Viable Paradise: Where the Writers’ Tears Taste Like Irish Whiskey and the Scotch is Smoky AF
It’s been almost three weeks since I returned from Viable Paradise 21, a week long intensive writing workshop focused on taking your writing to the next level. After days of recovering and getting back into the writing groove, after days of processing the experience, I feel like I’m able to put something coherent down here.
Leading Up to VP21
When I got the email informing me I’d been accepted, I damn near wept. I’d had some near misses with short story acceptances, but zero publications. My novel queries to that point were mostly form rejections with a couple of personal notes in there. Getting into VP was the first real validation of my writing since I started writing seriously in 2009.
The next step was to figure out how to pay for the workshop. This year has been difficult work-wise so we had to get creative. In talking with my lovely, supportive wife, I said something like, “If I go to Viable Paradise, something something something,” and she said, “You have to go!” Score yet another one for amazing partners. I sold some things and got a generous donation from my father and we pieced it together.
Of course, between getting accepted and actually attending, doubts crept in as to my worthiness, but I was able to keep that in check knowing that I was one of 24 people accepted and that they were probably feeling some of the same feelings as me.
I did a ton of research leading up to VP, reading other writers’ accounts of their experiences, professional accounts of the benefits of VP, how the workshop stacked up to longer workshops like Clarion or Odyssey, and so on. What can I say? I like being prepared.
I picked up Martin, another attendee, along the way and we headed north and east. The conversation was great—a precursor for what was to come on the island—and there were moments of silence as the landscape went by. After a quick layover in Connecticut, we made it to Wood’s Hole to catch the ferry.
We ran into Patrick at the ferry dock and chatted about what kind of stuff we like to write. I think that’s when it began to feel real. An hour ferry ride later, we were on Martha’s Vineyard and our home and workspace for the next week, the Island Inn.
At our first meeting, we were told that we were there on the island because we belonged. We were all writers. Period. We were not charity cases, not filler. It may not seem like much, but it set the foundation for the week to come.
While I always think of myself as a writer, I don’t know that I’ve ever been told by someone who’s only seen my writing and doesn’t know me that I am a writer. That felt pretty good.
I won’t go into a blow by blow of each day, mostly because I can’t remember everything. Instead I figured I’d hit those things that were highlights for me.
I’ve done some critiquing online via the Online Writer’s Workshop, and few odds and ends here and there, but this was the first time I did multiple critiques in such a short time. Also the first time I had multiple people critique something of mine in one sitting.
This is probably obvious to people who critique often, but I found the process to be a great learning process.
First, it forced me to focus on the big picture more and not necessarily get bogged down with syntax and grammar, especially as those two things related to a writer’s style.
Second, I found that I began to appreciate stories that I wouldn’t normally be interested in because these were talented writers layering in stuff that didn’t necessarily pop at first read. That was pretty damn cool.
Third, my classmates are exceptionally sharp people and provided insights that I’d missed on other peoples’ stories. I did a lot of nodding as others delivered their critiques. It was neat to see how different people reacted to the same story.
Finally, by getting critiqued by accomplished professionals, editors and authors alike, I was able to see some of the next level stuff that editors and publishers are looking for.
At the end of three days, I’d critiqued five stories and had nine critiques of my story. This was the first time I’d gotten enough feedback to identify trends, i.e., multiple comments on the same issue that let you know a problem is real and not just particular to an individual reviewer.
The talks given throughout our time there covered the gamut of writing, from structure to character, from creativity to publishing. It was as if I’d taken all the blog posts and books on writing and videos and Twitter wisdom and was able to steep in it for a week.
The analogy that it evokes for me is that of graduate school, where you’re immersed in classes and practical application and everything is interrelated. As a result each piece of information makes more sense in the context of a larger whole.
I’ve gone back to read my notes from these, and, just like in college, my notes have huge gaps. At one point, I decided to just soak it all in and listen intently instead of trying to capture every nugget. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
I enjoyed that we got so many perspectives on craft. I love that there are so many ways to get the same end product. Having markers, things that, regardless of your process, need to at least be considered — stakes, does that sentence, paragraph, scene help the story? crutch words, consistency and so on — along the way as a guide no matter what the process, is reassuring.
