My view on how bad books (and bad stories and bad writers) get published

writerMFA application season is coming to a close. Most applicants to most schools have already been rejected (although the official notifications might be awhile in coming). It’s a weird thing, this applying to stuff and submitting to stuff. You read someone’s work and you think, “Man, how could this person ever get rejected from anywhere?” And then they’re rejected from everywhere. Similarly, I read peoples’ stories and think, “Man, this is so much better than most of the things in the magazines,” but, despite my opinion, it still does not get published.

And then, on the flipside, tons of terrible stories and bad writers manage to get accepted* and you wonder how anyone could’ve possibly thought this was worthwhile. Sometimes it all seems so senseless and random.

Part of the answer here is that different people have different aesthetic standards, obviously. For instance, I like plenty of novels that other people consider poorly-written. I’m able to overlook thin or imprecise writing in a way that many sophisticated readers are not. It’s not that I and they disagree about the nature of the work—it’s just that we disagree as to which of its qualities are most enjoyable and important.

But I think that part of the answer is that the people who do the selecting in these cases—particularly in the case of MFA admissions—aren’t necessarily following just their aesthetic standards. Because, you know, I can’t help but think that according to the aesthetic standards of most professional writers, the stories of almost all MFA applicants would be deemed unworthy (since, you know, we’re obviously still just students).

Every person has a certain quality threshold below which they are simply unable to be affected by a story. And if you can’t feel an emotional response to a story, then it is very difficult to judge its merits. You’re left in the odd position of looking at this mediocre story and trying to figure out whether the person who birthed it will ever be able to, someday, write a good story. And that’s a pretty difficult (and perhaps impossible) task.

With editors, the problem is slightly different. Sometimes you come across a story that you don’t like, but you sense that your readership might like it. When I was reading slush, I’d often pass up stories that didn’t particularly resonate with me, just because they seemed like the kind of thing that SH publishes. Sometimes, the editors above me reacted much more strongly to them than I did.

I think this aspect plays the biggest role in book publishing.** Here you have a bunch of very educated and very sophisticated readers doing their best to figure out what books might be enjoyed by less-educated and less-sophisticated readers. That’s a hard job, because it doesn’t really involve the aesthetic sense—it mostly seems to involve a lot of guessing. Sometimes they guess right, but 9 times out of 10, they’re wrong.

Obviously, the solution is to only accept writers who send you stories that you respond to and to only publish stories and novels that you, personally, enjoy. But that’s a luxury that most programs and most editors, don’t really have—the exigencies of their position demand a certain output.

 

*Obviously, I am not talking about Hopkins here, because everyone in this program is awesome and talented =)

**This is just a hypothesis, I have no idea if this is actually the case. Perhaps every bad book is championed by an editor who really, sincerely, loves it. I kind of hope that is the case.

Two story sales (and some notes on the MFA application writing sample)

I’ve now sold two of my MFA application stories. A few days ago, I sold “A House, Drifting Sideways” to GigaNotoSaurus (which is an online magazine that publishes one longer SF story every month). And, last spring, I sold “The Snake King Sells Out” to the Intergalactic Medicine Show. (I also have a third, currently unsold, MFA application story—“The Other Indians”—which is a realist story.) What’s interesting is that in both cases, the stories only sold after the editor requested a revision. Actually, in both cases, the requested revision was the same: the ending felt way too abrupt. And, in both cases, the solution was to add another scene at the end of the story.

So…yay! I am glad to have sold this story. It’s one of my favorites. After Ann, the editor at GigaNotoSaurus, pointed out the issues with the ending, they seemed so obvious that I couldn’t believe I’d missed them. But I definitely did miss them! Before I sent out this story to an ungodly number of schools (paying something like $100 for each application), I workshopped it, revised it, and then scrutinized it very closely for any and all possible flaws. But I didn’t see a pretty major one.

Since I now have decent evidence that two of my applications stories were flawed, it’s natural to wonder whether I would’ve done better during the MFA application cycle if I’d submitted the revised versions. After all, last year I got into a fair number of programs, but I also received a ton of rejections.

But that’s a silly speculation on a number of levels. First of all, I’ve written roughly 750,000 words since I applied to MFA programs in October of 2011. I’m a much better writer now. And I’m better, in part, because of the things I’ve learned at Hopkins. Part of being better is that I know how to fix the flaws in my older stories. So, yes, I’d probably do better if I applied today…but that’s just the difference that a year makes.

