Salvatore Pane

Tag: Richard Yates

Advanced Fiction Workshop Fall 2013

Advanced Fiction Workshop
ENGL 472-50X (12032)
MW 4:00-5:20pm

University of Indianapolis
Assistant Professor Salvatore Pane
E-mail: panes@uindy.edu
Credits: 3.0

 

Syllabus
Welcome to Advanced Fiction Workshop

By this point in your creative writing career, you know a few things. You can generate a scene out of nothingness. You can build a setting and populate it with characters who are more than just one-dimensional cardboard cutouts. You can write dialogue. You’ve written more than your share of stories, and hopefully, your writing routine reflects that. Hopefully, you’re working on your craft well before the night before a story is due. Hopefully, you’re even writing fiction even when there are no deadlines or class assignments.

But what is fiction? On a primitive level, we know the answer. But what can fiction do? Can it be more than a simple A to B to C narrative with a traditional rising action and climax, or are there new ways forward we haven’t even imagined yet? And if we are going to live in the world of traditional narrative, how can we do so to the very best of our abilities?

In Advanced Fiction Workshop, you will take the next step toward becoming an active literary citizen in a broadband world. That means not only are you expected to produce and revise a great deal of writing—both creative and critical—but you will be required to learn about and participate in the many writing communities within Indianapolis and nationally via public readings, book reviews, and social media.

Each student will submit 30-44 pages of literary fiction for workshop. You can write traditional short stories or multiple pieces of flash fiction or potentially even novel chapters, 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 500-750 word critiques for every student workshop. Similarly, you will read a large amount of published fiction. Students will post 500-750 word ACE Takeaway Posts for every published piece of fiction 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 ZZ Packer or Jorge Luis Borges or Richard Yates 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 30-44 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.

 

Workshop

 

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 under the student-in-question’s forum. 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, I will mark you absent.

2.) Write a 500-750 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 mysterious underground school ala Patrick Somerville just because you don’t like realism. On the flip side, don’t knock an experimental story because you prefer realism. Judge the work the writer wrote, not the work 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— this should be the shortest section. 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 writing are on the table. You must use the description, strength, prescription model.

3.) Post your critique and margin comments to Ace by 12am 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 MIDNIGHT, you will lose points.

 

Example of a good critique:

 

[TITLE OF STORY REMOVED] is primarily about a squeamish young man who dates an over-sized, sailor mouthed woman he meets in a bar. She is emotionally unavailable and taunts the boyfriend–who she nicknames Christopher Robbins–quite a bit, but in many instances Robbins interprets these gestures as tenderness and grows to love his female companion. He can’t leave well enough alone, however, and decides that he has to figure out her past–which he believes is connected to the sea. He takes her to a small boat off a dock in New York City and when pushed, Mary lies to him prompting CR to trick her into falling into the ocean. Then he sails away but remembers he can’t.

The principal strength of the story is the prose. It is quite beautiful in places and has a really sweet lyrical tendency despite the crazy subject matter and frequent cursing. The sentences move. Also, the character of Mary is quite strong. She’s an enigma to CR, and she’s an enigma to the reader. I don’t want her backstory, and I don’t think the writer should be talked into giving it to us. Mary is a puzzle inserted into fiction. She doesn’t need to be solved.

Christopher Robbins does not fare as well. I’m going to echo [NAME REMOVED]’s sentiments. We don’t know CR well enough and that makes some of the story fall relatively flat. When CR gives up his previous life to follow Mary everywhere it doesn’t have much impact because we have no idea what he’s giving up. Is he some little rich kid–he implies otherwise when Mary accuses him of having Harvard hands? Is he right out of college? Does he have some office job? Does he live in Hoboken and eat canned soup? We need the details of his life before-Mary to understand how his life post-Mary is so different and strange, and at times, wonderful.

Secondly, the story makes a big leap in logic when CR definitively decides that his girlfriend’s past is tied up with the sea. We need more concrete hints from Mary to buy into this. And why does he want to know about her past so much in the first place? Is he inherently an inquisitive person? Does he need to solve everything he comes across? Up until this point in the story, CR seemed so utterly passive. Why the change in demeanor? Also, the boat plot at the end seems a little half-baked. He thinks something terrible happened to his girlfriend at sea, so his solution is to tell her he has a surprise for her, then he brings her to a boat. That’s kind of crazy and out-of-character. It almost makes it seem like he’s getting back at her for all the little pot shots she’s taken but I don’t think that’s your intention. The final image of CR sailing away from Mary is a compelling ending, but it does not (yet) feel earned.

 

Distribution of Manuscripts

 

For your workshop, you must submit 15-22 pages of literary fiction the Wednesday before your stories are due by 3pm. I will release the workshop schedule after the first week of class when the student roster is locked. Please feel free to include any combination of short stories. For example, a single 17 page story is absolutely fine, as are 17 one page stories. The breakdown is up to you as long as you don’t dip below or above the 15-22 page limit.

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. Reduced grades will count toward the final grade. Also, please include page numbers.

 

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.

 

ACE Takeaway Posts

 

Before we discuss a story you must post a 500-750 word Takeaway Post on ACE under the appropriately titled forum. Posts must be uploaded by midnight the day before we discuss the work. If your post is late, you will lose points. Post your responses on the appropriate Ace forum. There’s a forum designated by name for every professional piece of writing.

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 what you can take away for your own writing. Every piece of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction has something to teach us as writers, something we can take for our own writing. Whether you like or dislike a piece of outside writing is beside the point in this class. If you simply talk about why you love or hate a specific piece of writing, you will take an F on the Takeaway Post in question.

In addition to what you took away from the published piece as a writer, I want you to provide three questions for the class related to craft. I don’t want you asking plot questions or questions about why a story is so bad or so good, but questions meant to stimulate discussions of craft related to the story. Your three questions will count toward your word count.

Below is a truncated example of a good Takeaway Post:

 

Don Lee’s “The Price of Eggs in China” provides a great example of keeping characters consistent. They’re unique characters, I think, but they’re always consistent.

Dean is a devoted, committed boyfriend. No matter how Caroline treats him, he wants to be with Caroline. He wants to help her when she’s sick, even though she’s broken up with him. He wants to help her with the problem with Marcella.

Caroline is consistently just kind of mean and crazy. She seems to have no filter on what she says…as made obvious when she says “This is what it’s come down to, this is how far I’ve sunk. I’m about to fuck a Nipponese fire hydrant with the verbal capacity of tap water,” and again when she responds with “yikes” to Dean’s declaration of love.

One of the good things to learn from this story, though, is that we see a mean character who is not evil, only evil, all we see is evil. I know that’s something I had a problem with in my last workshop story–that the character was just mean, and rude, and no one could understand why the main character was friends with her. In this story, you see Caroline’s vulnerable side. You see her vulnerable side when she starts getting sicker due to a stalker who is leaving her death threats. Though this sympathy is kind of taken away when it’s suggested she might have sent herself the death threats, you still see the vulnerable side. The side that is not completely mean/evil. She also transforms at the end when she becomes a mother, and although we do not see her in that role, it is described in the narration. I think this was a really good story to help show a way to fix the problem that a lot of us are having with writing a completely “evil,” one-sided character.

1) How is “The Price of Eggs in China” different from what we typically think of as mystery fiction?

2) How is it similar to what we typically think of as mystery fiction?

3) How does “The Price of Eggs in China” manage to achieve a satisfying ending without revealing the truth behind the mystery?

 

Genre Fiction

 

All of our discussions in this class will center on literary fiction. 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, young adult work, etc.. Your stories can be wacky, your stories can be strange (look to George Saunders or any other published fiction we read in this course for examples), but this class will never focus on straight genre fiction, and you will be expected to write literary fiction.

 

Novels

 

Primarily, we will be focusing on short fiction in this course. However, for your second workshop, you may choose to submit a novel chapter if you provide me with a four page outline of your entire novel in addition to a 15-22 page opening BEFORE uploading your work to ACE.
Conferences

 

After your workshops, I will schedule a mandatory conference with you during my office hours to discuss your work and provide feedback. Please remember: my door is always open, and I want to help you become a better writer.

 

Twitter

 

Over the last decade, social media hasbecome one of the best sources for writers to stay up-to-date on the latest books, literary journals, presses, reading series, and writers. This semester, you will be asked to enter into that world. You will be required to sign up for Twitter—however, feel free to keep your tweets protected if you’re so inclined—and each week you will follow five new literary journals, presses, reading series, or writers. Every Friday by 5pm, you will post which five accounts you’ve followed on the Twitter forum on Ace. Please feel free to follow accounts other students have found. Pay attention to whom and what other writers and journals tweet about. They’ll often discuss new writers and journals for you to discover.

 

Book Reviews

 

Over the course of the semester, you will be required to write two 500-1000 word book reviews chosen from the list of books I’ll recommend to you during your individual conferences. These are the only books you’ll be required to obtain over the course of the semester. We will talk about this more in depth as this semester goes on.

