Fiction writing–one episode at a time


I had never heard of episodic novels until I read a post by Donald Maass on Writer Unboxed recently. Funny thing is, after reading Maass’s article, I realized I had read a few episodic novels. I just didn’t realize they fell under that category. But I did notice how different they were in the way the stories were told.

While traditional novels take a linear approach to storytelling with each scene leading into the next, episodic novels are told as a series of self-contained stories around a central theme, place or character. Think of a TV series in which there is the same cast of characters each week, but each episode centers around a different problem, like Friends, Cheers or Mash. Episodic novels are told in much the same way. Each episode can stand on its own as its own story, but it still propels the overarching plot forward.

Here are a few examples:

* The Hobbit was written by J.R.R. Tolkien to entertain his children. Each chapter (or episode) could be read to them before bedtime.

* The story of Olive Kittredge is a character study. Each episode of Olive’s life is told from different perspectives, sometimes from a different character who interacts with her. Each story reveals a different side to Kittredge’s character.

* In The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman, the focus is not on a character, but on a thing – a garden that appears to grow from reddish earth beneath it. The story spans several generations featuring the various owners of the garden and their relationship to it.

* Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye is another character study of one girl’s unfortunate childhood. The story is never told from her perspective but as accounts from people in her life who interact with her.

Episodic novels can be children’s stories like The Hobbit or Huckleberry Finn. They can be coming-of-age like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or To Kill a Mockingbird. They can be adventure stories, stories of journeys to distant lands, like the Arabian Nights. Or they can be character studies like Olive Kittredge, or an exploration of a time or place, like The Red Garden. Here’s one list of episodic novels but I’m sure you can find other examples.

Note that episodic novels are not the same as a series novel. A series novel consists of several complete books that follow in sequence, such as Harry Potter. Episodes are self-contained scenes within one book,  but they are still integral to the plot. Each episode connects to the episode before and after it.

TCK Publishing describes four key elements of episodic plot:

  • Episodes are distinct but are logically connected.
  • Each episode contains elements of plot (conflict, rising action, climax, resolution, etc.)
  • Episodes contribute to the overall plot of the story without impacting any other episodes
  • The common theme binds the episodes together.

Another common characteristic is that episodic novels tend to be presented in chronological order. So though the episodes might be told by different characters describing the same incident, the story is never out of sequence.

I admit this might seem a bit confusing. After all, episodic novels seem to break all the basic rules of storytelling, and it does not follow a linear structure. Try reading a few of these stories to see how they are different from traditional novels. Think of it as one more way to tell your story.

Then if you feel brave enough, pick up your pen and try writing one. Remember to focus on one specific character, place, or moment in time. Then like a TV screen writer, create individual episodes that can stand on their own while moving the overall story forward to a satisfying conclusion. Writing an episodic novel (or making a valid attempt to do so) may be the most challenging thing you ever do.

Is an MFA Program in Your Future?

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Like many writers, I’ve often wondered if I would benefit from attending an MFA program to boost my writing capabilities. An MFA degree – Master of Fine Arts – gives writers an intensive educational experience about the writing craft. Did I have the desire to go back to school, to go through the application process? And did I want to spend money I really didn’t have on a program I wasn’t sure would help my career?

For me, the answer was no. I’ve been fortunate to find numerous workshops and classes about writing so I never felt compelled to apply for an MFA program. Other writers I know have found the MFA to be a valuable asset in their careers. BUT an MFA is not for everyone.

Before you take that leap, there are several factors to consider, such as costs, location, and the type of program. As of 2019, there were 158 full residency programs in the U.S. and 64 low-residency programs, according to Poets & Writers magazine. Full residency programs require students to be on-site and attend classes full-time. In a low residency program, students might need to attend sessions at the university location over a 10-day stretch twice a year while they work on their own the rest of the time. Some programs even offer class sessions abroad.

Every year more programs are launched. With so much to choose from, it can be difficult to know what to look for. Worse, there are tons of articles written on this subject. I’ve done some initial research for you here so you can sort through the key points. I’ll also share some valuable tips and resources to help you decide if an MFA program is right for you. But the rest is up to you.

Why would anyone want to pursue an MFA?

People decide to pursue a master’s program for a number of reasons. They may feel they lack proper knowledge about the writing craft or feel uncertain about their technical skills. Maybe they seek feedback for their writing, or want to be part of a community. For others, it’s learning to teach others, since some programs require attendees to teach classes. Whatever your reason may be, the long-term benefit is learning and growing as a writer.