I think the main takeaway from this should be that while it’s difficult to get into MFA programs…it’s not as difficult as publishing a story. Both of these pieces were good enough to get me into graduate school, but they were not good enough, in that form, to be published. In a way, that’s kind of comforting. Everyone, no matter their program, still has to face plenty more hurdles before they start to “make it” as a writer.

Anyway, I also wanted to note that only Iowa saw all three of my application stories (because their max page count for writing samples is really high). Every other school only saw 2. I actually had five different writing samples that I sent out, depending on the school’s page limit. This is because I felt like “A House…” was my strongest story, but it was a fairly long one and I couldn’t fit it into the limits of about half of my schools (especially since I knew I wanted to include a realist story in my sample as well).

Pages 20 25 29 35 44
# of stories 2 1 3 2 3
First Story “The Other Indians” “A House, Drifting Sideways” “The Other Indians” “The Other Indians” “The Other Indians”
Second Story “The Snake King Sells Out”   “The Snake King Sells Out” “A House, Drifting Sideways” “A House, Drifting Sideways”
Third Story     “The Gallery of Idols”   “The Snake King Sells Out”
Accepted by: Columbia Temple   North Carolina State, Johns Hopkins  
Waitlisted by: Houston, Lousiana State        

 

I only sent the 25 page sample to Temple and, maybe, Florida? I think those schools requested that you send only one story, so I sent the one that I thought was my best. The fourth application story, “A Gallery of Idols” only went to a few places.

Oh, also, in my title, I mentioned two story sales: yesterday I sold my story “Droplet” to We See A Different Future, which is an anthology of post-colonial SF stories. I like this story a lot, which is obvious, because it was the oldest story that I had under active submission. I wrote it in March of 2010. It’s also had the most number of near-misses out of any of  my stories. It was held for a long time at Clarkesworld, it got  a rewrite request from Strange Horizons, it was passed up be fiction editor at Cosmos.

So, the real takeaway point here is: yay! I just sold two stories!

An assortment of milestones:

  • Longest story I’ve ever sold: After revision “A House…” is now a solid 9,300 word novelette.
  • Most rejections before finally selling a story: “Droplet” has been rejected 14 times! And when it finally sold, it sold at pro rates, too!
  • Longest time between writing a story and selling it: almost three years, for “Droplet”
  • “Droplet” is also my 30th short story sale!

I love milestones. I am pretty sure that even when I sell my 131st story, I’ll be looking for the ways in which this acceptance is different from all the ones before it.

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Since posting an article with no images results in a really ugly empty box next to my post when it gets propagated to Facebook, I’ve included this picture of a monkey eating a piece of mango.

The Application Process

Umm, this is going to be a short post. The only thing that matters is the stories. Each school has a page limit (and in literary fiction the standard font is Times New Roman, not Courier). Most people submit two short stories or a novel fragment. I thought it was a good idea to apply with one mainstream story and one genre-influenced story (to show that I have range), but people have definitely gotten accepted with two genre-influenced stories. If you submit a part of a novel, it just makes good sense to submit the beginning. Can anyone really enjoy reading a middle excerpt from a novel?

The first time I applied, I jealously guarded my application stories. I revised them in secret and let no one see them. The second time, I ran both all my potential application stories through a workshop. I think that was definitely a good idea. I came close to submitting some fairly unsuitable stories (ones with guns and murder!) instead of the much more suitable ones that I ended up with. I think that before you spend however many thousand dollars on applications (and it is a really expensive process), you should probably get someone (preferably some kind of creative writing professional) to look over your stories. The way that your stories are read by a creative writing instructor will probably be much the same as the way they’ll be read by an admissions committee (which is, after all, composed entirely of creative writing professors).

Okay, so, let me dispose of the other elements of the application process as well as I can.

Formatting Your Writing Sample  – Most schools provide no formatting guidelines, other than that it should be double-spaced. But it seemed like the consensus amongst applicants was that they wanted 1 inch margins and twelve point Times New Roman. Since genre writers usually submit in Courier, it’s worth noting that TNR fits more words on a page. Since the length restriction on writing samples is usually in terms of pages, rather than words, you should remember that a story is going to take up fewer pages once you format it in TNR.

