Interview with Jeanne Cavelos, Director of the Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust

Monday, November 25, 2019
Jeanne began her professional life as an astrophysicist working at NASA. After earning her MFA in creative writing, she moved into a career in publishing, becoming a senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell, where she edited award-winning science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels and won the World Fantasy Award. Jeanne left New York to pursue her own writing career and find a more in-depth way of working with writers. She has had seven books published; her last novel was Invoking Darkness, the third volume in her bestselling trilogy The Passing of the Techno-Mages. Her writing has twice been nominated for the Bram Stoker Award. Jeanne is currently working on a near-future science thriller, Fatal Spiral.

Since Jeanne loves working with developing writers, she created the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 1996, which quickly became one of the most respected programs in the world for writers of the fantastic. In 2010, she launched Odyssey Online Classes; live, intensive, interactive courses that use the techniques that have proven so effective at the workshop. Three online classes are announced each fall with an application deadline of December 7. Jeanne is also an English lecturer at Saint Anselm College, where she teaches fiction and nonfiction writing.

Connect with Jeanne and the Odyssey Writing Workshops on Odyssey’s website and blog, on Facebook and on Twitter. For more information about Odyssey, check out this YouTube video.

Make sure you read Jeanne's blog post about building structure with changes of significance then come on back!

----- Interview by Nicole Pyles

WOW: Thank you for chatting with us today! So, tell us about Odyssey Writing Workshops and why you created it.

Jeanne: Odyssey is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to helping writers of fantasy, science fiction, and horror improve their work. I created Odyssey in 1996. I wanted to get out of the corporate rat race of New York publishing to focus on my own writing, but I also loved working with writers and wanted to create some method for doing that in a more meaningful way than my job as senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell had allowed. When I started trying to figure out what sort of structure I could create in which I’d have useful, meaningful interactions with writers, I thought back to my experience earning my MFA in fiction writing.

I was “the weird girl who writes science fiction” in the MFA program, the only student not writing literary fiction. While the professors tried to help me, and did teach me some valuable lessons about style, they really didn’t know much about genre fiction. They couldn’t provide much insight into how genre fiction works or how my stories and novel might be improved. I ended up teaching myself most of what I know about writing, by writing, by studying the works of other writers, by reading probably a thousand writing books, and by critiquing and editing manuscripts for years and years and years.

So when I thought about what might help writers the most, I thought of a program like an MFA program, but focused entirely on fantasy, science fiction, and horror, where all the students and all the instructors write fantastic fiction and believe in its value as an art form. That’s when Odyssey began to take shape.

We started by offering our six-week, in-person workshop, which is now considered one of the top programs in the world for writers of the fantastic. In the following years, we added a one-week, in-person workshop for graduates of the six-week program, a critique service, online classes, consultations, coaching, and many free resources. While our nonprofit mission remains to help writers of the fantastic, many of our programs have helped writers of other genres as well. As Odyssey’s 25th anniversary approaches in June, it’s wonderful to think about all the writers Odyssey has helped and the great successes of graduates.

WOW: That's incredible! How is your writing workshop different from others?

Jeanne: The six-week Odyssey workshop is different in several important ways.

Many workshops focus predominantly on workshopping. Students sit in a circle and provide feedback to each other. This can be very helpful. It’s not helpful, though, to hear about the weaknesses in your writing if you aren’t also learning how to strengthen them. Odyssey provides an advanced, comprehensive curriculum that covers the elements of fiction writing in-depth, teaching you how to use tools and techniques that can make a major improvement in your writing. Class meets for over 4 ½ hours, 5 days a week, and about 3 hours of that is lecture and discussion. Students learn about their weaknesses in critique, but they also learn how to strengthen those.

