Reflections Post-MFA: Or, Should You Get a Degree in This or Not? (Answer: It depends)

So periodically, I see this question comes up online of whether or not a writer should (or shouldn’t) go for an MFA. And there’s always a chorus of replies either for or against, and I always think I’ll chime in, but never do. So instead, I’m just collecting all my unsaid thoughts and reflections on a BA and an MFA in creative writing in a single post, and admittedly, it’s been a few years since I graduated, so everything that follows has a retrospective tinge. This is a long one, so strap in.

First and foremost: no, attending an MFA program will not automatically make you a great writer.

Or, rather—not the way you think. You CAN get things out of an MFA program that WILL make you a stronger writer, a more efficient writer, a more confident writer—and a more precise critic and a more active reader.

In my six years of formal education in creative writing, I wrote just shy of 2 million words. I totted up my word count back when I was graduating from my undergrad, but I didn’t precisely tally what I did for my grad program, but it’s probably around 2 mil. And much of that word count was produced on tight deadlines.

I often joke that my undergrad program was a crucible and my grad program a forge—because for my undergrad, I typically had to produce about 3k-15k a week for four years, often following strict prompts, with little time to revise or edit, so it better be right—or, at least, something I could live with—the first time. I didn’t have the luxury of multiple drafts. I produced a fuck-ton of wordage. Most of it utter garbage, but some of it salvageable. I’ve sold a few short stories I wrote in undergrad to magazines and anthologies, but what my undergrad really did was built up my writing muscles to the point where knocking out a 7k short story following a strict anthology theme prompt a week before the deadline is not hard.

It also built the habit of writing, and now I don’t feel right or comfortable with myself if I haven’t written in a few days (unless I’m pouring my creative juices into some other expression, like painting). Writing is my joy, my happy place, and what I turn to when I’m stressed. Something which I probably could have built up on my own without the undergrad BUT doing the undergrad caused it to happen in a FAR MORE COMPRESSED amount of time. It did have the severe drawback of ridiculous stress and bouts of depression and anxiety that took a few years to work through, but hey.

Grad school had looser deadlines, but a greater focus on honing the edge of my skills and helping me figure out who I am as a writer, what it is I’m trying to do. For that one, it was bizarrely based on page count, not word count, with 30 pages a month, one major 30-something page dissertation paper, and one 120-page minimum thesis.

Basically, in short, the BA and MFA made me work, and it made me learn how to write while having other commitments. I currently have a full time job, am a full time student for another program (in support of the job—will be done in three weeks, woo!), and of my current novel, I’ve written about 130,000 words in less than four months. True, I don’t have many friends I see in person but, hey, pandemic times? Would this regimen work for everyone? Fuck no. It worked for me, but even while having a good end result, it wasn’t what I’d call a comfortable experience. So. What did I learn from those six years of schooling?

1. How to write a lot, and the benefits of quantity over quality. For a very long time, I wrote pulp stories. I embraced that, and wrote a lot, much of it terrible, but a lot of it, not, and on that foundation of what was not, I built my craft. You can get there with quality, it just tends to take longer, and in my personal opinion and experience, it’s easier to get to quality by going through quantity than to get to quantity through quality. Not that it can’t be done, but…easier.

2. Schooling did teach me to “hear” the rhythm and poetry of words. Now, I’m not a poet, but I appreciate the poetic beat—which, by the way, is why I will FIGHT YOU if you say, “high word count? just remove those filler words like ‘that’!” because those “filler” words have a purpose beyond the baseline of creating clarity, they also create rhythm, and I can TELL when something is over-edited. Why? Because it’s arrhythmic. It doesn’t “sound” right to the inner ear. Usually because words have been cut out with a search/find tool, so the sentence rhythm and structure has been changed…but all the sentences surrounding it haven’t, so there’s this discordancy where the sentences don’t mesh. Going to cut out words? Do a full read-through as you do it to make sure your words are still dancing to the music of the whole narrative.

