Fiction Writing Workshop or Don’t do it/Please don’t do it/Because if one us writes teen zombie erotica then we all go through it
by Salvatore Pane
The final syllabus I’m posting is for my Fiction Writing Workshop. It’s strange, but in two and a half years, I’ve taught variations of this course seven times. This is similar to the workshops I ran last spring with a few small changes. I added in a few more novel excerpts, namely Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!!. I’ve also added in required lit journal presentations. In addition to the lit journal overview I do, I’m having students present for 5-10 minutes on any lit journal of their choosing. The hope is that by the end of the presentations, each student will know seven more quality journals to read and possibly submit to. Irina Reyn did this in a graduate workshop once, and I found it extremely helpful. The biggest change is the focus on outside guests. In the past, I was barely able to scrounge up one guest a semester, as I had a lot of difficulty securing any funds at all (and by “difficulty,” I mean I got nothing). This time around, I was able to secure visits with Matt Bell, Chris Newgent, Chad Redden, Amber Sparks, and a skype conversation with Marty Pasko, a comics industry legend (he also won an Emmy for his work on Batman: The Animated Series which I LOVE). It’s always nice to get some other voices in the classroom. Matt, Amber, and Marty will hopefully bring a more national perspective, and Chris and Chad can explain to students how to get involved right here in Indianapolis.
Basically, I’ve never been more excited for anything ever.
FICTION WRITING WORKSHOP
University of Indianapolis
Assistant Professor Salvatore Pane
Office Hours: 10-11 MWF, 2-3 MW
3X33: Short Fiction by 33 Writers, edited by Mark Winegardner
Welcome to Fiction Writing Workshop
In this course, you’re going to write and read a lot. You’ll produce short stories and flash fiction and possibly novel chapters, and along the way we’ll discuss the publishing industry, the internet blogging scene, and even have a few guest speakers. I’m not going to lie to you and say that writing is easy. It’s not. It’s one of the hardest things you can ever do. But, and I guarantee you this, if you’re serious about the craft of fiction, if you’re willing to put in the work, you’ll absolutely be a better writer at the end of the course than you are today.
Each student will put up 8-15 pages of literary fiction for workshop twice a semester. You can write a traditional short story or multiple flash fiction pieces but remember, you have to demonstrate the fundamental principles of literary fiction in all of your workshop pieces. I want to see structure, character, development. I want nuance and complexity. I don’t want filler pieces meant to get you closer to the page requirement.
Substantial revisions will be required. Substantial revision does not mean fixing grammar. Substantial revision usually means a complete rewrite and perhaps multiple rewrites. Students must also post 300 -500 word critiques for every student story we workshop. Similarly, you will read a large amount of stories from 3X33 and a few handouts. Students will post 300-500 word craft analyses for every assigned story we read.
Reading so much literary fiction will allow you to build a library of published stories in your head. Students are expected to use their knowledge of writers like Barry Hannah, Lorrie Moore or A.M. Homes to comment about peer work up for discussion. Students will make parallels and use the published work to inform their critiques of peer work. The majority of the course will be spent workshopping. The goal of the course is for you to not only become a better writer, but to become an active literary citizen who can participate in the ongoing dialogue concerning fiction.
By the end of the course successful students will:
Use basic elements of craft (image, voice, character, setting, etc.) to create 16-30 pages of thoughtful literary fiction.
Employ critical-reading skills while analyzing, for specific issues of craft, a wide range of published and peer fiction.
Substantially revise their work by utilizing critical feedback generated by class discussion and written critiques.
Contribute thoughtful and complex commentary to discussions of published and peer fiction.
You will be prepared for every workshop class by doing the following:
1.) Write comments in the margins of stories up for discussion. You MUST use the comments feature in Microsoft Word. All comments will be transparent to the entire class. I want you to upload your marked up versions of workshopped stories to Ace. Failure to do so will negatively impact your grade. Also, DO NOT FORGET TO BRING A PRINT OUT OF THE STORY IN QUESTION TO CLASS. This is mandatory. If you don’t do this, I’ll shave points off your participation grade. If it becomes a consistent problem, I will mark you absent.
