linda collison's Sea of Words

charting a course from imagination to publication

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Characters hook us, plot compels us to turn the pages, but the theme of a story is what stays with us long after we’ve forgotten the details. Theme answers the question, What’s the story about? Not what happens but what might it mean? What is the author trying to express?

Is theme the moral of the story? Is it one of life’s lessons? Like, Don’t build your house of straw? Or, Slow and steady wins the race? It can be, but the themes of many memorable novels are often subtle and complex, questioning our assumptions about what we hold to be true.  Questioning aspects of the entire human experience.  Which is why fiction is a nearly inexhaustible medium.

The consequences of strong human emotions such as jealousy, lust, and revenge provide powerful themes for novels, but quieter aspects of the human experience can be equally compelling.  Emotions like desire and regret.

In Looking for Redfeather I set out to write a story about three teens from troubled families (aren’t all families troubled?) who meet up by chance and go on a road trip together. One of the three protagonists, Ramie, has father issues; he’s looking for the father he never knew. One of my own sons still struggles with this, even though he now has sons of his own and his father is dead.  While Ramie’s story is not my son’s story, I drew inspiration and some details, from our own collective past.

LaRoux, the female protagonist, has learning disabilities caused from a genetic deletion on the 22nd chromosome – a deletion my own granddaughter is challenged with. I didn’t want the story to be about 22q deletion syndrome or about learning disorders, but it helped bring LaRoux to life as she struggles with dyscalculia and executive functioning difficulties –and against her rigid, conservative, but loving parents – to follow her dream to be a singer.

Chas, the third protagonist, is fleeing his wreck of a life back home, driving his grandmother’s car, a treasured antique Cadillac he took without permission.   Chas, the eldest and most loquacious of the three, is facing a crisis of his own, which he deals with by stealing the heirloom Cadillac and setting out on a road trip, “looking for sentient life on a barren planet.” (This idea came from a true story about a young man, who upon being confronted by his parents and his sixteen-year-old girlfriend with the news that he was going to be a father, his first response was to leap off the porch and run into the woods. You can’t make that stuff up! Being a teenaged father is NOT Chas’s problem, however…)

Family turmoil interests me, as do friendships; how and why people connect. In Looking for Redfeather I listen in on three teens from different backgrounds who run away for different reasons. Essentially, Looking for Redfeather is a 21st century road trip story. Like Jack Kerouac these kids are looking for life –but their problems are more immediate and more concrete than those of the iconic Beat author.  And LaRoux has a personal goal driving her — a goal that does not include getting laid by the male protagonists. Imagine that, Jack Kerouac!

Looking for Redfeather, will soon be available as an audiobook, read by actor and musician Aaron Landon. Just in time for your end-of-summer road trip!

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My reflections on the 2014 Chesapeake Writers Conference

IMG_5716In a nutshell:

6 days and nights/$750; not including optional lodging and meal package.   Award winning faculty included Patricia Henley, Matt Burgess, Ana Maria Spagna, Elizabeth Arnold, and Gerald (Jerry) Gabriel, who was also the conference director.

Disciplines: Fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. Offered course credit.

Focus: Geared to emerging writers intent on improving their craft. Challenging workshops, lectures, craft talks and readings in a nurturing and inclusive environment. One discussion featured Mitchell Waters, a literary agent from Curtis Brown, and John Peede, the publisher of Virginia Quarterly Review, with personal ten minute interviews following. Another panel discussion about options in publishing for emergent authors, in which I was asked to participate.

Setting: Isolated setting at historic St. Mary’s campus on the shores of the St. Mary’s River. Student housing facilities and cafeteria meal plan were optional and are recommended, as there are few lodging and dining opportunities in the immediate vicinity. If you’re looking for night clubs, shopping and fine dining, this is not the conference for you.  On the other hand, the conference offers organized recreational activities and night time social gathering on the shores of St. Mary’s River.

