Midlife Reflection/Self-Guided MFA/Building a Fiction Factory

Originally published on 7/15/2017

Back in college, my English degree included classes in poetry and short fiction, along with a lot of essay-type writing. I got a lot out of those classes, but, particularly on the fiction side of things, they were quite brief, all things considered. In the last couple of years, I've gotten re-interested in writing fiction and poetry again.

It joins several other things, like my setting up a woodshop, where I left something behind a decade or two ago for reasons that were entirely valid at that point, but no longer apply. As I reached 40, I've found myself trying to figure out the things I want to be sure are a regular part of the rest of my life. And, looking for ways to do so sustainably, rather than the boom/bust cycles my natural tendencies tend toward.

That list includes music, brewing, woodworking/making things, and writing. I knew that writing the micro-post stuff I do on Twitter and the sporadic, essay-blog stuff I do here were included, but the last year or so has also made me want to include fiction and poetry.

The poetry is just something I can work on like I do writing on this site: as I feel like it. But, the fiction strikes me differently, in part because, if I can write at a high enough level of quality, it offers a potential of some supplementary income that can continue into retirement or semi-retirement. But, that requires a system and a plan.

Because my formal education tended to focus on writing in the small. There was a lot of focus on the prose itself, quite a bit on sentences and paragraphs, a lot on essays and rhetoric and a bit on short stories. There was nothing on long-form structures like novels and even the short story stuff fell short, particularly on plot.

I look at the stories I wrote back then and they're really just scenes or vignette's. There's no "story" in my stories. As a lifelong reader, I can see that quite clearly. So, how to fix that?

The answer is to approach it like any other skill, which, at this point, I have a lot of experience with. So, I'm basically putting myself on an auto-didactic MFA (Master of Fine Arts) program without the formal school involvement. The goal is to take where I am, skill-wise, when it comes to writing fiction and close whatever gap there is between that and commercially viable fiction.

As a start, I recently wrote a short story rough draft and am 25,000 words or so into a manuscript for a novel. I've joined an online writing group where I'm participating in critique exchanges to make a first-pass edit of those. My next step will be to take the short story, which is about 5000 words, and pay 2-3 editors to do 2 edit passes. The first is the developmental edit, to fix the story elements, characters, etc. The 2nd is the more traditional edit.

I'm considering the cost of this to be "tuition" in this education path. Fortunately, editors work by the word, so a short story will let me do this relatively cheaply, compared to a 50,000 or 75,000 word novel. Engaging several editors will help me triangulate the gaps between what I'm currently producing and what those editors consider "good enough".

Once I have that triangulated delta, I can work on improving my rough drafts to fix chronic problems, etc. From there, it's a matter of doing the work, getting the evaluation from writing group members, editors and beta readers, incorporating the results and repeating: building a system.

That system can form the foundation of an eventual "fiction factory" that I can use to systematically produce fiction with whatever time I can dedicate to the task. Along the way, I aim to gather the kind of metrics that will let me do that planning. For instance, I currently have measured my rough drafting pace at 1300 words per minute when working from a solid outline.

So, if I have that outline, a 70,000 word novel rough draft is 54 hrs of work. Fortunately for my need to keep working, most novelists can't do that for full 8 hr days. So, that 54 hrs gets spread out over a few months. That's very doable while working and managing other activities. I still need to measure what the effort to get that outline in the first place takes.

But, that's the overall approach I'm taking to this. I'm reading piles of books on the topics that cover the gaps in my knowledge, putting it into practice, getting objective evaluation, incorporating the feedback and repeating. It's how I systemize stuff. And, based on my research, it's clear that building a fiction factory is completely doable.

So, I'm pursuing it. I went nearly 20 yrs without writing fiction, but it feels good to be doing it again. And, with the benefit of age and life experience, I'm approaching it in ways I think are more likely to lead to positive results.