Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

If I Were Running an MFA Program...

One of the great things about having a blog is that you can answer questions no one has asked and pontificate on things you are underqualified to even have an opinion about. This is one of those days where I get to talk from the seat of my pants about some ideas I've been tossing around at random hours that I will probably never have an opportunity to implement. Who doesn't love the Internet?

So, I ask myself, how would you run a creative writing program?

Thanks for asking, Nathan. Here's what I would do, in bullet points:

1) Decide upon the goal of the program

Is the goal of my creative writing program a) to give life to short stories, verily an art form unto itself, but which the reading public does not generally pay attention to unless they're taking a creative writing class and/or trying to place something with the New Yorker? Are universities bastions of arts, poetry, short stories, and classes like Syllogism in Synechdotal Passages in Semi-ironic Transcendental 1890s Irish Poetry, which, though abstract, are important to the advancement of human thought, arts, and culture?

Or is the goal of my creative writing program b) to teach students how to advance their writing careers, as in, write works for which they might have a gameful possibility of future writerly employment in the current (and likely future) market, as in, novels and full-length narrative nonfiction?

Both types of programs have their place. Although if it's the art for the sake of art kind, I better have some serious funding and the tuition better be free, because I'd hate to charge students a lot of money for a program for which they will have a dim prospect of gaining back the money in future writerly earnings. Learning how to write good short stories does not exactly set one on the path to repaying $40,000 in debt.

Let's go with the b) type of program: preparing a writer for the writing market he/she will face upon graduation.

2) Determine what kind of book the students want to write

Writing advice is not generally one-size fits all. A sentence is not just a sentence. And authors should know the genre they're writing in so they can hone their craft.

Genre fiction is one track. Literary fiction is another track. Narrative nonfiction is another, and serious/technical nonfiction still another. And I'm sure there are more.

But learning the customs, expectations, structure, and, most importantly, history of the genre should be a goal of the program. If you're writing genre fiction, you should know the important authors that paved the way. If you're writing narrative nonfiction, you should know the proper balance between fictionalization and historical accuracy. Some authors do this on their own, but nothing beats having a teacher guide the education process.

3) Teach plot first.

Plot comes first. Style comes second.

Without a good plot, a novel doesn't stand a chance. And yet how many MFA programs teach plot?

I'd teach plot. Macro plot, micro plot, scene building, acts, countering expectations, climaxes and nadirs, pacing, and organization. Plot plot plot plot plot. Plot.

This goes for nonfiction too. Good nonfiction has an underlying arc and a satisfying conclusion as well. It's not the same arc as a novel, but it's there.

4) Teach style second.

After plot comes style. But in that order. You have to have a skeleton underneath your skin or else you're just an unappealing pile of flesh.

(We'll teach strange imagery too.)

Style is what separates literary fiction from genre fiction, and what elevates some writers of genre fiction into those exalted writers with both literary and genre cred. Style is important.

5) Emphasize networking and self-promotion

As anyone who has embarked on the path to publication knows, writing a book is the easy part. A university has the resources to bring in agents, industry professionals, and book marketing experts in order to educate the writers on how to go about the process of publication. For instance, MFA grads have a reputation for writing terrible query letters. Why should that be??? My MFA grads would learn to write pristine query letters that make agents weep with joy.

Now, if my MFA program sounds a bit mercenary.... guilty. I would judge the success of the program by how many authors found publication after they graduated.

That said, I would never devalue the merits of short stories and having universities serve as incubators for important arts for which there is not a ready marketplace. There is a ton to be said for that, and I wouldn't want to impugn anyone who devotes themselves to the important cultural preservation of poetry and short stories.

But if your goal is to write a full-length book that you'll be able to sell upon graduation.... come get your MFA from The Nathan Bransford School of Hard Knocks: Getting Published Ain't Easy, Son.

You'll be glad you did.


Madison said...

I'm actually going to be taking some creative writing courses soon, and I can't wait! No, publishing ain't easy, but when you're doing something you love, somehow, that just doesn't matter!

bryan russell said...

Some simple practicality in our Universities? It may be too much to ask for. Having received a few degrees, including an MA in Creative Writing, I must say it seems like asking for sanity in the asylum.

Though if you want a Teaching Assistant for your program I'm game. What's the pay like?

Marilyn Peake said...

Nathan –

So, where do we sign up? :) Seriously, though, have you ever thought about teaching an online course? I have an English Lit minor, but – you're right – many college programs never mention how to sell or market novels. I would hate to see literature programs teach only what's popular, kind of like having T.V. Production programs extol the virtues of some really bad T.V. shows with high ratings. Still, it would be fantastic to learn more about literature that sells and how to market it.

C.D. Reimer said...

I'm planning to become a full time writer in five years by writing a novel a year which one hopefully becomes a breakout novel. After that I'm to go back to school to major in history and minor in English (creative writing). When that's done, I should have at least four or five novels published. Would pursuing a MFA degree make sense for me?

Steve Ulfelder said...

If I took over a creative writing program, I would immediately disband it - and be a hero.

Hattie said...

