Interview with Meagan Spooner, Instructor with Odyssey Writing Workshop

Saturday, March 06, 2021
Photo by Christopher Tovo

Today I am excited to have another instructor from Odyssey Writing Workshop: author Meagan Spooner. Meagan Spooner will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop, where she will discuss techniques for building characters and character arcs, participate in workshopping sessions, and meet in private conferences with students. 

She grew up reading and writing every spare moment of the day, while dreaming about life as an archaeologist, a marine biologist, an astronaut. She graduated from Odyssey in 2009 and currently lives and writes in Asheville, North Carolina, but takes every opportunity she can find to travel the world--there's a bit of every trip in the stories she writes.

She is the bestselling author of eleven novels, including the Skylark Trilogy, the Starbound Trilogy, the fairytale and legend retellings Hunted and Sherwood, and most recently, The Other Side of the Sky.

Find out more about Meagan Spooner by visiting her website. Make sure you visit Odyssey Writing Workshop to find out more about their courses and workshops.

--- Interview by Nicole Pyles

WOW: First of all, I'm so honored to interview you about your work with Odyssey Writing Workshop. I realized you attended the Odyssey Workshop in 2009. How did they help you with your novel?

Meagan: Attending Odyssey was a huge wake-up call for me. I was convinced I already knew how to write, and just needed to learn how to be published—whereas the truth was that I had good instincts, but not much more than that. Jeanne Cavelos at Odyssey gave me a toolkit of abilities that let me unpack those instincts, understand them, and draw them out in order to craft stories with deliberation and care.

I started writing what would become my debut novel about six months after graduating from Odyssey. By the time another year and a half had passed, I had six novels under contract across two different publishers (The Skylark Trilogy and the Starbound Trilogy). A lot of factors played into that trajectory, but Odyssey was one of the most significant. Not only did it really, truly teach me how to convert an instinct for storytelling into an actual craft, but it also showed me that I genuinely loved developing and practicing that craft.

WOW: What an incredible success story! I was reading your interview with Odyssey and I can't help but wholeheartedly agree with you about showing your work early and often! As a writer, how do you figure out which critiques to accept and which ones simply don't work?

Meagan: Sorting through critique is a skill like any other—it takes practice to develop! For me, it’s been a combination of practicing that skill, developing relationships with specific critique partners, and trusting my own instincts. These days I really just have the one critique partner (my co-author on some of my books, Amie Kaufman) who reads my work before I run things past my editor because she and I have been writing together in some form or other for fifteen years now. But I always recommend starting with a few different critique partners, because different perspectives can be invaluable, and help you to develop your sense for how to incorporate (or not!) critique.

I will add, by way of more specific advice: you should always listen when someone says something’s wrong or not working in your story, because they’re almost always right. That said, in my experience, they’re almost always wrong when they try to tell you what to do about it. So even if someone’s suggestion to fix an issue doesn’t feel right to you, consider why they made the suggestion in the first place. The issue might need addressing, just in your own way rather than theirs!

WOW: I completely agree! What are some common errors or common challenges you see students run into?

Meagan: There’s a common saying that published writers are just unpublished writers who didn’t give up. I can’t deny the truth in that! But I believe that it’s more complicated because there’s more than one way to “give up.” I think there are two common reactions to realizing how much you don’t know about writing, or to receiving serious critique for the first time, and I’ve witnessed both during my time as a student and as a lecturer at Odyssey. (Who am I kidding—I’ve done both myself!) One way is to react defensively, say “Oh, well, they clearly just don’t understand what I’m trying to do,” and wrap yourself up in ego. The other, of course, is to listen to what your peers have to say, learn everything you can about craft, and try to leave your ego at the door. The latter can be reeaally hard. But even if your first reaction is defensive denial, you can take a breath and come back the next day with an open mind. I remember it was halfway through my first day at Odyssey that I realized, “Oh my God, I know nothing.” And it’s okay to feel daunted by that, so long as you also let yourself feel excited. One of the best things about the Odyssey Writing Workshop is how concentrated the lectures and critique sessions are—you really can’t spend much time nursing your bruised ego, because you’ve got to buckle down and get back to it in a few hours!

