THIS is what Viable Paradise did for me: Or, how Steven Brust saved my novel

So I’ve been working on this damned book for a while.  And while I had the basics of a good story, there were issues.  Even before I went to Viable Paradise, I knew the story had a glaring plot hole.  I kept working, on the theory that I’d be able to plug the hole eventually, but even when I got back from VP, no solution had presented itself.

Back when I was at VP, a comment from Elizabeth Bear about my manuscript prompted a mindstorm of thought that eventually lead to a total revamp of the communications technology of my protagonist and his society.

A couple of days ago, ruminating on that particular rabbit hole experience opened up a new story element I think will improve the story.  But I still couldn’t  figure out my plot hole, which was big, as it spoke to the motivation behind the entire story.  In essence, and I’m being cagey because I don’t want to give stuff away here, the main antagonist’s actions didn’t make sense. Why do what they did to humanity when it would be far simpler to just destroy the planet from orbit and move on?

Anyway, I was noodling through the plot points as they will be rewritten.  And I ran into the plot hole again.  And there was great gnashing of teeth in the land.

And then LO! The voice of Steve “With a Hat” Brust–or, if you prefer, Steven frelling Brust–came to me, a remembered line from VP: “If you’re stuck on where the story goes next, get on at Need and go all the way to Can’t.”  I might not have that right; but the gist is correct.

And goddamn if that didn’t do the trick.  I know why they did it.  I know what that means for the characters.  I know what it means for the human race.  And I know what it means for the second book, if such a thing ever comes to pass.  And the third, for that matter.

And I cannot wait to get writing on that thing.  But first: my Thursday story needs to be revised.  See ya!

Things said during Viable Paradise

During the Viable Paradise seminars, a  lot of pretty funny or profound things are said.  I won’t be giving context here.  I’m sorry, but this post is primarily for my fellow VP17 students, and we already know the context.  I invite my VP17 family to add more in comments.  

“Plot originality is overrated” – Teresa Nielsen Hayden

“Your but zooms” – Elizabeth Bear

“The failure mode of ‘clever’ is ‘asshole'” – Patrick Nielsen Hayden, quoting Scalzi

“Don’t use a 20lb sledge when a ball peen will do.” – Scott Lynch

“You are a dissector of magic, Jim–a vivisectionist of wonder!” – SL

“Why should I believe your FTL when you can’t handle a firearm?” – Jim Macdonald

“Often, two or three bad ideas can be slammed together to make a good idea.” – TNH


Viable Paradise: Final Thoughts

When I teach 9th grade, one of my units deals with the idea of the Heroic Journey.  Most of my readers know of this pattern, but for those who don’t, here’s the nutshell: the hero must go to a place away from his everyday life.  In that place, he has a mentor, and helpers, and he faces a series of challenges, including one that nearly destroys him.  When he comes through it, he has learned something about himself.

Martha’s Vineyard was the sacred space to which I came, crossing the threshold of an entire nation to do so.  My mentor was an amalgam of all the instructors.  My helpers were my fellow students, who both helped me and taught me, as well as the staff who made sure I and all the other students remained in one piece.  I faced the Horror that is Thursday, as well as the emotions of that evening’s crisis.  And I learned that I am a writer.  Nothing and no one can take that from me.

I mentioned earlier that I wept.  What I didn’t say was why.  And while you probably can guess, I’m going to tell you anyway.

I was weeping for so much.  I wept for the loss of my tribe, even as I knew they would be there online.  I wept for the loss of the “sacred space” of the Island Inn where we’d all become a family of sorts.  And I wept for the future I actually felt I had a chance at.  It isn’t that I think publishing my stories is going to make me completely happy—for one thing, I’m not particularly unhappy now.  And I am well aware that not many writers make it to a point where they can make as much writing full time as they can with a day job, and I’ll keep a day job until and unless such a time occurs.  But I have burned for so long with the need to tell my stories—not through self-publishing, but through bookstores and publishers.  And I finally believe that I can do that.  I finally see that I do, in fact, have the ability to weave a story someone else will want to read.  And the gift of that knowledge came from people I respect, and people I admire—both students and instructors.

