If you looked at my bio, you'll see that I have an MFA in fiction. I know that opinions on MFAs run the gambit, from the belief that programs churn out cookie cutter writing to the claim that graduates of these programs have some sort of leg up in the industry. I don't think either of these perspectives is absolutely true. To me the value in getting an MFA was being forced to produce regularly, read constantly, and develop a thick hide for criticism.
I should also point out that my MFA was virtually free. I love a good bargain.
Unfortunately, what the program didn't teach me was anything about the business of publishing. When I walked out of the University of Pittsburgh with my shiny new MFA, I had in hand a book that had served as my Master's thesis. I spent the next two years working on it until I was convinced that this literary masterpiece was ready for prime time. I started querying agents and almost immediately started collecting rejections. Finally, I snagged the interest of an agent who asked me to revise the book. I was excited and intimidated, so rather than asking questions, I delved into the revision I thought he wanted and ended up with a very long book that the agent promptly declared was unmarketable. In a terse email he informed me he was disappointed in my inability to follow directions and I spent weeks (months?) convinced that I would never be published.
I stopped querying and eventually decided I needed to start writing again. When I wasn't being emotional about how mean the Big Bad Agent had been, I was able to see that my book had problems, not the least of which was a convoluted plot that changed with every revision. I was dreadful at plotting and so I decided to start reading mysteries, a genre I knew depended on crisp, beautiful, plots. It was only natural — after reading so many of them — that my next project would be a mystery. I needed to practice these skills. I needed to become a better writer.
So Rosie Winter was born. But that's not the only thing that happened. As I began work on The War Against Miss Winter, I joined two critique groups -- one for playwrights and one for fiction writers. Once again I was called upon to produce regularly, read constantly, and absorb the valuable feedback of other writers. I can't say enough how crucial these groups have been to my development as a writer, or how grateful I am that I know the very talented people who populate them. Reading their writing inspired me, hearing their critiques helped me look more carefully at my work, and attending their meetings gave me a community of like-minded souls to vent and rejoice with.
Plus there were refreshments. It's not a critique group unless someone brings cookies.
As for getting an agent and selling the book: like most other writers, I researched which agent* was looking for what and sent out queries. I had no connections, no ins, nothing but a stronger story to sell this time around (and one that I felt like I knew how to sell). Once again, I received plenty of rejections. I also got a large number of requests to see more. One agent in particular was excited enough to pick up the phone and call me about the three chapters I had sent him. Unlike my prior experience, he loved the book and his enthusiasm was infectious. After reading the whole enchilada, he made suggestions for revisions. This time I asked questions and not only received clear answers, but also frequent phone calls checking on my progress. I revised the book into something that we were both looking for. He signed me, helped me to polish it further, and sold it -- and an unwritten sequel -- three months later.
Yeah, I didn't believe it could happen either. Just goes to show you...
*I also was careful to check out which agents were legitimate by searching the Association for Author Representatives site. Remember the sage words of Yog: Money flows toward the writer.