How I Got My Agent

When I first thought about writing this post, the first answer to the customary How I Got My Agent question was just…the same way everyone else did. But once I thought about it, I realized that’s really not the answer at all. 

I have a treasure trove of thoughts, feelings, and generalized rambling to put here, but the first thing I want to say is that I could never have expected to be a Twitter pitch party success story. That idea was so far out of the realm of possibility that I considered not even participating in the pitch party that actually landed me my agent. Before we get to that, though, we need to cover the reality of what happened before that fateful like of a tweet. 

Picture this, it’s 2015. Seventeen year old me has recently graduated from high school, and had written a book that she thought was the most spectacular piece of literature the world had ever seen. I recently found a list of 100 YA agents I’d printed out back then. It had different colored highlighter smudged all over it, and some names crossed off. Even I couldn’t make sense of it, and the book wasn’t even YA. I was actually that stupid. Obviously, that was not an agent-landing manuscript. 

Fast forward to September, 2019. I’d written another book. There’d been two in between my first book and this one, but I loved this one the most. It took me over a year to write the first draft, and it was so vulnerable, so honest. I didn’t know how anyone could tell me no. Well, I got plenty of no’s. Nearly 100 rejections on that book alone. It was crushing, and awful, but I kept going. I queried and queried and queried, getting these glimpses of positive feedback but ultimately very few bites. Now, here’s where things get difficult. For me, the key to the querying process was the balance between being determined to never quit, and knowing when to pull a manuscript out of the trenches and start the process over when I had a new one ready. That point came when I got extensive feedback on a full request. I knew then that the book, as beloved and personally impactful as it was, needed a lot of work. So, I pulled it, and I dove headfirst into the project I started drafting right after I began querying. 

By November 1st, the first day of National Novel Writing Month, I had a detailed outline, moodboards, character sheets, everything. I threw myself into that book and I barely came up for air until I had almost 60,000 words. I didn’t quite hit the 50K goal for NaNoWriMo, but the draft came together by January. I had it edited by late February, and I was ready to query. 

I compiled a list of an initial thirteen agents to start with, and I was determined to get responses from them before I queried more, because I wanted to take this process slower than I had the last time I queried. I sent six queries out on Leap Day, because it felt lucky. Waking up the next day to a full request was the moment I knew this time was going to be different. Obviously, a full request doesn’t mean an offer. No amount of full requests does, but this was progress. It took months before I got a full request last time, so this felt like a definite step forward. 

The following Thursday was #PitMad. For those of you who don’t know, PitMad is a pitch party where authors condense their query letters into succinct pitches that fit into a single tweet. Then, throughout the day, agents and editors like tweets from authors they’d like to see material from. The day before PitMad, I hadn’t decided if I was going to pitch or not. I’d done pitch parties before, and gotten absolutely no response. On a whim, I decided to draft a pitch or two, just to see how they turned out. I liked them enough that I scheduled them to post while I was at work the next day. Then, Wednesday night, I saw other people posting moodboards of books they were planning to pitch, as an “everyone look out for this” kind of announcement. My moodboards had never seen the light of day, so I posted one, talking about my plan to pitch my book the next day. That tweet garnered a reply from Emmy Nordstrom Higdon, Associate Agent at The Rights Factory, and my eventual agent. They requested material even before PitMad, and even though I got other likes during the pitch party, this was the one that set the ball rolling. I had a full request from them by Sunday, and two weeks later, I had an offer. 

It was wild. I was used to querying being a slow process, a form rejection every couple of days, and some nice feedback in between. This all moving so fast was completely unexpected. The part that felt so radically different to me were the responses from agents I nudged with an offer of representation. I got emails back in record time, with compliments and wishes that they’d had more time to devote to a potential new project. Even a couple “can’t wait to see your book on the shelves.” These were agents I’d admired since I’d begun querying years ago, even people who had rejected me before. Getting that positive encouragement from them was an incredible way to end a querying journey that managed to span five years. 

When we do the math, it was 5 manuscripts, 3 rounds of querying, hundreds of rejections, and one moodboard that landed me an agent. So, my path to being agented probably wasn’t exactly like anyone else’s, but there are some components to querying that are pretty much universal. Persistence, anxiety, frustration, and hopefully, eventually, this feeling of exhilaration that a years long goal is finally within reach. For me, that was all more than worth it. 

I am so beyond excited to work with Emmy, and join the #SpineSquad and The Rights Factory team. I can’t wait to move into this next phase of my writing journey. 