Eventually the tears went away, and I began to replay the week I’d just experienced.  On my way home, I formulated plans to make the transition from amateur hobbyist to professional—not plans to try, but plans to do it, no matter how long it takes.

To all the instructors, staff, and my fellow students: Thank you for what was undoubtedly one of the best experiences of my life so far.  I miss you all, and look forward to future meetings, wherever they might be.

Alex, Beth: BEST.  ROOMMATES.  EVER. Seriously, you’re awesome, and you’re stuck with me, now.  Muahahahahahaha!  See you soon, I hope.

Viable Paradise, Days 6 and 7: Teary Farewells

Friday morning began with a lecture on the State of the SF/F Publishing Industry.  It was pretty interesting, and covered the period from roughly after WWII to the present day, touching on a lot of the big changes in the industry.  One of the most important aspects of this I can share, since it’s been a staple of writer lore for decades now.  Yog’s Law says “Money always moves toward the writer.”  In other words, don’t publish something “for the exposure,” or other stupid reasons to publish a story (not post on your site, but publish elsewhere) for free. It’s the nicer version of Scalzi’s “Fuck you, pay me!”

Next up was a Collegium with all the instructors, but lead by Debra Doyle and Teresa Nielsen Hayden, on research.  We covered lots of useful books and information of use to SF/F writers, got Steven Brust’s recipe for Secret Histories, and a few other tidbits.

After this was an all-hands-on-deck Collegium where we asked whatever questions we had remaining.  That lasted nearly two hours, and covered ground from SFWA—the Science Fiction Writers of America—membership requirements to the recent Vox Day controversy to questions about agents, writing woes, etc.

As this part of the day wound down, it was time for one last ritual moment: the taking of the VP oath, which contained, among other things, a promise to write, to revise, and to submit our work to paying markets only.  We were each awarded a lapel pin and a certificate giving us permission from The Muse to write badly—so long as we fix it during revision.

Then we took the traditional picture of the graduating class, and it was time for what our program schedule called “Teary Farewells.”  There weren’t a lot of tears on Friday night, though.  We drank a little, we said goodbye, and we did more singing and talking until the wee hours.  I crashed out at midnight; I had to get up pretty early in the morning, and I didn’t want to be miserable when I did so.  And there was a little bit of awareness that even if I stayed up longer, I had to sleep sometime.  As Tolkien said, you have to leave Faerie at some point, and return to your life.  This experience, this incredible rewiring of my brain, had to have a moment where it ended.  And it was better to end it when I was happy.  So I said goodnight, Bear and a couple of fellow students gave me hugs, and I toddled off to bed, happy as I could possibly be.

The next morning, I had to get up.  I had planned to sleep until 8am, but my roommates both left much earlier, so I got up so I could give at least one of them a proper goodbye (the other, unfortunately, had to leave before I managed to wake up).  I packed up my stuff, and I swear to you, I heard the “goodbye” theme from the end of Babylon 5’s run in my head as I did so.  I got a little bit teary then, but I managed to tamp it back down.

In the staff room, I sat with a few students for a short while.  I got hugs from a couple more people before I left, and Mac Stone, bless her heart, nearly broke me when she said goodbye.  When my time came to head off to the ferry, I got in the car and went with only a little sadness.

My composure totally ended when I got on the ferry.  I went to the top, open-air deck, and I cried.  I tried not to, but one of my colleagues, Paul, had tweeted “I will not cry in the airport. I will not cry in the airport.  I am crying in the airport.”  My ability to hold it in totally deserted me, and the tears, they came.

When my daughter saw me coming down the stairs of the terminal, 3000 miles and 12 hours later, she jumped up and down for joy.  My wife smiled in that amazing way she has that totally melts my accustomed reserve, and I imagined our future.

I was home.  And it was good.

Viable Paradise: Day 5, The Horror that is Thursday

First up was a collegium with Teresa and Patrick on How Publishing Works.  Quite interesting, and full of information sure to help as we all begin to navigate the publishing world and get our own work out there.  Again, I’m being light on specifics, though much of this was information you can find online.  What I will tell you is that if you’re a writer, you ought to pay attention to Writer Beware.

