Monday, May 30, 2011

An Autodidact's Summer Writing Course

When I went on vacation at the end of April, I took a vacation from writing.  Although I have been back from vacation for over a month, I still haven’t resumed work on my work-in-progress.  I suppose I should call it my work-in-limbo.  It's funny that it has gone from a WIP, which makes me think of a whip cracking me into action, to a WIL, whereby I am trying to passively will my story to completion. 
The worst part of all this wasted time is that my children will be out of school for summer in less than two weeks.  Summertime is a ten-and-a-half week stretch of non-writing for me.  You can imagine how impossible it is to work with two children under the age of ten bubbling with excitement over their freedom from school drudgery, pulling and tugging me every day, ALL day long.  I have come to accept summer as a forced hiatus, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t do something that will further my writing progress.  In order to make the best use of my arrested creativity, I have decided to do a summer creative writing course. 
I know what you’re thinking, but, no, I won’t actually be going to a creative writing class with other adults, where we can happily workshop our latest bits of inspiration.  Summertime is a time for me to enjoy my kids, and I won’t be taking them to day camp or shipping them to grandma’s.  There will never be an Iowa Creative Writing Workshop for me, nor a Gotham Writers’ Workshop, nor even the closer-to-my-geographical-range Wildacres Writers' Workshop.  I accept this with no regrets.  As a middle-aged mom, I have come to terms with the fact that I have to be, well, “creative” about my creative writing aspirations.  Therefore, my creative writing workshop will be of my own making.  This summer, I will be an autodidact.
I did some research on writing programs (including the prestigious Iowa program) and made notes about texts used in the curriculum.  I also read a few books about writing fiction and studied what tools make up a professional novelist’s toolkit.  From this information, I devised a ten-week course of study, beginning with the most basic creative writing elements from undergraduate level courses and ending with a few more “experimental” methods of writing.  As I have no academic or professional background in writing (not even a degree in English, for Pete’s sake!), I humbly begin with the grinding tedium of grammar.  After all, it’s been twenty years since I’ve had a composition class, so it couldn’t hurt to have a refresher. 
Each week I will read a general book on writing that covers a multitude of topics from motivation to grammar to story structure to revision.  In addition to the general writer’s reference, I will read a couple of resources specific to the topical focus of the week.  I will also read something by an author considered exemplary in the literary arts (these were selected from text lists of the Iowa Writers’ Summer Workshop).  Without a teacher to guide my readings, I will have to figure out the literary significance of these exemplars on my own, but I am confident, at least for now, that I will glean something from the exercise.  So, without further ado, here is the “syllabus” for my ten-week course.  It's ambitious, but I've got plenty of time to read by the pool...

Week 1  Grammar and Punctuation
  • General Reference: Strunk and White’s Elements of Style
  • Topical References:
    • The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English by Roy Peter Clark
    • A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation by Noah Lukeman
  • Readings:  Consider the Lobster  by David Foster Wallace (essays)
Week 2  Sentences
  • General Reference: The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life by Priscilla Long
  • Topical References:
    • Sin and Syntax: How to Write Wickedly Effective Prose by Constance Hale
    • How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish
  • Readings: Collected Stories of Amy Hempel
Week 3  Theme and Story
  • General Reference:  The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well by Paula LaRocque
  • Topical References: 
    • The Golden Theme by Brian McDonald
    • Invisible Ink by Brian McDonald
  • Readings:  Jorge Luis Borges – Collected Fictions
Week 4   Plot
  • General Reference:  Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide from New York’s Acclaimed Creative Writing School by Gotham Writers’ Workshop 
  • Topical References:
    • Story Engineering by Larry Brooks
    • Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell
    • Beginnings, Middles, and Ends by Nancy Kress
    • Plot Versus Character: A Balanced Approach to Writing Great Fiction by Jeff Gerke
  • Readings:  The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
Week 5  Scene and Structure
  • General Reference:  Making Shapely Fiction by Jerome Stern
  • Topical References: 
    • The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer by Sandra Scofield
    • Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham
    • Showing and Telling: Learn How to Show and When to Tell for Powerful and Balanced Writing by Laurie Alberts
  • Readings: Best American Short Stories 2010 by Richard Russo and Heidi Pitlor
Week 6  Setting and Description
  • General Reference:  Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and Exercises by James Scott Bell
  • Topical References:
    • Elements of Fiction Writing – Description by Monica Wood
    • Word Painting – A Guide to Write More Descriptively by Rebecca McClanahan
    • The Art of Description: World into Word by Mark Doty
    • Description and Setting: Techniques for Crafting a Believable World of People, Places, and Events by Ron Rozelle
  • Readings: Dubliners by James Joyce
Week 7  Characters and POV
  • General Reference:  Fiction Writer’s Workshop by Josip Novakovich
  • Topical Reference: 
    • Elements of Writing: Character and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card
    • Characters, Emotion, and Viewpoint by Nancy Kress
    • Plot Versus Character: A Balanced Approach to Writing Great Fiction by Jeff Gerke
  • Readings: 
    Miguel Street
    by V.S. Naipaul
Week 8  Dialogue
  • General Reference:  Make Your Words Work: Proven Techniques for Effective Writing by Gary Provost
  • Topical Reference:
    • Writing Dialogue by Tom Chiarella
    • Write Great Fiction – Dialogue by Gloria Kempton
  • Readings:  The Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank
Week 9  Voice and Style
  • General Reference:  On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner
  • Topical Reference: 
    • Spunk & Bite: A Guide to Bold Contemporary Style by Arthur Plotnik
    • Finding Your Writer’s Voice: A Guide to Creative Fiction by Thaisa Frank and Dorothy Wall
    • The Sound on the Page: Great Writers Talk about Style and Voice in Writing by Ben Yagoda
    • The Writer’s Voice by A. Alvarez
  • Readings:  Blizzard of One (poetry) by Mark Strand and Ballistics (poetry) by Billy Collins
Week 10  Revision
  • General Reference:  The Writing Experiment: Strategies for Innovative Creative Writing by Hazel Smith
  • Topical Reference:
    • Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing by Claire Kehrwald Cook
    • Novel Metamorphosis: Uncommon Ways to Revise Novels with Creative Writing Tips, Tools, and Strategies by Darcy Pattison
    • Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore by Elizabeth Lyon
    • Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King
  • Readings:  Best American Short Stories 2010 by Richard Russo and Heidi Pitlor
Comments or suggestions?  If you know any resources I didn’t list but shouldn’t miss, I'd love to hear about them.

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