“[B]e surprised by the process,” an interview with Jessica McHugh

Jessica McHugh is a novelist, a 2x Bram Stoker Award®-nominated poet, and an internationally-produced playwright running amok in the fields of horror, sci-fi, young adult, and wherever else her peculiar mind leads. She’s had twenty-five books published in thirteen years, including her bizarro romp, The Green Kangaroos, her YA series, The Darla Decker Diaries, and her Elgin Award-nominated blackout poetry collection, A Complex Accident of Life. For more info about publications and blackout poetry commissions, please visit McHughniverse.com.

Here, she answers a few questions about her art, and how she got involved with blackout poetry.

Q: How is the experience of reading/absorbing blackout poetry different than that of traditionally written poetry?

A: I think the main difference is the amount of time you spend reading the piece, especially if the “blackout” portion is more complex and/or takes on the personality of the poem, which is what I try to do with my work. If the source material is apparent, I might spend even more time reading and re-reading, because the blackout poem sometimes honors and uplifts the original piece, whether it was intentional or not. And while I prefer to include a typed version of the poem with my pieces, not everyone does that, and if the blackout art doesn’t create a legible path for the eye, the poem might be more difficult to read/interpret and require a little more work to enjoy.

Otherwise, I think it’s a pretty similar experience. I’ve written poetry and monologues using blackout poetry techniques without actually creating a blackout piece, and I don’t think most readers would know I used a nontraditional method if I didn’t mention it. It’s an incredibly fun and versatile art form.

Q: With your unique work, you have carved out a niche in the horror writing community. How has the support of that community bolstered both your books/work and your sense of self as an artist?

A: It’s been an interesting journey, for sure. Since my first novel publication in 2008, I’ve had ups and down with my career and seen several iterations of the horror community. I’ve seen folks band together, I’ve seen them devour each other, I’ve seen people lose relevance due to an unwillingness to change with the times, and I’ve seen people going through darkness flourish with the support of their peers and come out better and brighter on the other side.

I count myself incredibly lucky to have found lifelong friends in this community and support throughout the phases of my career. Despite experimenting with playwrighting, my young adult series, and other mediums, I remained focused on horror novels and short stories and thought I’d stay on that trajectory. I never would’ve guessed that after 14 years and 25 published books, I’d be a 2x Bram Stoker Award nominee for my poetry, but I also never expected to fall in love with blackout art so quickly after I started playing around with it in early 2019. Nor did I expect such an outpouring of support from the community. While I will continue to write in whatever genre and format strike my fancy, the way blackout poetry rekindled my artistic passion after a long period of doubt, and how my horror friendos lifted me out of my gloom and doom to embrace my new artistic endeavors, makes me think blackout poetry will be a massive part of my life forever

Q: Can you tell us more about your Little Women blackout poetry? How it compares to or differs from your work in Strange Nests and A Complex Accident of Life?

A: Absolutely! My 3rd as-yet-untitled blackout poetry collection, inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, is definitely my most ambitious project so far. It will have 155 poems to coincide with the novel’s 155th anniversary in 2023, which is triple the number of poems in both A Complex Accident of Life and Strange Nests. That wasn’t my original intention, but I’ve come to realize that “original intentions” don’t matter much when it comes to these collections. A Complex Accident of Life only became a collection because Jacob Haddon of Apokrupha saw me posting Frankenstein blackout poetry and reached out about compiling the pieces. Strange Nests wasn’t planned either; it was more of a coping mechanism after my brother passed away in January 2021 and transformed into something so much more. So I’ve rolled with the punches and allowed myself to be surprised by the process. Deciding to make a lot more poems from Little Women has opened up the narrative in a huge way and allowed me to explore weirder paths, giving the collection more of a cosmic horror feel while remaining a fierce tale of sisterhood, selfhood, and feminine rage. While an official release date has not been set yet, it will probably be available from Apokrupha around April 2023. 

Q: Finally, is there a text you have your eye on for a future project? Are you willing to share what that is?

A: For collections, I’ll likely keep using classics written by women for as long as possible, and while I’d have to verify these are in the public domain, I’d love to play with Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, and pretty much any Agatha Christie. Outside of that theme, I’m also eager to make some creepy holiday pieces from A Christmas Carol. But really, I’m open to giving anything and everything a shot. I’ve found beautiful poetry in the most unlikely places, and I never get tired of discovering the hidden treasures within. 

To commission your own blackout poem, contact Jessica here.

Juggling WIPs

The view from my office window.

This is not trying to be instructional. This is more or less a rambling cry for help.

