Writing, Community, and the Alpha Workshop

Last July, Justine and I taught at the Alpha Workshop for Young Writers, a science fiction, fantasy, and horror writing camp for people 14-19. It was tons of fun (pic here) and we learned a lot. So when Alpha asked me if I would lend space for their fund-raising and young-writer-recruiting blog tour, I said yes.

So here’s a post by Sarah Brand, an Alpha alum, talking about how workshops and the communities they form help us all to become better writers.

In the summer of 2006, I attended the Alpha SF/F/H Workshop for Young Writers for the first time. As I boarded the plane to Pittsburgh, easily the farthest I had ever traveled on my own at that point, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Being a somewhat anxious, awkward girl, I didn’t know whether I would make friends. But maybe I would learn more about writing, or how to get published. Maybe Tamora Pierce, who teaches at Alpha every year, would look at my novel. (I had brought a printout of all 300 pages just in case.)

I was right about some things, and wrong about others. I did learn a lot about the craft and business of writing, enough to recognize that my novel still needed a lot of work. (Tammy didn’t look at it, which was definitely for the best.) And though I was anxious and awkward, and though minor disasters kept happening to me—getting stung by mysterious bugs, making my parents worry by forgetting to call home, and the like—I felt completely at home with the workshop’s staff and the other students. Something magical was happening.

After ten days, the workshop ended, and I went home. But something was different, something that had never happened to me after any summer camp before: I kept in touch with my fellow Alphans, regularly, via LiveJournal and email. We commiserated about school and traded drafts of stories for critique. Even months after the workshop, I felt as close to some Alphans as I did to other friends I had known all my life. Maybe geography had cruelly scattered us from California to New Zealand and everywhere in between, but we were united by our love of making stories happen, and bringing strange new worlds to life.

In 2009, after I had returned to Alpha twice more—once as a second-year student and once as a staff member—fellow Alpha graduates Rachel Sobel and Rebecca McNulty founded the alpha-crits community, which soon became the way many Alphans stayed in touch. In addition to trading critiques, we celebrate each other’s writing accomplishments and publishing successes. For four particularly memorable months, the moderators ran the “700 words a day or shame!” thread, which resulted in Alphans collectively writing 875,799 words in that time. Also, every year as the deadline for the Dell Magazines Award approaches, eligible Alphans frantically write and revise stories for the contest, and everyone pitches in to give critiques with an extra fast turnaround time. (A couple of months later, we all join in the nail-biting until the finalists are announced.)

Importantly, the members of alpha-crits encourage each other to write things and send them out, continuing the time-honored Alphan tradition of treating rejections from agents and editors as a badge of honor. (Rejections, we have all learned, mean that you are writing things and sending them out, and that is always a step forward, even if it doesn’t feel like it.)

Even if I had never attended Alpha, I think I would still be writing. The entire course of the last eight years of my life would be different, sure, but in the end, telling stories is part of who I am. But being part of a community of such fabulous writers—not only brilliant and talented, but also uniformly encouraging and kind—has made the journey much easier, and a lot more fun.

And lest you might think I’m the only one who feels this way, I reached out to other Alphans to get their thoughts. Alpha graduate Marina Goggin had this to say: “One thing I hear a lot that I would never expect out of a two-week workshop is that Alpha changes lives. This is absolutely true…  Being part of Alpha makes you a part of the writing world—even if you haven’t been published yet, someone you critiqued probably has been. Someone you know just got an agent, or a job at a publishing company. While I’m working to improve my writing, I’m encouraged by the fact that other Alphans have already been through the same process and are there to help me through it in turn.”

“I have a whole community of writer friends who I can go to for advice or encouragement should I ever need it,” added Alphan Mallory Trevino.


