Advanced Fiction Workshop Syllabus

It took me longer than planned after heat waves and migraines, but hey! It’s done! Here at last is the course syllabus for this semester in the Accessible MFA. Currently, I’m hovering around Week 4, but remember in this MFA (not accredited but open to all), each “week” can take as long as you want. As can each semester.

Amy Tan and Joyce Carol Oates are our creative writing instructors through MasterClass. There are different sign-up options, from a subscription fee at $180 per year (which works out to $15 a month) to purchasing a single class for lifetime access. If that’s a bit steep for you, not to worry. There’s plenty to be gleaned from the syllabus alone, which I’ve packed with exercises and links to craft readings and short fiction as well as textbook recommendations. And of course, don’t forget to check out your local library and request an interlibrary loan or a purchase if they don’t have the book you’re looking for.

I’m trying to pair the first half of the semester, which Oates has focused on short fiction, with short story collections. I’m currently reading Joy Williams for the first time, specifically her collection The Visiting Privilege.

One word of warning: Some of the readings, such as Hemingway’s “Indian Camp,” may be objectionable or even triggering to some. So just a reminder that this is your program. You can replace readings that you may find triggering with other pieces. So why did I include some of these things in the first place, including one essay that really pissed me off? Well, part of my reason for this whole project is to know what gets passed around as must-reads in MFA programs and accredited creative writing classes.

I also selected stories by diverse authors, but at the same time I want to wrestle with the more problematic ways that writing and literature are taught. Toni Morrison wrote a whole book (Playing in the Dark) from her extensive reading of problematic, white authors. Growing up in an abusive family, I’m honestly more afraid of not knowing how bad things are than in finding out they’re pretty freaking bad.

And as someone with some substantial privilege still, I also need to know what’s out there, so I better understand the intense pressure that BIPOC, LBTQIA+, women, and disabled authors face to conform to white male aesthetics, ethics, and norms. That said, however, as someone with PTSD, I also appreciate that certain readings are just no good for certain individuals’ mental health. There’s a big difference between avoiding the discomfort of our troubled society and being exposed to something that feels like a re-enactment of violence you’ve already experienced. You know what you need. Don’t let anyone throw you off that. So if you have any reading recommendations or feedback, let me know in the comments. And with that, have a look at the first advanced fiction workshop syllabus, and happy writing!

Photo of woman reading a book by Mental Health America (MHA) from Pexels

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ENGL 584: Advanced Workshop in Fiction

Fall 2021

COURSE DESCRIPTION

In this intensive graduate-level writing course, instructors Joyce Carol Oates and Amy Tan will guide students through the process of story conception, development, drafting, revision, workshopping, and submitting. The overarching goal for this semester will be to support the developing writer in the discovery of their subject matter, style, form, and tone as they explore how memory and identity position them to write fiction that they alone can produce. Toward this end, the first half of the semester will be spent developing two drafts of a short story under Oates in her MasterClass on the short story. The second half will require an additional 25 to 50 pages of a novel under Tan’s guidance in her MasterClass on fiction.

Each week students will explore a different aspect of fiction technique, form, or method. Along with each lecture, students will complete the week’s craft reading, short fiction readings (if any), and a writing exercise. After the weekly lecture, students are expected to post a short response (to readings or the lecture), a question, or a review. Students are also required to inform themselves of the larger literary community, and, to this end, will present an overview of a journal each month (style, genre, masthead, background).

At the end of the semester, students will also present a five to ten-minute craft talk exploring how their approach to fiction writing has shifted over the course. Finally, students must submit to two literary journals they admire, paying the minimal fee, to receive editorial feedback on an in-progress short story. In the final portfolio, students will submit the original draft, along with the editorial critique and the resulting revisions.

Photo of older woman with other writers around a table by RODNAE Productions from Pexels

COURSE RESOURCES

COURSE OUTCOMES

  • The student will demonstrate an enhanced understanding of craft and the ability to convey this understanding to an audience.
  • The student will produce and submit writing of publishable quality.
  • The student will demonstrate in-depth knowledge of six literary journals.
  • The student will be able to analyze and critique fiction, applying craft knowledge to support their analyses.
  • The student will demonstrate the ability to discuss the forms and techniques of fiction.
  • The student will be able to articulate their goals for this course and assess their achievement of these stated goals at the end of the semester.
Photo of woman writing in a notebook by Zen Chung from Pexels

