Last semester I took a class at OU called “Advanced Fiction Writing.” It’s one course in the midst of an entire Master’s degree that features only two classes not associated with advanced fiction writing, but that’s beside the point.
“Advanced Fiction Writing” is an English class. The rest of my Master’s work has taken place in the college of Journalism and Mass Communication. The big difference? JMC focuses on commercial writing, while the English department focuses on “literary” writing.
For what it’s worth, I consider myself pretty well cultured. I don’t consider an opera to be good fun, but I’m capable of getting it. I recently discovered I tend to write narrative in iambic verse unless I consciously avoid it. I know my stuff.
But this English class was brutal. Still, I learned a lot from it. I was required to prepare a self-assessment essay as the class’s final, and figured I should share some of those lessons learned with you.
So, without further ado, here’s what I learned from Advanced Fiction Writing!
Writing Short Fiction
I have been a student of writing for fifteen years now, studying in literary and commercial programs, in formal classes and casual writers’ groups, and in the slow, erratic progress of personal experience. But through it all I’d managed to maintain one huge, glaring gap in my education: writing short fiction.
I’ve now finished thirteen novels I’d proudly share with anyone who asked, but before this semester I had never managed to complete a short story I liked. The beginnings that worked always tended to evolve into first chapters, and when I managed to restrain that impulse, to force completeness in a handful of pages, I generally ended up with something lifeless, dull, and broken.
I mention all this now because it shaped my goals for the semester. I didn’t come to the class hoping to learn how to create a compelling character. I didn’t come to the class hoping to learn how to make up an engaging circumstance. I didn’t come to the class hoping to learn how to manage dialogue or evoke a sense of place or pick perspective.
I only hoped to learn how to do those things in this format. Right from the start I knew the shape of my challenge, and I hoped with feedback, with revisions, with some strict requirements I might accomplish what I hadn’t yet in fifteen years of trying.
Playing with a Handicap
To complicate the challenge, the professor had some rules. The first page of the syllabus said, “No genre fiction, i.e. science fiction or fantasy.” That stopped me cold.
I’ve written all my life in genres. I’m not convinced there’s any other option. I understand the risk with speculative fiction of overindulging in setting, with any adventure tale of overindulging in plot, but every genre calls for characters, and every genre can explore them well.
My challenge there was not to write characters instead of plot and setting; all my fantasy and science fiction work receives high praise for the character work. My challenge was being required to work within the “mainstream” or “literary” category where I didn’t really know the genre conventions.
We started out with three published works hand-chosen by the professor, and that gave me some idea. I learned more in the first two weeks when all my classmates turned in their first drafts. I quickly spotted what kinds of plots and complications were the norm, and tried to build my stories around that.
That was my twin challenge: to craft a story I could tell within an unfamiliar genre in a much shorter space than I normally had available.
I started with the story of a woman recently widowed, previously much dependent on the men in her life and unprepared for managing her own affairs.
The simple shape of the story started with limited resources (she and her husband had not been rich before he died) and gained in stakes when I added a young daughter the woman would have to care for as well. The central point of the story, the one I wanted to investigate myself and challenge my readers to engage, was the terrifying helplessness of sudden independence. I had a scene in the first draft where Beth Anne “put on her best grown-up face” before trying to ask a difficult favor of an acquaintance.
That line did not survive the rewrites. The professor complained it “infantilized” the character, but in one line it captured her predicament—and that was a predicament I’d built on personal experience and interviews with dozens of friends, all roughly my age and from roughly the same background.
In my late twenties, with a college degree, a wife, a mortgage, and a steady job, I realized I still felt like I was just pretending to be a grown-up, and astonishingly no one had caught me at it yet. I asked around, and all but one of my peers said they felt the same way, though many of them were quite successful in their fields and certainly mature. That disconnect, I thought, deserved a story.
I learned a lesson from the professor’s objection, though: I was leaning too hard on my own cultural and societal experiences. It clearly didn’t read the same outside my crowd.
I suspect if I’d had a novel—or even a decent chapter’s length—to develop Beth Anne fully within her own context, that line would have survived. If I’d only meant the story for my peers, that line would have survived. But in this class’s context, it assumed too much and said too little. I replaced it elsewhere in the story with wordier, more explicit inspection of Beth Anne’s condition.
That’s just one line, but it exposes many of the lessons I had to learn. There’s more to the paper, and I’ll share it with you Thursday, but that gets you to the heart of it. Even in awful classes, good writers are always learning.