WOW: That is the biggest thing that would appeal to me - no time for my bruised ego! How do you approach the revision process with your own writing?

Meagan: My process tends to be rather unusual compared to what I see from my friends and colleagues—I spend so much time with the story in my head before I start writing that my first drafts are relatively polished. I also rewrite as I go, so the work’s already been through quite a few versions by the first time I write “the end.” The problem with that, though, is that it’s really easy to get stalled before you ever put pen to paper, so I’m not necessarily recommending my “method,” such as it is, as a way to get around critique or revision! Especially since even the most polished first draft needs revision, so you’re not really getting around anything.

My best advice is to get some distance from the project in between rounds of revision. If you have weeks or months, take them—but if you have deadlines, either in workshop or in publishing, find distance in whatever way you can. Work on something else, pursue a different hobby or passion, or travel somewhere to distract and refresh your mind. Your subconscious will be working in the background on the various issues and things you didn’t quite do to your own satisfaction the entire time you’re “away” from the project, so when you do get back to it, you may already have a sense for what you’d like to tweak and do differently. It also means that when you read the suggestions from your critique partner or editor, your mind will be a bit fresher, and not quite so inclined to take those suggestions personally!

WOW: Distance makes such a difference in the revision process. For someone who hasn't taken a course with Odyssey Workshops, what do you want them to know?

Meagan: The Odyssey Writing Workshop is hard work. You aren’t going to be the best writer in the room anymore, and a lot of what you think you know is going to be challenged. Be prepared to write more than you knew you could, to think critically and objectively about your work and that of your classmates, and to be stretched and tested creatively like you’ve never been before.

But it’s also a tremendous amount of fun. It’s both work and play. You’ll meet likeminded people—I felt like I’d found my tribe, truly—and get to spend hours every day immersed in something you love. There’s a lot of laughter and compassion and earnest support from your classmates. And Jeanne herself is a kind and patient teacher, so you never have to feel adrift.

Odyssey may be challenging work/play, but it’s beyond worth it. I can’t imagine not having attended.

WOW: What a wonderful combination of both work and play. What advice do you have for people who really want to use 2021 to improve their writing and become published?

Meagan: I would advise all the aspiring published writers out there to start paying attention to their goals. This was advice I got from Odyssey grad and guest lecturer during my year, Carrie Vaughn—and it was one of those bits of advice that I dutifully wrote down at the time, but didn’t really understand in terms of its wisdom and importance until much later.

It’s important to set goals that you can control. For example, “get published by this time next year” is not a goal you have much control over, because you can’t force an editor or agent to want your work, or dictate how many stories a given magazine publishes in an issue, or even know whether someone will get to your story on the slush pile by the end of the year. But you can control goals like “finish my novel by the end of the year” or “submit X stories to my top ten magazines.”

I’d also encourage writers to break big goals like “finish my novel by the end of the year” down into more manageable goals like “write X words every day.” My debut novel, Skylark, was only finished because I decided I was going to write at least 500 words a day every day until it was done. A small daily word count, sure… but that was why it worked. It was the first novel I’d ever actually finished. It’s easy to sit down, even if you don’t feel like it, if all you have to do is 500 words. The magic was in the fact that no matter how I felt when I started, by the end of that 500 words I almost always wanted to keep going, which made writing every day a pleasure. Hard work, sure. But fun play, too.

WOW: What great suggestions for goal-setting. I've absolutely taken it to heart. Thank you so much for your time!


Sioux Roslawski said...

Meagan--In 2001 I took part in the National Writing Project's Summer Institute. It was four weeks (all day, 5 days a week) of working on our writing and our teaching of writing, surrounded by fellow teacher-writers.

It was life changing, like yours was.

Good luck as you continue your writing journey.

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