Behind the Scenes
MFA fiction workshop syllabus
So, I’m teaching my first MFA fiction workshop this spring, which is exciting and pretty cool. I’ve decided to play with the traditional workshop model, which is two submitted stories per term. Here’s the syllabus.
ENGL 574 Syllabus
COURSE DESCRIPTION: This will be an intensive graduate workshop. I am working with a different model, one that emphasizes both generative practices and revision. You will be required to write three new stories very quickly (during the first nine weeks of class), which we will workshop, then we’ll spend the last five weeks of class workshopping one revision. It doesn’t take a mathematician to realize that we will be “flying” through the stories in the first part in order to focus our time on the revision.
COURSE GOALS: Part of the challenge of being a successful writer is writing under deadline. As you gain recognition as a writer, journals will begin soliciting your work. Editors and agents will require that you work efficiently. This class is modeled on your future success. As such, you will generate three new stories: one every three weeks, which will be workshopped very quickly.
Perhaps the biggest challenge of being a successful writer is knowing how and when and what to revise. The last third of the semester, we will workshop a revision of one of the stories submitted. For the revision, I will not accept line edits alone. I would like structural changes. Especially because you are generating these stories at perhaps a more rapid pace than you would otherwise write, I understand that they will not be the “cleanest” stories. Hence, the revision workshop.
Because this class is so writing intensive, I am not requiring any additional readings for class, but writing is about much more than just writing in a vacuum. You have to participate in a larger conversation. For your final portfolio, you are required to write three book reviews, responses to eight literary journals, and four community activities. (More on this later.)
FINAL PORTFOLIO: Rather than have you write or revise even more, your final portfolio will reflect your involvement in the writing world. Your portfolio will contain: three book reviews, responses to eight literary journals, and responses to four cultural activities, two of which should not occur on campus.
Book Reviews: as a rough template, please see the attachment for The Review of Contemporary Fiction’s book review guidelines. Every review venue has different requirements. If you would like to submit your review for publication at another venue, please use that journal’s guidelines and in your portfolio, give me a copy of what they want. The books you review must have been published no earlier than 2010.
Literary Journals: This can be print or online, but the point is that you start becoming conversant in what journals are publishing right now! Responses can be brief, but I want to know what you think about what you read, what the journal’s aesthetic is, etc. You should see this as an opportunity to gain knowledge about future publication options.
Cultural Activities: This can be readings, art openings, indie films, etc. Most of you know I am pretty lax about what constitutes a cultural activity.
GRADE BREAKDOWN: No one here needs to worry about grades, unless you don’t come to class, don’t do your work, or don’t talk. But here it is anyway:
Final Portfolio 50%
Participation includes attendance and an active engagement with the workshop. It also includes the work you submit, both stories and notes to other workshop members. Don’t be late.
CALENDAR BREAKDOWN: Because this is a workshop and we’re not reading anything, I’m not giving you a silly blank sheet of paper with empty slots. Here’s the way we’re running it:
Weeks 1-9: We will workshop five stories per week. You will need to write a new story every three weeks. You will submit your story to us electronically one week before it is to be workshopped.
Week 10 (4/2): Conferences
Weeks 11-15: Revision workshops, three per class. Again, you will submit your story electronically one week before it is to be workshopped.
ENDNOTES: Given the brisk nature of our workshops this semester, I don’t want to kill you with endnote work. So, this is what I expect on manuscripts: detailed and smart line edits and marginalia. I want very concise endnotes, more of an outline of what works and what doesn’t. (At the bare minimum, I expect three things that work and five suggestions, on a macro-level, for the revision process.) I will not accept banal comments like:
I like your characters, or
Your pacing is off, or
Nice descriptions, etc.
These are things that can go in your marginalia. I want macro-level comments and suggestions in your endnotes. This is a graduate workshop. If you don’t know what this means, I suggest you go buy a book on fiction.
CLASSROOM ETIQUETTE: I will not tolerate impolite behavior in the classroom or on the manuscript. Period. If I find your behavior inappropriate, I will ask you to withdraw from the class. This classroom will be a safe space for people to write whatever they want. The stories submitted may or may not fit your aesthetic. Get over it. I expect endnotes and comments to reflect what the writer wants from her story, not what you would do if you were the author.
OFFICE HOURS: Come.
I don’t think I would make it in your class
I really like the book review and lit journal components. Will be curious to hear how it all goes!
—Adam, whose own two fiction workshops just started (taking, not teaching)
great idea re: book reviews.
STRUCTURE guidance – yes! And reaching out to the lit community!
Also I am glad to see you seem to be avoiding the strictures of the workshop behaviour guidelines that restrict reader comment and author response to set periods – I can’t remember the name of the woman who popularised it, I think she used it in dance workshops? The method used to drive me nuts in the taught PhD modules I took.
Why is it necessary to publish this?
Your pacing is off, but I like your characters
Take my class instead
The tone of the syllabus is unnecessarily snotty. Why be hostile to the kids before you’ve even met them? This wouldn’t fly at Yale or NYU
So that you can play along at home without actually having to go out and get yourself an MFA. Lily is saving you time, money, dissapointment, general discontent, an overwhelming sense that everything is incorrect everywhere, and being told to read something with a subtitle such as ” :A Manual Of Prosody” etc. You should thank her.
