Creative Writing Class

I am finally getting back into the classroom to teach Creative Writing (it's been several years). I lost my old syllabus, so I'm asking for advice: What would you like to see if you were taking an 8-10 week writing class? I am thinking of spending the first few weeks covering the basics (prewriting, plot, characterization, setting, etc) and then splitting the class into half lesson, half workshop. What specific topics do you think would be good?


I've recommended this before, but I'd take a look at Brandon Sanderson's website (Google Brandon Sanderson Write About Dragons 2013). He has an entire lecture series on youtube for the creative writing course he teaches. I'm sure those videos will give you plenty of ideas.

I think the true value of a creative writing class is to get people in the habit of writing and making it a routine. Learning how to critique, as well, helps to learn to identify issues and then see those issues in your own writing.

Those are the key points. Everything else is just gravy. Or crap, as the case may be. Depends on the teacher.

I found that I benefited more from my applied language & discourse classes than from the creative writing class I took. Studying not the writing, but the context around it. The triangle of author-audience-text and the relationships that go into each, both explicitly and implicitly; the who, what, where, when & why of the writing; and understanding how there's always a dialogue going on with your audience, even when they haven't even made a peep.

I think a big part of the issue for *most* writers isn't that their writing sucks, but that their process is fucked up. Once you actually get into the writing part, you can generally fix the majority of issues through practice. Which goes back to my first point.

The trick, then, is to teach writers how to address the issues with process & the overarching context/environment of the writing itself, rather than focus overmuch on the product of the writing & the key points of the text & narrative (plot, characterization, setting, etc).

For example, I never saw a creative writing class get into the issue I see with 75% of my writing friends, where they love worldbuilding but then stumble on the writing itself, and have trouble making the transition. Or where they're agonizing over wordcount. Or where they couldn't finish anything & didn't know why.

I would be very interested to see what happened if you said something like, "If you can't finish a piece, I want you to write up a postmortem on it, a few pages with information about the story, the good, the bad, why you stopped, and what you'd do to change it in the future. You can do this twice this semester, but I want you to put as much thought into it as you would finishing the actual piece. During workshop time, discuss ways to address the problem you outlined, and other problems the writer might have failed to identify."

I'd go more into depth about what I learned from the Applied Language & Discourse classes, if there was interest, but for now I'm going to finish tonight's chapter.

I second eventoe's suggestion; he mentioned Brandon Sanderson's lectures to me about a month ago and I listened to them all in a week, absolutely loved them. He covers a wide range of topics, and even if you aren't a fan of his books he has a very casual, down-to-earth style of teaching that I think works really well. I learned quite a lot.

@wildbow: While making writing a routine and practicing "the art of finishing things" (as I've heard it called) are incredibly important in becoming a writer, do you think those lessons would translate well into a class syllabus? I don't have a lot of better ideas but I know personally that it took a long time for people to beat those lessons into my head, a lot longer than a semester. I've noticed those qualities usually happening as a personal change rather than by following external guidance. For me it was trying to emulate authors I admire who talk a lot about writing-as-a-habit, and only after writing became a habit did I have the epiphany; "Oh hey, I'm doing what all those people said I should! Turns out they knew what they were talking about. How 'bout that!"

Also I would be very interested in further Applied Language & Discourse info after you are done with your Pact writing time.

I think you beat it into people's heads by saying "Have a short story finished by class next week. The first half of the class is going to be a workshop, groups of four, reading and critiquing each other's stuff. If you don't have your thing done, you're going to sit around doing nothing for those 30-45 minutes."

Do it every class. 30-45 minutes of workshop, 15 or so minutes of discussion on ideas that came up in the workshop, then teaching for the remainder, introducing new ideas that apply to the next assignment. Twice a week.

Possibly include a few assignments that are longer and require more planning, to get them to pace things out & make it difficult to just sit down & punch out a big piece the day before.

If they walk away with some discipline, good. If not, then that's on them. But the class is a framework & structure that can get a student started on that path. Quite frankly, I'd be a bit of an asshole about it and give them a heavy workload. The big idea is that you've got to write to be a writer.

Also I would be very interested in further Applied Language & Discourse info after you are done with your Pact writing time.

I mentioned the triangle.

Author at one point, text at another, audience at a third.

The 'text' isn't necessarily a story, for the record. These ideas persist in any communication, from talking to novels to webcomics to graffiti to stop signs to rambling comments on Webfictionguide. A big part of ALDS (Applied language & discourse studies) is about the different mediums & the blueprints (genres) they fit into.

