Diary: Writing Excuses Cruise, Workshop and Retreat 2015
I’ve been putting this off for months and months because I’ve still been trying to process what happened to me. I had an experience. A profound mind altering event that’s going to shape me and my writing for years to come. I went on a cruise with the Writing Excuses podcast.
Writing Excuses is a great podcast that I’ve been listening to for years. Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, and Howard Taylor have been whispering in my ears since I started listening with season 7. It’s been one of the resources I found when I first started writing as a hobby. And let’s be real; Hobby is where my writing sits right now. It’s the first thing that get’s clipped when work gets busy or I find I’m moving or some video game consumes my attention. I’ve heard about the retreat and workshops that the podcast team offers, but in the past it always felt like something that I couldn’t attend because I wasn’t taking my writing seriously enough. Also it sold out really fast.
But last year somethings changed. I'd finally self-published my weird horror novel. I'd committed two whole months to writing everyday to get my second novel's first draft finished. Then the workshop got put on a boat.
Something about moving the workshop to a place where there would be other things to do. Where if I felt like a tourist among serious authors I might not feel out of place because we’d be surrounded by tourists. They also had more spots because the hotel, conference space, and fun attractions was all in one big building that floated around the Caribbean. I decided this was my chance to make my dream of being a for really real author a little more real. So I jumped in!
I could spend another thousand words trying to storify about my experience, but instead I’m going to give you a list of all the amazing things I saw and did. I like lists. I blame all my engineering training.
Gotta get up! I gotta get going!
I had to get a passport. Never left the country before, so I waded into the bureaucracy to see if they’d let me go see something awesome and then, more importantly, let me back in. It totally worked. You fools!
Had dinner with writers. We had a meet up with some of the other authors at the Hard Rock in Fort Lauderdale the night before we left. I kind of knew right away we were in good company. It was a definite “these are my people” kind of moment that set the tone for the whole trip.
Got to the cruise ship. Have you seen a cruise ship? I was unprepared for the size of this thing. It’s a mall and a hotel and a couple restaurants and a water park that floats on the ocean and takes you to amazing locations. I was warned they were homes of disease and secret disaster but I got to miss any of that and just have an amazing time.
Drank at a faux english pub with a gaggle of other authors. First off this little pub was my home away from home on the trip. I’m not english, but this was only place on the ship with a store of 312 for me to drink. Then i got to meet the wide varied cast of authors I’d be spending time with. It was chaos and fun and exciting. No one knew what to expect. The people who’d attended past conventions were as gobsmacked by the cruise aspect as the rest of us.
The boat has left. We are on the open sea!
Orientation - Oh no. They are handing out packets and there are lanyards and post it notes and I’m having visions of being given homework to do while on a cruise ship, and guess what that’s probably not going to happen. Oh look there are the people from the podcast, live and all in flesh and bone and what not. Howard Taylor looks like my dad and that’s a weird thing. This conference room on a boat is not the experience I was expecting. Isn’t there a beach or a pool we can be doing this at? Ok I’m freaking out and just need to breathe. Breathe. Relax
There’s a party! Thank goodness. A little relaxation juice and some nice conversation with more of my fellow attendees and I get to relax a little. The egyption themed room that we are in is a little weird, but a cool kind of weird. “Cool kind of weird” should probably be the sub title of my entire experience.
Late night hot tubbing. The schedule said there were various things going on after 10:30 so my roommate and I decided to check out the hot tub. Holy cow. Sitting in the hot tub and watching the moon slide into the ocean while surrounded by a friendly folks from all around the world was a beautiful nightcap. The first of really unforgettable moments.
It’s Monday. We are at sea all day.
Deilia Sherman has a session on Description and sets the tone for the weekend. She’s got a point to her presentation but it’s open for discussion and questions and the atmosphere is collegiate and stays firmly out of the lecture which would have turned me off immediately. I’m self conscious about taking notes on my phone in case people think I’m not paying attention.
I try to write a little but it’s too much. I sit on the patio of my room and watch flying fish leap out of the wake of the ship and suddenly I’m late for the next thing.
Live Writing Excuses podcast. They talk into microphones about writing. We are in this huge theater, which I’ll remind you is inside a cruise ship. It’s beautiful and strange, and for some reason the mic’s are draped over their foreheads but we go with it. It’s awesome and it happens a bunch of times during the week.
