Shared Worlds Teen SF/Fantasy Writing Camp: Year Eight!

(Shared Worlds 2015 poster and student writing book cover. Art by Jeremy Zerfoss.)

For eight years I’ve been a part of Shared Worlds, a unique SF/Fantasy writing camp located at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. I currently serve as co-director of the camp, with founder Jeremy L.C. Jones, with my main focus running the creative writing track, publishing the Shared Worlds book, and bringing in five or six guest writers each year. My wife Ann VanderMeer serves as the editor-in-residence, overseeing things like the critiques and student meetings with guest writers. This year our week one guest writer was Catherynne M. Valente, who gave a marvelous reading that got the students in the right mood to start writing. In week two, we had Nathan Ballingrud, Monica Byrne, Tobias Buckell, and Ekaterina Sedia–all doing amazing work with the students.

(Week two guest writers: Monica Byrne, Nathan Ballingrud, Tobias Buckell, and Ekaterina Sedia–with editor-in-residence, Ann VanderMeer. Hub City Bookshop.)

Every year, it seems like a daunting task, and our eighth year no less so, with over 60 students, from as far away as the UK–and the mission to help the students create whole worlds in groups the first week and then write stories set in those worlds the second week. As you might expect, this requires a lot of amazing staff in addition to the guest writers–classroom instructors, guest lecturers, residential assistants, administrative and managerial assistants, and more. We’re also fortunate to have Tim Schmitz as the director of summer programs at Wofford, coordinating all of that, and assistant director Will Hindmarch overseeing the world-building track.

The culminaann1tion of all of this effort–fraught with timing issues–is that in the space of about 48 hours at the second week, the students complete their stories, put the finishing touches on their worlds, receive a critique from a guest writer, meet with the guest writer to discuss their story (and writing in general), and then present their worlds via video to each other and to their parents. During that stretch, they also receive the reward of a lot of free books donated by publishers along with other perks. The alien baby, which has been around the world, serves as their mascot, and staff commit to doing silly things as rewards for meeting deadlines. This year, Ann dyed her hair purple and wore her sushi pajamas when the students turned their stories in on time…while I fulfilled a promise I made to “eat my hat” if I turned in the 2014 SW book late and ate a cake that looked like a hat–without aid of utensils or my hands.

The Shared Worlds’ 2015 student group was amazingly energized and creative for the entire two-week stretch, without let-up–just a great group of students. We also had a lot of TAs and RAs who were former students, and one former student, Jackie Gitlin, who served as a classroom instructor. It’s nice to see that institutional knowledge come back in the service of the camp. TA Aimee Hyndman even has a novel coming out that’s based on a story she wrote while a student at Shared Worlds.

SW students
(Students in a Shared Worlds classroom, taking a break to look at their stories from a different perspective. Photo by Jackie Gitlin.)

The broader goal with Shared Words is to provide a place where creative types can use their imagination and can engage in imaginative play in a structured environment that also includes art and sometimes gaming. Yes, the creative writing component is important–and for many students having a professional consult with an award-winning writer is a huge plus at the camp. But we’re not as concerned with helping teach future writers as we are with allowing for a wider range of creativity. In the camp, students have to work in groups and negotiate as they create their worlds. They have to analyze and synthesize information provided to them about politics, biology, philosophy, and more. They also have to work on their own, self-motivated, and meet deadlines. Really, they’re asked to do so many things, and it works because they love the fantastical, they love the freedom to run wild with their imaginations. The structure gives them that freedom.

(Students browse the free books at camp’s end, provided by publishers and private donors.)

It’s remarkable to me that we’ve made it to the eight-year mark, with the camp in good order as we head into the ninth year–remarkable guests in 2016 include Nnedi Okorafor, Julia Elliott, Kelly Barnhill, Tobias Buckell, and Terra Elan McVoy. We’re also grateful for past support for some of our PR campaigns from such greats as Neil Gaiman and Ursula K. Le Guin.

So I guess it’s time to start planning for a ten-year reunion weekend, too. In the meantime, below find some more photos and videos from the camp this year. If you are a teen interested in this kind of a camp, you’ll be able to register for 2016 soon. If you’re a parent of such a teenager, feel free to email Shared Worlds with any questions.

(More student joy over free books.)

(It’s a stand-off, as students try to stop assistant director Will Hindmarch from leaving camp…)

(Students present “rough drafts” of their worlds on the first Friday.)


(First week reading with Cat Valente)

(Students in awe of Catherynne M. Valente’s reading.)


(Catherynne M. Valente joins students in impromptu singing after the bookstore event. Songs from Les Miserables.)


(Ekaterina Sedia talking about the importance of specific details in fiction.)

Alien baby
(The alien baby mascot gets a Playdoh makeover from the students…)

(The “hat” I had to eat.)

(The bribe cake for the students, so I could eat a fake hat…)

(First day photo.)

(Campers at registration–returnees greeting old friends and new.)