 

Outside Events

 

Students will be required to attend five readings outside of our class. You must attend the Roxane Gay Kellogg Writers series event in addition to two student hosted readings—more about that soon—along with two readings of your choice. To become an active literary citizen, you must actually engage with writers in our community. That means going to readings. Below are some options available to you, but I’ll approve other readings if you know of them. In addition to attending the readings, you must write a 100 word review of each event and post them to Ace. Keep in mind, readings are huge opportunities. Don’t treat these as burdens. I encourage you to go to all of the readings happening this fall.

Kellogg Writers Series (http://www.uindy.edu/arts/kellogg-writers-series)
Vouched (http://vouchedbooks.com/)
Word Lab (http://www.meetup.com/IndyWordLab/)
Indy Reads (http://indyreadsbooks.org/)
Service Center (https://www.facebook.com/servicecenterindy)
Butler University’s Delbrook Visiting Writers Series (http://www.butler.edu/mfa-creative-writing/delbrook-series/)
Hosted Reading

Once this semester, you will be required to team up with another student from our class to host a reading similar to the five you will attend on your own. At said reading, you will bring together a UIndy student writer of your choice—not yourself—with a local, established writer. Below, I’ve provided a list of venues in addition to a list of local writers who might be interested in headlining such an event. Please check out the venues beforehand and the work of the writers in question. Find someone you’re interested in, and when you do, contact me with your idea for the venue, headlining writer, and student writer. From there, I will put you in contact with the necessary people. You will be asked to promote said event via social media or other methods you’re comfortable with. You will also need to introduce both readers to the crowd at the event. Once an event is approved, those writers will be taken off the board of available readers.

 

Possible Venues:

 

Indy Reads (Mass Ave)
Indiana Writers Center (Broad Ripple)
The Wheeler Arts Community (Fountain Square)
The Service Center (Lafayette Road)
University of Indianapolis Schwitzer Building
University of Indianapolis Good Hall

 

Possible Writers:

[REMOVED]

 

Public Reading

 

At the end of the course, all students will be required to give a public reading of their work. This will take place during class time and other students and faculty will be invited to the reading. The reading will be livestreamed on the internet at http://www.ustream.tv/channel/uindy-lit.

 

Final Portfolios

 

You will receive preliminary grades for both of your workshop pieces that are not factored into your final grades and instead are meant as guideposts to where you work is before it is substantially revised over the course of the semester. At the end of the course, you will be expected to turn in a polished portfolio of your substantially revised workshop pieces that uses the feedback provided by me in addition to comments from your peers. An unwillingness to revise will result in automatic failure.

 

Grading Breakdown

 

Final Portfolio 50%
In-Class/Ace Participation 35%
Literary Citizenship (Readings, Book Reviews) 15%

 

Technology

 

Turn off all cell phones, laptops, tablets, and whatever else is invented before this semester ends BEFORE class begins. If, at any point during class, you look at any of this technology, you will be marked absent. I will not disrupt class. You will just be automatically marked absent. Don’t check your phones if you want to pass this class. Don’t look at the readings on phones and laptops. Print them out.

 

Attendance

 

If you miss class five times, you will fail. There will be no make up assignments. The ONLY excuses I will accept are doctor’s excuses or some kind of family emergency.

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.

 

Note

 

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.

 

Special Assistance

 

If you have a disability that may have some impact on your work in this class and for which you may require accommodations, please inform me immediately so that your learning needs may be appropriately met. Students with a disability must register with the Services for Students with Disabilities office (SSD) in Schwitzer Center 206 (317-788-6153 / http://www.uindy.edu/ssd) for disability verification and for determination of reasonable academic accommodations. You are responsible for initiating arrangements for accommodations for tests and other assignments in collaboration with the SSD and the faculty.

 

Plagiarism

 

Intellectual theft, like any other kind of theft, is a crime, and is especially dangerous on a college campus. Plagiarism is defined as any use of another person’s thoughts or words as your own. I don’t expect to see plagiarism in this class, and if I do each case will be dealt with on an individual basis, but the MINIMUM penalty will be failure for the assignment in question. Failing the entire course is not out of the question. If you are doing research and are unsure how to incorporate someone else’s work into your own in a valid manner, please ask—I’ll be more than happy to help you out so that there’s no danger of confusion.

 

Week One
August 26
Syllabus and Introductions
AD Jameson “Seven Movie Reviews”
Writing Goals
Prompt

August 28
Anton Chekhov “The Lady with the Pet Dog”
Sam Martone “Last Tour”
Social Media Overview
Prompt

Week Two
September 4
Dennis Johnson “Emergency”
Amber Sparks “You Will Be The Living Equation”
Prompt

Week Three
September 9
Rick Moody “The Apocalyptic Commentary of Bob Paisner”
Hosted Reading Overview
Prompt

September 11
Alice Munro “The Progress of Love”
Karissa Chen “The Emperor’s Malady”
Prompt

Week Four
September 16
Workshop 1
Workshop 2

September 18
Workshop 3
Mike Meginnis “Navigators”

Week Five
September 23
Workshop 4
Workshop 5

September 25
Workshop 6
Revision Overview

Week Six
September 30
Workshop 7
Workshop 8

October 2
Workshop 9
Book Review Overview

Week Seven
October 7
ZZ Packer “Dayward”
SKYPE WITH WRITER

October 9
Mini-Revisions

Week Eight
October 16
Donald Barthelme “Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning”
SKYPE WITH WRITER

Week Nine
October 21
Cathy Day “Jennie Dixianna”
Jorge Luis Borges “The Garden of Forking Paths”
Prompt

October 23
John Cheever “The Swimmer”
Richard Yates “The Best of Everything”
Prompt

Week 10
October 28
Workshop 1
Workshop 2

October 30
Workshop 3
Roberto Bolano “Last Evenings on Earth”

Week 11
November 4
Workshop 4
Workshop 5

November 6
Workshop 6
Wells Tower “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned”

Week 12
November 11
Workshop 7
Workshop 8

November 13

Prompt

Week 13
November 18
TBA

November 20
Mini-Revisions

Week 14
November 25
Writer Visit

Week 15
December 2
Writer Visit

December 4
Public Reading

Course Sequences

Over the last month or so, I’ve tried really hard to blow up my workshop syllabus. Things were going really well, and I wasn’t motivated out of some fear that I wasn’t getting through to the students. I just wanted to keep things fresh for myself. I realize that you can’t let students graduate with a degree in creative writing without knowing about certain benchmark writers/stories/novels. But I think it’s healthy for teachers to switch up their course sequences so they don’t fall into the trap of making the same tired points about Tim O’Brien or Ray Carver or Joyce Carol Oates or whoever.

This semester, I’m teaching a multi-genre workshop for the first time which I’m really excited about. I’m pretty well versed in creative nonfiction, but I’ve never even taken a poetry class. I’m hoping to learn a lot as the semester goes on, much like last semester when I taught Written Professional Communications. I didn’t know much at the beginning about LinkedIn or CVs or resumes, but by the end I felt pretty comfortable.

Below are the two course sequences I’m using for my two workshop classes. The first is for Intro to Fiction at the University of Pittsburgh, and the second is Advanced Writing Workshop at Chatham University. Usually, I’d include the syllabi, but I’ve discussed them at length in earlier posts. I’ve made some modifications to my workshop syllabus this semester (most having to do with long form writing projects and genre fiction), but the core of the thing is intact. Let me know if you have any suggestions or if you’d like to share your own course sequences. I’m also interested in what other teachers are doing.

Course Sequence

Week One

Wed January 4
Syllabus
Introductions
Justin Taylor “Tetris” HANDOUT

Fri January 6
John Updike “A&P” 3X33
Lorrie Moore “How to Become a Writer” 3X33

Week Two

Mon January 9
Raymond Carver “Cathedral” 3X33
Alissa Nutting “Porn Star” COURSE DOCUMENTS

Wed January 11
Donald Barthelme “The School” 3X33
Etgar Keret “Fatso” COURSE DOCUMENTS
Roxane Gay “The Harder They Come” COURSE DOCUMENTS
Amelia Gray “Hair” COURSE DOCUMENTS

Fri January 13
Emma Straub “Pearls” COURSE DOCUMENTS
George Saunders “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” 3X33

Week Three

Mon January 16
Class Cancelled Martin Luther King Day

Wed January 18
Joyce Carol Oates “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” 3X33
Barry Hannah “Testimony of Pilot” 3X33

Friday January 20
Breece D’J Pancake “Trilobytes” COURSE DOCUMENTS
Patrick Somerville “The Universe in Miniature in Miniature” COURSE DOCUMENTS

Week Four

Monday January 23
Workshop 1
Workshop 2

Wed January 25
Workshop 3
Workshop 4

Fri January 27
Rick Moody “The Apocalyptic Commentary of Bob Paisner” 3X33

Week Five

Mon January 30
Workshop 5
Workshop 6

Wed February 1
Workshop 7
Workshop 8

Fri February 3
A.M. Homes “The Former First Lady and the Football Hero” COURSE DOCUMENTS

