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DIY MFA: Before We Even Get Started (Part One)

Enough people have asked me for this information, and since I am in the somewhat unique position from having published both a non-fiction book and a fiction book based on the strength of my blog (and…er…I guess my writing too), I thought I would set it all out here in a multi-part series for two reasons. (1) It’s good information if you have any aspirations of publishing a book and (2) I can’t write this out over and over again for each person. So now I can just send a link and be done with it.

Shall we begin with your Do-it-Yourself MFA?

I should start out by saying that this has been my experience.  My background: I have an MFA in fiction. I published a non-fiction book with Seal Press called Navigating the Land of If in May 2009, and I have a work of fiction being published by BelleBooks for release in December 2010. Other people may have different experiences with publishing that they can add in the comment section below. This information comes from what I’ve gleaned from my MFA program, my agent, other writers, and my own experience.

I should also tell you that unless you are selling movie rights or have royalties coming in from dozens of books at once, it is very hard to support yourself entirely on book publishing. The majority of my income comes from articles and speaking engagements. Very little of it comes from book publishing, but book publishing is unique in that it has a cumulative effect. I do the work now, but I’m paid now and well into the future. Once you have several successful books collecting royalties, it is possible to earn a decent supplemental salary writing books. But most people will need to continue teaching or freelance writing. Sorry if you were going into this to get riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiich. If that’s your reason for wanting to publish a book, you should probably stop reading now.

This is how this DIY MFA program will work: over several posts (outlined below), I will walk you through what you need to do to publish either a work of non-fiction or fiction including what to expect with each leg of the process from idea to holding your book.  Others will chime in with their experience in the comment section below and others will ask questions that I’ll answer in the comment section below.

These posts will never close, so even if you are reading this years into the future (hello 2012! Are we still living above ground?), you can leave a legitimate question below and I will answer it.  Though since this information is spread out over many posts, please place your question on the appropriate post and if that post hasn’t gone up yet, trust that I will get to that topic in the future (and if I don’t, ask your question then).

Before our first class, you should take a look at this list of terms that I’ll be using as I walk you through the process of having an idea to holding your book in your hands.  I’ll be adding terms to this initial list as these posts unfold.

So let’s begin by doing a roll call for this DIY MFA program.  Why?  Because in the future, I’m going to suggest that you hook up with a few other writers and in order to do that, if you don’t have people in your face-to-face world, you can contact someone below who has a different type of blog from your own. 

So, in this roll call, please state your blog name, give the url in the appropriate url space so your name is linked to your blog, and tell us a little bit about what you write (werewolf romance novels, memoir about your year of baking 365 pies, how to book on catching squirrels as pets).  Keep it as general as possible, please.

Heads Up: topics that will be covered in future installments (and this is subject to change as questions are asked and information unfolds):


2. Getting Started: what is platform, should you even start down this road, what will agents expect from you in order to take you seriously.

3. How to Write a Non-Fiction Book Proposal and Choose Your Chapters

4. Why You Need an Agent

5. How to Find and Sign with a Reputable Agent

6. Querying Agents

7. What Happens Next–Waiting for a Book Sale

8. No Agent? Other Paths to Publication

9. What to Expect After You Sign a Book Deal

10. Be Your Own Publicist

11. A Mishmash of Leftover Questions and Answers

Okay, now go call your own name in the roll call.


1 Bummed Uterus { 05.03.10 at 4:18 pm }

As much as I love swearing and poking fun at my dysfunctional reproductive system, my book is in the genre of bad sex experiences in our 20’s and how we learn from (and laugh at) them. 🙂

2 cubby { 05.03.10 at 4:18 pm }


I’d like to be included in the DIY MFA program. I do not have a blog. Any alternative ways to particpate? Working on: dysfunctional family fun/fiction. If I had nerve and the genre was still breathing perhaps a memoir.

3 Lorin { 05.03.10 at 5:02 pm }

I probably read as many publishing/agent/writer blogs as I do IF blogs, so I’ll be interested in hearing your take on the publishing world.

I’ve written two novels (both as part of NaNoWriMo – a program I highly recommend to anyone who needs a kick in the pants to get going on their novel): one was lit fic about an immigrant family (and so terrible I’ve put it in a drawer to hide) and one was YA fantasy (which I am slowly revising as I think its actually kind of good).

Oh, and my blog is arch thinking – a book blog.

4 Orodemniades { 05.03.10 at 9:31 pm }

I’m already panicking trying to follow the directions above – there’s a reason I do so terribly bad at any kind of test – but I write science fiction. I have two completed novels (one for NaNoWriMo) and several others in various stages. At the moment I’m finding it very difficult to have writing time w/out too much distraction. My writing desk is covered with stuff and I have no chair and despite desperately wanting to write again, there always seems to be Something More Important to do.

