My Personal MFA: The Syllabus

Alright! Here’s the ambitious outline I’ve created for myself. Is it going to take longer than a year? Yes, as all good Master’s programs should. Everything is, of course, subject to change. This is especially true if I decide as we go along more time needs to be spent on a particular topic. I’m posting this FULL lesson list in hopes it will help other writers and authors who may want to jump ahead, but feel free to follow along and engage in discussions with me as you so feel inspired!

And like I’ve said before, I wish I would have done this 10 years ago!

I. Beginnings

Lesson #1: Misinformation: Recognizing bad advice

     Readings: Brody pgs. 3-8; Cron pgs. 1-32; Klein pgs. xi-xv; Kress pgs. 1-4; Truby pgs. 1-14 & 418-421

Lesson # 2: What is a story?

    Readings: Brody pgs. 3-8; Cron pgs. 1-32; Klein pgs. xi-xv; Maass pgs. 1-8; Truby pgs. 1-14 & 418-421

Lesson #3: The IDEA

    Readings: Klein pgs. 63-73; Kole pgs. 27-32

Lesson #4: The Premise

    Readings: Cron pgs. 35-52; Klein pgs. 39-55; Kole pgs. 32-39; Truby pgs. 16-38

Lesson #5: The Four Pillars of Story: Character, Plot, Theme, and Setting

Novel Readings for Beginnings (Read one or all): WONDER by R.J. Palacio; ECHO by Pam Munoz Ryan; THE THIEF by Megan Whalen Turner; THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak; WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead; THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins

II. Character

Lesson #6. Character: What you think you know

    Readings: Cron pgs. 53-65; Kole pgs. 73-89; Klein pgs. 74-84; Kress pgs. 5-11; Maass pgs. 138-144; Truby pgs. 56-75

Lesson #7. Character: POV & Tense

Readings: Brody pgs. 283-286; Hall Chapter 10; Klein pgs. 238-258; Kole pgs. 62-72; Kress pgs. 158-212; Maass pgs. 125-133; St. John pgs. 70-80; 148-150

Lesson #8. Character: Internal/External Motivations: The Lie, the Line in the Sand, and the Want

Readings: Brody pgs. 9-21 & 160-177; Cron pgs. 67-78; Dixon Chapter 2; Klein pgs. 103-122; Kole pgs. 89-104 & 143-152; Kress pgs. 35-40 & 51-66; Maass pgs. 35-53; St. John pgs. 21-45 & 225-235; Truby pgs. 87-88

Lesson #9. Character: Character Arcs

Readings: Cron pgs. 79-84; Klein pgs. 122-125; Kole pgs. 143-152; Kress pgs. 67-77; St. John pgs. 94-99; Truby pgs. 75-85; 391-417

Lesson #10. Character: Character Design & Lists

    Readings: Dixon Chapter 1; Klein pgs. 85-102; Kole pgs. 104-113; Kress pgs. 11-34; St. John pgs. 46-56, 211-215, & 236-243

Lesson #11. Character: Protagonists and Antagonists

Readings: Brody pgs. 289-292; Cron pgs. 85-95 & 123-146; Kole pgs. 113-130; Kress pgs. 78-92; Maass pgs. 8-34 & 144-166; St. John pgs. 175-202; Truby 85-87 & 88-101

Lesson #12. Character: Character Foils & Writing Yourself In

    Readings: Klein pgs. 127-155; St. John pgs. 58-63 & 216224

Lesson #13. Character: Adding Humor

    Readings: Kress pgs. 93-103; Maass pgs. 167-187

Novel Readings for Character (Read one or all): THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET by Brian Selznick, THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE by Jacqueline Kelly, ANNE OF GREEN GABLES by L.M. Montgomery, FAR FROM THE TREE by Robin Benway, MORTAL HEART by Robin LaFevers, SAVVY by Ingrid Law, THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE by Kimberly -Brubaker Bradley

III. Plot

Lesson #14: Types of Plots

    Readings: Brody pgs. 79-263; Klein pgs. 151-163; Truby pgs. 39-55 & 258-267

Lesson #15. Backstory

    Readings: Cron pgs. 95-104 & 195-208;  Kole pgs. 179-187; Kress pgs. 40-44

Lesson #16. Structure

Readings: Brody pgs. 22-28 & 275-277; Cron pgs. 105-144; Klein pgs. 163-165; Kole pgs. 153-167; St. John pgs. 87-93; Truby pgs. 267-270

