Writers–Gluttons for Punishment?

Let’s face it, writers are masochists on some level. We create and submit our work, knowing the likelihood of its being accepted is minimal, but we keep doing it. The actual writing is the pleasure; the inevitable line of rejections before an acceptance comes along is the humiliation we endure for those fleeting moments of vindication.

And then we do it all over again.

Rejection is never easy, whether it’s by a potential lover or friend or an agent or editor. I’ve heard so many writer friends–not to mention myself–say, “I just sent a story to [insert name of literary magazine here]. I know I have a snowball’s chance in hell, but at least I’m submitting.”

Why, oh, why do we do that?

Because when you get the acceptance email or you check Submittable and see the “accepted” note, it’s the greatest feeling in the world–for a millisecond it’s better than seeing your children the first time, better than orgasm, better even than a paycheck. It’s affirmation, you see, that you really are a writer; you aren’t just a hack throwing words on the screen, and all your suffering is worth it.

A writer friend of mine recently posted on Facebook that writing her novel required more concentration, more focus, more work than anything she’d ever done. I responded that was what made it so painfully fun. Yes, at times writing is like constantly putting your tongue on a sore tooth, but when the pain goes away–ah, bliss. It’s why when I encounter a non-writer who says, “Oh, well, it’s not real work. You just make things up,” I usually respond with a smile and suggest he or she should give it a try. “Oh, I have better things to do with my time.” Well, good, I’m glad, because you don’t have what it takes to be a writer.

Writing has brought me some of my biggest disappointments, but it has also brought me some of my biggest joys. For years, I’d seen my non-fiction in print, so when my first fiction story was accepted by eFiction Magazine a couple of years ago, I didn’t think I’d have much of a personal response. When the issue with my story showed up on my Kindle, I had the most visceral reaction I’d ever experienced–and I used to be a flight instructor, so I’ve had gut-wrenching moments. There’s nothing quite like seeing your words on a page with your by-line, knowing it’s a story which is the progeny of your imagination, that you “just made it up.” Not only did you make it up, but someone else liked it. Others will read it, and because there is an internet, your story will out there forever. How’s that for immortality?

Now, excuse me. I have to go humiliate myself for some perverse pleasure.


The interview question a writer of any renown hates to hear is, “Where do you come up with your ideas?” or some variant thereof. That’s a process difficult to explain, so it’s easy to say, “From my family,” or “From life.” But those answers are a bit glib, perhaps disingenuous to someone who sincerely wants to know how you do it to enhance their craft.

Every writer has to answer that question–or not–from his or her own background. When I was getting some counseling after my father’s death, the therapist suggested journaling. Yes, I journal-ed before journaling was cool. She told me to, as one presenter at AWP advised, “vomit words on the page.” Many of those journal items became stories in my collection of short stories, Rarely Well-Behavedwhich was published in 2000. Other stories in the collection, however, just “came to me.” Yeah, that’s a technical term.

When I write short stories I’m a bit of a seat of the pants writer. I start with a picture, a word, or a snippet of conversation I’ve overheard and expand on it. I let it go wherever it wants, and sometimes that works. My short story “Trophies,” published in the February issue of eFiction Magazine started out as a writing exercise inspired by hand-fishing–from the fish’s point of view. Then it moved to a character with aspects of my brother and my father, and that character did something that a friend’s stepfather did years ago. In the end, the catching-fish-from-the-fish’s-POV got canned (a good thing), and the story got refined and published.

Sometimes the seat of the pants approach doesn’t work. Last year, I wrote a short piece about a tree that falls on a house, in response to a writing prompt from a magazine. The tree’s falling brought out pent-up emotions in a suburban community not unlike where I lived in Northern Virginia. Those hidden emotions boil over, and a slaughter occurs. I workshopped it and got some good feedback, then one person just went off on why I’d written such a “stupid mess.” I was going for quirky, psychological horror, but he excoriated the story, me, and why I’d ever thought I was a writer. Threw me for a loop, I’ll tell you. I haven’t been able to look at the story since, even though I thought it was a good piece of flash fiction. Who knows? Maybe I’ll overcome the clench in my stomach and have a second look at some point.

Almost every Friday, I write a 100-word story inspired by a photograph posted by Madison Woods, and since I’m a more visual person, I generally get more inspired by looking at something than by a word or a phrase. When I see the picture, the story plays out in my head, which is cool, but my mother used to think it was weird.