Number Of Schools – Each school has an application fee of $40-$100. And then there is an additional fee of $23 to send them your GRE scores. This means that this is not a cheap process. Nonetheless, you should apply to as many schools as you can. I applied to a lot of schools, and I only got two funded admissions. There is a lot of subjectivity in the admissions process. It is possible to get in somewhere that is really selective and be rejected by a bunch of places that are less selective. However, for the genre-influenced writer, I will add that I applied to a bunch of schools that did not have a reputation for accepting genre-influenced writers, and I was rejected by all of them. In the end, perhaps it would have been a better decision for me to have not applied to the schools that weren’t on the list in my preceding post. However, it’s hard to tell. I was also rejected by a bunch of schools that have taken genre-influenced writers in the past. In the end, it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea for a genre-influenced writer to take the list from my preceding post as a starting point, and subtract from it any schools that really don’t appeal to you and then add any schools that, for whatever reason (location, faculty, etc.) are really appealing. It is not uncommon for MFA applicants to apply to 15-20 schools, and, honestly, that’s what I would recommend (if you can afford it). However, if money is tight, I would recommend that a genre-influenced applicant should absolutely apply to at least Kansas and NCSU, since these seem like the most genre-friendly schools (that are also well-funded).

GREs – You have to take the GRE general test (but not any subject tests). Not all programs require them, but most do. In general, your GRE programs don’t matter to even the slightest degree. Some schools have a minimum GRE requirement, but most don’t. If you get a GRE score of below 600 (Verbal) or 1200 (combined), you might want to recheck the schools you’re applying to and see whether they have minimum requirements (these requirements are usually imposed by the graduate school administrators of schools that have an inferiority complex and want to bump up their average GRE score so they’ll look good in the rankings).

GPA – Also doesn’t matter at all. Similar to the GRE, the graduate school administrators at some school have imposed a minimum undergrad GPA requirement of 3.0. But if you didn’t have an undergrad GPA of 3.0 then what can you do? Just apply anyway. If they want you enough, they can probably find a way to admit you. Furthermore, most schools don’t have this requirement.

Undergraduate Major – I wouldn’t think this would matter, but, actually, a bunch of schools (Arizona State and Houston, amongst others) seemed to prefer that you have an undergraduate English major, and most MFAs that I’ve met seemed to have been English or Creative Writing majors as undergrads. However, most programs don’t seem to care at all. Furthermore, Houston–despite their stated preference for English majors–waitlisted me, so I assume that there’s similar flexibility at other schools.

Personal Statement For most graduate school apps, your personal statement is really important, since it’s your only chance to demonstrate some kind of individuality. For MFA applications, I think it is less important, since your writing sample presumably ought to be enough to separate you from the other candidates. I think the main imperative for the personal statement is to avoid coming off as crazy or arrogant. For some people (especially me!), this is really hard. There’s something about personal statements that just unlocks all my craziness. I recommend that you get someone to reread your personal statement and cross out all the weirdness. When the admissions committees read your writing sample, all they want to know is that you’re not going to be a pain: after all, they have to live with you for 2-3 years.

Oh, at some point in your writing sample you’re probably going to want to namedrop a bunch of writers who you’d call your influences. You should probably remember your audience, and choose people that the admissions folk are likely to have heard of. You know, literary types. For instance, I chose two series of writers. The social realist types: Tolstoy, Zola, Steinbeck, Willa Cather, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and V.S. Naipaul. And the speculative fiction writers: Borges, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Lethem, Aimee Bender, Stacey Richter, and Kelly Link. These are all pretty safe literary picks (well, except for Sinclair Lewis; despite his Nobel Prize, he’s fallen into bad odor). I doubt you’d get much traction if you cited David Weber, Lois McMaster Bujold, Connie Willis, and Ted Chiang. One of the professors at Hopkins mentioned that he does pay attention to what authors people cite, so take that as you will…

Recommendation Letters – I don’t think these matter very much, but they are by far the most annoying part of this process. If you can, you should get them from creative writing teachers or editors who can talk about your writing. Otherwise, get them from other professors or from employers (ask them to write about your general agreeability, good disposition, willingness to learn, etc.) You should definitely get the letters filed in Interfolio, which is an online credential file service that will collect your letters and mail them to schools for you (since they never let you see the letter, it remains confidential). A membership costs about $20-$30, and it costs an addition $6-8 per school, but it is absolutely worth it. If you force your professor to mail individual letters to 15-20 schools, then you are a sadist. Furthermore, professors can often be quite tardy. It’s hard enough getting one letter on time. If they have to submit 15 or 20 letters, then you’re guaranteed to miss deadlines.