My favorite activity: The daily three hour intensive workshops. I chose Matt Burgess’s group and was not disappointed. Besides being a good writer himself, Matt clearly has an academic background and has led many writing groups. His detailed written critique of my short story was both thorough and insightful.

My favorite lecture: Besides breaking into smaller critique groups, the week was filled with lectures, craft talks, readings, and small panel discussions, one of which I was asked to take part in. While these were all valuable, the opening talk by Patricia Henley was perhaps the most inspiring for me. Like attending a religious revival meeting, I re-dedicated myself to the writing life, vowed to make more time for writing and taking part in “the great conversation,” as Henley called it.

My thanks to conference director Jerry Gabriel and his hardworking assistants who organized this event, one that exceeded my expectations.  My only advice to future attendees is to stay on campus and spring for the meal plan!

Faculty:

Jerry Gabriel (fiction)

Patricia Henley (fiction)

Matt Burgess (fiction)

Ana Maria Spagna (creative nonfiction)

Elizabeth Arnold (poetry)

Reflections…

In one of my imagined parallel lives I’m an award-winning MFA writer-in-residence at a small liberal arts college. But in this life — the one I’m actually living — I’m a jack-of-all-trades who has managed to cobble together an evolving career of diverse occupations, including freelance writer and novelist.  I have taken some undergraduate level writing classes, but mostly I learned to write by reading, writing, and participating in writing conferences and workshops, including Aspen, Steamboat Springs, Maui, Southwest Writers, Napa Valley, and Colorado Teen Literature Conference. Some of these were better than others but nearly all were useful to me at various stages of my career.

I chose to attend the Chesapeake Writers Conference this year because I was looking for a craft based conference in an academic setting. I felt this was what I needed to invigorate my own writing and to connect with like-minded writers and perhaps find new mentors. I wanted to come as a beginner, not as a published author with an established mindset. I wanted to leave behind notions of what and how I should be writing. I did not want to focus on writing for the market or selling to the market. I didn’t want to practice my elevator speech or pitch to a bored agent. I wanted to hone my writing skills. (That being said, I was thrilled when literary agent Mitchell Waters asked to see one of the manuscripts I’m working on. The fantasy of a well-connected agent falling in love with my words and proposing commitment dies hard!)

I first heard about the Chesapeake Writers Conference on newpages.com.   2014 was its third year.  I wasn’t familiar with the presenters, they weren’t on any commercial bestseller list I was aware of, though they were all award-winning authors with much experience teaching creative writingFor me, this was important. I didn’t need to pay good money to swoon at the feet of a One Hit Wonder talking about how he wrote his breakout bestseller. I wanted nuts and bolts. I wanted trustworthy critique. I wanted to expand my circle of literary contacts.

Next, I sampled their writing to see if I admired it; to see if I felt I could learn something from these writers. Indeed, I did.

Another factor that swayed me was location. I was born and raised in Maryland, though I haven’t lived there in many years. I felt a pull back to the state of my beginnings.

I decided to stay off-campus because my husband was flying in on Wednesday to join me, then we’d leave on Saturday, for Europe. In hindsight I should have elected to stay on campus; Bob and I could have shared a student townhouse. Instead, I booked a room at Island Inn and Suites on St. Georges Island, which was a nice venue with a lovely view — but a 25-minute drive from the conference. Also, I had a hard time finding places to eat.  Next door, the Ruddy Duck Restaurant and Alehouse, serves up good fresh food, including an authentic Maryland blue crab cake — but the hours of operation weren’t conducive.  Like, where do I get breakfast and lunch? I passed plenty of bait & tackle shops and gas stations in this neck of the woods, but there was a dearth of coffee shops, cafes and charming bistros. I ended up drinking a fortifying peanut butter smoothie at the campus coffee shop every morning for breakfast, and dining in the cafeteria with my fellow writers –that is, until Bob joined me near the end of the week.

