Villa Diodati

[ Read this in Dutch ]

Diodati0804-43 Writing is, almost by definition, a lonely occupation.* Fortunately, that doesn’t stop “us writers” from flocking together at the least provocation. Be it a signing, or a Con, or a workshop; any excuse is good enough to get together and act geeky. The latest occurance of this flocking behaviour was the second Villa Diodati Writers’ Retreat and Workshop. And it was a marvellous experience.

Diodati0804-23As a result of meeting Luc Reid (my excellent roomie) at the 20th Writers of the Future Workshop 2004, I’m a member of the ever-expanding online Codex Writers’ Group. Consisting mostly of American speculative fiction writers (or should that be “authors”?), Codex counts among its members several American expats, as well as half a dozen European natives like myself. Obviously, the European contingent of Codex has next to no opportunity to meet each other at stateside Cons, signings, or other events where Codexians flock. So last year the plan was hatched to get together on a somewhat regular basis on this side of the Atlantic. That plan grew into the semi-annual Villa Diodati Writers’ Retreat and Workshop.

Immodestly named after the villa where Mary Shelley hatched Frankenstein and Polidori conceived of The Vampyre, the first installment of the workshop in October of 2007 was a resounding success. My wedding and honeymoon got in the way of my participation, but the reports on the first workshop by Deanna Carlyle, Nancy Fulda, John Olsen, Ruth Nestvold, Sara Genge, and Aliette de Bodard had me hooked. There was no way I was going to miss the second one.

So on Saturday 26 April, I drove down from Amsterdam to pick up Nancy, Ruth, and Sara at Charles de Gaulle Airport, and the four of us drove to the tiny village of Jaulzy. The other four participants John Olsen, Aliette de Bodard (who put together this installment of the workshop), Stephen Gaskell, and Jeffrey Spock were already holed up in the Gîte we’d rented.

Diodati0804-33 Diodati0804-22 First spot of good news was the village itself, a collection of a few dozen houses sprinkled against the slope of Aisne Valley, with a castle-like mansion, and an old church overlooking the village and the valley. Jaulzy, the church, and the magnificent blooming cherry tree, were pretty enough. Fortunately, they were not so interesting they’d distract us from what we were there for: writing!

Then there was the Gîte itself. Old, rustic, fairly spaceous, and with a big garden behind it, it was the perfect environment for relaxation, discussion, and consumption. Believe me, we had all three, and the latter deserves special mention. There were yummy cheeses, beers, wines, and other consumables brought by the participants from all corners of Europe, and there were delicious meals as well, cooked in the Gîte’s kitchen by our more culinarily inclined members. John did something marvellous with duck breast on Saturday; Ruth made us sweat with very good chili on Sunday; and Jeff pleased our palates with his chicken and olive tagine on Monday.

All of this served as a “mere” backdrop though to the real “work” of writing, talking about writing, critiquing each other’s writing, and generally having long, rambling, frequently hilarious conversations with other writers. And that’s where the real value was.

We had a morning sessions on Sunday and Monday where we critiqued each other’s stories. Everyone had uploaded one short story (or in my case, the first couple of chapters of a novel) a few weeks before the workshop, and everyone had had a chance to read them and make notes on what does and doesn’t work for them. It was a delight to read them all and drink in the imaginative wealth of the others: Hindu Gods in London, monsters in post-war film-noir Paris, dreaminess in a Sky Castle, shadow voodoo in Alaska, ghosts in a Vietnamese temple, high-tech macramé mystery in the future States, and well-hung dwarves. (Plus my own werewolves in Amsterdam.) Reading them was great, and discussing what each writer might do to perfect them an excellent exercise. I got great feedback on my novel, from clarifying how many monsters are killed in the first scene, to expanding the loneliness and alienation theme into making it a road trip story, to considering YA (young adult) as the target market. I believe everyone came out of these sessions chomping at the bit to continue their work on the stories and implement some of the great tips they’d gotten.

Diodati0804-20 Sunday afternoon was for brainstorming story ideas, and on Monday afternoon we had the Write-A-Thon: each of us beginning a new story based on the story ideas, first scenes, characters, and concepts we’d all thrown out after lunch. When we got together at six, I’d taken John’s “desecrated cemetery at dawn” first scene, Jeff’s word “downlode”, and someones–I think Stephen’s–concept of information stored in fingernails, and mixed them all into a story about the future of the Internet, and the man who holds that future in his hands.

Diodati0804-28 And the nights were for the already mentioned delicious dinners, but also for sitting around the fireplace, having wine, and rambling. Rambling about writing, of course, about technique, and markets, and successes, and failures, but also about books, and music, and movies, and the world, and life. And the great thing was that our shared passion for writing spilled over into a feeling of mutual understanding, of kinship, that made conversation easy and safe, and friendship possible. It was impossible not to like these people, so I did the easy thing, and liked them.

After Ruth’s efforts for the first workshop in Germany, and Aliette’s organization of this one, the next Villa Diodati Workshop will be set up by Jeff in the south of France. I’m so going to be there!

* Save exceptions like I’ve remarked on in a previous post.