Daniel Jose Older...So I’d never heard of this guy before. And I’d just learned that this was the person who was going to be leading the novel critique group in the morning, there's to many Dan's for this thing. He blows my mind. In a talk about worldbuilding, something that I thought I had a pretty good handle on, he opens my eyes to looking at how power suffuses everything. It’s in the construction of the world, of the characters, of everything. We walk through a real neighborhood (drawn in detail by stick figure master DJO) and map the structure of the neighborhood and how that informs the story. I’m really really excited to see what he has to say about my novel. I’m terrified to hear what he has to say about my novel.
I went to bed early. Way too much going on.
It’s Tuesday. Welcome to Haiti.
So it’s not the really real Haiti. This is Labadee and it’s essentially controlled by the cruise lines. Very safe. I walk by a group led by Mary Robinette Kowal on their way to do Yoga on the beach.
9am and I’m riding a seadoo over the mostly calm sea at way too fast a sea and it’s the most fun I may have ever had. Our guides are nice and fun, and no one makes fat jokes, and I’m not sure why I thought that would be a thing. I take a bunch of pictures and video. I forget all my stress about the novel critique group. I hang out on the beach a little while and think about going out into the sea to float till some people come back with cut feet from the coral and I almost step on a couple crabs. I go back for a nap out of the sun.
Thank goodness I did because my novel critique group is outside. It is hot. I don’t know if DJO knew he was sitting on a cooler of water while we all baked to death, but like, he totally was. It was cool though cause we were all deep into the critique. It’s a great session. I am surrounded by a lot of talented people. DJO seemed to like my submission and I’m riding hi for the rest of the week. I definitely take his critiques to heart and have a plan for a whole new round of revision for my novel that I thought I was finished with. Oh god it’s so hot and I think I almost died. Totally worth it.
After the boat get’s under way, Nalo Hopkinson leads a session on Revision. It’s great but I don’t know that I can manage to revise like she does. Something to aspire to because her method is so much more in depth and deliberate than my current method. I definitely see in her the gap between me and someone who does this for a living. Someone who lives and breathes with her craft.
Game Night! I stay up until the wee hours playing games I love, new games, old games. It’s a great time, and I basically repeated it every night after.
It’s Wednesday! Somehow we’ve arrived in Jamaica and it’s just sitting outside my window. Surprise!
It’s a lazy morning and I wonder the ship till it’s time to go ashore.
We take a walking tour of Falmouth, Jamaica. It’s got a huge port area that’s very controlled, but after that our tour goes out into the city and it’s a very strange experience. We are a group of people that definitely stand out as tourist in this little burg. We see domestic life, historical sites, old churches, and a school full of adorable kids. Our tour guides are great and I’m sad I’ve forgotten their names.
We end the day with a few minutes in the shade at the Georgian home of Anne Hyatt. Dan Wells was on our tour with his sister, which was cool, until he convinced the tour guide to take us to a local jerk chicken place, and then it was amazing! This place was legit. I’m pretty sure when we showed up there was literally a cat on the hot tin roof of this place. The place is packed with tourists and locals. Occasionally someone would drive up in a car and hop out to dance around and ask for cash. It was very surreal experience. On top of that the food was incredible. I would say the food on the ship was very good, but a little over prepared in most cases. This was just good chicken. Drinking red stripe in the shade while trying to explain to some guy who sat at our table what we were all doing there and realizing he was genuinely interested was a great end to a crazy day. I’m saying; I owe Dan Wells for that one.
Back on the ship and I’m feeling the effects of the sun, so it’s nice to just hangout and watch another live Writing Excuses.
It’s Thursday! The Grand Cayman’s will be arriving shortly.
You gotta get off of this fine ship that we have and get on a smaller less reliable ship with like WAY too many people to get to the Caymans. Immediately we had concerns about missing boats and watching our ride home sail away. We went anyway.
The waitining begins. Times are confusing. We are super early for snorkeling. Should I go exploring the little town we are in? Go experience some amazing restaurants I’m hearing about? Nope. Listen I’m already where I’m supposed to be two hours from now why risk it when there’s a little bar and everything right here.
Snorkeling Time! This time I got Dan Wells and Brandon Sanderson in our little group. We walk, way too far, to find the little pontoon boat we are going to use. I’ve spent way to much money to get an underwater camera that I will use all the film in way too fast and then lose on the flight home. Any way it was great. We got to see a little shipwreck and a reef and all kinds of little fishes. You guys...Brandon Sanderson is a fish. Like for real he has his own gear and he’s diving down into like cracks in the earth where there is only darkness and wriggling. Having Brandon there made the whole thing more fun because let me tell you snorkeling might not be for me. You swallow a lot of salt water. There’s just no way not to. And you are floating around with your back half exposed to the sun for a long time. You run into people because you are looking down and not around. I mean I had a good time, but I was exhausted and maybe a little sick from the water. Walking around Falmouth didn’t tire me out like this did.
