One of the great things about having a blog is that you can answer questions no one has asked and pontificate on things you are underqualified to even have an opinion about. This is one of those days where I get to talk from the seat of my pants about some ideas I’ve been tossing around at random hours that I will probably never have an opportunity to implement. Who doesn’t love the Internet?
So, I ask myself, how would you run a creative writing program?
Thanks for asking, Nathan. Here’s what I would do, in bullet points:
1) Decide upon the goal of the program
Is the goal of my creative writing program a) to give life to short stories, verily an art form unto itself, but which the reading public does not generally pay attention to unless they’re taking a creative writing class and/or trying to place something with the New Yorker? Are universities bastions of arts, poetry, short stories, and classes like Syllogism in Synechdotal Passages in Semi-ironic Transcendental 1890s Irish Poetry, which, though abstract, are important to the advancement of human thought, arts, and culture?
Or is the goal of my creative writing program b) to teach students how to advance their writing careers, as in, write works for which they might have a gameful possibility of future writerly employment in the current (and likely future) market, as in, novels and full-length narrative nonfiction?
Both types of programs have their place. Although if it’s the art for the sake of art kind, I better have some serious funding and the tuition better be free, because I’d hate to charge students a lot of money for a program for which they will have a dim prospect of gaining back the money in future writerly earnings. Learning how to write good short stories does not exactly set one on the path to repaying $40,000 in debt.
Let’s go with the b) type of program: preparing a writer for the writing market he/she will face upon graduation.
2) Determine what kind of book the students want to write
Writing advice is not generally one-size fits all. A sentence is not just a sentence. And authors should know the genre they’re writing in so they can hone their craft.
Genre fiction is one track. Literary fiction is another track. Narrative nonfiction is another, and serious/technical nonfiction still another. And I’m sure there are more.
But learning the customs, expectations, structure, and, most importantly, history of the genre should be a goal of the program. If you’re writing genre fiction, you should know the important authors that paved the way. If you’re writing narrative nonfiction, you should know the proper balance between fictionalization and historical accuracy. Some authors do this on their own, but nothing beats having a teacher guide the education process.
3) Teach plot first.
Plot comes first. Style comes second.
Without a good plot, a novel doesn’t stand a chance. And yet how many MFA programs teach plot?
I’d teach plot. Macro plot, micro plot, scene building, acts, countering expectations, climaxes and nadirs, pacing, and organization. Plot plot plot plot plot. Plot.
This goes for nonfiction too. Good nonfiction has an underlying arc and a satisfying conclusion as well. It’s not the same arc as a novel, but it’s there.
4) Teach style second.
After plot comes style. But in that order. You have to have a skeleton underneath your skin or else you’re just an unappealing pile of flesh.
(We’ll teach strange imagery too.)
Style is what separates literary fiction from genre fiction, and what elevates some writers of genre fiction into those exalted writers with both literary and genre cred. Style is important.
5) Emphasize networking and self-promotion
As anyone who has embarked on the path to publication knows, writing a book is the easy part. A university has the resources to bring in agents, industry professionals, and book marketing experts in order to educate the writers on how to go about the process of publication. For instance, MFA grads have a reputation for writing terrible query letters. Why should that be??? My MFA grads would learn to write pristine query letters that make agents weep with joy.
Now, if my MFA program sounds a bit mercenary…. guilty. I would judge the success of the program by how many authors found publication after they graduated.
That said, I would never devalue the merits of short stories and having universities serve as incubators for important arts for which there is not a ready marketplace. There is a ton to be said for that, and I wouldn’t want to impugn anyone who devotes themselves to the important cultural preservation of poetry and short stories.
But if your goal is to write a full-length book that you’ll be able to sell upon graduation…. come get your MFA from The Nathan Bransford School of Hard Knocks: Getting Published Ain’t Easy, Son.
You’ll be glad you did.
Maris Bosquet says
Is an MFA necessary? Jane Austen and Tolstoy got along without it. And those Brontes pretty much had their own school… 🙂
I had a look at this site because I saw it on another site and wondered what a literary agent’s blog would be like. This post interested me because I have an MFA from Iowa in olden days (finished in 81) and think it is different now. I wrote about the Iowa MFA on my webblog here — https://doniganmerritt.typepad.com/donigan_merritt/2008/08/the-iowa-writer.html
I already have an agent and have published 8 novels over the years, but as long as I’m here, and since you are an agent for a well-known and reputable agency, I would like to mention the site where I came across your link: https://elevatetheordinary.blogspot.com/
As soon as this guy figures out how to plot a novel, he is going to be a treasure to any agent or editor smart enough to invest their energy in him now.
I’m in an MFA program right now (shudder) and I hate it. The teachers keep walking around saying “Now, don’t expect to get an agent with your thesis (a book-length manuscript) project,” or “We’re here to write great literature, the point isn’t to sell your work.” I point blank asked a teacher if students sell their thesis project and she hesitated before saying “Not a lot.”
I have an agent, I’ve got book ideas up the wazoo, a manuscript out on submission, and I’m just getting started. What I’m doing in this horrendous program is beyond me. Every day, I think about dropping out. Programs like mine, with no regard for a writer’s career or the saleability of the crap turned out by their students make me barf.
To me, some MFA programs feel like a poor sap paying thousands and thousands of dollars to finally churn out a book. If you need a cocoon and a rah-rah team to finally create your literary masterpiece, then you most likely don’t have what it takes to begin with.
Thanks Nathan! I am just finishing a prestigious MFA program and haven't learned anything but style and reading. There is a snobishness and unwillingness to even discuss the business side of writing. First, we write and we worry about selling it later. Many have trust funds. Only art is important and awards. You can always teach. I just want to sell books and am ready to tailor my writing to sell a novel that people will buy. It is an art form and a job. I have no qualms about trying my damndest to make money. I work too hard not to!