Each summer budding authors flock to writing workshops like Clarion, Clarion West, and Odyssey, which help prepare students for a career in fantasy and science fiction by offering them the chance to work closely with established pros in the field. For many students, the experience proves invaluable, giving them the tools they need to finally break into magazines like Lightspeed after years of trying.
“There have certainly been writers where I’ve noticed there was a quantum leap in their ability,” says Lightspeed editor John Joseph Adams in Episode 134 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “Immediately after the workshop I’m like, ‘Wow, they really figured something out there. Now this story is grabbing my attention.'”
But not all writers can afford to take a week or six away from their daily responsibilities. For them, online workshops can offer a similar experience. When author Jilly Dreadful studied creative writing in graduate school, many of the students were hostile or indifferent to fantasy. So last year she founded the online workshop The Brainery, a community for fantasy writers.
“The feedback that you get from fans who are practitioners themselves is so much more dynamic than a traditional literary fiction program,” she says.
But a workshop isn’t all fun and games. Receiving critiques can be painful, especially for writers who are insecure. People may lash out, attempting to tear down their toughest critics or perceived rivals, and the experience of writing on a deadline is too much for many students, some of whom burn out and never write again, though this too can provide a valuable lesson.
“If you can be broken by that, it’s probably best that you learn that as soon as possible, so that you can save yourself some agony,” says Adams.
Jeanne Cavelos, founder of Odyssey, agrees that a workshop is a challenging environment that’s not for everyone. She carefully screens applicants for basic composition skills and a healthy perspective on writing, going so far as to contact references and compare notes with other workshops in order to weed out hotheads and shrinking violets. She also thinks applicants should have a solid sense of who they are as writers, so they’re not unduly influenced by other students and instructors.
“I don’t want to turn them into some puppet that is just trying to please the majority,” she says. “‘Oh, that haunted doll story was very popular in the workshop last week, so I’ll write a haunted doll story.’ That’s not really the way to brilliance.”
Listen to our complete interview with Jeanne Cavelos, Jilly Dreadful, and John Joseph Adams in Episode 134 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above) for more perspectives on the value of writing workshops. Check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Jeanne Cavelos on creating a supportive environment:
“You know how it is when you’re about to be critiqued that day—you get very, very anxious about it. And so this past summer [the students] created a ceremony for themselves. The people who were about to be critiqued that day would be given this ceremony to help create a sense of calm, and the ability to accept whatever they were going to hear, and to not feel afraid or angry or anything. It involved a crown that you would put on that was made out of toilet paper and paper clips—like little toilet paper flowers—and they would do a reading out of the Shakespearian insult generator, read an excerpt from The Odyssey, then the person would be able to choose a song and they would all dance to the song around a plush goat standing on a can of condensed milk. And when I found out about this, I was like, ‘This is totally crazy—and how did the goat get involved? As well as the condensed milk?’ But the idea that they wanted to help each other to cope with the situation, and to have it be this positive experience, was just this wonderful thing for me.”
Jilly Dreadful on bad critiques:
“In grad school [some of] the comments would be about the author. … Especially in our current, contemporary cultural moment, we have to be OK with writing diverse characters and talking about race. And I don’t want people to shut down somebody’s story and call the author racist if they’re writing about racism. … There’s a difference between a racist value judgment on behalf of the author and also writing a racist character as part of a narrative trajectory. It’s a tricky line, and you don’t know what that boundary is until you’re in it, but those discussions are important, and I feel like you can’t really assign value judgments to the moral character of the author, you have to talk about it in terms of the story. Because that was one of the things that really hurt me. I had an incest story as a grad student, and a couple people would write, ‘How could you write something like this?’ And I was like, ‘Well, um, can we talk about the story? Don’t talk about me, please.'”
Jeanne Cavelos on workshop horror stories:
“One bad workshop experience I can relate is when I was in my MFA program. My teacher was Frank Conroy, who is now deceased, so I think I can tell this story. He was a brilliant literary writer, but very much of the ‘angry critiquing’ school. So one day we’re in the workshop, and he’s critiquing this guy’s story—and thank god it wasn’t mine because I never would have written another word again if it had been my story. But he’s going on and on about all the problems with this story, and he says, ‘Let’s just look at page three.’ And he opens it to page three and he says, ‘Now, what would happen if we just ripped this page out?’ And he rips it out, balls it up, and throws it across the room. And he says, ‘What would happen if we just got rid of that? Nothing! Nothing would change.’ So I was shrinking up into my seat. And it was dramatic, and maybe some people need to be shocked into listening, but I really don’t think that’s helpful for most people.”
Jilly Dreadful on founding The Brainery:
“Applying to creative writing assistant professor jobs is a yearlong process, and I got four interviews, and I didn’t get any of those jobs. And I was really broken last year, around April, and I needed to reboot my life, because I’d spent so much time investing in getting what I thought was going to be a tenure-track job, and it didn’t happen. And the critique that I got was that I was too young, that I didn’t have enough out there yet in comparison to other people who were ten years older than me and had already been doing the creative writing assistant professor thing. … And I didn’t know what to do with that information, because they didn’t tell me I did anything wrong. And I had developed all these classes I wanted to teach, like ‘Science Fiction Fairy Tales,’ and I had no outlet for this anymore, and I was really, really sad. There was this group that I joined on Facebook of other female science fiction writers, and I floated this idea to them in August, and everyone was like, ‘Do it! Do it! Do it!’ And without their support and love I never would have gone through with it.”
Jeanne Cavelos on writers who need workshops:
“I think Shakespeare could really use a workshop. He tends to go on and on at times. So I can’t really say I’ve encountered the writer that I didn’t think I could help in some way. I mean, Stephen King is wonderful, but he has viewpoint problems, and he’s still got them, and he’s had them for years, and I really wish somebody would help him out with that, because he’s so good at everything else, and that would just take it the next step further. So maybe somebody like that would not need to hear some of the advice I have, but really I think every writer can get better in almost every element of fiction. Even if you’re great at characters, you can get better at characters. … You can’t really ever get an A+ in writing, or a 100 [percent], you can always make it better. And I’m not saying to torment yourself and never submit anything—you make it as good as you can in the moment, when you’re excited about that piece, and send it out. But I think every writer who’s serious about the craft should always be wanting to improve, and trying to improve.”