Writing Degrees: What are They Worth?

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A while back, I was interviewed on Women On Writing‘s blog, The Muffin, and asked about the benefits of my degree in creative writing. I thought to share with you, here, my answer to the question.

WOW: You have a BFA in creative writing. Do you think this has helped you with your writing career? How?

Kelly: Both yes and no.

Yes. Entry into most writing programs is usually competitive. When I inform a publisher (or whomever) that I have a BFA in creative writing, I feel that it shows, on a very basic level, I’m skilled enough as a writer to have gained acceptance into a program and that I’m serious enough about my writing to have invested the time and money.

No. Ultimately, degree or no degree, it’s one’s writing that speaks for itself.

FreeImages.com/spydermurp

Yes. Like contests, a degree in creative writing provides those external deadlines. Many programs also require you to write in more than one genre, so a writer may be pushed beyond her comfort zone. I write mainly for children and young adults, but my experience was broadened into writing stageplay, nonfiction (personal essay, memoir, op ed), manga, short fiction, and so on.

No. My personal opinion is that there are also potential pitfalls to degree programs (such as cookie-cutter methods/approaches to writing that may stifle uncharted territory in the creative process). I recall one occasion when I should have forged ahead with a story rather than attempt a re-write.

Yes. I learned a lot about building a career in writing… all the little details about query letters, the dos and don’ts of manuscript submissions; I met publishers, agents, authors, instructors, fellow writers, and built some great networks. I feel the degree helped me establish a solid foundation in my writing career.

No. All of the above can be learned or established outside a degree program. Even with my solid foundation I feel I’m learning the most in the real world by writing, submitting to publishers, facing rejections, writing, meeting with my mentor, writing, winning a contest, and more writing, writing, writing.

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Once I graduated with my BFA I quickly ruled out the option of pursuing a MFA in creative writing. For me, I felt the benefits no longer outweighed the costs. Rather, I chose a MA program that, in addition to an academic component, permits me to write a novel as part of my thesis project. It’s the best of both worlds, in my opinion.

My current work-in-progress is set in the Ancient Near East (ANE) and is very research intensive. Through my MA program I have access to scholars who are experts in the ANE, I’m able to propose guided studies tailoring my course content to exactly what I want to learn/research, and there are courses that facilitate the creative component. In the end, I’ll have finished my book to “publishable standard” and acquired a whole lot of learning (preparation for a Phd). Perfect for me!

How about you? What’s your experience with writing degrees? How have you weighed the costs/benefits? Would your response to the interview question be much different than mine? Your comments are welcome.

P.S. The full interview may be found here. Also, I recommend checking out Women On Writing’s quarterly flash fiction contest. It’s well worth the effort and the ten dollar entry fee!

***

New Grains of Sand: 4,283

Total: 61,909

This Business of Writing

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Summer is in full swing and so are the kids. Playgrounds and picnics, Freezies and fireworks, beaches, BBQs, sunflower seeds, and sunshine… there’s no end to the outdoor action.

Yet while the kids are hard at play, I’ve managed to keep hard at work. Thanks to my mobile office!

My Outdoor Office

I thought to share a few writing resources that have been invaluable to me these past weeks. Even if your book is not yet ready to send out to agents/editors, I recommend becoming familiar with these sites. It’s so much easier to learn-as-you-go rather than experience a crash-course at the end of it all, once your project is complete.

Query Tracker

Lists agents and publishers, their websites, and what they represent/publish. You can search based on genre, name, agency, etc. For instance, if I type in ‘picture book’ I get a list of agents/publishers who handle picture books. You can also select it to show only those who are currently open to submissions. **It is still recommended to use the submission guidelines from the agent/publisher’s website as it will be most up-to-date, but Query Tracker helps you find the right agents/publishers to begin with. Plus Query Tracker shares success stories of writers who find representation and many of them graciously post their query letters. These services are available for free.

SCBWI

If you write for children or YA then a SCBWI membership also offers access to a regularly updated online catalog of industry professionals. By nature of SCBWI this catalog automatically filters out non-children’s book agents/editors plus it also contains many other industry resources.

Manuscript Wishlist

Agents and publishers list their up-to-date in-the-moment wishlists for books they’d like to see submitted to them. It’s very current and nuanced information. For example, one agent posts: “I represent historical fiction, too, and I’m still waiting for the story told from the POV of a viking shield maiden. I’m open to just about any era of history, except for WWI, WWII, and Civil War.” You can subscribe via email for free.

