Mars Hawthorne is a writer of dark fiction based in Portland, Oregon, as well as a 2021 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, for which she was the recipient of the Miskatonic Scholarship. Her passion for storytelling began in kindergarten when she informed a teacher that, during nap-time, she’d witnessed a monster eat the little girl next to her and then spit out her bones. She’s a member of the Brooklyn Speculative Fiction Writers. In her free time, Mars likes to patronize her favorite art-house movie theaters, take meandering walks, and watch her beloved local soccer clubs.
Can you talk about your pre-Odyssey writing process? What kind of writing schedule, if any, did you keep?
Before Odyssey, my writing process was a mixed bag. I became serious about improving my writing in 2017, but I mostly worked in highly caffeinated sprints where I’d get excited about a project and work on it for 1-2 hours a day for 3-5 days a week for a couple months, followed by weeks or months-long lulls in between. I was lucky to have an active, supportive writing group to meet up with and submit work to (hi, Brooklyn Speculative Fiction Writers!), where I also critiqued the work of other members, which helped me assess my own work better. However, I didn’t have a varied toolbox of techniques to draw upon when problems arose, except for whatever I gleaned from the craft books I read in my free time. My process was mostly 1) draft, 2) receive critique, 3) reflect on critique, then 4) revise until a piece “felt” done. But, spoiler alert, I usually wasn’t done! Instead, I’d often put a story on indefinite hold in frustration when I got stuck on a problem that I couldn’t identify or address.
In terms of scheduling, I learned early on that I work best in the early morning before I can be distracted by the news, chores, or my day job. This is often called the “pay yourself first” model, and post-Odyssey, I still prefer this schedule.
What made you decide to attend the Odyssey Writing Workshop?
Part of me always dreamed of earning my MFA in creative writing. After I got my masters in a different field, I still wanted to invest in some kind of rigorous writing education in order to improve my work. I first learned about Odyssey when I attended Readercon in 2019. A member of my writing group, who was an Odyssey alum, encouraged me to attend Director Jeanne Cavelos’s kaffeeklatsch. I remember asking an obnoxious amount of questions, which Jeanne answered patiently and in great detail. I appreciated Jeanne’s explicit interest in recruiting horror writers, since many other workshops appeared biased towards fantasy and science fiction. And just like that, I became a little bit obsessed with attending.
How do you feel your writing and writing process changed as a result of having attended Odyssey? What insights did you gain into your own work?
Before Odyssey, I was too fixated on word count. There’s so much content out there about how to hit certain word counts per writing session/week/whatever. My personal epiphany was that it doesn’t matter how many words I write in an hour if I haven’t thought my story out beforehand, element by element. I think word count goals are seductive because they make you feel like you’re in control. You can point to the numbers and say, “Look! Progress!” But for me, focusing on word count was obscuring a lot of important pre-writing work that I was skipping over. The creative process can be ineffable and difficult to measure. Odyssey taught me to go deeper into that uncertain place, to not wrestle for control so much. I often remind myself that spending two hours staring out the window or going for a walk to mull over a story problem is still doing the work. I now spend exponentially more time brainstorming, planning, and organizing my ideas before I do any drafting or revising, and I’m a better writer for it.
You attended Odyssey in 2021, the second year the workshop took place online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you describe your Odyssey experience? What surprised you most about Odyssey?
My Odyssey experience was intense! I had moved from the east to west coast of the US approximately ten days before the workshop started (I do NOT recommend this) and lived out of a suitcase in a temporary one-bedroom apartment with my partner and two cats since we’d yet to find permanent housing. My workstation was cobbled together from a folding table and used furniture from my parents’ house, and I rose at 5 AM Pacific Time each morning to make coffee before Jeanne’s lecture started at 9 AM Eastern Time. Despite that chaos, being immersed in the virtual Odyssey hive mind bubble was one of the most engrossing and fulfilling educational experiences of my life. I derived so much joy from talking and thinking about story craft for 15+ hours a day with Jeanne, my cohort, and a fabulous roster of guest teachers, all of whom loved fantastic fiction and brought their own unique perspectives and wisdom to the table. What surprised me most about attending Odyssey remotely was how much I was able to bond with my classmates. I was scared that it would be hard to make friends across time zones and through webcams, but I was totally wrong. Six months on, we still keep in touch, and several of us do regular co-working sprints online.
You were one of two writers in 2021 to receive the Miskatonic Scholarship, awarded to promising new writers of Lovecraftian cosmic horror. What draws you to write in the horror genre? What do you think are some of the challenges unique to writing horror?
I love writing horror because the genre acknowledges that we don’t live lives of constant love, safety, and good judgment. Instead, we can be quite brutal and monstrous to both ourselves and others. Our lives may be marked by moments of overwhelming rage, terror, and pain, and death eventually comes for us and everyone we love. (Wow—don’t I just sound like the most fun person to hang out with?) But seriously, I find this liberating. To me, the denial and dismissal of evil is much more frightening than the evil itself. I love writing horror because it allows me to confront and process my own fears, like how none of us are guaranteed a happy ending, and I much prefer that to never acknowledging those fears and being controlled by them.
Horror can be formulaic and tropey, so I think a lot about how to write narratives that feel surprising and fresh. One of my favorite pieces of advice from Odyssey was when Jeanne said to resist going with our first idea for anything, and instead to map out several different paths that a story or premise could take until we surprise ourselves. When I’m planning a story and start surprising myself, I get excited, because I know I’m onto something.
In addition to being a writer, you’re also a film buff. What do you think writers of prose can learn from movies and screenwriting?
I have a BA in film, and a professor of mine once talked about how film “makes the internal, external.” The dramatization of plot and character through imagery and action is one of the biggest pleasures of cinema. In film, everything you see onscreen is an important choice in telling the story, from a tiny gesture to a piece of clothing to how the camera frames a scene. That’s stuck with me. Now, when I’m writing an important narrative moment in dialogue or telling prose, I often pause and challenge myself come up with a way of dramatizing the same beat through imagery or action instead. It’s often more effective. Also, you’d be hard pressed to get a better education in three-act structure than you would by exclusively studying screenwriting books.
What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?
I’m focused on revising several stories I submitted during Odyssey. I’m currently revising a horror short story about reality TV and monsters that I submitted for my first private critique. The guest lecturer who critiqued my story, a writer whom I greatly admire, wrote “Ewwwwwww!” and “Double ewwww!” in the track changes comments at one point. I have since printed this out and posted it above my desk for motivation on bad days, which I highly recommend!