Next was Steven Brust’s lecture on “Stupid Writer Tricks.”  This was one of the really useful ones, because I get stuck and I’ve always had a hard time getting out of it.  Now I have an arsenal of tricks to employ.

We had a brown-bag lunch collegium with Steven Gould on how to be a writer in public, in which he shared with us many truly awful things new authors have actually done, and how to cultivate a good public persona.  This was a very funny discussion, but didn’t really teach me anything I didn’t already know about how to handle oneself on the public stage just from being a teacher.  Wheaton’s Law is a good rule to follow: Don’t be a dick.

After lunch was the most eventful lecture.  Scott Lynch gave the lesson.  Half of it was from Sherwood Smith, who was supposed to have been an instructor this year but had to drop out due to illness; it was on Mary Sues and how to avoid them.  Then Scott began his own lesson, titled “Kicking the Body Habit.”  This was about how hard it is to actually kill a person, complete with some pretty graphic and horrifying stories.  One of our number actually passed out and was taken away by ambulance; fortunately he returned the next day seemingly completely fine.   And that’s all I’ll say on that, to protect his privacy.

Then came the Horror that is Thursday.  I can say nothing about it except that it is to be experienced.

The “Mandatory fun” that night began at 9.  We were encouraged to come down to the lecture hall in our pajamas.  When we did, we found that we were being read two stories.  First Patrick got the ball rolling by reading to us “The Book of my Enemy has Been Remaindered,” and then Elizabeth Bear read us Edward Gorey’s The Unstrung Harp, the single most honest look at publishing ever written about the “unspeakable horror of the literary life.”  When that was over, we all went upstairs and did more music, more partying, and more discussion into the wee small hours.  Elizabeth Bear, at that point, said something I will not be able to forget: “You’re no longer students.  Now you’re our colleagues.”  Now, I’m the same age as Bear, but I suddenly felt like one of “the adults” had given me the highest compliment possible.  I don’t even take it literally, and won’t until I get something published somewhere.  But it felt good.

Unfortunately, I had a weird flare-up of social anxiety that didn’t exactly ruin my evening, but it made it less than stellar.  Other students were trying to pull me into hugs and the camaraderie of an impromptu chorus line, and I froze up.  I eventually had to leave; I was starting to freak out about people actually seeming to like me.  I looked at myself, and I saw myself as wanting.  And suddenly I could not believe that any of the people around me actually liked me, even though I knew better.  I’ve never in my life experienced an anxious moment that strong or that clear.  I had to leave, but I wanted to stay with people.  So I tried to stay, but things got too much and I left, returning to my room, where I immediately berated myself about the evening, adding to an anxiety I shouldn’t have felt in the first place.

Eventually I forgave myself for being a dolt and went to bed.  I think I crashed at about 1:45am.

It was a wonderful night’s sleep.  And it ought to have been—I had earned it.

Viable Paradise: Day 4, Wednesday – The Critique and the Doom

On Wednesday, Scott Lynch led a collegium on non-expository description and the conscious use of symbolism.  This was as eye-opening as the earlier lectures, and gave me some great ideas.

Then came my critique.  The instructors in the room were author Elizabeth Bear and Tor editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden, which gave me nightmares (not literally), because frankly, Tor is my dream publisher.  If Patrick didn’t like my work, I’d be crushed.

Fortunately, the critique went well: Bear and Nielsen Hayden, along with the five students in the room, gave me feedback on my story that essentially amounted to “This is pretty good, but there are some issues you need to consider.”  Most of the issues were things Steven Gould had already mentioned the night before, and a couple of the other things were mentioned because a trick I was trying to pull on the reader didn’t work and came off as creepy.  There were also some pretty severe issues that I’ve planned fixes for.  So that’s good.

Bear made one comment that really stuck with me and, as I told her later, sent me down the rabbit hole.  In trying to work out ways to improve the point she’d brought up (namely, that the tech I was using was very 2005), I completely revamped the tech used in the story, to the point that things I had thought only one character had are now ubiquitous, and it even unlocked something I’d been noodling around with but wasn’t sure how to implement.  If this book ever gets published, it is in large part thanks to her advice.

