Now that less than a week remains in the semester, I will write about my remaining class that I haven't written much if anything about yet. Natalie's ENGL 6882, "Advanced Fiction Writing Workshop", is not only my easiest class but also substantially easier than Charles' ENGL 4420, "Advanced Fiction Writing", which I took twice as an undergraduate - and not just because my skills have improved.
Story requirements for Charles' class:
"2 Workshopped stories - each between 8 and 15 pages, due one week before your workshop. Note on page lengths: you must reach the minimum page count to earn full credit; if your story is over 15 pages, include the whole story, but alert your peers to the extra reading. Be sure that you've edited your story and that additional pages are 'worth it.' Use a simple font, double space, and number the pages! Stories will be graded using the criteria below. These grades cannot be revised for a better score. It is possible to get a 'C+' on a story and still get an 'A' for the final grade in the class, assuming you get 'A's on everything else. All work must be new writing, not something you wrote in high school or workshopped in a previous class....
"This is a writing workshop, so there is no expectation that your stories should already be perfect. However, that does not mean sloppy work, or work that doesn't address the very basic elements of fiction is acceptable. Your story should: 1) be completely free of grammar and spelling errors, 2) avoid cliche, inflated or awkward prose, and the overuse of 'to be' verbs, 3) employ figurative language, setting details, and description 4), [sic] have a clear situation, central tension, crisis, and organizational structure (even if a complex, nonlinear one), 5) develop a consistent and appropriate point of view, and 6) offer substantial character development."
Story requirements for Natalie's class:
"You will submit two pieces of short fiction between 2000-4000 words. Please use Times New Roman, 12-point font, double-space, one-inch margins. If you exceed the word limit by 500 words or so, that is fine.
"Please see below for the workshop schedule and your assigned due date.
"You are free to write in any genre that you wish, including but not limited to fantasy, science fiction, crime, or literary fiction.
"I support the artistic freedom of all students. I hope that you will explore the subject matter and style of writing that you're passionate about. If you have any concerns about your ideas, please reach out to me."
Of course, the more stringent requirements in Charles' class pushed me to be a better writer, which helped me impress him to the point that he urged me to consider graduate school and teaching and has offered to be my thesis advisor. It was thus more of a challenge to impress Natalie, but I think I managed.
In addition to writing our two major stories and doing one revision, we had to read and respond to some published stories throughout the semester. First we read Victor LaVelle's novella "The Ballad of Black Tom", which is an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Horror at Red Hook" without all the rabid xenophobia. We had a choice to respond either with a traditional discussion post or a short fiction piece inspired by it, and I chose the latter and wrote another mini-sequel, and I posted it on my site here even though it doesn't entirely make sense without reading the novella first. Natalie liked it.
Then we had to read stories from Carmen Maria Machado's debut collection Her Body and Other Parties, and the first one was called "The Husband Stitch" and when I looked it up to understand the weird symbolism that went over my head, I accidentally found out what a husband stitch allegedly is, and maybe I'm the only person in the world who didn't know that but if you don't know that, I recommend not looking it up. I did a normal boring discussion post for this one.
Unfortunately, Machado is one of those authors who likes to titillate herself by writing about sex and calling it art, which I consider very pretentious. In an optional supplemental interview I read, she said, "I’m really interested in writing about sex.... I also like treating sex as a thing that happens. I wanted the sex to be mostly uncommented upon, just a part of the story, a part of the characters’ lives, as sex is in real life. I have characters in this book who have sex with both men and women, and I wanted the queerness and the liquidity of the sex to be uncommented upon also. It’s not a big deal - it just is what it is. Sometimes people describe 'The Husband Stitch' as erotica, and I like erotica, but that’s not erotica. The story is not serving the sex, the sex is serving the story." I think that if you have to explain why your writing isn't erotica, it's probably erotica. But nobody asked me.
The next story, "Inventory", was even worse in that regard. It's literally a detailed recitation of all of the protagonist's sexual encounters that I never asked about. It does one clever thing, though - it weaves in a subplot about a virus (hahahahahahaha) which at first is just a news item playing on a television in the background, but by the end of the story has essentially caused the collapse of civilization and sent the protagonist to go live on an island by herself as she realizes that "the world will continue to turn, even with no people on it. Maybe it will even go a little faster." All this sex made me squeamish, less for moral reasons than because sex is really gross, so I vented my frustration by mocking the story with another mini-sequel. It was full of inappropriate puns and unsuitable for publication on my website, but I had no choice. It took some courage because I thought Natalie might get really upset with me for slut-shaming. But she didn't.
