Viable Paradise: A Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers' Workshop

What is Viable Paradise?


Many students have written about their experiences. Below you'll find their informative and inspiring communications about what Viable Paradise was for them. Click on individual names to go directly to that report.

Student Reports

William Garth Hopkins
Tonya Price
Glenn R. Sixbury
Greg van Eekhout
Kate Salter

Date: 19 Feb 99 16:39:02 GMT
Subject: Viable Paradise II Workshop Report
Newsgroups: sff.cons.viable-paradise

What follows is a brief essay I wrote about my experience at the Viable Paradise Writers' Workshop in the fall of 1998. At the end of the essay, I have included the contact information for the workshop.

I originally posted this essay to the sff.writing.craft discussion, but Yog Sysop has suggested that it would be more appropriate here and in sff.cons.viable-paradise so I've put it in both places.

The short summary of my experience is: it was great.

In the longer version below, I've tried to capture the essence of the experience and not just dump out the details of the workshop structure.

I hope it might help convince others to give the workshop a try. I will watch this newsgroup for questions or comments.

GOING HOME: A Student's Report on the Viable Paradise II Writers' Workshop

by William Garth Hopkins

Have you ever found your way home after an absence of almost forty years? Found your way home to a home you didn't know you had lost, a home filled with fractious and loving brothers and uncles and aunts and cousins and sisters? Found a home filled with people who allow you to instantly forget that you never knew them before that moment, every one of them both strange and familiar?

Have you?

I have.

But only once.

It's been eight weeks since I returned to my first home from the Viable Paradise II writers' workshop and I'm still sifting through the raw data: overripe sea shanties, aging gingerbread houses, refillable growlers and an outdoor tabernacle. I can't seem to resolve the memories into a cohesive mass. I remember a shotgun-toting knight who got off his Harley and knocked on the door. I remember a sinister figure escaping down the back lane on a bicycle, while a woman, unaware of his presence, waved a cheery hello at the front of the house. I remember receiving dramatic writing advice from an aging magician. I remember sharing the black dog's breakfast on a bright and crystalline morning, watching the boats in a small harbor while the three of us ate and ate and ate. And I remember, quite clearly, fresh baked muffins appearing every day before nine.

The days were structured, mostly.

In the mornings we'd have the one-on-ones. Each student sitting down with one or two of the instructors to discuss their submitted work. No two instructors ever gave me the same advice, but it all had real value. And, at least once in each session, some simple and brilliant insight by an instructor would cause my brain to explode, lifting the top of my skull clean off.

After the one-on-ones, we'd all eat lunch together, teachers and pupils. Sometimes we walked into town, sometimes we drove around the island. We'd talk about our lives, both written and unwritten. We'd talk about the industry and the art. We'd share rumors and gossip. We'd listen to hard facts. We'd talk about the weather.

During these meals I learned the definitions of chap book, trade paperback, mass market paperback, BNF, SMOF and filking. I learned why some publishers now prefer to release even first time writers in hard cover. I learned the difficult truths about trying to establish oneself as a new writer; difficult, but not discouraging.

After lunch, one of the instructors would lecture about world-building or the state of the publishing industry or some other landmark visible only from the very top of a wizard's tower. The other instructors would comment on almost every second word and the net result was a five person lecture/discussion on the topic of the day. We never had to rely on a single person's viewpoint, we learned what they all thought. We learned the differences between editors and writers, between husbands and wives. We learned from the varied experience of five people who have been creating, selling and appreciating science fiction, fantasy and horror for decades.

Every day we'd take a half hour break after the afternoon lecture. I'd wander the sand collecting shells for my kids. Then we'd end the formal part of the day with the student critiques.

I went first. I'd had that first morning off. I was well rested and a good thing too. The student whose work is under review is not allowed to speak until all comments have been heard. I find remaining silent difficult at the best of times. It's incredibly difficult when someone's daring to comment on your work. It becomes a Herculean task when their comments are accurate and insightful. The instructors sat and listened silently (most of the time) while the students took turns commenting on the work of the day. When all of the students had spoken, the instructors would comment on the comments, underlining points they thought were well made, striking through points they thought incorrect. Often the instructors even agreed with each other.

I had been afraid of how these sessions might go. I had foreseen the possibility of great pain, but, instead, the experience was exhilarating. The students approached the task of review seriously, gently. Nothing hurt. At least, it hurt no more than a bandaid does when you rip it off to let the air at the raw and festering wound. For me, it turned out to be much harder to sit and comment in public on someone else's work, than it was to sit and listen to thoughtful and well-meant comments on my own. I remember one horrible and giddy moment when fellow-student Tim hung crucified on his own imaginary cross, head bowed and arms outstretched, unable to speak while the rest of us students told him everything we thought he might be doing right and might be doing wrong.

