Graduate Essay: “How to Decide When to Apply to Odyssey” by Julian K. Jarboe

jarboeJulian K. Jarboe is a writer and sound designer from Massachusetts. They are a 2018 Graduate of Odyssey and a Fellow at the Writers’ Room of Boston. Their other work can be found in Strange Horizons, The Fairy Tale Review, and the LAMBDA Award-winning Best Transgender Speculative Fiction series. They can be reached via their website, juliankjarboe.com.


Ask yourself: why now? Why this year? There are as many good reasons to go to Odyssey and as many ways to improve and learn from your experience there as there are writers who attend. When you graduate, your extensive readings, your writing, and your notes will all be down on paper to keep and reference forever, and yet, there is no way any former student could simply hand over their teetering pile of manuscripts and handouts and promise you the same experience or growth achieved by your own attendance. There is not even a way some past or future version of yourself could promise you this, either. Timing, in the personal sense, matters.

Perhaps you have scoured and practiced and gained as much as you possibly could from books, articles, podcasts, reading widely, and writing as often as you can. You may have hit a plateau, or have become aware that you don’t know what it is you don’t know that you don’t know. You’ve already tried isolation—for creativity it does at first seem like a terribly romantic approach—and possibly hit something in the dark, echoing bottom of your own thoughts. Well, this might be true next year, too.

But this year, while part of you seems to spin in place, another part is changing direction. You’re about to move or get married or you’re thinking about quitting your job or you’ve been laid off. You have the summer off before or after another program. Your kids are finally old enough to babysit each other. Something is different this year that may not be true every year that makes it logistically possible for you to attend, yes, but there’s more to it. You’re not just moving along a track: you’re searching. That spinning in place you’ve been doing, at least with your writing, turns out, in fact, to be the wind-up spring for a trick you didn’t even know you could do. This is not a stable quality of life, but it is a rare balance between knowing who you are and being prepared to change.

You’re ready to re-learn ways to write stories but you have a sneaking suspicion what or who they might be about. You have something you can offer others and you know that when they offer you their own thoughts, suggestions, questions, and support, that this is treasure. You will let yourself, and your drafts, be what they are without judgment (there is no reading and writing, only rereading and rewriting). You will let others do the same.

At Odyssey, you will get a few people together, put on some tea, set a timer, and write until the timer rings. You will stretch, whine (and/or wine), vent, and then do it all again. You will think you are too tired or busy to go to the Friday picnics and then you will see them from your dormitory window, and as though following a fae into an enchanted clearing, you will go to the picnics. You will ask for what you need and you will even get it. You will find there is an uncharted territory between friend and colleague and it is most fruitful when you lean into the vulnerability of the former and the courtesy of the latter. You will not try to impress each other but you will impress upon each other.

It has been said elsewhere that Odyssey is not a place to come and “party,” though you have a hard time imagining how it would be possible. You will notice that it is also not quite the place to try to hunker down and be a hermit, either. You may want some time to yourself, or you may need to seek out solitude to focus or brainstorm from time to time, but the person you are, whom you have brought to this experience at the right time, is seated in a circle with others. Oh, sure, some luck, and interpersonal chemistry, factors in. Mostly it’s that Jeanne is actually very, very good at this whole group learning thing (you will wonder how she does it all, and she will giggle and say that she is wondering the same). A room full of spring-loaded people, arranged in a ring, doing something very hard and very much worthwhile, their mechanics clicking in place until the whole summer is a strange and wondrous automaton.

That is what you cannot recreate from notes, though you will refer to your notes for years to come. And that is what heightens Odyssey from a very hard summer class (and it is, also, a very hard summer class) to the transformative experience so many graduates describe it as. When nothing else will do, when you feel the click inside, that is when the time is right.

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“My Odyssey Online Experience” by Kodiak Julian

Kodiak-headshotKodiak Julian is a graduate of Reed College and the Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Together with Jamaica Zoglman, she cohosts the weekly podcast, Spirit of the Endeavor, which explores the pursuit of beauty, mystery and the sublime in everyday life. She lives with her husband and son in Yakima, Washington, where she teaches truly magnificent high school students. Her work appears in Lightspeed, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Grimoire Magazine, the Writers of the Future anthology, and in the Witches, Stitches, and Bitches anthology. She is frequently mesmerized by watching chickens.


The best courses give me more than my brain can handle. They linger with me for years as I gradually process the content. Barbara Ashford’s Odyssey Online course, One Brick at a Time: Crafting Compelling Scenes, was one such class.

I was preparing to revise a novel when I learned about the course. I knew the class would help me craft scenes from their early draft mess into structured units, but I was floored by the tools Barbara provided.

