Leaving the Comfort Zone

One of the most appealing aspects of being a writer is stretching yourself, taking your writing to the next level or trying something you never thought you’d try. For instance, I thought I could never write science fiction, but my first published short story was a sci-fi tale. I never thought I could write a poem, but I have. I could never imagine standing up in front of strangers and reading my work, but my writing group, SWAG Writers, provided a comfortable atmosphere for that.

In high school and when I studied literature in college, I loved plays. I’ve read each of Shakespeare’s plays, at least those in the canon, though that was a long time ago. Before I ever saw the movie “The Lion in Winter,” I had read James Goldman’s play over and over. Living in the boonies meant the visits to theaters to see a play performed were rare, but I had a great high school English teacher who would loan me plays to read. The writers of those plays took me to places beyond my imagination, but though I’d already begun to write fledgling stories, I never thought I could ever write a play.

Let’s face it, as writers we sometimes get a bit comfortable in whatever genre in which we do most of our writing. Particularly if you’ve had a bit (or a lot) of success writing, say, young adult paranormal romance novels, you might be hesitant to try something new. That would involve a new start, and after a hard-scrabble climb in one aspect of writing, why would you subject yourself to something that might not be successful? We can’t all be J.K. Rowling, after all. I know, even with my very limited success, I certainly feel more comfortable working on full-length novels and the occasional short story or piece of flash.

Then along came Chris Gavaler, Assistant Professor of English at Washington and Lee University, just down the road from me in Lexington, VA. Gavaler’s page on the W&L web site is a litany of awards and accolades, but his list of one-act and ten-minutes plays made him the perfect instructor for the first, I hope of many, workshop given by SWAG Writers.

This past Saturday, nine writers–ranging from genre and literary fiction writers, poets, children’s book writers, and an aspiring writer in the form of a local high school student–sat down with Galaver for a four-hour Playwriting Workshop. Galaver dispensed with the trivia–“You can find out how to format a play on-line”–and got down to the details with practical exercises.

To begin with, we had to jot down a character, an obstacle, and a location, then Galaver picked and chose from them. He divided us into groups, and we had to develop a few minutes of dialogue based on those scant details. Daunting, but once we finished and read our effort aloud, we were amazed at how something coherent had emerged. The key, though, was how we first discussed the unseen back story, and once we had that, the dialogue just flowed. “See,” Galaver said, “you just wrote a play!”

Galaver covered the aspects of external and internal conflict and how to create them, and establishing obstacles, reversals, and resolution, but, again, with practical application, not lecture. His classes at W&L must be amazing to attend. He concluded the class with a brief Q&A session which boiled down to, “Okay, I’ve Written a Play; Now What?” Even that was practical, and who knew how many local organizations were looking for ten-minute or one-act plays?

All in all, SWAG’s very first workshop was a resounding success, and, at $40, a bargain for all that we learned. The time flew by, but, as my Irish grandmother would say, “Learnin’ got done.” So, I’ll step from my comfort zone, stretch a little more, and try playwriting, thanks to Chris Galaver and SWAG.

Friday Fictioneers – Almost Recovered

Friday Fictioneers LogoI think my cold is finally on its way out. How, you say, do I know that? Well, I took one look at today’s Friday Fictioneers photo prompt, and I went directly to the dark side. That shows my brain is finally firing most of its neurons.

Today’s offering may or may not be a zombie apocalypse story–I’ll leave that up to you. It may or may not take place in the near future–I’ll leave that up to you, as well.

What I do know was it was gratifying to be able to conceive of something and have it come to me almost instantly–and with no nose-blowing or coughing interruptions. [Knocks on wood.]

The story is “Death Throes,” and, as usual, if you don’t see the link on the title, scroll to the Friday Fictioneers tab at the top of the page, hover your cursor over it, then select the story from the drop-down list.

Roanoke Regional Writers Conference – The Finale!

After a great lunch–I discovered during Tinker Mountain last year, Hollins has a wonderful cafeteria–we settled in for the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference afternoon sessions. First up, we could choose from “Experiences and Options in Self-Publishing,” by Michael Abraham; “The Diverse Ways Writers Manipulate Time on the Page,” by Jim Minick; “Structuring Song,” by Greg Trafidlo (who bills himself as a “troubadour”–how cool is that?); and “Writing Dark Fantasy and Horror for Young Adults,” by Tiffany Trent.