#mswl on Twitter (Manuscript Wishlist)

If you search the hashtag #mswl on Twitter you will find current posts from agents/editors about what they are looking for. If your book matches a request you can go to their site and traditionally submit to them mentioning the #mswl hashtag. It’s kind of like a direct route out of the slush pile. (But be warned! The #mswl hashtag is NOT ever meant to be used to pitch or query agents via Twitter… they don’t like it, so don’t do it!)

July 28th was a day when many agents/publishers were on Twitter tweeting their requests. You’ll find some fresh information. Again, even if your project isn’t quite ready, I’d recommend checking it out to get a feel for things. Example tweet: “I would love a YA set in Berlin in August 1914. Themes: mystery, friendship, political intrigue.”

Thanks to Jessica Sinsheimer, KK Hendin, and Kelsey McKim for creating this excellent resource for writers!

AR Bookfinder

Wondering about word count? If your manuscript is long enough? Too long? Go to AR Bookfinder and click on teacher/librarian. You can search for numerous book titles and access information on them, including word count. This will help give you an idea of where other books like yours are at in terms of word count.

For children’s and YA writers, you should also check out the post Wordcount Dracula by literary agent and bookseller, Jennifer Laughran.

Well, that’s all for now folks. Let me know if any of these resources are new to you and if you find them helpful. I would love to hear from you on your new/most used resource finds. Happy writing!

***

New Grains of Sand: 3,422

Total: 57,626

Acquisitions

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I’m quite excited about some recent acquisitions I’ve made. Check out these additions to my personal library:

Folk and Fairy Tales (Critical Theory)

Myth

Children’s Literature

And More!

Want to know what’s extra exciting for me? I acquired most of these for only $2 or $3 per book (or even less!) at a recent book sale. It was heaven on earth… and I just had to share the good news!

So tell me, which of these books would you start first? What are you reading over the summer?

Good and Terrible: The Rejection Letter

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People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time.

Rejection. Writers are warned it’s a common, everyday, even natural part of the submissions process. Expect it. Endure it. Curl up in a ball and curse it, but in the end don’t be daunted, discouraged, or depressed by it.

While it’s easy enough to acknowledge this advice, it’s not always easy to abide by it. Every stepping stone on the pathway to publication can seem to scream a new insult. You’re trying to do too much in this picturebook. // The narrative is a bit shaky. // For such an important plot device, you are distressingly vague about it. Who wants to tread on such treacherous terrain? No doubt, rejection is torturous and terrible.

But it is also, at the same time, good.

Industry experts will tell you to learn from those letters. Grow. Hone. Sharpen your skills. Be bold. Be brave. Be discerning. Incorporate criticism. Ignore criticism. Rewrite, revise, re-submit. And, perhaps most importantly, persist.

But on a more basic level–a level that involves less sweat and toil, less wrestling with dos and don’ts and decisions, on a level that incurs less neuroses–here’s why I view rejection letters as good; why I turn to them from time to time for (yes, I’m actually saying this!) encouragement.

  1. A rejection letter, no matter what it might say, means that my writing is being read. Plain and simple. And that’s a good thing.
  2. A rejection reminds me my work is being considered. Publishing professionals aren’t simply reading the writing, but are evaluating its strength. Insights into the industry come through this process.
  3. My writing is critiqued. For example, an editor at one of the leading publishing houses (normally closed to unsolicited, unagented submissions) sent a full-page response to my manuscript. While it was ultimately a rejection, I’m very aware of the value of her response. People pay plenty of money–at conferences, workshops, blue pencils–for that kind of feedback. While it’s not easy to accept all that she says, her time and attention and expertise given to my manuscript is still nothing short of encouraging.
  4. My writing is complimented.

Clever premise! // I found [your story] really quite great! I wish you the best of luck with it! You are clearly quite a talented writer! // Well done. Your ending is really touching and beautiful. // I like your work. // Both are well written and clearly you have much promising talent as a writer.

It’s easy to let those hard-to-hear critiques overshadow the praise (why do we writers do this?), but if you re-read those rejections they’re likely also laden with positive remarks. It doesn’t hurt to highlight them. Or perhaps cut and paste them all into one place :)

5.  Finally, rejection letters are good for providing perspective.

A Pleasant Rejection Letter

It’s a competitive market. Our work must be ready, it must be excellent. Yet rejection doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not. The right time, the right place, and the right fit are also factors in effect.

