Writers learn the ins and outs of publishing from book proposal to manuscript, agents, contracts and publicity in master’s program
A degree, a polished book proposal, a substantial portion of your finished manuscript, and contacts beyond any aspiring authors’ dreams. This is what the only master of fine arts in creative nonfiction degree in Canada promises to writers who are ready to take their work to the next level. There is a price tag though, over $20K in tuition fees.
With an extensive and impressive background in the publishing industry, Don Sedgwick is the executive director of the program, a graduate degree offered jointly between The University of Kings College School of Journalism and the Dalhousie University Faculty of Graduate studies in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Atlantic Books Today sat down with Sedgwick to learn more about the program—who it’s designed for, what writers will take away from it and the state of publishing in Canada today.
Were you involved in the program’s conception?
Yes I was. It was originally an idea that my colleague Stephen Kimber came up with about seven years ago. We got together and started talking about it, and took it to the director at the School of Journalism, Kelly Toughill. She thought it was a great idea. At that time she was working on our master of journalism program so the timing was right. We worked on it for five years and launched two years ago. By industry standards, that’s warp speed, normally these graduate programs take considerably longer than five years but we managed to get it through. King’s Charter does not technically allow us to give graduate degrees so we had to get approval from Dal, who were very enthusiastic.
What was the incentive behind developing a program like this?
Stephen [Kimber] has a graduate degree [MFA] from an American college called Goucher. David Swick, who also teaches at Kings, is also a graduate of Goucher. Our department is modeled very much on theirs. It’s a low residency program meaning that for most of the two years the writers are working independently, only face-to-face for six weeks over the course of two years. We had a notion that there were a significant number of non-fiction writers in Canada to whom this would appeal because it means if you’re living in Vancouver you don’t have to pack up and move to Halifax, as lovely as Halifax is. You can stay wherever you are and it only requires travel for six weeks over the two years. If you have other commitments, family or work and want to try and keep your foot in the workplace, this allows you to do so. Students come to Halifax for two weeks in August, and then in January, one year we take them to Toronto for a week and this year we took them to New York City. After two years of the program they graduate. So graduates will be getting their degrees in May with a brand new hood, designed just for our MFA program.
Can you tell me more about the program?
There are a number of interesting things about it. The average age of the writers is 42. In fact we have a gentleman who has applied this year who is 80. These are people well into their careers who for various reasons have decided to step outside and devote two intensive years to writing this particular book, whatever that may be. The three genres we work in are memoir, essay and narrative.
Each of the writers works with a mentor, and they have the option each semester of changing or staying with the particular mentor. We have writers like Ken McGoogan, award-winning Canadian non-fiction writer. We have Nova Scotia writers as well, Harry Thurston, Lorri Neilsen Glenn who teaches over at the Mount, I’m just mentioning a few people. So we match them up, a maximum of five writers to each mentor for each semester. The job of the mentor is to work particularly with them on the craft of the book.
Unlike other writing programs, we work very hard to help the writers understand how to work as an entrepreneur, as a writer who makes a living writing. Students just finished an exam on book contracts and now they’re working on the potential marketing plan of the book they are working on.
When we were in New York a couple of weeks ago the culmination was at the end of the week, I had all of them pitching to literary agents and editors from some of the biggest publishers in the world, Simon and Schuster, Random House, St. Martin’s Press, and that was really exciting. We had a fantastic week. There’s a lovely picture of students with Lewis Lapham, editor emeritus of Harper’s Magazine. We also had people come in from The New Yorker and The New York Times. That was part of our curriculum in New York.
My particular interest strength is making sure the writers, by the time they graduate, understand how to get an agent, what a book deal’s all about, how to work with a publisher and also how to build a platform to go out and promote themselves and their books.
Who should apply for this program? What type of writer is it designed for?
Well, first and foremost of course it’s for non-fiction writers, though a number of our writers have written fiction, this is for writers in those three genres, memoir, essay and narrative. They should be writers with a well-conceived book idea, something that might change but they do need to have a project they think is viable and we do too. I don’t think it’s any coincidence our average age is 42, because a lot of them are journalists. Two of our writers, one is Pauline Dakin, a national health reporter and one is Havard Gould, who is a national affairs reporter, both for the CBC. We’ve got some filmmakers. Some worldly experience is certainly a benefit.
We do look at graduates coming right out of an undergraduate program but they won’t necessarily have had built up much of a platform by that point. Also maybe it’s a little harder for them, this notion of trying to come up with what is a book that potentially would work in the marketplace and that people might be willing to plunk down 20 or 30 dollars for.
