Thursday, November 3, 2011

Indie Insider - Jennie Coughlin

What is the best way to create tension?

I like to do it subtly, through small details and layers. Words that don’t quite mesh with what you think is happening, items that maybe shouldn’t be there and are — or should be there and aren’t, actions that don’t quite fit with the words. Tension that creeps up is more effective, in my opinion, because you don’t see it coming until things are far enough along that you know there’s no going back for the characters — and then it’s like watching a train wreck. You know it’s going to go badly, but you don’t know how and you can’t look away. There obviously needs to be conflict pretty early on, but I like to have another layer running underneath in my stories that doesn’t become apparent until later.

Since the short stories in Thrown Out are in the same universe as the novels I’m working on, there are tiny bits and pieces in there that most readers probably won’t even notice until they get to certain spots in the novels after those come out. Then a re-read will give even greater resonance. Each story, each novel stands alone, but there are little rewards - Easter eggs, to put on my McGeek hat for a moment - for the fans who start reading from this book on.

Do people judge a book by its cover? Who makes yours?

I think a bad cover will turn people off, especially if they’re not predisposed to try indie books in the first place. But a good cover won’t sell a book that doesn’t have a compelling summary and engaging writing in the sample.

I do my own covers — my background in newspapers includes page design and graphic design, so I’ve picked up enough skills over the years to be able to do it myself.

What are the best ways to ‘show’ and not ‘tell’?

Think visually — and this is something that’s a challenge for me and always has been. When I was a reporter, I used to have to write down all sorts of little details about a scene to capture the color of it because I knew I wouldn’t be able to picture it once I left. Then I could recreate the setting on paper once I was back at the office for those stories that needed it. This often was most important with people because as a reporter, you can’t editorialize. So if two public officials get into it in a meeting, and you can tell that even though the words aren’t inflammatory, they were angry, combative, whatever, from tone of voice, body language, etc., you can’t say that unless one of them will say it. But you can add in the things that you see that tell you that when you’re writing the story and let readers draw their own conclusions. Often for tough scenes, I do what I call “reporting in reverse” and try to figure out what I’d be seeing if I were there covering it for the paper.

Basically, if you’re telling people something — Ellie was angry, Riordan was embarrassed, Chris is shy — there’s a way to show that instead, either through description or dialogue or a combination (my personal favorite). Most of the time, go for showing — it makes for a stronger story.

How many books do you produce a year? Are you meeting your goal?

I just have the one out now, but my goal is to write two a year, and I’m on track for that. This year, I’ll probably have the first novel finished by the end of the year, but won’t release it until first quarter next year to allow for some marketing in the weeks before launch. Depending on how things play out in the rest of my life — I have a full-time job and a part-time job in addition to writing — I could release three books in 2012 just because of timing. But I’m generally shooting for two novels a year, with the odd short-story collection here and there.

How many words do you produce a day? Do you have a daily quota to fill?

This varies some based on my schedule with both jobs, but I probably average 1500 to 2500 a day when I’m in the thick of a project. I usually take a few weeks between books to decompress, maybe work on some short pieces, and I specifically don’t give myself word count goals during those times. Sometimes I’ll use a quota/goal system if I feel like I’m procrastinating. I’m using one now because my November’s a little chopped up with trips and I’m trying to get the periods where I let the draft sit to overlap with those. That means finishing this draft by the end of the month. I’m on track now, but I wasn’t a week ago. The daily word goals got me back on track.

What is your greatest challenge as an author?

Time, or lack thereof. The storytelling for me is the easy part. These characters have been living in my head long enough that I already know what the first five novels in the series will be and have pages of short story ideas and partial drafts. But there’s only so much I can write while juggling my other responsibilities. I’m hoping in a year or two to be able to make a living between writing and teaching (PT job), which would let me devote more time to writing. Some of that’s out of my hands, though, because even with a good story, you can only make a living at this if you get enough word-of-mouth for your book to build a significant readership.

Do you use a professional editor, critique partners, or beta readers? Briefly describe your process.

I have a close friend who’s been editing my fiction for more than a decade. She’s as good as any professional editor, plus she knows me well enough to know what to look for in my drafts if there are any weaknesses. And she doesn’t pull her punches. She likes editing my work because for me, that’s one of her best qualities. I want an editor who’s tough on me — tougher than I can be on myself — and who has high enough standards to not let me settle for less than my best. She fits the bill. She’s my main editor, and the final sign-off on drafts. I also have several writing friends who will look at sections or stages of the drafts either for specific things (the mother/grandmother who vets my kid characters for age-appropriate behavior, etc.) or just to give an overall take on which pieces work and which ones don’t.

What is you favorite part of the whole process? (Besides receiving a check or 5 star review!)

I like sitting down and exploring the lives of these characters and finding out things I didn’t know I knew about them. It happens a lot with the Exeter characters because they’re strong, meaty characters who have a life beyond my brain. They often surprise me, which is the hallmark of a good, 3D character. Seeing the story turn down a different direction and then realizing it was headed here all along and I’m the only one who didn’t know that is such an amazing feeling as a writer, I don’t even know how to describe it.

What are three web sites or blogs that you can recommend?

Jane Friedman:
Terri Giuliano Long:
Novel Publicity:

Is there anything else you would like to share?

The advent of indie publishing has changed the landscape of publishing permanently. It’s opened up lots of opportunities for writers; it’s also created new risks. You can’t ever go back and undo a first impression, so it’s even more critical that we as writers find good editors and craft compelling stories before putting them out there as books. I’m glad I didn’t have these opportunities eight years ago when I had a book I thought was ready (my editor didn’t) and tried submitting it to agents. If I had gone ahead and published it as an e-book, it would have been one of thousands of bad books out there and I would have wasted my chance.

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