Writing Question: Outlining

It isn’t easy holding together a story of 100,000 words, the average length of a novel these days. Many writers find they can’t manage without first creating an extensive outline. Other writers use a handful of three-by-five cards as an outline, while a few very successful authors, such as Stephan King, write with no outline at all. We asked Odyssey graduates:

Do you outline? Why or why not? What method of outlining do you use? Continue reading “Writing Question: Outlining”

Writing Question: Getting into Characters’ Heads

Ask readers what makes a good story good and they are likely to say “the characters.” But how does a writer create characters that are engaging, believable, and distinct?  And how does a writer bring such characters to life on the page? We asked Odyssey graduates:

How do you get into your characters’ heads? Do you make all your characters similar to yourself in some ways? Do you use research to better understand different types of people? Continue reading “Writing Question: Getting into Characters’ Heads”

Writing Question: Point of View

A story’s point of view (POV) affects the entire story, from how much information the author can divulge to how a reader empathizes with the protagonist. Choosing a point of view is one of the most fundamental choices an author can make. We asked Odyssey graduates:

Have you tried experimenting with different points of view for your stories? How does the viewpoint change the story itself? How does it change the experience of writing and reading the story?  How do you know which viewpoint is best for a particular story?  Continue reading “Writing Question: Point of View”

Writing Question: Why did you apply?

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? Continue reading “Writing Question: Why did you apply?”

Writing Question: Setting?

Choosing the right setting can enhance a story, and describing that setting vividly can make the story sing. A strong setting can add to plot, atmosphere and characterization. To get a better idea of how to develop a setting, we asked Odyssey graduates,

How do you visualize your story’s setting? Do you model the setting after an actual place? Do you do research into a particular landscape, time period, or culture? Do you use photos from magazines, your imagination, or something else? Do you draw any elements of your setting or create diagrams or maps? Continue reading “Writing Question: Setting?”

Writing Question: Quitting?

It’s no secret that most people who set out to write a book never finish. But what about those writers who keep working year after year, penning one book and then another, or one short story and then another, with little to show for it? What keeps them going? Odyssey graduates represent every stratum of writing success, from bestselling author to never published. But one thing most have in common is uncommon stick-to-itiveness. We asked them,

Have you ever considered giving up writing? What kept you motivated despite the rejections, the low to non-existent pay for most writers, and the long odds of ever “making it”? Continue reading “Writing Question: Quitting?”

Writing Question: Themes?

For many writers a theme is a nebulous concept, a concept best left to academia where one can write a term paper on the color of autumn leaves appearing on page 397 of a 500-page novel. But for others, a consciously selected theme guides their entire work. To wit, we pose these related questions to Odyssey graduates:

At what point in your writing process do you begin to think about themes? How do you work themes into your stories? Do you feel themes are an important part of your stories? What themes have you used in your writing? Which have resonated particularly well with you and which have not resonated at all? Why? Continue reading “Writing Question: Themes?”

Writing Question: Short story or novel?

It often takes writers several years of serious writing before they get a sense of the relationship between their initial ideas and the final products. Which idea is appropriate for a flash fiction story? Which idea requires a longer story? Which idea should become a novel? Even after years, some writers struggle, taking an idea more appropriate for a short story and writing an entire novel about it, making the reader feel he’s put in a lot of time for a small payoff; or trying to cram a novel idea into a short story and leaving the reader confused and unsatisfied. When you have an idea, what type of piece should it become? Odyssey graduate Carrie Vaughn discussed this topic when she came to the workshop as our writer-in-residence in 2009, and you can find an excerpt from that lecture in Podcast #35. But since this is one of the most difficult and most important skills for a writer to develop, we thought we’d ask other Odyssey graduates to weigh in on the issue.

When you get an idea, how do you know if it’s a short story idea or a novel idea? Continue reading “Writing Question: Short story or novel?”