When are you starting, Nathan? ;-) Great program ideas! They sound like what I did when I taught writing in high school. Of course, I taught at a lower level -- it was high school after all. But you're write. You have to have a strong frame before you can even begin to polish the chassis. Otherwise, there's really no chassis to polish, is there?

Snarky Writer said...

I would apply for this program. I finally decided to skip my MFA and go straight to a PhD in Literature because:
1) Almost none of the programs would allow me to write fantasy (my strongest genre);
2) Almost all of the programs seemed to be peopled by snobs;
3) I've heard nothing but bad about MFA programs in general, mostly that they don't believe good writing can be TAUGHT, but is an innate ability (then what's the point of having a writing program?).

But I'd definitely postpone my doctorate for a couple of years to attend a program like this. :)

Yat-Yee said...

Sign me up.

Michael said...

I'm applying to graduate programs in creative writing right now. Nathan, how do I apply for yours?

David said...

Er, ah, cough, cough, those aren't bullet points. They're numbered points.

That would be a great MFA program. Preparing students for the world they'll actually be dealing with -- what a concept!

lauren said...

I was lucky enough to have a commercial fiction writer as my instructor for an advanced fiction writing course I took in college. Wish I could have cloned him and made him my instructor for all my other writing courses, too. He even schooled us a bit on the agent-getting process and publication process (and was candid enough to admit that he got his agent strictly through family connections. Esther Newburg!!!).

Still, a once-a-week seminar with a commercial novelist wasn't enough to school this writer completely out of her plotless ways. I've found that scriptwriting books (like your oft-recommended STORY, as well as Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT) are the best for teaching plot and structure.

If I were designing an MFA program, I'd have students take back-to-back classes from a literary short-story writer and a commercial script writer, just to completely screw with their heads. In a good way. I think. Bwahaha.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I've got my MFA, from a top school -- but I was the outcast because while I write well, my stories were all dreadful. They didn't fit the famed workshop format. In fact, they read like they needed to be novels. So my classmates begged me to write novels instead and they'd suck it up and figure out how to workshop them.

Did it do me a disservice? You betcha.

There's a school in Texas, I think it is, that runs this sort of MFA program, Nathan. I was talking to a romance author at last year's RT Convention about it. It made me wish I could start over.

spinregina said...

I'm in; sign me up. I mean it.

I would argue, however, that style is first and plot second. Who cares if the story is good if the method of telling is terrible?

Seriously, though, I would sign up in a heartbeat to either attend in person or online.

Kate H said...

Nathan, go out and start that school NOW! I'll sign up and bring my friends!

judi said...

spinregina said-"Who cares if the story is good if the method of telling is terrible?"

um, readers? esp the readers forking out the cash? I can name ten bestsellers off the top of my head that had great stories but the writing was just horrible. I could double that number if I spent a little time pondering it.

to be marketable, a novel must have a great story. it doesn't, however, NEED to have great style. huge difference.

Kate H said...

Oh, and one more point I wonder if you'd agree with: Scrap the peer critique model. The opinions of people who are at the same writing level can sometimes be helpful, but just as often can be entirely misleading. So many seem to want you to write their kind of book instead of your own.
Plus, the time it takes to review everybody else's stuff takes away from the limited time one has for one's own writing.

Margaret Yang said...

I attended this school!

I did it on my own time, in my own way, by studying a whole shelf full of how-to-write books and writing a ton. I actually did the exercises in the books, I didn't just read them. Donald Maass, Blake Snyder, Bruce Holland Rogers and Lawrence Block were my professors.

It would have shortened my learning curve a whole lot if I could have done this via a college program.

Heidi said...

I LOVE this post!

I have debated for several years about whether to get an MFA. Frankly, it ends up being more about wanting to have those letters after my name and a diploma on my wall (and to not be the only one in my family without a graduate degree), than about the education I'd get. Because the programs I looked at weren't like yours.

I'm not convinced getting an MFA is going to help me support myself as a writer (let alone paying back that tuition). And I've already done the teaching thing.

Maybe agents and editors should run these schools??

sex scenes at starbucks said...

I think this sounds wonderful, Nathan, except for one small disagreement. I would argue (as several successful novelists did this weekend at a conference, including Jim Butcher and Carrie Vaughn) that the short form makes wonderful novel training grounds. I think the problem with MFA programs is that the focus is almost always on literary rather than commercial fiction.

And, also, in some genres (speculative fiction) short stories are not dead! In fact, many authors use the short form to gain credits and promote their names.

Kate said...

Mercenary can be good. There are too many artists with their heads in the clouds who work hard all through school and now are waiting tables. Nothing wrong with that, but they thought it would be easy. It's not.

I went through music school. I know.

Anonymous said...

c.d. reimer, you are kidding, right?

If you aren't please stick around this site and other pub sites for a very long time. One cannot plan writing a breakout novel, if it were that easy, trust me we all would've done it by now.

It requires not just good writing, but a hell of a lot of luck, having a publisher pluck up your novel and making it a lead title (which almost never happens) and flooding the marketplace with publicity for it. Buzz creates breakouts (as well as good writing) and only a few books per season get this type of "buzz" generating around them.

