Viable Paradise XIII: Five Years Later

For those of you not aware, this is Viable Paradise week. The 18th class of Viable Paradise is on Martha’s Vineyard RIGHT NOW, joining our alumni. I can only hope that their experiences is as good as ours was.

It occurred to me that it might be good for people to see how graduates of the workshop fare. Heck, I’m curious. And I’m an academic, so I do things like this. Plus, I am in the lucky position to have kept in touch with my VP classmates for the most part. And it’s our 5th anniversary, so that’s a nice year number.

I sent out a call for some updates. Where are you now? I asked. How’s the writing going? How’s life going? How did you feel after VP?

And I received a lot of responses. I think I’m on tap to receive just a few more, because even though I’m posting this today, right now, the official deadline is today, so I could get some more by tonight.

Without further adieu, then, here are responses I’ve received. I’ve listed the names just in case you’re looking for anyone in particular, and I’ll update if/when I get more. This is a LONG document, so after the names, I’m cutting. Goooooo Fightin’ Thirteen! And happy anniversary to the rest of our fellow workshoppers as well.

They’re Here!

Bo Balder
Steve Buchheit
Chris Cornell
Sean Craven
Marion Engelke
Chia Evers
Robyn Hamilton
Kat Hankinson
L.K. Herndon
Matt Hughes
E.F. Kelly
Leah Miller
Darice Moore
Lisa Nohealani Morton
Julia Rios
Catherine Schaff-Stump
Ferrett Steinmetz
Miranda Suri

Stay Tuned

Brent Bowen
George Galuschak
Irina Ivanova
Drew Morby
Brandi Tarvin
Christian Walter

Bo Balder
Since VP13, I’ve started writing more short stories and hopefully gained some skills there. I’ve been selling steadily in the last two years or so. One pro sale so far, lots of anthologies. I published a Dutch language YA novel in 2011 and an SF novel (the one I was editing at VP) sold to Pink Narcissus Press , to be published somewhere in (early)2015. I quit my day job two years ago to devote myself to writing. I make a little bit of money from my knitwear design business, but mostly I’m a traditionally poor writer now, trying to avoid hovel and starvation. My kids are leaving for college (two down, one to go), so I see even more writing time in the future.

Steve Buchheit
A few months after VP, I lost my day job to a business foreclosure. Fortunately I was able to shortly land a job at the Census and then another design position. This process was much scarier than previous job hunts. Last time I had 3 job offers in the month and a half I was out of work. This time I couldn’t get people to return my calls. So I embarked on a career change to become a Radiologic Technologist. At the beginning of this I was able to finish and edit the novel critiqued at VP, but for the past year and a half I’ve been working 40+ hours at the day job with 32 hours of clinicals and 8 hours of coursework a week. I did get words out and started two novel stubs, but I haven’t completed any writing projects in the past year and a half. I miss it the way a junkie misses their next fix. Now I’m working part time and full time while taking courses for CT certification, but the good new is there’s now some time to write. So I’m staring at the screen until the words come. It’s not a regular schedule, and some days no words flow (other than blog posts and tweets), but at least there are words and soon there will be story again.

Chris Cornell
VP was my quickening, a jolt to the system. I returned home and rolled up my sleeves. Wrote, read and thought about what I wanted to contribute. Attended workshops and exchanged ideas with incredible people. Published a few bits and lined my desk drawers with the remnants. Completed a novel and started a couple more. On paper not a hell of a lot has changed, but I am a better writer and continue the uphill trudge with satisfaction. I still share my journey with the members of my VP tribe, the workshop’s greatest gift. They enhance my work, and I hope I return the favor.

Sean Craven
Well, things are Seanier than they ever have been. I’ve studied at Taos Toolbox. I had an art show in Montana, was flown out with a personal assistant, had all the art printed and mounted, was informed at the opening that the local PBS station had contemplated doing a documentary on me, and performed with jazz band who’s expressed interest in further collaboration. I’ve gotten a reputation for my performance work (I’ve been called ‘a mainstay of the East Bay literary scene’ right to my face), and as a result I have a piece nominated for a Million Writer Award, and was placed on a list of ‘CA’s biggest crimewriting powerhouses.” I asked the guy who made the list, “Dude, the only thing you’ve seen from me has been memoir.” “Well, you’re a great writer and an awful human being.” “O.K.” Made my second pro sale to Future Lovecraft, and a number of reviewers singled it out for praise, which was and is most gratifying. An Irish writer pestered me into helping him with a project, he sold it to a new publisher, and so now I have a publisher. They’ve published two anthologies with my work. I’m novelizing the first series, and the second contains some of my first mature work.