I went to Jim Minick’s workshop. He and I were at Tinker Mountain together, and he had been a guest reader at SWAG last year. His wonderful memoir, The Blueberry Years, was a delight to read, and he now teaches at Radford. His workshop got us to look at ways we convey time in our writing, on the macro and micro levels, but he emphasized that we have to keep the reader’s perception of time in mind. The reader experiences our writing in real-time as he or she reads it, but we control the pace. How we break a work into chapters or scenes (macro level), the sentence length and type of punctuation we use (micro level) all determine the pace for the reader. This is all unconscious on the reader’s part but very conscious on the writer’s part. We speed up or slow down using dialogue or the choice of specific verbs. “You are gods,” Minick told us. “Every word choice, sentence length, etc., creates a world.” Minick also suggested a time-honored way to check how you’ve used time–read your work aloud. A great workshop, and it would certainly be great luck to be one of his students.

The mid-afternoon sessions were “Understand Your Publishing Options Before Your Manuscript is Finished,” by Teri Leidich; “Visual Images as the Source of Stories,” by Carrie Brown; and “Telling Stories,” by Dan Casey.

I went to Casey’s workshop because he is a journalist and editor of a local paper in Roanoke, and journalists, not to mention those from an Irish background, are the best story tellers. Casey’s method of workshopping is to demonstrate by action–he told story after story, and in so doing taught us about chronology and setting, how to inject humor and suspense, and showing not telling. The latter is particularly interesting in the telling of the story, but he managed to do it. He reminded me of the times I spent with my Irish grandmother listening to her spin tales; she’d tell the same ones over and over, but with each telling she showed me something different. Casey bore that out when he emphasized that when we revise and edit, we are telling the story over and over until it’s the right one.

The final workshops of the day were “The Craft of the Art,” by Amanda Cockrell, who is also a professor in Hollins’ writing program; “Developing Ideas That Publishers Will Buy,” by Roland Lazenby; and “Selling Your Young Adult Novel 101,” by Angie Smibert.

“The Craft of the Art” workshop was a condensation of a semester-long course Cockrell gives at Hollins, and frankly it would be worth auditing, if that were possible. Through a series of interactive, workshop exercises Cockrell emphasized that the typical aspects of a story (POV, setting, characters, etc.) comprise a toolbox we should draw from and that we should use the right tool at the right point in the story.

Cockrell had us spend five minutes writing down our earliest memory as a way to delve into our own subconscious. Several participants read theirs aloud, and I was surprised at how much detail I could recall about my earliest memory when I got quiet and thought about it.

The next exercise was to write the letters of the alphabet in a vertical column then write a vignette about something that starts with that letter. Again, a few people read their vignettes, but Cockrell made us promise to finish the exercise on our own or use it as a way to overcome writer’s block. “You may be surprised,” she said, “to find you’ll end up working bits of this exercise into a story you’re writing. Everything we write comes from somewhere in us, of our knowledge of other humans.” Cockrell noted that the things most people read aloud came from their childhood or teenaged years. “We draw from childhood,” she said, “because it’s new and from our adolescence because it’s tense.”

The final exercise Cockrell offered was to have us draw a picture of the childhood bedroom we spent the most time in, and that was quite the challenge to recall. As the minutes went on, though, I found I recalled more and more detail, including the spot where I started writing stories at my desk and in, first, spiral notebooks then on a manual typewriter. Great fun and very instructive.

The final session of the day was a panel on the future of blogging. Unfortunately, I opted out of that because yet another snow-maggeddon loomed, and I wanted to get home without driving in the dark in a snowstorm.

Overall, my first experience with the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference was a very positive one. There was a lot of depth and breadth in the workshops, and in many cases it was difficult to choose which one to attend. The presenters were all excellent, and I took away useful advice and plenty of writing tips. I think this will become a regular conference for me, and I’d recommend it whether you’re in Virginia or not.


Roanoke Regional Writers Conference – Part Two

On Saturday, after the great Friday evening social hour and opening events, we got down to the nitty-gritty. The first session started at 0830, and there were three possibilities to choose from: “Ten Things You Can Do Now to Promote the Book You Haven’t Even Sold Yet,” presented by Gina Holmes and River Laker; “Why New Media Changes the Way We Write and What We Can Do About It,” presented by Bill Kovarik from Radford University; and “Writing Cookbooks,” by Waynesboro, VA, author Mollie Cox Bryan.

I chose Kovarik’s presentation on New Media, which was a brief primer on social media. We introduced ourselves and told how involved we were in social media, which ones we used, etc. I was surprised by the number of people much younger than I who were terrified or who lacked knowledge of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc. So much for the Gen-Xers and Millennials who are supposedly the most cyber-smart of us all. Kovarik did a fascinating measurement of the number of monks it would take to produce the amount of information moved about in one day on the Internet. He used monks because they were the ones who first delved in media by reproducing by hand the Bible and other, then-rare books. Basically, it would take billions and billions (sorry, Carl Sagan) of monks to generate the information we have access to today, but it was a fascinating way to show how media have grown over a couple of millennia.

We got into a debate about whether we, as writers, adapt to technology or whether it adapts to us and concluded it was probably a little of both, but Kovarik got the point across that today’s social media “has changed the way we write, publish, and promote,” and that we definitely need to adapt to media as they evolve.