"Lust for the Aliens" would be a cool band name. I'm torn between wanting to explain, and feeling like it's funnier with no additional context.
As we progressed through the book, the stories became less horny and more bearable. The next one I responded to was "Especially Heinous", subtitled "272 Views of Law & Order: SVU". Despite the title and the subject matter of police officers, it wasn't bad, but it was incomprehensible. Forty pages of fictional episode synopses about ghost girls with bells in their eyes, alien abductions, thump-thump noises under the city, evil doppelgangers who do Benson's and Stabler's jobs better than they do, and various other weird crap that's obviously satirizing something somehow. This time, at least, all of my classmates were as confused as I was. In my mini-sequel, a man's pretentiously artistic wife has just made him watch a "Law & Order: SVU Seasons 1-12 Greatest Clips Compilation" Blu-Ray that she found in the bin at Wal-Mart, and he rants about how it made no sense while she tries to explain in vague terms why it's true art without letting on that she didn't understand it either. The dynamic between them was partially inspired by an old "Doonesbury" storyline.
I suppose, too, I was making fun of art, but in an affectionate way, as a front for my jealousy at lacking the capacity to ever fully understand it. My writing will never be as dense with meaning as Machado's - though that's not necessarily a bad thing. Russ, a non-fiction writing professor, described my voice as "almost entirely stripped of metaphor" and "just unique enough that I'm nearly willing to read anything you're writing". So, you know, different strokes for different folks. This story was also well-received.
We stopped doing responses and just had in-class discussions, because Natalie is very nice, and then we finished the book and read some other stuff. Most recently, we didn't have any readings but were instructed to write a flash piece, so I just took some inspiration from one of the Zoom chat conversation my graduate instructor cohort had during our practicum while Beth was talking.
Who's to say that Satan might not have an occasional teensy-tiny good quality even if he is the most evil being in the universe? Even Hitler loved dogs, hated smoking, and got Brigitte Helm cleared of manslaughter charges.
So, what about my actual two major fiction pieces? I know you're dying to hear how those went. For my first one I wasn't sure which direction to go, so I sought input from my friends and other people who are connected to me on Facebook even though they're not my friends.
I mostly went with the first option, but the story needed something to justify its existence beyond the gimmick of switching traditional roles around. So I thought, wouldn't it be funny if the princess rescued the dragon by peacefully protesting? And that's how my story quickly evolved into the least subtle socio-political allegory ever written. I softened the sledgehammer of biting commentary with humor. I worried that it wasn't humorous enough, but the first comment about it in class was Mark saying, "You could almost point to a random spot on the page and find something funny." So that was nice. Of course, as is traditional, I received written peer feedback and then my classmates praised and critiqued it in class and then Natalie sent me her written comments.
This story is a powerful blend of humor and social commentary. At its core, it’s about a young woman’s struggle to free her friend, a dragon who’s been mercilessly captured by Sir Nelson. The narrative seems to reflect on protests against police brutality today, emphasizing the concerted effort of activists to avoid violence as they fight for justice for victims of police shootings. It is also a story about the role of privileged people in movements for social justice.
You have a talent for constructing humorous political commentary through a voice driven narrative. Penelope’s wit crackles from the beginning of the story as she eyes Nelson’s “pompous frilly outfit” and “the vein in his forehead” that “looks like it’s about to splatter me with something gross.” At the same time, I’m captivated by her expression of vulnerability throughout the narrative, particularly her insecurity around her privilege, evident in her questioning “Should I even be here?” Lines like this add depth and complexity to her sparkling character. It’s truly wonderful writing. Her act of violence also complicates her character, and we sense the desperation and panic with which she commits the act. It’s an intriguing climax to the story.
In terms of revision, I think you can consider introducing her relationship with Milo from the beginning. It’d be helpful to gain a better understanding of her love for him and the details around his capture. Was she there? What’s public knowledge, and what has she learned through other channels? I think you can also heighten the tension in the narrative by developing her conflict/relationship with the other protesters, perhaps one or two in particular. How do they feel about rallying behind the princess? She doesn’t seem particularly interested in getting to know the grievances of the others. Perhaps they could confront her about this—forcing her to reflect upon herself and her role in the movement.