I learned how to control the tension and pace, ways to hook a reader early, and how to keep the reader wanting more. I write with a literary voice, so I’m always interested in making my work more commercial for the genre world. I believe that Barbara’s class has given me tools to make my writing more entertaining while being true to my voice. I expect to grow from these tools for years to come.

Barbara and Odyssey Director Jeanne Cavelos take the class seriously, and they expect the same of their students. The homework started even before the first class: reading assigned texts on the craft of writing, analyzing scenes from acclaimed writers, studying the film Casablanca. Barbara referenced the homework during classes as we deepened our understanding of each text’s authorial magic.

Barbara talks fast and you’ll want to capture every word. Fortunately, she assembles substantial handouts of her talking points prior to each class. I have my handouts printed, in a three-ring binder, covered with notes, indexed, and on a high shelf to keep them safe from flooding. They are valuable. I will refer to them repeatedly.

Classes were lectures and Q&A sessions, meeting on alternating weeks via GoToMeeting. For our first assignment, Barbara asked us to apply the tools discussed in class by writing an opening scene.

I chose to revise the opening scene of my novel. You know when you’re in good physical shape but then do a new kind of workout that awakens different muscles? That’s what this revision process felt like. I looked for ways to communicate my story’s promise and build intensity as the scene progressed. With my literary style, my characters live lives of rich internal conflict, but I’ve always struggled to increase the external conflicts. This class pushed me out of my comfort zone of internal monologues and into the less familiar territory of tangible action.

Next, we critiqued the work of several classmates. I love what I learn from critiquing, and Jeanne provided helpful guidance on the critique process. Barbara asked us to analyze specific qualities of the work: What was the protagonist’s goal? What was the promise of the scene? What were the internal and external conflicts? What was the turning point? These questions focused my attention on aspects of storytelling that I usually don’t consider.

Giving critiques is often more valuable than receiving them, but in this case, both were tremendously helpful. The guidance from Jeanne and Barbara led my classmates to produce illuminating critiques, and then there were the critiques from Barbara herself: thoughtful, insightful, and wise.

After our second GoToMeeting class, Barbara asked us to write a scene with significant tension so that classmates could analyze the beats. I felt I’d learned so much between the first two classes that it was already time to revise my opening scene once more. I rewrote the scene from start to finish, responding to the feedback I had received from the first set of critiques. This time we critiqued scenes from a new group of classmates and also met for individual GoToMeeting sessions with Barbara. With this new revision, the feedback I received highlighted significant issues that needed to be fixed in my novel, specifically regarding the magic. This was a key quality that I had been unable to see on my own, and I’m so grateful that the course brought it to light.

How did this class shape me as a writer? I now consider a protagonist’s change as the central element. Each scene is another step along my protagonist’s journey of change, and I’m placing more emphasis on translating internal changes into a character’s external actions. I know where, how, and why to tighten scenes, and I know much more about making a reader want to pick up a story and keep reading. And maybe the class will help this literary writer become more commercial in a genre world.


Odyssey Online Classes are announced on the Odyssey site each October with application deadlines in December. Classes are held in January and February. To receive a notice about the upcoming classes, sign up for the Odyssey newsletter.

Interview: Graduate & Odyssey Online Instructor Donna Glee Williams

Donna Glee headshot2011 Odyssey graduate and Odyssey Online instructor Donna Glee Williams was born in Mexico, the daughter of a Kentucky farm-girl and a Texas Aggie large-animal veterinarian. She’s been a lot of places; now she makes her home in the mountains of western North Carolina, but the place she lived the longest and still calls home is New Orleans. These days, she earns her daily bread by writing and helping other writers bring their creative visions to light, but in the past she’s done the dance as turnabout crew (aka, “maid”) on a schooner, as a librarian, as an environmental activist, as a registered nurse, as a teacher and seminar leader, and for a long stint as a professional student. The craft societies in her novels The Braided Path (Edge, 2014) and Dreamers (Edge, 2016) owe a lot to the time she’s spent hanging out in villages in Mexico, Spain, Iceland, Norway, Croatia, Italy, Israel, Turkey, India, and Pakistan. As a finalist in the 2015 Roswell Short Science Fiction Awards, her short story “Saving Seeds” was performed onstage in Hollywood by Jasika Nicole. Her speculative fiction has been recognized by Honorable Mentions from both the Writers of the Future competition and Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction collection. She earned an MFA and PhD from Louisiana State University, knows how to brain-tan a deer hide, drives a stick-shift, and has eaten roadkill more than once.


You attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2011. How do you feel your writing and writing process changed as a result of having attended Odyssey?

Odyssey is like the Big Bang: it’s hard to imagine a state before it. But imagination is what we are all about, so here goes. I’d been writing all my life—my first poem in second grade—in a sort of scattershot way: introspective contemporary realist fiction, poetry, journalism, scholarship, song lyrics, and random acts of drama. Odyssey focused my energies like a gigantic magnifying glass in the sun. It was an intensive professional induction to the specific genre that had first wooed me to words. I treasured the personal conversations, conferences, and small-group lunches with Odyssey Director Jeanne Cavelos. That summer I was in the middle of selling my first novel, The Braided Path, over the transom to Edge, and Jeanne coached me in how to use the offer on the table to get an agent. Richard Curtis not only represented me for the arrangements on The Braided Path, but also applied his fine editorial eye to getting Dreamers ready to sell.

What insights did you gain into your own work?

I’d never read much horror. Sure, the occasional Stephen King audiobook when I needed to stay awake on a really long drive, but I’d never really had that much respect for the genre before Odyssey. That changed after hearing our writer-in-residence, Gary A. Braunbeck, read us his horror “manifesto.” His understanding of the functions of horror in storytelling gave the form new meaning and dignity in my eyes. And then, at our last private conference of the workshop, Jeanne pointed out very gently that the majority of what I’d written over the summer was, in fact, horror. She was right, and I’ve enthusiastically embraced my Inner Creepo since then. While I still don’t actually think of myself as a denominational “horror writer,” my second novel, Dreamers, has some ugly sadism in it. (And someone gets buried alive. That’s pretty diagnostic, right?) My short story “Dancing,” which I actually drafted during Odyssey and then sold to Pseudopod, involves an age-obsessed bug-lady who gets imprisoned inside an eternal exercise machine. “Come and Get It,” which I read at the Odyssey slam and sold to Psychological Perspectives, involves the classic woman-chained-to-the-rock-and-eaten-yum-yum-by-a-monster. “Absence Makes the Heart,” which—thanks to Jeanne—I just sold to Judith K. Dial and Tom Easton for their forthcoming Fantasy for the Throne anthology, involves a depressed amphibian trying to commit suicide. So, yeah—Horror ‘R’ Us.

Donna Glee book cover2A critical part of Odyssey, both during the summer residential program and in the online classes, is critiquing the work of your colleagues. Through the intensive critiquing of that summer, I learned that my fifty years of writing, MFA in fiction, PhD in linguistics, skills as a poet, and sprawling life experience all added up to being able to help other authors bring their visions to life. Eventually I wound up joining my sister Odfellow Karen Lacey in her remarkable editing/coaching/ghostwriting boutique, The Uncommon Octopus, and I’ve been happily earning my daily crumb by polishing other writers’ silver ever since.

What made you decide to attend the Odyssey Writing Workshop? 

It wasn’t really a decision—on the plotter-pantser gradient, I’m El Pantser Supreme. I learned about Odyssey; I applied, never thinking I’d be accepted. I got the letter; I made it happen. One step at a time: Apply. Get accepted. Find the money. Make the time.

You came full circle when you became a lecturer for one of Odyssey’s online classes this year on subtext. Can you briefly explain what subtext is and offer a way for writers to start incorporating subtext into their stories?

Me? Brief? About subtext? I love your dry sense of humor.

Subtext is everything you communicate without explicitly stating it. When humans are face to face, some of this below-the-surface communication comes through non-verbal cues and some of it comes through actual words that invite or insist that the listener fill in the blanks with information the speaker never said. In writing, we can manipulate those verbal cues in the same way that speakers do, forcing our readers to know things we never state. The non-verbals are a little more complex for writers, because our medium doesn’t let people see our gestures or facial expressions. But, as the Bad Guy Captor always says, ve haf vays . . .

(Ways that can be taught!)

What are some books or short stories you’ve read recently that offer good examples of subtext?

The absolute classic example is Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, in which the main trouble of the book (that the love-struck protagonist is impotent because of a war wound) is never, ever explicitly stated. More recently, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried also buries its real story like a truffle in the deep dark woods and leaves the reader to sniff it out. While I was pulling examples for my Odyssey Online subtext class, I also found myself turning a lot to mysteries like Elizabeth Brundage’s All Things Cease to Appear—mystery writers, of course, often need to make sure their readers know things that don’t, technically, appear on the page.

Both of your novels, The Braided Path and Dreamers, are young adult fantasy. What drew you to write for a young audience? What were some of the challenges you encountered while writing your novels?

