How I Spent My Summer: Odyssey Writing Workshop 2016

What did I do in June and July?  I attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop at Saint Anselm’s College in Manchester, New Hampshire.

That makes me officially a Class of 2016 graduate, and I couldn’t be more proud and honored.

students and instructors posed in class photo

Odyssey Class of 2016

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 and distractions 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 proud of my risk-taking.  My biggest 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. (But in an odd twist of fate, the story I almost used for my application, The Walk Home at Midnight, was published later, whereas the piece I submitted with my application languishes in a drawer.)

I’ve never met a writer who isn’t consumed with self-doubt at least some of the time (including me). 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. That was not me. I have a different take on writing. I’ve always believed success at writing is ultimately not based on whether you have “talent” (whatever that even means), 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 and let go of my ego. That’s the best piece of advice I can give about 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 even more ever since, as the lessons I learned at Odyssey continued to sink in, deepen, mature, and I continue to apply them in new writing and hone my craft.

At Odyssey, I also found a superb community of writers who continue to support me and be supported by me and with whom I re-connect every year at the Odyssey-graduate only workshop TNEO.

As for every day practicalities about Odyssey–The campus is indeed lovely. I took many excellent brainstorming walks around it. We were housed in comfortable two bedroom campus apartments. My apartment-mate became my bff during the workshop and remains a bff to this day. My tiny bedroom was spartan but cozy and special because it was dedicated to writing– my own private writing cubby. Some classmates found time for cooking, D&D, or Sunday night’s episode of Game of Thrones, many of us did not. The workload of learning, study, reading, critiquing, and writing is enormous. Gargantuan is not an exaggeration. I personally did not do any all-nighters, but a few classmates occasionally did.  In addition to hours spent in daily class Monday-Friday, we critiqued two or three short stories (12-18k words) each day five days a week, wrote an original 6k story each week (mostly on the weekends), did writing exercises, attended evening lectures and social events, and spent a day at Readercon. At that pace, six weeks is grueling, even if you can manage to get enough sleep, eat right, and exercise. By the end of it, 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.

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 renowned 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 a spectrum, on a continuum. They are all interpretations of the past, possible pasts, based in varying degrees on known facts. Writing historical fiction, like writing science fiction, requires as much imagination and worldbuilding as it does research.

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.  I wish I’d done Odyssey a decade ago, but I probably wasn’t ready for it.

In my case, for the longest 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 and saving vacation days and supportive supervisors, it was possible.

In order to flourish at Odyssey, you need a deep and wide love of sf/f/h. In my case, as I said above historical fiction is science fiction. Additionally, I’ve always enjoyed reading sf/f/h, I occasionally attempted to write s/f/h (my gosh it’s hard), and my local critique group has always had lots of sf/f/h writers. Previously I’d taken a number of Odyssey’s excellent Online Classes which I can’t recommend highly enough. (If you can’t get away for or afford six weeks for the Odyssey Workshop, consider the Odyssey Online Classes. They’re a great value and just as rigorous.) And if you’re wondering whether Odyssey is right for you (it might not be right or everyone), Odyssey Online Classes can help you get a feel and decide.

If you have questions about applying to Odyssey, the experience, or the practicalities, tweet or email me.

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