The Not-So-Lonely Path: Sci-fi in the MFA

When I decided to get an MFA, I knew that writing genre could be a challenge. As an undergrad I was discouraged from writing science fiction, enough so that I took more nonfiction workshops than fiction and didn’t write for a year following graduation. (My realistic contemporary fiction was uninspired, but I wasn’t “supposed” to write science fiction—mentally rectifying that disconnect took some time.) I didn’t want a repeat of that experience, but also in the eleven years between my degrees I had learned a lot about fighting for myself.

After I was accepted to the MFA program—following an application that was basically plastered in warnings that I would be writing science fiction—I still thought I might have a battle. After all, even I, future science fiction writer, had left my undergraduate days brainwashed that science fiction didn’t belong in an MFA program. Even if the faculty accepted me, I could still face challenges from the students.

In my first workshop, I was surprised by the overwhelming support I received. There were a handful of dismissive critiques, but the majority of my classmates treated me like a peer and not like I was an inferior sci-fi writer. One memorable critique recommended that I not be “constrained by the genre” while another student restrained his urge to critique my story using the rigorous standards he would apply to literary fiction (that is a paraphrase, but is fairly close to the actual quote that appeared in his critique). These were the comments I had prepared for and the attitude I thought I’d have to fight. I had thought I would have to demand to be taken seriously, to argue that I was in the MFA program to make myself a better writer—which meant developing the craft of writing as it applied to characterization, description, narrative, world building, and plot. “Literary” is a just word that defines the quality of the writing, not the content, I would argue. It applies to work by Isaac Asimov, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, and Nnendi Okorafor, just the same as it does to David Foster Wallace, Junot Díaz, and Donna Tartt. I was ready for this fight!

But it never came. The handful of dismissive and confused critiques in my first workshop were the main confrontation. My classmates were curious and supportive. At a party, a student pulled me aside and quizzed me for an hour about steampunk and alternate history, just because he’d never heard of it before. Basically, my MFA classmates blew away my expectations and set a tone of acceptance not only for me, but for other students who wanted to try their hand at workshopping science fiction and fantasy.

I knew I wanted to approach the MFA on my own terms, and that I would have to work to get what I needed from it. I am lucky that the professors not only welcomed me into the program, but encouraged me to forge my own path. I still read a lot of realistic contemporary fiction for class assignments, but if I was willing to put in extra work, they were willing to let me write papers exploring point of view from robot narrators and examine the differences in structure between Victorian and Neo-Victorian literature. I always say “you get out what you put in,” and that was very much the case for me in the MFA program.

Before the MFA, I was concerned that the divide between literary fiction and genre fiction was too great. I felt like only my echo chamber understood the overlap, but the students and faculty in my program helped me see that we’ve come a long way and that when it comes to accepting science fiction as literature, I am not alone.

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A Writer Who Reads to Write

I previously mentioned that before the MFA program I wasn’t reading very much. There was one year when I read no more than 10 books, and another in which I think I only reread Harry Potter. By contrast, the MFA program at UCF requires a lot of reading. In addition to literature classes and assigned readings, they require a book list of at least fifty books alongside the creative thesis. These books are meant to inform the content of your thesis and the development of your craft. Ideally I would read books by authors I wanted to emulate, or that had content similar to what I was writing, or that could be used for research or further craft development.

“Sure,” I thought, as I read the requirement, “makes sense.” And I got started putting together a book list. I had no idea the way these books would wind up impacting my novel.

I read The Difference Engine and Nights at the Circus and dared myself to write descriptions as vividly as Gibson and Sterling and Carter.

I read The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey and carefully noted passages related to description of automaton restoration to figure out how to provide enough technical information to show a character’s mastery without boring the reader.

I read Victorian novels and wound up getting obsessed with how the structure differs from contemporary literature.

I read Ready Player One and reconnected with modern plot structure, and understood how to write a story with an escalating menace rather than a Big Bad.

I read Fingersmith by Sarah Waters and starting thinking more and more about twists and defying expectations, and nearly ripped apart my novel to add a second narrator (it didn’t need it, but I considered it, and in considering it evaluated the choice for a single narrator).

I read Shanna Swendenson’s Rebel Mechanics and found a novel that was sort of like mine (but not at all), but it made me feel like there was a market for the novel I was writing.

