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An Interview with Jeanne Cavelos : The Odyssey Writing Workshop

on Fri, 01/13/2017 - 08:09

This year, make writing your priority! If you are looking to enhance your skills, perhaps consider joining a workshop such as The Odyssey Writing Workshop.

Since 1996, The Odyssey Writing Workshop has become one of the most highly reputable programs for writers of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Fifty-nine percent of Odyssey graduates go on to professional publication. Among Odyssey’s graduates are New York Times bestsellers, Amazon bestsellers, and award winners. Students are taught by top authors, agents, and editors, who serve as guest lecturers and provide in-depth feedback on manuscripts.

This six-week workshop is held each summer in Manchester, New Hampshire at Saint Anslem’s College. This summer’s workshop runs from June 5th to July 14, 2016. Class meets for over four hours each day, five days a week, for both workshopping and lectures.

Jeanne Cavelos is the director of The Odyssey Writing Workshop, as well as a writer, editor, and scientist. Among her work includes the bestselling trilogy, The Passing of the Techno-Mages and her highly praised The Science of the X-Files. Working individually with students, she provides them with the insight they need to excel in their writing. I was very intrigued to learn about the workshop as well as her experiences as both a writer and teacher of the program, so I decided to ask her some questions.

LISA: Tell us a little bit about yourself. In your experience as a science fiction writer and editor, what have you learned about yourself and your writing that has proved to be most valuable?

JEANNE: I've been writing fiction since I was seven years old; I wrote a science fiction musical when I was ten.  But as I went through high school and college, I felt that writing was self-indulgent and that I needed to do something more "important" in my career.  I majored in astrophysics and math with the goal of becoming a science specialist on the space shuttle.  I worked in the Astronaut Training Division at NASA before I finally realized that the nuts and bolts of space travel were not what inspired me.  What inspired me were fictional dreams of adventures and tragedies that might occur in some future world.  I decided that, whether it was "important" or not, I wanted to write.  

It was only many years later that I realized fiction writing is every bit as "important"--if not more so--than being an astronaut.  I realized that, for a reader, a story can provide motivation, comfort, insight, pleasure, a feeling of belonging, and perhaps a more rewarding and emotional experience than the reader is having in his life.   

I think many writers devalue writing and feel that it has to wait until after they've fulfilled all other responsibilities--including laundry and cleaning under the couch cushions.  Believing in what you're doing--that it's important, that it's worth doing--can allow you to make it more of a priority in your life.  Rather than finding time for writing, you need to make time for writing.  You need to believe that with your fiction you're saying something no one else is saying, something critical for readers to hear, and if you don't say it, no one will.  

Once I made the decision to devote my life to fiction writing and earned my MFA in creative writing, I decided that a good "day job" would be to work at a publishing house.  I became an editorial assistant at Bantam Doubleday Dell and gradually worked my way up to senior editor.  What I didn't realize when I started was that reading submissions and editing the work of other writers is one of the most valuable ways to improve your writing.

Similarly, when I decided to leave publishing so I could create Odyssey and work more closely with writers, I learned another extremely valuable way to improve your writing:  to teach writing.   

If you have the opportunity to be a slush reader, to critique or edit the works of others, or to teach writers, those can be great ways to improve your writing.

I'll just mention one final lesson learned.  Receiving critiques on your work is invaluable, whether you're a beginning, intermediate writer, or advance.  Each writer is blind to certain flaws in her own work and needs those other eyes to spot them.

I now feel that fiction writing is one of the hardest things to attempt--much harder than astrophysics--and that one can work a lifetime to improve.  But something so important--and rewarding--is worth the effort.

LISA : As the director and primary instructor of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, how does your work and personal experience translate into the coursework of your program?

JEANNE :  One example involves critiquing.  Over the six weeks of the workshop, students spend a lot of time critiquing the work of their classmates so they can sharpen their critical editor brains, becoming aware of what they're thinking and feeling as they read, identifying problems, and coming up with possible solutions.  These are detailed, in-depth critiques, unlike what the students have done before.  As they do these every night, they begin to gain the ability to apply this critical editor brain to their own writing, and certain weaknesses that have been in their work start to fade away.

My experience as an editor also informs the coursework in that I've worked with many different writers who work in many different ways.  I'm not limited to just teaching students how I deal with a particular writing challenge.  I can offer them a variety of strategies and help them identify the one that will work best for them. 

As a writer, I've struggled to understand the elements of fiction and to use them with power and emotion.   In my experience, writers who have struggled with a particular issue make far better teachers of that issue.  Writers for whom things come naturally have a much harder time teaching others, since they often don't understand how they do what they do.  They just write it, and it's awesome.  That's not how it works for me.  I write it, and it's awful.  Then I rewrite it 5 or 10 times, and it becomes pretty good.  So I've spent a lot of time figuring out how to make a character or a plot or a description stronger, and I'm able to share those tools and techniques in my teaching. 

