Rejecting short stories written for MFA programs

It was bound to happen sooner or later, but I didn’t expect it to happen five days after graduating. I rejected a story for On Spec that I was previously familiar with. After disclosing the conflict in my notes, I made the suggestion the story should be rejected. The premise and low personal stakes were not worth the long word count.

It’s not worth it financially to the magazine or in page length to the reader for the payout the story is selling. When I’m thinking of my reader’s time they’re investing into the magazine, I want to make sure that not only the stories tell an engaging world, character and story but that they’re doing that with an engaging voice with something to say about what it is like to be human in a genre-specific setting. My ideal story is a story that feels longer than it is rather than a story that could have been shorter but isn’t.

My MFA could teach anyone how to improve the prose on finished drafts. And if that’s the only thing the work needs is a better polish, the MFA program was for that writer. If, however, they were trying to sell to commercial markets, they shouldn’t have believed any program that tried to teach them that nice prose is all a story needs or that structural edits are unnecessary.

I think back to the time between joining my first critique group and realizing that my critique group was right and I was wrong took six years of being told that yes, I was breaking the rules but no, I wasn’t doing it effectively to hear what I was actually being told.

I wasn’t being told that if I tried hard enough, the way I told what needed to be shown to the reader would be as good as if I’d learned how to show the reader what I took the shortcut to avoid showing them in the first place. But that’s what I heard when I was critiqued.

It is fundamental to any model of learning that the educator confirms what has been learned against what has been taught to test the student’s knowledge on what was taught so the wrong lesson can’t be learned. Any program based on instruction given in the critique phase has no way of verifying what has been told to the student hasn’t just confirmed more of their preconceived notions.

I know my critiquers must have been frustrated that I wasn’t able to understand how important it was to show the reader what matters to the story instead of always slipping it in via dialogue and info dumps. I was frustrated that all my critiquers didn’t see how much better I told what I didn’t effectively tell the last time.

If one of them had told me that they liked the way I told my readers something fundamental that needed to be shown to the reader so they have could really know who this character is before the plot actually gets started, I would have embraced it as my style. I wouldn’t have needed to hear it twice.

To find out an MFA teaches learners that if a famous writer who is remembered long after their more popular contemporaries are dead wrote a story that lacked a fundamental aspect of craft, any work that attempts the same finesse must have nailed it. The fact that masterpieces exist that break the fundamental theories of craft in no way proves that a learner’s first attempt in their first draft is equally successful.

I learned that list of books myself without ever stepping foot in a creative writing class and boy, did I have it memorized just as effectively. Poetic irony is really hard to come about in real life but graduating from a program in which you would have been the star pupil had you not spent twenty years trying to unlearn what not a single writer ever told me in the first place. But today, the same excuses I learned to not have to learn my craft are being taught in Master level programs to keep learners from ever needing to consider they may have to learn their craft to begin with.

Had I been their star pupil, I never would have taken a single step on the journey that started the day I realized I needed to learn how to use what I thought I already knew inside and out yet always seemed to take shortcuts to avoid anything that didn’t emerge on the page in a fully formed section. I learned more on that day than I learned in ten years sitting at a workshop table. If I had an MFA on my wall telling me second draft revision work wasn’t even needed because if you meant to break the rule, it was fine the way it was broken, I would have blamed my failure to publish 99% of my short work and none of my long work on the gatekeepers between me and my adoring audience “they” are keeping me from.

Without an MFA confirming my biases, it took me almost twenty years where I’d already written over a dozen (unpublished) novels and written dozens (and dozens) of very successful fanfic because I sold six stories in which breaking the rules worked out for it. I’d convinced myself that good stories followed the rules. Great stories broke them.

It took writing over a million more words from that point to learn how to use my craft without thinking so that I could concentrate all of my attention on how to use my craft to create bigger stories that mattered more.

It took me years to realize great stories either emerged fully formed or in a rewrite. But I couldn’t even mention the word “rewrite” in my program without receiving a firmly worded note asking me to please, do my best to be even less craft-focused in class.

When the truth is, most editors give even less feedback that the length of the story is not worth the payout.

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