12 Days of Collabmas: An Interview with My Cowriter

Here we are, the finale of the series. Elizabeth and I wanted to interview each other, because beyond it sounding fun, it was an opportunity to dig a little deeper and ask each other the kinds of questions we normally wouldn’t in casual conversation. We’ve both really enjoyed doing this series, and we hope you’ve enjoyed learning more about who we are as writers and how our collaboration works.

M: Have you ever collaborated with anyone else? This question feels strange, like I’m asking if you’ve ever cheated on me, but I’m genuinely curious. 

E: I did a collaboration forever ago with another fanfic writer, back when I was writing in the Harry Potter fandom. So I’d had a little experience when you asked me to cowrite. I enjoyed it, but it was one of those situations where our styles just didn’t match well at all.

M: Why do you think collaboration is done so commonly in fanfiction, but done rarely in original fiction?

E: Fandom is such a community environment that I think people are a lot more willing in general to reach out to one another in that context. Everyone has a shared interest to bond over, so conversations are easy to start. Plus, there is no money to be made or career to be advanced in fanfiction (in most cases, anyway.) Since it’s just for fun, I think people are more willing to experiment with new ways of writing.

M: Do you think collaborating is easier in a fanfiction setting, where characters and dynamics have already been established, or do you think it’s easier to start from scratch?

E: I definitely think it’s easier with fanfiction because there is so much that neither writer has to explain at the outset. You both already know the world you’re writing in. You already know the characters, love them, and want the best for them. Plus, fanfiction works are usually responses to something the writer didn’t like or wants to change about the source material. When you’re both passionate about “fixing” things that made you sad or angry, the ideas tend to come easier since you’re fueling each other’s fire. However, I do think it’s a lot more fun and rewarding to build a whole new world with a cowriter.

M: Do you think that starting from a fanfiction background helped you as a writer at all? Did it give you a different perspective?

E: It helped me see the importance of representation. A huge reason people write fanfiction in the first place is because they want to see a character or storyline that reflects their experience. Characters that look and think the way they do, or that go through similar experiences. For example, I’m a sci-fi and fantasy fan, but the female characters in those genres are often not great. So when I do see a female character who has an actual story arc and personality traits beyond “swings a sword” or “is attractive”, I’m listening. I feel connected to something, like there are other people out there who just might understand me. Fanfiction helped me realize just how important that feeling is to all of us, how much we need it. It’s why humans have told stories since the beginning of time. I want to give someone that feeling with my own stories, someday.

M: Is there a part of collaboration you don’t like? Please feel free to say that I am the part of collaboration you don’t like, I promise I’ll understand. 🙂

E: It’s not you at all! There isn’t much about it that I don’t like, obviously, but it is sometimes a high-pressure situation. I try to come up with all these perfect ideas or suggest deadlines I know I can’t meet. Sometimes my failures are more embarrassing when another writer has a front-row seat to them. But we’ve been at it for so long now that I can recognize all that as a growth opportunity. And I’m okay with being a disaster in front of you now.

M: When you think of the highlights of our collaborative career, what comes to mind? Do you have a favorite character or story we’ve done?

E: I love all the characters we developed for Kindred, our dystopian YA novel project. They are loveable wrecks, each in their own ways, and I can’t wait to start getting to know them even better.

M: Am I as annoying to you as I am to myself? Don’t answer that.

E: We’re equally annoying 🙂

M: What is your best piece of collaboration advice to those who’d like to try it out?

E: Remember how important it is to be open about your insecurities. It will help you and your cowriter grow closer, as well as improving the work. Cowriting is about testing your limits and growing as a writer, but that can only happen if you are up front about how you need to improve. Plus your cowriter will probably offer you reassurance and/or tough love, both of which you’ll need at some point.

Thank you so much for sticking around to the end of the series! Feel free to share any collaboration questions/thoughts/feelings you have with us on Twitter @MarissaEller and @EWestcoatWrites!

12 Days of Collabmas: What It’s Like to Work With Me

Hi! I’m Elizabeth, the cowriter that Ris has been referencing in all these posts over the past few days. I’m here because we thought that if we were going to talk about cowriting, then we needed to give each other’s readers an inside look at what it’s really like to work together.