If you are between the ages of 14 and 19 and love writing science fiction, fantasy, or horror, you should apply to Alpha! This year’s workshop will be held July 25-August 3 in Pittsburgh, PA, and applications are due March 2. Everyone else: if you like the sound of Alpha and want to help the workshop, please consider donating to our scholarship fund, which helps students who couldn’t afford to attend Alpha otherwise. All donors receive a flash fiction anthology, written and illustrated by Alpha graduates, as a thank-you gift.

Sarah Brand attended Alpha in 2006 and 2007. She writes young adult science fiction and fantasy, and her fiction is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

47 thoughts on “Writing, Community, and the Alpha Workshop

  1. Oh, my gosh yes! This post is completely true! Anyone interested in writing should definitely apply (except not this year, because I don’t want y’all hedging me out of my spot, 😉 )!

  2. I’m so sad that once I found out about Alpha, I was too old to attend it. (Especially since I live so close to it.)

    So if you’re debating, don’t regret not going! Go for it!!! 🙂

  3. @Maria Jones … you think you live far away? I live in New Zealand :'(

    Alpha sounds like so much fun! Good luck to everyone who enters 🙂

  4. @4: You live in Kentucky? I live in Texas! That’s at least twice as far and I went. You should at least apply. 😉

  5. Do you guys remember how we talked about Princess Anastasia awhile ago on here? Well guess what I found out today!

    Wait for it…

    Princess Anastasia was the first teenager to take a selfie. Let that settle in for a minute. Weird, huh?

  6. @14: Yeah, it’s spam, but shouldn’t it at least make sense? It’s like they strung random words together.

  7. It seems to be some French (or other non-English language) coffee place??? I think they had a HUGE translation problem. 😉

  8. Wassup, my fellow Westerfeldians?

    @14 hahahahaa that made me laugh so much.

    @17 HAHAHA yes imagine if they’re actually trying to advertise their café…

  9. YES! Alpha is awesome! Even though everything sort of slipped out of my hands this year (because of school, college issues, and personal yackum), I definitely plan to go back sometime. It’s amazing.

    @19: What’s up? Well, in Physics we’re learning about electricity with alternating current and capacitors (and I still have trouble writing that in English XD) and I just want to lecture about the engines of the Leviathan. And in my APUSH class we’re a chapter away from WWI! Though the US didn’t join until 1917 because of Wilson’s promise not to go to war. And one of my friends started reading LBG and it’s so wonderful to talk about it again. 😀 She also suggested the song “Kiss Me Slowly” by Parachute for Deryn and Alek. It’s soooo perfect. 🙂

    Also, how long has the spam been going on since it first showed up? It’s so odd. But highly amusing. ^^

    Anyway, how is everyone?

  10. @21: Guuuurl, you can’t keep dropping in and out of the blogosphere! We miss you over here!

    I’ve started my first semester of college (dual credit classes). It’s not too bad, but I sooo do not want to read my Government…

    I have a friend who just started reading LBG too! And Divergent! She’s on Behemoth and Insurgent. I myself still haven’t read Allegiant despite having it for a month now, because SCHOOL! 🙁 But I plan to read it during spring break. 😀

    I desperately need to finish my Alpha app crits and send my story in (btw, you never got back to me with your crits, MidK). Next week will be so nice because for better or for worse it will done (as well as this spring semester 500-word assessment thing I have to write by Friday)!

    Anyone else plan on watching the Oscar’s on Sunday? There’s gonna be a performance by Idina Menzel! I just know she’s gonna sing “Let It Go” and I’m so excited because FROZEN!! <3

  11. EEE! She IS SINGING IT?? thank the lord! if they got Demi to sing it I was going to shut the tv off and give up on life!
    this is fantastic! Last year we got Adele and now we get Idina! 😀

    I’m still sad they didn’t have the muppets perform 2 years ago. that would have been amazing.

