My Viable Paradise Experience – Or How Plot Tomatoes Improved my Writing

by Arun on October 16, 2012

“Only from the heart can you touch the sky.”

– Rumi

I experienced the last week from Martha’s Vineyard, where I attended the Viable Paradise writer’s workshop.  VP was everything I thought it would be: intense, educational, life-changing, and of course sleep-deprived.

A lot of information is compressed into the six days of the workshop, and I know that a lot of the deeper writing knowledge, plot tomatoes for example, will take months or even years to fully manifest in my writing.  The seeds, as they say, have already been planted.

I would be remiss in not mentioning the excellent teachers who taught us over the workshop: Jim McDonald, Debra Doyle, Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Elizabeth Bear, Sherwood Smith, Steven Gould, and Steven Brust. Scott Lynch, he of Locke Lamora fame, was also in attendance with Bear, but not considered an official instructor.  All of the instructors were gracious with their time in helping us young writers figure out the answers to our writing questions. I cannot speak for the writing lessons learned by my other classmates, but here are some of the things that I learned:

– Reading in other genres. From conversations with Sherwood Smith, Bear, Scott Lynch, and staff member Chris M., I understood that there is a whole literary landscape outside of science fiction and fantasy that can inform the stories I write in this genre.  Also, there are a lot of tricks (exposition for example) employed by historical fiction that science fiction writers can use for their stories. I now have a list of recommendations for reading. Expect to see them on the site in the near to not-so-near future.

– I learned that I should trust myself as a writer. During my group critique, Bear pointed out that I have a tendency to show something really cool but then devote lengthy explanations to explain the cool idea.  This is not always necessary, and sometimes a single sentence is enough to help the reader understand what’s going on in the story.

– Exposition. World-building. Sentences. Before attending VP, I never realized how important these three concepts are to supporting a story. Now I know, and am painfully aware of how I misused them in the past.

– The fantasy story that I submitted to the workshop for critique could be rewritten as a hard science fiction story if I retained the metaphors presented in the original story. This was the most surprising insight I gained from the workshop, simply because I wasn’t expecting it, but now it makes sense. It has also given me the confidence to try writing a story in a new sub-genre if I so choose.

I include my own insights here to help students decide whether this workshop is for them. Be ready to find similar insights into your own work, should you choose to attend.  For students thinking about applying what can I say? This is, quite possibly, the best decision you will make for your writing career. Other workshops, such as Clarion and Odyssey may achieve a similar effect, but for those of us who cannot make the six week commitment, Viable Paradise is a suitable alternative.

If I were to use a metaphor to sum up the VP experience, it would be something like this: At the beginning of the workshop, we played a game called Thing. Based on the movie of the same name, we played scientists trapped at an Antarctic research station with the eponymous monster. Over the course of the game, non-Things would be converted to Things till scientists found and destroyed all the Things or the Things conquered the research station. A better explanation can be found here.  Ostensibly, playing this game would introduce us to our workshop-mates while teaching us about misdirection and other fun writing tricks.

At the end of it all though, I can’t help but feel that the instructors have turned us all into Things with our new and secret knowledge of the writing process. And now we crawl back into the mundane routine of our daily lives, for all intents and purposes the same people as we were before we came to the island. Except now there are more of us. Subtly different, primarily under the surface, where the full extent of our Thing-ness will manifest itself.  For the first time in my life, I have felt that I finally found my tribe.

Thanks to everyone: the staff, the workshoppers, and the instructors who made VP an amazing experience.  I look forward to the coming months and years as the talented writers I attended with start publishing. I can’t wait for you, the world, to read them.


Ah hah! You were the thing!

That is really an excellent analogy. We all look the same on the outside, but something has changed on the inside. I hope we can infect the general population 🙂

by T. S. Bazelli on October 17, 2012 at 7:57 am. Reply #

Ours will be the slow and clever invasion. We’ll spread our stories into their ranks years before they figure out what actually happened. 🙂

by Arun on October 17, 2012 at 6:16 pm. Reply #

Great post! If the humans only knew how much fun it is to be a Thing, they would join us willingly…

by A. T. Greenblatt on October 17, 2012 at 12:08 pm. Reply #

What Theresa said!

Plus, if one of those recommendations was The Poisoner’s Handbook, read it. It’s fabulous, gross and engrossing.

by NicoleL on October 17, 2012 at 1:34 pm. Reply #

Nicole, I believe that book was recommended me by Scott Lynch or staff member Chris. Either way, I will be sure to check it out. Seems quite interesting.

by Arun on October 17, 2012 at 6:17 pm. Reply #

The best thing about being a Thing was showing your class mates the proper and most dramatic way to die. Each one of us died a proper and dramatic death, yet each death had a subtle (or not) difference from all the rest.

by Debra Jess on October 18, 2012 at 6:19 am. Reply #

Exactly! As writers we do spend a lot of time thinking about the perfect way to kill characters (at least I do.) My favorite was when Scott Lynch stood up and recited a Shakespearean monologue in proper dramatic fashion. (Wish I could remember which one now…)

by Arun on October 18, 2012 at 7:00 am. Reply #

[…] Arun Jiwa’s Account […]

by An Unconvincing Narrative » Blog Archive » Viable Paradise 16 (Class of 2012) on October 18, 2012 at 1:44 pm. Reply #

This is a lovely write-up of what you took away from VP! Leaves me envious I couldn’t run this year. Particularly liked the trio’s advice on reading outside of one’s genre – Locke Lamora wouldn’t be what it is without intimate knowledge of crime fiction tropes.

by John Wiswell on October 18, 2012 at 9:23 pm. Reply #

Thanks John! I agree that Locke Lamora wouldn’t be the same without the crime fiction tropes. Personally, I am trying to incorporate out-of-genre tricks into my stories to make them more believable.

by Arun on October 19, 2012 at 11:04 am. Reply #

Wow, what a great blog. What historical books did they tell you to read? Maybe we can read some together and discuss.

by Alison McMahan on October 19, 2012 at 10:29 am. Reply #

Thanks Alison. As to the list, there are quite a few of them that were recommended me. Patrick O’Brian (Master and Commander) comes to mind, but I’ll post a list later with the ones that were recommended to me by more than one instructor/workshopper.

by Arun on October 19, 2012 at 11:05 am. Reply #

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