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Crafting Fiction - Independent (NCAA Approved)

Open to: Grades 8 - 12
Eligibility: CTY-level or Advanced CTY-level verbal score required
Prerequisites: Successful completion of CTY Online Programs Writing Analysis and Persuasion – Independent or Writing Analysis & Persuasion – Peer Review, or any of CTY’s Critical Essay summer courses (last offered in 2016)
Challenge Level: College undergraduate
Course Format: Session Based. See calendar for session dates and application deadlines.
Recommended School Credit: One-half academic year
Course Length: 20 weeks (Early Fall, Late Fall, Winter, Spring), 12 weeks (Early Summer), or 6 weeks (Late Summer) 
Course Code: IFIC

Course Description

Alternating literary analysis with imaginative writing, students examine principles and practices of fiction writing, such as plot, theme, and character development. Fiction assignments are typical of those in John Gardner's books The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist and of those in undergraduate fiction courses such as the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars.

The course strongly emphasizes comprehensive revision based on comments from the instructor. By the end of the course, students have polished pieces of short fiction which demonstrate their working knowledge of the principal tenets of writing fiction.

Grammar Note

Skilled, careful writers follow the conventions of Standard Written English, but writing is much more than mere adherence to convention. Instructors discuss grammar only when it affects meaning. Writing courses are not remedial. Students must already be proficient in Standard Written English.

Course Details


Skills/Concepts Emphasized:

#1: Character Sketch Based on Photographs

Creating a character through character history and back-story; selecting character detail; the importance of showing versus telling in writing; the resonance of image in story

#2: Beginning a Story

Analysis of story beginnings; effective strategies for beginning a story and introducing character, setting, and/or narrative situation

#3: Character Sketch Based on an Imagined Character and Description of Character Performing an Everyday Action

Creating a character through character likes and dislikes, physical details, personal possessions, spoken language or thoughts, gestures that reveal a character’s personality and psychology

#4: Ending a Story, Ursula Hegi’s “Doves”

Close reading to understand the “clues” a narrative holds for how a writer might end a story; imitation of an author’s writing style; using the present tense in storytelling; creating satisfying closure to a story

#5: First Draft, Short Story Using Character from Assignment 3

Crafting a character-driven story; the “center” of stories

# 6: Inspiration, Place, and Story

Using music as a source for inspiration (brainstorming, pre-writing); attention to setting detail; using musical tone to understand tone and tonal effects in language

#7: Revision of Short Story from Assignment 5

Revision (beginning and ending, character development, narrative movement/plot, narrative structure, voice) and editing (language choice, grammar, punctuation) 

#8: First Draft, Short Story Using Pre-writing to Music from Assignment 6

How setting/place shapes story and story shapes setting/place; relationship of character(s) to setting; creating a narrative from descriptive writing

#9: Short-Shorts and Microfiction

Pacing; narrative modes (summary, scene, dialogue, indirect discourse); irony; word choice; resolving a story within a small narrative space

#10: Revision of Short Story from Assignment 8

Revision (beginning and ending, character development, narrative movement/plot, narrative structure, voice) and editing (language choice, grammar, punctuation)

Time Required

  • 2 hours weekly for the 20-week sessions (Early Fall, Late Fall, Winter, Spring)
  • 3.5 hours weekly for the 12-week session (Early Summer)
  • 1.5 hours daily Monday - Friday during the intensive 6-week session (Late Summer)

Sample First Assignment


Welcome to another year of writing!

Your fiction course requires both imaginative and critical writing. Your assignments are typical of those in John Gardner's books The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist and of those in undergraduate fiction courses.

Your first assignment, which was prepared by instructor Tracy Wallace, is:

Character Sketch Based on Photographs

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Chose five or six photos of yourself or of one relative. Then write paragraph long descriptions of each photo. Together, your five or six paragraphs, or prose snapshots, will comprise a character sketch of just one subject (either you or your one relative).

An example paragraph:

Here's a picture of my grandmother in the mid-1960's taken when she was in her early 50's. It's black and white. She's looking at the Grand Canyon through a pair of binoculars. She's wearing a faded, paisley dress and clunky, orthopedic shoes. My grandfather took the picture, which is appropriate since all his life he was looking at her while she was looking into the distance. My grandmother was an intelligent, inquisitive woman who always regretted the social convention that made her drop out of college when she married. She had probably read several library books about the southwest before she headed for Arizona with my grandfather in their big Buick and small trailer. Her head is probably swimming with facts about the Indians as she scans the horizon. Her body is like the big rocks in the background of the picture. Some people might call her fat. But what I see is a woman not afraid to take up space on this planet, a woman who is strong and constant, and enormously beautiful, just like the looming red rocks of the Grand Canyon.

