September 9 – November 1, 2024

8-Week Online Workshop: Writing Techniques Inspired by Catholic Fiction with Jenny Shank

September 9 – November 1, 2024
Class size: 15 students | Cost: $250

This eight-week craft class will give you an overview of essential techniques for a solid writing foundation in any genre of fiction. We’ll cover how to create fictional characters with authenticity and verve, how to build suspense and maintain tension, how to control narrative distance, how to write emotionally resonant fiction, and how to write endings that satisfy. We’ll be inspired by Catholic-themed fiction by some of the best contemporary writers, including Kirstin Valdez Quade, Claire Luchette, Cristina Henríquez and Michelle Gallen.

Each week, we’ll read Catholic-themed excerpts from contemporary fiction writers to study their craft techniques and inspire our own writing. The class will proceed asynchronously via the user-friendly online Wet Ink platform. Each Monday for eight weeks, a new lesson will be posted with a written “craft talk” on that week’s topic, as well as readings, exercises and discussion forums.

Each student will have the opportunity to receive written feedback from the instructor on one story of up to 5,000 words. We’ll also have two optional Zoom meetings as a class, during which the instructor will invite class members to read aloud some of the short writing exercises they have completed, ask questions and get to know each other.

Jenny Shank’s story collection “Mixed Company” won the George Garrett Fiction prize and the Colorado Book Award in General Fiction, and her novel “The Ringer” won the High Plains Book Award. Her stories, essays, satire and book reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Los Angeles Times, Prairie Schooner, Missouri Review, “The McSweeney’s Book of Politics and Musicals,” and “Dear McSweeney’s.”

Her work has been honorably mentioned by “The Best American Essays,” the “Pushcart Prize” anthology and her mother. She has taught in the Mile High MFA program at Regis University and the Lighthouse Writers Workshop, served as a screener judge for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and is a longtime member of the National Book Critics Circle.

The instructor will provide links to or PDFs of the stories and novel excerpts for class; you will not need to buy any books for this class. (But as Jenny loves nothing more than recommending books to people, you might find yourself with a long to-read list at the end of class!)

The class will proceed asynchronously via the user-friendly online Wet Ink platform, allowing you to complete the assignments on your own schedule. Interactions and feedback with Jenny and your peers will also take place within Wet Ink. 

A new lesson will be posted with a written “craft talk” on that week’s topic each Monday for eight weeks. There will also be two informal, optional Zoom meetings during the eight weeks of class.

Week 1: Character
Characters are the most basic part of writing fiction, but just how do you create fictional people that will win readers over? We’ll study how masters introduce major and minor characters. We’ll talk about “spark plug characters” and how to create them, learn how to collect character details in a writer’s notebook, and discuss the importance of giving our characters skills.
Reading: “El Tim” by Lucia Berlin
Exercises: Starting a Character and Creating Minor Characters


Week 2: The Head and the Heart of Your Story
All stories and novels need a part that speaks to the reader’s mind and a part that appeals to the reader’s heart. This week we’ll help you develop the hook of your story, and its emotional core.
Reading: “The Five Wounds” by Kirstin Valdez Quade
Exercises: Finding Your Hook and Finding Your Heart


Week 3: Narrative Distance
Have you ever been told your characters feel distant? Do you want to give your readers a seat so close to the action your characters spatter sweat and tears on them? Okay, that’s gross, but this class won’t be! Instead we’ll explore techniques for closing narrative distance through examples from Cristina Henríquez and more. We’ll learn about filtering and how to avoid it, when to use internal dialogue and how to effectively deploy sensory detail.
Reading: Cristina Henríquez, “Everything is Far From Here.”
Exercises: Removing Filtering and Grappling on the Page


Week 4: Suspense and Tension
Oscar Wilde wrote, “The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.” All genres of fiction require suspense, tension and mystery to keep readers turning pages. Suspense looks forward to the future for its resolution, and mystery looks to the past for its answers. We’ll learn about “princess-and-the-pea” tension and how Jerome Stern’s concept of “intrigants” can keep our stories crisp.
Reading: Excerpt from Silvia Moreno Garcia’s “Mexican Gothic”
Exercises: First Sentences and Upping the Ante


Week 5: Evoking Emotion
One key to effective writing is the ability to convey complex emotions to the reader. But often, our first ideas for displaying emotions our characters are experiencing are clichés: “tears sprung to her eyes,” “his heart pounded,” “they all let go of breath they hadn’t realized they’d been holding while somewhere in the distance a dog barked.” In this class, we’ll learn how to do better by digging into scenes and moments from life, literature, art, music and more and making a catalog of how to show longing, anxiety, love and more in a fresh way.
Reading: Excerpts from Michelle Gallen’s “Factory Girls” and Claire Luchette’s “Agatha of Little Neon”
Exercises: Using metaphor or pop-cultural or cultural references to evoke emotion


Week 6: The Classics of Story Structure … and the Ever-Popular B-Sides 
According an old adage, there are only two stories: A Stranger Comes to Town and The Journey or Quest. We’ll study these two classic story structures and learn how to make them fresh for your own writing, as well as the star-crossed lovers trope. We’ll also discuss story structures that might not have “classic” status but definitely merit beloved b-side status: The Crazy Neighbor and The Uninvited Guest. If you have trouble thinking of plots for your stories, or struggle with making them fresh, this is the class for you! After our writing exercises, you’ll leave with the beginnings of your own classics-in-the-making.
Reading: Excerpt from the novel “Matrix” by Lauren Groff (to illustrate the “stranger comes to town” set up).
Exercises: Beginning a story with a stranger or a quest and writing our own “crazy neighbor” or “univited guest” story


Week 7: Two-Faced: The Art of Multiple Perspectives
Sometimes there’s one perfect perspective through which to tell a story, but other times a story requires multiple angles to convey the full picture. Multiple perspectives can open up a story’s possibilities, showcase a writer’s range, and build suspense and tension. But they can also confuse or annoy the reader or slow the story’s pacing if not incorporated with care. We’ll study examples of multiple-perspective magic and learn how to craft our own stories.
Reading: Excerpt from “Malas” by Marcela Fuentes or “Flores and Miss Paula” (2023) by Melissa Rivero
Exercises: Write a baton pass, switch the character, change the story


Week 8: Writing Endings
Writing endings is tricky! They have to both surprise the reader and satisfy their expectations, and leave readers with an insight, image or emotion that resonates. Often the first ending we write for our stories or essays falls flat in some way, and we have to go back to the drawing board. In this craft class, we’ll look at ending patterns that just might fix our ending problems, including the Flannery O’Connor, the flash-forward, the flashback, the rewind and the curtain call, as modeled in some excerpts we’ll read together. Bring in a story or an essay that didn’t stick the landing, and we’ll revise it toward a finish with flair.
Reading: TBA
Exercises: What’s Wrong with Your Ending and Ending Patterns to Try

Wet Ink was designed specifically for online writing classes. Wet Ink is private, easy to use and interactive. Learn more about Wet Ink by watching a class demo.

Questions?

If you’re interested in the course but the enrollment fee poses a financial hardship, email Mike Jordan Laskey at jccucommunications@jesuits.org You can also email Mike with any general questions about the course.

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Jenny Shank’s story collection “Mixed Company” won the George Garrett Fiction prize and the Colorado Book Award in General Fiction, and her novel “The Ringer” won the High Plains Book Award. She teaches in the Mile High MFA program at Regis University and the Lighthouse Writers Workshop.