“Write what you know!" “Find your voice!” “Show, don't tell!”
Rules and conventions are pervasive in fiction writing, and whether we are aware of it or not, they shape the way we approach and write our stories. This course aims to free you from the tyranny of the rules and offer a solid foundation of techniques, or roads into writing, that expand your understanding of the workings of creativity, language and story, and help you discover and bring forward your own best work.
Break the rules that limit your creativity and bring forward what you have always wanted to write
Re-evaluate conventional rules and approaches and decide if they are right for you and your writing
Discover alternative tools and approaches to expand your creative power and language, and ultimately help you discover the form of your story that gives it the space to fully develop
Get un-stuck, beat writer's block, and generate lots of new writing with the help of the fertile writing explorations that accompany each unit
Challenge conventional writing rules and discover effective approaches to bring forth your most creative and surprising work
This course is the fruit of working with thousands of writing students at all levels. I’ve seen them paralyzed by how they think they’re supposed to write, judging their own work so harshly according to conventional rules that they fail to notice the gold in it. They fail to notice that they are doing something different, even unique, and instead throw away work that with some development could be mindblowing! Exquisite! And true to their deeper goals in writing.
In all my teaching, I have found my students to be immensely more creative, and immensely better writers, than they understand themselves to be. What they came to create in writing was way beyond what they had imagined. And I believe, that if you are willing to put in the work, this course can do the same for you.
Together we’ll look at twelve writing rules and conventions that are generally accepted by many, though certainly not all, writers, and continue to be taught as the way. We’ll look at each of these rules in turn.
At first, we’ll shake up those conventions, explore a bit of why they have been embraced, and consider what damage they may do to writers, their characters, and their stories.
Then, we’ll look at a tool or technique for writing beyond this convention in order to deepen your writing and unlock your real creative gifts.
We’ll finish each unit with a practical exploration to illuminate for you - or familiarize you with - each creativity tool which you can apply immediately to your own writing.
During this journey, we’ll use plenty of examples from literature around the world, by authors such as Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje, Zadie Smith and Pablo Neruda.
You’ll be leaving this course with effective approaches to bring forth your most creative and surprising work.
Here is what we will cover in regards to each of the rules:
1. “Write what you know”
How sticking to “writing what you know” can block your creativity and limit your writing by deflating the power of your imagination. How to use the process of association in your writing, a valuable tool which can fuel your imagination and the expressiveness of your language.
2. “Find your voice”
Why “finding your voice” is sound, yet incomplete advice. How working with multiple voices and viewpoints can help you write complex stories.
3. "The more details, the better"
The importance of narration and point of view in shaping details. How the concept of microscopic truthfulness can help you use details more effectively.
4. “Write from a sense of place”
Why the instruction to “write from a sense of place” does not apply to all writers and all stories. How to expand this instruction in order to open your work to the complexity of an unconventional sense of place.
Why discovery can be preferable to, and should precede, planning. How to use a story map as a tool to allow for more discovery and creativity in the journey of writing your story.
6. “Deepen character through backstory”
Why backstory is a crucial yet insufficient aspect of full and complex characterization. How to tap into the concept of “the unlived life” in order to create unforgettable and moving characters.
7. “A story consists of five parts with rising and falling tension”
The origins of the five-part story form and why it is time to move beyond this prototype. How to change the shape of your story by exploring the stories often left unexplored.
8. “Start by setting the scene”
The drawbacks to revealing too much too soon when beginning a story. Alternative ways of crafting a story beginning that allows for mystery and discovery.
9. “All events lead up to the climax.”
Why every story doesn’t have to be built on the rising and falling of tension. How to discover different shapes of story and its tension in your own experiences and those of others.
10. “A causes B, then B causes C, …”
The difference between simple and complex causality. How to use concentric circles as a tool to create multidimensional characters and events.
11. “Use flashbacks sparingly”
The limits of a mostly chronological unfolding of story. How to tap into associational thinking to open up your language to move your story around in time.
12. “Every story has already been told”
Why it is not true that “every story has already been told” and why yours is a story worth telling.
+ A bonus lecture on "Show, don't tell"
Why "show, don't tell" is not a rule set in stone and why sometimes telling can be preferable to showing.
We examine how this rule -”Write what you know!”- can block your creativity and limit your writing by deflating the power of your imagination.
