So You’re Going to Viable Paradise

Editor’s Note: In this article, Cislyn Smith, one of the cofounders of Dream Foundry, writes about her experience applying to and then attending Viable Paradise. For all those commercial sci-fi and fantasy writers out there: Viable Paradise is a one-week residential workshop on Martha’s Vineyard. What I enjoyed about this article was how Cislyn employed her prose skills, the same skills she worked on developing at VP, to draw readers into what the experience of attending this workshop was really like.

For me, December isn’t only the time of year when I stare analytically at my Christmas tree, wondering if it really is as pretty as I think it is, but also a time when I sum up what I’ve done with my time and what my next steps might be—in my journey as a writer and as a person. For many, those next steps involve workshops. If you are considering a workshop…read on!

Step zero: Decide

This can be a revelation, a momentary decision, or the culmination of many different people asking you: “So when are you going to Viable Paradise?” and “Have you applied for this year?” over a weekend.

Step one: Select a Piece

You can’t write long. This is a truth you’re well convinced of. For your application piece, you chose your very longest story, convinced it needed to be cut by at least 50 percent, but you had no idea which half of the words to remove.

Step two: Apply

The application involves paying a fee, picking a writing sample to go with your application, and writing a cover letter.

There are no bonus points for sending in the application on the last day. There are also no bonus points for waiting until the last moment because you have pneumonia and you don’t know how words work anymore and it’s hard to think of what to say when you’re wheezing.

Get a friend to help you. That’s not cheating, honest.

There should be bonus points, though. There really should be.

Step three: Wait

This is the part where you will probably convince yourself that you didn’t get in. That’s fine. There’s a good chance you didn’t, and there’s always next year, and that’s fine.

Step four: Doubt Reality

Getting in is somehow more confusing and more exciting and more social than expected. All of a sudden you are part of a community. All of a sudden strangers are congratulating you and your social media has exploded. This is an omen of things to come. Hold on to that community feeling.

Step five: Unnecessary Preparations

It really isn’t required to read a book or story by each and every one of the instructors. Really. And yet…

Step six: Logistics

This is the time for a spreadsheet. If one of your classmates hasn’t made one yet, do it yourself and share it with the class. Getting to the island is a chore. Figuring out who to room with and in what type of room is also tricky—be aware of your own personal space limitations and requirements and try to balance that with financial concerns. Spreadsheeeeeeet.

This is also the time to communicate with the staff about personal stuff that might come up. Like a death in the family less than a week before the workshop. Just, you know, stuff.

Step seven: Pack

You can’t possibly pack that jellyfish costume. No, really. It doesn’t fit. Even though the lovely people on Twitter have told you to take it.

You can, perhaps, pack the supplies necessary to make a new smaller one, though, as a gift to the staff. Just so long as the fabric glue doesn’t leak too badly in your suitcase.

Oh, you should also pack clothes and stuff. Sure. Right. And books for the instructors to sign! Also, yarn!

Step eight: Arrive

Somehow, miraculously, you arrive when you expect to. Staff members wait on the dock to meet you, and then a trip to a grocery store where you will buy too much food (They’re going to feed you. Why are you buying so many eggs?) and then to the inn where you will get settled in. There are people to match to names now and also a name tag that you will not take off in public for the next week. Nervous laughter. Questions. Conversation. Unpacking.

Step nine: Work

Every day will involve reading, critiquing, leaving notes for your fellow classmates. You will attend lectures and take notes and one-on-one sessions and take more notes and optional lunch sessions and take notes while also taking bites of sandwich. There are dawn walks and there are craft discussions and there is a story to write on short notice and with difficult constraints.

Somehow, you fit it all in. Well, almost all. Those dawn walks are awfully early.

Step ten: Play

It’s a good thing you brought that yarn, because your hands need something to do other than take notes and hyperbolic crochet scrubbies are the perfect way to keep them occupied. And there are music sessions in the evenings. One of your roommates has perfect pitch, and one of the instructors is playing the harp, and there is a small percussion frog being passed around. When it all gets to be too much you can step outside and look up at the stars or walk down to the beach and just breathe. Everyone makes sure you have just the right amount of space—not too much, not too little.

Also, there are honest-to-goodness glow-in-the-dark jellyfish under a cloudless sky filled with shooting stars, followed by hot chocolate and music. And making a jellyfish hat for the staff was, actually, a good idea. Even if the fabric glue did leak in your suitcase.

Step ten: Connect

Do not be afraid to ask questions, to give honest feedback, to make friends. Go to dinner with your classmates the one night the staff doesn’t feed you. Write together in the common room until very late to meet your story deadline. Lament, as a group, the ridiculous constraints for the story you’re writing. Throw hyperbolic scrubbies at random people during breaks. Play games. Break into spontaneous renditions of songs from Disney musicals.

Much thanks to VP Staff Member David Twiddy for use of this image.
Much thanks to VP Staff Member David Twiddy for use of this image.

Step eleven: Epiphany

You turned in your story last night, and while it’s not perfect, it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s fine. You wake yourself up early enough to actually go on a dawn walk convinced you need to take out that second POV character, and panic because it doesn’t work.

You came here to learn how to write long. You’ve been writing long this whole time and cutting it down by far too much.

Heck, this article is over word count already, and it’s not even fiction.

Yeah. Maybe length isn’t the problem. Also, don’t edit the story. It’s fine, for now.

Step twelve: Synthesize

Leaving the island—that little bubble of community and in-jokes (They’re really not a cult!) and space for writing and thinking about writing—is hard. Getting back into any semblance of a normal routine is even harder, especially with all the personal stuff that’s waiting for you. And you’re going to wonder: Why am I not writing more? I did this workshop and I learned so much. I leveled up! Where are all my words?

Be patient. They’re there. Lurking, like jellyfish under the water. Give them time to surface. Let all the feedback and ideas sink in and change you. Metamorphosis is seldom sudden, no matter what the stories say.

Cislyn Smith

Cislyn Smith is the secretary of the Dream Foundry and a poet and short story writer who calls Madison, Wisconsin home. Her wordy work has appeared in Flash Fiction Online, Strange Horizons, and Diabolical Plots. She has been known to crochet tentacles, write stories at odd hours, play ridiculous numbers of games, make lots of lists, and study stone dead languages. She is occasionally dismayed by the lack of secret passages in her house. She lives with the amazingly photogenic kitties that appear in the Dream Foundry newsletter, and also some nice humans.

In addition to her Twitter, she can be found online on Mastodon and on Patreon.