Post-Workshop Let-Down

It doesn’t take long. A weekend, in fact. You spend five solid days and nights immersed in writing with other writers, and the workshop becomes a routine, something you wake up and look forward to each morning. Then, the week comes to an end, you pack the car, turn in your room key, eat the final meal with people who’ve become family, and go home to face the reality of day-to-day writing.

In the midst of a scene, you turn to ask one of your workshop-mates if something will work, and you realize you’re all alone now, in your writing cave, with only The Google for company. And, well, you miss hearing how great your writing is.

Let’s face it. You learn a lot in a workshop, mainly how other people perceive the words you’ve decided are golden and untouchable. When the emphasis is a positive experience, as it is at Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop, you definitely get the praise, but you also understand what you need to work on to improve your writing. You come away feeling good about yourself and your writing, no matter your level of experience. That daily dose of “I really liked how you…” becomes addictive, and you crave it once you’re home and don’t have anyone telling you how good you are.

And that’s a good thing, because as with anything, complacency will ruin your writing.


Post-workshop, you feel as if you’re writing in a vacuum without those voices saying, “What did you mean here?” You know, the questions you never ask yourself while you’re in creative mode. A workshop goes beyond beta readers or a critique group. Your betas and your critique group members become accustomed and somewhat inured to your style, your characters, your writing. A workshop puts fresh eyes on your work, scrutiny that can put a spotlight on weaknesses you’ve missed.

Now, it does require a leap of faith to put what you’ve sweated blood over in the hands of strangers for them to vivisect while you sit there unable to say a word. I make it sound like a nightmare, and it is daunting; however, you will be a better writer because of it.

But, in the week following the workshop, you can’t help but think, Wow, this time last week, we were going over my short story, or, Was it just a week ago we sat around the lounge and debated the worthiness of James Joyce (uh, no debate there). You miss the company of writers; you miss your family; you miss the challenges they offer you. You lament that you’ll have to wait a year to do this again.

Somehow, you’ll muddle through.

Critique Group Sagas

Note: This is an opinion piece generalized in nature and does not refer to any specific author or writer. If you see yourself in this piece, though, my work here is done.

I’m currently in two writing critique groups. I consider them essential as a writer; otherwise, I end up in a continuous loop of thinking how wonderful my writing is. All that seems obvious and clear to me in my work may not to a reader, and that’s one aspect of a critique group: looking at someone’s work through the eyes of a reader.

Because we’re also writers, we bring that to the critique table, too. In one of my groups, which has been meeting for some time, we have discussions about foreshadowing, conflict resolution, and denouement. Fascinating stuff, all that writing knowledge/trivia.

However, I also bring an editor’s skills to the table. I was a reporter for and editor of a magazine for more than fifteen years, and I edited hundreds of government documents from correspondence to blue ribbon reports. When I read something for a critique group, the MS gets a reader, writer, and editor’s eye. Some are not so appreciative of the latter. My standard reaction is, “Get accustomed to it. It’s better to catch the typos, style errors, and punctuation and grammatical flubs now rather than have an agent or publisher reject your MS for them later.”

For someone who is about to undergo his or her first experience with a critique group, that triple-threat may be intimidating. I don’t intend for it to be. In my warped little mind, I’m being helpful. When I look back on some of my earlier writing, published without the benefit of a critique group, I wish I’d had someone like me to find those embarrassing slip-ups and to point out the things which would make an agent toss an MS into a slush pile.

Critique groups aren’t mutual admiration societies, even though I can’t wait until I receive the next installment of every member’s work. Yes, I come to admire and look forward to their writing, but there is also mutual trust and honesty. We trust each other to be honest. You can’t simply say, “It doesn’t work for me.” You have to explain yourself, and the excuse can’t be you just don’t like something. For example, I’m not a fan of most YA, fantasy, or romance writing (or the various iterations thereof), but if it’s a good story and the writing shines, I’ll read it and probably enjoy it.

Some people seem to approach a critique group with an attitude of not wanting the details, just the big picture. Yes, the details are annoying and nitpick-ish, but they’re there for a reason. A comment about correct placement of commas or use of a semi-colon, etc., are not mortal blows to your writing. Rather, when I read an MS where the grammar’s good, the punctuation spot-on, and the style elements appropriate, I think to myself, “Here is someone who took the time to learn all the aspects of being a writer.”