Lesson #17. Hook

Readings: Brody pgs. 29-31; Cron pgs. 147-164; Hall Chapter 11; Maass pgs. 54-80; Klein pgs. 273-285; Kole pgs. 40-49; Truby pgs. 381-390

Lesson #18. Act I Beats

    Readings: Brody pgs. 31-40; Klein pgs. 165-188; Kole pgs. 130-143; Truby pgs. 271-288

Lesson #19. Act II Beats

    Readings: Brody pgs. 40-64; Truby pgs. 288-298

Lesson #20. Connect the Dots & the Climax

    Readings: Cron pgs. 165-185; Hall Chapter 12; Klein pgs. 193-201; Kole pgs. 196-201

Lesson #21. Act III Beats

    Readings: Brody pgs. 65-78; Truby pgs. 299-310

Lesson #22. The Megaboard

     Readings: Brody pgs. 277-283; Cron pgs. 187-221

Lesson #23. Subplots

    Readings: Cron pgs. 223-244; Klein 188-193; Kole pgs. 188-196

Lesson #24:  Series

    Readings: Brody pgs. 286-288

Novel Readings for plot (Read one or all): HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN by J.K. Rowling, A NIGHT DIVIDED by Jennifer A. Nielsen, CIRCUS MIRANDUS by Cassie Beasley, SIX OF CROWS by Leigh Bardugo, THE SUN AND MOON, ICE AND SNOW by Jessica Day George, THE WESTING GAME by Ellen Raskin, WORDS ON FIRE by Jennifer A. Nielsen

IV. Setting 

Lesson #25: World Building and Creating Realism

Reading: Hall Chapters 6-8; Klein pgs. 286-296; Kole pgs. 212-218; Maass pgs. 134-137; St. John pgs. 125-140; Truby pgs. 177-184

Lesson #26: Vehicle for Theme and Emotion

    Readings: Maass pgs. 81-90 & 99-116; St. John pgs. 108-117

Lesson #27: The Sensory Experience

    Readings: Hall Chapters 2-4

Lesson #28: Natural & Human Constructs

    Readings: Hall Chapter 5; Truby pgs. 170-177 & 191-219

Lesson #29: Time Constructs

    Readings: Maass pgs. 90-99; Truby pgs. 184-190

Lesson #30: Less is More

    Readings: Hall Chapter 9; St. John pgs. 118-124

Lesson #31. Setting w/ Mad Libs

    Readings: Kole pgs. 206-212; St. Johns pgs. 101-107; Truby pgs. 145-169

Novel Readings for Setting (Read one or all): PAX by Sara Pennypacker, CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE by Tomi Adeyemi, THE WILD ROBOT by Peter Brown, PAPER CHAINS by Elaine Vickers, AIRMAN by Eoin Colfer, LITTLE WOMEN by Louisa May Alcott, PRINCE CASPIAN by C.S. Lewis, ALL THE CROOKED SAINTS by Maggie Steifvater, THE GIRL FROM EVERYWHERE by Heidi Heilig

V. Theme

Lesson #32. Theme: Emotion in Character and Theme w/ Emotion Cheat Sheet

Readings: Cron pgs. 258-267; Kress pgs. 44-50, 105-118, & 119-172; Klein pgs. 11-26; St. Johns pgs. 57-99, 64-69, 168-173, & 203-210; Truby pgs. 114-139

Lesson #33. Theme: What your story is really about

    Readings: Cron pgs. 209-222; Kole pgs. 229-248; Maass 243-253; Truby pgs. 108-111

Lesson #34. Motif

    Readings: Kress pgs. 119-129; Truby pgs. 111-113

Lesson #35. Imagery

    Readings: Kole pgs. 202-206; St. John pgs. 81-86; Truby pgs. 220-257

Novel Readings for Theme (Read one or all): TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee, THE OVERSTORY by Richard Powers, CODE NAMED VERITY by Elizabeth Wein, THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN by Kathrine Applegate, CHARLOTTE’S WEB by E.B. White, A WRINKLE IN TIME by Madeline L’Engle, GOOSE GIRL by Shannon Hale, LOVELY WAR by Julie Berry

VI. MISC.

Lesson #36. Voice

    Readings: Klein pgs. 258-272; Kole pgs. 218-229 & 239-248; Maass 117-125; Truby pg. 310-319

