Writers Talk Shop, Novel, and Conference
Commentary by conference attendees
A Conversation Between Alex Keto and Michael Neff
Alex Keto's latest novel, The Rainbird War, won second place at the Frontiers in Writing literary contest and has been named a finalist at the Pacific Northwest Writers Association literary contest pending the announcement of prizes July 26. Alex was a journalist for twenty-one years, starting out at a small town newspaper in Tennessee, The Oak Ridger. Following that, he joined Dow Jones Newswires and worked for them in New York City as a reporter, in Amsterdam as a bureau chief, and Bonn as a reporter. He returned to the U.S. in 1995 and worked as the company's White House correspondent for ten years. Alex is now working full time on fiction writing. His prior novel, The African Groundnut Scheme , is now with agents.
The follow up Algonkian conferences helped focus attention on the necessity of making sure every scene in the book is part of the seamless plot. The Algonkian conferences also pointed out the need to structure the story more clearly along the lines of a classic three act play with an opening, middle and conclusion.
- Alex Keto
MN: Why the The African Groundnut Scheme? An unusual topic for an American writer.
AK: I have always been fascinated by history but not the type they teach you in school which is just a boring series of dates and names. Rather I like the deeper histories about what people have done which, when you delve into it, are often more intriguing than even a Hollywood script. And, people being people, they tend to commit the same mistakes over and over.
In the case of The African Groundnut Scheme , when I first stumbled across the story--which revolves around the idea of planting millions of acres of African wilderness in peanuts--I immediately thought it would be a great premise for a novel.
MN: Tell us more about it.
AK: The African Groundnut Scheme is about Britain's greatest colonial boondoggle when top government officials came up a poorly thought out project to plant millions of acres in the African wilderness in peanuts. Robert Hollings, a former Spitfire pilot, is tapped to lead the effort on the ground and must overcome wizards that turn into hyenas, killer bees, man-eating crocodiles as well as the toughest thorn country on the continent. Along the way, he meets Lillian Chillerton, a woman who runs a medical station and is devoted to the welfare of the people of Tanganyika, who teaches him about love and how to think for himself. But when the project collapses because of the incompetence of the bureaucrats, Hollings and Lillian pay the ultimate price. At the end of the day, the government officials walk away unscathed. For a modern day parallel, just take a look at Iraq.
MN: What made you choose to attend the Algonkian conference, or the NYC Pitch and Shop, or both? How did you find out about the conference?
AK: Snooping about the web, I stumbled across the New York Pitch and Shop through an advertisement on the Writers Magazine. Given that The African Groundnut Scheme was my first novel, this seemed like an excellent chance to see how editors would react. It was. The Algonkian conference stemmed from that experience as a follow up to the NYC conference.
MN: Do you feel the novel is improved as a result? If so, how?
AK: The NYC Pitch and Shop focused attention on a fairly major gap in the early versions of The African Groundnut Scheme which was the lack of a strong female character to help carry the story. The follow up Algonkian conferences helped focus attention on the necessity of making sure every scene in the book is part of the seamless plot. The Algonkian conferences also pointed out the need to structure the story more clearly along the lines of a classic three act play with an opening, middle and conclusion. There is a Greek myth about the god Hermes boring a giant to death with an endless story that is all middle with no beginning or end. So this is not a small matter.
Also, the NYC Pitch and Shop and Algonkian showed me how to present a book to agents. The technique is somewhat arcane and unsatisfactory, but, hey, that's the system we've got. If you don't know it, it is hard to get off ground zero.
MN: What did you find most effective about the Algonkian approach as a whole? (e.g, in terms of plot/structure and narrative enhancement, choices of material to study, faculty choice, reference materials, assignments before and during, etc.)
AK: Perhaps coincidentally, I found doing the NYC Pitch and Shop and then following up with an Algonkian conference most effective. In any case, it is what I did. The pitch shop highlighted problems while the follow up looked into solutions. It's pretty hard to point to any single thing that helped the most since all parts of a novel are critical simultaneously. You must have plot but not at the expense of character but neither really work without paying attention to creating interest and tension throughout the writing. Maybe that's your answer: a more sophisticated view of the entire book.
Also, you can't overlook other participants in the conferences. I have kept in touch with some fellow conference attendees, and we continue to talk about books, theories and concepts regularly. There are strengths I see in other writers that I try to pay attention to.
MN: How would you compare Algonkian and NYC Pitch and Shop to other writer conferences?
AK: I've been to handful of other conferences and decided that if you find yourself in a large room with someone almost out of eyesight in the front talking at you, the results are what you would expect: generic advice that doesn't really help. The point is that you have a book and that book may or may not succeed for a variety of specific reasons. The best advice centers on what are the problems with that book. The solutions can come to you days, even weeks, later.
Also, given the constraints of big presentation conferences, you do manage to hear a lot of nonsense at times. I recall one first time author at one conference talking fairly extensively about all the steps you should take to get published. The advice was common knowledge sort of advice. But when she was asked how she herself got her book published, she sheepishly conceded that the fact she worked for Random House as an editor sort of helped. Gee, thanks for the stale advice. And, no, I didn't get a refund for that conference.
MN: Where does the novel go from here?
AK: The African Groundnut Scheme is done. I am working on my next novel, The Rainbird War, which centers on the Mau Mau revolt in Kenya in the early 1950s. The theme is what drives a man to rebellion and centers on an Englishman who first fights for the colonial authorities before finding he must fight against them.
About the interviewer:
Michael Neff is the creator and director of WebdelSol.Com and the Algonkian Writer Conferences.
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