As a follow-up to the review I posted last week of Jennie Coughlin’s debut novel, All That is Necessary, I thought an author interview would round things out nicely.
Indie authors, take note: Ms. Coughlin has some excellent advice for you in this interview, so read and reflect.
Duncan: All That Is Necessary is the first book in a series, but it also reads well as a stand-alone. Describe your process in creating a novel that establishes characters and events, which you’ll continue in future installments but which also has to “wrap up” at a specific point? That is, how did you decide what to reveal and what to just hint at?
Coughlin: I’m not sure there is a short answer to that question. I can say that the original first book in the series is now set to be book three. Both the 1991 events and some of the present-day events in All That Is Necessary set up what’s coming in later books. Ditto for some of what’s coming in book two. So, from that perspective, there were pieces that were easy decisions to show. There also are details and events that need to stay hidden for now, so those also were easy decisions. The tougher parts tended to be figuring what I could put in this book to foreshadow what’s coming, or lay clues that will make sense later, without tipping my hand about what’s coming. There’s one line in this book that isn’t going to make sense until much later in the series — I think book three, possibly late in book two — and I had to be careful to make sure it was there without causing readers to notice it.
One interesting thing has been people’s reaction to the ending. For me, the ending thematically fits with the rest of the book, and also reflects the resolution of the two key threads — Dan and Rick’s attempts to come to grips with a past different from what they had always known. Some readers have really liked it and seen it as tying things up while also giving them something to look forward to in the next book. Some have hated it and felt that it was abrupt and unfinished. In the context of the series, it’s definitely the right spot to end it. I’m hoping the majority of readers will fall on the like/anticipate side of the spectrum.
Duncan: Significant to the novel is the relationship between Dan and Chris, a gay, married couple. That relationship is so typical of any spousal relationship, the reader can “forget” the characters are gay. Was that deliberate? And if so, what do you want the reader, gay or straight, to take away from that glimpse into their lives?
Coughlin: I wasn’t trying to make readers “forget.” Dan and Chris are just being themselves. When I’m writing them, it’s how their personalities interact. That’s true of all of my characters. Just like Riordan’s comment later in the book about this year being the forty-third time he’s asked Becca to marry him is how those two interact. It’s not a statement on getting married or not getting married.
For all the characters, I hope readers take them on their own terms — who they are, what they do, why they do it, how they interact with others. I think we see some of that with Tom Murray. From the opening scene, there’s a logical perception of who he is that is easy to assume. As the story unfolds and we start to learn more, I think there are things that come up that can challenge those assumptions. And if I could throw a single question out for a discussion topic for book clubs, it would be Tom and how his motives and his actions played out. Did he handle things the right way?
Going back to the original question, I saw a blog post recently on Indie Reader, also picked up on HuffPo, that questioned why there aren’t more gay characters in books where their being gay isn’t the defining factor. Getting the characters out of the LGBT genre closet, as it were. I think in traditional publishing, a lot of that is marketing pressure. YA authors have been forced to “straighten” gay characters for years unless the storyline was about the character’s orientation. The only really deliberate choice I made was to stay away from publishers until I get a few books into the series so nobody tries to make me straighten out any character or otherwise make them conform to marketing pressures. Dan and Chris are gay, but that’s not what defines them in this book. Even the one plot thread that veers in that direction is as much about Dan learning that his perceptions of people and events as a child were very black and white, and now as an adult he discovers there are shades of gray, ones he needs to wrestle with.
Duncan: Did this novel turn out exactly how you envisioned it initially? Or were there major shifts? Were they character-driven or plot-driven? Is this the better book than what you first envisioned?
Coughlin: Originally, this was going to be a novella set entirely in 1991. The “marsh mess” (discovering the Irish mob had been using Exeter’s marsh as a body-dumping ground) had such a big impact on so many of the Exeter residents that readers needed to understand what happened then or a lot of the events in the first three books in the series won’t make the kind of sense they’re supposed to. Then my editor pointed out that all the other books are set present day. So I fiddled with bookending the 1991 events with present-day chapters. The set-up was that they were telling Chris what happened, since he wasn’t around back then. That led to the need for an inciting event — some reason to tell the rest of the story when he’d never heard it even after a dozen years in town, most of those either dating or married to Dan. Somehow I got the idea that a) Rick Murray had existed, and b) he was now back. I figured I could deal with the aftermath of his return in book two.