You can't trust this to happen, in fact, you cannot trust that even one of the five novels you plan on writing will get published, much less be a breakout. It's so very competitive out there, our intentions much of the time do not match up to the realities of the business.

I'd wish you luck, but I'm too busy wishing myself luck, if you get that joke, then you understand where I'm coming from here...

Loren Eaton said...

The Writer wrote an article like this in their January 2008 issue. It was entitled, "Letter to a naïve MFA student." The conclusion? Skip the short stories and go straight for the novel.

Anonymous said...

Let's let that old saw twang again: Masters of Fine Arts is a terminal, 'art'-oriented, as opposed to a professional degree. Students are theoretically expected to understand plot, character-building etc. when they enter the program. The Masters of Fine Arts is meant to teach students how to place their work in a critical dialogue and historical context. It has nothing to do with publishing or making money. Go to a top-tier program and this what you'll get, anything else is a swindle.

jnantz said...

Yup, I'm in. Send me an Application, please!

Adaora A. said...

VERY interesting Nathan. I don't know if I've mentioned this before (or if you'd even remember with the volume of commentary you get here), but my profs are teaching style primarily and style as a secondary thing. They aren't going into what 'form' of writing a student wants to get into until something like last year. I'm not just saying this to flater you, but I think you have the right idea. I think people should know what they want - and have it be clear to them what a program offers. All of this should before they pay the money, and before they invest the time and effort. Students switch in and out of majors everyday for this reason. They don't know what they want but they know what they are in, ISN'T what they want at all. I was one of those students.

clindsay said...


Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for writing this.

And the tradition of bad query letters from MFAs continues. Last week I had a query from an MFA at a rather prestigious school that - when printed out - was three pages long. Single spaced.

Number of paragraphs devoted to hook: 0

Number of paragraphs devoted to plot: 0

Number of paragraphs devoted to THEME (the bane of my existence!): 4

Number of paragraphs devoted to blurbs by other people in the MFA program saying how great this author was: 6

Number of paragraphs to preening on paper and rattling off writing credentials: 6

It was excruciating.

Weeping into my beer,


Anonymous said...

But why go to a university if your goal is to writer commercial fiction?

All the education you need is on the shelves of your nearest chain store. Read. Then write.

Anonymous said...

CLindsey (and Nathan too), how would you guys judge the quality of top-tier MFA writing that you receive?

I hate to even suggest this, but you may be getting the dregs of those programs. The top students in top programs are probably sniped by the Nicole Aragis of the world who show up and lecture at those schools...

Nathan Bransford said...


That's a good point, and I don't want to demean MFA grads in general. But in my opinion, even if it's just one class devoted to it, no one should leave an MFA program, whatever its intent, without learning how to write a query. Sure, the goal of some writing programs is not to train writers for the real writing world and that's fine, but realistically, most fancy themselves writers and most will try and find representation when they're done.

Mark Terry said...

I'd hate to charge students a lot of money for a program for which they will have a dim prospect of gaining back the money in future writerly earnings

Uhhh.... wouldn't you pretty much have to wipe out ANY fiction writing program on the basis of that statement? Along with the majority of liberal arts programs, including music, art, sculpture, dance...?

acpaul said...

If you offer this course online, sign me up.

I agree with many of my colleagues who read this post, the MFA programs out there are horrible. They're particularly horrible if you write SF&F.

I've heard that Clarion's a good workshop for that genre, but it focuses on the short story, not the novel.

Kristan said...

Sign me up!

clindsay said...

anonymous 10:29 -

I have to be honest here; I judge on the writing alone (both the query writing and the pages I receive), as well as any past publication history the author may have. I tend to stop reading when it gets an author's education because it has no relevance for me.

I've seen queries from high-school kids and young people just starting college that were as polished (indeed, sometimes more so!) as anything I've ever received from a writer coming out of a post-graduate writing program.

Ultimately, it will always come down to your writing.



Kat Harris said...

Nathan said:I would judge the success of the program by how many authors found publication after they graduated.

Geez, you're not putting any pressure on yourself there, Nathan.

Just out of curiosity, does this school have scholarships? I'm a dirt poor writer, and your school sounds expensive.

Gerri said...


You should check out the Stonecoast MFA.

They have a low-residency MFA, which means you show up twice a year on campus, and everything else is on the Internet. They also have a popular fiction emphasis, which is what I'm really interested in.

Anonymous said...

(I am 10:02 and 10:29) - The thinking goes, I suspect, is why waste time having James Woods explain how to write a query letter? Most writers can figure out how to write one pretty easily (by reading at your site, for example). For better or for worse, MFAs are designed to be insulated from the marketplace.

Not to take potshots at your post, MFAs are such a weird confluence of class-consciousness, gatekeeping and badly explained inside baseball... that it's no wonder people freak out over them

Amber said...

This might be the ONE MFA program I might attend. I've heard from many people (Inc. published authors) that getting their MFA was the absolute worst thing they'd ever done for their writing career. Talk about spending years unlearning the things college taught them.

My degree is in computers - does that help me at all trying to be a writer :)

Erik said...