Marissa makes the whole process of creating a story so much easier because she generally has a pretty good idea of where she wants the plot to go. She’s good at creating momentum in a story, which is FANTASTIC news for me. I love worldbuilding and playing around in universes of my own creation. But creating a coherent plot with a beginning, middle, and end? Not always my strong suit. I’m usually the one with notes about characters’ personalities and quirks, while she comes in with ideas about where the characters will go and what they’ll do. Our stories benefit so much from her vision, and I feel like I’ve gained so much skill in plotting and outlining from working with Marissa. 

I’ve talked on my blog about how I see Marissa as the more organized mind of the two of us, but we do get into this zone sometimes where we both throw out ideas and let things flow together. It’s my favorite part of our whole process, and it usually comes right at the beginning. We do a big brain dump of all our ideas for the story. It’s mostly incoherent and yet we both feel like we’re on the same page the entire time. And then we take a few days to shape it into a real outline. That’s how we ended up with the plans for Kindred, a dystopian YA novel that Marissa came up with the idea for. And that’s another cool thing about working with her; any time we’ve done any successful collab, the initial idea was always hers.

Lastly, she’s always cool if I lose track of time or let life things get in the way of writing sometimes. We both have lives and we don’t get upset if one of us has to cancel plans or be late with an update. She is so supportive of the non-writing things I do with my life, and I always want her to be successful in her non-writing things. We’ve come to a stage where we are friends first and collaborators second. Ris just finished her manuscript of her first YA novel! I couldn’t be more proud of her! And I was honored to watch from the sidelines and beta read when she asked. She’s about to graduate with her MFA and she was offered a job she was really hoping to get. I’m so excited to see where life takes her next. I guess that’s become my favorite thing about working with Ris; being a proud big sister whenever she does something awesome, and sometimes even getting to be a part of it.

12 Days of Collabmas: How to Find The Right Cowriter

I’ll be honest with you, when Eliza and I were planning out this series, this was the post I was most concerned about. Finding the right cowriter is the trickiest part. If I’d decided to message someone else on a whim years ago, I would probably be writing a very different series. I’d probably be as collaboration-phobic as anyone else. 

For one thing, I think finding the right cowriter is a lot of luck. That being said, your perfect cowriter probably isn’t very far from you right now. Maybe not in terms of physical space, but you probably run in some of the same circles. The first tip I have for finding a good cowriter is just immersing yourself into the writing community. Don’t just dive in and ask someone you found on Twitter if they want to write something with you. Follow them. Learn what they enjoy writing and what they’re good at. What their style is. That’s another way fanfiction and fandom helped bring Eliza and I together. I’d read everything she’d ever posted, and I was following all of the insightful and hilarious things she was posting on her blog back then. I didn’t know her, but I knew her content. By absorbing what she was putting out into the world, I got a sense of who she was. If you’re looking for a cowriter, that’s the place to start. Learn what their opinions are. What they’re reading. What genres they write in, and what they’re working on. How they feel about oxford commas. I’m just kidding, I don’t even know what Eliza’s oxford comma opinions are. But seriously, it sounds creepy, but getting an idea for who they are as a writer from afar is the best judge of a good cowriter. 

That doesn’t mean it’s going to be this perfect relationship, however. You might find that the person you admire so much as a writer is better suited to be a beta reader or critique partner than a cowriter. That’s okay too. The key is just to try. A simple I would love to work with you sometime goes a long way, in whatever way that takes shape for you. You’ll eventually build this group of writers that become like a baseball team of friends, everyone plays a different position, but they all still go to bat for you when you need them. 

There’s one more tip that I’d like to offer. It helps to find writers outside your own genre. For example, Eliza is Tolkien reincarnated, and I don’t have a fantastic bone in my body. Everything I do is rooted in the world we live in, and when I write with her, it usually goes something like “but what if we added magic” and I love it. She thinks of things that I absolutely never would have in a million years, and it adds so much to anything we’re working on. You have to step outside of yourself to collaborate with someone in this way, so you might as well reach out to someone who doesn’t write exactly the same way you do. 

That being said, eventually, in good collaboration, your ideas will blend together so much that you won’t remember who came up with what. In our first story, I couldn’t tell you who named our OC, or who decided to give him a dog named after a sculptor/ninja turtle. Unless someone’s having an emotional breakdown (I know that definitely came from me) or talking to animals (probably Eliza’s idea,) it really is such a melting pot of influences that I couldn’t pick myself out of anything we’ve done. I reread our first multi-chapter story a few days ago, and if we hadn’t labeled the chapters we’d written in the author’s notes, I genuinely would not have been able to pick out my own writing. 