Week Six

Mon February 6
Workshop 9
Workshop 10

Wed February 8
Workshop 11
Workshop 12

Fri February 10
Ethan Canin “The Year of Getting to Know Us” COURSE DOCUMENTS

Week Seven

Mon February 13
Workshop 13
Workshop 14

Wed February 15
Workshop 15
Workshop 16

Fri February 17
Deborah Eisenberg “Twilight of the Superheroes” COURSE DOCUMENTS

Week Eight

Mon February 20
Workshop 17
Workshop 18

Wed February 22
Workshop 19
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

Fri February 24
Matt Bell “His Last Great Gift” COURSE DOCUMENTS

Week Nine

Mon February 27
Richard Yates “The Best of Everything” 3X33
Tobias Wolff “Bullet in the Brain” 3X33

Wed February 29
Junot Diaz “Fiesta, 1980” 3X33
Andre Dubus “The Fat Girl” COURSE DOCUMENTS

Friday March 2
Don Lee “The Price of Eggs in China” COURSE DOCUMENTS
James Alan McPherson “Gold Coast” COURSE DOCUMENTS

Week Ten

Spring Break – No Classes

Week Eleven

Mon March 12
Workshop 1
Workshop 2

Wed March 14
Workshop 3
Workshop 4

Fri March 16
Seth Fried “Loeka Discovered” COURSE DOCUMENTS

Week Twelve

Mon March 19
Workshop 5
Workshop 6

Wed March 21
Workshop 7
Workshop 8

Fri March 23
Jonathan Lethem “Super Goat Man” COURSE DOCUMENTS

Week Thirteen

Mon March 26
Workshop 9
Workshop 10

Wed March 28
Workshop 11
Workshop 12

Fri March 30
Scott Snyder “Blue Yodel” COURSE DOCUMENTS

Week Fourteen

Mon April 2
Workshop 13
Workshop 14

Wed April 4
Workshop 15
Workshop 16

Fri April 6
Lorrie Moore “People Like That Are The Only People Here” 3X33

Week Fifteen

Mon April 9
Workshop 17
Workshop 18

Wed April 11
Workshop 19
TBA

Fri April 13
TBA

Week Sixteen

Monday April 16
Fiction Pod

Wednesday April 18
Fiction Pod

Friday April 20
Final Portfolios Due

Course Schedule

Week One

Wed January 4
Syllabus
Introductions
Justin Taylor “Tetris” HANDOUT
Nancy Krygowski “Heaven, As We Know It” The Autumn House Anthology
Writing Exercise (First Lines)

Week Two

Monday January 9
Kim Addonizio “Collapsing Poem/Onset/The Moment” The Autumn House Anthology
Lorrie Moore “How to Become a Writer” E-MAIL
Geoffrey Wolff from The Duke of Deception Modern American Memoirs

Wednesday January 11
Sheryl St. Germain “Addiction/Sestina for the Beloved/Bread Pudding with Whiskey Sauce” The Autumn House Anthology
John Updike “A&P” On Writing Short Stories
Sarah Vowell “Ike Was a Handsome Man” E-MAIL

Week Three

Monday January 16
Class Cancelled Martin Luther King Day

Wednesday January 18
Billy Collins “Consolation/Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes/Workshop” The Autumn House Anthology
Flash Fiction Tutorial Etgar Keret/Roxane Gay/xTx E-MAIL
Chuck Klosterman E-MAIL

Week Four

Monday January 23
Raymond Carver “Cathedral” On Writing Short Stories
Workshop 1

Wednesday January 25
Workshop 2
Workshop 3

Week Five

Monday January 30
Patrick Somerville “The Universe in Miniature in Miniature” E-MAIL
Workshop 4

Wednesday February 1
Workshop 5
Workshop 6

Week Six

Monday February 6
Tom Bissell “Grand Thefts” E-MAIL
Workshop 7

Wednesday February 8
Workshop 8
Workshop 9

Week Seven

Monday February 13
James Baldwin from Notes of a Native Son Modern American Memoirs
Workshop 10

Wednesday February 15
Workshop 11
Workshop 12

Week Eight

Monday February 20
Terrance Hayes “The Same City/Snow for Wallace Stevens/All the Way Live” The Autumn House Anthology
Workshop 13

Wednesday February 22
Workshop 14
Workshop 15

Week Nine

Monday February 27
Jim Daniels “Short-Order Cook/Where Else Can You Go” The Autumn House Anthology
A.M. Homes “The Former First Lady and the Football Hero” E-MAIL
Frank Conroy from Stop Time Modern American Memoirs

Wednesday February 29
Lynn Emmanuel “Dear Final Journey…/The Murder Writer/The Revolution” The Autumn House Anthology
Anton Chekhov “The Lady with the Pet Dog” On Writing Short Stories
Maxine Hong Kingston from The Warrior Woman Modern American Memoirs

Week Ten

Monday March 5
Toi Derricotte “Boy at the Patterson Falls/Bird/Not Forgotten” The Autumn House Anthology
Flannery O’Connor “Everything That Rises Must Converge” On Writing Short Stories
Zora Neale Hurston from Dust Tracks on a Road Modern American Memoirs

Wednesday March 7
Class Cancelled Spring Break

Week Eleven

Monday March 12
Class Cancelled Spring Break

Wednesday March 14
Workshop 1
Workshop 2

Week Twelve

Monday March 19
Alissa Nutting “Porn Star” E-MAIL
Workshop 3

Wednesday March 21
Workshop 4
Workshop 5

Week Thirteen

Monday March 26
Tobias Wolff “Bullet in the Brain” On Writing Short Stories
Workshop 6

Wednesday March 28
Workshop 7
Workshop 8

Week Fourteen

Monday April 2
Malcolm X from The Autobiography of Malcolm X Modern American Memoirs
Workshop 9

Wednesday April 4
Workshop 10
Workshop 11

Week Fifteen

Monday April 9
Workshop 12
Workshop 13

Wednesday April 11
Workshop 14
Workshop 15

Week Sixteen

Monday April 16
Writing Pod

Wednesday April 18
Writing Pod

Friday April 20
Final Portfolios Due

Fall 2011 Fiction Recommendations

One of my favorite aspects of teaching is recommending fiction to students. There’s almost nothing better than reading a student story and thinking, “This person absolutely needs to read Lorrie Moore!” Matching students with their established counterparts is an integral and rewarding part of the job. I vividly remember being an undergrad creative writer and going to meet with Tom Bailey or Gary Fincke. Their office shelves were lined with books, most of which I’d never heard of. They’d go over my drafts with me and then list off three or four writers I had to read right that very second. Most times, I’d walk straight to the library and take out every last book they recommended. Reading everything I could get my hands on helped me develop as a writer, and I try really hard to pass that enthusiasm on to my students.

That being said, I’ve decided to again share every fiction recommendation I’ve given out this semester. This term I taught two fiction workshops, one at the University of Pittsburgh and another at Chatham University. In total, there were 33 students, meaning 66 workshops and individual conferences. The same ground rules I set forth last spring still apply. This is by no means a comprehensive list of the writers I teach. In fact, most of the writers on this list don’t show up in my syllabus. I recommended them because students put up work that was in conversation with these established writers. There was something to be learned there, something we might not have covered in the classroom or maybe not in enough detail. Some of the writers who appear the most often were in the syllabus, and I kept recommending other work by them to remind students of the lessons we’d learned throughout the semester. And literary journals! There are a bunch of literary journals at the bottom of the list. I want all of my students to become active literary citizens in the vein of Blake Butler, and that means supporting (submitting AND reading) emerging and established literary journals.

The numbers alongside the names represent how many times I recommended a specific author. Please leave suggestions in the comments feed. I’m always looking to shake up my reading list. If you have certain writers you recommend to students again and again, share. If you’re a student and were truly impacted by a specific writer, share.

