Burning Down the Barriers: Earning an MFA Writing Romance

I was privileged to interview debut novelist Laura Navarre earlier this month. She’s sold two books in rapid succession. Her debut novel, The Devil’s Mistress, a dark Tudor romance, was released by Samhain on June 1. Dorchester purchased The Devil’s Temptress, her dark Crusader romance, which is scheduled to appear on shelves in November.

Laura attributes a major portion of her success her participation in a Masters of Fine Arts program. I invited her to return and tell us more about her experience and how the program contributed to her sales.

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Burning Down the Barriers: Earning an MFA Writing Romance

By Laura Navarre

Learning the Craft

Like many writers, I’ve been scribbling stories compulsively since childhood. When I started writing with the intent to publish in 2003, I stopped indulging in my sprawling manuscript on the infrequent occasions the muse chose to visit, and became a professional who wrote daily, with discipline and purpose. The first insight that struck me was the daunting realization that, if I ever wanted to be published, I needed serious help to hone my craft.

I was already an omnivorous reader, including in the historical romance genre I adored, so how else could I strengthen my writing? I started by reading a shopping list of writing texts like Stephen King’s On Writing, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and my particular favorite The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life by Noah Lukeman. These books taught me some of the basics, and I quickly moved on to more interactive experiences like Robert McKee’s Story Seminar (which taught clueless me a massive amount about story and scene structure), Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel Workshop (which taught me to raise the stakes and put tension on every page), and the cross-genre popular-fiction focused Writer’s Weekend in Seattle which, as far as I can tell, is no longer being held.

Still, my writing wasn’t improving quickly enough. By this time, I’d toiled my way through a 300,000 word TOME of a historical romance, with a hero who died nobly and movingly midway through the story. Not exactly the happily-ever-after ending that’s a requirement of the genre! Eventually, after I joined Romance Writers of America® (RWA®) and started researching the market, it dawned on me that I’d written a book no romance editor would ever publish. The realization, of course, was heartbreaking. But, as my writing mentor Steven Denlinger pointed out, I could either go to my grave with the manuscript clutched to my chest, or resign myself to revamping and revising the story completely. After several bouts of late-night sobbing, I chose the latter—but clearly, I needed a much more romance-focused approach. And the problem was complicated by the fact that I’d just undertaken a diplomatic assignment that would station me in Moscow, Russia for the next five years.

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Exploring Other Options

My long cold exile led me to the treasure trove of online writing courses. Among other options, the Gotham Writers Workshop runs a very pragmatic, interactive, and high quality series of romance writing courses, taught by multi-award winning romance author Leigh Michaels—who would later become another mentor who brought my writing to the next level. Still, although I was developing an ever deeper understanding of my genre, I was dissatisfied with my craft. When I finally came in from the cold and returned Stateside, I decided to pursue a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree, and to do it writing romance.

Herein lay the difficulty. To begin, when I mentioned this intention to agents I was querying at the time, I was swiftly informed that an MFA would not help me write romance or any other form of popular fiction, including fantasy, science fiction, mystery, thriller, horror—pretty much everything I liked to read! When I researched MFA programs across the country, I discovered to my dismay that virtually ALL MFA programs only deign to accept literary writers (as well as poets and so on). Popular fiction—also dubbed the much-maligned “commercial fiction”—was unwelcome in these MFA programs. And I was unwilling to invest thousands of dollars and years of effort in a program that forced me to write in a genre in which my own interest was—with some exceptions—limited.

Thankfully, a timely article in RWA’s Romance Writers Report informed me that at least two MFA programs in the country (unlike the dozens I’d glanced at) permitted writers to earn their degrees writing popular fiction. Until recently, at least one of these programs stipulated that the program would accept popular fiction writers from any genre—except romance.

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Choosing an MFA Program

Fortunately, I found the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine. As I researched the program, so many elements appealed to me. Stonecoast had an entire program focused on Writing Popular Fiction! Moreover, the program not only allowed, but actually encouraged students to write romance. The flexible distance-learning format was perfect for my crowded schedule—and affordable.

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This two-year, fully accredited MFA program features ten intense and jam-packed days per semester of campus residency. Then each student is paired with a faculty mentor to work long distance and one-on-one (often relying on email) for the semester. Course requirements include a reading list each student tailors to fit their needs, plus 25 pages of polished prose per month. These manuscripts receive detailed and insightful written feedback from the mentor.