Having an idea for a story is excellent. Putting it down on paper (or in the computer) is also excellent; you can now call yourself a writer. Staying a writer depends on your willingness to learn–whether through the feedback from a critique group, a writer’s workshop, or writing conferences. (I’m amazed by people who call themselves writers who don’t go to writers conferences or workshops.) You don’t just write and say, “That’s it. Let someone else worry about the silly punctuation details.” Breaking news: Publishers don’t employ copy editors anymore, and the only writers who get to dump a mistake-riddled MS on a publisher is someone like F. Scott Fitzgerald; and he’s dead.

Pointing out punctuation, style, and grammar errors isn’t a reflection on your ability to be a story-teller. You might say it is a comment on your writing ability. Well, yes, because that’s part of the package of being a writer. Can you call yourself a writer if you don’t constantly refresh your writing knowledge and skills? You could, but I’ll still point out the problems, and, believe me, I don’t pull these things out of my arse.

The devil is in the details; learn from them. I know I do. If you don’t want to hear the details from me, at least invest in some time-honored resources: The Chicago Manual of Style, The Elements of Style, or Garner’s Modern American Usage are just some of them, but those three on your writing resources shelf will take you a long way.

Friday Fictioneers for February

Balancing the need for back story and the need for clarity in a work of fiction can be more than delicate–it can be frustrating. I’m currently running a novella 5,000 words at a time through my new critique group. Though the novella uses the characters I’ve introduced in Blood Vengeance and Spy Flash, I wanted the novella to stand alone, i.e., someone who hasn’t read the other books could read the novella and know exactly what was going on.

That means sprinkling in some expository detail and back story so the reader has context. Turns out I overdid it a bit. I wrote about a page and a half, mostly dialogue, about an event which had happened in a previous short story. The critiquers liked it, found it intriguing, and assumed it would have some significance later in the novella. Oops.

My initial inclination was that the reader needed this amount of detail to move on. What I didn’t want to do is leave open questions which would hinder someone from reading further, but it turns out the readers got tripped up on the details. Not just tripped up–that amount of back story started them down a path which has nothing to do with the story I’m telling in the novella.

After some chat about how to address this, one person suggested that I simply remove the detail, allude to the event, then move on. I wasn’t sure that would work, and I thought about it for a couple of days. Then, last night I sat down and edited that scene. A page and a half of exposition and back story I edited down to three lines, and, lo and behold, it worked. Less sometimes is more.

One of the challenges in using a photo prompt to inspire a story is when the photo is of an inanimate object, or objects, in a mundane setting. When I first saw the Friday Fictioneers prompt on Wednesday, I thought, well, what do I make of this? On Thursday, I took another look, and a unique point of view came to me. So, let me know what you think of “Innocent Bystander.” As usual, if you don’t see the link on the title, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Friday Fictioneers tab, and select the story from the drop-down list.

Non-Fiction in a Fiction Critique Group?

Sounds like a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it? A couple of years ago, I started an off-shoot of my main writers group, SWAG Writers, for critiquing fiction. We began with six people, and after the first meeting we ended up with three regulars. One person was accepted into a graduate program and moved. One indicated she really had nothing prepared to critique, and the third didn’t take well having her grammar and punctuation corrected. But they were all writers of fiction.

The three of us stumbled on for a while, but it wasn’t working well, so we disbanded. Two of us continued to exchange our work online, but we became so accustomed to each others’ work, we realized we couldn’t give it that “other eyes” assessment.

Fast-forward a year, count in some new additions to SWAG, and, huzzah, we have six people again. I learned a bit from the earlier experience. Before we met for the first time, I asked everyone to submit to each other a couple of pages of their work, so we could all decide whether the experience would be beneficial to us; then, we met to critique those two pages. That’s when we discovered, gasp, one of the members is writing a biography.

SWAG is open to all writers in the area–poets, lyricists, fiction writers, non-fiction writers, even crossword puzzle designers. But, clearly, the poets and fiction writers outnumber the non-fiction writers. A few of the poets get together informally, and here we had the re-constituted fiction critique group. There is, however, nowhere else for the non-fiction writer to go. So, we thought, what the heck, let’s give it a go.