I’ve also developed and recovered from a spectacular bleeding ulcer, was hospitalized for a stress reaction, was briefly medicated before being bounced out of the medical system in order to withdraw cold-turkey from medications that had made me manic. Was adopted by a therapist, who’s treating me in exchange for entertainment value — I’m a good hobby for a shrink. On her advice and that of my family, and the homeless outreach people who say I’m at risk, etc, etc, I’m in the process of applying for disability. So on one hand, I’m a street person being kept as a house pet, and on the other hand, I’m a respected artist in certain circles. Amazon page, performances up at Vimeo, I’m all over the place when I’m not a trembling husk.

And people have started calling me a musician on top of everything else. A friend recently said, “You keep crawling into your hole, and the world keeps dragging you out.” And there we go. Right now I’m trying to drag myself out of the depressive pit so I can finish my novel — which is a good-natured goofy futuristic romance about art, meat, and community, written for readers instead of writers. The breakout character is the Colonel, a talking chicken who took over the damned novel — his sub-plot is as close to standard cyberpunk as I’ve gotten. Think tiny chicken night-vision goggles. It’s on the seventh draft and is close to done, and is probably my best so far. I started the novel by designing the cover so I knew it would look good, and they let me get away with it. Next is a full-length piece compiling my performances on my history of violence. Honestly, I thought I’d either be making money, dead, or homeless by now, but things just keep getting more and more the way they always have been.

Oh, and I was interviewed for Scientific American’s Symbiartic blog, and had a six-month-long career as a legal writer, analyst, bodyguard, etc, that ended when my employer became abusive. I could put up with his publishing my work under his name and being weird about compensation, but you don’t get to make a habit of insulting me. It is at best foolish. I’m certain I’m forgetting a bunch of stuff… for someone who tries to spend as much time laying down as possible, my life is entirely too eventful
Marion Engelke: The last five years have brought many changes. 2011 my partner and I got married after two years of a long distance relationship; I moved from Berlin to Hamburg. Living with my wife provides a deep contentment and happiness. That said, the move wasn’t easy. I sometimes still miss Berlin, and having to sell my practice (I’m earning my living as a licensed cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist) and buying a new one was a complicated business. I’m now working in a small town 43 kilometers north of where we live and am spending an insane amount of time commuting. Shortly after the move I was hit with some health problems, suffering from an inconclusive range of symptoms. It took some time to find out that my problems were caused by a severe lactose-intolerance. All of the above ate up large chunks of my writing time, which was frustrating. Everything’s much better now. I’m 78 k words into the first draft of a YA fantasy and my occasional attempts at writing short stories are getting commented rejections.

Chia Evers
When I stepped out into the cool fall air of Boston for the first time, I thought “I could have a serious love affair with this city.”

I was right.

I came to VPXIII from Los Angeles, which had been my home since 2001. I’d never been to a writer’s workshop, never been to the East Coast, never been paid for my writing.

One of those things still hasn’t changed, but I’m working on it.

My husband and I moved to the Boston area in 2011, when he was accepted to the graduate program at the MIT Media Lab. I’m working as a research assistant to the director of the Lab and a Northeastern University journalism professor, on a book about the future of innovation. My personal writing has had its ups and downs, but five years later, I’m still unpacking everything I learned at VP, and I keep hearing John Scalzi saying “This isn’t a story, it’s a scene.” That simple phrase may have been the single most useful thing anyone’s ever said about my writing.

Julia lives just a few miles away, and Bear and Kate aren’t much farther away; Cath trusts me to beta-read her stories; I’ve met George, Miranda, and Lisa for dinner in Boston, Sean and Chris for dinner in the Bay Area, and Matt for dinner in LA. The rest of us hang out on Facebook or Twitter.”