Using Interfolio does create its own complications. It has a difficult time interfacing with the electronic application systems at most schools. Some online recommendation systems require the professor to input all this additional data (like whether you were in the top fifth percentile out of all the students they’ve had, or stuff like that). Since Interfolio doesn’t have this data (it just has the prof’s letter), they’ll often refuse to submit letters to systems that have something like that.  If a school offers you an address to which to mail individual letters then it is worth doing that, rather than asking Interfolio to upload the letters into their system. However, if you can’t figure out a good alternative like that, then you should email the administrator at the department to which you’re employing. She (it is invariably a woman) will usually be super helpful and will help you figure everything out. The only places where I had real problems submitting my letters were with NYU (which absolutely does not accept Interfolio letters, apparently), and Florida State (which is completely inflexible about not accepting paper letters). I solved these problems by not applying to NYU and by calling and begging Interfolio to force the recommendations into Florida State’s system (which they eventually did).

Transcripts – Stanford is really good about mailing transcripts out for you. However some schools are not, so you should take that into account. Also, the schools will require transcripts from every post-secondary institution you’ve attended, so if you ever took community college classes or have other graduate degrees or something, then that can be a real pain.

Next: I have nothing more to say about MFA applications. Good luck with your applications, whoever you are. Please let me know if you have any further questions, or if any of this proved to be helpful.

Which Schools Should You Apply To?

For most applicants, the biggest factors when considering schools are: availability of funding, location, faculty, teaching load, and selectivity. For the first four factors, the best place to research a school is at mfaresearchproject.blogspot.com. For genre-influenced writers, there’s also the issue of a school’s purported friendliness to genre-influenced work. The best place to research that factor is right here in this blog post.

Genre-Friendliness – For me, this (and funding) were the major criteria. There is not much data on this. That’s because almost no program is willing to describe itself as ‘genre-friendly’. Even at North Carolina State (where a real SF writer, John Kessel, is one of the creative writing profs), they emphasized that they were training students to write stories of high literary quality, not formulaic genre pap. I’m pretty sure that schools are just deathly afraid of getting an influx of stories about: teens in high school who are choosing between vampire boyfriends and werewolf boyfriends; space ships that shoot lasers at each other in space; men that ride horses and hit each other with swords; zombies; etc., etc., etc. No full-residency program really wants to see core genre material. If you aspire to write standard science fiction or fantasy or horror novels, I think you’re unlikely to get into any MFA program.

However, even sophisticated genre-influenced work is a pretty hard sell at most schools. There’s nothing wrong with that. Professors have a right to accept only the students that they want to work with, but it is something that genre-influenced writers need to realize and to think about when they’re applying to schools. Luckily, you guys are not going to have to think about it nearly as hard as I had to. I scoured the internet, chasing down discussion forum posts and blog posts and author bios and faculty bios and a hundred and a half little hints and wisps of genre-friendliness. And now, I am going to present to you my grand list of schools that might possibly be willing to accept a student who writes stories that are influenced by science fiction or fantasy. An asterisk means that the school is fairly well funded. Where possible, I’ve provided the reason why I think the school is ‘genre-friendly’ (and in some cases that reason is pretty thin indeed). But in other cases you’ll have to accept that I don’t have any explanation, the school has merely, somehow, acquired the reputation of being open to different things. I’ve ranked these schools in alphabetical order. Also, I’d like to issue a disclaimer right here. Even though these schools may be open minded, they will probably still reject you. Many of them rejected me. Furthermore, it is entirely possible that other schools–ones that are not on this list–would be open to a genre-influenced writer. In creating this list, I am relied on rumor, anecdote, and other incredibly scanty data (like a school that’s only graduated one genre writer, ever. Who knows what the story behind that one writer was. Maybe he/she was a genius. Maybe he/she applied with realist stories [like Joe Haldeman did in order to get into the Iowa Writer’s Workshop])

