Western's Creative Writing Blog

Western's Graduate Creative Writing Program blog includes essays and posts about whatever aspects of the program strike the faculty's fancies. If you want to see more, take a look at our Facebook pages, Western's Graduate Program in Creative Writing, World of Versecraft, and THINK Journal.

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October 12, 2017. Alumni Update

Thanks to Alumni Association Coordinator Steve Visel (MFA, Genre Fiction, 2015), who brings us another round of publication and other news from our graduates.


Chris Barili (MFA, Genre Fiction, 2015) placed his urban fantasy short story "Broken Homes" in Crimson Streets Magazine, probably coming out in April next year. That means it will come out right after his "Heroes of the Russian Federation" comes out in Undercurrents, the Superstars Writing Seminar charity anthology. Chris was also interviewed by Kaye Lynne Booth (MFA, Genre Fiction) in Part 6 of her blog series, "Book Marketing - What Works?Kaye, by the way, had a short story, "If You're Happy and You Know It" come out in a science fiction anthology The Collapsar Directive on August 1. Her short story, "The Devil Made Her Do It," is coming out in Zombie Pirate Publishing's Relationship Add Vice anthology. And who wouldn't want to have something with Zombie Pirate Publishing?  Not only that, Kaye also just started teaching at Western this semester. She has two courses of ENG102 Academic Writing, which is pretty darn cool. 

Heath Houseman (MFA, Screenwriting, 2013) is heading to the Austin Film Festival this year, where he placed as a Second Rounder in their screenplay competition (the last three years running, actually, for "Killing Santa," "Trident," and now "The Lost Vagina").

Mike Pool (MFA, Genre Fiction, 2015) just got the contracts and official word that Down and Out Books will be publishing his thesis novel, Rose City, in April 2019! It has crossover characters with Texas Two Step, which Down and Out will publish in April 2018.

Bronson Beatty (MFA, Genre Fiction, 2016) sold his story "To Build a Son" to SFWA-qualifier Alliterate for their upcoming anthology.

Stacia Deutsch (MFA, Genre Fiction, 2012) has not only been a teacher in the Western MFA program, but she was also a student, so it's only fair to add her latest success. She made the NYT Bestseller list on September 10th for The Friendship Code, published by Penguin. It's a YA novel and is the first in the Girls Who Code series.

And, finally, Dr. Rothman and a boatload of Western-affiliated folks will be attending and reading at the 3rd Annual Headwaters Poetry Conference, Oct. 13-15 at the Gunnison Arts Center. Alumni Ben LongfellowEnid Holden, and Susan Spear will be there. Another current student, Brian Palmer, is reading as well. Mark Todd, the founder of both the graduate and undergraduate creative writing programs at Western, will be receiving a well-deserved special award, the Karen Chamberlain Lifetime Achievement Award for Poetry in Colorado.

Graduate Program in Creative Writing, Application Information

October 1, 2017. Kevin J. Anderson Joins GPCW Faculty

The Graduate Program in Creative Writing is excited to announce the recent hiring of publisher and world-renowned novelist, Kevin J. Anderson, as Adjunct Professor in Publishing and Genre Fiction.

Professor Anderson has more than 140 books to his credit, 56 of which have appeared on national and international bestseller lists, including many of the novels in the Star Wars series. There are more than 23 million copies of his works in print, in thirty languages.

Anderson is also the publisher and editor of WordFire, a substantial publishing house, and the GPCW will be drawing on his skill and experience both as a writer and also in this professional field.

Professor Anderson is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin - Madison and is currently completing his MFA degree at Lindenwood University. He and his wife, the novelist Rebecca Moesta, currently reside in Colorado.

The GPCW is honored to bring Professor Anderson, a novelist and publisher with a global reputation, to Western.

Graduate Program in Creative Writing, Application Information

April 30, 2017. More Alumni Accomplishments

The publishing credits just keep coming...

 John Steele, a part-time student in the Poetry concentration, published a poem “Ruby Canyon” in the Winter 2017 issue of The Lyric. His poem, “My Grandpa Lost” and a translation of Arthur Rimbaud’s “The Drunken Boat,” are both forthcoming in Blue Unicorn. He also had three poems published last May by The Society of Classical Poets as online posts: “Grinnell Glacier,” “Choices” and “2016 Primaries.” “Choices” was also published in the 2017 print journal of The Society of Classical Poets.

Susan Spear, (MFA, Poetry, 2012), the Managing Editor of the GPCW's international journal THINK, has been busy as well. She gave a poetry reading at the Elizabeth (CO) Public Library on February 6 which was well-attended (for the Eastern Plains of Colorado--one dozen!). She also taught two workshops sessions entitled "A Little Rhythm, a Little Rhyme" at the Writers on the Rock Conference in Lakewood, Colorado, on February 25. Finally, she organized a writers' retreat for nine English majors from Colorado Christian University on February 9-10. Dr. Richard Foster presented to the students on Thursday evening, and on Friday students wrote, wrote, and wrote more

Heath Houseman (MFA, Screenwriting, 2013) had a one-act play (Captain L-rac on Mars!) published by Heartland Plays, Inc. Heartland will also publish two additional plays, The Young Man and To the Moon, this year. Heath also had a flash fiction piece, "Kill Me Again," published by Punchnel's in 2015.

Kaye Lynn Booth (MFA, Genre Fiction/Screenwriting, 2017) is publishing a Western novel, Delilah, with rising independent publisher Dusty Saddle Publishing. Kaye is also a frequent contributor to the WSCU Creative Writing Facebook page. Join us there!

Marissa Harwood (MFA, Genre Fiction, 2017) will shortly publish a slipstream short story, "My Ribs a Cage" at Daily Science Fiction.

Most impressive! We're proud of you all.

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April 26, 2017. Michaela Roessner in the Gotham Writers Workshop Blog

We're delighted to see GPCW Genre Fiction Professor Michaela Roessner appear recently in the prestigious Gotham Writers Workshop Blog. She teaches in that program as well as with us. Here's the article and the link. Thanks, Michaela, and thanks to GWW for allowing us to reprint.

Advanced Degrees in Writing Genre Fiction

by Michaela Roessner

In the Science Fiction & Fantasy courses I teach here at Gotham, I’ve experienced something I’m sure other genre faculty have too: Students mentioning in their bios that they have advanced degrees in Literature, English, or Creative Writing. I always ask these students that since they already know how to write and therefore their presence in my classes will be an enormous treat for me, what could possibly have to teach them?

The heartbreaking answer is always the same: While getting that degree they were never allowed to write in their preferred genre (Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Mystery, etc.). Some were even made the class whipping boy or girl as soon as they mentioned they wanted to write any kind of genre fiction. 

Some years ago a well-known creative writing professor outright boasted in a respected journal of the shoddy way she treated students who wanted to write genre fiction, pleased as punch with herself with the way she’d beaten it out of them. Only to confess on the very next page that she’d eventually run across those “charming” Harry Potter books and decided that maybe some genre fiction wasn’t all that bad after all.

I seethed at this, wanting to track down every student she’d abused for no other reason that she didn’t know a damned thing about genre fiction or how to write it, and tell them to sue her for every wasted dime they’d spent for her classes and even more for their pain and suffering.

Now if any of you might hanker to attend a creative writing graduate program where you’d not only be allowed to write in your chosen genre but be encouraged to do so and taught by faculty embedded in genre fiction, take heart! You no longer have to risk signing on for years of abuse. Nor pine away if there aren’t any genre-fiction friendly institutions nearby. In other words, you don’t have to settle.

There are now more genre-fiction-friendly brick-and-mortar programs that provide coursework in at least some Genre Fiction subjects. Rosemont College’s MFA program in Pennsylvania is a good example. Among more standard MFA creative writing courses, they also have classes in Mystery/Horror, YA, and literature courses in Speculative Fiction.

But if you don’t have any nearby genre-fiction-friendly institutions, there are three low-residency MFA programs offering full concentrations in popular/genre fiction.

A low-residency program means that students travel to the institution itself for brief intensive sessions, then study during the intervening months via some form of distance learning. This allows students to maintain their jobs and take care of their families while earning the desired degree without having to pull up stakes and move.


