A New Way to Polish and Publish

Giving young writers the tutelage and feedback they need to put their manuscripts through the ultimate transformation

Six aspiring novelists — all graduates of Stony Brook Southampton’s Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing — are sitting in a conference room on campus waiting to meet their mentors and receive the latest critique of their work. They’re pioneers, the first students chosen to take part in the BookEnds program, a new workshop established by the faculty members Susan Scarf Merrell, author of the critically acclaimed novel “Shirley,” and Meg Wolitzer, whose novels include the 2013 New York Times best seller “The Interestings.” 

The goal of the yearlong workshop? To give the young writers the tutelage and feedback they need to put their manuscripts through the ultimate transformation — making the leap from promising to polished to published.

“Their work is exciting,” said Ms. Wolitzer, explaining why she and Ms. Merrell chose the six candidates, all of whom had written thesis novels during their M.F.A. studies. Nevertheless, for the past six months the two have been pushing their charges to rip up and rethink everything. 

“Instead of just making the work a little bit better, sometimes you have to do something macro to it,” Ms. Wolitzer said. 

The BookEnds experiment began last July when the six aspiring authors sat down with Ms. Wolitzer for a five-day intensive workshop during the Southampton Writers Conference. The ensuing months have been filled with biweekly peer critiques via Skype, master classes with Ms. Wolitzer and Ms. Merrell focused on discussions of craft, and, of course, reams of revisions. 

On Saturday, the group got together at the midpoint of the creative journey and received a bit of good news/bad news from Ms. Merrell. “I really commend you guys — the manuscripts are in terrible shape,” she said. “I say that as the highest compliment. You have ripped them up, you have made yourselves vulnerable, and that is exactly what we wanted you to do in the first half of the year. Things looks worse right before they start getting better.”

The next big deadline for the members of the workshop comes in June, when they deliver their final manuscripts to Ms. Merrell and Ms. Wolitzer. Then, “literary agents will be screening each of the novels and meeting with the students in July at the Southampton Writers Conference,” Ms. Merrell said. “Of course, no one can predict what will appeal to a particular agent, but we are certain that these six fine novels will be in peak condition.”

This year only creative writing students in the Stony Brook Southampton M.F.A. program were eligible for the workshop, but the next go-round will be open to fiction writers who have completed thesis novels at other institutions. (Applications are currently being accepted; more information can be had by emailing bookends@stonybrook.edu.)

Now that the maiden run of BookEnds is heading into its final stretch, the group of workshoppers lucky enough to be accepted to round two will be happy to know that “the pilot year has exceeded our expectations,” Ms. Merrell said. “We knew we had a methodology to help recent M.F.A.s fine-tune their books, but honestly, even we are impressed at how effective our technique has proven to be.”