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Painted Space

Writing Excuses Retreat 2017 – On a Ship, Take 3, Part the First

Last week my wife, her mother, and I returned from a two week tour of Europe, visiting six countries, castles galore, old friends and new, listening to some great authors teach and read to us. It was a business trip, really. Most of it. Some of it. The parts where I was writing…

We were participating for the third time in the 2017 Writing Excuses Writing Workshop and Retreat, and I did indeed get lots of writing done, or rather lots of editing. Because being the person I am, I was busy editing beta reader feedback on the first full Dissolutionverse novel, The Seeds of Dissolution, now on Kickstarter!

But aside from when I was holed up in my room or head down at a bar on the cruise ship, I was talking with friends from last year’s cruise, or making new ones, or listening to lectures on anxiety and writing, how to get that last 5% of awesome, how to worldbuild, how to write fight scenes, how to work with a translator, and more…

We had an excellent lineup of instructors, as usual, including:

John Berlyne, Zeno Agency

K. Tempest Bradford, writer and teacher at Writing the Other

Wesley Chu, Author

Aliette de Bodard, Author

Piper J. Drake, Author

Jasper Fforde, Author

Thomas Olde Heuvelt, Author

Kathy Chung, Author and conference coordinator for the Surrey International Writer’s Conference

Mary Robinette Kowal, Author, Audiobook narrator, Puppeteer, host of Writing Excuses

Ken Liu, Author and Translator

Emma Newman, Author and host of Tea and Jeopardy

Peter Newman, Author and co-writer for Tea and Jeopardy

Howard Tayler, Author, Schlock Mercenary webcomic, and host of Writing Excuses

Sandra Tayler, Author, business manager for Schlock Mercenary

His Majesty Dan Wells, Author, host of Writing Excuses

The Short Summary:

  1. Waiting for seven hours in the Paris airport is not fun.

  2. Having the day before the cruise to meet everyone is super helpful.

  3. MSC cruises doesn’t serve tap water in the dining room?!

  4. Every tour in Copenhagen goes past The Little Mermaid. Also, Walt Disney got inspiration from the Tivoli gardens amusement park. The Christiansborg palace has very….interesting…tapestries.

  5. Mary Robinette Kowal gave us great tips on how to read/speak to a group of people (hint: talk to the windows!).

  6. I got personalized feedback on a query letter directly from an agent (three times!) I’m excited to send this version out.

  7. Stockholm has hot chocolate as big as your face! And Swedish fish (though they probably just call them “fish” there…). It also has a room covered in gold.

  8. Tallin, Estonia loves WiFi, started Skype, and may have captured Voldemort in a wall.

  9. Played Fiasco! For the first time (as a drunk, layabout, child stealing town idiot), and it was awesome.

The Long Summary, with pictures!


I’ll save you the description of the overseas flight, waiting in the Charles de Gaulle with a 7 hour layover, flying to Hamburg (late), and then an hour and a half bus ride to Kiel, the port city where the cruise ships depart. We only just made it to the last five minutes of the official orientation, after almost 24 hours of travel. Fortunately, this was our third year of the Writing Excuses cruise, so we pretty much knew what was going on. We got to meet briefly with friends from previous cruises, and got to see the fabulous Emma and Peter Newman interview Dan Wells for their podcast, Tea and Jeopardy. During the show, they were afflicted with only being able to say “Writing” and “Excuses” until the audience saved them. We then sampled treats from all sort of European (and North American) countries, which some of the attendees had brought to share. Then we crashed.


The next morning, we gathered into groups to board the cruise ship. There was less security this time than last year. We were traveling with MSC instead of Royal Caribbean (more on that later…). Once on board, we broke up into groups to follow a story treasure hunt, getting clues for the next plot twist. We had the “Regency Romance” story thread. Oh Lord Covington; we thought him such a cad, but he redeemed himself! Ahem. We also got the chance to meet all the instructors and some of our fellow attendees while we wandered around.