How do you decide what to work on and when, if you have lots of writing projects started? Especially if demands in your life are all grabbing at your legs like toddlers? (Some of you likely have actual toddlers grabbing at your legs.) I have to get a lesson plan ready for Intro to CW class at 4 today and proofread a typeset novel for my other job. But I’m distracted by thoughts of the last two stories I need to finish for my speculative fiction collection, and the poem that’s almost done but not quite, and the essay about writing I started yesterday that today I’m thinking might be garbage (and if it is, how much time I spent on it).

I also saw a sub call yesterday for ghost stories (Can I write one by the end of May?) and a horror poetry collection that doesn’t accept simsubs (Where do I have that one poem out? Must remember to check my sub list). There are several titles I’m trying to read before StokerCon, too, so, of course, add reading to the to-do list.

How do you focus? How do you organize your projects? Do you have an order of importance, and if so, is that by deadline or by interest? I’m excited about everything, and I love having a lot going on, but instead of doing any of it, I’m staring out the window.

Emissaries

Published on 50-Word Stories

Photo from Cornell’s feederwatch.org.

They first came during Covid, the only bright spot of lockdown, one brown head, one red, building their nest in a faded holiday wreath. Every morning I said hello and made small talk, maybe to remind myself I still knew how, and the house finches cocked their heads and listened.

“I look at everything as a story,” an interview with Christina Consolino

Christina Consolino, senior editor at Literary Mama, freelance writer and editor, and author of the award-winning novel Rewrite the Stars, shares what it was like to launch her first book during the pandemic, what she’s working on now, and why writers should always, always pay attention to the world around them. Thanks, Christina!

Q: Happy Book Birthday! You launched Rewrite the Stars during the pandemic last March, a novel that has landed as finalist for several awards and garnered an impressive list of blurbs. What was that experience like? What were the highs and lows of debuting when the world was (and still is) knocked sideways?

A: Thank you so much for having me here! It seems hard to believe so much time had passed! I signed a publishing contract in April 2020, after much of our world had effectively shut down, and my novel debuted in March 2021. Because Rewrite the Stars is my first novel, I had no experience to compare its launch to. In retrospect, I think that’s a good thing—my bar was set pretty low! (Which seems like a horrible thing to say as I strive to be an optimistic person.) Everything I did to get the book ready for publication and beyond—approach authors for blurbs, submit to awards, pitch to podcasts and the launch itself—was done virtually. As an introvert, I found the virtual route easier than if I had to do anything in person. As a woman with many obligations, I also found it easier to plan for a Zoom launch because finding an hour to do something is far more palatable than finding two hours.

Because I debuted a year into the pandemic and the world was used to the virtual platform but not completely fatigued by it yet, my launch was well attended and held an abundance of energy. I consider that launch a highlight! Having never had a novel out in the world, it was wonderful to see readers, supporters, writing partners, friends, and family with my book in their hands. A low point for me involves the lack of interest by the library and bookstore in the city my characters visit on vacation. The library especially plays a role in the story (and in my life when I visit), and I would have loved to find my book there or even hold a virtual reading. And while reader reviews have been positive, because the number of in-person events has been limited, the connection I’d love to forge with the reader has been dampened. (Thankfully, some readers feel comfortable emailing with a line or two about how the novel affected them. These words mean so, so much to me!)

Overall, the experience enlightened me to what an author must do to launch a book and keep the book present. It also showed how adaptable (or not) the book industry can be. I hope to apply everything I learned to the next book.

Q: I am always interested in a writer’s “other selves,” and the way those interests and lifestyle facets work together. You are a scientist as well as an author, having taught anatomy and physiology at the college level for years. How does writing affect your scientific brain, and how does your knowledge of science affect your writing?

A: Writing has always been near and dear to my heart, and years ago, I grappled with the choice to pursue a creative degree or a more practical degree. With guidance from well-intentioned parents who wanted me to be able to support myself fully, if necessary, I chose the practical route and earned a doctorate in physiology. But even as I lectured on the cardiac cycle or the structure of skeletal muscle, a little voice spoke to me. “Write,” it said. While my children—I have four—were little, that meant blogging; it’s all I had time or energy for, and capturing snapshots of our lives then, maybe inserting snark or finding the humor in them, fulfilled me. A decade ago, though, the voice changed from the generic one prodding me to write to a full character telling me their story. As you might know, it’s difficult to ignore a voice that’s constantly pestering you!