After the student review sessions, we'd have dinner. Sometimes we'd split into a couple of groups of students and teachers, sometimes we'd all eat together as one loud and exhausted group. One night the instructors had a private dinner-time huddle with the workshop organizer -- that night we students had dinner together and shared the secret thrill of being there and taking part. We shared the excitement of our mutual dreams. We shared our taste of the future.

After dinner we'd gather in the common rooms and talk and have some beer from a growler filled at the local brew pub, or a shot of tequila or both or many of both. Almost everything the instructors said had value for the students, providing some glimmer of insight into the realities of the publishing industry. It was a chance to hear what people on the inside thought about everything and anything.

Those after-dinner conversations were the best, I think. Free-for-alls, in the most positive way. No division between students and teachers, other than years of experience. We were all there for the same reasons, we all shared the same loves. You could ask anyone anything and get a serious reply or a really good joke. You often got both at the same time. We laughed a lot -- especially during the most intense moments.

The workshop ran right into the convention, with barely enough time between them to draw a full breath, and suddenly the world around us filled with other returning members of the same volatile family. I met person after person for the first time only to find that I already knew them, that they already knew me. I can't explain it; perhaps I don't need to explain it. It simply is the way it was.

I remember the clear skies, every day but the first night when we sat on the verandah and applauded the most vivid shafts of lightning. I remember the chatty lady in the t-shirt shop. I remember moving furniture in the dark. I remember the bright blue ocean-going yacht some super-villain had docked at one of the local marinas.

I remember having the time of my life with people I will never forget: Julia, Tim, Rae, Denise, Steven, Lawrence, Patrick, Debra, Teresa, Jim and David. I remember ending each day with my brain stuffed full to bursting and my heart filled with courage. I remember never wanting to leave. I remember feeling that I really belonged. I remember leaving home -- to go home.

Have you ever traveled somewhere wondering if it might be a place where you'd wish to belong, only to discover that you already do?

I have.

But just the once.

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From: (Tonya Price)
Date: 7 Oct 99 23:43:50 GMT
Subject: Viable Paradise III
Newsgroups: sff.cons.viable-paradise

I returned home Sunday from Viable Paradise III full of enthusiasm and energy. The week was fantastic. I have no doubt that my writing is better for the experience.

As a student I was able to have a one on one meeting with Maureen McHugh and later in the week with Debra Doyle in which we discussed the story I had submitted with my application. Jim Macdonald led four other students in a critique of my story. Everyone had a similar schedule. I found the group sessions invaluable whether it was my story being reviewed or that of another student.

We heard lectures each day, had open ended discussions (which produced some of the most memorable moments of the week), engaged in activities like reading a Shakespeare play, had time to explore the island and time to write. Another of the benefits of the week for me was the friendships I made. It was refreshing to see how well everyone got along during the week.

I would encourage anyone interested in improving their writing to apply next year.

I'd be happy to answer any questions from a student's perspective about the workshop.


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From: Glenn R. Sixbury
Date: Fri, 8 Oct 1999 14:54:52 -0500
Subject: Re: Viable Paradise III
Newsgroups: sff.cons.viable-paradise

I've been writing regularly for twelve years. I sold my first short story in 1988, and since then, I've had four others published and I've finished two novels. When I considered going to Viable Paradise, I thought it would be a good experience, but I didn't expect too much. I've seen and heard a lot over the years. How much more could there be?

More than I could have ever imagined.

For me, the workshop turned out to be less about writing and more about people. That doesn't mean I didn't gain all kinds of wonderful insights into the processes and business of writing, learning from the one-on-ones to the five-ways to the lectures to the bits of unstructured conversation. But I never dreamed anyone could assemble such a talented group of writers, all of which had such enthusiasm for their craft and such compassion and empathy for the world around them--and all of which were so very, very different, yet had that thread common to every person who's ever wanted to tell a story.

Blind luck? Maybe.

Or maybe it was the setting. Martha's Vineyard in the fall, especially this fall, was a magical place, filled with sunny days and star-filled nights and colorful trees and fresh seafood and beaches by moonlight.

Or maybe it was the instructors. I've never met anyone that worked harder than these folks, not only in the time they invested, but in the sacrifice of their privacy, and in their commitment to seeing that everyone had the opportunity to participate. They provided support without being judgemental and without robbing the hope so easily stolen from most beginning writers.

Maybe it was the other students. In every group with which I've been involved, there has always been at least one spoiler, one person who brought the others down, either intentionally or because they just couldn't keep up. Never have I been in a room with more than three other people that someone didn't cause at least minor problems for someone else. But not this time. Everyone I encountered had talent, everyone had passion for their craft, and everyone was willing to share what they had with others. Especially for so large a group, I couldn't believe it. I still can't, I guess. It seems like a dream of how a workshop should be.

Or maybe it was just me. Maybe the salt air and the over-abundance of great food made me delusional. It's possible.

