If you’re anything like me, you desperately want an MFA in Popular Fiction, but the possibility is out of your reach. You may have a disability, children, a more-than-full-time-job, a heap of student loan debt, or just a really busy yak-shaving schedule. (I don’t know your life, and I don’t judge.) Increasingly, even people with MFA’s are advising beginner and intermediate writers alike not to bother with getting one. “It’s simply not worth the crushing debt and limited job prospects,” those handsome and talented people with MFA’s tell you as they twirl their mustaches and snort cocaine off their latest bestsellers.
So, then, what’s a sad little wannabe writer to do? Here are f̶i̶v̶e̶ ̶s̶i̶x̶ a bunch of alternatives to obtaining an MFA:
1. Critique Group
A critique group is generally made up of writers at around the same skill level/point in their career development. Usually they also write in the same genre(s). You can use sites like MeetUp and Facebook to find critique groups, but I’ve been more successful meeting people in person at conventions (more on that below). A critique group not only gives you feedback on your writing that can be invaluable, but also teaches you a lot through the process of critiquing other writers’ work. And it can give you a solid group of people with whom to share the joys and frustrations of the writing life, which you’re going to need even more than a writer’s traditional lifetime supply of Jack Daniels.
2. Conventions & Conferences
There are dozens of literary conventions and conferences every year all over the world for every genre you can think of. Cons are a great place to learn about writing, network with other writers, and get the latest gossip. Cost varies depending upon how far you’re traveling, how many people you’re willing to bunk with, and whether or not you volunteer for the convention to lower the cost of your badge. There’s a handy list of conventions here, or you can follow your favorite authors on Twitter to see what conventions they’re attending. I highly recommend the GenCon Writer’s Symposium.
3. Writer’s Workshops
World-renowned workshops for speculative fiction are so numerous these days you can’t swing a pencil without hitting a writer who has “Clarion Class of 2015” in their email signature. Workshops are expensive compared to other options, and the price doesn’t include travel expenses, but hey, they’re considerably cheaper than getting an MFA. They offer more small-group and one-on-one attention from professional writers, editors, and agents than attending a con, plus the bonding experience of getting matching VIABLE PARADISE 4EVAH tattoos with your fellow students. Some workshops offer scholarships to offset the costs. You can find a list of workshops on the SFWA website.
4. Online classes
Several places like LitReactor and Writer’s Digest University offer online classes with professional instructors that generally last a few weeks. Some class topics are incredibly broad (HOW TO NOVEL) while others are much more tailored (how to use your experience shaving yaks to write a transformative personal essay). They usually offer the opportunity to receive feedback on your work from both peers and an experienced professional, as well as lectures and required reading or suggestions for further reading. You can also find courses offered directly by authors like K. Tempest Bradford, Nisi Shawl, Cat Rambo, and Alethea Kontis if you follow them on Twitter or sign up for their email newsletters, which you should do, because all of these writers are awesome.
5. Professional organizations
Price: Free to ~$115/year
Joining a professional organization like SFWA, HWA, Codex, or the SCBWI will give you the opportunity to network with other professionals, enter writing contests, submit to invitation-only anthologies, find a mentor (discussed more below), and give you access to forums where professionals discuss every aspect of the business, including whether or not riff-raff like you should even be allowed to join in the first place, because what kind of place is this, a speakeasy? Heinlein would never have allowed for this kind of rabble! If you dare, there’s a list of a bazillion organizations here. Because there are so many, it can be really helpful to pay attention to what organizations writers recommend you join. Seriously, ask them, they’ll love to tell you all about which orgs have done them wrong and which are worth your time.
6. Writing contests & challenges
Writing contests can be a great way to get yourself noticed by the right people, even if you don’t win. Don’t ever, ever pay to enter a writing contest, however, and if the prize is voted on by the members of a forum, recognize that your work will be publicly available, meaning you’ll have given up your precious first publication rights, even if you don’t win. That you might never be paid for it. I usually find out about writing contests randomly because I’m friends with lots of writers on Twitter and Facebook, but I’m sure there are lists of them somewhere.
