It’s that time of year. My fall semester officially ended last night and MFA applications are due for potential incoming students in just a few weeks… I only have one semester left of school—a time period which will be heavily focused on writing my thesis. And then it’s off into the real world…This is both exciting and scary. I thought I would try and touch base with a recent MFA graduate to both quell my nerves and see what life is like or can be like after the degree is completed. I was lucky enough to have an email correspondence with successful YA author Siobhan Vivian.
Siobhan also attended The New School’s MFA program. She recently completed her third novel—Not That Kind Of Girl—which will be available Fall 2010. She also has two other novels under her belt, her debut novel A Little Friendly Advice and the follow-up—Same Difference. Kirkus Reviews called ALFA “engagingly well written” and Same Difference has already received a star review.
Here’s what Siobhan had to say about getting an MFA, life after an MFA, and writing in general.
Siobhan, what inspired you to pursue an MFA?
Well, a big factor was the fabulous experience I had in my undergraduate writing program. Back then, my concentration was Writing for Film and Television, and I graduated with a firm grasp on three-act structure, visual storytelling, etc. But when I decided to make the leap from television to novels, I felt like there was a lot I needed to learn about prose.
What was your experience like at The New School?
I got exactly what I had hoped I would out of grad school—discipline, a writing group, and publishing contacts. I’m pretty sure there’s no way I could have ever published something without achieving those things. Or at least, it would have been a much longer, much more difficult road.
So, you do feel like your degree prepared you for the business side of writing?
Absolutely. I’m remembering one exercise in particular, where my professor asked us to write a sample query letter and 10-page sample. She brought in an actual editor to read them and discuss why or why not she decided to pass or to read more. It was an illuminating look into the business side of things.
For those people who don’t want to pursue an MFA or are unable to, what advice would you give them?
Set firm deadlines for yourself and do not cheat or blow them off. Pretend like you’ll fail a class if you do not finish an “assignment”. MFAs give you accountability for producing pages, and so you’ll need to replicate that on your own.
What was your road to publication like? Let’s go back: you’ve just graduated from The New School, what happened next?
After graduation, I had about sixty pages of my thesis. I worked like a dog for the next several weeks and started looking for agents when I had close to ninety pages and a ten-page outline for the rest. At the time, I was working as an editor, so I used a lot of the contact I’d amassed through my day job. When I settled on an agent, we sent my book out to a small group of editors. Three were interested, and the book went to auction. So all said and done, it took me about 3 months post graduation to sell my first novel.
Could you talk a little more about the process you went through to get that agent? Also, as writers, we are always reading advice that we should never submit a fiction manuscript before it’s been completed. You did submit yours before it was finished. Could you tell us more about that decision?
Part of the reason why I submitted an unfinished manuscript to agents was because I already had serious interest from an editor. Also, I was working at the time at a book packager, and book packagers always sell on a partial. It was less about an incomplete novel, and more about me knowing (because of my publishing experience) that I had a strong partial that I felt an agent could sell.
I work with a lot of pre-teens and teens and they deeply connect with your characters and your writing. How are you able to write from that perspective so well? Did you always know you wanted to write for a YA audience?
I was always sure that I wanted to do something with teen media. I just felt that was the place my voice naturally went. When I was working on the television side, it was always with kids networks—Fox Kids, The Disney Channel. But after a few years out in Los Angeles, I realized that the stories in my head were just a bit older and darker for a teen television audience. So that’s why I decided to do a career change and head back to school for my MFA.
How do your novels begin? Do they begin with a character, an idea, an image? How do you know when a specific idea is THE ONE worth pursuing?
It really depends. For my first book, A Little Friendly Advice, the idea came to me after staring at one particular Diane Arbus photograph. With Same Difference, the idea was something I’d experienced when in high school. And with my forthcoming book, Not That Kind Of Girl, I got the idea after talking with a teen girl during a high school visit.
As for the idea being worth pursuing, I have to have some clear sense of the beginning and the end. If I can conceptualize that much, then I know I can turn it into a book.
I’ve heard many authors say that it’s much more difficult to write the second book than it was the first. You are on your third novel. Is it getting easier? Or is it getting harder?
For me, it gets harder every time! I put a lot of pressure on myself to improve with each book. And of course, you’ve got pressure from your publisher to have a hit. Honestly, my process gets more and more crippling as I go along.
In terms of your process, do you outline your novels ahead of time? Or do you just dive in and see what happens?
I am definitely an outliner. I leave very little (plot-wise) up to chance. But lately, I’ve been trying to give myself more freedom, and not do too much scene-by-scene outlining. But mostly, not having everything worked out makes me very nervous and unsure.
What authors are you inspired by?
I am head-over-heels in love with Melissa Bank.
You’re teaching now. How do you balance teaching and writing?
Teaching is a nice way for me to break up my writing week. I also really miss working as an editor, so being involved in a weekly workshop with my students is a lot of fun and very inspiring.
Do you have any writing rituals?
Coffee. Music. MacFreedom.
What has been the most unexpected thing that has happened to you during your journey through publication?
Two girls from Philadelphia put a video of themselves up on YouTube, acting out scenes from Same Difference. They actually went and filmed inside the Duchamp room at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, guerilla style. That was pretty amazing.
And tell us, what’s next for you?
My next book is Not That Kind of Girl, and it will be out sometime in the fall of 2010. I’m under contract for another novel after that one, but I haven’t started it yet. Still waiting for inspiration to strike!
If you had one piece of writing advice to give aspiring writers, what would it be?
Finish something. It will put you leaps and bounds ahead of other aspiring writers, who get trapped in the fun and possibility of starting something new. Everyone can write a beautiful sixty pages, but the ability to tell a complete story is where the real writers emerge from the pack of amateurs.
Siobhan Vivian received her MFA from The New School and her BFA from The University of the Arts. Her latest novel, Same Difference, received a star from Kirkus Reviews. She currently teaches creative writing at The University of Pittsburgh. For more info, you can visit Siobhan’s website here.