  12. @25: I know! Demi’s version is fine and all (as are the multitude of other versions on the internet, like the mashup, or the African tribal version), but NOTHING compares to Idina’s A-MAZING voice! Such emotion and range and AH! Are you obsessed with Wicked as much as I am? 😀
    Whatever happened to Adele? She got pregnant and sort of fell off the map. :\
    I can’t wait until the Tony’s either! THEY know how to put on a show! June 8th, everybody!

  13. @22: I know! I’ve missed you guys so much, which is why I’ve decided to screw drowning in homework because I need this. I’ll stay up until 3 am if I have to. I’m also coming back and sticking around for good because I discovered rather unpleasantly that the women on my mom’s side of the family have a genetic predisposition for depression and, well, this keeps me happy. And wow that just got way too personal. But I should be back for good!

    And I know I never got back to you with crits. *sobs* I did read your story and I had crits set up and everything, but then personal yackum mentioned above happened and I’m an awful writer friend, I am so sorry. I promise to be better next time. If you still want a crit (though I’m not sure if I would have anything original to say since you have others), email me and bug me to death.

    I AM DEFINITELY WATCHING THE OSCARS. I always do, and I was crossing my fingers that they would have her perform “Let It Go.” YESYESYES

    (Also, the first song I heard by Parachute was “Forever and Always” and I literally broke out sobbing when I first heard it. Maybe your reaction wasn’t quite so excessive, but I know what you mean. It’s so sad.)

    @26: Adele is pregnant? What….?

  14. @27: Good! (About you keeping up with the blog, not about depression…)

    Whoa, calm down! It’s cool. Last year only two out of five critiquers responded before I sent my story in! I’d still love to know what you think, though. Did you like it?

    I always miss award shows, I never know when there are on. I missed the Golden Globes and I’m really upset now because Tine Fey and Amy Poehler are AWESOME! Oh well. After that I prepared myself. I WILL watch the Oscar’s and, more importantly, I WILL see the Tony’s!

    And Adele already had her baby! That’s probably why she’s been out of the limelight, she’s much too happy to write any good songs! 😉

  15. Oh, and “Forever and Always” was my first Parachute song too! My sister showed it to me forever ago! It was such a coincidence that “Kiss Me Slowly” was them, too.

  16. @28&29: I’ll email you about your story. 🙂 I did like it. The concept was….whoa. It was awesome. But I’ll probably do that tomorrow morning, since I’m kind of falling asleep right now. I had four tests today and not a lot of sleep and I’d prefer to be 100% lucid. ^^

    The only award show I’ve watched is the Oscars…. But I did see part of the Critic’s Choice Awards or something? I saw the award for best animated film, because my mom was watching it and I was confused as to why I was suddenly hearing the names “Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki.” XD I DO wish I’d seen the….music awards. Oh gosh I don’t even know what they’re called. But I did get to see the performance of “Same Love” online later, and that’s all I really wanted.

    Really? I never even knew Adele was pregnant…. Wow.

  17. @30: Well, thank you. I have a broader book-length idea for it, but as a short story I thought it would be better to not have it be an evil-overlord-main-chick-must-conquer story. I’m hoping the uniqueness of the idea will get me in. *crosses fingers* Last year, my story was about a girl who cut herself to remove spirits from her head, but then a generic murder mystery became the main plotline and I think that’s what killed it.

    The Grammy’s? I don’t watching that one, but the ads always make it look better than it ends up being. Which is why I don’t usually make it a priority to watch award show in general. They’re all kind of like that, except the Tony’s! 😀 I just watch the Oscar’s because I’m actually kind of interested in what movies are nominated/win (and now that I know Idina’s singing, well, I have to watch!).

  18. Wow, I really have dropped out of here a lot. Last time I checked there were like 12 comments, but anyways…

    @MidK: It’s good to have you back! 🙂

    Everybody’s talking about watching the Oscars and I feel kinda awkward, because every year I want to watch them, but I can never watch the whole thing. I fall asleep and I don’t know why! But I’m planning on trying again this year.

