Learning to Write

This past week I got good news: I was accepted into the fiction major at Northwestern University! I know I’ve claimed to be studying creative writing here for the past two years, but the truth of it is that the studying so far hasn’t been official. To major in creative writing at Northwestern University, you must first be accepted to the university, and then, in the spring of your sophomore year, you must be accepted to the “sequence” of classes that are requirements for the major. The degree you earn is a bachelor of arts.

I want to take a minute to talk about other types of writing educations.

Other undergraduate programs offer BFAs (bachelor of fine arts) instead of BAs in writing. A BFA degree allows you to focus your coursework on the art you are studying. For example, at the Pratt Institute’s writing program, students spend all four years primarily in writing studios with a smattering of other courses as electives. At Northwestern, even as a writing major, 12 of my 48 classes (or one full years’ worth of classes) will be distribution requirements, from fine arts requirements to math, sciences, and ethics requirements. I chose to go to a BA school instead of a BFA school mostly because at the time I was applying for colleges, I wasn’t sure I wanted to dedicate my education to writing. But if you are one of those people who know exactly what they want to study and you don’t want to waste your time in other subject areas, the BFA is probably for you.

Another option for studying creative writing is the MFA (masters of fine arts). This is for people who have already graduated from college. Iowa has the most famous MFA program, but they are becoming more and more popular. A new trend is low-residency MFAs, such as what the Northwest Institute for Literary Arts does, where you do most of the classes online and then convene for intensive classes once or twice a year.

In fact, online education for writing is very popular. Everywhere I go, I see advertisements for online writing classes, webinars, and even writing universities. I don’t know how legitimate these programs are or how effective it is to learn across the internet instead of across a table, but the beauty of learning writing is that it is really about how much you put into it. If you are willing to take feedback, and if you can find good writers to give that feedback, you should be able to learn about writing simply by writing and having it read.

The truth is that a lot of writers have never formally studied writing. So much of writing is not taught in the classroom; it is taught in experience, in reading, in writing things and having people tell you it doesn’t make sense. In class, the techniques we go over aren’t really helpful until I have a story already written and I’m trying to figure it out how to fix it. The writing you can do on your own time, and so many people do. Meeting writers at Whidbey Island last summer introduced me to people who do not have classes and teachers at their fingertips: they have to seek out their educations, be it in books, in webinars, in MFA programs, or simply in conversation with other writers.

It meant a lot to me to get into the creative writing program. It’s why I came to Northwestern, and the thought of not getting in was simply demoralizing. But the truth is, I would be a writer whether or not I was accepted, and I would learn to write no matter what. After all, I’ve gotten this far without being a fiction major.

How an Author Makes Money

The MFA Program, which ends this weekend, has brought in several interesting speakers on the subjects of writing and publishing. One presentation that I found particularly interesting was agent Sharlene Martin‘s. In the Q&A section, she answered the question: how exactly does an author make money?

This sounds like a basic enough question. After all, who hasn’t heard of advances and royalties? But I didn’t actually know how it all worked, so her answer was eye-opening. Here’s the gist of what she said.

An advance is money the publisher gives an author ahead of publication. However, the author actually has to pay back the advance through book sales. The first money from royalties goes to the publisher, not the author, until the advance is earned out. The author still has the advance money in her bank account, but if all goes well, the publisher actually earns back that money at the author’s expense.

More interestingly, on a hardcover edition, the royalties percentage changes according to the amount of books sold. Using the numbers Sharlene gave as an example, for the first 5,000, the author earns 10% royalties off the list price of every book sold. From 5,000 to 10,000 books, the author earns 12.5%. Finally, after 10,000 book sold, the author earns 15% royalties. So the more books are sold, the more the publisher has to pay the author. While the publisher obviously isn’t going to hinder the books from selling, it is actually betting that fewer than 5,000 books will sell so that it earns more money off those book sales. If the cap on the 10% royalties is 1,000 more books than the number needed to earn out the advance, that means that just by selling 5,000 books the publisher earns back the money paid to the author and makes a profit. There’s no real need for the publisher to sell any more books. So it makes sense that the publisher isn’t going to invest much money in marketing. It’s the author who benefits most from selling more than 5,000 copies so it is the author’s job to market and sell those books!

Don’t forget about your opportunity to win $25 of books on Amazon through my contest!


Welcome to my brand-new blog! I am really excited to get onto the blogosphere. So here’s a little bit about me:

I love to write. I started considering myself a writer back in first grade when I always wrote the longest stories during “journal time.” In seventh grade I finished my first “novel” (I reread it a few days ago to procrastinate studying for exams…it’s bad. But I still love it.) Since then, I just haven’t gotten rid of the writing bug! I went to the Iowa Young Writer’s Studio in the Summer of 2007 and studied under Justin Kramon. He has a book coming out this summer that I’m REALLY excited to read, and you all should be too! Now I’m studying at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL; next year I get to apply to the English Major in Writing. It’s a really selective program, so here’s hoping I get in!

This summer I’m interning at Andrea Hurst and Associates and the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. Andrea Hurst and Associates is the parent company of Andrea Hurst Literary Management, but it also offers services to authors like book development and classes. The Northwest Institute of Literary Arts (NILA) is a writers’ association on Whidbey Island (just outside of Seattle) that offers writing groups and classes, a low-residency MFA program, and an annual conference. I’m really looking forward to getting experience in the publishing industry through these two organizations! I think it’s going to be a great summer!

Check back here for general insights I learn throughout the summer. I’ll be sure to talk about my search process for getting an internship in the first place, about the Saturday Chat House Conference coming up next week, and the MFA program in August.

Thanks for reading!

Last thing I read: This post on literary agents.