A couple of us have experience with non-fiction. In fact, since I got a job as a publications assistant with an aviation insurance consortium in 1976, most of my editing and writing experience has been in non-fiction, specifically in the technical aviation safety area. I was a reporter on and editor of an aviation safety magazine, and for a little more than a year, I wrote non-fiction feature articles for my local newspaper. I have a lot of experience editing non-fiction, not the least of which is my degree in history. Another member of the critique group is a newspaper editor. (She is in the group to have her fiction critiqued, however.)

No problem, you say. Not a problem exactly–editing fiction and non-fiction have similar approaches (grammar, punctuation, etc.), they both tell a story though one is strictly fact-based and has to have the references to substantiate those facts. Now, yes, if you write historical fiction, you have references out the wazoo. The difference is you don’t have to cite them. Yes, you can put a list at the end of your book, but, trust me, the readers hardly ever look there. In a non-fiction piece, particularly a biography, just about everything you say has to have a citation.

When I review or critique a fiction piece, I involve myself completely in the story and characters. In a biography, you can do that too, especially with the current fashion in non-fiction writing, which is to make it “read” like a work of fiction–good characters, action, conflict, etc. Non-fiction writing is still scholarly, but now it just doesn’t sound like it.

Still, and I can’t quite put my finger on it, critiquing fiction and non-fiction is different. When I read the fiction pieces for the upcoming meeting, I was caught up in the characters and the conflict in the stories. When I read the non-fiction piece–which is a rough draft with references listed but not cited–I found myself making notes like, “how do you know this,” “how can you prove that,” etc. I needed the citations, even though I recall from writing my own monographs and senior theses that you usually put those in on the final draft.

I’ve been focusing on my fiction the last four years, the writing there of, that is. It’s a bit of a head-shake for me to break that habit and get back into reviewing and evaluating non-fiction, and unrelated to aviation at that. I just hope I can be of use to that biographer, that my fiction brain can make the abrupt adjustment.

Still, it’s a diverse group of writers, and I’m all heady with anticipation.

Time Flies When You’re Having Fun

When you cultivate a group of writer friends and ask them to read and critique stories and manuscripts, an important obligation as a good writer friend is to reciprocate. So, when one writer friend who gave me excellent feedback on my work in progress asked me to do the same for hers, I jumped at the chance. I’d seen the first two chapters of her WIP in my last two workshops at Tinker Mountain and had been eager to read more.

I was so eager, in fact, when I picked up the MS yesterday morning, I didn’t put it down all day–which is why Monday’s post is happening on Tuesday. But it’s great when something lives up to your expectations. When my friend’s book gets published–and it will–this will be my first experience with the evolution of someone’s work other than my own, and it’s a humbling experience. Humbling, in that I felt honored she asked me to read it, that she values my opinion.

Here’s the thing. She doesn’t expect sycophantic raving about how good it is. (Trust me, though, it is that good.) She wants a writer’s eye and honest criticism, which she’ll get from me. Again, I got that from her, and I’ll return it in kind. And I’ll get a little thrill when I buy my copy, knowing I helped in some small way. So looking forward to that.

And new topic. I’ve been working on the next set of stories for Spy Flash 2. (In case you didn’t know it, last year I published a collection of my espionage short stories, Spy Flash. To read all about it, scroll to the top of the page, click on the Published Works tab, then click on Spy Flash from the drop-down list. You can click through to purchase it from, and, oh, by the way, if you buy the paperback, you can download the Kindle version for free. Commercial over.) One thing which has stood out for me is the way odd words unconsciously work their way into a story.

One story had an inordinate use of the word “just” and not the adjective, as in a “just cause,” but the adverb, as in “at this moment” or “in the immediate past.” Okay, one or two usages, maybe, but I found this usage in a couple of sentences per paragraph. I don’t remember typing them; it was as if they “just” appeared. Of course, that’s not the case. The word popped into my head–quite a few times, apparently–and I wrote it. In most cases, there was no need to substitute a better word; deleting “just” made the sentence stronger.

A few weeks ago, I had the same thing happen with the word “always.” Ack! Where are these crutch words coming from?

