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dersins


May 30, 2007, 12:11 PM

Post #176 of 710 (8926 views)
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Short-shorts: how many to send? Can't Post

It's never too early to start thinking about my writing sample, right?

Most of my best work is very short. 500 - 1500 words, in fact. If a program asks for something like "2 or 3 stories totaling 25 - 30 pages in length" would it be a better idea to submit 2 or 3 stories totaling 10 - 15 pages in length, or to submit 4 or 5 stories totaling 20 - 30 pages in length?

In other words, should I aim to meet their story count or their page count?

(For the sake of argument, assume all stories are of equal quality.)


piratelizzy


May 30, 2007, 12:31 PM

Post #177 of 710 (8922 views)
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Re: [dersins] Short-shorts: how many to send? Can't Post

I don't know the best answer to that, dersins, but I can offer this:

Austin's program, out of twelve I considered last year, seemed to me to hold the strictest requirements concerning length of writing sample. Even so, when I wrote Austin's administrator to ask about going over the limit, the short answer was that if I felt the extra story added to the quality of my writing sample, I should go ahead and go overboard.

Hope that helps.


'sup?!


__________



Jul 3, 2007, 8:10 PM

Post #178 of 710 (9160 views)
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Writing sample (formerly: Benny) Can't Post

Damn. And here I thought I'd made at least a semi-controversial post re: the content and quality of application manuscripts. I was hoping someone else would chime in with their own views or experiences, with or without chiding.

Is this allowed? Can I ask without sounding totally desperate? I'm in a race for facts, man.


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(This post was edited by motet on Jul 8, 2007, 11:05 PM)


jlgwriter
Jeanne Lyet Gassman

Jul 3, 2007, 8:58 PM

Post #179 of 710 (9152 views)
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Re: [Junior Maas] Benny Can't Post

Okay, Junior, I'll bite. :) What are the ten most common mistakes the applicants make?


http://www.jeannelyetgassman.com
http://jeannelyetgassman.blogspot.com


__________



Jul 3, 2007, 10:00 PM

Post #180 of 710 (9146 views)
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Re: [jlgwriter] Benny Can't Post

Hey there.

Well, let's see. Anyone else read Muscle & Fitness during their early, lanky teens? If so, then you probably noticed there's like ten things to be said about gaining muscle -- and that Muscle & Fitness repeated those ten things over and over, in various guises, until you learned to stop wasting your money and a new troup of 8th graders cropped up to replace you.

And aren't writing books the same way? They recycle the same advice ad nauseam. I just meant the majority of stories I read seemed unaware of this advice. Basic stuff, like at the sentence level, No passive voice, mister!, or, Nouns and verbs, good! Adverbs and adjectives, bad!. General, commonly held notions that apply to most types of writing. And then beyond that, the few general things you can say about structure. Such as: Begin at the beginning, or Why not lead with a scene, rather than that two page ponderous philosophical section?.

Not that the rejected stories were all bad. In fact--and this really irked me--I thought a lot of them showed more promise than the accepted ones. You could easily throw a Burroway book at them and emerge minutes later with something competent and interesting.

Another thing I found curious was I guess a matter of subject matter and tone. Almost everyone wrote about youngsters. The successful ones steered clear of what you'd expect from a youngster: rehashes of 90210 romance, rehashes of movie-of-the-week abuse dramas. Or, for guys, tales that glorified sex, drinking, and whatever else is new-ish and cool at 21.

What I took away was, if you think you're cool, if you think the subject of your story is way cool, stop. Kill your enthusiasm at the door. Affect a jaded outlook at once. (Don't appear too enthusiastically jaded, though -- that is young and amateurish).

Best strategy, in a nutshell: include young characters if you want, but don't be stereotypically young. Don't be experimental or artsy. Don't take chances. (Yes -- even if you're applying to an 'experimental' school). Be a muted kind of jaded. No TV plots. No TV dialogue conventions (i.e. two characters saying the same thing at once). Get a writing book or ten, edit for the ten or so things they all say not to do. Open university journal, mimic format and punctuation.

And that was pretty much it.


