Twenty years ago I wrote a novel, one of my first, and entered it in the 1996 Maui Writers Conference Contest — where producer/director/actor Ron Howard would be the featured speaker. The working title was “With a Little Luck” and it won the grand prize that year. In September the book will at last be published through my imprint, Fiction House, Ltd. under the new title, Blue Moon Luck. Like Harper Lee’s recently published Go Set a Watchman (a novel that has been misunderstood and unjustly criticized), this story represents a stage in my development as a writer. I still find resonance in Chance’s telling, I still find the setting evocative and the themes of friendship, passion, hope, and the role of luck in our lives, pertinent.
Blue Moon Luck is being reviewed by Kirkus and Foreword Reviews. Other interested reviewers can receive an electronic advance review copy upon request to email@example.com or by contacting the author directly.
I’m sharing the coda to the novel here, of interest perhaps to other writers and to readers who would like a glimpse into the writing process, the roller coaster ride of a writer’s ambitions. I chose the musical term coda instead of afterword to describe the autobiographical note because the novel, a fictional memoir, is about the power of music to drive and direct one boy’s life.
Blue Moon Luck
a fictional memoir by Linda Collison
Blue Moon Luck, one of my earliest novels, was originally titled “With a Little Luck.” I wrote the first draft in 1995 — it took me about six months — then entered it in the 1996 Maui writers Contest, judged that year by best-selling authors John Saul, Elizabeth Engstrom and Don McQuinn. Call it intuition, call it delusional thinking, but I had a good feeling about that story. I had a hunch that, with any luck, “With a Little Luck” could win.
The erstwhile Maui Writers Conference was a big deal. Held at Maui’s flamboyant Grand Wailea Resort, it brought together authors, hungry literary agents, top editors of the big New York publishing houses, playwrights, screen writers and Hollywood movie directors. In 1996 Ron Howard and Jackie Collins were featured speakers. All of this high profile razzle dazzle was funded by a thousand eager, emerging writers with disposable income who believed they too, had a manuscript that could, with the right agent and editor, win the Pulitzer, make the New York Times Best Seller list, or be optioned for a movie. Although there were lectures and workshops that were designed to help writers improve their craft, what really made the Maui Writers Conference seem magical was the possibility of discovery. Though chances were miniscule, that’s what we all dreamed of.
I was one of those hopefuls who spent $495 (not including airfare or hotel) to spend a long weekend on Maui, where I never once dipped a sandy toe in the ocean. Like most of the attendees, when I wasn’t attending lectures or workshops I was feverishly rehearsing for the coveted fifteen-minute pitch sessions with agents and editors – sessions we hoped would earn us an invitation to send the manuscript to their attention, with the secret code to put on the envelope that would get it past the hack assistant who was prone to placing brilliant manuscripts in the slush pile.
A few weeks before the Labor Day Weekend conference someone called to tell to me “With a Little Luck” was among the ten finalists — and to invite me to join the others in an intensive two-day workshop led by Saul, Engstrom and McQuinn. I was ecstatic. Yes! Maui, or bust! Since I was living on the neighboring Big Island at the time, it wasn’t such a long or expensive journey to get to the Valley Isle, though it was an emotional ride, for sure.
Ron Howard, one of my favorite film directors, started things off with his keynote speech about storytelling and timeless themes. I was truly star-struck, having followed his career since he played Opie Taylor on the Andy Griffith show. Author and screen writer Chris Volger’s sessions on mythic structure in storytelling was instructive and inspiring and has influenced my own writing in the years since. But where I really got my money’s worth was participating in the intensive writing workshop with the other finalists. Don McQuinn was particularly good at teaching the art and craft of writing. Through his Socratic method I improved my manuscript and learned to look at my work with fresh eyes and listen to it with fresh ears. I am grateful to Don and am a better writer for his insightful criticism.
The weekend flew by. Sunday morning we gathered together in the auditorium, an intimate group of about 1200, for the closing ceremony. Conference director John Tullius was about to announce the contest winners. Apparently there was a tie that year (1996) and two grand prizes would be awarded. I had been sufficiently humbled in the workshop, but still believed my story had merit. Now, nearly twenty years later, I can vividly recall sitting near the back of the auditorium listening as the names of the honorable mentions were called. My name was not among them but I was still hopeful. Tullius announced the name of the first grand prize winner and I clapped until my hands stung for the man whose name I cannot remember – the man who took his place on stage alongside the runners-up and received his award. My husband squeezed my hand tightly as we waited. Tullius then passed the microphone to Don McQuinn who began to read in his rich, slow voice with its hint of a Southern drawl, bringing young Chance Lee to life.
“The trouble between Tollie and me all started the night we got our fortunes told, the summer I was twenty-two. That was the summer everybody was doing it, going down to the river to see the witch…”
Bob hugged me and I hugged him back, feeling as if I was in a dream. I floated to the stage amidst what sounded to me like a roar of applause. I remember thinking, here, now, my career as a novelist begins. Agents will be beating at my door, my inbox will be jammed with offers, Ron Howard will be calling to option the movie rights… That was in my waking dream.