Patrick said something that has reverberated in my head ever since he said it.  “I began reading this last night.  If it had been a 500 page manuscript, I’d probably still be reading it.”  I really hope he meant it (and I have no reason to doubt it), because it meant a lot to me.

After that was a lecture from Steven Gould.  First he asked us what we want in our careers, and we generated a long list of things: Hugo nods, Nebula awards, fans writing fanfic, etc.  It was a long list.  Then he said the important words: “You cannot control any of this.” Then he flipped the chart, and we started generating things we COULD control, from “Actually write” to “don’t bet against yourself.”  This last was the most important and spoke to me the most.  Steve told a story of an editor (I don’t recall which) who asked a young writer at a convention if he’d submitted anything to his magazine.  The young writer said something to the effect that his work wasn’t good enough, and the editor said “How DARE you reject stories from MY publication?!”  In other words, it isn’t my job to say “no” to me, it’s the editor of whatever market I submit my work to.  It’s very easy for me to say “No, it’s not good enough.”  It took me a month after I had my application packet for Viable Paradise to actually send the damn thing, because I knew I wasn’t going to get in.  Well, clearly that was stupid of me.

After lunch, we had the rest of the day and evening free.  I’d plotted out my short story, which was to mix the themes of Lord Dunsany and Aleister Crowley in a short story anthology titled “Twins Fantastic!”  I was scared; I’d written the list of scenes, but now I had to write them.  At noon I started work.  I broke to have lunch with everyone else, then I went back to my room and got started writing.  When I came up for air, it was 6:30pm and I had a complete story of 4,800 words.  Now, it wasn’t perfect.  In fact, at the time, I thought it was pretty bad.  But I needed a break, so I went into town with some of the others.

When I got back a couple of hours later, I read the story again.  I made a few small changes.  Then I went to print it.  Once it was printed, I left it alone until the next day—but that’s another entry.

On Wednesday I went to bed around 11:30; exhausted.  I tried to read but couldn’t; I put my book aside and crashed out.  My roomies coming home didn’t wake me at all—even Alex’s stompy pacing didn’t wake me (just messing with you, Alex!)

Viable Paradise: Day 3, Tuesday

The morning began with our breakout critique groups.  My roommate Alex was in my group, and she cried during her critique—but the good kind of tears, as her novel excerpt was amazing and everyone said so.  Not that it was perfect, but that it’s damned close.

The first lecture of the day was from Debra Doyle, on grammar and standard usage in fiction.  Not much there I didn’t already know, but then I teach this stuff. That said, I learned a few interesting things.

Elizabeth Bear gave a lecture on POV, which had lots of useful information and during which I asked a question I immediately felt stupid for asking, as the first example given as an answer is a book I’ve taught before—so should have known the answer already.  Ah well.  Nobody’s perfect.

Next up, Scott Lynch lead a great Collegium on non-expositional description.  The collegia are similar to the lectures in that information is given and one instructor leads it; however, there’s a major difference: In the lectures, one of the teachers will present the lesson, and occasionally one of the others will interject something.  The Collegia are more informal, with instructors piping up whenever they have anything to say, and sometimes the instructor mediating the session has to shut them down.  They’re great fun, and sometimes have more information than I could take notes on—so it’s a good thing I recorded most of them.

Then came my one-on-one with Steve Gould.

I am not exaggerating overly much when I say that he ripped my story a new one.  Now, two things about this: I can’t say I disagreed with anything he said, and it hurt.  But… he said nothing unkind, and I know he was helping me—not trying to help, but helping.  But when you’ve worked so hard on something, it sometimes hurts to have someone show you where you went wrong.  So I came away a little raw from the meeting.  He didn’t just show me where I’d gone wrong, though—he also helped me see what I could do to make it better.  He made suggestions that I am free to take or leave, but even the ones I won’t use pointed me in the direction I will go.

Bottom line?  He made my book better, just by talking to me.  As I processed not only my emotional state, but the information I got from him, I made several leaps of thought that lead to new ideas.  The first chapter?  It needs to be rewritten, and while I’ll keep some of it, I’ll be changing a lot of it.  But I have a much better idea, even before my critique group, on how to make it work.

