Looking East

On this day about a year ago, I was getting ready to head to Martha’s Vineyard and Viable Paradise.  This mostly consisted of taking care of last minute details and kicking the cat out of my already packed bags (repeatedly).  Since VP starts on Sunday, the memories have been quite strong the past few days and I’m really missing it and jealous of those who are going this year.

For those about to make the journey, there isn’t much I can say.  Go back and check my old blog entries.  Read up on the Viable Paradise Index – it’s got a lot of good stuff.  Fellow VP XIII’ers, Cath and Lisa Morton wrote up some good essays lately so check those out as well.  Most importantly – Have fun.  Learn.   It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity so go after everything you want and make a lot of friends.

And while others are preparing to head a little east of us, here at the Hughes household, we’re looking a bit farther than that.

Sweden, to be specific.

Steph leaves on Saturday for her business trip which will take her from Rochester to Copenhagen and finally to Sweden.  She’ll be there for a week before she comes back (including a passage through JFK *shiver*).  Right now she’s going through exactly what I went through a year ago.  Packing, worrying about last minute details, and kicking the cat out of her bags.  She’s a little stressed and nervous.

Not that I blame her.  Heck, I’m stressing out a little bit myself.  I keep asking myself :

Is Steph going to be safe?

Is she going to make all of her flights and get through Customs on time?

Will her luggage make it?

Is the International Power Adapter I got her the right one?

Am I going to forget something while she’s gone?

Can I go a full week without shaving?

Can I survive a full week on chocolate chip cookies and, if not, what the hell am I going to eat?

Will I remember Steph’s return flight?  (I’d better add that to the Google Calendar right now).

Will the Cat and I bond like we did when Steph was in Australia or will he simply murder me and replace me with a heat lamp?

Words Not Seen

Steph’s been hounding me for weeks to be able to read Genie Memories and tonight, I finally deemed it worthy to be read by others.  (I think all writers can attest to this feeling – “It’s not ready yet!).

Anyway, I store my chapters in separate files.  GM-1 for Chapter 1, GM-2 for Chapter 2, and so forth, so I combined them all into one file for easy printing and gave her the first 10 chapters.  It came out to 35 single spaced pages and 18,890 words.

So that got me thinking …

The genesis of Genie Memories was a scrapped young adult work entitled Zero.  I finished 8 chapters of that before realizing that it was a more grown up story.  Total word count – 21,660 (64 pages)

Genies was the next incarnation and I managed five chapters before realizing I had the wrong character and the wrong plot arc.  14,364 words and 38 pages.

The 1st draft of Genie Memories was the piece that I took to Viable Paradise.  Good story, but having it work-shopped by pros and fellow writers opened my eyes to a plethora of new plot arcs, character development, and things that I was just plain overlooking.  These 43,607 words or  111 pages became the basis for the second draft…

… which is now up to 20 chapters and roughly 33,639 words.  That will change, obviously, with editing.  I know of at least one entire chapter that will be gutted and there’s a lot of revision yet to happen.  In total, the story is a tad over half way complete.

And here’s the kicker – by happenstance, I also have open my ‘Abandoned Scenes’ file.  I keep one of these for every draft.  It’s where I put all the scenes that I’ve written but for whatever reason (story evolution, revisions, etc), they no longer fit.  So I put them in this file in case I ever need to pull them back out.  This file contains 14,739 words (28 single space pages).  That’s just shy of 10 chapters of material I’ve removed  from the second draft of the story.

For those keeping count, the total words written to date is 128,009.

The readers will never see these words and one might think they’re wasted but they’re not.  In fact, they are necessary for the writer.  I’m going to paraphrase something John Scalzi told my VP friend Catherine Schaff-Stump at Viable Paradise (original blog entry here):

Write down all the extra stuff that’s in your head.  Puff up the story and put in every tangent, bit of history, and whatever else you want to do.  All the characters, their clashes and problems, how they got into this situation, and their entire lineage if you want.  Play around because this is what teaches the writer about their story.  That’s what the first draft is for and it’s allowed to suck.

