By DeAnna Knippling
(Thanks to Deb McLeod, J.T. Evans, Carina Bissett, and Roberta Crownover for inspiration and feedback!)
So I got in this conversation with Deb McLeod after I posted
this link on Facebook to Practical
Art: On Teaching the Business of Creative Writing
. It’s a lovely article,
but I thought it didn’t go far enough. Anyway, we got to talking, and ended up agreeing to write articles about what kind of things we wanted to see writers learning.
Deb posted an article called here on the blog called The
Practical Magic of Writing
that includes things you need to know, to
in, in order to be a
publishable writer. Ten truths. You should check it out.
As a writer, I took it as my right to go in a completely
different direction: redesigning an MFA
So, for the sake of the argument, let’s say that I get to
design an MFA program in the English department of some (presumably
prestigious) university, because clearly
I should be in charge of an English department without actually having to hire
professors, manage the paperwork, or negotiate for resources.
All right. What can I
get away with?
First, let's look at a real-life program. Supposedly, the top MFA program in the U.S. (according to a
quick Google search that pulled up this list from Poets
) is the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City. (Nice place; just don’t misspell “espresso”
while you’re there.)
The Iowa Writers’ Workshop is designed to be a two-year
residency program consisting of 48 semester hours of classes at approximately 3
semester hours per class (16 classes). You
must take a critiquing workshop every semester (4 classes/12 semester hours). The last semester includes a creative thesis,
e.g., a novel, short story collection, or poetry collection (1 class/3 semester
Approximately half the classes are writing classes from the
program, which looks like it means half your classes come from the Iowa
Writers’ Workshop, and half come from somewhere else in the rest of the
University of Iowa which your advisors approve. The course
looks pretty sparse, but my guess is that it's deceptively simple and a lot of work.
There are no business classes.
Admittedly, I’m just looking at a single MFA program (and
it’s a resident program). I have talked
extensively to other writers about low-residency MFAs, and on the face of it,
the general structure of the programs sounds similar. If you know of MFA programs that are
significantly different, let me know in the comments.
In addition, I don’t know enough about
publishing poetry to include it here, so this is purely a fiction program.
Here’s the basic
outline for my Fantasy MFA:
- Designed to be a two-year program consisting of 48 hours of classes at approximately 3 semester hours per class
- You have to write and submit a 75K+ novel or the
equivalent amount of material in short stories, novellas, and flash every
semester. You will not be critiqued by
students, only professional writers and editors.
- Paid positions/internships for members of the
program are available as part of the university’s for-profit publishing
imprints, including our highly-respected line of romance novels. Highly recommended. Rumors of an underground erotica imprint are
completely unsubstantiated. [Cough.]
- Approximately half the classes taken must be
craft classes, and the other half must be business classes.
CRAFT1001: Basics of fiction. Covering openings/cliffhangers,
scene-building, plots, ideas and genres.
CRAFT1002: Advanced topics in fiction. Covering setting, world building, character
voice, structure, and more.
CRAFT 2001: Special
Topics in Genre. Will rotate through
major genres throughout the semesters. May be taken in any order; must take at
CRAFT 2002: Developing
Writing Skills. Will focus on
advanced-level study of developing current skills, including researching
techniques and genres for further development.
BIZ1001: History of Publishing. Give an overview of publishing industry
throughout recent history (1880s to today). Cover topics in copyright, trademarks, contracts, work for hire,
self-publishing, and more.
BIZ1002: Basics of Business. Basic accounting, tax strategies, and
more. Gives additional depth on topics
in copyright applicable to the writer.
BIZ2001: Basics of Selling Fiction. An overview of current tracks in publishing,
including traditional and self-publishing. Log lines, synopses, marketing
materials, freelancing, portfolios, contracts, and bios will be covered.
BIZ2002: Basics of Marketing and Promotion for
Writers. An overview of book design and
packaging, distribution, and passive and active promotion. Focus on ethics.
Note: Those following the publishing track are
required to take BIZ1001 and 1002 only.
Those following the Presence track should replace BIZ2002 with another
And one class a semester for your writing; in other words, paying a professional writer
to listen to you whine about writing and help you address specific topics as
you go along.
That covers, at a minimum, twelve classes of the
sixteen. Paid internships at the
imprints are highly recommended.
EDIT1001: Basic fiction editing. Proofreading.
EDIT1002: Intermediate fiction editing. Copyediting.
EDIT2001: Advanced fiction editing. Acquiring and managerial editing, with an eye
to working for/developing a magazine or imprint.
EDIT2002: Developmental editing. Emphasis on appropriateness to genre and
preserving authorial voice.
DES1001: Basic Book Design. Covers, interiors, ebooks, and more.
DES1002: Cover Design for Non-Artists.
DES2001: Basic Marketing Design. Websites, ads, promotional materials.
DES2002: Advanced Cover Design.
PRES1001: Basic Online Presence. Social media, blogging, mailing list,
keywords, and newsletters. Includes
writing articles and online interviews.
PRES1002: Basic Community Building. Forums, writer groups/collectives,
co-promotion, co-writing, bookstores, libraries.
PRES2001: Branding. Developing a consistent, logical brand from the writing through
promotions phases. Special focus on
marketing what you write, not writing to market.
PRES2002: Intermediate Presence. Press releases, tours, in-person/voice
interviews, appearances, release parties, and more.
PUB2001: Basics of Publishing. An overview of the issues involved in setting
up a small or independent press, with a focus on writing a business plan.
PUB2002: Intermediate Publishing. Focus on employees, schedules, contracts, and
Note: Those following the publishing track must
also take EDIT1001, DES1001, and PRES1001, 1002, and 2001.
I hit 48 hours of course work for everyone that isn’t on the
publisher track; they really ought to take a third year or graduate on the
presence track and come back for the other classes as they get time.
This is not a
complete list of things you really ought to know as a writer. But imagine hiring someone who knows this
stuff: An editor who understands genre
and when not to screw with your words. A
writer who has a clue about writing a marketing plan. A publisher who knows how not to fold in six
months. A book designer who makes covers
appropriate to the genre and doesn’t get road rage from being asked to make
room for a title.
Yes, there’s less of a focus on workshopping and standard
literary analysis courses, and more of a focus on getting words on page and
money in your pocket. And yes, all
genres and paths to publication will have to play nicely together. A miracle!
My hope is that injecting this kind of professional into the
writing industry would reduce the amount of wheel-spinning it takes to
establish a professional career as well as increase the general level of
knowledge about the publishing industry, making it harder to screw writers
Please don’t take this as an end-all, be-all list. I wanted to make sure that I had a reasonable
number of courses for an MFA, which means that your doctorate-level writer
courses and post-doc course of study are not
included in this list.
Learning to be a
writer appears to be a lifelong quest; you don’t think a little MFA’s going to
cover everything, do you?
What would your
fantasy MFA look like?
About the Author: DeAnna Knippling started freelancing in May 2011 and wouldn’t be able to do it without her wonderful family and friends, especially her husband. In fact, she owes a lot to Pikes Peak Writers for helping her be a better writer, especially through the Write Brains, both in the lectures and in meeting lots of other writers.
Her reason for writing is to entertain by celebrating her family’s tradition of dry yet merry wit, and to help ease the suffering of lack of self-confidence, having suffered it many years herself. She also likes to poke around and ask difficult questions, because she hates it when people assume something must be so.
For more kicks in the writerly pants, see her blog at www.deannaknippling.com or her ebook How to Fail & Keep on Writing, available at Smashwords, B&N, Amazon, and OmniLit.