Most workshops are run by writers. While I’m a writer, I spent 8 years as an editor in New York publishing, which gives me a very different approach when I work with other writers. Many of the writer/teachers I know say something like this: “Here’s how I do it, so you should do it this way too.” There’s nothing wrong with that; it can be very helpful to know how a great writer handles some challenge. But it’s also limiting. Every writer thinks differently, and the ideal writing process for each person is unique. As an editor, part of my job was to help writers find that ideal process, to offer them techniques and methods that match up with the way they think and work to yield the best result. So when I work with writers at Odyssey, in addition to lecturing and workshopping, I meet one-on-one with students to help them develop that ideal writing process.

Some six-week intensive workshops switch between different instructors. This provides different perspectives but it can leave students without clear direction. One week, the instructor might tell them their characters are weak. The next week, the instructor might say their plot is weak. The next week, the instructor might say they need to strengthen their point of view. So students don’t really know what to do. At Odyssey, we bring in a guest lecturer for about 24 hours each week, so students receive a variety of perspectives and feedback. But I’m also there for the entire six weeks, meeting with students at the beginning—after reading three of their stories--to explain their overall strengths and weaknesses, helping them to choose an area for improvement, offering ways they can improve, charting their progress with each story, and sending them home with a sense of what they’ve accomplished and what they still need to work on. That continuity has proven to be very helpful.

Since I’m there throughout the six weeks, I also have a better sense of student dynamics and how the atmosphere of the class is developing than someone who comes in to teach for just a week. If you’ve participated in writing workshops, you probably know that things can easily go wrong. Participants can attack each other to make themselves feel superior. They can provide lazy critiques that don’t teach them anything and don’t help the author of the piece. Participants can hold grudges over previous critiques and seek revenge in later critiques. The atmosphere can easily become toxic. To prevent this and to make the workshopping process as helpful as it should be, it’s important to establish rules at the start and to talk to any participants who aren’t providing truthful and helpful feedback. Workshopping can be a painful process, and I’m proud of the students at Odyssey who have stepped up and provided the best feedback they can to their classmates. At Odyssey you won’t be coddled, and you won’t be attacked. You’ll receive unflinchingly honest, concrete, detailed feedback. Because I’m a former editor, and because I know how much editing the works of others taught me about writing, we put a lot of stress on critiquing at Odyssey. My own critiques average over 1500 words each, with extensive line edits in addition. Other workshops don’t provide that level of feedback.

A few other differences: At Odyssey, students can work on novels if they aren’t interested in writing short stories. And we’ve got some great resources for graduates, so you aren’t left on your own at the end.

WOW: I love the one-on-one work you do! Tell us about the upcoming workshops that students can join.

Jeanne: Odyssey offers online classes each winter, so those are the next programs coming up. We only offer three courses, so we can ensure high quality. Each course is limited to 14 students. They’re held live, creating a virtual classroom experience in which students can participate in discussions, ask questions, and learn from an instructor who is responsive, in the moment, to students' concerns, confusions, and thoughts. Between meetings, students interact with each other and the instructor in a discussion group, complete demanding assignments, and give and receive in-depth feedback. Each student also has a one-on-one meeting with the instructor. Graduates of Odyssey Online regularly praise the depth and value of the content provided in the courses, the rigorous, carefully designed assignments, and the insightful, detailed critiques from instructors.

We try to focus courses on some of the biggest challenges writers face. This winter, award-winning novelist Barbara Ashford is teaching The Heart of the Matter: Bringing Emotional Resonance to Your Storytelling. If readers aren’t feeling the same emotion you are when they read your work, this course will help you bring out that emotion. This course will take you from "setting the stage"--understanding the heart of the story you are telling--to "getting it on the page"--exploring techniques that will not only show the emotions of your characters but orchestrate the overall emotional experience of readers. Then your stories can take readers on a journey that satisfies their hearts as well as their minds.

Scott H. Andrews, the World Fantasy Award-winning editor-in-chief and publisher of the fantasy magazine Beneath Ceaseless Skies, is teaching Standing Out: Creating Short Stories with That Crucial Spark. If you’ve gotten your writing to the point where you’re receiving encouraging personal rejections but just can’t make that sale, your stories may lack a spark. By reading the hundreds and hundreds of stories that come into his magazine, Scott has developed a theory that there are four main ways to create a spark--with a fascinating concept or thematic impact or emotional resonance or potent voice. Scott will explain how each of these types of sparks works, and students will study examples and work to add a spark to their own stories.

