Director’s Corner: Unifying Your Story around a Meaningful Theme

jeanneJeanne Cavelos is the director of the Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust. She was a senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell, where she worked for eight years, editing the fantasy/science fiction program, the Abyss horror line, and other fiction and nonfiction. Jeanne is also the bestselling author of seven books and numerous short stories and articles. She has won the World Fantasy Award and twice been nominated for the Stoker Award.

Find out more about Jeanne here and more about the Odyssey Writing Workshop here.

When I’m teaching at the Odyssey Writing Workshop and I bring up theme, some writers balk. They’re eager to learn about setting, character, point of view, plot, and more, but theme, to some, seems like an abstract, mysterious, high-school English class torture device that doesn’t relate to what they’re writing. Even those few who have fond memories of discussing the theme of Romeo and Juliet in high school often do little more than jot down a theme for their story, set it aside, and forget it. Continue reading “Director’s Corner: Unifying Your Story around a Meaningful Theme”

Director’s Corner: Tying Character Types to Plot, Suspense, and Emotion

jeanneJeanne Cavelos is the director of the Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust. She was a senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell, where she worked for eight years, editing the fantasy/science fiction program, the Abyss horror line, and other fiction and nonfiction. Jeanne is also the bestselling author of seven books and numerous short stories and articles.  She has won the World Fantasy Award and twice been nominated for the Stoker Award.

Find out more about Jeanne here and more about the Odyssey Writing Workshop here.

Create a protagonist. Add an antagonist. Toss in a sidekick or minion, or if you’re writing a novel, perhaps a whole array of characters. But then what do you do with them? How do you incorporate each character into the story so he has a powerful impact on plot, raises intense suspense, and generates strong emotions? Continue reading “Director’s Corner: Tying Character Types to Plot, Suspense, and Emotion”

Graduate Essay: Author David H. Hendrickson, “Blending Genre and Experience,” Part 2

dave-hendricksonAuthor David H. Hendrickson is a 2006 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. His first novel, Cracking the Ice, was praised by Booklist as “a gripping account of a courageous young man rising above evil.” He has since published four more novels, including most recently, No Defense and Offside.

His award-winning short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines, most recently Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and the Fiction River anthology series. His titles have populated multiple Kindle bestseller lists.

Hendrickson has published well over one thousand works of nonfiction ranging from sports journalism to humor and essays. He’s been honored with the Joe Concannon Hockey East Media Award and the Murray Kramer Scarlet Quill Award.

For more information about his writing, visit him online at where you can sign up for his mailing list and be notified of new releases.

This is Part Two of an essay; Part One was published last Sunday, and you can read it here.

Ten years ago, I’d never read a single romance, much less considered writing one. Not to put too fine a point on it, but romances were… for women.

Once again, though, workshops by Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith opened my eyes to wider horizons. As part of assigned reading for one of them, I read my first romance, a novel by Nora Roberts. I found I enjoyed it more than its counterparts in the thriller genre by James Patterson and Clive Cussler. The experience showed me that I read primarily for the characters, not the plot and action, and romance is all about the characters.

So every now and then I tossed in a romance novel into my reading (ignoring the curious looks I got when friends in the fitness center spied the bare-chested hunk on my book’s cover). But I didn’t give it any more thought until another Kris Rusch-assigned reading list included a hockey romance novella.

A hockey romance.

It was close to love at first sight. Hockey romances! Who’d-a thunk it?

The novella was pretty good and I enjoyed it, but there was one detail that wasn’t quite right to my finely trained eye. That got me thinking. Why not me?

I figured I’d write a short story around 10,000 words, put it up electronically, and see what happened. I imagined a female sportswriter who’d never, ever cross the line into dating a player she covered, only to find that an old flame from college had been traded to her team. An old flame that she still burned for. While I was at it, I figured I’d use my own experience and that of my colleagues to provide an inside look at the world of a sportswriter.

body-check-cover-webWhat I had thought would be 10,000 words, however, became 20,000 and then 40,000 words, with no end in sight. The final manuscript for Body Check weighed in at over 120,000 words. Off by only 110,000. That was, of course, far, far too long for a contemporary romance. Almost twice the ideal size. Almost certainly, any New York editor who even considered it would require major surgery.

Fortunately, with the wonderful advent of indie publishing, I could release the book as I envisioned it. The manuscript went out to my first readers, then after incorporating their feedback, to the professional editor I hired, and…

Body Check sold like crazy.