5 Lori Lavender Luz { 05.03.10 at 9:32 pm }

Oh, pick me, teacher, pick me! Here’s an apple. I’ve polished it for you.

I write nonfiction about living mindfully and adoptive parenting.

6 Calliope { 05.03.10 at 10:08 pm }

This is so effing cool.

I would love to figure out the world of creative memoirs. I’d like to write a book (geared towards people in our generation) about caregiving. Not so much a how-to, more like a “here is what it is like”.

7 The Casual Perfectionist { 05.03.10 at 10:20 pm }

Hi! My name is JoAnn, and I write over at The Casual Perfectionist. My friend Lori Lavender Luz directed me to your class, and I can’t wait! I’m writing a non-fiction book about my time in a particular multi-level marketing company. (I’m writing a cautionary tale on how to succeed, escape and avoid one.)

Lori and I promise not to pass notes in class. Or, are we supposed to pass notes? How does this work online? Either way, I can’t wait to get started! 😉

8 Katie { 05.03.10 at 10:34 pm }

Hi, I’m Katie and I’m am addicted to blogging. . .

er, wait. Wrong meeting! 🙂

I write fictional stories and nonfiction (my blog).

9 Keiko { 05.03.10 at 10:47 pm }

Hi there! Thanks for getting this series started; I’ve been looking forward to them since you first mentioned them to me a few months ago. Anywho, I’m Keiko and right now I’m blogging about infertility and health advocacy. I’ve got two books brewing in my head, both non-fiction. The first I’d like to write is about my experience of converting to Judaism, the second about my infertility journey. I don’t plan on starting the second until our family building plans are fully resolved. Looking forward to finding out more info on this whole process and connecting with other writers!

~Keiko, Hannah Wept, Sarah Laughed

10 jrs { 05.03.10 at 11:33 pm }

This is exciting. Thanks for sharing your insight. I want to write about my infertility journey.


11 Robert { 05.03.10 at 11:37 pm }

Excellent idea, and good luck.

12 Michelle { 05.04.10 at 12:26 am }

YAY!! Writing a book is something that I have always wanted to do. I am VERY EXCITED about this!

13 Mina { 05.04.10 at 1:01 am }

I wanna sign up too!
I really want to write a book about how it is to work with lawyers and how lawyers really are on the old continent (they are nothing like Ally McBeal or any other lawyer series we have ever seen on the telly) (first, because they are not American and the justice system is different) (but they are also pompous scums, basically, most of them).
I have been procrastinating it for quite a while. Maybe this is what I need to get it done with. 😉
Thanks for doing this for us, Mel. You are really one of a kind.

14 S.I.F. { 05.04.10 at 2:05 am }

Oh I have bookmarked this! My first novel is half-way finished, and I have been wondering what on earth I am supposed to do with it when I am done! Thank you so much Mel! I am so excited to learn from you on this!

I tend to write more non-fiction. I have tried fiction, and I just don’t enjoy it as much. I like writing about real people and stories I guess. My novel right now is about dating and finding yourself while searching for the one; after shuffling through a lot of other ones!

15 Megan { 05.04.10 at 7:08 am }

I would like to publish an art journal related to infertility.

16 m. { 05.04.10 at 8:00 am }

Dear Professor Mel, I’d like to dust off my old book proposal (never submitted) based on our travels around the United States and turn it into something else (I got bored with the first one before I even finished). With that under my belt, maybe just maybe I would try to tackle something regarding our more personal adventures.

17 Lynn { 05.04.10 at 8:37 am }

What an awesome opportunity! Thanks Mel!

I’m Lynn. Apart from writing on my blog about our infertility journey, I write children’s fiction and would like to branch more into adult morality fiction as well. My hubby is also a writer – he writes science fiction – so this will be a huge help to us!

18 Half of a Duo, Raising a Duo { 05.04.10 at 9:01 am }

I love everything you write. You provoke a lot of thought for me to write about for my sons to read, years from now.

I have an MFA in fiction but could always use a refresher course for sure. I love having been mentored post MFA by some awesome writers so this will be an incredible opportunity for me.

My best work is that of non-fiction, writing the story of my life and that of my children’s. It is my joy and passion. I have a half finished novel from 20 years ago, lost on a floppy disk somewhere in the bowels of the DH’s “stuff”.

I am am amateur photographer and w/my kids’ fragile health and my own “stuff” to deal with — I record our lives via photo and marry it within my blog.

