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Should You Get an MFA?

Will an MFA make you a better writer?In a word, “No.”

My secretary at the Great Desert University had an MFA from one of those low-residency programs at an elite private liberal-arts college. It looked great on her resumé.

But get real: do you really need an expensive degree in creative writing to get a job as a secretary? A job whose take-home pay, she once told me, was something under $300 per two-week pay period?

An MFA will not get you published. What gets you published is writing things and sending them to publishers. You do not need to sit in a classroom to do that.

Will an MFA make you a better writer?

No. What makes you a better writer is writing, then writing again, then  writing again. Writers learn to write by writing. They learn to write by reading other writers, thinking about what and how other writers write, and then writing. And writing. And writing. And writing.

The more you study the kind of writers you like and the more you sit down and do likewise, the better your writing gets. You don’t need to sit in a classroom to do that, either. Take a look at Joseph Trimmer and C. Wade Jennings’ vast collection, Fictions, an anthology of literary fiction designed for courses in writing programs, and Joyce Carol Oates’ Telling Stories, a superbly curated volume. In my next post, I’ll explain what to look for and think about in other writers’ works. You can do this in your living room and on your breaks from work: for no more than the cost of the books.

Will an MFA get you a job in a publishing house, on a magazine or newspaper, or on a college or university faculty?

Probably not, particularly if you have few or no publications. The sea is swarming with MFA-bearing fish. Every job opening for a creative writing instructor at a university or community college attracts hundreds of applicants. Make that hundreds of qualified applicants, after all the truck drivers and the nut cases are screened out. Competition for these openings is fierce. A residential degree is expected — low-residency programs are looked down upon. A residential degree will rack up serious debt, which you will have a difficult time paying on an assistant professor’s salary.

Your MFA might get you an adjunct position — but most likely you’ll be teaching freshman comp, not short-story writing. And pay, after course prep and grading are factored in, comes to something less than minimum wage.

Some publishers are impressed with the MFA, but no more so than by a degree in English or mechanical engineering. Most want to see real-life experience in real-life publishing, though. Many magazines and newspapers would prefer someone with a degree in journalism, communication, or English.

The main advantages of an MFA program are that you have a shot at meeting established writers on the faculty and, consequently, a (long!) shot at a referral to their agents or publishers; and that such programs teach writing through the workshop method, allowing you to run your drafts past the type of people who are likely to read the kind of thing you write, and to get feedback from them.

But you don’t need to spend $25,000 to $44,571 a year do that. For what an MFA in writing costs, you can go to a lot of top-flight writer’s conferences — and that includes travel and lodging. Good conferences will have nationally recognized authors leading seminars, giving you a chance to have a portion of your work read by someone who is experienced with writing and editing. Often literary agents attend these events, so you may have an opportunity to make a contact with someone who will agree to look at your work and consider helping you find a publisher.

A classic feature of MFA programs is the “workshop” approach, whereby students in a course submit passages from their work for review and critique by fellow class members. Often the professor barely reads your copy at all: feedback comes from students. One could say this amounts to the blind leading the blind; proponents argue that students gathered in, say, a short-story writing class are the kind of people who are most likely to read that kind of writing, and therefore their reaction to a given piece is the most accurate gauge of how the writing works.

Here, too: you don’t need to spend wads of money for that. Join a writer’s group — almost all of them have “workshops.” Search for writer’s groups in your area on

Don’t quit your day job. Don’t waste your money on a graduate program that almost certainly won’t help you get a writing job and that may not even make you a better writer.

Only you can make you a better writer. Do that by reading everything you can get in the genre that interests you. And by writing.

You don’t learn to write by going to class. You learn to write by writing.