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(This post was edited by Junior Maas on Jul 3, 2007, 10:01 PM)


bennyprof


Jul 3, 2007, 10:44 PM

Post #181 of 710 (9134 views)
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Re: [Junior Maas] Benny Can't Post


In Reply To
Hey there.

Well, let's see. Anyone else read Muscle & Fitness during their early, lanky teens? If so, then you probably noticed there's like ten things to be said about gaining muscle -- and that Muscle & Fitness repeated those ten things over and over, in various guises, until you learned to stop wasting your money and a new troup of 8th graders cropped up to replace you.

And aren't writing books the same way? They recycle the same advice ad nauseam. I just meant the majority of stories I read seemed unaware of this advice. Basic stuff, like at the sentence level, No passive voice, mister!, or, Nouns and verbs, good! Adverbs and adjectives, bad!. General, commonly held notions that apply to most types of writing. And then beyond that, the few general things you can say about structure. Such as: Begin at the beginning, or Why not lead with a scene, rather than that two page ponderous philosophical section?.

Not that the rejected stories were all bad. In fact--and this really irked me--I thought a lot of them showed more promise than the accepted ones. You could easily throw a Burroway book at them and emerge minutes later with something competent and interesting.

Another thing I found curious was I guess a matter of subject matter and tone. Almost everyone wrote about youngsters. The successful ones steered clear of what you'd expect from a youngster: rehashes of 90210 romance, rehashes of movie-of-the-week abuse dramas. Or, for guys, tales that glorified sex, drinking, and whatever else is new-ish and cool at 21.

What I took away was, if you think you're cool, if you think the subject of your story is way cool, stop. Kill your enthusiasm at the door. Affect a jaded outlook at once. (Don't appear too enthusiastically jaded, though -- that is young and amateurish).

Best strategy, in a nutshell: include young characters if you want, but don't be stereotypically young. Don't be experimental or artsy. Don't take chances. (Yes -- even if you're applying to an 'experimental' school). Be a muted kind of jaded. No TV plots. No TV dialogue conventions (i.e. two characters saying the same thing at once). Get a writing book or ten, edit for the ten or so things they all say not to do. Open university journal, mimic format and punctuation.

And that was pretty much it.



Thanks. Lot of great info there. The part about not taking chances is a little depressing, but I'd figured as much. As I posted earlier in this (or maybe another) thread, there seems to be a certain tone that communicates legitimacy to the literary world... if I were to try and describe it, I'd call it "quiet, but powerful," but, now that I think about it, "a muted kind of jaded" might be more accurate. Or maybe my description is a positive spin on the same concept, in a way? Maybe not. In either case, thanks for your post.

Incidentally, what were a few of the plots out of the fifteen stories you read? Anything sensational? I don't mean sensational, as in "great," but sensational as in stories about crime, murder, mahem, etc... or were they all fairly quiet, domestic stories?

Did any of them employ a fast, visceral style? Any crime noir? I'm thinking of the Will Christopher Baer/Bret Easton Ellis type stuff. Maybe "edge" is a better word.

Thanks,
Benny


__________



Jul 3, 2007, 11:08 PM

Post #182 of 710 (9130 views)
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Re: [bennyprof] Benny Can't Post

Let it be known that I made my crappy word mininum tonight -- I deserve to slack off!

Also that these are just the impressions I took away from a few applications, and that they just might in no way resemble reality, so who knows. (Then again, 15 stories is a legitimate chunk of data, given acceptance rates). But like you, I'm super hungry for anything quantifiable, so:

Based on what I saw, stay far, far away from anything that resembes genre fiction. Even if you think you're writing the super-literary kind of stuff popularized by a Lethem or a Doctorow, don't. You're not.

Quiet domestic tales. Yes. Just stay away from what pedants call 'easy answers', and stay away from any quiet domestic stuff that you might have copped from TV.

I happen to love early Bret Easton Ellis, but really, who can pull that stuff off but a young Bret Easton Ellis? His kind of decadence is already borderline goofy. This is what I meant by the young man's glorification of sex, drinking, the just-so-unbearable suburban ennui, etc. STAY AWAY!

