Erik Attends Viable Paradise, Days 2 and 3


I awoke at 5:30 AM.  My mind slogged while I rummaged for clothes to wear in the dark, my roommate still asleep next to me.  I checked the clock again: 5:54.  I nearly stumbled as I finished getting ready and made it outside to the driveway in front of the building where we all are staying.

I met six other students standing outside in the cold and dark, waiting.  Soon, JIm MacDonald emerged from the building, wearing his tan wide-brimmed hat.  We set off for the edge of Edgartown, a mile and a half away.

Jim’s meditative walks across the island during the sunrise are the quietest, most meditative you will ever get at Viable Paradise.  Most of the walk is spent in near silence, gawking at the ocean and the woods still half-lit.  He tells stories of past VPs, of how it affects students long after they’ve graduated.  Jim’s the anchor of the workshop, its kindly grandfather.

If Jim is the grandfather, Steven Brust is the troll (which I mean in only the kindest sense, Steve!).  Brust competes with Scott Lynch for snarkiest commentary for the run of the workshop and wears a black leather hat and vest most of the time.  We call him “Steve with a hat” to distinguish him from Steven Gould, the soft-spoken Ira Glass lookalike, soft-spoken but with a lovely, twisted, nerdy sense of humor.

Patrick plays a mean guitar (and some banjo).  Teresa and Debra both have an extensive educational background in literature, which would be intimidating if they weren’t both warm, lovable people.  Sherwood is the kind of geek every one of us should grow up to be: knowledgable, a master storyteller, with a good sense of fun.  Bear is a master at plotting and the instructor most similar to us students.

We start our first critique break-out session at 9.  The stories I’ve read here have been incredibly solid, displaying powerful creativity and a excellent knowledge of genre fiction.  But each of us is also missing some piece, so that our stories are like Ikea furniture thrown together in the wrong configuration because Screw #9 wasn’t in the box.  What the instructors do is give you back the missing screw and help you reassemble the model, with the help of the other students.

Stories are like model airplanes such as the one Jim built Monday night.  No piece is extraneous, but no piece can be missing.  The conflict — the propellers — drive the plane forward, and the wings — the milieu — give it lift.  The tail stabilizers — the characters — direct the plot.  The struts — the surface elements, like style — keep it from coming apart mid-flight.

Jim and Teresa gave lectures on plot and prose, respectively, and Sherwood led a collegium on the Mary Sue (she was witness to the creation of the trope namer).  These lectures, Jim’s in particular, are part of the magic of VP, so I won’t discuss these in any great detail.  But Jim’s lecture, in particular, I’ll still be decompressing months after I’ve left the island.

I have my first one-on-one session with Steven Gould that afternoon.  We talked about the issues with my story, about rocket science and aikido and the Avengers.  Steven comes off as the most thoughtful of the instructors, the most cerebral.  Minutes after talking to Steve, while I’m downstairs getting dinner, I brainstorm a solution to the issues Steve mentioned — one he didn’t suggest or even imply, but which fits well.

That’s what I came here for!

We were told about the “Thursday Horror” that afternoon.  I cannot discuss the Thursday Horror.  It can only be experienced.

We play another game of Poker that night.  I get far off my rocker on whiskey, but I’m now the second to go out instead of the first.


Another early walk with Jim, this time to Vineyard Haven.  It was drizzling when we began, but the storm escalated after we left site of the Inn into a heavy gale.  We walked along the seawall, while the waves crashed against it, spewing salty spray into the air and our mouths.  It was impossible to have a conversation, but it was amazing to witness.

I had my group critique with Patrick and Jim that morning.  The students offered great feedback on the text, noting things that seemed incongruous (but are based on reality).  We called this the “Tiffany problem,” because the name Tiffany sounds completely modern but was in use in the middle ages.  Patrick had the most feedback, finding the ideas in the story engaging but not explored far enough.  Jim shared similar feelings, noting that the religious terms won’t be familiar to a general audience.  The notes were all very useful, and my mind was still brainstorming possible fixes after I leave.

Debra and Sherwood gave lectures on prose and exposition.  Sherwood’s lecture was most interesting to me as a visual writer: we write fast, dirty drafts, intending to clean out the “placeholders” and the language later.  We took a cliched passage and made it better by replacing rote, overused descriptions for more nuanced, psychologically-based ones.

Bear led the collegium in the afternoon, a discussion of plotting techniques.  All of the writers, but her, Jim and Debra especially, are well-versed at creating plot under time and pressure.  Creating tension and conflict are my weakest skills, so I took in this lecture with particular interest.

Tuesday night, following dinner, the entire class was led through a reading of Richard II, with a mandatory (or almost optional) beer in hand.  I wound up speaking King Richard’s part during the show trial scene in Act 4, which winded me and sorely tested my theatrical skills, especially with the slurring induced by the alcohol.  The whole experience was riotously funny.

I finished the last critiques and hung out with the staff and some other students late that night.  Patrick and Teresa made drinks, and Patrick and Steve with a Hat led sing-alongs.