By Leigh Wallace
Leigh Wallace is a VP XVII/VP 2013 graduate. She wrote the following piece in 2015, after reflecting on her experience.
Let’s say it’s a given that you’ve read all the other blog posts about how wonderful VP is by now, and you know that it is wonderful, magical, sublime. It is also hard. But not too hard. If you’re going to VP in October I want to share some survival methods with you.
First: The anti-harassment policy is serious business. The staff and instructors are true believers in safe space. If you and your cohort are cool with that, the week will be easygoing and lovely, as mine was.
Accept your physical boundaries. Some members of our group spent time in hospital during VP week. Our group had a variety of physical and emotional disorders and we survived so not to worry. Just try to strategize to get the maximum awesomeness out of the week that is within your personal capacity.
On that note, you will have trouble sleeping unless you’re one of the few gifted souls who can sleep through anything anywhere. You’ve heard that already from other alums, I’m sure. There’s lots of homework to do and your brain’s default state will be a-mile-a-minute. All of these people are super interesting. The instructors like to play music and get drunk together and will let you play music and get drunk with them! Also, the ceilings aren’t insulated. BUT. You will likely be so happy and interested in every damned thing that you won’t feel as tired as you ought to. If you can get up early, go for walkies with Uncle Jim. You will feel more awake and physically alive for it despite sacrificing some precious sleep, especially after a few days in those terrible chairs. Just do what you can to get an acceptable ratio of sleep to EverythingAndEveryoneISSOCOOLOMG.
Accept your emotional boundaries. For some, merely walking into that space is going beyond your comfort zone. That’s ok. Just keep a close eye on your ability to cope, on a day-to-day basis. Miss a lecture or event if you really need to. I missed one. It was apparently a lot of fun, but it was a problem for me for stupid personal reasons and I walked away. No one gave me a hard time. They respected my need for self-care. On a related note, when it comes to connecting with others, fitting in is the default state at VP. Trust me. Some in our group felt that they weren’t interpersonally geeking out as hard as others were, but found out after the week was over that they were not alone in feeling this way and that others appreciated their company. Your attitude coming in is likely going to be “OMG this is SO fun you’re SO cool and YOU’RE SO COOL TOO!” Same goes for everybody else with regards to you. Try not to judge your emotional state or sociability against those of others. Just take care of yourself and have fun.
There are a few things you can actually practice ahead of time that might help the week go smoothly. The first is a special one: do what you can to be the kind of person who can ask for help when needed. The week is intense and can be hard for different people for different reasons. The staff will cheerfully rearrange their whole day for you if you need them to, especially around Tuesday or Wednesday when many students hit their feedback wall. Let them do this for you. If you come to the staff room and ask a bit of company, someone will take a walk with you and fix your world a little bit. The staff are former students; they’ve done Tuesday/Wednesday/The Horror that is Thursday; they know. Rearranging and fixing the world is what the staff do. It is a beautifully controlled chaos they have going on, and you are the very center of their chaotic universe. One student left our group before the week was out. I don’t know if they would have made it through the full workshop and taken more away from the experience if they’d chosen to ask for whatever help they might have needed. I wish they had. Definitely don’t forget that people love helping other people. It makes them feel badass. Let the staff do that if you possibly can. And if you want to pay them back, do some dishes. There are lots of dishes. They’ll be thrilled.
Practice receiving a critique. Try having people read your manuscript and tell you it’s not perfect. Ask for honest criticism of your work from honest, trustworthy people. If you’ve never done that, this will almost definitely be your biggest stumbling block at VP. I expect that those with prior experience with critiques enjoy their week a great deal more. I’ve heard VP doesn’t take people whose writing is so good that they wouldn’t learn from the experience. This means that you are there because you’re good, but you’re also there because you have room for improvement. This is a great opportunity to grow for those who perceive it that way. Most people are kind in their feedback but not everybody is. Even kind feedback will include instances where you could do better. It doesn’t mean you should have done better, it means you can in future. There’s a difference. Ask yourself: “Can I survive having one of my favourite authors tell me they just don’t get my piece and don’t have anything to say to me about it?” That for real happened to me, and I survived, and then I went and asked Pippin, staff-member-in-charge-of-hugs, for a hug. Practice hearing that your work is not perfect. Daydreaming about blowing everyone away with your raw talent could be detrimental to your VP experience on the whole.
