The marX Files: Episode 1 “Quest for the MFA”

I want to dig a little deeper on this whole MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program and why I would do this to myself.

“So in my uncertainty, I went to graduate school and there it all happened.” – Ted Nelson

Act I – Why an MFA?

Welcome back to The marX Files! Before I get started, I want to thank everyone who read the premiere of the column last week. Your support means a lot to me.

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If you are new to the column, then the quick “previously on” is: I am a filmmaker and writer who has begun the duel journeys of writing my first fiction novel and attending grad school for a Master of Fine Arts degree (MFA).

Today, I want to dig a little deeper on this whole MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program and why I would do this to myself. Basically, I’d like to offer you great insight on my Quest for the MFA (*cue dramatic echo*). Many of you might have considered grad school as well, so you might find this helps you gain a better understanding of how it works or if it would be right for you.

First off, let’s address the 500-pound telepathic gorilla in the room. Many of you are probably thinking: “Do I need an MFA to be an author?” or “Why would anyone want to spend the time and money on an MFA?”

No, you do not need to get an MFA to be an author. Everyone’s got their own creative path. I’ve decided at this time in my life that it makes sense to do this. There are two major reasons I decided to pursue my MFA in writing. If I had only one, I may have thought twice, but the two combined just clicked for me. Everything seemed to come together at just the right time that this just… made sense… kismet.

  1. I want to write my friggin novel! I’ve struggled with writing a fiction novel for over a year. Perhaps my mindset and doubt are stopping me? The perceived hurdle of switching formats from scripts to novels? Perhaps it is the lack of external deadlines pushing me to move forward? Who knows, but I do know that, with the help and guidance of this program, I’ve got a lot of writing done and I finally feel like I’m moving in the right direction.
  2. I want to be a better teacher to help others with their own writing. Recently, I have had the great opportunity to teach film production and script analysis as an adjunct professor. Hopefully, an MFA in Popular Fiction can help make me a better teacher.

Act II – Why Seton Hill University?

Whew, okay, we got that out of the way.

So, once I decided I was going to go to grad school, the next big question for me was, which school?

When I first when to college, I experienced something a lot of writers experience: creative writing classes that… actively discouraged creativity. The kind of class where writing about spaceships or vampires is frowned upon, looked down upon as a lesser form of storytelling. I didn’t like it when I was 18 or 19, so I sure as heck wasn’t going to spend a lot of money on a program that had that attitude now. If you want to write only navel gazing stories that are based on a true story or could be, then that’s okay, too. The world needs all kinds of stories. But me, I want to write stories that make me feel the way I did when I first watched Star Wars or Indiana Jones. I want to relive those chills of Michael Myers lurking in the shadows, the laughs and tear jerking moments of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the wonder of exploring the Wonderland, or the dark terrors of Castle Rock. Don’t get me wrong, I might write some navel gazing stories at some point, too, but I really want to write books that fall in what is known as Popular Fiction.

What is Popular Fiction? It is what the book genres of Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Thriller, Mystery, Romance, and Young Adult are considered. You know, the popular stuff that people buy. What, go to grad school to learn to create stories that large numbers of people want to buy and read? But, but… I might make enough money to pay off the student loans. Madness I say!

So, I knew what I wanted, and only a handful of universities in the United States provide an MFA in Popular Fiction. That narrowed down the list greatly.

My top two choices were Seton Hill University and University of Southern Maine (their Stonecoast program).

Another choice that probably would have made it on the list (if I had heard about it before applying) would have been Western Colorado University.

I was looking for schools that have a proven record of helping authors have good careers and have teachers that are also award-winning/career authors in Popular Fiction.

Oh, I should also mention that I wanted a low-residency program (combination of online instruction & visiting campus a few weeks each year), because I wasn’t going to quit my day job for school. So if you are going to school full-time, you might find some other excellent options.

Seton Hill University (SHU) ended up being my first choice and I got accepted! The school’s mascot is a Griffin and the school looks like Hogwarts, so it just felt perfect for me to learn magic… I mean writing.

Seton Hill University

Act III – What is it like?

So, what is the MFA program like at SHU? Well, I’m just a few months in, but so far I’m over 20,000 words into my thesis (a.k.a. urban fantasy novel) and I’m taking a Readings in Genre: Recent Works of Science Fiction and Fantasy class that has me reading and writing about a wide range of books.

I really love that the Thesis starts right out of the gate. The best way to learn to write is by writing, after all. And I get excellent feedback from my mentor (author Heidi Ruby Miller) and my fellow classmates in my critique group. Not only do I get insight on how to improve my story, but I learn so much by critiquing my fellow MFA questers.

So, while we learn theory about writing in workshops, we apply those theories to our current work in progress. We also learn by reading works of other successful writers in a variety of genre, at time nudging me out of my comfort zone and into the worlds of romance and mysteries. I have no plans to write a romance story, but most stories have romance as a sub-plot. So learning the various genres will make me a stronger writer in my chosen genre. And who knows, maybe someday I’ll go on the Quest To Write A Hallmark Movie!

Fade to Black

Well, I’ve blabbed enough for one week. So, I better start wrapping this up. You’ll hear more about the MFA program over time and soon, I’ll give you a sneak peek into how my novel is progressing.

Before I go, I want to say a big thanks to everyone who read the column last week and commented on social media. It really energized me and I managed last weekend to write over 8,000 words! To give you a comparison, last month, I wrote less than 8,000 words… for the whole month. So, please, keep reading and feel free to leave a comment. Let me know if there are any topics you would like me to cover or any writing tips you would like to share with me and the readers of the column.

I also want to give a big thanks to Kathie Fong-Yoneda, Victor Miller, and Tamara Coy whose support helped make it possible for me to start this Quest for the MFA (*cue dramatic echo*).

Marx’s Work In Progress urban fantasy novel (that may or may not have a telepathic gorilla): 22,843 words and counting.

Until next time… marX out

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Marx is the author of the non-fiction book Television on the Wild Wild Web, co-host of the podcast GenreTainment, co-host of DC Action Hour on YouTube, and creator of web series/films. He has been a panelist at various conventions, including San Diego Comic-Con, Boston Comic Con, Gen Con, and Dragon Con. As a professor, he teaches script analysis & film production. Click to join his email list or click over to MarxPyle.com to learn more about the man, himself.

Marx is the author of the non-fiction book Television on the Wild Wild Web, co-host of the podcast GenreTainment, co-host of DC Action Hour on YouTube, and creator of web series/films. He has been a panelist at various conventions, including San Diego Comic-Con, Boston Comic Con, Gen Con, and Dragon Con. As a professor, he teaches script analysis & film production. Click over to MarxPyle.com to learn more about him.
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