Late last week, there was a conversation filtering through Twitter about degrees. Specifically, English degrees. Is it helpful for would-be writers to get their English BA? The tweet that kicked things off said, “No.”
As is typical for Twitter, some people disagreed.
And some people disagreed with those disagreements.
I chimed in briefly, but I have more thoughts that I’d like to explore here.
Cutting right to the quick, my short answer is, “Do whatever you want, it’s your life, but I did not find an English degree particularly helpful—either for writing, or life outside academia.”
“But KT,” the crowds cry. “Didn’t you study history?”
Indeed I did! Primarily because I did not find an English degree particularly helpful. See, I actually bounced around five different majors during my undergrad (it’s a miracle I graduated on time). If I can recall them correctly, they were:
English/Drama (double major)
English/Drama/History (major, two double-minors)
History/Medieval Studies (double major)
I realize that’s only four. For the life of me, I cannot remember the fifth—but I know it was there.
Regardless, looking at my progression through majors reveals a pattern. It took a while, but I gradually left English/Drama (literature-based courses) and settled firmly, finally in History (still liberal arts, but not literature-based). Why?
English was making me hate literature and stories. Even then, I knew I was going to be a writer, and I sensed that hating literature might hinder that goal. Really, it was a fundamental disagreement in teaching philosophies. I wanted to learn how stories worked. I wanted to learn what made them beautiful. I wanted to appreciate them as stories—which means that you’re talking about the themes, symbolism, and politics as well. Those are already part of any well-written piece. Basically, I wanted to talk about the syllabus like a writer.
Instead, I got this:
And so, after a particularly rough American literature class, I went to my registrar and got myself safely ensconced in History (I dropped the Medieval Studies component when I realized I like medieval theology, not medieval history).
Do I regret my decision?
Not at all. Having that history degree let me take a summer job at the museum. The skills I developed through my BA and through museum work let me carve out a dayjob wherein my creative partner and I teach history through theatre. Looking specifically to my fiction, history has all been grist for the mill. Moreover, learning how to do history has greatly impacted the way I write (I spent a long, long time digging through La Corriveau’s court records). And arguably, the museum’s impacted my fiction even more. How many nineteenth centuries have I written?
So for me, as a writer, History was infinitely more helpful than English.
You still need to know your field.
While I could not leave that American lit class fast enough, there were other English classes that did feed into my writing. Even genre writers should be familiar with the classics. I took a twentieth-century literature course in my first year that provided a wonderful survey—I likely would not have read The Sound and the Fury without it, and without that, I likely could not have written the Creepy Play. A Science Fiction course and Old English were useful for still more obvious reasons.
And if you’re not taking English electives (which I do recommend, if you can find the right ones—survey courses are great), you should be prepared to self-teach. As Stephen King so rightly said, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time—or the tools—to write.”
What about Creative Writing MFAs, then?
This could be a whole other post, as MFAs are equally contentious. Responses can range from, “MFAs are scams,” to, “They saturate the market with MFA-style fiction,” to, “Well, I guess, if you’re having a hard time improving on your own…”
You don’t need an MFA to be a writer. Really, you don’t need any degree to be a writer. As long as you are reading and writing lots, you’ll develop the skills just fine.
But degrees make it a lot easier.
I’ve talked about the Stonecoast MFA plenty on this blog. I’ll keep saying the same thing: for me, an MFA helped my writing like nothing else. It was everything I wanted from undergrad English courses. We talked about stories and how they worked. We talked about literature as writers. And I got to practice lots and lots, while more experienced, knowledgeable people provided their input.
When I showed up at Stonecoast, I was technically competent and entirely too cocksure. Stonecoast knocked me down a much-needed peg, it taught me how to be an artist, and it gave me a whole host of other skills—from critiquing, to teaching, to writing prose that’s beautiful as well as technically competent.
Most importantly, Stonecoast gave me the tools to teach myself more effectively. It taught me how to learn from other writers, and it gave me a chorus of phantom faculty in my head. Now, when I’m writing, I have this:
“You’re very clever, but this ending cheats the reader. Stop showing off and go write something better,” “Well, this is nice, but surface-level. How can you write with more density?” “Your architecture is off,” “Oh, yay! This feels like a KT Bryski story! Good work!”
You don’t need an MFA, but I’m sure glad I have mine.
Through all of this discussion, a consistent thread emerges: you learn to become a writer by writing and by reading. An English degree is not necessarily the best for that, because there’s very little writing and you’re reading for an entirely different purpose.
