Uncategorized, Writing

How to Enjoy a Writing Excuses Retreat (On a Boat)

Imagine a writing conference. If you are a writer like me, you’re probably already excited, especially when you know it’s composed of primarily science fiction and fantasy writers. You get to go to this writing conference to hang out with some of your favorite writers, meet a lot of cool people who have similar interests than you and learn a ton about the craft, art and business of writing.

You’re not excited yet?

Well, picture all of that on a cruise ship. That’s what makes the Out of Excuses Writing Workshop and Retreat extra awesome – in addition to hanging with Writing Excuses podcasts hosts Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal and Howard Taylor – you get to do it all on a ship bound for several exotic destinations!

This does lead to a problem, however. If you are shelling out a ton of money to go on a writing conference on a cruise ship, how do you make sure you’re getting your money worth? Don’t get me wrong – the programming on a Writing Excuses Retreat is worth every penny – it’s chock full of great content, great writers and great opportunities to meet great writers. But how do you maximize your earnings on the cruise? Here’s are some best practices I’ve learned over the last two years:

Read The Instructors’ Books – Writing Excuses, like most conferences, presents seminars from both the hosts of the podcast as well as guest instructors. On the months before the cruises, I read Steven Barnes’ “Blood Brothers”, Tananarive Due’s “The Good House” and Claudia Gray’s first two Firebird books as well as her Star Was book “Lost Stars”, in addition to the most recent books from the primary hosts – Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells and Howard Taylor. Was it a lot to read? Yes. Was it worth it? Definitely.

Reading these books gave me several advantages. First, it made me extremely excited to hear what these writers had to say. But more to the point, it also gave me insight into their favorite themes and overall strengths as a writer. In addition to giving me something to talk with them about, it also gave me plenty of subject matter to pick their brain about.

Bring Something to Write – I know what you might be thinking. “Write? I came here to learn to write, to network, or to generally improve my writing career. I don’t have time to write.” Needless to say, the Writing Excuses isn’t buying it, and neither am I. The hosts have several incentives to get you in the writing mood, but without spoiling that, I found this second cruise was my most productive outing yet.

I came with a checklist of four or so projects, and not only did I have time for them all over the course of the week – but I’m also very pleased with how they turned out. I think being around so many people who are also passionate about writing super-charges the creative juices – so take advantage of it!

Keep in Touch – This last one might sound a bit basic, but it’s the truth.  Brandon Sanderson and Dan Wells have said numerous times that there’s a reason they hit it big – by keeping their writing group going since meeting in David Farland’s fiction class. The same goes the Writing Excuses Retreat. You have ample opportunities to make friends, between group writing time, excursions, dinner, game nights and more. Don’t think of these friendly conversations as simply downtime – the relationships made here can prove extremely valuable.

The good news is that social media makes it extremely easy to keep in touch. There’s also Google Groups to help alumni stay in contact. Even so, it’s a good idea to take down each other’s information if you have the opportunity. Print a couple inexpensive business cards and hand them out at the cruise. When the event ends and everyone returns to their distant corner of the globe, you want to make sure you keep contact with friends from the cruise. These friends can keep you motivated and keep you writing, even when you are separated by state lines and oceans – so make sure you write down their name and e-mail.

The Writing Excuses Retreat is one of my favorite writing events to attend year after year, so if you can afford it, make it a point to sign up. While I admit it can be a pretty big blow to the piggy bank sometimes, the contacts, information and experiences make at these conferences is well worth the cost. So with any luck, I’ll see you next year on the 2017 Out of Excuses Writing Retreat!


Write. Revise. Repeat.

Last week I explained my process of moving on from an old project, so this week I figured I’d write about my current project: revising my new novel. It’s something I’m going to try to accomplish within a year, but even that might not be enough time. Revision can be a tough process. It’s more than spell-check, proofreading or even sending your manuscript to friends and family. Instead, revision is a process spanning many, many drafts (from four to six to upwards of nine or ten). It’s something I’m still, well, revising, but here’s what I’ve got so far.

Step One: The Writing Group

A writing group is a group of writers who meet to critique each other’s work on a regular basis. They could meet as much as every week or as few as once every few months or so. There are even some writing groups who are completely online. (My writing group is on the Reading Excuses sub-forum of Writing Excuses.) Regardless, there are a numerous advantages to writing groups. They provide in-depth critiques on a range of chapters which you probably wouldn’t get by simply handing someone your manuscript. They also provide several different perspectives on your work, allowing you to weigh criticism based on how many people are running into the same problem. There’s are quite a few things to keep in mind about writing groups (see some Writing Excuses episodes here), but here’s two big ones. One: you get what you give. Try to give good criticism instead of just demanding a critique while offering nothing in return. Two: Be civil and complementary when you give a critique. Being rough and heavy-handed isn’t going to do anyone any favors, even if you think you are just being “honest”.

Note: If you’re like me and you’re able to mostly turn off your inner editor, you might want to do this step second or even third or fourth. This was the first time I ran my novel through a writing group from start to finish, and my manuscript was rife with grammar mistakes and typos. It might be better to wait until you’ve had time to do a surface proof-reading first.

Step Two: The Alpha Readers

Alpha readers are your first line of defense (well, after the writing group anyway). There are fellow writers whom you trust. They could be part of your writing group (in which case you could skip this step altogether.) They may even write for a completely different genre, but they should at least know what you are going for. In any case, you send them the complete manuscript. Some writers have trouble sending an entire manuscript, but honestly, that’s where the trust part comes in. There’s a time and place to be protective of your ideas and work, but you need feedback on how the entire narrative works from start to finish.

Step Three: The Beta Readers

Betas and alphas are often used interchangeably, but I consider beta readers to be readers of the genre you are working in, whether its science fiction, mystery, young adult or all of the above. They could also be writers, but need not be. Beta readers are invaluable because they are knowledgeable of your chosen genre. What twists did they coming? Did this work remind them of any story they’ve seen before? What was their experience reading your work? Betas are very good at answering these questions, providing another layer of criticism.

Step Four: The Gamma Readers

Gamma readers are ones who are neither writers (alphas) nor readers (betas) of your chosen genre. Many times, they are friends, families and other supporters of our work, and despite their unfamiliarity, they can provide valuable insight by sharing a newcomer’s experience to your writing. What confuses them? Have your built your world enough to explain all the necessary details? While gamma readers are definitely important, they are sometimes over-utilized, especially by new writers, who don’t look for criticism outside of their immediate circle. While friends and family can provide a very important support network for one’s writing, they can’t always provide the necessary criticism to improve one’s work completely. However, they can be a very important supplement to ensure everything is working right in a narrative.

Closing Thoughts

That’s what I’m looking for as far as revisions go. Keep in mind a professional writer probably uses a very condensed version of this. They may only use a trusted writing group, a few alphas and a gamma reader or two. If they are working for a publisher, they probably already have an agent, an editor and several others reading their work for quality control. When you’re trying to break in to the industry, however, you need all the eyes you can get. Also be patient – it might take readers a few months to get through your manuscript, so make sure you have other projects to work on while they are reading. Revision is a process, and all processes can be improved. As Leonardo da Vinci said, “great art is never finished, only abandoned.”

What about you? What’s your process for revisions. Feel free to share in the comments.