So here’s my best advice. Try. Write with people. Make stuff that might be garbage. It might take time, and some stumbling along the way, but you could fall into a cowriting relationship that means the world to you. And you just might create characters and worlds you’d die for.

12 Days of Collabmas – Why Bother?

Why write with a cowriter? Well, to be honest, I wanted to write with a cowriter because I was tired of myself. Writing is solitary by nature, and as introverted as I was, I was tired of my entire writing world consisting of just my own mind. That’s the main reason I reached out to start collaborating, but here is my take on the reasons Elizabeth shared in yesterday’s post, and the reasons I kept going. 


When you’re working with the right person, collaboration is addictive. You start getting ideas, and then feel that they’d be stronger with their spin on them. Elizabeth was right in saying that I approached cowriting with a wall up, just because like I said before, my entire writing world was just in my mind, and letting someone into that was risky at best. That’s why I employed my risk and run life philosophy. To my surprise, Eliza was the perfect person to write with. We have this twin mind connection that I don’t think I could replace if I tried. 

Letting someone into your writing world is a definite risk, it’s handing them your heart and letting them throw it around like a football. But if they don’t drop it? You’ll be counting down the minutes until you can pry your ribs open and share the burden of your heart with someone else. 


I can’t count how many times I’ve been meaning to write and I’ve ended up taking a nap instead. I rarely do that when Eliza is depending on me. There’s a certain kind of motivation that comes with cowriting that’s invaluable. If you’re on your own, somehow your self-imposed deadlines don’t feel like they matter as much. I hear it from classmates in my MFA program all the time. They started the program to force themselves to write on deadlines. I was already used to that process, because I’d been cowriting with Eliza for over a year when I started. She says I’m the organized one, a title I am equally surprised by and appreciative of. The practice I’ve gotten in structure through cowriting with Eliza have allowed me to succeed in my formal writing program, and finish my novel. No matter what I have going on, I’m always up to write. I wouldn’t be that way if I hadn’t spent a summer of late nights finishing a fandom-saving story with Eliza. 


Confidence is not my area of expertise. It probably never will be. That being said, the confidence it requires to share your ideas when they’re in their rawest, least polished form is great practice for writing and publishing. My first workshop in my MFA program, I was a shaky mess the entire week. Everytime I wanted to lose myself to panic, I had the same thought. Eliza likes it, it can’t be that bad. Nearly every story I posted for workshop during my entire program, she gave her stamp of approval on. From the biggest ideas to the most stupid, Eliza’s been there for every one. Every emotional breakdown I’ve had during the process of writing my first book. Every weird flash fiction piece I’ve written that doesn’t make any sense. 

Beyond that, she’s been there for everything that’s happened in my life for the past three years. I can’t promise that cowriting will lead to this one-of-a-kind friendship you’ll never find with anyone else, like it did for me, but if you can push yourself through the risk and the vulnerability, it just might be worth it.

12 Days of Collabmas: The Origin Story

Welcome to the 12 Days of Collabmas!

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, two women were entirely obsessed with one nerdy TV show. That long time ago was 2016, and that far away galaxy was Tumblr, a site that is truly not of this realm.

Fanfiction was where my writing story began. I loved a TV show so much that my head was filled with situations to put those characters in, and I had to write them down to get any semblance of peace. Little did I know, that began an existence with a brain haunted by fictional characters, some I borrowed and some I created, and a life full of a lot less peace.

Still, I was addicted from the first moment I wrote that probably terrible story. From then on, I threw myself head first into fandom. I read, I wrote, I made friends. The instant gratification of posting a story and racking up likes, comments, and reblogs was thrilling. The more I wrote, the more I loved it. My follower count grew, and I started getting anonymous prompts in my inbox. People wanted more.
Eventually, I got bored. I vividly remember sitting on the floor in my living room, thinking I wanted to write something, but not knowing what. It was my first true taste of writer’s block, and I felt as if I were creatively dying. Like everything I’ve done since, I decided to take a risk and run. I zipped a message to a friend I barely knew, asking if she wanted to collaborate on a story. Then, I threw my phone across the room. I’d read plenty of these stories, where two writers wove their styles and their ideas together, and the concept was fascinating to me. I was still in my writing infancy, and the idea of making myself available to someone else’s thoughts and opinions was terrifying. That’s why I did it.