As an addendum to practicing receiving criticism, you can plan some specific questions to ask. You might find yourself in a one-on-one and the instructor doesn’t have 45 minutes’ worth of feedback planned for you. They probably only just read your story last night and made a few notes (though be ready; a couple of them have loooots of advice; possibly a little more than you’re mentally ready for; they’re all different). This extra time is actually a great opportunity. I was curious about forming a critique group in my city, the hows and the whys, and got a great little speech from Steven Brust about their purpose and value based on his and other authors’ experiences. I also asked my critiquers whether I was insensitive about racial or sexuality issues in my story, which had been a concern for me. I asked what markets might be appropriate for submitting my work as I didn’t know much about them. I learned a lot thanks to my prepared questions! Not as much as I did from the critiques and lectures, but still, a lot. On a related note, please do what you can to keep in mind that you’ll get a lot more from this workshop by listening and asking questions than by talking. That’s not to say you shouldn’t talk but keep in mind that there’s pretty well nothing you can do to impress these people more than just being fun to be around. They’re smart. As smart as you. In a million ways that you’re not that smart. Pick their wonderful wonderful brains.
Practice giving criticism. Give it to other writers, or do it to stories or novel openings you’ve read, particularly ones outside of your comfort zone.
If you’re not a fan of war stories, space opera, or cyberpunk, you could quite literally end up critiquing a WWI space-opera turned cyberpunk. I did not make that up. That story existed and me, all fantasy and soft SF and lit fic, I critiqued that story. Everyone is getting at least eight pieces of feedback on their submission manuscript during VP so do your best but don’t think you have to get it just right every single time. The more honest and kind and helpful you are, the more you might have to offer. Also, definitely don’t rip everybody else’s piece to shreds. That is seriously not what critiquing means. Writers need to know what’s working just as much as what’s not, so that they’ll know what elements to use as the foundation for rewrites (or at least what not to delete in later drafts).
Here’s an example of the many online resources on critiquing for those who might be new to it (and as a bonus, this is a blog that Sherwood is involved with):
Just remember to start with something positive, then focus on areas that need work in your opinion, then end with another positive comment.
Practice writing very quickly. You are going to get homework, and the deadline is tight. I knew this was the kind of thing that causes me to freeze right up, which is a waste of precious time. I practiced using random writing prompts (i.e. Wikipedia’s “random” feature) and my rule was I had to write a page on the topic, no matter what it was and no matter how idiotic the writing turned out to be. At VP I managed my homework fine. My piece was gawdawful but it was more important to me to participate in the activity and to keep learning than it was to write emergency masterpieces. Other people did write splendid things, incidentally. You will not be in control of the subject matter. Here are some not-so-hypothetical questions: Was the last time you read or watched horror half your life ago? Despite this, can you handle a situation where you now have to write horror in a limited amount of time and let these brilliant people read it? All while someone else in the group who happens to be a huge horror fan and writes it all the time has written a splendid, polished horror piece? That’s what happened to me. It’s just an exercise. You’ll have more opportunities to impress people with your genuine skill long after the week is out because your classmates will become your critique community.
And then there’s the really sad part: after VP is over. This went really differently for everybody. As far as writing goes, some hit the ground in full stride. Some started NaNoWriMo in November. I hardly managed to get a business case written for work. I lost the confidence or foundation of what had made it possible for me to write. I can’t say why or how (it could be related to the gawdawful horror story I wrote). Be part of your new VP community on social media and do whatever you need to do to get over the next writing obstacles, if any. Some of us stumbled after VP. All of us are still writing and submitting, and we’ve got a stack of rejections between us and a respectable little pile of publications, too! Many of us are still critiquing together. If you stumble, don’t worry about actually falling. You have 23 new people who will hold you up. Take your time if you need to recover a bit after VP.
Us 17’s also got a post-VP advice post from a 16, which I will pass on to you: http://kellansparver.com/2013/11/07/three-things-i-learned-after-viable-paradise/
I’m not kidding when I say it’s hard. I’m not kidding when I say it’s worth it, and I’m not kidding when I say it’s not too hard. Before VP I said to myself, “If nobody gets my story, if I don’t really connect with any of the people, if I’m exhausted the entire time, will I still be happy I went?” I decided: yes. In the worst case scenario, my answer was “yes.” And lo and behold, some people didn’t get my story, I didn’t make besties with the GodsImeanInstructors, and I was exhausted most of the time. And I loved it so damn much it broke me a little bit when I had to leave. I felt like my heart grew two sizes during that week, and then I had half of my heart ripped clean off at the end. This is when you will realize what this tribe really is. My only suggestion or dealing with this is to save up for Boskone or Readercon; a lot of Veeps go to Boskone and Readercon. If you can’t afford those, then avoid social media while everyone else is talking about them like I do. And an added piece of advice for the 19’s that I’ve learned in the last year: It is HARD to watch the next group go to the island without you and your group. You might want to take a break from twitter around then as well.