How the Novel Editing workshop at Aspen Words helped one writer believe in herself after years of lonely work, dashed hopes, and persistence–and introduced her to an agent who believed in her, too. By Alexandra Oliva
This article originally appeared in The Aspen Idea magazine’s Summer 2015 issue.
I first learned about Aspen Summer Words by way of a friend’s glowing recommendation. Researching further, I was intrigued by the conference’s Novel Editing workshop. In the typical writing workshop, you can submit only 15 or 20 pages of prose, but here was an opportunity to discuss hundreds of pages. I’m not a short story writer, I’m a novelist, and submitting the opening of a 300-plus-page novel to workshops time and again gets old. Eventually, you want to push past the question of “Would you want to keep reading?” and address something more substantive. Here was my chance; I had to apply. When I learned a couple of months later that I’d been accepted, I was ecstatic.
The Aspen Summer Words experience offers so much more than workshops, but in the weeks leading up to the conference, my main—almost sole—focus was my workshop. I had 600 pages of reading to complete, and my excitement about meeting my fellow novelists grew as I delved into their beautiful and extraordinarily varied submissions. Preparing for the professional consultations offered at the conference was an afterthought—or at least I tried to convince myself that it should be. I knew I was going to be matched with some combination of top notch agents and editors for a pair of 15-minute meetings, but I did my best to keep my expectations low, reminding myself that I was at least one manuscript overhaul away from being ready to query literary agents—maybe more, considering that the ending of my novel was barely more than an outline. The consultations, I told myself, were only practice.
And then, a few days into the conference, I found myself sitting across from Lucy Carson from the Friedrich Agency, and she told me how much she’d enjoyed the opening of my novel. Sitting there, all I could think was how lucky I would be to work with her. Even in our brief conversation, it was clear that she got it—she recognized which aspects of the story were most important to me and understood but wasn’t put off by the challenges I had yet to overcome. The conversation ended with her telling me how eager she was to read more and me floating away. And though discussing the professional consultations was a source of bonding for us writers throughout the week, I didn’t tell anyone how well the meeting went. I didn’t want to raise my own hopes. By the time I’d reached Aspen, I’d been calling myself a writer for nearly a decade, and I had two shelved manuscripts and an MFA to show for it—but no tangible success. No bylines or publications, just a hefty stack of rejections topped by a couple of close calls. Over the years, I’d learned more than I’d ever wanted to know about not counting chickens when all I had were eggs.
Each morning after the day’s consultation, I continued having breakfast with my fellow writers—of fiction, memoir, poetry—at the Hearthstone House. Then I’d walk to the Hotel Jerome, grab a coffee from the table in the hall, and take my seat in the Novel Editing workshop, where we dove into a new manuscript each day. After workshop, we slipped down to lunch as a group, joking about how each day’s spread was better than the last and how we were always the first group to reach the buffet. Between the workshops, the panels, the downtime bonding, and extracurricular fun, the sense of community grew each day. I remember calling my husband one evening and telling him how affirming I found the whole experience to be, how even though I hadn’t yet found my path through the trees, being at Aspen reassured me that I was at least in the right forest.
It’s difficult to be told no, it’s not good enough, you’re not good enough, over and over again. I’ve often doubted my choices and my commitment to writing. There were times in the last few years when the only thing that kept me going was an unquantifiable sense that I was getting better, that every time someone said no, I was able to find a way to make my writing stronger. Twice, I put aside a manuscript with a six-digit word count and years of effort behind it in order to begin working on a different idea that felt more exciting. It was difficult—not my-plane-has-crashed-in-the-wildernessand-I-need-to-survive-with-a-broken-leg-and-a-head-wound difficult, but challenging in a slow, internal way.
That’s why even if Lucy hadn’t asked to read my full manuscript, even if everything had stopped there, the Aspen Summer Words experience would have been worth it: for making me feel like I belonged, like I was seeing the break in the trees, and maybe, just maybe, that my path was near. And for giving me the opportunity to meet and interact with other writers—so many of whom were not only amazing talents but extraordinarily fun people.
But everything didn’t stop there. The last night of the conference, just as I returned to my hotel from an open-mic event, I received an email from Lucy telling me she’d finished my manuscript, and, yes, it needed work, but she wanted to do that work with me. I think it took me an hour to craft what was essentially a two-word reply: Yes, please. The next day, I remained in shock. Delayed at the Denver International Airport, I had dinner with several of my fellow conference attendees—and Julia Glass, who’d been in Aspen leading a fiction workshop. Word of Lucy’s email slipped out and I stumbled, overwhelmed and backtracking, trying not to jinx myself—I’m not superstitious until I am, and I feared that speaking of it would somehow undo the experience, that Lucy would send a follow-up email saying she was mistaken and my novel was clearly a lost cause. Then Julia put her hand on my shoulder and said, so kindly, “You have an agent.” It was a powerful moment, a powerful experience, and one for which I will forever be grateful.
Lucy didn’t recant her offer. She’s been guiding me ever since, asking the questions that needed to be asked, challenging me, and pushing me in just the right way and with endless enthusiasm. She’s been a true pleasure to work with, and she sold my debut novel, The Last One, to Ballantine Bantam Dell, a Random House imprint. I have a publisher and an editor I adore, whose authors I have long admired. I’ve found my path. And it wouldn’t have happened—at least not like this—if I hadn’t attended Aspen Summer Words.
Alexandra Oliva is the author of the novel The Last One, available in 2016. She returned to Aspen Words as a Writer in Residence in August 2015.
This post was written by Caroline Tory