I’ve learned a lot about craft from the workshops I’ve attended at writing conferences, including the recent AWP conference, but I’ve also filed away conversations I overheard in Kitty O’Shea’s, physical descriptions of some of the unique people I observed, and a great talk I had with a cab driver on the way to O’Hare on Sunday. All fodder for the imagination.

Life, death, friends, family, your physical surroundings–all of them can have a story that needs to be told, so tell it.

What inspires you? Are you a story planner or a seat of the pants writer? Do you see the story in your head, or does it just come from the fingers on the keyboard?

Interview with an Indie Author – Jennie Coughlin

To coincide with my review of Thrown Out: Stories from Exeter by Indie author Jennie Coughlin, which appears in the December 2011 issue of eFiction Magazine, I interviewed Ms. Coughlin about her works, in print and in progress. To get a better understanding of the interview you might want to read the review. Better yet, buy the book. (Thrown Out is available to download at amazon.com and Smashwords and as a paperback, also from Amazon.)

DuncanIn a way you haven’t used in other interviews, tell me how the concept of Thrown Out came about.
CoughlinThrown Out started as some writing exercises to dig more deeply into the characters and help my editor get a better sense of them. I was posting the exercises on my blog, and, based on the feedback, we decided to go ahead with the collection while I was working on the novels. Once I had “Bones” and “Thrown Out,” the first two stories in the collection, we decided to take another look at the character Joe and his family, which led to “End Run.” Since at this point, the collection had themed itself as an introduction to the characters, Becca and Riordan were the logical choice for the final story. Although at least one of them had appeared in each of the other three stories, neither really was the focus of any of them. Thus, “Intricate Dance” was born.
DuncanThe title story, “Thrown Out,” touches on a timely issue, gay rights, one of which is to be able to live your life without fear. I confess when I saw the title, I was certain the ending wouldn’t be a happy one, but I was glad to be wrong. The fictional town of Exeter seems remarkably progressive in this area. Was that a conscious decision, or did Exeter “reveal” its nature to you in the writing?
CoughlinInteresting take on it, and I think there are a couple of pieces to that answer. First, the title story “Thrown Out” is set in 2001, after Vermont had approved civil unions and shortly after the court case was filed that would lead to gay marriage in Massachusetts. So in that time and that place, it’s certainly a more open climate than in many other states then or now. But really, a theme that came out as I was writing “Thrown Out” was that we accept things in people we know that we might not in people we don’t know.
That cuts both ways — the Exeter residents know Dan as a friend, a neighbor, the star running back on the high school football team, the guy who fixed their front steps, Kevin and Eileen’s son. He happens to be gay. Likewise, Joe is the local insurance agent, the kid who rang up their bread and milk at his dad’s store, somebody active on the Parish Council, a member of the Rotary Club, dad to their kids’ friends. He happens to be homophobic. You can’t exclude either one of them without big ripple effects. And if you already know somebody, already have them in your life, you’re likely to be more accepting of something than if you’ve just met the person. In “Thrown Out,” Dan’s partner Chris has a much different reaction to Joe than Dan, Evan, and Liz, who grew up with him. Likewise, Chris gets a measure of acceptance from the town just because he’s with Dan.
DuncanAs an Irish-American, I can “see” your characters so vividly. I suspect some people without the cultural background might not “get it.” Do you agree or disagree? Why?
Coughlin: Well, I’ve heard the same thing from readers who aren’t Irish-American, so I’m going to generally disagree. I suspect some things might not resonate as much, but that’s also true of the Catholic elements and the New England elements. The character Chris, who’s not from Exeter, serves as the bridge for readers who aren’t familiar with some regional terms, such as jimmies (chocolate sprinkles on ice cream), but there probably are pieces that are less accessible or read differently to people who don’t have some element of those backgrounds.
DuncanYou also touch on a taboo subject among Irish-Americans—the Irish Mob. Why was that important to you? I mean, Irish-Americans will talk easily about the IRA but not the Irish Mob.
Coughlin: I grew up in a town that was heavily settled by Italians, and I’ve heard stories all my life about Mafia ties in the town. The first newspaper where I worked even had a two-inch-thick file on the former police chief, later a Town Council member, who was jailed for perjury when he alibied a mobster back in the 1960s. The Irish mob was further afield, but Whitey Bulger fled when I was in high school, and periodically I’d get stories from home of FBI agents going around questioning people trying to find him. The story that touches on the Irish Mob, “Bones,” I drafted the week after the FBI caught Whitey in Santa Monica earlier this year, so that’s probably why my plot bunnies headed that direction.
DuncanYou went the Indie route for publication, but you used some traditional publishing aspects, e.g., an editor whose input you considered and incorporated. Do you think Indie publishing is at the point where it needs standards? Or would that miss the point of Indie publishing?
Coughlin: I’ve been pretty outspoken about the need for Indie authors to make sure their work is up to traditional publishing standards. I think the opportunities Indie publishing present are amazing, but it’s not a path without pitfalls. If we put out work that’s substandard, it hurts both the overall Indie reputation and the reputation of that author. Once we publish something, we can’t take it back. For those authors who do good work that the publishing industry just deems unsalable, Indie publishing gives a chance to prove that wrong. For those authors who see it as a shortcut to honing their craft, Indie publishing gives us lots of chances to torpedo our career.
That said, I don’t think there’s a way for the Indie community to set and enforce standards. Any mechanism like that becomes a new form of traditional publishing, which some people are doing in new types of small presses.

