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Every few years I see articles pop up in my news feed debating the merits of creative writing courses. Can you teach writing, they ask. Writing is a skill just like any other – you might not be able to imbue someone with a sense of imagination, but you can show them how to write a good sentence, how to plot, what characters need to be interesting to the reader, and more.
‘A lot of writers like to promote this mystique: that you either have it or don’t have it. Which is so ridiculous.’
But if you write genre fiction, a ‘generic’ writing course might not be the best fit. These programmes often focus on literary fiction and have a tendency to look down on commercial fiction of all kinds. When it comes to science fiction, fantasy, and horror in particular, writers need a different set of tools in their toolkit as well. Genre-specific writing workshops have both teachers and peers who love and understand the genre you are writing in, making them far more valuable experiences.
Charlotte and I talk to Jeanne about the kinds of skills taught during genre-specific writing workshops, what basic skills all writers need, and the hardest part of being a writing teacher. Above all else, Jeanne recommends that writers read widely – and not just in the narrow genre confines they are writing in. Reading is part of study when you’re a writer, after all:
‘Great writers can’t hide their techniques… they’re right there on the page.’
Don’t be afraid to research areas of interest or reach out to experts when crafting your stories. Take what you know about your own life and build in the speculative elements. And when it comes to feedback – be willing to take feedback on board and learn how to give good feedback as well.
Odyssey Writing Workshops offers a highly praised six-week workshop each summer, online classes each winter, a critique service, and many free resources. Guest lecturers have included George R. R. Martin, Harlan Ellison, Terry Brooks, Ben Bova, Jane Yolen, and Dan Simmons.
Jeanne Cavelos is a writer, editor, scientist, and teacher. She began her professional life as an astrophysicist and mathematician, teaching astronomy at Michigan State University and Cornell University, and working in the Astronaut Training Division at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
But soon her love of science fiction led her to earn her MFA in creative writing. She moved into a career in publishing, becoming a senior editor at Bantam Doubleday Dell, where she created and launched the Abyss imprint of innovative horror and the Cutting Edge imprint of noir literary fiction, and ran the science fiction/fantasy publishing program. In addition, she edited a wide range of fiction and nonfiction. In her eight years in New York publishing, she edited numerous award-winning and best-selling authors and gained a reputation for discovering and nurturing new writers. Jeanne won the World Fantasy Award for her editing.
Jeanne left New York to find a balance that would allow her to do her own writing and work in a more in-depth way with writers.