You’ve mentioned that you don’t feel confident about developing the deeper meaning of a story. However, meaning develops organically when you attend to tension and character development. You’ve already introduced nuanced and interesting reflections on our current moment into this piece! The story will grower even richer if you spend a bit more time getting to know your characters.
Having done a fantasy, now I obviously had to do a sci-fi. The only kernel of an idea I had for weeks was that aliens would visit and then subvert expectations of alien visitations. I thought about satirizing the stupidity of American partisan politics, but decided I didn't want to do another sledgehammer message. I thought about having one alien be a student abductor, but there's already a Pixar short about that. And then I thought: wouldn't it be hilarious if they were missionaries? And that was all I had until most of the story came to me one night as I was laying in bed trying to sleep, almost like a revelation. The story had some political jabs but mostly focused on religion and God. Not in a malicious way, mind you. It mocks biblical literalism and vents some steam about the problem of evil and all the crap going on, but at its heart it's just meant to be weird and funny and yes, irreverent, but not anti-religious or anti-theist in any way. I think I succeeded. One religious classmate wrote, "This piece goes to all the places that I would be scared to go, and I love that! I think this is such a potent thing for the right audiences (though I also think you’ll offend a fair number) – and I love the satire that comes through."
The reception was once again positive, but part of our discussion in class (and I did ask for feedback on this) centered around whether the stereotype of a right-wing evangelical Southern farmer was too simple and perhaps too mean-spirited. For what it's worth, I had run the story by my colleague from Georgia (who isn't in this class) and she thought it was hilarious. Natalie was also a little concerned about one part where the protagonist says he sent the Mormons packing, and one of the aliens says, "I promise we're not as weird as them." She isn't from around here so I guess she wasn't aware of how members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or at least the ones with backbones, like to laugh at themselves. And that part was directly inspired by a couple of jokes from "The Simpsons" anyway.
This is such a hilarious and whimsical portrayal of the creation story and contemporary society. The satire is entertaining because it brings an unexpected cast of characters together—namely, Jackson, a right-winger with a strictly literal interpretation of the Bible, and two aliens who are here to offer him an opportunity to escape to a better planet. It’s hilarious to watch him witness the creation of the world through the compromise between Ziltoid and God. This is an effective plot, because it shows Jackson considering an entirely different point of view. It’s surprising and wonderful that he consents to watching this interaction unfold. Perhaps he’s more open-minded and curious than meets the eye.
Second, you offer such irreverent and humorous characterizations of God as a somewhat simple-minded being obsessed with dinosaurs. I laughed aloud at his ridiculous pantomime of a dinosaur feeding on another. In contrast, Ziltoid’s wise and imaginative, for instance when she states, “Art is about creativity! Not doing the same straggling[*] thing over and over again!” Their entire interaction is dynamic, and ultimately, illuminates God’s limitations as the creator of the world—his mean-spiritedness and penchant for revenge. Forced to compromise, he builds the world using sub-par standards and exhibits little compassion for humans. This depiction speaks to the chaos and hardship humanity endures today.
In terms of revision, I think you should consider developing your portrayal of Jackson. To make the story even more engaging, it would be helpful if you complicated his character. First of all, it’d be wonderful to witness his reactions to the vision in greater detail. What is so troubling about what he sees? There’s a ton of potential for humor here, and it could help readers connect with him even more. After all, fictional characters are most exciting when they offer a fresh and exciting vision of humanity.
Furthermore, I think you can heighten the humor by subverting our expectations with this character. It makes sense that a simple-minded guy like Jackson would pass up an opportunity to escape to a better place. But I think you should dive back into the final scene and rethink his interaction with the aliens. Slow down and investigate his reaction to what he’s seen. What if he doesn’t dismiss it outright? What if he asks questions? After all, it’s perfectly understandable that he wouldn’t hop into their spaceship! Who would? I found myself relating to Jackson in this instance, and I think you can explore this further. Show him thinking through this option with the aliens. Finally, I think you should explore other possibilities for his decision. What if he joins them? That would be such a wild moment, full of wonder and humor. There’s so much potential here! Dive back in and explore it.
* The word was actually "stragging", a pseudo-swear that I made up for previous sci-fi works, but it confused some people and I should have made up a more distinctive one.
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C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender male and a Latter-day Saint, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic, so you can't. Unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.