ENGLISH 578 - Creative Writing-Fiction
Section: 001
Term: FA 2018
Subject: English Language and Literature (ENGLISH)
Department: LSA English Language & Literature
Waitlist Capacity:
Advisory Prerequisites:
Graduate standing and permission of instructor.
May be repeated for credit.
Primary Instructor:

    9/11 intro and logistics
    9/18 Chang, All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost
    9/25 Jansson, The Summer Book
    10/2 Torres, We the Animals
    10/9 Bynum, Ms. Hempel Chronicles
    10/23 Carr, A Month in the Country
    10/30 McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City
    11/6 Roth, The Ghost Writer
    11/13 Berriault, The Son
    11/20 Vasquez, Reputations
    11/27 Kincaid, Annie John
    12/4 Cunningham, The Hours
    12/11 novel draft due

COURSE DESCRIPTION You will write and turn in a complete draft of a short novel, somewhere in the neighborhood of 60,000 words. You'll also analyze the workings of a number of short novels while writing your own. You'll take the lead twice in our discussion of these books. This means you'll partner with at least one other person, ideally not the same person twice. You'll write on a schedule you determine ahead of time, making reference to (but probably not exactly following) an outline you draw up and turn in to me, and which I glance at and put away and almost certainly never refer to again. You'll be given the opportunity to read aloud from your novel now and then – a minimum of one sentence, a maximum of one page. If you'd like to share your work with others, of course you may, but we won't be workshopping your book in this course. On the last day of the course you'll turn in a complete draft of your novel, written all the way to its final page. We'll also be pawing around in Jane Smiley's 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel for information and inspiration.

BY THE NUMBERS The size and manner of your book is of course up to you – though you'll want to arrive at a certain minimum. A novel is, in the words of Randall Jarrell, "a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it." For publishing purposes, a novel is generally thought of as being 60,000 words or longer. Between September and 11 and December 11 are 92 days. To get to 60,000 words, you'll need to produce 652.17 words per day. If you'd like a few days off (say 10 days scattered through the term), your required daily output rises to 731.71 words. And of course if your book wants to be any bigger, those numbers go up. I'd say a safe daily goal would be 750 words – enough to get some momentum going every day but not so much as to interfere with everything else you've got going on. If you're feeling ambitious, 1000 words a day is a nice round number to shoot for. Everyone works differently, but I'd very strongly advise you to work almost every day, allowing yourself a few days off (with this number determined ahead of time). Don't write too little, and don't write too much. And it may help to work at the same time every day, too, and in the same place.

STORIES ON THE SIDE You're in a workshop too! And you may be moved to give your workshop a big chunk of your novel and ask for feedback. You can do this. It's up to you. But, all things being equal, I'd advise against it. A novel in progress is a precious thing and too much input too soon can disrupt the almost mystical space that begins to enlarge itself around your work. Rather, I'd suggest that you plan to execute a couple quick-hitter stories – short pieces around eight pages – that will not only be of interest to you (and provide some relief from the long-haul work of noveling) but will keep the workshop dragon satisfied. I've put a few examples of these stories on our Canvas page.

Alternately, you may wish to offer your workshop a chapter of your novel that might also be considered a stand-alone story. I've put a few of these up on Canvas too: stories that were eventually incorporated into a novel, or served as a novel's first chapter, or both. These range in scope and ambition. Junot Diaz's first rendition of Oscar Wao was a long story telling much of Oscar's entire life as it would eventually appear in the novel; the eventual novel surrounded, barnacled onto the raft of, this original material. Maggie Shipstead's story "Astonish Me" contains material that lives about halfway through the novel of the same name. Charles Baxter's "Saul and Patsy are Getting Comfortable in Michigan" is more or less the second chapter of Saul and Patsy, the novel. We'll note that a story that is also a chapter is a very different animal than a story that is really a thing of its own, as a quick glance at the examples will suggest.

FEAR AND LOATHING We can expect some hiccups along the way. If you get upended or sidetracked, or if you find your book is failing to come to life, don't despair. You're not going to fail the class. You should expect at times to feel like your book isn't really working. That's normal. You should expect a few days (or more) when you feel the words you're putting down are just blah. Or when you suspect your writing is actively doing damage to your soul, in the way battery acid might damage a beautiful, beautiful butterfly. That's also normal. The goal will be to accept those lousy days, to put the words down anyway, and to move on. If you find yourself following an errant track, act quickly and decisively. Be ruthless in slicing away what needs to go. But do your utmost to maintain a forward motion. Resist the urge to start over every time something gets frustrating or seems stupid. It will often be frustrating, and it will often seem stupid. Cut and abandon as needed, push on, and celebrate your milestones.

THE EMBARRASSMENT OF NARRATIVE The way we are most likely to feel stupid is not because we can't get the words down but because we feel we're obviously just writing melodrama. This is a condition I like to think of as "the embarrassment of narrative," when we worry we're writing corny hyperbolic pulp. The embarrassment of narrative may drive us to seek an exquisitely subtle, diminishingly diminutive form of conflict, with the ideal conflict being one that does not actually exist. But usually the writing we fear is melodramatic is really just dramatic. And often it isn't even that dramatic. Speaking generally, we are well advised to push our characters toward drama and conflict, even if we have concerns that our workings are too plain and that what happens is clearly the conceit of the writer rather than the inevitable outcome of a character's nature. A successful novel's conflict is often neither subtle nor nuanced but is, instead, thuddingly obvious and fundamental to its construction: what people want they cannot have. Who people are is in conflict with where or when they are. Or their experiences have scoured them in such a way as to make every moment a conflict. Work to discover what is most wrong and most disruptive about your people, then place those matters at the center of your story. Don't fear drama; embrace it. Wind up your machinery and watch it clatter, swinging its robot arms, through the china shop.


  • Don't dawdle. Novels move quickly – often more quickly than stories.
  • Don't withhold information from the reader. If your character knows she's a werewolf, or a Republican, and that fact is a source of conflict, present the fact as such as soon as possible. Then see what happens when she encounters unlike people.
  • At the same time, don't feel like you have to know everything that's going to happen. Leave ample room for surprise and discovery – on your part.
  • Resist the urge to overplot. A simple, fundamental conflict will serve as a powerful engine. A complicated, nuanced conflict may be of maximum characterological interest, but it may not generate as much forward narrative momentum. And simple, fund

    Intended Audience:

    This counts as a craft course for MFA prose students

ENGLISH 578 - Creative Writing-Fiction
Schedule Listing
001 (SEM)
M 5:00PM - 8:00PM
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