Soon, Elizabeth wrote back, and I remember it well. She said something like, a collab is just what I need. It was the first time I thought huh, I guess we were on the same page. Let me tell you, though, it was far from the last. Elizabeth and I aren’t on the same page, we literally write the same book.

After that first story, we became better friends, and we’d show each other our new stuff before we’d let other eyes see it. So when that season of our beloved show ended in an unbearable injustice, the first thought I had after I have to fix this was I need her help.
We spent six hours on Google Docs chat that next day plotting out a story that turned out to span the show’s entire summer break. It was one of the most popular stories in our fandom, and we had people hanging onto our every word. We fixed the whole mess before the show’s writers could. Spoiler alert: They didn’t ever fix it, they made it worse. The point is, we spent months writing thousands of words together, and we realized we’re much more alike than different.

Our show ended so badly that we didn’t even attempt to fix it. By then, we’d moved on to our own original work. She’s writing her alien sisters, and I’m writing my ensemble cast of chronically ill teens. We’ve only met in person twice, most recently at a conference in August, where I got to hand her a physical copy of the first draft of my first book. She’s a few hundred miles away, but she’s still the first person who sees anything my mind conjures up. We stumbled upon the ideal collaboration, that set us up for years of friendship and thousands of words. Elizabeth and I thought that this kind of collaborative friendship was something worth sharing, so here we are.
We’re doing this series because we want to share our experience being cowriters and friends, how we’ve each grown since that first collab story, and why collaboration between writers is something to be admired, not feared.

Keep checking out our sites for the rest of our Collabmas posts! You can read Elizabeth’s companion to this post here.

Why I Write

A couple of weeks ago, I had an assignment for one of my classes where I had to write an essay on why I write. We’d read this beautiful essay by Terry Tempest Williams on the same topic, and I was both scared and inspired. Inspired, because any writer reading that essay would be, and scared, because I felt as if my own reasons for writing were sophomoric and nowhere near as enlightened and emotive as Williams’. 

In writing this essay, I learned, not for the first time, to never underestimate my own emotions. Eventually I’ll come to terms with the fact that emotive should’ve been my middle name. Anyway, since this turned out to be something I actually like, I thought I’d post it here. 

So, this is why I write. 

When I think about why writing is the center of my world, it’s almost ironic that the words that come to mind aren’t my own. The first example is a quote from Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, where the protagonist, a writer, is being asked why she writes. In the classroom around her, answers are flying. People are saying many of the same things Williams did in his essay, the kind of poignant and inspired answers you’d expect from fictional undergraduates in creative writing. Her answer, though, is my favorite. She writes to disappear. That’s the best answer I could give, I think. I write because fiction is a portal from this world to another. It’s a way to exist without occupying physical space. I write because it’s a way of being seen without being looked at. 

Another example that comes to mind is from Flannery O’Connor: “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” Writing is the way I compartmentalize everything in my brain. My thoughts are just on automatic direct deposit to a blank Word document. I write because for me, there’s just no other way to process things. There’s no other way to live. What good is pain if we can’t turn it into something new? That’s what writing is, pain recycling. 

Despite the pain, the real reason that I write is because I can’t not. It’s a compulsion, a required part of my day like sleeping or breathing. When I don’t write, I experience what Edgar Allan Poe would call “periods of horrible sanity.” I’m not me if I don’t write. I’m not human. I’m not sure writers are all human in the first place, there’s at least part of our brains or souls that live floating in the cosmos somewhere. That’s another reason I write, to connect with the part of me that isn’t rooted in the Earth. 

I write because there’s a power in fiction that I’ve never felt in anything else. I write because I read “Annabell Lee” in eighth grade and I haven’t been the same since. I write because it’s the closest thing to magic that I, a mere mortal, have ever felt. It’s the ability to change the world with just clicks of your fingertips against computer keys. It’s wanting to pull out your hair, and lying on the floor just to watch the ceiling fan turn, and remembering every sound and smell. It’s visceral, and horrible, and painful. It’s sitting in front of a notebook and letting yourself bleed. Writing is physical silence and emotional negative space. It’s a kind of pain you want to stay in forever. 

I write because writing is as much a part of me as anything else. In the same way that I’m a daughter, a sister, and a friend, I’m a writer. Success or failure, laughing or weeping, brave or cowardly, no matter what, that’s something that will never change. Someone who knew both writing and death all too well, Ernest Hemingway, said it best: “Once writing has become your major vice and greatest pleasure only death can stop it.”

