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

This week, I’m continuing my blog from last week, which details the second half of our European writing adventure. Along for the ride were me, my wife, her mother, all the instructors, and about 150 fellow writers.

Last week, I wrote about Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Talinn, and classes on fear and writing, worldbuilding, agenting, action scenes, reading out loud, organizing your life, and working with a translator.

Next up, St. Petersburg! After that, Munich, German castles, and flying up to the pleasant city of Helsinki Finland, for the 75th WorldCon.

The Short Summary:

  1. Petersburg has very impressive architecture – just remember to pack a lunch!

  2. Learned how to organize your life to get more done, got my query edited again, and got some feedback on cover layout directly from an editor.

  3. The lack of conference room meant only one WX recording session 🙁

  4. I’ve been on more Writing Excuses cruises than Brandon Sanderson!

  5. Germans don’t believe in AC. This is fine except on the hottest day of the year.

  6. Say no to Cruise Crud!

  7. Mad King Ludwig may not actually have been mad, just “conveniently diagnosed” to remove him from ruling.

  8. Traveling WorldCon with a group of authors makes the whole experience better!

  9. On the trip, I edited 26 chapters of my book, reading through and streamlining about 140,000 words…

The Long Summary, with pictures!

Thursday – St Petersburgh was the only city that was a little tricky to enter, mainly because it requires a visa to enter Russia, but we didn’t have one. That meant we had to stay with our tour group, and got a stamped piece of paper with our information from the unsmiling border guards. We had two tours scheduled, the first for Catherine Palace, and the second for the Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood. We had a class that night I was really looking forward to, about the last magic 5% in your story, and was really hoping our tour wouldn’t overlap. Thus, I was pleasantly surprised that morning when I saw Jasper Fforde and his wife along for the tour, as he was the one teaching. Can’t miss a class if you’re touring with the instructor!

But first we went by the monolithic St. Petersburg city construction. These buildings were big!

Catherine Palace was largely destroyed in World War II, but recently much of it has been reconstructed from historical documents. Jasper Fforde was taking a lot of photos with a couple of old brownie cameras, and I got to talk to him a little about them, as my grandfather had several brownie cameras I inherited.

Inside the palace, each room is watched over by the aptly-named “babushkas” (grandmothers), who take their roles very seriously.

You aren’t supposed to take pictures inside the amber room, but our guide informed us we could just take pictures from beyond the doorway. Turns out the babushkas don’t look fondly on this and I got yelled at…

“No Pictures!”

Our travel agents had nicely arranged with the ship for our group to take two tours back to back. After we finished up at Catherine Palace, we were shuttled back to the terminal, where we waited for another bus. It was a little after noon, and we were starting to get hungry, but had been promised that the tour guide would take a little time out of our second tour to get us all lunch.

No such luck. We got on the bus and started driving, and a few of us asked were we would be eating. The tour guide informed us that was no time to stop—sorry, very busy schedule, have to be going! (This is dust-up #5, MSC).

So we were off to see the Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood, though it was worth missing lunch! The entire inside of the church is covered in a mosaic. These pictures don’t do it justice. It’s spectacular in person.

We were all very hungry after seeing the church, but our tour guide rushed us off again. I attempted to buy some corn from a street vendor, but they didn’t accept euros. We were dumped off at touristy souvenir shop. Since it sold the same things as the souvenir shop for Catherine Palace, we all instead looked for something to eat. Turns out the souvenir shops sell chocolate, crackers, Pringles, and water. Our sole lunch after walking several miles through Catherine Palace, across the city, and through the Church of the Spilled Blood was a can of Pringles. They were delicious.

We toured the city a little more before heading back, including viewing the academy Putin graduated from.

Once back on the ship, we had a few minutes to freshen up before attending Jasper Fforde’s class on The Last 5%. He made the case that authors progress from Amateur, to Competent, to Professional, to Inspired, but it’s that last jump that’s the hardest. That’s where the pixie dust comes in. The inspired author can do something no one else has thought of—something that stays with a culture. There are even authors that never get past the “competent” or even “amateur” levels, but have that inspired spark and so people read their books despite problems with the prose.

Jasper invited us to explore the world in different ways. Instead of ordering tea with milk, order tea “the color of the Usk in flood” (the Usk is a river in Wales). Make up your own words, like “Scribinate” (writing during the winter), and “well of lost socks” (The dryer, of course). Look for the sparkle in things. For example, instead of “The hungry caterpillar,” which is rather boring, what about “The very hungry caterpillar.” A few words can make a lot of difference, so look for treasure everywhere!

As you can tell, I got a lot out of this class.

