Writing Excuses — at sea!

How long does it take you to recover from a cruise? Asking for a friend. A friend who has been taking three naps a day since she got back into port.

That's my ride

That’s my ride

For those of you who weren’t aware, the Writing Excuses podcast, purveyor of indispensable writing advice, puts on a workshop/retreat every year. Past retreats have been at Mary Robinette Kowal’s parents’ house, which can only house 24 people. This year they decided to do something a little different and have the retreat on a Royal Caribbean International cruise through the western Caribbean, which was big enough to house over 150 writers & family (plus the other 4000 or so cruise guests). I’d never been on a cruise before, and had never really been on a writing retreat either, so it sounded like a great opportunity to get my feet wet (har har). Warning: this will be long and image-heavy.

SUNDAY: Setting sail

Wait, you mean that's not the name of the elevator?

Wait, you mean that’s not the name of the elevator?

So it turns out a cruise ship is basically a giant floating city block that’s so massive that you hardly even know you’re at sea most of the time, unless you’re the kind of poor soul who gets seasick when you look at a photo of water. I’m not one of those people, it turns out, so for most of the trip it was a pleasant surprise to look out the window on my way from conference center to bar and see the ocean whipping past the windows. I had an ocean view room, with a massive porthole over the bed, which was lovely, and which gave me a great view whenever we were in port.

We met the Writing Excuses crew in the conference rooms and got our registration packets, then a tour of the ship. The packets included a bright red pouch to wear around your neck so you could identify other attendees on the ship, and a discreet lapel pin for the same purpose off the ship. We also got green and yellow post-it notes to stick to our laptops when we were writing around the ship so other attendees would know whether to approach us or not (green = please come and bug me; yellow = approach with caution, I’m working; no post-it = do not approach).

Dinner was fun because it turns out that even if you fill out the special needs form to let the ship know that you have a food allergy, they don’t do anything about it, and then your waiter gets you mixed up with someone else at the table and gives her the dairy free option and you get the dairy-full soup, and then when you ask about it they panic and say DON’T EAT THAT and snatch it away and give you some lettuce to gnaw on instead.

MONDAY: At sea

Rain off the coast of Cuba

Rain off the coast of Cuba

I ordered room service for breakfast on Monday. Mistake! Even though I wrote DAIRY ALLERGY all over the form and they called me (twice, before 7am -_-) to confirm that there would be no dairy in my order, they still gave me dairy-filled scrambled eggs, which I only know because they had mentioned they were going to give me ~real eggs~ and the perfect dome of pureed eggs I received were somewhere south of “real”. I called them back and they said OH MY GOD DON’T EAT THAT which led to yet another meal where I had to wait quite a while before I got something edible. This was the last mix-up of the week, however, and they even gave me surprise non-dairy desserts every night, none of which involved lemon sorbet (!)

The schedule for the week was divided between at sea days, which were packed with classes, and at port days, which were mostly empty to let us go on various excursions. While I enjoyed the freedom to go on excursions and not worry about missing anything, I felt that the at sea days were a leeeettle bit packed.

The first class of the day was “Description” with Delia Sherman. This was actually my favorite class of the whole trip because it made me think of writing description in a way I never had before. One writing exercise she gave us was to choose a character from a current WIP and imagine that they have just had a very emotional experience–just witnessed a death, won the lottery, whatever–and write about them entering a room. Describe the room, but do not mention that experience they just had. Everything about their emotional state informs how they see the room.

Delia Sherman delivering a brilliant talk

Delia Sherman delivering a brilliant talk

Family members of writers got to go to “So You Have a Writer in the Family” with Sandra Tayler. My mother was accompanying me on the cruise and I don’t know what they talked about in there, but according to her, Sandra was a fantastic speaker.

Writing Excuses recorded four episodes on the Alhambra Theater that afternoon, and wore some very snazzy headbands to hold their microphones. I think it’s a good look, and it’s really going to take off.

“And for my next trick, I’m going to read your minds…”

That evening, Daniel José Older gave a talk on “Worldbuilding: Crisis as Conflict.” Again, it was a very interesting class, and Daniel made us think about the reasoning behind the things that happen in our world. Brilliant talk by a brilliant guy who says “motherfucker” a lot more often than the average writing instructor.

TUESDAY: Labadee, Haiti

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Medivac helicopter flying over the ziplines and palm trees

Labadee is representative of Haiti in the same way that the perfect dome of pureed eggs was representative of real eggs. In other words, I spent the day there but I still wouldn’t say I actually went to Haiti. It’s a peninsula owned by Royal Caribbean, surrounded by a concrete wall, and staffed with performers. None of it was real.

