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21W.773, Fall 2009


Prereq: A fiction workshop or permission of instructor

Designed for students who have some experience in writing fiction and want to try longer forms like the novella and novel. Students interested in writing a novel are expected to produce at least two chapters and an outline of the complete work. Readings include several novels from Fitzgerald to the present, and novellas from Gogol's The Overcoat to current examples. Students discuss one another's writing in a roundtable workshop, with a strong emphasis on revision.


  • 16 Sept - Assignment 1: Write a short chapter-by-chapter outline of a novel you recently read, and perhaps enjoyed. What would you change?
  • 23 Sept - Decide whether you want to work on a novella or a novel.
  • 7 Oct - Assignment 2:
    • Novel - a draft of your synopsis plus some pages of the text.
    • Novella - the first 10-12 pages and a note about where you think you're headed.
  • 28 Oct - Assignment 3:
    • Novel - The first draft of your synopsis and sample chapters.
    • Novella - first draft of your novella.
  • 4 Nov - Assignment 4: A paper on an approved topic. This can be an analysis of one of the novels, based on your presentation* given to the class. Otherwise, come up with a topic or help me suggest one for you.

    * The first day of class, I'll ask for volunteers to help start the discussions about the novel readings. It's basically writing a general paper about the novel, a presentation thirty to forty-five minutes long. If you do this, you don't have to write an analytical paper for Assignment 4.

  • Two weeks after return of Assignment 3 - Assignment 5: rewrite of Assignment 3.


At least fifty percent of your grade will be based on Assignment 5.

For this course you'll read and analyze four novellas and five short novels. (Actually, Being There and Go With Me are more like long novellas than short novels.) You will read and comment on one another's work, in an informal roundtable workshop.

You have two options: novel or novella. Of course you don't have to write a whole novel in one semester; what I'm asking for is a synopsis (5-10 pp.) and at least two chapters (more than 25 pp.).

A "page" is defined as about 270 words - an old typewriter convention, 27 lines of double-spaced 12-point Courier type.

A novella is a long story. The commercial definition is a story between 12,500 words and 40,000 words long. The structural, or artistic, definition is a little more interesting.

I'm not Procrustean about it. You don't have to present a story 46.3 pages long. Anything over thirty pages is long enough if it's good enough. There are, obviously, two kinds of bad novellas: the bloated short story and the gutted novel. We'll talk about what makes a good novella.

Here's something to keep in mind, when you're thinking about which direction to take: endings are hard. For me, a novella is harder to write than the first couple of chapters of a novel, plus a synopsis. The novella has to be a finished, rounded piece of work. The novel "package" is a work in progress.

Reading Assignments

There will be a little bit of writing every week. I want you to write about a page (as defined above) about the reading assignment. It's sufficient just to say whether you liked it or not, and why. You might also think about whether it might work for other people, or not.

Please email me those comments by early morning before class on Wednesday. A whole day before would be nice.

This is the only work I will accept on-line. Everything else is to be printed out on paper.


9 Sept

Read for next week: The Great Gatsby

16 Sept

Assignment 1 due:

Write a short chapter-by-chapter outline of a novel or novella you recently read, and perhaps enjoyed. What would you change?

Read for next week: The Devil's Arithmetic

Tell me whether you will be working on a novel or a novella.

23 Sept

Read for next week: Being There

30 Sept

Read for next week: Go With Me

7 Oct

Assignment 2 due:

Novel - a draft of your synopsis plus some pages of the text. Novella - the first 10-12 pages and a note about where you think you're headed.

Read for next week: Little Brother

14 Oct

Read for next week: "Sailing to Byzantium", "Mr. Boy".

Two student stories will be workshopped.

21 Oct

Read for next week: "Beggars in Spain", "Outnumbering the Dead"

Two student stories will be workshopped.

28 Oct

Assignment 3 due:

Novel - The first draft of your synopsis and sample chapters. Novella - first draft of your novella.

By 28 October, clear the topic of your essay with me.*

* Five people will have the option, in lieu of writing a paper, of doing a general presentation about the novel under consideration each week. This would be an informal 30-45 minute talk about the work's strengths and weaknesses, its critical reputation, how it stands in relation to other works in its genre, and so forth.

I'll pass out a list the second week of class. If you dread public speaking, just don't sign up. If more than one person signs up for a novel, the lucky one will be picked at random (it's probably easier than doing a paper, for most people, since you have to read the book anyhow).

Three student stories will be workshopped.