After drafting the entire book in 1991, plus those bookends, my editor hated it. And after thinking about it, I realized that I needed to combine the first two books. That led to this novel’s final structure. The evolution was driven both by plot and by character, but the end result is something I think is much stronger. I’m glad I wrote everything that happened in 1991 first because it forced me to work out exactly what happened and how, but only the scenes that I felt were necessary to the present-day story made it in. Two big scenes in the 1991 version didn’t get in at all: The shootout that kills Dan Reilly’s Uncle Billy and the final confrontation between Dan and Tom Murray. In the end, those scenes just didn’t feel like they added enough to understanding the present to make it worth stopping the story to flash back. The scenes that did make it in did either because they showed how something had happened compared to how the then-teens remembered it or because they showed an aspect of somebody’s character.
I think it’s a better book. Having something from the long past pop back up without warning is a weird experience, especially when in the meantime the people involved have grown from kids to adults. You remember things differently, or remember some things and not others. You see that with the variation between who remembers that Evan Czarnecki was involved and who doesn’t. Evan’s never going to forget that; nor will Dan or Liz (Dan’s cousin, eventually Evan’s wife). Because Evan was so new to town, he wasn’t the one people were talking about back then, and many people just don’t remember he was there. That juxtaposition of past and present highlights how big an impact the marsh mess had on everybody in a way we wouldn’t see if it were all set in the past.
Duncan: The novel is set in New England and definitely has a New England flavor—from the local colloquialisms to actual locations. What do you think gives it a broader appeal? What about it will make a reader from the South or the West relate?
Coughlin: I think the flavor is as much “small town” as New England, and there are small towns everywhere. I live in a small Virginia town, and I think people here will probably see spots where they think I’ve put Staunton in. I went to college in the Midwest, and I think there probably are aspects of Exeter reflect that, since it also is a college town.
One thing I tried really hard to do was to make sure the New England regionalisms I used were clear from the surrounding text — you don’t need to know what a packy or a bubbler (pronounced bubblah) are because the meaning is clear from the story. Also, I think the specific locations will resonate more with Massachusetts residents, but it shouldn’t bother non-New Englanders that they don’t know what Ken’s Steak House is (or that it’s really a restaurant). I did make a conscious effort to have a couple of people with no connection to the region review it so they could flag things that didn’t make sense.
Beyond the technical details, the story’s about people that I think all of us know, or feel like we could know, regardless of where we live.
Duncan: The complexity of the plot—interpersonal relationships, old and new; historical preservation; mob violence—is a high point for the reader. Describe how you manage to keep the various threads straight without either tangling them too much or snipping them too soon.
Coughlin: Keeping the threads straight wasn’t too difficult. There’s a definite arc to the first few books in the series, and so I had that guiding a lot of the plotlines in this story. Likewise, I had the entire 1991 sequence of events drafted before I decided on the structure that actually appeared in the book. That made it a lot easier to extrapolate out from there for present-day impacts.
The biggest challenge for me was the ending and making sure I tied up all the places that needed to be tied up without tying up the threads that can’t be resolved in this book. There’s one particular thread that some readers have flagged because I left it hanging. That was on purpose — the issue in that plot piece doesn’t get resolved for quite a while — in fact, it drives a lot of what happens in the next few books.
Duncan: Again, on the plot. It has many, many subtle layers, some which aren’t obvious without reflection or re-reading. That’s a very bold choice—to assume the reader is looking for something intelligent rather than fluff. Does that reflect on the type of reader you are?
Coughlin: My choice in books is somewhat like my choice in music, and my coworkers have dubbed the shuffle on my iPod the musical whiplash playlist. I like fluff as much as the next person, but this particular story, and the stories that will follow, aren’t simple. Small towns aren’t simple. There are lots of connections between people that aren’t obvious, and subtext underlies so much of what happens in most small towns that the setting made those pieces integral to the story. There are some layers in this book that won’t even be obvious until readers get further into the series.
Regarding your earlier question about plot threads, that’s where things got interesting. Laying those breadcrumbs without tipping my hand took a lot of doing.
Duncan: You’ve made a good case for self- or indie-publishing, especially for a work that’s not easily mashed into a specific genre. Here’s another soap box, so explain why self-publishers need to approach their work as if it were going to be traditionally published. Why is an editor, even beyond beta-readers, important?
Coughlin: Well, if I didn’t have an editor, this would have all been set in 1991 and would have been much worse. I think it’s just sensible. Why put ourselves and our work out there unless it’s as good as it can be? There’s one segment of writers that’s of the “good enough” mindset. They would rather write books that are good enough and produce them faster.
