Marc Emerson

Published by Wendy Dye on

How to Get the Most Out of Odyssey

Born and raised on the Isle of Illusion, Marc Emerson was disappointed he couldn’t study psychohistory or attend Miskatonic University. He earned a mundane degree and managed to retain his sanity while studying the Necronomicon under golden minarets. He writes fantasy, horror and science fiction and took his first level in bard when he attended Odyssey in 2020 . He currently lives with his animal companions in the Rakers and always leaves gifts for the Fey that frolic in the woods.

If you’ve just been accepted to the Odyssey Writing Workshop, here are some things that will help you get the most out of the experience…

Get ready to write. A lot. It doesn’t sound like much in the description–just six short stories or six chapters from a longer piece over a six-week period–but you will likely write more words of criticism than you do of fiction. You are not just learning from Jeanne, but from all the other writers in your class. Each of your classmates is also turning in six submissions and you will be reading and critiquing two thirds of them. (The other third are critiqued privately by special guests.) While you will no doubt be praising their imagination, creativity, and beautiful prose, you will also be expected to make suggestions for improvements. It’s not enough to say “this part doesn’t work for me.” You have to figure out why it doesn’t work and come up with a suggestion on how to make it better.

Since you may not be used to reading critically, you’ll want to start training your editor brain, which is quite different than your writer brain. Reread favorite genre stories and novels with an eye to why you like them and why they work for you. One of the concepts introduced in the workshop is the concept of your “leaf mold,” which is the composting of all your reading that fertilizes your imagination and writing technique. You want high quality fertilizer for your leaf mold.

Shift your brain into short story mode. While many Odyssey attendees plan on writing novels, they tend to mostly submit short stories at the workshop. Working on six completely different pieces allows you to experiment with different genres, tenses, points of view, etc. You will be encouraged to try new things with your writing. For example, if you normally carefully plan and plot everything out in advance, you may want to try “pantsing,” as in writing by the seat of your pants.

If you normally read only novels, you will definitely need to make an adjustment, hence shifting your brain into short story mode. Short stories are not just very short novels, but have a different structure, pace and set of rules. If you aren’t familiar with short stories, you should spend most of your free reading time before Odyssey focusing on short stories in your chosen genre(s). Read as many award-winning stories as you can. Collections, such as “The Year’s Best _____” are a great way to compare different successful writers working in the same genre.

Learn how to make the most out of criticism. Your stories have probably been read by others before. Your friends and family are probably a source of praise. You may have even attended other workshops before, but the sheer amount of feedback you receive will be overwhelming. Imagine reading 15 essays where the topic is how to improve the story you just birthed. You may not agree with every critique, but you have to respect the effort that went into it. That other writer would likely rather be working on their next assignment, but instead they offer you their opinion and suggestions on how to improve your work.

Jeanne’s critiques are on a whole other level. If you think the other writers’ critiques are in depth, wait until you pore over hers. She writes over ten thousand words of critiques every week, causing writers to wonder if she has multiple clones of herself or has no need for sleep. Her insight is amazing and will often leave you feeling dumbstruck. Make use of all her suggestions. Your story may have been your baby, but Jeanne will help you raise that baby to adulthood. Here is a sample from one of her critiques, which my class decided was the most definitive Jeanne comment: “This paraphrasing of dialogue is telling me that you realize this conversation lacks conflict so it’s not worth quoting directly. I agree, and that’s a problem.”

Jeanne will provide you with an optional list of novels to read and movies to watch before the workshop. Do not treat these as optional. You may have read/seen some of these already, but revisit each one with an eye toward plot, structure, and character development. These will provide you all with a common vocabulary and shared knowledge base.

Finally, Jeanne will have three one-on-one meetings with you. Try to schedule them as early as possible during the workshop. You may think you should wait until after you have turned in more submissions, but trust me, she will have you figured out just from your two pre-workshop submissions. Getting her feedback early will give you more submissions to work on your weaknesses, and give you more opportunities to leverage your strengths. You only have six submissions during the workshop and you want to make the most of them. She will not only nail your weaknesses, but give you suggestions on how to improve them. Her advice isn’t like the generic comments you get in writing classes. For a strength, she said “Interesting focus on protagonists who are subject to the will of powers greater than themselves (and between rationality and irrationality).” She will steer you toward writing styles that will take you out of your comfort zone, but will produce great leaps in your overall writing ability. One student had several stories that dealt with a central mystery that resolved with a twist or surprise at the end. She suggested writing a story with no element of mystery or hidden plotline at all, resulting in several breakthroughs.

I hope you have the chance to experience Odyssey.  If you do, take everything Jeanne says to heart and you may be dedicating a novel to her in the future.

Wendy Dye