Gabriela Pereira is the founder of DIYMFA.com, the do-it-yourself alternative to a master’s degree in writing. She teaches at conferences and online, and she’s helped hundreds of writers get the MFA experience without having to go to an expensive school.
In this fantastic interview, we talk about the value of an MFA degree, but we also talk about how to develop the skills that you get from an MFA program without spending hundreds of thousands of dollars. Finally, we talk about how to iterate and optimize your writing process.
Gabriela likes to say that she didn’t found DIYMFA.com, it found her. When she got her MFA degree, she expected to be granted some sort of special status, or at least feel like a “real writer.” That didn’t happen.
Instead, she began thinking about all her writer friends who didn’t have the advantages she did. When Gabriela pursued her MFA in writing, she had the support of her husband, a practicing lawyer. She was able to go back to school for two years and devote herself to learning the craft of writing without having to worry about working a 9 to 5 job while getting her degree.
The skills Gabriela learned in order to earn her MFA were incredibly important. But she realized that you don’t need a formal degree to learn those skills.
Writing isn’t rocket science or brain surgery. That realization was the start of her journey. She wanted to repackage the concepts she learned in school so she could make them available to people who can’t afford the time and tuition fees it would take to get a formal degree.
When Gabriela had this flash of inspiration, the first thing she did was blog about it. At the time, her blog had 12 followers. She expected it to go nowhere. Instead, she woke up to 25 comments on the blog post and several emails in her inbox. That’s when she realized the idea had legs.
That germ of an idea started the journey that became DIYMFA.com.
Is an MFA Degree Worth It?
An MFA degree in writing costs about $100,000 when you factor in all the levels of schooling you need. Most people who get an MFA degree will not recoup their investment.
The difference between and MFA degree and other advanced degrees such as a law degree, a medical degree, or even a PhD is that other advanced degrees have a professional career path that leads to recouping your investment.
In contrast, an MFA in writing simply does not have any set professional path.
If you want to have a career as a writer, there are no rules you have to follow in order to be successful, especially in the age of indie publishing.
The truth is, most creative vocations don’t have set rules you absolutely have to follow to be successful. If you’re talented and persistent, you can find a way to make money with whatever art you pursue. You certainly don’t need a formal degree to pursue your artistic endeavors.
What You Learn in the DIYMFA Program
When Gabriela got serious about the idea of creating an online DIY MFA program, she studied the traditional MFA programs and what they offered.
Quickly, she realized there are three major components:
- You write a lot. You learn the craft of writing by practicing writing. This shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone. You learn writing through writing.
- You read a lot. Most major MFA programs have a specific curriculum of books that they want their students to read.
- There’s a community aspect. In traditional schools, they invite writers to read their work for students to listen to. They also invite writers to lecture about certain aspects of craft. Sometimes they have panels of experts speak on the business of publishing.
Gabriela replicated those three areas of a traditional MFA program on the DIYMFA website.
There is a flagship course with modules in the areas of:
She also has columnists that blog about those specific areas as well.
How Reading Can Help You Improve Your Writing
If you went to a traditional MFA program, the school would choose your reading list and assign it to you. Gabriela sees little value in that. She believes reading is important, but it should be project specific. You should read books that help you write your current project.
There are four categories of books that can help authors improve the project they’re writing now.
1. Read Competitive Books
Competitive books are known as “comps” in the publishing industry. These are the books that you might think of as your competitors in the marketplace. These are the books most similar to yours. Basically, these are the books that you might see in an Amazon “also bought” section.
These books are important because you want to know how other people are tackling your subject or genre.
You want to read competitive books so that you know you aren’t rehashing ground that has already been well tread.
2. Read Contextual Books
Contextual books put your project in context. For instance, Gabriela was writing a middle-grade fantasy story based on Homer’s Odyssey. She read the Odyssey and a bunch of spinoff books that were based on the original epic. She also read a bunch of road trip novels like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.
Any research you have to do in order to write your book with verisimilitude goes in this category.
3. Read Contemporary Books
A contemporary book is anything that’s been published in the last three years. If you go back too much further than three years, given the current state of publishing, that book is not going to give you an accurate assessment of what’s new or hot in the genre.
Again, you’re looking for contemporary books in the category of books that you’re trying to write. These books will give you an idea of what’s trending in your category, and what readers like. They might also give you an idea of what you can do differently than other authors.
4. Read Classic Books
Again, you’re looking for classic books in categories and genres related to the project that you’re currently working on.
Classics can be as old as Homer and Virgil and as new as The Outsiders. That’s still a relatively new book, but it set the tone and a pattern for all the books that came after it in the YA genre.
How to Read Books to Make Your Writing Better
“If a book hasn’t grabbed me by the time I’ve read 10% of it, I put it away.”
