This has to pop up on the writing boards once a month.
“I’m applying to M.F.A. programs!”
“Should I get a B.A. in Creative Writing?”
“Do writing classes help you become a successful writer?
“Will my college professor be excited to read my 400,000 word space opera that used to be Dr. Who slash fic?”
The truth is, people have some strong opinions about academia and creative writing. Very strong. Like, think of the strongest coffee you ever drank now leave it in the coffee pot all day and add a few tablespoons of instant coffee, let it simmer for another few hours then make it into a coffee reduction sauce. Wait for it to get nice and thick. Now drink it. Or put it on your pancakes.
Anyway, strong opinions.
I have an MFA, so I’ll do my best to answer some of these questions. Just please remember that you’re going to get some responses all over the place, ranging from, “Cool, go for it,” to “Don’t bother. Why do you need an MFA?”
Here’s my experience.
I worked freelance as a writer for years and realized I had no craft, just raw intuition that wasn’t evolving. I got my B.A. in literature/creative writing, then moved right into an M.F.A. (fiction). Here’s the thing, the academic route worked for me. I thrived under those conditions. Others will not. Others will get all of that information without paying for a degree. Others will be amazingly successful without stepping into a college. Ever. Forever-ever. The big question is: which one are you? If you’re certain that the M.F.A. is your way, then read on…..
Most traditional programs are not genre-friendly. If it’s on the top 50 list on Poets&Writers, it’s probably a traditional program that hates genre with the intensity of a thousand suns. It burns us, precious. BURRNNNSSSSSS. What does this mean for you? Well, I chose to step away from genre to learn craft at the literary (raw) level. No bells and whistles, no genre conventions. It worked for me. It was the best gift I ever gave myself as a writer. But that’s my way. We’re back to the, “What is YOUR way?” thing again.
If lit-fic’s not what you’re looking for, then you’ll probably need something like a low-res program. There are some great ones out there that focus on genre and commercial fiction.
Here’s the difference in my mind:
1. Traditional programs will have funding opportunities. (Not ALL, but most). That means you’ll become a GTA, teach comp. and lit courses to freshmen who haven’t read a book in their life and who don’t know where “those thingies around dialogue” go. You’ll teach 2-3 courses a semester. You’ll get your tuition covered. You’ll probably get health insurance too. And you’ll get a monthly stipend. (Mine was $1800/month). It means you’re more strapped for time. Yes, your writing does suffer, and you might not have much of a social life. But you won’t be 100k in debt by the end of it all. I also had a LOT of internship opportunities (non-paid), but I worked for a lit-mag, did some typesetting, taught at a jail, and so forth. Looks great on the resume.
2. Low-Res programs probably have no funding opportunities. You pay for it out of pocket or you get a loan. You don’t have to teach so you can focus on writing and school work. You come out with a nice, hefty loan that will take you 20 years to pay off, but hey, people do it. AND, from what I’ve seen of low-res programs, many of them focus on the business side of things. They WANT you to get published. They help you meet agents and publishers. The more successful you are, the better the school looks.
One question to ask yourself might be: What do I want to do with my MFA? If you say, “I want to learn about creative writing,” then honestly? You can learn all of that by reading threads on net-forums such as Absolute Write. I’m not exaggerating. Some online forums rock and you get to know other people who rock and the epic awesomeness makes you cry inside because it’s just THAT GOOD. There is a downside, though. Wherever you find the “perfect forum,” you will usually stumble upon its opposite: suck-board, hate-board, critique-make-you-cry-or-pee-your-pants board. Be careful. Some writers are dicks and when they fail, they want you to fail, too.
Having said all of the above, I (personally) needed academic structure to grow as fast/much as I did. Reading books and emulating helped, but I needed better one-on-one instruction. Just something to think about.