Sounds great, as far as it goes. But isn't it rather, um, important for people to have a marketable skill that pays?

I know, this is a Masters of Fine Arts, not Industrial Arts. But it seems to me that since people have this nasty habit of eating it might be a good idea to be sure they have some skill that they can use to make money in the field while they get their work written.

The easiest way out is to insist that people have said skill as part of the BA (or BS) before coming into your program, which would be great. Insisting that they have a wee bit of life experience would also be nice. :-)

matt raymond said...

As a drop out of fairly prestigious MFA program, I agree to a certain extent that MFA programs lack any practical classes. However, I also think, at least in terms of literary fiction that great writing can't really be taught, except by reading the great writers. Great writing is about breaking rules, which is a very hard thing to teach. When I got to my "prestigious" MFA program (moving completely across the country to do so) I was astounded that my workshopmates were not readers of literary fiction. Hence, their writing was about the level of a beginning undergraduate writing class (crap).

My comment to Nathan is, doesn't the industry. as well as the academy, have an obligation or interest in promoting "art" rather than just "genre"? It used to. The vibe is so anti literature that for those of us dedicated to it, well it seems hopeless. Do any publishers see writers as an investment that may take a lifetime to pay off, or are they only in it for the short term gain?

Anonymous said...


That's the great thing about writing (unlike art), once you strip away the context it is either worth reading or it isn't.

An MFA is really about placing writing in a critical discourse. They create an intoxicating pseudo hierarchy, I think these programs aren't candid enough about what they really are, and are responsible for way too much much jealousy and debt-related misery.

Nathan Bransford said...


The publishing industry is a big place, and it accommodates both commercial and artistic projects, everything from Paris Hilton to Stephen Dixon. It's always been a mix of the two, and it's always been a business.

Dana said...

Sign me up!
Seriously... you should do an online version. I'd pay for it. :)

Kristin Laughtin said...

I like #5. I haven't ever been in an MFA program myself, but know several who have (and several others who got their BAs in various creative writing programs), and their main complaint seems to be that they leave with no real idea of how to pursue a writing career. They've learned the craft and are urged to submit as much as possible, but any knowledge of query letters or submission guidelines has come from outside research on their parts.

dan radke said...

I think I heard 'query letter' said once while earning my creative writing degree.

Maybe twice.

clindsay said...

Matt -

"Commercial success" and "literary fiction" don't have to be mutually exclusive. Many great literary writers become extraordinarily successful.

I think what Nathan and I are both trying to say is that it would make sense for an MFA program to also offer at least one intensive on the business side of publishing. Law schools and medical schools do this; why should an MFA program be any less responsible toward its student body?



lotusloq said...

After what clindsay said, it's nice to know that my query as it stands is only one page long! Yea! I learned that already from the Nathan Bransford school. One thing down! Now the question is: Is it good enough?

I'd be signing up for your class. When do we start? : )

Erik said...

Matt sed:
I also think, at least in terms of literary fiction that great writing can't really be taught, except by reading the great writers.

I am quite certain that's correct. I don't know where I stack up in the world of writing skill - certainly, some people have gone pretty far out of their way to dis me, meaning I either really suck or I pose a serious threat.

While I need some training in how to organize my work and which details to pay attention to, I learn more from Pushkin and Steinbeck than I ever could from a class. What I need more than anything is practice.

I'm always curious as to what people think they got with their MFA because it's always seemed a bit mysterious to me. Your call that it's not worth much could be true, but a lot of people apparently think otherwise and enter the programs all the time.

There are some mechanical things that need to be learned, it's true. There are some things that can't be taught, including how to develop believable characters. I'm not a great judge of all of this because I have no idea what people supposedly learn now. What I can say is that a bit of coaching is very helpful - along with some Marquez and Buck.

Anonymous said...

But that's just it - Business and Law schools are professional programs. An MFA is an art degree. If they acted like a professional degree program it would kill any pretense of literature as an art-form!

Billy said...

Where were you when I was in college? (Dumb question--you were a kid.) My MFA program taught me to be a second class citizien at a second class university, teaching others about plot and style and characterization with not a thought as to whether they were going to write, teach, or sell cheeseburgers. It's good to see a solid curriculum.


Jeanne said...

I agree with those who are pro plot over style. But, I was a Journalism Major so I'm a "give me the facts" kind of person. However, I have read some very blandly written books just because I was interested in the content- the facts. For instance, I'm a big fan of books about Tudor England. This summer I devoured one that was based upon a great deal of research. Yes, it was Historical Fiction and the author had to use their imagination to create the story but the cleanliness of the plot and attention to certain details were what held my attention. In contrast, I recently had to give up reading a book written with great artistic flare, but also strayed off plot constantly. I found it boring.

The best books marry plot and skill. I guess that creating that magical combination is the hard part.

Polenth said...

Boneless people are sort of like slime molds, except they can't move. And I like slime molds, so it's not totally unappealing. If not quite as cute as a slime mold.

They wouldn't let me on an MFA I'm sure. I've got no advanced English training. But if I did do one, I'd want to learn to improve my writing. Not how to write like the person teaching it. Unfortunately, it seems like the latter is more common.