When searching for a program, there are several questions to ask yourself.

* Do you plan to attend full-time or part-time? If you already work full-time, a full-time program may be more than you can handle, unless you are willing to quit your job for it. Full-time residencies may require you to live near the campus to participate in writing workshops and teach classes. Part-time programs don’t have nearly the time requirement that full-time programs do. Some of the classes may also be delivered online, which makes it more flexible for some students.

* What size program do you want to be part of? Depending on the school, you may attend small group sessions of less than 10 students, or larger programs with more than 30. Then there are programs with medium-sized classes.

* How much money are you willing and able to spend? While some programs are fully funded, meaning they offer all students in the program with financial assistance, others are not funded at all or are partially funded. That means you will have to find ways to finance your education. MFA programs aren’t cheap. Some can cost more than $20,000 a year.

* Do you have any desire to teach? Full-time programs that offer fellowships may require you to teach classes in exchange for income. That’s great is you want to work on your presentation and teaching skills. But if you have no interest in teaching, the full-time programs may be a waste of time.

* What kind of writing do you want to do? As Jacob Mohr writes on the TCK Publishing blog, most MFA programs frown on commercial and genre fiction. So if you want to publish your collection of horror stories, don’t expect a lot of support from program faculty. Most programs lean toward poetry, non-fiction and literary fiction.

Pros and cons of writing programs
Once you have these answers nailed down, you can examine the pros and cons of MFAs.

Pros:

  • You get feedback for your work from instructors and fellow students.
  • You can sharpen your writing skills so you write, edit, and critique more efficiently.
  • You receive intensive training on the writing craft, learning everything from plot structure, grammar and punctuation, and character development. You learn a lot in a short amount of time.
  • You have a chance to work toward a final project, usually a book or performance.
  • You can join a community of fellow writers who are working toward similar goals.
  • You don’t need to take the GRE or other standardized test to gain acceptance into a program.
  • Some programs are fully funded and provide financial assistance to support your education.

Cons:

  • Most MFA programs are pricey, unless you find a fully-funded program. Not everyone can afford to attend an MFA program, not even on a part-time basis.
  • MFA programs can be time-consuming and too intensive to fit into your schedule. Most programs are a 2-3 year commitment, which most people may not be able to give. In addition to attending classes, you may be required to teach classes or fulfill other obligations.
  • There’s no guarantee that you’ll find writing success after you complete the program.
  • Most MFA programs do not address the business side of writing, such as submitting work to editors, marketing yourself, how to get published, finding a literary agent, etc. It’s up to you to learn these hard skills.
  • MFA programs are highly competitive. Many universities receive hundreds of applications for only a handful of students, as few as 10 or 20. So the chances of being accepted are slim.
  • As Mohr mentioned above, most programs focus on literary fiction, poetry and non-fiction writing. Commercial and genre-based fiction is frowned upon. If you wish to write a sci-fi/fantasy series, don’t expect to get a lot of support for your work.

If you decide that an MFA program isn’t right for you, there are educational alternatives (thankfully). Try the slow, steady pace of the self-study or DIY MFA. This way you learn about the writing craft at your own pace. Take classes from local writing studios or schools, attend conferences and read self-help books about writing. This approach might take longer to teach yourself the proper techniques, but you control the subject matter and the timing of lessons. The self-study route also provides more flexibility so you can fit lessons around a full-time job or other obligations.

You can also join a writer’s group to get feedback for your pieces. Most important, write, write and write some more. Most published authors agree that writing a little bit every day is the best way to learn to write.

Still not sure whether an MFA is right for you? Check out Flavorwire’s roundup of opinions from 27 writers. The opinions are mixed. For example, Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love), advises people to get “an advanced degree in the school of life…”

“After I graduated from NYU, I decided not to pursue an MFA in creative writing. Instead, I created my own post-graduate writing program, which entailed several years spent traveling around the country and world, taking jobs at bars and restaurants and ranches, listening to how people spoke, collecting experiences and writing constantly,” Gilbert writes.

For more information about MFA programs, check out these additional resources:
Association of Writers and Writing Programs: Guide to writing programs
Poets & Writers Magazine: 2019 MFA Index and Guide

Good luck and happy writing!