COURSE SCHEDULE

Week 1Introduction, Principles of Writing Short Fiction (Oates)
Readings: George Saunders (pp. 1-27), Douglas Unger “On Inspiration”http://www.douglasunger.com/Writings-OnInspiration.html
Exercise from LaPlante: “Carefully choose a dozen details and use them to render a place you know well.”
DUE: writing exercise, reflection, 250-word statement of your goals for the semester
Week 2Journals: Observing the World (Oates)
Readings: George Saunders (pp. 28-62), “Guests of the Nation,” Frank O’Connor
Exercise from Rosemary Graham: “Pay particular attention to the various spaces the characters move through in its 12 pages. Make a list of the different spaces. Then identify what we know about each and note how we know what we know. Write: No more than three paragraphs in which at least three characters move among exactly three rooms.”
DUE: writing exercise, reflection, Lit Journal #1
Week 3Ideas: Exploring Taboo and Darkness (Oates)
Readings: George Saunders (pp. 63-84); “Cat Person,” Kristen Roupenian  https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/12/11/cat-person
Exercise from LaPlante: “Write about a moment when you chose not to do something—end a relationship, quit a job, apply for a job, go somewhere. Record with as much detail as possible where you were, what you were wearing, what you said and did.”
DUE: writing exercise, reflection
Week 4Structure and Form (Oates)
Readings: George Saunders (pp. 85-118); “Girl,” Jamaica Kincaid; “Anti-Story” introduction by Philip Stevick https://www.google.com/books/edition/Anti_Story/q7ln0iP1GFAC?hl=en&gbpv=1&printsec=frontcover
Exercise from M.C. Easton: Using the story structures provided by Joan Silber last semester (The Art of Time in Fiction), take a story you are in the midst of revising and break it into sections that make sense to you (placing each section on a different PowerPoint slide or a different page in a document). Then, move, remove, or extend the sections to create structures that reflect: linear structure, frame structure, switchback structure, long time, slowed time, and fabulous time. Screenshot or save each version, then write a reflection of 250 words or less about what you learned about your story and yourself as a writer through this exercise. Do you have a preferred structure? What happens when you break it? Were you able to discover an additional structure not on this list? What improved your story? What worsened it?
DUE: writing exercise, reflection
Week 5Ideas: Writing the Familiar (Oates)
Readings: George Saunders (pp. 119-142); “The Lesson,” Toni Cade Bambara
Exercise from Janet Burroway: “Write a scene in a setting that is likely to be quite familiar to your readers (supermarket, dormitory, classroom, movie theater, suburban house, etc.) but that is unfamiliar, strange, outlandish, or outrageous to the central character. Let us feel the strangeness through the character’s eyes.”
DUE: writing exercise, reflection, Lit journal #2
Week 6Form Study: Miniature Narrative (Oates)
Readings: George Saunders (pp. 143-164); “The Use of Force,” William Carlos Williams; read 3 more stories from The New Yorker’s flash fiction archive https://www.newyorker.com/books/flash-fiction/page/2
Exercise from Eva Deverell: Choose from Deverell’s generous list of 100 flash fiction prompts at https://www.eadeverell.com/flash-fiction-prompts/
DUE: writing exercise, reflection, first draft of the short story
Week 7Form Study: Short Monologue (Oates)
Readings: George Saunders (pp. 165-216); Bright Lights, Big City excerpts, Jay McInerney
Exercise from M.C. Easton: In 800 words or fewer, write a monologue for a character who is completely different from you, even someone whose ideas repulse you. Try to tell a story with the monologue, using escalation and reversal to eventually bring the character to a different (albeit not necessarily better) place.
DUE: writing exercise, reflection, proof of submission to lit journal for critique
Week 8Story Study: “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (Oates)
Readings: George Saunders (pp. 217-248); re-read Oates’s story
Exercise from Joyce Carol Oates/MasterClass: “Take a story you’ve already finished and examine its ending. Where does the ending start? How long is your ending? Is it possible that your ending could—and should—come earlier? Try cutting your ending by a full page and revise your new ending for style and momentum. Now reread the new draft. How does the revision alter the story?”
DUE: writing exercise, reflection, Lit journal #3
Week 9Reading and Studying Writing (Oates)
Readings: George Saunders (pp. 249-276); “A Jury of Her Peers,” Susan Glaspell https://americanliterature.com/author/susan-glaspell/short-story/a-jury-of-her-peers
Exercise from Rosemary Graham: “Select a page of fiction where, for you as a reader, ‘The moment the place in which the novel happens is accepted as true.’ Annotate the text, underlining or highlighting the words, phrases, images, etc. that make you ‘accept the place as true.’ Write: a brief paragraph or two about the passage as preparation for presenting it in class.”
DUE: writing exercise, reflection
Week 10The Writer’s Workshop: “Indian Camp” (Oates)
Readings: George Saunders (pp. 277-310); read Hemingway’s “Indian Camp”
Exercise from Joyce Carol Oates/MasterClass: “Reread one of your favorite short stories. In the margins of the page or in your class notebook, make notes on its formal qualities. Make sure to ask yourself, among other things: How does the title function in the work? How long are the story’s paragraphs? Are there subsections or chapters? Are events chronological? How is the dialogue treated? Note any formal choices the author makes. You’ll be able to come back to this set of notes as a resource for your own writing.”
DUE: writing exercise, reflection