I’m not sure what I thought my life five years after VP would be, but I do know that it’s much different than it would have been if I hadn’t gone—and I’m so grateful for everything it’s given me.

Robyn Hamilton
Since attending Viable Paradise in 2009, I have barely looked at the project I took there.I kind of left thinking I needed to start over for a third time on that one (somehow the prospect doesn’t seem as grim as it used to, so maybe it’s time to give it another look). I sent my VP “wall” story to a couple of places but I’m really bad at sending things out so it languishes in a drawer in my dining room. I’ve done (and “won”) NaNoWriMo three times. One of those novels I edited and actually got a couple of rejections for. There’s another novel I’ve written that I’ve just finished the second draft on, and probably this year’s NaNoWriMo project will be to get a third draft of that. I’ve written I don’t know how many other short stories since 2009, but I’m way more efficient at first drafts than at editing, so I haven’t sent out as much as I’d like. I currently have one short story circulating, so maybe there will be good news soon, who knows? I also got my black belt and spent a lot of time at circus school, worked full time, and continued to be a parent, so at least there are lots of experiences to write about.

Kat Hankinson
Being a member of VP 13 marked a turning point in my writing. Plagued by self-doubt, yet with skills and visions honed by many years of lonely writing, I had always imagined success in writing fiction as a kind of grandiose fantasy. In addition, I had had a toxic experience with a thieving fly-by-night “publisher” that had left me drained and scarred as an artist. Lastly, I had also earned two advanced degrees in creative writing, both of which helped me improve my writing, but which offered no help in writing fantasy fiction or the real world of being published and making a career. At VP I came to life as a writer of fantasy. I learned hard lessons, and I learned good lessons. The feedback of editors was the most critical factor that helped me take my writing to a more professional level. The conversations and presentations about the practicalities of building a career as a writer were encouraging, helpful, and healing. And the friendships and sense of community have lasted me all these years, for which I am most happy and grateful.

L.K. Herndon
Since VP 13 I’ve focused almost exclusively on writing for pay, and in terms of my nonfiction, my per-word rate has been higher on average. I’ve written some things I’m proud of and I’ve seen my byline in some new magazines. I contributed to a design column in Entrepreneur for a while, and O, the Oprah Magazine picked up the foreign option on an article I wrote for them, which just sounds cool to say — foreign option, oooh! I’ve continued to write for Metropolis and have worked with some great editors and interviewed tons of inspiring people for them.

In the past five years I’ve gotten divorced, moved twice, written a lot. I sold a couple of short stories–nothing spectacular, really. I sold a short novella to Candlemark & Gleam, which I was excited about, but the anthology it was going to be in was held up due to some legal stuff with the Sherlock Holmes estate (it was a Holmes story). Now C&G seems to be on hiatus for a while, so the story may never see the light of day. I think everyone has a few stories like that!

I stopped submitting shorts when Duotrope became a paid subscription service, because I didn’t want to cough up the dough. I really haven’t written anything short in the past year. I’m working through a pretty thorough revision of the first novel I ever finished writing, which I’d queried a bit in 2009. I got a lot of those really nice, encouraging rejections, and just had a gut feeling that it had potential but needed a ton of work. Fellow VP 13-er George Galuschak has been indispensable in terms of helping me get that book in submittable shape.

My daughter has had some medical issues that have really made me grateful for the life I have with her and the time we have here on Earth. That has also made me appreciate writing as a career, because it allows me to control my schedule so I can always put her health and her happiness first. I see a lot of negativity about publishing and magazines and the writing life (like, recently, the Ed Champion thing), but I don’t really see or experience that in my own sphere. The people I’ve met who work in publishing — editors, agents, publishers, and writers — without exception, care passionately about putting great stories out there, and work their butts off to make it happen.

Matt Hughes Since VP 13 … I’ve wrapped up my workshop novel (Genie Memories) and managed to get my first book (epic fantasy) onto the desk of the editors at Angry Robot (didn’t make the final cut but hey, that was awesome). Since then, I’ve started and stopped multiple other novels as I search out the right feel. The fourth try looks like it might be the right one.

