The Blue Heaven Workshop Model


This is what happens when you lock up a bunch of writers together for a week.

Blue Heaven 2011, from L to R: Jenn Reese, Cassie Alexander, C.C. Finlay
 Paolo Bacigalupi, Greg van Eekhout, Rae Carson, Sarah Prineas, Paul Melko
Christopher Barzak, Sandra McDonald, Tobias Buckell, Deborah Coates

The speculative fiction community has a long history of face-to-face workshops (Milford, Sycamore Hill, Rio Hondo). Because the speculative fiction tradition grows out of the short story, these workshops have traditionally focused on short stories, frequently honing and crafting them into award winners.

When I was writing my first novels, I saw a need for something similar focused on the novel. Short stories and novels are very different forms of fiction and require a different set of skills. Novels also represent a much more significant investment of time and have more effect on an author's ability to make writing a pay-the-bills career.

So in 2003, with the help of Karin Lowachee and James Stevens-Arce, the only two published novelists I knew well at the time, we held the first Blue Heaven. Ten of the twelve writers attending had never published a book before, though most of us had published short stories and had agents or editors interested in our work. Many of the same writers came back in 2004, some with the same books.

Ten of the twenty novels workshopped during those first two years sold in some form. For most of us, it became our first novel sale. Since then, over thirty novels workshopped in Blue Heaven have sold and several alumni have moved onto full-time careers as novelists and writers.

The Blue Heaven Model

Each writer submits their first-fifty, which is just what it sounds like (the first three chapters or up to 50 pages) and a separate document of their complete manuscript. The workshop is then broken up into two parts. During the first half of the week, everyone critiques the first-fifties in a Clarion style format.  During the second half of the week, each manuscript gets a detailed critique from two dedicated readers.

The early Blue Heaven schedules looked like this:

Sunday afternoon:  Arrive at the retreat and have a welcome party

Monday: Critique first-fifties 1, 2, 3, and 4.  (Two after breakfast, two after lunch.)
Tuesday: Critique first-fifties 5, 6, 7, and 8.
Wednesday: Critique first-fifites 9, 10, 11, and 12.
        On Tuesday or Wednesday evening: Group discussion (example topic: agents)

Thursday morning: Complete MS sessions A and B.
Thursday afternoon: Complete MS sessions C and D.
Friday morning: Complete MS sessions E and F.
Friday afternoon: Complete MS sessions G and H.
       On Thursday or Friday evening: Group discussion (example topic: work-for-hire)
Saturday morning: Complete MS sessions I and J.
Saturday afternoon: Complete MS sessions K and L.
Saturday night: Farewell dinner and closing group session.

Sunday morning: Breakfast and farewells.

The first-fifty sessions are done Milford or Clarion-style, in a circle with time limits on the critiques if they start running too long.  Afterwards, everyone hands in a written critique with their comments. The complete MS sessions are more free form, and we tend to trust the writers more to direct them to get what they want. Each of the two critiquers will start off with some general observations on the MS, and then go into more depth, or else answer questions in a give-and-take with the author until the writer's satisfied that they have what they need to dive into revisions. They can involve anything from a detailed examination of the text to a more open-ended discussion about the plot and choices of the book. Full MS sessions have run anywhere from an hour and a half up to about three hours

Even though everyone commits to reading at least two complete MSs, we've always had a number of people pick a third or fourth MS and sit in those sessions as well, schedule permitting.

The organizer has to do a fair amount of work in advance to make things run smoothly, and not just in scheduling and sending out invitations. Two months before the retreat, writers submit their first-fifties to everyone (through a mailing list, google docs, etc.). Every writer is expected to look over the first-fifties and send the organizer the titles of four to six complete MSs that they’re willing to read. A month before the retreat, the organizer assigns each person two full MSs to critique and creates a critique schedule for Thursday-Saturday that doesn’t have any conflicts. Then the dedicated readers communicate with the authors to determine delivery of the full MS. Many people keep working right up until the week before the retreat as long as that’s agreeable to their readers.

Some things we learned from our experience:

Right from the very beginning, we’ve shared the structure of the workshop publicly in case other writers wanted to copy the model and so that we could learn from their experience if they did. For example, Blue Heaven alum Sarah Kelly has founded Starry Heaven and is putting her own spin on the model.

Here are some things we’ve learned from organizing the first half dozen Blue Heavens:

  • The size of the group is important. We’ve ranged from 11-13 writers and for us twelve seems to be the sweet spot. This workshop requires a significant commitment of time. Eleven first-fifties and two complete MSs are about as much as you can expect anyone to read. But twelve is still large enough to provide significant diversity of skill and opinion.

  • Fit is important. Our experience is that it works best when we invite writers who are at about the same spot in our craft and careers. We were able to help each other so much the first two years because we were all struggling with similar issues. As more of us have sold books, the issues that concern us have changed. Personality is part of fit. If you’re going to spend a week locked in the same room with people, you want them to be people whose company you enjoy.

  • Diversity is important. We've had our best experiences when we balanced types of genres to encourage cross-fertilization, high energy personalities with quiet thoughtful types, and different skill sets (like plot-focused writers vs. sentence-focused writers).

  • Professionalism is important. For the career discussions, we always agree on a "cone of silence" so that people can speak freely about their personal experience without worrying about gossip later. So far that’s always been respected. (Another advantage of having a smaller group.)

  • We have developed a strong bias against pre-tiquing, the practice of sharing critiques in advance of the actual session, even if it’s just with a small group and the writer’s not present. This is simply more fair to the writer. In addition, it keeps the workshop more focused, avoids groupthink in the crits, and allows for time outside critiques to be more open for fun.

If there's anything else you want to know, just ask, and I'll do my best to answer.

© C.C. Finlay 2018