  • Arizona State*
  • Brown* – Brian Evenson and Robert Coover are professors here. Stacey Richter is a graduate.
  • Columbia – Karen Russell went there.
  • Cornell* – Junot Diaz and Tea Obreht are graduates.
  • Iowa* – Nebula winner Rachel Swirsky is a graduate. Last year, they accepted SF writer E.J. Fisher. Has also graduated Kevin Brockmeier and a few other writers who’ve written non-realist works.
  • Johns Hopkins* – Prof. Brad Leithauser has written a few SFnal novels. Cat Rambo is a graduate of this program.
  • Kansas* – Wasn’t previously a genre-friendly program, but since Kij Johnson has just become a professor here, I’m gonna guess that it’s gonna start becoming a destination for aspiring genre writers.
  • Louisiana State* – Hey, they waitlisted me. That’s gotta indicate a certain receptivity, right?
  • Mills – Naamen Tilahun–an up and coming SF writer–is finishing an MFA here. Rachel Swirsky was somehow associated with this program.
  • National University – The director of this program personally emailed me, after reading this blog entry, to tell me that his program is genre-friendly.
  • North Carolina State* – Nebula-winner John Kessel is a professor there.
  • Notre Dame – One of their professors has written some SFnal novels. Also, they waitlisted me two years ago when I applied with two SF stories.
  • Oregon State* – Their application FAQ contains the question “Do you accept students who write fantasy, science fiction, etc” and in response they write, “The MFA program welcomes experimentation with literary forms new and old. While we do not wish to restrict our students from pursuing the writing that most excites them, the workshop emphasizes literary fiction, and encourages students to complicate generic conventions and subvert clichés, rather than recreating and reinforcing them.” To me, anything that isn’t a ‘no’ is a ‘yes’.**
  • San Diego State University
  • Southern Illinois University at Carbondale* – The buzz on the MFA applicant Facebook forum was that they didn’t mind non-realist stories.
  • Syracuse* – George Saunders is a professor here. Also, they waitlisted me two years ago when I applied with two SF stories.
  • Temple – Nebula-winner Samuel Delany is a professor here.
  • Texas State at San Marcos – Megan McCarron–an up and coming SF writer–currently attends this school.
  • UC Irvine* – Michael Chabon, Aimee Bender, and Alice Sebold are graduates. Also, I think Prof. Ron Carlson writes some non-realist stories.
  • UC San Diego* – I figured that since Clarion was headquartered there, they had to be at least a little bit friendly to genre work.
  • UMass Amherst – Jedediah Berry attended. Prof. Sabina Murray has a novel that seems based on detective novels. Samuel Delany used to be a professor here.
  • UNC-Greensboro – Kelly Link went there.
  • University of Alabama* – Prof. Michael Martone has written formally experimental and non-realist stories.
  • University of Houston* – One of their professors, Chitra Devakuruni Banerjee, writes magical realist stories. Also, I applied with a fantasy story and they waitlisted me.
  • University of Michigan in Ann Arbor* – Elizabeth Kostova is a graduate.
  • Washington University in St. Louis* – Alice Sola Kim–an up and coming SF writer–attended this school.

The following schools were identified from the comments section of this blog post by Jeff Vandermeer.

  • NEOMFA – Chris Barzak is a professor here
  • Denver – Laird Hunt and Selah Saterstrom are open to non-realist work.
  • Cincinnatti – Christian Moody teaches here. He’s written non-realist stories.
  • Boulder – Stephen Graham Jones is a professor here.
  • Cal-Arts – Steve Erickson (no, not the one Malazon one) teaches here. He’s written non-realist novels.
  • UC Riverside


Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s what I have to say about the other considerations.

Availability of Funding – Some schools (Columbia, NYU, Sarah Lawrence, etc., etc.) offer very few funded slots. Whether you think it’s worthwhile to pay out of pocket for an MFA degree is up to you. Personally, while I might see the reasoning behind taking out loans to cover living expenses that are not met by a stipend, I think that it doesn’t make financial sense to take out loans to cover tuition. Ideally, what you want is a funded slot: some kind of teaching assistantship that comes with a tuition waiver, a stipend,  and health insurance. Most schools will offer at least one assistantship and many schools offer assistantships to all of their students. If you like a school (due to its location or faculty or whatever), it’s definitely worthwhile to apply there even if they don’t fund very many of their students. There’s always a chance that you will be one of the folks who gets funded.

Location ­- This is kind of self-evident. If you want to study in San Francisco or New York (or, really, any of America’s tier one cities) and get a teaching assistantship, then you’re kind of out of luck. Most of the best-funded schools are in the middle of nowhere. For months, I tortured myself with thoughts of what my life would be like as a gay men in West Lafayette, Indiana (Purdue University) or Tuscaloosa, Alabama (the University of Alabama). I have no objections to the South or the Midwest…it’s just the smallness that gets me. In a town of 50,000 people, there probably aren’t more than 1000 gay men, which seems like a scary, incestuously small number. Also, I didn’t want to go somewhere which had snow. Man, snow sucks. However, I applied to tons of places that were in small and/or snowy towns. In the end, one of the criteria has to be less important the others, and, for me, it was location.***

Faculty ­- If you really love a writer, you should definitely apply to the school where he or she is teaching. This is why I applied to North Carolina State (John Kessel), Temple (Samuel Delany), and Syracuse (George Saunders). Be warned, though. Since alot of poorly-funded schools are in major cities, a lot of well-known writers teach at poorly-funded schools. For instance, the faculty lists of CUNY-Hunter and Columbia are totally unreal. I kind of understand why people are willing to go into tens (or hundreds!) of thousands of dollars into debt in order to study at those places.