Ever since Wilder Penfield’s experiments with electrodes on the brain, we’ve known that all of us contain every single age we’ve ever been, and it seems that a lot of my passion for Story lives in the Me that’s about 12-13 years old. Whatcha gonna do?

Donna Glee book cover1One of the challenges for me has been discerning what, exactly, comprises YA literature these days. It’s not, as I was told by some, the age of the protagonists—Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See features youngsters, but the book is pretty clearly not YA. It’s not subject matter or how graphic the sex and/or violence is—YA rule-breakers like John Green shatter these boundaries with every book they publish. And it turns out the membranes that separate YA from Adult are even more permeable in fantasy than in other types of fiction. Adults happily read Harry Potter and kids devour Game of Thrones. This is fortunate for me, because I am a great fence-straddler when it comes to categories. The Braided Path had three main characters, two teens and one woman in early middle age. I call it a “three-way coming of age story,” and I really do think it’s valuable for my young readers to know that middle-aged people have to deal with growing up, too. The Night Field, the novel I’m working on now, which has a teen protagonist, isn’t YA at all. I’m coming down to a “feel” test for YA; like Justice Stewart, “I know it when I see it.”

You have published numerous poems in addition to novels and short stories. What can writers of prose learn from poets? What are some poetic devices that fiction writers can use in their prose?

On the craft side, a fiction writer with any ambition at all is going to want to provoke strong emotions in readers. Ipso facto—and how often do you get to work an ipso into a blog post?—that writer is going to need ways to communicate to the other-than-rational parts of the mind: the gut, the heart, the subconscious, however you name it. The technology for doing that exists in three places I know of: poetry, clinical hypnosis, and advertising. (I include political propaganda in advertising.) I’ve studied clinical hypnosis, neuro-linguistic programming, and therapeutic storytelling and learned a lot, especially about pacing and the power of metaphor. Studying advertising makes me feel like I need a bath. Reading and studying poetry immerses you in the power of super-refined language-craft—the tricks of our trade—while opening your heart to a deeper experience of life and its sensations.

What’s the biggest weakness in your writing these days, and how do you cope with it?

Ouch. My bugaboo these days is my work habits. I’ve got a big ole discovery draft of my next novel, tentatively called The Night Field, which I dutifully put away for a while to grow some fresh eyes before starting my revisions. But the trouble with putting something away for a while is that it’s hard to get back into the butt-in-chair routine. Any excuse, right?

What I’ve done to defeat my inertia is to plan some time at writers’ residencies this year, one month at Jentel in Wyoming and one at Messen in Norway. This is essentially like locking yourself in a room with nothing to do but write or go crazy. It really works; I started The Braided Path at The Hambidge Center in North Georgia and finished it on my Fulbright to India.

Another thing I’ve done is to get a developmental edit from Karen Lacey. Sometimes you just need some dynamite to blast you out of your stuck place.

And then there is always patience. I try not to be too harsh with myself, and to make sure I’m filling the time with other productive work (like submitting things and pulling together my first book-length poetry manuscript.) I’ve been here before often enough to know that what feels like procrastination is often just the Chaos Cave where we are doomed to flail until we are truly ready to take the next step.

Interview: Graduate Michael J. DeLuca

michael_j_deluca2017Michael J. DeLuca is a 2005 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate who lives in the rapidly suburbifying post-industrial woodlands north of Detroit with wife, kid, cats, perennials, worms and microbes. He is the publisher of Reckoning, a new journal of creative writing on environmental justice. His short fiction has appeared most recently in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Three-Lobed Burning Eye, Strangelet and Middle Planet. You can find him online at @michaeljdeluca or mossyskull.com.


You attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2005. What made you decide to attend the workshop? 

I’d written a very long fantasy novel that didn’t sell and decided it would be a much wiser course not to pour a bunch of time into another novel but work on improving my writing via short fiction instead. So I joined my first-ever Milford method critique group, WriteShop, in Columbus, Ohio, which happened to include Charles Coleman Finlay—who at the time was writing smart, fun, noirish SF for the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and now is the editor. Charlie’s a great, perceptive critiquer and teacher, and I think he caught on quickly to the fact that I wanted to get better and didn’t mind working at it. He encouraged me to apply to a six-week workshop. I picked Odyssey, barely knowing the work of any of that year’s guest authors and never having heard of Odyssey Director Jeanne Cavelos before, based almost entirely on liking what I read about the curriculum—and also that New Hampshire was pretty much my favorite place in the world. Continue reading “Interview: Graduate Michael J. DeLuca”