Friday – This was the last day of the cruise, spent at sea. We began the day with a giant Q&A session, with the instructors scattered around the dining room, able to talk to individuals or in groups. This turned out to be one of my favorite activities. My wife and I first caught up with Thomas Olde Heuvelt, as we had missed his class earlier that week. He had a lot of good thoughts about making goals, realistic or not, for five years, one year, each month, each week, and down to a schedule for each day. It takes a day or so to set up, but afterwards is very easy to maintain. However, the important part is to go back and revisit the plan you made as you get to it. Thomas changes his schedule at the day’s end to what actually happened, versus the ideal schedule. He adds in notes on what changed and why, and how he feels about it. This means he can react to the schedule he’s made and grow closer to that ideal goal. I’d been keeping track of wordcount, and what I worked on that day, but going forward I’m planning to record some more information to help determine where I can better use my time.

After that, I got to talk to John Berlyne again, and he was nice enough to go over the changes I had made to my query letter, from our breakout session earlier that week. It still wasn’t quite right, and he gave me some more tips. I then caught up with Bella Pagan, who was our surprise addition to the instructor list. She’s the Editorial Director at Tor UK and Pan Macmillan. I hadn’t gotten a chance to talk to her yet, but I listened as she dropped some great editing advice, and talked about different cover designs. I happened to be working on the cover design for The Seeds of Dissolution, and I asked what she thought. She quickly found several places for improvement and had some great advice, turning it into a lesson for everyone in the discussion. We looked at several other writer’s covers as well, discussing how marketing shows what genre a book is, and what to expect out of it, just from the cover. So much for not judging!

Here’s before, and after. You’ll notice the title and author name are bigger, and the back is a lot easier to read. There may be some more changes… Thanks Bella!

I caught up with John Berlyne one more time, even though the Q&A session was finishing up, and he was nice enough to go over my query letter one more time. It’s a hundred times better now, and I’m excited to start sending it out to agents!

That afternoon, we had the only group session of Writing Excuses recording on the ship. I think this was again from the lack of conference room space on the ship (#6, MSC…). We watched the Writing Excuses fabled video feed for several episodes, most of which had instructors and writers as guests on the show.

Then I made the mistake of trying to get hot chocolate for a second time. I had gotten it the day before, and some of our group had no problem getting hot chocolate instead of coffee with the drink coupons we had received. Others had been told it wasn’t included. This day, when I went to the bar, I was informed that I had gotten one the day before, and that was the only one I could get. I was “cut off” from hot chocolate (#7, MSC—that’s really bad service).

We had our last cocktail party, and started our goodbyes for all the new friends we had made. Some were going on to WorldCon, but many had to return home.

For some reason, dinner that night was particularly slow and bad. I think MSC was trying to give us a “special” sendoff (#8, MSC). At least we had a fun last night of games and conversation with our peers.

Saturday – This day we disembarked, and I think most everyone had the same opinion of our ship, though the Writing Excuses activities were excellent as always. Just for one last insult to injury, we noticed MSC had charged us a Euro each for a donation to a charity. I have no problem with the donation, but MSC at no time told us they were going to do this. We left the charge on our account, but while scanning our cards one more time to exit the ship, the lady is front of us was turned away from disembarking because she had not set up her account with the ship (having not spent any money) and thus had an unresolved charge of one Euro on her account! Not cool, MSC. Strike #9. Our entire group was eager to get our survey forms, and I’m pretty sure Writing Excuses will not be using MSC again.

You may have noticed I’ve left one important member of Writing Excuses out of this blog. Brandon Sanderson had already traveled extensively and needed to stay home to get some writing done (for Stormlight Archive #3). So now I can say I’ve been on more Writing Excuses cruises than Brandon Sanderson!

The rest of Saturday was a lot of travel, with a bus from Kiel to Hamburg, then a flight down to Munich. In Munich we met up with an old friend of mine and his family to have some dinner and catch up. We got some tips for touring the next day, and went back to the hotel, where we discovered Germany does not use air conditioners. Normally, Germany is pretty cool temperature-wise. However this day had been about 85 degrees F (about 29 degrees C), and the hotel room was exactly the same temperature. I had to make my own custom AC, as the windows kept closing.

Sunday – After a week of constant social interaction with a bunch of other introverts, all three of us were ready for a couple quiet days before WorldCon. We toured Munich, saw the New Town Hall, and heard the bells pay from the top of a nearby church steeple. While this happens, the figures in the nave spin and move. The machinery was designed in 1899 by the inventor of the 4-stroke engine, Christian Reithmann. After lunch, we went to the Munich Residence, where the Bavarian kings lived, and I got a lot of editing done that night.

Town hall, the clock tower, and the Hofbrauhaus.

Reliquary and the Residence private chapel

Perspective ceiling. From the center of the room, it looks 3 stories tall!