Typical low-residencies consist of two in-house residencies a year of usually eight to ten days per residency, with study plans for the interim months that students negotiate and prepare with an assigned mentor that include creative writing, a required readings list, and penning academic analytical pieces. During residencies students attend writing workshops, topic-specific presentations, and public readings by faculty and graduating students.

Students can apply to join a typical low-res program starting with either a winter or summer residency. All low-residency programs include a completed thesis component.

Here are the three current low-residency MFA programs that offer concentrations in Popular/Genre Fiction:

Seton Hill is the oldest full-genres genre-fiction program. They used to offer an MA degree, but switched to MFAs a few years ago. They operate on a typical “traditional” low-residency format. The genres that Seton Hill supports in its program are Romance, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Mystery, and YA. Seton Hill’s curriculum also includes a pedagogy course and a writing-about-popular-fiction class.

Stonecoast U. of Southern Maine is also a typical two-residencies-per-year (summer and winter) and mentors-in-between model. The genres that Stonecoast currently supports in its Popular Fiction concentration are Speculative Fiction, Romance, Mystery and its subsets like Crime/Noir, and YA.

Western State Colorado University has an MFA Genre Fiction curriculum that covers Westerns, Mystery, Crime, Thrillers, all Speculative Fiction subsets, Horror, Romance, and YA. WSCU’s paradigm is different from typical low residency programs. It hosts just one onsite two-week session in July. Students may only enter the program in the summer, but that also means they incur the extra travel and housing expenses, time off work, etc., just once a year.

WSCU’s students attend in cohorts, during their first year focusing on workshop and survey classes that cover all the basic genre fiction subsets. In their second year they also take the-business-of-writing and pedagogy courses in addition to being assigned a mentor as their thesis advisor. During WSCU’s summer residencies, students attend classes that focus on the needs of their particular cohort – where they are in the program.

Instead of presentations throughout its residency, WSCU’s program culminates in the university’s annual writing conference—Writing the Rockies—which has its own presentations and workshops that address all three of WSCU’s concentrations of Genre Fiction, Poetry, and Screenwriting.

Seton Hill’s program concentrates wholly on genre fiction, but do note that if you’re accepted to either Stonecoast or WSCU, although you’ll study in your specific subgenre, you won’t be studying just your subgenre.

At Stonecoast, besides the genre fiction workshops, students may be assigned to non-genre-fiction workshops and can choose to attend lectures and presentations in the other concentrations in order to broaden their perspective and options. 

In the online coursework at WSCU, students must study across all the major genre fiction subgenres, learning the standards/benchmarks and dipping a toe in writing in all of them in order to learn the possibilities and advantages of borrowing from other subgenres to improve one’s chosen field, and to introduce students to subgenres they might not have previously considered as writing options. In their third semester students also take a course in one of other dedicated tracks (Poetry or Screenwriting).

To find out the submission requirements and information for any of these three programs, visit their websites. 

So if you want to get an advanced degree writing genre fiction, when looking at any creative writing program, do make sure to see if their listed coursework supports and encourages genre fiction and that they have instructors who are informed about, embedded in (i.e., published in), and qualified to teach those subjects.

Here's the site for Michaela's article.

Graduate Program in Creative Writing, Application Information

March 16, 2017. The Alumni Achievements Just Keep Coming...

Thanks to Alumni Association Coordinator Steve Visel, who brings us another round of publication and other news from our graduates.

Chris Barili (MFA, Genre Fiction, 2015) reports that his thesis novel--a paranormal romance named Smothered--has sold to Winlock Press (an imprint of Permuted Press) and is now available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever the best books are found. Hell's Butcher, Book Two in his self-published novella series by the same name, is also up and available on Amazon. 

Jeff Bowles (MFA, Genre Fiction, 2015) is just prolific. He is publishing an anthology of short stories called Fear and Loathing In Las Cruces in Kindle format. Here's what he says:

"Steve, there are nine stories in total, but four of them were written in the program. They are 'Will of the West' (or 'Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces') -- unpublished; 'Blue Dancing with Yellow' -- published in Stupefying Stories Showcase; "Four Heads, Two Hearts' -- unpublished; and 'Jack the Hammer's Online Identity Crisis' -- published by Mike Pool's Crime Syndicate Magazine. I make sure to credit Michael (MFA, Genre Fiction, 2015) and his esteemed publication, of course."

Kristy Baxter (MFA, Genre Fiction, 2016) just got news that her historical romance "Through Fire and Flood" (written in Michaela Roessner's class her very first semester) will appear in The Binge-Watching Cure anthology later this year.

Carla Mercado (MFA Student, Genre Fiction, 2017) reports that her short story "Carter Lake" has been accepted for publication by Flash Bang Mysteries. It will be released next month in the April 2017 issue.

Mike Pool, (MFA, Genre Fiction, 2016) writes that his novella, Debt Crusher, has been published by All Due Respect Books. He also edited two issues of Crime Syndicate Magazine (Issue Three on the way this year), as well as put out a collection of short stories, New Alleys For Nothing Men, and conceptualized / edited the anthology Fast Women and Neon Lights: Eighties-Inspired Neon Noir. This same year he was the debut host for the Noir on the Radio podcast and organized several "Noir at the Bar" events in Seattle. He just organized another Noir at the Bar event in Denver a week ago as well. His first full length novel, Texas Two Step, was bought in January by Down and Out Books, and will be published in 2018. He is also giving a craft talk at WSCU on April 14th, 2017, regarding crime and noir fiction writing and editing. My website is www.michaelpool.net.

Jeff Runyon (MFA, Poetry, 2014) will be reading in Gunnison as part of the Headwaters Poetry Festival Reading Series later this year.

Graduate Program in Creative Writing, Application Information

Feb. 12, 2017. A Letter about Western's Low-Residency MA/MFA in Screenwriting for Feature Film and TV

Recently I began working with our Screenwriting Concentration Director J S Mayank, and one of our MFA graduates, Robin Conley, on a new marketing and pr initiative. Here's the body of the letter we came up with -- we're all proud of it, and many thanks both to J S and to Robin for their hard work. Be in touch if you have any questions!

Western State Colorado University’s low-residency program offers both the MA and MFA in Creative Writing with a concentration in Screenwriting (we also offer tracks in Genre Fiction and Poetry and a Certificate in Publishing). Screenwriting students study both film and TV writing, as well as gain guidance from Hollywood professionals on how to enter into the business. Our pitch is a simple one: We bring HOLLYWOOD to you! The Graduate Program includes courses in genres, adaptation, feature film, creating an original television series, writing a spec script for an existing TV show, and a thesis course where students develop an original project under one-on-one guidance with a mentor.

Unlike most low-residency programs where the bulk of the work is done without meaningful interaction, our program offers frequent personal interactions with professors and in discussion groups among students. This is not a program where students drop their work on a discussion board and wait for a grade, or interact minimally with others. We present live, interactive video lectures, weekly calls with writing discussions and Q&A’s, class table-readings and feedback sessions, and over the summer we have a two-week program-wide intensive on campus where all the creative writing graduate students have a chance to meet, interact, and work face-to-face. Throlughout the year, our class sizes are small, ranging from three to six students.

One distinctive element of Western’s Graduate Screenwriting track is that all of our faculty are successful professional screenwriters living in LA. Our concentration director, J S Mayank, turned his own graduate degree into a professional career and is currently represented by UTA, just sold his TV pilot to Syfy and Universal Cable Productions, and is working with the co-executive producer of Game of Thrones. He’s developing several other TV series with top producers and is actively working with all the major networks & studios (FOX, NBC, WB, Sony, HBO, SHOWTIME, NETFLIX, AMAZON and more). He’s currently casting his feature directorial debut to be shot in England.

Faculty member Bob Shayne comes to us after a long Hollywood career, including awards and nominations for Best TV Movie or Miniseries of the Year and Best TV Episode of the Year from the Writers Guild of America and the Mystery Writers of America, as well as a Grammy for Best Comedy Album.