After a morning yoga class on the beach, which was fabulous despite all the tiny green spiders that swarmed my arms and swung on threads in front of my face, we lounged by the water, then went for a walk to the “artists’ alley”, where the predators live. The vendors there were the most aggressive salespeople I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been in Morocco without a tour guide. They separated us, draped necklaces over our heads and shoved bracelets on our wrists, and tried to carve our names into wooden bowls, but wouldn’t let us leave until we agreed to pay something. I feigned heat exhaustion to get out of there.

I had a short story critique session with Howard Tayler that afternoon, and since the aggressive vendors had soured me on Labadee, I went back on the ship until the session. Turns out Howard got heat exhaustion for real, so our session was in the air conditioned conference room, which was fine by me. He gave me some really great critique on the short story I submitted.

Yoga on the beach in Haiti. That's me in the pink.

Yoga on the beach in Haiti. That’s me in the pink.

Nalo Hopkinson gave us the evening lecture once the ship got back underway. Hers was “Revision: Spinning Straw Into Gold.” At the same time, Mary Robinette Kowal gave a talk to family members on “How to Give a Critique”. Nalo’s talk was eye-opening, and among all the things she said, I think the most interesting bit was when she talked about how she perceives of her story in a very kinetic way. A story, to her, isn’t complete until it makes the right shape and moves in the correct way, which was a different way of conceptualizing a story that I hadn’t considered before.

WEDNESDAY: Falmouth, Jamaica

The road to Dunn's River Falls

The road to Dunn’s River Falls

I had a 15 minute individual session with Nalo that morning in the King Lear dining room (side note: someone noticed the first night that all three dining rooms were named after Shakespearian tragedies, which was odd. Better those than The Tempest, at least?) Nalo’s talk the evening before had given me enough questions to get through the 15 minutes without any awkward silences, and I found her advice really helpful.

Then we got to Jamaica. Ok so here’s the thing about Dunn’s River Falls. The official description says you’ll get a little wet. It says water shoes are necessary. It does NOT mention the part where you wade through waist-deep water, or when they film you while you slide on your butt down a rock into water over your head. Nowhere does it mention bathing suits.

I can feel little parasitic fish swimming in my sinuses.

I can feel little parasitic fish swimming in my sinuses.

I don’t have any pictures of Dunn’s River Falls because all those things happened and luckily I was able to give my phone to someone else in the group who decided to sit it out instead of getting soaked. For those who don’t want to get soaked, you can stand at a viewing platform and watch people climb the falls on foot. Sadly, it’s not really worth the admission price to do that, so I feel a bit bad for the people who were forced to take that option. Me, I just stripped half naked and went for it. When in Jamaica, right? “Just think of it as research for your novel,” someone said.

After Dunn’s River Falls, we went to the Green Grotto Caves. I’ve been to caves in Ireland, England and now Jamaica. They’re pretty much all the same, to be honest, except that this one had very vocal bats.

Writing Excuses recorded again that night. Actually no, they didn’t. They did a Q&A session because Dan Wells’s 12-year-old son drove his car into a tree and then ran away so Dan was a little distracted with phone calls. Understandably so.

THURSDAY: Georgetown, Grand Cayman

Hell, Grand Cayman

Hell, Grand Cayman

If I were going to visit any one of these places again, Grand Cayman would be the place. Partly I think it’s because it’s a tax refuge for millionaires so it was the least desperate of all the places we visited. Partly it’s because we got free rum punch and got to swim in the clearest, warmest waters I’ve ever swum. I got a sunburn but oh, man, it was worth it. Plus Grand Cayman has the town of Hell, which is nothing like it (apart from the heat, I suppose).

Cures prostate cancer and hangovers

Cures prostate cancer and hangovers

We got free rum cake tastings but it turns out rum cake is made with milk (siiiigh) so I can’t tell you how that was. We also got free rum tastings and let me tell you, I took full advantage of that. I feel like I should have gotten more free rum because I couldn’t have the cake. Instead, I bought a coffee mug.

Hell has great graphic design

Hell has great graphic design

That night was formal night. Actually it was the second formal night of the trip (cruise ships really love the idea of dressing for dinner) but this was the one where we were encouraged to cosplay. I don’t really cosplay, but I do have a fabulous dress covered in skulls, so I thought it was the perfect opportunity to wear it. There was a cocktail party before dinner (free rum punch and champagne, woo!) where I got to gawk at some of the amazing formal costumes of our fellow attendees. I don’t know how you fit a hoop skirt in your suitcase, but some people managed it.

The Captain showed up for a photo op.

The Captain showed up for a photo op.