Antiquarium and jeweled statue of St. George

Monday – We left Munich early on a bus for a two day castle tour of lower Bavaria. First we went to Linderhof, King Ludwig’s favorite residence, which was originally a hunting lodge, converted into a small palace. They didn’t let us take pictures inside, but we took several of the grounds.

We then went to the town of Oberammergau, famous for its cuckoo clocks and the passion play they perform every ten years, originally started to celebrate the village surviving the bubonic plague in 1634.

We learned a lot more about “mad” King Ludwig on the way and how he was a patron of arts and advanced technology. His palaces had one of the first batteries, one of the first telephones, and automatic flushing toilets! Only in the very last week of his life was he determined to be “mad” by a group of doctors who were helping a faction wanting to remove him from the throne. Ludwig was founded dead in Lake Starnberg with one of the doctors, under mysterious circumstances.

Lastly, we visited the fairy-tale castle of Neuschwanstein, and got some great views of the castle from Mary’s bridge, named after Ludwig’s mother. We learned of some rooms that were planned for the castle, but were never finished, as well as the next three castles that Ludwig had planned to build before he died.

We were treated to a lakeside horn serenade that night, though no one seemed to know who was performing.

Tuesday – This was another relaxing day, but we toured Hoenschwangau, an older castle than Neuschwanstein, and also toured the Museum of the Bavarian Kings. I got a lot more editing done before we caught the bus back to Munich.

Wednesday – This morning, we flew out to Helsinki and got settled into our surroundings. Heather and I were both coming down with cruise crud, unfortunately, which meant WorldCon included a lot of tissues and hand washing for me.

We got back in touch with some of our group, found out the hotel had AC, and I went off to get registered at WorldCon. Unfortunately I missed a few of the panels I wanted to see, such as Emma Newman interviewing George Really Really Martin, but I also found out they had some problems with room distribution and lines the first day, so I may not have gotten in anyway. My wife Heather didn’t go to WorldCon, but instead was out touring Helsiki, so I’ll sprinkle in her pictures as well.

They had a great display of Lego Discworld figures!

Thursday – WorldCon, first full day! I toured around with some Writing Excuses friends. It was great to see the familiar faces from the week before. We communicated via group message to figure out who was going to what panel, and to trade notes we took.

Schedule for the day:

Non-binary Representation in Fiction – 11:00: This was a really good panel, mainly because there were three out of three non-binary speakers. They all had some good experiences, and good pointers for helping to und erstand and write about non-binary people.

Independent and Dependent Publishing – 1:00: This was a small panel, detailing some of the differences between small press and indie publishing. While it probably had some good tips for beginners, as someone who has self-published two books already, there wasn’t a lot helpful that I didn’t already know.

Any Sufficiently Immersive Fantasy is Indistinguishable from Science Fiction – 3:00: A very cool panel, where Max Gladstone, Farah Mendlesohn, Hanna-Rikka Roine, and Auston Habershaw talked about the different types of fantasy adventures (Portal Quest, Immersion, Intrusion, Liminal, and Other), and how this can serve not only fantasy, but science fiction, though with some subtle differences.

WorldCon bid party – That night, the organizers for WorldCon76 (San Jose) and 77 (Dublin) held parties for their respective bids, which basically gave us an excuse to mill around and talk. I met up with a lot of Writing Excuse Retreat members, and a few new people as well.

Meanwhile, Heather was visiting the Rock church!

Friday – The one thing I was a little disappointed in for this WorldCon in relation to the one for 2016 was the dearth of Kaffeeklatches (and Literary Beers), where you could meet in groups of about 10 to 1 with an author or agent, or interesting person. In Helsinki, there were only a few per day. I had gotten some of the best interactions with agents and editors in those meetings the year before. Instead, I focused on finding interesting panels.

Schedule for the day:

Audiobooks: What’s the deal – 10:00: Mary Robinette Kowal and one of our fellow WX attendees, Yvette Keller, talked about how audiobooks are made and gave some advice for anyone wanting to create an audiobook (ACX) or narrate an audiobook (don’t, most likely).

Introduction to Rapier Fencing – 11:00: I caught the tail end of this demonstration, which showed stances and tips for fighting with a rapier, a dagger, and using a buckler to deflect. Good information for writing action scenes!

Lunch with Howard – Howard Tayler was nice enough to sit down with me and help put together a blurb for my sponsorship for Writing Excuses through Patreon! It also serves a promo for my Kickstarter campaign (though my bio may disappear after the campaign…)

Writing Queer People Well – 2:00: Ellen Kushner helped a great deal in driving this panel to explore some of the different ways people see LGBT (or insert your favorite acronym) folks both in writing and in life. Got some more good information for making my writing more realistic.