All because, once again, I had looked outside my comfort zone—my newly expanded comfort zone, this time—and I’d taken a chance.
                                                                       * * *
My second YA title, Offside, which was adopted by Lynn English High School for its entire school to read this summer, looks at the same era as Cracking the Ice, but from the eyes of a naïve young, white boy whose family moves from rural Maine to the terrifying “Lynn, Lynn, City of Sin.”

I had wanted to look at some of the same racial issues as Cracking the Ice, only from the flip side in terms of race, and wound up including a surprising number of my own personal experiences growing up in Lynn. This time, I stayed away from hockey; my protagonist, “Rabbit” Labelle, is a football fanatic with some baseball thrown in for seasoning. Why? I’m not sure, it just felt right.

My latest novel, No Defense, returned to the hockey romance no-defense-cover-webgenre, but in a surprising setting. I’d taken the trip of a lifetime to Tanzania and couldn’t help but write about the wonders of the Serengeti. So I took a goalie escaping to Africa after giving up the worst goal imaginable in overtime of the Stanley Cup Championship Game 7.
                                                                      * * *
I suppose in some ways, I’ve followed that loathsome advice “write what you know” more often than I’d care to admit. I know hockey, I know what it’s like to move to “Lynn, Lynn, City of Sin,” and I now know the Serengeti.

But I don’t know what it was like to be a black teenager in the sixties, much less one leaving home for prep school. I don’t know what it’s like to be a female journalist. Or a professional hockey player. Those required research, interviews, and imagination.

So no, I didn’t just write what I knew.

I wrote what I was passionate about. Hockey. That wonderful African safari. The Civil Rights era. And in a love-hate sort of way, my tumultuous, sometimes violent years in “Lynn, Lynn, City of Sin.” And I wrote in genres I enjoy.

My advice is this: give yourself the freedom to explore new genres and new avenues of your imagination. Don’t limit yourself to autobiographically “write what you know.” You might find yourself slowly cannibalizing your life experiences, as I have done at times, but it’ll be the natural result of your storytelling, not some paint-by-numbers autobiography masquerading as fiction.

You’ll have the most fun writing—and your readers will have the most fun reading your work—when you do one thing above all.

Follow your passion.

Graduate Essay: J.W. Alden–Submitting Short Fiction to Professional Markets

J.W.Alden_8x10_300dpi_3J.W. Alden is fascinated with the fantastic. He lives near West Palm Beach, Florida with his wife Allison, who doesn’t mind the odd assortment of musical instruments and medieval weaponry that decorate his office (as long as he brandishes the former more often than the latter).

Alden is a 1st Place Writers of the Future winner, an active member of SFWA, and a graduate of the 2013 class of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. His fiction has appeared in Nature, Daily Science Fiction, the Unidentified Funny Objects anthology series, and various other publications.

Read more from him at

When you’re just starting, the prospect of selling fiction can be an exciting goal. There’s nothing more validating than an editor paying you actual money for your work. But there’s a question every new author faces when they start submitting stories for publication: to pro or not to pro? The road to publication is paved with rejections, and the bigger the market, the thicker the competition. But that doesn’t mean you should sell yourself short! If you’ve written a story you feel is ready for publication, that means your amateur days are behind you. It’s time to turn pro.


Don’t Self-Reject–Start at the Top

You’ll never make a sale if you don’t submit. Selling to the pros (or anywhere else) starts first and foremost with having the guts to send your story out into the wild. And that’s easier said than done! It’s no small feat to take something you’ve labored over, a piece of yourself, and send it off to be judged by strangers. If you think about that too hard, you might find yourself coming up with excuses to keep it tucked away, out of the light. The more prestigious the market, the greater that temptation can become. Continue reading “Graduate Essay: J.W. Alden–Submitting Short Fiction to Professional Markets”

Guest Post: David B. Coe, Rejections and The Aspiring Writer

DavidBCoeDBJacksonPubPic500David B. Coe/D.B. Jackson is the award-winning author of nineteen fantasy novels. He taught “Point of View: The Intersection of Character and Plot” for Odyssey Online in 2016. 

As David B. Coe, he writes The Case Files of Justis Fearsson, a contemporary urban fantasy from Baen Books. The first two volumes, Spell Blind and His Father’s Eyes, are out from Baen Books. The third book in the series, Shadow’s Blade, will be released on May 3, 2016.

