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!

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