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.