Under the name D.B. Jackson, he writes the Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical urban fantasy from Tor Books that includes Thieftaker, Thieves’ Quarry, A Plunder of Souls, and, the newest volume, Dead Man’s Reach.

He lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two daughters. They’re all smarter and prettier than he is, but they keep him around because he makes a mean vegetarian fajita. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera. Visit David at the following sites:

Let’s start with the obvious: Rejections suck. Continue reading “Guest Post: David B. Coe, Rejections and The Aspiring Writer”

Interview: Guest Lecturer N.K. Jemisin (Part Two of Two)

NK Jemisin

N. K. Jemisin is a Brooklyn author who will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop in Manchester, N.H.  Her short fiction and novels have been multiply nominated for the Hugo and the Nebula, shortlisted for the Crawford and the Tiptree, and have won the Locus Award for Best First Novel. Her speculative works range from fantasy to science fiction to the undefinable; her themes include resistance to oppression, the inseverability of the liminal, and the coolness of Stuff Blowing Up.

She is a member of the Altered Fluid writing group, a graduate of the Viable Paradise writing workshop, and she has been an instructor for the Clarion workshops. In her spare time she is a biker, an adventurer, a gamer, and a counseling psychologist; she is also single-handedly responsible for saving the world from KING OZZYMANDIAS, her obnoxious ginger cat. Her essays, media reviews, and fiction excerpts are available at

Her newest novel, The Fifth Season, came out in August, 2015.

Part One of this interview posted last Sunday, and is available here

What are some elements of your favorite novels or works that influence your work?

My inspiration is usually mythology. I’m more interested in stories as they’ve existed throughout antiquity. I like oral storytelling; I like creation myths of various peoples and cultures and religions. I myself am an agnostic, so I see all religions and all creation myths as mythology, although I know that for a lot of people it’s a lived experience. As far as I am concerned, humanity has had several thousand years to perfect storytelling, and there’s a lot to be learned from those basic, classic—even primordial—storytelling forms and ideologies. That is more interesting to me than what is selling best and what is popular. That may be why I’m not a bestseller! I don’t know. I write stories that excite me; I’m not trying to become the next G.R.R. Martin; I’m trying to tell a story that makes me happy. It’s entirely possible that at some point that writing a story like Martin might make me happy, but right now I’m a little more basic.

My favorite authors tend to be other people who do the same thing. Tanith Lee—I fell in love with her Flat Earth books, way back in the day—and Ursula LeGuin, and other writers like that. I’m a big fan of Storm Constantine, who I think is clearly not interested in what is being done elsewhere in literature; she’s very much doing her own thing. She’s written a number of series and standalones that are just mindblowing. She’s probably best known for a series of six or seven books, called Wraeththu. It’s a fascinating fantasy love story set in a far future Earth in which humankind has mutated into a monogendered species (for lack of a better description). Intersex is the more appropriate term. The characters have both female and male organs; they are capable of reproducing amongst themselves, and they use sex magic to do all kinds of miraculous and horrific stuff. The story is all about several characters in this Wraeththu-verse going forth and doing their thing. It turns out belatedly that the story is a post-apocalyptic fantasy but it takes a while to realize that.

I liked Louise Cooper (rest in peace). I like a lot of the fantasy that you see coming out of other cultures. I’m a giant anime and manga fan. An example of the stuff that I’ve loved that has definitely influenced my work is Rig Veda by CLAMP, the all-female manga group. This type of group is not unusual in Japan; there’s quite a few women writing fantasy there. Manga isn’t nearly as male-dominated there. In Japan it’s pretty easy to find stuff from different perspectives, not just the straight guy. I do like the straight-guy stuff too, especially when it’s coming out of a different culture, simply because it brings different perspectives and really just different ways of thinking about things. Rig Veda is particularly interesting because it is a Japanese manga retelling of an Indian myth. Just imagine the core mythos of any religion, retold in manga form, and that’s what you’ve got. Imagine the story of Jesus retold by Japanese manga artists. Some people might find that blasphemous, but it sure as hell would be interesting—it probably exists out there, too.