I do think that for Indie publishing to become a long-term, viable part of the publishing ecosystem, something will have to arise through book bloggers and review sites to provide readers with a place they can go and trust that the books recommended there will, in fact, be quality publications. Not all will be something any given person would want to read, but all meet the standards of good writing and good storytelling.

DuncanYou’ve said writing a short story is the opposite of writing a news story. What’s the journalistic opposite of writing a novel, which you’re now doing?
Coughlin: I don’t know that it’s the form so much as fiction vs. journalism. Whether it’s a short story or a novel, the process I go through is basically the same. That’s what, for me, is reversed from my reporting days. Because I’m not a visual thinker, when I covered events where the scene was integral to the story, I would record lots of details while I was there to help myself re-create it back at the office—this was in the days before mobile reporting was common. All those details painted a picture for me that went beyond what people were saying.
Now, when I sit down to write, I know what the final picture is, and then figure out what it is the readers would need to see to draw that same conclusion. Some scenes flow easily, and it’s an unconscious effort on my part. Others I really have to slow it down to step by step interactions for it to feel real to me.
DuncanThumbnail the Exeter novels for us and give us an idea of how long we need to wait for each installment.
Coughlin: I have at least six in mind, but I’ve been finding that the original first novel keeps getting pushed back—it’s now on track to be novel four of six—because earlier stories bubble up as I dig into the characters. So I’ll give you the first four, but I do plan to do others after those four are done, and others might join the mix as I go.
All That Is Necessary is the novel I’m revising right now, with a plan to release it in late March. While it starts and ends in present time, the bulk of the story starts right before Dan and Evan find the bodies in the marsh as kids [The story “Bones” in Thrown Out.] and goes through the fallout from that, which changes many of the characters in the town. Dan has to stand up to a lot of adults when almost everybody else around him is afraid to rock the boat.
The second novel, as yet untitled, follows from that story. Liz’s nemesis returned in All That Is Necessary, and that causes a lot of problems for her and those around her.
Fate’s Arrow pulls back from Exeter a bit to focus on Ellie, who’s still living in DC. After her annual holiday visit to Becca, she realizes her life has some holes and must figure out how to plug them.
Better The Devil continues some developments from Fate’s Arrow and puts Dan, Liz, and Ellie together for a big project that could alter Exeter’s future forever—if they can figure out who wants to stop them and why.
I have two others beyond that, but last week at the first book club discussion on Thrown Out, several of the members wanted to know what happens with Joe, Annabelle, and their family in more detail, so that’s now higher on my radar than it had been before.
I’d like to release a new novel every six months, but since I have a full-time job as well as a part-time one, some of it depends on those not going too nuts, as well as on my editor’s other commitments. There also will be periodic short stories. Some of the small ones will be posted on my blog, either as Rory’s Story Cubes Challenge entries or just as flash fiction like last week’s “Now What?” Thanksgiving short. Longer ones probably will be released as 99-cent eBooks, and I’m not ruling out future short-story collections.
DuncanDo you see Exeter and its wealth of characters as a story well that is unending? Or do you have plans for non-Exeter stories or novels?
Coughlin: Yes. The beauty of the small town setting is you have a limitless cast of characters and developments with those characters. In present day, I have characters who range from middle school age into their early seventies, so the multiple generations allow me to move forward and backward in time to tell all sorts of stories.
I might branch out from Exeter at some point, but right now I have more stories than I have time to tell in that world.
DuncanWhat’s your advice for people who opt for Indie publishing, i.e., how to go about it as a professional writer, how to deal with flak from fellow writers who don’t see Indie publishing as a viable option?
Coughlin: The biggest advice I can give is to get a good developmental editor who can provide feedback. If you can’t find one, a good critique group also can be invaluable, as well as beta readers. But an editor is the best of the available options if you can find a good one. Also, honestly evaluate your skill set and available time. I’m fortunate that I have a lot of design, graphics, copy editing, web design/HTML, social media, and formatting experience from my journalism background. With all that, plus a group of beta readers, I’m able to produce a quality product.