If you can find another degree that feeds your passion, go nuts. I’ve always liked History, and I’ve parlayed it into a job that keeps a roof over my head. Otherwise—yes, find something that allows you to pursue your passion.
And remember: it’s hard to say where things will end up. We don’t always realize when we’ve come to a fork in the road. It’s been six full years since that first summer job; eight since that random spark from The Sound and the Fury lodged in my chest.
At the end of the day, only you know what is best for you. Just make sure that you can write, read, and eat consistently.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Sticking with the madrigals: “April is in my mistress’ face.” This is another Morley piece, and it makes me wish I knew more music theory. Listen to the altos’ line at 0:54. I am sure there’s a term for that very distinctive phrase that ends in that very particular sort of chord, but alas, I do not know it…
Picture this: there’s eighteen of us backstage at a performing arts high school in Freeport, Maine. Actually, we’re in the band practice room. Linoleum floors, stray music stands, drum kit and harp shoved against the walls. Kat’s changing into her grad dress in a supply closet while Kelly-from-the-Book-Table corrals us and fastens our Masters’ hoods, because none of us can figure the damn things out.
Then we file into the auditorium to the delicate strains of “Pomp and Circumstance,” as arranged for guitar. We are tightly gripped by the elbow before being sent out. Alongside a push, we receive either a whispered, “Congratulations,” or “Walk slow!”
(Guess which I got? :D)
And then there’s speeches. I kind of forget that novelist Aaron Hamburger is giving our commencement speech until about halfway through, because it’s mostly a really good story. Names are called, and we trip across the stage one-by-one to receive our diplomas. Then, when we’ve all got one, the Dean of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at the University of Southern Maine calls us to rise.
I paraphrase, but he says something like, “These candidates brought before me have completed all their requirements of study, and come well-recommended by their faculty. Therefore, by the power vested in me, I confer upon you all, respectively, by your disciplines, the degree of Master of Fine Arts.”
And I thought, “Oh, shit.”
See, I’ve spent the last two years calling myself a “secret grad student.” Oh, the Stonecoast MFA Program is work. Absolutely. But it never felt like schoolwork. It felt more like an apprenticeship—like I’d troop into the woodshop in the evenings and have a master cabinetmaker show me tools and inspect my carving.
Or maybe it was more like Jedi training. The point is that it didn’t feel like school.
But in two years, I learned far more than I can express here. The difference in my writing before-and-after Stonecoast is striking. Arriving at Stonecoast, I knew how to string together clean, functional sentences. Leaving, I know a lot more about being an artist.
Most of all, I grew up. Looking back, I arrived with a strange mix of arrogance and insecurity—that special mix possessed only by twenty-two-year-olds who’ve had some lucky breaks. Stonecoast isn’t a harsh “break-down/rebuild” program…but the faculty and students challenged me, tempered me, encouraged me, pushed me. Yes, Stonecoast made me a better writer, but it also made me a better person.
I learned about beauty, artistry, and grace under pressure.
I learned about cutting to the heart of things, balancing objective insight with gleeful delight, and the importance of irreverence.
I learned that kindness and shrewdness are not mutually exclusive.
I learned about picking yourself up, no matter what, and writing from one’s heart of hearts.
I learned about sheer grit, and the absolute refusal to collapse and give in.
I learned the beauty of form and architecture, and the heights we may climb when we join hands with other artists.
I learned, once again, that the sweetest people often write the darkest things…and that’s pretty awesome.
I learned the sheer joy of devoting one’s self to one’s art, and the warmth of a truly open heart.
From the administration team, I learned about dedication and organization and going way, way above and beyond the call of duty.
From my fellow students, I learned about friendship and community and unconditional acceptance.
Thank you. Thank you all. You’ve left your fingerprints all over my life and art.
Two years ago, a frightened little girl stepped off the plane in Portland. I am no longer that girl. Two years in sunny coastal waters have given me strength and love and resources I never knew I had. Armed with these lessons and lifelong friendships, I’m excited to venture into the depths.
Honestly, it’s like Pokémon Gold/Silver/Crystal: once you beat the Elite Four and become a Pokémon Master, you get a whole new world to explore.
“When you get home,” Aaron said, “take your degree out and look at it. Own it. And then roll up your sleeves, and get back to work.”
What I’m Listening to this Week
My friend and occasional co-writer Lauren Harris introduced me to Mary-Jess while I was in Virginia last month. She’s got one of those sweet, pure soprano voices: quite high and light. This piece is my favourite thus far; it’s unsticking a novel point for me, and I absolutely adore the crescendo into the runs on “glorious.”