George Saunders 15
Alissa Nutting 14
xTx 11
Andre Dubus 10
Matt Bell 8
Patrick Somerville 7
Kirsty Logan 7
Amber Sparks 7
Etgar Keret 7
Raymond Carver 7
Lorrie Moore 6
Martin Amis 6
Wells Tower 5
Breece D’J Pancake 4
Tom Perrotta 4
Alice Munro 4
Emma Straub 4
Bobbie Ann Mason 4
Roxane Gay 4
Kelly Link 4
Brian Allen Carr 4
Cathy Day 4
Scott Snyder 4
Deborah Eisenberg 3
Tillie Olsen 3
Colson Whitehead 3
Don Lee 3
Joyce Carol Oates 3
Matthew Simmons 3
Donald Barthelme 3
Gary Fincke 2
James Alan McPherson 2
Tobias Wolff 2
ZZ Packer 2
Alice Munro 2
Paul Yoon 2
Richard Yates 2
Barry Hannah 2
Bret Easton Ellis 2
John Fowles 2
Benjamin Percy 2
Donald Ray Pollack 2
Blake Butler 2
John Minichillo 2
Steve Himmer 2
Rick Moody 2
Philip Roth 2
Trey Ellis 2
Tim Jones-Yelvington 2
Junot Diaz 2
Steve Almond 2
Jonathan Lethem 2
Justin Taylor 2
Tina May Hall 2
Tom Bailey
Stewart O’Nan
Sarah Gardner Borden
Deborah Eisenberg
Teddy Wayne
A.M. Homes
James Baldwin
Peter Bognnani
Jayne Anne Phillips
Rebecca Barry
Aubrey Hirsch
Joe Meno
Richard Ford
Seth Fried
Rick Bass
Sherwood Anderson
Jeffrey Eugenides
Brian Oliu
J.A. Tyler
Lydia Davis
Dennis Cooper
Douglas Coupland
Cormac McCarthy
Cory Doctorow
Mike Meginnis
Rachel Glasser
Kevin Wilson
Gregory Sherl
Dave Eggers
Jay McInerney
Miranda July
Scott McClanahan
Brock Clarke
Peter Mewshaw
Frank Hinton
Shane Jones
Aleksandar Hemon
Tim O’Brien
John Irving
Gary Shteyngart

The Emprise Review 5
Hobart 5
kill author 4
PANK 4
Metazen 3
Prick of the Spindle 3
Flywheel Magazine 3
Annalemma 3
Atticus Review 3
Monkeybicycle 2
Decomp 2
Gargoyle Magazine 2
Dark Sky 2
Barrelhouse
Pear Noir!
Parcel
The Collagist
Diagram
Weave
FRiGG
Caper Literary Journal
Elimae
Stoked!
Barrelhouse

Every Last Thought I Have on Process: Nothing But a Dream and a Cardigan

Two nights ago I was at the Squirrel Cage with a bunch of writer friends (Chris Lee, Erin Lewenauer, Travis Straub, Lee Skirboll), and in between watching the Pirates game and tweeting about oddly seated couples, we got on the subject of process. I’ve never been very good at talking about my writing process. I remember in grad school Cathy Day encouraged us to set up a process blog. I can’t recall exactly what I posted, but I’m pretty sure it was mostly thinly veiled references to Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA” (I named the blog “Nothing But a Dream and a Cardigan”). Looking back, I think I was so inarticulate during Cathy’s class because I wasn’t really working on a novel at the time. I was revising what would eventually become Last Call in the City of Bridges, but the overarching draft work had been done, and I was mostly polishing it for agents. The majority of my time was spent on short stories, and with those, I have less of a defined process. I try to stick to a daily schedule, but I fall off the wagon way more often when I’m doing short stories. Novels comfort me. I love having a consistent world and cast of characters that call me back day after day.

This summer, I’ve been working on a second novel, and I thought maybe I’d share my work-in-progress writing routine. What really interested me at the Cage was how different all our processes were. What works for Chris certainly wouldn’t work for me and vice versa. So I guess this isn’t meant to be a primer on a writing routine that will work for everyone, it’s just a primer of a routine that’s working for me right this second on this particular project. In my experience, the fiction leads you to the right process and you always want to listen to the fiction.

So the second novel. A brief background. I’m describing it as Revolutionary Road meets Crisis on Infinite Earths. My agent Jenni Ferrari-Adler is describing it as a “love triangle between three fallen superheroes” which is why she works in a great, big building in Manhattan, and I sit in my underwear in Pittsburgh with three fans pointed at my sweating body for the majority of any given day. I write every day from about 9am-12pm with some light editing in the evenings, but the real preparation begins the night before. My old instructor Tom Bailey used to put a big emphasis on writing the moment you woke up so you’d be as close to your dreaming self as possible. He used to tell us that every serious writer he ever met wrote in the morning, every morning, and I took a lot of stock in that. But I’ve found I fare better when I do a little prep work the night before, falling asleep to some DVD that’ll put me in the right headspace for the morning. From 2007 until this summer, I switched back and forth between episodes of The Simpsons and Futurama. I liked the social satire, sarcasm, and the way the whole town becomes a character in The Simpsons, and on Futurama, I loved the unbridled sci-fi imagination coupled with a deep pop culture reverence. I didn’t start out watching these shows with this intention. I just noticed over time that whenever I watched The Simpsons while falling asleep (by this point I must have gone through season 1 to 10 front to end at least 6 times) I would gravitate more toward realism, and whenever I watched Futurama I’d edge closer to experimentation. At night, I watched whatever series was closest to the story I planned on working on in the morning.

SO THIS IS WHAT IT FEELS LIKE WHEN DOVES CRY!

Recently, I switched over to rewatching the entire run of Mad Men. Like I said above, the book is a mixture of bizarre superhero detritus and the kind of doomed suburban love stories I grew to love in college and grad school. Mostly, I’ve found that I don’t need to do much to keep the superhero stuff fresh in my brain. That’s probably because I read comics every single week, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s a new superhero movie in theaters every four days. I switched to Mad Men because I’m trying to keep that world alive in my head, not the world from the show, but the kind of commuter family/office worker/adultery drama that is more difficult for me to maintain when I’m not actively sitting down at the desk. I’ve been playing with this tone for awhile, and the notes I’m really trying to hit with this book are the kind of unflinching arguments Yates does in his work combined with bizarre, fleeting references to a superhero lifestyle that’s come and gone. I’ve only put my own writing on this blog one other time, but I’m going to do it here to give you an idea of what I’m talking about. This brief scene takes place right after John, one of the protagonists, leases a minivan for his wife only a few days removed from a confrontation where she told him she wasn’t ready for kids yet and wanted to be more settled in her career. First her reaction to the van, then a quick cut to her walking away from their home in Arlington (this is all pretty fresh and unedited, so keep that in mind):

For a moment, Nessa thought someone had made a mistake. The minivan pulled into their driveway and parked, the engine cut. She stood. The faux-Victorian was at the end of a cul de sac and this would happen occasionally, people would pull into her driveway and turn around, and although this infuriated John, it never bothered Nessa. They didn’t own the driveway, she’d argue, and John would always say, Yes, actually they did. But this time the vehicle did not turn around. A man emerged from the driver’s side and it took her an entire blinking second to recognize this unfamiliar creature as John. John Ditko. Kid Dragonfly. Her husband.

            “What do you think?”

            Nessa had never seen him so expectant, so genuinely filled with joy as he crossed the yard toward her, a big goofy grin across his face. She looked behind him at the minivan. It was neon red. The ugliest color she could ever imagine. A black hole of neon, it sucked the life out of everything around it. Somehow the houses, the trees, even the grass looked darker, grayer, deader, just from being in the presence of this impossible color, this cartoony shade of blood. It reminded her of the one and only time she’d gone into outer space with Kid Dragonfly and the overly enthusiastic members of the Teen Super Protectors, how they’d blasted off in their Sky Caravan—why, Nessa had wondered even then, had they christened it with such a pathetic name—to fight the Crimson Blob from Beyond the Moon. That pulsating glob of sentient metal looked a lot like the minivan parked here before her.

            “I don’t know what this is,” she said as calmly as she could, still not comprehending exactly what John had done.

            He took her by the elbow and steered her to the back of the minivan. The license plate. Nessa1. Written in bright blue letters above a Kids First sticker. To the side of her name were two imprints of a child’s grubby little hands. She looked at the license plate. Then she looked at John. Nessa1.

            “This is a top of the line 2001 Ford Windstar,” John explained.

            “Ok.”

            “I bought it for you.”

            “For me… What is wrong with you? You didn’t think to even consult me on this? This is a huge decision.”

            Her voice was raised. John looked nervously up and down the street, presumably to see if anyone was watching. Only the Miller sisters were outside, and all three of them stopped jumping rope and came closer to the edge of the fence.

            “Honey.” He again took her by the shoulders. “I wanted it to be a surprise.”

            She shook loose. “Don’t honey me.” Don’t honey me? What a cliché. How had this happened? How had Nine Lives turned into this: arguing with her husband about a minivan deep within the catacombs of the DC suburbs?

            And so, Nessa started walking. She didn’t have her books or notes or even an umbrella, but that didn’t matter. Retrieving those things would only lessen the gesture of what she was doing, and more than anything, she wanted John to feel this, how stupid he could be. Nessa1!

            “Nessa!” he called. “Nessa, wait!”

            But she had already passed the house next door, then the next house and the next. All identical faux-Victorians. John jogged up beside her, smiling, wiping the sweat from his brow, nervously looking into each window they passed. The Miller sisters trailed them, strolling casually down the middle of the street, and like the houses, Nessa could not tell them apart.

            “Nessa, please. What will the neighbors think?”

            She still didn’t stop. “I don’t care what they think. I have to catch my bus to work.”