Nathan Bransford said...


Maybe I'm blinded by my agentness, but I guess I'm confused at the idea of producing literature that is pure art. Do people learn in college to write music that no one listens to or art that isn't meant to be looked at? Surely there's something important about preserving a form that isn't commercially viable but worthy, but I also think there's a whole lot of room for programs that teach literature as art that is meant to be read, i.e. publishable.

Diana said...

I'd really consider signing up for your MFA program. :) When asked about MFA programs, a speaker at a conference I attended said to really ask why you want to do it, because "MFA programs have ruined more writers than alcohol."

Marilyn Peake said...

A very difficult, often painful aspect of the publishing world for writers is that the types of books that are marketable change so radically over time. Philip K. Dick was an incredibly popular author in his day, with the movie Blade Runner based on his novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and the more recent Minority Report movie based on one of his short stories. I heard a literary agent say a couple of years ago that Dick probably wouldn’t even be published today. Novels like Hermann Hesse’s Magister Ludi (one of my favorites!) are heavily into intellectual ideas, not so heavily based on plot. Hesse was very popular years ago, not so much today. Some best-selling novels published today are so poorly written, it’s enough to bring tears to the eyes of readers who love classic literature, and that situation has probably always existed. On the other hand, there are writers today who write beautifully, plot and all, but don’t earn a dime because they don’t write in the literary category and don’t have a "hot" topic. What really amazes me is how many authors who were famous a couple of decades ago are now published only by small press and not earning much money. One of those authors, a multi-millionaire from his earlier novels, recently wrote in a newsletter that he earned around $180 on one of his present-day small press novels. Ouch. I know a writer who recently went back to school to earn her MFA after she had some very successful Stargate novels published, giving her lots of experience in both the commercial and literary aspects of writing. It's really tough to figure out what will sell by the time an author finishes writing a novel that can take a year or more to write.

Arjay said...

Great idea, Nathan! Perhaps you could work with an outside group and make it happen.

Erik said...

Why do I love this blog?

Because it feels like every discussion ultimately degenerates into a colorectal examination of the entire publishing industry.

It appeals to my both my medical and scatalogical interests at the same time.

Wendy Nelson Tokunaga said...

There are many good points in this post. I am a recent graduate from an MFA program that catered to working adults so there was quite a mix of students. Some were not so interested in publishing right away and just wanted to hone their craft. For me, I’d been trying to get novels published for years and finally had the chance to go to graduate school later in life. I felt by doing this I would be continuing to take my writing seriously. Coincidentally, I finally got a book deal right after I started the program, but I wouldn’t have traded my MFA experience for anything. I was exposed to a lot of literature I had never read before and, even if it wasn’t always to my taste, there was always something to be learned from it. There is no perfect program, but for many students it was enough to know that by completing their MFA they would be completing a book-length work, no small feat. And, while I do agree with others who have said that workshopping can have its downsides, I think it is valuable to have to critique others’ work. Doing this often made me see my own writing strengths and weaknesses more clearly. An MFA of course does not guarantee publication and even if programs were designed to be more practical they still wouldn’t. But there are many, many programs out there and for writers who for any reason want to go to grad school, they can be sure to find one that suits a lot of their needs. And often an MFA program can give students a writing community that they can cherish and call upon long after school is over.

ORION said...

I find there are many programs at universities that don't meet student's needs- primarily because some graduate programs are for producing professors and others focus on professions-- academics become perplexed when a student wants something else out of a program- I was a PhD student and continually had to 'reinvent' my courses and explain that "no I wasn't intending on being a professor"
The thing is - the consumer (student) has to be proactive and determine what does meet their needs. Some writers have benefited from being in an MFA program but many many others have not...
Like anything else.
By the way I am not an MFA- I prefer specific workshops and self study.

Anonymous said...

There is plenty of room for all types of literature, but there is a difference between critical discourse and what happens in the marketplace. High-quality MFA programs are focused on the former. By rough consensus -even within the literary agent community- there is hierarchy of literary forms. Agents usually distinguish literary and generic fiction. Literature (and this doesn't make it a better read by any measure) stakes a claim within the 'global dialog' of fiction, more commercial forms are confined to their own genre or language. That's what they mean by the Fine Art in Masters of... To put it another way, you know that no matter how good the next Vampire Romance is, it has no chance of winning a National Book Award, etc, etc.

John Arkwright said...

I have begun to suspect that saying, "I want to write fiction professionally," even if you have some talent and training is a lot like saying, "I want to go to Hollywood and be an actor."

# of queries read this week: 216
# of partials/manuscripts requested: 1
# of signed authors 0

So . . . an MFA . . . maybe as a hobby.

ehadams23 said...

I love this post. I debated about going to graduate school and researched all these MFA and MA programs in Creative Writing, English, etc. Finally I decided I would rather just save my money and time and just write what I want and read in my genre (instead of the things forced on you by the program), and do research on publishing - a topic which seems to be completely neglected from all these programs.

The Beast Mom said...

"After plot comes style. But in that order. You have to have a skeleton underneath your skin or else you're just an unappealing pile of flesh."

