Charlotte Rains Dixon is a free-lance writer, novelist, copy writer and creative writing teacher. She earned her MFA from Spaulding University and co-directs The Writers Loft program at Middle Tennessee State University. Learn more about Charlotte here and The Writers Loft here.
SQF: Your undergraduate degree is in journalism. A number of successful fiction writers started as journalists. What are the qualities journalists bring to fiction that make them successful?
CRD: First of all, journalists are trained to write fast and well on a regular basis. Writers write, and they write daily. I know, duh. But you’d be surprised how many people I run into who say they want to write but haven’t set pen to paper in years. The best way to get a novel written is to work on it a little every day and so journalists have an advantage, since they are already accustomed to doing this.
Second, journalists learn to interview and research. Not that fiction writers need to excel in this, especially with the internet at hand, but I think that this training facilitates an eye for the telling details and for getting to the heart of the story.
And third, when I went to journalism school, the profession was treated as a sacred duty and trust. J school instilled a love of the written word and a fervor to be a responsible writer in me, and that spills easily to the realm of fiction as well.
SQF: You co-founded The Writers Loft, which offers a three session certificate program. How does the program differ from an MFA (besides the cost of $1250 per term)?
CRD: Let me give credit where credit is due. A wonderful man named Roy Burkhead founded the Loft, and I became the first mentor there. When Roy took another job as a technical writer, my partner Terry Price and I took over as the directors of the Loft.
We sometimes describe our program as “MFA lite” meaning that it is modeled after a brief-residency MFA program, but is a bit lighter on both pocketbook and requirements. Just as with the MFA, our course of study is based on one-on-one mentoring, which I believe is the best way to learn writing. Our students turn in three packets per semester, with each one consisting of original writing and an essay based on reading. In a typical MFA program, you’d be responsible for five packets. Our mentors are no less rigorous in their responses, however—I’m always amazed at the quality of teaching and the support they gave our students.
SQF: Why would someone choose The Writers Loft offering over an MFA program?
CRD: Many of our students have gone on to earn MFAs after completing our program. Often we get writers who want to go for their MFA but realize their skills are not quite up to par. Our mentors help them to hone a body of work that will be MFA-worthy.
But we also get people who have always wanted to write, and for various reasons finally now have the time or courage to truly commit to it. These students don’t care so much about the MFA. What they crave is support, honest criticism, community, and a sense that their writing is important. They find a welcoming home at the Loft.
SQF: The application process requires a two page, double-spaced writing sample. What do you look for when reviewing these samples?
CRD: We look for a basic facility with words. If someone turns in a sample that is rife with errors and shows no basic understanding of grammar, we might suggest that they take a composition class at the community college. But that rarely happens. Most of our applicants are writers who need just a wee bit of encouragement and guidance to blossom.
Honestly, what I believe to be the most important trait to see in an application is desire. Writer A might have all the talent in the world but not write regularly, while Writer B might not have so much talent, but works hard at writing every day. Guess who is going to get the farthest? I’ve seen so many students come through our program who can move me to tears with their writing—but they simply don’t commit enough time to it to truly master the craft. (Of course, the great thing about being a writer is that it takes a lifetime to master the craft, and thus you never get bored, as there is always something else to learn.)
SQF: What advice would you give new, unpublished authors?
CRD: Write. Then write more. Then write again. This answer sounds facetious, but it truly is the best thing any new writer can do. Find a way to write something every day, even if it is just one sentence. Writing regularly helps you develop an ease and a fluency with putting words on the page that simply doesn’t come any other way. It also helps you keep the momentum and the motivation going.
I do also believe fervently in the power of connection, which is always the first thing I talk about when I give my Writing Abundance workshops. Writing is a hard, lonely job, so find a way to connect to something bigger than yourself—be it a writing group, an online community, or a coach or mentor. And also take time every day to connect with the divine, whatever you consider it to be. Authentic voice comes from connecting to our deepest, true selves, and connecting to our deepest, true selves comes from a connection to the divine.
And finally, read like crazy. There’s no better way to teach yourself to write than to read books similar to what you want to write.
SQF: What question do you wish I’d asked that I didn’t, and how would you answer it?
CRD: I love your questions! The only thing that occurs to me is this: You also write fiction, can you tell us a bit about that?
I’ve just finished a novel called Emma Jean’s Bad Behavior, which is currently being considered by an agent, so think good thoughts for me. Writing fiction is my true love, and I hope this book gets picked up so I can spend more time on it.
Thank you so much for these thoughtful questions, Jim, it has been a pleasure.
Thank you, Charlotte. We all appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule to participate in this project.