If you missed it, here is my intro to Viable Paradise.
I think that everyone who attends Viable Paradise gets something a little different out of it.
For me, the benefits were many and varied. In no particular order, the most important benefits from my point of view were:
Sum Up . . .
Meeting other writers
I had never been to a writing workshop. I have yet to go to a writing conference. As such, Viable Paradise was my first opportunity to really get together with other writers, and talk life and writing. To all those other writers, slaving away in isolation: find yourself some in-the-flesh writers to talk to! It’s great.
Part of that was being able to talk writing and craft, and swap advice and tips.
Part was having a natural conversation starter – which, for an introvert surrounded by large numbers of people (N > 3), is very helpful.
My fellow workshop-goers were a delightful bunch of people – as were the staff and instructors. I have never had such an easy time chatting with so many people.
Getting a crash course in writing and publishing from the pros
This is the obvious-from-the-outside benefit, and it was great.
The talks were made up of collegiums and lectures. The collegiums had an instructor leading them, but relied more on discussion and Q&A from the students. The lectures had a primary presenter, but there were always multiple instructors in the audience, and they would often give their input on the topic. That was especially helpful for getting a sense of different writers’ approaches and opinions. Writing process topics brought an especially wide range of experience.
The actual talks were on a bunch of topics. I would broadly divide them into “how to write better”, “how to develop better content”, and “how to manage the writerly life”.
“How to write better” topics covered all sorts of craft information. Things like how to express character emotion without telling. These talks distilled a compendium of intermediate and advanced writing knowledge, and gave a practical high-points version with Q&A.
“How to develop better content” topics covered various aspects of background and story that would help a story to be more compelling and believable. Not how to express it, mind you – that was the craft section – but what to put in. Some topics were more pertinent to SFF, such as things to consider when world-building. Others covered more general considerations, such as common mistakes dealing with injury and death in fiction of all sorts.
“How to manage the writerly life” topics covered everything from tricks to use in getting unstuck, to maintaining health (mental and physical) in a solitary, sedentary, slow-paced task.
I am not going to go into detail on the content. That would be a week or two or three of daily posts, and I’m doing well to manage weekly or monthly.
Besides, it will be a goodly while before I feel fit to “teach” any of it.
Socializing with the pros and enjoying them as real people
The instructors did not just float in from on high for the critiques and talks. They joined us for meals and hung out in the evenings.
They all turned out to be nice people who love writing, and also love lots of other things.
I especially enjoyed the sing-alongs that took place in the latter part of the week. They may have occurred in the first part of the week, too, but I was doing my homework.
It was important for me to have a chance to see the instructors as peers and human beings.
Based on the interactions I enjoyed at VP18, I will be far less likely to freeze up or go “fan girl” when presented with a writer or editor whose work I admire.
Meeting other writers at a similar stage in the process
It was great meeting the pros.
In many ways, it was just as wonderful being able to talk with other writers at roughly the same point – give or take a year or two.
They represented writers who could understand my situation, and provide sympathy and support in a way no one else could.
Those a little further along in the process were in the position of being able to give glimpses up ahead.
I had a very nice chat with Fonda Lee about the process of getting an agent and getting her first contract.
The staff at VP were also primarily writers and alums. That gave another bunch of people who could give a glimpse a little further along.
Reading and analyzing a broad range of work
My class included the gamut of SFF writers, from hard sci fi to epic fantasy. That meant that reading for critiques was impressively varied, as were the results of the short-story writing exercise.
It’s well and good to say that you can read all of that at home.
It’s technically true, and some people probably do that.
I admit I usually read a fairly narrow subset of SFF, simply because my time is limited and I’m reading to unwind.
It was lovely and mind-expanding to read the whole range.
I would have read much of it for pleasure, but not all of it.
It was good practice analyzing something that didn’t “grab” me. The fact that I wasn’t the target audience didn’t make it bad, and it was a very interesting exercise to try to look at the strengths and weaknesses analytically, without letting “like” come into it.
Gaining a future pool of potential critique partners
One problem I’ve been struggling with is how to find people to help me beta read my work.
I have some friends who are willing to help, but that’s a very narrow audience, and none of them are writers.
The internet has lots of writers, but it really has too many.
Having a group of friendly people who I can ask to beta is great. I don’t expect all of them to do it – wouldn’t want all of them to do it – but even if two or three or four of the twenty-four are happy to swap reading duties, that puts me way ahead.
Learning I can spin a short story out a bunch of random prompts
I had never finished a short story.
I’m a natural novel writer, because I keep spinning the story out and out and out.
As part of the week’s exercises, we had to write a short story using some rather bizarre prompts.
It was traumatic for the first few minutes, but tremendously liberating after that.
The short time frame and some advice on story arcs actually allowed me to produce a workable short story. My first!
Going forward, I’m hoping to mix the occasional short story into my writing work, between novels. It will be great practice, and is not something that I had considered since my last failed attempt to write a short story . . . some six years ago.
Getting feedback on my writing
For me, getting feedback on my writing was a huge benefit.
I had been working largely in isolation, and hadn’t been able to determine whether my stories were engaging, interesting, or generally something anyone would want to read.
It was wonderful – albeit scary – getting in-person critiques from fellow writers.
We each had our work critiqued by a group of students and two instructors. We also got one-on-one sessions with two additional instructors.
For me, this was one of the most valuable parts. It isn’t that anyone said anything truly earth-shattering about my chapters – mostly I got some food for thought about where to build up my world, and feedback on things people were interested in, or concerned about.
It was just wonderful to know that people enjoyed my chapters.
I’m oddly blind with my writing. I’m not alone in this, but I don’t know that all writers suffer the problem as seriously as I do.
It isn’t that I think my writing is bad.
It’s that I can’t tell.
Oh, I can tell whether the writing is grammatical.
That the scene follows logically and is well based.
That the characters are consistent.
But is it interesting? Would someone keep reading after I unchained them?
So it was very beneficial to get real, live, honest feedback: enough flaws to feel real and give me something to work on, but also plenty of encouragement, affirming that I have something!
So, that’s what I got out of it.
A list of things to work on.
That doesn’t capture everything, not by a long chalk, but it covers the high points.
Updated 11/19/14 to include some missing links.