Ha. This cracked me up. So true.

Although a few successful examples of plotless writing DO appeal - "The Stone Diaries" for example. There is no plot whatsoever. And yet, I kept reading and reading and marveling at this story-less book. The "style" dominated and worked. So unusual. Of course, I wouldn't recommend the no-plot technique in general. It's like an ugly alien landing on Publishing-Planet-Earth. Everyone just runs away...

-beast mom

P.S. I've followed your blog for a while but have not commented til now. That quote above just got me laughing out loud. Thanks for your straightforward take on the writing industry. I enjoy it.

Gottawrite Girl said...

Yaye for teaching plot structure! All those needed elements are actually lots of bite-sized, practical do's... just read Jack Bickham's "Scene & Structure," which is a perfect tutorial! No more vaguery regarding "tention," which I am drop-dead grateful for.

Jael said...

I like a lot of these ideas, Nathan, except I don't like the idea of "tracks". In my MFA program I took fiction, poetry, and playwriting workshops, and each one helped me learn more about writing on every level. Segregating the literary types from the thriller types and so on deprives them of the ability to learn from each other. Besides, for writers who are undecided, learning everything is the best option.

And for those who advocate getting rid of workshops in MFA programs -- I learned a TON from workshops, and it's harder to workshop novels than short stories, period. You can learn craft at the short story level, and you should learn plotting and arc for novels' sake too, but you can always learn something from other writers' critique of your work, regardless of whether they're in the same genre. And I learned a lot from critiquing other people's work, too, and in seeing how a large group of people responded differently to the same piece. It's an incredible lab.

My MFA program wasn't perfect, but it made me a much better writer, and my agent is shopping my novel to editors right now.

Query strategy can be taught in a week or less. It could be part of a larger course on "The Path to Publication", which every student at Nathan's MFA program should be required to take during their last semester. Craft-honing and exploration plus practical lessons. A great combination.

Elyssa Papa said...

Can I sign up? *g*

Jeanne said...

Erik- I'm sorry but lol at your last comment. I must feel the same way. I love to check back and read the comments on this blog.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

To Marilyn Peake:

Dick would have been published if he was the sort of professional who could adapt to the marketplace. He adapted to his current marketplace, obviously. And he had brilliant ideas.

Maybe I'm blinded by my agentness, but I guess I'm confused at the idea of producing literature that is pure art.

You're not blind, Nathan. I've made a lot of art in my day and I've sold a fair bit. With experience. I've found the constraints customers put on my art actually enhances it.

Incidentally, some are constraints YOU put on it. :)

Good writers figure this out as well.

AmyB said...

I'm in! Sign me up!

Marilyn Peake said...

sex scenes at starbucks -

It's a really interesting debate. I've heard some people, including a top agent, imply that Dicks wasn't a good enough writer for an agent to take him on in today's market. He had brilliant ideas, but that might not be enough. I've heard the same said of Kurt Vonnegut whose writing I adore. I think there are so many more authors today because it's much easier to type and edit novels on computers than it was to type them on typewriters and query through snail mail. Some authors do adapt to changing times, Orson Scott Card as an example.

Anonymous said...

If you can get a university to pay for your MFA, then go for it. But if you have to take out loans to pay for it, then don't do it. It's not worth the financial strain of paying back the loans. A degree won't make you a writer. Putting your butt in the chair and cranking out drafts will.

Eileen Wiedbrauk said...

Oh! Lots of thoughs inspired by this one!
My post is up Wednesday morning at so I won't over clutter this comments page.

Eileen Wiedbrauk said...

Oh and all this speculative talk about the MFA could easily be resolved by actually reading the MFAblog -- which has covered these "funding" and "purpose" and "teachability" questions a dozen times over.

Anonymous said...

Glad to hear someone who recognizes the importance of plot! I've quit reading many novels because plot was either non-existent or was treated as an afterthought by the author, and the number of poorly plotted works gathering on my shelves continues to grow. Plot first, people!

Anonymous said...

Nadir? LOL!... Why hasn't anyone asked about THAT yet?

I've been writing professionally for nearly 10 years with millions of readers worldwide (agentless, but sorry Nathan, not in the genres you represent)... and I've only heard it used twice before - once was to describe the emotional upswings in a story and the other was for the complete opposite...

the latter aligns with the dictionary definition of "the lowest point", but perhaps in creative writing, a new definition has been unofficially prescribed at some time to indicate the full gamit of emotional swing? (Which is arguably more valuable to maximising sales than focusing on depression?)

I know u didn't intend on turning this into a creative writing lesson, but I'd love to know your take on this one teeny-but-powerful thing, if possible please?

Christine London said...

Hi Nathan,

Does this mean that you have nothing to say to all we authors known as "pantsters" Seems most fiction authors I have met will admit, if plyed with enough wine and chocolate that they more than not fly by the seat of their pants.

Doesn't mean we have no idea where we are heading with those first tentative keystrokes, but we revel in the lovely uncertainty of just how our characters will react and in what situation they might find themsleves next. Like a film in our head, if we aren't at least a little bit surprised by the turn of events, we feel our readers won't be either.

