Qualified to Write???

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Leila
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Qualified to Write???

Post by Leila » February 20th, 2010, 3:16 pm

Hi everyone

Over the course of time, reading many different blogs, (including Nathan's of course), and being generally interested in learning, I have yet another set of questions that I hope some of you won't mind answering.

How many of you have some form/type of qualification in the field of writing?

Clearly there are a wide range of courses and qualifications ranging from creative writing short courses to MFA's on offer. Not questioning that.

I'm curious (for those who know me in the forums I know, I'm always curious) to know how you would describe your (for want of a better word), 'skill' level when you started writing.

Do you have a background supported by a qualification of some sort?

How important do you think it is to have some form of 'credentials' if this is your chosen/desired career path? (I realise not everyone writes with the aim of seeking publication).

For those who don't possess some form of qualification, how have you honed your skills over time?

I think Nathan has discussed this subject in a previous blog, but I think (could be totally wrong here) that the emphasis was on skill/craft v's story telling ability???

My focus is on qualifications and your perception of their importance in this field.

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Re: Qualified to Write???

Post by Nick » February 20th, 2010, 3:33 pm

I've honed my skills over the years by just writing. My skill has grown as my grasp of English (and other languages) has grown, and as I've exposed myself to so many more stories than what I used to. I still have a lot of my old writing, and I like to look back on it from time to time, partially to see how far I've come in just a few short years (my writing now is leaps and bounds ahead of where it was roughly four years ago), but also because I like reading my old stories, no matter how poorly written they are. As to "qualifications", I have none, and probably never shall, and frankly I'm fine with that. Why should having an MFA or lack thereof make you qualified or unqualified to write? Complete and utter piffle. (Not saying, of course, that having one means you aren't, but it shouldn't be observed as some sort of be-all end-all either.) If you have the capability and the desire, that's more than enough. My skill level when I started was crap. But I started when I was 8 years old. Show me an eight year old who can write well enough to be published and I'll hand you the keys to the Death Star.

Leila
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Re: Qualified to Write???

Post by Leila » February 20th, 2010, 3:49 pm

Nick wrote:I've honed my skills over the years by just writing. My skill has grown as my grasp of English (and other languages) has grown, and as I've exposed myself to so many more stories than what I used to. I still have a lot of my old writing, and I like to look back on it from time to time, partially to see how far I've come in just a few short years (my writing now is leaps and bounds ahead of where it was roughly four years ago), but also because I like reading my old stories, no matter how poorly written they are. As to "qualifications", I have none, and probably never shall, and frankly I'm fine with that. Why should having an MFA or lack thereof make you qualified or unqualified to write? Complete and utter piffle. (Not saying, of course, that having one means you aren't, but it shouldn't be observed as some sort of be-all end-all either.) If you have the capability and the desire, that's more than enough. My skill level when I started was crap. But I started when I was 8 years old. Show me an eight year old who can write well enough to be published and I'll hand you the keys to the Death Star.
Thanks Nick. I just find it interesting because there seem to be so many different perspectives on this subject. I agree that no one element, in and of itself, can make a writer successful. Simply having a qualification doesn't mean one can translate it over into their chosen field. Of course it always helps to have tools in the toolkit, so.... there are many sides to the story.

On a slightly different note, in your opinion, how much emphasis do you think agents place on technical skill when reading a MS? Obviously the MS has to be pretty well constructed in the first instance - I get that it's not an agent's job to teach somebody how to write, nor do they have the time to invest in people with limited skill levels - but how critically do you think they view this element in the context of considering a person as a client?

I should probably ask Nathan this question too. Again, I think he has posted something of a similar nature, but my tired brain can't remember exactly.

Lunetta22
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Re: Qualified to Write???

Post by Lunetta22 » February 20th, 2010, 3:50 pm

My qualifications to write are summed up in three words: I am awesome.

Seriously though, I think unless you are writing non fiction, you don't need qualifications. I've been writing novels since I was 15. The first stories were terrible. I've improved since then. ;)

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Re: Qualified to Write???

Post by Leila » February 20th, 2010, 3:55 pm

Lunetta22 wrote:My qualifications to write are summed up in three words: I am awesome.

Seriously though, I think unless you are writing non fiction, you don't need qualifications. I've been writing novels since I was 15. The first stories were terrible. I've improved since then. ;)
Love it!

Can I ask... at what point did you feel comfortable that your grammar, punctuation, ability to avoid the seven deadly sins of writing, style, etc, were now at MS submitting level?

I find it hard to make the judgement call for myself.

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Re: Qualified to Write???

Post by Lunetta22 » February 20th, 2010, 3:58 pm

Leila wrote: Can I ask... at what point did you feel comfortable that your grammar, punctuation, ability to avoid the seven deadly sins of writing, style, etc, were now at MS submitting level?

