The Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop has been called an MFA in six weeks and a stepladder to professional publication. Fifty-three percent of Odyssey graduates go on to get their work published. But what, in particular, drives writers to apply to the program? And how do their expectations for the workshop compare to the reality of attending? We asked Odyssey graduates:
Why did you first apply to Odyssey? How many times did you apply before you were accepted? Did you get everything out of it that you were expecting? How did it differ from your expectations?
Eileen Wiedbrauk, Class of 2010
I applied because I was ticked off.
I was in my second year of a traditional three-year MFA program. The first day of my very first MFA workshop, the instructor sat down and told us “none of that genre … stuff”–his struggle to not use a different s-word was admirable, if apparent. When I went on to classes with other instructors who allowed genre writing, I watched the occasional student turn in science fiction or fantasy and witnessed the other students in the workshop refuse to take the story seriously, or spend large chunks of time trying to figure out the tenants of a genre they clearly weren’t familiar with. I told myself that I was in the MFA to learn to write; I could focus on sentence, style, and structure while suppressing my love of genre for three years–no big deal.
It was a big deal.
Two years later I was bored. Bored with the stories I was reading, and worse, bored with the stories I was writing. I cobbled together a story that, in my mind, was pure fantasy, only to have my professor insist I was writing surrealism–badly done surrealism. And he insisted that the story be changed to hold to the tenants of that genre.
I was angry that I wasn’t getting what I wanted from my MFA program, that I wasn’t being listened to, and that no one was willing (or able) to discuss the kind of short fantasy fiction being published today. So instead of following my professor’s advice and taking the story down a path I had never wanted it to go down, I brushed up the story and sent it to Odyssey. I put my application in the mail on the absolute last day possible to make the deadline and received my acceptance a few weeks later.
Where my MFA faculty had encouraged me to write “clockless” or “slice of life” stories (ones that have no ticking clock, or events but no plot, respectively), Odyssey taught me what a plot was and how to build one into my story ideas–my stories instantly became more interesting.
I walked into Odyssey thinking I’d get feedback from an in-the-know audience of genre fans, learn about what makes speculative fiction tick, and force myself to write to meet all the workshop deadlines (not an easy task). I got all that and more than I’d expected, like a total overhaul of my writing process and an understanding of how the publishing side of things works. Best of all, I found an instructor who listened to her students: Jeanne [Cavelos] would say, “This is what I see and where I could see it going–but where do you want to take it?”
Barbara Barnett, Class of 2007
I applied to Odyssey in 2007 because I felt like I had hit a peak with my writing. I was active with an online writing group at the time but had reached a point where I didn’t feel like the critiques there were hitting on what I needed to push past that peak. I could write good stories, but I wanted to write *better* stories.
As luck would have it, my employment situation was at a point where I’d actually be able to do a six-week summer workshop, so I figured if I was ever going to do it, then was the time. I looked at both Odyssey and Clarion, decided Odyssey was the better fit for me, and applied for early admission. There was much bouncing around and uttering of gleeful noises when I was accepted.
I got everything out of it I was expecting and then some. What I had been anticipating: the intense focus on different elements of the craft, a deeper level of critiquing than I had previously gotten, and the chance to meet other writers. I finally had the tools and insights I needed to push past that pesky peak I had hit.
As for how Odyssey differed from my expectations: I didn’t realize what a strong sense of community I’d come away with, particularly now that I’ve done TNEO (The Never-Ending Odyssey) twice and have gotten to meet Odfellows [Odyssey graduates] from other class years. And because I tend toward the shy end of the spectrum, I went in to Odyssey prepared to be utterly intimidated into mousey silence by Jeanne and the guests lecturers. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to discover how down-to-earth and fun and approachable they were.
Andrew Cooper, Class of 2010
I applied to Odyssey three times. Rejected the first time, wait-listed the second time, and accepted the third time. The experience was far more than I expected. I learned so much during those six weeks that I had to totally rewrite my novel. In terms of improving my writing, Odyssey was invaluable.
To be honest, when I applied to Odyssey I was relatively confident in my writing and I wanted to have Odyssey on my “resume,” so to speak. I had gotten several short stories published in small magazines, and was almost accepted by an e-branch of a major publisher. I thought I knew what I was doing. When I realized how wrong I was, and how much I had to learn, it was hard to take. I had a “recovery period” after my first critique. For once, I was not the best writer in the class. There were many people among those sixteen who were better than me.
I had a receptive attitude to criticism, and now I have improved so much. There were so many things I didn’t know about, so many weaknesses I didn’t know I had, and I corrected a lot of them in the span of six weeks.
Rebecca Roland, Class of 2007
I applied to Odyssey because I wanted to improve my writing. I wanted honest feedback, and I was ready to work hard at creating publishable stories.
I got in on my first try, much to my surprise. To this day I still think Jeanne somehow got my contact information mixed up with another applicant’s. I admit, I was really intimidated by the idea of being grouped with such amazing writers. What was I doing there? It had to be a mistake.
Did I get everything out of it I expected? Yeah, and then some. I still refer to my notes from time to time and always find some new bit of wisdom. I feel like my writing took a major leap forward. In fact, it’s been three years since Odyssey, and I still feel like I’m integrating what I learned. One of the best parts of the whole Odyssey experience is the chance to attend The Never-Ending Odyssey (TNEO) each year. It’s a great opportunity to meet other Odfellows and spend a week discussing one aspect of the craft and getting (and giving) critiques.
The critiques make such a difference. Putting together a critique for somebody makes you stop and think about the same things in your own work. Maybe you realize you have a problem with characterization too. And when you read stories where that aspect is strong, you learn from it.
Beyond the craft of writing, I met some really great people at Odyssey and at TNEO. They have been supportive and helpful, and it’s great being able to talk about writing with them.
Jeanne is a wonderful teacher. Her critiques and insight alone are worth the price of the workshop. I had so many ‘aha’ moments.
A lot of people say Odyssey is a life-changing experience. It really is. I came out of the workshop exhausted and excited all at the same time. I’ve made some publications since then. I’ve written one novel and have started another. And best of all, I belong to a wonderful group of writers.
Amy Tibbetts, Class of 2004
I’ll chime in to say that I applied (and got in) in 2004 solely because of the guest author, George R.R. Martin. He was (and still is) the writer I admire most in the genre, whose work resonates with me more than any other, and I desperately wanted to learn from him.
GRRM is a great guy–funny and personable and kind to new writers–but he turned out to be the least important reason for me to attend Odyssey.
I got SO much more out of Odyssey than I expected. I can’t even describe what a life-changing experience it was. I would never have figured out what was wrong with my writing (and how to fix it) if I hadn’t attended.
Jeanne’s lessons are brilliant, varied and amazingly helpful. It doesn’t really matter who the guest authors are the year you attend Odyssey–it’s cool to meet writers you like, and they might give you a few helpful tips, but Jeanne’s instruction will be thorough, exhausting and enlightening.
For more information about Odyssey, its graduates and instructors, please visit our website at http://www.odysseyworkshop.org.