And those ten-day residencies? They’re some of the most fun I’ve ever had while working! I love being submerged in the intense, eclectic, 24/7 writers’ world of lively round-table workshops and critiques, diverse readings by both students and faculty, and a dizzying array of social events (both planned and otherwise). I love being able to learn from a kaleidoscope of talented poets, literary fiction, popular fiction and creative non-fiction writers. I love the daily interaction with well-known authors on the faculty who are 100% committed to helping me achieve my writing goals. Among my mentors are New York Times bestselling romance, horror, and paranormal author Nancy Holder, and critically acclaimed suspense author and playwright Michael Kimball. I’ve also benefited from workshops taught by Nebula Award-nominated science fiction author James Patrick Kelly, award-winning historical and speculative fiction author David Anthony Durham, and many others.

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Amazing Results

Not only have I collected a staggering array of new friends—a circumstance rather rare in my solitary, introverted writers’ life—but my writing has improved by leaps and bounds. After five years of unsuccessful effort to find an agent, I finally found the one who’s perfect for me—J.D. DeWitt at The View Literary Agency—during my first semester at Stonecoast. Then, after years of heartbreak, I finalled in RWA’s prestigious Golden Heart® contest. Finally, during my eventful second semester, two of my dark historical romances were acquired within weeks of each other by Samhain and Dorchester!

As I write this article during my third semester at Stonecoast, I’m madly promoting my dark Tudor romance, The Devil’s Mistress, about a reluctant lady assassin who’s blackmailed to poison Anne Boleyn. This novel is my very first release, and it comes out from Samhain on June 1. I’m also in the midst of revisions for my dark Crusader romance The Devil’s Temptress, which finalled in the Golden Heart as The Devil’s Virtue. This one features a love triangle between a disgraced Muslim knight, an ardent Christian lady, and Richard the Lionheart.

In short, the Stonecoast MFA program at University of Southern Maine has been perfect for me. Halfway through the program, I’ve already achieved my top three goals: to strengthen my writing, build networks in the writing world, and even be published. As an added bonus, my academic research project, titled “Sympathy for the Devil: Dark Heroes in Popular Fiction” has been selected for a two-hour workshop I’ll present at the Emerald City Romance Writers conference in Seattle in October.

And that 300,000 word tome that I mentioned? I’ve just about finished trimming it to a 90,000 word medieval romance, in which the hero escapes his formerly tragic end and earns his happily-ever-after.

These days, I’m feeling that I’ve earned a bit of happily-ever-after myself.

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About Laura

In her other life, Laura Navarre is a diplomat who’s lived in Russia and works on weapons of mass destruction issues. In the line of duty, she’s been trapped in an elevator in a nuclear power plant and has stalked the corridors of facilities churning out nerve agent and other apocalyptic weapons. In this capacity, she meets many of the world’s most dangerous men. Inspired by the sinister realities of her real life, she writes dark medieval and Renaissance romance spiked with political intrigue.

Laura’s degrees include an M.A. in National Security Policy from The George Washington University and a B.A. in International Relations from Michigan State University. Laura divides her time between her writing career, her MFA in creative writing, and other adventures for U.S. government clients. She lives in a small vineyard in the Pacific Northwest with her Siberian cats, Pandora and Delilah, pedigreed kitties she bought when she lived in Russia.

A compulsive traveler, Laura has spent time in most Eastern, Central, and Western European countries and a fair amount of time in Egypt, where she indulged her passion for scuba diving and antiquities. She has visited almost all of the former Soviet Union countries and had the pleasure of spending time in Beijing, Tokyo, and Kyoto. She’s one of very few Americans who’s been inside North Korea. In addition, she’s crossed the U.S. from North to South, and from East Coast to West in her little red Saturn. She’s a collector of modern art with around fifty original paintings and loves exotic cuisine.

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Questions for Laura?

If you have questions about Laura, her books, or her experience with the Stonecoast MFA program, please leave a comment. Although Laura is currently on one of her adventures in the former Soviet Union, she’ll be stopping by when she can to respond.

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Laura Invites You to Learn More About Her

Visit my website and blog, and download free excerpts from my two upcoming releases at http://www.LauraNavarre.com.

I Tweet at http://www.twitter.com/LauraNavarre.

And I’m on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/LauraNavarreAuthor.

Email me at LauraNavarreAuthor@yahoo.com.

