Writing Excuses Cruise Review
Welcome to my annual review of the Writing Excuses Conference and Retreat, aka the Writing Excuses Cruise. I’m calling it “annual” now because I plan to repeat it every year I can attend, so you can probably guess this review is positive. Everything I wrote last year is still valid, though I feel a bit better equipped to tell you why I had such a good time and why you should join us next year.
The Writing Excuses Cruise
Writing Excuses is a Hugo Award-winning podcast, hosted by Dan Wells, Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Howard Tayler. Each week, the hosts and/or their guests discuss a writing-related topic. “Fifteen Minutes Long, because you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart,” is the tagline, though the last part is very inaccurate. These folks create award-winning, best-selling novels, stories, and webcomics for a living. They know what they’re talking about, and they share it for free on the podcast.
Every year, they host a writing conference and retreat on a cruise ship. These events include classes, contests, critique groups, costume parties, readings, and open time with the instructors and staff along with all the excursions, food, towel animals, pools, and fun of a cruise.
There were over 150 writers on board the Liberty of the Seas for the Writing Excuses Cruise, and all of them were wonderful. Just like last year, it felt totally normal to wander up to someone else with our badge and say hi, hang out, or sit down with for a meal. If someone forgot an item, needed a cough drop, or required assistance in any area, they could hop on our Discord chat, and someone would help.
Our group was both easy-going and focused, with some writing over 20,000 words over the week. Others, like me, didn’t add much to our wordcount but spent time in revision. We chatted about our stories and ideas and helped each other out. I’d been stuck on a plot point for way too long, but another student offered the obvious solution after I spent less than two minutes describing the problem.
Although most were focused on Sci-Fi or Fantasy, many on board came from other genres such as Romance or Mystery. I had lunch with some sweet romance authors, who were later featured for their self-publishing success during a recording session for the podcast. The classes, students, and cruise ship hold something for everyone.
Friday night started with a critique group class with Mary Robinette, which confirmed my suspicion that my writing group is amazing. Brandon Sanderson joined us next for a Q&A via Skype, as he couldn’t swing by in person this year.
Saturday began with an optional tour of NASA, which Mary Robinette helped lead because she writes fantastic sci-fi and knows things. We had a revision class with Patrick Rothfuss in the afternoon, which was as amazing and hilarious as I’d expected. This was followed by a mass autographing session, where he signed a book I brought from some of the above-mentioned amazing writing group.
Sunday was all about getting on the ship. I’m not going to lie and say this was a good time. They make it as easy as possible, but there’s something unnerving about loading several thousand people and all their stuff onto a massive ship in a matter of only a few hours. Everything improved once I was on board and found food, however. Dan Wells then taught a class on story structure, which will be a main informant in the plotting of my third novel.
On Monday, Cory Doctorow taught a class called “Digital is Different.” I would describe it as some combination of copyright law, computer science, and writing. Some of it was above my head, but all of it was fascinating.
Later, I skipped a class from Mary Robinette on giving an effective reading, because I’ve had it elsewhere. I mention this because if you consider attending, you should know you’re allowed to skip classes. They encourage it, in fact, so you can have fun and get enough rest.
I attended K. Tempest Bradford’s class on Intersectionality and Characterization. This was an excellent opportunity to think how we all move through the world differently, and experience things differently, based on so many different factors.
That afternoon held the first half of breakout sessions, which included one on one meetings with instructors or small group sessions on short stories, novels, or other topics. Costume Karaoke also occurred that evening, but I did not attend because of sleep. This was apparently as fun as it sounds, though.
Tuesday was Cozumel! I did not get off the ship, and that is okay! Many of us hung out in a bar at the top of the ship to write. This was also the first day I hung out at office hours, where all the amazing instructors and staff made themselves available for an hour for individual questions. This happened on most days, so many students got to meet with someone about their work.
On Tuesday afternoon, I went to my breakout session, which was two hours of query critique and discussion with five other students and DongWon Song. When I finish my second novel, I will write one of these query letters and send it off to agents in the hopes of finding someone to represent my work. It is a page long advertisement for a 100,000-word novel, so it is challenging to pull off. After this breakout session, I think I need to change all but one half-sentence of my letter. It isn’t quite as depressing as it sounds, as I learned a lot.
Grand Cayman was Wednesday. I did not get off the ship yet again, but returned to the same bar and worked on my novel. I think this was the first day I volunteered to help with the office hours, so I met more people. That night, we had a costume contest and party.
On Thursday, the ship docked at Falmouth, Jamaica. Guess what? I stayed on the ship and continued to revise. This is important because nobody cared. At this conference, it is entirely fine to do the odd thing of staying on the ship and writing instead of doing the standard vacation thing. I had plenty of company. That night, DongWon taught a class on how to start your story strong and grab the readers’ attention. I’ll probably rewrite some of my first chapter as a result.
