Monday, March 30, 2015

The Writer's Backstory - The Algonkian NY Pitch Writer's Conference, and How it Inspired the Lives of 14 Writers


     Last weekend, I was privileged enough to attend the Algonkian Writers New York Pitch conference in Manhattan. Directed by the contagiously enthusiastic Michael Neff and taught by a faculty of talented writers, literary agents, and editors, The New York Pitch conference is devoted to helping writers develop a strong pitch for their commercial novels. Pre-conference work forced attendees to pick apart our novels on a deeper level than we usually might. We were instructed to come up with several comparable books, decide on a working title, flesh out our protagonists and antagonists, and plot our conflicts through a series of exercises.  Once we arrived at the conference, we were ready to pitch our projects.
     …Or so we thought.
      After being divided into groups that were organized by the genre of our novels, we spent hours working through our pitches with our designated mentors. We pitched. We revised. We pitched again until we had our spiels under our thumbs and could speak them with fervor and faith. On Friday morning, we were finally prepared to pitch to our first editor. She was from Berkeley Penguin and was gracious enough to both listen to our pitches and give us helpful feedback.   By the end of the conference on Sunday we’d pitched to four editors –all from big houses based in New York City. A handful of us got requests for pages and went home with a new found spring in our steps!
     The New York Pitch conference was by-far the best writing conference I've attended.
     Now I not only have a fabulous pitch and editors who are interested in reading my work, but I have a group of writing peers to support who can support me back. Our group, group C, consisted of fourteen writers from all over the country. Susan Breen, who is a successful writer and an alumni of the Algonkian workshop, was our fearless leader. She led us through the pitch writing trenches and ushered us into the world of publishing with a new and improved product.  We were so grateful to have been her students for the weekend.
     Since the Algonkian Writers New York Pitch Conference made such an impression on me, I’ve decided to post a blog series about it. The series will be entitled “The Writer’s Backstory,” because although we are encouraged to limit backstory in our projects, I happen to LOVE it! Every week I’ll post an interview of one member of the Algonkian fourteen, group C. Interviews will focus on each writer’s backstory, their careers and projects, as well as their impressions of The NY Pitch conference – specifically how the workshops helped each of them grow as writers.
     There will never be enough words to thank Michael Neff, Paula Munier, Jackie Cantor, Silissa Kenney, Lyssa Keusch, Leis Pederson, Susan Breen, and Caitlin Alexander. For your enthusiasm and time, your field expertise, and your greatly appreciated organizational skills, we all thank you!

     Without further ado, I give you the first of the Algonkian 14 – Geraldine Donaher, a Philadelphia resident and member of The Delaware Press Club. A talented writer with a background in Diocesan studies and experience living as a religious sister, Geraldine recently finished writing her first novel. Her book touches on some really interesting issues – the ins and outs of living and leaving the convent life and also life with post-traumatic stress disorder.

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1.      Tell me about yourself and your writing.

I consider myself a woman's fiction urban writer. I've been writing since I was in second grade. A few years ago my mom apologized to me for not helping me in my writing career. She said as a child, I wrote constantly and was always sharing what I wrote…but with twelve brothers and sisters, she didn't do anything with my passion. She said she saw it dim over the early formative years. Actually, it didn't dim, I just stopped sharing it and have trunk loads of journals/diaries/stories/poems that I figured no one wanted to hear….but I never stopped writing.  Ten years ago, at 40, I decided to throw my passion out into the world and see what would happen. Like my family, maybe nobody wants to read it, but at least I can try. I think I already have thick skin because of my family. I've learned that's an ok thing to have.

 2. I love it that you kept on writing for yourself, even though you weren’t sharing with anyone. I think so many of us simply must write for ourselves! What are you currently working on?

 I lived as a Religious Sister in a convent for six years, and thought people may be interested in how religious life influences a young woman as she tries to create a new life for herself. I learned that religious life attracts women for different reasons: austerity, piety, redemption – even escape.  In my novel, Clara's Voice,  it’s the quiet. Growing up in Philadelphia with thirteen siblings and strict Catholic parents, Clara's empty parish church is a respite from family discord. By age twenty, these simple visits have grown into a personal relationship with God and she decides to enter the convent. For six years Clara enjoys the teaching apostolate and theological studies, but she struggles with loneliness. Unable to connect with the community aspect of Religious Life, Clara decides to leave and ventures out into the Philadelphia area.
   What follows is a different kind of soul searching as Clara struggles with boyfriends, bills, and binge drinking. Self-doubt grows with her destructive choices but In the middle of the chaos she finds quiet, confident Anton. Their friendship creates a nurturing space where Clara learns to trust her judgment again. When their friendship grows over three years into a loving relationship, Clara and Anton marry and she is confident that she’s found the companionship she has been searching for.
 When a difficult pregnancy ends with a stillborn son, Clara’s self blame exacerbates her grief. Post-traumatic stress disorder fills her with disturbing images and Clara struggles with irrational urges to kill Anton. To silence the intrusive thoughts of PTSD and save her loving relationship with Anton, Clara journeys back into the quiet that first led her into the convent. Only there, will she find the peace and love she shares with Anton. It's been waiting for her all along.

 3. Do you outline, or do you write by the seat of your pants?

For Clara's Voice, I made a very general outline (not sub bullets). I'm working on a novel now called The City's Allee and am actually using an outline approach - following The Algonkian Pitch articles we had to read,

4. What was your impression of the Algonkian Pitch conference, and how did it specifically help you in your journey as a writer?

Validated what I've already done, but didn't sugar coat anything, I think I have a realistic view on what I still need to do. I like the constructive criticism. That's where the thick skin comes in handy.
5. What are your top 5 favorite books?

Ahab's Wife, Z- a novae of Zelda Fitzgerald, The Orphan Train, The Red Tent, Year of Wonder - and probably ten others :)

6. Where can we find more information about you and your books?

I'm from Philadelphia and like to write about ways people better their lives through education or small business. I have a website where I interview people, and blog about some of the things happening in big cities - good and bad. The blog also organizes my information on the horrors of sex trafficking. People don't realize how close it is to their own homes.    I have a degree in English Literature, Theology, and Pennsylvania Certification in Education. I taught for fifteen years in Philadelphia Archdiocesan parochial schools and put many of my classroom experiences into Clara's Voice.  I'm the eleventh child of thirteen and put a lot of the frustration, anger, joy, and love that is the wonderful mess of family into my stories.

Thanks Gerri! Looking forward to seeing Clara in print someday soon!

Until next time, happy writing! Happy pitching! Happy happy!