    Here I am finally done with exams, a nightmare. My worst subject was History, and it is sooo boring. I miss World History! In 9th grade we do Mexico’s History only, and it’s the same things we see in school since we’re like 5 years old, and it gets really tedious.

    @Dalek songs: I haven’t heard Kiss Me Slowly, but I’ll look it up. I think the only Parachute song I know is She Is Love (at least, I think that’s the song’s name). But one time I was looking up Leviathan on YouTube, and I saw a video with Jason Mraz’s song If It Kills Me. That one is completely perfect for Deryn!

    Well, now I suppose I have to go back to doing homework. I can ramble on and on here, but then I’d have more and more work to do, and well, I don’t really like working that much 🙂

  19. School isn’t that bad for me, except for this group presentation I have to do in English. Ugh, nothing sounds worse to an introvert like me than having to talk to people to get info and then present my findings to the class. It’s going to be awful. 🙁
    But there’s only one more week until spring break for me, thank god! 😀

  20. So Gravity won everything. Big surprise. *eye roll* -_-
    I’m happy Frozen won twice though! 😀
    Was it just me, or was Idina’s performance…underwhelming? I love her to death, but she seemed kind of rushed and/or like the mic was maybe too close. Which is weird, because she’s a Broadway star, she certainly know how to perform on the stage. And I didn’t mishear her voice break on the end note, right? Not that I blame her, that note is freaking hard! I know from experience. Don’t get me wrong, it was still really good though.
    <3 Idina
    And Ellen was hilarious like always. The pizza thing was hysterical. Also, Robert de Niro's little speech about the screenwriters? SO TRUE!

  21. @Roxanne: *screams into pillow because of English presentations* Junior year is entirely American lit. *bangs head against wall* We’re reading The Joy Luck Club now, which is finally good. The only other book I liked was The Great Gatsby (but that’s Gatsby and it’s kind of hard to dislike). But we had to do semester presentations and my group had to do the American Dream (aka the single topic of junior year) so we decided to tie it in across the history of America, working with the two-sided definition of material prosperity and egalitarianism, and *bangs head against wall.* My English teacher didn’t get it.

    I hope yours goes better! I still like ours. *sulks* I find that talking about something you care about lessens introversion-related stumbling blocks…. I had the easiest presentation I’d ever given for my end of the year project in APEuro simply because I got to choose the topic, as long as it was within what we studied. (Victor Hugo <3)

    And yes, yes, yes to everything you said about the Oscars. THE THING ABOUT SCREEN WRITERS. IT SHOULD HAVE JUST BEEN WRITERS IN GENERAL. I was like, "Yes, yes, thank you!" and my parents were just laughing at me….

    @Middy Me: YOU DO THAT TOO? I'm taking AP US History right now and, I agree, it's so boring to learn the stuff you've been learning since you were five…. Except in the US's case, some of it was patriotic propaganda, like the Boston Massacre was actually a bunch of drunk guys throwing snow at regulars (redcoats) because the soldiers worked for lower wages than the colonists, and thus took the colonists' jobs for their off-duty time. And no one whitewashes and glorifies US history like the Americans. :/ But since you've been learning the stuff for so long, you start to resent it, which is kind of awful because last month was Black History Month and by this time no one can appreciate the Civil Rights Movement for what it was because they're so bored. Also, there were so many other civil rights movements at that time…. And heaven forbid we talk about the beginning of the LGBTQ Rights Movement…. Needless to say, my APUSH textbook is often annotated and/or corrected.

    Anyway, I need to get back to history notes, actually. After six chapters of everything but a certain war in the years 1880-1920, we are finally covering WWI! 🙂 My history textbook is the densest thing, I swear….

