2023-2024 University Catalog 
    Jun 18, 2024  
2023-2024 University Catalog

Writing Popular Fiction, M.F.A


  • Paul Goat Allen, B.A.
  • Michael Arnzen, Ph.D.
  • Anne Harris, B.S.
  • Will Horner, M.A.
  • Scott Johnson, M.F.A.
  • Barbara Miller, M.L.S.
  • Heidi Ruby Miller, M.A.
  • Jason Jack Miller, M.A.
  • Kathryn Miller Haines, M.F.A.
  • Priscilla Oliveras, M.F.A.
  • Nicole Peeler, Ph.D., Program Director
  • Maria V. Snyder, M.A.
  • Victoria Thompson, M.F.A
  • Albert Wendland, Ph.D.

The Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction helps students learn to write quality books that reach a wide audience. One-on-one mentoring by established writers enables each student to develop a writing project in genre fiction such as mystery, romance, science fiction, horror, fantasy, or young adult literature. Online contact with other participants ensures that students become part of a writing community and that they receive varied commentary on their work-in-progress. Five term-long online courses in genre readings, issues in popular fiction, and teaching popular fiction provide necessary background for a writing career. Week-long residencies, twice each year, inform and enliven the writing experience, bringing students together on Seton Hill’s campus to learn the basics and complexities of popular fiction. Industry professionals and guest writers of regional and national fame add extra impact to this residency experience.

Educational Objectives

The Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction ensures that students:

  • Identify and analyze the practical issues and special requirements (including characterization and plotting, style development, publishing strategies, research for writing) of varied genre literature as science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery, young adult literature, and romance through critical essays and a final manuscript.
  • Apply effective reading and editorial skills through the revision process and critiquing other students in a professional manner.
  • Analyze critical and theoretical issues surrounding popular fiction as it relates to society and the reading public, through reading, collaborative activities, and written work.
  • Define, summarize, and present a personal philosophy of writing and marketing popular fiction in a classwork and their final presentation.
  • Apply critiquing practices, pedagogical techniques, and preprofessional skills in order to effectively instruct others in fiction writing practices.
  • Illustrate an understanding of craft and the marketplace through producing a complete, market-ready genre novel.

During each writers’ residency, students participate in a daily writers’ workshop. They also take four afternoon courses or modules and attend a guest writers’ workshop and presentation. In the intervening months, students complete term writing projects under the guidance of a faculty mentor and with online support from a peer writing group. Also during those months they take a different online course for each term: three sections of SEL 600 ,  SEL 641 , and SEL 651 .

Required Modules:

The following four modules are taken during SEL 610 - Writers’ Residency 1 (English) :

  1. Critiquing and Clarity The craft of correct, effective, and useful critiquing is studied and practiced. The various student manuscripts examined are used to demonstrate clarity in writing, the effective presentation of material, and how critiques can help in controlling it.
  2. Character and Dialogue Since character is at the heart of all fiction, including popular fiction, writers must improve their characterization skills, creating original characters who still fit within the realm of popular fiction. The role dialogue plays in character development is covered, too, via lecture, literary examples, and in class writing exercises.
  3. Conflict, Plot, and Scene Building Without conflict there can be no fiction. Conflict is the generating engine of the plot. How have successful writers of the past and present used it? How can it be developed and polished to a fine art? Discussion and in-class writing develop this most basic principle of fiction.
  4. Structure and Synopsis Writing How to get started with the massive task of organizing your ideas into a coherent novel and then how to write an appealing synopsis to sell the project to the right editor.

The following three modules are taken during SEL 620 - Writers’ Residency 2 (English) :

  1. Point of View An examination, in both theory and practice, of why an author prefers first or third person narrators in certain settings or with particular characters. The class discusses why and how authors achieve special atmosphere by using an unusual point of view. Students experiment in class with changing point of view and the choice of a narrator.
  2. Setting and Research Where does your story take place, and how can you bring it to life? The key to vivid settings is personal, sensory experience and the research that brings accuracy and detail to a setting. Students learn to pay closer attention to their own senses, and learn how to find the most relevant and important sources for the background to their setting: exploring the Internet, interviewing, going “on location,” and keeping track of it all.
  3. Description: Producing It, Using It We will introduce a means of generating description, using the four different types of it (scientific, sensory, emotional, poetic). We will decide when and how much of it to use, discover how to make it work for us in more efficient ways, and explore how its needs change from genre to genre. Come ready to master this elusive and yet important narrative tool.



Revision Covered are the various revision passes that can be made of a manuscript: the “big stuff,” description and the senses, POV and scene breaks, and editing. Students sample and practice all these approaches, and apply them to their own manuscripts.

Business of Writing Learn about submitting work for publication, record-keeping, and financial issues that can mean the difference between success and failure. Find out how to sell without selling out and how to deal with and learn from rejection. This crash course covers publishing etiquette, queries, taxes, record-keeping, making a living, and working with editors and agents. Offered every January.

Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror - Sample Modules

World-Building This class determines and experiments with what is needed to create a workable, and scientifically believable, alien planet and alien race. We also discuss how setting in science fiction, especially such a created planet or culture, can become a major contributor of plot ideas.

Hard and Soft Science for SF Lecture and brief workshop on the use of science in writing “hard” and “soft” science fiction. Topics include: available resource material, how much science is needed, how accurate it must be. Sample stories of both types of SF are read, and the workshop involves writing brief descriptions of background science for narratives, practicing what’s required and what you can “get away with.”

Horror and Fantasy This module defines the conventions of popular horror and fantasy for the “speculative fiction” writer (sf/f/h). We examine classic texts, explore current trends, and consider the readership of both genres. This short course in nightmare and wonder features a brief discussion of literary theories of the Fantastic and the Uncanny and contains writing exercises to practice “scare tactics” and generate imaginative premises, characters, creatures, and worlds.

Romance - Sample Modules

Topics in Romance Writing Topics vary, but may include: Romance and Feminism, Writing the Early American Romance, Time-Travel Romance, Writing the Inspirational Romance, and Romance for Minority Audiences.

Sex, Style, and Plot in Romantic Fiction The importance of sensuality and emotion in various types of romances. Topics include the language of emotions, euphemism, maintaining emotional and sexual tension, and integrating love scenes with overall plot.

Romance Character: Stereotypes with a Difference How can romance writers create fresh, believable characters without violating publishers’ requirements for a certain type of hero and heroine? What elements of characterization must remain stereotypical?

Mystery - Sample Modules

Getting It Right: Accuracy in Mystery and Suspense Fiction A well-written novel in any genre could be torpedoed by an editor or agent because the technical information contained there in is inaccurate. This is particularly true in the mystery-thriller or romantic suspense genres where police, prosecutors, PIs, and criminals intermingle. This module explores the areas where writers - even the most experienced - falter. Topics include police/PI relationships, serial killers, warrants, weapons, procedure, differences in how the police and PIs obtain information, PD ranks and how they work, insanity (legal and otherwise), and much more. Students are given a pop quiz to test their knowledge at the beginning of the first hour. The last hour is devoted to students’ novels and any questions they have pertaining to technical areas.

Forensics: How to Kill Your Character How do you get the information you need to create realistic murder scenes, probable injuries, and believable detection strategies? What is the role of forensics and forensic psychology? Through lecture, discussion, guest speakers, and in class writing assignments, students learn how to include needed realism in their crime fiction.

Murder as a Fine Art Lecture and workshop on the evolving image of murder from the 1920s to the present. How have the murderers, the victims, the detectives, and society changed over the past decades? Are certain modes of murder more successful in a novel than others? In-class writing grows out of the discussion of famous or infamous murderers and detectives.

Young Adult Literature - Sample Modules

Writing for Young Adults: Rules that Rule Designed to educate the new writer and strengthen writers already on their journeys. Topics include character motivation, story structure, back story, and rewriting. Through exercises and discussion of books that work, the instructor shares the rules that must not be broken if publication is your dream.

Young Adult Fantasy: YA fantasy is not just a fantasy novel with a sixteen-year-old protagonist. This module explores the differences between adult and YA fantasy, concentrating on aspects of world building, creating the perfect protagonist, and exploring thematic tropes that YA readers love (and YA editors love to see).

The Modern Young Adult Novel Lecture and discussion on this popular genre’s requirements, including level of complexity, inclusion of social problems and values, plotting to keep the teenager’s attention, and writing believable dialogue. We also look at series books, science fiction and fantasy, mystery, and romance as these genres pertain to Young Adult Fiction. Finally, the special marketing requirements for this genre is discussed.

Other Genres - Sample Modules

Historical Fiction A survey of the requirements and special characteristics of writing historical fiction: types of readers, the research that is needed, how to create “past” characters, how to keep the past - however distant - close and identifiable to the reader’s present, how detailed not to be, how to satisfy both the need for historical accuracy and the need for good story, how to make readers feel that they’re being educated as well as entertained.

The Techno-Thriller Survey of the requirements for writing the techno-thriller novel, a fast-paced story with a contemporary scientific or technological background. The class examines several examples of the genre. Topics include: special requirements, the intended reader, contemporary appeal, how extensive the background material must be, “action” plots, and pacing.

Writing Short Especially in certain genres, short stories can be a quick way to break into publishing. In this module we talk about the special needs of short story narratives–pacing, styles, quickness of description, unified impact–but we also discuss them as marketing tools, as means of beefing up your cover letter. Many magazines and their requirements are covered.

Writing Popular Fiction Curriculum

Total Credits: 54.5

Additional Courses

Students in the joint MA/MFA in Writing Popular Fiction with Edinburgh Napier University must complete the Master of Arts Degree in Creative Writing at Edinburgh Napier University and then complete the following courses to earn the Master of Fine Arts:

Total Credits: 39.5

Additional Courses

Students who have earned the Master of Arts in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill may be granted advanced standing and may earn the Master of Fine Arts by completing the following courses.