We all improve as writers over time. An artist friend and I were talking recently and he said he looks at his old works and thinks they were done by somebody else. When I look at old stories I’ve written, both fiction and nonfiction, I see all the ways I could have written it better, both in style and substance. And yes, some of them I think were written by a whole different Jennie.
We need somebody who can push us to make those changes, to keep evolving as writers and to become the best we can be at this point in time. I’m fortunate to have both an editor and a critique partner who are skilled enough at what they do to make me grow and evolve. But I’m also lucky. Not everybody stumbles into those situations, which is basically how I met both women. That’s why this book wasn’t a novella set in 1991.
Also, we can’t catch everything in our work. I went over this manuscript dozens of times, marked it backward and forward. And I could still probably pick it up and find a typo or line that needs changing. That’s after critiques and editing and more editing.
Porter Anderson recently focused on Writer Unboxed about a growing shift among agents to seek out authors they feel have promise and manage them and their careers. No more query letters! No more wrangling business deals! But that means we need to be putting out work that makes agents think, “Hell, yes, I want in on the ground floor of that.” That trend, combined with the recent print-only deals that a couple of publishers have made — possibly the beginnings of another trend — create a vision of a much different publishing ecosystem — one where you don’t really want amateurish work out there.
Duncan: Describe why a marketing plan is important for self- or indie publishers. What has and hasn’t worked for you in promoting your work?
Coughlin: This is the area I struggle the most. I don’t have a great sense of what works and doesn’t work for my books. A lot of the traditional advice out there works great for books that fall into a genre that’s easy to categorize. Exeter books don’t. My biggest focus has been to just connect with readers. In my case, that’s generally worked best with people who have a connection with New England, and a lot of that is just through being myself on social media. I’m much chattier through pixels than in person, especially with people I don’t know. I’ve met some wonderful people that way.
Because there’s no good genre — beyond literary, which I have issues with — for All That Is Necessary, it’s more difficult to market it than it is for something that’s a little easier to shelve on a virtual collection of bookshelves. So, I rely on word of mouth and recognize that I’m in this for the long haul. Most of the people I have some contact with who read my first book of short stories, Thrown Out (and many of them I know because they read the book and we later connected online), have already picked up All That Is Necessary. With each Exeter book, the number of fans will (hopefully) grow.
The other thing I’ve done that seems to have raised attention are Goodreads giveaways and some of their targeted advertising options.
Duncan: Your first book, Thrown Out, was a collection of short stories featuring the same characters as in All That Is Necessary. Was that limiting on what you could do with those characters in a novel? Or was it more liberating, i.e., a way for you to expand what we know about them? Or both?
Coughlin: I don’t feel as though it limited what I could do, beyond some specific details in the short story that references the marsh mess. It certainly gave me a better feel for the characters, and I found some things that happened in the short stories showed up as mentions in the novel. The one thing I did have to do was be careful that the novel stood alone. At one point, a character’s actions didn’t make much sense if you hadn’t read the short stories, so I had to revise and fix that.
Duncan: You’ve hinted that when we go back to Exeter in future books in the series, other characters will move to the forefront, while others will move to the background. Is that a “seat of the pants” decision, in the moment, as the plot unfolds, or is it more “J.K. Rowling and her notebooks” planning?
Coughlin: Yes, to both. I have certain characters I know are taking center stage at certain points, but I generally work with three “main” characters. The second and third characters in each of the next two books has changed some as I’ve played around with the best way to tell those stories. The driving factor is which stories need to be told and which characters are best suited to tell them. The plotting comes from knowing how all the main plotlines are going to unfurl as I go. Beyond that, it’s a little seat-of-my-pants in how I structure things.
Duncan: Now that novel number one is done, will novel number two be easier? How long will you keep us waiting?
Coughlin: It would almost have to be, since I’m not writing the darn thing twice. Also, I have a feel for how Exeter stories work in novel form in terms of POV shifts and the number of characters who can be POV characters, so I’m saving a lot of time there compared to All That Is Necessary, where I was working out the best ways to structure the story. I’ve been working on the sketch for the next book, and I’d like to make it available in the fall. Since a lot depends on what things are like at my full-time job, I don’t know how feasible that is.
Both of Jennie Coughlin’s books, Thrown Out and All That Is Necessary are available as paperbacks or eBooks from Amazon.com. Visit her web page at Welcome to Exeter.