So you have a list of books you want to read to make your current project better. Now what do you do with that list? Gabriela has some suggestions.
1. Set a reading limit
You don’t have to read every book to the end, contrary to what your English teacher told you.
Gabriela sets a 10% limit for the books she reads. If a book doesn’t grab her in the first 10%, she puts it down. She uses 10% because she reads most of her books on her Kindle, which has a percentage bar.
You can pick a number of chapters or pages to make up your mind. But don’t torture yourself with a book that’s not working for you. If you don’t like the book, chances are, it won’t help your creative voice.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t still teach you to write better!
When you do decide not to finish a book, think about why you made the choice.
- Why did you put the book down?
- What made you want to stop reading?
You don’t want to replicate the type of book that makes you want to put it down, because you don’t want your readers to put down your book.
No matter what book you read, you aren’t going to be able to deeply analyze the book paragraph by paragraph. Honestly, even if you took the time to do that, it wouldn’t be worth the effort. Instead, Gabriela does what she calls a deep dive on specific sections of books.
2. Do a Deep Dive on a Section that Moves You
First, read for enjoyment. Don’t read by analyzing every paragraph. It’s not worth your time.
When you get to a section that really moves you, make note of it. (Gabriela suggests focusing on no more than two pages, because this type of deep dive demands intense concentration.)
You want to ask yourself three questions:
1. What is the author doing?
What is the author doing? What is going on in the story? Pay attention to the word picture being painted for the reader.
2. Why is the author doing this?
Why is the author doing this specific thing? What are they trying to achieve with their words? How are they trying to affect the reader?
3. How is the author achieving the effect they want?
How is the author achieving the effect they want to achieve in this passage? Look at the author’s word choice and see how it affects you as a reader. Why did the author choose the words they did? Could you achieve the same effect with different words?
It’s when you analyze fiction at this level that you begin to understand why the author did what they did, and you can apply their techniques to your fiction to make it better.
3. Type the Words of the Masters
If you want to become a better writer, find a passage in a book you like. Open up a word processing program and type that passage in as if you were writing. Use the exact same words as the writer who wrote them did. If you follow this practice with enough books, it will make you a better writer by helping you internalize pacing, plot, word choice, and more.
“Your readers won’t like everything you write”
– Gabriela Pereira
Books Writers Should Read on the Craft of Writing
Save the Cat by Blake Snyder – a great book on three-act structure with a beat sheet that goes in depth on story structure and how to make it work.
Now Write!: Fiction Writing Exercises from Today’s Best Writers and Teachers, edited by Sherry Ellis – a book with a series of exercises from different teachers on the areas of craft that you need to be successful.
3 AM Epiphany by Brian Kiteley – a book with a series of writing exercises created by the author.
The Art of the Short Story, edited by Dana Gioia and R. S. Gwynn – a book with 52 short stories and interviews or essays by their authors.
Iterate and Optimize Your Writing Process
Gabriela has found that constant improvement is the only way to really make a difference in your craft and career as a writer.
She learned many of the principles of iteration she uses in her own writing from The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries. The major insight Gabriela got from The Lean Startup is that you have to periodically review your process, streamline it, and make it better. You have to evaluate what works for you in writing and what doesn’t.
It’s also important to incrementally improve and realize that you’re never going to be perfect.
This evaluation and iteration process is different from practice.
Practice is about being in the moment and repeating specific techniques to get them tied into your subconscious and muscle memory.
Evaluation and iteration is about looking at your process when you’re not doing it and evaluating the results you get from that process. When you evaluate and iterate, you evaluate your results and see if you can tweak your actions to get better results.
You can’t practice the art of writing and observe and critique yourself at the same time. You have to write while you’re writing, then evaluate and iterate later.
It’s important not to spend too much time in analysis land. If you want to be a writer, at some point, you have to write enough original words that you can put up a short story or novel for sale, or a nonfiction book if that’s your thing.
Paralysis by analysis is a real thing. You should set up a system for yourself so that you can periodically check your results and tune up your writing process.
Links and Resources Mentioned in This Episode
https://diymfa.com/join — input your email address and get the free DIYMFA starter kit by email. You’ll also be invited to join their private Facebook group.
https://diymfa.com/ – your one-stop shop for all things DIYMFA
DIY MFA: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, Build Your Community – the book Gabriela wrote based on the principles she learned through getting her MFA
The DIYMFA Podcast – a free podcast where you can listen to interviews with writers and other publishing experts.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac – the classic road trip book.
The Outsiders – this book set the pattern for the YA genre.
The Story Of An Hour by Kate Chopin – a short story you can use to practice going deep when learning the craft of storytelling.
How to write better fiction – a detailed blog post on some of our favorite resources, books, and courses for fiction writers.
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