FAQs: What is your thesis?

Writing spaces: Razorcake Magazine HQ in L.A.

I am sweating, because I am about to turn in my thesis, the project that is the culmination of my time and work here at Columbia College Chicago. I feel prepared. This is a project that I have been working on, on and off, since my first year. But I am sweating, because it’s the last thing that I’ll need to do as a grad student. Once again, I feel prepared for life after grad school, but I’ve got the feeling that you get on the high dive, like you’re about to take a leap and you want to hit the water well.

Let me talk about this “prepared” thing.

I feel prepared to graduate and for life after school, because Columbia has helped me to get ready. So many of my professors and classmates have given me input on my thesis novel, and through connections that I’ve made at Columbia, I have a job that I will continue to work after I graduate. I came to Columbia looking for a life change, for the chance to make a living doing something I give a rat’s ass about, and I got it.

But, thesis. Back to the topic at hand.

The Fiction Writing department wants at least 200 pages of publishable material for your thesis. Those 200 pages could be a variety of things. They could be a novel. They could be short stories. They could be a couple of novellas. They could be any combination of those things.

Me, I’m turning in a fictional novel, plus a couple of nonfiction short stories that my thesis advisor Don DeGrazia helped me with. In its current state, the novel is about 215 pages.

Here’s a timeline of my thesis novel. I’d like to stress that most people do not come to Columbia with an idea of what their thesis project will be, and I suggest that, even if you come to school with a book in progress, you keep your mind open to other ideas. A big part of the program is the generation of material, so you might knock your own socks off with a new idea after a year in school.

Summer ’08

Before starting at Columbia, I wrote a draft of a short story about a kid who watches his big sister get caught shoplifting at the mall. This short story captured my imagination and had me constructing back stories for all of the characters. I knew there was something more there.

Spring ’09

Started expanding the short story in Laurie Lawlor‘s Young Adult Fiction class (One of the best classes I took at Columbia). Wound up with about 70 pages of stuff.

Summer ’09

Completed a 200ish page first-person draft of my book.

Fall ’09

Started working on nonfiction stories about race in Germania Solorzano‘s Proseforms class.

Spring ’10

Steeplechased material from my novel in Don DeGrazia‘s Advanced Fiction class with the hopes of developing some of the subplots. Submitted my thesis advisor request letter.

Summer ’10

Worked too damn much. Don DeGrazia became my thesis advisor.

Fall ’10

Took Thesis Development with Alexis Pride and banged out a new, 275-page third-person draft of the novel, using my draft from Summer ’09 plus my Steeplechase material. Kinda went mental.

Spring ’11

Worked on nonfiction in Eric May‘s Advanced Proseforms class.

Fall ’11

Decided the novel was a lot more interesting in first person, and reworked the first half. This carried over into winter, and I finished a full draft of it in March.

I’m currently taking a class called Big Books with Audrey Niffenegger. The focus is on…writing big books – novels, graphic novels, art books, whatever. I’m using the class as a chance to fine-tune my novel and to get feedback from a new set of classmates. It’s terrific.

I need to turn my thesis in with five weeks left in the semester, so my advisor and the rest of the thesis committee that I selected can read it and (hopefully) approve it. I’ve got a week and a half left, and the plan is to read it over to do some line edits, make some changes that my advisor suggested, and then let my baby go!

Aaand, once I catch my breath from that, I’ll go back to working on the plot-line that myself and everyone else in my Big Books class thinks needs work. After that, I’ll give the book a close read for prose, then stick it in a drawer for two months before looking at it with a fresh eye.

One of these days, I’ll send it to some agents.


Grad student Ramon Castillo has made a web comic out of The Magnifying Transmitter, which he started in Mort Castle’s Stories in Graphic Form class. Check out the site for a new page a week: TheMagnifyingTransmitter.com