Guess when I run the world and teach my MFA class, I'll focus on "panting". would that go? Guess I'll have to wait until I get to that point in life's plot. It'll unfold as it should.
Christine London

Pamala Knight said...

Where do I sign up for the NB MFA program?

You seriously should add an extra six hours to your day and do this. I would absolutely enroll and hand my credit card over like I was at a shoe sale at Nordstroms. I could use my current television obsession time (currently it's True Blood and Mad Men) to hone my writing with the intention of elevation of craft and acquisition of fortune.

Come on! What do you expect when you lay out all these fabulous ideas for us? We want in.

Furious D said...

Great advice.

Without plot, creative writing is really creative, just writing stylishly.

At least that's my opinion.

Heidi the Hick said...

Any chance you could run that program here, y'know, like a Blog-iversity correspondence course?

And if so, you can go ahead and sign me up! I'll take it!

Anonymous said...

When do we start?

Raethe said...

I haven't read the comments, so I'm sorry if this is a repeat comment. But Nathan, I would love to see you post even a truncated version of the plot unit of your MFA program.

'Cause having troubles with external plot is bad when one is a speculative fiction writer. Ahem.

Erin Miller said...

Hi Nathan,

As much as I would appreciate such a course, the purpose of MFA's is not to churn out great short story writers or bestselling authors. It's to teach people how to TEACH creative writing courses. The point is to learn by doing, and studying, with your own writing. Yes, the best teachers would be ones who have published and who have gained some literary or reader acclaim, but they teach creative writing at the community college level as well, and those teachers need a master's degree to get those jobs, and voila, sign up for MFA in creative writing. The MFA programs out there may not churn out bestsellers the way you think they should, but they do what they were designed to do.

Corey Blake said...


I respectfully disagree with your argument to teach plot first when it comes to fiction. Think about your favorite novels and films, and I would suspect that it is not the plot you remember, it is the characters. Plot is driven by characters. And how characters are created is NOT taught in school, which is a shame. In my work with writers, I have created a process to creating three dimensional characters that drive plot. When you begin with plot, the writer is a puppetmaster. When you begin with character, the writer is a conduit for the fears and desires of characters who are clamoring for space on the page. check out my article that was published in Writer Magazine on character development.

Respectfully, Corey Blake
Writers of the Round Table Inc.

Gerri said...

Even organic writers, i.e. seat-of-pants writers benefit from learning about plot. What I tell my English composition students applies to fiction too: It doesn't matter if you write and revise, or if you outline, then write, then's all gotta be in there in the end. Knowing how plot works can help organic writers revise better, and with all that information stuffed in the back part of the brain, writers have a better chance of getting closer on the first draft.

Plus, too many MFAs teach to organic writers. Outliners need their programs, too.

Word Verification: rentell

Cesia said...

I think you should do it! Even if it starts out small, like a blog that posts a lesson/exercise each week, and anyone who wants can participate. You would have a lot of people join in, and then once everyone sees how awesome your FREE lessons are, you offer an optional advanced course for a fee!

- Cesia.

bryan russell said...

Corey Blake:

To save Nathan some time, here's a link to his thoughts on the subject you've raised.

Hope that works... and maybe clarifies that you're really on the same page after all.

My best,

Nathan Bransford said...

Thanks, Bryan.

Jeanie W said...


I bet you could post some great mini-lessons on plot in your blog. I'd sure be interested if you did.

At an SCBWI conference I attended last year an agent said that the value in MFA programs is that they immerse you in reading and writing. The risk, however, is that you can be overinfluenced by the faculty's particular tastes.

I thought of a "you tell me" idea. Not sure if you've done this one yet: Which authors or books you've read (on your own) do you feel have taught you the most about how to write well?

Anonymous said...

Most degrees on university levels, including MFA programs in creative writing, are designed to teach in a broad expand horizons...and then the student is expected to apply that knowledge to the real world, which could be anything from learning to write a query letter to book promotion.

lvcabbie said...

I cannot thank you enough for getting my head straight!
PLOT FIRST - that hit me like a hammer. I'm working on a Historical/Fantasy novel set in 11th century Scotland and have great characters and story line - BUT I HAVEN'T COMPLETED THE PLOT!
So, back to the drawing board.

Ulysses said...

All this, and it's the only MFA where TAs are qualified to speak on the merits of both The Wire and The Hills.

I'm in.

Word verification: dermist.
I think this is the first one I've come across that actually comes close to being a word. "Dermist: a skin expert," or maybe "Dermist: German description of fog."

Vancouver Dame said...

An online version of your MFA program would be interesting and offers what the writer really needs - as good as a mentor in some aspects. Online peer group critiques are dispensable as they can produce negative fallout. (As someone else mentioned in this post.) My experiences with them have varied, and I prefer the opinion of the instructor, the professional. It's a nice fantasy to create the perfect course, Nathan. It would take some time to make it reality. Looks like you have lots of interest, though. The posts you provide are more informative than some courses currently available.

Shruti said...

