The MFA program in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, PA is an unusual one. First and foremost is the program’s emphasis on popular rather than literary fiction. Many traditional MFA programs scorn science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery, young adult literature, and romance; Seton Hill embraces these genres. Other programs may not explicitly disdain popular fiction, but the focus is entirely on craft, and students often get very little instruction on how to actually navigate the perilous world of publishing or how to make a living as a working writer. Seton Hill’s MFA program focuses equally on craft and publishing.
This is a low-residency/intensive residency program; students come to campus twice a year for a week in winter and a week in the summer and attend workshops in an old Catholic university that more than one student has noted looks a bit like Hogwarts. Workshop modules for all students include:
- Critiquing and Clarity
- Character and Dialogue
- Conflict, Plot, and Scene Building
- Structure and Synopsis Writing
- Point of View
- Setting and Research
- Marketing and Current Trends
Genre-specific workshop modules include:
- Hard and Soft Science for Science Fiction
- Horror and Fantasy
- Urban Fantasy
- Topics in Romance Writing
- Getting It Right: Accuracy in Mystery and Suspense Fiction
- Forensics: How to Kill Your Character
- Murder as a Fine Art
- Writing for Children
- Writing the Picture Book
- The Modern Young Adult Novel
- Historical Fiction
- The Techno-Thriller
During the residencies, students also attend seminars offered by visiting authors and editors, and they meet with their faculty advisors. The advisors are all working writers who critique students’ manuscripts in progress and provide other writing advice during the term following each residency. Students work up contracts with their advisors to establish the amount and kind of work they will write each term. Students are expected to meet challenging monthly writing deadlines. If a student fails to complete his or her contracted work for the term, he or she must repeat the term.
Once the residencies are over, the student return to their home cities and stay in contact with their advisors and classmates, usually via email and online chats. In addition to working on their manuscripts, students take online courses on a variety of writing and publishing topics during the regular term.
The advantage to this (or any) low-residency program is that students have a great deal more leeway in their course schedules than traditional residential college programs. Consequently, many Seton Hill MFA students have full-time jobs, young children, or both. One particularly energetic and focused Seton Hill student successfully completed her course requirements while she was an active-duty soldier deployed in Afghanistan.
The goal for each student is to emerge from the MFA program with not just a degree but a polished, market-ready novel in the student’s chosen genre. Students who complete their novels early often opt to get started on a new novel; others choose to work on short stories instead with their advisor’s permission. In their final residencies, students who are seeking academic jobs prepare workshop modules to gain practical teaching experience.
In addition to the degree and a complete, market-ready novel, Seton Hill students generally gain a class camaraderie that I believe is unusual for an MFA program. Graduates of the program often converge upon the school along with their classmates during residencies and hold their own in-person workshops and often arrange to sit in on the seminars offered by visiting authors and editors. The support network gained at places like Seton Hill and the Clarion workshop is extremely valuable to writers who would otherwise be laboring on their crafts by themselves.