MFA or No MFA? That is the Question.

If you’re an aspiring writer and you’ve clicked on this blog, you’re probably debating about getting a MFA. And after the mountain of online articles blurring in your closing eyes, you’ve decided…nothing. “Great balls of fire!” Why can’t anyone give a straight answer!

I’ll tell you why – because they’re vouching for what they think – MFA or no MFA. But unless they’ve agreed to pay your tuition, or hunt you down until you’ve met your weekly word count, their opinions don’t matter. Your’s does, though…so what do you do?

mfaStop wasting your time reading articles debating about this issue! At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if John Smith believes you’ll never publish without a MFA and Hilary Clankinbeard thinks burning money on a MFA is baloney. Who cares what they think – they’re not you! And only you understand your professional, social, and financial situation. Only you can decide if a MFA’s benefits will outweigh its costs.

Enter, the solution. The MFA Yes and No checklist, a list of four big reasons you should or shouldn’t get a MFA.

Now on to the list!

First and foremost, I want to express that I am NOT going to give you a list of boring reasons as to why I decided not to get a MFA. This article isn’t about me. It’s about YOU – another aspiring writer out there just itching to learn more about writing! And it’s not important that you hear why I or any other writer did or did not get a MFA. It only matters your situation and what you think will make you a stronger writer. The costs and benefits weigh equally for most debaters, but only you know your work and home situation. Only your gut can tip the scale. 


TO GET A MFA OR NOT TO GET A MFA? That is the question…

YES! No!
1.I want to write, but I’m not disciplined. I’m one of those people who uses my job, my family, my friends, or my exhaustion to keep me from gluing my butt in my seat and typing until I finish. Having assignments and deadlines leaves me no option but to research and write – so following a curriculum that forces me to complete assignments by a deadline will teach me good habits and force me to write, despite my excuses.


Note of Caution: School eventually does come to an end, and one day you will have to learn to discipline yourself and write outside the classroom. The real work must and always be done at home – driven by you and you alone. But, if getting a MFA will jump-start good writing habits, go for it!

1. I can’t afford it. Probably the number one reason writers stray from getting a MFA. After reading about how amazing the program sounds, you land on the admission cost and – with a knife in your heart – realize there’s no way in hell-abaloo you can afford it (now). Most programs range around $35,000-$40,000 – not including room and board or other expenses. Yup, college admission continues to increase for Master’s programs too. And it stinks like a bag of flaming crap on your doorstep, but, “there ain’t nothin’ you can do about it”…or is there! If you need more instruction but can’t afford a MFA – YOU CAN STILL LEARN! Half (or more) of being a writer (that succeeds) is continuing to educate yourself. Ever considered online programs from credible (AND AMAZING!) resources like Writer’s Digest University? If not, start enrolling in writing workshops like these – they’re more affordable than the traditional classroom setting (an online!) – as long as you’re someone who has enough drive to get your work done on your own 🙂
2. I don’t know what to research. You’re on Twitter and Facebook and you follow blogs, and you’ve explored the tips and tricks on the web…but something still feels like it’s missing. You’d like hands-on guidance from a mentor who can push you (and know your story personally) in the right direction, pointing you to people and works that might give you answers to flaws in your novel. Heck, your instructors do want you to complete your thesis – which is a bit different from an agency reading 500 manuscripts out a slush pile – weekly! 2. I have a job. So you can’t go to school full-time – or you could, but you might drown in a black hole by the time you’re done. Yes, it’ true that having a MFA does not guarantee you get published. You might learn skills. You might meet agents. But you don’t get an agent, an editor, or a publisher because you have a degree. Representation and publishing are a whole different animal. Even if you have a MFA, it’s up to you to sell your book – with or without an agent. You need to build your author platform. You need to seek representation. You need to publish it. Just don’t throw your debut novel in the corner because you get rejected one, two, or one-thousand times. If you want your novel to have a life, it’s up to you to create and promote it. Writing the book itself is its own precious, time-consuming, heart-throbbing job. Writers write because it is their vocation – they can’t imagine doing anything else. So even if you can’t complete a MFA because you have a full-time job – guess what, you can still get your book published. If you’re willing to put in the work.
3. I don’t know any writers and I’d like to meet agents, publishers, and editors. One great advantage of getting a MFA is your opportunity to learn from and work with published authors. And if your instructor isn’t published (which is practically unheard of), it’s more than likely you will attend presentations by guest speakers who…well, they’ve been invited for a reason! If you’re not an outgoing person, a MFA program places you in a more personal, comfortable position to speak to professionals in the industry. It can be scary diving right into the heat of a competitive, fast-paced environment like publishing if you’re farouche – and you’d find comfort writing side by side with supportive yet constructive readers. Maybe the stars will align (thanks to your research!), and you even hit it off with a guest agent or editor. Happily Ever After (and then the real work begins!)


Note: Some programs like Emerson College build a publishing component into the curriculum. If you’re interested in publishing – there are degrees for that, too!