Week 11Revision Workshop: “Labor Day” (Oates)
Readings: George Saunders (pp. 311-348); student piece
Exercise from George Saunders: In his book, Saunders offers a sample text to practice on first, but this can also work on your own writing or any text you can find. He suggests: “Set a timer for five minutes. In that time, cut 20 words from that text. When finished, ask yourself these questions: What did I cut?Why did I cut it? (This will tell you something about your editing sensibility.)Is the resulting piece better or worse? “Now do another round of the above. In fact, do round after round of the above, until you’ve cut the piece from its [original] length to half that….It’s not the case that every piece of writing needs this level of cutting, but it’s good to develop a feeling for how much cutting a piece of prose can tolerate before it gets worse.” (pp. 395-399)
DUE: writing exercise, reflection
Week 12Revision Workshop: “Near Death”; Closing (Oates)
Readings: George Saunders (pp. 349-391); student piece
Exercise from Janet Burroway: Revisit one of the short pieces you wrote in Week 6 and 7. Then, “rewrite your story, making it at least three times as long, so that the development enriches the action and the characters.”
DUE: writing exercise, reflection, revised short story incorporating editorial notes from lit journal feedback
Week 13Introduction; Finding Your Voice (Tan)
Readings: “On Voice and Revision” (Mark Cox; p. 400); “Collaborating with Chaos: Not Knowing and the Creative Process” (Jack Myers, p. 217)
Exercise from M.C. Easton: Think of three profoundly different writers whose distinct voices you admire. For example, Virginia Woolf with her long winding sentences and interiority, Zora Neale Hurston with her narration grounded in the colloquial language and wit of her characters, and Joy Williams with her spare, almost stoic prose. Choose a scene from your novel or short story, and rewrite it using each of these different voices. Which one best serves the scene? Which one feels most authentic to you?
DUE: writing exercise, reflection, Lit journal #4
Week 14Memory, Truth, and Imagination (Tan)
Readings: “The Girl I Was, the Woman I Have Become: Fiction’s Reminiscent Narrators” (Ellen Lesser, p. 18); “The Management of Grief,” Bharati Mukherjee
Exercise from M.C. Easton: Write at least a paragraph about a caregiver you had when you were very small. Describe them with as much sensory detail as possible. Then, write a paragraph about a moment when your perception of this caregiver shifted—when you witnessed them sick or grieving or enraged or humiliated. Explore the details that demonstrated their separateness from you, the difference between how you saw them and their actual life. Finally, write a paragraph about the most recent encounter with this person or a recent memory of them. As an adult, how do you see them now? How has your relationship to this memory shifted? What feelings do you have for them now, and how do these shape your feelings for yourself? See if you can make a story from it.   
DUE: writing exercise, reflection
Week 15Research and Observation (Tan)
Readings: “The Storyteller” (Walter Benjamin)
Exercise from Alice LaPlante: “Find out ten facts about the place in which your story is set that you didn’t know before.” Rewrite a scene where the setting has particular importance, while not including these facts. Does this new knowledge come to bear on the scene or the characters?
DUE: writing exercise, reflection
Week 16Beginning Your Story (Tan)
Readings: “On Beginnings” (Mary Ruefle, p. 233)
Exercise from M.C. Easton: Rewrite the opening paragraph to a chapter or story in three different ways. Assess what works and doesn’t work about each paragraph.
– Present a dynamic description of the setting (John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath)
– Give the character’s reaction to news (James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” or Tillie Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing”)
– Show what the main character does in the midst of a significant disruption to their already unhappy life (Nick Hornby’s How to Be Good)
– Open with a key event from the story, creating a frame or zigzag structure (Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half or Fredrik Backman’s Anxious People)
– Begin with another character’s assessment of a central character (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun)
– Open with dialogue between two main characters that reflects the central dilemma or theme (Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd)
DUE: writing exercise, reflection, Lit journal #5
Week 17Narrative Point of View (Tan)
Readings: “From Long Shots to X-Rays: Distance and Point of View in Fiction” (David Jauss, p. 36)
Exercise from Janet Burroway: “Write a short scene about the birth or death of anything [using omniscient POV]…Give us the thoughts of more than one character, tell us something about at least one character that [they don’t] realize, include something from past or future, and deliver a universal truth.” Then, rewrite this scene in third-person limited POV. Write a short reflection on what worked and didn’t in each version.
DUE: writing exercise, reflection
Week 18Character Development (Tan)
Readings: “How Do We Mean What We Do Not Say: The Uses of Omission in Fiction” (Victoria Redel, p. 115); “Character Motivation” (Aimee Bender https://www.scribd.com/doc/279908039/Aimee-Bender-Character-Motivation)
Exercise from Alice LaPlante: Read Michael Ondaatje’s “7 or 8 Things I Know about Her.” https://exceptindreams.livejournal.com/289600.html
1. “Fix a character in your mind.
2. Write seven or eight brief ‘facts’ about that character, their family, their surroundings—but try to avoid the sorts of things that you would include in a traditional biography.”  
