Viable Paradise

Erik Attends Viable Paradise, Days 6 and 7

The denouement of any story should provide a sense of closure and emotional resolution, resolving any outstanding conflicts.  Deviations from this pattern, such as in Neon Genesis Evangelion or Lost, are often met with disappointment or hostility from the audience.

But this blog isn’t a narrative.  It’s a series of impressions, a stream-of-consciousness travelogue attempting to describe an experience in terms of its emotional impact rather than — and in fact, studiously avoiding — factual events.

And really, I’m just fucking tired.

Here, then, are my final observations, from the most immediately emotional to the most abstract.

  • My allergies don’t agree with Massachusetts.  I wish I hadn’t had to discover this during the best week of my life.
  • People aren’t distractions.  People. . . are people.  I wish I hadn’t treated some of them as such.  I had come to VP to learn, true, but I erred too far on the side of study this week and not far enough on social interaction.  Though one person comes to mind right now, I would have done better to talk more with all of those I had spent a week with.
  • That said, I’m glad I made the friends I did.  I’m glad to know I’m not crazy or foolish — or that I’m no more so than others who came with me.
  • Beta readers are so very important in the process of making fiction.  Workshopping isn’t strictly necessary, but every writer needs someone trusted who can provide the necessary change in perspective.
  • Viable Paradise is like Hogwarts: we students are all wizards, but we still need to learn the ways of magic.  Also, Uncle Jim is the muggle equivalent of Dumbledore.
  • Conflict — external or internal — is the propeller that drives the model airplane called story.  Milieu are the wings that give it lift, characterization are the tail stabilizers and wing flaps that guide the plane, and prose are the struts, bolts and other bits keeping it from flying apart.
  • If nothing else, be persistent.  Writing rewards patience and discipline.

I had two moments of deja vu (“all over again!”) during the trip: once during a lecture with Scott Lynch, and once as I was driven from the Island Inn, waving goodbye to two wonderful people that I’d gladly call friends.  My skeptic friends love to call me out on my superstitions, but I believe that deja vu usually signifies an important moment in time, a freeze frame, a “telling detail” as Lynch puts it.  I don’t know what either of these moments mean yet.  Perhaps I should just remember the experience for now.

I am so thankful for the instructors who gave a chance on an ambitious story that didn’t seem to do much: Elizabeth Bear, Steven Brust, Debra Doyle, Steven Gould, James MacDonald, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, and Sherwood Smith, as well as the de facto instructor Scott Lynch.  I’d also like to thank the gracious and caring staff: Bart, Chris, Mac, Pippin (with an “i”) and Kate, and Lisa, who couldn’t make it out to be with us.  And I’ve made so many friends this week that to list them at all would be a disservice.

Well, I guess this makes a good resolution.  Maybe I do have a chance at this whole writing shindig.

Viable Paradise

Erik Attends Viable Paradise, Days 4 and 5

Eventually, it becomes impossible to describe something so intensely personal, or a shared experience, without ruining the magic.  I can only show the silhouette of the thing against the sun.

Wednesday morning I slept in, my sleep deprivation and nascent cold catching up with me.  We had the last of our critique groups that morning.  The quality of my critiques had slipped a bit, not least because I was having trouble staying awake in the best of circumstances.

Following the morning’s activities, we were given a blissful half-day off from workshop duties.  Not that we were completely off-the-hook: we still had to prepare for the horror of Thursday, which I shall not describe here.  It was very hard work, however, and many of us had to work in concert to prepare.

About twelve of us spent lunch in town at Linda Jean’s again with Steven G.  By and large, all of the students have co-mingled with most everyone else, but some patterns of socialization began to emerge.  The staff had taken to calling myself and my two roommates as “the traveling trio” because we always seemed to march in lockstep to every lecture and collegium.

The class discovered scurvy cure Wednesday night.  That phrase, “scurvy cure,” is misleading, although it does describe what the hyper-citrus cocktail drink is capable of.

Thursday, better-rested and prepared for the Horror that afternoon, I was able to walk with Jim and a few others in the morning.  We saw a beautiful sunrise, like a red lantern through parchment paper, over the sea near Oak Bluffs.

My cough had grown worse; nasal drip was keeping me from getting good sleep.  I suspected allergies earlier in the week, but the accompanying fatigue suggested something else. By then I had been running on Coke Zero, hummus sandwiches, beer, and whatever delicious dinners the staff cooked for us.  Wednesday night’s meal was corn chowder; Thursday night’s was a delicious curry. Despite the best efforts of the staff, however, some of us (such as myself) will be wont to run ourselves into the ground anyway.