If you want to teach creative writing, then the best suggestion I can offer is to finish a book BEFORE YOU go into the program, turn that in (piece by piece) to workshop, and get it query-ready over the course of the M.F.A.. Why? Because it doesn’t matter how much teaching experience you have. It doesn’t matter if you have a Ph.D. in “Creative Writing.” What matters the most is that you are PUBLISHED. Not self-published, not vanity published, not published through Donny down the street who makes guerilla book orders. By a publishing house. One that has books in Barnes and Noble. And, it probably can’t be genre, though I’d love to hear a success story from someone who got a full-time (creative writing) teaching position after having published a werewolf series.
If you don’t have a publication before you start applying to teach creative writing, chances are, you’ll be teaching adjunct at a university or community college. Once in a while, you might get a lit course or a creative writing course, but for the most part, you’ll be teaching English Comp.. And probably dying a little bit inside an hour at a time. Don’t get me wrong, comp. professors are badass, but a creative writing instructor trying to find fulfillment and meaningful andragogy teaching composition is like telling a tiger to go forth and be a vegetarian. We’re just not built that way;..
There are other jobs out there for M.F.A.-holders. Pals of mine are working at creative firms, magazines, publishing houses. But, they all had internships as editors and typesetters at the traditional universities.
Here’s another big question: Does a degree add value? As in make you more publishable? Or look good on a query? The answer is a big, fat, hairy NO to both.
Having a B.A. in English and an M.F.A. here (fiction) I know that it made me a better writer, but that was my own personal experience. Others will have different experiences. The question is, can you learn the material on your own and through reading fiction/craft books/threads on a cool-ass writing forum and writing your bum off? Or, do you think you’ll do better with the academic structure/rigor?
You may not know the answer right now. But don’t let one or two bad experiences in the classroom jade you forever. I see this a lot on writing forums. ”I had a shitty creative writing teacher. They just didn’t GET ME. I hate schools and I AM NEVER COMING BACK!”
The first creative writing class I took was awful. The teacher was drunk half the time and seemed to be a failed writer who was taking his inadequacy out on the students. I dropped the course. If I had taken that one experience and said, “Wow, academics is not for me,” I wouldn’t have gotten all the amazing instruction that came after. I tried the class again with another instructor, loved it, and kept going from there.
I thrived in my program, even won a fellowship and averaged two publications per year (short stories). But in my heart I’ll always be a genre writer and I can take all of that knowledge and use it for the power of geekdom. I feel like it’s served me well.
(LOL Carlton fortune teller)
You know what? I like certain tropes in fantasy and sci-fi. That means prophecy. Someone posed the question about whether or not to include prophecy in fantasy writing, whether or not it’s cliche, or an overused trope. I say go for it. Read some Nostradamus.
Arthurian legend has good prophetic material.
The best prophecies are the ones that aren’t 100% true/legit, whatever. It’s like the great Azor Ahai prophecy from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. You have the obvious choices and you have the not-so-obvious choices, and you have the whole notion that you can probably make the prophecy fit whomever because the clues aren’t always literal but metaphorical. Or are they?
It’s a great way to say, “Hey! Look at what I’m doing with my hand. Yeah! Shiny prophecy! Signs point HERE,” then the writer is using sleight of hand to sneak in the less obvious choice.
I think of Lady in the Water (sorry, I know a lot of people hate that movie, but I enjoyed it). You have someone that completely misinterprets the signs and almost fracks the whole thing up. Then, the real interpretation unfolds.
Lots you can do with it.
Here’s the thing. You wait around long enough and most prophecies would probably come to pass, right? Just look at Nostradamus. People are constantly trying to say, “YES, he predicted 9/11! Here is the proof! I’m interpreting it in X way and I’m right!”
And you have no idea if it’s right, but it sounds like it might be. And that’s magical and mystical. And ooooo, what if?
In another 20 years, we might have another “two steel birds falling from the sky on the Metropolis….” situation that will also fit.
Consider why a prophecy might be created. To bring hope in a time of turmoil and suffering? Religious reasons? (Control, hope, eternal salvation.)
Also consider self-fulfilling prophecies like Oedipus. Someone goes out of their way to avoid a prophecy and because they took those severe actions, they ended up bringing it about themselves.