Clearly we’re looking for excellent writing. The application involves submitting samples of your work. We’re looking for a strong biography, we’re looking for interest from people who understand what the publishing world is all about and what these graduate students are in for, and then as I said an idea that we believe ultimately has some potential to become a contracted book with a publisher or, as more and more students are looking at self-publishing, something where the idea would carry in book form as opposed to a magazine article or a newspaper article. It has to be something big enough, strong enough, with a clear enough point of view that it will resonate with the reading public.
What can a writer expect to get out of the program?
The students, by the end of two years, will have mastered the art of putting together a very professional book proposal that would get them the attention of a literary agent and/or a book publisher. They will have done significant work on their actual manuscript and in some cases completed anywhere from half to possibly all of it. They will have been introduced to some of the most important people in the world of publishing both in Canada and in the United States. For example, when we go to Toronto they spend over two hours in the boardroom of Harper Collins and all the editors there have read their material. That’s pretty impressive. One of the guests in New York was Will Murphy, he’s an editor that works with Salman Rushdie. We introduced the writers to arguably the most important people in the world of publishing that they’re likely to meet.
They will have a strong understanding of contracts, both with agents and book publishers and they’ll understand all those legalities. And most important, the opportunity to work with these extraordinary writers who will help them hone their craft and their style to make their work really sing and make it as good as it can possibly be with the expectation that agents and publishers will feel the same way. And a graduate degree, which people for various reasons want, whether they want to get it for personal reasons or they want to teach creative writing or whatever their motivation might be. Most of them will see that as a bonus and see the primary goal as to spend these two years producing a really brilliant and saleable book project.
What about the aspiring authors who wonder if they need this program to make a go of it, what would you tell them?
I would tell them that pretty well everybody who I brought in, 35 guest speakers in New York, just about every one of them said that they wouldn’t ever look at a manuscript without a literary agent and we are a conduit to literary agents. Also it is tough to get published these days. When you submit your material to an agent or to publisher it has to be really, really good and really tight and we are able to assist writers to bring their writing up to a level that reaches those professional standards. If it was an equivalent of a stack of resumes, we can bring yours to the top of the pile.
There are writers out there who have been successful, why might they want to look at this program?
A couple of reasons. If they’ve been successful, they might indeed say, oh well I don’t need it at all. But they might say, I’ve been successful at a certain level, but I’d like to up my game, I’d like to simply write better, I’d like to get an agent if I don’t have one, I’d like to get with a bigger publisher and this might help me do that. There might be a particular writer-mentor in our program that they admire and they would love to study with them for the opportunity to fine tune some particular aspect of their writing. Maybe they’re having difficulty with structure or voice or something like that. They might take the program because they would like to teach or run writing workshops or do something in a professional level and this degree would give them that additional credibility. If someone has been successful they’ll want to look at some of these other aspects, they might need more help with the professional part of being a writer, understanding contracts, how to find other sources of revenue and we teach that as well.
Do you think this degree will weigh heavily with publishers when authors are submitting book proposals?
It already has, yes. One of our writers, they’ve signed with some of the largest literary agencies in Canada, and they are also getting interest from some of the largest publishers as well. And indeed some of the people we brought in as guests in New York have asked to follow up with some of these writers on the books that they’re working on. Here’s a good quote for you, Clive Thompson, he’s a writer for The New York Times, he looked at our agenda and said ‘oh my god, it took me five years to find all the people that you’re introducing these writers to in seven days.’ He actually took a couple hours off from The New York Times to come and listen to one of our guests. In turn we also got to party with him on Friday night, with his very cool band the DeLorean Sisters. So, as I say we like to think we’re helping writers fast-track and bring them literally to the door of potential success in their literary career.
You probably have a lot to say on this but in a nutshell, what are your thoughts on the state of publishing today?
It’s in a tremendous state of transition. The good news is people aren’t reading less, they are just reading differently. They’re still buying lots of books and content but they’re buying it less through bookstores and more and more online but they are reading. They’re reading in different forms. Very much like the transition the music industry went through, publishing’s going through that as well. It’s tough economic times for everyone, and my response to that is that’s all the more need for taking a program like ours because we can help you, well frankly, be the very best you are and introduce you to the people that might have the best chance of moving your career forward. It’s tough times, yes it is, but it’s a time when you need to be more innovative and entrepreneurial and we help these writers do that.
Top photo: Writers gather, ready to hone their craft in the masters of fine arts in creative nonfiction program at the University of Kings College School of Journalism in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Photos courtesy of Stephen Kimber