Thursday afternoon, the Horror occurred.  Even if I could talk about it on a public space, I have such mixed, intense emotions about the experience that I would have trouble putting it down.  I’ll leave you with this image in its place: Luke, in The Empire Strikes Back, taunted by Darth Vader, his arm amputated and cauterized.  He jumps.

I’ve had the chance to talk to nearly every one of my fellow students here.  Inevitably, I’ve bonded more with some than others, due to group dynamics.  Everyone here has been friendly and authentic in their enthusiasm and dedication to the craft.  I had no idea that I would find this level of camaraderie here.

It has also been somewhat distracting, though in a pleasant way, when one student in particular you can’t seem to spend enough time with.  There’s the shared love of genre literature and its conventions, demonstrated by everyone you meet here.  Yet there’s also the passions for individual works, ones that inspired you to walk this path of madness in the first place, that draw you to someone if you share them.  I may not have any kind of future with this person after we all leave the island, but it’s been hard to get her out of my mind, even while writing about castaway pirates and alien plants.

Viable Paradise

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.

Viable Paradise

Erik Attends Viable Paradise: Day 1

I awoke this morning from the only good night’s rest I’ll get for the rest of the week.

My feet hung from the foot of the bed, the comforter twisted around me.  The regular size twin beds in the guestroom aren’t quite long enough for my almost-six-foot height.  I get out of bed, brush up, and check my intense backlog of RSS reader items while my roommates awake.

The conversation soon turns to writing philosophies.  One of us wrote a semi-religious short story inspired by Buddhist imagery; the other has had multiple sales in magazines and anthologies.  I can’t help but be envious.  This guy clearly has his shit together, while I feel like I’m barely keeping up with the conversation some of the time.

We make plans with some of the other early arrivals to meet for breakfast in Oak Bluffs, the nearest town on the island.  We walk down the road skirting the beach, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.  It is the first time I’ve seen it in at least four years.  I stop to take pictures, then run to catch up with the others.

We buy groceries and eat at Linda Jean’s.  They’re known for their blueberry pancakes, but I order a special called “the Captain Nemo,” a kind of scrambled egg seafood delight, with shrimp, lobster claws, and scallops.  I can barely touch my toast by the time I finish, it was such an intense breakfast.  We spend a good hour or so sightseeing in Oak Bluffs, including the intricate, diminutive “gingerbread house” summer residences.  We then ride back into town, one of my roommates having driven his car into town for the groceries.

One thing I discovered is that the most learning at Viable Paradise is happenstance, occurring in conversations between instructors and students outside of lectures.

Feeling drowsy, myself and my roommates head to the staff lounge to get coffee.  The coffee isn’t ready yet, so we sit in the living area and listen to an extended, philosophical conversation between Steven Brust and Teresa Nielsen Hayden.  Soon other students come to listen and contribute.  We had completely forgotten about the coffee.

Just minutes after the last students arrive on the island, we’re quickly given a lecture by Brust on the nature and practice of critique groups.  Some of it is ground covered by others, but one thing that stands out is how informal it can be.  The group should be composed of specialists, balanced to cover as broad a ground as possible.  Everyone should be friends, or at least friendly.  And most importantly, critique should be descriptive, not prescriptive.

The other instructors and staff trickle down to the basement with us while we students socialize.  I’ve decided to avoid using names whenever possible, due to the sensitive nature of these workshops, as well as to preserve the magic of Viable Paradise.  Fickle magic to be sure, fueled by quirky passion and human willpower and love.

Jim MacDonald covers what is expected of us this week.  We’re given the manuscripts to critique when we break into writing groups, placed in messenger bags along with a notebook, pens, and a brown bag containing a toy.  (We’re told it’ll be important later, so I won’t reveal what it was just yet.)  The instructors and staff are purposefully vague on some details, such as what happens on Thursday night, referred to as The Horror.  When it happens, I’ll be discrete in how I describe it, if I do at all.

And then came Mafia.

Due to the large (24 students) class size, we’re broken into two groups to play an icebreaker game, variously referred to as Mafia, The Thing or Werewolves.  Run with a game master, the rules are simple, but the implementation is complex, as described by Teresa N. H.  Bluffing in Mafia is on a far more interesting level than Poker, though the stakes are far lower.

