Michele Regenold, Writing for Kids from the Boondocks

A blog about writing for children and the quest for publication.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Critical thesis fini

Between working on Go! magazine (see previous post) and doing homework for my MFA program at Vermont College, I have woefully neglected this blog. But, at last, I have completed the major project of the 3rd semester--the critical thesis.

A critical thesis is essentially a long critical essay--at least 20 pages long. Not that big a deal, I thought, at the beginning of the semester. In my first master's program in English lit. (15 years ago at Iowa State), I wrote a thesis that was 60 pages long. How hard could 20 pages be?

Ha! There is a reason cocky people get their comeuppance. My comeuppance came in the form of struggling with the silly thing for 4/5ths of the semester.

I knew in January, during the last residency, that I wanted to write about girl detective fiction, and that's what I told the faculty members I interviewed for the position as my next advisor. Several of them (perhaps all) asked what my argument was. I said I wasn't sure yet. How could I know that until I wrote a draft? Apparently, lots of people know their "thesis statement" well before they start writing. Not me, however. I've never written that way. I figure out what I think by writing. Then I go back and revise and reshape.

So I did lots of reading about Nancy Drew and women's detective fiction. I dug out my old thesis to see if that had anything useful (I wrote about women detective fiction). And then I got kind of bogged down. Who was this thesis for, anyway? Who would ever read this besides my advisor? Was this just a hoop I had to jump through?

I discovered, with the helpful feedback of my advisor, that a critical thesis in an MFA program is a different sort of beast than in a literature program. It is (or perhaps should be) more focused on the craft of the works being analyzed than on proving some literary theory. As for audience, students coming along behind me in the program who may want to learn about writing mysteries.

Okay! That helped immeasurably. Finally I was able to find my focus and argument: basically that detective novels offer writers a powerful form for exploring ambitious themes, particularly for girls because putting them in the empowering role of investigator allows writers to tackle social issues and challenge patriarchal thinking about appropriate roles for girls and women.

So I covered a brief history of detective fiction, including Nancy Drew, the current state of girl detective fiction, and then the main argument. I focused on the first two Sammy Keyes novels by Wendelin Van Draanen, the first two Enola Holmes novels by Nancy Springer, and the Sally Lockhart trilogy by Philip Pullman. I looked at how these writers used point of view, setting, character, and social commentary.

It was all very useful for my own girl detective novel. Even though it took most of the semester, it was time well spent.


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