The second morning session offered “Refining the Pitch for Your Book,” presented by Neil Sagebiel; “Writing Humor,” presented by Michael Miller; “Legal Protections for Writers,” presented by Roanoke attorney Erin Ashwell; and “The No B. S. Guide to Networking,” presented by Sarah Beth Jones, a freelance writer.

Because I’m in the process of developing a query letter to obtain an agent, I opted for “Refining the Pitch for Your Book.” This was perhaps the only disappointment for the conference. The conference brochure clearly said, “Refining the Pitch for Your Book,” but the presentation itself was “Refining the Pitch for Your Non-Fiction Book.” And the presenter noted the process was somewhat different, namely when you’re pitching a non-fiction book, it doesn’t really have to be completed. The agent bases his or her decision on  a lengthy and detailed proposal. Why didn’t I leave? Well, climbing over a row of people in an auditorium would have been too obvious, and Sagebiel had an interesting story to tell of how he turned his love of golf into a best-selling book about a little-known but significant event in golf history.

In the third and final morning session, we could choose from “Marketing Your Own Work,” presented by Kathleen Grissom; “Self-Publishing How and Why,” presented by Brooke McGlothlin; “Memoir: What’s So Important about Your Life?” presented by Judy Ayylidiz; and “Making Your Photos Better,” presented by Christina Koomen.

I’d enjoyed Grissom’s keynote address from the evening before, I attended her session. Grissom indicated after she finished a draft of her novel, The Kitchen House, she set out to understand “the business of publishing.” Through trial and error, she learned that one of the most important aspects of that business is “don’t send a manuscript out too soon,” which she sees as the reason for all her early rejections. By chance she encountered another writer in the town where she lived, and that writer became her mentor, assisting her with a re-write and a second, successful agent-querying round.

However, Grissom may have a leg up on the rest of us: She had previously worked in marketing and promotion and had built a career doing that. She did, though, explain to us how she took that knowledge and applied it to marketing and promoting her book. For example, once she developed a list of bloggers who reviewed books, she familiarized herself with the blogs, contacted the blogger directly and sent review copies, then followed up. When she got a review, she sent a thank-you to the reviewer, whether it was a good review or not, and she followed any comments on the review–and responded to them.

Grissom also made personal contact with independent book stores and libraries within a three-hour drive of where she lived, i.e., she went to those places and gave a copy of her book, then set up a reading or signing event on the spot. She also emphasized the use of social media– “Make sure each book has its own Facebook page”–and drove home the importance of positive interaction with commenters on social media.

Yes, a busy morning with lots of note-taking, discussion, and great ideas. In Part Three, we’ll move on to the equally busy afternoon sessions.

Roanoke Regional Writers Conference – Part One

Yes, this writers conference was two weeks ago, but when a cold puts you low, low you are. This small, regional conference was such a positive experience, I decided to rise from my sickbed and finally give it its due.

Okay, that was way dramatic–too much Downton Abbey. Being sick meant I watched all three seasons in two days, so I’m overly influenced.

The Roanoke Regional Writers Conference had been planned for the final weekend of January, but a snowpacalypse (which never arrived) forced a one-week postponement. So, we gathered the evening of February 1 for a writer meet-and-greet. You know, this is where you approach, or are approached by, complete strangers with the question, “What do you write?”

An aside here–I was almost the only attendee NOT writing YA paranormal romance. There may or may not be a lesson in that.

After the meet-and-greet and some great writerly conversations, we had the opening session for the Sixth Annual Roanoke Regional Writers Conference, the fifth sell-out in a row. Hollins University, whose writing program has earned it the nickname “Pulitzer U,” was the host, and probably the most encouraging words came from Hollins’ current Writer in Residence, Karen Osborn (author of Centerville), who spoke on “Working in a Changing Publishing Environment.”

Osborn said, “Getting published has always been difficult, but failure to publish is not a marker of your work’s value.” And after that garnered a loud round of applause, she added, “Publishers are most interested in selling books, but they seldom know what will actually sell.” She reminded us that traditional publishers are focused on the bottom line, but she didn’t discourage. “If your agent won’t send out your book, send it out yourself,” she advised and emphasized university and small presses. Osborn believes we have more options than ever before for publication, ones which allow us to take more control of our work, but, she said, “Believing in the work is the most important step.”

The evening’s keynote address came from Kathy Grissom, author of The Kitchen House, and her topic was “Becoming a Writer.” Grissom was a perfect candidate for this topic because, as she admitted, she never intended to become a writer. “Writing,” she said, “was something only extraordinary people could do.” She learned through inspiration that writers are “ordinary people who write extraordinary things.” Grissom outlined her writer’s journey, from poetry and journaling to being inspired by an unusual event in her life. The inspiration led to research, and a chance conversation with her father led her to a “story I knew I had to tell.” The result was The Kitchen House, a novel about a young Irish orphan who finds her real family among the slaves of a southern plantation. Now, Grissom says, “My job is writing.”