And it seems fitting, given the whole “starting a new chapter” thing. 😉
1. Your phone frequently buzzes with reminders and appointments…for authors who are hundreds of kilometres away.
2. In the context of interning, you’re not exactly sure how to refer to the people for whom you’re working. My authors? My bosses? My friends, whom I assist? All of the above?
3. Simultaneously managing four people’s calendars no longer fazes you.
4. There is some wicked cool stuff sitting on your hard drive. It takes every bit of self-control you have not to submerge yourself in it and read it all right now…because hey, you’ve got work to do.
5. There is an increasingly enmeshed set of connections between the different parts of your life—and you love it. Case in point.
6. You’re up to four email addresses and counting.
7. Bedroom = home office + bed.
8. You look at a novel interior, or a video, or a website banner, and think, “I know how they did that! I can do that!”
9. You secretly envision a future in which you intern for all the authors, coordinating the entire publishing industry from the shadows—ALL SHALL LOVE ME AND DESPAIR.
10. You often find yourself thinking, “How on Earth did I get so lucky?”
Between interning for The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, dayjobbing, and writing my own pseudo-Victorian fantasy, I’ve been pulling out my research fu.
I smiled when Pip and Tee asked me to post Victoriana to the Ministry Facebook page. See, after working at Black Creek, writing the Victorian Dark Fantasy, and cramming my last few terms with nineteenth century history, I know where to find Victorian things.
The Internet Archive
Ah, www.archive.org, you are one of my best friends. Sometimes, I think I may even love you. The Internet Archive is a free-access digital library. Because it’s free, it mostly has materials which are long out of copyright.
That means it’s absolutely fantastic for primary sources.
Seriously, you can read whole books online. For free! Admittedly, it can be a bit persnickety with search terms: it’s best to either a) have a hugely wide net, or b) know exactly which title you want. And don’t even bother with the basic search if you’re doing historical research: advanced search is where it’s at.
The McCord Museum/Musée McCord
I’ve used the McCord Museum for the dayjob, the Victorian Dark Fantasy, and for the Ministry. It’s a very well-maintained site—there are all sorts of virtual tours and exhibitions to explore online.
They’ve got an extensive collection of Victoriana, much of which is easily accessed online. Really, it’s one of my main go-to’s for visual references—especially Victorian clothing. (I owe what little fashion vocabulary I have to the McCord Museum)
The Victorian Web
This venerable website (and yes, it does look it—just bear with it) is one of the oldest scholarly/academic sites out there. It has articles on a wide range of Victorian topics, including some really niche ones (stained glass and gaslight, anyone). Plus, it’s a bit like Wikipedia in that you can follow a trail of hyperlinks, drifting from topic to topic…only it’s not a site that anyone can edit, which helps me sleep at night.
But come on, I was a university student in the 2010s. Of course I like Wikipedia.
Although I’ve heard the horror stories of profs purposely inserting false information to show how unreliable Wikipedia is, I maintain that it has its uses. First, it’s a good way to get a general overview of a new subject before diving into more detailed information, avoiding that grasping-at-straws feeling.
Second…Wikipedia is a good place to start your bibliography.
Let’s search…oh, let’s search Victorian Gothic.
Ignore the article itself and scroll down to “Further Reading” and “External Links.”
Aha! A ready-made list of scholarly websites and books! Gothic Revival; The Gothic Revival & American Church Architecture; An Episode in Taste, 1840–1856; Of knights and spires: Gothic revival in France and Germany; the Victoria and Albert Museum Style Guide…
It isn’t a full bibliography, but it’s a good place to start.
Public Library Databases
All history students know that articles take less time to read than books and usually have more specialized information. And thank goodness—you don’t need to be in university to access them!
Most public library websites have a section that says “Research” or “Articles” or something similar. If you’ve got a library card, you can click through until you get to the databases themselves: something like EBSCO or Gale Cengage or Academic OneFile.
Many will also have digital archives. I didn’t even sign into the Toronto Public Library site and found this 1912 picture of the dayjob’s Half Way House:
I credit my high school history teacher for a) getting me interested in history and b) teaching me how to get good at finding stuff. Yes, it’s great for writing—but also, it’s the thrill of the chase.
Which is why I sometimes get sucked down the black hole of Cool Victorian Stuff…but that’s a post for another day. 🙂
Criticism is part and parcel of the writing life. It’s funny, though—I always assumed that my general anxiety around evaluations would be my biggest stumbling block as a writer. As I’ve gone along, though, I’m discovering that I’m…ok with criticism.
