Here’s something you might not know about me. I’m a workshop junkie. But if I were younger when I realized I wanted to write fiction (I was in my forties), I think I’d have gone to grad school for an MFA— but I’m not, and I didn’t. Maybe I wouldn’t be where I am now—maybe I’d be farther along in my career. Maybe I wouldn’t have followed my heart to The Glass Wives, The Good Neighbor, and Left To Chance.
I’ll never know.
We all take different paths in writing lives. My friends Erin Celello and Ann Garvin have founded an “immersion writing experience for anyone with an MFA under their belt or a book under their bed.”
Whether this is up your alley or not, Erin’s story is inspiring and admirable. It will make you think about your own journey, and there is never anything wrong with that.
What I Know Now
by Erin Celello
I remember the first day I met my husband.
Okay, that’s sort of a lie. Apparently, we had met once before. Maybe twice. But, details. In any case, I remember the first time I remembered meeting him – the first time I sat and talked with him. He was waiting for my officemate to return from a meeting. He was handsome and smart and charming and was immediately impressed by the fact that I had an MFA. I was impressed by the fact that he knew what an MFA was.
That night, I went home and called one of my best friends from graduate school. I told her that my MFA had, in fact, netted me an actual perk. We both laughed. I was only partially kidding.
My MFA experience was wonderful, don’t get me wrong. I learned a great deal: writing on deadline and for an audience; forming (mostly good) writing habits; looking under the hood of a story to see how it hung together; understanding the sorts of things in my writing people responded to, and those that they didn’t.
But when I emerged, fancy bound thesis and degree in hand, I still didn’t know what I didn’t know.
I started querying my “novel,” which was really an overgrown character sketch. I was, very rightfully, rejected at every turn. Renowned literary agent Noah Lukeman did me the kindest of favors by nicely, but sternly, telling me that I was nowhere near being ready to query. And that my query itself needed work. Perhaps lot of it.
I spent the next eight years – eight! – buying out whole bookstore shelves on craft, plot specifically, and reading about how to get published. I spent more time than I’d like to admit (at work) binge-reading the blogs of literary agents, desperately seeking that magic bullet of advice that would land me in the good graces of one of them. I started two writing groups and sought out yet another. I read and outlined best-selling books that succeeded where I seemed to stumble as a writer (again, plot). I attended conferences and stalked the published writers there. I asked how they got their agents and hoped for a brokered introduction which would lead directly to representation and my book selling for a big, fat advance or, even better, at auction (shockingly, none of those scenarios came to pass). I put together a spreadsheet of more than 100 names and methodically worked my way through querying them. By the time I got The Call, I was elated, but also exhausted.
Even then, though, throwing those two precious words, “my agent” around like candy at a parade, there was so much to learn: the particular obstacles involved in netting a two-book contract, the role and expectations of editor versus agent, how – or if – to set up a book tour, the best ways to pitch your book to booksellers, how to best leverage social media to gain exposure and sell books, why you should buy your books from a local store instead of requesting a box from your publisher, or how, as soon as you get used to saying “my publicist” without an air of wonder at the fact that you have a publicist, said publicist will likely disappear into the literary ether.
Why am I telling you all of this? Because the 20-some year-old me would have wanted to know that there were other writers out there wondering many of the same things as I was: why does it feel like everyone else is having success when I keep getting rejected? Why does this feel so lonely and confusing? Why is getting from finished to published a better-guarded secret, it seemed, than the nation’s nuclear codes.
I’m telling you this because each step forward, it seems for me, was like stumbling around blindfolded – groping in the dark like the proverbial blind man touching an elephant. There were book doctors and writing workshops and pitch conferences, low-res MFA programs and beta readers and residencies and contests. Sorting it out, taking advantage of it all, was time-consuming and overwhelming.
You know that age-old advice: “Write the book you want to read?” Well, that’s good stuff. It’s worked well for me so far. And so, with the help of my friend, fellow author and educator, and all-around awesome person, Ann Garvin, we decided to take that advice a step further. We created the very thing that our aspiring-writer selves wished and longed for and needed.
It’s called The Fifth Semester – “for anyone with an MFA under their belt or a book under the bed” – and we’re unveiling it here on Women’s Fiction Writers first.
We decided that writing a book should be the hard part. But the road from finished to published? That should be, if not smooth, at least paved and well-lit.
Publishing can be a wild place these days, with almost daily upheaval, change, and innovation. So it helps to have real, live people to go to who have been there, who can mentor you through the process. In the lonely, uncertain years leading up to publishing my first book, that’s really what I pined for at conferences and through blogs: mentorship, camaraderie, community.
So, to my twenty-some year-old, aspiring-author self, I say: “Hold tight…I’m coming.” And to anyone else out there looking for the very same things that I was, way back when, good news: (most of) the hard work’s been done, (a lot of) lessons have been lived and learned, and this thing has been built. We hope you’ll come. We’ll hope you’ll join us.
Erin Celello is the author of the novels, Miracle Beach and Learning to Stay. She was born and raised in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and earned B.A. in English from St. Norbert College. Not knowing what else one does with an English degree, Erin set out for law school but never quite got there. Instead, she headed back north to Marquette, Michigan, where she received an MFA in fiction writing from Northern Michigan University and a PhD in snow shoveling.
Eventually, Erin landed in Madison, Wisconsin, where she lives today with her husband, two young sons, and two unruly Vizslas. She is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Languages and Literatures at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and member of the Tall Poppy Writers collective. Visit erincelello.com, tallpoppies.org, or thefifthsemester.com for more information.