About 'plot comes first'. I think the writing process differs from writer to writer. I start with theme, then plot and then comes style. But then the thing to note is that I write literary fiction.

Scott said...

Good stuff yet again, Nathan, but you would probably kick me out of your class.

I love the idea of teaching students to write excellent queries. In fact, I would say they should write one (or something like it) based on a few of their raw ideas first to help them figure out if they're commercial enough, and to educate them on the business end of their art. It will likely force them to write with less pointless indulgence, as well.

But I would be the guy who brings in something like House of Leaves or even Infinite Jest (if I could carry it!), and challenges you on the strict genre guidelines. There's also a fear that students will focus on "by numbers" writing and stifle their voices before they have a chance to let them out. I'm thankful to hear that Colleen listens to the writing first. Where would so many classics we're told to read factor into our career aspirations and lives if practicality was all we strove for?

Lastly, I began my writing journey as a screenwriter, where aggressive adherence to structure is paramount. It forces you to strip your "genius" to something people can relate to, and you often find that you're no wiser than Dr. Suess on an off day. With that in mind, I think working out strict structure to an idea that has already established voice and style would be highly beneficial and keep the passion in the room.

But if I went into a class that meant to only show me how to fill the shelves and demanded that I write with the handbrake on, I'd probably end up doodling a lot. ;)

Deaf Brown Trash Punk said...

I have a B.A in playwriting and it's pretty much a worthless degree because I went to an university in the midwest, where NOTHING was offered to us in terms of playwriting opportunities.

Most writing programs at universities, I'm afraid, are rather pointless unless these programs actually offer something useful to students, which in most cases, they don't.

E.M.Alexander said...

As an MFA dropout, I'm not sure if I should be proud or start blushing...

Jess said...

Your MFA program sounds like the MFA program I want. Or the BA creative writing program I would love to run.

tsherf said...

"Plot plot plot plot plot. Plot."

Great post, Nathan. It's writing like this that keeps me coming back for more!

Jane Smith said...

Jenna Ashworth blogged about the writing MA (that's what they're called here in the UK) earlier this year, and you can read her post here:

She has a rather different viewpoint to Nathan, but I enjoyed it immensely!

Joel Sparks said...

MFA programs are like gambling junkets to Vegas. Much of the thrill may come from the idea of a big payoff, but really you're just paying to have fun.

nancorbett said...

You have some great ideas here. I especially zeroed in on the plot vs. craft bullet items.

I am taking the first in a series of writing courses at the University of Washington right now. There was something about the course that was kind of bugging me, and I couldn't put my finger on it until reading this, but here it is. The instructor is mixing plot and craft together.

I am taking the course to focus on the craft of writing. I want to strengthen my ability to create a scene that conveys what needs to be said at that point in the story in the clearest, most effective way possible. Right now, I work off of instinct, and I want to know the mechanics of when it's best to go from exposition to dialogue, how to control the reader's distance from the action, drawing them in and fading out. And the instructor is talking about those things, but he's mixing in, even on the same nights, how to adhere to a formulaic story arch. I've been feeling like I'm getting too much information flung at me at once, and that's why. It's not that it's too much to absorb but that it's two distinctly separate areas which would be better served if broken up into different lectures.

So, thanks for this. It's given me some of the direction I needed as far as how to make this course useful.

Maris Bosquet said...

Is an MFA necessary? Jane Austen and Tolstoy got along without it. And those Brontes pretty much had their own school... :)

Donigan said...

I had a look at this site because I saw it on another site and wondered what a literary agent's blog would be like. This post interested me because I have an MFA from Iowa in olden days (finished in 81) and think it is different now. I wrote about the Iowa MFA on my webblog here --

I already have an agent and have published 8 novels over the years, but as long as I'm here, and since you are an agent for a well-known and reputable agency, I would like to mention the site where I came across your link:

As soon as this guy figures out how to plot a novel, he is going to be a treasure to any agent or editor smart enough to invest their energy in him now.

M said...

I'm in an MFA program right now (shudder) and I hate it. The teachers keep walking around saying "Now, don't expect to get an agent with your thesis (a book-length manuscript) project," or "We're here to write great literature, the point isn't to sell your work." I point blank asked a teacher if students sell their thesis project and she hesitated before saying "Not a lot."

I have an agent, I've got book ideas up the wazoo, a manuscript out on submission, and I'm just getting started. What I'm doing in this horrendous program is beyond me. Every day, I think about dropping out. Programs like mine, with no regard for a writer's career or the saleability of the crap turned out by their students make me barf.

To me, some MFA programs feel like a poor sap paying thousands and thousands of dollars to finally churn out a book. If you need a cocoon and a rah-rah team to finally create your literary masterpiece, then you most likely don't have what it takes to begin with.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Nathan! I am just finishing a prestigious MFA program and haven't learned anything but style and reading. There is a snobishness and unwillingness to even discuss the business side of writing. First, we write and we worry about selling it later. Many have trust funds. Only art is important and awards. You can always teach. I just want to sell books and am ready to tailor my writing to sell a novel that people will buy. It is an art form and a job. I have no qualms about trying my damndest to make money. I work too hard not to!

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