Viable Paradise: Day 2, Monday

Note to readers: While I’ll mention the topic of each lecture and collegium, I won’t discuss the specific information we were given; I don’t feel it would be right to do so.  We were specifically asked not to spread the recordings of the lectures many of us made; so don’t ask.  The exception: If any of my classmates didn’t record a session, give me a holler.

I still really can’t believe I’m actually here.

The morning began when I woke up at 7:45 and jumped in the shower.  Once awake, we went down to the lecture room for an early-morning announcement session, then went to our critique group breakout sessions.

My story isn’t coming up for review until Wednesday, so I have two days to stew.  I critiqued two really strong stories this morning.  The critiques follow the Milford format:  Each group member has 5 minutes to speak.  We’re encouraged to say true things, and helpful things, and to be nice.   I think we did that.  When each member of the group has spoken, the two pros who are moderating the critique speak.  Then the author can talk, and then it opens into a group discussion on the story.

I found these to be amazing and illuminating even though my story wasn’t up for critique yet.  As Theresa Nielsen-Hayden said to me, “Nothing teaches you how to write like critiquing someone else’s story.”

After critique group we gathered for a lecture by “Uncle Jim,” James D. Macdonald*, on plot.  I won’t talk about the specifics of what he said, but if you Google “Learn Writing With Uncle Jim,” you’ll find a series of posts in which he says the same things, more or less.

Then we talked with Elizabeth Bear about plot, and created a very silly plot in about five minutes—but, I hasten to add, a “very silly plot” that could actually work if you approached it properly.

After that we broke for one-on-one sessions.  My first was with Jim Macdonald, author of books I grew up on.  Jim really helped me figure out that the theme of redemption in my story wasn’t right—it’s really a story about family, and building a family to replace the one you lost.  That opened up huge realms of plot for me.  He also told me some very nice things about my style, my protagonist’s voice, and that I really need to finish this book.  The most amazing thing I got from him, however, was a picture he drew on the back of my manuscript that clarified my plot structure immensely and linked thematically to the book’s inspiration.  That man is a goddamned genius, and you can tell him so if you ever meet him.

I’m going to be a little bit vague, because the things he said to me, while not personal per se, were deeply meaningful to me personally, and I want to keep that to myself.  But the short version is that he banished a lot of the self-doubt I’ve been carrying around with me, and made me realize that I can and will be published.  I just need to keep working, and not let myself get bogged down by worries of inadequacy.   And yes, I’ve been told this by others, but look—hearing it from a professional in the business, who has made his living as a writer for half my life, is inherently more meaningful than my friends saying it.

We also got the Doom today.  We were split into three groups.  Each group had a writing assignment for a fictional themed anthology—and all stories are due at 3pm Thursday.

After dinner, a bunch of us—probably about 20 of the 24 students, and a few of the instructors—walked about half a mile down the road to see the glowing jellyfish come in with the tide.  They glow just a little, but when anything disturbs them, they flash brighter.  It was an amazing display, and the wind on the coast was practically nothing, so we walked down to the beach and stood looking toward Boston and Nantucket for a time.

When we returned to the Inn, some of the instructors and a few students broke out instruments and song books, and spent the evening singing and playing.  They weren’t playing anything I knew, so I just sat and listened.

At around midnight I returned to my room to go to bed, but got into a discussion with one of my roommates and we ended up talking for another hour.

I got exceedingly lucky with my roommates.  Both are very interesting people whom I get along with like a house on fire; we’ve had a lot of fun together even as we’re sitting around writing critiques or researching for the stories we have to write, and creating not a few enduring in-jokes in the process, one of which I’m sure will crack us all up in future meetings.  It’s not much different in the larger group.  In any large group, there will be some people you like more than others, and this group is no exception.  But even there I can’t say there’s anyone I dislike.

When I read the blog posts of those who came to Viable Paradise before me, I admit I rolled my eyes at the common exclamation that “I’ve found my tribe!” I am hereby apologizing to all the previous VP bloggers I did that to—because they were right.  These students will, in future, be the writers I run into at conventions and know.  They’ll be my professional colleagues and compatriots, and we already have inside jokes we’ll be talking about for years.

And the best part is?  This is only Monday.

*Yes, that’s how you spell it.

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About Michael Johnston

Father of a third grader, high school English teacher, writer. Forty-three years old and feeling almost every bit of it on some days, and not a bit of it on others. Based in Sacramento, California, USA
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