A few months ago on Facebook there was talk about the value of an MFA. In particular, writer Holly West put up a post Facebook about asking what people thought and she got a bunch of passionate answers for and against it. (More opinions were in the latter category if I remember correctly.) Elaine Ash, aka Anonymous-9, has a 6 part blog series along with Lisa Ciarfella asking authors about the value of MFAs. You can read the original post which has links to the other interviews here. https://ashedit.wordpress.com/2015/06/26/to-mfa-or-not-to-mfa-that-is-the-question/
If I lived in a perfect world with infinite time and resources, I would definitely pursue an MFA. I’d also try to get a PhD in history too and maybe extend my economics background a little further. But most likely that’s never going to happen. As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”
About the same time as the MFA talk was going around, HarperCollins was hyping their release of Harper Lee’s GO SET A WATCHMAN. Author Patty Smiley mentioned that Harper Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, had worked with Lee for over a two and half years to perfect the manuscript that became TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. That was a valuable amount of time that the editor spent to hone and craft a novel that could have been a failure. The editor could have sent it straight out to publication with a few minor edits here and there and perhaps published a few more books with the same carelessness like I hear is happening today. Fortunately for the entire literate world (and movie aficionados too) that did not happen and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD has never gone out of print.
While working with an author for a couple years on a single project was a risky endeavor, the reward in this case is mind boggling spectacular. The time and effort put in by Tay Hohoff no doubt helped build additional wings on publishing houses. There are other cases of editors helping well known authors like Faulkner, Hemmingway and Fitzgerald make their manuscripts into classics. From what I understand that was a 20th century model of publishing and that type of care is rare today.
So why doesn’t this type of care happen any more? I hear it is the economics of the business. Fewer people are reading, so sales are down and therefore fewer editors are hired and they edit more work and wear more hats than any person should handle. While there are probably fewer readers as numerous forms of media vie for readers’ free time, a counterargument could be made that the quality of books are down (along with an absence of multi-generational classics), therefore there are fewer readers.
Which begs the question of whether it is possible for an editor to purchase a manuscript and then spend years shaping it into a literary classic instead of rejecting it outright or publishing it with fixable flaws. From what I understand it doesn’t happen much but there are exceptions. Kim Fay’s Edgar nominated MAP OF LOST MEMORIES took an additional year to edit with the guidance of her editor at Ballantine. It should be noted that I’m wading into the argument with only a couple of novellas from small publishers and some short stories at this point in my career. Perhaps my point of view may be way off, but from what I can tell, it isn’t. And God bless the exceptions to my argument. (Yay Kim!)
So in today’s publishing environment, can there be another Mockingbird phenomenon without a caring, patient editor? I say yes, but the writer would probably need help from an outside source. It is well known that authors should have their manuscripts in tip-top shape before they send it out to publishers. There are many freelance editors who can help with story structure and editing. Some are former editors in the publishing world and know how that world works. Some are amazing at grammar or amazing at story, and sometimes they are awesome at both. Some have no talent at all and will swindle money for subpar work. Often it’s hard to tell the quality of editing from a website. (If you are interested, I can recommend a few high caliber freelance editors.) If things go right, it’s win-win for the author and the freelance editor. Author gets an improved manuscript, and the editor gets cash. The problem is that that is where the transaction ends. No more follow up unless money is involved. (That being said, friendships can develop, emotional support, etc.) The problem is that freelance editors don’t have much skin in the game. At best if a book takes off they might get a referral from the author and possibly more clients, but they won’t make any extra money directly from that book’s sale. It’s fair to say they won’t work for two and half years to make a modern day classic unless the author is forking over cash. And I don’t blame them. Editors need to eat too.
So if editors at publishing houses aren’t able to spend time making classic quality literature, and freelance editors are limited in their involvement by economics, who can help? Agents. Or from what I understand, that’s how it used to be. I hear about agents who work super hard with a client to beat an ugly manuscript into an object of beauty and then hustle out to make a great deal, but I understand that this is sometimes an exception. (I should note here that I do not have an agent. For a short time I was hip pocketed by a film agent and even had a meeting set up at Reveille Productions that fell through at the last minute.) Agents get a percentage of their clients’ money (15%) on book sales and royalties. They work hard for the best deals. I love the idea of this because I’m likely to give things away when signing a contract without proper guidance (and yes, I’m looking for an agent). Agents often have several clients, but preference goes to the top earners (which makes sense) and the rest don’t get as much attention. An author once told me that writers spend half their career trying to get an agent and then the other half trying to get rid of them. In a way having an agent is like a marriage, but a polygamous one. The writers are sister-wives to the agent and within that union there are the first sisters and the others. Again, this is what I hear from other writers I know.
If agents and editors don’t help, who can help make a potential literary classic to an actual classic? Is there somebody who could be a taskmaster with the patience and insight to help guide a writer to that literary stratosphere?
This could be where an MFA might help a writer. For tens of thousands of dollars, a writer can, if the program is good with low residency, receive personal guidance from esteemed faculty. The student writers can also find mentors and colleagues in MFA programs who can help boost their writing potential. In the end, most graduates will have an improved skill set along with a manuscript or partial manuscript that has been worked over into something impressive. And the students get an advanced degree that can lead to teaching careers in writing. I’d like an MFA, but they are very, very expensive. If a detailed cost-benefits analysis were done on all graduates with MFA, I wonder how many would net a positive gain after 10 years. A few, but not many, I believe.
So if the MFA is not for everybody, what’s left? Of course there is the genius author with amazing talent who can write a classic without any critical feedback, but that is rare. Another alternative is to consider how managers in Hollywood help run the careers of actors and writers. They keep their client list low and help guide clients on a more personal level than agents. Unlike agents, managers are not regulated, which can be a problem. Look at Elvis Presley’s manager Colonel Tom Parker. But what if there were “Manuscript Managers.” A manager who would take the risk of working with an author on one manuscript for 15% of the sale and royalties. They are only committed to that one work. Volume isn’t as important as quality. Together with the writer they transform a manuscript like GO SET THE WATCHMAN into the classic TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. The manager would have to be selective on which work they chose. It might help if the manager had a pension or trust fund to begin with, but if they can help harness raw talent, they might help co-develop a literary classic that would pay back enormous dividends. Big risk, big return. It sounds like a crazy idea, but it takes one best seller to make it worthwhile.
Any thoughts on this? Am I way off track or does this make sense? Can you expand on anything in here?
Thanks for your time.
Travis Richardson has been a finalist for the Macavity short story award in 2014 and 2015 as well as the Anthony short story award in 2014. His novella LOST IN CLOVER was listed in Spinetingler Magazine’s Best Crime Fiction of 2012. He has published stories in crime fiction publications such as Thuglit, Shotgun Honey, Flash Fiction Offensive, and All Due Respect. He edits the Sisters-In-Crime Los Angeles newsletter Ransom Notes, reviews Anton Chekhov short stories at http://www.chekhovshorts.com, and sometimes shoots a short movie. His latest novella, KEEPING THE RECORD, concerns a disgraced baseball player who will do anything to keep his tainted home run record. “Quack and Dwight” is his latest short story and can be found in the Anthology JEWISH NOIR. www.tsrichardson.com