3. How to critique—both how to give it and how to receive it. Most MFA programs are workshop based, and the more you do workshops, the more you learn there are different methods and approaches and which ones work for you (and which ones really don’t). The gift of tons of workshopping hours is that…I’m far less critical. Because I’ve seen that there are so many ways and methods and approaches, I’ve given up the whole idea that there’s a right way to do this. Really, there’s just many ways, and it’s highly individual; what’s right for someone else isn’t necessarily right for you. Which is frustrating, at first, because people tend not to like ambiguities. But, to quote Barbossa, “They’re more like guidelines.” It teaches you how to separate personal taste from the writer’s vision, and refine your ability to give feedback that strives for that vision, rather than what you, personally, would like. Yeah, sure, of course, this isn’t 100%, and critique will never, ever, be truly impartial, but practice helps get you a bit closer.

4. How to receive critique…and not be rocked off course. Schooling helped me figure out what I want from my writing and what I want to do, and taught me how to listen to critique, say thank you, that’s an insightful reading and has give me much to consider…then not act on it at all. Because the critique in question wasn’t helping to further my vision and bring my work closer to what I conceptualized it to be. It helped me figure out what were my hills to die on…and what is just stubbornness and being enamored with my own work. I’m more centered now, more grounded. I have a better idea of what I’m doing and what my intent is, and have learned how to define it, if only to myself.

5. How to reverse engineer other people’s writing! Like, other people talk about how studying writing or becoming a writer ruined books for them and they can’t just read for fun. Au contraire! You can read to reverse engineer and revel in the recognition that someone else is doing something a fuck-ton better than you can…and then you can figure out how they did it and do it for yourself. It isn’t theft! You’re acquiring a new tool for your craft.

6. I’m going to be absolutist and talk about extremes, but there are two kinds of writers: those who love the act of writing and those who love to have written. Of course, this is really a spectrum, and people fall everywhere in it, but the strategies for finishing your work can be different depending on where you fall.

Those who love to have written tend to be more productive when they have deadlines, prompts, and often, an outside force goading them on. Many of these sorts, if they don’t end up finding a community of like-minded writers in their MFA programs, tend to stop writing after getting their degree.

Then there are those who love the act and will do it regardless…but not necessarily see projects to completion. Because they have a thousand ideas, and chase plot bunnies with abandon. They, too, benefit from deadlines and outside forces placing constraints to keep them on track, and after they finish their program, while they may continue to write a fuck-ton, they might struggle to complete things.

So what can MFA programs do? Help you figure out where you are on that spectrum and give you strategies and tools that you can do beyond the program—this might take the form of dedicated spaces, writing goal tools, communities, workshops, a regular submission routine to agents or editors or markets. Whatever fuels you.

And, while we’re on the topic of finishing: yes, finish your shit. Because the more you finish, the more you’re able to recognize the feeling when something is finished. And the easier it becomes to replicate. Also, if your goal is publication, you can’t usually publish something without it being finished. So. Finish things.

7. Rules are bullshit. No, really. They don’t actually exist. EXCEPT! When you’re starting out, you NEED the rules, because the rules create context which, until you get more experience, you’re not going to have. So rules = necessary, but also rules = illusionary. When it stops shoring you up and giving structure and instead starts stifling and constricting you, and you find yourself having to do writerly gymnastics to get around it, jettison it. You don’t need it anymore.

8. The philosophy of “Fuck it.” It’s so very freeing to reach a point where you just yeet all those rules into the very sun and scream, “Fuck it!” and do what you want. Also, writing, like any art, doesn’t end. You always have a new bar to strive for, a new goal. Which…can be intimidating and defeating, at first. But eventually, you might, like me, come to the conclusion that it’s a hell of a lot more fun if there’s no level cap.

So are MFA programs necessary? Of course not. And they tend to be very expensive, and for the most part, if you are driven and dedicated and have the support—either from yourself, from those around you, from a larger writing community—you can easily replicate the lessons an MFA program can teach you for free—or nearly so. But is it worthless? Also, no. But the caveat is, you tend to get back what you put in. Although, if you’re willing to go $20k into debt with student loans, I hope you’re willing to put in the effort. ‘Cause with that kind of money, you could instead take out a loan for a good car…

Would I trade my BA and MFA? No. Because they worked for me. However, I do want to note that while I do have some short stories published and regularly submit to agents, editors, and markets, I haven’t sold a book, I don’t have an agent, and I’m not popular. So having a degree in this is not going to guarantee you success or a book deal or whatever. That’s a separate, though closely parallel, thing. Same way attending that prestigious workshop isn’t going to get you a book deal, either. It can, however, help you build a community, a network of fellow writers and, sometimes, agents and editors. It can help you get perspective not just on your work, but also the industry.