What is an 'text', what makes it unique? What are the explicit & implicit rules? Starting every text message with Dear [friend's name] and ending with Sincerely, Wildbow... it's going to be odd. But there are also conventions about how often you send texts or the accepted length. Sending 300 texts before you get a reply gets you labeled psychotic. Apparently. Once you know what those rules are, you can toy with them, though. That's the value in this to a creative person. A one-sentence update to your web serial, for example. Throws the audience off, and allows for a certain impact.

In any case, author, audience & text. Each of those three points has a relationship to the others. Studying English (and many creative writing classes), you generally focus on the text-audience relationship. What is the story saying to you. What can you read into it? If you've taken an English class, you generally know what's involved in this.

But the author also has a relationship to the text. A big part of this is the process of writing the work. For a long time, the focus was always on the product. Most schools now still focus on it. You take a spelling test, and you get graded on the end result. Were you right or were you wrong? Writing was taught as basically, "You sit down and punch out an essay in one try. You get graded on how few mistakes you make."

This later transitioned to a process approach. What's the writer thinking? What are they doing? What habits are they establishing, why are they struggling? Writing drafts gained ground and then became a bigger part of what it means to write and be a writer.

And after that, extending their attention outward another step, they started considering what the contextual & environmental factors were. Where are you writing? What's the writer's background? How does that influence the end product?

So it's something like:

Product: The students write & submit essays. They get a grade from A to F with errors marked & noted.

Process: The students write & submit, get feedback on submissions, repeat until they submit the end result. Grade.

Socio-contextual: Focus on classroom, learning environment, previous experiences, teaching style.

Each of these areas are important, and it's very easy to slip into the product approach mindset when teaching writing (or language, etc), because it's reinforced so much in our early education. Again and again, I see writers struggling because they're focused on that end product and not paying attention to why their stuff is turning out kind of shitty. My own experience was along those lines. It was only after the ALDS classes on these very subjects that I started analyzing my writing process & started paying attention to the points where I was getting tripped up. I realized I was getting bogged down in editing the early stuff & not building forward momentum, and I started looking for a way to fix that. In the end, I started a serial because the scheduled updates would give me that momentum. I changed the context I was writing in, I fixed the inherent flaw in my writing process, I learned a hell of a lot of other lessons, and here I am, just about at the point where I can write for a living.

The third relationship on the triangle is a more abstract one. The writer's relationship to the audience. You ever have that moment where you talk into an answering machine & you stumble over your words and sound like a lamebrain? It's because one-sided communication is brutal. We're not wired for it. Writing when you don't have a construct of your intended audience in mind is hard for the same reason. You're talking into a void. As a result, even when we're writing, we tend to engage in a constant unconscious communication with the audience. Said audience may not exist yet, but be an imaginary 'what if I had an audience, what would they like?' sort of question. What are they interested in? What's going to appeal? What do they want to know? What do they already know? Can I create dissonance between any of those points to create tension? On a bigger scale, you have stuff like tropes and genre & expectations that are going to shape the work.

When we talk to someone, we're constantly reading and giving cues. We signify a level of interest, we change up what we're putting out there based on whether they look like they want to say something or not. In *writing*, we do the same thing. Typos aren't a part of the text-audience relationship so much as the author-audience relationship, and the attitude towards them is going to differ from circumstance to circumstance. How much is the author writing? How reliably? The author is talking about issue X, and he's mentioned a, b, c, d, f, and g subtopics, but he's left out 'e' and 'h'. Why? These absences are called textual silences, and may indicate a weakness in an argument or certain priorities on the author's part.

I really like web serials because they involve the audience along the way, and you can manage that author-audience relationship more. I learned a lot and I learned faster because I had the benefit of this.

I've made writing a big thing for me, and I think about all of these things constantly. A lot of it has become second nature, but it's all stuff worth keeping in mind. I basically just covered the essential topics, but do ask if there's something that interests you in the midst of that, and I can expand on the thought.


Tying back to the main topic. Throwing ideas out there, based on what I said above:

* Product exercise (stream of consciousness?)

* Process exercise(doing multiple drafts with critiques & feedback; major assignment?)

* Socio-cultural exercise (not sure? Writing outside your comfort zone? Collaborative writing?)

* Talking about audience. Target audience, author-audience cues.

* Talking about failure. About traps & pitfalls in the writing process. Over-worldbuilding, over-editing, aborted stories.

* Talking about writing approaches. Architect vs. Gardener styles.

I was lucky in university and took a creative writing class where the professor limited the size to 12 and looked at portfolios to choose students. The small size let him assign days where two of us would have to read a finished piece to the class and then it would be discussed. It gave you a deadline and the audience-text-author triangle I think Wildbow is talking about.