Writer: MIA

Oh my…the writer has been absent for a LONG time. Alas! MIA here at Plain & Simple Press for a number of reasons. Multiple-guess choices:

Side effects of an over-the-counter insomnia nostrum
Too many 112-degree days
All of the above
Some of the above
None of the above

{cackle!} “None of the above”…wish I’d thought of that when I was teaching…

For several weeks my time was co-opted by a string of new Chinese academic writers. One of them needed a 100-page study Englished in seven days flat. That was a bit of a challenge…but we did it. She was pleased and sent colleagues my way.

In the middle of this, of course, our client journal’s editors started posting raw copy for next issue’s articles. And a local creative writer showed up at the door begging for professional editing.

And I kept slamming away on the book, whenever a free moment arose.

Then I slid into a blue funk that rendered me almost nonfunctional. About all I could do was sit and stare at the computer. Played a lot of Spider Solitaire and Mah Jongg games.

The depression I attributed to the demise of one of my dearest clients, a wonderful man who seemed hale and hearty and who has been a joy to work with. And his death is very sad, for a variety of reasons that affect people all around the globe. But not so much as to make one  unable to move.

It wasn’t until yesterday that I realized how sick the melatonin I’d been taking was making me. A bad kickback from a single dose sent me in search of side-effects of the damn stuff, which causes transient depression as well as headaches, irritability, lethargy, and other fun phenomena.

The Complete Writer is almost done. Now about halfway through drafting the index, I’ll probably will finish that today or tomorrow, at which point it’ll be ready to send over to the e-book formatter. Then I’ll prepare the cover for the print version.

I have a new plan for marketing this book and probably all the other P&S tomes, to be described in a future post. Just now it’s time to get back to work. In the meantime, how do you like this draft cover?

Test 2 Smoking Cover


Overcapitalization…Spare Us!

Not the corporate kind of over-capitalization! The writerly kind of over-capitalization.

BlogA largerdJust finished editing a set of author bios for an issue of one of our client scholarly journals. The journal’s senior editors ask contributors to toot their own horns in short squibs that are collected at the back of the book. And my, they do toot! In majescule!

Olivia Boxankle is an Associate Professor of Cultural and Linguistic Studies in the Department of English at the Great Desert University. She earned her PhD in Postmodern Babble at Erewhon College, after which she spent ten years as Adjunct Instructor of Early Unemployability Studies at Podunk Community College, before joining GDU in 1999 as an Assistant Professor.

No. No no no no nooooo….

The tenure track does not confer divinity upon its members. Therefore, titles such as assistant professor, associate professor, or even full professor are not capitalized unless they are used as part of the person’s name.

  • Olivia Boxankle is an associate professor.
  • We saw Professor Olivia Boxankle’s outstanding presentation at last winter’s Modern Language Association conference.

See the difference?

What about Dr. Wallbanger, who happens to earn a high six-figure salary (plus bonuses pushing his income into the seven-figure range) as president of the august institution that employs him?

  • Harvey Wallbanger is president of the Great Desert University.
  • The newspaper mentioned President Wallbanger’s salary in the article that reported next semester’s 25% tuition increase.

The only person who gets to have his or her title as president capitalized is the President of the United States. Period. Well…unless you’re writing in and for some other country, in which case the title is lower-cased like those of other mortals.

  • Barack Obama is President of the United States.

Back to the bios: The name of an academic subject is lower-cased, unless it happens to be a proper name or place name.

  • She is a professor of geology.
  • She is a professor of ethnic studies.
  • She is a professor of Spanish.
  • She is a professor of English.

However, if the name of an academic subject coincides with the official name of a department, it may be capitalized, just as the name of a business is capitalized:

  • She is a professor in the Department of Cultural and Linguistic Studies.
  • She teaches cultural and linguistic studies.
  • She teaches in the Ethnic Studies Department.
  • She teaches ethnic studies.
  • She is the chief executive officer of High-Flying Widgets, Inc.

It seems so self-evident, no? Then why do people do this?

