Those of you who read this blog will know that I have been spending the past 22 months studying at Hamline University in Minneapolis/St Paul, Minnesota (graduating soon). I'm doing an MFA in Writing for Children and YA. Has it been hard? Yes. Especially when I was working. This year I have taken 12 months off work to complete my last semester - this is when I work on my creative thesis, which is a novel. Has it been worthwhile? YES! Before I went off to Hamline, I had around 45 published books out there, and a lot of people asked - why would you want to study? (Subtext: aren't you already "there"?)
Well, no. Like most writers, I suspect, I'm rarely happy with my writing. And when I am, it can turn out that people in publishing are not. That's the reality. Writing is a craft, and as soon as you think you know everything there is to know about it, it tends to leap up and slap you with a wet, cold fish. That fish can be of the species "remainder table", or the species "horrible reviews" or even the species "your story ideas are old fashioned and we want something HOT".
If enough time passes between my writing and re-reading, I am quite capable of declaring everything I write is appallingly bad, and it's time I gave up. Doing the MFA has gone a long way towards saving me, because I went into it determined to write daringly. To have a go at things I might have not dared otherwise. To learn as much as I could about the craft (which is why I loved the critical essays, and even the thesis - sometimes). And to try my hardest to IMPROVE.
Even though I'm not entirely sure what that means. In today's publishing world, it probably doesn't mean what I want it to. Writing better doesn't mean I will come up with the next new hot chapter book series, or the next best-selling trilogy (of something) that will get optioned for a movie. Writing better doesn't seem to necessarily mean every editor will be anxiously waiting for my next book.
Writing better will mean to me that when I get a fantastic idea, I'll be able to create it on the page as a story that readers will love to read. That's the key - being able to grasp what is in my head and move it onto the page and be happy with it, instead of despondent that it's not nearly as terrific as I thought it was. What does give me hope, though, is that most writers feel like this. It's a bit like seeing that beautiful, glowing stone shining up at you through the water, and when you reach down and grab it, once it's in your hand, it turns out to be rather ordinary and dull.
So how do we know when we've improved? One way is to keep all of your old drafts of stories and bring them out and compare. I have horrendous stuff that I keep just for that purpose (no matter how much it makes me cringe). Another way is simply to do it - work hard on your craft, and I think you will know in your heart when you are getting better. Don't take any notice of family (unless they are good critical readers). Test it by sending it out, then rewriting, and trying again. A big part of craft is perseverance. That's what counts in the end - the realisation that work is what it takes, and the real desire to do better every single time.