by Mark Neely, Contributing Writer
At this year’s AWP conference, I was on a panel called From Thesis to Book: The Stretch Run, along with the authors of a novel (Celeste Ng), a poetry collection (Marcus Wicker), a book of essays (Elena Passarello), and a memoir (Bonnie Rough).
The room was packed, mostly with current or recently graduated MFA and PhD students eager for advice, and since there was so much interest in our topic, I thought I’d write a few words about the conclusions we came to during our conversation. Each of us had a different story—there is no template you can follow—but here are a few of the ideas we tossed around:
There is often a vast distance between the thesis and the book.
We agreed it would be productive for creative writing students and faculty to view the thesis as the start—the complex seed of a flower that might take years to bloom—rather than asking a thesis to be “publishable” or even “book-length,” as many programs do.
Bonnie and Elena emerged from their MFA program with something like a third of the books they would eventually come to write. Marcus and Celeste read from their original theses to illustrate the kind of extensive revision they both did before their books were published.
As they read these excerpts (which Marcus called “apprentice work”), I remember thinking that in both cases, the writing was pretty damn good. Very good in fact. Which brings me to my next point:
Very good is not good enough*
Anyone who has ever worked for a literary magazine or book publisher knows the desks (and inboxes) of editors and agents are piled high with very good writing, soon to be sent back to the author with a brief email or note.
But it takes a long time and a lot of hard work to produce very good writing—two or three years to write a typical MFA thesis, for example—and there’s a natural inclination to hold on tight to writing that’s taken so much time and effort. But at some point you have to do the difficult work of throwing out your very good writing in favor of your best.
In my case, the revision process turned out to be a lot more laborious than revising a few last lines and excising a few weak poems. My book, Beasts of the Hill, was published a full ten years after I defended my MFA thesis at the University of Alabama.** It was somewhat horrifying to look back and realize that of the fifty-plus poems in Beasts of the Hill, a grand total of three had originally appeared in the thesis.
In the end, the most useful piece of advice I can give (one I wish I had heeded back when I was sending my just-completed thesis out to publishers) is this:
Don’t send your work out too early.
There are dangers to sending a manuscript out before it is finished. First, someone might decide to publish it, and for the rest of your life you’ll be the author of a book you aren’t proud of.***
There is also the danger of alienating editors, readers, and contest judges. People who have read a weak or unfinished version of your manuscript may be biased the next time your (new and improved) work comes across their desk. The memory of the early version will likely poison their subsequent readings.
So . . .
Let’s all stop thinking of a thesis as “publishable” and instead consider it the start—hopefully the start of an amazing book.****
* If you are wary of using a term like “good” to describe literature, feel free to replace it with “important,” “achieving the author’s vision,” etc.
*** Every day I send telepathic messages of thanks to those wise and kindly editors who rejected early versions of my book.
**** Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. Plenty of people publish books while they’re still in grad school (or just after), perhaps in part because they learn these lessons more quickly than the rest of us.
Mark Neely is the author of Beasts of the Hill (Oberlin College Press, 2012), winner of the FIELD Poetry Prize, and Four of a Kind (Concrete Wolf, 2010), winner of the Concrete Wolf chapbook prize. His poems have appeared in Gulf Coast, Indiana Review, Barrow Street, Third Coast, Cimarron Review, Boulevard and other journals. He is an Associate Professor of English at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. You can read some of his writing at markneely.com