I spent last week attending the Viable Paradise writer’s workshop on Martha’s Vineyard as one of 24 students. It’s been a little more than 48 hours since I left the island, but less than 48 since I arrived back home from. Yesterday was caught up with the combination of both mental and physical exhaustion, as well as taking care of Michelle, who broke her foot the day we were supposed to leave. In the end I went up solo as she underwent surgery on Monday; fortunately, my mother in law spent the week with her and oversaw Michelle’s care, freeing me up for the VP experience. I am forever grateful for that.
This was my first experience with any kind of writing workshop, and only my second with any type of critique process, so I was somewhat nervous of how that aspect of things would go. This was mitigated a great deal by having connected with a number of my classmates on Twitter or via Slack, a text-based chat system. This meant that a bunch of us knew at least a bit about each other.
That prior connection no doubt helped, but it seems to me that what truly brought us together was our love of writing, of the SF/F/Horror genre, and our shared desire to improve our craft.
And we did come together. Not as some kind of perfect cohesive whole, but definitely as a tribe. I know there are people I became closer too than others over the course of the week, and I’m sure the same holds true for all of us. And I regret not finding ways to spend more time with those I didn’t share group critiques or after-hours talk/singing/drinking/hanging-out sessions with. But it was clear that while the work people brought was at differing stages of development or polish, there was a consistently high quality of ability and skill among all the students.
In other words, I spent a week immersed in talking about writing with incredibly intelligent, thoughtful and skilled colleagues. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this was a life-altering experience.
I’ve heard it said that the biggest thing a workshop like VP does for you is to give you a cohort, a collection of folks with a shared experience. Time will tell, naturally, but I’m gonna put my money down now on that being the case for us.
It’s fair to say I learned at least as much outside the formal classroom sessions and group critiques as I did within them. The instructors and staff were incredibly approachable and freely shared advice from their experience in writing and publishing. But I learned a ton from my fellow students. Each person brought a variety of experience to the workshop, and absolutely everyone I interacted with was all-in for helping each other become better writers. It’s fair to say I learned something from everybody I talked to at any length beyond “say when” whilst pouring.
And what did I learn? Beyond the practical instruction around plotting, character development, and the Clusterfuck Deathtrap Corporation of Peoria, IL? Three main things, I think:
First up, that there’s a bunch of stuff I’m doing reasonably well for someone at this point in my writing career. Since we writers tend to be an insecure bunch, this part is often overlooked when looking back at critiques, but it’s front and center in the critique methodology VP uses. That’s really helpful – maybe in part because it softens you up a little for what follows – but more so in helping identify those things one needs to be better integrating into one’s work. (One of mine was “Really efficient world-building”, and I’ll be glowing about that one for months.)
Second was confirmation of a number of things I suspected I needed to work on – but more importantly, getting some tools on how to fix them. And as I mentioned above, those fixes came from the students at least as much as the instructors.
But the truly valuable things for me were items that only people with experiences different from myself could point out to me. I’m truly grateful that they did so, with respect and encouragement, and with trust that I was making a good-faith effort. They gave me ideas of how to fix these things too, and my work will be stronger for this.
I’ve mentioned the instructors before, and they were uniformly awesome. All of them are truly committed to mentoring and developing new writers and were incredibly giving of their time and expertise. This came during the formal classroom and group sessions, but also during the scheduled one-on-ones, off-schedule sessions, or simply while hanging out in the evenings. They packed a ton of information into our heads in an incredibly short span of time.
But, in my not-so-humble opinion, the true heart of Viable Paradise is the staff. These wonderful people, all former students themselves (with one exception, IIRC), make sure everyone is looked after. They make sure everyone is involved in whatever’s going on to the extent that they wish to, or are psychologically up to. There’s a lot of stress in this experience between the reading & giving of critiques, receiving critiques, and the writing assignments, and everyone has their own way of dealing with that. As I said to Macallister Stone, the head of staff, there seemed to be a million acts of kindness, love, and support, and I’m certain that for every one I saw, there were a number I didn’t. I don’t think any of my classmates were hurting or in any significant distress over the course of the week, but I suspect some folks needed help over the humps at various points. I’d lay money that I got help I didn’t even realize I was receiving at times.