We were treated to a song written by Greg Trafidlo especially for the conference, and the chorus said it all, “You have to sit on your butt and write.” We also participated in the presentation of scholarships from Hollins to “non-traditional” students, women who have returned to school after a break for marriage or children. The Horizon scholarships are funded by the faculty for the conference, who forego being paid to endow the scholarships. Applicants have to write an essay on why they want to return to school, and the scholarships are billed as “recognition of writers by writers.” The recipients are students in Hollins’ writing program, and this was an uplifting way to end an evening of writerly discourse.

Next Post – Day Two–Down to the Nitty Gritty

Friday Fictioneers–Cure for the Common Cold?

Friday Fictioneers LogoThe common cold is uncommon in its inconvenience. Nothing will put it off when it’s determined to put you low, and this week it won the sparring match we’d been having for the previous several days. And “put me low” was apt; I barely lifted my head from the pillow for three days. Monday’s usual writing blog post? No way. Wednesday’s usual political blog post? Nope. I didn’t even have the energy to look at David Stewart’s wonderful photo until Thursday evening.

But I wasn’t going to let rhinopharyngitis keep me from Friday Fictioneers. Not to be too descriptive, but I settled in this morning with my ubiquitous glass of water (fluids, you know) and box of tissues (I’m on my fourth one) and studied the incredible sculpture in David’s photo. It reminded me of a sculpture I saw frequently when I worked in Washington, DC, The Awakening. The Awakening once graced Haines Point in DC, but awakeningwhen a dispute arose between the artist and the U.S. Park Service over maintenance, the sculpture moved to the new National Harbor complex south of DC, where the I-95/I-495 bridge links Virginia and Maryland.

Both sculptures are evocative, but today’s Friday Fictioneers photo prompt was somehow eerier and had a more visceral impact. The result is “Suzuki Method.” The concept that dawned is far better than the result my cold-addled brain produced, but, hey, it’s the first writing I’ve done all week. And that says a lot.

As usual, if you don’t see the link on the title above, go the the Friday Fictioneers tab at the top of this post, click on it, and select the story from the drop-down list.

Friday Fictioneers On the Wing

Friday Fictioneers LogoThe Friday Fictioneers’ photo prompts are always challenging as well as inspiring, but this week’s is especially meaningful. It represents where I spent more than half of my adult life–in and around airplanes–and Rich Vaza’s stunning photo brought out the occasional poet in me.

I’ll confess it. I love airplanes. I love the look of them, the feel of them, the smell of them. The emotions evoked while flying are sometimes better than sex. I can relive my first solo from thirty-plus years ago step-by-step, and I loved working around airplane people for three decades. We used to do a little riff in the office, usually to enliven a Monday morning. “I love the smell of jet fuel in the morning!” one would offer. “It’s the smell of freedom,” came the reply. (A far more appealing use of that phrasing that than offered by Robert Duval in Apocalypse Now, don’t you think?) I’m tickled pink that a recent switch in approach paths to Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport brings planes over my house. I love that noise, and I’d missed it.

And, yes, I take it too personally when someone, usually someone not in the know, says they’re dangerous or that they’re too afraid to get on board. Bottom line? You’re safer in an airplane than staying in your house, where home accidents take far more people a year than commercial aviation.

Ad Astra” is a 100-word prose poem, one that’s probably far too maudlin and laudatory, but it’s how I feel. If you don’t see the link on the title, scroll to the Friday Fictioneers tab at the top of the page and select it from the drop-down list.

Author Interview – Jennie Coughlin

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.

An Artful Friday Fictioneers

Friday Fictioneers LogoI’m off to my first writing conference of the year today–the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference at Hollins University. It was supposed to be last weekend, but The Weather Channel convinced the organizers that Winter Storm Khan (cue William Shatner voice) would make the road messy. So, they postponed the conference to this weekend.

Winter Storm Khan didn’t materialize, at least here in the Shenandoah Valley, but it was too late to make a change to the change. I’ll report on the conference next week.

This week’s Friday Fictioneer’s inspiration photo immediately brought to mind one of those inane conversations you overhear at a modern art museum. You know the one that usually poses the question, “But is it art?” I’ve even participated in a few of those myself.

On purpose, there are no dialogue tags and no indication of the gender, or number, of speakers. I leave it up to the reader to delve the meanings behind “Hephaestus’ Wedge.” (A Google search for “Athena’s birth” might reveal one of them.)

If you don’t see the link on the title above, then click on the Friday Fictioneers tab at the top of this post and select it from the drop-down list.