I think they’re great in fantasy, especially when they:
1. Don’t come true exactly as you think they might.
2. Mean something completely different than what you imagine.
3. Come true but make things a lot worse (or trigger a nastiness).
You’re going to get the cliche eye-roll from a lot of people. Oh my GAWWWWD, PROPHECY!
Just like you get people saying, “OMG, MEDIEVAL FANTASY…………”
There are obviously markets for these things. Big, fat, glorious markets.
This title sounds like a call-out for some monster truck commercial. MASS CHAOS!
As I am nearing the beginning of a long journey into doctorate academics, I’m also trying to narrow my research focus. Right now, I’m interested in video games, yes, but specifically MMORPGs (like WoW, Everquest, Rift, etc.). I want to look at the narratives of these games.
My theory is that gamers care less and less about the storylines and are more goal-oriented. I hope to try and procure some time on the CSU WoW server (they have their own World of Warcraft server for research). Or, perhaps find another way to set up the following research. I four conditions in mind.
- Low narrative quests.
- High narrative quests. (Same quest with more “storyline”)
- Low narrative quests WITH CURSE addons (CURSE will show players where to go to complete quests, taking all the guesswork out of where and what).
- High narrative quests WITH CURSE addons.
I want to see how long people are reading (and where that fits into an average). Are they clicking through the quest text quickly? Are they taking a long time to read it? Maybe a short quiz at the end (or open-ended question) that asks them what they remember about the narrative.
I have a feeling that when given the “cheat” addons, people will be less interested in narrative and will simply go for the end result.
First step? Finding studies who have either done this already, or, have done something similar.
I can also look at transcripts to content analyze for things like gender, age, education–to see if that plays any part in how closely gamers look at narrative. Maybe women pay more attention to it. Maybe men do. Maybe younger people do.
Some great shift happened in MMORPGs where it became less about narrative and more about goals, raiding, flagging, and working through a progression. Back in the old Everquest days, there was still attention to quest lore and material. I remember reading quests and being interested in the storylines. Sometime around Planes of Power (and after) I read the lore material less and less.
What is also cool about all of this is that I think RPGs in general (tabletop games like D&D) have some answers. I consider the RPG “heyday” to be AD&D time, when they were cranking out boxed sets with new worlds and new stories: Ravenloft, Dark Sun, Birthright, etc. Instead of revamping rules and stat-keeping, they were simply giving players new worlds to play in. Along with that came new mysteries and new things to explore. The cool part? Most of those boxed sets had extremely successful novels that accompanied the set. Dark Sun, Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance. There was narrative everywhere.
Then, RPGs changed, too. D&D came out with 3.0, and 3.5 and 4.0 and on and on. RPGs went D20 and tried to standardized game mechanics. They seemed to become so focused on getting the perfect game system that people stopped caring about the storylines and narratives.
AD&D (and 2nd edition) to some extent wasn’t perfect, but most people came up with homemade fixes that worked well enough for their campaigns.
Perhaps mechanics took front seat to narrative enjoyment. I don’t know, but I aim to find out.
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More next month!
I met Jonathan in the MFA program at CSU. From his very first story, I knew he had it. Raw talent mixed with sublime technique. Most of us only get one of those and have to work our butts off for the other.
Me? Raw talent. Intuition. Voice.
The technique is still a work in progress, but coming along.
A Constant Stream of Abrupt Movements is a story by Jonathan that really stuck with me after I read it. You can find it [HERE] at Passages North. In the piece, the narrator reflects on his mother running off when he was a boy. This spoke to the child in me, a reminder of a time when my own father ran out. The only difference was that my father always came back home–at least in the beginning.
I was seven or eight and we’d just gotten our television set hooked up to HBO. New, exciting! Back then, they ran the same movie over and over again at night. It went from 6pm until the wee hours of the morning.
“I’m going to the grocery store,” my dad would say on his way out the door.
I remember watching Coal Miner’s Daughter 3 times in a row before he came back home one night. Being so young, I didn’t understand some of the more adult scenes, but I liked hearing Sissy Spacek sing. I’d get out my cassette tape recorder and sing, “Mamaaaas don’t let your babies grow up to be cowbooyyyysss,” then play it back. The more twang I used, the better I sounded.
