Finally, I am able to make this post. I hope. Because I’m not sure how to put into words everything that Viable Paradise was, and wasn’t. Excuse me if I ramble. Just blame my post-VP “island plague.”
Let’s start with the basics. Viable Paradise is a one week long residential writing workshop. You, the student, apply. Applicants are accepted on the basis of writing samples they provide. Some students apply a couple years before they are accepted. When I got that acceptance email, I went into shock. I didn’t think I’d get in. Really, I didn’t. And yet, the email told me I had.
Then came tentative greetings on the VP Yahoo forum, where this year’s students met, mingled and sorted out into roommates. It got crazy right at the start, died away as time dilated (as it always does), then went berserk again a few weeks prior to the workshop. And still, all that anticipation didn’t prepare me for how wonderful the experience would be.
I took Amtrak from the Newark airport to Boston, then the bus to the ferry and the ferry to the island. Waiting for the bus, I met Karen, another VP17er. We immediately fell into talking about writing, about reading, about fantasy and SF and conventions and editing and… Wow. I’d never before just…fell…into chatting so easily before. The entire bus trip flew. On the ferry, we met Leigh, and again we chatted away, wondering about this thing we were heading towards. We were met by a smiling house elf (as staff are called) with a “Viable Paradise” sign.
And then, we were there. As we dragged our luggage up the steps (ahem, yes. There are steps. Be able to lift your luggage. Just sayin’.), a figure appeared on the balcony above us, and Chris, the house elf, introduced us to Mac, head staffer and hug-dispenser extraordinaire (also a darn amazing cook!). Mac looked down at me and said, “Mary. Are you the Ghost Dog?” That’s what my application story was about. I was floored. I was here. Everyone around me, including the staff, were writers. What a welcome!
Specifics: Each day, we had lectures, crits, and a collegium. Lectures were not dry, boring things. We got James D Macdonald giving us “Plot Basics,” Teresa Nielsen Hayden with “Worldbuilding,” Elizabeth Bear talking “Cheap Plot Tricks.” We got Stupid Writer Tricks, Symbolism, Care and Feeding of Your Beast, Mary Sue’s, Editing, History of Publishing, and so much more! There was Mandatory Fun, and Optional meal-time Lectures that you just didn’t want to miss. There were songs, games and silliness. During the small crit groups, tears were shared, as well as laughs and hugs. Something happened on Thursday, but I’ll be darned if I can remember just what it was…I was too bleary from lack of sleep.
Each student got two one-on-one sessions, each with a different instructor. I asked for another, and thus, got a third. I wish I’d had time to ask for a couple more, but alas, time was not my friend. It flew, and with it, the magical week went, as well. Still, there was time for “being uncomfortable,” for walks to see the glowing jellyfish, a sunrise walk, and a sunset trip to the lighthouse at Gay Head where the sun set to the west as the full moon rose in the east. Almost every night found music being made somewhere, and even though I’m not musical in any way, I enjoyed the mood and the fun. And I wrote. And I read, and I critiqued. We all lived and breathed, talked and dreamed writing. As so many before me have said, I found my tribe.
So, what did I really get? What specifics can I show for all this?
- First, I got the reassurance that, no, I’m not crazy for doing this “writing thing.” The really amazingly talented people all around me proved that.
- I got a confidence boost that, while I’m not great at writing, I’m doing pretty good. I’m on the right track. And I can get there if I keep going!
- And I got specific advice on what I need to fix, and some ways to consider doing that, as well as learning what I’m doing pretty well.
- I got a bunch of people I can call on for beta reading, for a virtual hug when rejection gets me down, and to look up at conventions. This may sound odd, but it’s so reassuring to know that I’m not entirely alone, tapping away at my desk.
- There were bits of advice that I saw in new ways, that “clicked” in some fashion that they hadn’t done before. And there was some entirely new advice, stuff I’d never heard or considered before.
- I got advice from real-world professional writers and editors on my story, and on any writing or publishing-related topic I chose to ask. Wow. That was awesome. I wish I could do this bit again and again, as I keep thinking up new questions, ones that, really, I should have asked! But I learned, as bullet-point two points out, that if I keep going, I’ll find out the answers on my own.
And what was it not?
- It wasn’t a “you’re so great” love-fest, for either the students to be told how awesome and amazing they were, or for squee-ing on the instructors. There were no “walls” between instructor and student, no artificial barricades. They were there, beside us, giving us their professional opinions of our work. And that wasn’t all wine and roses. We all had things to work on. We got compliments on our work, sure, but we also heard what we did wrong, what was not working. It was a learning experience.
- It wasn’t a chance to rip on your fellow students, to show how smart you are. The small-group critiques were about being honest and helpful. It was about helping them improve their work, while seeing reflections of what you need to do in your own work, as well. Everyone wins, no one “loses.”
In summation, then, what? If you feel stuck, if you feel a bit lost, or you’re tired of beating your head against the glass wall of “mechanics,” trying to get it all inside you, apply to Viable Paradise. If you’re feeling alone and confused by wildly different critiques of your work, apply to VP. If you’re getting personal rejections from your work and are looking to make them acceptances instead, apply to VP. Just don’t expect to leave the island the same person you were when you arrived. You’ll learn things about yourself, and about your writing. And those things will be good.