alt-ac

What’s Another Word for ‘Very’? : Fall 2015 Workshops Now Live!

It’s been a busy summer for me at The Brainery. I workshopped 10 novels for Novel Workshop, 9 short stories for Short Fiction, and wrote over over 150 pages of critique in the process. I moderated three roundtables with John Chu, Michi Trota, and Chuck Wendig, went to WorldCon and DragonCon, and, in the middle of it all moved from upstate NY to Atlanta. Oh yeah, and I sold a story to Lightspeed and became a member of SFWA. Not too shabby. But busy. Very very busy. And I tend to have very strong opinions about adverbs. Last week marked …

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Support Fund for Writers

imageI have been asked a lot if I offer scholarships for The Brainery. It’s a topic that weighs heavily on my heart because I wouldn’t have been able to afford my education without the benefit of scholarships or competitive fellowships. But it’s tricky because The Brainery is still a new business, and I am still on WIC and Medicaid.

I spoke with the Speculative Literature Foundation about fiscal sponsorship, but they advised me against pursuing nonprofit status at this time since I don’t have big donors lined up.

So, yesterday, I started the Support Fund for Writers, which is a happy middle ground: I donate half the cost of a workshop, donors contribute 25%, and the writer is only responsible for the last 25%.

I’m happy to report that less than 3 hours of starting the Support Fund, I got my first donation large enough to sponsor a writer’s seat, and today I got my first application. So, less than 24 hours after starting the fund, it has successfully helped one writer secure a seat in the workshop.

I am excited about being able to offer this new resource to offer my fellow writers. And, as a former academic on the alt-ac track, I am proud of being able to financially help students without the benefit of university affiliation.

How to Get Started as a Female Sci-Fi Writer, Part Three

How to Get Started as a Female Sci-Fi Writer

How to Get Started as a Female Sci-Fi Writer

In Part One, I wrote about some quick strategies on how to get started that are basically remixed from Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing (which were repeated in Stephen King’s On Writing–another one of my favorite writing books) which boiled down: to read as much as you can so you develop a curator’s eye (and while you’re at it, use Pinterest to exercise that curation skill while mining images for inspiration) and then write as fast as you possibly can to get that shitty first draft out of your body.

Part Two was more about self-sabotage and forms of writing resistance as way to understand why you aren’t writing as fast as you possibly can. I shared some of my personal forms of self-sabotage that keep me from being as productive a writer as I can be–specifically, for me, worrying about money prevents me from writing most often. Thinking about writing as a long-term investment is my preferred method to distract myself away from the money issue. (I wish I could take ownership of the idea, but I was first exposed to this strategy at Readercon back in 2013.)

Hopefully, sharing some of these weaknesses encourages you to look inward and figure out what’s holding you back (if you find yourself stuck on similar issues).

Which leads to me to the final installment in this series: the gendered advice. Which, coming from me, means feminist strategies for being a female sci-fi writer. These are pieces of advice I wish I had known sooner, as well as issues that I have personally struggled with or issues I have seen my primarily female writer friends struggle with. Oh! And issues that members of The Brainery Workshop suggested be included.

1. Go to conventions.

Speaking as an introvert, meeting new people, specifically with the intention to make friends, is an expensive cost of energy. (This comic/poster does an excellent job of communicating what it’s like to be, and interact with, an introvert; thinking about energy as a form of currency does wonders for my Ferengi-like tendencies.)

As I have gotten more serious about committing to my geeky writing life, smaller conventions are where it’s at. The panels have been excellent. It’s a far more costly energy expenditure (as opposed to getting lost in the SDCC crowd), especially because I have had to attend by myself since, as a recovering academic, all of my friends have scattered across the country–plus, I have a small child and don’t live near any family who can babysit, so my husband cannot be my wingman.

Smaller conventions like Wiscon, Readercon, and Loscon provide more opportunities to meet and interact with your currently living writing heroes, plus there are lots of resources being shared amongst the attendees, and questions are generally encouraged (especially if you’re starting out). If you don’t live within driving distance of Madison, Wisconsin, Boston, or Los Angeles (or can’t afford to travel to one of these), then I urge you to find a smaller convention in your area.