Novel Readings for Voice (Read one or all): THE FALSE PRINCE by Jennifer A. Nielsen, THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman, THE MAGICIAN’S ELEPHANT by Kate Dicamillo, THE NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgenstern, THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON by Kelly Barnhill

Lesson #37. Conflict

    Readings: Hall Chapter 13; Klein pgs. 202-215; Kress pgs. 130-157; St. Johns pgs. 11-20; Truby pgs. 373-381

Lesson #38. Tension

    Readings: Kole pgs. 167-179; Maass pgs. 188-231; St. Johns pgs. 152-167

Lesson #39. Pacing 

    Readings: Klein pgs. 216-237; Kole pgs. 49-62

Lesson #40 The OTHER Element

    Readings: Kole pgs. 239-248

Lesson #41: Rough Drafts: The Fat King’s Draft

    Readings: Cron pgs. 245-258; St. John pgs. 141-148; Truby pgs. 326-372

Lesson #42: Filling in the Holes

Lesson #43: Lay Fallow: The Sleeping Beauty Draft

Lesson #44: Where Ideas Come From

    Readings: Klein pgs. 27-38; Maass pgs. 232-243

VIII. Business of Writing

Lesson #45: Children’s Publishing

    Readings: Klein pgs. 11-26 & 327-331; Kole pgs. 1-26

Lesson #46: Query Letters

    Readings: Brody pgs. 264-269; Kole pgs. 261-272

Lesson #47: Synopses

    Readings: Brody pgs. 270-274

Lesson #48: Agents & Editors

    Readings: Klein pgs. 331-345; Kole pgs. 249-260

Lesson #49: Submitting

Lesson #50: The Writing Life

    Readings: Brody pgs. 293-304; Hall Chapter 14; Klein pgs. 56-62; Kress pgs. 213-216 & 219-222; St. John pgs. 244-245

VII. Revision

Lesson #51: The Craft of Rewriting

    Readings: Klein pgs. 297-327

Lesson #52: Revisiting the IDEA

Lesson #53: Read Through w/ Font Changes: The Prince Charming Draft

Lesson #54: The Love Letter to Your Manuscript

Lesson #55: Character & Plot: Revisiting the Outline and Character Lists. Asking the hard questions.

Lesson #56: Setting & Theme: Revisiting Space, Time, and the Soul. Asking the hard questions.

Lesson #57: Ten Things Exercise

Lesson #58: Cut by Twenty Exercise

Lesson #59: Pass #1–The Evil Genius Draft

Lesson #60: Pass #2–The Little Prince Draft or the ABC’s of Revision (Ambiguity, Believability, Conflict)

Lesson #61: Pass #3–The Ninja Princess or 123 T’s of Revision (Theme Overall, Touchstone Sensory Details, Twist hints throughout)

Lesson #62: Pass #4–The Court Jester (Passive Voice & Concrete Language)

Lesson #63: Pass #5–Stuffy Adviser (Redundancy¬†& Excess or Inappropriate Description)

Lesson #64: Trusted Handmaiden–Alpha & Beta Readers/Critique Partners

    Readings: Kress pgs. 216-219

Lesson #65: The Village Idiot–Incorporating Advice

Lesson #66: Adding Tension & Conflict

Lesson #67: Character Problems

Lesson #68: Voice Changes & Language problems

Lesson #69: Copy Edits and Proofreads

Lesson #70: The Town Crier–The Great Read Aloud

Why Design Your Own Personal MFA?

  1. It only helps as a writer to learn all you can to improve your craft. Even better if it won’t break the bank.
  2. The money for a university-endorsed MFA rarely pays off and since I’m old, I’d rather use the funds to help my children through their own educational pursuits.
  3. I love to learn! But most of all, I love efficiency. The curricula outlined here is meant to grasp a quicker way to move middle-grade and young adult novels from idea to publication-ready.
  4. This method works for me. If it doesn’t for you–no worries! Take what helps you and leave the rest. Design a strategy best for you to learn.
  5. This is to myself 10 years ago. I TRULY WISH I WOULD HAVE HAD THIS PROGRAM A DECADE AGO!

My Personal MFA: Reading List

Here’s the tentative reading list for my self-inflicted MFA. I haven’t found revision books to fit my needs yet (though I’ve read dozens) so the supplemental reading will be announced before we get that far into it. Enjoy and feel free to skip ahead!

Disclaimer: There is no one, sure way to write a novel. Advice is like a candy jar, feel free to take what you want, knowing you can spit it out if it’s not to your liking. I’ll be doing the same.

