Writing Programs

(from Toni)… While I hold my brand-spanking new granddaughter, Angela Grace (a whopping 4 lbs., 9.5 oz., born 3 weeks early but doing fantastic), I want to encourage you all to pick up Derek Nikitas’ amazing debut, Pyres, out this week. Here’s a little about it:

When a folklore professor is shot dead in his car, the crime smashes together the lives of three disparate women: his anguished teenage daughter, a detective facing her own family’s collapse, and the pregnant former-junkie girlfriend of the killer. These three women must choose where to aim their last shots at redemption, even as they face a gang of barbaric thugs who torch homes and lives for a thrill.

But don’t just take my word for it — Derek’s got some fantastic writers singing his praises here.

Derek’s guest blog is terrific as well:


Hey, Derek Nikitas here.  Thanks to the Murderati regulars for inviting me to write this post on the week my first novel, Pyres, is released.  In the spirit of thanks, I’ll blog about college creative writing programs, by way of thanking those writer/teachers who made me.  Much of what makes my writing “mine” is owed to those who have nurtured me over the years.

Writing programs are more ubiquitous and popular than ever.  They can be expensive, and, if we’re talking grad (MFA) programs, they can take years to complete.  And for the genre writer, the most egregious complaint is that such programs denigrate genre writing, even ban it from workshops in favor of “literary fiction.”

Yes, writing programs take time and money, but choices abound.  You can do what I’ve been doing: spend four years as an undergraduate creative writing major, three more years as an MFA student, five more years toiling in relative isolation, and then four more years in a creative writing PhD program.  But I wouldn’t recommend such a course to anyone unless s/he were absolutely sure s/he wanted to teach creative writing at the college level, as I do.  In that case, a dozen years of writing instruction is pretty much a necessity, and still not a guarantee of employment.

But even a few writing courses can be a great benefit for a fiction writer.  Who knows?  One course might be all you need, especially if you get the right instructor.  There are community writing course all across the country, or university courses that allow non-matriculated enrollment.  For the more adventurous, there exist intensive, immersive writing retreats like the Sewanee Writer’s Conference, the Breadloaf Writer’s Conference, etc., where you can work in a close-knit group all day for two-week stretches.  In “low residency” MFA programs, student writers can study with instructors from a distance, exchanging manuscripts and comments via email (once or twice a year, you travel to a central location for a few days to meet with your fellow “low res” students and instructors). 

In short, there’s nothing to suggest that a traditional three-year MFA program is exactly what every writer needs.  But personally?  I needed it.  I’ve benefited immensely from a wide variety of instructors because I’ve learned something valuable for all of them.  My first teacher, Wendy Brenner, taught me that good writing is not utilitarian and cliché, but conscientious of poetics—hungry for the fresh image, the striking figure of speech, the moving evocation of mood. 

Clyde Edgerton taught me all about structure and revision and theme threads, everything I needed to successfully construct a novel.  He also taught me to view my characters from the inside out—to be more like a method actor, to become my characters—instead of judging them analytically from the outside like a Victorian omniscient narrator.  Bob Reiss, a sometimes-genre writer himself (under the pseudonym Ethan Black), taught me harsh lessons about adherence to story logic, outlining, suspense and momentum, and focus.  Josh Russell, my most recent teacher, has given me valuable instruction about narrative economy and maintaining consistent voice.

Teachers can help you confront more quickly, more consciously, the hurdles you must overcome as a writer.  The same is true for great books on the practice of writing (and great works of fiction), but there is something to be said for the personalized commentary you get from your instructor. 

Some writers are concerned about becoming too influenced by formal writing instruction.  But all writers are themselves a bundle of influences drawn from what they’ve read and enjoyed and carried away with them.  The great thing about teachers is that they’re an interactive influence; they keep track of your specific progress and guide you through your specific hurdles.  All my instructors have become a part of who I am, but the variety of their approaches has given me a range of ideas and practices.  Hell, some of them have vehemently disagreed on fundamental issues like whether or not a novel should be meticulously planned ahead of time.  This is just another argument for taking several classes with several instructors, all of whom will have different approaches.

Genre writers are often skeptical of writing programs because the programs tout literary fiction much more loudly than genre fiction.  True enough, mostly.  I’ve taught a few introductory, undergraduate creative writing courses and noted that, like me, most novice writers are interested in writing genre.  Compare this to the students who actually graduate from creative writing programs, the vast majority of whom are “literary” writers—either because they’ve been convinced to abandon genre or because the diehard genre writers had abandoned the program. 

For better or for worse, I’m not about to scold creative writing programs for ignoring or sidelining genre writing, especially in introductory classes.  I’m a genre writer, but I’m now a published writer because I was forced to write literary fiction for several years.  It’s not because I think literary fiction is better (or worse), but because writing literary short stories kept me focused on those elements of writing that I truly needed to practice: language, depth of character, mood, point of view, etc.  Novice genre writers tend to be all “story,” all “setting,” or, worst, all “philosophy.”  They don’t seem to want to write so much as they want to be J.K. Rowling or Philip K. Dick.  They become so maniacally focused on their clever plotting or fantasy world-building that they simply can’t focus on the formal and aesthetic skills that will make them better, more unique writers on a sentence-by-sentence level. 