I find it hard to make the judgement call for myself.
I have had people reading my work since I was 15 and telling me how to improve it. I also have really good beta readers now. (One who reads for Brandon Sanderson, if you know who that is.) I still can't say if my manuscripts are up to par...but I am going to try. :)

Nick
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Re: Qualified to Write???

Post by Nick » February 20th, 2010, 5:00 pm

Leila wrote: On a slightly different note, in your opinion, how much emphasis do you think agents place on technical skill when reading a MS? Obviously the MS has to be pretty well constructed in the first instance - I get that it's not an agent's job to teach somebody how to write, nor do they have the time to invest in people with limited skill levels - but how critically do you think they view this element in the context of considering a person as a client?
I think like everything else, it varies from agent to agent. In the case of most, I don't think they place too much emphasis on it. Obviously having something like an MA or an MFA says to an agent you have some degree of talent in the field, but I think more emphasis would be placed on the query itself and, in the case of those who ask for it, the attached pages. But I'm sure there is at least one agent out there who sees some sort of high credential and says "Yep, partial, let's go". Exaggerating a bit on that last one but you get the point.

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Bryan Russell/Ink
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Re: Qualified to Write???

Post by Bryan Russell/Ink » February 20th, 2010, 6:48 pm

I have both a B.A. and an M.A. in English and Creative Writing, and both were wonderful experiences. But it should be obvious that simply having qualifications means very little in the end, as many (most) writers who go through such programs do not become great writers while many who skip such experiences do. I'm sure having a degree to slap in the bio section of a query letter makes an agent perk up a little... but only a little. In the end the only thing that really matters is the writing (and that the writer is, hopefully, not crazy). The proof is always in the pudding, not the fact that the chef went to a great baking school. If the pudding's burnt, it's burnt.

I think "qualifications" are best described as opportunities. I think it's rather pointless to go in search of such things if all you want is to get some letters beside your name that might help open an agent's or an editor's door. It won't do much. Even the best ones. You might have been to the Iowa Writer's Workshop and got that agent all jazzed to read your pages... but it's always going to come down to the writing. But those degrees, at least for me, were opportunities. Six years to focus on writing, and to do so with the backing of a small, like-minded community around me. But it's an opportunity of which you still have to take advantage. Many students didn't. It's easier to go out for beers, talk about being blocked, and hit on various cuties from the Drama Department. I like to think I took advantage of my writing opportunities. I read a ton, studied writing seriously, and, most importantly of all, I wrote a million words or so. Life, in the world beyond such opportunities, can get quite challenging, so that opporunity, that chance to devote onself to the craft, can be really valuable.

It's certainly not the only way. There are other ways to find community and criticism, and reading and writing is open to anyone that can find the time and effort to apply to the task. I certainly found the experiences valuable, but at the same time I don't think that was the only path that would have nurtured my talent.
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Re: Qualified to Write???

Post by Nick » February 20th, 2010, 7:14 pm

Ink wrote:(and that the writer is, hopefully, not crazy).
What!? When did this come about? And here I've spent the past 18 years thinking I was grooming myself for author-dom.

Personally I could never take creative writing classes. I'm more than willing to give them my all when I do take them, but often times a class is just not remotely conducive. Shame, really. The college I really want to go to and am planning on applying to in a year or two (possibly applying with intention of gap year) has one of the best creative writing programs out there, and some really fantastic authors have gone through it. Hard as hell to get into, and honestly I'm not sure I'd make it anyway, but the bigger factor for me is, it's a creative writing program. Still, the whole humanities department is one of the best, so that's a definitely something of a leg up, if I can get in. But I iz rambling again, as I so often do, so, props to you for being able to go through creative writing courses. Little old me, I'll keep to my intent of going for a literature degree.

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Bryan Russell/Ink
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Re: Qualified to Write???

Post by Bryan Russell/Ink » February 20th, 2010, 7:22 pm

As for how much emphasis the agents place on the technical aspects of writing... well, I think that depends on what you consider the "technical aspects". If you're talking about perfection of grammar and whatnot , I think they pay a little attention, but are more concerned with story and voice and craft. But is craft a technical aspect? And voice? Voice can be considered the unique imprint of the individual... and yet it is always shaped and streamlined by craft and technique. These are technical, I think, in many senses. And agents pay very, very close attention to that, I think. They're looking at the many submissions by competent and good writers (and good writing is not easy) and trying to find the great writers, the professional writers. The ones who stand out. Do the agents worry too much if you spell one word wrong? Not too much. Are they super excited if everything is textbook correct in terms of grammar? Probably not too much for that, either. Do they care that your sentences, grammatically correct or not, are clunky? You bet your asses they do.

This is craft. The way voice is perfected by technique, made perfect by precision. Word choice, flow, rhythm, pace... this is what they often key on, I think. This is style. They're looking for prose that hums like a tuning fork. This is writing.