Then cut stuff out.  Ruthlessly.  Leave only what the reader needs to know.  And the writer knows what that is because they wrote it all down before.

So keep that in mind next time you pick up a book.   There’s an awful lot to the story you’ll never see.

Viable Paradise 2010 Applications

To all my writer friends : Applications to the Viable Paradise workshop on Martha’s Vineyard close on June 30th, 2010.

The instructors are the same as last year – Jim MacDonald, Debra Doyle, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Elizabeth Bear, John Scalzi, Steven Gould, and Laura Mixon.  On top of that, you get fetted by one of the best volunteer staff I’ve ever had the pleasure of dealing with.  Still unsure?  Read everything at the Viable Paradise Index or my own VP entries.

Without a doubt, attending VP has been one of the biggest influences on my writing career.  I see it every time I sit down to write.  Am I published yet?  No.  Am I a better writer?  Hell yes.

So get out there and apply.  Hurry up, don’t wait.

Paradise Yours

It is the solemn duty of every Viable Paradise grad to pass on the word and thus, I do so with today’s post:

Viable Paradise will be held  October 3rd – 8th on Martha’s Vineyard and is now accepting applications until June 30th.  I’m going to quote John Scalzi, a three-time instructor:

Those attending get intensive week-long instruction on the art, craft and business of writing science fiction and fantasy from the likes of Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Jim Macdonald and Debra Doyle, Steven Gould and Laura Mixon, Elizabeth Bear and me, of whom all told have more books, awards and relevant practical experience in the genre and in publishing than is at all decent. It’s also got an impressive list of alumni, including nominees for Hugo, Nebulas, BSFAs and other significant genre awards. It’s a really good and useful workshop, in other words, by people who know their stuff, for people who want to learn and publish.

Polish up your submissions and get them in.  You won’t regret it.

The Story Fights Back

I’ve been writing Genie Memories for probably 18 months or so. The first chapter has gone through at least five drastically different revisions. Four of those were before attending Viable Paradise. Prior to VP, I managed to get up to Chapter 16 before scrapping everything and applying what I’d learned during that week.

To say the least, it’s not been an easy task. I keep feeling as though I take two steps forward, then another one back. The end is out there, but it just creeps along. This story, great as I think it might be, has been doing its best to push back every step of the way.

This, of course, leads to self-doubt. Self-doubt can and will eat a writer alive. At some point in our career, we all have the thought of ‘Good god, this is a horrible piece of shit’. Every writer does this. Even the Hugo award winning Neil Gaiman.

So while wallowing in self-pity, I bounced over to Absolute Write to see what people were talking about and stumbled onto this gem by Uncle Jim, aka James D. Macdonald (author and Viable Paradise instructor) :

And a story that writes itself means you’re on the right track. (The converse, a story that fights you every inch of the way, does not mean that you’re on the wrong track.)

Well – alrighty then.  Genie Memories is fighting me every step of the way, but that’s alright.  Maybe there’s some more story in there that wants out and I just can’t see it yet.  Who knows.  It’s got to be written to find out.

At least I know I’m not alone.

Viable Paradise – Tips for Future Students

The Final Viable Paradise post … for now 🙂

When I was accepted into Viable Paradise, the first thing I did was to hit the Internet and start searching out other people’s experiences and suggestions.  Some of those really paid off. So in my final post on Viable Paradise, I’m paying the favor back by listing my own.

  • Start With Reading …
    Reports from VP XIII compiled by Cath Shaff-Stump, one of the other Iowans to make the trip to VP XIII.  She’s done a great job of following all our fellow classmates’ blogs and journals.  Another good one to hit is the Viable Paradise Index, compiled by Pam Bennett-Skinner of VP XI.  She’s been working on all the years of VP so its great to see how its progressed and the success others have had.
  • Have  a Supportive Spouse/Partner/Friend
    I cannot stress how important this is.  Your spouse or partner or friend will be the person who encourages you to go to Viable Paradise, knowing that all the while, they’ll be back home shouldering your load of the daily household chores.  They’ll also keep you grounded when things get a little rough mid-week.  Being able to talk to Steph on a daily basis through Skype was a god-send.

