On a Boat
Thursday 1 October 2015
I’m not terribly good on boats.
I’m pretty sure my partner Sean still has my claw marks in his arm from the time we got stuck in a storm on a friend’s sailboat. I’ve been on ocean ferry rides where the pain and nausea sent me fleeing for the relief of a Gravol-induced stupor.
So when the hosts of my favourite writing podcast, Writing Excuses, announced that their Out Of Excuses Retreat was going to move to a cruise ship this year, I was just a little bit crushed.
I’ve listened to the show for years now, and I can’t think of a single show, book or website that’s taught me more about the craft of storytelling. The four hosts (Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Howard Tayler and Dan Wells) tackle pretty much every topic a speculative fiction writer could ever want, and all in concise, focused episodes — “fifteen minutes long,” as their tagline says, “because you’re in a hurry and we’re not that smart.”
I’d wanted to attend their retreat since its first year, but could I handle the water? I did a bit of research and heard a lot of reassurances about the smoothness and stability of cruise ships. The end to my dithering came swiftly as the guest instructors were announced: Nalo Hopkinson! Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman! Daniel José Older! All right, twist my arm, I said, bracing myself as I put down my money.
Well, I’m back, and of course I needn’t have worried. The trip was awesome.
There were about 110 of us in all, not even counting families. Writers of urban fantasy, epic fantasy, horror, hard SF, steampunk and space opera, plus costumers and artists and interactive designers and at least one audio dramatist (hello!) — all came together to form one big badge-wearing, laptop-toting, sleep-deprived tribe. Lots of fun, easy conversation and mutual excitement about each other’s work. More than one remarked on how refreshing it was to chat with so many people who are excited rather than bewildered when you say “I’m a writer.”
The instructors, both hosts and guests, were smart, gracious and welcoming, and their sessions on dialogue, description, revision, structure and other aspects of writing were top-notch. In addition, we each had a choice of breakout sessions where we could get a detailed critique of a work in progress, or simply ask questions and get advice. I spent mine talking to the wonderful Ellen Kushner, author of Swordspoint and its sequels, about radio play production and some new story ideas.
My favourite talk was by Daniel José Older. His topic was worldbuilding, which I’m always keen to hear about, but his approach, coming from a perspective of community organizing and analyzing power relations, took us in new and fascinating directions. And on top of all that, he’s a musician, a santero, a former paramedic, and wickedly funny.
There was plenty of time for informal conversation as well. Every night at dinner we switched tables so that each of us crossed paths with a maximum number of people. Afterward, people scattered to all parts of the ship to write and talk, or headed back to the conference centre. One of my favourite moments was in the middle of the week, when in the four corners of the room, Brandon sat divulging some sage advice on the publishing industry, Dan hosted his nightly board game session, Ellen led a singing circle, and several attendees ran their own independent critique group.
The cruise itself was eye-opening in its own way. I’m a bit uncomfortable with luxury, and even more so with touristy cruise ship ports, but as Ellen pointed out, if for instance you want to write about rich and decadent people, why not do some firsthand research? So I watched people and studied the buildings and landscapes, and while I didn’t go on any of the organized excursions, I spent some pleasant hours ambling around San Miguel, enjoying the sights and quietly vowing to learn Spanish.
A lot of the notes I took were groundwork for a new story world I’ve been playing with, set in a busy colonial city. Over the course of the week, I got to run some of my ideas past Daniel and Nalo and Ellen, who each had great suggestions and questions and cautions and recommended reading. I also got to nerd out with Mary about accents and language and some obscure aspects of the magic in her books. A brief but fruitful late-night chat about humour with Howard had me running off, notebook in hand, to an empty table in the ship’s pizzeria, next to what I came to call the Spigot of Adequate Coffee, to analyze my own style and see if I could spot ways to improve.
As for writing: I banged out a few more drafts for the upcoming Alba Salix spinoff, and discovery-wrote a whole 7-minute episode in one go, a fairly rare occurrence for me. Friday night I had a revelation about one of the main characters and was compelled to run around the ship, babbling excitedly at my groggy classmates, who managed to look interested despite it being two in the morning.
There were writing challenges, there were cocktail parties, and an amazing costume parade on formal night, including a number of characters from Brandon’s novels and several Regency-era ladies and gentlemen. Mary Shelley showed up sporting her own retreat badge. Dan Wells dressed up as a Wookiee.
Bottom line: I had a swell time, and would absolutely love to go again. The instruction was excellent, as were the other cruise-goers. It was simply fantastic to befriend so many talented and passionate folks, to share notes and help out with one another’s projects, and to have a ridiculous amount of fun. If you’re an aspiring or up-and-coming writer of fantasy, SF or horror, I highly recommend it.