If you don’t have skills in a particular area, be prepared to hire somebody to handle various elements of each project for you. And if you do have the skills, be prepared to spend the time. In the six months since I started production on Thrown Out (three pre-release, three post-release), probably fifty to sixty percent of my time has been spent on non-writing elements, and that’s including most of the revisions on Thrown Out and all the writing to date on All That Is Necessary.

As for the current debates about the validity of indies, both online and from fellow writers you may know in person, my best advice is to think through why you’re taking this path before you choose it. My two main reasons were the chaos in the publishing industry right now and a concern that my series doesn’t fit neatly enough in a single genre/category to convince a publishing house’s marketing department that it’s salable.
The industry chaos is something I’ve been fairly outspoken on, especially in its parallel to newspapers’ struggles in the past decade. Publishers aren’t learning any lessons from what newspapers went through, and I prefer to stay out of the arena while they’re figuring all of this out the hard way. The salability is something I would disagree with the marketing folks on. By going Indie, I’m betting my career on my being right, not them. And if I’m right, when the industry has finished this eBook-driven shakeout, I’ll be able to pitch to traditional publishers, or whatever the closest approximation to those entities is, with a fan base and solid sales—assuming I want to. It’s possible I could decide that staying Indie is the best bet, and I won’t know that for a few years yet.
As I hope I just demonstrated, I have a reasonable, logical answer for people who hear “Indie” and think “vanity press.” Most people—in the industry and not—who hear my reasons agree with my approach, given my perspective and circumstances. Those who still scoff, I just tune out. As long as each of us taking the Indie path has a reasoned-out approach that can be backed up by facts, I think those who want to denigrate our individual choice can be safely tuned out.
DuncanWho is the one author (non-screenwriter) who inspires you to write? Who is the author (non-screenwriter) you’d like to be compared to, favorably, of course?
Coughlin: Sneaky, to take out my usual answer. 🙂 Once that answer is excluded, the answer to both questions is actually the same—Harper Lee. To Kill A Mockingbird is my favorite book and has been since the first day my freshman English teacher assigned it in high school. I stayed up until midnight that night to finish it, and I’ve read it a couple of dozen times since then. Atticus Finch is one of three lawyers—the other two are real people—who inspire Riordan Boyle’s (from Thrown Out) approach to law.
The other author I would mention is Natalie Goldberg. I’ve never been able to read more than a few pages in herThunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft without having to put the book down and starting to write. In terms of inspiration, she’s the non-screenwriter who has the strongest effect.
Lee inspires me to tell great stories, but Goldberg inspires me to put pen to paper and make the words flow.
To visit Exeter while Jennie Coughlin works on her novels, go to her blog: http://jenniecoughlin.wordpress.com/

Review of July 2011 eFiction Magazine

I stumbled across eFiction Magazine a little more than a month ago when I was looking for more periodicals to have on my Kindle. eFiction’s calling itself an “indie fiction” publication made me think back to the 1980’s when indie music was the rage. Punk and grunge musicians who couldn’t score mainstream recording contracts began to start their own labels, something made easier by the fledgling digital age. Similarly, indie (or independent) fiction tends towards new or emerging writers whose voices may not necessarily fit a specific, mainstream genre. (In reality, anyone who has self-published could consider their work indie fiction.)

eFiction takes this a step further, with on-line forums where contributors, aspiring contributors, and the editorial staff interact. I’ve never seen another on-line magazine do this, or print magazine, for that matter. They may be out there, but I’ve never seen it. I find it refreshing.

The July issue was downloaded to my Kindle while I was standing in some line at Walt Disney World, but I didn’t get a chance to “open” it until the Auto Train ride back to Virginia. And it was well worth the wait. I’ve finished the first three stories, which I’ll discuss a bit more below, and as with the June edition, my first, they were stories I know I’d never see in a literary magazine. For one, the stories are a bit unclassifiable, genre-wise. They have elements of horror or speculative fiction or fantasy, but you’re always left questioning if that’s the case or if you’re simply looking into another reality.