In a larger class you could assign groups to do the same thing. The cohesion of the small group made it easier to share.

The next biggest benefit was spending half the year on poetry - it causes economical writing, broadens symbolism and metaphor, and forces the prose dominated mind to gain flexibility.

There were also readings of poems and short stories that displayed the mechanics of what the prof was teaching. How did the author get "x" effect?

Then there were writing prompts where we used pictures or words on cards and had a time limit in class to write using them, just shoot from the hip and see what happened.

I'm with Wildbow on this one. Spend more time on actually finishing the work. A lot of people (myself included, though I am trying to work on it) have problems finishing their work, and that is something that is extremely important. Also, if Wildbow's class paradigm were used, it could help the students develop their own world-building and characterization skills. Simply writing things is a great way to learn those two extremely important things (seriously, compared to my earlier stuff, the stuff I've written in the past year has gotten infinitely better, and if you look at Unbroken Chaos compared to the completed I Am the Devil first series, there is a significant jump in skill in that small year).

Agreed with Wildbow, the most useful thing I ever got out of any creative writing class was one where we shared writing 2-3 times a week as a class, reading what we wrote and getting quick crits from the others. This helped A. learn to give and take crits both, B. get us comfortable with others hearing our writing, and C. most importantly, embarrass the everliving FUCK out of us if we didnt have something written to share, getting us writing every night.

everything else is gravy.

I think that the main reason that people don't finish their work is because of poor planning. They end up writing themselves into a corner, and give up. I love the ideas that you gave me Wildbow, and I'm going to add them into my lesson plans. Unfortunately, I can't do twice a week. It's for an adult learning annex. If I can (finally) get an adjunct position somewhere, I'll be able to do more.

Never took a creative writing class. Only had technical writing which really emphasizes form, intent, addressing an argument, and organization.

If I were to be taking this at a community college, center, or school and wasn't majoring in literature or English, I'd like you sell me the course by also referring to what kinds of creative writing formats you'd cover. Writing a short story is not the same to me as a novella or a sprawling novel. Covering approaches to both would be helpful.

Definitely think planning has to be covered. But I also think teaching skills on how to "get unstuck."

Folks stop writing for various reasons. I recall sitting in on a writing coach session with people doing different kinds of dissertations or theses. Some folks were stuck because of issues related to time management, psychological inertia, or because they encountered a problem with their approach and couldn't "unstick themselves."

Teaching practical ways to help yourself think and form ideas I think would be worth teaching. Get students to brainstorm their way out of a story that they wrote. (Suggestion. Make them write a shor tstory with a conclusive ending for one classroom assignment and then fake them out next session and force them to use a brainstorm exercise to develop a premise for "the unanticipated sequel." It's bound to be frustrating for those who loved their story as is but kind of funny to see them write themselves out of the corner. Or if you think your students will hate you for it, give their short stories to other students and force them to write the sequel.)

I really like your idea, SgL. I laughed a bit. That's the sort of thing I'd love to do if I taught creative writing.

In reading some WFG entries for review & doing some editing for someone who was in my old writer's circle, I've repeatedly run into the same issue, so I'll put it out there. Characters need a character arc. They need to have a story and they need to change over the course of the work (unless you're making a very distinct point).

Let me go off on a long tangent: writing about ALDS prompted me to go back & read some about Peter Elbow, who was probably my favorite person to read when I was studying applied language & discourse. I found this PDF, which lists some exercises & the rationale behind them, and his thoughts on teaching & grading writing: (PDF warning)

There's also a video on this page. I can't find the text or the transcript to go along with it (I didn't try too hard), but there's text that says the same thing very well. The video is here:

Edit: Nevermind, found it. (PDF warning)

Going off of some of the ideas in there: I think it's okay to suck on your first draft. It's important for writers to suck on their first draft and it's important for writers to know this. I'll frequently go onto Reddit's writing subreddit and go into 'new' for the text-submissions that haven't yet been seen/upvoted, and answer questions or try to make suggestions. Over and over again, I see the same trends. People struggling with that first draft. Dwelling on stuff that isn't important at all and getting tied up into knots instead of just writing.

Every famous author made a mess of things the first go-around. Try writing just to get ideas on the page. Have word-diarrhea on the page if you need to, but get the ideas out there. Then draft, revise, edit. You're only going to frustrate yourself if you're trying to wrangle editing *and* themes *and* correctness *and* sticking to your outline *and* finishing the damn thing. You know what I mean? That's a lot of balls to juggle, a lot of reasons to stop and obsess over something that probably doesn't need obsessing over (yet).

