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How I would Structure a Writing Program
I’m going to start with the caveats and disclaimers. First, you don’t have to listen to me. Basically ever. If your experience was different or you disagree: fantastic. Second, I got my MFA at the University of Southern Mississippi in 2003. TWENTY YEARS AGO LOL. Obviously different programs are different, things have changed, etc etc etc. But I was at lunch with an editor this week and we were talking about MFA programs, and I was also thinking about this tweet and I, of course, had an idea that would solve everyone’s writing and publishing problems forever and ever.1
I read a book that I thought had a great, great, great pitch, but I didn’t love it overall, in the end. No, it is not your book. I am 1000% certain this author does not read this newsletter. I’m not going to tell you what book it was because maybe you’ll love it. I know it hurts to think that some reader might think this about your book, but let’s be honest, this is a relatively minor criticism. And I already bought the book, so joke’s on me! The author has my money! Who cares what I think?
I was explaining this to the editor I had lunch with this week, and she said she’s had the same experience. Before you get all worried that us agents and editors just sit around and talk shit about your book (it’s not your book) at lunch, and/or that now you have to worry about not having too good a pitch (ha no), I want to say that yes, we both noticed this phenomenon in publishing, it’s not news, and we actually disagreed about several books we thought had great pitches and lackluster follow through or bad (or absent) pitches and fantastic follow through. SO! There’s no one way to do this, except to have a spectacular pitch and give the reader an amazing reading experience, and really, that’s the holy grail for all writers and publishers everywhere.
Some books really are all pitch and no there there, at least to some readers. Some ideas are great ideas and not much else. We’ve all had ideas we tried to write and realized the story was a little thin in the end. Some of those books get sold. This is ok! Books are not perfect! Publishing is not a meritocracy! Even “bad” books (this book was not “bad”) get published!
Now, here’s my solution to the issue of books that are either all pitch and nothing else or all beauty and no story. You don’t have to do this in an MFA program, but I’m going to use that structure to illustrate what I’m talking about. I don’t think anyone has to go to graduate school for writing, and tbh I do not think you should go into great debt to do so. No one is asking for your diploma before they offer you a book deal. But one of the benefits of those programs is dedicated time to write, and if you can swing it, this is what I think you should do there:
In the first year:
Learn genre forms
MFAs often, but not exclusively, focus on short stories because they’re easier to fit into a weekly workshop class schedule. They’re often, but not exclusively, literary fiction meant to be published in the few trade magazines or journals that still publish fiction (The New Yorker, etc) or an eventual short story collection. You might recall how hard I said it was to sell a short story collection. This is mostly fine.
BUT, I think these programs should go one step further and encourage, nay, assign, short stories in various genres so that writers can practice the mechanics of those genres. Because if you see how a mystery functions on a sentence and story level, then you can add that to your literary novel and who knows you might write the next The Secret History. Or it could elevate your quiet campus romance to a capital R romance and sell it for a million bucks and come back and fund scholarships for 100 students at your beloved alma mater.
Is the goal always money? No. Do you have to write in a specific genre to survive as a writer? No. But if you understand the mechanics of different genres and story structures you can take those things and add in your art and really wow readers instead of having assembled a beautiful collection of words that isn’t anything other than that.
Maybe writers learn some of this stuff in undergraduate literature courses, at least in the form of deconstructing novels and stories to see how they are saying what they are saying, but I think it’s important for writers to approach this in a practical way, with an eye to how they would do it, not just how the author did it.
Learn Publishing Stuff
Obviously I’m biased, and this isn’t the first time I’ve said this, but I think writers should get an overview of how traditional (and self!) publishing works so they have at least a baseline understanding before they are expected to instantly sell their short story collection and novel-in-progress for six figures a month after graduation. What? You don’t think that’s what some of them expect? You’d be wrong.
You might be also thinking ohhhh but they should just be focusing on their art!!! And they should be thinking about their work in terms of artistic expression. But they’re going to be working on and thinking about and discovering more about this for the rest of their careers. At no other time will they be in a classroom setting where a professor can invite actual publishing professionals to come and talk about the realities of a business they probably hope to be part of one day. No one has to write with an eye on publication. But most writers want to be published. Talking about commerce does not spoil art.
In the second year:
Write, write, write, write
That second year should be all workshops and literature courses where writers write and read their hearts out. With a foundation of form and genre (and business) they’ll have a better understanding of how the books they love (and hate) work and how they did or did not preform in the publishing ecosystem in which they want to participate. They won’t have direct access to sales figures and such, because none of us do, but they can look at other things like reviews and publicity, etc. This will not break the tenderhearted writer. This will not expose them to the seedy underbelly of Goodreads and inflated advances and “bad” books that get a lot of attention. They already know about this shit. It will just help them connect the dots on how readers view books in the marketplace and how as writers they can help reach for whatever reaction they want those readers to have. More focus on the reader, less on the writer, TBH.
There are abundant claims that MFA programs pump out the same navel-gazing drivel year after year. They’ve been saying this since I was in grad school. MFA programs are not equitable, not always safe or productive places for marginalized writers, or writers who actively want to write in a specific genre. (Apologies to the girl in my program who wanted to write SF. We were jerks. I’m sorry.) No one has to go to an MFA program to be a writer.
What I’m getting at here is that if writers considered both the mechanics of story (plot, tension, payoff, etc at the forefront of many capital G genres2 ) AS WELL AS the art of prose, then me and this editor would have fewer books to talk about at lunch that promised much and delivered less. AND PROBABLY MAYBE HOPEFULLY those writers would find more success because there’s nothing easier to sell than a beautiful book with a strong pitch.
There’s a lot missing in this discussion. You might be totally confused about what genres I’m talking about and/or what a pitch really means and that’s ok. If you have a question, leave it in the comments. Someone said to me last night Kate you should just open your own school (It was you, Glynnis, wasn’t it?) and LOL I do not have time, money, or enough expertise for that. But if your job is to book people to come talk to your class, any level, lmk. I love talking about publishing.
Mystery, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Thriller, Romance etc etc etc