“Ecstatic Moments and How to Destroy Them” by Donna Glee Williams

Donna Glee headshotOdyssey graduate and Odyssey Online instructor Donna Glee Williams was born in Mexico, the daughter of a Kentucky farm-girl and a Texas Aggie large-animal veterinarian. She’s been a lot of places; now she makes her home in the mountains of western North Carolina, but the place she lived the longest and still calls home is New Orleans. These days, she earns her daily bread by writing and helping other writers bring their creative visions to light, but in the past she’s done the dance as turnabout crew (aka, “maid”) on a schooner, as a librarian, as an environmental activist, as a registered nurse, as a teacher and seminar leader, and for a long stint as a professional student. The craft societies in her novels The Braided Path (Edge, 2014) and Dreamers (Edge, 2016) owe a lot to the time she’s spent hanging out in villages in Mexico, Spain, Iceland, Norway, Croatia, Italy, Israel, Turkey, India, and Pakistan. As a finalist in the 2015 Roswell Short Science Fiction Awards, her short story “Saving Seeds” was performed onstage in Hollywood by Jasika Nicole. Her speculative fiction has been recognized by Honorable Mentions from both the Writers of the Future competition and Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction collection. She earned an MFA and PhD from Louisiana State University, knows how to brain-tan a deer hide, drives a stick-shift, and has eaten roadkill more than once.


**IRONY ALERT: In the tradition of satirical essays like “A Modest Proposal,” Donna Glee offers the exact opposite of the advice you should take to create strong emotional moments in your work.**

An ecstatic moment in writing is a scene in which the emotion or action is so intense that it invites readers to step out of normal reality and into an altered state of consciousness. Ecstatic moments heighten our senses, intensify our experience, fiddle with the flow of time, and connect us to a big, fat Something larger than ourselves. They blow the roof off normality and leave its ruins smoking in the dust.

Continue reading ““Ecstatic Moments and How to Destroy Them” by Donna Glee Williams”

Interview: Graduate Rebecca F. Kuang

Kuang HeadshotRebecca F. Kuang studies modern Chinese history at Georgetown University and will be pursuing her graduate studies at the University of Cambridge as a Marshall Scholar. She graduated from the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2016 and the CSSF Novel Writers Workshop in 2017. Her debut novel The Poppy War is about empire, drugs, shamanism, and China’s bloody twentieth century. It will be published by Harper Voyager in May 2018. She tweets at @kuangrf and blogs at www.rfkuang.com.


You attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2016. Can you talk about your pre-Odyssey writing process? What kind of writing schedule, if any, did you keep

Before Odyssey, I gave myself just one hard and fast rule: write 2,000 words a day, every day, no matter how bad they are. (To be fair, I was on a work schedule where I could make time to do this, whereas now I count myself lucky if I can squeeze 1,000 words in on a good day.) I’d never taken a creative writing class before, so had absolutely no understanding of craft, plot structure, or world-building before I dove in. I bought some books on writing genre fiction and read them along the way, but it was very much a DIY approach to writing. Continue reading “Interview: Graduate Rebecca F. Kuang”

Interview: Graduate & Guest Lecturer Meagan Spooner

SpoonerNew York Times bestselling author and Odyssey graduate Meagan Spooner will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop. She is the author of Hunted, Unearthed, and the Starbound Trilogy (These Broken Stars, This Shattered World, and Their Fractured Light). She attended Odyssey in 2009 and sold her first novel a year and a half later.

She grew up in Virginia, reading and writing every spare moment of the day, while dreaming about life as an archaeologist, a marine biologist, and an astronaut. She’s traveled all over the world to places like Egypt, Australia, South Africa, Antarctica, and the Galapagos, and there’s a bit of every trip in every story she writes.

She currently lives and writes in Asheville, North Carolina, but the siren call of travel is hard to resist, and there’s no telling how long she’ll stay there.

In her spare time she plays guitar, plays video games, plays with her cat, and reads.


As a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Workshop, you’ll be lecturing, workshopping, and meeting individually with students. What do you think is the most important advice you can give to developing writers?

One of the things I tell developing writers is to get used to sharing your work as early as you can. Learning to receive both praise AND critique is an invaluable skill, and like any skill, it takes practice! Leaving aside the emotional component that makes sharing work and receiving critique difficult, one of the hardest things to learn as a writer is the ability to pick and choose what elements of a critique serve you and your story. Not every suggestion is right for you—and what might work well for one writer’s style may not work for another. You can’t accept and implement every suggestion you get, but neither can you reject it all out of hand! This skill is one that simply takes practice, and a lot of it! Continue reading “Interview: Graduate & Guest Lecturer Meagan Spooner”