But, honestly, as stressful and intense as it can be, MFAs and workshops and classes can also be fun. ‘Cause you’re basically in a room with a bunch of people with brains that work like yours, that see stories and patterns and the rhythm of words, and are bursting with ideas and characters and plots and metaphors. You ain’t alone, is all I’m saying.

Anyway, my nearly two thousand words of two cents. Congrats! You made it here (and I honestly have no idea why you put up with me…?). Have a cookie. 🍪

Cross-posted on Reddit, thus, the Reddit cookie emoji.

Updates! Including an Unexpected Novel Ambush, Discussions of Food, and Some Art

*creeps out of stress-cave*

*attempts to dust blog off with dirty rag*

Well, hi! Um. I may have neglected this blog a bit these past many months. Life has been…hectic. While I hope that it will soon become less hectic, it’ll probably remain fairly hectic for the next few months, though I’m hoping to restart the Month of Books series. I miss the Month of Books and I’ve read some fantastic stuff recently that I’d like to share.

I also may have been ambushed by a new novel. There I was, working on Prophecy’s Incarnate, when out of nowhere, I introduced this one-off side character who gets mentioned but never is on-screen, and I found myself wondering, Huh. Who’s this guy? Aaaaand next thing I know, I’m writing a spinoff prequel novel that, in the space of slightly less than three months (egads), I have written over 100,000 words of. Yes, I almost succeeded in two consecutive NaNoWriMo challenges, though sadly not in the month of November.

Is this stress-related? Oh, definitely. Am I enjoying it greatly? Also, definitely.

For unlike Gev’s story, Asheru’s is…almost entirely plotless. It’s just this guy. Living his life. Doing things. Having tiny adventures. Mostly just living with his family. Very slice-of-life. Where Gev is my under-emoting potato, Ru is my exceedingly emotive dandelion who has feels about everything and opinions. Mostly about cooking. Why, yes, I am currently writing a character who is 100% in love with food—the eating of it and the making of it, and I get to write about cooking.

*whispers* Spoilers, but I love to cook. I also love to eat tasty food, so you have no idea how much of a joy it is to write a character who understands food and can describe it to an excessive degree. Gev? He eats and it tastes good more often than not, but he doesn’t describe it deeply. My previous book, Dead God’s Bones? Kossa mostly eats because otherwise, he’d starve and die? It’s a means to an end. Maiv has a similar kind of single-minded focus, but can at least describe a nice take-out dinner. Luko likes to eat, but lacks the vocabulary to describe it in any depth, because why would he? The book before that? Bunch of semi-immortals on a mostly liquid diet, so food…wasn’t really a high point.

It is so much fun to write a foodie who rants philosophic about chili oil.

So I’m a 100k into an unmarketable spinoff prequel that takes place about six years before Prophecy’s Exile and I have no idea what I’m going to do with, but hey! It’s a thing. I’m aiming for about 160k, but it might end up longer. Since it’s utterly unmarketable by itself, I’m caring less about fitting it into the proper boxes for a query and more about just writing the story however I want. It’s gloriously freeing.

Speaking of things, I also decided to paint what had started as a sketch of an Indros warrior on a war-garn that was mostly for me to work out armor and saddle designs, and it, er…got out of hand.

Cue random lore-dump: It’s a bit tricky to see, since the rider’s leg is shadowed, but he is buckled into the saddle. Because garn, particularly war-garn cavalry, pitch and rock and rear and jump nearly twice their height from a standing position, and the most common injury for Indros cavalry are broken legs if their garn rolls and they don’t have time to release the saddle straps. The saddle is designed for one rider, and has a high back like a chair. The armor is a lacquered wood laminate, which can basically be painted pretty much any color they wish, though it’s usually in family/bloodline colors. The wealthier the warrior (or their family) the more intricate the carvings and inlaid with more gold and enamel. End of lore-dump.

