Writing Excuses Retreat 2016 – On a ship, take 2

My wife and I recently returned from our second time with the Writing Excuses podcasters, their guest instructors, and about 200 new and old friends aboard one of the largest cruise ships in the world. Yes, it was The 2016 Out of Excuses Writing Workshop and Retreat!


We were excited to board the ship this time, rather than nervous, as were were alumni and knew our friends would be there to greet us. It would have been even better had we been able to get on the boat the first time. They spelled my wife’s name wrong, twice, and then we ended up with our sea pass cards rejected until one of the attendants got it fixed.

How do you pronounce that?

So, we acted as a sort of pitiful welcome committee outside the ship, watching hordes of people board, and occasionally waving to someone we recognized from 2015.

The ship itself was much bigger than last year, to the point that it was a little too big to easily find others of our group when wandering around the ship.

It’s the one on the left.  Yes, that’s a ship, not an alien spacecraft.

On the other hand, the cocktail bar where we had all our parties was not as open as the one on last year’s ship, which made it harder to socialize in those situations. Fortunately, the internet package this year was more worth the cost (functional for modern internet browsing), and brought a new dimension to our interactions, finding late night pictures pop up on twitter as photographic proof the next morning. It was like getting to be a part of the many activities we missed last year. And there was definitely a lot going on this time.


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But I’m getting ahead of myself. Registration and orientation were first on Saturday, and rather than the silent and shy crowd we had last year, this year was marked with clumps of people renewing acquaintances, and welcoming new introverted writers into little gatherings. Plus, our few recognized “extroverts” were happy to help the process. I’m not saying everyone was instantly friends, but we got to spend a lot more time bonding and learning from each other.

At the orientation, the WX crew went over the rules and introduced the incredible lineup of instructors:
Brandon Sanderson
Mary Robinette Kowal
Dan Wells
Howard Tayler
Kathy Chung
Steven Barnes
Tananarive Due
Desiree Burch
Claudia Gray
Lynne M. Thomas
Michael Damian Thomas
DongWon Song
Navah Wolfe
K Tempest Bradford

There were 197 people in our group, including a lot more family than last year. Some alumni brought significant others that didn’t get to come last year. The podcasters also brought family. We got to meet Brandon and Emily’s oldest son, one of Dan and Dawn Well’s children—thankfully not the one who crashed a car at 12 years old while Dan was on the cruise last year(Sorry Dan)—and Howard and Sandra’s two daughters. Mary brought her parents. I had met her father at a signing before, and got a chance to talk with him again, as he recognized my hat (it’s a good hat).


Eventually, we all got settled in, and I have to take a moment to recognize something the podcasters did even better this year: diversity.


Last year this was a revelation for me, we were well represented on the LGBT front (though even better this year) but there was a certain lack of POC last year. This year, I was happy to see many more attending, including a good selection of our instructors. Plus, several classes helped us understand what POCs regularly encounter in society. Good for us as writers, and good for us who don’t identify as POC to realize personally.

That night we had our meet and greet cocktail. We also had our first dinner rotation (the students changed tables every night to sit with new people), and then the first hangout: free time where we can socialize, talk with instructors, play games, write, or whatever else struck our fancy.


Sunday, Nassau

• In the morning, we went to a dolphin meet and greet. Ours turned out to be horny and spent most of the time with the females, so we had to borrow another group’s dolphin. We played, petted, and watched them show off. Afterward, we waited until the boat came to pick us up, part of the group talking about books and martial arts, and brainstorming a story.
• Our first class was The Pitch, with DongWon Song, an agent for Howard Morhaim Literary Agency. He first explained what agents were looking for in pitches, and the “comp,” or A+B=awesome (for example, The Fifth Season: Avatar meets The Day After). He called on a few of us to share our pitches for critique, and then made the mistake of opening the mike to all who wanted to try. I don’t think he expected the implosion of air as thirty students (me among them) ran to get feedback on their book pitches.
• Next was my 30 minute breakout with Michael Damien Thomas, the Co-Publisher and Co-Editor of Uncanny Magazine. Everyone attending got either a breakout or a critique group with one of the instructors. I spent mine talking about how the Thomases run the kickstarter each year for their magazine, as I intend to run one next year for my next self-published book. I got a lot of great ideas!
• Then we sat in on a Writing Excuses recording session, with the “video feed” they’re always talking about. Many of us (including me!) got our questions answered in the Q&A episode.
• Dinner and hangouts again. I got to play an awesome game of Last Night on Earth with Dan Wells running the zombies. With all writers playing, the game develops a narrative of its own. Ed will always be our hero! Just don’t make him angry…