Going to smaller conventions as a lone woman can be intimidating, but usually there are policies in place to help in case there is harassment (and, the latest Wiscon controversy notwithstanding, it seems as though rampant unchecked harassment is less of a problem at smaller conventions). Plus, these conventions can be a good way to connect with other women who are also fellow fan/creative types such as yourself.

I like to think of conventions as a fun way to continue my education–kind of like the way Tabatha is always making sure that the stylists at the hair salons she takes over get the continuing education they need.

2. Find a group to join: online, in person, through social media, or take a class.

As a writer, you need people to read your stuff. Inconvenient, but true.

Being part of a writing group can also remind you that publishing is not an elusive Old One cloaked in the unknowable unnameable secret language of the universe; plus, if your group is especially motivated and active with publishing, their successes will invigorate and embolden you to submit your work when maybe you wouldn’t have otherwise.

Plus, you’ll build up your critical eye by critiquing your peer’s work, which only makes your own writing stronger.

There are lots of great classes or programs you can join, too. These include the super famous Clarion and Odyssey. Those are six weeks long, but there are others that are only a week long as well.

I suggest finding a class or program that specializes in speculative fiction, though. Now that I’m teaching The Brainery Workshops online, I am seeing that the peer feedback is far more interesting and relevant to the submissions because everyone is writing speculative fiction. It’s far more helpful than most of the feedback I got from peers during my grad school creative writing PhD experience (the professors always provided stellar feedback, but my fellow students hardly ever “got” my writing).

If you’re looking for a MFA or PhD program where you’ll be surrounded by writers interested in the same genres as you, the only one I know of is a low-residency program called Stone Coast. I have heard absolutely great things about that program.

But other than that particular program (which I have no affiliation with whatsoever), I do not really endorse going to grad school as a path for speculative fiction writers unless:

A) you can afford it; most MFAs provide no funding whatsoever, so that usually means loans.

B) you can afford it; no seriously, this is not a typo: you have to think about the amount of earnings you’ll be giving up to attend grad school in addition to the loans you’ll likely have to take on, not to mention having to chuck it all to move across the country to go to grad school (probably).

C) you want to work in higher education; just to let you know: you don’t get to choose where you live (you’re at the mercy of the job market that year), and typically there are 400-800 applications for a single creative writing assistant professor position; as a newly minted graduate: you will be pitted against assistant professors of creative writing who have five years of doing that job already–so you better be a rock star in order to be competitive.

D) you’re a rock star: grad school is not a place to find your voice as a writer, and treating it like a second round of undergraduate school to figure out what kind of writer you are is the wrong approach; calling yourself a grad student is a misnomer, you have to think of grad school as a form of professional training.

3. Don’t be afraid of including diversity in your writing.

MariNaomi wrote this amazing comic/article about ways for writers to write about the experiences of a wide range of characters that don’t necessarily mirror the writer’s own experience in terms of gender, race, class, sexual orientation, or (dis)abilities. But the general takeaway is: Don’t be afraid to write about characters who don’t look like you. One of the helpful bits of advice that should never be underestimated: get people who are part of the cultures you’re writing about to read your stuff and give you feedback!

Sidenote: I think another conversation needs to start taking place about writers of color whose work is rejected for not being “ethnic” enough because this has been a complaint of several of my friends whose names do not “pass” for white when they submit. The feedback they get on their manuscript is that their work is amazing, but the editors were really looking for culturally related themes.

Not because my friends submitted to a writing contest that was looking for that kind of thing. Not because my friends submitted to a journal that primarily publishes that kind of thing.

Based solely on the writer’s name.

That’s fucked up.

So I’m changing this one to be “Don’t be afraid of including diversity in writing.” This goes for EVERYONE. Readers and writers. Editors and publishers. People should feel free to write the stories they want to tell. (Hopefully those stories are NOT full of casual misogyny disguised as feminism, or cultural appropriation disguised as representation.)