You’ve been to Narnia, right? Let us remember that a thing–such as a rejection letter–can be both terrible and good at the same time.

Aslan © 2015 by Kelly Dycavinu

Aslan © 2015 by Kelly Dycavinu An early attempt in the series Story Sustains Us.

How about you? How do you handle rejection letters? Are they mostly terrible? The least bit good? When were you last in Narnia?

P.S. Check out this list of Best-Sellers Initially Rejected. I bet you’ll find it encouraging!

© Kelly Dycavinu and Popcorn with a Spoon, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kelly Dycavinu and Popcorn with a Spoon with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Story Sustains Us

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What Sustains Us? Where do we find nourishment for our bodies, our spirits, our communities, and our land?

As part of a group of artists participating in a community art show I was asked the question above. The following is my answer, out of it Black Beauty is born:

Story. Of all the possible responses to this question, story comes to the forefront of my mind. Stories shape the way we see the world. Stories shape the way we see others. Stories shape the way we see ourselves. Through story—whether sharing our own or listening to the stories of others—we have the ability to foster health and wholeness, connection and community, understanding and awareness, respect and responsibility.

A gentle hand on the forehead of a misused horse, words that would stay a whip, rescue and reunion with a care-filled keeper… these are but a few glimpses into another, even grander, Story—one that unfolds before us and all around us.

Through story we are invited to recognize the world as it is. Through story we are invited to live in the world as it should be.

Black Beauty © 2015 by Kelly Dycavinu

Black Beauty © 2015 by Kelly Dycavinu

***

Novel update:

New grains of sand: 4,208

Current status: 54, 204

© Kelly Dycavinu and Popcorn with a Spoon, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kelly Dycavinu and Popcorn with a Spoon with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

On Being Invited

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Do you like receiving invitations? I do!

Isn’t it great to know that you are welcome? That your presence is requested? That you are thought of and sought after?

Yes, being invited is quite a lovely thing. So today I want to share with you some of my favourite invitations.

From my daughter: “Momma, will you come cuddle with me?”

From Isaiah:

“Come, all you who are thirsty,
    come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without cost.”

                                            –Isaiah 55:1

From Uncle Elephant: “Come out of this dark place!”

From Shel Silverstein:

If you are a dreamer, come in,

If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,

A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer…

If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire

For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.

Come in!

Come in!

                                                —Where the Sidewalk Ends

The first invitation… well, that one is just for me. I’m my daughter’s only Momma, always and forever so shall it be.

But the others… well, they are addressed to you as much as they are to me. Those invitations I freely extend. So how about it? Shall we pour a glass of wine, light a fire, and start spinning some flax-golden tales?

By the Fire

I’m back full-force to writing and research for my novel. And I’ve done the math:

750 words/day, five days a week, times 12 weeks = 45,000 words

750 words/day, six days a weeks, times 12 weeks = 54,000 words

That’s where I’ll be, come September, when I dive back into coursework. 45,000 – 54,000 words richer… the last half of my first draft complete.

And you? What are your goals over the summer? Will you join me in setting some? Have you been spinning (or reading) any flax-golden tales? Feel free to let me know in the comments below.

© Kelly Dycavinu and Popcorn with a Spoon, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kelly Dycavinu and Popcorn with a Spoon with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Uninvited Guests

Kelly Dycavinu:

I’ll admit it… there are some guests I refuse to invite into my home. My OCD personality just can’t handle the mess! But this post from my lovely friend, Esther Hizsa, has me thinking… what (or whom) might I encounter if I welcome these messy ‘guests’?

Originally posted on An Everyday Pilgrim:

Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen--The calling of St John during the marriage at Cana.1530On Christmas we entertained family and friends for most of the day. We enjoyed every guest that came. But visitors are not always easy to have around. They may come late, stay too long, or forget what they promised to bring. Inevitably someone will do something that unsettles another.

Our feelings are like guests. Some are more enjoyable than others. Yet Rumi invites us to welcome them all. Why? Because we can encounter God in them.

The Guest House

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful…

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Seasons Change… and You’ve Been Waiting on Me

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We enjoyed an extended sunny summer here in Vancouver. With the BC teacher’s strike, kids literally did not return to school until the first day of fall. And then, with the turn of a calendar page, along came the rain… pouring and pouring… still pouring… will it ever stop? pouring.

Seasons change.