More than that, actually. Even though I still get nervous as anything, I also crave it. Editorial criticism, anyway. Reviews are a different topic; let’s save them for another day.
I had two larger critiques come in recently: one for the first half of my Interactive Text-Based Online Game (hereinafter codenamed “The Game”) and one for my first Stonecoast packet. By the time this post goes live, I will have already Skyped with my mentor about her comments on said packet.
In both cases, they seemed to approach the topic of criticism quite carefully. Naturally, that set Anxiety screaming, “The other shoe is going to drop! The other shoe is going to drop! Wait for it wait for it wait for it!”
And then it was fine.
By “fine,” I don’t mean, “Everything was sunshine and rainbows and unicorns and fluffy bunnies.” There are things to fix: mostly coding for The Game, mostly the main character in the Victorian Dark Fantasy. So, not necessarily minor things, but still—
That’s it? I’m not missing an extra page of critique? Because really, those are good things to know. Frankly, if an editor ever said that a piece was perfect and there was nothing to change, I’d get very nervous.
There’s always something to change.
Also, it’s never about you.
That’s the piece that I seemed to have learned, almost by accident. It’s that ability to step back and look objectively at a piece and say, “Yes. I see where this doesn’t work. Ok.” No different than someone saying, “Hey, one leg of that chair is a bit longer than the others.” Are you going to sit there on a wobbly chair denying it, or are you going to wobble for a minute, testing it, and then pull out the saw?
Of course, there are times when you whip out the measuring tape and realize, no, you’re right. Sometimes that happens. You just have to be sure.
(For instance, there was a query about fireplaces that sent me on a quest that was really fun – but also took way too long considering that all I did with my diagrams and photos was show them to my roommate.)
Caveat here: I’ve been lucky as a writer, in that all my editors and workshop members have mastered that balance of being respectful and kind and also not pulling punches. Personal attacks in critiques are not ok. I’ve never had that happen, but they kind of defeat the critique’s main purpose: making the work better.
Remember, it’s not about you. That goes both ways.
Like so many things, anticipation is usually worse than the actual event. I wish I could return to my 14-year-old self and say, “Hey, look! It’s going to be fine—honestly, it doesn’t hurt and you actually feel good after!”
Maybe the knee-jerk fear reaction never really goes away, but learning to love the whip makes it a lot easier to manage. As one of my Irish drinking songs says:
What would you do if the kettle boiled over?
What would I do, but to fill it again?
What would you do if the cows ate the clover?
What would I do, only set it again?
I can’t wait to get these pieces polished! 😉
I just returned from my first Stonecoast residency. They set an exhausting pace; it was like a cross between Hogwarts, bootcamp, and a ten-day-long con. Now I work with my mentor for six months, until the next residency.
As much as I’m enjoying Stonecoast thus far, I want to think about other ways to learn. After all, Stonecoast is only two years. A writer’s education continues forever.
I was always the weird kid scribbling stories at the back of the classroom, but I was fourteen when I made the conscious decision to write with an eye to making this a career. Not at fourteen: I never wanted to be a teenage author. But eventually, someday.
And so, I learned. First by reading. I read books on how to write a novel. I read books on being a writer and the creative life. I trawled through websites and writing forums. Said is better than declared, intoned, uttered, or (heaven help me), ejaculated. Agents want your manuscript to be done. Conflict, conflict, conflict. You shouldn’t have characters named John and Joan in the same story. A novel is technically 40,000 + words, but realistically, most run 80,000-120,000.
I wrote a detective story set in 1880s Paris:
Amélie released an almost imperceptible sigh and took Philip’s arm. He expected to go down to the basement again, but perhaps mindful of his dislike of the depressing labyrinth, Amélie instead whisked him to a room near the top of the theatre cluttered with junk. “My office,” she said proudly
“Really?” Philip asked, glancing at the piled-up boxes and props
“No, it’s just one of the many deserted and forgotten offices. So,” she sat behind the desk and rested her chin on her hand, “are you going back to London?”
“My dear girl, I should think not!” He bit back a laugh; she bore an uncanny resemblance to Wallace, sitting like that. “Not while there’s work to be done here.”
“Bon.” A warm glow came into her eyes. “Or should I say ‘capital’?
It wasn’t very good, but I finished it. It was 22,000 words.
Then I discovered these new things called podcasts. Something called The Writing Show popped up first. It was all right; it had a lot of the same information as the books and websites. Then I noticed something called I Should Be Writing.
