I began writing at 15. Back then, though I read eclectically, and still do, my favorite genre was YA fantasy. I wrote my first YA fantasy novel over the period of a year or so and rewrote it, and then took a break for my GCSE exams (I’m British by the way) and never got back into it. That novel eventually got scrapped. In between Year 12 and 13 (think grades 11 and 12 in the US), I began writing my second novel and finished it in six weeks. Now I’m in the MFA program at Virginia Tech.
I say all this because what is widely known about creative writing MFAs is that they’re geared towards literary writing, specifically for fiction, contemporary realism, young adult realism, character-driven stories, and at a stretch, magical realism. And so, for people like myself, who write fantasy and sci-fi abounding with mythical creatures and beings, other earths, powers and forces, and magic-teaching schools, MFA programs don’t seem welcoming. And from many anecdotes and from the scores of MFA alumni, it is mostly true.
Now, I applied with a sample of two contemporary realism short stories because I do also write realism, only short stories so far, but I came into the program confused as to which I should focus on: developing my realism skills so I could begin writing one of the two contemporary novels hidden in my mind, or continue writing my epic fantasy novel because that was what I was most passionate about (but what was the likelihood of it being welcome in workshop?).
I went with the first option.
After the first workshop, I switched to plan B. I realized I wasn’t yet ready to work on my realism yet because I was, and am, still full up with fantastical fuel.
What’s the moral of the story, you ask? Firstly, write what you love to write. Fantasy is my first love, and so are novels. They say it’s easier to write short stories and then develop into a novelist than it is to go backwards, and as a novelist from the conception of my writing, writing short stories can be grueling for me, even though I have come out with some good ones. So, for now, I’m going to stick with writing novels—fantasy novels.
Secondly, you don’t need an MFA*. If, like me, you saw how unlikely it is for you to get into an MFA with a fantasy or sci-fi portfolio, don’t be discouraged. Most of the greatest storytellers of our time didn’t get an MFA, so it’s not the only means to an end. There are so many ways to improve your craft: online courses, craft books, and how about the best tried-and-tested method—reading!
Thirdly, know your genre. It is so important, at all stages in your pursuit of becoming a published author, that you know what genre your novel or short story is, not just for your query letter to an agent, but also for yourself, your creativity, and defining the limits of your story. Even within YA Fantasy there are sub-genres, paranormal romance, urban fantasy, high fantasy, mythical fantasy, etc., so it’s seriously important to know which your writing falls into. Genre affects setting, plot, characterization, and worldbuilding.
This semester, I had the opportunity to meet the author Nnedi Okorafor when she came to do a reading at the university’s library, and yes, it was amazing to hear her read part of her upcoming novel, hear her talk about what influenced her writing, and ask her questions, but the event was significant to me for one thing she said, and I do not quote directly: “Writing YA, I don’t write flowery description.”
Now, it doesn’t seem like much, but to understand why it was significant, you have to know two things: one, that Nnedi Okorafor is a YA sci-fi and fantasy author, and two, that I really don’t like description much because I prefer to imagine everything I’m reading in my mind. However, most people do like description, and in my workshops, it became apparent that my fellow writers wanted more description and imagery to engage more with my work (and I have heeded their critiques). But Nnedi saying the above comment made me realize why I don’t like much description when reading and why my prose style does not facilitate much description—because I’m a YA fantasy writer.
Contrary to non-fantasy readers’ belief, YA fantasy tends not to have as much description as realism does, mainly because it’s so plot-based so there’s not enough space or time to give so much description—we’re so focused on the betrayal, and the discovery of powers the protagonist never knew they had, and the destruction of the antagonist. It’s really only epic fantasy that tends to give major description, and that’s primarily because of world building that is necessary when a story is set in another world or earth and because publishers are lenient with epic novel word counts; some epic novels can get to over 120,000 words!
Anyway, as I was saying, Nnedi’s words helped me to reassert what sort of writer I am; I plan to one day tread into the realm of the contemporary, but for now, I will stay with my mythic schools, and magic wielders, and amber talismans, and tall, red, aliens, and my vast and vivid imagination.
And so should you.
*Clearly, Virginia Tech is very open to speculative fiction—so apply!—but Sarah Lawrence has, last year, added a new track in addition to fiction, poetry, and non-fiction. They have added a speculative fiction track! I also know of UC Riverside being open to spec fic, as well as University of Alabama, which even has a Fabulist Fiction graduate course, and Syracuse. Of course, one of the most popular programs that deal with popular fiction is the low-res Stonecoast MFA at the University of Southern Maine. I also know that Emerson has a low-res or online Popular Fiction MFA.
There are probably a few more full-residency programs that are open to spec fic, and many of the low-residency or online programs are open to it. There are options out there if an MFA is really what you want, and don’t be afraid to go for low-res if full-res isn’t working out for you.
I think what is most needed to be successful in being accepted to programs which are geared mostly to traditional or realist work is to have your speculative fiction mean something, as in, having a message or commenting on political issues—for example, my epic fantasy novel comments on/is based on race and racial issues—so that way it is not simply for entertainment, but it really reaches the human heart, it attempts to understand one’s neighbor, it forces us to look into each other’s eyes and see the soul within, and it critiques and convicts the modern world.
Tolu Adeyeye is a first year fiction writer at Virginia Tech. She is the fiction editor of the minnesota review.