A terrible idea is terrible, and will likely never work, no matter the writing. A pretty good story that's flawed... but brilliantly written? You can fix that. Add some conflict and tension, work out a better resolution, a punchier opening. Okay. A really good idea that simply isn't well written enough? What's an agent or editor to do? You can't really force someone to write better. The prose has to work. A great story is orphaned if the writing isn't good enough.

Of course "good enough" is a rather subjective line to draw in the sand...
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polymath
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Re: Qualified to Write???

Post by polymath » February 20th, 2010, 9:19 pm

An interesting stat I run into here and there from time to time about creative writing program graduates, master's and bachelor's programs, and successful authors who haven't studied writing in structured programs. It takes an average of ten years from the time a writer makes the ultimate commitment to achieve a break out, come heck or flood tide. Certainly not a universal anecdote for all accomplished authors, but fairly common considering how publishing goes. I empathize with writers who try, try, try again for decades and never make that final great leap of breakthrough understanding, whatever it is.

It's been several years since I accommodated to that average while in a BFA program. It put things in perspective for me. Structured creative writing study gave me a leap ahead on what I'd been doing poorly on and would have taken ages longer to learn on my own. I feel closer to success, but not all that close yet. In time, time will tell.
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Leila
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Re: Qualified to Write???

Post by Leila » February 20th, 2010, 11:55 pm

Thanks guys, your comments are very helpful.

As I said earlier, it is always the case that a qual in and of itself (in any field) is never enough, especially if you can't translate it into your field of practice. It's great to have tools to work with, but ..

This subject just seems to crop up a reasonable amount in different cyber spaces with many differing trains of thought, and I thought it would be good to hear some of your opinions in this most informed forum!

Personally, I'm not a 'run out and do something cause it seems the majority of people are doing it' kind of person. We each have our own passions/drives in life and I guess we take whatever steps we think will best help us fulfill them.

What I have noticed though, and this is purely my own personal observation, is that generally, people don't seem to consider the absence of a qualification as a major issue. The level of enthusiasm, commitment, excitement, willingness to work hard to learn their craft, all seem to be dominant elements that jump out at me as I read along. Which, in such a creative, personal field, seems about right.

My next question will reveal exactly how naive I am, however, in the interest of learning... how do you think authors like John Grisham were taken onboard when they first entered the scene? He had a legal background (clearly) but he wasn't what people might define as a 'writer'. His website indicated that his first novel, (A Time to Kill) sold 6,000 copies the first time around, then after 'The Firm' was picked up as a movie it was re-released and became a bestseller.

I assume he wrote the story well enough, and in a compelling enough manner for an agent to take him on board. I realise my question is purely speculatory. I'm fascinated by how people transition from career to career and I'm interested in how you more informed folk view people view others who have made the switch.

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Lorelei Armstrong
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Re: Qualified to Write???

Post by Lorelei Armstrong » February 21st, 2010, 12:10 am

When I started writing I completely sucked. Of course, I was nine years old, so I cut myself some slack. I finished my first (awful) novel when I was nineteen. The first one that wasn't completely terrible was number five. Number seven landed the first agent. The first one published was number twelve. I just finished the first draft of number thirteen and should be querying this summer.

I do have an MFA in screenwriting from UCLA, which taught me to write lean, write fast, and have strong structure. I have also read almost nothing but literary fiction for twenty years, which probably helped more than all the rest.

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Re: Qualified to Write???

Post by Leila » February 21st, 2010, 12:22 am

Lorelei Armstrong wrote:When I started writing I completely sucked. Of course, I was nine years old, so I cut myself some slack. I finished my first (awful) novel when I was nineteen. The first one that wasn't completely terrible was number five. Number seven landed the first agent. The first one published was number twelve. I just finished the first draft of number thirteen and should be querying this summer.

I do have an MFA in screenwriting from UCLA, which taught me to write lean, write fast, and have strong structure. I have also read almost nothing but literary fiction for twenty years, which probably helped more than all the rest.
Fascinating!

It is too personal to ask if writing is your primary occupation? if so, please ignore the question. Everyone has such different demands on their time these days.

How did you find the process of publication? I've read about what's involved, (thanks Nathan and others) but as always I would be very interested to hear a first hand account of how you found it.

Good luck with number thirteen!!

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Re: Qualified to Write???

Post by Simpatico » February 21st, 2010, 12:39 am

I only started writing fiction five years ago. Other than that, I was in the typical classes with the usual areas of study while in school, but I don’t feel any lesser for it. Nor have I ever had anyone tell me that I need to go to school and learn more.

But I made it a point, once I began writing, to learn and grow get better every single day. I took some courses, learned grammar, structure and all the elements of a good story, and read any and everything I could get my hands on to help me improve – both how-to books and works of fiction that exemplified what I wanted to achieve.

I believe it’s a matter of one’s ability to learn and their desire to learn, as well as whatever inherent talent they possess.

How many famous sculptors or musicians went to graduate programs for their respective fields?

Also re: John Grisham. I read somewhere that once he decided to write a book, he read 100 thrillers to learn how to do it before he even began typing a word.

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