Here are some of the craft classes I teach, that can be from 45 minutes to two hours long.
Crash Course in Character
Characters are the most basic part of writing fiction, but just how do you create fictional people that will win readers over with their authenticity and verve? We'll study how masters such as Kent Haruf, Lucia Berlin, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, and Ann Patchett introduce major and minor characters, talk about "spark plug characters" and how to create them, learn how to collect character details in a writer's notebook, and discuss the importance of giving your characters skills.
Two-Faced: The Art of Multiple Perspectives
Sometimes there's one perfect perspective through which to tell a story, but other times a story requires multiple angles to convey the full picture. Multiple perspectives can open up a story's possibilities, showcase a writer's range, and build suspense and tension. But they can also confuse or annoy the reader or slow the story's pacing if not incorporated with care. We'll study examples of multiple-perspective magic by Alice Munro, May-Lee Chai, Tommy Orange, and Yoon Choi and learn how to craft our own stories.
Getting Under the Skin: Techniques for Closing Narrative Distance
Have you ever been told that your characters feel distant? Do you long to give your readers a seat so close to the action that they need a towel to wipe up the sweat and tears your characters spatter on them? Okay, that's gross, but this class won't be as it explores techniques for closing narrative distance through examples by Uzodinma Iweala, Fatima Farheen Mirza, and Jesmyn Ward. We'll learn about filtering and how to avoid it, when to use internal dialogue, and how to effectively deploy sensory detail. Bring a page of writing that needs to get a little closer. Sweat bands are optional.
Laughing for Change: Funny Stories with Serious Purpose
Humor can draw in readers who might otherwise pass up a story about discrimination, environmental collapse, or social inequality. In this seminar, we will discuss ways to use humor in our stories, from building laugh-out loud moments to crafting little ironic twists and turns. We'll look at stories by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Leland Cheuk, George Saunders and more that combine humor with social justice themes, and learn about their techniques to inspire our own.
The Classics of Story Structure…and the Ever-Popular B-Sides
According an old adage, there are only two stories: A Stranger Comes to Town, and The Journey or Quest. We'll study these two classic story structures and learn how to make them fresh for your own writing, as well as the Star-Crossed Lovers trope. We'll also discuss story structures that might not have "classic" status but definitely merit beloved b-side status: The Crazy Neighbor and The Uninvited Guest. If you have trouble thinking of plots for your stories, or struggle with making them fresh, this is the class for you! After our writing exercises, you'll leave with the beginnings of your own classics-in-the-making.
Writing the Multiple-Timeline Book
If your idea for a novel or nonfiction book doesn't seem to want to be told in strict chronological fashion, this is the class for you! We'll discuss contemporary mixed-timeline books (and some TV shows) and their increasing prevalence. From these examples, we'll derive lessons that can apply to our own work. Learn how to make leaps between time periods without losing a reader's attention, how to decide if your story is a "remember when" narrative or a story that involves the past's direct, dramatic impact on the present, and how to make your timelines crest simultaneously for maximum impact.
Fiction and Nonfiction
Mighty Microstructure for Your Book
Are you writing a novel, memoir, or nonfiction book but are intimidated about how to make the whole thing come out with a satisfying and elegant structure? Never fear—in this seminar we'll delve into ways to focus on the microstructure of your book so that the macrostructure semi-magically takes care of itself—just add a decade or so of toil. Ha! We're kidding. (Sort of.) We'll look at how to hook the reader by withholding information from our characters, study ways that meaningful objects can build a thematic scaffolding as they recur, discuss examples of book structures, and learn how Jerome Stern's concept of "position," employed on a scene-by-scene basis, can help with overall pacing and momentum. We'll sweat the small stuff so that we'll no longer have to perspire over the big stuff.
