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Interview: May 19th, 2014

Kerri Majors knows a thing or two about writing --- she has an MFA from Columbia and is the founder and editor of the Young Adult Review Network, an online literary journal that focuses on all things YA. We asked her to give aspiring teen writers some advice. See below for some "rapid fire" words of wisdom, and some more in-depth knowledge. And if you're interested in knowing what Kerri thinks are the top 5 classics every young writer must read, see her blog post, here!


Rapid Fire Questions

Teenreads.com: Top three pieces of advice for young writers:

Kerri Majors:
1.     
Read.
2.      Revise.  Radically, when necessary, for practice, and to discover unexpected ways forward.
3.      Sit your tush in the chair and do it, even when you don’t feel like it.  Come up with a schedule and goals, and promise yourself to keep up.

TRC: Top three resources for writers:

KM:
1.      Your fave English teacher and/or local librarian.
2.      Twitter (for plugging in to the advice and blogs of some of the best writers, publishers, literary journals, etc, out there.  Start with YARN, @YAReviewNet, and expand from there.)
3.      NaNoWriMo’s Young Writers Program (http://ywp.nanowrimo.org/)

TRC: Top three favorite books you’ve read recently:

KM:
1.      THE INTERESTINGS by Meg Wolitzer (which is practically a YA novel!)
2.      WILD by Cheryl Strayed
3.      TO ALL MY FANS, WITH LOVE, FROM SYLVIE by Ellen Conford (recently re-released by Lizzie Skurnick Books)

TRC: Top three favorite books you read as a teen:

KM:
1.      THE MISTS OF AVALON by Marion Zimmer Bradley
2.      THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald
3.      THE PILLARS OF EARTH by Ken Follet

TRC: Three most important books every aspiring writer should read:

KM:
1.      THIS IS NOT A WRITING MANUAL (TISNAWM) (You had to ask?)
2.      BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott
3.      ON WRITING by Stephen King

TRC: Top thing (s) an aspiring writer shouldn’t do:

KM:
1.      Make excuses.
2.      Hide their writing.
3.      Put anyone’s writing in a box and label it.

TRC: Best snack to eat while writing:

KM: Tea or coffee while writing.  I prefer to save the big treats --- cookies, brownies, chips --- as a reward for fulfilling my daily quota, as motivation.

Favorite place to write:

KM: My desk at home.  Though if I am reading for research, I prefer a noisy café.

Other Questions:

TRC: Do you think MFAs are for everyone? Should all young writers pursue an MFA in order to write a novel?

KM: There is no formula for becoming a writer, so aside from writing as consistently as possible, there is little else a writer needs to do to get the work done and get published.  I devoted a whole chapter to Creative Writing majors and MFAs in my book, so I don’t want to repeat myself too much here, but the bottom line is that the MFA is not a pre-professional degree like a JD, MBA, or MD; you don’t have to have it to get the job, and I think many young writers are under the misconception that it is that kind of degree. 

That said, getting an MFA can help you make connections in publishing and demonstrate to agents and editors a certain level of seriousness about the craft of writing; it will also give you the time and space to actually do a lot of writing, and study and craft.  But so can going to summer writing conferences, free seminars, and other locally offered workshops and opportunities that won’t sink you into debt.

Though it’s not popular to say, I think one of the most important questions a writer should ask is before heading to an MFA is this: After all the financial aid has been offered, can I financially afford this degree?  And keep in mind, that unlike a lawyer or doctor who goes into debt for their degree, the writer is not going to make enough money to pay back the loans after completing the degree.  Sorry to kill the romance.  

TRC: How was writing THIS IS NOT A WRITING MANUAL different from writing short stories and novels? Did you have a different process?

KM: Since TINAWM was a nonfiction memoir, writing it was different from writing fiction in two important ways.  The most wonderful way was that I got the contract from Writer’s Digest before I wrote the book; with first works of fiction, you have to slave over the whole book before getting an agent or publishing contract.  To sell nonfiction, you instead write a book proposal, which for me was much less of a big deal than a book itself.

Another way it was different for me is that I had a very strong outline already in place when I sat down to write TINAWM (with fiction, I’m a pantser, not a plotter).  The outline was a critical component of the proposal.  Though I made some changes to the chapter order, and added and subtracted one or two chapters from the original outline, writing the chapters was a little like a fun fill-in-the-blank project.

TRC: Should aspiring novelists write short stories? Does that increase their chances of getting their book published once they finish it?

KM: This is an interesting question, and the answer is evolving.  My own agent and many industry professionals definitely feel that when a writer can show a CV of published short works (short stories, essays, poetry, or journalism), it demonstrates their commitment to craft and the writing life.  This is especially true in the world of adult fiction, where there are literally hundreds of journals in which to publish short works.

Because YA has comparatively fewer journals, and they are all very new, there isn’t the same history of YA writers publishing short works before publishing a novel.  But with the advent of YARN, One Teen Story, Sucker, Stone Crowns, and others on the scene, there are increasing opportunities for writers to get noticed before sending out that novel.  And I can tell you that I have received several queries from agents saying “I really liked that piece by So-and-so Writer.  Could you ask them to contact me?”

But listen: even a previously published book doesn’t guarantee that your next novel is going to sell.  In the end, the most important thing about selling a novel is getting it into the hands of the agent, then editor, who is going to love it.  If they don’t love it, it won’t matter where else you’ve been published before.  The stars have to align. 

TRC: How does a young writer find a writing group? Should he or she look to the internet for one?

KM: Since writing groups are local, and usually best when they can meet face to face, I think the Internet is the last place to look.  Start with like-minded friends, a favorite teacher, and/or your local librarian.  Ask if there is an existing group you can get in on.  If that doesn’t work, start your own!  I actually have a Guide To Forming a Teen Writing Group in my book (and if you happen to be a teacher, I made this into a handy photocopy-able hand-out in my free Teachers Edition companion to TINAWM).

TRC: What is the most difficult thing you've ever written? How did you complete it?

KM: You know, every single project feels difficult at the beginning, for different reasons.  Sometimes it’s because I have to do a ton of research before I can get started; sometimes it’s because I have a great character and no story for her; sometimes it’s because I’m terrified of failing; sometimes it’s something else.  Whatever the reason, I have gotten through it by first talking through my fears and difficulties with a good friend—often multiple times throughout the project.  Then I make myself sit down and write it, “leaving my ego at the door” (from TINAWM).