But of one thing, I'm certain. When I returned from the workshop, I had a new attitude--not just about writing, but about life. That didn't come from just the setting or the instructors or the students alone, but from a combination of all of them pushing against my own self-doubts and reacting to my earnest desire for improvement.

I used to be a pessimist. I am now an optimist. And I'm certain I will stay that way.

But don't go to the workshop expecting miracles. Go with the desire for an experience. And then live every minute of it.

Questions? I've got answers. If you want to know anything about the workshop--anything--you ask and I'll tell you flat out exactly how I saw it.

Glenn R. Sixbury

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From: Greg van Eekhout
Date: Thu, 18 Nov 1999 10:30:44 -0700
Subject: Re: Viable Paradise III
Newsgroups: sff.cons.viable-paradise

Since VP4 is now officially "on," and since there may be some people out there wondering if they should go or not, I thought I'd post a review of VP3.

I'm not going to go into gooey emotional stuff, although I did experience a lot of gooey emotional stuff while I was there, and most of it was good goo.

The place: Island Inn, Martha's Vinyard. Hardcore New England.

The people:

The instructors were Debora Doyle, Jim MacDonald, Maureen McHugh, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Teresa Nielsen Hayden. They're all great people. They were generous with their time, honest with their criticism, kind with their words, and fun to be around.

Here was the basic format:


* Informal gathering of students in the main common room while waiting for official business to begin. This was usually bleery-eyed cordiality. I'd advise having a coffee supply in your room.

* Five-on-five sessions -- four students, one of whom gets his or her story critiqued, and an instructor to add commentary on the commentary and additional grace notes. These were great. The comments were usually inciteful, interesting, and often led to good conversation.

* Instructor lectures -- Each instructor gave a lecture over the course of the week. Topics ranged from writing philosophy and craft to the realities of publishing. Again, good stuff.


Most people seemed to eat lunch in their rooms, but a few would venture into town. I did a little of each. I also learned that it's possible to cook a Stouffer's French Bread Pizza with a skillet and an electric burner. This knowledge will serve me well in life.

One day, we caravanned out to the "other side of the island" (I kept looking for the Proffessor from Gilligan's Island), for fried clams and other glorious delights. Man alive, I had the best clam chowder imagineable. It was so good I almost cried.

* One-on-ones -- each student got two one-on-one sessions with an instructor over the course of the week. Again, I don't want to get into emotional gooey stuff, but this is where good emotional gooey stuff happened. Plus great writing advice. Plus a chance to talk with people I admire.

* Collegium -- Informal gathering of students and instructors in the common room, largely occupied by free-form instructor-driven conversation. This was one of my favorite parts of the week. Get a group of witty, articulate writers and editors in a room, and smart stuff ensues.

* Dinner -- Eerily like lunch, only later in the day. There was also a banquet Saturday night at the restaurant attached to the hotel, which was much like most banquets in which the volume makes conversation difficult. But the asparagus was really good.

* Informal, unplanned gatherings in common room -- Sometimes this involved beer, really good beer from a local brewpub. These grew to be a lot of fun by the middle of the week.

In short, I had a great time, I learned a lot about writing, I met smart and talented and nice people, it was easily worth the sacrifice of time and expense, I got to spend a week on a beautiful island in gorgeous weather, and I would highly recommend VP4 to anyone.

Feel free to write with questions!

--Greg van Eekhout

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From: (Kate Salter)
Date: Wed, 27 Sep 2000 01:20:42 GMT
Subject: FWD: Re: WOW - thanks!
Newsgroups: sff.workshop.viable-paradise

I think I finally understand what Rae meant when she said that the Workshop and the Island, was Viable Paradise.

In one short week, I met a group of fantastic people, with whom I could have an intelligent conversation about a subject that we are all dealing with on various levels. I received validation from my peer group that confirmed that I could write. I was shown how to make my work better, how to give and receive constructive criticism.

The things that I will treasure even more are my recollections:

The night that we all went to the beach, to see the luminescent jellyfish. Looking up at the sky to see the starry ribbon called the Milky Way.

The trip to the Menemsha Bite- (Cathy, I'll trade you these scallops for that Rootbeer!) Looking at the cliffs on Gay Head, while certain people were using the distance viewers to scope out the nude sunbathers.

Pizza, beer and Shakespeare- I will never be able to read the Tempest again, without thinking of all of you.

It's amazing what some folks can do with a rope.

All of the candid snapshots, rolling into a week where creativity was boundless, the weather perfect, and for a short time, we all were in an oasis of learning.

VP4 was an awesome experience, and the instructors and students combined for a synergy that is not often found.

My hat is off to all of you!


If life is an IF/THEN statement, then what the heck am I doing?

(*Pout* I wish I'd gotten the right seat in a Cape Air Cessna. Lucky you, Cathy! *)

(Yes, you can quote me, Yog)

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