7. Writing Retreats
Have you ever dreamed of returning to the magical time when you had no responsibilities and you got to have sleepovers with your friends and geek out shamelessly about your favorite things? A writing retreat is like that, especially if you know the people you’re retreating with, and it is, indeed, quite fucking magical. Locations may vary–I’ve been to retreats at convents, cabins in the Hocking Hills, and peoples’ houses. Some retreats may have guest speakers, and others may have strictly-enforced writing time, and still others are basically just a chance to drink sake and talk shop with other equally frustrated and hopeful writers. It’s a rejuvenating experience, and you might even get some writing done, or at least find the motivation to keep going when you were about to give up on writing, burn your typewriter, and take up yak farming. If you can’t find any writing retreats near you, then start one! Recruit some writers and rent an AirBNB for a few nights.
8. A Mentor or Coach
Mentors and coaches provide writers with targeted critique, guidance, and (I’m assuming) unlimited 3 am pep-talks. Okay, probably not that last thing. But still, they can be invaluable resources for new and intermediate writers alike. There are lots and lots of pro writers out there willing to provide mentorship and coaching–but remember, for many of them, writing is a business. Time they take out of their busy schedule to coach you is time they’re not writing, so they may charge for coaching or mentoring. The nice thing about getting free mentoring (which you may be able to get through a professional organization like the HWA) is that it’s free. The nice thing about paying for coaching is that now you’re a client, so you can get an even more dedicated level of professional guidance. Lots of authors post about their mentoring or coaching opportunities on their blogs, email newsletters, and–you guessed it–Twitter. Additionally, Lucy Snyder has created a helpful list on Facebook. It’s by no means comprehensive but, it’s certainly a starting place. You may also be able to find resources through the various professional organizations. Some writers and coaches (like Lucy) now offer their services through Patreon, in smaller monthly chunks.
9. An Editor
BUT SARAH, I hear you gallumphing, ALL THESE SUGGESTIONS ARE FOR PEOPLE WHO WANT TO BE TRADITIONALLY PUBLISHED. I WANT TO SELF-PUBLISH. Okay, stop shouting! That’s fine. Then you need to hire an editor. Developmental editors will edit your manuscript for plot, characterization, consistency, and just good writing. Copy editors will edit for typos, spelling, and grammatical errors. You’ll pay more for a good developmental edit, because it’s considerably more work, but you need both. This service may seem expensive, once you’re looking at the cost for an entire novel manuscript, but it was your choice to write a 400,000 word tome that would make George RR Martin proud, so now you have to pay the piper. The alternative is that your novel will simply be added to the garbage pile of forgettable self-published novels consumers increasingly ignore. These days, some authors are paying editors to fix their work before they submit it to major publishers, so this can really give you an edge over the competition, even if you’re looking to go the traditional route.
Price: free (unless we’re talking about the emotional toll)
It doesn’t have to be Twitter, but I highly recommend getting on some kind of social media and following your favorite authors, editors, and agents. You never have to tweet or retweet anything if you don’t want to, but a lot of industry chatter happens on Twitter, and you’d be amazed what you can learn–and what opportunities you’ll find–just from keeping your ear to the ground. Facebook is most useful for groups where editors post the latest paying deadlines that have open submissions for your preferred genre. Social media is also great for fueling paranoia and anxiety and driving you into a cataleptic state from sheer mental overload, so set a timer on your phone or something so you won’t just get sucked in for hours and forget to eat, okay? All things in moderation.
11. Good old books
Price: free, if you have a good library
There are many, many books about the craft of writing. Some of the ones recommended to me by other successful writers: Stephen King’s On Writing, Jack M. Bickman’s Scene & Structure, Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages, Samuel R. Delaney’s About Writing, Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, and Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel. You can also search Amazon or Goodreads for top-rated writing books, visit your local independent bookstore, or, once again, ask your favorite authors for recommendations. If there’s one thing authors like to talk about more than their current project, it’s books, especially ones that have influenced them greatly.
Living in the future is magical, isn’t it? You can now have your favorite authors beamed straight into your ear-holes whenever you want, offering writing advice, author interviews, book reviews, and more. I highly recommend the podcasts Writing Excuses and Speculate! (especially their author interview episodes; the one with Tim Powers is amazing!) and I’ve also heard good things about This Is Horror.
I hope you found this list helpful. If you have anything to add or I’ve inspired you to take up yak-shaving, leave a comment, okay? Comments feed the ego beast that lives in my basement. ❤