            “The bus? Don’t you want to take your new car?”

            “That’s not my car, John. I’m not going to drive that thing. It looks like the Crimson Blob from Beyond the Moon.”

            He looked nervously back at the sisters. “Christ, Nessa, keep it down about that stuff.”

Watching Mad Men the night before orients me in a way so I’m ready to write the kind of relationship dynamic I’m shooting for right when I wake up. I get up around nine or earlier, make coffee, and then sit down to write. Some days I’ll do nothing but write new material, and some days I’ll focus completely on revision. The first two weeks of July, I went back to Last Call and rewrote some of that, and when I returned to this book, I spent the next four or five days just revising, going from page 1 to 112 before I felt ready to really write again. A lot of times in the morning, I’ll just feel spent or at a dead end, and whenever that happens, I’ll watch some video on YouTube. Like Mad Men, I try and watch things that put me in the right headspace, so I don’t necessarily use the same video for every project, otherwise I’d just watch this Earthbound commerical for the rest of my life.

This video, you guys. This video! It captures the sense of joy and wonder I’ve tried to imbue in both my books while acknowledging how difficult that is in 2011, how sarcastic, ironic, how knowing we all have become. The way this video combines the super sweet story of a young Yeti (who looks so much like the beloved Muppets from my youth) with the eternally knowing, cameo happy Jon Hamm is just utterly perfect. The first time I watched it, I just kept waiting for a joke, a punchline, anything. But it never goes for the joke. I’ve just always loved combining the sincere with the sarcastic, that please, please what I’m telling you is so very important, just don’t take anything I say seriously attitude. This video nails it.

Like I said earlier, I’m pretty good at keeping  the superhero stuff in my mind while I’m writing. But you have to remember I was weaned in an era of dark and gritty superheroes, and these days that’s not really what I gravitate to. Take Batman for instance. Most people prefer the darker Batmen, the Christopher Nolan version, your Frank Millers. I always like the crazy takes. The Batman on the moon punching out aliens. The Batman who fights cavemen in the age of the dinosaurs. Batman is a guy who dresses like a bat and lives in a cave and fights people like Clayface. I appreciate the over the top, and nothing is more so than this video from the ’60’s TV show (a close second comes in the ’60’s movie when Batman sprays shark repellant in the face of a hilariously fake shark clinging to Bats as he hangs from a rope ladder connected to the Batcopter. Yeah. That happened.).

Frost/Nixon was a revelation when I watched it a few months earlier. I’ve long been fascinated with Nixon. I’ve read his memoirs and I’ve used him in fiction here and here. In college, my friend Mark Kleman and I once toasted the anniversary of his death by drinking Black Label whiskey (Nixon’s brand) and watching the Oliver Stone movie about his life. This scene sums it all up. He’s so fucking relatable! I know that’s not Ron Howard’s intention (this scene is pretty much lifted from any movie about a cop tracking a killer who suddenly tells the cop before the third reel showdown that beneath it all they’re really the same person), but I find it so easy to agree with Nixon here. He’s so flawed, so awful, so human, just like the rest of us. Remember in Mad Men (there’s a pattern here) when Don Draper says Kennedy is just another rich boy born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but when he looks at Nixon (a self-made, hardworking man) he sees himself? I feel that way. He’s the funhouse mirror version of ourselves, bloated and magnified. Sarah Vowell talks about how certain presidents are like unrelatable saints (Lincoln, FDR, Washington) who give us something to aspire to. Nixon’s not like that. He’s down in the fucking human dirt with the rest of us. I have so much class rage that I’ve never really dealt with (my solution is to just bury it deep deep down and drink a lot of Gaviscon and beer) and Nixon is that anger birthed into a president. So yeah, he’s a major character in this book, and when I write him, I think of this version, except in my book he’s also kind of like Bucky Barnes.

One thing that’s really different with this book compared to Last Call is the amount of research I’ve had to do. Last Call is about a twenty-something in Pittsburgh, and even though nearly every scene and character arc in the book are totally dreamed up, it wasn’t very hard for me to imagine. This book is more ambitious. Bigger in scope, page count, everything. I was reading Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad right when I started writing this, and it really inspired me to go all out. That’s one of the most ambitious books I’ve ever read. It goes to the future, the past, African countryside, a dictator’s compound, the solar panels of tomorrow, and the whole time you get this feeling that Egan is having so much fucking fun. You ever read a book and think, well it’s good, but it doesn’t seem like the writer enjoys writing very much? I hate that. I never want to be that person. I want to love what I’m writing and take real joy from it and I want to aim for as big a scope as possible, and Egan is kind of my inspiration for that. But that all means research, that I can’t just draw from my own experience. After AWP this year, I decided that I really wanted to write something set in DC. So when the idea for this book started to come together not long after, I figured DC and what it really represents to this country would be a perfect setting. That meant visiting DC as much as humanly possible.

Last month I went down to DC and spent an entire day driving around and taking pictures and videos of places where my characters go, relax, live. I’d never done that before, and it was a totally surreal experience. I had maybe a hundred extremely rough pages by that point, and actually going to the towns where they lived really made them come alive in my head, especially Nessa who I mentioned above. They become real, which is strange but true. Nessa especially seems realer to me than people I actually know in my own life. When I went to where she lives in the book (there’s actually a suburban development in Arlington that borders a cemetery), I experienced this bizarre sensation that I was about to meet her. I started grinning like an idiot and looking around like I’d find her sitting on the porch or walking around the neighborhood. The same thing happened when I went to Georgetown where she teaches. I walked around the building where her office is and hung out where she takes her smoke breaks and it was all just very surreal.

A few of the pictures and videos are below. There’s more, and I look at them sometimes when I get stuck or when the videos above don’t do the trick. One neat thing I did (inspired by my boy,  Robert Yune, who before working on a novel about the Century III mall, walked around its corridors with a recorder to really capture the atmosphere) was videotape a few of my characters’ commutes to work. I think commuting is such a big part of our lives, and I really wanted to have the details right.

Beyond the trip to DC, I had to do a lot of reading. Like I mentioned here, I started by restricting myself to books that were in the third person. First person comes really naturally to me, but I knew early on that the scope of this book was too big, and because Faulknerian-novels with multiple first person narrators make me nervous, I went with third. I started the summer reading Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply and the aforementioned Egan along with some other chapbooks and collections I’d agreed to review. But then, fairly early on, I realized that if I was going to watch Mad Men to put me in the right emotional place (adultery, adultery, adultery) then I needed to do the same in my reading list. I read through Sarah Gardner Borden‘s deft debut Games to Play After Dark which absolutely terrified me in sections. Then I moved onto Updike’s Couples which is in many ways a kind of spiritual cousin to all those Yates novels I devoured as an undergrad.

Fictional research is all well and good, but while I was writing an extremely vague outline of the book I discovered that I was going to actually have to read a ton of nonfiction too. I wanted sections of the book to deal heavily with an NBA team’s front office (in this case an alternate universe version of the Washington Bullets) along with a long stretch involving an American soldier in a Yemeni office job during the War on Terror. As I continued writing, I discovered more and more real world inspired subcultures I wanted to include (the utterly insane Monkees movie Head, an underground military bunker near Durban, South Africa, and NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts). Obviously, I just couldn’t make stuff up. So I asked around. I know a lot of other writers via Facebook and they’re always helpful in tracking down certain nonfiction books.

South Africa was fairly easy. The section in the book is from the POV of an American traveler, so I didn’t need years upon years of history. I just went to the library and picked up a travel guide. I stole the Monkees movie from my mom (technically I gave it to her as a gift years earlier) and Amy Whipple among others recommended Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars to cover all NASA related questions. The hardest was the War on Terror and NBA front office stuff. I found a lot of Iraq/Afghanistan memoirs, but most are set on the frontlines. Aaron Gwyn suggested a whole mess of books that look extremely helpful. Horse Soldiers. Roughneck Nine-One. Kill Bin Laden. Not a Good Day to Die. And a friend of mine who’s a librarian tracked down five books about NBA front offices. Inside Game. Taking Shots. The Breaks of the Games. Foul Lines. Money Players. I haven’t read any of these yet, but my goal is to finish one from each category before the end of the summer. My advice for cnf research? Download that shit on iTunes and listen to it on car trips. You may have to pull over every now and again to take notes, but at least you’re getting work done while driving.

One last thing: the only other process thingy I’ve been using while writing the second novel. I stumbled onto this post by the lovely Kirsty Logan where she writes a novel to do list. Mine’s digital, and I’m not going to post the whole thing because A) this is already really long and nobody cares, and B) I want to avoid massive spoilers. I’m the type of writer who doesn’t like to know how things will end, but I do need to have signposts, scenes and images I can build toward even if they’re deep in the distance. And sometimes, I just need to make notes to myself, otherwise I’ll forget everything. There are a lot of moving parts in this book. It’s hard to keep it all straight in my head sometimes.

