Sunday, June 2, 2013

Should I Get a Writing Degree?

(A solo post by Mark)

"Should I think about enrolling in a writing course or maybe a writing program?"

I get that question a lot, and the answer is always soul-searching for me. The advice is cheap, but the consequences to an aspiring or even established writer (more on that later) are enormous.

I get the question because my day job is half writing teacher and half program director for an MFA in Creative Writing. But it's not a simple question to answer.

Sometimes, the answer I give is "No." That used to be easy because almost all the MFAs out there focused on literary writing. Not really the ideal environment for someone who wants to publish popular genre fiction. Plus students -- often "grown ups" -- ha tveo pull up tent stakes and give up lifestyles, friends, and home.

For the January 2011 issue, Writer's Digest asked me to write an article about the whole lit-vs-genre MFA issue, so I got a chance to give advice to (gasp) an even bigger group of writers. But the question doesn't go away with the recent  proliferation of so-called "low-residency" MFAs, the decision is harder to blow off (or, in my case, advise). These programs let someone take most of the classes online and only attend campus classes during scheduled vacation time.

The other factor is that a small number of MFAs finally focus on genre fiction.

In fact, that's what my program does. It sounded like a good idea to me because that's what I wish I could have done.

Of course, I got there without the vetting and training of such a degree, and hence the odd situation I find myself in when someone -- often a potential student -- asks me for my honest opinion about whether or not to spend the money and time. Is it worth it?

I have to confess my honest answer isn't "Yes." Instead, it's "Maybe." And then I turn the question into one of my own: "Is it worth it to you?"

Last year, we had a New York Times best-selling author become a student in the program. She's a successful children's author, but she wanted to retool to pursue adult fiction. In her opinion, the fast-track to that change was getting direct training from author-teachers who knew that publishing culture and those markets already.

She confirmed my faith that the answer can be "yes." But at the same time, I still don't think it's the right answer for everyone. Although neither Kym nor I come even close to being "best selling," we still came to writing fiction from a background as professional journalists -- we knew already what it was like to make a living as authors and the realities of depending on writing as a way to make that living.

In that sense, I think "maybe" is still the best answer. There are many paths to succeeding as an author -- and on many levels. One path might be an MFA. But the only time I flat out say "Yes" is when I see a combination of talent, commitment, and experience that tells me a student is coming into the program with eyes wide open.
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If interested, here are three schools out there that focus on genre fiction:
There are also good online genre writers support groups (Yahoo comes to mind), as well as Goodreads and LinkedIn groups, but all too numerous to list! And please feel free to add specific ones you think are useful in comments to this posting.