To Experiment is to Grow: One Value of Odyssey
I had been writing for about five years. I had made two sales, one semi-pro and the other pro-rate, but I’d hit a dark spot. I was losing focus. I couldn’t get my stories to work. They felt deflated, and I wasn’t sure why. No form letter rejections from distant editors or writing books or reading the best writers in the field helped me understand why my latest batch of stories wouldn’t come alive.
I never thought of quitting, but I didn’t know enough about the craft to fix everything on my own. Who does? A workshop seemed like an answer and an opportunity. Especially Odyssey, since I love reading and writing in different genres and it is “dark fiction friendly.” So I sent my best story to date and waited to see if Jeanne Cavelos thought there was enough talent there for her to work with. Thankfully, she did.
Odyssey has many values and virtues. Jeanne’s leadership as both a teacher and editor make the workshop stand out among the crowd. Working with her is worth the price of admission alone. The critique circles, where you learn from your mistakes with colleagues of a similar career vintage, is also a baptism of fire as you learn to take critical feedback and use it to your best advantage in revisions or in writing fresh material. But perhaps the best example of what Odyssey offered me happened during the week Steve and Melanie Tem were our writers in residence.
Their week was a real gem for me. They were friendly as hell and encouraging beyond measure. So when my turn came for a story I decided to follow Liz Hand’s advice from a few weeks before: write beyond your range just to see what you can do. And if you fail, fail gloriously so that you can learn how to get better.
Over the course of an all-night writing session in the computer lab, I tried to stretch myself in every way I knew how. Structure. Theme. Description. Dialogue. Characters. Plot. I gunned it, experimenting at Mach 10, doing things I don’t normally do, and burned at all cylinders. And after revising until my eyes were fuzzy and the janitor started his morning shift (scaring me half to death), I typed “The End” and handed it in. I’d tried to use everything Jeanne, the class and the lecturers taught me. As such, the story was mine but it was born thanks to Odyssey.
The reaction of the class, Jeanne, and the Tems was generally the same. It was my best story so far. It showed a hell of a lot of emotional weight for a first draft. And it could easily be published . . . if only the ending didn’t stink like flaming garbage.
Endings. My eternal nemesis.
It was true, too. The ending stunk high and mighty, but I’d accomplished my goal. I wrote something under high pressure, testing everything I had learned, and if the ending failed it failed so badly that I knew I could fix it given some time. Steve and Melanie, after spending more than an hour with me in a private chat on my career post Odyssey, even suggested some market to try, once I cleaned it up and rethought my ending. A month later I did a few more drafts, employing some of the comments folks made, and fired it out to the markets.
And, after surfing the slushpiles for three years, I sold “Billy and the Mountain” to David Morrell and Nancy Kilpatrick for their upcoming anthology Tesseracts 13 (due September 2009). If not for all I learned and worked on at Odyssey, if not for Jeanne’s mentorship and the help of my colleagues and the Tems, I would never have written and learned to revise this story to make it work.
In fact, I’ve sold more stories in the three years post Odyssey than in the first five years of my career. The best indicator of the value of any workshop is how the writers do once they are back on their home turf. I’m proud to say Odyssey helped me not only grow, but provided me the awareness I needed to keep growing, succeeding, and improving at this profession and craft. One critical aspect of my growth since Odyssey is to do what I did that caffeine-fueled night: challenge myself, try new things, and damn the torpedoes! If I fail, I’ll learn and be smarter the next time. If I succeed, sweet. But the day I stop experimenting, the day I stop trying new things, is the day my Odyssey ends. And, for me, that’s just not an option.