We hope you are looking forward to the Odyssey Workshop this summer! As a guest lecturer, you’ll be lecturing, workshopping, and meeting individually with students. What do you think is the most important piece of advice you can give to developing writers?

jemisin 1 kingdom of godsI’m looking forward to the Odyssey Workshop. I always wanted to participate in a six-week workshop, and I always thought Odyssey would be the one, because Odyssey is one of the few workshops willing to accept novel writers, and critique novels. Other workshops only accept short stories—and remember at the time that I was a little snooty toward short stories. I wanted to do Clarion but didn’t have the skills at the time to write short stories.
As for advice, I would say that if you get into a critique group or a workshop, you’ll learn a lot more from watching other people be critiqued than you do from actually getting critiqued yourself. In a lot of cases, people are too close to their own work. It’s hard to hear criticism without having that visceral “You hate my baby!” reaction. “You just said my baby was ugly! I’ve going to kill you!” You’re too busy reacting to really hear what’s being said. But with other people’s work—you’re detached from it because it’s not yours. You’ve read it, you’re thinking about how you interpreting it versus how other people interpret it and that gives you a better sense of what makes a story work.

If you’re using the Milford model critiquing method—the sort of standard workshop critiquing method—you’re also going to hear what the author intended versus what they actually managed to do. That shows you different techniques to use, how effective certain techniques can be or how ineffective they might be. It’s important to remember it’s not about getting about critiqued yourself—that’s important; that helps—but what’s going to teach you the most is watching other people being critiqued. It’s so helpful to listen.

Tell us about your writing schedule—where you like to write, and when. You mention a “business day” in other interviews. Does that have to do with your writing career? Do you have any advice for writers about writing schedules and so forth?

My business day is a thing I’ve had to institute because I’ve become a professional writer. I didn’t have to worry about doing interviews or going to the bank to set up a business account or meeting with my accountant—none of that stuff was an issue before. I do have a full-time day job—my boss and coworkers have been incredibly understanding about me having a secondary career. I work four days a week, ten hours a day, at the day job. Then Fridays I have free, because I needed a day during the week when I could do all these meetings and things like that. That leaves my weekends free for writing.

My writing days include Fridays if I don’t have any business, but it’s rare that I don’t. But on my writing days, I get up around eight, feed the cat. Usually the cat will try to get me up before eight, because he’s annoying—that said, we’ve reached a mutual point of understanding about certain things. I will make breakfast, mess around a little bit, and usually try to keep a nine to five day, because as far as I’m concerned, writing is work.

I do my best writing by day. Different people do different things; some people write at night, but I write by day because that’s how my brain works. I will start writing around nine and try to get in about 1500 words a day. More if I’m in deadline mode, which means 2500-3000 words a day, which is hard on me. But writing at my usual leisurely pace equals about 1500 words a day. And I do the same thing on Sundays. I write till about five p.m. I try to go to the gym afterwards. Exercise is important. But it’s also important to have a life—to have people in your life. To spend time with family and go out with friends and have those experiences.

If I’m on a deadline, I will also write during the week. I come home from work and try to target write a couple of hours before I go to bed—to hit a certain number of words per week so I can stay on track. I don’t like doing that; I’m usually tired after working all day and then come home and do more work, but sometimes it’s necessary. If I can write about 250 words after work I feel like I’ve done something amazing.

What’s next on the writing-related horizon for you?

I have a couple of projects that I’m working on right now. One I can’t actually mention right now; for the first time, I’m doing a media tie-in novel, which I am contractually obligated not to talk about, but I’m doing it, so I can at least acknowledge I AM DOING THE THING. That will be out later this year.

I’m also on Book Three of the Broken Earth trilogy. I’d broken jemisin 2 fifth seasonground on it but I had to put it aside to do the media tie-in. That’s not a bad thing; the Broken Earth books are soul-grinding. The Fifth Season was hard to write. After writing The Fifth Season, I needed a palate cleanser, so I went off and wrote the “Awakened Kingdom” novella (set in the Inheritance trilogy world) which was my attempt at being silly and light-hearted—but even when I’m writing a light-hearted story, I have to change the world in it, and it turned out that after the events in the second Broken Earth book I wanted a palate cleanser there too. I decided to do the media tie in for that. Now I’m raring to go on Book Three. I’m hoping to get that done before August.

I have a short story I wrote last year coming out on, but they haven’t given me an ETA on publication for that.

That’s what’s happening right now!