I read steampunk short story collections and K. W. Jeter and Neal Stephenson and Gail Carriger and Cherie Priest. All of it—everything I read—I devoured in a new way. I wasn’t reading for pleasure. I wasn’t reading to consume. I was reading to learn and I was reading to apply what I was learning directly to what I was writing. At the end of every book, I sat back and I asked, “What did I learn from reading this? How can I apply that to my manuscript?”

Reading nonfiction for research always made sense to me, but I’d never thought about how reading fiction can also be research. It’s more than just knowing my genre and being familiar with writers I want to sit beside on a bookshelf. It’s experiencing how they put together their stories, characters, worlds, and even sentences. It requires deliberate reading and self-direction, but it is one of the MFA “tricks” I’ll be continuing. I’m not just a writer who reads, I’m a writer who reads to write.

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MFA Proving Ground

You might be asking, “why did a genre writer who doesn’t want to teach decide to get an MFA?” That is a question I asked myself a few times (especially when I was struggling to find a thesis director), but the truth is that for me, an MFA wasn’t about starting an academic career, and it wasn’t about the degree. It was about framing myself to take the plunge to be a full-time writer.

My decision to pursue an MFA grew out of a desire to change my life. I had moved in with my parents after a divorce and while my job was in publishing, it wasn’t exactly what I wanted. I wanted to write, but abandoning financial security was terrifying, not to mention that at the time I was fighting through such extensive creative and confidence roadblocks that I was certain to fail if I went it alone.

Which is why an MFA program was perfect for me.

An MFA program would provide the structure I needed to get serious about writing. I would write a novel! I would be a daily writer! I would write 5 or 6 hours a day! I would write 2,000 or 3,000 or 4,000 words daily! I would be utterly prolific!

Okay, perhaps some of those ambitions were a little naive, but the MFA did provide structure—I am highly motivated by good grades, after all. Academic success was a familiar motivator, wholly removed from the fear of publication and hunting for an agent, so as I wrote, the fear of producing content melted and changed. The more I wrote, the more I felt I could write. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself because in the first semester there was actually very little writing and a LOT of reading.

Reading to Write

While the program I attended at University of Central Florida is workshop focused, there are still a number of literature classes to take and books to read. And from someone who had been working 50-hour work weeks and trying to salvage a failing marriage, it had been a long time since I’d read more than ten books in a year. I was going to have to read ten books a semester. For one class. Eep! The first year was an adjustment, which meant that while I was writing, it was in no way daily or prolific. I wrote the drafts and revisions necessary for class requirements but I didn’t write much beyond that, and I didn’t write regularly.

At the time it was frustrating, but as I accepted my situation I came to understand the benefits of the mountain of reading. It helped me get back in touch with analyzing literature to be able to extract ideas and skills to use in my own writing, and—the big one—it taught me to manage my time and to read regularly again. Reading regularly as a writer is important. You don’t have to read a book a week, or anything else as crazy as the expectations of an MFA program, but reading regularly—within your genre, out of it, and books on craft—is important to developing a writing life.

A Writing Life

After a year and a half in the program, after getting more comfortable with the pressure of writing for my degree and more confident about my ability to write on demand, in January 2016 I started writing every day. It was a “commitment” I usually made and ignored, so when I accidentally discovered that I’d written daily that first week, I challenged myself to write daily for the rest of the month. Imagine my delight when I succeeded! Then I decided to do another month. And another. And then the year.

Over the next year, writing daily, I completed a novel for my master’s thesis. I wasn’t writing 3,000 words a day (I’m still not), and there were plenty of days when I wrote only 300 words a day, but I wrote daily, I had a schedule for completing revisions, I had a full-time writing life, and—most importantly—I had an idea of how to translate what I’d done during the MFA into a routine that didn’t include the safety-net motivation of an academic setting.

Could I have achieved this without the structure of an MFA program? Maybe, but I honestly don’t think so. The program allowed me to build confidence in myself while testing out the waters of being a full-time writer. It provided external motivation that wasn’t as nerve-wracking as other external motivation (needing to pay bills and eat, among them). I could quit my job and dedicate myself to full-time writing because I felt like I was working toward something else (a degree)*. The MFA program was a proving ground, and of all the lessons I learned, the ones about how to organize myself for a writing life were the most valuable.

*I should note that I had funding that covered tuition, health insurance, and a stipend, so my MFA pursuit was relatively risk-free. Not everyone has that luxury, so I don’t think an MFA is for everyone. School is expensive, yo.