This sounds like a crappy class. You’re practically begging for superficial writing and editing. And the mandatory “cultural activity” component reminds of what, like 7th grade.
Are you going to tell them that you don’t submit to literary journals because you can’t handle rejection? I like your syllabus, but I can’t help but wonder at this bit of irony, because, “becoming conversant with literary journals” also includes submitting one’s work to literary journals.
I love this. Especially the book review, lit journal, and cookie policies. Definitely going to steal some of this for my own. Thanks for sharing, Lily.
it doesn’t really seem hostile to me. in fact it sort of balances pretty well between professional and “I’m your friend Lily,” in my opinion.
i don’t think i would want to make it in this class
Very true, my child. I would expect talking down in a gen. ed. syllabus, but this is ridiculous. Peace be with you.
It’s an advertisement for the NM Steve MFA program. See ad in upper right hand corner.
Don’t be a bitch, Trey
Fellow meatless one, I commend your discipline.
can we be rivals?
“Whatever they want”??
What happens in the case that a ‘fiction’ to be workshopped betrays the confidence of another student (or the teacher)–if a student pulls a Marie Calloway or Alexander Makesick (or what the student in Storytelling did)? What happens if a student writes a ‘fiction’ that abuses or seems to abuse the identity of some part of humanity?
This sounds lovely. I would take your class.
seems they should be able to write what they want and then be criticized based on the general climate of the program/peer group/professor. syllabus asserts the students are safe in writing/submitting it. any subsequent actions are fair game…
Seems any subsequent reactions are not “fair game”. Seems “impolite” and “inappropriate” reactions will be found intolerable.
Does ‘fiction submitted to a classroom workshop’ have different standards of politeness and appropriateness than “endnotes and comments” in reaction to ‘fiction submitted to a classroom workshop’?
You understand: this question probably won’t have much bearing on Lily’s admirably well-organized and diligence-demanding workshop. But it seems that there is a difference between what’s acceptable in fiction that one shows to a group and what’s acceptable in the group’s responses.
well, impoliteness and inappropriateness are probably not determined in a vacuum. if someone in a workshop writes a graphic story about the ways he or she would kill all the other members of the workshop and someone says “this is fucked up,” that’s not impolite, it’s true, right?
You would if you were stocked up on cookies.
SOME PROFESSORS LIKE TO SEIZE PHONE AND “SEXT” IN RESPONSE
You sound like a pretentious asshole. Sorry, I would never take your class. You might want to deal with your own obvious insecurities as a writer before trying to teach.
I haven’t turned my syllabi in yet for copying. I might steal some of this–especially the write fast then revise idea.
thanks for posting
What’s going on with all the people can’t/shouldn’t write ________________ lately?
Thank, Adam. We’ll see how it goes. I’ve always used a traditional workshop model, so, so, I guess I’m nervous!
My palms were sweating as I was typing it out. Cookies!
Same reason it was “necessary” for you to “publish” this comment.
It looks like an attempt is being made, in the case of this workshop, to foster a climate of civility that would enable tolerance of everything except: a) writing that would reasonably be expected to inhibit another participant from participating in a way natural to her or him; and b) identity intolerance [that’s just a guess].
‘Your creative freedom extends only to the tip of my creative nose.’ –that kind of thing – and with the contradictions that go with that practical sense of ‘freedom’.
Hi guest, I’m glad you haven’t closed off opportunities for people to change and grow, that a comment made on a blog post years ago is firm. Lately, I have been submitting (and getting rejected!) from journals aplenty. (Like many others, I go through phases of submitting a lot then not at all.) But thank you for your honest reportage and for emailing it to my chair, at a job that I’d had for maybe a month and a half when you sent it.
Here’s the lesson folks: If you use your name on the internet, you best be accountable forever for what you say. Good news is that you’re anonymous!
Hi Deadgod, This is a good question. Luckily I haven’t encountered this type of situation before. But, if I did, I would speak openly and frankly to the student, perhaps during a one-on-one meeting, about the appropriateness of content in a submission. My “whatever” was more about form and aesthetic and genre. Many students want to write speculative fiction or science fiction and don’t feel “safe” submitting it to workshops.
Brandi Wells, My cat ran away over xmas break. I was in Texas visiting family. It was the worst five days when he was gone and I had no control over finding him. Happily, he came back. I thought I’d tell you because you like cats too. He’s a ginger tabby and his name is Ari.
That reaction might be exactly “what the writer wants from [that] story”.
I was thinking more along the lines of a story that maliciously revealed secrets of another workshop participant, or “endnotes” (or a story itself) that abused a group (represented in the class or not). Is “true” the only criterion?