Because…in the corporate world, people’s titles are often capitalized because the boss said so. Or because the marketing department said so. Companies, like journals, magazines, and newspapers, have their own in-house style based on a standard style manual (Associated Press style, in the case of businesses) but with its own embellishments. One such embellishment is capitalization of the Honored Leaders’ titles, even though in the real world that would be…well, wrong:

  • Joe Blow is Chief Executive Officer of the Blowhard Corporation.

But books and scholarly journals generally follow Chicago style or the style manual appropriate to research articles for their discipline (such as the American Psychological Association or the Modern Language Association manuals). These tend to inveigh against pointless capitalization. You may have to glorify your current boss with capital letters. But once you’re no longer working at that company, knock it off!

And don’t do it at all for faculty members and their generic academic disciplines. It peeves the editor.

Writing a book? An article? You really should have an editor review your golden words before you submit them for publication. Contact us at The Copyeditor’s Desk for information and estimates.

News from Plain & Simple Press

Dark Kindle LoRes An Update from Our Sponsor, Plain & Simple Press. 🙂

On the advice of our new marketing guru, we’ve decided to consolidate Writers Plain & Simple and with the Plain & Simple Press blog, so we can share updates on new books as well as the writerly chit-chat we’ve indulged in here.

This will help a lot with the workload as well as with the focus of our marketing efforts: instead of keeping up three websites, we’ll be able to concentrate on just one.

Come on over and have a look! The P&S Blog will offer you all sorts of goodies related to our array of books:

We’ll surely include the tips, commentary, and chatter about writing, editing, and publishing you’ve seen here at Writers Plain & Simple.

So, change your bookmark and come follow Plain & Simple Press.
Looking forward to hearing from you there!

3-cover ad LoRes

Fire-Rider: Fire and Ice

The second set of Fire-Rider stories, Fire and Ice, is up at Amazon. Herein is told the amazing exploit of Kaybrel Fire-Rider and his cousin, Jag Bova Snow-Killer, and how they came to earn those honorifics. And, to some extent, what kind of men they really were.

Or will be, since the action takes place a thousand years or more in the future.

Get it. You’ll love it. Whether you do or not, review it!

fire book 2ai

The Fire-Rider Collections

The Fire-Rider saga having won a garland of five-star reviews, we’re collecting the entire story — 18 books! — in three sets of collected tales. The first two are online at Amazon now:

The Saga Begins, Books I through VI, relates young Tavio Ombertín’s escape from the burning city of Roksan and his adoption by the reluctant warlord Kaybrel Kubna of Moor Lek. An entirely new life awaits the young man, whose intelligence and exotic view of the coming adventures will influence his fierce mentor as much as the older man affects him.

fire book 2ai

The second volume, Fire and Ice, relates the terrifying story of the Battle of Loma Alda and follows the warrior bands as they retreat into the icy peaks of the Sehrra Range. Kaybrel and his cousin Jag Bova earn the titles “Fire-Rider” and “Snow-Killer” through their desperate acts of heroism.

fire book 2ai

Buy all 12 stories at Amazon!

ePub Revelation

Sometimes things we think things are a lot more complicated than they really are. Sometimes things that look difficult are surprisingly simple.

To wit: ePub generation.

It’s all very nice to create a perfect .mobi file at Amazon, download it to disk, and murmur contentedly, “Now I have a perfect .mobi file!” It’s quite another thing to realize you also need an ePub file if you’re to publish through Nook, iTunes, Smashwords, or at any of various specialized marketing sites such as AllRomanceEbooks.

Often has my good friend the eBook designer urged upon me the difficulty of converting Word docs to Mobi and ePub formats. How hard this is! That’s the message.

To pay someone $50 or $100 for a single ebook, emitted about once in a year or maybe once in a lifetime: that’s one thing. But Camptown Races and Plain & Simple have been publishing eight to ten books a month. Even at our calmer, more conservative pace, we’re publishing four a month.

That represents a lot of dollars to place ebooks on lesser sites that Amazon’s.