Monday, Day at Sea

• First up was The Business of Short Fiction Markets, with Lynn and Michael Thomas, the editors and publishers of Uncanny Magazine. They gave us a full rundown on how to submit to magazines and short story markets, and what the submission process looks like from the other side.
• Outlining: it doesn’t have to hurt, with Claudia Grey. Claudia gave us a great explanationof many different outlining styles, and how to use them.
• Then we had another Writing Excuses recording session. In the intermission, I got to know several other students better, and had some cool discussions on worldbuilding, magic systems, and martial arts.2016-09-19-14-24-52
• That evening several of us attended the wedding of two of the students. The organizers not only helped them plan, but Mary Robinette Kowal officiated! We had met the two on last year’s cruise and were honored to be able to attend Miko and Jessica’s wedding.


Tuesday, St Thomas

• Here, Heather and I went on our second animal interaction excursion—a meet and greet with two sea lions, Omar and Romulo. They were very sweet and the trainers did a great job of keeping them engaged and interacting with the guests,img_0781

until one attacked!


Not really—he was just doing some foreshadowing.

Each of us got a kiss from a sea lion, which they really like to do, and when Romulo was about to give Heather a kiss, the trainer gave some slightly crossed signals. Romulo got confused and frustrated, and bit Heather on the shoulder, but not very hard, and he was obviously very sorry afterward. Heather got a very long kiss and a sea lion sexy dance (which we unfortunately did not get a recording of), and we got a story to tell.

• The rest of the day was given over to writing, talking with other students, and another session of Writing Excuses recording. After dinner with some friends from last year, I had a great time hanging out with some other martial artist writers, showing off our different styles, including watching some awesome Capoeiristas play. After we all tired ourselves out, we spent another while talking about writing, martial arts, and engineering. Evidently they go together? capoeira


Wednesday, St Maartin

• Wednesday was at the island of Sint Maartin, or Saint-Martin, depending on whether you are on the Dutch or the French side. We took a tour bus around the island to see almost the whole circumference, spent a while browsing a market, bought a carved pelican statue, and came back.


(Not that one.)
• Our only class this day was, So you sold your novel to a publisher. Now what? Navah Wolfe, an editor at Saga Press, gave us an excellent run-down on how editors get involved in a writer’s book once they buy it, often knowing the story and background almost as well as the author. They are the book’s biggest champion, and spend a lot of time making sure the release is a good as it can be.
• Once again, we got to see Writing Excuses recording. 2016-09-20-18-57-37

They recorded the rest of the episodes for 2016 while we were on the cruise, sharing episodes with many of the excellent guest instructors as well.


Thursday, Day at Sea
• This morning, Dan gave a private showing of I Am Not A Serial Killer, his first book, which has been made into a movie. It’s very well done and you should all go see it!
• Our class this day was Personal Narrative, with Desiree Burch. Coming from a standup background, Desiree showed us how she digs into personal history to find subjects for her shows. She gave prompts and told us to answer them with the first thing that came to mind. I think we all found the answers eye opening and a little scary. Then she had us break into groups and give 30 second, 15 second, and one line descriptions of a time we were wronged. It was amazing to see so many introvert writers open up. We were all a little stunned, and closer to each other, after we finished.
• I had an attendee-led critique group after that, which gave me some valuable feedback on my latest work. To give an idea of how the retreat has grown from year to year, on the 2015 cruise, we had one group for novels and one for short stories. This year, we had to break up into three groups for novels and one for short stories!
• This was the formal night for the cruise, and also our chance to cosplay. We were at DongWon’s table, so we had a great discussion about the agenting process. In addition, it was also the wedding reception for Miko and Jessica. We had a great time parading across the ship and getting pictures with all the excellent costumes. Heather and I even won a medal for our costumes, which she made.



