The One-Hour MFA (in fiction)
By Michael Kimball
Publishing Genius Press, 2015
The One-Hour MFA (in fiction) is a bold statement to make on the cover of a book of writing. All of us MFA graduates are sensitive about the time and effort we put in to obtain our degrees.The insinuation that we could have just read a book is one that makes my eye twitch. Wait. It’s not an insinuation. It’s a statement. A deliberate value judgment.
Of course, Michael Kimball has written seven other books and he has no MFA. With a track record like his, and with the quality of prose he produces, it’s wise to listen. And One-Hour MFA is as fun and well-written as it is educational. He’s on to something.
An eBook to be released on July 7th in 15 free chapters – like a semester – at Real Pants, and sold as a pocket-sized book by Publishing Genius Press, One Hour MFA doles out useful, applicable nuts-and-bolts style advice to writing fiction. Inside the book is, of course, “Learn by writing” but it’s sandwiched between valuable dissertations on syntax and assonance, lengthy explanations on outlining, distinctions between character and plot and (a favorite) the importance of revision, “It must mean something that the end of the revision process, for so many, comes down to commas (and disgust).”
You could read this book in an hour, but mastery and application takes much longer. It might be wise to read each chapter twice and then apply concepts in the space of an hour and repeat the process fifteen times. This is not the book for casual writing enthusiasts who want to learn to write a novel in an hour, or even a week. Each chapter, though short, is filled with meaty concepts and explanations that are deceptively challenging. But the tools are there. Learning to write fiction is hard, time-consuming, and requires education to fully grasp some of the more advanced concepts. Kimball does a wonderful job of giving this education and explaining difficult ideas in layman’s terms. For example, what does he mean when he’s discussing “acoustics” in the arena of writing? He’s not talking about amphitheaters.
According to Andy Devine, “Words have acoustical qualities that resonate with being human.” Well, thanks for not very much, Andy. But what does Kimball say?
Working with acoustics is recognizing the recurring sounds and using them to rewrite the sentence. Maybe the first word in the sentence has a long-o sound in it and the sentence will feel finished if it ends with another word with another long-o sound in it, say, smoke. Maybe the fact that that sentence ends with a hard-k leads to the next sentence beginning with another hard-k sound, so the consonants run together and there isn’t any space between the sentences, not even really a pause, and then all of a sudden the narrative speeds up in a way that feels thrilling and then maybe there’s a fire and the house burns down.
Did you see what Kimball did there? How he used the sentence he was writing to explain the concept he was writing about? It’s slick and illustrative.
Stephen King’s On Writing has a wonderful section that talks about his writing schedule, of grueling hours a day spent writing and re-writing. To Kimball, writing is, “…trying in a basic way to get from one sentence to the next sentence.” It’s the day-to-day process of continuing after it’s stopped being fun and started being work. For those looking for an easy way out of learning to write, this book isn’t the book for them. There are tricks of the trade to be let in on, but no cheat codes because “Getting the material down is the hardest part…”
Actually sitting down and writing is one of the most commonly cited reasons for getting an MFA. And those reading books on writing are likely looking for a magic bullet. But, as Kimball tells us, there is no secret. There’s different ways of tackling the same problem and what works for one person, may not work for the next. Kimball can give the answers that work for him; he doesn’t use outlines, for example, but he admits they’re viable for other people. He says, “The key is to make those choices for yourself, whatever they may be, and to use those choices to create original fiction.”
There are always choices to be made. What does it mean to have an MFA in writing? You might learn sentence level mastery, or how to meet deadlines and motivate yourself to work or you might learn the foundations of writing by reading the masters. You may become experts in syntax and grammar and understand how to use words like a poetic wordsmith. Are those all contained within One-Hour MFA? Check, check, check, check and check. You don’t need an MFA when you can read Kimball’s book. The most important factor in becoming a writer is finding the discipline and motivation to write every day. Many with MFAs don’t have that and many without do. There’s an entire section in One-Hour MFA about discipline and practice. If there’s one section to harken to, that would be it. And it’s a lovely chapter, full of sage advice.
Is there anything that isn’t captured by reading One-Hour MFA? MFA programs deliver instruction, workshops (for what that’s worth) and the connections that are formed by interacting with other writers constantly. And while that information isn’t captured in the book, it is out there in the world, free if you look for them. Is that difference worth tens of thousands of dollars? Maybe. Maybe not.
It’s worth nothing that One-Hour’s publisher, Publishing Genius is run by an MFA grad. So is the writer of this review. What does that mean? Maybe we both think that other options are worth pursuing. Michael Kimball sure does. An MFA is a wonderful luxury, but is it necessary?
All an MFA means is that you have mastered skills necessary to get into and pass an MFA program. It doesn’t mean that MFA grads are writers. In the same vein, reading The One-Hour MFA (in fiction) won’t make you a writer, but it will mean that you’ve been given a fantastically comprehensive and easy-to-understand guidebook. A primer. It’s up to you to internalize, practice and master the skills therein. One Hour gives you the tools to write well, but it’s up to you to pick it up.