Teaching Load – I’m just going to come out and say what I’ve been thinking for awhile. If you’re teaching two classes a semester and only getting a $12,000 stipend, then that’s not a job…that’s indentured servitude. Two classes a semester is not a half-time appointment; it’s full-time. Each class is going to take at least five hours a week to teach and an additional 10-15 per week of preparation and grading. I applied to a few schools with 2/2 teaching loads, but I mostly applied to schools with 1/1 (or, even more deliciously, 0/1) teaching loads.

Selectivity – Before applying, I scoured, the MFA selectivity data, cross-referencing it with the funding data, to find the mythical school that was well-funded and had an acceptance rate of above 5%. I found two: University of Miami and University of South Carolina. This year, I think the acceptance rate at both places dropped down to near 5% (other people were doing their own scouring!) It is insanely difficult to get into a decent MFA program. The hardest programs (Brown, Cornell, UT-Austin, Syracuse) have acceptance rates that are around 1.5%. The thirty-eight top schools all have acceptance rates of less than 5%. (Johns Hopkins’ acceptance rate is around 2.5%). Basically, apply to as many schools as you can. Don’t discount the difference between a 1% acceptance rate and a 5% acceptance rate, though. The latter is five times easier to get into than the former. Finally, as the economy improves (turning the job market into an attractive alternative to grad school) and we head into the downslope of the Echo Boom****, it is getting easier to get into grad school with each passing year. Selectivity at MFA programs seems to have peaked during the ’09-’10 application cycle (the first time I applied).

*Well-funded school

**In contrast, Vanderbilt’s FAQ contains the question ” Do you consider applications in genre-fiction (speculative, science fiction, fantasy, mystery writing, children’s literature, and the like)?”. and their response is “No, we do not.” Ouch. I definitely did not apply to Vanderbilt

***On a side note, I am really happy to be heading to Baltimore–a fairly large city where it rarely snows.

****The Baby Boom was a period of greatly increased fertility during the fifties. When Boomers grew up and had children, they created a shallower, but still pronounced, Echo Boom: a clustering of births during the late 80s and early 90s that is the result of all the Boomers deciding to have kids around the same time. The Echo Boom resulted in a disproportionately large number of applications to undergrad institutions around 2008, and, presumably, a disproportionately large number of grad school apps right around now.

Next: The Application Process

Why You Should (And Shouldn’t) Apply To MFA Programs

Alot of the recent debate on MFA programs has centered on whether or not they actually help you become a better writer. And that’s all well and good. But it kind of ignores the fact that on a purely financial level, a well-funded MFA program offers a pretty great place to lay up and write for two or three years. For a literary writer, seeking an MFA almost seems like a no-brainer: universities are willing to pay you to learn how to write better. But for a genre writer, the calculation is slightly more complicated.

I first realized that I wanted to get an MFA after reading an excerpt of the Writer’s Daily Planner, put out by Small Beer Press*. The planner contained the deadlines for numerous contests, fellowships, and grants. Thousands and thousands of dollars, just lying around for writers to take. Now, I realized that all this stuff was really, really hard to get, but so what? Becoming a successful writer is also really, really hard. If I was somehow able to put myself in the running for this alternate income stream, then I’d be able to buy two tickets to the making-a-living-as-a-writer lottery instead of just one.

And I realized that the unofficial baseline requirement for most of these grants and fellowships and awards was a Master of the Fine Arts degree. Now, of course no one would ever say that an MFA is required to get all that other stuff. But an MFA definitely acts a sifter to separate you, as an applicant, from random people who can’t string words together.

In addition, the MFA can be a lucrative opportunity in itself. Many MFA programs are able to provide all or most of their student with teaching opportunities that come with tuition waivers, stipends, and health insurance.  These teaching opportunities vary in terms of workload, but they are usually considered half-time appointments (20 hours a week). In America, the half-time job that comes with health insurance is an extremely rare animal, and definitely qualifies as something of a find for any writer.

So from a purely financial standpoint (especially in an era when unemployment and underemployment amongst recent college grads is so bad), I totally understand the financial calculus that makes MFAs extremely attractive to aspiring writers (including the 2009 version of myself).