That’s a lot of (perhaps unnecessary) backstory, but I share it because the answer to your question took me years to fully realize. When I reflect back on my time in graduate school—even just the application and interview process—signs pointed to my true desires to write. At my interview with the graduate school chair at the time, a gastrointestinal physiologist, he said, “Your essay is quite different from what we normally see. It’s a beautiful story.” I often think back to that hour I spent with him. What if I’d recognized then that my stories needed to be told? Would I have left the physiology department with a polite “Thank you for your time,” and applied to English or creative writing instead? Who knows?

My point: I look at everything as a story, and I want to connect the dots, find a structure, and produce a storyline. When I taught, my lectures had a beginning, a middle, and an end, and the “story” flowed, and I chose my words carefully, much like a writer does. And now, though I don’t teach science, I use that background every day, either in writing or in freelance editing. Being able to formulate questions, make suggestions, dig deeper, and test hypotheses serves me well in the writing arena and allows me to ask questions or hold a perspective that not everyone else has. Furthermore, most of my fiction revolves around some physical or mental health issue—the science lover in me still exists—and knowing the disease processes, how the body works, and what questions to ask puts me at an advantage when it comes time to do research.

Q: What project or projects are you working on right now? Why are you excited about it or them?

A: My work is mainly categorized as women’s fiction, and my next novel, The Chocolate Garden, is no exception. The story centers on seventy-seven-year-old Frank Raffaelo, a retired serviceman who loves his family but doesn’t always understand them or their motivations. An accidental fall forces Frank to face a fear—that his memory might be failing him—and rely on his three children: Gabe, the oldest, who’s overseas; Nico, the youngest, who is keeping a secret from his family; and Marissa, the middle child, who wants to feel like she belongs and matters to her family. Marissa is also a nurse practitioner, and with time, she realizes that while Frank might not show any abnormal cognitive changes, his wife of forty-two years, Angie, does. When Angie’s denial of her symptoms results in dangerous consequences, the Raffaelo family understands that life as they know it is about to change.

In 2015, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. That summer, I spent many hours with my parents, and I sat with my mother as she was assessed for cognitive changes and diagnosed with “changes consistent with Alzheimer’s” (definitive diagnosis can only occur upon autopsy). Since then, I’ve taken on the role of point person for her health and well-being. This book reflects my experiences since that summer and exposes the toil and hardship that dementia can cause for partners and families. I hope it resonates with readers who have had similar experiences and helps them realize that they and their loved ones aren’t alone.

Aside from The Chocolate Garden, a few other projects are also in the works, but it’s a little early to divulge any of their secrets!

Q: Finally, I believe the writing community thrives when writers support one another and share their experiences. What advice do you have for the rest of us for hanging on to our creative selves when life is so messy? What techniques can you share with us for finding energy when we’re running low on it? 

A: Finding solace in writing—which, for me, is usually a solitary affair—is something I do every day. Shutting off from the real world is integral to maintaining my personal health and well-being (and sometimes, those characters just won’t be quiet!). Times exist, though, when my virtual writing friends are just what I need. Despite my ineptitude with social media and my dislike of the venue, there’s a draw there, and it comes from the writing community. They are a generous, welcoming, safe lot that understands why you’re stressed about life. They know how difficult it is to find minutes to write between parents or kids or grandparents or jobs or partners or bouts of loneliness. They understand that messiness and offer you a listening ear, advice, encouragement—whatever you need. So one tip would be to involve yourself in a good writing community and become involved. And by involved, I mean don’t just lurk there (though that’s a good start!). Participate in whatever way you can. Comment on a post, share a post, read a book and review it. Make friends! These folks will be your lifeline through the whole publication process.

As for hanging onto creativity and finding energy . . . I think it’s important to have other creative outlets that bring us joy. When a story just isn’t working for me, I often bake. The process soothes me, I enjoy it, and I always have a finished product (that usually tastes great). Somehow, being able to hold something concrete in my hands energizes me and clears my head. Walks outside also help; the air and nature rejuvenate my cluttered mind. Lately, I’ve also relied on my fifteen-minute solution: I set a timer and concentrate for fifteen minutes on the task at hand. At the end of the time, I celebrate (usually just a mental high five) what I’ve accomplished. The task can be anything from my own writing project to a client’s manuscript to dusting my home or weeding the garden, and I get a lot accomplished in fifteen minutes. That sense of accomplishment helps fill the empty vessel within once again.

Should you create an author website? Yes.

I’ll keep this one short.

Recently, I stopped waffling about whether or not I should create a website and did it. Or, rather, I paid someone else to do it, because I’m from that in-between generation that didn’t grow up with computers but now we’re forced to use them for everything and to be honest, we’re still a little disoriented. (I had a word processor in high school that was, for then, top of the line.)