LISA: What qualities do you believe make for the ideal applicant?

JEANNE: The ideal applicant has developed intermediate-level writing skills. She can describe a setting vividly, can get me interested in a character, convey an involving conflict, move the story forward, and write grammatical sentences.  She has something unique or special in her writing sample--an unusual setting or character, an unexpected turn in a conflict, a compelling voice or style.

 She has written enough fiction to have an idea of the type of stories she's interested in telling, so she can use feedback at the workshop to do what she wants to do better, rather than to transform herself into a different writer she thinks critiquers would like better.  I saw a lot of those types of transformations taking place when I was earning my MFA, and I don't think that's a positive change.

 The ideal applicant has participated in some workshopping or critiquing before, so she knows the pain of receiving a critique and is willing and able to cope with it in a constructive way.  She is able to give truthful and helpful feedback to others and is able to support her classmates rather than competing with them.  That said, there's great variation in the students admitted to Odyssey.  They've been as young as 14 and as old as 80.  Some have been writing for less than a year.  Others have written for many years and have trunkloads of novels.

LISA : What exactly can participants hope to gain from the six-week program?

JEANNE: Immersion has a huge impact on students.  Being away from home, work, and family, among other writers, in an atmosphere where all you do is write, critique writing, think about writing, and talk about writing allows you to make exciting progress. 

About half of that time is spent workshopping student stories, so you can learn your strengths and weaknesses.  The other half is spent on an advanced curriculum that teaches you the principles, tools and techniques to improve your writing.  After class and on the weekends, you spend 8-12 hours a day on homework.  In addition to critiquing stories for the next day and writing your own stories, you're given a writing exercise in which you put into practice one of the techniques you've learned that day.  

What I've discovered is that writers often read books on writing without every incorporating into their writing process the material they've learned.  It's the analytical part of the brain reading the book, but the instinctive, emotional part of the brain writing the stories.  For a writer's process to really change, he needs to create connections between the analytical part of the brain and the instinctive part. 

So you can expect to be completely immersed in writing, have your brain overstuffed with information that you may be processing for the next year, meet other writers who can become lifelong friends, become intensely aware of your writing weaknesses, conquer some of them and feel awesome, and leave knowing you have further to go but you have the tools to continue the journey.  I'm often told by students that they've learned more in 6 weeks than they learned in 2 years in an MFA program, or in 20 years of personal study.

LISA: What makes the Odyssey Writing Workshop unique in the experience it provides?

JEANNE : Workshops are usually run by writers.  Odyssey is the only major workshop for writers of fantasy, science fiction, and horror that is run by an editor.  That experience allows me to help writers with many different approaches. 

Many writing programs focus almost exclusively on workshopping and offer very little in the way of a curriculum.  Receiving feedback on your work and learning your weaknesses doesn't help unless you have the tools to strengthen those areas.

Other intensive six-week programs often provide a series of instructors and no one instructor who is present throughout.  This can leave students uncertain about their progress.  At Odyssey, I'm there from beginning to end, guiding you through the six weeks, meeting with you several times to provide assessments of your progress, and helping you to target your weaknesses one by one.  . 

My critiques on student submissions average over 1,200 words and are accompanied by extensive marginal comments and line edits.  I don't know of another workshop where writers receive feedback of this depth.

Some workshops force writers to focus exclusively on short stories.  Odyssey encourages students to write short stories, since that allows for faster progress.  But some writers simply don't think "short," and I haven't found any benefit in forcing them to write short.  Writing something you don't really care about, and then being told all the things wrong with it by 15 people, generally doesn't motivate the writer to improve.  So students can work on novels if they choose. 

LISA: Through your years of workshopping with developing writers, what have you found to be most rewarding? What makes you passionate about what you do?

JEANNE: Some of the most exciting experiences of my life have come when I'm reading a student's story and realize that the student has made a breakthrough in his writing. Suddenly the protagonist is actively struggling toward a goal, and there's a three-act structure, and I'm emotionally invested in the outcome, and I'm surprised by what happens but completely believe it.  Seeing progress and breakthroughs, when you know how hard the writer has worked to make those happen, is extremely rewarding.  

LISA: What other resources does the Odyssey offer to writers?

JEANNE: We offer extensive resources to workshop graduates, including a discussion group, a critique group, and an 8-day workshop held each summer after Odyssey.

Since many writers are unable to attend the six-week workshop, we offer other programs to help writers build their skills:  online classes, on-demand webinars, a critique service, consultations, and many free resources, including podcasts, a blog, a monthly online discussion salon, and writing and publishing tips.  Information about all of these is at http://odysseyworkshop.org.

Apply to the Odyssey Writing Workshop here.

Visit Jeanne Cavelo's website here.

Lisa Allard is a student at Southern New Hampshire University. She is working as Literary Editor for the New Hampshire Writers' Project. For editorial inquiries and requests,  please contact LisaAllard02917@gmail.com.