NOVEL TO DO LIST

REGGANE IS WHERE THE FRENCH PRACTICED NUCLEAR MISSILES IN THE SIXTIES

DR VON LIEBER IS INVOLVED WITH PROJECT MAYFLOWER – LARGE HADRON COLLIDER of the West

REPLACE FLATBRUSH WITH BROOKLYN HEIGHTS

Mention the Sentry Satellite hovered over the White House earlier

Dick should have a magical monkey pet who was retconned out of existence similar to Beppo the Kryptonian Ape

Nessa confronts the ghost of Richard Yates in Tuscaloosa while giving a guest lecture or something at ‘Bama/Goes to see her father

President Michael Nesmith’s War on Extinction

Darko Millic analogue is drafted by Bullets

John has to meet the President of the Washington Bullets (Marc Cuban analogue) on a yacht

John becomes obsessed with termites in second half

Reasons why the planet is dying:

-Cell Phone Cancer

-Nuclear Fallout

-Oceans Rising, No Ozone, Glaciers Melting, Global Warming, Ecosystems Gone

-No Oil

-Water Shortages

-Food Shortages

-Internet Memes come to life and destroy us

-Tim Tebow is the antichrist

-No more bees

I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.

The above is every last thing I’ve done to prepare writing this novel. I’ve been working on this book since April, and I don’t anticipate getting a first draft until Christmas at the earliest. And my friends who have read my first drafts can tell you that they usually stink. Tom Bailey compared his to recently birthed children, all sticky with blood and kind of gross looking. It takes time for them to become presentable. But for the foreseeable future (and I mean years here), I’ll be in this world, plugging away at my keyboard. It’s kind of reassuring to be honest.

The Summer of Third Person

Third person doesn’t come easy to me. I’ve always written, or at least, I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t write–my favorite “toys” as a kid aside from my Nintendo were my collection of notebooks where I’d write novel after novel, most of them bad continuations of video game plots. But like lots of idiots and jerks, I didn’t SET OUT TO BE A WRITER OR WHATEVER until after I finished Cather in the Rye in high school and thought, shit yeah, I want to do what this Salinger dude did right here. So I saved up money from my job in the mall at KB Toys and I spent a week that summer at Susquehanna’s Writers Camp where I met Tom Bailey and Gary Fincke and that pretty much put me on the path that led to SU and then Pitt and then teaching. And in those early years, I mostly wrote first person stories. Pieces that aped whatever writers I was biggest on at the time, be it Ray Carver or Richard Yates or Bobbie Ann Mason or DJ Pancake or whoever.

In grad school, I attempted a third person novel during the summer between my first and second years. This was back in 2008 I guess, and I’ve referred to it a few times on this blog, and it’s pretty much the most terrible thing anyone has ever written ever. If I ever get too cocky–which is frequent because I have a monster ego–I open that file on my computer and am reduced to protoplasm by just how bad practically every piece of it is. Cathy Day will now tell you otherwise (and I love her for that), but at the time, when she was reading what was most likely the 85th draft of that beast of a book a few weeks before my second year of grad school came to a close, she suggested that I just start fresh and write something closer to my own experience, closer to the kind of ludicrous first person voice I was then using on overindulgent facebook photo albums.

So I followed her advice and for the next two years worked on Last Call in the City of Bridges, formerly The Collected Works of the Digital Narcissist, formerly The Digital Graveyard, a first person novel. So that’s done. And it got me an agent, the super smart Jenni Ferarri-Adler, and it’s pretty obvious to me that Last Call is the wellspring from which everything good in my life has emerged from if that makes any kind of sense at all.

At this point in my life, my development I guess, I feel like I can handle first person, or at least a very specific breed of first-person fairly well. I understand how it works and how to manipulate it. But during the revision process of the novel–pretty much the entirety of 2010 and a few months immediately before and afterward–I really wanted to spend some time trying to master third person, to add another tool to my writerly toolbelt. I attempted this through short stories.

Here, here, here, here, and here. These are the most successful ones though there is still a ton of room for improvement–like there always is. But I really wanted to use short stories during this period as a time to develop a third person voice with the idea in the back of my mind that once Last Call in the City of Bridges was truly finished and sent off to publishers, I could begin a third person novel.

Finally, that time is here. And I’m really happy to say that I am in a new novel, that I’m past the 50 page mark–I’m superstitious about novels and won’t even admit I’m doing one until it’s past that mark, otherwise I’m afraid I’ll jinx the whole thing. And it’s in third person! That’s not to say that everything’s great. I’m pretty good at keeping to a schedule where I write every day 9-12 or so and then edit in the afternoons, and often there are times when I’ll reread what I’ve written and just feel like every paragraph, every description, every sentence, every word is dead, dead, dead. But then there are times when I feel like I’m onto something, when I sense that flicker of a heartbeat that this book, this thing is growing with strength even though I’ve abandoned a mode of writing–first person again–that I feel so utterly comfortable with.

Recently, I came to a decision that for the rest of the summer–and maybe even awhile afterward–I’m only going to read third person novels. I’ve just finished Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply and I’m planning on Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater and then Egan’s A Visit From the Good Squad next (I know it’s not all third but I really want to read it). There are some collections I’ve agreed to read this summer for review purposes, and I’ll do those too, cheat a bit I guess. But this all kind of goes back to being superstitious about novels. I don’t want to read any first person while I’m in this book. I don’t want to disrupt the third person sensibility in my head that for me is so difficult to cultivate and maintain. But what I’m really curious about is if anyone else does weird crap like this? Do you ever avoid books that are totally unlike what you’re working on right that minute? Or are most writers the opposite, are you trying to get out of your own head/world when you’re reading? Secondly, third person novels! Recommend that shit to me. I always keep a big reading list on my computer but a lot of that is currently null-and-void thanks to the temporary first person/second person/short story ban. Tell me what I need, damn it!

Writing Routines

One question I was surprised so many students had for me this semester was how exactly I begin writing in the morning. We talked a bit about getting on a writing routine during workshops, but I knew how hard this was to do, especially in college when there’s so much going around you at any given minute and you’re so busy anyway. I didn’t have many good answers for them. “I don’t know,” I’d say. “I get up, and then I write. That’s pretty much it.” And I know that’s a luxury afforded to me by working at a university, but I don’t think that’s what they were getting after. I think they wanted a routine.

I’ve been thinking about this more and more now that the semester’s over, and I remembered being consumed by similar questions when I was an undergrad. I thought if I could just nail the right writing routine all my prose would shine. Andre Dubus III visited Susquehanna one time and said he read a poem, or a few pages from a short story, before he sat down to write. So I tried that for awhile back in college. I’d bring Among the Missing or the Collected Stories of Richard Yates or any of the Carver collections and read a few pages, make some notes, and then get started. But that never worked for me because I’d inevitably end up reading the rest of the story.

These days, my routine is far simpler. I wake up, I make coffee, I check e-mail, I drink coffee. When I’m a third of the way through the first cup, I begin. But actually, now that I think about it, there are two videos I watch before I really get going. It’s kind of interesting to me that I would never read a poem or short story now like Dubus does (I find it’s too distracting and influences my own prose too much), but I have no problem watching YouTube. I wonder if other writers do this, especially ones around my own age.

This video. THIS VIDEO! If I could get all my writing to feel like this I’d be set for life. It has this eerie quality. A sadness to it. From the music. But also there’s this nostalgia, the hyper cliches of American children. Then the robot at the end gives it this bizarre humor followed by the apocalyptic mushroom cloud. And of course, the Japanese announcer. So you can’t really get at the true meaning, you can only scratch at it. No crying until the end. Guaranteed masterpiece. I love this video. I love everything about this video. It mostly inspired this story I wrote up at Dark Sky.  And I still watch this video before I write, still remind myself that this is the tone I’m going after: the tone of a 1980’s Japanese Nintendo commercial. I can live with that.

Then there’s this:

This one immediately brings me back to childhood, to endless potential, to singing this song in the shower. Watching it now, there’s such an amazing mix of iconic American imagery–the constitution, Mount Rushmore, Lincoln, the Twin Towers–juxtaposed with utter nonsense–Hulk Hogan doing air guitar in front of the Statue of Liberty. Sometimes I watch this one, because if I can just hit that perfect note of sincerity mixed with an oh I was just kidding please don’t take this seriously attitude, I’d be set. Plus, the song just pumps me the fuck up.

So to sum up, Earthbound Zero and Hulk motherfucking Hogan. You’re welcome, reality.

Worst. Spoilers. Ever.

4. Age 12. Location: Comics on the Green. I had been reading the Clone Saga storyline in the Spider-Man books for 3 years. Everything had been building to a final revelation of just who exactly was behind replacing Spider-Man with a clone. In those days, I didn’t go to the comic store every Wednesday, I went about once a month and bought all the books I was behind on. So I missed the final issue by about three weeks. I went to the store like normal and picked out the issues, but at the cash register some teenage nerd looked at my picks and said, “Man, I couldn’t believe it was Norman Osborn behind it the whole time.” 3 years of my life! 3 years of my life! I didn’t read comics seriously for 10 years after this incident (combined with the oft maligned Onslaught crossover).

