HUMS 619
Short Fiction Workshop

Jamie Callan

Course Objective

I want you to write—a lot. I am not looking for finished product so much as a process and a willingness to stretch and grow as a writer. I run a very supportive class, and I want students to be willing to read their work aloud, give and receive intelligent, supportive comments and participate in class discussions and exercises. 

Also, please keep in mind, that I want new, fresh work. I am interested in recent creations that result from in-class and take-home exercises. I am looking for brand new, risk-taking stories. Please do not bring in work that has been previously work shopped in other groups or classes. All work you hand in must by typed, double-spaced, with good-size margins (about one inch all around). Be sure to put your name on the top of the first page, along with your phone number.

Evaluation Process

Your grades are based on attendance, participation, enthusiasm, and the work that you hand in. You must hand in all assignments. If you need to miss a class, please call me.


Due Date


Approx. pgs.

Week 2 A short story based on an in-class exercise or take-home assignment 3-5
Week 3 A short story based on an in-class exercise or take-home assignment 3-5
Week 4 A short story based on an in-class exercise or take-home assignment 3-5
Week 5 A new short story based on an in-class exercise or a revision of one of the above mentioned stories 5-10
Week 6 Final presentation--you'll read one or your shorter stories at a local bookstore  
Week by Week Syllabus

Class One

Introductions and discussion about the class. We’ll set parameters, and talk about about the kind of work we’ll concentrate on. I’ll talk about recommended books, and give an overview on the fiction markets (although more on that later in the class). Viewpoint exercise and take-home assignment. 

Reading Assignment: Xeroxed copies of first five pages of Catcher in the Rye, Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby. Discussion on the use of narrative voice and viewpoint.

Class Two

How to find inspiration from everyday life, how to recognize and use “magical moments,” discussion on Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and how memories and the odd poetry within seemingly banal interactions can be transfigured into muscular stories and narratives. Object and dialog exercise. And discussion of take-home assignment. 

Reading Assignment: Xeroxed handouts from Michael Ventura’s articles in the L.A. Weekly, along with the chapters 1-6 (pg. 25-75) of Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer. Discussion on harnessing the subconscious mind.

Class Three

The nonsequitur exercise. How to push plot forward, and move a narrative along in surprising, not necessarily logical ways, to create seamless fiction. Discussion on John Cheever’s short story, The Swimmer and how he uses author omnipresent to create the voice of an unreliable narrator/protagonist. 

Reading assignment: Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write, chapters 7-10 (pg. 63-101) and an article of AWP Chronicle “Stuff: Some Random Thoughts on Lists.” Eudora Welty’s short story, “Why I Live at the P.O.”

Class Four

Fear of conflict—how to think about fictional confrontations in a new, less threatening way. How to orchestrate dialog with action, movement, internal and external narrative to move story moments into new and surprising places. Three word exercise. 

Reading assignment: Article from Writers Digest, “From Stage to Page” by Louise Ladd. Article from Poets and Writers, “Stony Stony” by David Long. Article from New York Times, “Inspiration? Head Down the Back Road and Stop for Yard Sales” by Annie Proulx.

Class Five

How to dramatize ordinary events and turn them into compelling fiction. How to turn everyday, annoying distractions into fuel for fiction. Different ways of scheduling your writing time, and approaching fiction in a painless method. Some discussion on “writers block” and the writer’s life. Recipe exercise and discussion of Proust’s madellaine and tea, how the senses evoke memory and imagination. Introduction to the essays in M.F.K. Fisher’s book Gastronomical Me. 

Reading assignment: From The Art of Compelling Fiction by Christopher Leland, chapter five (pg. 120-142)). From Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones (pg. 8-29). Robert Olen Butler’s short story, “Jealous Husband Returns as Parrot.”

Class Six

Initial discussion on structure and plot. How to create the “bones” of a plot from borrowed material. How to borrow story structures from other sources, e.g. movies, classic books and fairy tales. Some discussion on Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, and the Bill Moyers series from PBS on mythic storytelling. Also, discussion on how screenwriters approach problems in structure. Obstacle exercise. 

Reading assignment: From Linda Seger’s How to Make a Good Script Great, chapter six (pg. 95-105). Article from Novel and Short Story Writers Market, “Breaking the ‘Rules’ of Story Structure.”

Class Seven

More on structure. Discovering plots on everyday life. How to use poetry, song lyrics and newspaper articles to create stories. Discussion on the Rhetoric and Poetics of Aristotle, the use of incident, discovery, denouement and resolution. 

Reading assignment: From Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, chapters 1-2 (pg. 3-37). From John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, chapter 7 (pg. 167-194). From E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, chapter 5 (pg. 91-109).

Class Eight

How to use distractions to your advantage, and weave rhythm and tone into your writing. Music exercise. The use of repetition and climactic events to create satisfying fictions. 

Reading assignment: Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road”, chapter one. Barry Yourgrau short-short story “Femme Fatale.” From Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer, chapters 12-17 (pg. 112-170).

Class Nine

Making your writing visual, and a discussion on how to write like a painter. We’ll talk about the use of color, texture, patterns and repetition in prose, as well as poetry. Picture exercise. 

Reading assignment: From The Best Writing on Writing, Lorrie Moore’s “Better and Sicker.” Xeroxed articles from Jack Kerouac and Kate Braverman.

Class Ten

Discussion on voice, gesture, character development. Using theater improvisation techniques, students will learn how to develop various fictional personalities and translate these into scenes and stories with complex emotional landscapes. 

Reading assignment: Lorrie Moore short story, “How to Become a Writer” (from Self-Help). From Proust, Remembrances of Things Past: Swann’s Way, introduction.

Class Eleven

The business of being a writer, as well as the business of getting published. This will be a “stamp and submit” class, so bring stationary, stamps and envelopes. I’ll have all the latest on grants, publications, writer’s colonies and conferences. Also, a writing exercise involving the sense of taste and smell. 

Reading assignment: From Poets and Writers, “Ping-Pong.” Also from Poets and Writers, “How to Read Rejection.” From Writers Digest, article “Fiction 50.” From Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, “Jealousy.”

Class Twelve

Discussion on using sensory imagery, how Proust, Hemingway, and Collette used the sense of taste and smell to evoke memory and imagination. Contemporary writers who use sensory detail in their work. A writing exercise using and developing sensual prose to create lush scenarios and release long-lost memory. 

Reading assignment: From Nancy Willard’s Angel in my Parlor, “The Well-Tempered Falsehood: The Art of Storytelling.” (pg. 222-239).

Class Thirteen

For our last class, you’ll give a reading of your original stories. Location to be announced in the next few weeks. Please invite your friends and family.