4. Don’t diminish your own worth or value.

Especially when you’re starting out and you don’t have any publications. Or very few publications. Or maybe not a

A tiger doesn't lose sleep over the opinion of sheep.

A tiger doesn’t lose sleep over the opinion of sheep.

publication in a famous magazine. Or maybe you don’t have a book. Or just one book. Or your book is short stories instead of a novel. Or you only have a novel instead of series–everybody has their insecurities.

And regardless of your publication record, you have value.

There are varying opinions of query letters and writer’s bios. For instance, the Editor-In-Charge at NonBinary Review doesn’t really care. But I do. (I’m just an assistant editor, though.)

Did you see what I just did there?

I almost erased it and just rewrote it, but I think it’s an important illustration that it’s a daily struggle to not diminish my value (because I almost didn’t realize I did it!).

I don’t know if it’s because I’m a woman, or if it’s because I was in academia in the United States, or because I grew up in abject poverty, all of which indoctrinates people to not believe in their own value. It goes beyond that, though, because all three obscure one’s value to the point where people do not even realize that they have value outside of very rigid categories or structures.

(This is why feminism still needs to be a thing.)

But anyway: don’t do what I did. Remind yourself that you are a tiger and don’t put “just” in front of your accomplishments.

5. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

If you’re part of a community, it will be less scary to ask for help (and hopefully all ya’ll are taking turns giving each other help with feedback). But even if you’re not, ask a friend, or post it as a status on Facebook.

This shouldn’t be relegated to only writing. If you need help, don’t be afraid to ask. Sometimes we just need to be pointed in the right direction for resources so we can help ourselves. And sometimes we don’t know where to get started.

Don’t be embarrassed if you don’t know. Just ask. And know that asking can make other people brave enough to ask, too.

6. If you have a social life, don’t feel guilty for reserving time for writing.

This is important regardless of whether you’re married or not, have children or not. When my friends and I all still lived in Los Angeles, before anyone had any kids, it was really difficult to say no to hanging out because I loved them all so much. But I was working on my dissertation and fellowship applications and I had to say no. And it felt like I had to say no a lot–but maybe it just felt amplified because of being an introvert to begin with.

Now that I live 600 miles from the closest friends or family, I admit, in my dark moments, I regret ever saying no. But it’s important to carve out time for yourself for reading and writing–because reading is an important aspect of writing, too.

This is, perhaps, one of the good aspects of pursuing a MFA or PhD: you have to train yourself to protect your writing time in order to graduate. If you haven’t had to do this for school, you have to teach yourself, and it can be difficult.

Especially if you have kids. Especially if you LIKE your kids. Because my son is awesome and I love being around him. But if I wait to write until he goes to bed, I will not write. I just won’t. I will be way too tired and all I’ll want to do is watch Real Housewives.

7. It’s okay to say no.

Seriously. And not just about hanging out. Or carving time out for writing. It’s okay to turn down projects. For example, if a friend wants you to submit for an anthology that you don’t feel is the right fit. Or if a university wants you to be a writer-in-residence and you don’t want to move. Or if another friend wants you to co-edit an edited collection and you just don’t want to. Or if you’re not getting paid for your labor.

"If you're good at something, never do it for free." --The Joker

“If you’re good at something, never do it for free.” –The Joker

8. You deserve to get paid.

This is somewhat related to not diminishing your value and knowing it’s okay to say no. There are lots of places that will publish your work. But you know what? There are also a lot of publications that will pay you for your writing. Sure, some of those publications may not pay professional rates, but they. Will. Pay. You.

I know I’ve posted this graphic before, but I seriously love The Joker, Harley Quinn, and Batman. So I’m not ashamed.

This isn’t necessarily relegated to only getting paid for your writing, either, but should be extended to any of your skills that you offer up for free deserves some kind of compensation. It’s been my experience that I have a harder time breaking free of this cultural indoctrination–again, I think it’s combo of being a former academic, poor, and also a woman.