3. Age 21. Location: Parents’ House. During winter break from college, I came down with the flu. So I read. I read a lot. I had just finished a very lackluster novel by Nick Hornby that mentioned another novel called Revolutionary Road by some guy named Richard Yates, and I bought that next on a total whim, mostly because Richard Russo did the introduction. I was stunned. And to this day, RR is still my favorite book. But halfway through I dropped it and lost my place, and when I picked it up it was open to somewhere close to the end and I read the words “April Wheeler was dead.” I was only maybe 60 pages in. O youth! O lost!

2. Age 22. Location: Parents’ House. I’d just graduated from college and was spending my days subtitling DVDs in Scranton while waiting to move to Pittsburgh for grad school at the end of the summer. I was watching Attack of the Show on G4, because sometimes I like to be pandered to, and they did a segment about spoilers in which a man dressed like Doc Brown revealed how various season finales would wrap up. I didn’t believe him, didn’t believe that the frat boys at G4 knew anything. But then Doc Brown stared out from the television and told me that tonight, on LOST, Jack’s flashback wouldn’t be a flashback at all, that it would be a flashforward, that season four would be about the cast’s attempts to get back to the Island. A part of my soul died that day.

1. Age 14. Location: Steamtown Mall – Electronics Boutique. I skipped school to go see The Phantom Menace with my mother. We arrived downtown where the movie theater was but tickets were sold out for the first morning showing, so we bought some for the afternoon. The mall was next door, so we went over there for awhile where I killed time in the video game store salivating over posters of Chrono Cross which would be released later that summer. And then, while minding my own business, some asshole in a dragon button up shirt (remember those?) started talking to the clerk and said, “Man, I can’t believe Lucas killed off Qui Gon AND Darth Maul! I thought they were going to be in all three.” It was up until that time the worst moment of my life. Little did I know that my life would soon be ruined by sitting through The Phantom Menace, the greatest tragedy in all of human history.

What Are You Teaching In Workshop?: O Captain, My Captain!

I’ve been reading Cathy Day’s blog lately and all her insightful posts about her undergrad fiction workshop as they went through NaNoWriMo, and the whole time I’ve wondered why more fiction teachers don’t share their syllabi or process or what have you. I’m a sucker for community. It’s what drew me to a university known for its creative writing undergrad and eventually to the MFA itself. Now that I’ve graduated, I miss that feeling of being part of something. There are substitutes. HTMLGIANT. The Rumpus. We Who Are About to Die. Uncanny Valley. And so on and so on. But I don’t know many first year teachers who are teaching workshops, composition and community college. So I thought that maybe I would write about my experience here a little bit, include a draft of my new syllabus, and then if anybody wanted to share similar thoughts that would be great.

This is my fall semester intermediate workshop class. I showed up the last day and they were not only dressed like me, but they’d brought in a Spider-Man cake and noisemakers. To be sure, it was one of  the most touching and humbling moments of my life. I’m not exactly sure why the students responded so positively to the class and to me (I think a lot of it comes down to the fact that they all really got along and the level of criticism was really advanced), but I hope that it has something to do with how I tried to take them seriously as writers, that when they came into my class they weren’t student writers, they were just writers. (Much of my pedagogy comes from this video of Tom Bailey minus all the crying) A lot of them came into the class complaining about how previous workshops focused on inane guidelines (one student said he’d come from a workshop where students had to fit so many imperative, declarative and exclamatory sentences into stories), and I think they responded to how difficult I made the class. I ran it more like a graduate workshop and tried to focus on publishing and literary journals. We looked at PANK, The Collagist, Flatmancrooked, just an absolute ton, and the first student publication (of what I really think will be a lot) will go live on Metazen late this month.

Despite the difficulty (I’d go on about why I think this class is a lot of work, but I’ve included the syllabus below), 15 of 19 students signed up for my advanced fiction workshop in the spring which is the next step up in the program. I honestly couldn’t be happier (although, it poses some syllabus problems because I can’t use any of the same stories from this semester), and have taken this as a mandate to push them further, to expect more from them, to transform them into writing workhorses who believe in perspiration over inspiration and the daily writing schedule. So, with all that in mind, below is the first draft of my new syallbus. Please let me know what you think and feel free to share your own. Have you ever taught a workshop? What have your experiences been like if so? If not, do you want to, do you plan to? Why?

Required Materials

3X33: Short Fiction by 33 Writers edited by Mark Winegardner

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore


Welcome to Advanced Fiction Workshop

In this course, you’re going to write and read a lot. This is not going to be easy because becoming a writer isn’t easy. There will be no easy A’s, and no easy weeks. Writing is a constant struggle, and this course will reflect that truth. However, and I can guarantee you this, if you’re serious about the craft of fiction, if you’re willing to put in the work, you will be a better writer at the end of the course compared to the first day.

Each student will put up 15-20 pages of literary fiction for workshop twice during the semester. You can write a traditional short story, multiple flash fiction pieces, or a novel chapter, but remember, you have to demonstrate the fundamental principles of literary fiction in all of your workshop pieces. That means you shouldn’t hand in a novel chapter that is less than a page. 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 500-100 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 500-1000 word critiques for every assigned story we read. In addition to those critiques, you will write two 1200 word papers in which you do a craft analysis of the novels Super Sad True Love Story and A Gate at the Stairs.

Reading so much literary fiction will allow you to build a library of published stories in your heads. Students are expected to use their knowledge of writers like ZZ Packer, Richard Yates or Lorrie Moore 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.

Workshop

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 Blackboard. Failure to do so will negatively impact your grade.

2.)    Write a 500-1000 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 a woman who gives birth to a newborn baby every night ala Amelia Gray just because you don’t like realism. On the flip side, do not knock a postmodern 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 Blackboard 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 Blackboard 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:

[There’s a critique I wrote here in graduate school, but I’m removing it from the blog because I never told the person whose story I culled from. If interested, look in the Crow Room.]

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 are due from every student at specific points in the semester. Upload them to Blackboard on the due date by 9AM. 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. You are responsible for printing out your peers’ stories for discussion on workshop days.

Blackboard Reading Posts

On most weeks, you will be required to read at least one outside short story. On these weeks, you must post a 500-1000 word critical response to 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 take an F on the critical response in question. During the first two weeks in which we will be discussing two professional short stories a classroom session, you are required to write three 250-500 word responses each class session, one for each story we read (the exception being Super Sad True Love Story when Paper 1 will be due). Post your responses on the appropriate Discussion Board 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? If you simply talk about why you love or hate a specific story, you will take an F on the critical response in question.

Papers

Two papers will be due in this course, one for Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shytengart and one for A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore. They will be due on Blackboard the night before class at 8PM like our reading critiques. The goal in these papers will be to do a craft analysis and pick out a few pieces in the work in question that specifically helpful to your development as a writer. Do not analyze these novels in a vacuum. Feel free to tie in your own work or other books you have read.

Fiction Pods

After everyone has been workshopped once, I will break you up into Fiction Pods of four and five in which you will read each other’s revisions and then run mini-workshops. I will explain more about Fiction Pods when we reach that point in the semester. Keep in mind, you will be required to meet with your Fiction Pods for 90 minutes outside of class on two separate occasions during the semester. You will also have to e-mail me where and when you met and a very brief summary of the meeting.

Attendance

I want to be as clear as I can on this. If you miss class four times, you will fail. There will be no make up assignments. Don’t come back to class. The ONLY excuse I will accept is a doctor’s excuse. I am not going to make any exceptions on this front.

If you are unprepared for discussion or workshop, I cannot give you credit for attendance that day.

Grading

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 Blackboard posts and turn them in on time. You do all these things, you get an A. You slack off, turn stuff in late or short, doze off in class, and you’re not getting 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 Blackboard posts and participation. 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 Blackboard. If you consistently fail to turn in work on time, you’re not going to get a good grade.

Final Portfolios

On the final day of class, you will be expected to turn in two revisions of your workshop pieces. Late portfolios WILL NOT be accepted.

Conferences

After your workshop, please schedule a conference with me during my office hours. Revisions will be due at the end of the semester, but you can turn them in at any point. Conferences are mandatory!

Outside Events

Students are only required to attend one event outside of class. On April 7th, writer Lydia Davis will read in the Frick Fine Arts Building at 8PM. You are required to attend and write a short, 500 word craft analysis of her reading. ATTENDANCE IS MANDATORY. If you cannot attend, you must go to a make up reading that I will assign.

Academic Integrity

Cheating/plagiarism will not be tolerated. Students suspected of violating the University of Pittsburgh Policy on Academic Integrity, noted below from the February 1974, Senate Committee on Tenure and Academic Freedom reported to the Senate Council, will be required to participate in the outlined procedural process as initiated by the instructor. A minimum sanction of a zero score for the quiz or exam will be imposed.