An Ode to My MFA Program

The decision on whether the MFA is beneficial to writers of today is hotly contested and widely debated. (See: To MFA or not to MFA.) There’s no right answer, but all of the talk has made me want to share how I came to mine. 

Side note: Are MFAs as widely debated in other fields? Does one face similar criticism in pursuing an MFA in Theatre or Studio Art?

Here is a really helpful article on this topic: Jane Friedman’s “3 Myths About the MFA in Creative Writing.” Here, she outlines the three main reasons that writers pursue a graduate degree: to teach, to speed up their publishing journey, and to make writing a priority. She’s absolutely right, getting a teaching job with an MFA is far from easy, MFA’s don’t do anything for publishing that a stellar book wouldn’t do, and writing won’t be a priority in your life unless you make it one. Friedman was spot on with these reasons, and at first, I was admittedly pursuing my MFA because of all three. 

I’d never taken a formal creative writing class before I got to graduate school. I applied mainly just to see if I had the courage to send something I wrote out into the world for someone else to read. Seriously, when I submitted my application (less than a year and a half ago) only one other person had read something I’d written. The idea of putting myself out there this way was akin to having someone watch me sleep at night, just the kind of privacy invasion that I couldn’t stomach the thought of. Writing was the only personal space I had. But I wanted to make writing a career. It was my life’s biggest dream. So how was I supposed to do that if I broke out in hives at the thought of another set of eyes on my beloved words? 

I’d also been a life-long academic. My life story was written in MLA format. I’d write this blog post in MLA format if WordPress would let me. Even making the jump from Bachelors of Arts to Masters In Fine Arts felt scary. My BA in English was supposed to be a BA in English Ed. I won’t get into that, but long story short, I went to a way too small college. Anyway, my plan around March of last year, about two months before graduating college, was to do lateral entry teaching at the high school level. Then, somehow, I realized how important writing was to me. I wanted to test myself. See how good I was, and how committed. I wanted a program that was completely artistic, where I couldn’t rely on the grades I’d gotten since kindergarten. I was done being an academic, I wanted to be an artist. I was giving up the sure thing in favor of the risk. 

Enter, Lindenwood University. I found them online, and looking at that page, I got the same feeling I had when I stepped onto my undergrad campus for the first time. That visceral, gut, this is home, feeling. And their application requires only a statement of purpose and a writing sample. I swear on all that I am that submitting that application was the scariest thing I’ve ever done. But I did it. Then I bought myself tickets to a concert I didn’t end up going to to celebrate. 

A few weeks later, in my driveway as I was getting into my car to go to a baseball game, I got the Congratulations! email I’d been waiting for. I wasn’t a life-long academic anymore, I was a part time academic and a part time artist. 

That concept of what makes an artist is my main problem with the MFA as a whole. I absolutely adore my program, don’t get me wrong. Graduate school is easily the best decision I’ve ever made. I’ve never grown so much academically, artistically, or personally in a year in my life. 

That being said, I’m not at Harvard or Columbia or an instantly recognizable school. I’m not at a place that recognizes literary fiction as this supreme being. It seems that the entirety of the MFA is of the opinion that literary work is just better. When I think of those big name programs, as exceptional as they may be, I think of fierce competition and a level of stress so intense it could kill a racehorse. Graduate school as a whole is that way, competitive and borderline toxic, it’s not just the arts. I’ve seen kids all over the internet wearing t-shirts that say School Kills Artists, and I think if I’d somehow ended up in one of those literary supremacist programs, the artist in me wouldn’t have survived. It’s something we discussed in one of my classes this semester, the idea that high art is the only art. In the fine arts, there is this concept that you can be too good to be popular. That’s an idea I’m just too sensitive for. I might have been ready to submit my work for someone else to see, but I was definitely not ready to step into the fight for my life in a super competitive program. I deeply admire anyone who can do that kind of literary streetfighting. I’m sure the prestige of having terminal degree from a recognizable school is worth it, but I needed the kind of small school feel I had in undergrad. 

That’s what I love about my MFA program. It’s practical, not a pressure cooker. It’s human, where we interact with each other as writers and as people. No one in my program is there to boot someone else out. My professors, as successful as they are, offer their expertise to help us succeed, in whatever way success manifests itself in our lives. 

