Why did I wait such a long time to blog about the best week I ever could’ve had? The answer is simple but ironic – it took me a lot of effort to write something down that can reflect even a little bit how awesome the week has been. Because yes, my week has been awesome. One of the best things of the year, if not the best. Despite my fears.
Shall we just try and get started, then, after a month? Okay *takes a deep breath* Let’s start with the most important thing.

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These four people are the writers I visited while in the States. The guy on the left is Brandon Sanderson; he writes fantasy and is known for his well-thought out magic systems, and religion playing an important part. He writes fast and writes a lot(though I found out I wrote faster, ha).
Next to him is Dan Wells; he writes horror stories and is known for his John Cleaver-trilogy, where John hunts and kills deamons, but is a psychopath himself, with titles like I Am Not A Serial Killer. Don’t read his books in the dark because they are terrifying.
Next to him is Mary Robinette Kowal. The retreat was organized at her parents’ home and she’s the only female instructor. She writes fantasy too, but more regency-like. She describes her series as ‘Jane Austen with magic’ though she’s trying out a different style in the book she’s writing now, Ghost Talkers.
All the way to the right is Howard Tayler, writer and webcomic artist, the man responsible for http://www.schlockmercenary.com, a webcomic that has ran since 2000 and updates every day. How often has mr. Tayler missed a deadline for his comic? Not even once, in 14 years. (Honest confession – he’s the only guy of whom I’ve never read anything. Sorry Howard, I hope to fix that soon!)

With that out of the way, let’s talk about the States. But let’s start at the beginning; the journey. Because something weird happens with me when I step into the plane. I am absolutely not afraid of flying(thankfully): the fear I have stops the moment I am in the sky.
Because what happened before this flight, and probably will happen every time I’ll organize a flight by myself, is that I was very, very worried about whether I had everything with me. Whether I had packed it all, if I hadn’t forgotten the most important things, if my luggage would end up at my destination with me and if it wouldn’t be too heavy for them to accept(I overpack)… and if I wasn’t worried about that, then I was worried about how it would be over there. They were four people I had on pedestals, would they like me? Would I fit in the group? I was the only non-native speaker, after all.
All of that disappeared the moment my plane took off. I left my fear behind, in the Netherlands, and I could look down to a beautiful blanket of clouds. Taking off itself was a very annoying feeling, but the moment I was in the sky, I was relaxed. Suddenly, the week I could look forward to was fun again and I was wondering what I was really worried about.

Because there was nothing to be worried about. Exhausted, after a long journey, I finally arrived in the hotel(I was picked up by Dawn Wells, Dan’s wife; she found out I spoke German, and since she lived in Germany for a few years, we exchanged quite a bit of German). In the hotel, I encountered most of the rest of the group, and they received me with open arms. Though brief, because I went to bed afterwards, which they understood. (Six hours time difference. It had been, quite literally, a long day)

And after that, things really started. I won’t talk about the writing techniques I learnt(though you can always pry me for more information if you’re curious): what I will talk about, is the things I went through as a fan. Because of course, I came there to learn how I could be a better writer, and that I get taught by four writers that I admire a lot is only a bonus – but it’s an awesome icing on the cake.

First of all, this picture…

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What you see here, is me in the photo, together with a book of Brandon Sanderson. No big deal, right? No, until you know that this book comes out at January the fifth, 2015. And it just happened to lie around at the campus. I wasn’t even planning to read it, because I felt that wouldn’t be allowed – so I told Brandon that there was a copy here lying around. His response? ‘You can read it all you like, just keep it here on the campus, then there won’t be a problem’
As a fanboy, I knew what I had to do. Of course, I immediately opened that book and finished it as soon as I had the chance. For anyone who wants to know what Steelheart’s sequel is like – I promised not to share anything about the content, but what I can say is that I loved the book.