FRIDAY: Cozumel, Mexico

The seaweed strewn beaches of Tulum

The seaweed strewn beaches of Tulum

The morning started at 4:00 am with the Captain muttering “Oscar, Oscar, Oscar” over the intercom and someone sprinting down the hall outside our bedroom door. A minute or two after that, the floodlights outside our window turned on and the ship ground to a halt in the middle of the ocean. A lifeboat was lowered out over the water with three crew members aboard. My mother and I watched for half an hour before they raised the lifeboat back up and turned off the light. In the morning the Captain announced that they’d received a 911 call at 4am saying that someone had fallen overboard. Not long after that, they got a second call saying that it had been a false report, but they’d had to look anyway. Apparently Mexican customs got interested in the ship at that point because who knows how many bales of cocaine they could have loaded onto the ship during that stop, so we were late getting into port that day.

I didn’t get to see much of Cozumel because we immediately took a ferry to Playa del Carmen, and then a bus to Tulum to see the Mayan ruins there. The bus stopped first at a mandatory souvenir shop, where I bought a lovely snake statue, and where the bathrooms had no toilet seats and it cost $1 to wash your hands with soap.

The Mayan ruins of Tulum

The Mayan ruins of Tulum

In Tulum we got headphones to listen to our tour guide, who walked us through the Mayan city. It’s very hot there, so every tour ended up huddling in the few bits of shade while we looked over the ruins. Iguanas roamed everywhere, sunning themselves on rocks and flaring their neck wattles at anyone who came too close.

This iguana was the size of my cat

This iguana was the size of my cat

SATURDAY: At sea

A glass of bubbly and a swiftly moving sea

A glass of bubbly and a swiftly moving sea

Saturday was the last real day of the cruise. It started with Dan Wells giving a lecture on “Deconstructing Structure”, then continued with “Stories with Multiple Viewpoints” with Brandon Sanderson. After lunch, Ellen Kushner gave a talk on “Dialogue: Say it with Feeling” (unfortunately this was the only lecture I missed due to dining room shenanigans). Writing Excuses did another Q&A and recording session after that, and then there was a farewell party at 7. I somehow managed to place in the top ten of attendees who had written the most words on the cruise, so I got a cute little ribbon for that.

SUNDAY: Disembarking

Good morning, Ft Lauderdale

Good morning, Ft Lauderdale

I was a little sentimental leaving that day. Seven days is a long time for a conference, and being on a cruise ship is like being on a different world, one without internet or cell phone service or American jurisdiction. I don’t even remember the names of half the people I talked to during the trip, but I hope to keep in touch. My flight wasn’t until Monday, so I got to spend the entire day by the pool at the Sheraton in Ft. Lauderdale, trying to convince the geckos there that I had a handful of gecko food (they didn’t believe me, for some reason).

I flew home Monday afternoon and have been sleeping ever since. Soon I’m going to have to whip out some WIPs and get to editing with all the stuff I’ve learned.

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9 thoughts on “Writing Excuses — at sea!

  1. This sounds amazing, both the cruisey stuff and the writerly stuff. Can’t wait to see how it changes and improves your writing! (Also: congrats on foiling their efforts to poison you with milk.)

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    • I’m very skilled at preventing assassination by milk at this point. They’ll have to try harder than that to get the best of me. And I strongly recommend the cruise! You and Andrew should totally do it.

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  2. This sounds amaaazing. This is like, all of my favorite panelists and moderators from WisCon, but up close and personal. (The highlight of this year’s WisCon for me was definitely a panel that Delia Sherman was moderating and Ellen Kushner was on, that ended with Kushner holding a tiny coup d’etat and taking over as moderator.)

    This also makes me want to ask: do you have any plans for next year’s WorldCon? I want to go, but I want to go more if I know other people there. I’m also willing to schlepp passengers with me from Madison, though I expect it’s cheaper to fly straight to KC than into our microscopic airport.

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    • Delia and Ellen are a hilarious and adorable team. I absolutely recommend the cruise if you get a chance.

      You’re the third person to recommend WorldCon to me in the past few weeks. I’d really like to go. I can’t commit to anything right now because I have no idea what I’ll be doing next August, but you can count me as a strong maybe. But isn’t that quite a drive from your house?

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      • It’s seven hours! Less if I speed (which I will). That’s a short day’s drive here in flyover country, haha.

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      • Yep seven hours is exactly what google maps says. Around here in the northeast, two hours is quite a drive. That said, I’d totally be up for it. If I have the time and money, I will absolutely go.

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    • Honestly these sorts of things happen any time there’s food involved, and they were much better than some restaurants I’ve been to. I was impressed with their honest effort to provide me with desserts and things I could eat after that point, and the head waiter knew me by name by the second day. Overall I was pretty happy with their effort (and happy they didn’t have to medevac me the first night).

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