Coming back to my home state, writing in this lush rural setting on the Chesapeake Bay, under the direction of the excellent faculty proved to be just what I needed.  I’ve made new contacts, learned a new way to examine my own writing, and was reaffirmed in my own practice.  All in all, the conference exceeded my expectations. Now, back to my work, newly inspired.

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“Who here has been to a writers conference before?”  Matt Burgess asked at the welcome dinner last night.  I was one of a very few old veterans.  Most of the youngsters at the table were newbies; I envied them their innocence.

Here I am at the Chesapeake Writers Conference  — as a participant.  I’ve been a presenter at the Colorado Teen Literature Conference and the International Historical Novel Conference, so what am I doing sitting around a table with aspiring writers listening to another veteran author’s advice?

Because I have so much to learn.

Writing is a lifelong process, a way of life. It’s essentially a solitary endeavor. So how do we practice? How do we refine? How do we connect with other writers? One way is to attend a writers conference. But conferences can be expensive and time-consuming. Really – are they worth it?

I’ve attended a number of conferences over the years.  In 1996 I entered, and won, the Maui Writers Conference.  The following year I signed with my first agent, again at Maui.. I  participated in the Napa Writers Conference at a week-long workshop led by Michael Cunningham, who subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for The Hours.  I’ve attended numerous shorter conferences, such as the Aspen Writers Conference (see my post The Night Editor-in-Chief Myrna Blyth taught me to pitch). I’m a decorated veteran — complete with war wounds I don’t like to talk about.  Are writers conferences worth it? It depends on what you’re looking for.

If you’re looking to “be discovered”, I’d say probably not.  A powerful query letter is usually more effective than a pitch session at a crowded conference with a hung-over, jet-lagged literary agent who won’t remember your well-rehearsed pitch nor read anything at the conference.  Mass meetings of wannabe writers are not the best venue for being discovered.  Whatever that means.

But If you’re looking for motivation,  if you’re seeking a mentor, if you’re looking for tangible ways to write better, write more productively, if you’re looking for critical  feedback on your writing (take a breath so you can finish this run-on sentence), if you’re looking to establish new literary connections and to recommit yourself to the writing life, then yes — writers conferences can be worth the cost.  If you do your homework, commit yourself, and follow through when you return to the real world.

Before you sign up, ask yourself: What do I hope to achieve? How much time do I have to commit? How much can I afford? Am I willing to travel? Conferences can last a day, a weekend, a week. The focus can be on craft, or it can be on publishing and marketing. Be aware and chose which one best suits your needs.  But how do you know?

You can type “Writers Conferences” into your search engine to discover upcoming ones. I subscribe to New Pages –  which is how I found out about the Chesapeake Writers Conference I am now attending. Hosted by St. Mary’s College of Maryland and directed by Jerry Gabriel, author of Drowned Boy (winner of the Mary McCarthy Short Fiction Prize), this year’s week-long event features novelists Patricia Henley and Matt Burgess, nonfiction author Ana Maria Spagna and poet Elizabeth Arnold.

I chose this particular conference because the emphasis is on the craft of writing rather than publishing and marketing.   And because of location – St. Mary’s City, on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, less than a hundred miles south of my birthplace in Anne Arundel County.  I felt a primal longing for my roots (forgetting how hot the motherland is in early July…)   Although I had never heard of any of the presenters I researched their published works, read a selection of each, and was hopeful I could learn something from them. All are literary authors, not commercial bestsellers.  My goal is to get back to the craft of writing, not the business of selling.

The structure of the Chesapeake Writers Conference promises to be intense, with morning and evening lectures, and various optional activities.  Afternoons are spent in focused workshops to critique each others writing.  These sessions are led by the featured presenters and participants choose which one they’d like to attend.  After reading Matt Burgess’s novel Dogfight; A Love Story, I chose his workshop, which he describes as “descriptive rather than proscriptive.”  Today is Monday and the first workshop is in a few hours.

After the conference is over I’ll post a wrap-up and let you know Was it worth it?

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