One of the hardest parts of being a writer is dealing with rejection. Many writers send out their shiny new story, receive one rejection, and put the story into the drawer, forever. Others make it to three or four rejections, and then it’s into the drawer with the story, forever. Very few will make it to eight or nine rejections. Even fewer go beyond. Should the author take the rejection as a sign that the story should never see the light of day? Or should the author continue to believe in his story and persist? Many stories are sold to the eighth magazine, or the twelfth magazine, or the twentieth magazine they’re sent to. That can only happen, though, if the author keeps sending them out. To bring some clarity to this issue, we asked the Odyssey graduates for their advice.

How many times do you submit a story before you give up on it? Continue reading “WRITING QUESTION: WHEN TO GIVE UP ON A STORY”


Last month, we received so many great answers to our writing question that we couldn’t include them all. So we thought we’d provide you with those additional answers this month, since they provide some very helpful research tips.

While many science fiction/fantasy authors think they can make up whatever sorts of worlds they want, that attitude often leads to clichéd worlds that are neither realistic, nor convincing, nor vivid. The secret behind many worlds that are realistic, convincing, and vivid is research. But finding research sources that focus on exactly what you need to know can be a challenge. Science fiction/fantasy authors need to become expert researchers and find obscure texts that hold those precious pieces of information that will make their worlds come to life. So we asked the Odyssey graduates their research secrets.

What are some of the best research sites/books/sources you have discovered?

James Hall, class of 2001

I do a lot of research into science, since I often write realistic science fiction.

Before attending Odyssey, I researched in a helter-skelter fashion. I had a subscription to Scientific American and New Scientist magazines. I also subscribed to Science News, a weekly summary of scientific articles published in different fields. I was overwhelmed with details, and I estimate I might actually have saved or used about 3 percent of the information I was reading. I was spending more time researching than writing. Today I try to focus my research closer on problems that I need to resolve before writing.

Researching has always been a siren’s song to me. I love ideas, and science and technology articles are full of them. In Odyssey, I learned an important lesson from author Allen Steele. Steele writes the kind of SF I like, and his research methods are to locate good sources of articles, archive the important ones (those that strike a nerve or ignite an idea) and lose the rest. So today, my research cabinet looks a lot like this–dozens of articles on settings like the planets of the solar system, stars, space stations and spaceships, then specific articles on themes and characters that engage my interest and might form the plot of a story or novel. Currently, I’m interested in ideas about post-humans and am reading a lot of Ray Kurzweil, the AI guru who has published works like The Singularity Is Near.

I divide my research into categories: books, magazines/websites, social networks, and reading in my field.

Science is a rapidly changing discipline. A book five years old is already dated by now. So while I do read and keep the older books, I don’t rely on them. Some books which I have gotten valuable setting material include:

The High Frontier by Gerald K. O’Neill, a classic in the field of space station design. Still useful.
The Handy Space Answer Book, Engleburt & Dupuis, a handy reference for matters of space.
The Singularity Is Near by Ray Kurzweil, post-humans and the Singularity
The New York Times Science Desk Reference, a nice general reference on science of all kinds.
The Starflight Handbook, Malone & Matloff, a nice “how-to” book on how to build and use various kinds of interstellar propulsion systems.
Welcome to Moonbase by Ben Bova. Bova has written several “how to” books on SF settings–this one is about setting up a moonbase.
Collapse by Jared Diamond. Diamond’s books on civilizations are excellent for imagining the implications of different civilizations.

Science magazines and websites are much more contemporary. You can keep up with the latest changes and discoveries in science.