Techniques Reading List:

  1. SAVE THE CAT! WRITES A NOVEL: THE LAST BOOK ON NOVEL WRITING YOU’LL EVER NEED by Jessica Brody
  2. STORY GENIUS: HOW TO USE BRAIN SCIENCE TO GO BEYOND OUTLINING AND WRITE A RIVETING NOVEL by Lisa Cron
  3. GOAL, MOTIVATION, & CONFLICT by Debra Dixon (Kindle version recommended)
  4. WRITING VIVID SETTINGS by Rayne Hall (Kindle or Audible versions recommended)
  5. THE MAGIC WORDS: WRITING GREAT BOOKS FOR CHILDREN AND YOUNG ADULTS by Cheryl B. Klein
  6. WRITING IRRESISTIBLE KIDLIT: THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO CRAFTING FICTION FOR YOUNG ADULT AND MIDDLE GRADE READERS by Mary Kole
  7. CHARACTERS, EMOTION, & VIEWPOINT: TECHNIQUES AND EXERCISES FOR CRAFTING DYNAMIC CHARACTERS AND EFFECTIVE VIEWPOINTS by Nancy Kress
  8. THE FIRE IN FICTION: PASSION, PURPOSE, AND TECHNIQUES TO MAKE YOUR NOVEL GREAT by Donald Maass
  9. WRITING WITH EMOTION, TENSION, & CONFLICT: TECHNIQUES FOR CRAFTING AN EXPRESSIVE AND COMPELLING NOVEL by Cheryl St. John
  10. THE ANATOMY OF STORY: 22 STEPS TO BECOMING A MASTER STORYTELLER by John Truby

Revision Reading List:

TBA

Novel Readings for Beginnings (Read one or all):

  1. WONDER by R.J. Palacio
  2. ECHO by Pam Munoz Ryan
  3. THE THIEF by Megan Whalen Turner
  4. THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak
  5. WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead
  6. THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins

Novel Readings for Character (Read one or all):

  1. THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET by Brian Selznick
  2. THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE by Jacqueline Kelly
  3. ANNE OF GREEN GABLES by L.M. Montgomery
  4. FAR FROM THE TREE by Robin Benway
  5. MORTAL HEART by Robin LaFevers
  6. SAVVY by Ingrid Law
  7. THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Novel Readings for plot (Read one or all):

  1. HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN by J.K. Rowling
  2. A NIGHT DIVIDED by Jennifer A. Nielsen
  3. CIRCUS MIRANDUS by Cassie Beasley
  4. SIX OF CROWS by Leigh Bardugo
  5. THE SUN AND MOON, ICE AND SNOW by Jessica Day George
  6. THE WESTING GAME by Ellen Raskin
  7. WORDS ON FIRE by Jennifer A. Nielsen

Novel Readings for Setting (Read one or all):

  1. PAX by Sara Pennypacker
  2. CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE by Tomi Adeyemi
  3. THE WILD ROBOT by Peter Brown
  4. PAPER CHAINS by Elaine Vickers
  5. AIRMAN by Eoin Colfer
  6. LITTLE WOMEN by Louisa May Alcott
  7. PRINCE CASPIAN by C.S. Lewis
  8. ALL THE CROOKED SAINTS by Maggie Steifvater
  9. THE GIRL FROM EVERYWHERE by Heidi Heilig

Novel Readings for Theme (Read one or all):

  1. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee
  2. THE OVERSTORY by Richard Powers *the only adult novel on our list
  3. CODE NAMED VERITY by Elizabeth Wein
  4. THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN by Kathrine Applegate
  5. CHARLOTTE’S WEB by E.B. White
  6. A WRINKLE IN TIME by Madeline L’Engle
  7. GOOSE GIRL by Shannon Hale
  8. LOVELY WAR by Julie Berry

Novel Readings for Voice (Read one or all):

  1. THE FALSE PRINCE by Jennifer A. Nielsen
  2. THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman
  3. THE MAGICIAN’S ELEPHANT by Kate Dicamillo
  4. THE NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgenstern
  5. THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON by Kelly Barnhill

What would you add? There are so many good books, it’s hard to keep the list small!