I suspect because I do a lot of “pressure writing,” i.e., meeting deadlines and word count goals I’ve mostly set for myself, they filter in, and I let that happen because subconsciously I know they’ll come out in the wash, or edit. What surprises me, though, is how often they show up.

And now I’ll bring this back around to the original topic. This is why having a group of writers who’ll critique you with honesty is important. They won’t let you get away with “just” and “always” or whatever crutch word creeps into your work. If you don’t have a group, find one or create one. Social media are great for this. Part of the joy of writer conferences is meeting and networking with many different types of writers from all over. Social media allow you to form critique groups without having to be face-to-face, and, even then, there’s FaceTime and Skype.

Don’t fear the critique. Embrace it. And watch out for those crutch words.

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 Visit her web page at Welcome to Exeter.

The Year of Writing Constantly

At least that’s the way it felt, but that’s a good thing.

About a year ago, I blogged about getting more serious about writing and establishing a writing work schedule that included developing new material, editing/revising WIPs, and submitting stories for publication. Here is the schedule I came up with:

Monday 0800 – 1000: Blog about writing or publish a book review on my blog
1400 – 1700: Edit/revise a novel WIP

Tuesday 0800 – 1100: Edit/revise a short story or identify a publication to submit to
1400 – 1700: Edit/revise a novel WIP

Wednesday 0900 – 1100: Blog about politics
1400 – 1700: Edit/revise a novel WIP

Thursday 0800 – 1100: Edit/revise a short story or identify a publication to submit to
1400 – 1700: Something new—a short story or a novel idea

Friday 0800 – 1000: Blog about writing, publish a book review on my blog, and/or 100-word flash fiction
1300 – 1500: Submissions—the actual act of doing so—or developing a query letter

Saturday and Sunday: Two to three hours of reading and/or writing reviews

The good news is the blogging, editing/revising, and writing original material went very well, as did the reading and reviewing. I had several reviews published, and I read approximately fifty books this year, a record for me.

The bad news is even though I submitted more times than I did the previous year–ten altogether–and I had three short stories published, I didn’t submit as much as I had planned. The rejections made me focus on whether getting short stories published in literary or genre publications was a goal I still wanted to pursue or whether getting a novel or two ready for agent query was what I wanted.

I decided the latter was where I needed to put my energy. I continued to write 100-word flash fiction for Friday Fictioneers, and I turned several of those stories into a manuscript I have submitted to a fiction chapbook contest. I also wrote slightly longer flash fiction for a writer friend’s Rory’s Story Cube Challenge. Those stories became the flash fiction collection recently published entitled Spy Flash. Late in the year, I started participating in the Flash! Friday challenge from the Shenandoah Valley Writers–two of my entries have won the weekly challenge.

I joined a fiction critique group this year and put a novel-length manuscript through the critique process. A War of Deception was an interesting piece to write. It initially started out as a fictional account of uncovering a mole in the FBI, but a subplot rose that I fleshed out more at the suggestion of the critique group members. This is a manuscript I think is in good enough shape to query to agents, and that’s my big New Year’s Writing Resolution. A second manuscript, Self-Inflicted Wounds, is before the critique group now.

I finished the rough draft of a totally new novel-length piece for National Novel Writing Month, which I’ll begin revising in the spring. A major revision to Self-Inflicted Wounds will be on tap for 2013 as well. Friday Fictioneers and Friday! Flash will continue, as will the Rory’s Story Cube Challenge–there could be a Spy Flash 2 in the future! Both the writing and the political blogs will continue, too.

And there’s always that trilogy on domestic terrorism I’ve worked on for the past fifteen years.

I didn’t put this in the writing schedule, but I resolved this year to attend more writing conferences and workshops, and six was the magic number. The Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop was the most challenging but the most rewarding. I’m starting a bit earlier for 2013, with the Roanoke Writers Conference in January.

Overall, the writing work schedule was a success, even if I didn’t adhere to it exactly as I designed it. I think if I hadn’t been flexible about it, I probably wouldn’t have accomplished as much as I did.

So, Happy New Year to all my readers and my writer friends. I’m looking forward to journeying next year with all of you down that unexpected path toward publication.