3. I’d rather spend my time writing (my genre!) than analyzing. Yes, you will write until your fingers bleed before they hand you your MFA, but it requires a lot of structured, literary-focused work. If you’re writing for genre fiction like sci-fi or fantasy (among many others), then the MFA might not be for you. Not that some programs like Spalding University don’t offer all genre fiction choices…but they’re not the norm, and they’re not the main focus even if they’re offered. Focusing on fiction can be tricky in a MFA program – and if courses with a literary core is not what you want, well, I’d encourage you to check out alternative online courses, like Writer’s Digest University (again, they are amazing!!!!). Or, maybe you don’t have the money for a course (or you’re more advanced than what the course offers) but still want to learn from a published author/editor/agent…try purchasing an OnDemand Webinar instead. You might learn exactly what you hope to hear – faster!
4. You practice you’re writing…but not consistently. If you’re one of those people that writes – not a writer (because writers, write!), you might benefit from a structured environment – needing someone to tell you to complete “x” number of pages with “x” number of words by Friday. Again, you can’t let poor excuses and distractions – writer’s block, no time, the list goes on and on – get in your way…MFA or no MFA. But, if paying pockets-full-of money for that MFA motivates your fingers on the keyboard or grows your interest to research, do it. 4. I have a family.  And I can’t just pick up and move them because I want to attend a program in a different state. Why can’t there be more programs that are online! They’re out there, but they might involve some airfare on occasion. And again, you have to consider if a MFA would work for YOUR family. Each one is different and may or may not need more attention. But a word of caution for those out there who use “busy schedules” as their excuse. I said it earlier and I’ll say it again – writer’s write. When they’re busy. When they’re hungry. And when they’re tired. Learn a routine that works, and stick to it. But you will never get anything published if you can’t discipline yourself to write Besides, you’ll feel empty if you cheat on your books. Don’t deprive your characters from your affection! You wouldn’t deprive your kids!

Okay. But I still don’t know what to do. What now??


Watch this funny YouTube video to break the tension while you decide!  By YouTube Channel – Cole and MarmaladeMake a Decision – And have your mind blown, too!

Ask yourself – Do I need a MFA (I almost forgot! If your intent is teaching college, then YES, you probably do need a MFA – universities and colleges tend to hire instructors with a MFA or published experience)? And if I do, is this the right time for me and my family? And, if not, what can I do to make sure I continue to LEARN how to write better, and how to sell my book?

If it’s not good enough to be a “good” writer – and it’s perfectly possible for a tirelessly persistent and resilient writer to succeed – focus your energy on what will make you more persistent and resilient. What will teach you more about writing, and what will boost your desire to learn on your own – MFA or no MFA? Only you can answer that.  


Add Tension to Your Scenes

Stop reading this blog if you…

Don’t want to hear about how to revise my writer’s kryptonite – tension in scenes and how my novel needed MORE fun and games.

Keep reading if you want to learn how to add tension and the magic of F & G.

Welcome, comrades –

First, let’s answer a couple questions. 1) What is tension? And 2) What is Fun and Games.

I’ll tell you.

Tension, above all else, is what makes the reader cringe – aka bite their nails off as they read – about your character when they do…well, whatever it is you’re having them do. Fun and Games, I understand thanks to the magnificent screenwriter Blake Snyder (thank God his book landed in my hands), are those “trailer moments” – the moments a person comes to a movie, or buys a book.

TWO sugar in the cake elements in writing that I thought I was good at, but (longer than I’d like to admit) learnt I lacked when reading draft number one. But I’m not writing this blog about my writing skills. This blog is for you – just in case you’ve read your first draft and thought – dang it, I need more tension in my scenes and fun and games in my outline. And because this is a blog and blogs are for discussion – and hopefully you’ll comment at the end and help me learn from you, too!

OK, so here we go.

Just because everyone has already stripped Star Wars to the bone…and no wonder (it’s fun – F & G!)…let’s try a different story with the same genre.

Movie: The Lion King; Genre: Golden Fleece


Sweet. I Already Love This Movie. Lion Cub and a Baboon in a kingly entrance.

All right, let’s ignore the play-by-play and immediately target those scenes that stand out in tension INSIDE the F & G.

The F & G ones that come to mind are:

1.) Looking Over Pride Rock

3.) I Can’t Wait to Be King

2.) Elephant Graveyard

3.) Stampede

4.) Hakuna Matata

5.) Can You Feel the Love Tonight

6.) Rafiki Finds Simba/Remember Who You Are

7.) Timon and Pumba distract the hyenas

8.) Simba v. Scar

9.) Remember Who You Are (reprise)

But wait…you’re probably thinking, if you’ve read Blake Snyder’s book on screenwriting, Fun and Games only happens in the first beat in the beginning of Act Two. So did I. And then I realized, wait a second, that beat in the story might be called Fun and Games – but Fun and Games is needed throughout the entire film/novel. If they truly are the moments “readers/viewers” come to the movie/read the book – they should be everywhere! The difference between good F & G and – as I like to say – too convenient/incongruent F & G – is how they fit together to mold the character arc – i.e. your hero’s transformation.

SO, to answer your question, yes, F & G does happen in Act 2…but also in Act 1…and Act 3. Let’s look at these moments again and identify why they qualify as F & G.