    Note – As Linda points out in the comments, it’s certainly not necessary to have a spouse/partner/friend to survive VP.  In my case, it helped out quite a bit.  But it’s completely possible to have a mind blowing experience without one and the Staff and your fellow students will be more than happy to provide you with support.

  • Bring a Digital Recorder
    Since I have a habit of being distracted by shiny objects, recording the lectures and One-on-Ones let me go back and see what I missed.  I missed a few of the collegiums, but luckily Brent was doing his own recording and is getting me copies of those.  Important Note – Use this only for personal purposes, not to post on the Internet or make into a Podcast.  You will be eaten alive and scorned for the rest of your life if you do that.
  • Take Your Vitamins and Get Some Exercise
    Orange Juice and Echinicea.  I suspect that downing both of these in great quantities was the reason why I didn’t get sick during VP week.  You’ll be operating on very little sleep and surrounded by other people.  Take precautions and be smart.  Also, get out for those forced marches.  Yeah, 6:30am is a bit on the early side but you’ll feel better for it.  If you don’t want to get up then, go out later in the day when you’ve got a chance.  Your body and mind will appreciate it.
  • Don’t Be a Wallflower
    I’m not naturally an outgoing person.  I had this fear that I’d sit in the corner and listen and watch and never interact.  Don’t do that.  I still waffle on what was the greatest experience – listening to the lectures, the one-on-ones, or the time I spent with my fellow classmates.  Getting out and talking to them was incredible.  When the instructors say that their doors are open all the time, believe them and drop in for a chat now and then.
  • Polish Your Work
    Find a Drill Sarge and learn how to polish your boots.  Then apply that to your manuscript.  Some of the people who attended got in via the Waiting List.  They had incredible works.  If that got them put onto the Waiting List, imagine how good it has to be to get accepted straight away.
  • Seek Out Advice, Seek Out One-On-Ones
    Every student is given two One-on-Ones.  Want a third?  Ask for it.  Want a fourth?  Ask for it.  I don’t know of anyone who was turned down.  It was during the One-on-Ones that the hard questions were asked, the questions that you have to be able to answer or the reader won’t know.    Likewise, seek out your fellow classmates and just chat with them.  My class had people from all over the United States and a few European countries too.  Those are vastly different viewpoints that you might not get at home.

Is there other stuff?  I’m sure there is but I can’t remember it all right now.  And some things are better learned through experience.  Got a question?  Just ask.

Viable Paradise – Saturday

“Matt – I will always remember your name!  Now go write!”
-inscription inside of Old Man’s War by John Scalzi


The saddest day of the workshop. The day it all ends.

People started leaving early, some even the night before.  There was a small gathering in the Staff Den for a mixed breakfast and more teary farewells.  I got and gave plenty of hugs, a lot of handshakes.  “Zeus” (Scalzi) roused himself from sleep and said goodbye from the balcony.

Steven Gould drove George, Christian, Darice, Lisa, and I to the ferry which took us back to Woods Hole.  George left before the bus ride to the airport. I was the first one to get off at the airport.

I spent the next three hours sitting at the terminal in Boston/Logan waiting for my flight.  After a week of being surrounded by people, I was quite lonely.  I paid for Internet and watched people’s Twitter feeds as they boarded planes or the ferry or made their way home.  I had lunch in a bar, read a book, and didn’t talk to a soul.

Then I got on a flight (delayed when the President of the United States decided to hit Boston for a brief bit) and headed to Chicago.  Dinner was in another empty restaurant.  Then, at last, the short hop to Dubuque.