“Science,” the publication of AAAS, is excellent on detail, but a bit overwhelming to try to read weekly.
“Science News,” a digest of weekly publications in science magazines, is highly technical and like “Science,” overwhelming to read.
“New Scientist,” a British magazine, is at times speculative and even outrageous. But it seems almost ideal for an SF writer because it spends so much time on the implications of scientific discoveries.
“Scientific American,” a good, monthly digest of science, issue or theme-oriented. Well worth the investment.

http://science.nasa.gov, the latest science discoveries by the various NASA centers.
http://jpl.nasa.gov, a publication of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the lead center for unmanned space research. Most NASA centers maintain their own publications and these are well-worth investigating for cutting-edge space science.
http://www.space.com, a nice online magazine that publishes short articles on the various elements of space travel. A huge database of back articles, too.
http://www.spaceflightnow.com, another good private website that features short articles on current space science and speculations about the future.
http://www.livescience.com, this is a biology-based website that publishes good articles, both on current bio science and speculative science.
http://www.dailygalaxy.com, nice, cutting-edge, speculative science site that’s good for ideas.
http://www.thespacereview.com, great weekly magazine that features in-depth articles on current and past space programs. A good source of space history.

Social Networking

Twitter.com–this is my latest, greatest source of articles. By subscribing to the tweets of NY Times, KurzweilAI, DailyGalaxy, and NASA, I find out new events and discoveries almost as they happen. If you retweet space articles, some organizations will actually seek you out to join their networks, and you can see who you want to follow. I’ve discovered a number of good articles this way.

Facebook.com–another good place to follow SF authors, and tips for writing SF, You can also make contacts with NASA scientists, academics, space enthusiasts and others.

Conventions are good places to make contacts with actual practicing scientists. Scientists love attending SF conventions. Orlando’s OASIS Con is attended by NASA technicians, academics, and mission specialists who give the absolute best presentations on the latest space science, and some of them can even be convinced to collaborate with you to make your SF more realistic. Publishers and agents can also be found on Facebook.

Reading in your field

Finally, I think it’s important to read the kind of SF you want to write. Explore techniques a writer uses, examine tropes, see what’s been done so you don’t think you’re being original when in fact you may be reinventing the wheel. Some well-worn plots need staying-away from, but you won’t find them unless you read them first. It’s also a good idea to see what publishers like these days.

I subscribe to magazines like Analog, Asimov’s SF, and Fantasy & SF so I can also read the latest SF short stories. Short stories tend to be idea-rich, and offer up some good ideas to those looking for them.

Rita Oakes, class of 1998

My house is about to collapse from all the books I have on hand, so I’ll just list the few that I find myself turning to again and again:

Shepherd’s Historical Atlas
The Healing Hand: Man and Wound in the Ancient World by Guido Majno
The Collector’s Illustrated Guide to Firearms by Martin Miller
Glossary of the Construction, Decoration, and Use of Armor by George Cameron Stone
The Greenhill Napoleonic Wars Data Book by Digby Smith
The Napoleonic Source Book by Philip J Haythornthwaite
Achilles in Vietnam by Jonathan Shay
A History of Costume by Carl Kohler
The History of Underwear by C. Willett and Phillis Cunnington
Dictionary of Early English by Joseph T. Shipley
Baby Names Around the World by Bruce Lanskey
The Herb Book by John Lust

There are a variety of databases that are useful and sometimes may be accessed from home, sponsored by your local library. These can include indexes to journals and magazine articles, historic documents, biographies, and newspapers. The ones I use most frequently are: Academic Search Premier (Ebscohost), Accessible Archives: American County Histories, Accessible Archives: 18th & 19th Century Newspapers and Magazines, Facts on File Online, Biography Research Center, and Gale Virtual Reference Library.

And while I’m talking about library databases, let me tell you that libraries in this country are in crisis and access to databases like these that are way beyond the pocketbook of the individual is in danger; so do what you can to support your local library, and let your local and state governments know that you think libraries are a good investment. End of commercial 🙂

There’s a writing workshop called “The Writers’ Police Academy,” that is supposed to be useful for people who write crime fiction or suspense. I’m planning to attend this fall, so I’ll let you know if it’s worthwhile. In the meantime, here’s a link: http://www.writerspoliceacademy.com/index.html

Lastly, here are a couple of websites I like that deal with history:


For more information about Odyssey, its graduates and instructors, please visit our website at http://www.odysseyworkshop.org.

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