Friday we were back at sea, and Mary Robinette presented a class on short stories in the morning. I skipped this one too, as I’ve had her short story intensive class (which I highly recommend). I did attend Matthew Drake’s class on violence in story-telling, or at least half before we got to the content warning. Lightning Readings were next, and I had my first cocktail of the entire cruise, and then the ship got really, really wobbly. This was not related to the cocktail, but the waves. Houston had weather while we were gone, and our return was bumpy. Bring medicine if you’re prone to motion sickness.
Piper J. Drake gave a great class on Saturday morning on making animals in stories feel real, complete with loads of adorable pupper pictures. I’m not sure I need to add anything beyond adorable pupper pictures. Mary Robinette taught a worldbuilding class, which will be a main driver of my third novel’s setting. There was a massive Q&A with all the instructors, and people roved to whichever staff they wanted to chat with. We ended with a farewell party, prizes, and dinner.
Sunday was all about getting off the boat, which while better than last year, was still unpleasant. Thankfully, I made the earlier flight home and arrived at my apartment over five hours earlier than planned. As soon as all my travel tasks were complete, I succumbed to post-cruise vertigo and went to bed.
Although not referenced above, the event also included Sandra Tayler, Kathy Chung, and Erin Roberts. These writers were wonderful resources all around, and I had the chance to talk to them during Office Hours and dinner. While I’m dropping links, the whole thing was put on by the Whodunit team, and they completely rock. Alyshondra Meacham kept everyone going, as she is practically perfect in every way.
I covered this last year, but I re-ran the numbers: the cost per day for this event is the lowest of any conference or class I have in my writing-wishlist-spreadsheet. If you add up the travel, lodging, food, and conference costs for anything you might attend out of town, I think you’ll find the same.
Let’s examine this for a moment. The cheapest conference I want to attend, and would argue that you want to attend, is hosted by a podcast with a Hugo Award and staffed by people who have a boat load of awards and best selling works. I’ve only been to a few conferences, but by comparison, the instructor/student interaction at this one far exceeds any of my other experiences. Add on the fact I get to hang out with a bunch of friendly people who like to do the things I like to do and talk about the things I like to talk about, and this cruise is a winner. Introverts are accepted and celebrated. And it is on a cruise ship!
I’m on a Boat
If you’ve never been on a cruise, you might be unaware of its awesomeness. Let’s start with the food. There is all the food. You can have food almost 24/7 at no additional cost. Room service and specialty meals cost more, but I only spent $37 on board this year, and that was all on special tea and that pina colada. I was always stuffed.
Cruises are generally terrific, even aside from the food. They always go to pretty places, and there are plenty of things to do other than staring at the pretty places. There was a casino, theater, ice skating rink, water slides, rock climbing wall, track, spa, fitness center, arcade, and live shows.
This year I splurged for a single balcony room. It was fantastic. I think I saw Jupiter, among other things. I watched passing storms and passing ships, caught the sunrise and sunset, and generally enjoyed the view. As an FYI, even with this additional cost, this cruise is still not among the most expensive options on my list for cost per day.
Compared to Last Year’s Cruise
As I attended the Writing Excuses Cruise last year, I have the opportunity to compare experiences. Here is a short list of differences:
- I took a direct flight, so I did not end up spending the night in Dallas.
- I did not come home with a sinus infection.
- Last year I was stressed about many things, and the above two points didn’t help. I wanted to learn all the things and do all the things, which then cycled back to the respiratory illness. I took it much easier this year.
- This year seemed to have a 15-20% reduction in class time. It sounded like they were trying to give us more time for self-care. Many might want more class time, but most of us probably needed to spend more time doing other things. Want vs. need: a writer’s tale.
- I had a balcony so I’d spend more time outside. This worked wonders.
- I also spent more time outside my cabin, writing with other writers, and generally hanging out.
Okay, so you’re probably wondering what I didn’t like. I have some specific suggestions for when I get the survey from the Writing Excuses staff, but those aren’t really complaints or things I didn’t like. Here’s my list of cons:
- I’m not a huge fan of rough seas, as I get motion sickness easily. The Dramamine I took made me sleepy, so I’ll need to find an alternate solution next year.
- Not a fan of vertigo upon returning home. It is apparently a Thing, and common, and no big deal, but very annoying.
- I was very anxious getting on and getting off the ship. There’s just a whole lot of people and a lot of stuff going on. I’m not sure how to fix that.
Otherwise, I can’t think of anything that made me think, “Wow, that is super annoying.”
The obvious thing to do is plan to attend next year’s Writing Excuses Cruise, September 25 – October 4, 2020. I’ll make sure to link to it later. You could also start listening to the Writing Excuses podcast, if you have not, and check out any of the above-linked authors for some excellent reading. And finally, keep writing!