None of that happened. Except, perhaps, my career as a novelist began in earnest.
I had been a writer all my life. As a fifth grader I wrote the winning entry the Daughters of the American Revolution Essay Contest for school kids. In high school I contributed self-absorbed poetry to the literary magazine and wrote a one-act play in French that was awarded third place in a state-wide contest that had only five entrants. Perhaps I was unduly encouraged by these small successes.
In college I studied to become a registered nurse and began freelance writing. I sold my first article to a nursing newsletter for ten dollars, won third place in an essay contest sponsored by the National Student Nurses Association and Johnson & Johnson. Throughout my nursing career I wrote articles and stories for magazines. With my husband, Bob Russell, I wrote travel articles and essays, and two guidebooks published by Pruett, a regional press in Boulder, Colorado.
This qualified me as an author (in my mind, if not on the IRS tax form) but I had always wanted to write a novel. Now I had accomplished that. If a novelist is someone who has written a novel, then I was a novelist. But although With a Little Luck had won Maui’s grand prize that year — it had no luck at all getting published.
I did receive some interest, initially. The late Wendy Lipkind, a respected New York literary agent who attended the Maui Writers Conference that year bought me a drink at the poolside bar, beneath a swaying palm tree. She was curious to learn why a middle-aged female living in Hawaii had written a novel with a young male protagonist about male friendship in West Virginia. The answer was complicated. I have family ties to West Virginia and I raised two boys who played in garage bands. As a young woman I left my home in Maryland to head out West to find my fortune.
“What else do you have?” Wendy wanted to know. “I’m not really taking on much fiction.”
I told her about my nursing memoir I was working on and she asked me to send her the full manuscript. She picked up the tab, congratulated me again on winning the award, then hurried off to catch her plane out of Kahului Airport, leaving me feeling ridiculously happy and hopeful – and slightly buzzed – under the palm tree at the poolside bar.
As it turned out, Wendy didn’t offer me representation. She turned down the nursing memoir, feeling it was a little too depressing (she may have used the term bitter) but she sent me a book one of her successful clients had written about the healthcare industry that was more hopeful and heroic, as an example of what she was looking for. I shelved the nursing memoir and began to send out queries for “With a Little Luck”, mentioning that my manuscript had won the 1996 Maui Writers Conference Award — which nearly always resulted in a reply to send the full manuscript. This is pretty much the only benefit of winning an award, I’ve discovered.
A year passed during which half a dozen agents read “With a Little Luck” and passed on it. Most said the novel was well written with real voice but was “quiet.” They were all looking for “high concept” stories and didn’t think they could sell it. I took a deep breath and soldiered on. Another year of sending out queries got me the same result. I grew weary of rejection and shelved the manuscript, then sank into a deep depression that lasted three, maybe four days before dragging myself out of the quagmire of despair. Clearly, the only thing to do was to write another novel.
The next novel (working title “Orion Rising”) took six years to research and write. It was historical fiction inspired by my experience as a crewmember aboard HM Bark Endeavour, a replica of Captain Cook’s 18th century three-masted ship. When I was finished I went back to the Maui Writers Conference where I landed a crack agent, Laura Rennert, with Andrea Brown Literary Agency. Laura convinced me the sea-based historical novel was YA – Young Adult – the hot new market in 2004. I hadn’t written it for any market, I had written it from the perspective of a teenaged girl/woman in the 18th century, but Laura assured me she could sell it to a top publisher as a YA historical novel. Indeed, she did, to Alfred A. Knopf, who published it under the title Star-Crossed in November, 2006. In 2007 the New York Public Library chose it to be on their list, Books for the Teen Age.
Since then, I’ve written and published three more novels, all with protagonists who are teenagers or young adults. Maybe I’m in an arrested stage of development, perpetually a teenager at heart? In any case, I am drawn to characters who are coming of age. It’s a time of life fraught with uncertainty, when passions and hormones run hot and many mistakes are made. The experiences we have as children and as teenagers influence our lives for decades to come.
Recently I dug out the dusty old manuscript, “With a Little Luck.” As I read it for the first time in years, I realized I was still deeply connected to the characters and the sense of place. I could hear Don McQuinn’s southern drawl as he read the opening page. The story, a quiet one, still had a beating heart. The characters were alive, stuck in time, wanting out.
I edited the manuscript, added some sections, deleted some others, changed the title to Blue Moon Luck — but kept the essence of the story.
The Maui Writers Conference is no more and my former agent took a pass on Blue Moon Luck — but I haven’t given up on Chance and his memoir. Call it intuition, call it delusional thinking but I’m still waiting for Ron Howard to call.
— from Blue Moon Luck, copyright 1996 Linda Collison. All rights reserved. Projected publication date: September 25, 2015