2.) Write a 300-500 word critique for each peer written story we read this semester. You must critique the story based on its own intentions. For example, if the writer is attempting to write in the realist mode of Ray Carver, do not suggest adding a woman who has to eat a plate of hair ala Amelia Gray just because you don’t like realism. On the flip side, don’t knock an experimental story because you prefer realism. Judge the story the writer wrote, not the one you want to write. Try and help them see how they could better serve their material and unique world vision. In your responses, first describe what you think the writer is attempting to do and what the story is about. Then discuss the piece’s strengths. Finish with prescription, a section where you point out very specific things that still need work within the story. Go beyond grammar. Character, plot, prose, all the building blocks of fiction are on the table. You must use the description, strength, prescription model.
3.) Post your critique and margin comments to Ace by 8PM the night before workshop. All critiques will be visible to all members of the class, and I encourage you to read what your peers are saying about every story. Name your thread on Ace after your favorite line of the story in question. If you don’t turn in these materials BY 8PM, you will lose points.
Example of a good critique:
*NOTE: I removed this because it’s an actual critique of a student story
Notes About Workshop
When you are being workshopped, it is very important that you are quiet, take notes, and do not respond to anything verbally. To reiterate, you are not allowed to talk when being workshopped unless I specifically ask you something, and that will be very rare. You are not there to defend your story. Your story must stand on its own.
Please proofread your work. If a story is excessively sloppy, I will not workshop it. Do not depend on your classmates to fix your grammar.
Distribution of Manuscripts
Stories will be due from you exactly one full week before you’re scheduled to workshop. For example, if you’re scheduled to workshop on Monday, September 24th at 1pm, that means your story is due at 1pm Monday, September 17th. If your story is late, your grade for that story will drop by an entire letter. If you are more than a day late, you will get an F, no exceptions. Once you upload your manuscript, you CANNOT EDIT IT FOR ANY REASON. If you do, we will skip your workshop and you will take an F. You are responsible for printing out your peers’ stories for discussion on workshop days. Please include page numbers.
I have randomized the workshop schedule in order of fairness, but know that it will be reversed for the second round of workshops. So if you have to put up a story early in the semester for the first go around, you will have the most time to write for the second round of workshops.
Ace Reading Posts
On most weeks, you will be required to read at least one outside short story. On these weeks, you must post a 300-500 word craft analysis of said story on Blackboard under the appropriately titled forum. Posts must be uploaded by 8PM the day before we discuss the story. If your post is late, you will lose points. During weeks in which we will be discussing two professional short stories a classroom session, you are required to write two 200-300 word craft analyses each class session, one for each story we read. For flash fiction, you only need to write 100-200 words. Post your responses on the appropriate forum. There’s a forum designated by name for every professional story.
Let me be very clear on this. This is not a forum for you to explain whether or not you like the piece in question. I don’t care. What I’m looking for is a craft analysis. These stories are published. They’re not up for workshop. What can you learn from them? There is a huge difference between reading fiction as a general reader and reading fiction as a writer. It’s not about pleasure, it’s about bettering your craft. You need to look at outside stories and figure out what techniques you can use for your own writerly toolboxes. Perhaps you will learn how to implement time jumps in a narrative from “The Year of Getting to Know Us.” Perhaps you will learn about wacky settings from “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline.” I want you writing about something that struck you in the professional stories and how you can apply those lessons to your own writing. If you simply talk about why you love or hate a specific story, you will take an F on the craft analysis in question. Below is an example of a good craft analysis:
UGH, this story is so good. It makes me mad that people write this well. It is hilarious but also menacingly sad. And the language and the pacing are so pitch perfect—I don’t think a single line falls flat.
When I first read this a while ago I laughed and thought it was just an interesting, painfully insightful look at being a writer. And although this is basically true, I don’t think the cleverness is the meat of the story, rather, a really superb misdirect.
Francie repeats herself, a lot. And I think when she does, it matters. There are a few recurring things. One is that her stories are mostly plotless, graphic violence, between old couples. The other issue that recurs with the most emotional weight is her brother going to Vietnam and coming back crippled.
In my mind, it’s also important to understand this story is being written as a reflection by Francie. And although the second-person perspective universalizes it, the story feels intensely personal (how wonderfully Moore treads that line!). Given that Francie is writing/telling this story, you can assume, like she says, it suffers in plot. Or more importantly, she doesn’t quite know what the plot is. Francie says “Later on in life you will realize that writers are merely open, helpless texts with no real understanding of what they have written”.
Writing is seen as personal and reflective, but the problem is that reflecting on her life, she isn’t sure what is the actual story.