Our degree program includes a two-week residency each summer at Western State Colorado University’s campus in the town of Gunnison, which lies at the head of the beautiful Gunnison Valley. At the end of an intensive week-and-a-half workshop is participation in the three-day writer's conference Writing the Rockies, featuring guest speakers for each of the Graduate Program’s writing disciplines. Recent guests in screenwriting have included J.D. Payne (Star Trek: Beyond, an untitled Star Trek sequel, Flash Gordon remake), Joel Thompson (House, Falling Skies, Battlestar Galactica), Charlie Craig (The 100, Pretty Little Liars, Eureka) and several other prominent Hollywood writers. 

Our low-residency students range from screenwriters fresh out of college to students coming back for a graduate degree after years in other careers. We’ve had many talented members of the military, former and current, teachers looking to expand their credentials, and students who are particularly interested in faith-based screenwriting. Most excitingly, we also have students who finished the program and moved to Hollywood, where they’re attempting to break into the industry.

During the summer, we also offer an intensive two-week summer Screenwriting Bootcamp for those who want to do the work but don’t want to pursue a degree. During the Bootcamp, all students will have the opportunity to attend the Writing the Rockies conference and interact with our professors, graduate students, and guest speakers.

You can learn more about our graduate program and screenwriting bootcamp by taking a look at our website: http://www.western.edu/academics/graduate/creative-writing

We are proud of this distinctive program, and we are happy to answer any questions you may have.


David J. Rothman / Director, Graduate Program in Creative Writing

Western State Colorado University

drothman@western.edu / 970-943-2058 (o) / 970-443-3394 (c)

Graduate Program in Creative Writing, Application Information

Jan. 25, 2017. Background on The Book Collector, the New Opera from Ernest Hilbert, Professor in Western's Low-Residency MA/MFA in Poetry with an Emphasis on Versecraft ("Formal Poetry")

Friday, May 20th, 2016 saw the premiere of my latest opera with composer Stella Sung, a “rare book” opera, if you will, called The Book Collector, in which two men vie for possession of an exceedingly rare book. Why a rare book opera? In truth, the opera is driven by the forces that have defined opera since its earliest days: jealousy and love, vengeance and mercy, the clash of social classes, free will bound by fate, and tragic, sometimes deadly misunderstandings. The auction floor, the bookseller’s shop, the private library, and the book itself really serve as settings and props for the larger human ambitions that animate the characters. The “rare book” aspect of the opera was Stella’s. She’s long been fascinated by my day job at Bauman Rare Books. In fact, the first time we met in person was at the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair, the FABA show held in St. Petersburg’s Historic Coliseum (my friend Dana Gioia, former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, first introduced the two of us as collaborative partners, but our work up to that point was done long-distance).

Before we began work on The Book Collector, I had already worked with Stella as a librettist (more on that below), but, as the Dayton Daily News explains, my background situated me ideally—as both librettist and rare book dealer, perhaps a unique combination—“to fashion a plausible scenario for this particular opera.” Having worked at Bauman Rare Books for nearly a decade and a half, I understand the physical properties of books as well as the ways in which they are created and go on to change hands over the centuries. I was able to provide extensive descriptive information and provide visual examples of books and their settings for both physical and virtual design staffs. I have considerable experience bidding for books at auction houses, so I am familiar with the showroom, its practices and idiosyncrasies. The auction house is really an 18th-century form of commerce, and much of the language and practices from that era persist down to the present day. I envisioned the auction that begins the opera as a duel between two strong-willed men. Bidding at auction can quickly become an irrational pursuit, as egos and expectations tangle and adrenaline flows.

Commissioned by Dayton Performing Arts Alliance in 2013 as a prologue to Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, The Book Collector is a one-act Gothic tale of what we call “unforeseen fortunes and ancestral madness, young love and powerful obsession,” played out against the backdrop of the Bavarian city of Bamberg—known across Europe as the “Franconian Rome” for its seven hills, each crowned with a beautiful church—at the start of the nineteenth century. The dashing and impulsive Baron Otto von Schott, long a recluse in his fortress, hopes to finally complete his collection of arcane books with the addition of a final mysterious volume, but he finds himself thwarted by Franz Bierman, a shrewd young bookseller. The enraged Baron plots revenge, ultimately entangling his lonely, unsuspecting daughter Anna in his deranged scheme to retrieve the book from the bookseller. Franz and Anna find themselves falling in love, and, after the unexpected intercession of a noiseless, enigmatic monk, the Baron’s madness deepens until it is finally too late for him to turn away from his own fate.

The opera, which combines physical stage sets with virtual 3D digital sets, also includes a full ballet sequence. The project was funded in part by the League of American Orchestras, New Music USA, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Francis Goelet Charitable Lead Trusts, the Aaron Copland Fund for Music, and the ASCAP Foundation. Of course, the city of Dayton is not unfamiliar with the world of rare books. As Nicholas A. Basbanes reported in Fine Books and Collections, collector Stuart Rose loaned fifty volumes from his famous two-thousand-volume library for an exhibition called “Imprints and Impressions: Milestones in Human Progress” at the University of Dayton last year. Mr. Rose displayed interest in our opera from the start and donated generously toward the production.

In the spring of 2014, Stella Sung and I saw the production of our first collaboration, an opera called The Red Silk Thread: An Epic Tale of Marco Polo, a historical drama with elaborate settings, including the court of Kublai Khan, founder of the Yuan dynasty in 13th-century China, as well as the Khan’s imperial flagship at sea, the chaotic court of a corrupt Persian king, and even a Genoese prison, where Marco Polo writes his famous Travels. It was the first time in history that particular opera was seen and heard by an audience. After years of work, it rose wonderfully from a darkened stage to fill the hall with music and color and action, and, despite its length, it seemed to be over in no time at all. To be honest, now that I think back, I believe Stella may not have shared in my pleasure. A composer’s work is never done, and hers continued behind the scenes, but her work paid dividends. It is not often that a new opera comes to life, particularly in the 21st century (which is why we run a new opera workshop every summer at Western, where students from my libretto class can see their work come to life). It is a something of a miracle when one does.

Later that same year, Stella approached me with an idea for a one-act opera that would serve as both prelude and companion piece to Carl Orff’s famous Carmina Burana, perhaps the most popular piece of 20th-century vocal music. This daunting new project was to be the culmination of her successful three-year tenure as the composer-in-residence at the Dayton Performing Arts League. Though we would be restricted to less than hour running time (relatively brief in the world of opera, where pieces in standard repertoire can easily run to three hours and more), we had honed several techniques in our time together that would serve us well as we began the new opera. We would observe more closely the classical unities of time, place, and action outlined by Aristotle in the Poetics. Rather than a large cast spanning continents and decades, as with our previous opera, the drama of The Book Collector would unfold in a single town, among three singers, over the course of a single day. This density placed considerable demands on the libretto from the start. Every word would have to count for a great deal.

We were familiar with the dramatic compressions necessary, on a practical level, to the production of an opera. Though it is an art form that has thrived on spectacle and expansiveness from its earliest days, there are always limits. For instance, though Kublai Khan may have had many hundreds of wives and consorts, I decided when writing the libretto for The Red Silk Thread to give lines only to his favorite three, whose names are known to history. A battle that may have raged for hours or days is resolved in a matter of minutes. A few dozen supernumeraries—generals, soldiers, ladies, guards, sailors, pirates—sufficed for our would-be cast of thousands. Likewise in The Book Collector we created a dramatic triad, the powerful Baron von Otto Schott, his forlorn daughter, Anna, and the gentle bookseller, Franz Bierman.

For the Dayton premiere, celebrated baritone Andrew Garland sang the role of the villainous Baron Otto von Schott. Soprano Angela Mortellaro, who in starred in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor during the Dayton Opera’s 2012 season, was our Anna. Tenor Andrew Owens portrayed Franz Bierman, the wealthy bookseller who sparks a feud by outbidding the Baron for the prized volume at auction. We added non-singing roles to fill out the action, notably the auctioneer (who is heard but who does not sing, performed by professional auctioneer Tim Lile) and the monk, who is entirely silent and serves as a Rorschach test when addressed by the other characters. At first, I planned to have the baron bid on a dozen quarto volumes at auction. These quickly shrank to become a single volume, which, for the sake of dramatic impact, was enlarged to an imperial folio with elaborate clasps and binding in order to register visually on stage.