I dragged my feet about it because I thought, well, I don’t have a book. I’ll make one if I get my collection published. In the meantime, I racked up publications one by one, here and there, in smaller journals and online magazines, anthologies and even on podcasts (two of those forthcoming!). I realized I had plenty to put on a website, BUT, even if I didn’t, it still would have been worth making one. Create a website for the writing life you want, not for the writing life you have? Something like that?

If you create a website, you are basically making yourself “findable” via internet search. You are giving people a way to contact you. You are creating a professional presence, so that WHEN you get published (gotta believe, right?), you already have that piece in place. When you get stories or poems picked up by journals, small or large, you can actually fill in the “website” box on the bio form. And if you’re a blogger (whether it’s shouting into the void or talking to a few people or to many), it gives you a handy place to keep posts.

One of my favorite things about having a website, though, is a thing just for me. I love having one place where all of my publications and little accolades get to live. It’s like a digital creative resume. An online scrapbook. It’s nice to see all of my work together–like the last, oh, decade and a half of writing and revising and submitting has amounted to more than nothing.

If you don’t have money to spend on a website right now, create one for free on WordPress or a similar platform. You can upgrade it later and update it as you go.

(Also, it’s worth noting that there have been very few days with zero website visitors.)

If nothing else, I bet your mom/partner/best friend/dog/cat will think your website is cool.

“A Bargain at Twice the Price”

Published by Etched Onyx Magazine by Onyx Publications. Honorable Mention in the Winter Contest, 2021. Onyx Publications

If you had known Beth would leave two months after the closing date, you never would have bought the shoebox starter home on Oak View Drive in a sleepy commuter town with one shitty pizza joint and two convenience stores and nothing to do on weeknights but hang out at the rat-hole townie bar drinking too much bottom-shelf whiskey. [Click link for more.]

When you can’t write or revise, read.

This will be a short one, because I’m feeling flattened and hollowed out. It’s the endless pandemic with its grief and worry; it’s the end of a tough semester throughout which I juggled too much and burnt myself out; its the approaching holidays with their stressors and reminders that my mom is dead and my family is scattered. Blergh.

So, now that I have some time to get a bit of writing and revision in before the start of the spring semester, I find myself with no energy to do so. Creative thoughts seem to run, head first, into a brick wall. My brain is a blank Word document, complete with blinking cursor. And that makes me feel like a bad writer–not the quality of my writing, but bad as in not dedicated enough to my craft. I don’t get up early or stay up late to write. I don’t have a day in the week set aside for it, though I keep meaning to do that, to make a schedule and stick to it.

Instead, I have been reading. Reading for fun (mysteries), reading for work (excellent manuscripts for Leapfrog Press), and reading my own works-in-progress. I’m feeding all of these words into my subconscious. Or that’s what I think I’m doing. Hoping that something will click, that I will come up with an idea for a way to remedy a problem in an existing draft (I’m talking about you, ghost story). And I think it’s a not-that-unlikely possibility.

I wrote a story in grad school that I loved and that hasn’t worked ever. I love the characters and the setting. I love the narrative voice and the dialogue. I even love the plot. It’s basically a one-sided conversation in the present moment, narrating events that are also happening on the same timeline, but a step behind; so on Monday, the speaker is explaining what happened Saturday, etc. It has always been clear in my mind, but on the page, it’s a damn mess, and no one knew what was going on. Recently, I read it again, just for fun, and got an idea. Why not give it a really obvious structure? Label the days? Indicate the speech of another character, the side of the conversation we don’t get to hear? And I may have solved it; I may have pulled this story back from the clutches of story death. Then again, maybe I didn’t; maybe it’s too much of a schtick, too gimmicky. Or too odd for the collection I’m working on, since it’s the only story with a weird structure. The only way to tell is to workshop it and find out.

Okay so this wasn’t that short. Oops. Back to my point, reading is always a part of writing, so if you’re doing that, you’re not doing nothing for your craft.

Here’s hoping that all those words I’m feeding into my soggy, tired brain will arrange themselves into good ideas I can put on a page, and soon.

When you think it’s done, it’s not.

I have a story that I thought was done six months ago. I had read it again and again. Pinched and revised. Friends read it. I workshopped it. And I sent it out to contests and submitted it for publication–most recently, to a contest I felt pretty good about*. (Not that that meant I had a chance, but, you know how it is. Good feelings are worth something.)

Then, I was thinking about that story a couple weeks ago, and read it that night. I found myself making line edits. Little cuts–a word here or there. And then I realized that it had a couple bigger issues–it needed a change of dialogue here, a rearrangement of action there (“shuffled” instead of “stepped” type stuff). And the next day, while reading it for the 80,000th time, I was HORRIFIED to discover a major plot hole. Huge. A truck-sized plot hole that I had overlooked again and again.