I remember long ago on TV this woman who had died of cancer did this video diary for her daughter before she passed away so she would always be remembered. She did installments to cover everything from when the little girl was tiny, to dating wisdom.

Then she passed.

I am a renal cell survivor w/some residual issues so my blog is really written for my Duo and for myself, and the DH. It is driven by the memory of that young woman who was gone too soon. I am so lucky to still be here, able to record my life and to be able to parent these little men. That’s what the blog is all about but also to give hope to those of you in the IF community that despair. If I can become a mama after 2 decades of longing, well… God’s Plan is greater than you could ever know.

19 Katie { 05.04.10 at 9:11 am }

I have a BA in English and I worked previously as an assistant editor for a major publishing company editing fiction and non-fiction (trade; adult and YA). I currently work as an editor in educational publishing and I freelance edit on the side. Hoping to publish non-fiction . . . someday.

20 andrea { 05.04.10 at 1:12 pm }

Thanks! I’d love to incorporate photography and writing into a few projects, and am looking forward to your information. Love your blog!

21 Stimey { 05.04.10 at 5:34 pm }

I want to, at some point, write about autism and how having a child with autism changed my thinking about the condition. Plus I’m going to try to be funny, because if you can’t laugh at autism, what can you laugh at? (Kidding. Kind of.)

22 mrs spock { 05.04.10 at 5:53 pm }

Love this! I will force Mr S to read it, as he believes, despite my protests, that once I finish the fiction novel, it will be easy street, and we can both retire early. Hahahaha! I do want to write full time- but I believe that goal will be reached after working FT the next decade and living frugally in order to pay off the mortgage early.

The novel I’m writing is alternate-reality sci-fi.

Biggest challenge is finding a “room of one’s own” to write and time to do it with FT work and child.

23 Dr. Blondie { 05.04.10 at 6:23 pm }

Hello! I write a life blog (all sorts of topics), but I aspire to write novels and perhaps a series for young adults.

24 Carrie { 05.05.10 at 5:04 pm }

Just starting out a fictional novel. Military/love story.

I’m with mrs. spock, hard to find the time to write with children and working, but is a long time dream of mine.

25 wifey { 05.05.10 at 5:33 pm }

Yay! Thanks so much for doing this! I have recently started writing a novel about an RPL survivor who makes her own happy ending (write what you know, right?).

BTW, I was telling my hubby how excited I am that you are doing this DIY MFA and he said “MFA? Does that stand for mother fu**ing author?” (He’s a tech guy, so forgive his ignorance!)

I haven’t laughed that hard in a while.

26 Briar { 05.05.10 at 7:47 pm }

OK. I am not always good with follow-through of Internet signing-up, but I will give it my best shot since we’re headed into summer vacation soon.

My book is a memoir about my husband’s transition. Been working on it for-fricking-ever in the tiniest of fits and starts. It makes me tired to think about its existence but I also strongly believe it to be an important piece of My Life’s Work. So there you have it.

27 Sam { 05.05.10 at 8:54 pm }

Yay!!! Sign me up!

My blog is about adopting our daughter….
And I have a half (maybe third?) of a written novel. I’m going to say it’s fiction… but it is loosely based on my life as an attorney and getting to where I am now. But the funny stuff – not the boring. And some scary. Actually, it’s mostly crazy.

This will be very helpful when I (finally) finish the book. Thanks for setting it up!

28 MLO { 05.09.10 at 3:36 am }

I’ll go along with this. I think the universe has been trying to kick me in the butt as you are the third person to point me in this direction in the past week. None of the people know each other.

Most of my experience has been technical writing of all sorts – which is much more wide-ranging and more stable than freelancing. I’ve always been skittish about the freelance world. Perhaps the extended unemployment and various medical issues will force me into that realm.

My blog? Mostly reviews and a little about cancer and infertility. Plus, sometimes a bit about life.

Now, if I can just keep myself away from the research rabbit hole I will be fine… (Or, at least, that is what I keep telling myself.)

29 MLO { 05.09.10 at 3:40 am }

The sentence :
Most of my experience has been technical writing of all sorts – which is much more wide-ranging and more stable than freelancing.

was meant to be:

Most of my experience has been in technical writing which is much more wide-ranging than most people would believe. It is also much more stable than freelancing.

30 TexasRed { 05.19.10 at 8:42 am }

I’m so excited to participate in this challenge! I write science fiction and have started several novels that were never finished. Thinking I need some more instant gratification, I’ve been doing more short stories lately — will even have one published later this year.

I have to admit, though, that the IF drama has been distracting me from writing. I have the time, but the words aren’t there. Been doing more quilting as a creative outlet lately. (Although not sure making baby quilts for friends is really making my head better!)