Stella had a distinct vision for the opera from the first. The story is hers, and it was fully realized before she began work with me. My job, as librettist, was to broaden her story and deepen the characters by giving them the right words to sing. The baron’s impulsive nature would be brought to the fore through his curses and frenzied outbursts. His growing madness would be summoned by his fanatical repetition of certain phrases. Anna is innocent and inquisitive. This is reflected in her frequent use of the interrogative mood. Many of her lines are questions, far more than either of the other characters. She is in love with the world and wants to know more about it. Bierman’s fundamental decency and eagerness is displayed in his propensity to over-explain the simplest things in his efforts to please and impress the other characters. I was also compelled by thoughts of characters that were, by their very nature, absent. I saw the baron’s mania for filling his library as part of an emotional aftershock from the loss of his wife. In other words, though he assumes the role of villain in this opera, he was not always an angry, arrogant recluse. Her death also compels Anna to assume the role of the baron’s caretaker in her absence, thus trapping her in the home. Further, Bierman was not always driven by thoughts of profit and public advancement. In early drafts of the libretto, he too had lost someone he loved and, like the baron, looked for ways to fill the emptiness in his life.

I further sought to strengthen and emphasize the social and historical distinctions among the characters. The baron broods in his ancestral fortress, cluttered with the acquisitions of centuries, his library ill-lit, representative of a dark, aristocratic past of which he is the latest and perhaps last representative. Bierman exists in a world naturally lit by sunlight, his bookstore exceptionally ordered, a member of a rising middle class and part of an enlightened and more democratic age of commerce and shared knowledge. I took care to point out that the baron drinks wine, while Bierman, as his name would suggest, enjoys beer, a drink more common in the lower echelons of Teutonic society. The baron—born to inherited wealth he squanders and noble privilege that is quickly eroding—is in decline. Bierman is a commoner, but he rises. Anna is pulled between these two worlds, devastated by the weight of the first while daydreaming of escape into the second. What drives the baron? How has he focused his frustration in a world that no longer bows before him? He aims his emotional distress onto the acquisition of a book; not any book, but the single book he has convinced himself will complete his collection (though we sense that nothing could really fulfill this goal).

Stella and I decided that a method by which our new opera might tie itself to Orff’s Carmina Burana would be to imagine the baron questing after the final volume of the series of poems (also known as The Carmina Burana) on which Orff’s cantata is based. The extraordinary rarity and desirability of a single book is a very real thing. Consider Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, the monumental 1623 volume commonly known as the First Folio, in which Shakespeare’s plays were collected for the first time seven years after his death, and including first appearances of many of the plays, such as Macbeth. Depending on condition and provenance, copies of the First Folio can achieve many millions of dollars on the rare occasion that one comes onto the auction block. Just last month, a copy was found forgotten on a shelf where it had lain for over a century in a house on the Scottish Isle of Bute. The discovery made news around the world.

The Carmina Burana (or Codex Buranas, literally the “Songs from Beuern,” the Bavarian district where the manuscripts were discovered), is a series of 254 poems written in Medieval Latin, Middle High German, and a few mongrel mixtures from the vernacular of several other languages. The poems include love songs, drinking and gaming ditties, moral and satirical poems, and religious dramas. Our notion of the baron having assembled many volumes of the poems and seeking to acquire the last is not far-fetched. Historically, it is quite possible that someone could have done so. Little is known of the origins or authorship of the Carmina, though it is likely that the manuscripts were written sometime in the early 13th century in Bavaria. The history of the manuscript after the middle of that century is murky. Scholar David Parlett suggests that “by the eighteenth century the manuscript must have presented a sadly dog-eared appearance, for it is then that it received its leather binding.” The tooling on the leather indicates that the binding was probably done at the monastery of Benedikbeuern.

What we do know is that after an 1803 decree secularizing ecclesiastical property in the region the volumes emerged from an uncatalogued library at the monastery, where they were kept away from other books in the official library, in what Parlett suggests may have been a type of index librorum prohibitorum of heretical writings. In other words, these volumes were not like the others the monks would have consulted or made available to outsiders. The monks may have chosen not to acknowledge the volumes’ existence for any number of reasons, perhaps simply because they did not know what they were. The first publication of the manuscripts would not come until 1847, when the collection was given its current title by its editor, Johann Andreas Schmeller, who had removed the volumes to Munich for cataloging. Just as Stella and I filled in the emotional spaces of the characters with words and music, we filled a historical gap by imagining the tortuous route by which the Carmina volumes came to rest in the monastery.

Although some of the poems are vaguely familiar to us today from Orff’s setting, he used only a small number of them. The original poems are still largely an enigma to American readers, though handfuls have been translated into English. I took the poems in the original Carmina Burana as models for the arias. The forms of the poems gave me license to write in verse, an artistic approach to the libretto that has fallen away since the nineteenth century and is now almost entirely extinct. For instance, using the ballad meter, or common measures, that appear in some of the Carmina poems (a remarkably durable accentual poetic form that can be still be heard today in lyrics sung by the likes of Katy Perry and Taylor Swift), I constructed similar stanzas to be sung by the baron, Bierman, and Anna. An example from the original Carmina Burana poems is CB 138:

In liehter varwe stat der walt,

der vogele schal nu donet,

div wunne ist worden manichvalt;

des meien tugende chronet . . .

Even if you can’t understand the language, you can detect its shape, the alternating rhythms of the lines, the clear rhymes. Just as Stella took inspiration from J. S. Bach, I deliberately echo this medieval stanza form in, for instance, the baron’s Mephistophelean “poison aria.”

I must complete what I’ve begun,

Just one more shelf to fill.

I must take back what he has won,

I know, I must, I will.

For the dénouement of The Book Collector, Stella and I decided to write a prologue to Orff's Carmina Burana using Medieval Latin. The first stanza is borrowed from an anonymous 17th-century Catholic hymn for vespers and matins, “Quicumque certum quæritis,” translated as “All ye who seek a comfort sure” by Father Caswall, whose translation is the most commonly used. I composed the following two stanzas and worked closely with Christopher Childers, a classical scholar at Johns Hopkins University, to translate them into Medieval Latin from my original English.

I employed a combination of versecraft and traditional prose dialogue to propel Stella’s story, all the while posing and upending questions that vex characters across the history of literature and opera. How do the forces of fate and free will, circumstance and freedom, destiny and choice collide to create us? Where do our decisions lead, and how can we know they are entirely our own? What happens when we move headlong at all costs toward a goal we believe will make us happy? What do we lose by striving to remain independent? What do we risk when we place ourselves in the hands of another? These are the timeless themes Stella and I engage repeatedly in our work.

And so here we are, after countless hours of composition and revision, construction and coding, preparations and rehearsals. That Friday, we witnessed a new opera for the first time, one that was forged with modern technology and artistic sensibilities to be part of an ancient tradition. We hope the stories and songs we conjure in the world of The Book Collector delighted our audience and proved a memorable experience, even, perhaps—who knows?—one for the ages.

Ernest Hilbert

Graduate Program Application Information

Jan. 9, 2017. Guest Entry from Alan Wartes, alumnus of the Summer Intensive in the Low-Res MFA Screenwriting Concentration

My path to becoming a screenwriter and director has involved so many twists and turns, it can make you dizzy. To call my life “non-traditional” would be an amusing understatement — including eight years in military intelligence, a stint as a restaurant owner in Texas, countless freelance writing projects and too many “odd jobs” to name.

What I have learned about filmmaking has come mostly in the trenches, writing and directing my own scripts — and making all the dumb mistakes and bad movies you would expect. Most of that trial and error took place in Denver — not a film production hub, by any means, but a more likely place for finding a community of like-minded filmmakers than where I’d come from.

Or so I thought.

Prior to moving to Denver I had lived in a tiny town in rural Colorado called Gunnison where, in 1996, I graduated from Western State Colorado University. School behind me, I entered the world of community theater, producing and directing nearly a dozen shows over the next few years.

But when life took the family to Denver, I saw an opportunity to do what I’d dreamed of doing all my life — make movies.

