Interviews and Reviews of Algonkian Writer Conferences
In the context of teaching novel writers the most successful methods for becoming published, Algonkian Writer Conferences emphasize the art of dramatic structure and complication for purposes of strong story, the model-and-context method for the creation of competitive narrative, and the development of a middle to high-concept story premise the market will embrace. See our FAQ for more details on our methods and types of events. In short, our goal is to make you a career author by setting you on a realistic path to publication. The past two years have been our biggest for writers in all genres published and under contract.
Reviews and Interviews
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 curriculum 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
AWC: 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?
AWC: 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.
AWC: 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.
AWC: 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.
Douglas Grudzina earned a B.A. in English Literature from SUNY Stony Brook and an MA, also in English Literature, from Washington College. After twenty-five-plus years teaching high school English and consulting with the Delaware Department of Education, he “retired” to write and edit for Prestwick House, Inc., where his books and ELA instructional materials have received critical acclaim and won a number of national awards. His short stories and articles have appeared in several professional publications, and he reviews articles for the National Council of Teachers of English’s English Journal.
I found the Pitch and Shop to be the best I have attended. The limited number of participants, the reasonable size of the individual groups, the positive, nurturing atmosphere, and the high amount of individual attention each of us received put this conference in a different class from those where you are one of 1,000 wannabees milling around, vying for a couple minutes with an overworked agent.
– Doug Grudzina
AWC: What was the inspiration behind your novel, The Warrior of Galilee?
DG: In December 2003, I was listening to my daughter’s Christmas concert. They were singing a “Magnificat” (Mary’s response to the angel telling her she’s going to have God’s baby.) And I started thinking about the personal and human lives that traditional religious and biblical views don’t let us see. First I thought of a book about Mary—not focusing on the theological “Mother-of-God” stuff, but on the little girl, the housewife, the mother, etc. Early in my research, however, Jesus/Yeshua emerged as a much more interesting character—again focusing on the human, the family, the politics.
AWC: Can we hear more about it?
DG: Well, it’s an adventure story—the story of a boy born in a politically volatile time to a family of extremists. It’s a love story between a young girl and the husband that is chosen for her, and how the husband struggles to forgive his wife for the child she bears that is not his. It’s the coming-of-age story of a boy who does not really fit into his family of half- and step-siblings, and is both enthralled and terrified by what he begins to suspect might be his destiny. And it’s a hero journey—a boy’s growth from illegitimate baby to someone who believes himself to be the salvation of his people.
AWC: What made you choose to attend the New York Pitch Conference?
DG: Back in—I think—2005, I was Googling writers conferences in New York, and the Pitch and Shop caught my eye. I knew my novel was nowhere near ready for the pitch stage, but I kept checking the site for news about subsequent conferences … The Warrior of Galilee is actually my fifth completed manuscript, and I’m always on the lookout for something that will get me out of the slush pile and actually into someone’s hands. I also knew that my query letters were missing their mark, so the idea of getting one-on-one help with the pitch and then actual face-time with the editors was very attractive.
I was not disappointed.
AWC: Has The Warrior of Galilee changed since the conference?
DG: You know that joke about the sculptor who, when asked how he made a sculpture of an elephant, said he took a piece of stone and chipped away everything that didn’t look like an elephant? Well, the pitch conference really helped me see the “elephant” I wanted the book to be, and that made it easier—in my most recent edit—to cut out all the stuff that didn’t look like an elephant … When you have fewer than 200 words to encapsulate a 300-page novel, and you know that someone is going to base her decision whether or not to read the thing on those 200 words, you really do search for the essence, the core of the story.
AWC: What did you find most beneficial about the Algonkian Writer Conferences in New York?
DG: I work in publishing, so I often see good things sent back to their writers because we know we cannot sell them to our customers. So, to have an editor say to your face—rather than through a form rejection letter—that the concept sounds fine, but the market will not support it, is—while disappointing—also very helpful. It’s not personal, it’s business.