Later, we attended our first class, Fear and Writing, once again by Emma Newman, who gave us some great tips for dealing with anxiety and still getting work done.

That night we had our first dust-up with MSC (there would be more), when we found out they wanted to charge us our limited drink coupons (meant for sodas, coffee, ect) for bottled water at dinner, because they will not serve tap water in the restaurant, even though it’s perfectly fine to drink. It is common in European countries to not pour water for dinner, as they do in the US, but restaurants will serve it when asked. Fortunately, the travel agents who organized our travel were able to work some magic and get water for us the rest of the cruise, so we wouldn’t get parched through the 2+ hour dinners!

That night we passed under a bridge connecting Denmark to Sweden, with only a few feet to spare!

(And…I seem to have only taken a few pictures on the ship. Sorry–you’ll have to imagine the interior! It wasn’t quite as luxurious as our ship last year, so, interpolate.)


This was our first port of call, Copenhagen, where we found that every single tour goes by the statue of the Little Mermaid.

They also go by her big sister…

We also learned one of the breweries may have funded most of the royal construction. Then we visited Tivoli gardens, the second oldest amusement park still in operation. Walt Disney traveled there for inspiration, which if you’ve been to Disney, looks very similar.

We also found Grandpa Munster…

Last on the tour, we went to the Christiansborg Palace, which has some great architecture, and very…colorful…tapestries, which took ten years to produce.

(Pictures from the Danish Monarchy Website, because I didn’t get good pictures…)

We also got a cool map of the city, which I am using for inspiration for the front map in my book! I love the views of all the individual buildings.

Because the MSC cruise ship didn’t have a dedicated conference room (dust-up #2), a couple of the classes got over-scheduled with port time this year. Our tour took most of the day, which meant we missed the class with John Berlyne of Zeno Agency about what  an agent is for. Fortunately, there was plenty of time to catch up with him later, and I learned a lot talking to him.

We had a second class that day on Worldbuilding from the tiny details, or how to make your world seem real. Aliette de Bodard gave the class, showing us some great examples from decorating a room based on the culture, to what food would be eaten, to types of religion, body language, and expressions.

I got to play some games that night after dinner, including Splendor, one of my favorites.


This was a day a sea, but it was still packed. We started out with an early class with Mary Robinette Kowal on how to read out loud to groups of people. The common mistakes are:

Volume – If you speak to the windows of the room rather than the person next to you, then everyone can hear you.

Speed – You will speak too fast. A good speed for talking to a room is about 150 words a minute, which sounds really slow to the person speaking.

Droning – If you hear a similar sound for a while, you’ll tune it out. That’s why it’s important to give importance to words with special meaning. Tell a story!

I had my individual breakout session that day, also with John Berlyne, and we went over the query letter for my current novel out to agents. John had some great suggestions, and was nice enough to agree to look at it again, once I made some changes.

Later, Wesley Chu taught us about writing action scenes, like making sure they have multiple purposes, showing lasting effects from injuries, making sure someone isn’t trained, say, as a master swordsman, in an unrealistic amount of time *coughRandal’Thorcough*, having good blocking, using multiple senses to describe the action, and finally, making sure there isn’t too much action, or it gets boring!

Now that Mary prepared us to read out loud, some of us signed up for “Lightning readings” in which we would read for two minutes, or about 300 words. Here’s mine, which is a fight scene from later on in The Seeds of Dissolution.

You’ll have to imagine the part where I was reading out loud…

“I look forward to dancing against you,” Nakan said, sibilant. “This, I have long been waiting for, to show the Nether maji their weakness.”

Rilan flicked her eyes once more to Vethis, and then all her attention was on the newcomer. “So be it, Snake,” she said, trying to goad the Sathssn.

It didn’t work. She feinted forward with a wrist strike to his cloaked head, intending to follow up with a reverse punch augmented by her song. Neither strike landed. Arcs of sapphire blue and a dark, bruised purple, swirled around the Sathssn’s feet and he was out of her range. She moved again and he was behind her, slipping past in a waltz-step. A strike to her kidney staggered her and she grunted.