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One of my favourite parts of the week was listening to the podcast. These four writers together organize a podcast called Writing Excuses – under that name, they organized this retreat – and while I was there, they recorded a few podcasts. And I was there, just listening and looking at how they recorded the podcast. I heard the conversation before(‘what are we going to talk about?’ ‘What can you say about this subject?’ ‘What will be our writing prompt for today?’ And three episodes of the one they recorded were Q&As: the students asked the Qs, they came up with the As. And yes, the questions were also recorded, and yes, I asked a question too. Twice, even. If you listen to the podcast, one day you’ll hear my voice. (I’m the only one with a foreign accent 😉 )

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(Thanks to Sunil Patel, another student there – I did not take this picture. Obviously, since I’m in it)

Croquet LARP. Oh dear, how do I even begin to describe croquet LARP. It was croquet(that I never played either) but everyone had their own class and therefore, some special abilities. I don’t remember the details and I don’t think they will sound as awesome in this blog. All I can say is that you had to be there. It was great and the rules they had turned out to be very flexible after a while. There were two teams and every team had its own motto: I was in team Pie(on the picture) and there was also team Cake. Team Cake’s motto was The Cake Will Rise. Team Pie’s motto? What is dead may never pie. Guess who came up with that motto? Ha. (Probably not funny if you don’t watch Game of Thrones)

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(Again, both pictures are Sunil Patel’s)

These two lists both illustrate how well the campus was accomodated to writers, to have them produce as many awesome words as possible. I’ll explain the left list first.
At dinner, dessert was always pie. However, you had to earn your dessert by writing at least 314 words(Pi = 3.1415…). No 314 words, no dessert.
If you managed to write 3142 words, and you did that before Saturday, then you could choose what pie they’d make on Saturday. Yes, I’m on the left list, and yes, I chose – I picked lactose-free apple pie. They were very busy that Saturday. But my pie was delicious.
The right list’s title already gives away a little of its purpose. Two students got the idea, let’s try to get to the 10.000 words in one day. A few other students heard about that, and then Mary Robinette Kowal did – and she immediately had a great reward for us. If you managed to write 10.000 words in a 24-hour period of consciousness, then she would email an outline of one of her stories: Of Noble Family or Ghost Talkers. And yes, I’m also on the right list. It’s really useful to see the writers behind the scene like that, because I read the outline and yes, I learnt a lot. (And I’m sadly not allowed to share)

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(Thank you, Sunil)

Rock City is a rock formation nearby Chattanooga, close to the border of Tennessee. A few of us volunteered for a trip there and it was great there too, a nice distraction from writing. Plus, three of the four instructors were there too. Right there, I had an immense ‘I love my life’- moment; because suddenly, I realized I was on a roadtrip with Mary Robinette Kowal and visiting with Dan Wells and Howard Tayler. The rock formation had tourist paths, and an awesome bridge. There are also all kinds of shops in there and there is a (really unintentionally scary) cave there that’s about all kinds of fairytales. American, but some are international and I recognized plenty. And they used gnomes. You could find those everywhere, by the way, another scary thing.

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(…Sunil. Again. Thanks, man)

Dan Wells was going to adapt one of his books, A Night of Blacker Darkness, into a theater production with the help of his sister, and he was putting his own story into a script form. Of course, he needed a few people for that, to test whether it really worked as well as the paper said. There were a few characters that were given to the people who volunteered to read them. One of the characters was Gustav. In the story, he has a thick Slavic accent; so Dan asked, I’m looking for someone with a thick Slavic accent. My response was, ‘I have an accent?’ Somehow, that worked, because now, I’m somewhere on his site, in the recording of the first reading of the script as Gustav, with a Dutch accent. It was fun.
On the picture, by the way, are Gama Martinez, Martin Cahill & Sara Glassman, three other student, everyone with their own role. Dan Wells is the one all the way to the left. Martin was the protagonist.