There's this magical little moment - I'm not sure how common it is for others - but there's this moment where you're writing, and you make a connection and see where you can address that niggling doubt or concern you've had in the back of your head. That moment where something clicks and you now have a a brilliant, fun little idea that you never would have had if you were just planning or just taking your time to think about the story before writing. Brilliant stuff comes out of that hot mess of a first draft. Brilliant stuff comes out of the editing process, when you're looking for ways to cut out your victim's (story's) midsection and stitch the remainder together in a way that doesn't look ridiculous. But that stroke of brilliance only really comes about when you're actively writing. It's pretty rare to have it when you're sitting there, stumped because you're worried about the degree of exposition. Stuff rises out of the mess.

I could go off on a tangent about how I'm writing even when I'm not at the keyboard, but I'm going to keep to my message here.

90% of the stuff people worry about can be addressed when you're done, or it's going to fix itself along the way. The concern over too much exposition gets fixed when you're done & you realize you can erase a whole section because there's an opportunity to gracefully cover it later. The concern over themes is fixed when you have the entire thing in front of you and you can see what notes the story struck & highlight them. The concern over writing a good first line is something you can manage when you've finished the work and you see a chance to make the opening of the story mirror the beginning, and encapsulate the entire work in a single line.

(Of course, this is harder for a serial where you aren't going back to edit for continuity, but you can apply it to the micro level, individual chapters, and trust your gut.)

Write a shitty first draft if you have to, because a shitty finished work is better than ten or a hundred shitty unfinished works. Just about all of the greats wrote shitty first drafts. Comparing your work to the stuff on bookshelves is like comparing yourself to a model on a magazine cover, after professional makeup, fashion and extensive photoshop (editing).

Tying back to what I said at the beginning: attention should be paid, then, to the things that are harder to fix in that editing process, and one of those things is the character development, because it impacts all of the decisions and the scenes that flow out from that point. If your character is breaking into tears & relying on the help of others at the outset of your work and they're breaking into tears & relying on the help of others in the last twelve pages, I'm going to be frustrated with them, and that's a hard thing to fix in the editing process.

You want your character(s) to have initiative and motivations for much the same reason. Main characters and side characters both. If you just have them there with one trait that never changes & one singular purpose with nothing happening to them when they aren't in the 'scene', they start to feel more like props than main characters.

There's also the movement of the story, because a story that doesn't go anywhere is hard to mold into a story that does. I mean, that's the 'story' part of things, isn't it?

I really like Kurt Vonnegut's advice about how "every part of the story should do something to advance the plot or shed light on the characters" -- I did this for Worm, and while I did have a few bumps along the way, I think this idea gives the work life. By striking a balance between the two elements, you're compelled to keep doing interesting things with the characters so you have things to say about them (this establishes character development), and so long as the story is going towards a target point, you have direction and things are going to naturally assume the form of a narrative. Remember that not every problem is 100% resolved, and overcoming some will generate more, and you'll have a natural rising climax. Adjust the degree to which solving one problem generates new ones, and you can do a lot with a world. One problem gets fixed, another comes up shortly after? Children's story. One problem gets addressed and four or five more problems spiral out of the resolution? You've got a Song of Fire and Ice. Or Worm.

Such is my philosophy towards writing.

TL;DR: Finishing crummy first drafts is better than not finishing 100 pieces, and if you can do this, the key points to focus on are the things that are hard to fix in the midst of a hot mess of a first draft.

Haha, am I the only one here who's never had a "writer's circle"? I'm not even sure I've ever had a conversation with someone who considered themself a writer in the same way that I did. It's always been with folks who just write for fun--which isn't to say there's anything wrong with that. I could just tell that none of them had the same obsession for storytelling that I had. Sounds a bit arrogant, I suppose, but it's really not, because I say so, and I know everything.

Nope -never had one unless it was in school reading essays. Had plenty of writing friends in fandom but helping each other write wasn't our job. At best you would get someone proofing something before it went up.

Sometimes we did write together as well but the stakes weren't high so no one would pitch a fit if someone decided to throw random stuff into a story. you would learn to adapt. (Craig -- writing round robin is another good exercise in learning to improvise.)

Writing as part of my job has its advantages, though. You learn to write copy under a deadline and not to take it personally when people find things to correct. But nothing I do at work is considered creative really.

Heh, one of my older more common online nickname, The Leaking Pen, is actually from a geocities page, and then my own website, that I ran from 97-2004ish which was intended as an online writers circle of sorts. was a more popular one back then though.