And I think that’s what I love most about this story. Moore writes a story about someone writing a story about what wasn’t actually the real story. The real story being, in my opinion, her parent’s divorce, her brother going to Vietnam, her decreasing spiral of demeaning relationships, as reflected in her writing.
The sentence, near the end being particularly indicative of the last point: “You now go out with men who, instead of whispering ‘I love you,” shout: ‘Do it to me, baby.’ This is good for your writing.”
And, had these ideas been explored independently, the story of a broken home, a Vietnam veteran, and a bad dating history, it would not feel terribly original. But to hide this sad, lonely story—to embed and obscure it through this wonderful analogy of struggled, filtered, reflection called writing—is really genius, I think.
Like she says about her brother, “you write nothing. There are no words for this. Your typewriter hums. You can find no words.” She can’t even begin to write about what is really the issue, only glance at it with something tangential like writing.
The method actually allows for some notes that play like Carver. Consider the above brief quotation about her brother. She writes nothing. It’s a short, not particularly engaging, sentence out of context. But considering how abrupt it is, considering how open and honest and rambling she was before, that line of silence is deafening. The context allows her to do so much with so little. I felt sadder for her brother in Vietnam than I did during all of “Platoon”. And Moore only mentioned him three times.
After everyone has workshopped, I will break you up into groups of two—Fiction Buddies! You will meet during class time and read each other’s revisions and then run mini-workshops. I will explain more about Fiction Buddies when we reach that point in the semester.
Novels are wonderful. We love novels. Novels are why so many of us want to be writers. But in a workshop setting, students often use first chapters as an excuse to not end their stories. They can avoid criticism by saying, “That happens in chapter two.” I’ve seen many, many talented writers produce thirty opening chapters in their undergraduate career, graduate, and have no idea how to sustain a middle or land an ending. I don’t want that to happen to you.
For the first workshop, I don’t want you to write a novel chapter. You can write a few pieces of flash fiction or a short story, but no chapters. For the second workshop, if you’re really serious about writing a novel, I want you to first provide me with a four page outline of the entire book. If given permission, you will put that AND an 8-10 page chapter up for workshop. I want to know you have a plan and that writing a chapter isn’t just a way out from writing an ending.
All of our discussions in this class will center on literary fiction. What is literary fiction? We will explore that as the semester goes on. The point is that if you’re here to work on your vampire zombie spaceship novel, this class is not a good outlet for that kind of work. I’m expecting you to produce character driven literary fiction that drives toward emotional complexities. I don’t want to see battle scenes between elves and warlocks. Your stories can be wacky, your stories can be strange (wait till you see the craziness of George Saunders!), but this class will never focus on straight genre fiction.
Turn off all cell phones before class begins. Do not text people during class. It’s really obvious when you’re doing this. If this becomes a problem I will shave points off your participation grade. If this becomes a consistent problem, I’ll mark you as absent.
I want to be as clear as I can on this. If you miss class five times, you will fail. There will be no make up assignments. Don’t come back to class. The ONLY excuses I will accept are a doctor’s excuse or some kind of family emergency. I am not going to make any exceptions on this front.
You should always be on time for class. If you are late, you will not get credit for attending an entire class.
If you are unprepared for discussion or workshop, I cannot give you credit for attendance that day.
This is what you have to do if you want an A in this course. You have to put up two thoughtful workshop pieces. Then you have to take the time to substantially revise them. You have to be engaged in classroom discussions and add something relevant every class. You must do all the Ace posts and turn them in on time. You do all these things, you get an A. You slack off, turn work in late or short, doze off in class, and you’re not getting anything that even remotely resembles an A.
Here’s the grading breakdown. 70% of your final grade will come down to your final portfolio, i.e. all of your revised work at the end of the semester. The other 30% comes from participation and Ace posts. Please note: participation is mandatory. If you are not contributing to every single workshop, you are not going to get a good grade. This is a workshop course. The same goes for Ace. If you consistently fail to turn in work on time, you’re not going to get a good grade.
On the last day of class, you will be expected to turn in two revisions of your workshop pieces. Late portfolios WILL NOT be accepted. We’ll talk more about this as the semester goes on.
After your first workshop, I will schedule a conference with you during my office hours. After your second workshop, please contact me and we can either set up an appointment to discuss your work or I can just send you your critique. I encourage you to meet with me in person, but this second conference is optional. Please remember: my door is always open.