After dinner was the Beer with the Bard event.  We sat in a big circle, and everyone had their drink of choice and the script of William Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor.  This has got to be one of the dirtiest of Shakespeare’s plays.  We read the play, with parts going around the circle, changing at each act.  I ended up with Mistress Page at one point, but the next time it got to me, I had Hostess Quickly, and I read her with a bored monotone voice and a Northern-ish accent, somewhat like Holly from Red Dwarf.  It was a hit, and combined with Quickly’s absurd and dirty lines, it worked.

After the play, we all scattered to our own events; I spent some time with Steven Brust, Elizabeth Bear, and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, along with Shannon, Latasha, Beth, Alex, and some others for music, then eventually returned to my room to go to bed—where instead I ended up talking to Beth until sometime around 2am.

Viable Paradise: Day 2, Monday

Note to readers: While I’ll mention the topic of each lecture and collegium, I won’t discuss the specific information we were given; I don’t feel it would be right to do so.  We were specifically asked not to spread the recordings of the lectures many of us made; so don’t ask.  The exception: If any of my classmates didn’t record a session, give me a holler.

I still really can’t believe I’m actually here.

The morning began when I woke up at 7:45 and jumped in the shower.  Once awake, we went down to the lecture room for an early-morning announcement session, then went to our critique group breakout sessions.

My story isn’t coming up for review until Wednesday, so I have two days to stew.  I critiqued two really strong stories this morning.  The critiques follow the Milford format:  Each group member has 5 minutes to speak.  We’re encouraged to say true things, and helpful things, and to be nice.   I think we did that.  When each member of the group has spoken, the two pros who are moderating the critique speak.  Then the author can talk, and then it opens into a group discussion on the story.

I found these to be amazing and illuminating even though my story wasn’t up for critique yet.  As Theresa Nielsen-Hayden said to me, “Nothing teaches you how to write like critiquing someone else’s story.”

After critique group we gathered for a lecture by “Uncle Jim,” James D. Macdonald*, on plot.  I won’t talk about the specifics of what he said, but if you Google “Learn Writing With Uncle Jim,” you’ll find a series of posts in which he says the same things, more or less.

Then we talked with Elizabeth Bear about plot, and created a very silly plot in about five minutes—but, I hasten to add, a “very silly plot” that could actually work if you approached it properly.

After that we broke for one-on-one sessions.  My first was with Jim Macdonald, author of books I grew up on.  Jim really helped me figure out that the theme of redemption in my story wasn’t right—it’s really a story about family, and building a family to replace the one you lost.  That opened up huge realms of plot for me.  He also told me some very nice things about my style, my protagonist’s voice, and that I really need to finish this book.  The most amazing thing I got from him, however, was a picture he drew on the back of my manuscript that clarified my plot structure immensely and linked thematically to the book’s inspiration.  That man is a goddamned genius, and you can tell him so if you ever meet him.

I’m going to be a little bit vague, because the things he said to me, while not personal per se, were deeply meaningful to me personally, and I want to keep that to myself.  But the short version is that he banished a lot of the self-doubt I’ve been carrying around with me, and made me realize that I can and will be published.  I just need to keep working, and not let myself get bogged down by worries of inadequacy.   And yes, I’ve been told this by others, but look—hearing it from a professional in the business, who has made his living as a writer for half my life, is inherently more meaningful than my friends saying it.

We also got the Doom today.  We were split into three groups.  Each group had a writing assignment for a fictional themed anthology—and all stories are due at 3pm Thursday.

After dinner, a bunch of us—probably about 20 of the 24 students, and a few of the instructors—walked about half a mile down the road to see the glowing jellyfish come in with the tide.  They glow just a little, but when anything disturbs them, they flash brighter.  It was an amazing display, and the wind on the coast was practically nothing, so we walked down to the beach and stood looking toward Boston and Nantucket for a time.

When we returned to the Inn, some of the instructors and a few students broke out instruments and song books, and spent the evening singing and playing.  They weren’t playing anything I knew, so I just sat and listened.

At around midnight I returned to my room to go to bed, but got into a discussion with one of my roommates and we ended up talking for another hour.