The above example is only one paragraph. If I were to continue my character sketch based on photographs, I might include a picture of my grandmother as a young girl, looking mean and sassy; a picture of her at her wedding, looking regal and stunned; a picture of her as a young woman with my mother and uncle on either hip, looking overwhelmed and surprisingly flirtatious; and a picture of her at my college graduation. If I were going to do myself, likewise I would choose pictures of myself as a baby, a child, and an adolescent, as well as some more recent shots, like the one taken of me last spring at San Marco, Venice in my tan duster raincoat, looking as if I'm an aging member of the R.E.M. generation (which is how my friend describes me).

Your photos should all be of the same person. You are creating a single character sketch based on five or six photographs.

Items to Consider

  1. Be sure to tell information that your picture doesn't show. For instance, I said how my grandmother regretted the social convention that required her to drop out of college when she married and how my grandparents came from Pennsylvania in their big Buick and small trailer.
  2. Don't forget the adage show, don't tell. William Strunk, Jr. writes: "If those who have studied the art of writing are in accord on any one point, it is one this: the surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by being specific, definite, and concrete. The greatest writers . . . are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter." I could have said that my grandmother was an unattractive dresser. Instead I said that she wore "a faded, paisley dress and clunky, orthopedic shoes." Likewise, I could have stopped with the statement that my grandmother was an intelligent woman, but I threw in the "several library books" to establish an image.
  3. Part of character development involves the author's opinion of the character. Be sure to make your feelings clear. In the picture of my grandmother, I say how some people would call her fat, but I saw her as "a woman not afraid to take up space." I make my respect and love for her known. Part of character development also includes other people's opinions. In my paragraph above, I said how my grandfather "was always looking at my grandmother while she was looking elsewhere." I make it clear in that one line that my grandmother held the power in their relationship.
  4. Some basics of characterization include appearance, speech, action and thought. In the picture of my grandmother, I use appearance (not just what she was wearing, but her body type), action (she's looking out at the rocks with the binoculars), and thought. I don't use speech, but in my next prose snapshot, I might say something like, "A practical woman, my grandmother always spoke in maxims."

Why You're Doing This Assignment

Fiction starts with what you know. Characters certainly begin with yourself and with your closest relationships. That's part of why I want you to kick off this fiction course with a nonfiction assignment. But by all means, you're welcome to fictionalize. Make any (or even all) details up. The aim is to produce a convincing, interesting, believable person based on photos.

Nuts and Bolts

  1. If you want, you may scan your photos to send along with your assignment, but it's not necessary.
  2. It's fine to use photos that include other people as well as you or your one relative. For instance, another photo in my grandmother sketch might be of her as a young woman holding her two small children on either hip. But remember that you should focus on your one subject (you or your relative).
  3. Your character sketch should be five or six good-sized paragraphs long. Double space your last draft.
  4. Please put your name, assignment number and the date at the top of the first page. Name your file: FirstnameLastnameAssignment1.doc

I'm looking forward to see what you have done!

Technical Requirements

This course requires a properly maintained computer with high-speed internet access and an up-to-date web browser (such as Chrome or Firefox). The student must be able to communicate with the instructor via email. Visit the Technical Requirements and Support page for more details.



"This course tested my writing abilities in an extremely fun yet challenging way. It was great!"

"I absolutely loved this course for its unique, useful exercises and wonderful instructor!"

"I found Crafting Fiction to be a very interesting course, and only helped to strengthen my love of fiction writing. I hope to continue taking CTY courses in the future."

"I really like the fiction writing class, [Instructor's First Name] is a great teacher and I like all the assignment questions and his comments. I learned a great deal!"

"It was an amazing experience and journey for me. I learned how to come up with entirely new stories every week. I realized how difficult it could be to vary each story's tone and plot while remaining true to my own style. I loved the course and was very satisfied with the results."

"Taking this course was actually the first time I had ever wrote a fictional story that I was proud of. In school, the restraints stifled my creativity, but here, I was actually able to create successful stories. I've become much more interested in writing fiction, either for the heck of it, or as a potential career."

"The teacher, was extremely thorough in explaining the lessons and offering advice."

"Ms. S was outstanding! Her comments and suggestions were always constructive and our daughter, P, found it easy to incorporate what she learned in the critiques into her next assignment. This is P's third CTY online summer program and she enjoyed every assignment. We've seen a significant improvement in P's writing as a result of these courses.

"Many thanks and P plans on taking other CTY courses."