I have scheduled a number of visitors throughout the semester. Some run reading series or lit journals here in Indianapolis, others are national writers dropping by on tour, some will chat with us via Skype. I want you to be engaged in these discussions. Participate. These are very rare opportunities. Don’t squander them.
Students are required to attend one reading outside of class. The details will be announced, but you will have multiple opportunities to attend one, although I encourage you to go to them all. I sure will. These are opportunities, not burdens, and I hope you treat them that way.
You will be required to attend and write a short, 500 word craft analysis of one of these readings.
Literary Journal Presentations
Near the end of the course, you will be expected to give a very informal 5-10 minute presentation on a literary journal. Be prepared to discuss its aesthetics, who publishes in it, what the statistics are, and what its web presence is like among other things. We’ll discuss this in much greater detail as we get closer to the end of the course.
The syllabus is subject to change. I will only push assignments and readings back however. No assignment will ever be due earlier than it’s listed here.
Monday August 27
Justin Taylor “Tetris” HANDOUT
Wednesday August 29
John Updike “A&P” 3X33
Lorrie Moore “How to Become a Writer” 3X33
Friday August 31
Raymond Carver “Cathedral” 3X33
Alissa Nutting “Porn Star” COURSE DOCUMENTS
Wednesday September 5
Donald Barthelme “The School” 3X33
Etgar Keret “Fatso” COURSE DOCUMENTS
Roxane Gay “The Harder They Come” COURSE DOCUMENTS
Amelia Gray “Hair” COURSE DOCUMENTS
Friday September 7
Breece D’J Pancake “Trilobytes” COURSE DOCUMENTS
Tobias Wolff “Bullet in the Brain” 3X33
Monday September 10
Emma Straub “Pearls” COURSE DOCUMENTS
George Saunders “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” 3X33
Wednesday September 12
Scott Snyder “Blue Yodel” COURSE DOCUMENTS
Joyce Carol Oates “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” 3X33
Friday September 14
Barry Hannah “Testimony of Pilot” 3X33
Monday September 17
Wednesday September 19
Friday September 21
Ethan Canin “The Year of Getting to Know Us” COURSE DOCUMENTS
Monday September 24
Wednesday September 26
Friday September 28
Amber Sparks Visit
Monday October 1
Wednesday October 3
Revision Lecture + “How to Be a Contemporary Writer” by Roxane Gay
Friday October 5
Publishing and Blogs Lecture
Monday October 8
Teddy Wayne Novel Excerpt of Kapitoil COURSE DOCUMENTS
Sara Levine Novel Excerpt of Treasure Island!!! COURSE DOCUMENTS
Wednesday October 10
Brian Oliu “Gradius” COURSE DOCUMENTS
Brian Oliu “Punch-Out!!” COURSE DOCUMENTS
Brian Oliu “Wizards and Warriors” COURSE DOCUMENTS
xTx “Water is Thrown on the Witch” COURSE DOCUMENTS
xTx “Marci is Going to Shoot Up Meth With Her Friend” COURSE DOCUMENTS
Friday October 12
A.M. Homes “The Former First Lady and the Football Hero” COURSE DOCUMENTS
James Alan McPherson “Why I Like Country Music” COURSE DOCUMENTS
Wednesday October 17
Friday October 19
Chris Newgent Visit
Monday October 22
Wednesday October 24
Friday October 26
Monday October 29
Wednesday October 31
Friday November 2
Patrick Somerville “The Universe in Miniature in Miniature” COURSE DOCUMENTS
Monday November 5
Wednesday November 7
MFA Program and Book Review Lecture
Friday November 9
Jonathan Lethem “Super Goat Man” COURSE DOCUMENTS
Monday November 12
Don Lee “The Price of Eggs in China” COURSE DOCUMENTS
Seth Fried “Loeka Discovered” COURSE DOCUMENTS
Wednesday November 14
Junot Diaz “Fiesta, 1980” 3X33
Matt Bell “His Last Great Gift” COURSE DOCUMENTS
Friday November 16
Matt Bell Visit
Monday November 19
Monday November 26
Lit Journal Presentations
Wednesday November 28
Friday November 30
Chadwick Redden Visit
Monday December 3
Wednesday December 5
Friday December 7
Final Portfolios Due