Writing Excuses Cruise 2018 – Overview

I’ve talked about Worldcon and the Writer’s Digest conference.  Now it’s time to talk about the event I was looking forward to more than any other this year.  Let’s get into the Writing Excuses Cruise.

Tonight, I’m going to talk about the cruise in general and a basic overview of the writing retreat and how I felt about it.  Tomorrow and the next day, I’m going to two specific topics that were covered during the retreat.  The first post will be Writing the Other, the second post will be about Branding.

Actually, let me rephrase that.  My plan is to write about those topics.  Given the current events, I might push one or more of those out a day so that I can write about Brett Kavanaugh while that topic is still timely.  I already have him on my list of subjects to talk about this month.  I had hoped to his interview process would go a little longer, but it seems that some people are in a rush.

Real life looms and threatens to push in, but I’m not going to dwell on politics tonight.  I’m not going to think about supreme court nominees or how I feel about what’s been going on in current events.  Tonight, let’s talk about really pleasant things like a writing retreat that takes place on a cruise ship.

Neither Melissa nor I had ever been on a cruise before and we were looking forward to that as much as I was looking forward to hanging out with the cast of the Writing Excuses podcast and meeting other writers.  We paid for the whole thing almost a year in advance.  Everything was set up.  We just had to get there.

I already wrote about the slashed tires.  We discovered those the morning we were to fly to Houston.  We got up that Friday, prepared to go to work, and then discovered that I was going to need to work from home for a while.  Not a very auspicious start to our vacation.

It got worse.  Bad weather in Texas began to impact flights.  We were supposed to take off just before midnight, transferring at Dallas before going on to Houston.  As I watched the Discord channels and other attendees talking about their travel problems, I kept seeing people report how their flights were getting canceled and they were getting rerouted and delayed.  I had the American Airlines page open and I kept refreshing to check the flight status.

The bad news came in the late afternoon.  They’d canceled our flight into Dallas and American Airlines decided to reschedule us to fly out of Sacramento around 11:15AM on Saturday, putting us in Houston in the early evening.  I contacted them and told them that Melissa and I were supposed to go to NASA Saturday morning.  American Airlines surprised me.  They booked us with Delta when they couldn’t get us to Houston on time themselves.  The change in flights meant that we needed to go through Atlanta, and we needed to head to the airport as soon as I was off the phone.

The kids dropped us off.  We got our bags checked.  We endured the usual travel traumas (I’m not comfortable flying, though I’m getting better at it).  Neither one of us slept very well on the plane, but we made it!  We even landed in the airport that was closest to the hotel, making that leg of the trip that much easier.

Once we reached the hotel, we were in good hands.  The Writing Excuses staff made the rest of the trip easy for us.  We got signed in, got some swag along with an instruction pamphlet, and before we knew it, we were enjoying the retreat.

I’m going to intentionally skip over some details.  For example, we made it in time to enjoy the NASA tour, and though we’d been up all night and traveling, we learned quite a bit during the tour, and we had a good time.  There’s quite a bit I could say about the NASA, but I’ll just give a couple of details which had more to do with the experience than the tour itself.

First, we got rained on.  The tour involved riding on what I can best describe as the illegitimate love child between a train and a golf cart.  While going between the various stops at NASA, rained dumped on us, soaking me in particular because of where I was sitting.  It was okay, though, because I had a jacket.  I thought it was kind of funny.

The second detail about the NASA trip was Mary Robinette’s vast NASA knowledge.  We had a trained tour guide giving us information as we went, and Mary Robinette was able to gracefully take the microphone and add extra value as we went.  It was impressive.  Not only did Mary Robinette demonstrate a broad and deep knoweldge of NASA, she was able to deliver the information naturally, and without stepping on the tour guide.  The tour guide appreciated Mary Robinette’s contributions, and said that she learned things that she’d be adding to her future presentations.

That’s the retreat in a nutshell.  Knowledgeable people taught with skill and grace throughout the trip.  I learned tons from the lessons, both from material presented and from the way the teachers and staff conducted themselves.

Even before we got on the boat, we had a full schedule.  The night before we were to board the ship, Brandon Sanderson taught a class on characterization.  It was good stuff, and I took plenty of notes.

Once on the boat, we had classes in the conference room most of the days we were at sea.

I’m going to talk about the schedule now, and I don’t want to give the impression that we didn’t have time to play or to enjoy the cruise itself.  We had plenty of time.  Melissa and I quickly discovered that we could go to deck 4 and walk outside, enjoying the breeze and the view of the ocean.  It was also the straightest path to take us from one end of the ship to the other, a trip we had to make frequently.  Our stateroom and the conference room were both on deck 2, but the conference room as at the front of the ship while our room was almost as far aft as you could go.

A typical day at sea involved getting up around dawn and then heading up to the buffet on deck 11 called the Windjammer.  Some of us lovingly called it the Windcrammer, for that’s where we most often went during breakfast and lunch to cram food into our faces.  The first class started at 9AM and went for about an hour and a half.  There’d be a brief break, then another class leading up to lunch time.  As I said before, Melissa and I took all of our lunches at the buffet.  From 1PM to 3PM there’d be another class, then another break, then usually another class.  Most nights there’d be some kind of activity or class from 7PM to just before 8PM.  Every night at 8PM, we’d go to the main dining room for dinner.  It was assigned seating that put us with different classmates and potentially an instructor every night.  After dinner, starting at 10PM, there were games in the conference room that ran into the wee hours of the morning.