Gasping at the potential cost, I sought to find a way to convert our copy to ePub format in-house, rather than having to hire the job out.

The search led me to Scrivener, that widely loved word-processing-cum-formatting platform. Among its many admirable characteristics, it allows you to convert your completed bookoid to ePub.

I downloaded a free trial subscription. Even though I needed only one of its features — ePub conversion — it appeared that this was the simplest and most reliable system for accomplishing that one, lonely desire.

Scrivener is a complex and sophisticated piece of software. It’s not something you just turn on and start using. Its  designers present you with a set of tutorials, which naturally I started working on right after I downloaded the freebie.

The tutorials are organized in five segments. To get through just one of them, the simple introductory section, took me over an hour!

At a bare minimum,  we’re looking at five hours of plodding through online lessons, just to start using this thing in all its complicated glory. That’s when all I want to do is convert an already completed and formatted file to ePub!

Today I revisited an old Google search: convert Word to ePub. I came across a promising tool called Online-Convert and also learned it’s pretty well reviewed by random users on the Internet.

Assessing how the product would look to future readers posed a problem: I would have to get the ePub file into my iPad’s “Bookshelf” function so I could see it in an ePub reader. I do not know how to do that, do not want to know how to do it, and would have to persuade my equally stubborn but Mac-Knowledgeable son to come to my house to make all this happen.

Time passed, during which I decided the path of least resistance must be to learn to use Scrivener. (Yea verily: that is the challenge involved in getting a reluctant offspring to apply tech skills to an aging parent’s needs and desires.)

But lo!

A new discovery: FireFox has a new add-on that allows you to read an ePub in the browser!

How perfect this is, I do not know. It’s decently reviewed by vocal users on the Web. And at first blush, it does let you see the general qualities of a converted file.

First I loaded one of the short, simple Racy Books into the thing by converting a .mobi file to ePub.

The result: a live table of contents that works accurately, very plain-vanilla but readable enough body content, and a good enough cover image.

Next: upload the complex and difficult 30 Pounds / 4 Months cookbook, replete with heads, subheads, sub-subheads, bulleted lists, and footnotes(!).

In about 30 seconds, Online-Convert produced an ePub version.

Only two problems presented themselves:

  • Chapter headings were set Roman in the original template, and so they appear disappointingly unemphatic in the ePub conversion.
  • B-level subheads are seen as chapter headings, triggering a page break before each subhead.

Easy to fix, both of them. And of course, neither headache presents itself in a plain, straightforward work of fiction.

Think of that: This one online tool saves me at least five hours of learning-curve shenanigans, plus the cost of having to purchase a challenging new computer program.

Lhudly sing huzzah!

Comin' Our Way

Comin’ Our Way!

Erotica vs. Porn

What we have here is an author who would like to publish with Camptown Races Press and whom we would like to have writing for us. Just plowed through his latest effort.

Where’s my coffee? Toss in an extra shot of espresso, please…

So I’m trying, as I have tried with various clients in the past, to explain about writing sex scenes. This boils down, really, to explaining the difference between erotica and pornography.

Pornography is a variety of erotica, but erotica is not a variety of pornography. As author Kate Douglas wrote in her essay “Writing the Fine Line between Erotica and Porn” (published in Shoshanna Evers’s collection, How to Write Hot Sex), the term erotic means “having to do with sexual love; amatory.” Pornography is “intended primarily to arouse sexual desire.” Amatory has to do with love, whereas unalloyed sexual desire amounts to lust.

There’s a difference.

As I was watching our Nimrod’s chess pieces characters move around the checkerboard through the story line, a neat little aphorism came to mind:


So perfect for posting to Twitter.

By the way, if you enjoy erotic romance, don’t miss the special sale on not one, not two, not three, but FIVE of Camptown Race’s Racy Books for Racy Readers! An Amazon Count-Down starts July 21 and runs just one week to July 28.

Naughty June 2016