Fast forward ten years. In that time, even though I’d made 10 short films — a documentary, several narratives and even a pair of animated shorts — the niche I’d hoped to find in Denver was elusive. When the chance came to return to Gunnison — a move we jumped at because it is an excellent place to live — I was certain that I was leaving real filmmaking opportunity behind in the big city.

At first glance, you can hardly blame me for that assumption. As the crow flies, Gunnison is a little closer to Hollywood than Denver, but where it counts you’d think it’s on a different continent.

But you’d be wrong — and so was I.

First, it turns out no matter where you go there are people who love movies and want to have a hand in making them. That’s more true than usual in Gunnison, where artists of all stripes have made a home just for the joy of living in the mountains.

Beyond that, I was delighted to discover that, in my absence, Western had created a low residency Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing — and that it included a track in screenwriting! This is a vibrant and energetic program for writers who are serious about the art, craft and business of writing.

In July 2015, I enrolled in the summer screenwriting "bootcamp," a two-week intensive workshop led by screenwriting concentration director JS Mayank. This excellent class is designed to get down to the nuts and bolts of creating a short script with feedback from the instructor and fellow students alike.

Far from moving to filmmaking Siberia, I found the community I’d been looking for right here.

In April 2016, the script I wrote that summer, “The Tesla Files” won the Runner-up prize for Best Sci-Fi Short at the Nashville Film Festival Screenwriting Competition. In May of that year, I assembled a cast and crew of motivated, talented people to make the film entirely on campus at Western — in collaboration with Western Professor Jack Lucido (who wrote the initial curriculum  for the MFA Screenwriting concentration) and the rest of the film studies and theater faculty. We hope to premiere the film in 2017 at festivals around the country.

In the fall of 2016, two more scripts of mine advanced to the final rounds of two prominent Hollywood competitions — the Tracking Board Launch Pad and the Final Draft Big Break. Both those scripts profited from the skills I picked up in the classroom with Mayank and my classmates.

The truth is, at Western I found the things that had eluded me for years: top-notch professional development and — best of all — career momentum. This program turns out to be a lot closer to Hollywood than it looks.

Alan Wartes


Graduate Program Application Information

Dec. 20, 2016. A Note from Russell Davis, Director of Western's Low Res MA/MFA Concentration in Genre Fiction

One of the questions we receive most often in the Genre Fiction track is what makes us different from other low-residency MA/MFA fiction programs. After all, there are hundreds. Still, what we do and how we do it are unique.

The greatest difference is that we teach genre fiction and we take it seriously. This makes us rare. Most other programs act as though what we do – despite the tremendous sales numbers – hardly exists. We all love literary fiction, too, but literary fiction is a style, not a genre – and in fact all literary fiction is just genre fiction that has lasted. There is no fiction without genre. And we teach those genres in a purposeful, direct, professional way, with no excuses. We love them.

The second major difference is that most other low-residency programs function on a mentor-mentee relationship except during residencies. In sharp contrast, Western’s program offers a course and workshop-based approach throughout the degree. We teach classes with detailed, extensive syllabi, all designed to impart very specific skills. Further, our workshops are not just peer-to-peer workshops with open assignments, but are highly organized affairs based on shared assignment goals in specific genres.

So our curriculum is just that: an intentional sequence of courses with a clear purpose. Each term – summer, fall, and spring – builds on the courses that came in the previous term. In the first summer, the course (Foundations of Genre Fiction I) ensures that all students share a similar understanding of expectations, terminology, meaning, and we do a writing workshop. In the first fall semester, there are two courses: Genre Writing I and Genre Studies I. These courses work in tandem, providing a solid, basic understanding of both writing and reading in Romance and Mystery (including various subgenres). In the spring, students take Genre Writing II and Genre Studies II, again working in tandem to study and write in Historical/Western, Speculative Fiction, and Young Adult (including various subgenres).

The goal of this approach is to ensure that students are exposed to and have a working knowledge of the widest possible range of genres. This is far different from what you’ll find at most programs, even genre fiction programs, and we believe it helps all of our students to become much stronger writers.

Here’s why: most genre fiction writers start out as specialists by default, which is to say that they start out writing what they like to read. This is understandable, but in the long-term, problematic. One analogy might be going to a cardiac surgeon for a heart problem and when you ask him about his education, he explains how he skipped medical school, and went straight into surgery! Genres are not islands, but neighbors, with overlapping fences and yards. To build a better understanding of your own genre(s) of choice, it’s critical to understand the others on at least a basic level. This allows our students to not only write in numerous genres, but discover their relationships, and often, uncover genres that they’ve never before considered working in. The end result is a well-rounded writer with an understanding of genre that goes deeper than most low-residency MA/MFA programs can provide.

The second summer session course is specific to planning your thesis, while the coursework in the second fall and spring semesters builds on the year before, with a class in Short Forms Genre Fiction Writing, an Out-of-Concentration class in either Screenwriting or Poetry (and we work with those other concentrations to create the most useful kinds of courses for our own writers), a Pedagogy course, and (this is important) a class on the business side of writing, which covers everything from submissions to contracts, working with agents and editors, and attending conferences and conventions. Writing is a business, and it’s important to grasp at least some of the business issues a writer will face during his or her career. The final summer course is on career planning and presenting your thesis.

Our first year reading list changes from time to time, but to give you some sense of what we’ve used in the past (and may use again in the future): THE STAND by Stephen King, THE DEEP BLUE GOOD-BY by John D. MacDonald, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS by Thomas Harris, OUTLANDER by Diana Gabaldon, SANDMAN SLIM by Richard Kadrey, THE NAME OF THE WIND by Patrick Rothfuss, DUNE by Frank Herbert, THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins, THE BLACK ECHO by Michael Connelly, NAKED IN DEATH by J.D. Robb, 20th CENTURY GHOSTS by Joe Hill, and (of course) plenty of other novels, short stories, and sometimes even film or television versions for the sake of comparison.

In short, when we say we are a genre fiction program, that's exactly​ what we mean. We study genre fiction of virtually every kind, and this leads to students being more knowledgeable, better writers – just as medical school makes for better doctors, even when they go on to become specialists in a particular field. Our students learn what works in the marketplace, what works for their own process, and ultimately, they find success as writers of genre fiction, where the definition of success is selling one's work, in either the traditional manner or through small press or even self-publishing. The goal, in the end, is the same: to have your writing be the best it can be, so that you can spend your life doing what you love: writing great stories.

To sum it all up: our curriculum offers students a thoughtful, purposeful, progressive process to help them become better writers, with a superior chance to sell their work, as well as provide the foundational education needed to be a teacher. Our MFA is a terminal degree and qualifies people to teach at the college level, and our MA helps teachers to advance in their own work in the classroom and as writers. You can look at some of the information here to get a sense of the classes, though it may be more helpful for me to have a direct discussion with you to provide more detail in context.

I’m always available if you have any questions about the Genre Fiction track, so feel free to email me at rdavis@western.edu.

Russell Davis, Concentration Director, Genre Fiction


Graduate Program Application Information

Dec. 5, 2016. Are we proud of our alumni and students? Are you kidding? Notes from the Alumni Association of Western State Colorado's Low Res MA/MFA Program in Genre Fiction, Poetry with an Emphasis on Versecraft ("Formal Poetry"), Screenwriting, and the Certificate in Publishing

Alumni and Current Student Accomplishments, GPCW, Fall 2016


Christopher Barili (Genre Fiction MFA ‘16), writing under the name B.T. Clearwater, has published his thesis novel, Smothered, with Winlock Press.

Jeff Bowles (Genre Fiction MFA ‘15) has a story in Stupefying Stories Showcase, “Blue Dancing with Yellow”: http://stupefyingstoriesshowcase.com/?p=993. Another, “Godling and Other Paint Stories” appears here https://www.amazon.com/Godling-Other-Paint-Stories-Bowles-ebook/dp/B01LDUJYHU. Also his short comic, “The Hangover” appears with FutureQuake Press: http://www.futurequake.co.uk/futurequake/futurequake-2016-winter-special

Clifton Wilder Koons II (Screenwriting MFA ’16) was a Semi-Finalist (Drama Feature) for SECOND CHILDHOOD in the 2016 Austin Film Festival Screenwriting Competition, a Second Round Finalist (Drama Feature) for TABLOID THEATER in the 2016 Austin Film Festival Screenwriting Competition, a Finalist (TV Spec) for THE WALKING DEAD: OUTCAST, in the 2015 New York Screenwriting Contest, and a Quarter-Finalist for THE MAN IN THE TYPEWRITER, in the 2015 ScreenCraft Short Screenplay Contest.