I watched a lot of movies on HBO, and my dad went to the store a lot. The thing is, he wouldn’t come back home with any food. He’d stumble in, slur a goodnight and pass out on the couch.
It’s these small, lonely moments that stick with us. I can’t hear Loretta Lynn without thinking about those nights.
Perhaps that’s why I write, to capture those memories in a jar like lightning bugs and save them for a scene that needs a little bit of that pit in the bottom of my stomach that wouldn’t stop churning as I watched a woman sitting on her front porch strumming a guitar. Writers are cannibals. We scavenge scenes from discarded stories, we pull our inspiration from a conversation overheard at Dennys (or the waiting room at the breast imagining center). And we know when to flip through the pages of our past and find the string that connects us to our characters.
I think we can surprise ourselves when we realize how much we’ve felt across a lifetime. What’s buried there now, waiting to be found?
Different “Tattoo,” but hey, I love this picture. Anyone growing up in the 70′s and 80′s will look upon this picture and feel their hearts grow warm and fuzzy. I loved the Saturday line-up: Love Boat followed by Fantasy Island. I remember a creepy ventriloquist episode. I still have an unnatural fear of dolls and clowns (and ventriloquist dummies).
Anyhoo, back to the other kind of tattoo . . . .
I am researching tattooing methods for the book. Fascinating stuff! How did one go about tattooing their skin in medieval times? In ancient times? I read a up on the various methods: piercing the skin, puncturing, and cutting. Paul Roe (tattoo artist) writes:
“Some of the earliest tattooing needles date from the Upper Paleolithic period (10,000 BCE to 38,000 BCE)
Found at several archaeological digs around Europe, the sharpened bone needles pierced the skin easily and the pigment came from dipping the needle into holes in a disc of red ochre mixed with clay.”
It didn’t even occur to me that tattooing and marking the skin went back so far. Fascinating stuff! I settled on a cross between the Polynesian method (the comb/rake) and the Japanese method of tebori.
I hope the fusion doesn’t ring false. I might have some more tattoo-educated pals look at the passages for me to make sure. I know I’m writing fantasy here, but I also don’t want to shoot myself in the eye on a stupid detail that makes no sense.
These tattoos are an important part of the story–a means to show a character’s progression through the ranks.
I have three tattoos myself. The first one I got at age 20. My friend Christy and I decided to “go for it,” and get ourselves a slammin’ tattoo. Keep in mind that this was 1991, a time when tattoos weren’t all that mainstream. But, we felt pretty badass walking into that tattoo shop in Golden, Colorado and inking up. My pal got a delicate butterfly on her hip. I got a tattoo of Hobbes (from Calvin and Hobbes) on my chest.
First off, awful place for a tattoo. I regretted the decision a few years later. It marred my bosom, ya know? And I realized that when I would show people, I was asking them to look at my cleavage. I still have it, but will probably get this one removed someday. It’s all smudgy now. You can barely see the colors. Don’t get me wrong, I love Hobbes, but yeah . . . lesson learned.
The second tattoo I got with another pal, Keri. We were walking out of Macy’s one day and I said, “I want to get a tattoo,” and she said, “Let’s do it.” So, we drove along Colorado BLVD in Denver and settled on a place called Phantom Tattoo. It took us 3 hours to settle on a simple Chinese symbol (Strength) that would go on the back of our necks. I know, I know. I hear from so many people now about “those stupid Americans who get Chinese character tattoos.” But, like Hobbes, Keri and I were a little ahead of our time. We did it when it was COOL. I swear. Everyone else? PSHAH!
I love my “strength” tattoo. I love that I got it with a pal who embodies the word “strength” in my mind. I love that we share this.
My third tattoo is a phoenix (tribal in style). I got this when I quit my 9 to 5 job to go back to school to study writing, to write freelance, to finally take that big leap. It was a big step for me, a huge deal and undertaking. The tattoo is on my ankle. It’s lost some of the coloring and detail, though.
Yes, my feet and ankles are quite hideous, but the tattoo is not hideous! I love it.