The woman that hosted ISBW had good information too, but she also made me laugh. A lot. And she was a wannabe writer as well! Just like me! Admittedly, Mur was further along than I was, but she was facing a lot of the same challenges. I learned more. You’re allowed to suck. Even if you’re afraid that an idea has been done, you should write it anyway, because your version will be different. Everyone feels imposter syndrome.
I wrote a fantasy novel, in which an aristocratic girl chafing against society’s restrictions teams up with an ostracized selkie to find three artifacts with the potential to upend magic as they know it.
A slap brought him to his senses. Caora leaned over him, hand drawn back to deliver another one. Adek blocked his face, saying, “What did you do that for?”
Caora’s eyes were red and he could feel the heat of her flushed cheeks. “We have to get out of here,” she said.
“The Stone is gone. We’ve got to get out, the ghosts don’t like us.”
“I’ll explain later. Come on, Adek!” She pulled him up and dragged him across the chamber. Golden light filled it, keeping sighing spectres from touching them. For a moment the cries of the gulls overwhelmed Adek, but then he remembered the Divine and forced himself to plod on. If what she and Caora were saying was true, than the man from Pearl River had two out of the three Stones. Adek’s spirit quailed. Unless they found the third Stone in time….
It was a little better, if derivative. It was 65,000 words. More importantly, there were secondary characters who took on lives of their own and some actual history and politics.
I Should Be Writing had commercials. Some were for other podcasts or websites. But some were almost like movie trailers, and they were very exciting. One day, I surrendered and said, “Fine, just what is this Morevi thing?”
And I discovered podcast novels.
They were awesome, because they were like a hybrid of books on tape and radio plays. The guy (T. Morris? He went by his initial, I guessed?) that wrote and read Morevi was a good actor, and I fell in love with the story. Then, listening to his commercials, I learned that the voice actress with the gorgeous accent also wrote! She wrote about Shakespeare, and she had done one of these podcasts, too! And in her podcast, some guy named Holyfield had also done one!
I consumed them. Morevi, Billibub Baddings, Chasing the Bard, Digital Magic, Weather Child, Heaven, Murder at Avedon Hill, Metamor City: Making the Cut, Nina Kimberly The Merciless, Cybrosis, Brave Men Run, Down from Ten, The Antithesis Progression, Ancestor, Seventh Son….
I learned that there are many different forms of storytelling. Social media offers so many opportunities; big and exciting new things are just around the corner. Most of these people go to “cons,” where they party but also work really hard. The writing world is miniscule, so you shouldn’t be a jerk (of course, you shouldn’t be a jerk in general). There are good ways to behave on social media, and there are bad ways. There is a whole community of writers.
I had a rough time in my last year of high school/first year of uni. I did not write.
And then I wrote a fantasy novel about the end of the world.
Praeton hoisted himself up on the window ledge. Something had spattered on the stone directly beneath it, just beyond the reach of his questing arms. He strained to see, balancing on his elbows, the windowsill cutting under his armpits. Then there were hands on his shoulders. He twisted around and found River steadying him. The gesture impressed him. Most grown-ups would’ve hauled him down.
With River holding him, he stretched his arm a little further and brushed the splatter. At first it felt warm, probably from the stones. Then pain erupted through his finger. He gasped, hugged it close to him. The skin flamed red and swollen. And, coating it, ugly red-black ooze.
“What’s wrong?” The urgency in River’s voice surprised him. She had been so calm before.
Suddenly his head felt very light. The corners of the room rushed away, and he sank to the floor, his back against the wall. Slowly, he lifted his finger to his face. The sharp tang of iron stung his nostrils. Blood.
Darkness devoured the edges of his vision. Somewhere, far away, he heard River calling. He wanted to answer, but his tongue flopped, his jaw wouldn’t unhinge. Then a deafening boom, thunder worse than all thunder combined, shattered his consciousness. Before blackness claimed him, a single word exploded in his skull: HAPAX.
It was 84,000 words long: at last, saleable length.
Because I had learned that Twitter is a good thing, I saw a tweet about an open submissions period at Dragon Moon Press—which I knew about from podcasters. I sent in my book, even though I was already podcasting it, because I didn’t expect it to get picked up.
Only then it did.
And so I learned that you should always read the whole email. Publishing takes a long time. Podcasting is a LOT of work, but it is some of the most fun you will ever have. Contracts are terrifying and exciting all at once. Authors need to do a LOT to promote their own work. Book launches are fun, but there is also intense pressure and a slight slump the next day.
