I can’t imagine anyone who reads this blog doesn’t already know it, but the Alpha SF/F/H Workshop for Young Writers (ages 14-19) is accepting applications for the 2011 workshop through March 1. The 10-day workshop will be held at the University of Pittsburgh’s Greensburg campus July 13-22, culminating in Confluence, Pittsburgh’s science fiction convention, July 22-24. At the workshop, teens will learn from such genre greats as Tamora Pierce, David Levine, and Ellen Kushner, along with the wonderful full-time staff that consists primarily of even more writers. The workshop costs $995, but some partial need-based scholarships are available.
Most of you know this already, but I attended Alpha in 2005 and 2006, when I was 18 and 19, respectively. Alpha changed my life. A dramatic statement, but true. I applied and was accepted to Alpha in 2005 on the merit of a three-year-old science fiction story. I hadn’t finished anything long enough to serve as an application story in the intervening years. I was operating on the assumption that in order to be a writer, one had to be a novelist, so my computer was filled with pitifully short novel beginnings and not much else. I desperately wanted to go to Alpha because a) Tamora Pierce was my favorite author, b) the only other writers my age I knew were writing angsty teen poetry and prefaced bland and wishy-washy comments on my own writing with the always popular and very frustrating phrase, “I don’t read this sort of thing, but…” and c) did I mention Tamora Pierce?
I flew into Pittsburgh in the afternoon, and after dinner that evening the twenty Alphans of 2005 filed into a classroom for our first lecture. It was on proper manuscript format. I was stunned. I had expected to study works of fiction and hear lectures on craft, and to give and receive critiques, but suddenly I was plunged headfirst into the implicit assumption that I was going to try to publish my writing. I hadn’t even considered it before. I had figured out by this time that I probably would never be a novelist, that writing full time would drive me insane, so I assumed I’d just write the occasional story as a hobby, sharing it with friends and family. Heck, I didn’t know such a thing as short fiction markets existed. By the end of the next morning’s lecture, when guest author Tobias Buckell taught us about some of the administrative aspects of writing–finding markets, creating cover letters, setting submission goals, etc.–my entire writing worldview had been shaken. I actually felt somewhat lost and out of place, a hobbyist among future professionals who obviously took writing Very Seriously. I hadn’t even finished a story longer than 1000 words since I was fifteen.
Some of Alpha’s guest speakers did lecture on craft and literature and the more abstract aspects of writing I had expected, but after the first few lectures, I approached these with a completely different outlook. My fellow writers and I had silly fun times, playing Mafia and reading “The Eye of Argon,” but we also stayed up obscenely late clacking away on our computers, groaning in frustration and asking each other questions that were hilarious out of context and yet dead serious to us as speculative fiction writers (e.g., “What’s a really useful superpower that you wouldn’t think would be useful?”). We amassed enormous quote lists, many of the quotes born of a sort of exhausted hysteria. The atmosphere was intense, to the point that even uncertain writers like me were infected with the idea that writing was vitally important, something worth considerable effort.
After ten days of intense fun and intense stress and critiques from fellow teen writers and published staff that weren’t precisely harsh but definitely didn’t allow one to pat oneself on the back for a job well done (and that never started with the words, “I don’t read this sort of thing, but…”), we went to sci-fi convention Confluence, where we maniacally raced through the hotel’s halls, destressing and probably causing considerable annoyance to some of the convention’s attendees (and definitely not catching up on sleep). At the end of the convention, no one wanted Alpha to end.
And you know what the best part is? For many of us, it didn’t, not really. We all flew/drove back to our respective homes scattered across the country (there are even a few non-American Alpha alumni), but many of us kept in touch via e-mail, instant message, Livejournal, and Facebook. There is an active online community of Alpha alumni, continuing to support each other and each year’s new Alphans. We critique each other’s work, celebrate fiction sales and contest wins, and commiserate about rejections. We recommend books to each other, help raise funds and spread the word about the workshop so that more teenagers can have the same experience we did, and even maintain a blog to share our collective learning with the internet at large. On its surface, Alpha could be seen as a semi-costly week and a half long chunk of summer that yields one short story and some critiques. But for those who attend, it can result in a lifelong support network of fellow writers, which is worth a lot more than $1000, in my opinion. If you know any teen writers of science fiction, fantasy, or horror, please encourage them to apply and, equally importantly, help make sure they’re able to attend.