What did I do this past June and July? I attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop at St. Anselm’s College in Manchester in New Hampshire.
That makes me officially a Class of 2016 graduate, and I couldn’t be more proud and honored.
I’ll echo what every other Odyssey graduate will tell you (you can read their blog posts here). I can’t praise the experience enough. The six weeks were incredibly demanding and rigorous. I worked from early in the morning to late at night, all day, every day, day in and day out for six weeks, and it was magnificent. I loved every minute of it. What a luxury to leave the day job and real life commitments behind, and do nothing but write and think about writing and be with other talented, dedicated, hard-working writers who are pushing you to do your best for six weeks!
It was also the single most valuable writing workshop I’ve ever taken (and I’ve taken quite a few over the years).
The quality of Odyssey is due to Jeanne Cavelos, Odyssey’s director and chief instructor. She is a brilliant teacher with years of experience teaching and editing. She understands how to help students learn. Unlike a lot of writing workshop instructors, she doesn’t teach her own personal methods and approaches. She teaches a structured, sequenced, curriculum that covers fundamentals as well as advanced aspects of writing excellent fiction. Jeanne and her approach are what makes Odyssey a uniquely superb workshop.
During the six weeks of the workshop, you practice what you’re learning from Jeanne’s lectures by writing a story each week and critiquing your classmates’ stories. In such circumstances, under such time constraints, the stories were generally imperfect, and often humiliating failures. I certainly failed over and over again. But I also tried my absolute best and I stepped way way way out of my comfort zone which was one of my personal goals for the six weeks. I cringe at the stories I wrote, but I’m also pleased with my risk-taking. My sole regret about Odyssey is that I didn’t focus even more on improving my weaknesses. Deep practice is what Odyssey is about, but sometimes that got lost in the panic of completing stories on tight deadlines. I’ve returned to some of my stories since, revised and submitted them, and one of them, “Thick as Thieves” was published. The others are waiting for me to have time, energy, and inspiration to return to them.
I’ve never met a writer who isn’t consumed with self-doubt at least some of the time. Newer writers often seek validation that they are good enough to be writers from a seasoned professional and that is their primary motivation for applying to prestigious workshops like Odyssey, Clarion, Viable Paradise. I have a different take on writing. I’ve always believed success at writing is ultimately not based on how good you are, but how hard you’re willing to work to make your fiction good. Instead of focusing on myself, I try to focus on my fiction. That’s the best piece of advice I can give about applying to, getting accepted to, and attending Odyssey, and also about writing in general.
I applied to and attended Odyssey because I realized I needed help getting to the next level. Odyssey did that and more for me. It was a game-changer for my fiction. I returned home with a well-stocked toolkit of techniques and skills. I returned absolutely transformed, and I’ve continued to transform more ever since, as the lessons I learned at Odyssey continued to sink in, deepen, mature, and I continue to try to apply them and hone my craft.
I also found through Odyssey a superb community of writers who continue to support and be supported by me and with whom I re-connect every year at Odyssey-graduate only TNEO.
Lastly, you may ask why a historical fiction writer wanted to attend a workshop that focuses on science fiction/fantasy/horror (also known as speculative fiction)? I’ve always thought of historical fiction as a type of science fiction and it turns out many literary scholars think so too. According to the renown critic Edward James, science fiction is about possible futures and historical fiction is about possible pasts. Maybe that’s why so many historians enjoy reading and watching science fiction? Historians (I am one) also are quite aware that historical scholarship, historical non-fiction, and historical fiction are on a spectrum, a continuum. They are all interpretations of the past, possible pasts, based in varying degrees on known facts. Historical fiction, in particular, requires as much imagination and worldbuilding as it does historical research.
As for nitty gritty practicalities–we were housed in comfortable, well-maintained two bedroom campus apartments. The campus is lovely and quiet, especially for walks, and my tiny bedroom was cozy. Some people found a little time for cooking, most of us did not. The workload of learning, critiquing and writing is enormous. Herculean is not an exaggeration. In addition to hours in class Monday-Friday, we critiqued 12-18k words of fiction five days a week, wrote a 6k story a week, did writing exercises, attended evening lectures and events such as Readercon, etc. At that pace, six weeks is grueling, even if you can manage to get enough sleep, eat right, and get exercise. By the end Jeanne, my classmates, and I were utterly exhausted. But it was the best six weeks of my life and I would do it again in a heartbeat.
If you’re tempted to apply to Odyssey, I say, yes, go for it! Don’t delay. You never know what the future will hold and life is all too short. In my case, for a long time, it never occurred to me that I could manage to get six weeks off from the day job. It turned out, with a year’s worth of planning and maneuvering, it was possible. Take your time with the application. If you’re not primarily an sf/f/h writer, acceptance is competitive, but not impossible. In my case, I had some factors in my favor. In the past, I’d taken a number of Odyssey’s excellent Online Classes which I can’t recommend highly enough. (If you can’t get away or afford six weeks, think about the Odyssey Online Classes. They’re just as rigorous.) Also, I’ve always enjoyed sf/f/h, I occasionally attempted to write s/f/h, and my local critique group has lots of sf/f/h writers.
If you have questions about applying to Odyssey, the experience, or the practicalities, please feel free to contact me and I’ll try to help.