For example, I emailed my professors to tell them I’d be doing work ahead of time to prepare for a personal matter that would cause me to not be able to do classwork for two weeks. One of them told me he’d extend whatever deadlines I needed, and the other emailed me back and said I could have the rest of the semester to make work up if I needed it, and he’d even give me an incomplete so I’d have a whole other semester to do it. It’s that kind of care that I appreciate so much. 

Next week, I’ll have been a Lindenwood Student for five semesters. I’ve taken workshops in fiction and nonfiction, I’ve explored literary novels and some of the best YA I’ve ever read. I’ve taken publishing courses, and I know how to write a query letter and whether or not I need an agent. I’ve written flash fiction, short stories, and nonfiction, when I’d only written novels this time last year. I couldn’t even stomach the first page of a Stephen King novel, but I’m planning to write a collection of horror/crime short stories as my thesis project. I’ve made friends and learned from the most incredible professors. In particular, among many others, I’ve learned to appreciate the existence of Nicole McInnes, Kali VanBaale, and Tony D’Souza. 

Do I think everyone needs an MFA in Writing? No. Do I think every writer needs the kind of supportive, positive, strengthening environment I am lucky enough to be a part of at Lindenwood? Absolutely. 

So, if you do decide that the MFA is a path you want to take, be careful in choosing where to start, because the problem with the MFA as an institution is they aren’t all Lindenwood. 

Coping with Post-Draft Disorientation

A few weeks ago, I finished the first draft of my first novel. It was the dream, my story was told. The sand was in the sandbox, and now I had to build castles with it. It didn’t feel the way that I’d expected it to. As proud as I was, I just felt lost.
This book and these characters had been a part of me for a year, countless hours of work, and tens of thousands of words. Then, suddenly, they were gone. I still had to edit them, they still need to be published, but the deep connection I’d had to them just disappeared. I didn’t know what to do. As writers, we create characters, give them stories to tell, and put them on paper so that they live forever. For my characters to live forever, I had to take those next steps. Right then, though, those steps just felt too difficult to take. I built each of these characters from the ground up, and I’d painstakingly threaded every piece of their narrative together. As rough as that draft is, it is such a big piece of my heart. The night I finished my draft, I told a friend that I felt like I’d just buried a part of myself. I know that sounds melodramatic, but honestly, if you don’t have that kind of devotion to your characters, I don’t understand how you could spend days, weeks, and months writing them.
If are blessed and cursed with that kind of devotion, you’ve probably felt this way before, or you’re somewhere on your way. There are a lot of resources out there that describe life after the first draft; taking a break to let the manuscript breathe, the initial edit, agonizing over every word, beta readers, so on and so forth. What I’ve never read about is how you’re supposed to feel.
Like in most things in life, I don’t think there’s a wrong way to feel. There are, however, some ways to cope.
The first, don’t underestimate the break.
I cheated a little, my break was only a week. During that week, I went to a writing conference, had incredible author Jessica Burkhart critique my first ten pages, and brainstormed ideas for my next book. I had my first draft printed and bound, and I carried it with me everywhere, but I didn’t open it.
When I did, I made a big deal about it. I played music, I hugged the book like it was a teddy bear, I took a deep breath before I opened it, the whole nine yards.
Let me tell you, the first time I read my own book was the closest thing to magic I’ve ever experienced. Don’t get me wrong, it’s just a draft, and it needs a lifetime’s worth of work. The important part, though, is that it’s real. It’s tangible. I was holding a year’s worth of work in my hands, and at some point, in the middle of that first read, I realized that I hadn’t lost those characters I love so much. All I did was make them real.
That brings me to my second tip, realize that this is only the beginning. I spent a year writing this draft, and I’ll spend months at least working on the next one. Then they’ll be another, then I’ll send it to readers, then to agents, then to publishers. These characters are going to be with me for a long time. Their first chapter is just over, now it’s time to make them the best they can be.
My third and final realization may seem obvious; the connection that I thought had disappeared was never really gone. As I read through my draft, and every time I’ve read through it since, I’ve been flooded with memories. Where I was when I thought of the ending, the way I felt when someone else read it for the first time, all of it. It’s all still there, and all of those beautiful characters are just as much mine as they were when they were just thoughts in my head.
So, if you’re like me and you’re feeling adrift because you finished a draft, I hope this can help. Your characters will always be yours, and thanks to you, they’ll be alive forever.

Check out my About and Works pages to for an introduction to me and what I’m working on, and catch me on Twitter @MarissaEller.