Viable Paradise: Reflections

Viable Paradise was an intense week of seminars, critiques, one-on-one sessions, and colloquium discussions, with a fair amount of socializing thrown in. Again, I can not encourage writers enough to apply. The worst that could happen is that you are rejected, and if you are a good writer, your chances of being accepted are fairly good. You can also apply multiple times.

For me, Viable Paradise was my only real workshop option. The kind of job I have would never allow me to be gone for the six weeks workshops like Clarion and Odyssey require. It’s a great venue for those of us who work. Tuition is reasonable, and by the time you add in airfare and lodging, it is substantially less than the six week experiences as well. Of course, you can visit the VP page for all the specifics on cost.

Is it a good investment in your writer education? Yes. It’s a transformational experience, a paradigm shift, and a networking experience that I don’t think you can recreate on your own. You may have noticed already my transformational gushing.

I’ll be honest. In spite of my cool outer shell, I am like many beginning writers. I am shy and uncertain when it comes to talking to people in the field I admire. After the workshop, I understood that I was in the club. That we were expected to introduce ourselves to other writers, and be, you know, writers.

It’s like my Carolyn Stevermer entries, only magnified. *gulp* But it’s really cool at the same time. It seems impersonal for me to think of this only as networking, but that aspect of it is undeniable.

I expected many things from VP, but I didn’t expect paradigm shifts. The first thing we were told was that we would be the top 2-3 percent of a given slush pile. We were told repeatedly that even though our work would undergo intense scrutiny, that we are good writers. The critiques we were given and gave each other were the kind that other writers would give, tough, but underlying the critiques was the strong belief on the part of the instructors that we are good writers.

And (here’s the shift) we were considered writers by the instructors from the moment we arrived. We weren’t considered, as I think many of us saw ourselves, as people who wanted to be writers. We were considered the next generation of fantasy and science fiction writers. For me, that didn’t sink in until the end of the workshop, after I’d received both good and bad feedback on my piece. These instructors took us and our stories seriously. We were considered people who are building writing careers.

There are some other writing paradigms that have shifted for me. I’ll hide them under here in case you’ve reached the point of blah, blah, blah. Remember your opinions and mileage may vary. These are things I’ve come to think after the workshop.

1. Critique groups can be useful, if you are among a similarly motivated group of writers at a similar level. I must admit that I have been in one critique group before that worked for a good while, but the levels of motivation and skill were all over the place. What was nice about this group is that there were a lot of writers who are where I am, both in terms of motivation and ability. I found that really useful. It felt good to be among people who were interested in my work, and to be of use to them.

2. Since opinions about an author’s work vary, as an author, you have to go with your gut. It is your story after all. As a beginning writer, I have made the mistake of trying to integrate whatever change was suggested. I have learned that my instincts are good, and that the best feedback is the kind that more than one person suggests. In the end, you have to trust yourself.

3. Publishing for exposure is not a good thing. Publishing for money is. That’s part of the VP oath. As Scalzi says, know your worth. I operated under the assumption that any exposure is good exposure, but this does not seem to be a case after a certain point. I’ve come to think of it as saving myself for marriage.

It *is* harder to publish in top markets, but the gang at VP told us all that we could do this if we worked ourselves, and the reputation of writers who publish for cheap, or for exposure is that if we keep doing it, we associate ourselves with mediocrity. Self publishing is also not recommended.

Your mileage may vary with this philosophy. What I’ve taken away from this is always send to top markets first, semi-pro markets next, and don’t publish for free. There are prestige markets that are exceptions to the rule. Guard your reputation as a writer carefully.

4. It was great to be with writers, focusing on writing, talking about writing, and getting guidance about writing. I believe strongly in the value of writers retreats, and I hope that some of my writing buddies, both in and out of VP, might be interested in putting one together. There is nothing quite so refreshing to a writer as making writing front and center, and social. There is nothing more inspiring than reading the projects of others and sharing their triumphs and trials. There is nothing so reassuring as to watch other writers make the same groans and fidgets as they draft. Well, for me, anyway.

I know a lot of you who could benefit from this experience. I expected to benefit, but not to the extent that I did. I can only underscore my encouragement to apply.


Author: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and young adults. Her most recent book, The Vessel of Ra, is the first book in the Klaereon Scroll series. She is currently working on its sequel, as well as penning the middle grade adventures of Abigail Rath, monster hunter.

2 thoughts on “Viable Paradise: Reflections”

  1. Wow – sounds like a great experience. I’m so, so happy you had the chance to go!

    I don’t feel ready to apply to something like that yet, but maybe if I get my butt in gear this fall/winter I will be come spring…

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