The instruction that you’ll receive in an MFA program is also very important. I fear that I am making myself out to seem quite mercenary in this blog post by waiting until now to mention it. However, I think that the instruction is largely a mysterious animal. All MFA programs basically offer the same method of instruction: each semester you take a workshop in which you submit work that is critiqued by your classmates and the workshops’ instructor (who is usually an advanced writer whose successes have led to a professorship at your school).

It’s a little difficult to tell whether the instruction at a school is going to suit you. Good writers are not necessarily good teachers. You might like a writer’s work, but they might have nothing interesting to say about your work. You might dislike a writer’s work, but they might have alot to teach you. Until you’re sitting in the workshop, how can you know? Anyway, this is mostly something that the aspiring writer doesn’t need to think about. When professors are reading applications, they only accept students whose work they like and think they can improve. But the instruction only sweetens the pot on what is already a really good offer.

However, I think that for genre-influenced writer, there are some fairly major considerations that can outweigh all of these options. In almost every MFA program, most of the students and professors are writing literary fiction. And even in the most open-minded programs, the majority of the students will be writing realist stories. To the extent that they are familiar with non-realist literature, it will probably be with its literary exemplars–Wells, Verne, Borges, Calvino, Kafka, Pynchon, DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, Aimee Bender, etc, etc, etc–rather than with the writers that the genre-influenced writer is likely to think of as being the true lions of non-realist writing. Your professors’ critiques of your genre-influenced stories will be based on the standards of what makes a good literary story (which is sometimes different from what makes a good science fiction or fantasy story) and you’ll be expected to critique your classmates’ work on the basis of those same standards.

I don’t mean to say that you can’t submit genre-influenced stories in your MFA workshops. In fact, you should definitely never attend an MFA program where you can’t do that. If you’re a genre-influenced writer, it seems pretty imperative that you apply using stories which are more or less similar to the ones you plan on turning into the program’s workshop. I don’t think I can give you any advice that is more important than that. If you write some realist stories just to get into a program and then you get in and you find that they don’t like your SF work….then you kind of deserve what you get. One reason that I’m fairly comfortable with attending Johns Hopkins is because I applied with a science fiction story. I wrote about my speculative tendencies in my cover letter and, before accepting my offer, I asked professors, students, and alumni whether my science-fictional work would be accepted there.

But it’s entirely possible that they might accept you, but you will find yourself unable to accept them. I know some very good SF writers who don’t seem to enjoy mainstream literature. If you’re a writer who’s not familiar with literary fiction and has no interest in literary fiction (and, more specifically, in realist stories), then (I imagine) most MFA programs would be pretty hard places for you to live. Despite the financial rewards, I doubt it would be pleasant to be at war with your environment, and I think (for most of you) it would not be very good for your writing.

The only way to see if this is true for you is to just be honest with yourself. Do you read realist stories and novels? Do you enjoy them? Do you sometimes write them? For me, the answer to all of these questions was ‘yes’. This meant that, for me, the decision to apply was as much of a no-brainer as it is for most aspiring writers of literary fiction.

NEXT: Which schools should you apply to?

*Operated by Kelly Link, MFA UNC-Greensboro.

I’ve just accepted an offer of admission to the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University (in other words, I’m getting an MFA!)

I am totally shocked that this is actually going to happen. I am actually going to get paid to spend two years of my life in Baltimore, taking workshop classes with acclaimed writers and earning my keep by teaching one creative writing class a semester (Introduction to Fiction and Poetry!) to undergraduates. So many things about this scenario are so utterly insane that it’s hard to know where to begin.

I actually got into the program almost a month ago, and I have known for two months that I was definitely going to be spent the next two years doing the above somewhere. Given that, my enthusiasm and surprise might come off as being a little false. But it’s still only very slowly sinking in that this is actually going to happen.

There is a reason, my loyal blog readers, that this is the first you’re hearing about any sort of MFA applications. Two years ago, I applied to eleven programs, told everyone about my applications, and was rejected everywhere. It was really embarrassing. Even though I knew how insanely difficult it was to get into programs–I hadn’t applied to any place with an acceptance rate that was higher than 3%–I was still absolutely sure that I was going to get in somewhere.

This year, my state of mind was the opposite. Since I knew that I only wanted to go to a program that would giving me teaching assistantship that included a stipend and a tuition waiver, I continued to apply to many of the most selective schools (which also tend to be the best funded schools). This time, I was well aware of the odds, and they drove me to despair. I vowed that I would tell very few people about my applications, and that I would definitely not post about them online.

