Reflections on the Workshop Experience: Viable Paradise
So as I’ve mentioned before, this past October I attended the Viable Paradise writing workshop. The basic facts are pretty simple: it’s a week-long writing workshop for science fiction and fantasy taught by eight professional writers and editors. And the experience itself was amazing. While I’d been meaning to write a blog post about the experience, it wasn’t until some recent online discussions with other writers got my butt in gear, and thus here are my thoughts on my experiences at VP (note that Viable Paradise is so far the only workshop experience I have had, and so these thoughts may or may not apply to other workshops like Clarion or Odyssey).
Choosing to Attend a Workshop
Everybody’s got their own reasons for attending a workshop, most of which are set up like a combination of critique group and summer camp (only the “fun activities” involve critiques, lectures, and writing). I can’t speak to my classmates’ goals, but in my case I applied to VP hoping for a number of things:
|Craft-oriented Critique||Writing – especially in the novel-form – is a lonely activity, and living in suburban NJ I haven’t had any luck finding a professional-grade critique group. I was seeking new insights into the way I wrote, to identify and address weaknesses, and to get it through rigorous and detailed criticism of my work.|
|Revision Techniques||When I applied to VP, I knew that I could write something novel length. But to then revise it so that it would be ready to ship out, that’s a whole ‘nother story. I wanted to develop the revision techniques I’d need to polish my prose enough to get published.|
|Community||While there are lots of people out there who want to write, in the offline world I’ve had little luck finding those as serious about the craft, and as committed to writing as I am. I was hoping to get plugged into a shared sense of community that goes beyond the virtual.|
|Validation||And yeah, it’s a guilty secret, but I wanted someone who didn’t have an emotional stake – either through love, family, or friendship – to give me their honest assessment of my writing. I hoped for some indication that my writing is good (while simultaneously learning where it could improve).|
So with these hopes in mind, I had to figure out which workshop to apply to, get in, and then go.
Picking Between Viable Paradise, Clarion, and Odyssey
In the science fiction and fantasy genre, there are three workshops that regularly come up in discussions. In order of their (seeming) size/stature in the field, they are Clarion, Odyssey, and Viable Paradise. There are major differences between these workshops, however, and by considering how they differed I was able to pick which one I wanted to attend.
Note, that this comparison is based on what I (a prospective workshop student) was able to find out about these workshops online. I haven’t attended either Clarion or Odyssey, so please forgive me if I got anything wrong!
|Time of Year||Summer||Summer||Fall|
|Duration||Six weeks||Six weeks||One week|
|Focus||Short stories||Short stories (mostly)||Novels or Short Stories|
|Instructors (total)||Six||One (with guest lecturers)||Eight (though we got lucky and had a 9th “guest star”)|
|Instructors at One Time||1 – 2||1 – 2||Eight (though we got lucky and had a 9th “guest star”)|
|Housing Cost||(included in tuition)||$790 – 1,580||$465 – 1,050 (plus tax)|
With my more-than full-time job, taking six weeks off in the middle of the year was just not going to happen. And so that simple fact automatically disqualified both Clarion and Odyssey. Putting this underlying fact aside, Viable Paradise still appealed to me more out of the gate: with a reputation of focusing more on novels than short stories, VP aligned more with the issues I was wrestling with in my own writing. And I imagined that having eight instructors on-location for the entirety of the workshop would make it more intense and stimulating.
The Viable Paradise Community
After applying to VP (and getting accepted) I was shocked by the degree to which a VP community exists in the science fiction and fantasy genre. Sure, there’s an e-mail list on which instructors and alums from various years are pretty active. But when in July I went to Readercon, I met a whole bunch of awesome VP alums who were able to offer lots of insight into what the experience would be like. This community, and the sense of shared-experience and support were awesome.
When I got to Martha’s Vineyard, getting to know my classmates was equally awesome. While I can’t speak for everyone else, I was really nervous about meeting everyone. Some of them had pro sales to their names, others had agents already, and there I was with neither. I was nervous that I’d be the amateur among a group of budding professionals. I was a little nervous of the exact opposite, too: anyone serious about writing has met people who have lots of desire to write, but less will to do so. In hindsight, both fears were absolutely ridiculous.
My class at VP was a diverse group of folks, at all ages, all levels of experience, and all backgrounds. We had homemakers, and scientists, and business folk, and lawyers, and this diversity of background really enriched our discussions. Regardless of whether we’d sold anything or not, we all shared a passion for writing, our love of the genre, and our desire to improve. And more than anything else, finding my tribe was one of the greatest aspects of my Viable Paradise experience, and with any luck it will be the most lasting. It is probably telling that six months on, my VP class remains in touch and even has a sort of loosely-structured, self-organized online critique group type thing going on. Which is unbelievably cool.
Structuring the Learning
Like, I think, all of the leading workshops VP combines elements of Milford-style critique with lectures. Each day features group critiques, scheduled one-on-one critiques with instructors, lectures, general discussions, and unscheduled one-on-one critiques with instructors. The day literally starts around dawn, and doesn’t end until quite late in the evening. VP’s focus seems to be very much on face-time and interaction with classmates and instructors, which was exactly what I wanted.
Groups for group critique are structured around writers who wrestle with similar issues, or who the instructors think can bring particular insight to their other group members. I found the composition of these groups (put together based on our application materials) to be a masterful piece of psychology and craft deconstruction. The groups I was in (can’t speak to those I wasn’t) worked really well, and everybody had something different to say about the writing. Diverse viewpoints, all coalescing into a stronger whole.
The lectures and group discussions were another interesting dimension. Each day, a different instructor offered a lecture or moderated the group discussion (sometimes themed, sometimes not). But what is perhaps unique about Viable Paradise is that during these lectures and group discussions all (or almost all) of the instructors were present. This effectively turned the lectures/group discussions into a highly-interactive conversation, moderated by a group of super-experienced professionals. As a result, we got to see where different instructors might have different approaches, where something that worked for one instructor might not work for another. The heterogeneous nature of these discussions really elevated the experience beyond a typical “lecture”.
Each of us had two one-on-one sessions scheduled with different instructors. But what is even cooler is that the students are actively encouraged to seek out the other instructors to have off-schedule one-on-ones with them. The net result was that rather than having two one-on-one critique sessions, I got to pick eight different (amazing) brains about my specific work. I got infinitely more out of the sheer variety of viewpoints, the differing issues that they identified, and their different approaches than I could possibly have gotten from any one critiquer (however brilliant).
There was less of a focus on writing new content than I expected (I expected to have to write something new every day – don’t worry, you don’t) but I don’t think the program suffered any for that. And I couldn’t possibly forget about the social dimension: hanging out, talking about books, about writing, drinking, philosophizing, making music, and generally having a good time.
The Net Assessment of Viable Paradise
All in all, I cannot recommend Viable Paradise enough. It is the only workshop I’ve done to date, but the experience was fantastic. I have the sense that one gets out of it what one chooses to get from it. I went in wanting to gain a sense of community, to learn new skills, to identify weaknesses in my own writing, and to get validation that I’m not crazy to think I can write fun, interesting stories. I got all of that (and more) out of VP – and in only one week’s time.
If you’re looking for the kind of stuff I was, and you can take a week off of work to find it, then I recommend you apply to Viable Paradise. Applications for this year (2012) close on June 15, 2012, and you can find out what you need to do to apply by clicking here.