Since graduating from Western, Sapphire Heien​ (Publishing Certificate '16) has been working as a secretary for the Vice President of IT at the University of Wyoming, a role that involves editing and writing documents that go out to high-level administrators and the entire university community. She writes "My Certificate in Publishing has also helped me improve my work and expand my role as the UW Kinesiology Department's newsletter writer. Additionally, I have continued my internship at Conundrum Press, and I am staying on the editorial team for Western's Manifest West for another year. I also have an article coming out in Home School Enrichment in January 2017."

Suzanne Lakas (Genre Fiction MFA ‘16) and Steve Visel (Genre Fiction MFA ‘16) were both finalists in the Writers of the Future quarterly competition, and Suzy’s novella was awarded an honorable mention.

Joshua Williams (Poetry MA ‘16) has recently had poems in A Hundred Gourds, Panoply, Englyn, Sonic Boom Journal and Modern Haiku. He also has a chapbook, The Distant Wild, due out in 2017.


Nathan Beauchamp (Genre Fiction MFA ‘15), who co-writes the Universe Eventual series, now has three books out: ChimeraHelios, and Ceres, which just released this past summer.

Kevin O’Shea (Poetry MFA ’15) has several poems in the winter 2016 of The Hopkins Review. The poems "Lost in Townships" and "From a Greenhouse" that appear there were both part of his MFA manuscript: https://muse.jhu.edu/issue/33090.

Michael Pool (Genre Fiction MFA ‘15) is now the Editor-in-Chief of Crime Syndicate Magazine, which publishes crime fiction, and also edited the new anthology Fast Women and Neon Lights: Eighties-Inspired Neon Noir.

Austin Rogers (Genre Fiction MFA ‘15) has a novel out, Sacred Planet, and it just received a nice review from Kirkus, “…An ambitious, ardent launch that sets a stellar precedent for installments to follow.”


Cara Guerrieri (Genre Fiction MFA ’12) published “The Spaghetti Gang and the Big Mine Bathhouse,” a memoir on which she collaborated with her father who is now 85. It appears in the current issue of Crested Butte Magazinehttp://issuu.com/crestedbuttemagazine/docs/cbm_w17_linked/107?e=1473410/40755443.

Susan Spear (Poetry MFA ‘12) had her opera “The Price of Pomegranates,” with music by Jerome Malek, workshopped at Writing the Rockies 2016. She has been appearing widely in the journals. “In Ordinary Time” is forthcoming in the winter issue of The Anglican Theological Revie, “Behind the Wheel” is forthcoming in Measure, and three more are forthcoming in Dappled ThingsAfter the Interment,” “Through the Window,” and “...Not Yet Consumed.”

Current Students

Felicia Chernesky (Poetry MFA student) has now published four books in a rhyming seasonal concept series, illustrated by Susan Swan (Albert Whitman & Company, 2013–2015). In order of appearance, they are Pick a Circle, Gather Squares: A Fall Harvest of Shapes; Cheers for a Dozen Ears: A Summer Crop of Counting;  Sugar White Snow and Evergreens: A Winter Wonderland of Color; and Sun Above and Blooms Below: A Springtime of Opposites. Pick a Circle, Gather Squares was a 2016 Goldfinch Award finalist. She has sold the the Korean rights (!) to Pick a Circle. The full series has been republished in paperback by Scholastic and is currently available on the Teacher Store. It is also currently available in several Scholastic Reading Club flyers as a set and as a set with read-along CD. She has also published another rhyming picture book, illutrated by Julia Patton (Albert Whitman, 2015): From Apple Tress to Cider, Please! This book has been republished in French (Scholastic Canada, 2016)The Korean rights to this book have also been sold. Finally she has published a prose picture book, illustrated by Nicola Anderson (Albert Whitman, 2016): The Boy Who Said Nonsense.

Ji Ding (Screenwriting MFA '18), who lives in Chengdu, has sold his script "The Flying Tribe" to co-production companies Genfilms Group and Goya Entertainment. It is an action-comedy animation about Chinese legends and culture with Hollywood style. It is now in pre-production with a budget of about $20 million USD.

Stephanie Vance (Genre Fiction MFA ‘18) will have a flash piece called “13 Signs of the Coming Apocalypse” in Entering the Apocalypse, an anthology from TANSTAAFL press.  Also, her story “Quizzical” received an Honorable Mention in the 3rd quarter of Writers of the Future contest.

Alan Wartes, Screenwriting Bootcamp Alumnus, has been tremendously productive. THE TESLA FILES (short script) was Runner up for Best Sci-fi Short in the 2016 Nashville Film Festival Screenwriting Competition. The script has now been fully produced and is entered in a number of competitions. DOMESTIC (hour-long TV pilot) was a Top 50 finalist in the 2016 Tracking Board Launch Pad Screenwriting Competition, and a Top 10 finalist in the 2016 Final Draft Big Break Screenwriting Contest. THE BOTTLE BUSINESS (feature drama) was a Top Eight finalist in the 2016 Nashville Film Festival Screenwriting Competition and also a Top 10 finalist in the 2016 Final Draft Big Break Screenwriting Competition.​

Steve Visel, Genre Fiction MFA '15, GPCW Alumni Association Coordinator


Graduate Program Application Information

Dec. 1, 2016. Observations on the Art from the Western State Colorado University Low Res MA/MFA Program Concentration in Poetry with an Emphasis on Versecraft ("Formal Poetry")


Why Poetry Matters

Poetry matters. It matters a lot.

But it’s hard to say why, when you give it some thought.

It matters in ways we can’t even describe.

Perhaps that’s why so many poets imbibe.

We can’t say what we mean. We cannot depict.

That’s what made Prufrock a sad derelict.

Still we try and we try to describe why verse counts.

We can parse syllables, down to the ounce.

We analyze sentences. What makes them bounce?

How do images stalk? How do metaphors pounce?

We can tell you what’s better. We can tell you what’s worse.

Still, it’s hard to describe why there’s magic in verse.

Just think, for example, what it does to a curse.

It’s one thing to yell out an insult in prose,

But poets can do so much better than those.

For the prose writer merely bends diction and grammar,

But poets have meter that smacks like a hammer.

The novelist shows us that Freddie is stupid,

But far better to tell him he’s been cursed by Cupid,

That love, if it finds him, will pack him in ice,

Then make his heart sushi and stick it on rice.

See what I mean? Verses just have more punch.

They’re like the martinis that go with your lunch.

And triple meters like this? Well, they’re a slingshot.

I like them. I like them. I like them a lot.

And to think of it, now that I’ve given it thought,

I think I know why they’re so eagerly sought:

This life’s not prose particles—it’s a vibration.

There are waves, not mere stuff, at the core of creation,

And in words verse best manifests such a relation.

Poetry matters, for matter is poetry.

And prose makes good lumber, but verses can grow a tree.

And if you despise them, I say you’re a villain.

They’re magic, I swear it. Just ask my man Bob.

This poem first appeared on the Top Secret Blog of Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, where Poetry Concentration Director David J. Rothman also teaches.

David J. Rothman, Poetry Concentration Director


Graduate Program Application Information

Nov. 21, 2016. Another Tip from the Western State Colorado University Low Res Screenwriting MFA Program:

A Rollercoaster Ride

When we’re toddlers, we love merry-go-rounds. Well, most of us do. When we’re teenagers, we love rollercoasters. When we’re in love, we love the image with which we’re obsessed. Oh, that’s another subject. Back to rollercoasters.

Your movie needs to be like a rollercoaster. I don’t mean made of wood and steel, I mean made of ups and downs and unexpected twists and turns, and mostly made of danger. Most of all it’s all about danger!