2019: The Year of No-soons Instead of Monsoons

Little did I know when I wrote this article ( https://azdailysun.com/lifestyles/hoping-the-pleasing-monsoon-season-comes-soon/article_f9f8e540-44ef-5e99-8fac-b10d3ca61fed.html) monsoons this year would be the driest in recorded history. I live for summer monsoons here in the high desert and it was a great loss, both to the garden and the wild biodiversity around us. Words can’t even explain how much I love the monsoon weather (though I try in the article). A storm rolls in, waters everything, then it rolls out like nothing ever happened. It’s a true miracle! Here’s praying for a wet and wild winter, with snow pack enough for spring and beyond!

Co-Editing the Gardening Column

I’ve convinced a friend of mine to co-edit the local gardening column, Gardening, Etc. with me. There wasn’t anyone else to take the job on (it’s volunteer-based) but I believe getting people informed and excited about gardening is important. And my friend, Cindy, said yes, she’d do it with me. She is amazing for so many reasons! Honestly, I couldn’t have taken on the project without her. She does twice as much work as I do and keeps me on track with deadlines. It was something I needed to do to build courage in my life (can we say, living my values?) and I think both of us have stretched the moment we said yes, we’ll do it. Here’s to living our values! Here’s to helping others through information and words!

(And here’s our first post and bio intros from when we started the task:) https://azdailysun.com/lifestyles/columnists/gardening-etcetera-an-introduction-to-our-new-editors/article_32573d57-86f3-519b-9b11-c14cd69fb61e.html

What is a seed library?

Without seeds, we’ve no food. Without a wide variety of types of seeds, we’re short on food availability, biodiversity, nutritional needs met, and even flavor. Seed libraries help people learn to grow in their local environs and preserve seeds that are known to do well in the area. Here’s an article I wrote about the Grow Flagstaff! Seed Library that may interest you: https://azdailysun.com/lifestyles/columnists/gardening-etcetera-ready-for-seeds-visit-the-grow-flagstaff-seed/article_f7be69ca-145a-51bd-bca7-2baf0cc411c5.html

Lesson #1: Misinformation

(Or recognizing bad advice.)

For nearly fifteen years I’ve read good and bad writing advice on the internet and in writing books. Some of it is downright alarming what people pass off as sound writing and publishing business advice. So always question everything! Do a gut check! (This includes anything I say….)
Here are some ways to validate if the writing advice is worthy.

  1. It doesn’t stop you from writing actual manuscripts. Sometimes we get advice that either (a) scares us out of production or (b) sucks our writing time away. These can include social media posts/comments, blogs, platforms, writing conferences, and etc. Use your time to first write regularly on your WIP then let all else writing-related work come after. You may read or hear something that scares you into thinking you’re doing it wrong. If this debilitates you, also trash the advice. In fact, disregard anything that scares you out of writing actual words. There’s only one thing that will keep you from failing at becoming a writer and that’s not working regularly on your WIP.
  2. You see other writers you admire using it. Every author’s path is different, but you CAN try and emulate those you look up to. For example, I have a couple authors I really admire career-wise. I can’t control when I’ll get a book published and I can’t control how that book will do once out in the world, but I can control how often I finish a manuscript, how I treat others within the writing and reading communities, and how I portray my online presence. I use these ladies as guideposts to have the career I want. (Which, if you’re curious, is writing a manuscript a year, being generous regarding my face-to-face time with writers and readers, and having an authentic but only weekly online presence.)
  3. It lights a fire within you. Sometimes I hear advice and I get so excited to use it, I have to implement it right away. I’m especially that way about plotting tips. I’m not the same way with most revision advice. Revision is harder for me than outlining. Every writer is different. If the advice revs up your desire to try it, go for it. That fire will die pretty quick if it doesn’t resonate with you for long. Don’t keep using the advice if this happens. Let it go. This is another mistake many people make: working with the same ineffective tools over and over again. Set that dull saw aside and find new, sharper implements more to your fashion.

READING ASSIGNMENT: Brody pgs. 3-8; Cron pgs. 1-5 & 19-32; Kress pgs. 1-4 Take notes. What did you learn? Do you agree/disagree with the authors?

WRITING ASSIGNMENT: See if you can write a step by step plan of your general method when starting a book. Is there any inefficient steps that would should be removed from your process?

COMMUNITY SHARE: What is some writing advice you’ve been given that does or doesn’t sit well with you? Leave your answer in the comments. (For me, it was to do the pages and pages of character sheets and forms. I never remember what I write down anyway so they’ve never helped me get to know my character. Instead, focused understanding of a few important hallmarks of my character are best for me… but more on character development another day….)