Do MFAers need help writing novels?

Josh Spilker

beavis and butthead this book sucks

That MFA novel might suck / Amazon

Do MFA students of creative writing need some help writing novels? Isn't that what they go to school for?

In a nicely arranged essay over at The Millions, author and creative writing teacher Cathy Day discusses the hazards of the MFA workshop format–namely its emphasis on encouraging short stories compared to the “big thing” or the composition of a novel.

This is pretty interesting and maybe why some MFAers get a nice groin kick when they're looking for a publisher–people don't buy short stories.

I'm pretty sure novels always outsell short stories. Actually, here are the bestsellers from Amazon and NY Times and I don't think there is a short story collection on the list (please let me know if there is one…). Of course, the bestseller list is not the end-all be-all, but it does help finance your little literary project.

Day deconstructs why the MFA program must go to the short story form then–mainly because it's easier–for the teachers and for the workshop participants. Day names one teacher who challenged her short story to go to the “big thing” but rare is that case. She says…

At both the graduate and undergraduate level, most fiction workshop instructors use the short story—not the novel or the novella or the novel-in-stories—as the primary pedagogical tool in which to discuss the craft of fiction. Why is this so? Simply: the short story is a more manageable form, both for the instructor and the student, and I have been both.

Day highlights some changes that don't work–like writing the first line and perfecting it, then one paragraph at a time or just to dive into reading fiction. I really like her house analogy: how the house is not done one room at a time, but that the whole house is built together… this makes a lot of sense.

The essay only offers one partial solution–write a whole bunch of crappy drafts a la the advice of Walter Mosley. That makes sense.

But since there's a void of advice on the Internet and about writing in general, and though I have “aspiring” written all over my novel(s) —I'll give some very unwarranted and perhaps surface-level advice (and no, I'm not a product of the MFA system–MA English, what!):

1) Don't MFAers have an advisor? Shouldn't the novel writing begin the first semester and shouldn't the student meet periodically with this advisor? You know, like a thesis? Does this happen already?

2) Get rid of the shame. In her essay, Day talks a lot about shame & embarrassment–a feeling that any member in any workshop has had. Get rid of it, then. Make it clear that these are drafts and that the ivory tower is a safe, if unrealistic place.

3) Do some character brainstorming. Characters are supposed to change, I think. At least that's what happens in most books I read. Do some trait characteristics. Talk more about how characters evolve in the novels, not just the construction of the sentence. Please someone tell me this is already happening.

4) Get some plot action. Read some noir or mysteries or something and some good genre (again Mosley perhaps?) and dissect how much is too much and how much is enough. Then do your fancy lit-spin on it and make a novel. Make things happen.

5) All of these things seem too obvious. Feel free to offer your obvious suggestions to help MFA programs create better novels.

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