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About Keli Gwyn

I'm an award-winning author of inspirational historical romance smitten with the Victorian Era. I'm currently writing for Harlequin's Love Inspired Historical line of wholesome, faith-filled romances. My debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California, was released July 1, 2012. I'm represented by Rachelle Gardner of Book & Such Literary. I live in a Gold Rush-era town at the foot of the majestic Sierras. My favorite places to visit are my fictional worlds, other Gold Country towns and historical museums. When I'm not writing I enjoy taking walks, working out at Curves™ and reading.
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12 Responses to Burning Down the Barriers: Earning an MFA Writing Romance

  1. Carla Gade says:

    Nice to learn about you and your writing, Laura! Attending Stonecoast sounds like a wonderful opportunity.

    • Hi Carla!

      Thanks so much for stopping by and letting me know you enjoyed the article. I was on foreign travel until yesterday, and my apologies for not being able to check in here sooner.

      I’ve loved the Stonecoast program and definitely attribute it, along with Romance Writers of America, to my modest success. I acquired my agent, finaled in the Golden Heart, and sold two books within a year of starting the MFA program. 🙂

      Cheers!
      Laura

  2. darynda says:

    Laura, I am so late to this and I’m sorry. I’d bookmarked it then went back to my revisions. But I’m back! And I am oh-so interested in your story.

    I have boon looking at MFA programs, but now that I’ve sold, I was worried they would take too much time away from my writing. I know, I will be writing anyway, but what if I have a book due, etc? How is that working for you?

    I would absolutely love an MFA and there is a possibility that I will not go back to the day job in August. I have another offer pending on a YA series. If that is the case, I might consider an MFA program more heartily.

    May I just ask, the 25 pages a month, can that be an ongoing ms? Like, perhaps, something you’ve already sold? LOL. I’m trying to meld the two here.

    Thank you so much for this post. And good luck in all your writing endeavors! OH! And congrats on your sales!!! Duh!

    • Hi Darynda!

      Thanks so much for your questions on the Stonecoast MFA program. Since the program is so flexible and self-directed, I was able to use the manuscripts I’m already working on for my monthly page count at Stonecoast. And you can absolutely submit 25 pages ever month from your novel in progress. The workshops provide an exceptional opportunity to get plenty of feedback on your work, including from well-known published authors on the faculty, so the program dovetailed perfectly with my own writing goals.

      Even my academic research project on dark heroes in popular fiction (which I resented desperately for the time it took away from my manuscripts) turnd out to be extremely helpful not only for my craft, but for promotion as well. I have pubbed two articles and secured a two-hour workshop at the Emerald City Writers Conference in Seattle this October as a result of my research.

      Let me know if I can provide anything further! I’ve loved the Stonecoast program, so I’m always happy to chat about it.

      Happy writing!
      Laura

      • darynda says:

        Thank you so much, Laura!!! I’m really excited about this prospect and I appreciate so much your taking the time to answer my questions.

        Best wishes for all your future successes!
        ~D~

  3. YOU PLAY ACCORDIAN??? Who knew. I love Keli’s interviews because she always digs deep enough to find something pretty strange about all her guests. LOL>

    Congratulations on your sale and I look forward to more hunky Colorado cowboys from you.

  4. Oh my, I posted under the wrong person. But never fear. I know how to back out of a cow paddy gracefully.

    Congratulations to Laura too and wow on your background. I used to work for the Army Security Agency, monitoring Russian Airborne. LOL. We should chat.

  5. Tina, this is so funny! I read “accordion” and “Colorado cowboys” and thought, “Hmmm…”

  6. Kaye Dacus says:

    The *other* MFA program in Writing Popular Fiction is my alma mater, Seton Hill University in southwest Pennsylvania.

    Most worthwhile money I’ve ever (borrowed and) spent—and, as Laura said, the time spent on campus with everyone else is unbelievably wonderful and unforgettable—I formed life-long bonds with the other students there. If you can afford it and can make the time for it, by all means, go! You won’t regret it!

    • darynda says:

      I was looking at Seton Hill as well, Kaye. Thanks for the input! Both seem like awesome programs.

  7. Kaye, it’s fabulous to hear from one of the Seton Hill grads! Seton Hill and Stonecoast are the only MFA programs I’m aware of that let students earn their degrees writing romance, and I was definitely curious about that program as well. 🙂

    Do the romance students share workshops and critiques with other genres? And how many students are in the program, if you know offhand? I think there are about 90 of us (not including faculty) in the Stonecoast program.

    • Kaye Dacus says:

      Now that they’ve changed the program to an MFA degree, I’m not sure how many students are enrolled, because I know a lot of the MA graduates have gone back to get their “F” in a one-year adapted program.

      When I was in the MA program 4-5 years ago, we had between 70 and 80 students. And, yes, we had both mixed-genre and single-genre critique workshops. I got some of my best feedback/ideas from students writing other genres!

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