Take “Ozark Pixies” by Madison Woods. A woman is convinced she’s seeing pixies around her rural home, and her husband is about ready to call the “white coats” on her. One day she sees a pixie at the side of a road and wants so badly to prove to her husband that she’s not crazy that she hits it with her car. She only intends to stun it, but it’s mangled so badly she thinks she’s killed it. It’s when she shows her husband the mess she’s brought home that he really thinks she’s gone off the deep end. The woman takes the pixie to her barn, where the pixie recovers enough to latch onto the woman’s ear. The woman and the pixie come to an understanding, and the pixie convinces the woman to eat a carrot-like root the pixie digs up. The root turns out to be hemlock, and the woman is slowly being paralyzed. She begs the pixie’s forgiveness and for an antidote, and the pixie gives what could be forgiveness then places some seeds in the woman’s mouth and disappears. The story ends with the woman thinking, “I knew there was no remedy for hemlock. But she knew things I didn’t.” So, fantasy (pixies), horror (being slowly poisoned to death by a pixie), or suspense (was the woman really just hallucinating)? I’ve read it twice and can’t classify it, but that’s what made me like it.

The zombies in “A Bad Zombie Flick” by Nathanial Chambers are quite familiar to me–commuters moving in lockstep toward work. I lived that for too many years. I even related to the nonconformity of Chambers’ protagonist, who, though a new stock broker, still drives an old tank of a car and scoffs at the other commuters marching forward as one. Yet, we get a hint that things are not quite right when the man picks up his morning newspaper off the lawn. The lines for the columns are there but no words. He shrugs it off as a printing problem and heads to work. The next hint we get is when he’s in line at his favorite coffee shop and looks around at the blank faces of the people waiting in line for their turn with the barista. He notices, like the cars on the road, everyone moves forward precisely the same distance at precisely the same time. Now, the folks in line at my local Starbucks gave pretty vacant stares until that first hit of Caramel Macchiatto, but something about these folks leads our protagonist to declare when he’s before the barista that he no longer wants coffee. But he gets coffee, and in a nightmarish way that has to be read to be appreciated. Here’s a taste:  “The line moves, not forward but toward me. I can hear chairs scraping behind me and the shuffling of feet coming in my direction. I see two men at the doors; they appear to be standing guard. Panic seizes me. They are on me in seconds.” Afterwards, he gets back into his car and notices he has now fallen in step with everyone else–he moves his car the same distance the same time as everyone else and sips coffee from his travel cup exactly when everyone else does. Is this horror–the coffee scene in the shop could lead you to think it is–or fantasy because of the element of conformity taken to the unreal? Or did he merely fall asleep in the coffee shop and dream it all?

“Little Sisters” by Myra King tells the story of three sisters with a focus on the one their parents decided to name Myron. Myron is looking back on her life in her 90th year. She has broken her hip and contracted pneumonia and is in hospital recovering but thankful she has “no one left to mourn me.” I get the impression she is in a ward if not for indigent patients then certainly for people who have limited funds for health care. With her is a 15 year old pregnant girl on bed rest, and the knowledge that another older woman died overnight. The young girl is feeling guilty for not having spoken to the woman who has died. When the young girl begins to cry, Myron remembers how one of her sisters would cry every night. Then, she remembers she was her father’s last hope for a boy, hence “Myron,” and how her father tried to turn her into a boy by giving her boys’ toys. At first she delighted in the attention, but when her father had her collect caterpillars, which he then killed one by one despite her protests, she wants no more of him. Her father no longer paid her attention, and we suspect we know who was responsible for the drowning of her kitten, one he’d given her for her birthday. He turned his attention instead to another of her sisters, and the type of attention is more than obvious in this chilling account: “Father’s attention turned to my sister Roslyn, but he didn’t try and make her a boy. Later, with the sickening wisdom of hindsight, I knew it was more of a woman he was trying to shape.” Watching the young girl’s boyfriend come to visit her and discuss the problem pregnancy makes Myron remember how her mother died giving birth to her, then how a fire kills the father, leaving Myron and her sisters to the mercy of the foster care system. None of the sisters ever married. Myron became a nurse to “relieve the suffering of others while Margaret gave her life to care for Roslyn.” A coughing fit overcomes her and she hears “voices of comfort. Familiar voices. I sink back into the pillows, close my eyes, listen to those words, our three little sisters song once more played to the tune of my memories and the faltering of my breath.” Of the three stories, this is the one I could classify definitely as literary fiction, but it’s written in a way that engages you and makes you hope there will be people left to mourn you.

There are more stories in the July issue, but I’m savoring them. Slowly.