I soon learned the personalities of many of the students and the instructors I play with.  We’re ethnically and sexually diverse, having come from different states and countries, but we all have that writerly spark, that geeky passion.  We get each other’s references, sometimes finishing them before the other has a chance to.  Playing the game puts me at ease; that’s likely what it was designed for.

I have an early start tomorrow.  MacDonald guides a three-mile walk at 6 AM down a trail on the island.  It’s not strictly necessary, but encouraged, and any more face time with the instructors I’ll be happy to take advantage of.  At least until they make me cry.

That could happen.  Critiques begin tomorrow.  Mine will be on Tuesday.

Viable Paradise

Erik Attends Viable Paradise: Day 0*

In my convoluted travel itinerary to get to Martha’s Vineyard without flying directly to the island, I forgot one important fact:

Travel is exhausting.

Let’s start with the, um, start.  My flight was scheduled to leave at 9 AM from Tampa International.  I give myself two hours to pick up my ticket, get through security, and find my gate whenever I fly.  It’s always seemed a bit excessive, given how close some of my friends cut it when they fly.

Here’s why it isn’t.  Say you booked your trip through Travelocity, and they changed the reservation after paying.  Say the Travelocity API doesn’t communicate effectively with the United API.  Say the United Airlines flight database doesn’t understand why your flight destination doesn’t match your final destination because Travelocity’s API was too stupid to tell it properly how to change a flight.

You won’t find out from the email notification of the change.  You won’t know when you try and fail to check in online.  You’ll only find out when you get to the ticket counter and a United representative has to be called aside to schedule you for another flight because your itinerary is completely borked.

It only cost me ten minutes of frustration this time.

I don’t know if it’s a screw-up on Travelocity’s part with their fast-and-loose reservation changes, or United’s API for not being able to process flight changes without manual input.  Regardless, I’ll be booking flights directly from airline web portals from now on.

Layovers are exhausting.

I landed in Newark around 11 AM in Terminal C.  My connecting flight was scheduled to board from Terminal A.  Now, changing terminals at most airports will be a chore to begin with.  (It was hell at Houston International — that airport is built entirely on design anti-patterns.)  Newark, well, Newark has buses that run between terminals.  Buses.

Well, it does beat walking.

Also: the Earl of Sandwich front had run out of tuna, but the newspaper stand across the way still had dozens of tuna wraps and sandwiches in stock.

Most exhausting of all?  Prolonged fear.

My faith in this whole enterprise threatened to break when I arrived in Boston Logan International.  The airport’s nice, or all of 500 feet that I saw of it before getting out to the parking structure.  Just beyond the baggage carousels is an enormous bus corridor.  There are stations for scheduled buses (such as mine, the Peter Pan), public transit, parking shuttles, and car rental shuttles.  And there were many, many buses.

Bus, after bus, after bus, after bus.  It was like they left the parking garage, circled around, and came back in the same way.

I nearly boarded the wrong one.  Unbeknownst to me, Peter Pan also operates buses for tour groups.  When a Peter Pan bus stopped in the bus corridor, I followed a gaggle of elderly men and women who swarmed around the bus as the driver stowed their luggage.  I attempted to get in line to have my luggage stowed as well, when a tall, thin man in his fifties stepped in front of me and informed me that the bus was solely for a group going to the cruise ship.

The Peter Pan bus was unlabelled.  Regardless, it was not my bus.

Every bus was Not My Bus.  A Peter Pan bus passed the stop and continued on (not my bus).  A green-and-white bus approached from a distance, but when it came closer I saw the livery was for Alamo (not my bus).  A dozen buses from other companies stopped at the scheduled bus stop, took on passengers, and carried on, spewing exhaust behind them (also not my buses).

And then, another Peter Pan bus arrived.  In the windshield was the label “Wood’s Hole,” where I would take the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard.  This was definitely My Bus.

Boston’s road system is heavily stratified.  After we left Logan, we immediately passed through the Big Dig before ascending to an elevated bus terminal.  Outside my window, beyond the support beams of the terminal building, I could see skyscrapers and brownstones that towered above me and continued below me for countless stories.  It felt very much like Metropolis.