Outside of writing – a new job at the college, a pair of marathons including a new PR and running Walt Disney World with my wife, and massive amounts of home remodeling. There’s been traveling too – to the United Kingdom, Belize, and all around the United States including hitting up my first convention at Chicon in 2012 where I got to meet up with a lot of my old VP buddies.

E.F. Kelly
So, here’s where I’m at now:

Writing-wise, after VP, I attended Taos Toolbox, which focused on novels and plotting more than the fundamentals. This let me write three more novels, and finally get my feet under me for this kind of career. After a lot of work (and a healthy dose of luck) I now work as the Publications Director and Editor-in-Chief for a game company called Cool Mini Or Not.

Now, lifewise, I’ve learned an awful lot of things, not just about publishing and writing, but also about myself, luck, and the importance of good support around you. Basically, I owe a lot of this to Jen. Without her patience and support, I might not have found the courage to really strike out on a brand new career path. I was a telecom guy for a decade (and a computer guy for six years prior), and it’s tough to refuse that kind of money. Almost no one was hiring, which is probably a good thing, since going back to a crazy high salary after getting laid off (right around when VP began) would have curtailed my efforts. When I’m comfortable, I don’t strive as hard. I know this about me now, and it’s one of my worst traits. I don’t wish deprivation on anyone, but I really needed it to kick myself into pushing harder than I ever had. Writing is what I want to do with my life, but I’ll take a relatively easy computer job and all the money that goes with it, if that’s handed to me. I’m very glad one wasn’t.

I worked on self-publication for quite a while. I believe it’s a viable career path for any writer, but it will not pay the bills in the short-term. Not without amazing, stupendous, lottery-winning levels of luck. It cannot be counted on when you’re just starting out, and certainly not without additional income. Similarly, as the publisher, it comes with a host of responsibilities that writers are not taught in our workshops, notably marketing and budgeting to name a couple. Any writer would do well to learn these things, as they come in handy beyond our spheres, but it takes time, effort, and energy that is not spent on writing, and to very little reward in the short-term. It’s a marathon game, not a sprint. It was good to learn all this though, since I will find it useful once my career expands beyond Cool Mini. I count it all as time well-spent.
So, here I am, five years later, happier than ever before. 🙂

Leah Miller
Hi. Hey. Hello. I got a little lost there, maybe? Maybe I got a little lost for five years. That’s at thing that happens, right?

So what did I do? Where did I go? Which of these scars are new?

I spent a year teaching classes, writing textbooks, and making a vague attempt at hustling freelance. Sometimes I was a ghost – several ghosts, actually, on a variety of new media platforms. It was tremendous fun, now let us never speak of it again.

After that, I went back to my old standby: hewing worlds out of ones and zeroes with my bare hands. I’ve spent the last few years doing game design again, working on Wildstar, which came out this spring. I wrote a very large number of words in twitter-length snippets, and developed a cohesive theory of how many twitter-length snippets you need in order to actually learn anything about a character beyond their species and profession. My brain lived on a lost exoplanet for three years and I only just awoke to discover I was somehow physically located in southern California.

It’s funny being a game designer who is also a writer. You’re always betraying your own kind, in one direction or the other. But you’re also the one person who can see the potential that awaits should the powers ever successfully combine, should rhyme and reason reign and sense and sanity prevail. Some day design and writing will stop their little wars and we’ll all win.

So that’s where I’ve been. I don’t know what else to say. I’m obviously writing this in the middle of the night, in a pitch dark living room, lit only by my laptop screen. Viable Paradise doesn’t help you sleep any better. Building the community of friends who will follow you through the rest of your career? That’s just another conventional social structure that maybe you’ll fail at. That thing where you viscerally recall a stupid thing you did many years ago and it causes you to feel the pain and shame fresh and new? That doesn’t go away, but maybe Viable Paradise makes it seem useful somehow. And hey, there was that time on the first day when everybody was standing in an awkward circle, and someone made a joke about writers not wanting to be the center of attention, and you somersaulted into the center and took a bow before spinning back to your original place. Maybe that wasn’t the worst thing you could have done. Maybe it was a dumb kind of cool.