F & G Major Moments in Lion King

1.) Looking Over Pride Rock

  • it’s a cool and what a breath-taking sunrise!
  • it’s bonding time with Dad – and Mufasa radiates coolness – not only because Simba thinks he is (so inevitably we do, too) but he’s KING OF THE PRIDELANDS- a pretty bad-ass, strong, confident, respected lion, so there’s that

3.) I Can’t Wait to Be King

  • a band of safari animals taking advantage of an annoying bird – hilarious F & G!
  • reinforcement of Theme Stated – Simba’s calling to be king – through song!

2.) Elephant Graveyard

  • it’s a graveyard of elephant bones filled with dangerous hyenas, which means chase scene!
  • TENSION!!!!!

3.) Stampede

  • another chase scene – with cool Mufasa to the rescue
  • TENSION!!!!!

4.) Hakuna Matata

  • an unlikely group of friends eating bugs and other “who cares” actions that we all admit sounds fun – despite being disgusting
  • Hi, I’m in a tropical getaway that appears outside a life-sucking desert

5.) Can You Feel the Love Tonight

  • Romance!
  • Nala returns – and it’s magical!

6.) Rafiki Finds Simba/Remember Who You Are

  • Well, a blue-butt baboon with a sweet walking stick is toying with our distressed hero – yup, that’s funny
  • Umm – helllllllo – Mufasa in giant spirit cloud form gives Simba a reality check – magic!

7.) Timon and Pumba distract the hyenas

  • straight up “enemy-disguise” comedy

8.) Simba v. Scar

  • The moment we’ve all been waiting for

9.) Remember Who You Are (reprise)

  • Simba is victorious!
  • Reinforcement of Theme Stated

All these sound like reasons to read a book (if it was a book) or watch the movie – yes? And I’m sure if you’re a Lion King fan, these scenes immediately triggered pictures in your memory with no effort whatsoever. How do they do that!? Well…

  1. They reinforce Theme Stated – The Circle of Life
  2. They add tension that creates Character Arc…the reason for this blog. 

So TENSION – how do you create it in scenes? Simpler than you’d think, actually, if you can remember three major points that need to happen in EVERY – I repeat – EVERY scene of your story. In this order, your hero MUST have

1.) A Goal

2.) A Conflict (that gets in the way of that goal)

and they must make

3.) A Decision (the hero is called to act!)

If your scenes don’t have this – and especially in your F & G – I’m putting your book down, no matter how hard I’ve tried to read it.

Let’s look at one of these moments from Lion King to see how they could have worked and why they actually  work.

Scene: Stampede

  • chase scene that causes cool Mufasa to the rescue the hero
  • Obvious Tension: Yes, it’s a chase scene, so of course we’re nervous because it triggers some key primal goals – survival! protection of loved ones! fear of death!
  • The Less Obvious – and probably more important tensionSimba thinks the stampede is his fault

Why is Simba’s misconception what creates the real tension in this scene, or, arguably, the more important tension? Because it sets-up Simba’s need for a transformation – his character arc! – and it pulls us back to the theme stated.

How? Let’s look at how to create tension and break the scene down…

  • Goal: Simba wants to practice his roar so he can be an impressive king
  • Conflict: Simba thinks he causes a stampede, which results in Mufasa’s death as the king saves him – aka – Simba killed Mufasa (a secret! a lie!)
  • Decision: Simba abandons the Pridelands out of shame and fear – with the intent of “never” coming back (The YouTube video does not play all the way to this moment, but I’d like to consider it the real end of the scene, so stay with me in this next part)

Hot damn, that’s a pretty good scene.

I’d like to point that this scene (not shown in entirety in the video) doesn’t end until Simba makes his point of no return decision – to “leave” his ordinary world. This decision is what really ends the scene – and a lot happens in it. Simba thinkhe causes the stampede. He runs. He almost dies when the tree he climbed up breaks. Mufasa climbs a giant cliff. Mufasa dies because Scar betrays him. Simba curls up under Mufasa’s giant paw telling him to wake up (tear-jerker). Scar manipulates Simba. Simba runs away.

Tension. Tension. Tension. Because of misconceptions. Because of secrets (this one, from Scar – who knows who really killed Mufasa but keeps this from Simba, foreshadowing a confrontation at the end of the story), and trailer-moment actions.

And all because of a heated moment of hot, effing F & G!

But do your scenes do this? ALL OF THEM? I know mine didn’t. And it wasn’t until I realized I needed this Goal-Conflict-Deicsion tension in ALL my scenes – and the multiple moments of F & G – that I discovered my weakness. So it was time to admit it, and turn those writing weaknesses into writing strengths.

I mean, can you imagine if Simba didn’t think he caused the stampede? No movie. NOO! What a less-fortunate story-world we storytellers would have.

And NOW, I encourage you now to do two EASY (one, anyway) things:emerson

1.) COMMENT on how you think tension and F & G applies to the other Lion King scenes suggested in this blog!!! I’d love to hear from you, and continue the discussion!

2.) Revise the tension and F & G in your novel – and comment again to let me know how it went!

Until then, waiting for you here on the web.

AKLambert, out.