Part of me wishes I could have collegia every single day to keep this stuff fresh in my mind. Another part is banking on this stuff bubbling up from my subconscious when I need it.
I also learned that there’s no such thing as parts of people and I should stop using that idiom.
We were given a short story writing assignment on Monday that was due on Thursday. Seemed simple enough. We even got Wednesday afternoon off to work on it. Otherwise our days were jam packed from 9am to pretty much 8pm.
There’s a scenario behind all this along with physical writing prompts, but I’ll leave that unspoken. Suffice to say, it was fun.
The point of this, in my mind, was to force us to do several things:
- Put our inner critic aside
- Challenge ourselves not to be so precious about our work
- Create something of quality in a short period of time
- Find a way to finish something under pressure that we could be satisfied with
- Write to a theme
It’s a great exercise and the few stories I read were fantastic. We’re going to receive a pdf of everyone’s stories soon, so I can’t wait to catch up on each one.
The Horror that is Thursday
Staff and Instructors
I was nervous about attending Viable Paradise. There are always those thoughts of “what if I don’t click with the others, what if my writing blows chunks and they find out my application story was a flash in the pan, what if, what if, what if.”
In hindsight, it’s clear just how hard everyone works from staff to instructors to make attendees feel as comfortable as they possibly can.
The staff, comprised of former attendees, was amazing. From preparing meals, making coffee, late night grilled cheese, they made it easy to be there. Probably even more important to me than the services they graciously provided were the smiles, ready conversation, and treatment as peers.
One of my personal highlights was hanging out with Mac and Steen (another attendee) on the night I was supposed to be finishing my writing assignment, instead drinking beers and enjoying conversation until 3AM. What the hell, I already had 750 words down for my piece that was due in 12 hours. When would I get to spend time with these people in this context ever again? So I didn’t worry about it and just enjoyed the moment. It hurt the next morning, but it was worth it.
As for the instructors, look, I’ve spent more than one evening at a Con bar hanging out as an army of one. You try not to put published authors and editors on a pedestal but it’s hard not to. The instructors, from top to bottom, were super accessible, gracious, and again, treated us like we belonged.
Another highlight was playing music with instructors and students alike the night of The Horror that is Thursday. It was so much fun. Max Gladstone rocks on the fiddle and PNH plays a mean guitar.
In a nutshell, the staff and instructors made Viable Paradise the safest place a writer can be.
What can I say other than being around the other VP21ers was a week of heaven. Everyone shined in their own way, but what struck me was just how amazing these people were from top to bottom. It was like having 23 more instructors teaching on a broad range of stuff. I’ve never been with so many talented writers with whom I could share ideas and laughs and experiences with.
My only complaint is that I didn’t get more time to hang out with everyone as much as I would have liked. We only critiqued five stories, which meant there were 18 other stories/novel excerpts we never got to read. Those critiques were a point of connection for me, allowing to talk with people about their work. I feel like it provided a bit of insight into who these other writers were and I liked what I saw.
I look forward to seeing these people out in the wild, seeing their stories in the pro markets and their books on the shelves. There’s good stuff on the way.
A special thank you goes out to the awesome folks from VP20 (you know who you are) and the rest of the VP alum. Thanks for being supportive and welcoming. Look forward to meeting you in person at Cons and such.
In 2011, I got to row down the Grand Canyon. Three weeks on a boat, setting up and breaking down camp every day. No tech. Just amazing people, beautiful places and spiritual experiences. The magic of that experience, if not the precise memories, lingers quite vividly six years later.
Viable Paradise feels like that. Even now I know bits and pieces of memory are falling away and I’ll never recapture them. However, the feeling of that stretch of days, the interactions, the learning, the being a goddamn writer, will be with me forever.
If you get accepted, find a way to make it happen.
Also, Viable Paradise will be offering scholarships to writers of color for the first time for VP22.