Workshopping at Odyssey

Workshopping at Odyssey
by David J. Schwartz

If you’ve never attended a workshop before, or been in a writer’s group, you may be wondering what to expect at Odyssey. If you have done those things, you have an idea, but every workshop is different. Here are a few things you should know.
First of all, if you’ve got visions of sitting around a circle while fifteen people tell you that a) they were moved to tears by your story or b) called up their editor friend and sold the story for you, you should dispel those right now. Maybe you wanted to come to Odyssey for some kind of validation, and there may be praise forthcoming, but the fact that you’re here and not accepting accolades for your latest Hugo-nominated work means that you need to do better.
Your classmates are here for the same reason, and you’re going to need each other’s help to get there. In other words, you owe it to them to be critical of their work, in the same way they owe it to you. Resist the impulse to preface every critique with “This is good, but…” It can be helpful to know what you’re doing right, but ultimately it’s not why you’ve come. You’ve come to find out why the people who’ve read your best stories always say “It was OK” or “I didn’t get it.” You’ve come to find out why Donald Maass and Russell Galen don’t return your calls. You’ve come to find out why Gordon Van Gelder always ends his replies to your submissions with “Alas.”
The first couple of sessions may be a bit tentative. People who’ve never workshopped before are often reluctant to be truly critical of another person’s work. This will pass. There will be people in the group who have workshopped before, and they will tell you what they think. This is not to say that these people are there to be mean to you. Jeanne advocates a “truthful and helpful” approach. This means that critiques should tell the truth about what’s not working in a constructive way. There’s a very simple reason for this. You deserve an honest assessment of what you’re doing wrong–you’re paying for it, for one thing. And without it you won’t improve. It needs to be said: workshops aren’t for everyone. There’s a lot of work, they can be incredibly stressful, and they always necessitate facing some unpleasant realities.  But if you’re resilient and really want to get better, the rewards are great, the learning curve steep.
Not every critique is going to be helpful, it’s true. But there’s a danger in tuning things out. Let me give you an example from my own experience. The first couple of stories I submitted at Odyssey got similar reactions from most of my classmates–they complimented my writing, but said they simply didn’t understand what was happening in the story. I knew they weren’t stupid, but my initial, defensive reaction was to think that they simply didn’t get it. It took me about a month to understand what they were trying to tell me–I wasn’t being clear. Once I accepted that I had to work on that, things started to get better. The lesson? Don’t get your back up when you hear something you don’t like. Sometimes people may give you a list of suggestions for how to improve your piece, and you may hate every one of them, but you should get a message from them regardless: there’s a problem here, and you need to fix it. Your classmates are trying to be truthful with you, so be truthful with yourself.
A word about Jeanne. Her critiques–as anyone who’s been on the receiving end of one will attest–are politely devastating, but always constructive. And later, after you recover from her cheerful evisceration of your work, she’s always available to help put things back together, only better. She’s got an amazing mind for plot, for one thing. So don’t be afraid of her. I have to confess that I didn’t take enough advantage of Jeanne’s acumen while I was at Odyssey. It’s only been in later years, at cons and at the alumni workshop known as The Never-Ending Odyssey, that I’ve come to appreciate exactly how sharp she is. She’s the best resource at Odyssey, so use her as much as is humane. (The woman’s got to sleep, after all.)
The visiting pros are going to be tough, too. They’ve been doing this a while, and they know things you don’t. Treat them with respect, but don’t be afraid to ask them questions. They’re there to teach. You don’t always have to agree with them, of course, but keep the knee-jerk indignation to yourself. If they didn’t know what they were doing, they wouldn’t be getting paid to do it.
So toughen up. Don’t take it personally. Don’t edit angry. After you’ve been critiqued, let the story sit for a while and allow yourself to mourn. A critique can be like a post-mortem–the wonderful story that you love is gone, replaced by an ugly thing with red pen marks denoting its every flaw. It’s OK to mourn. But don’t wallow; mourn. Take a walk. Have a drink. In the morning things may be clearer. If they’re not, talk it over with Jeanne, a visiting pro, or a classmate. Remember that this workshop is nothing without the people, so talk to them. Make friends. But remember what they say about friends–they’re the ones who can tell you the truth.
David J. Schwartz attended Odyssey in 1996. His fiction has appeared in Strange HorizonsPolyphony, and the anthology Twenty Epics; his stories have been shortlisted for the Speculative Literature Foundation’s Fountain Award and reprinted in the Fantasy: The Best of the Year 2007 collection from Prime Books. His first novel, Superpowers, was released in 2008.