linda collison's Sea of Words

charting a course from imagination to publication

Audiobook Now Available

Looking for Redfeather

Looking for Redfeather, a coming-of-age-on-the-road novel (and tongue-in-cheek homage to Jack Kerouace) is now out as an audiobook, read by actor Aaron Landon! Great listening for your next road trip!

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Being a writer sometimes feels like a cross between an archaeologist, a nurse, and a sanitation engineer.

tpTo find the heart of your story, you have to be willing to write shit.  A lot of it.  Take a purgative if you need to, and get ready.  In my experience the heart is formed during the first weeks of logorrhea.  Stock up on toilet paper and your favorite form of liquid hydration, then commit yourself to the purge.  Give it a month.

I wrote the first draft of Looking for Redfeather in 2007 during the month of November — National Novel Writing Month.  After thirty days I had a fresh hot dump of words that frankly stank — but i was aware of a beating heart somewhere in the muck.  Over the next few years I put my waders on and began to dig into the rich fetid dung heap, looking for the life in the story.

My past experience as a nurse helped prepare me for this crappy job.  See, I’m not afraid of organic waste; producing it is part of the business of living as well as the business of writing.  I approached the re-writing of my first draft with a will and although sometimes I had to hold my breath, I did find the heart of my story somewhere within the steaming hot mess of words.  Or rather, I found the three beating hearts of Ramie, Chas and LaRoux, the teenaged protagonists who go looking for Redfeather in Chas’s dead step-grandfather’s vintage Cadillac.  Looking for Redfeather is my 21st century homage to Jack Kerouac and his quest for life On the Road. 

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It helps to write fast and furiously in that first draft.  You can’t construct a beating heart in an outline, you have to discover it in your subconsciousness.  The heart is what drives your story and without it your words, no matter how well thought out or meticulously outlined, are dead on the page.

A good time to outline is AFTER the initial dump.  AFTER you’ve found the heart and washed it off a bit.  There it sits, pink and pulsating, in your gloved hands.  NOW you can plan the bones — the structure — of the story and do some other needed surgical interventions.  At least, this has become my process.  Hearing the heartbeat, then feeling it quiver in my hands gives me incentive to finish the story.

So how do you recognize the heart of your story?

After you have purged, let the pile of words cool off for a few days, weeks, or even months.  During this time your subconscious mind will likely still be working on it, if its any good.  After a vacation read it again with fresh eyes, highlighting the parts that make your own heart jump.  These are the living sentences, paragraphs, or scenes, that bring your words to life.  They probably still need some work, but they have potential.

Be careful not to flush the heart of your story when you revise.  Don’t workshop or talk too much about your characters while in this vulnerable stage or you may lose the urge to write it at all.  Who but a nurse understands the similarities between elimination and story gestation?  Both are very intimate processes necessary for life.

Here’s your discharge instructions in a nutshell:

1. Prepare yourself.  Set aside a block of time (30 days is ideal) to dump your heart out onto the page or screen.  Make the intention, then shut the door and do your business.

2. Don’t go back, don’t edit, don’t flush anything yet.  Never mind the disgusting noises and smells — they’re part of the process.  But don’t share them at this point — keep the door closed.

3. When you’ve finished, leave the mess.  Then go back with fresh eyes and wade through the pages, looking and listening for those parts that jump off the page.  Highlight them and build on them.

4. Don’t erase your first draft. instead, keep it in a separate file and let it drive your re-write.  Nobody ever has to see it but you!

 

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Looking for Redfeather is available in paperback and electronic format from your favorite purveyor of literature.  To be released soon as an audiobook, read by Aaron Landon! 

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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