As I was painting this, it occurred to me it looks almost exactly like a Magic: The Gathering card illustration, so for the fun of it, I made it into one. I have been told it’s a rather expensive card for what you get, but in my defense, it’s been easily a decade since I played.

In other news, a short story of mine is slated for inclusion in Neon Hemlock’s Luminescent Machinations and, I am told, will have an accompanying illustration that I absolute can’t wait to see. More on this as things progress.

Still querying Dead God’s Bones, but it’s quieted as I’ve started to question the trajectory of my career and what I want as a writer. More and more, I question if I need the validation of a traditional publishing deal, or if what I really want is someone (preferably many someones) to read what I’ve written and—my hope—enjoy it. And whether or not I need a traditional publishing deal to accomplish that desire. I’ve been mulling. My mulling has, so far, been rather fruitless. I watch developments on Twitter with a mounting sense that something in publishing is going to give and change of some sort is immanent. But we’ll see.

So that’s it for now.

Prophecy’s Exile Updates!

So! After many, many weeks of first-pass revisions, Prophecy’s Exile finally had all its placeholders replaced with actual words! Bringing the wordcount up to *cough* 167,000. And so the first-pass reading and editing commenced and brought the wordcount down to (drumroll please!):

Exactly 160,500 words (excluding the header and contact info and such).

I swear, that was pure chance.

It is now ready to begin its rounds with beta-readers, and is in the hands of three so far. And, because I’m extra and I enjoy making maps, here’s the novel’s map!

So this is the island nation of Odiřa (which looks a bit like a jalapeño, no that wasn’t intentional), where the VAST majority of Prophecy’s Exile takes place (there’s a bit at the beginning in Remdar, but only two chapters out of twenty-six). Not all locations are named (yet), since Gev mostly sticks around in the middle-western region in the mountain foothills between Emarazet and the Umoreshca camp, with some detours. The second book, Prophecy’s Incarnate, will go more into the eastern coastal areas, so all those places will get actual names rather than just be…dots on the map. You can probably track Gev’s travels in this book purely by what places I have proper names for so far (well, mostly). Secretly, Exile is a homage to 90’s epic fantasy travelogues, while also poking fun (a lot) at 90’s epic fantasy travelogues.

I also realize all those islands should be named. Am I going to name all those islands? Maybe. Just…maybe.

And, for the sake of “it’s fun,” the blurb!

The Remdari Empire needs a spy, an ambassador, and an accomplished fraud. With the first choice dead and no one else on hand, what they get is Gev Hyromius Caerus, a 40-year-old quartermaster with more of a talent for the logistics of supply lines than hoaxing prophecies about killing literal gods. Gods of living flesh and probably mortal, but still gods.

Abducted from Remdar, deported to an ancestral homeland he’s never seen, and magically branded a criminal exile, Gev is pressed into service as an imperial agent—supposedly by clandestine order of the emperor of Remdar (a mistake, surely). His task: fake fulfilling a prophecy foretelling the return of a dead war hero who will kill the gods to teach them true divinity. At least, long enough to finagle an alliance with the xenophobic island nation of Odiřa. Succeed, and the exile brand will be removed and his old life reinstated. Problem is, though he might look the part, he knows next to nothing of Odiřa—its culture, its language, its people—and he has less than a year to accomplish his mission. 

Worse yet, that prophecy isn’t so apocryphal. It has a mind of its own, and it wants to be fulfilled.

Though I know it’s generally discouraged, I have, um, started writing book two, rather than start something brand new. Because I just am really, really enjoying this world, these characters, this story, and I want to stay in it a bit longer, especially since Exile, unlike my previous novels, is definitely designed as a book one and I’m itching for book two.

The short pitch for book two, by the by, is “Gev does side-quests.” And is, exactly, that.

A Cold Dark Line to Cross | Wicked West | Out Now!

My teenage necromancer and zombie outlaw in a weird, somewhat dysfunctional found family in the wild west story, “A Cold Dark Line to Cross,” has found a home in this wonderful anthology! Which has released *drumroll* today!