31 Deb Clarke { 06.02.10 at 3:36 pm }

Hey there:
I self-published a book “Live Your Dream” Goalsetting for personal success, in 1987, when I was in my 20’s. I sold 2,000 copies and it started a great career for me speaking, developing training programs, etc. Then mid-career I got safe, got an accounting designation, took on several management level positions. I’ve enjoyed a terrific career, and every once and a while my book LYD comes back up … had one young man contact me a few years back, his mom picked up a copy of my book for him from a garage sale table. Since in my last book, life pretty much ended at age 50 … I’d like to write my next, (no title yet, but related to Living the Dream ), focusing on the quarter century, ages 50-75). My first self published book was pre-internet marketing techniques, I’m really interested to learn more about your current experience writing and getting published. No blog title yet, only email.

32 Barbara { 06.10.10 at 3:15 pm }

Wait for me! I want in!
My blog is Long Hollow, a mish-mash of my life for the past two years. It keeps me writing every day and allows me to dump the junk from my brain.
Thanks for taking us under your wing!
In the distant past I wrote essays and had a few published, but my focus right now is on an historical fiction based on my great-great grandfather’s memoir. I’ve written a rough draft of a screenplay for it already, but cutting so much out of it made me want to go the other direction and add to it. I have rough drafts of children books, short stories, etc. tucked away as well, but I’m driven to finish this one first.

33 onceamother { 07.05.10 at 10:54 pm }

Late to class, as always.

I am Kristin. I write a blog about loss and infertility at http://onceamother.blogspot.com.

I have written a memoir about my daughter’s too-short life, and a women’s fiction/ chick-lit novel about a know-it-all 20 something who finds herself in alot of trouble while out for a night on the town in Atlantic City.

34 Deanna { 08.02.10 at 9:11 am }

I’m so glad I came across this class. Love your sense of humor.
I’m passionate about everything green & I would love to write a book about dealing with all the worries and fears of a Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis of a loved one. I want to keep it informative, yet light-hearted. After all, humor helps us all get through life’s garbage, right?

35 dana { 10.07.10 at 2:37 pm }

Thank you so much for putting this together. I blog at Feast After Famine where I write about my improbable life with four children after five miscarriages. I’m writing a book about a different subject entirely. It’s a collection of vignettes about the people who frequent our local coffee shop and the transformative effect the shop- and the relationships they’ve made there – have had on their lives. I’m looking forward to reading all of your advice.

36 Lifeslurper { 10.10.10 at 4:12 am }

Oh Mel, you have hit on my secret life-long dreamy desire. To be a writer for the pure joy of writing and not for the financial rewards or fame. Will your program include a class for the hopelessly ungifted writer? I fear you may only be able to assist me if you direct me to the Where To Get Writing Talent tutorials. In my mind’s eye I have been composing the Great Australian Novel for the past 20 years. A pathos filled tale of history and saltwater. Reality is, should it ever make it to paper it will probably be about kitties!

37 Steve Gordon { 10.24.10 at 9:08 pm }

I’m signing up. Realize that I’m taking a risk: I male and I’ve always written, even when I was working 70 hours a week, cooking dinner six nights a week, and taking care of the kids from the time I walked in the house till they were asleep. I wrote when I didn’t have the time; I write because I have to write.
My non-fiction is in my blog, though I’m considering writing medical self-help books. My fiction (now six novels, none published) hasn’t found a genre, but consistent themes are high intelligence, an exceptional but not supernatural ability, teacher/student, and breaking the bonds of self-deception.
I’ll be reading the DIYMFA posts.

38 Leah { 11.15.10 at 9:39 am }

Sign me up! I can’t wait to read more about this DIY movement. I write- a lot. And have always thought about writing non-fiction book on education.

39 Joe Mudd { 12.21.10 at 1:14 am }

Dear wifey (#25) – thank you so much for explaining what an MFA is. I was struggling with that one myself. You’ve saved another tech person.

Dear Lollipop Lady,
I’m going to follow this whole saga, but I’m not a writer. I just find it very interesting. I stumbled onto it from a link on Kelly Farley’s Grieving Dad Project blog.

I could write about some of the conversations I’ve had with robots, but they’re not nearly as smart as most people think. And their vocabulary is pretty limited. And they’re boring.

Also, writing books looks like a whole bunch of work. I’ve been known to have allergic reactions to that. I’m not sure I should take the chance.

If I ever do, it would probably be some sort of how-to.

Thanks for the blog.