Interview: Guest lecturer N.K. Jemisin (Part One of Two)

NK JemisinN. K. Jemisin is a Brooklyn author who will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop in Manchester, N.H.  Her short fiction and novels have been multiply nominated for the Hugo and the Nebula, shortlisted for the Crawford and the Tiptree, and have won the Locus Award for Best First Novel. Her speculative works range from fantasy to science fiction to the undefinable; her themes include resistance to oppression, the inseverability of the liminal, and the coolness of Stuff Blowing Up.

She is a member of the Altered Fluid writing group, a graduate of the Viable Paradise writing workshop, and she has been an instructor for the Clarion workshops. In her spare time she is a biker, an adventurer, a gamer, and a counseling psychologist; she is also single-handedly responsible for saving the world from KING OZZYMANDIAS, her obnoxious ginger cat. Her essays, media reviews, and fiction excerpts are available at

Her newest novel, The Fifth Season, came out in August, 2015.

From the time you started writing to the time you started writing seriously, how long did it take you to sell your first piece (defined here as short story)? What do you think you were doing wrong in your writing in those early days?

I sold my first short story probably 1-2 years after I seriously started trying to get published in that area. I got serious basically around the age of 30. Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford to go to Odyssey, but I did end up doing a one-week workshop, which was Viable Paradise, but after that I joined a writing group, and our writing group kind of made up the difference there. So that’s how I got a lot of experience and skill writing short stories–having the group tear them apart and then submitting them. The group got me in the habit of submitting stories, and submitting and submitting and submitting until submission was part of being a writer in my head—and rejections were also part of being a writer in my head. So I’d say it took a year to a year and a half, maybe.

As for what I was doing wrong, Continue reading “Interview: Guest lecturer N.K. Jemisin (Part One of Two)”

Interview: Graduate and guest lecturer Scott H. Andrews

Photo credit: Al Bogdan
Photo credit: Al Bogdan

Scott H. Andrews, 2005 graduate, will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop.

Scott lives in Virginia with his wife, two cats, nine guitars, a dozen overflowing bookcases, and hundreds of beer bottles from all over the world. His literary short fiction has won a $1000 prize from the Briar Cliff Review, and his genre short fiction has appeared in Ann VanderMeer’s Weird Tales, On Spec, and Space and Time. He is a World Fantasy Award finalist for his work as Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, a Hugo Award finalist fantasy magazine that Locus has called “a premier venue for fantastic fiction, not just online but for all media.”

Visit him online at, on Facebook, or on Twitter @Scott_H_Andrews.

When looking for stories for Hugo-, World Fantasy Award-, and Parsec-nominated magazine Beneath Ceaseless Skies, you look for “stories that focus on the character.” What advice would you give to writers who want to create more well-rounded, fully realized, and interesting characters? Do you think there is a difference between coming up with interesting characters in short stories versus novels?

I think the core thing that every character must have is a motivation. All compelling characters want something. Even if they can’t articulate what they want or don’t know what it is, or even if what they want is an antithetical thing, like wanting to not have a goal.

For characters who are more well-rounded or fully realized, I like a concept I’ve seen attributed to the great SF and literary writer Samuel R. Delany. Characterization often isn’t in the details of the character so much as the contradictions between those details. Imagine a character who’s a stockbroker and drives a luxury sedan. Then imagine a character who’s a stockbroker but drives a beat-up old pickup. That contradiction between those two details immediately adds another dimension to this character. It instantly feels unusual, and thus interesting. It immediately brings questions to mind: why does this stockbroker drive such a car, whereas most stockbrokers don’t and most people who drive such a car are not stockbrokers. I think contradictions are an extremely powerful characterization technique for making characters feel well-rounded and interesting.

To go beyond characters that are merely well-rounded or interesting to ones who resonate with me profoundly, I love the concepts that Faulkner mentioned in his Nobel Prize speech, which George R.R. Martin–who is routinely praised for his characters–often quotes. Faulkner said the only thing worth writing about is “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself;” the universal truths of “love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” Things like that for me really cut to the core of what it means to be human. I often find that characters who truly move me, who make me sit there in stunned silence for a moment after I’ve finished a story, are ones who touch on universal facets of human nature like those. So Faulkner’s articulation of them, while for me not by any means a method or checklist, is a good yardstick for elements that can make a character resonate profoundly with me.