Universal buy link: https://books2read.com/u/3JZrLA

And here’s a little taster of “A Cold Dark Line to Cross” for your reading pleasure:

Gabe scratched at his forearm and a finger-length strip of his own dry-as-jerky skin flaked free. It fluttered, landed in a puddle of moonlight that spilt in through the room’s lone window. A more considerate man might’a picked that up, but he figured this flophouse floor had far worse than bits of his decaying carcass ground down in the cracks between the floorboards.

And, all things considered, if he’d been a more considerate man, maybe he wouldn’t be dead in the first place.

Your mama—God rest her soul—raised you better’n that, Gabriel Dunn.

He bent, scraped up the scrap, and flicked it out the open window.

In the bed opposite his, Delia twitched and mumbled in her sleep. Snuggled down deeper into the flat straw mattress that she complained smelled of mould and piss. Gabe had taken her word for it. Not like he could rightly smell nothing anymore. Or taste nothing. Or feel much of nothing.

Which, depending on your point of view, could be a blessing. At this time of year, right smack in the middle of the Mojave, the days were hot as the Devil’s own breath and the nights cold as the deep heart of winter.

Delia’s magic kept him from rotting like normal, else he’d be bloated and stinking at this point. This… shedding, though, didn’t bode well. Getting worse, getting faster. Soon he’d be nothing more than a bundle of bones with his soul branded into the marrow, trapped this side of death. No moving, no screaming, no nothing.

Don’t think about that. It wouldn’t go that far. Just one more name to scratch off Delia’s list, one more man to put in the ground, and she’d set his soul free. She’d promised.

And that’s what it’d come to? Trusting some bloodthirsty fifteen-year-old girl’s promises? Hah. The Gabe Dunn of a few months ago would be calling this Gabe a damn fool. But he had nothing else. Only the ’mancer who did the working could unbind the magic wrapped around his bones. And she’d put four men’s lives as the price for that freedom.

Tonight. This ends tonight.

“A Cold Dark Line to Cross” by R. J. Howell, Wicked West

Long Time, No Post

Well, it’s been a minute.

I haven’t updated this blog much, mostly because of a tandem of life events. If life events are meh, skip ahead to the more writing-related sections below.

The first: I now work full time and have health insurance through my job! Woo! As a person with chronic health conditions, health insurance, or the lack thereof, has been a fear hovering over my head since I was 14. For the hell of it, I once calculated what the uninsured cost of my life-preserving meds would be for a year (just the meds) and it came out to $136,000. Which is just, um, terrifying. And that’s just for the one condition (the MS) and for a good year (just the “keep it controlled” meds, not the “save me from my own rebellious immune system” meds, which are a great deal more expensive). To my everlasting gratitude, my work has promoted me to full time and now I health benefits!

Which neatly brings me to the next life event: part of the deal for full time was to also get my Master’s in Library Science, so I’m back in grad school and trying, oh so hard, to finish this whole program by summer of 2022. Because I refuse to turn 30 and still be working on (another) Master’s. I have rules. They may not be wise rules, but I have rules.

And thirdly, I gave myself the self-imposed deadline to finish drafting the current novel within the year. Because it would mean that I wrote a novel in a year, which is often the timeframe of publishing contracts, and my last, er, four books were each written over the course of two years+ (I think a year and a half was the shortest, but most averaged two and a half to three years). Specifically, I set December 10th as the deadline.

WHICH I HIT! AHAHAHAHAHAHAAA!

*ahem*

Though I failed in my original endeavor of writing fanfiction, I did, however, succeed in writing a 157,000-word novel in a year (started Jan. 6, finished Nov. 27). Well, I say finished, but it’s quite ready yet for beta-readers. I still have to name things. Because proper nouns are my great enemy and there are a lot of placeholders waiting for proper terms to be created. And in order to create those terms I, er, have to invent a language. So the draft is done, and hypothetically, you could read it through and it would make sense, it just…would have a lot of random ______ lines everywhere. Because that’s how I make placeholders. ______. Basically, the book looks like an a giant game of adlibs right now, but I’m working on it! Goal is to have a finalized, legible draft by January, and start lining up beta-readers for it.

Tentatively titling it Prophecy’s Exile. So, er, PE for short?