When my plane landed, Steph was waiting for me and I gave her a hell of a hug.  She was the one who pushed me to apply to VP and supported me every step of the way.  There wasn’t a chance I could have done it without her.  We drove to my parents house, spent the night, then headed home the next day to face reality.

Without a doubt, Viable Paradise has been a changing point in my life.  I learned a ton – about writing and about myself. I meet some awesome people.  They are now part of my VP tribe.  They are all damn talented and deserve all the success that comes their way (and it will, I’m sure of it).

I went to Viable Paradise to find out if I had what it took to become a writer.  I answered that question and one more:

Yes, I have what it takes to be a writer.

And this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.


Viable Paradise – Friday

… Until Hell Won’t Have It.


The day started with a collegium on Research led by DD who showed us how to become an expert on any subject in just two weeks.  Hint – it involves going to your Library *gasp*.  A whole lot of people offered advice, things that I’d never thought of before.  Even a simple thing like adding +diagram to a Google search can make a world of difference.

That was followed up by a lecture on The State of the Industry by PNH.  He started off with some sobering news, such as the fact that 50% of Americans never set foot in a bookstore in the span of a year.  I mean, seriously?  I knew that people didn’t read as much because of TV and the Internet, but half the country?  Damn.  He also went over how the publishing industry got to where it was today.  In all, it was quite interesting.

On the flip side, we can’t worry about what we can’t control.  Just write the best damned story we can and the rest will take care of itself.  As PNH said, “Luck is the residue of preparation.”

After lunch, we had our final collegium led by JMD.  It covered a variety of subjects, all covering how to get your story into print.  Every bit of it useful information.  I finally figured out how to craft a good query letter.  That’ll at least help me get my foot in the door.  Then my story can take it the rest of the way.

The rest of the day was time to kill until dinner, a mix of all the previous meals we had all week and a delicious chili-dog casserole made by Sean.  I couldn’t eat that, but God, did it smell good.  After dinner, we had to take the Viable Paradise Oath:

I vow to write, to finish what I write, to revise what I finish, to send it out (to paying markets) until Hell won’t have it, and to tell everyone that Viable Paradise is the Best! Workshop! Ever!

We were now Viable Paradise XIII alumni, part of a larger tribe of exclusive writers.  Teary farewells finished off the night.  George, Irina, Eric, Steve, Miranda, Leah, SG, and I spent hours sitting in Scalzi’s room, chatting about anything and everything.  Others drifted in and out throughout the night.  We didn’t leave until 2:30am.

VP XIII Alumni
Back Row – Jim MacDonald, Ferrett, Andrew, Sean, Eric, Matt (me), Steve, Lisa, George
3rd Row – John Scalzi, Bart, Darice, Robyn, Leah, Julia, Chia, Brent, Christian
2nd Row – Elizabeth Bear, Debra Doyle, Kat, Brandie, Lara, Miranda, Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Laura Mixon
1st Row – Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Marion, Cath, Bo, Irina, Chris
Laying Down – Steven Gould

Viable Paradise – Thursday

“Writing is many things.  Being kind to your characters is not one of them.”


No break-out groups today.  Instead, we started off with a collegium led by TNH on Agents and Contracts.  Very useful from a business side of things.  I knew quite a bit of this (being a fan of Writer Beware and Absolute Write), but there were a lot of little tidbits that I had never thought of before.  She also talked about the importance of learning how to edit yourself so you can save money and time.  So like everything else, not a second wasted.

That was followed up with a lecture on the Business of Writing by JS.  It’s adapted from a blog entry Scalzi made.  Seeing it in person gave us quite a few more tips and advice.  In short, writing is a business so act like it.  And if you can, marry someone that’s sensible with money because god knows us creative people suck at it.  (Right, Steph?)

I also pulled off a One-on-One with Bear during lunch.  This was pretty cool, as she focused more on the voice of the first person narrative than anything else.  It was also helpful as my previous ones had focused on character and plot. Bear gave me a ton of recommendations and suggestions.  Being as how Genie Memories is my first foray into First Person POV, I soaked in every bit.

