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Viable Paradise 2013: Applications Due in Just Over a Month

Applications Due: June 15, 2013
Workshop Runs: October 13 – October 18th, 2013

A couple of years ago, I attended Viable Paradise, a week-long workshop for science fiction and fantasy writers. Applications for this year’s VP class are due on June 15th, which is a scant five weeks away. If you’re on the fence about applying this year, allow me to present some arguments for why you should.

Intensity of Focus

VP is a residential workshop, which means you spend the whole week with your fellow students and instructors in beautiful Martha’s Vineyard. And while the environment may be picturesque, don’t kid yourself: you’re not going to spend the week taking in the sights. Instead, the week is an intensely focused period of genre exploration. You’ll be talking genre, writing craft, and philosophy of art from morning ’til late into the night.

The experience isn’t nearly as intimidating as that might sound. First, everyone there – the instructors, the staff, and the other students – all love the genre just as much as you do. The instructors are all working professionals in the field, and have years of experience on both sides of the editorial divide. The volunteer staff (who are there for logistical/emotional support and to make sure everyone eats well) are all VP alums, so they’ve gone through the same intense experience (disclaimer: I was one of the volunteer staff last year, and I will be again this year). And your fellow students? They are all there for the same reason you are: because they love the genre, and they want to get better at the craft of writing.

The intensity of the VP experience is a by-product of everyone’s passion for the craft. And that shared passion is one of the most important features of VP. Where else could you talk story structure and world-building techniques into the wee hours of the morning for an entire week?

Differences of Approach

Each of Viable Paradise’s eight instructors have their own methods, their own perspectives, and their own beliefs about what it takes to produce the highest quality fiction. VP is unique in that all eight instructors are there and teaching in parallel, which means that students get to see the different perspectives juxtaposed alongside one another.

For me, this really drove home the lesson that there are many equally-valid ways to achieve a desired effect. By getting to see different approaches at the same time, I was able to synthesize new techniques and writing processes that work for me, for the way my mind works, and for the way my writing process works. If I were only exposed to one or two instructors at a time, I think I would have had a harder time developing this synthesis.

Novels and Short Stories

Over the years, VP has gotten the reputation of being a “novel-focused” workshop, and for me, this was a feature – not a bug. The opportunity to get the start of my novel critiqued, to have my synopsis examined, and to discuss the practical business of the modern novel market with folks who know it far better than I do was incredibly valuable.

However, despite its reputation for focusing on novel-length works, plenty of students apply with short stories. The instructors all work in both novel and short story lengths, and have done so for years. They have the experience in both forms to understand each form’s constraints and strengths. This helps to bring a very holistic perspective to the craft, and their understanding of the novel filters into the short story discussions, while the short story insights bleed into the novel-length discussions.

The result is an experience that – for me, at any rate – improved my work in both the short and novel length works.

Do You Want to Take Your Writing to the Next Level?

The best way to decide if VP is right for you is to ask yourself: do you want to take your writing to the next level? In my class, we had absolute newbies (me among them), agented authors, SFWA-member authors, and a number in between these various phases of a writing career. Regardless of where we were when we arrived, we left the island able to apply new skills and new perspectives to our writing, which in turn helped us to raise the level of our work.

Since we graduated in 2011, many of my classmates have gone on to publish short stories in various professional markets, to close multi-book deals, to self-publish their books, or (in my case) have their non-fiction selected for a best-of collection.

It didn’t matter where we started from or what our individual goals were, we leveled-up thanks to our experiences at VP.

More Information

If you’re looking for more information about VP, I strongly recommend the Viable Paradise web site.

And if you want a more detailed discussion of my experience at VP, and the costs associated with it, here are my Reflections on the Workshop Experience: Viable Paradise.

And since I’m planning on working as staff again this year, I hope to see you there in the fall!

PSA: Viable Paradise Applications Almost Due!

This isn’t my main post for the week (that’ll be going live in a couple of hours), but I just wanted to issue a quick PSA:

The deadline for this year’s applications to Viable Paradise are fast approaching. Applications are due on June 15th, 2012 which is just over three weeks away.

If you’re polishing up your application, or if you’re still on the fence about applying, here are some fun links to check out from some of my classmates (if you’ve written about the VP experience and I missed it, let me know and I’ll add your link!):

If after perusing some of these links, you’re still uncertain and want to chat with someone who’s gone, just shoot me an e-mail, tweet @KgElfland2ndCuz, or comment here!

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!

Clarion Odyssey Viable Paradise
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”)

  • Milford-style Critique
  • Lectures
  • One-on-one Critique
  • Writing Exercises

  • Milford-style Critique
  • Lectures
  • One-on-one Critique
  • Writing Exercises

  • Milford-style Critique
  • Lectures
  • One-on-one Critique
  • Writing Exercises

Application Fee $50 $35 $25
Tuition $4,957 $1,920 $1,100
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.

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