Monday, October 27, 2014

Fantasy MFA

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 really believe 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 program.

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 and Writers) 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 hours).

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 listing 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 (16 classes).
  • 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.
Course Listing:

Required Courses:

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 least one.

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 elective.

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.  Ethics.

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 tax/accounting issues.

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 over. 

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 or her ebook How to Fail & Keep on Writing, available at Smashwords, B&N, Amazon, and OmniLit.


  1. I like it! When are you starting this program? :-)

  2. Great post, DeAnna! I got my MFA from a good program (Antioch, Los Angeles) but their only business class was a three-hour seminar about creating your CV and handling university interviews. I did get a teaching job at a community college after that so the course was useful to me as a teacher. But nothing about the business side of writing for me as a writer. I'd would have loved this MFA program. And I'd teach at it now if I could.


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