DUE: writing exercise, reflection, 25 to 50 pages of a novel DUE
Week 19Choosing the Right Words (Tan)
Readings: “Before We Get Started” (Bret Lott, p. 4)
Writing Exercise from Michelle Boisseau, Robert Wallace, and Randall Mann: List about twenty concrete but common nouns in one column and about twenty active, present-tense verbs in another…Now, almost arbitrarily, draw lines to connect them, so that ‘the towels flag on the clothesline’ or… ‘the gravy curdled.’ See what metaphors you can make. Try exploring the most evocative through a [paragraph of setting description in your story].”
DUE: writing exercise, reflection, proof of submission to lit journal for critique
Week 20The Revision Process (Tan)
Readings: “Breaking the ‘Rules’ of Story Structure” (Diane Lefer, p. 62); “Showing and Telling” (Laurie Alberts, p. 146)
Exercise from Alice LaPlante: Choose one of the exercises from earlier this semester. Then, use one or more revision strategies from the following to open up new possibilities in your story: “Write about an event in your character’s past without which the current situation couldn’t exist.Write about the current situation from the point of view of a character looking back from ten years in the future…Describe a number of unrelated events occurring nearby as this scene unfolds.”
DUE: writing exercise, reflection, Lit journal #6
Week 21Writing Companions (Tan)
Readings: Read up on your own heritage. Research your family tree. Interview your oldest living relative. Read up on the central events that impacted where and how your family lives today (examples: the Atlantic slave trade, the Russian Revolution, the Indian Appropriations Act in the United States, colonization, the Irish Potato Famine, the Cultural Revolution in China, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Independence Movement in India). Try to uncover at least three facts you didn’t already know. Consider how these macro experiences impacted your family norms.
Exercise from M.C. Easton: What are the voices you always carry in your head? Who is speaking to you? What ancestral memories have been passed on, generation to generation, in your family through stories? What dreams have you had of your ancestors or dead loved ones? For at least 20 minutes, freewrite in one of these voices in your notebook.  
DUE: writing exercise, reflection, outline of 5–10-minute craft talk DUE
Week 22Writer’s Block (Tan)
Readings: “7 Ways to Overcome Writer’s Block,” Chuck Sambuchino https://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/7-ways-to-overcome-writers-block; “Writing Anxiety” https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/writing-anxiety/
Exercise from Janet Burroway, modified by M.C. Easton for fiction: “Prove to yourself the abundance of your invention by opening [a] book and pointing at random. Take the noun nearest where your finger falls, cluster it for two or three minutes, and” freewrite about a character obsessed with the subject.
DUE: writing exercise, reflection
Week 23Behind the Scenes: The Joy Luck Club Movie (Tan)
Readings: “Adapting Literary Texts for the Movies” http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/film-and-lit/adaptation.pdf; “Adaptation: From Novel to Film,” Judy Sandra https://raindance.org/adaptation-novel-film/
Exercise from M.C. Easton: Choose a film or TV adaptation that you haven’t seen for a novel or short story you’ve already read. Write a paragraph reflecting on some of the questions presented in this week’s reading. Then, select a text you’d like to adapt into film. Write another paragraph detailing some challenges you anticipate and how you might handle them.
DUE: writing exercise, reflection
Week 24Amy’s Rejection Letters (Tan)
Readings: https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/issues/rejection Read the first tab “Rejection,” then click on the second tab “Overcoming Rejection.” Freewrite in your journal about your experiences with rejection throughout your life, how these impact your feelings around artistic or professional rejection, and which of the strategies presented in the second tab might benefit you during the next round of submission rejections.
Exercise from M.C. Easton: Earlier this semester, Joyce Carol Oates reframed rejection as an opportunity to make a piece better, one that can be a stroke of luck. Test this out for yourself. Choose a piece of yours that has been repeatedly rejected and that you had set aside or given up on. Reread it with “colder and crueler eyes.” What are its weakest sections? Which parts slow the story’s momentum? Is too much happening? Too little? If you already have ideas, spend at least an hour revising. If not, choose a previous exercise such as Saunders’s “cutting” exercise (Week 11) or the structure exercise (Week 4). What happens when you apply what you’ve learned this semester to an old story of yours?
DUE: writing exercise, reflection, revised novel excerpt
Week 25How to End Your Story (Tan)
Readings: “Notes on Novel Structure” (Douglas Glover, p. 70); “Returning Characters to Life: Chekhov’s Subversive Endings,” David Jauss https://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/jauss-essay
Exercise from M.C. Easton: For a story that you’re struggling to end, choose three of the 12 possible endings listed in Jauss’s essay. Write one version of each, then assess: Which of the three works best? Which doesn’t work at all? Why? Write a paragraph about this and post online.
DUE: Portfolio (6 literary journal responses; 1 completed short story; 25 to 50 revised pages of a novel; 25 writing exercises; 25 responses to weekly readings, films, or books; receipts of at least 12 submissions and two critiques from lit journals; a 5–10-minute craft presentation; 250-word final reflection)