Seeing the Big Picture: Techniques for Revising Books
Ann Patchett has described the process of writing a book as "somewhat akin to a very long police interrogation in which the detective leans over the table littered with the butt ends of cigarettes and cold coffee in Styrofoam cups and says for the 87th time, 'Now let's go over this again.'" We'll discuss techniques to propel you through your latest draft, including tips for making a cause-and-effect outline, trimming or adding words, sharpening character arcs, and creating various props that will help you see the big picture of your story.
Finding the Authentic Detail: Research for Writers
Incorporating some research into your process can help turn up details that boost your story’s authenticity. In this class, we’ll look at ways to research efficiently and effectively, without getting bogged down in the irrelevant or the trivial. Learn how to find and interview experts (without bugging them), crowd-source the answers to your questions, and tap local resources. Bring in a passage of your work-in-progress that you think could benefit from some additional research, and we’ll use it to brainstorm ideas.
Building Your Own Emotional Thesaurus
One key to effective writing is the ability to convey complex emotions to the reader. But often, our first ideas for displaying emotions our characters are experiencing are clichés: “tears sprung to her eyes,” “his heart pounded,” “they all let go of breath they hadn't realized they'd been holding while somewhere in the distance a dog barked.” In this class, we'll learn how to do better by digging into scenes and moments from life, literature, art, music, and more and making a catalog of how to show longing, anxiety, love, and more in a fresh way.
And Then I Woke Up: Writing Endings for Short Fiction & Nonfiction
Endings are tricky! They have to both surprise the reader and satisfy their expectations, and leave readers with an insight, image, or emotion that resonates. We'll look at four common ending problems and six ending patterns that just might solve everything, including the flash-forward, the Flannery O'Connor comeuppance, the flashback, the rewind, the frozen-in-a-moment-of-possibility, and the curtain call, as modeled in some fiction by Kali Fajardo-Anstine, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, and Jacob Guajardo, and nonfiction by writers including Jesmyn Ward. Bring in a story or an essay that didn't stick the landing, and we'll revise it toward a finish with flair.
Building The Writer's Notebook
Have you ever stared at a blank page and had no idea how to fill it? In this class, we'll learn how keeping a vibrant writer's notebook can provide us with material to use whether we're trying to craft a compelling personal essay, fill a novel with vivid characters and settings, or capture the perfect image for a poem. We'll examine the notebook practices of some of the greats, including Joan Didion, Mark Twain, and Charles R. Johnson, and embark on our own journals. Bring in a fresh notebook, and we'll set it up to capture the inspiration, observations, and ideas that will fuel your next literary work.
The Psychology of Story
Have you ever been hooked by a surprise twist in a story, felt immersed in the sensory world of a book, or cheered a protagonist's wins and mourned their losses? We'll examine insights from neuroscience, brain scan data, and psychological studies that shed light on why certain aspects of stories hook us as readers. We'll learn about what happens inside our brains when we expose them to sensory detail, and discover how great stories surprise readers through concepts such as anchoring, availability bias, and confirmation bias and we'll learn how to craft our own stories to ignite our readers' imaginations.
Nonfiction and Comedy
Contemporary Memoir Structures
The story for your memoir may come from your own life, but that doesn't mean structuring it is a snap. We'll look at excerpts and examples from memoirs by Carmen Maria Machado, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, Maureen Stanton, Maggie O'Farrell and more to discover inventive ways contemporary memoirists have organized their stories.
City, Town, Countryside: Making A Place's Story Your Own
In The Yellow House, Sarah M. Broom tells her family's story through an account of New Orleans East, a once up-and-coming suburb that fell into neglect. In Home Baked, Alia Volz chronicles her parents' illicit pot brownie business that put them in the center of 1970s San Francisco's delights and dramas. In Sigh, Gone, Phuc Tran details coming of age as a Vietnamese refugee in blue-collar Carlisle, Pennsylvania. In this class, we'll examine how we can intertwine our personal story with the larger story of the places we've lived, and use the two stories to amplify and reflect each other
Personal Essays with a Twist
How do you make a personal story appeal to other people? Essayist Leslie Jamison has described her writing as "memoir and journalism and criticism woven together." Hanif Abdurraqib also weaves personal stories with criticism of music, sports, politics, and more in his acclaimed debut collection They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us. We'll examine their work to learn how we can expand our personal essays outside the parameters of the self by incorporating cultural and historical touchstones, art criticism, scientific research, and other sources, making felicitous connections that improve the resonance of our essays.
