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Good MFA Programs for Genre Writers writing horror, fantasy, science fiction, romance, mystery, is there more?

Updated on July 5, 2012

Everybody Wants Their Writing Program To Rival Iowa. Why?

In Creative Writing Programs, everyone wants to replicate the success of the University of Iowa's famed Creative Writing Workshop Program. Their fiction is realistic, serious-minded, and destined for magazine's that call themselves "Reviews" and "Quarterlies". Also, the books produced at these programs tend to sell about as well as you'd expect for "Serious" "Important" "Realistic" books about "real life" that do not contain even one ravenous zombie. A good print run for one of these books tends to be between 100 to 2000 copies if they really hit it off. They probably won't sell all 100 copies. They rarely do. They probably won't even sell half as many as were printed unless the writer flogs their book to their students and friends with the sort of tasteless abandon that is frowned upon among "serious" "important" writers.

The average print run for a midlist science fiction novel is generally about 5000 copies, give or take. Even a middling author can expect to get 2/.3 sell-through on that, in general, with some promotional campaigns and good reviews. Naturally, your mileage may vary.

As a writer, and reader, I know that there is no quality difference between "literary fiction" and "genre fiction". Mystery novels and crime thrillers are close character studies in human frailties. Science fiction novels take simple and inventive ideas and expound upon them with amazing depth and vibrancy. Even mass-produced romance novels have their moments. (I mean, how many people think literary sex scenes are titillating? Show of hand? No one? Thought so... Romance writers do it better.)

At the end of the day, having readers matters. I would be loathe to produce another realist piece for the same reason I am loathe to design a game for the Super Nintendo. As much as I love Super Nintendo games, my audience is interested in other things right now. To that end, I encourage all writers to pursue their craft in the direction of a genre. I encourage all writers pursuing an MFA to improve their craft to pursue an MFA in genre writing.

I hope my rationale makes sense. It's a foreign language to department administrators that seem convinced that genre writing isn't serious-minded, or even occasionally that an author's financial success is a mark against their quality.

To that end, I offer all aspiring writers three of the best MFAs on the market to learn how to write genre from some of the best genre writers in the world, in programs explicitly designed to teach young writers genre craft. (I do not hold a degree from any of these places. I am only looking at the market and seeing what I see, in part, because I hold an MFA from a different, traditional literary low-residency program, and I've considered becoming a teacher. Based on what I write, these are the places I'd look to work, though none will have me currently!)

Seton Hill, the University of Southern Maine, and Western State College of Colorado should be the only programs aspiring-writers approach to learn the craft of writing with a mindset of publication.

Seton Hill

The pioneer program in the Popular Fiction MFA, Seton Hill has long been interested in teaching their students great writing techniques, and great professional techniques for selling, marketing, and being a professional writer.

Their faculty strengths include Horror, Crime, Romance and Children's Literature. This program started the concept of a low-residency, Popular Fiction MFA, and continues to attract top writers to give lectures and mentor their students. Aspiring MFA-candidates are encouraged to check out the faculty list, research some of their publications, and choose wisely.

A note about the faculty: Faculty matters more in a low-residency model than in a traditional model, because students will be paired with a "mentor" for a semester of intense, one-on-one instruction. There is no worse experience than realizing your expensive, time-consuming MFA is populated with people whose writing is not to your taste, and will involve long, intense sessions with said writers, where they are determined to help you write more like them.

University of Southern Maine-Stonecoast

The Stonecoast Program of the University of Southern Maine is getting rave reviews by the US News and World Reports, listing it in the top ten low-residency programs in the country. Among the programs that explicitly teach genre writing, this is the one that's most likely to open professional doors for you. Stonecoast is becoming a recognizable name among academic circles, and the faculty is probably the reason why. Living legends like Elizabeth Hand, Patricia Smith, David Mura, and James Patrick Kelly teach here. Rising stars in their genres, Scott Wolven and David Anthony Durham teach there. If I were looking for another MFA, this is probably the program I'd pursue. Again, in a low-residency model, faculty matters more than anything else. The faculty listing at Stonecoast's genre faculty sounds like the table of contents in Year's Best Anthologies.

Western State College of Colorado

Western State College of Colorado has started up their program relatively recently. Colorado is a beautiful state, and the program is probably off to a great start if the presence of Russel Davis is any indication. Not to be confused with the British Television Writer Russel T. Davies, Russel Davis is a former president of SFWA, one of the most important professional organizations for writers after Hollywood's Screenwriter's Guild. If anyone can teach young writers the ins and outs of genre writing, and a career in writing, it's someone who helmed a leading professional organization for working writers from 2008-2010, who has written under multiple pseudonyms in many genres. The respect that many writers have for Russel Davis will probably translate into excellent guest lecturers and new faculty members for years to come, and though I would not put this program at the top of my list just yet, I have no doubt that they will be doing great things in years to come.


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    • chepaitis profile image

      Barbara Chepaitis 

      8 years ago from Albany, NY

      You're absolutely correct that we at Western feel lucky to have Russell as faculty. I'm Dr. Chepaitis (known as B.A. Chepaitis on my novels), faculty coordinator for the fiction component at Western's MFA, and we're also proud to be welcoming authors Michaela Roessner and Karla Kuban to our program, which is growing!


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