Each year I try to work with a college student who has an interest in writing. They help me manage some of my workload, research, and proof my work. C.M. (Chris) Humphries helped me last year, and this year he has a book out — Excluded. Congrats Chris! I asked Chris to write a post addressed to college creative writing students and share what he learned on his path to publishing his first book.
All These Stories & No One to Tell Them To
While I was still an undergraduate student, I never knew what to do with my writing. I cannot even guess at how many writing courses I took, whether under my telecommunications major or my creative writing minor. No matter which style of writing I was assigned to, it seemed like I was crafting a new story every day.
It was great to have so much material piling up, and sometimes the workshops were enlightening (although in most cases, my peers hadn’t bothered reading any of the material), but there was nothing to do with it. Although I always thought my writing could be better, there was definitely prose I wanted to publish.
But where to start?
I figured the best thing to do was inquire from those who’d already published their works—professors. Interestingly enough, most of them said not to. They wanted me to attend a MFA program before I ever considered writing.
What a pipe-bomb! At first, I thought maybe I just sucked. Maybe they read my material and thought, Man, this guy is awful. Soon enough, though, I came to realize they were telling all of my peers the very same thing.
Doing What They Said Not To Do
Now I definitely had no intention on dismissing my professors’ advice, but publishing was the very thing I wanted to do.
I’d been writing novels since high school. In my room, I had about three novels I spent years on, redrafted, but never sent out. Maybe down the road I’d rework one, but even before all of the creative courses, I knew what bad literature looked like.
But I did have some stories I thought people would enjoy. Excluded wasn’t the first novel I wrote—I think it was the third—but it definitely had something to it. I pulled Excluded out of the pile and wrote about three more drafts of it. I had my dorm-mate at the time review it (he was the biggest cynic I knew), and he sampled the story. “I don’t think this will work for a class, but it’s damn creepy.”
Once I had a clean draft, I brought it to a few professors and asked them what they thought, while reminding them it was horror (genre fiction is often shunned in literary circles). All they really told me was, “Why horror? It’s well-written, but it’s genre fiction.”
At this point, I knew I had to draw my own conclusions. I was urged not to publish because a) I wrote mainstream fiction and b) I had not attended MFA workshops. That’s when I started gathering criticism from people I knew personally and trusted to rip me a new one if my stories sucked. Overall, Excluded was definitely giving people nightmares.
I was certain I wanted to publish Excluded, but I was new to publishing world. I didn’t want to jump in and query agents and New York publishers until I procured a bit of publishing insight. I started looking at the works my professors published.
Now there were definitely some professors with pretty big publishers. A lot of them, though, were with independent presses. I wondered if I could see that level of success without a MFA.
Before long, I landed a contract for Excluded. Since then, it’s been a fun ride. I’ve learned a lot more about the publishing industry than I ever thought I would. I never realized how much leg work is expected from an author, but it’s all enjoyable.
From time to time, though, I receive some curious brows and dismissing stares. Some people just won’t accept a work of fiction as valid unless your name has a MFA tagged to it. The thing is, you don’t really need to go through all the workshops to find success in writing. The rules are quite simple: read and write. Write every day. Challenge yourself. Use prompts when you have to (there’s no such thing as writer’s block).
To be honest, a MFA program may still be in my future. I like the idea of being a professor, and I loved the ones I had. To be fair, some of them were really behind the Excluded deal and gave me the go-ahead. With writing, there’s no one way to do it. I mean, if you’re writing for the first time, definitely learn the craft. If you suck, you suck—but you can get better! If you don’t write often, you should probably write and rewrite extensively and ask for feedback before you send anything out.
Most importantly, remember your aspirations when you face rejection. Rejection letters are by far the best starting point for a writer. You’ve read a lot. You’ve written a lot. But why did they say no? All you have to do is focus on what they accepted. Research a bit if you need to. Read a lot more. You’ll instinctively notice the difference between your writing and the next guy.
If you believe in your writing, travel where it takes you. A MFA next to your name will demonstrate you’re quite good at what you do, but so will a great story.
Like what you read? Read more from C.M. Humphries at his blog.
And don’t forget to check out Excluded on Kindle…