I’ll be unpacking these experiences over the weeks, months and probably years to come.
The last 12 months have seen a lot happen in my writing life. I finished the first draft of what I hope will be my first book, “The Frozen Past”, early last December. Along the way I learned a lot about what works for me in terms of writing process. (I do best with 2+ hour stints in a place that’s not my house.) I could also see my writing getting better as I went.
Not entirely coincidentally, completion of that manuscript coincided with the beginning of an “Open Door” period at Angry Robot books, a time during which they accepted unsolicited submissions. I sent it off with fairly realistic expectations, knowing I wouldn’t hear anything for months – the window didn’t close until the end of January 2016, and they expected to get hundreds of submissions.
They got over 1100.
I went for quite a while without hearing anything. I passed the manuscript around to a select few friends and family to read – my alpha readers – and got some good feedback. After giving it a few months, I started a revision pass in March that finished in April, which fixed a few of the more salient problems. I knew the beginning was too still too slow but tried a few things to fix that, with limited success. I sent it around again, including a few new folks, in early May, with a request to provide feedback by month’s end.
May saw a couple of developments. With my surgery date set for July I was free to attend Balticon, the big SF/F convention held annually over Memorial Day weekend, and the con suddenly added a set of writing workshops (for an additional fee). I signed up for two. I also got my expected rejection from Angry Robot. Since they were looking at the weakest part of the book, and the first draft at that, the rejection went down pretty easily. (I’ve taken a leaf from writer Tobias Buckell and stuck a print-out of the rejection e-mail in a binder.)
Feedback on the second draft started rolling in, and I trucked off to Balticon, which proved to be a significant event in a couple of ways.
The first few came during the initial workshop, on “Worldbuilding in a Hard SF Universe”, taught by Chuck Gannon. There were only three students counting myself and one turned out to be Beth Tanner, a friend (and friend of the family). During the session Chuck, Beth and our fellow student talked about our works and several key things about my setting crystallized for me on the spot. Chuck also brought up a couple things I absolutely hadn’t considered which make the background of the Exile Clusters more real, but also helped me find the key conflict going on in my little fictional universe. The session was well worth the $180 I spent on it.
The second thing happened over the course of the weekend while participating in the grand tradition of “Barcon”, i.e. the conversations between folks at the hotel bar during the convention. Beth asked if I had plans to submit my writing to any workshops, particularly the Viable Paradise workshop coming up in October. I’d thought about it, and had originally hoped to apply to the Taos Toolbox workshop run by Walter Jon Williams and Nancy Kress over the summer, but my surgery and the expense precluded that from this year. Beth kept at me through the weekend: “You’re at the level where this is the next step for you,” she told me on more than one occasion. “Just apply – you’ve got nothing to lose!”
So, after a week of wrangling with my synopsis and fixing up the beginning of “The Frozen Past” a bit more, I submitted the synopsis and first 8000 words. I also won a professional manuscript critique in a charity auction for “Con or Bust”, and sent the entire book as it then stood off to the terrific writer Yoon Ha Lee.
And then, at the end of June, I was accepted to VP.
This is a really big deal for me. Viable Paradise only takes 24 students. It’s an intense, one-week workshop, and the instructors are some of the best authors and editors in SF/F today. People who apply often get wait-listed and have to re-apply the next year. Alumni include award-winning and best-selling authors.
Now, there’s no guarantee I’ll ever become one of those. There’s no guarantee I’ll even be published (traditionally, anyway). But no matter what I’m going to learn a huge amount. I’m learning lots already from my interactions with my classmates as we get to know each other ahead of the workshop.
Then Yoon sent his critique of “The Frozen Past” back right before my surgery, and it included words I was really happy to see: “There’s nothing here that can’t be fixed in revision.” The book is probably going to need a lot more restructuring and rewriting than I’d thought, and there’s some problematic characterization at points which needs addressing. But the last third seems to really work – which is feedback I’ve gotten from everyone who has read it – and the rest can be fixed. But not until after VP.
So what’s next? I wish I was more of a short fiction writer, but I seem to be stuck in book mode. I’ve spent the last part of July and first half of August working on the plot for my second book, which straddles the line between stand-alone and sequel to TFP. I seem to be on-target to start writing the first draft by the end of August.
And we’ll see what happens.