I don’t think there’s any innate difference between coming up with characters for short stories versus novels. They all still need a motivation, and for me they still need to be resonant in some way. Both stories and novels have plenty of room for characters to undergo a character change, in a convincing way. I think however there is a big difference in the amount of space that those different lengths allow for the writer to develop that characterization. In a short story, the characterization needs to be clear and concise from the start; there isn’t time for it to slowly accrete through multiple incidents and interactions the way that characterization can build in a novel.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies is a magazine for literary adventure fantasy. What suggestions do you have for genre writers looking to use more literary techniques in their writing? Are there any resources in particular that you recommend?

I think a great resource for genre writers looking to use more literary techniques in their writing is the vast wealth of literary-leaning genre stories published in online magazines. We are in a golden age of literary techniques being used in genre writing, especially in short fiction, and much of that short fiction was published in online ‘zines and is available for free. To find literary-leaning stories, I might recommend starting with pieces that were finalists for major awards; stories that receive notice for awards are often more avant or literary. Another strategy would be to survey magazines that tend to publish literary-leaning stories, like BCS or Clarkesworld, and look for authors who’ve been published there multiple times.

I would also recommend that writers looking to use more literary techniques be adventurous in experimenting with literary techniques or approaches in their stories. Experimentation works great in the smaller form-factor of short fiction, where you can try something unusual or off-the-wall but with a much smaller investment of time and work than a novel.

I also think that readings from bygone high school or college English class are resources worth considering. Much of that material if you’re looking for pleasure reading is pretty dry for most people, me included, but all of that fiction is considered quite moving or profound by a consensus of some experienced readers. If there’s a classic literary author whose work is still in your head years later or who you hear mentioned by genre writers, maybe look up an old piece of theirs that you might have been forced to read back in school and see if it offers you any inspiration or insight now. It might contain something interesting and different that you weren’t experienced enough as a reader or writer back then to notice, or that you haven’t seen in genre works that you’ve read. It might spark you toward something literary-leaning or open your mind to a different direction. Some of those English-class writers of course have solid connections to our genre–Bradbury, Orwell, Huxley–and some genre writers are becoming common in lit courses–Tolkien, Le Guin.

You’ve read quite a number of short stories over the years as an editor. For writers looking to improve their understanding of how short stories work, how would you suggest critically reading stories with an eye to improvement and understanding? Are there particular elements critical readers should look for?

As with all fiction writing, I think that breaking down what an author is doing on the page can be invaluable as a way to gain insight into writing.

One way I like to critically break down a story is to look at it overall. View it as chunks or elements summing to a whole. How was it structured, how did it flow and escalate, how did it reveal information about the world or character. What expectations did it raise, and how or whether it delivered on them. How did it build to a peak, and how did that peak resolve (or choose not to resolve). Did it overall work for you, as a reader, or did it not, and why. Is it similar to what you, as a writer, are trying to do.

Another important way to break down a story for me is to look very closely at the opening. A story’s opening must hook readers and editors, but there are a thousand different ways to achieve that. It must give readers everything they need in order to slip into the story, but it can’t give them so much that it drives them away. One way to break down an opening is to read it extremely slowly, one phrase at a time or even one word at a time, holding a piece of paper over the rest of the words to hide them from your eyes. Then stop after each phrase or word and think about what’s going on. For each word or phrase you read, does it make you want to read on, or not? And why. Is it interesting to you, or not? Are you engaged, and if so, by what? What sort of lures is the author using to make you want to keep reading–such as curiosity, mystery, disquietude, tension, humor? Because that sort of word-by-word analysis is exactly what’s happening in my head when I read the opening of any story. Each word and phrase in that opening is either engaging or luring me somehow or it’s not, and that’s what makes me keep reading. After the first paragraph or so, you can speed up the analysis to one sentence at a time. Are those next couple paragraphs continuing to keep you reading? Are they building things, such as character and world, at an engaging level of increase? How are they doing as far as raising questions and expectations for you as a reader, and escalating or answering questions and expectations that the first paragraph raised?

A more challenging but incisive way to break down a story is to analyze its voice. Voice, for me, is the key factor that sets a story apart and makes it feel unique. How is an author you admire, or a story whose voice affects you, pulling off that voice on the page? What word choices and tone and style are they using to do it? How could you execute that sort of voice, in a way that might work for your characters or story? Voice is ephemeral and more difficult to analyze, but doing that can offer great insight into how great writers achieve it on the page.