Someday, I do hope to get more, but I want them to hold significant meaning for me, perhaps as they do for one of my characters in the novel. When the time is right (and when I find the right image) it will happen.
Until then, there’s more research to be done, more writing to finish, and more milestones to strive toward.
Yes, vampires are “in” now, thanks to the series-that-shall-not-be-named. Or maybe not. Agents seem to be pretty anti-vampire when it comes to their submission wish lists. I don’t know. Trends are weird. What I do know is that vampires have been cool for a long time and now they’re kind of weak. I mean it’s not all epic-fail material, but pretty dang close.
As a child of the 80s, I consider the vampire quite a different animal in a sense. None of this sparkling, tweeny pining BS, but tragedy and horror, films that made you question whether or not you’d actually go through with the whole thing if Mr. Vampire Hottie Pants showed up at your door and said, “Come on, baby!”
So, I give you my top five vampire films from my lifetime (40ish years). In no particular order:
Say wuuut? Kathyrn Bigelow directed a vampire movie? You bet your sweet bum she did. Near Dark is one of the best vampire movies out there with a truly stellar cast: Lance Henricksen, Bill Paxton, Adrian Pasdar, Jenette Goldstein. (Whoah, half the cast from Aliens? Well, Bigelow was married to James Cameron who directed Aliens in 1986, then lo and behold, Near Dark comes out in 1987. Why break up the dream team?)
What was so great about Near Dark was that the vampires weren’t all slick, Wall Street, Gucci-wearing studs, they looked like they walked out of a Hell’s Angels biker bar. You could almost smell the stink and sweat on them and when they targeted you as a victim, there was no lusty exchanges where eyes met and someone licked their lips, pure, undiluted fear. ”This guy is going to tear my throat out.”
In a sense, this is vampire-meets-western. You walk into the wrong bar and you’re dead. Bill Paxton, “This is some pretty shit” kind of dead.
Sensual, refined horror, but not in the eye-rolling, shiny kind of way. I always loved Tony Scott’s The Hunger. Beautifully filmed, superbly acted. It’s a story based on Whitley Strieber’s novel of the same name. (The same Whitley Strieber who wrote Communion and other alien abduction literature.) The book is a fabulous read and quite different from the movie. These vampires are genetic, born into their race. When Miriam, a vampire born in Egyptian times, tries to create progeny, things go smoothly for a few hundred years before her “children” (and lovers) begin to decline rapidly.
David Bowie plays Miriam’s recent lover, David, and Susan Sarandon plays Sarah, a young physician who is studying age and immortality. Sexy scenes, frightening revelations, another story that makes you ponder whether or not vampirism is truly worth it–given what happens to Miriam’s companions once they begin to diminish.
In the 80′s this movie became so coveted in video rental stores that you had to slap down a $50 deposit just to rent it. People were stealing the movies. It was also around this time that Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles were really picking up steam.
Interview with a Vampire
The Hunger leads nicely into Interview with a Vampire. Sure, the film had flaws (one of which was not Tom Cruise, imho. I thought Cruise nailed the role of Lestat.) But, again, this wasn’t the pretty little high school vampire who pranced around looking broody. Living the life of a vampire was kind of shitty in Rice’s world. The transformation was grueling, the fear of exposure and danger was omnipresent.
Vampires had their mystique, certainly, their lavish lifestyles, their clothing, their mannerisms, but there was also something quite grotesque about them as well. The film does a great job of letting you see them in their fine clothes, but look close enough and you see the pale skin, the protruding veins, the preternatural form.
Kirsten Dunst made a wonderful Claudia–a character in the first book that I had a hard time with as a reader. Something about her rubbed me the wrong way, but Dunst made me feel for her, sympathize for this wise woman trapped in a little girl’s body. Mood, cinematography, music. All came together nicely.
I had nightmares about this kid (at the window) for years after first seeing Salem’s Lot. Stephen King takes on the nosferatu: more beast than beauty. This is the monster in the closet. Nothing romantic going on here. Just death. And blood. And old cellars and musty smells.