I did promise not to discuss the plot details of any stories people were nice enough to e-mail me. But who knows. Like Hop said, people are nice. You could always e-mail these students for their take on things.


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(This post was edited by Junior Maas on Jul 3, 2007, 11:10 PM)


bennyprof


Jul 3, 2007, 11:30 PM

Post #183 of 710 (9122 views)
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Re: [Junior Maas] Benny Can't Post


Quote
Based on what I saw, stay far, far away from anything that resembes genre fiction. Even if you think you're writing the super-literary kind of stuff popularized by a Lethem or a Doctorow, don't. You're not.



"You're not." Ouch! You've never seen my writing. ;)

Heh, I know what you're saying... although it's a helluva a lot of fun to play around with, it's tough to pull off without sliding into melodrama. A very fine line to walk, and who's to say I'm not crossing it? We are not the best judges of our own work. Tough to get far enough away from it, even with the passage of time, for a truly objective self-evaluation.

Thanks for the advice -- I'll keep it in mind.



bennyprof


Jul 4, 2007, 12:08 AM

Post #184 of 710 (9108 views)
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Re: [Junior Maas] Benny Can't Post

I should also mention that this type of fiction isn't all I write... it's just what I've been into lately. And it definitely doesn't involve "the young man's glorification of sex, drinking, the just-so-unbearable suburban ennui, etc."

Content-wise, it's not in the same realm. I was speaking more to the pace, tone, voice, etc... humorous (I hope) pessimism without the pretentiousness/air of superiority/trying-to-be-hip-a-little-too-hard vibe you sometimes get with that breed of narration. Like I said, it's a fine line, and I do my best to walk it.

But yeah, some of my stuff leans toward a certain genre.




(This post was edited by bennyprof on Jul 4, 2007, 12:31 AM)


mingram
Mike Ingram

Jul 4, 2007, 10:37 AM

Post #185 of 710 (9065 views)
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Re: [bennyprof] Benny Can't Post

But what's the end-game of all this second guessing? That you get into an MFA program?

I can see how that's appealing as a short-term goal, but if you're writing "to please" in that particular way (to be middle-of-the-road, to make a committee happy, etc.) not only will your writing suffer -- because you won't be writing what you want to write -- but you'll probably lose your mind once you actually start a program. Because there will be far too many disparate voices to try to please within a given workshop.

I guess this is easy to say since I have an MFA already, but you pretty quickly realize that the degree -- like that first publishing credit -- is only one really small step in a long process of trying to find success (however you define it) as a writer. And while I loved getting an MFA,and got a lot out of it, it's not an important enough step to sacrifice your aesthetics over. In my experience, the people who did the best work in grad school were the ones who knew what they wanted to write and, while they certainly incorporated the critiques they got, were ultimately pretty headstrong about what they were doing.

Plus, let's say you write a couple boring domestic stories just to get into a hypothetical MFA program that admits only those who write boring domestic stories. Is that really a place you want to spend the next two to three years?


kevin82


Jul 4, 2007, 12:31 PM

Post #186 of 710 (9052 views)
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Re: [mingram] Benny Can't Post

I disagree about conforming to the Burroway school and not taking any risks just to get in. Of course everyone's opinion is shaped by their own experience, but I took a lot of risks with the two stories I submitted and am very happy with the results: got into a great program and getting both stories published. About being experimental, I think it's more about finding a form that fits the function, a style that fits the content of the story, and that's something craft books don't allow much room for. I think it's important that people starting out learn all those Burroway rules but then (once they have worked through all those standard amateurish impulses) be able to move on and not feel chained to those rules (or try to chain anyone else to them in a workshop).

And so people are trying to conform to these rules just to get into a program -- and yet isn't the biggest concern about MFA programs that they homogenize everyone's writing? Aren't we the ones doing the homogenizing?


bennyprof


Jul 4, 2007, 2:05 PM

Post #187 of 710 (9039 views)
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Re: [mingram] Benny Can't Post


In Reply To
But what's the end-game of all this second guessing? That you get into an MFA program?