Friday, Day at Sea
• Our last day started with choosing one of several Q&A classes. Heather and I chose Writing the Other, with Desiree Burch, Michael Thomas, and K Tempest Bradford. They answered some great questions about how to accurately depict race, sexuality, and disability when you as a writer are not familiar with it personally.
• Next was Advanced Characterization: Writing Chars from the inside out, with Tananarive Due, who showed us how characters are built by finding their motivations and desires. This is especially helpful when creating a character that is not like yourself.
• Our last class of the cruise was Sociobiology in Worldbuilding, with Steven Barnes, a very engaging speaker. Steven took us on a tour of history, culture, and how the world’s societies might have developed differently. He talked on several subjects dealing with his many years learning about martial arts, and how this ties in to inner peace. This lecture affected many of us on a personal level as well as helping us become better worldbuilders.
• After a final Writing Excuses recording and Q&A session, Heather and I had our last dinner, at Brandon and his wife’s table. We got a chance to discuss everyone’s current project, and I got the chance to send Brandon copies of my novellas.
• Then we had our final farewells and promises to keep in touch. With social media, it’s a lot easier than it used to be, but it was still a sad parting, coming back to the real world.



Overall thoughts, or Thanks For Staying This Long
• I got a lot more writing done this year than I did last year – about 10000 words!
• Coming home makes you really recognize what sea legs are, as you stumble around your stationary house like a drunkard.
• Like last year, we came home with more contacts and more friends on Facebook and twitter. So many friends! The alumni are making their own little society, now we have a larger pool of members.
• The Writing Excuses Retreat is the type of gathering that can go on query letters. It’s a big deal for writers, not only to make good friends, but to show that you mean business as a professional.
• If you aren’t able to afford the cruise, consider looking at the scholarships. With such a large crowd of alumni, we’ve started attendee-funded scholarships, to pay it forward and help others come on the cruise. In 2016, we funded two new scholarships, and we’re hoping to do even more for 2017!
• If you’re interested to go on this cruise (and if you are a serious writer, you really should), look to the Writing Excuses website for an announcement of next year’s cruise later this year. I won’t spoil anything, but it’s going to be a big one!
• Finally, people say you have to have an “in” to publish. More likely, you have a person you’ve met, hung out with, and enjoy their company. And they also happen to be an agent, editor, or author. That’s what this retreat can give you.

Thanks for reading! Heather and I had an amazing time, and we are definitely planning on going back next year. The cruise is completely worth it, and many thanks are due to the Writing Excuses team.

For you writers out there, you’re out of excuses, now go book a cruise!

Merchants and Maji coming in August

Look for my new book, Merchants and Maji, coming in late August!  It features two new stories of the Dissolutionverse, and contains some characters from Tuning the Symphony, if a little older.  Here’s a sneak peek of the back of the book:

An old war machine and a revolutionary space capsule will change relations between the ten species forever


Last Delivery

Prot, Amra, and crew are saving to buy a shop, while selling goods across the ten homeworlds in a refitted war transport.  But after fees to travel between worlds, their profits always fall short.  Now, their newest customers are the xenophobic Sureriaj.  When a protest over offworlder trading shuts down all business, the crew’s only hope is to leave the planet delivering emergency medical supplies.  The contract is for too much money, the seller is using a false name, and the cargo is magically sealed.  Nothing could go wrong.


The First Majus in Space

The ten species are in awe of the first revealed space capsule.  But when the majus piloting it is assassinated, Origon Cyrysi is the only one capable of completing the mission.  Too late, he finds the spacecraft boosting one species’ mercantile power may end up costing him his abilities.  And even if Origon returns from space, the escaped assassin might trigger an interstellar war.  All in a day’s work for a majus.

Things I’m working on…

So what’s next now that Tuning the Symphony is out in the world?

Currently, I’m working on two more stories set in the same universe as Tuning the Symphony. I plan to release these later this year, bound in one volume.

The first one is about a group of merchants traveling between homeworlds.  I wanted to focus not on the powerful maji, but on the common inhabitants of the ten homeworlds and how they went about their business.  What roadblock are there when traveling between planets?  How do the maji look to them?

For the second one, I went back to the maji, because it’s so fun.  This one is about Origon, quite a bit older than in Tuning the Symphony.  He’s dealing with a new space-faring invention and how technology affects the maji’s position in the Great Assembly.  This story will lead directly into the full novel I hope to release sometime in 2017.

I’m also reworking an unrelated fantasy novel set in a land like the antebellum southern plantation culture of the US mixed with Babylonian themes.  This book has magic as well, but of a different sort, based on seasonal fruit.

Tuning the Symphony is out!

Hello folks!
My novella “Tuning the Symphony” is available as of today! You can buy it in print from Amazon and Createspace.  Of course, you can also buy it signed, directly from me.