Can you talk a little about a story Beneath Ceaseless Skies has recently published, explaining what initially drew you to it and why you bought it for the magazine, and providing a link to the story?  That will allow our readers to compare your reaction to their reactions and perhaps gain some insights.

Last October in our Seventh Anniversary Double-Issue, we published BCS 183 7 Anniv “The Sons of Vincente” by I.L. Heisler, who coincidentally is an Odyssey graduate.  It’s concise yet vivid; a great story to experience as a reader, then analyze more closely.  It’s available at this link, as text and ebook and audio podcast:

Several things in the opening drew me.  From the very first paragraph, the voice has a great feel to it for me; imposing and intense, slightly poetic but not overly so.  The opening lines have vivid and tactile images, shown very concisely and with a tone of emotion to the details.  That’s important to me, that details are not just details but also are conveying a sense of mood or emotion.

The opening also gets immediately to a situation of character conflict, in the second and third sentences:  the narrator is fleeing, and his mother is assuring him he will be safe.  But we don’t know why or what from, and that makes me curious.  We also don’t know, from his childlike perspective, if his mother is lying or not, and that makes me feel uncertainty.  I want to keep reading to find out.  We also get concise hints of the paranormal world:  the narrator has snakes on his scalp; he must be some sort of Gorgon-like creature.

As the opening continues, the narrator’s situation gets completely upended.  It’s a moment that shapes his motivation for the rest of the story, and it’s portrayed so emotively that it makes me not only understand his motivation but also feel it along with him.  That’s always important to me–I need to not only know or understand a character’s motivation, but I need the story to make me feel it too.  I am moved by what happened to him, so I feel why he is driven to do what he does.

The story overall is intensely character-centered, about this young man working toward what he’s driven to do.  The story never spells out what exactly he wants ultimately to do, but it shows you his intense attitude about what he’s doing, and that attitude makes me feel his motivation for myself even though the story isn’t yet revealing exactly what he wants.

The story is told over a long span of time, which sometimes makes a story feel less acute or immediate to me, but this one zooms in from its time-lapse narrative to include vivid and emotive episodes of character interaction, and those live-action episodes keep things feeling acute for me.  It has details showing this particular society, and details of a craft or trade, in this case stonecarving.  I always want to feel the world that a story is set in, and I always like getting details and jargon of interesting trades.

As the conflict builds, there are threads of escalation that are clear and others that are subtle.  There are strong emotions from the characters, like love, grief, and cruelty.  There is emotional pathos. All the incidents and threads fit together and resonate with each other as the story builds to a climax that ties in the subtle threads and casts a new light over everything that came before.

And all over a rather short length; the story is only 2800 words long. In addition to all the great things it includes, I think it’s also a fine example of a fantasy story with very concise world-building.  Some settings require more story room to show them than others, but this story demonstrates that it’s definitely possible to write secondary-world fantasy short fiction at short lengths.

As a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing 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?

I think the most important advice I can give to developing writers is about being a neo-pro writer or workshop grad, about experiences that many neo-pros or workshop grads will face. I think I’m uniquely qualified to lecture about that because I’ve seen it from both an external perspective and an internal one. I’m a workshop grad neo-pro myself, and I’ve been through many of the experiences that neo-pros and workshop grads encounter. I can speak directly to those thing from an internal, personal perspective. I also am friends with over a hundred such writers from Odyssey and other workshops, and I’ve interacted with probably another thousand neo-pro writers who’ve submitted to BCS. I’ve seen that same neo-pro stage of being a writer also from the outside, a more objective viewpoint, so I can speak to that side of it too. I’ve lived the challenges of being a neo-pro, and I’ve watched a thousand other neo-pros live through them too.

A single and important piece of such advice for developing writers would be this: regardless of whatever studying or instruction or workshops or courses or critique groups you are using to improve your writing, I think it’s important to always make sure to still be yourself. Make sure that your writing still is uniquely yours; make sure you still keep in it whatever unique essence or slant or personality that is you. Writers often ask the question “why do you write.” Another variation on that is “what are you trying to say with your writing.” What do you want your writing to do. I think it’s important, especially when studying or workshopping or critiquing, to not lose sight of the unique personality that your writing has, and what you want it to accomplish. That is the element that sets your writing apart from everyone else’s in the galaxy. That is the thing that will let your writing offer a unique contribution.

What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?