I went to cons. There are good ways to behave. There are also bad ways. Some moderators guide panel discussions and ask probing questions, some try to make it all about them. If you ask people very nicely, they may help you out. Help others if you can. Authors, like actors, always say yes. Assume everyone knows everyone. Never assume someone has read your work. If necessary, you can survive off the food in the con-suite.
I wrote another fantasy novel. It didn’t work, so I focused on another.
My eyelids flickered. I tried to open them, but they were too heavy. I didn’t mind, though. I was sinking into the earth, not weighed down, but secured. A cloak of noises wrapped around me. I was a thread in it, too. My breathing and heartbeat, the rustling of my clothes, they were as much a part of Grey Run as the birds’ trilling.
“I’m ready, atu. I want to meet you.”
A twig snapped in the distance. Leaves crunched. The atu had to be here, somewhere. The atu had to be everywhere. There was something at the borders of my mind, something stirring. If I could just get a bit closer….
A harsher, louder snap.
If I could just get a bit closer, I’d see it, feel it.
Leaves rubbing together. Rhythmic sounds on the earth, soft and stealthy.
It was almost within my grasp. I just needed to stretch out my fingertips, just a little bit farther, because I could almost feel the atu, I was sure of it. It was here, and I was almost there with it—
I promise, I’m still working on the other one:
“The gods don’t listen.” The girl’s voice was stone. “Mostly, I don’t think they care.”
The breath fled Serafine’s lungs. No, this couldn’t be what they thought. “I know what it feels like,” she said softly. “I know what it feels like to shout at them, to ache with all your soul and get nothing. But never, ever believe that they don’t care. Not even for a moment. Promise me that, Aislinn.”
“Did they save your family?” It wasn’t asked harshly. No mockery sharpened the question. Aislinn simply stared at her with those wide, child-like eyes.
“No.” Serafine drew her hand back, clutched it close to her. Nervous, for once.
“Did you ask them to?”
Aislinn turned aside. “Then you forgive easier than me.”
From what I’ve seen, Stonecoast will be a great apprenticeship. Something else I’ve learned, though: writers never, ever stop learning. Pay attention. Watch what other people are doing. Watch how they are doing it. Listen to the currents of conversation. Read. Read more.
And also…conflict, conflict, conflict. You’re allowed to suck. There are many different forms of storytelling. Help others if you can.
It’s strange, chatting to the people in various spheres of my life. The verdict on 2013 seemed mostly unanimous: it was a year that knocked a lot of people flat. Sure, there were good moments, but the consensus generally seems to be cautious optimism to embrace the New Year.
I don’t usually do resolutions…but there are a few things to which I’m looking forward, and which I’d like to accomplish this year.
The Book Formerly Known as Strix
This. Book. Oh my God. This book. My frustrations with Strix are infamous. For whatever reason, this book kept kicking my knees in all through 2013. Fortunately, Gabrielle is a wonderful, patient editor who helped me morph it into a new book (albeit one with the same premise).
So far as I’m concerned, Strix is dead. Not every book lives, which is a terrible, hard thing to learn. But! But but but! I’m incredibly excited by this new book. Since there is no longer a strix in it (the adage “murder your darlings” became my personal mantra, chanted as I huddled in the corner of my darkened room), I can’t call it that anymore.
When it comes out depends on how fast I write. Possibly spring 2014? Whether I podcast it depends on too many factors to guess right now.
Victorian Dark Fantasies
I had so much fun writing the VDF. I think it’s a solid book and this year, my goal is to shop it around. We’ll see what happens. And since I realized halfway through that it’s not necessarily a standalone novel, a sequel may be in the cards.
After all, I’d love to send my dynamic duo south. There are more politics and history to explore there, and for one character, that lovely northern accent may start becoming a slight problem….
Back to School
When I graduated last June, I declared that I was taking a break from academia.
Then Stonecoast emailed.
And so in ten short days, I’ll be boarding a plane to Portland, ME, for my first Stonecoast residency. Doing my MFA there definitely falls into the “If You Told Me This Two Years Ago, I Would Have Laughed At You” file. I’m astonished and nervous and ridiculously excited and slightly sick to my stomach all at once.
My goals: learn stuff, write better, keep on top of everything.
God, I miss podcasting. I’m making more time for it in 2014. Mostly, things are in the “Seekrit Projikt,” “vague planning and idea-bouncing” stage, but expect more Canadian accents in your headphones this year.
Friends and Family and Such
At the end of my last grief counselling session, the therapist said, “Well! It sounds like you have some really good people around you.”
“Yes,” I answered, without missing a beat. “I do.”