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(These pictures are… mine. Thanks, me)

Of course, the instructors are writers themselves too and they have their own stories to write and their own things to do, if they weren’t teaching us or making pies. I gave myself the mission to get a picture of all four of the writers while working. And I did it, as you can see! (From left to right: Mary, Brandon, Dan & Howard)
The week was split into two parts; the first part was getting writing lessons, the second part was writing yourself and applying what you’ve learnt. Especially during the second part, it was clear how well we could write there.
The very best thing over there was that there were two houses. Both houses had WiFi, but there was only one house of which we had the WiFi-password. So, let’s imagine, you’re doing research for a story and you do need the internet for that. Of course, you go to the WiFi-house and you do your research there. But then, you’re done, and you realize, hey, I’m not writing, I’m on Reddit. So what do you do? You pack your things and you move over to the other house. The distraction is gone and you can get back to work. Genius.

I’ve done a lot more things than this. I’ve danced with Mary Robinette Kowal, who taught me a simple waltz to illustrate something from one of her stories. I’ve played two board games with a group where Dan Wells was too(and I won both!). I caught a glimpse of the great Howard Tayler in his pajamas. I listened to what Brandon had to say about publishers. There were two dogs: Buster, a grown-up dog, and Xiaochi(if I spell that correctly), a puppy, about whom I can talk without end too. But I have to stop somewhere and this is enough. (If you want to read more about the puppy – it has its own blog and you can read its perspective here)
In the end, the flight back home was the hardest part. On the one hand, the week seemed to last ages because I had done so much. On the other hand, I wanted way more time with these people. Not only the instructors, also the students and the house. I miss Kara’s enthusiasm, the German conversations with Dawn, talking with Mary’s dad(the most curious man in the world) and Mary’s mom, Jason Gruber’s delicious pies… but it has to stop somewhere. Of course, hearing Dutch again for the first time is fun, and of course, it’s great to step aboard your final flight home after a long journey to get there in the first place…

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…But in the end, once I was back home and picked up by my parents, I really, really wanted to go back and it sucked that it was over.

I want to end with a writing tip anyway, the best advice I got in the States. Funnily enough, I didn’t get that in a class, but in a one-on-one-session. On Wednesday, we all got one-on-one-sessions with an instructor of our choice and I picked Brandon. I asked him a few questions, but opened with my most important one.
Because, you see, since about a year, the writing isn’t as easy for me as it used to be, and it was a struggle to write down words – because I felt that what I wrote sucked and I couldn’t do anything about that. However, before that, I wrote bad stuff as well, but thought it was awesome, I had no idea about the quality of what I wrote down. I knew Brandon had gone through the same, I knew that through the podcast. But now, he’s a published – and very active – writer. So my question was, how did you get through that phase back then?
His response was(and I’m paraphrasing): “I needed to realize that I loved writing. I needed to see that I would turn fifty and had written bad stories all my life without ever getting published, I would still consider my life a success, because I had written so much. What happened to me, and to you now as well, was that my reading level caught up with my writing level and I realized the real quality of my work. I needed to realize that I had to learn it didn’t matter if I wrote bad stories, because writing a story is its own reward.
You’re 22, right? Let’s say you want to be published before me. I was 27 when my first book was bought by an editor, 30 when it was published(Elantris). That means you have five years to beat me. Five years in which you can improve your writing. Plenty of time. So write and get better. And even if you don’t, you’re writing, isn’t that awesome enough by itself?”

I couldn’t agree more. Because even if I’ll never get published, even if my ambitions aren’t fulfilled, I’m doing an awesome university study and wouldn’t mind a life as a developmental psychopathologist. I needed to hear those words so much.
Writing still isn’t easy, but now I know why and now I can get through. And, just like every advice I got there, this stuck with me, hopefully for the rest of my life.
My trip to the States is not an end, but a beginning, and now I can use it to learn more myself. I can use it for my own career, what I want to get out of life.

And I think that is the best thing of my trip across the ocean.

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