Rilan whirled, barely catching Nakan’s arm with her fingers before he could slip away. Shiv’s dagger, he’s fast. She added notes to the melody of her fingers, turning major chords to minor, fixing her fingers in claws, dragging herself along with the Sathssn.

He moved a step, then spun, tilting her off balance. She felt a knee buckle when he kicked, and turned piano to forte, strengthening the tendons.

Must get on the offensive.

No time for her mental tricks. This would all be physical, and she had to make changes to Nakan, not herself. She recognized some of his steps, had fought against them before.

“Has Zsaana taught you all his tricks?” she asked. Her fingers were still on his arm, giving her a connection, and she burrowed into his music, turning solid measures into trills, loosening his tendons in a flush of white and olive. Nakan stumbled, but his aura pulsed against hers, blue and purple against white and olive.

“Yes, old Zsaana, he was my teacher as he was yours,” Nakan said. “But he taught me far more than you.”

Annnnd…there was a ship announcement in the middle of my reading. *Sigh* that’s #3, MSC.

Later that night we had our Costume contest, where Heather and her mother were awarded “Best  Regency Mother and Daughter,” and modeled with Mary Robinette Kowal.

I modeled my spiffy new steampunk coat. Works for browncoats, and to model the cover of my novella!

(Old picture because I am bad at pictures…)


Stockholm! This was one of my favorite ports. We visited the Vasa museum first, where we found out how the ship was so over-decorated, tall, and heavy that it sunk about 20 minutes after first setting out!

We also saw where the Nobel prizes are given out, as well as the reception hall, where the architect scoured far and wide for the most comfortable stairs to walk on. We tried many out other stairs on our trip, and have to admit, these were the most comfortable. After that, we saw the Gold Room, where the Nobel Prize ceremony ball takes place.

Gustav says, WTF?

We also got some great lunch and shopped around for souvenirs. I got hot chocolate as big as my face and Swedish fish from Sweden! Lastly we saw the royal palace and went back to the ship.

Those are some sumptuous corridors…

Again, because our tour was pretty long, we missed hearing about Maintaining a Writer’s Life with Thomas Olde Heuvelt (#4, MSC!), but we got to hang out with him later and catch up on what he talked about.

Lastly, we had a martial arts hangout that night, on the top deck of the ship. I had a lot of fun, but it was the only time I got to practice while on the trip, so I was having withdrawal by the time we got back…


Tallin was a cool town to visit, in Estonia. I knew almost nothing about the country, but learned they have a big investment in WiFi, and were partially responsible for creating Skype. We first visited the Talinn Song Festival auditorium, where every five years, 15,000 performers come together to sing for the Lauluväljak.

We also saw the town, which included a restaurant that served only authentic medieval food, made from ingredients available at the time. I also got pictures of Voldemort and a Dementor!

Actually, the first is Voldemar Panso, who was the first director of the Drama School of Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre. The second is one of three sculptures of medieval monks in the Danish King’s garden.

That night, Ken Liu talked to us about how to work with a translator.

It was an amazing lecture, which illustrated just how much work a translator must go through to make a book readable in another culture. In the US, we don’t often don’t realize how much of an author the translator is, as we tend to consume our own media. In some other countries, books are bought not based on the original author name, but on the translator name, and some translators have even reinvented a mediocre book in one language into a bestseller into another! Ken also gave us some great tips about what information and assistance is best to offer a translator, if you have the chance to work with one.

That night I got to play Fiasco for the first time. It’s a game where four people set up a deteriorating situation doomed to failure, then watch the world burn! I got to play the town drunk, cousin to the mayor, who stole a baby, tried (and failed) to take over the town, drove an out of control, gold-filled wagon down a mountain, and finally ended up in a penal colony. Fun!

Stick Around!

Whew! That’s not even the half of it, but this ends part one of my European writing adventure, as this post is long enough already. Next week, come back for St. Petersburg and Pringles, queries and books covers, Not-So-Mad King Ludwig, and WorldCon75!

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