re not at that point yet, it’s fine, but it’s time to look at which components of the application process are holding you back and go to work on them.

Tomorrow we make our time productive as we play the waiting game.


[tags]mfa application, creative writing mfa, grad school application[/tags]

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Applying to an MFA program V: Visting grad schools.

12.26.2007 1 comment

Welcome to part V of our “Applying to a Creative Writing MFA program” series. Yesterday, we examined strategies of building our reference pool. Today we have a word on why visiting grad schools is worth your time, effort, and money.

It’s probably been a while since the college visits you took during high school, and those were just to get excused days away from the daily grind of seven-period classroom days. If you’re balking at the cost of college visits, let me say it right now:

Visiting MFA programs before you “buy” is worth your time and money.

You’re going to learn things about the program, the campus, and the city you’d never learn on a website. I spent January of 2005 jet-setting the nation. I visited seven schools, applied for four of them, and applied to two others. That meant a trip to San Francisco and Miami/Fort Lauderdale. I don’t understand folks who can buy a car on eBay without test driving it, and I need to “feel” a college if I’m going to wander it’s hallowed halls for the next three years. I just wasn’t excited about the two colleges I applied to but didn’t visit. And of the colleges I visited, I flat-out hated two of them. One in Fort Lauderdale had open-air hallways in their English building. Meaning, instead of air-conditioned corridors or utilizing the recent invention of walls, the entire hallway system was open to the outdoors for any bird, lizard, or hurricane that felt like flying, leaping, or pummeling it’s way in to do so with great ease. Plus, it was hot, and that’s in January. Those aren’t details I’d have picked up on their website!

I also had a great time visiting the cities. I found I enjoyed Fort Lauderdale, but not the programs / campuses. I fell in love with San Francisco and a program and it became my top choice for a while. Knowing what you want out of the city and exploring it will help you decide if you can live while you study. After all, life isn’t only book learnin’ – there’s the development of street smarts to consider. Speaking of smart, let me tell you right now…

Skip the admissions tour.

Of all the campus tours I took, not one made me want to attend the program. In fact, one tour guide was so disinterested in walking me and my friend around I felt like a burden. At another, all the information they had was for potential undergrads, not grad students; they kept apologizing in their presentation whenever it covered an aspect of being an undergrad only.

Tour the campus on your own. Do contact or stop by admissions for general literature about the campus, but that’s all you need. I love admissions, I’ve worked with admissions and they’re great for potential undergraduate students, but they seldom have what an MFA candidate is looking for. Your best bet is to…

Make a visit with the English Department a priority.

Email and websites only go so far. There’s something about personal, one-on-one contact which can help put you on the mind-map of English personnel. Of the programs I visited, I spoke directly with the head of the program at three, and someone involved in the program at another two. I struck out at a couple because I visited campus over winter break. One program, University of San Francisco, even had three informational meetings to attend, and each had over one-hundred potential students – all for approximately fifteen MFA candidate slots. It was a fascinating session, but it put a lot into perspective for me.

I spoke with the head of the program I’m currently enrolled in over email, then in-person during a summer visit back to Minnesota in 2004. It may be no coincidence that the program I pursued earliest is the one I chose, but if you know how to sell yourself in-person as well as you do on-paper, a campus visit is the way to go.

Today’s Action Item: Set up your campus visit!

You should already have at least one grad school in mind by now, so get cracking and knock on their door. Send an email to Admissions, the English department, and the head of the MFA program telling them you want to visit. Response time will vary because most colleges are on winter break, but someone will get back to you soon (Admissions will likely be first).

Tomorrow we send off our applications!


[tags]mfa application, creative writing mfa, grad school application, visit grad school, campus visit[/tags]

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