I got exceedingly lucky with my roommates.  Both are very interesting people whom I get along with like a house on fire; we’ve had a lot of fun together even as we’re sitting around writing critiques or researching for the stories we have to write, and creating not a few enduring in-jokes in the process, one of which I’m sure will crack us all up in future meetings.  It’s not much different in the larger group.  In any large group, there will be some people you like more than others, and this group is no exception.  But even there I can’t say there’s anyone I dislike.

When I read the blog posts of those who came to Viable Paradise before me, I admit I rolled my eyes at the common exclamation that “I’ve found my tribe!” I am hereby apologizing to all the previous VP bloggers I did that to—because they were right.  These students will, in future, be the writers I run into at conventions and know.  They’ll be my professional colleagues and compatriots, and we already have inside jokes we’ll be talking about for years.

And the best part is?  This is only Monday.

*Yes, that’s how you spell it.

Viable Paradise: Day 1, Sunday

Note to readers: I won’t be using student names often; mostly to preserve the privacy of my classmates.  When I do use a name, it’ll be first name only.   

So my flight took off late—at about 8:30pm.  I was supposed to have an hour and a half in SFO, which should have been enough time to get a medifast-acceptable dinner.  But it was not; I had only twenty minutes to get to my gate and board the flight to Boston.  Fortunately, I had stashed some extra medifast meals in my shoulder bag just in case this happened, so while I didn’t get the dinner I should have, I didn’t starve.  I slept ok, I think, though the engine noise was present even in my dreams, which made me feel like I hadn’t slept.  And nothing beats being jolted awake by turbulence at 3am.  I had an hour and a half until my bus arrived.  I waited.  I read.  I waited some more.  Then, just as I was getting incredibly bored, I waited even more.  

Finally it arrived, and I began the third leg of the journey.  The ride was quiet and uneventful, though packed.  I met up with one of my VP classmates when he transferred buses, and we rode the final leg of the trip together.   We were picked up in Vineyard Haven by a VP staffer and taken to the hotel, where I got my room key from my roommates and then retired to wash off 18 hours of travel grime.  Once cleaned up, socializing began, and that lasted until 6pm, when the official Viable Paradise program began.  

First was dinner, which was interesting; we tended to group according to room assignments and whomever we’d connected with via Twitter prior to arriving on the island.   The instructors seated themselves throughout the room, getting to know students.   It was a great time, and the students and support staff all did their best to reduce any nervousness we felt.

After dinner was Orientation; we were given our packets of work to critique, some handouts to read, and given the schedule.  We then played Thing, which also goes by the name Mafia and Werewolves.  I won’t go into the details here, but if you really want to know, holler and I’ll clue you in.  Suffice to say: If you’re playing with Steven Brust, don’t believe anything he says—except when he tells you he’s the Thing.  We were also given a small toy, and informed that this is our Doom.  This relates to the Horror that is Thursday, and we’ll learn more tomorrow night.   (I’ll warn you now that I won’t be saying much about the Horror; except to say that for a writer, the Horror is real; if you don’t write, you probably won’t get what was so scary.  Catch me socially and I’ll give you more, but in the spirit of preserving the mystique, I won’t say much here.)

After Thing, my roommates and I went to the staff lounge to read our stories for the first critique group on Monday.  We had just settled in when the instructors filed in with various musical instruments and began to play.  Reluctantly, we trekked back to our room (just down the hall) so we could actually concentrate.   By the time we came up for air, they’d all gone to bed, so we sat in our common room and shot the breeze for a few hours.  

My roomies and I are the California contingent; Alex hails from Berkeley, and Beth from Pasadena.   They’re both fairly younger than I am at 28, but we got along really well, so we went to bed ridiculously late.  

One thing I’d like to say about the instructors (and the staff) is that they are insanely disarming.  Within moments of meeting Steven Brust I’d realized that this is not going to be the kind of workshop where the Pros dispense wisdom to the aspiring writers from on high.  The jokes fly fast and furious, and while there is definitely an awareness that the instructors have knowledge and technique to impart, they are doing so from right beside us.  They make it very clear that they do care about us not just as students, but as prospective colleagues in the SF/F field.  They also disagree sometimes, and watching them argue teaches as much as listening to the lectures does.