A while ago I wrote about what might be involved in a do-it-yourself MFA. Basically: lots of reading, lots of writing, some mentoring, and connection with other writers.
The best advice I’ve ever seen for how to become a solid writer comes from Ray Bradbury. His advice is a prescription for nightly reading, weekly writing, and watching a lot of movies.
Bradbury suggests a short story, a poem, and an essay every night for 1000 nights. I have a feeling that he would hope that after close to three years of building this particular habit, you’d just keep going.
I’m going to expand on this advice, for the purpose of our 1000 Day MFA and say that if you harbor any dreams of writing a novel some day, you need to also read novels. Ideally, you’ll read a book a week. At the very least, read one novel a month.
Read widely. It’s perfectly fine to read novels in your genre, or popular books that everyone and their brother is reading. Read 50 Shades of Grey if that floats your boat. But also read classics. Read books written by authors who weren’t born where you were born. Read books written by authors who don’t look how you look. Read books that aren’t so easy to get through (I could only read about three pages of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse at a time.)
Train yourself to read like a writer. Pay attention to the craft behind the books you choose. Why do some books remain bestsellers for decades? Why do some fall off the face of the planet a few weeks after they’re released? What works for you in every book — and why? What doesn’t — and why?
Schedule a weekly library trip into your week. If you’re like me and you feel compelled to own books, scope out used book stores and thrift stores. Keep your eye open for books that will add to your autodidact education. If you read a novel that piques your interest in some subject, read on that subject. Think way beyond your personal box and outside your wheelhouse.
When you’re choosing your essays, Bradbury says you should read through a wide variety of disciplines and I agree. Read science. Read history. Read religion. Read geography, zoology, astronomy, sociology. The goal is to expand your mind to wide, wide range of ideas floating around in the world.
Also, read a writing craft book once a month. Or, at least, part of one. Read it deeply. Do the exercises. Apply what you’re learning to your writing.
Daily: Read one short story, one poem, and one essay.
Weekly: Read a novel (this can be monthly, but try to make it weekly or biweekly.)
Monthly: Read a writing craft book.
Bradbury’s advice is to write a short story a week for a year. I think it would be great to carry that on for the 1000 days.
If you’re working on a novel while you’re doing this project, write flash fiction. Write a 500 word short story every week, then spend your writing time on your novel. There is something magical about finishing something so regularly. I’m just learning that myself, as I take on this story-a-week challenge.
If you want to be a novelist, I think it’s reasonable to make a goal of writing a short story (or even flash fiction story) once a week, and one novel a year.
Bradbury was a movie buff with an exceptional memory. He writes in Zen in the Art of Writing about watching Lon Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1923 when he was three years old. He advises lots of movie watching. I like this advice! To make it more compatible with a program, let’s call it three movies a week for 1000 days.
Movies are great, because it lets you immerse yourself in story for two hours without anything pulling you away. And it gives you an entire three-act story in a single sitting.
I’ve set up a notebook for keeping records of my 1000 day challenge. Or, actually, for the first year. I’ll end up with three notebooks.
Here are the sections I used:
- 52 Short Stories. I have a couple of pages set aside for just listing the stories, numbered 1–52. Then I have 52 pages numbered correspondingly, one for each story. On the story page I put the title at the top, some info including a one or two sentence synopsis at the bottom, and the rest of the page is divided between notes on story progress and notes on submissions.
- Novels. I have one page to list any novels I work on in 2017, followed by about 10 blank pages so I can take notes on each one.
- 1000 Days. This section starts with a detail of my plan (which I’ve talked about here in this post.) Then I have 52 pages (front and back, so one whole page), one for each week, where I’ll list the poem, essay, short story I read each day, plus the movies I watch, any novels I read, and the name of the short story I write, as well as any revisions I do on past weeks’ short stories.
- The rest of the book is for ideas. As I have an idea for a short story, I just jot it down.
The Mentor/Community Piece
This is my favorite part!
There are two things you can do. You can join the Ninja Writer Facebook Group and hang out there. I’m around everyday and I’m happy to answer questions if you tag me. You’ll find a whole family full of writers there to connect with. Come search out a partner. Post weekly for accountability. Let us be there for you.
You could also check out these workshops.
A thousand days is about three years, which is a common length for a traditional MFA program.
I think you can do the reading in an hour a day, and the writing in another hour. What are the chances that for three straight years, you’re going to follow this program every single day? Probably pretty slim. And that’s okay. Life happens. We get caught up in other things.
But, if you take this challenge, I hope you’ll take it seriously. The same way you’d take it if you were spending $20,000 a year on an MFA from a university. Make the reading and writing a habit and, I promise you, that habit will serve you throughout your writing career.
The goal is to get to 1000 days where you’ve read and written. If it takes you five years to get to day 1000, okay then. If it takes you ten years, no problem. But, you’ll benefit from building up the discipline to read and write intensely every day.
Wrapping it Up
Just so it’s all in once place, here’s what we’re doing for 1000 days.
Read a short story, a poem, and an essay.
Write a short story.
Watch three movies.
Read at least one novel.
Read one craft book.
Write one novel.
Are you in?
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She lives in Reno with her husband, three superstar kids, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. Her most recent book is The Astonishing Maybe and she’s represented by Elizabeth Bennett at Transatlantic Literary Agency.
She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the original Ninja Writer.