4 Nov

Three student stories will be workshopped.

11 Nov

No class meeting - go buy a veteran a drink

18 Nov

Assignment 4 due:

Your essay (or the talk you gave in conjunction with the novel) .

Three student stories will be workshopped.

25 Nov

No class meeting - go stuff a turkey

Two of your stories will be workshopped on 14 October and 21 October. For the rest of the semester, three stories will be workshopped every week.

There will be no class meeting on 11 November - go buy a veteran a drink - or on 25 November - go stuff a turkey.

Manuscript presentation

Stories must be printed out double-spaced on white paper. Space-and-a-half is okay if it's comfortable to read. Stories copied for workshopping may be printed out single-spaced to cut down on your copying costs.

(Students may arrange to send one another email copies. The teacher still gets paper copies - all stories and all critiques.

E-mailed critiques do not exist and will not count toward your grade.

Inked-in corrections are fine so long as they are legible and unambiguous.

You won't be formally graded on the physical appearance of your manuscript (with one exception: if it isn't typed or printed out, I won't read it) or on your mastery of grammar and spelling. But don't kid yourself. I am almost human, and the less trouble I have reading your manuscript, the better I will feel toward your story.

(To this end, you will receive a bitchy handout called "Grammar: High Crimes and Misdemeanors." Read it and try to remember some of it.)

If you have persistent problems with grammar or basic composition skills, I'll ask that you seek help from the Writing Center, located at 12-132 (a pink slip means I'm requiring, not "asking"). It's hard to scrape up a couple of extra hours per week, I know, but many people have found that time spent at the Center was as valuable as any course work, even in their majors. The people who work there are professional analysts and tutors, and can save you a lot of rewriting time.

Workshop Procedure

Third class meeting, I pass the hat: eighteen slips of paper with dates on them. On that date you will workshop your story, or face death by Mongo.

During the break you can buy, sell, trade with each other. After the break I record who's when.

You will always hand out eighteen copies of your story on or before the Wednesday class meeting the week before workshopping.

Everybody prepares a written critique (one page, more or less, depending on the length and complexity of the story) and brings two copies to class - one for the writer and one for me.

In a roundtable fashion, your classmates in turn either read their critiques or make oral summaries, especially if reading would take more than a few minutes. I read last.

The author is not allowed to speak during these presentations.

Afterwards, the author may take a reasonable length of time to indulge in self-defense. Then a free-for-all to round out the hour.

You receive between one and five points per critique - zero in extremity - based on logic, clarity, and depth. Insofar as it is humanly possible, you aren't graded on whether I agree with your opinion of the story.

Some people never get this far in the syllabus, or don't actually believe it, and all semester they hand in critiques that are a couple of hastily jotted paragraphs. Zero times thirty, ouch.

CI Class - Oral Component

Something new this year: This class is a "CI" (Communication Intensive) class, and so it requires an "oral component," besides normal class participation, for a grade. All you have to do to get this credit is lead the workshop for one student's story. On the third class meeting, we'll discuss what this entails, and assign each person's story to another person for roundtable leadership.

Negative Criticism

Two points, perhaps obvious, about the preparation of your critiques:

  • Even if you didn't like a person's story, try to find something positive to say about it. Your negative criticism will then be taken more seriously.
  • If your criticisms of other manuscripts are consistently vicious, don't be surprised or hurt if your own work is torn apart with red-hot tongs.

Plagiarism and Collaboration

Plagiarism earns an automatic F for the whole semester and will be reported to the Registrar. Period. We'll discuss in class the difference between plagiarism and "influence." Basically, if you made it up yourself, it's okay, even if somebody else made up a similar thing, unbeknownst to you.

Collaboration isn't allowed, but that doesn't mean you can't pass the story around for advice. If your grammar is really lousy, you might want to run things by a friend who's a grammar whiz, or consult the Writing Center, before you subject me to them.

Grammar and Style

The old-fashioned screed The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White, is recommended for people who have persistent problems with grammar and style. You can read through it in a couple of hours. Skip the stuff you already know and mark the unfamiliar stuff, and use the marked parts as a guide.

Good Things

Two nice things about this course (honest!) are that the textbooks are cheap and the workload tapers off toward the end of the semester.

Contact Details

Office hours Wed. 2-4. Anytime by appointment. 14N-234 (X7390)

Home phone 352-225-0557. Please don't call before 9 a.m. or after 9 p.m.

E-mail address: haldeman[at] or, if the MIT system melts down, haldeman[at]