I can see how that's appealing as a short-term goal, but if you're writing "to please" in that particular way (to be middle-of-the-road, to make a committee happy, etc.) not only will your writing suffer -- because you won't be writing what you want to write -- but you'll probably lose your mind once you actually start a program. Because there will be far too many disparate voices to try to please within a given workshop.

I guess this is easy to say since I have an MFA already, but you pretty quickly realize that the degree -- like that first publishing credit -- is only one really small step in a long process of trying to find success (however you define it) as a writer. And while I loved getting an MFA,and got a lot out of it, it's not an important enough step to sacrifice your aesthetics over. In my experience, the people who did the best work in grad school were the ones who knew what they wanted to write and, while they certainly incorporated the critiques they got, were ultimately pretty headstrong about what they were doing.

Plus, let's say you write a couple boring domestic stories just to get into a hypothetical MFA program that admits only those who write boring domestic stories. Is that really a place you want to spend the next two to three years?



You've just addressed and, in my opinion, superbly summarized the concern I was about to voice in my next post. It's one thing to do everything in one's power to avoid amateurish mistakes, and quite another to conform to an aesthetic standard expected by the top schools in a conscious attempt to "play the game," so to speak.

I think I'd rather submit the kind of stories I like to write and be turned down than show them an inaccurate representation of my work and, once I'm accepted and able to write what I enjoy again, come to realize my style is not a good fit with the program. Thanks, great post!


(This post was edited by bennyprof on Jul 4, 2007, 2:06 PM)


bennyprof


Jul 4, 2007, 2:07 PM

Post #188 of 710 (9036 views)
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Re: [kevin82] Benny Can't Post


In Reply To
I disagree about conforming to the Burroway school and not taking any risks just to get in. Of course everyone's opinion is shaped by their own experience, but I took a lot of risks with the two stories I submitted and am very happy with the results: got into a great program and getting both stories published. About being experimental, I think it's more about finding a form that fits the function, a style that fits the content of the story, and that's something craft books don't allow much room for. I think it's important that people starting out learn all those Burroway rules but then (once they have worked through all those standard amateurish impulses) be able to move on and not feel chained to those rules (or try to chain anyone else to them in a workshop).

And so people are trying to conform to these rules just to get into a program -- and yet isn't the biggest concern about MFA programs that they homogenize everyone's writing? Aren't we the ones doing the homogenizing?



Excellent points.


Clench Million
Charles

Jul 4, 2007, 3:10 PM

Post #189 of 710 (9025 views)
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Re: [Junior Maas] Benny Can't Post

Let me add just another voice saying I wouldn't worry too much about not writing boring domestic stories.

Yes, there are a lot of programs that look for that, but there are plenty of good ones that do not. I write stuff that might be said to fall into the realm of Lethem or Saunders and I was able to get into a fantastic MFA program. Maybe I would have gotten into more programs if I"d gone for some Raymond Carver rip offs, but as has been said you are going to be writing what you want to write so would you really want to sneak into a program with domestic fiction and then turn around and write magical realism that the program isn't going to support?

In my program, maybe a majority of people write the kind of work that seems like typical mfa work (realist, domestic, etc.), but I'd say at least 40% write in other styles and genres. I've seen everything from southern gothic to literary sci-fi to surrealist fiction to magical realism to hyper-realist stuff.

So from my experience, I'd say don't worry too much about everyone writing the same ol' "mfa fiction." There are definitly programs where this is not the case.


__________



Jul 4, 2007, 8:42 PM

Post #190 of 710 (8989 views)
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Re: [Clench Million] Benny Can't Post

Thanks, everyone.

I'm pretty much in agreement, but I feel I should clarify a few things, because I find this subject terribly important and interesting.

Mainly I'm trying to suggest that for anyone here, things are probably more hopeful than acceptance rates would imply. To me this all seems like professional sports--where even minute changes can rocket you above your peers. And really, the bulk of it has nothing to do with plot, genre, humanity, or even the larger syntactical shennanigans we'd call "style". It has to do with a lesser, more basic form of editing that could apply to any style. So I believe that anyone who's internalized the few basic writing lessons found in any text is already way ahead.