Plagiarism, as defined by the University of Pittsburgh’s Academic Integrity code, is when a student:

Presents as one’s own, for academic evaluation, the ideas, representations, or words of another person or persons without customary and proper acknowledgment of sources.

Submits the work of another person in a manner which represents the work to be one’s own.

Knowingly permits one’s work to be submitted by another person without the faculty member’s authorization.

Special Assistance

If you have a disability for which you are or may be requesting an accommodation, you are encouraged to contact both your instructor and Disability Resources and Services, 140 William Pitt Union, (412) 648-7890 or (412) 383-7355(TTY), as early as possible in the term.  DRS will verify your disability and determine reasonable accommodations for this course.

Course Sequence

Week One

Thurs January 6

Syllabus

Introductions

Amelia Gray “Babies” and “Dinner”

Week Two

Tues January 11

Raymond Carver “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” 3X33

Tobias Wolff “The Liar” Blackboard

Dave Eggers “After I Was Thrown in the River but Before I Drowned” Blackboard

Thurs January 13

Antonya Nelson “Naked Ladies” 3X33

James Alan McPherson “Why I Like Country Music” Blackboard

Donald Barthelme “Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning” 3X33


Week Three

Tues January 18

Gary Shytengart Super Sad True Love Story

STORIES DUE


Thurs January 20

Workshop 1

Workshop 2

Week Four

Tues January 25

Workshop 3

Workshop 4

Thurs January 27

Workshop 5

Jonathan Lethem “Super Goat Man” Blackboard

Week Five

Tues February 1

Workshop 6

Workshop 7

Thurs February 3 – Guest Workshop w/Travis Straub

Workshop 8

Workshop 9

Week Six

Tues February 8

Workshop 10

Workshop 11

Thurs February 10

Workshop 12

Andre Dubus “The Fat Girl” Blackboard

Week Seven

Tues February 15

Workshop 13

Workshop 14

Thurs February 17

Workshop 15

Matt Bell “His Last Great Gift” Blackboard

Week Eight

Tues February 22

Workshop 16

Workshop 17

Thurs February 24

Workshop 18

Richard Yates “The Best of Everything” 3X33


Week Nine

Tues March 1

Workshop 19

Workshop 20

Thurs March 3

Workshop 21

Workshop 22 (IF NEEDED)

A.M. Homes “The Former First Lady and the Football Hero” Blackboard

SUNDAY REVISIONS DUE

Week Ten

Spring Break

Week Eleven

Tues March 15

Lorrie Moore A Gate at the Stairs

New Stories Due

Thurs March 17

Workshop 1

Workshop 2

Week Twelve

Tues March 22

Workshop 3

Workshop 4

Thurs March 24

Workshop 5

Workshop 6

Week Thirteen

Tues March 29

Workshop 7

Workshop 8

Thurs March 31

Workshop 9

Workshop 10 (IF NEEDED)

ZZ Packer “Dayward” Blackboard

Week Fourteen

Tues April 4

Workshop 11

Workshop 12

Thurs April 7

Workshop 13

Workshop 14 (IF NEEDED)

George Saunders “Sea Oak” 3X33


Week Fifteen

Tues April 12

Workshop 15

Workshop 16

Thurs April 14

Workshop 17

Workshop 18

Week Sixteen

Tues April 19

Workshop 19

Workshop 20

Thurs April 21

Workshop 21

Workshop 22

 

Richard Yates on the Supporting Cast of Amazing Spider-Man

“I’m only interested in stories that are about the crushing of the human heart.”

“Do you want to know something, Emily? I hate your body. Oh, I suppose I love it too, at least God knows I try to, but at the same time I hate it. I hate what it put me through last year–what it’s putting me through now. I hate your sensitive little tits. I hate your ass and your hips, the way they move and turn; I hate your thighs, the way they open up. I hate your waist and your belly and your great hairy mound and your clitoris and your whole slippery cunt. I’ll repeat this exact statement to Dr. Goldman tomorrow and he’ll ask me why I said it, and I’ll say ‘Because I had to say it.’ So do you see, Emily? Do you understand? I’m saying this because I have to say it. I hate your body… I hate your body.”

“Fuck art.”

“It’s a disease. Nobody thinks or feels or cares any more; nobody gets excited or believes in anything except their own comfortable little God damn mediocrity.”

“Hard work, is the best medicine yet devised for all the ills of man- and of woman.”

“I don’t breathe too well. So all the oxygen doesn’t get to my brain. I used to be able to write seven or eight hours a day. Now I can manage one or two, at best.”

“And where are the windows? Where does the light come in? Bernie, old friend, forgive me, but I haven’t got the answer to that one. I’m not even sure if there are any windows in this particular house. Maybe the light is just going to have to come in as best it can, through whatever chinks and cracks have been left in the builder’s faulty craftsmanship, and if that’s the case you can be sure that nobody feels worse about it than I do. God knows there certainly ought to be a window around here somewhere, for all of us.”

“He felt sympathy for the assassin and he felt he understood the motives. Kennedy had been too rich, too young, too handsome and too lucky; he had embodied elegance and wit and finesse. His murderer had spoken for weakness, for neurasthenic darkness, for struggle without hope and for the self-defeating passions of ignorance, and John Wilder knew those forces all too well. He almost felt he’d pulled the trigger himself, and he was grateful to be here, trembling and safe in his own kitchen, two thousand miles away.”

“I’ve tried and tried but I can’t stomach most of what’s being called ‘The Post-Realistic Fiction’ . . . I know it’s all very fashionable stuff and I know it provides an endless supply of witty little intellectual puzzles and puns and fun and games for graduate students to play with, but it’s emotionally empty. It isn’t felt.”

“‘ … Everybody’s essentially alone,’ she’d told him, and he was beginning to see a lot of truth in that. Besides: now that he was older, and now that he was home, it might not even matter how the story turned out in the end.”

Comics Roundup X: I’m Still Doing This

Ok. So I haven’t done one of these in awhile. The reason is because bi-weekly was just too much. I don’t discover that many new comics, and most of my roundups were becoming “Hey. Read The Walking Dead, Sweet Tooth and Amazing Spider-Man” over and over again. Moving forward, I’m only going to do one of these if I have five new books to mention, or if one I’ve previously hyped is launching some mega storyline or something that’s especially new reader friendly. Get it? Got it? Good.

1. Morning Glories #1 written by Nick Spencer with art from Joe Eisma

Morning Glories is about two things near and dear to my heart: cardigans and ties.  Actually, it’s a cross between LOST and Richard Yates’ A Good School (or any prep novel really). I don’t want to dive into too much of the premise because the discovery is half of the fun, but Morning Glories centers on a group of high school students with the same birthday who are brought to a mysterious prep school. The first issue floored me. Jump on this train before you have to trade wait.

2. Taskmaster #1 written by Fred van Lente with art from Jefte Palo

I fell in love with Taskmaster as a character during Christos Gage’s awesome run on the sadly canceled Avengers: Initiative. When I heard Fred van Lente–whose Amazing Spider-Man and Marvel Zombies stories must be read to be believed–would be picking up this character post-Siege, I was instantly intrigued. But this first issue is better than I could have imagined. So many strange gangs! Look at that Revolutionary War-era militia! If you want an off-the-wall superhero story filled with levity and a dash of insanity, pick up Taskmaster. This one’s a miniseries too, so if you’re not down with the never-ending stories of most superheroes, there are no worries about that here.

3. 5 Days to Die #1 written by Andy Schmidt with art from Chee

Mark Kleman and I interviewed Andy Schmidt about 5 Days to Die a few weeks back. Go read that, then pick up Schmidt and Chee’s noir-soaked romp. It comes out weekly, and the final issue comes out next week. That gives you just enough time to catch up before the big finale. Don’t wait on the trade for this one. Support single issues, and we’ll see publishers take more chances on stories like this one.

4. Fables vol. 1 written by Bill Willingham with art from Lan Medina

Sometimes I get into things really late. I started watching Twin Peaks in 2010. I began my descent into Battlestar Galactica last fall. Fables is another of those examples. It’s pretty much a holy text in comics but I never read it, never even knew the concept. I’ve been sick the last few weeks and picked up the first trade on a lark. Everything that’s been said about it is true. This one’s a knockout. If, like me, you don’t know Fables, it’s about a cast of fairy tale characters who are exiled from their homelands because of an unseen Adversary (think Diaspora) and relocated to a small apartment complex in New York City. They self-govern while trying to conceal their magical natures from human, who they call the Mundane. If you like Harry Potter, jump onboard the Fables bandwagon.

5. Archie #616 written by Alex Simmons with art from Dan Parent, Jack Morelli and Digikore Studios

If you don’t read this, you hate America. Ball’s in your court, playa.