But look beyond the memory of the jellyfish, and the gold rings of the carousel, and your stubborn insistence that you were going to swing on those swings… there’s something more. Something more than scotch and Shakespeare and a few dozen pages that still make a strange kind of sense.

Someday, you’ll be sitting in the darkness wondering if maybe really you’re secretly the worst – like, the worst ever – and then you’ll remember. You’ll remember you went to Viable Paradise and think “Huh. I guess that wouldn’t have happened if I was completely the worst.”

Then you’ll open up another new document and make yet another go at the page where she dies.

Darice Moore
Painful as it is to write this, it’s true: After VP XIII, I hit a writing wall. I was trying to revise and continue my VP submission novel, but freelancing around a toddler’s schedule meant fewer hours for writing. To make things worse, we were dealing with things that eat up time and brainspace — major surgery for me, plus a child being diagnosed with learning disability. Every month, I’d try to work on the novel, but I couldn’t sustain the narrative flow in the few bits and bobs of time I had, so I eventually, quietly, gave up. Worse, I felt like a fraud for going to VP and then not “doing” anything while my most excellent peers were submitting, selling, and generally being awesome.

Last fall, though, things shifted. The (former) toddler went to kindergarten. I listened to the wisdom of Connie Willis and started writing while sitting in the car circle and team practice. I tried NaNoWriMo, and though I didn’t win, I was suddenly back in a writing groove again. I wrote more things. Sometimes they were clumsy, but with VP and the time off from writing, I suddenly had a more ruthless approach to my work — not working? Fix it, even if it means ripping back thousands of words. Not fixable? Move on to something else. There’s no time to dally over something that’s not moving. Keep the files, move on.

And then, this spring… I finished a novel. When I got the initial ideas, saw the characters, I realized to my surprise, it wasn’t fantasy or science fiction. — it was meant to be a category romance novel. So I wrote it, and I loved every minute of writing it. It’s been polished and revised and is sitting in a slush pile right now, and I’m halfway through writing another.

VP taught me so much about the writing life in one short week, but I think my biggest lesson has been that we have to make our own viable paradises in this world. Coming back to writing has been like coming home to myself, and I’m working hard now to make sure I don’t let it go again.

Lisa Nohealani Morton
Five years on, I’ve got a dozen sales and a SFWA Active membership that says “I am a professional writer” to any hypothetical detractors, should any materialize. But what I really think is amazing about VP is that five years on, I still see a half-dozen or more of my classmates once or twice a year. We meet up at cons or organize retreats or meetups. We don’t live close to each other, but we make a point of getting together.
I learned a lot about writing at VP, but my advice to incoming students is to get to know your classmates, because those relationships really will stick with you forever, if you let them.

Julia Rios
In the 5 years since VPXIII, I’ve become an aunt, an editor, and a professionally published writer. I made my first pro sale to Daily Science Fiction. It was for a tiny piece of flash fiction, but it felt like a major triumph. I’ve also written and sold a couple of other stories and some non-fiction, including an essay in the Hugo-nominated Queers Dig Time Lords (a collection of essays about Doctor Who, edited by Sigrid Ellis and Michael Damian Thomas. I’ve also made more VP friends, and had lots of great times with my classmates at cons and personal writing retreats. We’ve commiserated with each other in bad times, and I constantly delight in cheering for their successes. On the editing side, I joined the fiction editing team at Strange Horizons in 2012, and also had the wonderful experience of co-editing an anthology of diverse YA SF and fantasy stories called Kaleidoscope. Personally, I just attended my nephew’s second birthday party this weekend. We built a lot of block towers and then knocked them all down and shouted, “BOOOOOOM!” That was, perhaps, my most satisfying achievement.

Catherine Schaff-Stump
Viable Paradise made me believe in faeries. And aliens.

It was the first time I conceived of myself as a writer, and I was convinced after VP XIII that I could publish. And so I have, a little. While my small press book was being published while I was at VP, after VP, I wrote two more books, and a score of short stories. Two of the shorts were published with Paper Golem, and one of the novels was a near miss. It’s important to just keep writing and sending and revising and writing and sending and…wait. Stop the presses. I just had my first pro sale to The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk, which literally happened between the first and second draft of this. I guess persistence IS key.