I also found it incredibly helpful just to see and hear another person’s reaction to the story. You work on something so closely and in such relative isolation, that you really do not know what kind of impact it will have on someone for whom it’s new.
Plus the fact that you’ve finally got someone’s attention is incredible.
Sara Beth Jonassen has been dedicated to the craft of fiction writing for fifteen years, workshopping extensively with The Writer’s Studio in NYC, her native hometown. She graduated Summa Cum Laude from the University at Albany, where she studied with author Laura Marello (winner of the Aniello Lauri Award for Fiction) and workshopped with Doug Bauer and the NYS Writers’ Institute. She turned down a fine art scholarship at The Cooper Union in NYC to pursue a career in fiction writing. Her short story, Biting the Peach, was published in the 2004 spring edition of Gertrude Magazine.
Pitching itself was a fascinating process, and most helpful, especially when I was questioned in return by acquisition editors. Their questions informed me on where the market is moving, what a commercial writer should consider when presenting themselves to a wider audience, and how to better prepare the pitch for future sessions, which in turn, taught me how to improve the novel.
Being on a small budget, I went right to the New York Pitch Conference, feeling that the conference would pay off for my writing career more quickly. I’ve never lost that conviction.
– Sara Beth Jonassen
AWC: Invisible Medicine is one of the more unique stories I’ve heard at this conference. I find it intriguing. What led you to write it?
SJ: My inspiration came from reading the letters and journals of some of America’s earliest overland emigrants, namely women who risked everything (often the lives of their children and their financial security) to follow their husbands across the Oregon Trail. It surprised me that so many early pioneers were hardworking families with ample financial stability back in the States. But despite this security, they were desperate to find a better life, which resonated with me about our cultural values today, how what we have is never quite enough. The letters and journals were often compelling and honest accounts of a grueling trip towards a foggy idea of prosperity, which many of the women of the time didn’t seem to question, disenfranchised as they were. My inspiration was to provide these brave women with an unforgettable adventure in frontier America, deserving of their courage and tenacity.
AWC: Can you sum it up for us?
SJ: Invisible Medicine tells the story of a sisterhood of women thrust together by cruel turns of fate and catapulted to heroine status during their yearlong migration through the pristine wilderness of 1848 North America—a grueling trail stretching from the sage-dotted Great Plains to the lush temperateness of Willamette Valley. A mystical Lakota medicine woman introduces the women to ‘Invisible Medicine‘, an unseen force, akin to serendipity, that she believes makes her impervious to bullets, arrows, daggers and lances, and also invokes the physical Universe—the elements and the animals—to conspire with her peacekeeping mission. Unexpectedly thrust into the adventure of their lifetimes, including a confrontation with a sadistic cavalry lieutenant intent on slaughtering as many natives as his troop encounters in Oregon Territory, the women must abandon the precepts of their former lives and embrace the full power of Invisible Medicine if they are to make it to Willamette Valley with their consciences—and their lives—in tact.
AWC: Thanks! That’s one book I would definitely read … So what made you choose to attend the conference in New York?
SJ: I’d finished drafting Invisible Medicine, and thus began the long process of querying agents, but to no avail. After about a year of querying without much more than a generic dismissal letter, I read about the New York Pitch Conference on-line at an on-line literary magazine, and immediately applied. I was intrigued by the idea of jumping right into pitching my novel to acquisition editors face-to-face—a thought which terrified me, but thrilled me too. I also had the sense that I would come away learning much more about the market and its specific needs as they pertain to a writer with a finished manuscript than I would by attending the usual style of conference.
AWC: Do you feel Invisible Medicine is improved as a result?
SJ: Absolutely. I’ve since refined the pacing of the novel to better hold the reader’s interest. Also, I’ve omitted characters, revised with a more consistent POV, and readjusted elements to highlight the action and tension more efficiently. Most importantly, I’ve learned that what works best about an entire manuscript can often be pitched in a clear, concise way, helping me to streamline the novel’s movement to better support the feel of the workshopped pitch.
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