I'm more conflicted about the whole "bending your style to get in" thing. But let me tell you how reading these manuscripts has effected my own aesthetic: it really hasn't. Rather, it's changed my thinking on the selection of material I plan to submit. I seem to write two types of short stories. The first, and closest to my heart, is a kind of flowery, emotive, po-mo type beast with acrobatic prose and risks that don't always pay off. The second, and the type I now plan to submit, is a much safer kind of stripped down, traditionally plotted, colloquially languaged George Saunders knock-off that better demonstrates, I think, the "clean" type of writing these programs look for. After reading a few of the underwhelming successful stories, it was clear that schools just want reassurance that you've absorbed the few standard lessons. I don't want to compromise my values, but still -- it's hard to ignore this fact.

The truth is that schools seem to want screenplays.

Here. Let me illustrate the point with the opening paragraphs of two stories I happen to love. The first, from Yellow Rose, by William Vollmann, is quite dazzling, I think:

When I put Jenny's picture up against my glasses her face fogs into a pale yellow moon mistily aswim in the darkness of her hair and high school uniform, because as ageing progresses (so I once read), the minimum distance required for the eye to focus on an object increases, which depresses me and incites me to strategies of avoidance, such as chewing psilocybin mushrooms. Two bitter grams of these infallibly "increase the absolute blue space/of the sky from my embrace", as Baudelaire said about something else. I still pretend that when this expansion takes place, easing my surroundings farther outward on the circumference of a wheel radiating spokes of isolation, then whatever I look at crawls beyond that fatal focal length of vision, like a dreamer fleeing through the molasses of a nightmare, reaching the end of the world at last and jumping into indigo where monsters never reach...

And so on. I read a slew of rejected stories like this. And I know it's all a matter of taste, but to my mind, Vollmann is infinitely more talented than say, Steve Almond, another writer I admire. Here's the opening of his The Idea of Michael Jackson's Dick:

Bramble was talking about Michael Jackson again.
"What I think he's done is he's bleached his dick. He's tried to turn his dick white."
"You can't turn your dick white," I said.
Bramble poured himself another vodka. "Are you Michael Jackson?" he asked. "If the answer is 'No, I'm not Michael Jackson,' then I don't know why you're talking about his dick."
"Has he even got a dick?" said Delk.
"Oh, he's got a dick," Bramble said. "He's got a dick alright."
We were on Delk's porch, watching the sun flame out over our neat little southern city...


Both good stories. But imagine their analogues, penned by students who merely show "promise". The first type, even if that is your school's particular bag, is either perfect, or goes horribly awry due to the tiniest of mistakes. The second story, the screenplay -- dialogue and stage direction, essentially -- is much, much easier to pull off. And to my mind, less satisfying, and more boring. However, it does demonstrate sound, if trite, principles, and looks pretty much like a reasonable facsimile of a story.

All I'm saying is that schools seem to enormously favor type B, be they Iowa, Montana, or somewhere reputedly more 'experimental'. Now I suffer no delusion telling me I'm the next Bill Vollmann. I do, on occasion, write some JV, Almond-esque stuff I don't particularly like, but I'm sure will appeal to a broader range of schools. If it gets me there, gets me funding, and time to write, then hey. There's no permanent plan to bend my aesthetic to each workshop comment.

Concerning plot and genre, remember that magical realism still gets shelved in the literature section. Crime, romance, fantasy: I do think these are legitimate dangers. Programs take anyone's application fees, but do they really take genre? I really really doubt it. For that, there's like a couple of places that focus on popular fiction, but that's pretty much it...

Sorry for the longwindedness, but that's a good sampling of my current frustration...