And because I can, the (also tentative) query blurb:

The Remdari Empire needs a navy to cover their retreat from an ill-advised war. The island nation of Odiřa has such a navy, but no reason to lend its services to their expansionist imperial neighbor. As the decennial treaty renegotiations loom, an alliance could be finagled—and naval support procured—if only Odiřa’s negotiator wasn’t a xenophobic nationalist whose most ardent prayer is for the entire Remdari Empire to sink into the sea.

Odiřa does have a prophecy, though, one foretelling the return of a great war hero who will kill the gods to teach them true divinity. Anyone attempting to fulfill it gains near instant renown, the kind that may stretch so far as replacing a certain anti-Remdari negotiator with one secretly loyal to the empire. The Remdari need a spy, an ambassador, an accomplished liar and cheat.

What they get is Gev Hyromius Caerus, a forty-year-old quartermaster with more of a talent for supply line logistics than killing mortal gods. Abducted from Remdar, deported to an ancestral homeland he’s never seen, and magically branded a criminal exile, Gev is pressed into service as an imperial spy. His goal: fake the prophecy long enough to earn a place at the negotiating table and save his empire’s ass. His reward: removal of the exile brand and the reinstating of his old life. The problem: that prophecy isn’t theoretical.

Bonus points if you can guess what IP sparked the idea for the failed fanfic that ultimately led to the novel.

I itch to start edits on it, but must wait till I complete this semester. Soon, though! Very soon. All those placeholders will be removed, words cut, words added, y’know. The usual.


I also attended my first in-person convention (WindyCon) since before the plague. It was good. It was also a bit nerve-wracking. Still not used to large crowds yet, and I question if I ever will be. However! The experience was incredibly validating for a multitude of reasons.

  • I sold books! Myself and a few other local writers often split a dealer’s room table to sell our books, and I not only sold out of the stock I’d bought for the convention, but made a good dent in my back-stock from pre-Covid times. I, shockingly, even managed to make a profit. Egads.
  • I did panels! I was even a surprise panel moderator (surprise, as in, surprise to me) on a panel with two highly successful professional authors and I was scared out of my wits! Wee! (Jody Lynn Nye and Seanan McGuire, who were both lovely to interview for this panel but also, -hyperventilates slightly-)
  • I received a contract for a story I sold and signed it! (More on that at the end of this post)
  • I received a partial request from an agent! Aaaaaah!
  • A representative from the convention art show tracked me down from one of my freebie bookmarks and demanded to know why I didn’t have my art in the art show. Which…I mean, there’s no actual reason, I’m not boycotting it or hiding from it, it just wasn’t on my radar? However, I did promise to submit my art to the show next year, so that’s now a thing? And it also gave me the impetus to pick up the digital brush and start painting again, which, I’m happy to note, that even after a year of stagnation, my skills haven’t atrophied. The muscles in my right hand, however…

DGB Query Trenches Stats:

  • 20 Queries Submitted
  • 2 partial requests (1 rejection, 1 pending)
  • 1 full request (ultimately rejected, but a nice one!)
  • 11 rejections
  • 9 still pending

I’m going to take a break for the holidays and come back to this in January, especially seeing that quite a few agents on my to-be-queried list have closed for the holidays as well. I’ll be honest, I’m actually rather shocked by my request rate, seeing that this book is an “unsalable” 186k words. 15% ain’t bad!


And lastly! My weird west short story, “A Cold Dark Line to Cross” will be published in Wicked West: A Summerstorm Press Anthology on December 1st! Sometimes, being dead gives someone a chance to be a better person than they were in life. To earn his permanent death, undead outlaw Gabe Dunn has one last member of his former murderous crew to kill, but doing so will mean confronting the man who made him into a monster. Teenage necromancers out for revenge, their personal ex-outlaw attack zombies, magic users with strange powers over animals, all chasing each other across the Mojave Desert in an alternate late 1800’s.


Here’s where I’ll wrap up. Happy holidays to those celebrating holidays during the coming season! Maybe next year (ye gods, I’m not ready for that!) I’ll finally reintroduce the month of books wrap-up posts. Or maybe I’ll try something new.

Either way, signing off.