We explore ways of using the process of association in your writing, a valuable tool which can fuel your imagination and the expressiveness of your language.
We examine the ways in which “finding your voice” is sound advice, and the ways in which it is incomplete.
We explore how working with multiple voices and viewpoints can help you write complete and complex stories.
In this writing exploration, we look at how the poem “The Triangle Fire” taps into multiple voices to tell a full, multifaceted story, and then apply the same technique to our own writing.
We examine the difference between details that shape the story and details that just add clutter.
We look at the importance of narration and point of view in shaping details and how the concept of microscopic truthfulness can help you use details more effectively.
We try our hand at a writing exploration inspired by advice by John Gardner. Then we explore the use of detail in Sharon Old’s poem “Photograph of a Girl” and embark on a second writing exploration using microscopic truthfulness.
We explore why "show, don't tell" is not a rule set in stone and why sometimes telling can be preferable to showing.
We examine why the instruction to “write from a sense of place” does not apply to all writers and all stories.
We explore how to expand this instruction in order to open your work to the complexity of an unconventional sense of place.
Inspired by the poem “Refugees” by Suzanne Gardinier, we try our hand at a writing exploration that goes beyond the idea of place as something solid and unified.
We examine how outlining can turn creative work into drudgery by draining the joy and the excitement from the process of discovery and writing.
We explore in what ways discovery can be preferable to, and should precede, planning.
In this writing exploration, we look at an alternative way of organizing your writing by developing a map of your story.
We examine why backstory is a crucial, yet insufficient, aspect of full and complex characterization.
We look at how to expand the idea of backstory to include a look at the concept of “the unlived life” in order to create unforgettable and moving characters.
In this writing exercise we explore the idea of yearning as a profound human emotion that can give real depth to your characters.
We scrutinize the origins of the five-part story form and make the case for why it is time to join those who have moved beyond this prototype.
We look at how moving away from conventional story form can benefit your writing.
We try our hand at a writing exploration meant to illustrate how to change the shape of the narrative by exploring the stories that are often left unexplored.
We examine the drawbacks to formulaic set-up of story as the story’s beginning
We explore alternative ways of crafting a story beginning that allows for mystery and discovery.
In this writing exploration we use our narrator’s point of view to expand and shape a different kind of story beginning.
Anya Achtenberg is author of the novel Blue Earth and novella The Stories of Devil-Girl (both, Modern History Press); and poetry books, The Stone of Language (West End Press); and I Know What the Small Girl Knew (Holy Cow! Press). Her poetry awards include first prizes from Southern Poetry Review and Another Chicago Magazine; her fiction has received awards from Coppola’s Zoetrope: All-Story, New Letters, the Raymond Carver Story Contest, the Minnesota State Arts Board, and others. Anya is working to complete History Artist, a novel centering in a Cambodian woman born at the moment the U.S. bombing began. She teaches creative writing workshops around the U.S. and online, and is a manuscript consultant. Current projects include a poetry chapbook, Matadors at the Crossing; a book on her multi-genre Writing for Social Change workshops; essays on the relationship between trauma and narration; and nonfiction essays on Cuba. Anya organizes arts-focused and multicultural journeys to Cuba.
Anya has taught extensively: multicultural and global literature and varied forms of writing, in many areas of the country and at all levels. She has taught graduate and undergraduate students, at-risk/drop-out young adults and public school students, refugees, ex-addicts and ex-inmates, health care educators, pregnant teens, ESL students, low level readers and writers, professional writers, and colleagues needing assistance in expanding their curriculum and in working with diverse and “non-traditional students.”
She currently teaches creative writing workshops and classes around the country and online with growing international participation, and offers manuscript consultations and coaching for fiction writers, memoirists and poets, many of whom go on to publish and to win literary prizes. Along with her numerous fiction and memoir workshops, she developed and teaches a series of multi-genre workshops on Writing for Social Change (Re-Dream a Just World; Place and Exile/Borders and Crossings; and Yearning and Justice: Writing the Unlived Life), which she has started writing into a movable workshop; these focus on reframing and recontextualizing the craft and concepts of creative writing, and she has taught them in many settings around the country, including conferences on overcoming racism. She continues to do workshops and classes as a visiting writer to various colleges and universities, and develop new courses and workshops. She has read and performed her work widely.