You may have heard of workshops like Clarion, Clarion West, or Odyssey. They’re writer boot-camp, where you spend six weeks cramming craft, technique and experience into your brain cells and writing more than you thought humanly possible. It’s intense – possibly insane – but also one of the fastest ways to improve your writing and career.
How do they work?
- At Odyssey, my weekday went something like:
- Wake up at 6am to get a few hours’ writing in before class at 9.
- Two hours of class, covering advanced craft and technique, along with some business topics in the final week.
- In-depth critiques until 1pm, where each class member presented a five-hundred-plus-word critique of the previous day’s storie
- The next twelve hours* were spent completing the class assignments, critiquing the day’s stories, and trying to inch a bit further along the word count of your own.
On weekends, there was no class, which meant you charged hell-for-leather to get as much work done as possible on your next submission.
*The mathematically-inclined will have realised that works out to five hours’ sleep a night. Most people were averaging four. When your story was due the next morning, it was quite common to not bother sleeping at all. Your body adapts surprisingly well when all it has to do is write, eat or sleep.
You live in close-quarters on a college campus with about 15 other like-minded writers – which is actually one of the best things about the course. You’ll make lifelong friendships with people who understand the frustrations inherent in the writing life, people to whom writing is just as important as it is to you. You’ll go home as your own tribe of emerging writers, bonded together and ready to cheer each other on through your careers.
Not all workshops are like this. Odyssey has a very production-oriented approach, with the full six weeks of coursework structured and scheduled by former New York editor (and winner of the World Fantasy Award for editing) Jeanne Cavelos. Other workshops such as Clarion are run by a different author each week, and allow a lot more freedom and time for socializing and networking. That said, we still found time between drafts and critiques to bond, help each other out with story snarls, and unwind with a little You-tube karaoke.
What do you gain from them?
Craft: Jeanne, the architect of Odyssey, packs a whopper of a course-load into her six weeks, arguably more than an MFA. She covers style, setting, tension, pacing, viewpoint, character, plot structure, theme, description, exposition, dialogue, revision, originality, developing a story from an idea, as well as the business aspects of the job that every writer should know, and each of these topics is taught in far more depth and detail than any book or course on writing I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a lot). Her critiques on your stories and your writing strengths and weaknesses are extraordinarily in-depth and illuminating, and she tracks your progress through the course and helps you form goals and challenges to improve your work.
Connections: the graduates of these writing courses form a strong, supportive community, sharing advice and opportunities, and cheering each other on. Over half the graduates of Odyssey go on to become published writers, and many have won awards and prizes. You’ll meet and befriend published guest authors and make you first solid connections in the published world.
Determination: it takes a heck of a commitment to get through the course. You give up six weeks of your life – we had several students who (like me) came from the other side of the planet, and some who had no job or home to return to when they finished. You devote every scrap of energy and time you have to writing and learning, and you discover just what you can do when you really put writing first. By the end of six weeks, I had written a novel’s length of short stories, and another novel’s worth of critiques, and I wasn’t the only one.
So are they right for you?
These courses are not for beginners. Not only do you already need a good grasp of craft to make the most of the lessons , but you need a strong hold of your own writer’s voice to face down fifteen opinions of your work on a weekly basis and decide what feedback to take in, and how best to apply the things you’re learning.
They’re also not for those who have difficulty hearing criticism. There are no kid gloves here: you will be handing in stories that aren’t ready, because there’s no time to make them ready, hearing every flaw and fault and problem analysed to within an inch of its life, and then have to keep writing, because your next story is due in five days.
And finally, these courses are a serious commitment. Six weeks is not negotiable: you can’t pop in for just three of them and call it a day. Your entire life is on hold while you’re there, because there’s no other way to get the focus and drive you need to see those improvements. But, speaking as someone with an bachelor’s with honours in creative writing and master’s degree in publishing, I learned more and improved more at Odyssey than any university course and ten years of writing groups combined. It’s one of the best decisions of my life.
Sofie Bird is a speculative fiction writer and accredited editor based in Melbourne, Australia. She recently completed the Odyssey writing workshop, has won prizes in several national competitions, including the Alan Marshall Short Story competition and the Di Cranston Screenwriting award, and has published poetry in the literary periodical Blue Dog. She maintains a blog at www.sofiebird.net, or you can follow her on twitter @sofie_bird.