Back to the ship. It’s a mad house. All fears confirmed. It takes forever. Somehow we don’t get left behind.
I think I went to bed at 2 am on this night. There was a really long game of Dead of Winter on one of these days and it got real foggy and there might have been some actual zombie fatalities. Listen kids don’t play with bath salts.
It’s Friday. Mexico!
I fully intended to go cave exploring in Mexico, but when I got to the place where we assembled for cave exploring I found that cave exploring was not for me. No one said anything about wet suits and being up to my neck in black water. No thanks.
So instead I edited all day. I had all my notes from my critique group. I set up in a nice little cafe and took over an outlet for 8 solid hours of actual writing work. I’m pretty sure it was a better time then whatever madness possessed me to want to explore a wet hole in the ground. That’s the kind of thing that leads to riddle fights and I’m not about that.
There’s another Writing Excuses recording. I’m starting to feel the effects of this trip. My feet are swelling a bit. I dose off during this episode. Pretty sure I didn’t snore.
Saturday has arrived and we are at Sea
So i thought I’d take it easy today. Maybe skip the presentation this morning since it’s at 9am and I’m dog tired. Luckily someone who had seen Dan Wells give this presentation on story structure before gave me a stern talking to and so I stumbled into a chair and proceeded to have my mind blown again.
Dan Wells actually has this talk recorded out on the internet for you to see. What we got in our two hour version was very distilled, but still amazing. I don’t think I’d been giving structure very specific thought when i was writing before. Like DJO’s talk on worldbuilding I came out of this one with all kinds of new tools and thoughts on my own work that has proven to be invaluable. I immediately identified an issue with the current novel and by the time the talk was over I’d solved it. Of course that meant I needed to edit some more.
Brandon Sanderson followed Dan Wells to give a talk about using Multiple Viewpoints. I have to say that out of all of the hosts and guests of the conference I fan out around Brandon the most. I wouldn’t call what I was doing stalking, since I was invited and everything, but for most of the weekend I just kind of stared shyly at him and waited for him to see me and anoint me with holy water as the new him and usher me into the secret halls of SF/F as the savior of us all. SO that didn’t happen because I don’t know that I ever talked to him. Just listening was fine. There’s hours and hours of his lectures online so I don’t think I saw information that was new to me, but it was an experience in self control to not be an idiot around him. Oddly enough if I attend another of these I might feel that way about Mary Robinette Kowal after my deep dive into all of her novels this year.
After lunch Ellen Kushner talked about dialogue. This was a great experience because Ellen was doing some crowd work and getting the very tired and sleepy attendees to open up with their own work and improve some dialogue actively during the talk. She was a real treat the whole trip. I don’t think there was any situation during the week that wasn’t improved by the presence of Ellen Kushner. I was also reading Swordspoint during the trip and had a nice chat with her one day for an extended period of time about violence in fiction and how to make it beautiful without blunting its emotional impact, something I think she does amazingly in Swordspoint.
There’s a final farewell party and it’s a great little so long to everyone. First of all cosplay happened. We were encouraged to dress formally as a character from fiction. I took some bits of an old Dresden costume I had, couldn’t pack my duster, and made the scene. The creative needs of all my fellow authors was on full display and it was awesome that this was also the night we did a big group photo. It was an awesome cap to the week.
Things I forgot to mention
Dinner was great every night. Usually on a cruise ship you are assigned a table and you sit with the same people every night. On this cruise, we rotated tables every night so i sat with a new group of authors and at least one of the instructors on most nights. The food was excellent and choices were diverse and exciting every night.
- There were several talks that were given for the people who came along for the ride with their author friends and significant others. From what I hear they were cool, and were put on by the friends and relatives of the podcast hosts, so it wasn’t an exercise in maybes and what-ifs. You got real honest advice from people who were currently living with insane creative people.
f you have the opportunity to join us this year you should. I believe that tickets are still on sale at least for a little while. There are scholarships every year also, though I'm afraid those deadlines have passed us by. This is one of the best things I ever did for myself, and I hope everyone that I met, and all my new friends and colleges feel the same way. See you in September!