I am trying to write a novel! It’s the third or fourth novel I’ve tried to write in the last five years. I’ve had to tear down and rebuild my process multiple times, but I think I have found one that will work, so I am at the same time trying to write a novel and trying to learn how to write a novel. Hopefully I’m on my way out of Rivendell, not merely still stuck in The Shire. 🙂

Special Announcement: Upcoming Winter Online Classes + Webinar


Start the new year by leveling up your writing skills! 

The Odyssey Writing Workshops Charitable Trust, widely known for its highly praised, six-week, in-person workshop, is offering three intensive online writing classes this winter, as well as Odyssey’s first webinar. 

Odyssey Online helps you to learn new techniques and build your skills, and provides in-depth feedback to guide you.  If you’re ready to hear about the weaknesses in your writing and ready to work to overcome them, you’d be welcome to apply.

The online classes being offered are:

  • Three-Act Structure in Fantastic Fiction, taught by Odyssey director and bestselling author Jeanne Cavelos;
  • Getting the Big Picture: The Key to Revising Your Novel, taught by award-winning author Barbara Ashford; and
  • Point of View: The Intersection of Character and Plot, taught by award-winning author David B. Coe.

Continue reading “Special Announcement: Upcoming Winter Online Classes + Webinar”

Graduate’s Corner: Rebecca Roland–Working With a Small Press

Becky Roland headshotRebecca Roland is a 2007 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop (and chief correspondent for this blog).

She is the author of the Shards of History series, and The King of Ash and Bones, and Other Stories, all published with World Weaver Press, as well as The Necromancer’s Inheritance series. Her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Nature, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Stupefying Stories, Plasma Frequency, and Every Day Fiction.

You can find out more about her and her work at, her blog Spice of Life, or follow her on Twitter @rebecca_roland.

This post is a bookend to our June essay by Eileen Wiedbrauk, Editor-in-Chief of World Weaver Press.

When I was offered the chance to write a guest post on what it was like to work with a small publisher, I jumped at the opportunity because I’ve been wanting to write this up for a long time. I’ve had a great experience working with a small press, and I want to share that so people can figure out if a small press might be a good fit for them.

My first published book came out in 2012 with World Weaver Press. To say I was nervous about the entire experience would be like saying that Bruce Banner might have a teensy anger issue. Although I knew what the process was to take a book through all the steps of publication, more or less, I was scared of somehow messing up.

But the nice thing about being a brand-spanking-new author with nervous tendencies fractured days and working with a small press is that I worked directly with editor and publisher Eileen Weidbrauk. She answered all my silly questions and guided me through the process of edits, line edits, cover reveal, social media posts, and so much more. Her business partner, Elizabeth Wagner, works in marketing and set me up with a blog tour.  She gently nudged me into starting a blog of my own and walked me through what to do on social media. Eileen designed bookmarks for me to hand out, and she pointed out a podcast opportunity I never would have noticed on my own.

Initially I thought the novel they published would be a standalone, but a couple of years later I wrote a sequel and approached them with it. I didn’t have any sort of obligation to write the sequel, and I certainly didn’t have a deadline other than the one I imposed on myself. This worked out extremely well for me since I wrote the sequel in snatches of time here and there, while working part-time and while my son was a toddler.

Speaking of a standalone novel, one of the cool things about small publishers is that they’re often more willing to publish a standalone, where big publishers have a tendency to publish series. So if you have a strange, niche novel, or if you have one that will stand by itself, then you may be able to find a home for it with a small publisher because they often have more flexibility.

king of ash and bonesI anticipate publishing with one of the big publishers some day. I definitely believe that working with a small press will carry over in terms of discipline (I strive to work within deadlines when they do exist… even my own self-imposed ones), professionalism, feeling confident with putting my ideas forward for the project, marketing, and designing a timeline/career for myself.

I have to admit, one of the coolest things about working with WWP from the time they started publishing was watching them grow. And yet, they’re still small enough that it feels like a family. My publisher sends me holiday cards and cards commemorating the release of my books. She knows that I adore corgis and chocolate, and I enjoy her stories of brutal Michigan winters (as I am usually enjoying a temperate Southwest season, ha ha ha! Ahem.) I cheer for other WWP authors when they publish something new, I host them on my blog (or they host me on theirs), and best of all, I get to read some great stories by great authors before they even come out.

Working with a small press is a great way to ease into the publishing world. You learn the ins and outs of publishing, and you meet some fabulous people along the way who will support you and your writing career for a long time to come.