English 3420 Syllabus


Intermediate Fiction Writing - lLast Updated August 22, 2017




I'm Lee Ann Mortensen and I have a MFA terminal degree in Creative Writing from the University of Utah.  Though I have written in a variety of genres, I primarily focus on neo-postmodern, sort of minimalist prose/fiction that focuses on marginalized voices in the West. Click here to read my sometimes upsetting, angry, funny, four-letter-word work (that means it isn't everything for everyone). I've been published in journals like Ploughshares, River Styx and Prism International.

OFFICE: Liberal Arts room CB410d--E.mail is the best way to get ahold of me during the school year.
HOURS: I'm usually in my office CB410d MW 4-5pm, 8:30pm-9:30pm, or by appointment; often I'm in our classroom CB413 M & W from 1pm to 3:50pm, and 5pm to to 8:25pm where you can catch me between classes. Be sure to also take advantage of consultation days--see the Web Calendar.
PHONE: 801-863-8785 (currently isn't working)
E.MAIL: mortenle@uvu.edu.

--see Amazon for Kindle versions


In Best American Short Stories, Amy Tan tells us a number of stories about her past in order to explain her  choices in the collection.  What are fictional tastes based on?  Your father reading fairy tales to you?  Your need to collect green paper?  Your inability to get over a broken, 16-year-old heart?  Your subjectivities, or what I like to call your fetish-obsessions, are the very places you need to look into to find your deepest, best, most original work.  Some authors are obsessed their whole lives with a single subject, like their father never giving them love, or their clashing sexualities, or their love of the west.  What are your obsessions?  Of course even if you can figure out what you really want to write about, you need to be aware that only time and practice, as John Gardner (one of the gurus of traditional fiction) says, can really make us better writers.

One of Lee's (and everyone else's) rules: Reading makes you a better writer. 

Amy Tan's advice to read a story a day is something every writer should take to heart.  In this class, you will learn more about the art of fiction by not only consuming the work of Tan's best  short story writers of 1999 (they're really good), but you will also be exposed to another amazing contemporary author, David Foster Wallace.  You will also read about the writing craft from some of the best authors in Letters to a Fiction Writer--advice that can keep you going when writing seems too hard.

One of Lee's (and everyone else's) rules: Writing practice makes you a better writer. 

Though you may be the type that doesn't need "practice", we will play with a number of writing exercises that will help you stretch yourselves, learn more about elements of writing stories, learn more about language-based and experimental writing, and also help you find story ideas, a big problem for some writers.  These exercises, along with other observations, ideas, and reactions, will be kept in your Writerly Journal (a thing most writers have).

One of Lee's (and everyone else's) rules: Critiquing others and being critiqued makes you a better writer.

How do people learn to write?  In all kinds of ways, but often writers pay good money to have other people read and comment on their work.  These peer and professional comments can really help accelerate your ability to see your work through different eyes, eyes that are not in love with every word on your page.  It will be scary for those of you who have never done it, but we will be respectful, and we will hope that you always try to learn from the comments, whether you use them or not, whether you like them or not.  Giving critiques to others also hones your ability to see your own work more clearly--some of you have never given critiques, so you will find yourselves really stretching in this class, and that's very good for you as a writer.

One of Lee's (and everyone else's) rules: Incubation makes you a better writer. 

After writing a story, I like to let it sit for at least a day or so (longer if I've been revising the story a lot).  I don't look at it, don't look at comments about it, but I often think about it.  Sometimes I dream about it, and then find that crucial idea I couldn't see a few days before.  When I come back to the story, it is also much clearer to me.  I can begin to really notice where the pacing is off, where the description is too heady, where a character's motivation isn't sound, where the voice and language lag.   In this class, you will automatically be forced to incubate as you write new stories and leave the first ones in a drawer for a while.  You may have a month from the time you write your first story to the time when you need to turn a revision in to me, so use the time between drafting to avoid looking at the piece you most want me to see.

One of Lee's (and everyone else's) rules: Revision makes you a much better writer. 