We go to movies for the same reason we once rode rollercoasters and before that merry-go-rounds. To experience what feels like extreme danger while at the same time knowing we are really pretty darn safe. Granted, the top of the theater could fall in on us. Or a crazy person with a gun could invade the theater. But it’s a good bet no one on the movie screen is going to actually interact with us (unless we’re in Woody Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo”). We are pretending they will. We’re pretending, for that matter, that they are us, specifically that we are the movie’s brave protagonist, willing to risk everything to 1. save the world, or 2. get the girl, or 3. find redemption (take your pick). That’s the point of going to movies, so we can empathize with, identify with a character who’s taking big, BIG chances and, usually, pulling it off, while we munch away on popcorn from our safe stadium-seated perch.

Of course, some of the best movies ever made don’t follow that rule. I think those that have affected me the most have in common that they are about a protagonist unwilling to take the risk he really needs to take in order to be complete, “La Dolce Vita,” “Five Easy Pieces,” “Annie Hall.” (It’s not really about Annie Hall.)

But just as we can’t all be Picasso, we should probably not start out trying to break that rule that drives virtually all movies, or at least all Hollywood movies. Make your script into a mental/emotional rollercoaster ride for the reader/audience.

Bob Shayne, Professor, Low Res MFA Screenwriting Program


Graduate Program Application Information

Nov. 14, 2016. A Tip from the Western State Colorado University Low Res Screenwriting MFA:

Keep It Primal

I read in one of the seemingly thousands of books on how to write a screenplay that each movie is about the most exciting day in the protagonist’s life. Because, who would want to see the second most exciting day in that person’s life if we could see the first most? So that’s probably a good test for each of us to try when thinking about story ideas. “Day” doesn’t have to be literal, of course. But most emotionally involving movies do take place over a short time span. Maybe a week or two, not months or years.

Probably the most popular book on screenplay writing these days is “Save the Cat!” by Blake Snyder. And it’s a very good book to start off with. Blake was a guest speaker at my class in Western’s low-residency screenwriting MFA several years ago, and he proved to have an amazing talent for summarizing plots instantaneously, and making them sound exciting and fresh. Each of my students would tell him the idea of the script they were working on and he would instantly tell it back to them, only making it seem much more compelling than they had, with a dynamite logline improvised on the spot. And Blake insists in the book, quite rightly, that a logline – a one or two sentence description of a film’s story (usually from the protagonist’s point of view) -- isn’t just a selling tool. If you don’t know your logline, you don’t know your story.

Unfortunately, Blake passed away at a shockingly early age a couple of years back. But his book keeps selling like proverbial hotcakes. It’s subtitled: “The last book on screenwriting you’ll ever need.” But ironically, it became so popular so fast that he wrote two sequels. Not necessarily unfortunately, he was a better teller of tales and loglines than he was a screenwriter. Although he had a couple of million dollar sales, the few films of his that were filmed demonstrate a lot more formula than genius. But much of what he writes about when he is writing about how to do is extremely valuable.

I think the most important thing I learned from reading “Save the Cat!” was the word “primal.” Make your story primal. I’d never thought about that. But he’s absolutely right. If you learn to write actually good scripts about primal needs based on enticing, emotionally connecting loglines, you’re halfway home.

Two cases in point. Two international thrillers were released in 2009, “Taken” starring Liam Neeson and “The International” starring Clive Owen. Neither star has any resonance for me. I certainly didn’t go to see either of them. One’s a big lug and the other blends into the scenery. “The International” was probably by most standards a better film. It was much more sophisticated and complex and thoughtful, and it featured beautiful architecture and exotic settings. Actually, it was so complex that I couldn’t even explain the story. Something about banks financing terrorists, maybe.

On the other hand I can tell you exactly what “Taken” was about: a former CIA agent’s daughter is kidnapped, and he puts life and limb on the line, racing through some of the most glamorous and seamy locations in Europe, to rescue her from sex slavers. That’s a synopsis I can remember. The first act is pretty on-the-nose; the rest of the movie is a non-stop rollercoaster ride. And nothing could possibly be more primal than saving your daughter from “a fate worse than death.”

“The International” cost $50 million to make. It took in $10 million in its opening weekend in the U.S., and by the time its run ended grossed a total of $55 million worldwide. That’s a disaster. (Remember, half of that goes to the movie theaters that showed it, and then a healthy percentage of the other half goes to the distributor. By the time the production company gets a taste, there’s only about a third of that $55 million left, thus leaving the production and its financiers around $30-40 million in the red.)

On the other hand, “Taken” cost $25 million to make, opened making $24.7 million its first weekend in the U.S. (and it wasn’t even an American film, it’s French, although shot in English), and had a worldwide gross of $224 million. Everybody made a bundle, and the audience had a great time watching it.

Primal. That’s a word to remember.

Bob Shayne, Professor, Low Res MFA Screenwriting Program


Graduate Program Application Information

Dec. 1, 2014. Twenty Major Poetry Projects

Recently, I’ve once again seen Jim Simmerman’s “Twenty Little Poetry Projects” list floating around on the web. While it has its charm, I think it’s absurdly misleading about what poets really do. All of Simmerman’s projects involve various ways to disrupt sense, e.g. “Use an example of false cause-effect logic,” “Change direction or digress from the last thing you said,” “Modify a noun with an unlikely adjective.” While all of these kinds of rhetorical moves can certainly happen in poetry, trying to make poems from such tactics makes about as much sense as trying to live in a sandcastle. Poems not only say things – they also do things, and that doing is much more important than it may at first appear. So here is my antidote – these projects are not things one merely says, but rather things one might do. And they are not easy to do.

1. Select a major genre: narrative, dramatic, lyrical.

2. Choose a mode: high, middle, low, satirical.

3. Poems, like all other works of art, come in genres. There is no such thing as a genreless poem, any more than there is a genreless song or genreless painting. Make sure you are well-versed in all of these genres and how to use and combine them. For example, If your poem is lyrical, choose a lyrical sub-genre: elegy, serenade, verse epistle, ceremonial, carpe diem, nonsense verse, etc. If your poem is dramatic or narrative, also consider the sub-genres.

4. Choose a meter or a form of free verse. Make sure you know its history, its variations, and (if it is metrical) several different methods of how to scan it.

5. Make systematic choices about syntax and its relation to lines, i.e. enjambment.

6. Use strong verbs and avoid sentence fragments. Unless dramatically called for.

7. Defining “rhyme” as the phonic dimension of relations among words, make choices about rhyme in the largest sense, from alliteration and assonance to full rhyme, slant-rhyme, eye rhyme, displaced stresses, intentional doggerel, non-rhyme, and so on. Make sure you understand the history of all these techniques.

8. Never juggle word order merely to achieve a rhyme.

9. If you are using overt rhyming techniques, decide if you wish to use a repeating stanza structure or not, e.g. couplets, tercets, quatrains, rhyme royal, ottava rima, sonnets, etc. Practice writing each one of these stanzas until you know how to do it accurately. Did I mention learning how to scan them?

10. If you are writing a lyrical poem, decide whether or not you wish to use a fixed lyrical form, e.g. triolet, villanelle, sestina, rondeau, ballade, pantoum, sonnet, ghazal, limerick, tanka, etc. Make sure you know what all of these are, their history, structure and form. And remember: you don’t know them unless you’ve practiced writing them.

11. Make systematic and purposeful choices about diction.

12. Choose an audience – who are you writing for, besides yourself?

13. Insist upon making sense. Poetry should be at least as well written as prose. Do not muddy the waters to make them appear deep. Consider that the best poems provide a momentary stay against confusion, not an embrace of it. A strong work of art is an act of sublime defiance against the overwhelming meaninglessness of reality. If you’re really a nihilist and cynic, your writing is probably sophistry. Don’t waste our time.

14. At the same time, remember that what is called thinking can be overrated and great philosophical poets are as rare as honest politicians.

15. Cultivate negative capability.

16. Remember that beauty is not dead, but it is not the same as sentimentalism.

17. Cut the fluff, unless it’s damned good fluff. When in doubt, read Shakespeare.

18. Do not overvalue images for their own sake. They are often mere frosting.

19. Learn how to employ the various kinds of allusion without sounding like a pedant.

20. Do not show your poem to anyone for at least a month.

Now get cracking.