When News Breaks in Your Backyard: How to Craft and Pitch a Timely Essay, and What Literary Writers Can Learn from Journalists
Sharing your perspective on newsworthy events can be a great way to break into top publications with wide audiences. Publishing work in these venues often can help a writer get a book deal. When the media's attention is suddenly focused on a topic near and dear to your heart, how do you craft a compelling, lightning-fast essay and get it in front of the right editors? In this seminar, you'll learn just that, as well as some tips from the practice of journalism that can help your literary writing.
Shouts & Murmurs: Writing Short Comedy
Have you ever wanted to write one of those funny pieces you see in McSweeney's Internet Tendency or The New Yorker's Shouts & Murmurs column? Jenny Shank, whose satire has appeared in The McSweeney's Book of Politics and Musicals, The Rumpus' "Funny Women" column, Bust Magazine, and The Onion A.V. Club, will help you tap into your inner weirdness and come up with some great ideas for comedy. We will also discuss the many online and print venues waiting to publish your funny stuff.
Business of Writing
Getting Published: Stories, Essays, Articles and Books
You've been polishing your writing and now you're ready to submit it for publication, but just how do you do that? We'll delve into a quick overview of three different pathways to publication through literary journals, websites and magazines, and books. We'll discuss cover letters, query letters for magazines and book submissions, and do's and don'ts for submissions. We'll investigate ways of tracking your submissions, useful websites for researching publications, how to gauge whether you received a "good" rejection or a form rejection, and how to know when to keep submitting a piece, pull it for revisions, or put it in the recycle pile. By the end of this class, you'll be armed with a thick-anti-rejection hide and a list of publications to submit your work to.
Freelance Writing: Getting Started and Building your Career
How do you query editors to find those first jobs, and how do you make the first assignments lead to more? We'll discuss Neil Gaiman's rules for freelance writers, learn how to find venues that are open to new writers, study examples of query letters and write some of our own, and figure out how to establish yourself as a specialist so that eventually editors will seek you out! Jenny has been a freelance writer of essays and articles about books, music, sports, and travel for decades, and she looks forward to addressing the particular interests of each student.
The Art of Literary Submission
You've been polishing your story or essay and now you're ready to take the big leap and submit it to literary journals, but just how do you do that? In this seminar, you'll learn about many of the hundreds of literary journals out there waiting for your work, both the perennial heavyweights and the up-and-comers. We'll discuss cover letters, do's and don'ts for submissions, the transition many journals have made from print to online submission and publication, and whether or not you have to obey the "no simultaneous submission" policy. We'll investigate ways of tracking your submissions, useful websites for researching literary magazines, how to gauge whether you received a "good" rejection or a form rejection, and how to know when to keep submitting a piece, pull it for revisions, or put it in the recycle pile. By the end of this seminar, you'll be armed with a thick-anti-rejection hide and a list of journals to submit your work to.
Building Your Writing Web Presence
The Internet allows writers to share and publish work, connect with other writers, and learn about writing opportunities with greater ease than ever before. But maybe you think it's rude to promote yourself or just need some pointers about the best way to dive into the literary side of the Internet. We'll discuss websites that will help your writing career and talk about whether you need a personal website and how to create it. We'll explore effective, endearing, and tasteful use of social media and practice writing some quality tweets. You'll learn all about the concept of "literary citizenship" and how it can help your writing career while you contribute to the writing community. We'll come up with a plan for you to build a web presence that just might earn you a book contract or draw readers to your published work.