Some people draft and revise in their heads, then begin writing something that seems perfect and as if it popped onto the page without pain.   Most authors, however, go through the heartache, fun, and intensity of multiple revisions before they feel a piece is finished.   My first drafts almost always suck, though I often like them anyway.  My real awareness of the piece comes after I have revised it so many times I lose count (15, 20, 30 times, who knows).  Be aware that I'm not talking about editing grammar here.  Deep revision often seems to come from questions like: What is this character's real weakness?  What subtle problem with  this scene is stopping the narrative?  This dialogue is an easy out--what are they really trying to talk about?  The language is overtly and simplistically poetic--how can I tone it down and yet retain my style?

One of Lee's rules: Passion and attention and courage make you a better writer.

These things are hard, but I have to say them.  No hot writer I know can be lackadaisical.  Paying attention to the world, to all the subtleties in your work, is essential, but these are not things I can teach.  Having the courage to write no matter what is also a must especially when we are not in love with the piece we are currently working on.  I can't teach you this either.  You just have to plug along and do the work no matter how bad it might seem (I have to do this too).


1. Attendance is, of course, essential: Your voice adds greatly to our community of writers in a workshop, and when you are not here, our class, and our learning, are hugely, and obviously, diminished.  You can miss 3 class periods without penalty.  After that, your grade will go down.  If you miss more than 5 classes, you will not pass this class.  If you arrive late 3 times, this will also count as one of your absences.  You are allowed to make up a maximum of 2 absences with extra credit assignments (see below).

2. Your active participation with readings, in-class discussions, workshops, Internet exchanges, and in-class writing is the best way for you to learn more about writing.  Intelligent discussion helps to expand your mind, and your mind is your most important creative writing tool.  Do not be shy.  Please think and speak actively in this class.

3. Respect and Maturity are absolutely necessary, especially when we will be looking at diverse writing by those who accept criticism as if it were a dagger in the spine. I will assume you are all mature adults and treat you accordingly until you show me otherwise. You dictate the level of respect.

4. NO CELL PHONES or other distracting devices or apps or ear buds etc. If I allow you to have laptops, and I tell you put away them away and face me, please close them. If I see or hear you on your phone, I will automatically deduct 5 points for each time I see you with it. This Salon article about not tweeting during Breaking Bad might give insight into multitasking problems.

5. LATE WORK: Writing Assignments must be turned in the day they are due or you will lose 5 points. 

Always keep a photo copy and disk backup for yourself. Always keep your work saved on multiple diskettes.  Endorse assignments in using publication submission format.  For fiction, double space everything except your personal information (unless you are experimenting).  Place this information in the top left corner like this:

Last Name 1

Your Name
Your Full Address
Your Phone Number
Word Count: XXX

Title of Story

      This is the beginning of your story.  Please double space so that we

can write a lot of comments in the margins and between lines.  This is

standard publication format.  If, however, you actually want to play

with your formatting, line breaks, paragraph styles, etc., after you put

in the usual page info at the top, you may format as you like.

6. I advise you to word process your creative work (duh).  All of you can use the Open Lab computers in SC 116; SB101; AD007; SC215.  Go to the Center for Student Computing Web site for more information at http://www.uvu.edu/studentcomputing/openlabs/. Don't write fiction on your phones or Ipads--this often creates huge amounts of errors.

7. Be sure to pay attention to your course Calendar or Assignments on Canvas. There is also a backup web Calendar to up you keep up with the work, and review Lee's lecture notes.  Also watch your Canvas Announcements or E. Mail for news, clarifications, assignments, and updates.  Your on-campus UVLink E. Mail system can be set to forward messages to your most used email address (so please set this up). You can send me E. Mail at mortenle@uvu.edu

8.Students with Disabilities - If you have any disability which may impair your ability to successfully complete this course, please contact the Accessibility Services Department (WB 146; 863-8747). Academic accommodations are granted for all students who have qualified disabilities. Services are coordinated with the student and instructor by the Accessibility Services Department. I must have a letter from their office to give you accomodations. I have to do this same thing to receive accomodations.

