Dispelling a Couple of Myths

Regardless of my newbieness, it turns out there’s one thing I do know about the publishing business, and it’s this: sometimes conventional wisdom is bullshit. I hear assertions from people that are downright startling, mostly because I’m a living counterexample. I’d hate to have people reluctant to push their baby novels out of the nest because they’re concerned about things that aren’t true.

So here’s a pair of things people sometimes say you need to worry about that you totally don’t need to worry about.

Myth #1: You need an MFA to publish fiction.

News flash: I do not have an MFA.

I don’t have a masters degree of any kind. I have two college degrees, one in math, and one in what was called interactive media design, which was basically graphic design for people who wanted to pick up a little HTML. (As I already knew HTML, that degree was much easier than the math degree.)

In fact, it’s only in recent years that I realized you could get a masters degree in creative writing. Based on the people I knew in college (back in dinosaur times), MFAs were mainly for art history majors. As paintings bored the daylights out of me, it never once entered my mind that acquiring an MFA was a thing I might actually enjoy doing.

I know better now, in a couple of ways. For one thing, as part of my media design degree, I took an art history course, and it was great fun. I learned more about religious history studying art than I ever did in actual history courses. (TL;DR: Humans don’t change. It’s both fascinating and horrifying.) One of the only textbooks I saved from that degree is my big fat gorgeous coffee-table art history book.

For another thing…wait, you can get an MFA in writing? I would probably have sold several chunks of my soul for that in my 20s, although I was also feeling some pretty strong pressure to get a job and have a Real Life. Given how well that went at the time…the MFA wouldn’t have been an awful idea. And I could have studied creative writing.

On the other hand, my college English courses were an exercise in frustration. I did well enough – I was able to churn out 5 pages on almost anything in just a few hours, which made the coursework pretty easy – but I never could shake the idea that literary criticism was just a bunch of people arguing about their opinions using big words. I was welcome to hate The Great Gatsby, as long as I could explain why. I could write about why I never wanted to read Faulkner again, as long as I argued it against the rich background of his life. It seemed like one long exercise in how to make smart people acknowledge that you’re allowed to disagree with them.

Am I doing a huge disservice to the field of literary criticism? Almost certainly. Then again, sometimes the damn curtains are just blue.

So yeah, I probably wouldn’t have been a great MFA candidate anyway, despite the theoretical coolness of the idea. I would have dragged my lazy brain through an MFA the same way I dragged it through college: reluctantly, with lower grades than I was capable of earning, and this nagging sense that I was wasting a spot that would have been better spent on someone with more enthusiasm.

I’m actually very glad I never heard the “you need to have an MFA, or at least a spot at Clarion” myth about getting published before I actually queried. I’d have never tried. The Book as it was at the time would have ended up self-published, and…well, really, I suspect I’d have been perfectly happy. But it would have been a different book, and a different series, and I’d have had a different career (if you can call four months of having a book in print a career).

But my long-winded point is this: No, you do not need an MFA. No, you do not need to be a graduate of an elite writing program. Yes, those things are marvelous, and if you want to do them and have the motivation and the wherewithal, then do them. It is never, ever a bad idea to study something that brings you joy, nor is it a bad thing to cultivate friends and professional contacts who understand the struggle you’re going through. But don’t go into it thinking If I don’t do this I will never, ever get published. Because that’s flat-out false, and no, it’s not just me.

Myth #2: You need to know someone to get an agent.

So, I don’t know anybody.

I’m a (now former) software engineer. I hung out with tech people for twenty-five years before I queried for an agent. What I knew about publishing (which, as I’ve since discovered, was close to eff-all) I had gleaned from reading posts on writing forums. And I didn’t even apply all of that knowledge.

Somewhere flying around I saw an agent say they acquired a little more than half of their clients through cold queries, and I was shocked it was that low. I had no idea that there was any other way to do it. I was stuck on (apparently) outdated conventional wisdom that said “Write a book, find agents who rep that type of book, and query them.” There was nothing about friends of friends or publishing contacts or you are doomed if you don’t know someone who lives in New York City.

I wrote a book. I had some friends read it. I made some changes. I wrote a query letter. I had some friends beat it with a stick. I made some changes to that, and I sent it out. It wasn’t the world’s fastest process, but this month will mark three years since I first spoke with my now-agent on the phone, and I have a book out.

(Let me tell you: In this business, three years is nothing. After the quarter-to-quarter life of writing software, this is mind-boggling to me.)

In those three years, I’ve met writers who have had more than one agent, or who have acquired agents by being recommended by other writers. So clearly it happens, and my ignorance of that side of the process doesn’t make it unreal. It may even help to know someone, but if I had to guess (didn’t I say I wouldn’t speculate? Oh, well) I’d say the only thing it helps with is if you have trouble writing effective query letters. Past that hurdle, you either have a book that particular agent believes they can sell, or you don’t. Same as the slightly-more-than-half of us who contact agents via cold queries.

(If you do have trouble writing effective query letters, go find Query Shark and read from start to finish. Then find a forum like Absolute Write and have your query critiqued by merciless strangers. It is worth it.)

My path to publication was no more or less conventional than anyone else’s. I don’t think any two writers have the same story. I wrote for more than 40 years before I took the time to figure out how to focus enough to actually complete a novel. On the other side of it, our local Barnes and Noble once had a signing for a book written by a 14-year-old girl. We all bash at it in different ways.

And we all get discouraged so easily. That’s just about the only commonality I’ve ever found among writers: we’re all one critique, one rejection, one bad review away from hanging it up and never venturing outside the safe bubble of keep your nose out of my notebook again.

Not to get all serious here, but there are classist implications to these two myths as well. I would have had the option to get an MFA. (I could do it now, economically at least; whether or not I could get accepted at a program is a different issue.) And I did, as it happened, have a cousin who was a published author. I knew people. I had money.

Not everybody knows people. Not everybody can afford a college degree, never mind an MFA. (And I don’t mean only financially; there’s a time investment there as well, and time is a luxury.)

How many stories do we lose? How many people just give up when they hear Oh, you need to have an MFA or nobody will talk to you at all? I see it on forums all the time: people discouraged because they don’t have the right background or the right contacts. And the people on the forums are the ones who still hold out a glimmer of hope, who are posting I know I’ll never get anywhere because I don’t know anyone in the business because they’re hoping someone will respond and tell them it’s bullshit.

For them, and for the ones who aren’t even hopeful enough to be pessimistic on a message board: it is bullshit. All of that stuff you think is going to keep anyone from taking you seriously is bullshit. Ignore it, and write the story anyway.

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