Even if you’re helping out friends. If you’re doing something for free for your friends, at least barter with one another! (Maybe they can read/critique one of your stories!)

And likewise, your friends deserve to get paid. For example, I paid MANDEM for the right to use their painting, Cthulu Lies, as the main header image for my site. It wasn’t A LOT. Like maybe enough for four burritos with guacamole at Chipotle. But it was SOMETHING. Also, I paid a whole dollar for this cool image from Canva I associated with this blog post back at the top. There were free ones I could’ve used, but I loved that image so much and it felt perfect for the series that I wanted to support the artist in some small way.

This list is in no way exhaustive, and I’m always open to amendments. Are there any others that should be added to the list?

On Being Alt-Ac, or, Pulling a Dr. Karen: Going Into Business For Myself As a Creative Writing PhD, Part Two

On Being Alt-Ac, or, Pulling a Dr. Karen: Going Into Business For Myself As a Creative Writing PhD, Part Two

On Being Alt-Ac, or, Pulling a Dr. Karen: Going Into Business For Myself As a Creative Writing PhD, Part Two

Cont’d from Part One.

Looking back on the job hiring process for tenure-track creative writing assistant professor jobs, I think it was silly to interview/campus visit someone like me (recent graduate) at all if there are people who are already assistant professors in the running. I am never going to get that job. I cannot compete against someone who not only has gone through this stupid/necessary hiring process successfully, but they have been vetted as tenurable by another institution, as well as have five years of experience doing the exact job for which we’re all interviewing.

You might say, “Well, maybe you just fucked up the interview?”

The one school who actually called me to let me know I had been rejected said I couldn’t have given a better interview. That I had done everything exactly right. That they wished they could have hired us both. It was just the other person “had more out there.”

See, I mistakenly wanted to stand out in the fiction assistant professor application marketplace by specializing in new media creative writing, so, as a grad student, I focused on new media or collaborative projects both in my writing and teaching. I was also, ideally, hoping for a joint appointment in women’s studies, because feminism and gender studies are central to my work–I also publish critical essays on gender, technology, and monstrosity.

This dual focus on my part–fiction and gender studies–is reflected under my publications on my CV and has inhibited my job opportunities and was, unfortunately, a colossal squid sized mistake. I have a lot of publications–enough to be competitive on the job market. But because of my split focus, I am not fiction-y enough for most fiction jobs, and I’m not critical enough for any of the straight up women’s studies or English literature jobs. (I applied to those critical jobs whenever it seemed appropriate and didn’t get a single “request for additional materials” from those ads.)

Also, to add insult to injury, all those jobs I interviewed for did not hire new media people–at least not according to the information that’s available about them online. The schools hired traditional fiction people, even though they advertised for new media fiction people.

And, if what I was told on the phone was honest (and I actually do believe it was) and the only difference was the other person “had more out there,” I’ll tell you why that was: because, already being an assistant professor, they were further in their career than me. I was 32 at the time I was interviewing, and I was the YOUNGEST person in the room at every place I interviewed–the youngest doctor, I should say, because sometimes there were graduate students around.

And at most places, I was younger by a decade.

So of course someone in their 40s is going to have “more out there.”

Plus, I suspect those people who are already assistant professors hadn’t split their focus the way I had between creative and critical work.

With the current academic job market being what it is today at the time of this writing (2014) early career creative writers have less opportunities to be offered a job when they’re going up against tenure-review year professors. Unfortunately, I think creative writing, as a discipline, is mimicking the sciences in the following disturbing way:

In the sciences, a 2 year postdoc is a universally given. It’s become so standardized that no one going into a research or an academic based field is competitive for a tenure-track science job without having done one, or even two, postdocs.

It appears that securing a visiting professorship (or a postdoc–which is harder because they’re usually only for critical people) is the only way to be competitive against those tenure-review professors.

For someone like me, who has a toddler and a husband I cherish more today than the day I married him 13 years ago, having to live apart from them was an enormous issue for me. I justified the possibility of breaking up our family by saying it’d only be for a year. That, when my husband graduated with his PhD, he’d just follow me. That the year apart would suck, but was survivable.