9. If you have not had a College Writing I course yet or its equivalent, or if you have not had 2250 or 225H, please see me.

10. Remember, no children are allowed in classrooms at UVU--please visit the Wee Care Center.

11. Final exams cannot be taken early.


What appears below is a possibility--the Web Calendar and Canvas will lay out your assignments and points in detail under Grades (subject to change as needed). Grades are partially based on a percentage of the work completed, though in my experience everything completed on time usually results in a B or higher. A's are not dependent on effort but on your ability to write creatitively and think critically at a more intense literary level on all your assignments and in your participation. If you turn in a lot of late work, or if you are missing more than a few assignments, you may not be able to pass the class. If you miss too much class (5 classes) you may not be able to pass the class.

Every "Point" (or move toward favorability) Counts (subject to change)!   YOU WILL LIKELY BE GRADED ON A PERCENTAGE OF THE WORK YOU COMPLETE, AS WELL AS THE QUALITY OF YOUR WORK, and your attentance/participation. These estimates are subject to change--see Canvas.

Writing Assignments:

Other Assignments:

Extra Credit (to make up for a maximum of 2 absences you will need to complete 2 extra credit assignments):

Points and assignments are subject to change.  Grade is based on a percentage of the total points and other negotiations. See below and see Canvas for details.


Computer Labs: The CSC computer openlabs (SC116; SB101; AD007; CS215) are open for you to do your work. 

Writing Lab: (LI 208) Tutors are available to help you learn more about grammar--though creative writing often breaks grammar rules as well.  You can also use their on-line Writing Center though most tutors will focus on genres other than creative writing.  Lab personnel will not fix or edit errors. They will mark some spelling, grammar or punctuation errors, but they will not correct these errors. They will make general suggestions about how you can learn to fix the problems on your own. If I have to send editors perfect work, you have to "send" me perfect work as well for your final drafts.


Academic Honesty/Plagiarism Statement: Plagiarism, or the use of others’ words or ideas without proper attribution, is an impediment to your education and to the educational mission of Utah Valley University. Under the policy of the English and Literature Department of UVU, work that has been plagiarized must receive a failing grade. A distinction is made between unintentionally plagiarized work, which must be corrected in order to be considered for a passing grade, and intentional plagiarism, which will be forwarded to the Office of the Dean of Student Life as a disciplinary matter in accordance with UVU’s statement on Student Rights and Responsibilities. Evidence of intentional plagiarism will cause you to fail this course. Please refer to http://www.uvu.edu/english/student/plagiarism.html to read the department’s full statement on plagiarism, and speak to your instructor if you have any questions about avoiding plagiarism.  Please also be aware that there is a difference between plagiarism and pastiche (like a DJ sampling other's work), a postmodern writing technique, but not everyone knows about this.


Ok, so either I make A LOT of comments on your work, or give your work a grade, and you feel bad, or I don't make very many comments or don't give you a grade and you feel cheated.  Usually I prefer to make a lot of comments and not give you grades (grades on works-in-progress seem punishing and silly).  Sometimes I do give grades, but they seem false.

I make A LOT of comments on your work.  These comments are based on my bias toward tightly revised, cliché-free language, consistently interesting voices, playful experimentation, believability, strangeness, as well as comments focused on the writing elements we discuss in class.  These comments do not reflect the kind of grade you will get in my class.  It is very difficult to finish an outstanding, perfect piece of writing in one semester.  Most of us will continue to revise the pieces we create in here for many years to come.  Often I will only give you my grade estimate for your overall performance at the midterm and then at the end of the course.  You can always ask me for a grade estimate as we go through the course.

However, your final grade does have to reflect your writing ability.   Attending class each day, participating, being a thoughtful critic, reading well, doing your write-ups, having a lot of generated work (that also takes some risks), and making good, brave revisions can certainly put you in a higher grade category, so do not feel like there is no hope even if your writing is still inexperienced (or boring). The fewer late assignments, the better, obviously.

So, what might be the best writing?


Copyright © Lee Ann Mortensen 2017