If you like ebooks better, it is also available at Amazon, Kobo, and Smashwords.  I hope to have it at B&N and iTunes sometime in the future.

To get you interested, here is the cover art, drawn by the inestimable Micah Epstein (Click to embiggen):



So what is this about and why would you want to read it? Here’s the back of the book blurb:

Change one note and the universe changes with the Symphony.

One apprentice will become a full majus today. The other will wait months for another suitable challenger. Rilan Ayama is skilled in using her song to change the Grand Symphony of the universe, but her opponent, Vethis, is crafty, and not above a little simple bribery. Though Rilan is counting on the support of her closest friend Origon, he remains absent. She has only a cryptic note saying important matters of his family take precedence, and he needs her help. The mystery pulls Rilan’s attention away from the most important test of her life.

Maji create portals to between the far flung planets of the Great Assembly of Species, but many places still remain out of easy reach. A search for Origon’s brother leads Rilan and her friend across the wilds of one of the ten homeworlds. There, Rilan’s fledgling skills are pushed to their limits as they investigate a secret that could bring down all six houses of the maji.

New Content!

I’ve update my “Works” page with a flash fiction I submitted to the Quantum Shorts contest.  It didn’t get picked for one of the shortlist entries, so you get to read it here!

I will soon be self-publishing a Novella I wrote last year.  Micah Epstein will be doing an illustration for the cover, and hopefully a couple more in the text as well.  Look for it in eBook and print in the next few months!

Thoughts about Worldbuilding or, Why I Write Science Fiction and Fantasy

This was originally posted on Jason Strang’s blog as a guest article in May 2015.   Slightly edited for timeframe.  It also contains a bit about how I began writing Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Worldbuilding.  It’s one thing that the Sci Fi and Fantasy genres can really call their own, their call to arms.  Without it, these places of make-believe are just crime dramas and soap operas with some glitter and elves throw at them.

Take a soap opera about the command structure of a naval vessel.  Not that interesting. But put it in Spaaaace, and you have Star Trek.  How about an essay on military formations in the early renaissance, gender politics, and the nature of good and evil?  Not actually a history book.  Just throw in elemental abilities gifted by the creator and you have The Wheel of Time saga.

These are trite examples, but my point is that worldbuilding is really what brings readers in to Sci Fi and Fantasy.  Have an existential question?  Define some geography, and a reason for fighting about it based on past history and you have people pulling up chairs to hear your story.

But I don’t want to talk about just worldbuilding.  I want to talk about what drew me into reading and then emulating my favorite authors, and that is universes.

And by universes I mean not just building a world, but building an entire cosmos to support your story.  What better ego trip than to play God to an entire universe of possibilities? Some of my favorites are:

  • The Eternal Champion Cycle (Micheal Moorcock)
  • The Cosmere (Brandon Sanderson)
  • Known Space (Larry Niven)
  • The Deathgate Cycle (Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman)

And to a slightly different extent, where the action only focusses on one world, but there are lots of hints that others are out there:

  • The Discworld (Terry Pratchett)
  • The Dresden Files (Jim Butcher)
  • The Wheel of Time (Robert Jordan)
  • The Riftwar Saga (Raymond Feist)

And so on.  I haven’t even gone into the visual universes of stories, like Star Trek, or Star Wars, or the Marvel or DC universes, or, of course, Doctor Who.

I could go on for quite a while.  But there is a similarity between all of them.  All of Sanderson’s Cosmere books are set in the same universe, but on different planets where the inhabitants (save a select few) aren’t even aware there are others.  His systems of magic, at the very base, follow the same set of rules.

Micheal Moorcock goes one step further, where he has a singular personality or soul who is reincarnated into a hero (or antihero) to solve a problem in different planes of existence.  Sometimes different incarnations even exist at the same time.

Larry Niven uses the idea in a Science Fiction setting.  Many of his books take place in the same history, with the same alien species, the same technological developments, and the same colonized planets.  But the stories range from those with small consequences, or set in the near future, to those of galactic import, or set thousands of years in the future.

When creating a universe, the author, or authors, doesn’t have to follow sequentially with the last chapter of the story they wrote (though some of them do).  It doesn’t even have to be the same author, in the case of the Star Wars Extended Universe.  The stories can be about completely different things, even different genres of stories, but a single universe has the same underlying rules.  So you can hop in and read (or watch), and if you know some of the other stories, you can see the breadcrumbs the author dropped about other heroes and heroines you’ve read about.