2013 found me leaning on my friends far more than I’d usually be comfortable with. But they were there. You know who are you are, and I thank you with all my heart.
But being a functional human being and paying some of that kindness back/forward is a major life goal for me this year. For the first time since my dad died, I feel on an even keel. I feel capable of being a good friend and actually contributing to my various relationships again.
My metaphor for 2013 is thus. Imagine coming home and seeing a wrecking ball and gaping muddy pit where your house used to be. You’re shocked and devastated, and can’t conceive how this could happen. As you sort through the ruins, you realize that some things are too broken to save. Others are way stronger than you ever imagined.
Eventually, you clear out most of the wreckage. Then you find someone strengthened your existing foundations and installed some new ones, too. While the loss is heartbreaking, you can build something entirely new and utterly wonderful on top of it.
May 2014 be a year of building. All of my best, to all of you.
With NaNoWriMo starting tomorrow, word count and pace-of-writing has been on my mind. For those unfamiliar with the term, National Novel Writing Month challenges writers to write 50,000 words in 30 days. That’s 1667 words per day.
Word count’s a really personal thing. Some people have bigger ones, some have smaller ones, but as long as yours works for you and gets the job done, it’s probably fine.
(Yes, I’m twelve. Why do you ask?)
I’m a fast writer and I can slog. In my third year of university, I made the wonderful discovery that armed with a decent outline, I could write a paper in a day. A hard, brutal, brain-numbing day, but a single day.
When writing Strix 2.0, I was motivated to push it out very quickly. I rewrote the novel essentially from scratch from late April to late June: 80,000 words in about two months, averaging 2000 words/day.
Then I wrote the Victorian Dark Fantasy. There was no pushing involved with this book. It gushed out (*snerk*) from late July to late September: 100,000 words in about two months, averaging 2000 words/day with a few 5000-7000 word days.
I’m not convinced this way is better.
After all, here we are in late October, and what have I done since then?
Pretty well nothing. I rested for two weeks while my betas read, and then I’ve spent the last two weeks editing. I’ve written a few blog posts and such for the day job. Looking at my Whiteboard of Doom, I see several things due in the next two weeks, all of them hitting just when I’m really, really tired.
This is the thing: writing is draining. Not just in terms of long nights, it’s draining in that you’re pulling out raw emotion, distilling it down, and putting it on paper. For me, this was particularly true of the Victorian Dark Fantasy. In one sense, it was an easy book to write, because the words wouldn’t stop flowing. In another, it was incredibly difficult for precisely the same reason.
When I was a little kid, I ran a lot of cross-country. My strength lay in pacing—I understood that if I went off the start line like gangbusters, I’d be too tired to finish. Far better to take a steady pace and pass the early leads later on.
I don’t seem to be very good at that while writing. I charge out of the gate and sprint the whole way, and I think the only reason I haven’t collapsed so far is that I’m young and spry and excessively caffeinated.
It’s a weird balance, though. On the one hand, yes, I’d love to take things slowly and not feel exhausted by the end of every project. I’m reminded of Spoon Theory: you only have so many spoons, so you need to consciously choose how to spend them. But at the same…there are so many things I want to write. There are so many stories to tell. And frankly, writing’s been pretty important to the ol’ budget this year.
I guess finding the happy balance between WRITING ALL THE THINGS and not dying is another aspect of professionalism. Full time authors can’t burn out, because then their circumstances become very precarious. If you don’t write, you don’t eat—so it’s probably best to ensure you can write consistently for years and years to come. The secret I need to learn is that word count means very little if it kills you.
So to all of you starting NaNo tomorrow: best of luck, have fun, write as much as you are able—and take care of yourselves. We’re all here cheering!
As you may have noticed, I write under the pen name “K.T. Bryski.” I’ve seen a few articles about pen names lately; specifically, about gender-neutral pen names. “K.T. Bryski” is gender-neutral, I guess. I could be Kevin Thomas Bryski. Or Katherine Tallulah Bryski. Or Kaye Taylor Bryski (if I wanted to be super, super gender-neutral).
In fact, I’m Kaitlin Elizabeth Bryski.
Let’s back up.
Growing up, I was always Kaitlin at school, and Katie or Kate at home. Don’t ask me why—the strict preference for Kaitlin in public was entirely my own doing, even though I never particularly felt like a Kaitlin. I was a very strange child.
When I was sixteen or so, I discovered that Katie felt much better. It was far too late for my high school—in that context, I remained Kaitlin right until graduation. But when meeting new people, I slowly started introducing myself as Katie. The real breakthrough came in university. Very few people knew me, so it was a new beginning: I was able to start off as Katie, instead of asking people to retrain themselves.