Forcing apprentices to practice new and difficult skills, I believe, will allow them to eventually return to their genres with a much greater ability to tell a clever story well and with a fresh approach.  And, hell, if they come to appreciate literary fiction too, I don’t see a problem.  The world regularly produces great writers whose stories haunt their readers, but who don’t get wide exposure because their books are not easily marketable inside a genre niche.  In the last couple weeks I’ve read two amazing new books—Joshua Furst’s intense The Sabotage Café and Jeff Parker’s hilarious Ovenman—both of which tell great stories outside of any defined genre. 

I didn’t spend too much time writing mystery stories in grad school, but that’s because I was working on other skills.  I wrote an unpublishable “literary” novel for my thesis.  It took me years of working on my own, toiling in my basement, to write a novel that truly reflected everything I’d learned and everything I’ve wanted—including an appropriation of mystery and horror genre conventions, because such books are what made me want to write in the first place. 

This is not to say that my MFA was a waste, not in the least.  In my writing courses I was given the essential raw materials I needed for the years following my MFA when I learned how to re-integrate them with my interest in genre writing and mold them to my own personal specifications.  Writing programs offer no guarantees—in fact, most of the folks who enroll in them will never publish a book.  You have to meet them halfway with your own vision and your own drive—but they’ll show you how to get there faster.  Either that, or they’ll lead you to a destination you never dreamed you could find. 

Who knows—maybe I didn’t need to learn all that stuff about language and atmosphere and depth of character—or maybe I would’ve learned it all over a longer stretch of time, like many writers do.  Maybe I still might’ve figured out how to write a marketable novel.  Most successful mystery writers—almost every last one of them—never got an MFA and couldn’t be bothered because it never seemed necessary (Dennis Lehane, with his degree from Florida International University, is the only one who comes immediately to mind).  I even sometimes wonder if what I’ve learned has somehow handicapped my chances for fame and fortune because, as the Library Journal review of Pyres said this week, my debut novel “may not appeal to readers of formulaic crime fiction.” 

A criticism?  I don’t know: the rest of the review offered more praise than I deserve, and concentrated on what I’d done to “take risks” with the genre.  I certainly don’t think I’d want to be told that my novel is perfectly formulaic, like a paint-by-numbers poster.  Sure, formula can be great: I enjoy the fact that no matter where in the country I buy my Wendy’s square cheeseburger, it taste exactly the same.  But who finishes a books and says, “ahh, that was beautifully formulaic.”  For that matter, who writes a book and says, “Eureka, I’ve discovered the perfect formula!  The cash cow! The lowest-common-denominator blockbuster!” 

Wait—don’t answer that.

When I first started writing, I wanted to imitate my favorites and I wanted to get rich doing it.  If my writing instructors didn’t teach me anything else, they taught me to first accept the fact that almost nobody gets rich writing fiction.  More importantly, they taught me that the deeper, more lasting writerly wealth is the knowledge that I’ve given a piece of my soul to create something that satisfies my need to express myself uniquely, not formulaically.  Is it wrong for a writer to want readers to ask themselves, “What the hell is this wacko up to?  What is this?” 

I love genre, but I love it not as an end in itself.  I love it as a boundary within which a good writer can create something rich, surprising and fresh—like James Ellory and Ken Bruen do with style and language, like Marcus Sakey and Dennis Lehane do with moral and character complexity, like Denis Johnson and Tom Franklin do with imagery, like Joyce Carol Oates does  and Dave Goodis did with character psychology, like Hammett and Chandler did with voice.  I don’t know whether I’ve succeeded at anything or not, but if I’ve taken any tentative steps toward such an achievement, it’s because of what I learned from my teachers, and I thank them for everything.

4 thoughts on “Writing Programs

  1. JT Ellison

    Derek, I think you have captured these voices, and it was fascinating to hear of your journey into genre. I know you’re going to be teaching crime fiction, and all the students coming out of these programs will have a thoughtful preparation if they want to go into our line of work.

  2. Louise Ure

    Derek, if your work is the result of years of study in an MFA program, then I applaud them. But I sense that you have a good ear, a strong voice and a big heart that contributed to making that work special, as well.

    However you got there, congratulations on PYRES.

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I’ve been thinking of getting an MFA in my


    free time.

    I’m not sure exactly why, except that I am so unschooled in literature it’s not funny. I mean, I’ve read a LOT, but so very randomly. So this has been really helpful, thanks, Derek, and I’ll go find PRYES post-haste.

  4. pari

    Derek,Congrats on PYRES.

    I wonder if every writer who works at the craft for long comes to a desire to study with mentors/profs/teachers.

    I sure do.

    An MFA would be an interesting journey, one I’d consider at some point if I could tolerate academe anymore. My problem is that most of the profs of creative writing I’ve met over the years have been awfully pretentious — self-impressed — pompous. (The exception is a poet.)

    I know that’s not the blanket case — and your post reaffirmed the value of stretching and instruction — I’d just be hesitant to go the traditional route.

    Every fine writer I know wants to be better, to combine words and themes into fresh, wonderful experiences for their readers.

    I’m looking forward to reading your book.


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