(It’s important to note that I was being selfish and not considering what he’d do career-wise; plus, we had already lived apart for a year and survived when I was a grad student–I won a predoctoral fellowship 2600 miles away–we just didn’t have a baby back then.)

The job market being what it is, for someone like me, whose husband is going into a research-driven scientific field and hopes to work for NASA–which doesn’t have a “partner hire” option–the probability of us being able to live together started to shrink.

When I didn’t get a job offer, I admit I was relieved. I didn’t have to make a decision between my family and what I thought I wanted my career to be. It was made for me, which felt weirdly like a relief.

It also made me really angry when I found out that not a single recent graduate got any of the jobs.

In August, I decided that I wasn’t going to let academia determine my value as a teacher or writer, so I decided to see if I could pull a Dr. Karen and start my own speculative fiction online writing workshop, The Brainery. I budgeted/scheduled for 9 available slots for students and they all filled. And since I was teaching, I could teach exactly what I wanted to teach, unlike at college campuses where I would have been forced to teach a generalized creative writing course, or intro to fiction (full disclosure: it’s difficult for me to get excited about literary fiction most of the time).

I am going to talk about the process of starting The Brainery in Part Three.

On Being Alt-Ac, or, Pulling a Dr. Karen: Going Into Business For Myself As a Creative Writing PhD, Part One

On Being Alt-Ac, or #PullingADrKaren: Going into Business for Myself As a Creative Writing PhD

On Being Alt-Ac, or #PullingADrKaren: Going into Business for Myself As a Creative Writing PhD

So I have mentioned that I am on the alternate-academic track (alt-ac) or the post-academic track (post-ac), and, if things keep going my way (i.e. my business continues in the upward direction it’s going), I plan on never returning to the broken system of higher education. If you’re not entrenched in academia, or close to someone who is entrenched, you might not be aware of how broken the system actually is, or what being alt-ac means.

This post is going to be a little longer than I intended–it might end up another three part-er. But  I feel the need to explain, in a somewhat truncated fashion, what I perceive to be broken about academia, and why I’m the happiest now than I’ve ever been being alt-ac.

Being alt-ac or post-ac means I managed to graduate with a Ph.D. and had grand designs on being a creative writing professor, but now I am finding a gainful, alternate form of employment outside of academia by starting my own business, The Brainery: Online Speculative Fiction Writing Workshops & Resources. Other alt-ac people in the humanities that I know have become freelance editors and consultants, or started their own businesses.

It will make more sense if I explain how I got to the point of starting The Brainery.

It doesn’t necessarily begin with the archaic, but necessary, job hiring process–but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Since tenure lasts longer than most marriages, it makes sense why the hiring process is so involved, but knowing that doesn’t make the process any more tolerable.

The job application process for creative writing professor jobs is about nine months long (so, an academic year long) and typically follows this pattern–if you’re an academic, feel free to skip this part because you’re all too familiar with it anyway, but for newbies to academia, you might it find it interesting in an abject sorta way to peer at the man behind the curtain:

  1. Applications are mostly submitted in September-October (and will trickle out until December).
    • The application package includes a tailored job letter for each dept, which means researching the school and dept intensely so you can write about how you fit with the dept’s mission in a Shakespearean way–by that I wish to evoke the image of Cleopatra writing a love letter for the Antony of academia, and how the things she chooses to include highlight the mission of the school as well as one’s perfectly matching skillset. Additionally the application includes an updated CV, three letters of recommendation, and a writing sample usually 25 pages long. Most schools have stopped paying to send dossiers out for their graduates, putting the financial burden on job seekers, who typically are making poverty-level wages either as grad students going on the market their dissertation year, or as jobless recent graduates, or as adjuncts as an interim gig while they look for a permanent job.
    • The cost to apply to a job is usually $16 through Interfolio, because each letter of recommendation is a separate cost.
    • Most jobs in English literature get 400 applications on average. Jobs in creative writing typically receive 400-800 applications. 400-800 applications for a single job. And, it is important to note: as a job applicant, you are not only competing against other recent graduates, you are completing against people who have already been hired as Assistant Professors, and have been doing the job for the last 5 years; these current Assistant Professors are going on the market during their tenure review year to either “trade-up,” “move to a better location,” or negotiate a better deal with their current school.
    • Let me say this again: recent graduates are pitted against current professors who have been already doing the job for the last 5 years–who would you hire?
  2. Next are requests for additional materials in November, which includes two sample syllabi (at minimum), evidence of teaching excellence (the interpretation of which varies wildly), grad school transcripts, and another writing sample. From what I understand, the initial applicant pool is narrowed to 30-60 people. Also, any of these documents could be part of the initial application request as seen in #1.
  3. First round interviews take place in December-January.  Anywhere from 15-30 people are interviewed at this stage. If the school is awesome, they’ll use video chat software; if they’re cruel, they’ll insist you interview at the MLA, transportation to which is at your own expense.
    • MLA is the largest conference for literature-based academics, the location of which changes every year, and typically costs about $1000 to attend in you fly, get a hotel room, and pay the registration fee.
  4. Lastly, campus visits in February-March. These are 36 hour long interviews, but sometimes they can be as long as 3 days. The dept will pay to have you travel to their location. Sometimes, you will have to pay out of pocket to travel and they will reimburse you, which if you’re jobless, sucks. If you are a creative writer, you will probably give a presentation on your writing and teaching approach, and then give a reading of your work–so two presentations in total, and sometimes you’ll have to do a teaching demonstration as well. Usually only 3 or 4 people are invited to campus visits. (I have only been on the 36 hour long interview types, I haven’t had to endure 3 whirlwind marathon days of meeting and memorizing names and research disciplines. 36 hours was painful enough.)
  5. Decisions are announced in April, the 1 job applicant out of potentially 800 applicants is offered a contract which is negotiated at that time.
    • If you made it all the way to campus visits and get rejected at this point and the dept is cool, you’ll get a really nice, cathartic phone call. If the dept is cruel, you’ll get a bullshit form email that was sent to you and the other campus visit people, which I think is fucking unacceptable at this stage in the process. (Having experienced both forms of rejection–the phone call is much more humane.)

So, after having gone through an expensive year of the job application process, the costs of which included:

  • $333 on Interfolio fees
  • $180 for the first hair cut I’d had in 2 years + hair color to cover greys (despite only being 32 at the time!), this included a 20% tip
  • $209 on two new suits (blazer & pants) + two new blouses from a Banana Republic outlet store, which were already on sale coupled my with a 40% off coupon
  • $70 on 2 pairs of interview shoes, both of which I used at MLA so I couldn’t return one pair like I had planned
  • $100 on a pair of interview appropriate snow boots that I could wear with my suit without looking like an idiot on campus visits since all campuses I visited had experienced a snowpocalypse–these had already been discounted $200, it is really hard to find affordable dressy snow boots for women
  • $200 to attend MLA: I was super lucky because MLA was in a city where I had a close friend who let me stay there for free, and I was able to take a train from my in-law’s house, so I just had to buy my own food, and paid the unemployed registration fee

At this time, I can’t really afford to keep going on the job market–although, I suppose, the costs would be somewhat less seeing as how I already have the clothes and shoes, but I’d still need to pay Interfolio fees and potentially a haircut + transportation costs.

Maybe it’s just because I’ve been watching a lot of Real Housewives lately, but $1092 for all of those things doesn’t sound like a lot when a Housewife on Bravo spends $20,000 on a purse. But when your family makes less than the cost of that single purse, it feels like a lot. And it’s an especially crazy mindfuck to go through an academic year dedicating my life to job applications to ultimately come away with nothing.

I learned a lot about job application materials for creative writing, but the most important thing I learned was that it was a giant squid sized waste of my time because:

Every school hired someone who was already an assistant professor elsewhere.

Read Part Two for the rest of this post.

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