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(This post was edited by Junior Maas on Jul 4, 2007, 10:31 PM)


mpagan


Jul 5, 2007, 1:03 PM

Post #191 of 710 (8932 views)
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Re: [Junior Maas] Benny Can't Post

Junior,

I think you’re missing one very important point. Whether you write specific genre fiction, or fall into the “realist” or “experimental” category, it’s the quality of the writing that always wins the day. So if you write crappy domestic dramas, or pen silly experimental pieces, then of course your work sucks. But just because you like to write domestic dramas, or experimental work doesn’t mean you’ve bought a ticket to a certain MFA program. If the work sucks, it sucks. Conversely, domestic drama written well, with lots of imagination and psychological insight transcends its genre. The same can be said of any style you work in as long as you do it to the best of your abilities. Let’s face it a lot of this is very subjective, so yes some reviewing committees at some MFA programs might pass on a really great experimental writer in favor of someone working in the realist tradition. But I also believe that most of these committees are not sacrificing quality in favor of taste. Meaning, the realist writer that gets chosen over the experimental writer, is still a writer who shows great promise, and the school might feel they can provide that writer with the tools he/she needs to become even better and the experimental writer can be better served elsewhere.

So I wouldn’t “conform” my writing if I were you to get into programs. Chances are if you naturally like to write a certain kind of fiction and decide to “knock-off” another style just because you think that will get you into some great program and because you think you can carry off that style, the work you produce will be less than stellar. Who knows, maybe you can “mimic” other styles and come up with a rocking piece. I doubt that a writer can do that without truly loving the style they are mimicking. But if you say one style sucks and makes you feel icky – then how can you truly write a piece with enough emotional power and truth to make it a successful work. Again, if you can, then chances are you don’t dislike the style you say “bores” you all that much.

In the end, isn’t better just to do what you love? Isn’t that the reason to go to an MFA program in the first place? Lord knows it’s not for the fame and fortune. You should go to the school that responds to your work as you’ve honestly presented it, with all your passion and hard work scrawled all over the darn thing!

Don’t settle for being a cheap imitation, or a really good mimic of another style just to get into an MFA program. For that join a high stakes corporate environment where that kind of “hiding” and compromise is rewarded—with fat bonuses I hear.


mingram
Mike Ingram

Jul 5, 2007, 2:42 PM

Post #192 of 710 (8911 views)
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Re: [Junior Maas] Benny Can't Post

Of course it's hard to speak with any authority about someone else's work, but I will say that if you're not excited about writing something -- if you're bored by it, even a little bit -- readers will almost certainly be unexcited and bored by it.

One of the biggest problems I've noticed when reading stories for Barrelhouse -- and I think this is true of MFA applications, too -- is what Frank Conroy used to call "abject naturalism." Basically, a bunch of believable, realistic things that happen in a believable, realistic order, but that don't have the shape of a story. I guess this is kind of a fancy way of saying stories that are boring, but it's a particular kind of boring. Like Raymond Carver without the tautness or subtext. Like, you'll be reading and think: that's a very detailed and rather vivid description of the protagonist buttering her toast, but what the hell does it have to do with anything? It's all just a bunch of people moving around rooms without doing anything interesting, or meaningful.

Sometimes bad undergrad workshops can foster this kind of writing, I think, because most of the comments you get are about things that aren't believable -- i.e., "I don't think she'd really ask him out," or "That's not how you hotwire a car." So then the writer starts thinking the goal is just to write a story that works, in that very basic way of being true to life. Instead of taking risks and writing a story that's interesting.


jlgwriter
Jeanne Lyet Gassman

Jul 5, 2007, 3:11 PM

Post #193 of 710 (8901 views)
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Re: [mingram] Benny Can't Post

This is such a great discussion, especially since I'm in the process of preparing my own low-res mfa applications. I've been having an almost parallel conversation with an mfa grad about the form and substance of short fiction, and I've come to the conclusion that a good short story is all about expansion within the constraints of the form. How do you take your reader on an unexpected journey that will still lead to the perfect conclusion? And, in the process, use an economy of words to make it happen?

Every word has to be necessary. The language and diction should be precise and clean. The adventure needs a surprise turn or two, and the ending should evoke: "Aha! Of course!"

What a challenge that is for the writer. I'm convinced that if you can pull it off in short fiction, you can do amazing things in the novel where you have more room to play.