Salem’s Lot utilizes the ghost story trope. The creepy old house in a small town. Things go bump in the night. When we do finally see the big bad vampire, it’s scary, it’s exhilarating.
Side Note: Check out Silver Bullet as well, King’s take on the werewolf. Gary Busey and Corey Haim! You can’t get more 80′s than that.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Rich and gothic, Coppola’s adaptation brings the source material to life in truly remarkable way. Like Interview with a Vampire, this film has its flaws (cough: Keanu Reeves), but Oldman nails his role as Dracula–from the early scenes as Vlad the Impaler, to his powdery-pale, blood-licking Methuselan.
Ryder was hit or miss for me, but Sadie Frost’s portrayal of Lucy seemed to make up for it, as did Anthony Hopkins’ stint as Van Helsing. This isn’t a story that makes you think, “Hmm, vampirism, sounds cool!” You’re given the romanticized perspective in one hand and the foul horror in the other.
Let the Right One In: This almost made my top 5. It probably should have. Read the book. Watch the film.
Fright Night: Great, fun, campy vampire story.
The Lost Boys: Funny and humorous, but vampires are still sinister in this flick.
One has to wonder why we’ve turned vampires into fluffy, sparkling unicorns. Perhaps society is becoming better equipped to embrace the Other when it’s dressed up like one of the guys from N’Synch. What makes a great vampire story (and a great vampire character) is the pain and suffering that comes with it all. HBO’s True Blood touches on this to some extent. The Vampire Diaries as well. But overall, vampires have lost their bite.
In epic fantasy, the “grimdark” pendulum seems to be pretty far into the dire, horrible, awful realm. Nobody wins. Nobody gets what they want. Vampire literature? Direct opposite. It’s all too clean. The above movies remind us that vampires are not, in fact, human, and that being one of the undead isn’t full of daisies and cotton candy and high school crushes.
It will be interesting to see if the pendulum swings back anytime soon.
The title isn’t relevant to anything but this picture of Vladimir Putin riding a bear. I’m sorry. I feel shame for my actions (sort of).
I have a friend from Russia and she posts funnies about Putin all the time. Since I can’t post anymore Paula Deen pictures, I found myself a new internet fantasy buddy. (Oh, Paula, why? Why???)
More serious stuff ahead.
You know that song “The Space Between” by the Dave Matthews Band? That’s what my life is like right now, all this stuff that happens in between the duties, tasks, and big-stuff of the day. That’s when I write, when I edit, when I read, when I give my muse some TLC. There is waiting, too. Important waiting.
To pass the waiting time, I started reading Dave Farland’s The Runelords. I’m really liking it. It’s a different style/flavor than I’m used to reading in my fantasy, but in a really good way. I was hooked from the first few pages and have been keeping my kindle close so that I can return to it throughout the day.
Little else to report other than I’ve learned that the best way to reheat Chinese food is to fry it in a pan instead of nuking it. I now pass this knowledge unto you. Go forth and fry.
I have been a writing slacker over the last few days. I think it all comes down to bad time management. I need to nip that in the bud ASAP. Coffee helps, though. I had some today. Life is good.
WOW. I was looking for “bling gifs” to add for my coffee happiness, and I found this picture of Russell Crowe as a bird. Thank you, internet. My day is complete.
Now, onto important book stuff . . .
The ending has changed in the book. I’ve mentioned that before. I’m looking forward to writing my way there. It will give the novel more resolution in a sense. Sure, it’s meant to be part 1 of a trilogy, but from what I’ve read, one simply cannot sell trilogies outright these days. They need to love the first book. You can pitch it as a trilogy. According to Sarah Megibow from the Nelson Agency (took her stellar publishing workshop two years ago), you can suggest “series potential” in the query letter for your first book, but in the end, your literary fate is in the hands of bigger and more important publication folks.
Speaking of the query letter, mine starts off with a nice bang, but then fizzles out. Trying to work in the important stuff without sounding like a kid (and then . . . and then . . .) is harder than it looks.
Anyway, happy Russell Crowe bird day to you all. Get your coffee in!