But of course, I know I have a long way to go. I’m getting better, which means I notice the problems more. Plot continues to be my weak point, my nemesis, and we will be having WORDS in the near future. I am that writer now, the one who gets the personal rejections, the invitation to send more, and the encouragement to keep trying. I am writing another novel right now, and I have rewrites due on a novella. I also attended Taos Toolbox which was very helpful to my writing as well.

Many of you are kind enough to keep in touch with me. I meet up with George Galuschak and Chris Cornell every Thursday to Skype about writing. Miranda Suri sometimes joins us. I’ve seen these three and Ferrett, Julia, Eric, Brent, Sean, Lisa and Matt at conventions and retreats. And I know I’m missing someone, and I’m sorry. I’m hoping to see more of you around, and since I do get various places because of my professorial work, I think this could be a reality. And I’m really grateful to those of you who read my work and keep me honest. And it turns out that Chia and I were not only roommates, but we have the same birthday.

Ferrett Steinmetz
Here’s the weird thing about Viable Paradise: since I’ve went there, I’ve lived The Dream as an author, and yet it doesn’t feel that way at all.

Which is to say that I’ve had over 30 stories published since VP, largely thanks to the prose-shredding lessons that Teresa Nielsen-Hayden taught me, and I got nominated for the Nebula in 2012 for my novelette “Sauerkraut Station.” I sold my first novel, Flex, which will be coming out in April 2015 from Angry Robot (please buy it) and features a psychotic magic system where obsession creates magic, so all the crazy cat ladies become felimancers, but the only magic they can do is stuff that protects their cats.

The lead character’s a bureaucromancer. Yes, he believes in the power of paperwork. Too bad that’s not quite enough to protect his daughter.

Anyway, so I’ve pretty much checked off a lot of my bucket list since those halcyon days of 2009, but I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that there’s no point at which you look back at your accomplishments and go, “Well, that’s it, I’ve made it.” Me, I wonder if this novel will sell well, and be reviewed well, and can I sell another series. I still worry that I suck, and suck bad. The weird thing is that I’ve come so far and I still have all the neuroses I had going into Viable Paradise.

Because the better I get, the more I see how flawed my own work is. And I keep working to fix those flaws, but then I improve enough to see more flaws, and it’s a never-ending cycle of “I’m not good enough yet.” I’m decent, I know that, but if anything I’m working harder than when I came out of VP because, well, the bar to be published is high and I cannot afford any mistakes. I’ve seen a lot of people come out of these workshops and stop writing because they didn’t feel they were good enough to cut it, and honestly, for me, I still don’t.

Yet when I despair, I think of two of the best pieces of advice I got at VP.
“It’s a draft, it can suck,” and:
“’Til hell won’t have it!”
And I bend over my keyboard again, and write, and write some more.

Thanks, guys.

Miranda Suri
Five years feels an incredibly short amount of time to have passed since I attended Viable Paradise, as arriving on Martha’s Vineyard is the moment I mark as the first on my journey toward becoming a professional writer. Until VP, I had written alone and without guidance. I’d never received a formal critique from another writer nor any formal instruction in structure, pacing, or character development. I was, in every sense of the word, a newbie. Since leaving Martha’s Vineyard, I’ve completed two novels (and am almost done with a third) and I’ve published five short stories in both pro and semi-pro markets. I credit much of this fledgling success to seeds planted at VP, including the realization that I had a lot to learn and a lot to improve. The last five years has also been influenced by the people I met at Viable Paradise and the friendships I formed there. Much ink has been spilled over the notion of ‘finding your tribe’ and, frankly, for good reason. The people I met at VP formed, and continue to form, the core of my tribe. We critique one another’s stories, attend Cons and retreats, commiserate over low moments and celebrate successes together. A supportive tribe, as much as hard work and persistence, is key to making it as a writer. When I got on the plane for Martha’s Vineyard five years ago, I had no idea how much it would change my life. That day I knew only that I wanted to be a writer. Today I am a writer.

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.

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