I guess I can see problems with true as the only criterion, since often something true without tact is still mean or impolite or however you want to say it. I don’t know, I’m definitely not on the instructor level when it comes to evaluating syllabi and whatnot, I’m definitely student-level or worse. But if someone is going to write a story that maliciously reveals secrets of another participant or something, they would probably do that regardless of whether it was allowed by the syllabus or not. I’m sure you’re aware, but it seems like that clause is aimed more at a situation like someone writes something about, I don’t know, sports? baseball? and some other student says “baseball is stupid, so this is stupid” or something? or like genre fiction? I don’t know.
Hi lily hoang,
I’m glad you’ve levied a baseless charge against me. I absolutely did NOT email your department chair. What the hell’s wrong with you? While I’ve had my share of internet spats–like many others here–I would never, ever, fuck with a person’s j-o-b. What, your “proof” is that I also recalled a post you once wrote on a website viewed by thousands of people?
Here’s a lesson for you: in the future, you might want to be careful about making public accusations about people…that can sort of get you into a legal bind, Ms. Tenure Track professor. You should be happy that I’m anonymous.
That said, I’m sorry that someone did that to you–that’s truly fucked up. But you look foolish here.
Sorry, dude. My total mistake. I was testy and wrong. Please accept my apologies.
Someone wrote a blog about that specific comment (about my hesitation to submit work), something I said offhand maybe in Jackie Wang’s blog post from maybe a year or two ago, and then this person emailed my chair with the link. Sorry, again. I don’t know you. I don’t know this other person. I’m generally a nice human and don’t accuse people on the internet of things they have not done.
Okay, I can see how you would be flustered by such a situation. I can promise that I would never fuck w/ a person’s job.
Also, all this went down in September. I should’ve gotten over it by now. Sorry, again.
I read fantasy, sci fi, and spy novels, and any ‘literary’ prejudice against them is, to me, stupid theoretically and, as a matter of practice, laughable. I’ve never taken a CW class, and my alma mater might be unusually relaxed about these distinctions: do you know many English and CW professors who invigilate against genre in their departments? I mean, is it common, in your experience, for students actually to be discouraged from writing genre, and teachers from teaching it, even if it – or one of them – is to their taste and they do it with integrity?
Yes, it is common for anything that strays from traditional realist fiction to be discouraged (both by other students and professors), at least back when I was in MFA school (2006).
Haha. Yeah. That happens sometimes. . . .
Hm, feels a sort of cross between my undergrad experience – write a story every week, bring it to class, read and receive feedback – and my mfacw experience (lo-res) – write 25 pages in 3 weeks, submit, repeat.
I would think the hardest part will be to actually have the students send in their work the week before. Hopefully they will be better at it being higher level students more engaged, but students are students (i mean, professional authors with large advances contingent on submitting their next manuscript blow deadlines).
I hope you post follow-up(s) as to the progress with this structure.
You are badass. It makes me a little sad that none of the ‘involvement w/ writing world’ in the portfolio , but I can see how you would not have class time for this as well as the increased output you are expecting, which is like the fundamental thing abt this model.
Bring cookies, text the whole class: “I brought you cookies.” and then later, when the cookies aren’t gone: “eat your fucking cookies.”
I want to go where you went, Cliff, because this wasn’t my experience at all. Quite frankly, I’m jealous.
But, I didn’t say my syllabus was “revolutionary.” I just said I tinkered with the traditional model, which doesn’t focus at all on revision. With the revision, it’s really four stories. And I want students to think of revision kind of like a whole new story, not just line edits but a total rehaul. Also, I originally wanted to make them write/workshop six stories, but my class got too large and I couldn’t make the time-math work. (Michael Martone does something similar at Alabama.) I’ve taught classes where we write a story per week but it’s not a “story” but more of an “exercise.” Some of the exercises were long (20+ pages) but they were exercises nonetheless.
Yes, it does happen.
Well, Scott, lily, and Mike, that’s something that’s complained about here, and I scarcely knew whether to credit the angrier rants.
For those looking for a writing program – even undergraduate – it sounds like a make-or-break to me: a program established to prepare people who are already readers (and many of whom are probably already ‘writers’) that, what, sneers at the artistic achievements and professional possibilities in genre fiction? I mean whether or not the student thinks she or he wants to write genre stories–don’t be stupid, right??
Wow, thats really creepy, lily. I’m sorry that happened. I wonder who trolls these comments so much these last few years that would be so evil and vindictive, and with no reason other than jealousy, or their own mental illness. Fucking creepy.
Plus, you know, actually having to be in the same room as her. And the ad for the MFA program as well? Precious. Just precious.
Lily – can you post the Review of Contemporary Fiction’s book review guidelines? I’m also assigning a book review this spring. Hadn’t even thought of showing them real guidelines. This is helpful, thanks.
Hi Lauren, email me: Lily.Hoang.326[at]gmail[dot]com. I only have the guidelines because I review for them, and I’m not sure I can/should make it public.
I agree. I’ll start teaching undergraduates next year
The cookie thing is great! It’s not very “graduate” but neither is texting during class.
I hope the class was as kick-ass as it sounds. I don’t find the tone here condescending, and in my experience, intensity goes over find so long as students see that your investment in their success matches your high expectations for what they bring to the course. Thanks for posting this.
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