New Publishing – 3:00: Another panel on the ways publishing is changing, including hybrid publishing, crowdfunding, and interesting marketing methods. Again, good for people starting in the indie/hybrid market, but I got a little less out of it.

Reading: Charles Stross – 5:00: This was one panel I was very much looking forward to, so I made sure I was in line early. I’ve read many of Stross’ books, but hadn’t heard him speak before, so this was a nice treat. He read us a bit from the next (unreleased) Laundry book!

Blurry Charles Stross!

Hugo ceremonies – 7:30: With all the problems with small rooms and lines this year, Yvette Keller had set up a Hugo-viewing party for us at her hotel, with about fifteen or twenty WX retreat members. We had a whole bunch of Finnish chocolate and snacks, drinks, and games, and were planning to use the streaming service WorldCon had set up for this year. Except they couldn’t get it working, and eventually gave up.

Sooo…someone found a live feed broadcasted in China (with Chinese translation) recorded from someone in the audience. The sound was pretty low, so we also managed to find a site with the close-captioned stream. In the end, we had a laptop streaming the Chinese feed, hooked up to a hotel monitor, trying to hear the Hugos in English, with Chinese translation over the top. I was trying to read the close-captioned feed, except it was about fifteen seconds in the future of the video, so I kept having to look away and lose my place, so it wouldn’t spoil the winner for that category.

Ahhh…fun was had by all.

Meanwhile, Heather got to see Uspenski Cathedral and the Sibelius Monument!

Saturday – I didn’t have any panels I wanted to go to that morning, so I toured the teddy bear museum with Heather, her mother, and one of our other cruise friends. We expected a more traditional museum, but it actually turned out to be run by a couple who might have been hoarders and turned it into a livelihood?

Some nightmare fuel for you…

Anyway, they did have some cool stuffed animals, such as the mascots from the 1980 Russian Olympics, and bears made in the style of the last several Finnish presidents. They also had a bunch of old cameras, and a very large and detailed train set that had a full schedule for when each train left and returned.

We got excellent falafel burgers for lunch, and then I rushed off back to WorldCon for my last day.

Schedule for the day:

Eurogames we Love and hate – 1:00: I just caught the end of this, but it was a lively discussion of some recent eurogames, and how they matched up to each other. I also found out WorldCon had their own giant set of Ticket to Ride and Takenoko!

Non-binary Genders in Post-human and Non-human bodies – 4:00: Another good panel on non-binary genders, but this one focused more of application in science fiction and alien cultures. More great tips for writing science fiction!

The Singularity: Transhuman Intelligence in Fiction and Futurism: – 6:00: This was my last panel, another one with Charles Stross. The panelists discussed a lot of the tropes in Singularity writing, as well as when it might (or might not) come, or whether it had arrived already and we just didn’t notice.

Afterward there were lots of farewells, as I found many of my colleagues scattered around the convention. The weather had been great for the entire two weeks we’d been there, barring a couple very small showers, so I wasn’t expecting it when I got to the train station just in time for a torrential North Sea downpour! It made traveling a little sketchy, and we had to wait back at the hotel for it to calm down before we could check out and travel up to the airport. We had a flight leaving the next morning at 7:00am, so Heather had the excellent idea to stay at the airport, and roll out of bed in time for our flight.

Sunday – The airport hotel worked quite well, and we even got a full breakfast included, served by one of the restaurants at the airport.

Now, I must briefly cast you back to the very beginning of our trip, when we were setting off, we saw our neighbors from down the street who happened to be flying out at the same time we were, on the same flight. Imagine our surprise to meet them again, two weeks later! They had visited Paris, had been delayed, and were on the flight with us back to the states! Fortunately, the flight was pretty calm, if long, and I managed to get a lot of editing work done. In all, I was able to rework 26 chapters, with feedback, reading through about 140,000 words of The Seeds of Dissolution.

Final Thoughts, or Thanks for Sticking Around

  1. Like the last two years, we’ve made more friends on Facebook and Twitter. So many friends! The alumni have their own little society, which is great for asking questions of the Hive Mind.

  2. 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.

  3. If you aren’t able to afford the cruise, consider looking at the scholarships. With our crowd of alumni, there is an attendee-funded scholarship, to pay it forward and help others come on the cruise. In 2016, we funded two new scholarships, and another two this year. We’re already raising money for 2018!

  4. 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.

  5. Finally, when people talk about having an “in” to publish, the writing cruise and WorldCon are great places to meet those people.

Thanks for reading! Heather, her mother, and I had a great time. Thanks so much to the Writing Excuses team for setting this up.

You’re out of excuses, now go book a cruise!

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