Of course, I’m still Kaitlin on the dotted line: contracts, grad school applications, resumes, my passport, etc. Since it is my legal name, it feels safer, though it frequently causes confusion. I submitted Hapax to DMP under “Kaitlin” and then had to explain why I signed subsequent emails “Katie” (because I hadn’t thought about it, was the short answer). Similarly, when I started at the living history museum, I was “Kaitlin” to my bosses and “Katie” to my coworkers. I remember Blythe stopping me on the boardwalk one morning and asking in exasperation, “But which do you actually prefer?!”
(Side note: everyone there calls me “Katie” now—even my official contract this year was for “Katie Bryski.” Not going to lie, it made me all happy inside.)
So what does all this have to do with K.T. Bryski? Why did I choose initials? Was I scared of writing sci-fi/fantasy under a female name? Did I want to sound older?
Actually, it’s a family joke.
See, “K.T.” sounds a lot like “Katie.” Remember I said that I was Katie at home? Well, growing up, my parents would refer to me as “KT” in notes around the house, in texts, and in emails.
KT, please let the cat out when you get home.
KT Dentist Appt: 1:30
C u soon KT!!!
I thought it was funny. And clever. When feeling rushed or informal, I’ll sign things KT. Although Katie is technically already my nickname, you can create an uber-nickname by calling me KT (amazing what that slight change in intonation does!). Eventually, I made it my email. And then, a few years later, I made it my pen name.
DMP asked if I’d be ok with another name on the cover. I thought about it, long and hard. As discussed, I didn’t feel like a Kaitlin, so that was out. Katie Bryski suits me fine, but I didn’t think it suited an apocalyptic fantasy with lots of fire and blood and death. Kate Bryski didn’t roll off the tongue well.
Thus, by process of elimination: K.T. Bryski.
And that’s the whole story.
I thought K.T. was funny. And it’s my nickname.
That’s all. 🙂
By the way, I’m twenty-two. It occurs to me that I never did a birthday post. Mostly because…reasons. I don’t know—I was busy with Strix or something.
Speaking of Strix, the manuscript came back to me. Then I fiddled around with it some more, and tossed it back over the wall to my editor. Scripts are off to the actors for Strix-the-Podcast (you knew that was coming, right?). I’ve begun recording my narration and amassing a collection of music and sound effects. I’ve nearly hit ~10,000 words on The Victorian Dark Fantasy. The Secret Kids’ Opera Project got the thumbs-up from the artistic director and the music makes me squee. When The Hero Comes Home Volume II (I’ve got a story in there) comes out soon. I write for two blogs. There are various other projects at the “Hey, KT, wanna do X for me?” stage of things. Also, I have a dayjob, and it is an awesome dayjob.
Somehow, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m not doing enough.
Looking at the preceding paragraph, I realize the absurdity of that statement. That’s partly why I wrote everything out. Nevertheless, it’s a very real feeling. There is this nagging sense that I should be doing more. I should have The Victorian Dark Fantasy written already! I should have another podcast! I should blog more! I should be freelancing and writing more short stories!
Part of me says, “Heck yes. I’m young. I can still survive on willpower, day-old pizza, and caffeine. If I’m going to be doing all of this, now is the time to do it.”
The other part of me says, “You know, there might be a reason you’re perpetually ill…”
Burnout is a problem for creative types. And as my long-suffering family can attest, it’s always been a particular problem for me. Not that it’s a problem that I really know how to solve, because the answer I come up with always seems to be, “Do more work!” It’s like running laps in July to forget about thirst.
Of course, it’s also really fun. That’s the trap. The more we enjoy things, the harder it can be to draw the distinction between work and play. At which point, forget about rest. Of course, this backfires eventually….
I suspect it’s also linked to Imposter Syndrome, which is hugely prevalent among writers, actors, artists, musicians, academics, and so forth. If you’re scared that someone’s going to point out what a fraud you are, it makes sense to be trying to churn out as much work as possible. Either something will be good enough that you no longer feel like a fake, or at the very least, everyone will be too distracted to realize your fraudulence.
This isn’t a terribly effective tack, either. It’s hard to create when you’ve tapped the well dry. Really, it comes back to balance. It isn’t all “on” or “off,” “black” or “white,” “all” or “nothing.” It’s quite possible to work hard without working yourself to exhaustion. I realize the irony of me saying this…and I also realize that I’m going to be struggling with this one for a while. But better struggling with it than blithely unaware, eh?