I’ll be teaching Three-Act Structure in Fantastic Fiction. If there’s one problem most writers have in common, it’s plot. One of the best tools for strengthening plot is the act. Plotting in acts creates a more suspenseful, unpredictable, and emotionally satisfying experience for the reader. This course will start by defining key units of structure--the scene, chapter, and act--and explore why we need acts. We’ll discuss the effect of acts and how acts work in short fiction and novels. We’ll learn how to plot in three acts and what makes a strong three-act plot. We’ll look at powerful methods of ending an act. We’ll explore how to create a causal chain that generates escalations and leads to a strong climax, and the critical connection between structure and character transformation. With a strong act structure, the protagonist will face challenges that will put him, and readers, through an experience they will never forget. (You can find my blog post on “Building Structure with Changes of Significance” here)

Writers of any genre of fiction are welcome to apply to the online classes, and the application deadline is December 7.

Our six-week workshop will be celebrating its 25th anniversary this summer. Odyssey has become known as one of the most effective programs in the world for writers of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Graduates commonly describe Odyssey as inspiring and transformative and say they learned more in their 6 weeks at Odyssey than they did in "3 years of creative writing classes" or "an entire MFA program" or "30 years of reading the 'How to Write' books."

The workshop will be held June 1 to July 10 at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. Guest lecturers will include Brandon Sanderson, Yoon Ha Lee, J.G. Faherty, Barbara Ashford, Scott H. Andrews, and Sheila Williams. Scholarships are available, including the George R.R. Martin-sponsored Miskatonic Scholarship. The application deadline is April 1.
WOW: Those classes sound incredible! What can students expect from your workshops?

Jeanne: You can expect that a lot of thought has gone into every aspect of the program, that it’s been designed to be as helpful as possible, and that the instructor wants you to succeed and will be honest about the strengths and weaknesses in your work to help you make progress.
You can expect a lot of work. To make Odyssey’s programs as effective as possible, we pack in a lot of content and a lot of homework. And you can expect critiques that are more thorough and in-depth than you’ve ever received before.

You need to be ready to hear about the weaknesses in your writing and be willing to change your writing process and try new techniques to strengthen them.
WOW: What kind of success have students from your workshops experienced?

Fifty-nine percent of Odyssey's graduates have gone on to professional publication, and they include award winners, Amazon bestsellers, and New York Times bestsellers. Here’s some recent news from graduates. R. F. Kuang, class of 2016, won the Crawford Award and was nominated for both a Nebula Award and a World Fantasy Award for her first novel, The Poppy War, published by HarperVoyager in 2018. The novel was included on multiple "Best of 2018" lists (including the Washington Post's and Time magazine's). Linden Lewis, also from the class of 2016, sold her trilogy to Skybound/Simon & Schuster in a major auction; the first book will come out next year. Booklist Online named I Am Still Alive by Kate Alice Marshall (published by Penguin Random House), class of 2005, one of the "Top 10 First Novels for Youth," and Universal has optioned the movie rights. Ben Affleck will co-star and produce. Nightbooks, by J. A. White (class of 1996), is being produced as a movie for Netflix. And it was just announced that The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter (Saga) by World Fantasy and Locus Award-winning author Theodora Goss (class of 2000) is in development as a television series on the CW. Other recent publications include Jumpship Hope (Tyche Books) by Adria Laycraft, class of 2006, which started as a flash piece written at Odyssey, and Undying (Disney-Hyperion) co-authored by New York Times bestseller Meagan Spooner, class of 2009.

WOW: That is inspiring! Thank you again for taking the time to talk with us today. 

Connect with Jeanne and the Odyssey Writing Workshops on Odyssey’s website and blog, on Facebook and on Twitter. For more information about Odyssey, check out this YouTube video.


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