My One-on-One was held in the Staff and led to one of the coolest examples of how damn good the VP Staff are.  Bart was listening in as Bear recommended a book, ‘Hour of the Octopus’.  Little did I know, after lunch, Bart went to the local used bookstore and found a copy.  He brought it back and proceeded to give to me.

Simply incredible.

That afternoon,we were treated to a lecture on Character by SG.  Lots of good information in that one.  I’ve already made notes on how to tweak my characters and make it that much more real.  He also read the highly enjoyable ‘Behaving Badly As a Career Strategy‘ article that he posted on TOR.com.

Later, we broke into smaller groups, each one headed by an instructors (I had JMD) and read through our stories and writing prompts.  All the stories were great.  Ferrett actually had me feeling emotion for a squid.  Bo knocked my socks off with a butterfly zeppelin and Chia’s clown brigades, well, it’s a brigade of clowns.  C’mon.  My story had a crazed jester going on a rampage in an orphanage.  Between Chia and I, I think we have the potential to traumatize children for ages to come.

Jellyfish Walk - Pic from Chia
Jellyfish Walk - Pic from Chia

Dinner was some delicious curry (with oodles of kale), then a long night of mingling and talking.  There were no more assignments or readings.  It was just time to get to know one another.  It was great.  Sometime around 11pm, we all gathered up and headed down the road to watch the glow-in-the-dark jellyfish.  That was simply amazing.  These little flashing lights in the water.  Looking up was another sight – a perfectly clear sky without a hint of moon or light pollution.  The Milky Way was a bright band from one end of the sky to the next.  It was beautiful.

A group of us (Eric, Lara, Irina, and Miranda, I think, it was dark) stood around for a while on the beach and watched the sky.  Heard some great stories about New York and Central Park.  Got to know people even better.  In time though, the fog rolled in and we headed back for some much needed sleep.

Viable Paradise – Wednesday

I can’t wait to see ‘Whorelord‘ in book stores.


Bright and early and stretchy.  Started the day off joining Bear and Julia for a yoga session at 6am.  It was cold and a little drizzly, so of course, we went outside.  We were buzzed by an owl (I think) and paid attention to how much the world around us changed during our short work out.  It was a good way to open what would be the shortest day of the workshop.

Break-out groups happened early.  I critiqued stories by Cath and Miranda with DD and LM as instructors.  By now, we were all getting the hang of this critique thing, so I think everyone was giving better input and suggestions.   Both were good works.  Miranda was the more memorable, if only because of a single character – a prostitute on her way to becoming a warlord.  Thus was born the term ‘Whorelord’.   We got a lot of mileage out of that one.  When the day comes that Miranda is published, we shall all be obligated to embarrass her at panels and conventions.

After that, it was on to a lecture on The Care and Feeding of your Beast by LM.  Rather intellectual, but good points and some tips on how to write when the writer’s block rears its ugly head.  After that, it was lunch.

Kat, George, Steve, Chia, Irina (Julia and Ferrett in back)

The rest of Wednesday was off. This was a very good thing.  By this time of the week, each one of us has been through the wringer at least twice, maybe three times.  Most of us have been operating on less than a dozen hours of sleep since arriving Sunday.  We need us a break.

So it was off to the Bite, a sea-side shack with plenty of fried seafood, good french fries, and some fried ma n’ cheese.  I couldn’t eat much of it but I got to drool over what everyone else ordered.  Plus it gave us a good chance to see the interior of the island.  Then it was back to a quiet resort to work on our assignments.  Mandatory fun came around at 11pm – a reading of the Unstrung Harp (or Mr. Earbass Writes a Novel), a wonderful tale about what goes into writing a book and publishing.  Our version was complete with a tragic injury to Bear’s toe (blood and gore everywhere, totally awesome).

I went to bed early – 1am.