I began my application process way back in June, when I started Nick Mamatas’ class. On day one, he asked me why I was there, and I told him that I wanted to write a bunch of MFA application stories (actually, until he asked, I hadn’t known that I was going to reapply this year…I’d thought that I was going to wait until next year). During his class, I wrote a new story every week, trying to find exactly the right story. I knew that I needed to apply with stories that reflected the work I was going to do once I got to the workshop. It would be complete madness to apply with realist stories and then start submitting science fiction stories to my professors. I wanted a program that was going to be okay with the genre-influenced work that I want to do. But I still needed to find precisely the right kind of sci-fi story–a story of high literary quality that would be readily comprehensible to an audience that was not very familiar with written sci-fi.

During this time, I wrote many stories that were good, but which did not quite measure up. For instance, I never even considered submitting my recent Clarkesworld story to MFA programs: it seemed too violent, too dependent on a science-fictional conceit, and too cute (it’s a talking animal story, after all). Finally, during the last week of the class, I wrote a story (which is still unpublished) that I thought was perfect.

During the class, I also wrote a realist story that I like quite alot; a story about the various strata within the Indian-American community (I call it my sad-immigrant story) and the conflicts that arise between them. I partially wrote it in order to address many of my issues with Diasporic fiction (particularly the way that it seems to privilege upper-middle-class alienation and ignore working-class Indian immigrants). But I also wrote the story because I wanted to prove to admissions committees that I was both: a) interested in realist narratives; and b) pretty good at writing them. It’s kind of like how everyone feels way better about appreciating Picasso’s childish-looking paintings once they realize that he was actually capable of drawing a pretty damn good representational painting if he felt like it.

So anyway, I sent these two stories to about half my schools (the ones that had a length limit of longer than 35 pages). And I sent the sad-immigrant story and my recent IGMS sale “The Snake King Sells Out” (which is an allegorical tale that pretty much any kind of reader is capable of appreciating) to the schools with lower maximum pagecounts.

I stayed sane by not thinking about my applications and by making contingency plans. I knew I was going to get rejected, so I started plotting how I’d spend another year in Oakland. By the time I got a call from Prof. Wilton Barnhardt from North Carolina State, I was already kind of glad that I wasn’t going to get an MFA. Anyways, then I had a month to mentally move myself to Raleigh, NC, before I got a call from Prof. Brad Leithauser at Johns Hopkins, and my world exploded once again.

I ended up being accepted to writing programs at Johns Hopkins, North Carolina State University, Temple, and Columbia. I was also waitlisted at the University of Houston (whose director implied that there was a pretty good chance I’d eventually be admitted) and at Louisiana State University.

JHU and NC State were the only schools that offered me teaching assistantships, so I visited both schools about two or three weeks ago. And I really loved them both! One of the saddest parts about this process is that I had to turn down North Carolina State, where I had really intense and energizing conversations with John Kessel, Wilton Barnhardt, Kij Johnson, and a bunch of their current students. It seems like an amazing program and I highly recommend it. When I ended my visit, I was dead certain that if I attended NC State, I’d have a great time there. In the end, however, I decided that Johns Hopkins was a better fit for me.

It was a pretty emotionally intense journey. I think I’ve alluded to my anxiety and sleeplessness a few times over the past few months, right? Well, this is what I was alluding to. I got rejected by alot of schools. So many that I would embarrassed to give you a number. Suffice it to say that I am fully aware of exactly how difficult it is to get into an MFA program.

I do feel oddly deprived, though. I began preparing my application during mid-June, so I’ve been thinking about this for about nine months. Now that the process is over, I feel like I’ve acquired tons of knowledge that I will never get to use again. As part of the coming-down process, I’m planning a series of posts that will discuss the MFA application process and give advice to other genre-influenced* writers who are planning to apply to programs. I don’t expect these posts to be useful to too many of you, but if they prove worthwhile to even one other writer who’s randomly googling “science fiction mfa” or “genre-friendly mfa”, then I’ll be satisfied.

*Throughout this series of posts, I’ll use the term ‘genre-influenced’ to refer to writers who’ve read extensively within the speculative genres. Some would prefer to use the term ‘non-realist,’ but I think that this ignores the extent to which it is possible for many writers of ‘non-realist’ fictions to write without knowledge of genre traditions. I think that a fantasy writer who has read extensively within the fantasy genre is in a different position from a writer who writes fantasies that are primarily inspired by Calvino, Borges, Kafka, Marquez, etc. I don’t think that the latter is necessarily worse-off (or better-off) than the former, but I do think that the two writers are in a very different place, both psychologically and culturally.

Next: Why You Should (And Shouldn’t) Apply To MFA Programs