This fall we moved, I returned fulltime to my masters program, my husband started a new job, and we celebrated our 16th wedding anniversary, my daughter’s birthday, and my husband’s birthday… ALL within a two-week time period! It’s a ‘new’ season and a ‘happening all at once’ season.

I thought to share with you this song from Future Islands, Seasons (I’ve Been Waiting On You). Watching it, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry… he’s just too intense! A little like life, I guess.

Okay, so I mostly laugh.

***

News and Updates:

My picture book, Oosh Goosh Down in the Woods, was shortlisted in the SiWC writing contest (Writing for Young People Category).

My painting, Oh, Jerusalem!, was selected for inclusion in this year’s Christian Seasons Calendar. You may remember Oh, Jerusalem! from A Little Sheepish… Chalk on Dirt where I shared about a painting created from dirt and egg yolk paint.

This summer I wrote 50,000 words of my current novel-in-progress. While I didn’t make it all the way to my 70,000 word goal, I’m quite content with the accomplishment. Besides, I reached a point where it made sense to return to ‘research mode’. If you’re new to Popcorn with a Spoon, I shared the journey in a series of posts called Novel Ideas: Diarrhea Draft, Doing the Math, Faulty Metaphor and Character Alignment, The Writing Ritual, Research versus Writing (and Pottery in Ancient Palestine), and Positive Affirmation.

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How about you? Any seasons of change in your life right now? What do you think of this song by Future Islands? Did you attend the SiWC Writers’ Conference? Please share your news and updates.

Make No Mistake: Take the Next Step

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I’m here. Stuck in this place where I’m afraid to make a mistake.

It drives me crazy.

I’m not allowed to touch anything. What if I break it?

I’m not allowed to play. I might make a mess of things.

I’m not allowed to explore. I might get lost and not be able to find my way back.

It’s no fun. There’s nothing to do, but nothing.

Bird's Nest by Kelly Dycavinu

A work in progress

What am I talking about? This painting.

My daughter and I began to work on it during our season of slow. I like what we’ve done so far. And I know what I want to do next. But something always stops me from starting on the next step—the fear of making a mistake, the fear of messing it all up.

Do you ever feel this with your art? Your writing? Your life? Do you ever find yourself stuck in one place, afraid of making a mistake?

The irony is… most of what I love about this painting is the unplanned and unintended parts, the mistakes so to speak. So I guess I should stop stalling, get out the burnt umber, and start defining the twigs and branches of this bird’s nest.

How about you? What’s the next step you’re going to take?

***

Good news! A painting of mine has been selected for use in a calendar. I’ll let you know the details once the contract is finalized :)

Novel update:

New grains of sand: 8,285

Current status: 49,096

I’m going to write this novel. Word by word.

***

© Kelly Dycavinu and Popcorn with a Spoon, 2011-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kelly Dycavinu and Popcorn with a Spoon with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Step by Step: Learning to Enjoy the Journey

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I don’t travel well. It’s getting from point A to point B that derails me. If I could just snap my fingers and arrive in Paris… perfect! Or teleport to Turkey… great! But, no, it’s never that easy, is it? Consider all the cost involved, the expenses incurred. Consider the fears to overcome, the fear of flying, the fear of the unknown, the fear of disappointment. Consider all the delays and detours, the lay-overs and lost luggage, the lack of sleep…

But I’m not just talking about travel, am I?

It’s the same situation with most of life’s worthwhile endeavors. Getting from where you are (point A) to where you want to be (point B) is rarely an easy effort. And this is why I appreciate those who are willing to share their journeys, step by step, with others. It’s one thing to announce to the world when you’ve arrived, and it’s another to assist others along the way so that they may arrive (eventually) as well.

Thank you to all those who have gone before and who have stopped to consider those who follow after.

***

Artist, Sandrine Pelissier, is someone I appreciate. Check out her step by step painting demos and tutorials. There are many inspiring ideas for your painting projects–not to mention gorgeous artwork–over at her site.

Here’s my attempt to follow the trail she’s blazed:

Red Flowers by Kelly Dycavinu

My experiment with zentangles and negative painting (painting the negative space rather than painting the subject directly). My zentangles need some work, but I enjoyed the learning process.

 

Red Flowers Detail by Kelly Dycavinu

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Marriage, parenting, writing, art, education are a few of my worthwhile endeavors. What are yours?

Novel update:

New grains of sand: 4,221

Current status: 40,811

I’m going to write this novel. Word by word.

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