Now, as an aspiring and unpublished writer, as I am, you might feel a bit daunted jumping into the deep end here, and that’s understandable.  If you’re not sure you’ll even get published, much less finish your first book, why worry about future stories that you’re never going to write?

Because it’s so much fun.

I started my first novel when I was about fourteen.  I wrote many words, got several chapters in, and had a start to a fantastic tale with universe-shaking consequences.  Nay, Multiverse shaking.  I, not content to merely parade through one universe, had set up the basis for literally trillions of stories.

Life happened, I went to college, I didn’t write except for an occasional scene or idea.  A few years after I finished college, I picked up writing again, and dove fully into it.  I picked up my old story, realized how terrible it was, and saw it was so heavy it was liable to stretch the boundaries of space-time just by writing it.

So I trimmed it down to one universe of possibilities.  I solidified the magic and the characters, and I finished writing it.  It was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had, writing what I knew to be the last few words of my 200,000 word masterpiece.

Then I found Writing Excuses.  The very first episode I listened to was Episode 5.13, “Writing the Second Book.”  In it, the podcasters went down a list of all the things that were wrong with my book.  Specifically my book.  It was like they had read it.  And I realized both what the meaning of “trunk novel” was, and also that I needed to write another book.

So I did.

A few books later, I came back to that original story, pared it down again and re-wrote it from the ground up, without using any of the same text.  I didn’t even look at the old text.  This one was only 150,000 words.

Why did I come back to it?  Because it has so much potential for a universe of stories.  Even if the first one I write never gets published, I could easily write a whole series about a different planet, or past history, or the future.  The universe of the story lives on.  Since then I have written one short story and one novelette set in the same universe, along with several stories not associated with that first one.  It was fun playing in my own world, and it helped me define more of the societal customs and rules that make the story vivid.  I will go back to that original story again at some point, and add in all the new details I’ve discovered while writing about things my main character has never heard of.  I’m an archeologist, putting fossils on display in a museum on the other side of the world from where the action is.  But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.  I have ideas for not just the main sequence of novels, but more novelettes about side characters, political mysteries, histories, and more.  I get to write my own fan-fiction, and I’m not even published!

Just to make clear that I’m not completely crazy here, Brandon Sanderson’s first book published was his eighth or ninth book written, if I remember correctly, but several of his unpublished books are set in his Cosmere, and he even references the worlds in his unpublished books in his published works, if you look carefully enough.  I can say what I want to do isn’t just delusions of grandeur.

So in summary:

Worldbuilding is what really drew me into Fantasy and Science Fiction.  It’s one of the main tools in these genres that is almost unique, and it’s why groups of fans can have hours-long discussions about their favorite works.

Pros to creating your own universe:

  • You have plenty of opportunities to create stories.  If one doesn’t work, find a different story.  During that time, you will build up a more complete history of your world or universe.
  • You can have your favorite characters pop up in different places, even if your readers don’t know who they are yet (I’m looking at you, Hoid).
  • You can write different genres of stories, all with the same underlying rules.
  • You can create your own fan fiction.

Cons to creating your own universe:

  • Your first defining story in that universe is not likely to be very good, or even publishable.
  • You will have The Second Book Syndrome, as best described by the Writing Excuses crew in season 5 episode 13.
  • You will grow as a writer, and thus the stories will not be of consistent quality
  • Your ideas will change over time.  You might need to make “adjustments” in later stories.

I get excited about story universes because they have so much potential.  If you want an explanation of the video possibilities, rather than the text possibilities, look for Marvel’s 2014 special “From Pulp to Pop,” which dives into how they created their own universe and how it became so successful.  I went to see Age of Ultron on opening day–did you?  And I’m going to stay on schedule watching Agents of Shield because they tie in to the movies, and I have to see that extra bit of history unfold.  And I will be waiting for the events of the Civil War.  This is why we see the rise of the superhero story lately.  Because Marvel (followed by others) is building an entire new universe for us to live in.

Story universe tie readers together and give them communities.  They make us feel smart for catching that Easter Egg the writer threw in.  This is why I write Epic Fantasy–for the worldbuilding.  So I will keep writing books, whether they’re published or not.  If not, I have my own private universe to play in.  And if they are, then I can let others play there too.