Jeanne


http://www.jeannelyetgassman.com
http://jeannelyetgassman.blogspot.com


seemingmeaning


Jul 5, 2007, 5:22 PM

Post #194 of 710 (9028 views)
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Re: [jlgwriter] Benny Can't Post

Well-put, jlgwriter. Well-put! This ongoing discussion is certainly forcing me to rethink my aesthetic process and approaching the short story with risk. I think this quote from Flannery O'Connor (quoted from a book entitled, "The Short Story Companion" by Tom Bailey) sums it up:

I often ask myself what makes a story work, and what makes it hold up as a story, and I have decided that it is probably some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story lies. This would have to be an action or gesture which was both totally right and totally unexpected; it would have to be one that was both in character and beyond character; it would have to suggest both the world and eternity.




popeye


Jul 7, 2007, 2:44 AM

Post #195 of 710 (8947 views)
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In Reply to Discussion Can't Post

This is a really complex topic, and I want to preface my response by saying I don't know what the hell I'm talking about but then again most of us don't.

I've been lurking on this conversation for a few days and it has set my mind spinning. Unfortunately right now I have had a few drinks and will probably be less than coherent, but that has never stopped me before...

Maybe there is a perfect MFA application story, maybe it is all about adhering to a dominant aesthetic, maybe it has everything to do with content or form and if you make it like a screenplay you're on the right track. Maybe you can even craft exactly the kind of story that will please just about everyone, but the fact of the matter is that the people who make decisions on MFA acceptances (current students, faculty, faculty spouses, etc) are making a subjective judgment on what they respond to. When they read your submission they say to themselves - a) This bores me and it goes in that pile - b) this is interesting I want to keep reading. That is it. Period. That is the entire process. It is the same thing an editor or agent will do, make an intuitive judgment about your work. You can not try to figure out what they will like or respond to, it is not about being in the top thirty or forty or fifty it is not about your style or your genre or how much dialog and action you use it is about something intangible that makes any reader respond to the work in an engaged manner. This is not something you can calculate.

You need to submit your best work. The work that your readers have responded to and the work you feel most engaged with personally. If you try to fake it you are screwed. If you do what is true to you as a writer and a program responds to it and accepts you then that will be a good program for you, with faculty and students who will support you in the pursuit of your voice and your subjects.

If you want an MFA, for whatever reason (time to write, academic career, lit world connections) the only way it will be of any value to you is if you approach it in a way that is true to who you are as a writer. So, if you are experimental, genre specific, kitchen domestic, or just plain weird then you should pursue that and research programs and apply all over the place until you find the right one for you. It doesn't matter what the ranking are or who went to what program, what matters is that you are in a program that drives you, inspires you, and makes you do your best work.

Try sending out one of your stories. You will get a load of rejections. When you get an acceptance it is because you connected with the editors. This is good. As a writer your goal is to connect with people whether they are readers, editors, or MFA acceptors.

So don't try to get into your fantasy program. Try to get into a program that connects with you. If you are sweating the acceptance rates you are in the wrong field. This is art people. It is subjective, wonky, and worthless (aside from what people are willing to pay for it). So forget about the GRE, don't worry about what kind of boring stories "they" like and just send in what represents you.

Otherwise what the eff are you doing trying to be a writer.

As Alan Sherman said "Good advice cost nothing and it's worth the price."

David Kahane


Rambler


Jul 7, 2007, 3:14 PM

Post #196 of 710 (8905 views)
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Re: [popeye] In Reply to Discussion Can't Post

This is the best piece of advice I've read on this topic thus far.
As a newish writer, I have been worrying numbers and asthetics and subjects in my head so much that they all got knotted up. Finally, I just said, "I need to write for me." And out came a few semi-good stories. And those are my pieces that I'm going to send off to the schools that I'm interested in.

I can't say popeye's advice in any better words. But in art, as in life, you just gotta be yourself and let the chips fall where they may. Maybe the captain of the football team won't ask you to prom, but maybe you really wouldn't have wanted to go with him anyway.

I understand that you need to be smart when playing the application game, but I don't think this game really has standard rules. Or at the very least, it didn't come with an insert explaining the rules of the game.

So what else can you do?

You write what you are, and put it out there. And much like eHarmony, hope there is a match.

But worrying over everything, second guessing yourself, or trying to outsmart the system (whatever the heck that is) isn't going to help you get in.


