Legendary Sci-Fi Editor Jeanne Cavelos Has Some Advice for Aspiring Sci-Fi Writers

Thursday, 23 March 2017 - 2:25PM
Thursday, 23 March 2017 - 2:25PM
Legendary Sci-Fi Editor Jeanne Cavelos Has Some Advice for Aspiring Sci-Fi Writers
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Jeanne Cavelos is a bestselling author, award-winning editor, former NASA astrophysicist, and director of one of the most respected sci-fi/fantasy writing programs in the country, the Odyssey Writing Workshop. In addition, she may be one of the most interesting brains to pick within the sci-fi community today: Cavelos continues to deliver talks at venues that range from the Discovery Channel and the Smithsonian Institute to Outer Places' own panels on the science of Star Wars.

As the 
Odyssey Workshop opens for its twenty-second year, we sat down with Jeanne to talk about her journey as a writer and what the Workshop offers to writers looking to take their fiction to the next level. Her advice? Don't write in solitude—become part of a community. 

Outer Places: You've been everything from a mathematician/astrophysicist to a bestselling sci-fi author. Tell us a bit about that journey and how you got here.

"My life has been an ongoing quest to find my place and purpose in the world... It all started with The Planet of the Apes (the original movie, 1968). I loved that movie, about astronauts who explore a strange planet and find out—spoiler!—it's Earth in the far future! It seemed very profound and powerful to me...so I promptly decided I wanted to be an astronaut. Also a huge fan of the original Star Trek series, I wanted to "boldly go where no man has gone before." I studied astrophysics and math and got a job in the Astronaut Training Division at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. 
"I earned my MFA in creative writing and got a job as an editorial assistant at Bantam Doubleday Dell, so I could find out how authors got published while doing my own writing. I would leave work at 5 PM each day, go home, and write over a dinner of powdered mini-donuts and Diet Coke. Gradually, I was promoted and had to begin taking work home—submissions to be read and acquired manuscripts to be edited... I read an article about a newly retired editor in which he said, "Now I'll finally have time to write that novel I've always wanted to write." I realized that would be me in 30 years if I stayed. So I left New York."
OP: Tell me a bit about the history of the Odyssey program, and what's involved in the curriculum. 

I founded Odyssey for two reasons: [first], my desire to work closely with writers and help them improve outside the strictures of a publishing house. The other started to grow in my brain while I was earning my master's degree in creative writing at American University. While I learned a lot about style and theme in the program, none of my instructors read or enjoyed science fiction. None of my fellow students read SF. So they were limited in how much they could help me when I submitted my writing.  I thought to myself how great would it be if there was an MFA-level program where all the students and teachers loved SF and valued it as an art form.  
The six-week workshop is organized unlike other workshops, which tend to spend the majority of their time critiquing manuscripts...We have a very advanced curriculum that covers all the major elements of writing fantasy, science fiction, or horror, such as theme, genre, originality, worldbuilding, showing versus telling, characterization, dialogue, internal conflict, plot, act structure, point of view, conveying emotions, productivity, getting published, and a lot more. Students have to do a writing exercise each night to practice what we discussed in class that day, so this knowledge actually gets incorporated into their writing process. Students also have to critique two or three stories per night and turn in six submissions over the six weeks.  
I know students make a huge sacrifice to get away from their lives for six weeks, so I try to pack as much as I can into the time. They often tell me that they learned more at Odyssey than in two years at a master's program, or in many years working on their own.
OP: What does the program give to writers that they can't get on their own?
Jeanne: The first is community.  Having other people who understand what you're trying to do and are trying to do the same thing can be a huge help.  Many writers who come to Odyssey have written in solitude...As many students have noted, you can have conversations at Odyssey that you can't have anywhere else.
The second is deadlines. It's amazing how knowing that you have to turn in a story in two days can help you write. Students have to write two pieces before they arrive and six while they are at the workshop. For many of them, this is the equivalent of what they've produced in two or three years. So the timeline for production and improvement is much compressed.
The third thing Odyssey provides is the curriculum. Your brain is packed full of information, tools, and techniques to make your stories stronger. Learning these tools while simultaneously trying to implement them in your stories helps you move toward mastery. Students make exciting progress, and some make huge breakthroughs.  

The fourth is a clear sense of the strengths and weaknesses in your writing...In the first week or so, I meet with each student and explain the common strengths and weaknesses I've found in the three pieces of his I've read. We decide on a weakness to try to attack and discuss various strategies for doing that. We meet again in the middle of the workshop, and again at the end, so I can give each student a sense of his progress and where he might focus his energy to take the next step ahead.
OP: What's the success (or publishing) rate of graduates? 

Jeanne: Fifty-nine percent of graduates have been professionally published, which is the highest rate I've seen for a writing program. Among our graduates are award-winners, Amazon bestsellers, and New York Times bestsellers.
OP: Tell me about one of the most memorable experiences you had from the program.

In 2014, a group of students came up with a fun ceremony to calm the nerves of those about to be critiqued, which involved a crown of paper clips and toilet paper, the reading of an excerpt from The Odyssey, a selection from the Shakespearean Insult Generator, music, dancing, a can of condensed milk, and a plush goat. During our graduation ceremony, I was able to participate in the ceremony, which was awesome.

Interested in applying to the Odyssey Writing Workshop? You can apply here! The deadline for submissions is April 8th, 2017. You can also check out our recent interview with New York Times bestselling sci-fi author and Odyssey graduate, Meagan Spooner.
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