40 Kathy { 01.08.11 at 10:32 pm }

I am late to the U of LG’s D.I.Y. MFA party… but I am darn glad to be here! This is really awesome Mel! THANK YOU!!! 🙂

My name is Kathy and my blog is called Four of Kind (formerly Three of a Kind Working on a Full House…):


I blog/write about my journey through secondary infertility, pregnancy loss and neonatal death, as well as parenting my two living children.

I wish you all the best on your writing and book publishing journies!

Thanks again Mel for sharing all of this extremely helpful information for those of us considering navigating the land of book proposals and publishing! 🙂

41 Samantha Hines { 01.27.11 at 8:42 pm }

Hi there. I just became acquainted with your site tonight, and let me start by saying thank you. I have started a book and am grateful for the information you have provided.

My blog is called “My Three Sons,” formerly “The Adventures of Oscar and Edgar.” I have also had three articles published in “Adoptive Families” magazine. Most recently I provided an interview to “SixSeeds” magazine, which raised over $600 for our adoption agency. Each of our three boys, now 6, 5, and 19 months, was adopted domestically.

The book that I am writing is a work of fiction as well as a memoir and has at its center the theme of adoption.

Many thanks to you. With your permission, I would love to post a link to your blog on mine.


42 Cindy { 02.05.11 at 7:24 pm }

Just a quick hello from another late arrival! I write haibun, memoir, and fiction (and having trouble limiting myself to one work in progress at a time). Look forward to reading this series of posts over the next day or two!

43 Stevie { 02.16.11 at 6:51 am }

Currently doing what I call “schizophrenic blogging” trying to figure out what works best. Considering an actual MFA, trying out the DIY variety first. Glad to be here!

44 Heather { 02.16.11 at 9:47 am }

Rather late in the game as well, but so glad that a commenter on APW mentioned this! I’m just getting through my first semester of general credits and considering an MFA, so I don’t have anything currently in progress, but I’m excited to see if anything grows.

45 Regina Landor { 02.24.11 at 5:44 am }

Greetings. I live overseas with my diplomat husband and 2 little boys. I’ve just written a book about our lives as a foreign service family, about our first year in Belgrade, and how creation is sometimes born out of destruction, as it was for me when I left my first husband, only to marry again and have 2 beautiful children. I’ve had chapters from the book published on Salon, and Tales from a Small Planet, and a few other spots – but no agent interest in the book. I don’t want to give up my project! Hope I’m not too late to join this group. Thank you!

46 It Is What It Is { 04.20.11 at 11:42 am }

I can’t believe in all my years following your blog that I have just stumbled upon this now. Damn Google reader and exclusively taking me to new posts at the exclusions of all else).

My blog is mostly domestic newborn adoption related (and our journey through the labyrinth) but my non-fiction work in progress is a memoir that begins with the childhood accident that killed my brother (http://itiswhatitisorisit.net/?category_name=accident) and through my struggle with infertility and success through IVF and hopefully through the completion of our family building through adoption.

47 Shasta Kearns Moore { 06.14.11 at 12:27 am }

Hi there,

I clicked my way here from your post announcing Prompt-ly. Although I have a blog about my identical twin son with cerebral palsy (www.outrageousfortune.net) I don’t really need blogging prompts. I am, however, interested in finding the links to the list of posts you describe above. I just finished writing a novella (27,000 words) and am now polishing it up and looking for an agent! Exciting times.

Like I said, I’d love to get a look at items 5-10 in particular! Thank you!

48 Susanne Romo { 08.04.11 at 9:09 pm }

I just sat through your BlogHer “Blog to Book” class and want to thank you for your time and insight.
I write a blog about healing and personal growth from a background of child abuse and addiction and weight-loss surgery.
I blog about my paranoid psychophrenic mother, the alcohol and drug use I saw growing up, being unwanted by my mother and father, and how I learned through various books & therapy that forgiveness was the only way through my pain to healing. I currently blog in order to help other women between the ages of 25-50 who struggle with food addiction realize it is just as “legitimate” an addiction as alcoholism or drugs, and that they need to stop shaming themselves and reclaim their lives. I hope through my blog to demonstrate what it really feels like to go through the healing process and learn to forgive not only the abusers but also yourself for being abused, and to learn to claim a vibrant life.

49 fk robinson { 08.06.11 at 4:39 pm }

i just found this site, am working on a novel and would love to be involved in the DIY MFA if i am not too late! thanks!!

50 Misty { 08.18.11 at 4:13 pm }

I’m a little later to this DIY-MFA game than many, but I still wanted to add my info. I’m considering writing a book on my experience with postpartum depression and the death of my father after the birth of my first child.

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