__________



Jul 7, 2007, 9:33 PM

Post #197 of 710 (8870 views)
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True, but what I still find interesting are those cases where someone writes better in one style than, well, their preferred style. There was this classmate I sort of saw as a more extreme version of myself; we bonded over our love of David Foster Wallace, and he tried really hard to write these sprawling, acronym-clogged masterpieces in the same vein. The problem was they really sucked. Like, hard. You couldn't even tell what they were about. He could, however, write these awesomely concise little tales that dazzled everyone. Now he's applying to programs, and I think it's a safe bet he won't get into his preferred schools with his whacked-out style. We haven't kept in touch, but I'm dying to know how this'll all play out for him.


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(This post was edited by Junior Maas on Jul 7, 2007, 9:35 PM)


mlpurdy
Moriah Purdy

Jul 10, 2007, 1:15 PM

Post #198 of 710 (8736 views)
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I think there should be a combination of two things to consider when putting your sample together - what you feel to be your strongest work, the work you're passionate about, the work you feel represents you, AND what your friend/readers tell you. The truth is, we get so close to our own writing that we can't always see what it's doing, we just get so excited about the risks we're taking and how that's fueling us intellectually, without regard for how the audience is necessarily receiving that information. So we have to depend on other readers to inform us what isn't working, and humble ourselves enough that we can see what the person means by their criticism, and adjust as needed. Maybe if your classmate had heard/considered your criticism, his more risky stories would have worked better with some adjustments.

I DO NOT think anyone should try to conform your work to what you think the program wants. First of all, that is absolutely impossible to guess, even based on the faculty member's own style. Second of all, do you really want to be accepted on the basis of work that you don't really consider your own, or work you're really interested in? I know I wouldn't (and didn't, by the way, and it paid off for me).

Just be open and smart about your own work. Stuff it in a drawer and look at it fresh a few weeks later. Listen to your friends/readers who should be honest with you about the risks that aren't paying off for you, and the risks that are.


bennyprof


Jul 16, 2007, 9:20 PM

Post #199 of 710 (8635 views)
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Ok, this might be a slight departure from the present conversation, but I thought I'd revive the thread a bit by asking a question about sample length. I know I've read about this very subject in this very forum (maybe even in this very thread) but some fresh insights couldn't hurt.

After looking over the page limits for the schools I'll be applying for, it seems the average is around 30, with a few of the schools having a maximum of 25. And it goes up from there -- I think Iowa's is upward of 50-60? The ultimate goal, of course, is to send your best work, however long it happens to be, as long as it conforms to the application guidelines for length.

Anyway, I'm planning to aim for around 25 pages, with three stories total. One will almost certainly be a story I've had published, which is four pages long, and I'll include two more with a combined total of 20-21. Not sure why, but that feels like the "sweet spot" to me. Also, I'd like to send the same stories to every school I apply to (and I plan to apply to at least 12 programs), so a sample that fits neatly within the guidelines of every one of them seems logical -- or maybe just convenient. ;)


What I'd be curious to learn are some specifics -- sample lengths, total number of stories, etc. -- from people who have been accepted to top MFA programs in the past. If you wouldn't mind naming the program you attend/attended that would be great as well.

I'm not trying to find some magic bullet formula for acceptance or anything, as I realize that the quality of writing is the deal breaker... just trying to get a rough idea of the norm.

Thanks!
Benny

p.s. Also, if any of you would be generous enough to show me one of the stories that led to your acceptance, I would very much appreciate it. Again, not trying to find some secret formula, just trying to get a feeling for (a more solid idea of) the narrative qualities that grab the attention of these programs. If you'd be willing to share, send me a PM and I'll reply with my e-mail address. Thanks!


__________



Jul 16, 2007, 11:36 PM

Post #200 of 710 (8610 views)
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Re: [bennyprof] Writing Sample Can't Post

UC Irvine used to have a page featuring student bios and selections of their stories to promote their reading series. You still might be able to find it in Google cache...or the internet archive, if you find a dead link, but not the page.

UMass used to have a couple of student stories up on their web site...look under the links for their literary journal CRATE.

Most schools also have alumni links; you could always look at their first collections for a sense of their best possible scenario, I guess.


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