Writers Talk Shop, Novel, and Conference
Commentary by conference attendees
A Conversation Between Candy Somoza and Michael Neff
Candy is a former professor of English and Composition, retired from California State University. She has served as a consultant to high school English departments in their writing curriculums and currently conducts weekly creative writing workshops. She studied in the UCLA Writer's program and at Oxford with several authors including Janet Fitch, Whitney Otto, and Robert Olen Butler. She is working on a Young Adult series, The Toilet Travelers, and an adult novel, A Penance Too Late. The novel she brought to Algonkian is entitled, Olivia Slept .
The overall experience is one I would recommend to all writers preparing to shop their work. The meetings with agents in a group setting allowed for answers to questions I didn't know I had ... The preparation work got us thinking about the book in the book store, how it got there, what makes it sell. While we read works and studied the writing, we also focused on the outside of the book, so to speak, the marketing, and that was essential to prepare us for the work we had to do
- Candy Somoza
MN: What made you want to write this novel, Candy?
CS: My inspiration for writing Olivia Slept was multifaceted. I am intrigued by what happens after a moment of great loss, what happens to those left behind who have to work out their own feelings of loss and guilt. Some are transformed by the loss of a child, such as the woman who started MADD, or Cindy Sheehan. Others are devastated. When my child nearly died, I knew I had looked into my own abyss, and if she had not survived, I could not have survived her death. I know enough about loss to recognize that humans do not actually heal from such trauma. Instead, there is a kind of muscle memory that occurs, and when--or if--another devastation happens, the 'new' pain begins where the last one left off. If the soul is energy, can't that energy retain memory? And if that energy does retain memory, can't it retain the muscle memory of guilt for failed behaviors from other lifetimes? Can't there come a tipping point where the only way to go forward is to go all the way back and face the seed of the behaviors?
MN: That's all fairly provocative. Please tell us more.
CS: Olivia Slept is a novel of women's fiction with historical elements in the vein of The Deep End of the Ocean or A Map of the World crossed with Daphne du Maurier's The House on the Strand and Anya Seton's Green Darkness. It is the story of Olivia Moffit, a woman who has left a psychiatric hospital in Glendale, California, with her darkest secret still intact. She has been open with Dr. Chang about her young daughter's death, her failed suicide, and the end of her marriage, but she is not so ready to build a new life as the doctor believes. Instead, the ghosts of dead Scotsmen and their families, contained in Olivia's dreams in the hospital, now have free rein over her life. A Highlander in full clan regalia waits outside her apartment; a plant freezes in her bedroom, and when the vision of a woman burning on a sidewalk in Los Angeles drives her into a bookstore, she recognizes the owner as a woman she knew in a past life. Olivia is through running. She flies to England and joins a small tour group set to explore Scotland.
From the first night's dinner, Olivia begins to recognize her traveling companions as the group of cattle thieves and soldiers-of-fortune she knew so long ago, and as they ride through Scotland on a tour bus, Olivia and the others will choose whether or not they can come to grips with the past that has drawn them together. Two will leave the tour immediately; Kate and Michael will grab their second chance together. Olivia will come to understand why the visions of her daughter are so connected to those of another little girl, and why she and Ian, her travel guide and former lover, have to come together to face the victims of their choices from 1692. Not until Olivia and Ian meet the ghost of Sheilah together will Olivia find the courage to examine her actions and release her daughter, Ian, Sheilah, and herself.
MN: What made you choose to attend the Algonkian conference?
CS: One of the participants in my Saturday writing workshops brought in the information. She attended the New York Workshop, and I was able to take part in the Harper's Ferry experience.
MN: Do you feel your work is improved as a result? If so, how?
CS: Yes, I believe Olivia Slept will definitely benefit from this experience. The focus on the pitch made me look very closely at what this novel is about and how it fits into the marketplace. My lack of clarity made it very hard for me to present the book in a clear light. I have swung from presenting the psychological struggle to the exclusion of the past life journey, then reversed the presentation. Now I have a much better idea of what Olivia is, and I am working to prepare a pitch that shows this work as a woman's journey to understand the patterns of behavior that have cost her so dearly throughout this life and others. In addition, I have ideas and clarifications for other works I have 'finished' and that I have in process. Specifically, my young adult novel is actually two stories, one for a younger audience, and one for the YAs.
MN: What did you find most effective about the pitch sessions at Algonkian?
CS: I think the most effective is hard to define. The overall experience is one I would recommend to all writers preparing to shop their work. The meetings with agents in a group setting allowed for answers to questions I didn't know I had. Meeting with three different agents allowed me to see the variety of expectations and requirements, proving what I had heard at another conference: There are no hard and fast rules, and they are strictly enforced. The meeting with the author was invaluable! His experience of publishing gave us a reality check, as well as the right to believe in our own work--if we are willing to accept the consequences.
Watching and listening to all the participants, I saw the value of the advice being offered--and the fallacy of the closed or desperate response to it. I also welcomed the camaraderie of so many authors of such skill and generosity. And last, but certainly not least, there was this guy named Michael Neff and his enthusiasm, information, exercises, genuine caring, and sense of fun mixed with no-nonsense advice was the heart and soul of the week.
MN: What did you find most effective about the Algonkian approach as a whole?
CS: I think the structure is great. The preparation work got us thinking about the book in the book store, how it got there, what makes it sell. While we read works and studied the writing, we also focused on the outside of the book, so to speak, the marketing, and that was essential to prepare us for the work we had to do. While I was already moving past the whining of wanting only to write and not sell myself, at the conference I moved into a state of understanding of not only the need for my participation in the process, but a realization that if I stayed in my former state I would hinder the sale of my work. I had to clarify my thoughts, get to know my own work clearly if I am to be its best advocate, and I want to be that writer.
At the same time, the writing exercises at first seemed to take me out of the pitch experience, but I realized the balance they support: I don't have to live in only one aspect of the process, and while I am learning about the one, I can continually work to refine and improve the other.
MN: How would you compare Algonkian to other writer conferences?
CS: Algonkian concentrates on the sale of the work, on moving us from writer to published writer without assuming that we know everything we need to know to make that happen. I felt like I was in a group whose skills were all comparable, and none of us had to whisper secret questions about how to do something. This is a marriage of writing and marketing that I haven't experienced before. I was at a pitch conference that spent one hour or so explaining to a large group how the pitch works, then threw us into the lion's den. It was nowhere near as useful as the skills I learned at Harper's Ferry, and because the agents were there to help us learn, I feel I got an invaluable leg up. You made the process possible for me. I am not afraid of the process, the work, or of the timeline.
MN: Where does the novel go from here?
CS: Decisions, decisions! I am going ahead with my current novel-in-progress, refining the Young Adult work into two works, and working to present Olivia Slept in the clearest light possible. As Deborah Grosvenor said, the success of this work is dependent on its execution, and that means I have to present it in a way that will get it read. I also recognize that I have to publish more short works. Things I did long ago don't matter any more, and this is the time to build my credentials. Thanks for all the help, Michael.
About the interviewer:
Michael Neff is the creator and director of WebdelSol.Com and the Algonkian Writer Conferences.
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