  22. I’m pretty sure my presentation is going to suck. My group isn’t really that good, and frankly I’m not passionate about the subject matter. But the good news is, I can fail both presentations (yes, there’s another one. I’m not happy) and probably still get an A in the class. So that’s cool! 🙂

    I actually just heard about the Joy Luck Club for the first time in class recently. We were analyzing an Amy Tan essay.
    As for Gatsby, I have to disagree. I’ll admit I haven’t read it, but watching the movie makes me think it’s a pretty horrible (by which I basically depressing) story, solely because Daisy is possibly the worst person ever imagined. Leonardo DiCaprio needs to stop starring in roles opposite girls named after flowers that aren’t good enough for his awesomeness and ultimately (SPOILER!) get him killed.

    Actually, listening to her performance again, Idina’s performance wasn’t as disappointing as I’d originally thought. What was up with John Travolta butchering her name beyond recognition???
    I shall forever love the Screenplay Speech (as I’ve now dubbed it). My parents were doing the exact same thing! Of course, I was laughing with them because every word out of RdN’s mouth was impossibly accurate, especially the procrastination thing.

    BUT I’VE APPLIED TO ALPHA! I can finally relax! 😀 (BTW, MidK, I’ve decided that if I get in this year, we’ll just have to meet the next time I visit California to visit my older siblings. I hope you live by LA?!? (They live in Pasadena and Culver City.)

  23. @Roxanne: Well, that sounds good! So I guess presentations aren’t weighted too much? That’s nice.

    It is rather depressing…. I do recommend reading the book; I always will. It’s beautifully written. *cries because I wish my prose sounded like Fitzgerald’s* I actually liked the movie, though. As for Daisy…. I know most people hate her, and she’s kind of written to be hated, because Nick hates her in the end. But I don’t so much hate her as pity her. She had a chance to escape everything with Gatsby before the war, but when he left she got scared. I know that her just forgetting about Gatsby when he died was….not nice, but I also feel like it wasn’t really her. Like Daisy’s actions aren’t really powered by her; she’s powered by what society expects? I think of her as being a person who died a long time ago. She had chances with Gatsby, but in the end it was easier to go back to being dead. Does that make sense? I just don’t feel she should be written her off as a bad person. She’s not a good person by any means, I just wonder what she could have been….

    I think that’s a thing with John Travolta? Apparently he’s done it before….

    Er, I live in the Bay Area…. But maybe we could meet halfway? Hearst Castle is actually a good halfway point and, well, Goliath, hehe…. Or I guess if it’s the summer I could talk my family into going south to tour more colleges and possibly visit some of my cousins. ^^

  24. OOH! OOH! Guess who came up in my APUSH class today!


    Because we were talking about the times European nations invaded the Americas before the Spanish-American War and my history teacher was trying to get us to say Maximilian (and complaining about our past history teacher, who is his wife), but he kept talking about the third empire of France and Napoleon III, so none of us got it. But then when he told us about Maximilian, I must have given him the weirdest look before I said, “But he was AUSTRIAN.”

    Because apparently it was an alliance between the Austrian Hapsburgs and the Third Republic of France, who also supported the Spanish Hapsburgs? Only I don’t think the Spanish Hapsburgs were still in power….Someone help me, I’m failing and my Hapsburgs trivia. D:

    But I got to go around muttering, “We did not need one, so we shot him” for the rest of the day, so I’m happy. 😀

  25. @MidK – I just saw that in History class!! Well, a few weeks ago, but anyways…

    I remember because the only thing that really stuck in my head out of the whole page of the book was “Hapsburg”. Apparently at some point the Mexican presidents decided that they wanted a European emperor to rule the country, so the asked France, I think. Maximilian was chosen, and he accepted. Once he got to Mexico, he sort of fell in love with the country or something and wanted to do good, but most of the people didn’t want an emperor again, so they turned against him and he ended up being killed.

    I don’t think Pancho Villa was there at that time, though. But I think Scott clarified that at the end of the book, I don’t really remember.

  26. @Middy Me: Really? That’s fascinating. We learned it as an invasion. I don’t think Pancho Villa was there, but he did talk about it in Goliath. I don’t remember the years, but it was somewhere around the American Civil War (1860-1864) so the Americans wouldn’t stop them or something.