That’s a pretty full schedule.  It’s deceptive, though, because there are plenty of gaps in there to do other things.  Also, if you wanted to skip a class, you could.

Along with the classes, there were daily challenges.  In any given 24 hour period, if you wrote pi (3,412 words), you could put your name on the Pi Board.  If your name was already there, you’d put a check next to your name.  Whoever wrote pi the most at the end of the cruise would win a prize.

There was also a board for keeping track of your total word count.  Like the Pi Challenge, whoever wrote the most words during the cruise won a prize.  For the record, I wrote around 7500 words that week.  The winner wrote more than 30,000 words.

In addition to those challenges, there was another that changed every day.  If you succeeded at that posted challenge, you put your name on the page beneath it and collected a pirate coin.  I enjoyed these challenges because they appealed to my competitive nature.  At the end of the cruise, I was in a three way tie for the most pirate coins.  I won an eye patch and a signed book by Dan Wells.

I think I’ve given a pretty good description of how the retreat worked, but I haven’t really talked about how I felt going through it.  Now that I’ve been home for most of a week, I think I can talk about it.

The retreat challenged me more than any other convention I’ve been to.  Some of it had to do with the schedule, but there were some factors that had nothing to do with the cruise or the retreat.  For example, Melissa and I got sick half way through our vacation.  We didn’t suffer from seasickness, though we did feel the sway of the boat from time to time.  We caught a cold, either from my coworker that came in when she shouldn’t have, or from the plane on the way to Texas.  We weren’t so sick that we had to miss out on anything, but the sore throat, sneezing, runny nose, and congestion sapped my energy, and it made it difficult for me to engage with other people as much as I wanted to.

Being sick made it difficult to get enough rest.  We needed to get up early each day, and I wanted to stay out and play or write as much as I could each night.  But then there were other factors that robbed us of chances to get a full night’s sleep.  The first night, the TV in our room turned itself on and started blasting.  The remote would not turn it off.   Fumbling around in the dark at 2AM, I could not find a power button on the TV itself.  After a few minutes, I wound up unplugging it and collapsing back in bed.

The second night, again around 2AM, there was a “Bravo Bravo” announcement over the loudspeaker.  I don’t think they meant to issue the announcement to us.  Lots of people on the boat slept through it, but it startled Melissa and I awake.  We found out later that the alarm had to do with a fire in one of the engines.  That sounds scarier than it is, because there’s 6 or 8 engines on the boat, and they never need more than 3 at any given time.

With the sickness and lack of sleep, and surrounded by all of these really talented individuals, my mind decided that what I really needed was a huge dollop of self-doubt.  I began to feel more awkward than usual while trying to interact with people.  I felt like I didn’t have anything to contribute.  Why would these people want to be my friend?  What was so special about me or what I write?  What did I have to offer?

I think I managed to contain the ugly feelings, but it was hard.  It was the hardest part of the whole experience.

On the days where we were in port, we didn’t have very many classes, if any.  Those days, people could stay on the boat if they wanted to, or they could go to shore like Melissa and I did.  The first stop was Roatan, the second Belize, and the third stop Cozumel.  At all three destinations, Melissa and I went on excursions.

We had a really great time.  Just like with the NASA excursion, I’m going to skip over most of the details, and just give the highlights.

In Roatan, we got to learn about chocolate making, and we got to taste some locally made rum.  We liked it so much, we bought a bottle.  We had a good time in Roatan.

In Belize, we were taken on a bus about 45 minutes away from city.  Then we transferred to a speed boat which took us 20 or 30 minutes up a river.  After that, we walked briefly through the jungle to see the Lamanai Mayan ruins.  It kept threatening to rain, and we almost didn’t get to climb the high temple.  That is to say, we did get to climb it, and the heights and slick rock terrified me.  We took bunches of pictures.  We had a good time on this excursion.

In Cozumel, it was hot and humid.  We went on a tour which and at first, I didn’t care for it.  Then we went to where tequila is made and not only were we given an education on the process of how it’s made and how to select and drink tequila, we were given 7 or 8 shots.  Regarding a brown tequila, aged twenty years, the tour guide said, “At home, I only share this one with three people: me, myself, and I.” It was one of the ones we got to taste, and it was amazing.  We bought two bottles of the Me-Myself-And-I.  Needless to say, we had a good time in Cozumel.

I’m not sure I can say enough good things about the Writing Excuses Retreat.  As stated by the hosts, one of their goals is to create and foster a writing community.  On that front, they succeeded.  I met some wonderful people and I hope to stay in touch with them.  I’m looking forward to seeing them next year.

Melissa and I had such a good time that we’ve already signed up to go again.  They haven’t officially opened it for purchase, but we were able to put down a deposit.

If you are a writer, I recommend you go.  It’s a remarkable experience.  I’m still processing the things I learned.  I’ll probably be processing for quite a while longer.