ASSIGNMENTS

A comprehensive list of the assignments required from students this semester:

  • A 250-word reflection on how this semester has shaped your writing: Address shifts in your views of literature, the short story form, novels, or the writing process.
  • A 5–10-minute craft presentation with a writing exercise: Focus on an aspect of craft that you came to approach differently over the course. Frame this as a short mini-lesson for beginning fiction writers.
  • One short story (revised/edited)
  • 25 to 50 pages of a novel (newly written this semester and revised/edited)
  • Proof of at least 12 submissions
  • 25 writing exercises (one from each week)
  • 25 responses to the weekly readings, lectures, or assignments (responses to cultural events are also acceptable, including: films, author readings, outside-class reading)
  • A one-page response to a peer writer
  • Two pieces of professional feedback from literary magazines (Tahoma Literary Review, Split Lip Magazine, Typehouse Magazine, Coffin Bell)
  • Six literary journals—their preferred styles and genres, their masthead, and their background. (AGNI, The Mad Hatter’s Review, North American Review, The Chicago Review, Boulevard, Blackbird, Guernica, Gulf Coast, The Bellingham Review, The Missouri Review, The Seattle Review, Black Warrior Review, The Virginia Quarterly, Glimmer Train, A Public Space, Cincinnati Review, Bodega, TriQuarterly, Five Points, The Sun, Tinhouse, The Southwest Review, Crazy Horse, Gettysburg Review, Cimarron Review, Clackamas Literary Review, Shenandoah, Kalliope, 14 Hills, Jane Magazine, Aurora Review, Backwards City Review)

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Photo of woman writing in bed with a laptop by Ivan Samkov from Pexels

Syllabus writing exercises drawn from the following resources:

  • Rosemary Graham’s Fiction Craft syllabus offers loads more writing exercises and recommended reading.
  • Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing (Bookshop.org) is an MFA program in itself, packed with craft essays, short fiction, and exercises. It’s also the size of a dictionary, so consider yourself warned.
  • Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (Bookshop.org) has been updated for its tenth edition and now offers additional material from Elizabeth and Ned Stuckey-French. It’s a classic fiction craft textbook and a good choice if you want something a little easier to carry.

Featured photo of a blank notebook on a wood table by Jessica Lewis from Pexels

Published by M.C. Easton

Novelist and teacher.

One thought on “Advanced Fiction Workshop Syllabus

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