Past the bus terminal, we followed the interstate into suburban Massachusetts, then the county roads through sleepy hamlets that look like fodder for Family Guy.  The houses began to take on that familiar New England architectural style, with wood shingled walls, victorian ornamentation, and grey-and-white color schemes.  Finally, after the road shortened to two very narrow lanes, we arrived at Wood’s Hole and pulled up to the ferry dock.

I expected the ferry from the movie adaption of The Lord of the Rings.  I got something that would take cannon shells to sink, a Constitution-class ferry with TVs, a restaurant, and observation deck.  Well into the afternoon, the sun setting behind us, the ferry left the mainland for Martha’s Vineyard.

When I arrived at the island, the sun had set completely.  I couldn’t see any features along the shoreline, apart from the lighthouse lantern and lit windows inside summer homes.  As I disembarked, two young men held a sign on the dock marked “Viable Paradise.”  I almost wanted to ask, “are you taking me to Hogwarts?”

The two staff members introduced themselves, and they took me in their car and drove mt to the Island Inn.  They said that dinner was nearly ready, cooked by one of the instructors, and that half the students had already arrived.  The Island was especially congested due to Columbus Day weekend traffic, as the tourists from the mainland attempted to have the last bit of fun on the island before winter arrived.  Martha’s Vineyard may be home to the summer residences of the rich, but it’s as big a tourist attraction as Daytona, Florida.

We arrived, I got my room key and stowed my luggage, and arrived at the party already in progress.  In the span of ten minutes, I met five or six authors I admire, two editors who work at my favorite publishing house (and whom I’d like to impress), my student roommates for the week, as well as a fellow student and pen-pal I’d been in touch with shortly after being accepted.

The chili was excellent.  Someone brought s’mores, and my fingers got coated in a chocolate waxy film that doesn’t wash off well.  I got to know my roommates and the instructors better.  Someone, who I won’t name, told one of the instructors that I wanted to sing a sea shanty while riding the ferry, the wind ripping at my face, and all I could remember was “A Whale of a Tale” from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  I think I’ll have to learn something called “The Greek Bent Over.”

And then there was the poker, which was so delightful and funny, and made me come to accept the instructors, people I truly admire, as flawed but passionate human beings.

There’s more in store tomorrow.  I can’t wait.  But God I need to sleep first.

*Why day 0? Because I’m a programmer, and we count from zero.

Edit: I removed the names of my fellow students for their privacy.

Viable Paradise

Erik Attends Viable Paradise: Introduction

Earlier this year, I applied to the workshop Viable Paradise, held annually at Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.

When I was accepted in May, I thought there had been a mistake.

I have no published works under my name.  I’ve finished two novels, completed a rough draft of a third, and the half-formed bodies of half a dozen lay about my hard drive like unfinished ship models.  My education in composition and literary analysis is best described as “self-taught”: apart from Composition I and II in college, I’ve relied on reading dozens of how-to books in writing, as well as practicing the craft itself.  No, I thought, I couldn’t be ready.  I couldn’t be good enough to be taught by two of the best editors in the industry and a half dozen wonderful authors.

I fly out to Martha’s Vineyard tomorrow, and I’m still not ready.

I’ve never participated in any writing workshops before now.  My writing critiques have been scattershot, depending on the kindness of friends and the fickleness of the schedules of young adults.  I can’t imagine there aren’t other students in the same boat.  Regardless, VP will be a trial by fire . . . or perhaps a better metaphor would be a toss into the lake: if I float, I’m a writer!

I’ll be chronicling each day on the trip here, hopefully accompanied with pictures of beautiful Martha’s Vineyard.  I’ll write about some of my own private moments as well.

My short story being critiqued next week is “Bodhisattvas,” about a seminary student confronting a loss of faith after an epidemic wipes out the ability to have religious experiences.  At the time I applied it it represented the best of my writing abilities, but contained flaws that I found difficult to fix.  My hope is that my fellow students and instructors can show me how to fix the story, or else teach me the problem-solving skills needed to find the fixes myself.

I’d also like to make some friends who share the same brand of crazy that I do — namely, “visionary writer syndrome.”

Most of all, I hope it brings into focus my motivations and expectations for writing.  Do I pursue it as a career, or is it merely a hobby?  Am I really cut out for professional genre writing?  Am I good enough yet, or are there even more years of toil in my future before my first acceptance?  I can’t keep asking my Tarot deck, that’s for sure.

I expect no easy answers, no quick solutions.  As Tolkien said, “the road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began. . . .”