  27. Although it would help if there was a word in English like “estadounidense” like there is in Spanish. I keep noticing that it’s common to say “American” for someone from the United States (like me) and that just seems odd, doesn’t it? I mean, it’s been like that for ages, but isn’t it weird?

  28. @MidK: Yep, Pancho Villa wasn’t there until the Mexican Revolution (from 1910 to around 1940, I think). There were invasions before that, though, like the French invasion, and then the Americans wanted more territory and were angry because Mexico didn’t recognize the independence of Texas, so they invaded too. After Santa Anna sold the territory, I don’t think there were other invasions, most of the problems were national, in the country, like the Revolution years later.

    And yes, a word like that in English would help, because “American” actually means like, anyone from America, the continent. But so many people use it now to mean people from the US that I guess it has become that. It’s kind of weird when words have different meanings that people have caused 🙂

  29. @Middy Me: Okay! I wasn’t sure. Right now we’re talking about Panama, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawai’i, Guam, and a bunch of other territories acquired by the US when it decided it wanted to be an empire. We’ve spent about five chapters on 1890-1920 and it’s all getting mixed up. I know the Mexican Revolution is in there somewhere though…. >_< Thank you for clarifying!

    I know…. And there was that one time the US decided it was the police force of the Americas so it could intervene anywhere it wanted on American soil. US History is amusing sometimes….

  30. @MidK – you’re welcome! sometimes I need to remind myself that I actually like History, and it’s cool to talk about it somewhere outside of school 🙂

  31. @44: That’s so true. In school it’s all economics. 🙁 The politics I don’t mind, but technically everything is based in the economy, and it gets so boring. You never learn about pocket watches and tennis courts or anything interesting. :/

  32. @45: To be fair, most people don’t think pocket watches and tennis courts are interesting either. 😉
    On a related note, I now want to start a LBG appreciation blog/tumblr/something called Pocket Watches and Tennis Courts.

  33. Hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii peoples

    I used to have a cool life but now school has dominated all coolness and diminished any fun I used to have. Wah.. It’s so weird to think that this is my last year of school though!

    MidK, we missed you! Speaking of missing people, Scott, where are ya mate??

    Anyway, I’m working on a piece of writing atm that I’m kind of excited about! It involves time travel, an antique shop and two brothers who are 60 years apart in age….. I’ll share some of it with you guys when I’m done 🙂

    Well ciao for now

  34. @46: OOH! That would be awesome! (I have slowly been finding other LBG fans on tumblr. We’re tiny over there, but always awesome.)

    @48: I completely understand. I have so much schoolwork this year, which is why I disappeared. But congrats on it being your last year of school! I can’t wait for that day, haha. Your story sounds really interesting. 🙂

    And yes, Scott, where are you? ^^

  35. #superlatetotheparty
    I didn’t apply this year because I have other things to focus on this summer, but it really is life changing and I plan to apply again next year. I can’t imagine where I might be in my writing right now if it wasn’t for Alpha, but it wouldn’t be anywhere good. I learned so much, and it applies to so much more than writing. I feel more prepared for life now (and know more about how to kill people, but that’s Tammy’s fault).
    So, long story short, Alpha is great.

  36. @52: *FLINGS SELF AT YOU AND GIVES YOU A VIRTUAL HUG* HELLO! I didn’t apply this year either, for pretty much the same reasons. But everything you said, just yes, yes. 🙂

    Also, today I walked up to my friend who is reading LBG and she just looked at me and said, “Can I trust you, Deryn? Really trust you?”


    (And we started WWI in APUSH and my teacher was lecturing on everything leading up to it yesterday. It was awesome because it was European history, and WWI, and my teacher is hilarious. It was a perfect class. Ahh, the Willy-Nicky letters. ^^)

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