I joined a writer's circle through the Canadian Author's Association. It's... sort of expensive ($200/annual) but you get access to a fair bit of material, resources, contacts and promotion. You can ask & they'll put you in contact with a group for a trial run if you're interested, and you can then pay if you want to keep going.

I joined in May or June 2012 and sort of dropped out in October 2013. In the end, I wasn't using the full resources, and my group sort of fell apart. We had eight or nine members at one point, and we had two leave because they were pregnant/had kids, one changed to a group with a better location, one group member's husband fell down the stairs & had a serious head injury, and another moved out of town, all over the course of the summer. We had a group of three, and for two straight months we had meetings where one of the three couldn't make it. From eight down to two - and that's a line, not a circle.

I originally joined to get eyes on the first chapters of my work, where I don't/didn't tend to get a lot of comments, and where I needed the most feedback. It was good for that. There was one person with a published book who left soon after I joined, and two people with regularly published short stories, there was one non-published short story writer, three people working on novels, me, and a guy who hadn't written anything in ten years, who spent more time talking about his screenwriting class than his writing. When the group fell apart, I was left with one of the aspiring novelists & the non-writer in the writer's circle. I was finishing Worm and when the non-writer took over a leadership role in the group he decided we shouldn't review two works a month and bumped my next turn to December; meaning I couldn't even try running some of my web serial concepts by the group.

Writing is sort of a lonely experience. A lot of time spent talking to, as I said above, an imaginary/nonexistent audience. The writer's circle sort of helps with that. Writing also mandates a certain kind of discipline, and regularly attending a circle & having to produce something to share is sort of like the writing class in terms of what it pushes you to do. Just more spread out (my groups were monthly) and long-term.

A writer's circle, if you find the right mood/tone & style for you, could be fantastic. I know I'm going to look for another after I've moved. At the same time, I know I'm going to check out a few before I find the right mix. I would like to avoid having a group with a guy who doesn't submit anything, doesn't try with critiques, uses up twenty minutes of the group's 1.5 hours talking about movies he's watched in the last month.

oh, and reading your tldr post, yes, i have had those same Aha moments where it all fits together. (and almost invariably, have to go rewrite several pages). I both laud and curse that moment.

Something really helpful is to make the class try new things. The one creative writing class I attended threw every curveball it could at me; I had to write everything from memoirs to flash fiction to the beginnings of a novella, and then while I was doing that I had to experiment with some new literary device or technique every week. Pushing those limits, I find, was really helpful in finding what worked, as well as what didn't, and a class with a defined curriculum really is one of the best environments for that push.

That class, by the way, also impressed upon me one of the most undervalued and important skills in writing: reading. The teacher would bring the class three or four pieces in whatever format we were working in every week, and throughout the class we each had an assigned novel to analyze and take a technique from. Mine was Hemingway's Garden of Eden, but the list of novels ran the whole gamut. I think it's particularly important that the novels were randomly assigned because it made people read outside of the genre they were familiar with: again, pushing outside the comfort zone.

I agree with a lot of what was said in the rest of the thread (by the way, Wildbow, kudos to you for taking the time to write all that advice: it's helpful stuff), but one thing I think is important to emphasize that if you want to write, you have to be able to write alone. Constant and scheduled feedback is good, and if anywhere a creative writing class is the right place to do it, but one thing I've noticed among my writer friends is that their work lives and dies off of attention it gets. At the end of the day, you have to be your own motivation, and if you can't then I guarantee the process is going to be more painful than it has to be. Sometimes silence is harder to weather than criticism. How would you impress this on a student in a class? It's a dicey proposition, and I'm honestly not sure how.

And, on writing circles, my experience is that they take extreme ends of the spectrum. One, at the aforementioned writing class, was extraordinarily helpful; another, made up more of personal friends, less so. There has to be some degree of formality to it, and it has to be focused. The other writers have to be willing to THINK about the work, or else it's very easy to just give token, shallow criticism and waste away the rest of the time. It's a struggle to find the right people and the right environment, for sure, but once you have I think it's worth it.

Anyway, my two cents.

I have tried to put together a writer's circle together for years, but I can never get enough people who are dedicated to it. Instead, I use a bunch of beta-readers, some of then just fans of the genre, others are professor friends.

A writer doesn't live in a vacuum. It's very important to get feed back before you post something. This is why I am so uncomfortable with self-publishing novels.

I feel like I've learned so much about different writer-related things from reading this thread.

If I had to teach a class, I'd base it on that. Forcing writers out of their comfort zones, sharing work out loud, tight deadlines, short pieces. I'd add an overarching final project of drafting a full novel. I mean, there really is one way to learn how to write and that's to write a LOT.