David J. Rothman, Program Director / Poetry Concentration Director


Graduate Program Application Information

Nov. 11, 2014. A Report from LA

Last weekend I was in LA for a board meeting for AWP, which will hold its annual conference there in the Convention Center in 2016. On Saturday, I managed to get over to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where I saw an unforgettable recital by soprano Sondra Radvanovsky. I've pasted in a link to review by Chris Pasles from the LA Times below. In my view the performance was even better than he describes -- one of the best I've ever heard in my life. And one of the fascinating things about it was that people were on their feet cheering -- and even weeping -- not only for the beauty of the music and the quality of the performance, but also for the poetry, including settings of Goethe, Pushkin, Gautier and others. All poetry, all night. People who think the art isn't alive simply aren't paying attention.


You can see the evening's full program here:


Among other things, the pianist who accompanied Radvanovsky, Anthony Manoli, was completely superb. What a night.

David J. Rothman, Program Director / Poetry Concentration Director


Graduate Program Application Information

Nov. 10, 2014. MFA Screenwriting Alumna Stephanie Caballero Reports on the Austin Film Festival

One of our alumni - Stephanie Caballero - attended this year's Austin Film Festival. Here's what she had to say about her experience:

"I’ve recently returned from Austin Film Festival and want to share a few notes. First, I went with very few expectations since it was my first time. Looking over the schedule of panelists, I was excited to hear people talk about TV writing, the writer’s room, and different elements of the business and craft. I was not looking forward to networking. It’s funny how things don’t quite turn out the way you expect.

This event IS networking. You are ON all the time. You are meeting people all the time. You are explaining your current project(s) in two sentences all the time, not to sell, but as part of meeting new people. The panels were nice down time. Seriously.

As far as business and craft, I didn’t learn much because I’d already heard it all from Mayank during class as well as from his required podcast assignments. To sum things up, it’s all about networking and meeting people. It’s about knowing the business, learning who’s working on what project when. It’s about learning to work on multiple projects and having a solid library of completed work, current projects, and ideas for upcoming work. And having them summarized in succinct, quick bits.

One other thing to note, once you get your foot in the door, that’s just the beginning. The worry, the scrambling, the battles don’t stop. Every single person said that they still fought to have their opinions heard, they fought to keep working on projects, and they are still told “No” over and over and over. The rejections don’t end, they just change, and to survive, you must grow a thick skin and learn how to make changes, whether you like them or not. That’s how you get paid.

Attending the festival was an incredible experience and a reminder of why I’m doing what I’m doing. I met an amazing array of writers, novice and successful and was able to hold my own in nearly all conversations because I’ve heeded Mayank’s advice and have managed to keep up on what’s going on in Hollywood."

Thank you Stephanie for sharing this with us. We hope our other students take note, and see the benefits of attending festivals and conferences.

JS Mayank, Screenwriting Concentration Director


Graduate Program Application Information

Nov. 4, 2014. An Annoying Handbook

Sometimes I read something so annoying I just have to respond, although I probably should not.

I'm particularly intrigued by poetry handbooks -- in fact have written a bibliographical essay on them, as there are so many being published now, perhaps more than ever before. Unsurprisingly, most of them are terrible, though some, such as Stephen Fry's "The Ode Less Traveled," are excellent. I recently discovered a particularly annoying one, "Poetry: Tools & Techniques," by John C. Goodman, published by Canada's Gneiss Press in 2011. In this entire book, the author finds no room for any serious discussion of meter or lyrical genre. The coup de grace to his own ignorance comes in his definition of "New Formalism" as "predominantly decorative, concerned with the clever use of language and rarely delving into deep emotion or the existential concerns of life."

Seriously? Leaving aside the question of where the boundaries lie in terms of who is or is not a member of this movement, does Goodman really want to argue that Dave Mason's "Ludlow," or Dana Gioia's poems to the memory of his dead son in "The Gods of Winter," or the poems of Phillis Levin, Molly Peacock, A. E Stallings, etc. etc. are all mere emotional fluff? Here, chosen almost at random, is a poem by Mark Jarman:

After Disappointment

To lie in your child’s bed when she is gone
Is calming as anything I know. To fall
Asleep, her books arranged above your head,
Is to admit that you have never been
So tired, so enchanted by the spell
Of your grown body. To feel small instead
Of blocking out the light, to feel alone,
Not knowing what you should or shouldn’t feel,
Is to find out, no matter what you’ve said
About the cramped escapes and obstacles
You plan and face and have to call the world,
That there remain these places, occupied
By children, yours if lucky, like the girl
Who finds you here and lies down by your side.

Is this cunning sonnet "predominantly decorative, concerned with the clever use of language and rarely delving into deep emotion or the existential concerns of life"? Please.

David J. Rothman, Program Director / Poetry Concentration Director


Graduate Program Application Information

Oct. 29, 2014. In Memoriam Galway Kinnell

Today we mourn the loss of one of America's greatest living poets, Galway Kinnell, who died Tuesday at the age of 87. The last time I saw him was at the AWP convention in Boston in March 2013, where among other things he recited "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" and "In My Craft or Sullen Art" from memory to an audience of many hundreds. I met him when he was teaching at NYU and I was a PhD student. He was unfailingly charming and attentive there. I wonder how many know that he and W. S. Merwin were undergrad roommates at Princeton, where Kinnell earned a Summa.

For some reason, many think that because we focus on craft in our program at Western we don't admire free verse. I'm here to say that encountering Kinnell's poetry for the first time, when I was 20, in a class taught by the late, great Kurt Brown, changed my life. I loved it then and still love it, and I wept when I learned of his passing. His sense of verbal shapeliness was utterly assured. What a beautiful, beautiful poet, one of our best over the last half century. His ability to connect ordinary life to the transcendent is so articulate it almost shocks.


"After Making Love, We Hear Footsteps"

For I can snore like a bullhorn
or play loud music
or sit up talking with any reasonably sober Irishman
and Fergus will only sink deeper
into his dreamless sleep, which goes by all in one flash,
but let there be that heavy breathing
or a stifled come-cry anywhere in the house
and he will wrench himself awake
and make for it on the run—as now, we lie together,
after making love, quiet, touching along the length of our bodies,
familiar touch of the long-married,
and he appears—in his baseball pajamas, it happens,
the neck opening so small he has to screw them on—
and flops down between us and hugs us and snuggles himself to sleep,
his face gleaming with satisfaction at being this very child.

In the half darkness we look at each other
and smile
and touch arms across this little, startlingly muscled body—
this one whom habit of memory propels to the ground of his making,
sleeper only the mortal sounds can sing awake,
this blessing love gives again into our arms.


See also http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/galway-kinnell

David J. Rothman, Program Director / Poetry Concentration Director


August 26, 2014. Great Video of Poetry MFA Alumnus Jeff Runyon.

I just stumbled across this well-made Youtube video, featuring 2014 MFA Poetry Alumnus Jeff Runyon, who chairs the English Department at Colorado Mountain College in Leadville (and whose poem "The Buck" will appear this year in Raintown Review). Nice work, Jeff -- we're proud of you!


David J. Rothman, Program Director / Poetry Concentration Director


May 5, 2014. Western Poets Everywhere

Our students and faculty are publishing so much these days it can be hard to keep track of it all. The current issue of The Raintown Review includes poems by faculty member Ernest Hilbert, alumna Susan Spear, and first-year student Kevin O’Shea. Second-year student Jeff Runyon has a poem slated for a future appearance there as well. Second-year student Ben Longfellow will have several poems appear in the anthology Light as a Feather from Swimming with Elephants Publications. Faculty member David Yezzi has a poem in the current issue of Smithsonian and Concentration Director David J. Rothman has poems forthcoming in Mountain Gazette and Poetry Porch, along with an interview forthcoming in Colorado Poet. Meanwhile, faculty member Ernest Hilbert’s recent book All of You on the Good Earth just received a(nother) rave review from Susan Scutti in The Philadelphia Review of Books, which you can read here.

No doubt there is more than this — but this is not bad for a single month…..

David J. Rothman, Program Director / Poetry Concentration Director