It was a throwaway line on page two that got me–an offhand reference to a character’s son. He didn’t come up again. He didn’t matter. Except that he really, really did. Because–and don’t worry about the context–what kind of son leaves his 90-year-old mother to clean her own gutters if he lives close by? Why would he never come around? And that made the whole second half of my story kind of unbelievable. Not in a good way–I mean it lost its verisimilitude. It didn’t make sense.

The fix? Get rid of the son.

I laughed at all of this, along with nearly (but not) crying, because that same week, my Intro to Creative Writing students were focusing on revision: all the experiments a writer can do with their stories, all the questions they can ask themselves, all the possibilities they can open up.

I’ve always said to them, truthfully, that I practice what I preach, but that week, I lived it in real time. I told them all about my mistake and my dismay at its discovery–no delusions of grandeur here–and how it reminded me that sometimes, what we need most in the revision process is time. To let something sit for a while, in the proverbial drawer, until we’re ready to take it out again and see what we didn’t before.

Also, it made me think, “Damn. What else did I call ‘done’ too soon?”

I went back to my desk to find out.

*Update on this: After I first drafted this post, I decided there was no harm in reaching out to the editor of that contest, asking if I could swap the file for an updated one. He hadn’t yet opened the submission, so he allowed it! It’s still “in progress” on Submittable.

The Skill of Being Rejected

Pic: This is how I keep track of submissions. Low tech but effective.

I have found, pretty recently, that being rejected as a writer is a skill. And like any skill, you can get better at it.

During lockdown, I got back to work on my own writing, spending more time and energy on it than I had in years. Instead of finding the creative well dry, as I had feared, a couple of stories seemed to write themselves. I joined four friends in a Zoom writing workshop (we still meet). I made appointments with an excellent editor-for-hire, and we’ll schedule another session soon. I wrote and I revised, and then I wrote some more. I went on a personal writers’ retreat, renting a cabin in the Catskills with my wonderful friend N. West Moss for a few days, and drafted two new stories. For a while there, I was kicking ass.

In that time period, I also got back to submitting my work to journals and magazines and writing contests. I realized that the process energizes me–everything sent out is a chance that it will find a place in the world. Submitting stories (and sometimes, essays and poems) makes the process more real for me–it makes me feel more like a “real” writer, whatever that is.

And wow, did those rejections roll in. And they keep rolling in. And honestly, yep, sometimes they stung, and sometimes they still do. But they sting less all the time. I shrug at them now, mostly. If I get two in a day, I laugh. It sucks, even now, if I get a rejection on a submission I thought was a good fit–like if my story matched the theme, or aligned with the goals of the publication.

A few came close. “Joiner,” a story, was a finalist in the New Millennium Writing Awards. A flash piece, “Rest for the Wicked,” got a lovely rejection from the Parsec Ink contest, saying it made the longlist. Fatal Flaw rejected two poems, but encouraged me to send more (I will!).

I’ve gotten acceptances, too. For the year of 2021, my record is 5 acceptances, 43 rejections, with a handful of submissions still out. Most recently, The Elpis Pages, a print collective (with profits going to Planned Parenthood), took my essay “What’s Left.” That will be out this month. Then, I got an email from Last Girls Club, saying my story wasn’t a fit for their magazine, but could they read it on their podcast, Blood & Jazz? (The answer of course was YES.)

A lot of what has gotten accepted from 2020-2021 had been in the works for a while. Like a long-ass time. A poem that Blueline Magazine took (“Bargain,”) had existed in various forms for over seven years. “Tourist,” a flash essay Anti-Heroin Chic published, was first drafted about three years ago. Every time those pieces (and others) got rejected, I would take another look at them. Tinker. Fiddle. Tighten them up. And, not surprisingly, they got better. And then they found homes.

I was inspired by the article “Why you should aim for 100 rejections a year” from LitHub by Kim Liao. I was also motivated by a Facebook thread posted by the editor of a small press, which turned into a big conversation about why women tend to submit less often than men. (Spoiler: it’s because patriarchy.) The main idea with both of those? Submit, submit, submit.

I look for opportunities on various Facebook pages, through Reedsy, Newpages, and Erica Verillo’s blog, Publishing and Other Forms of Insanity. I don’t mind submissions fees–publications are expensive to run and print, and need to pay for staff and software, etc.–but I don’t break the bank. I look for cheap and free submissions opportunities, too. I keep track of everything in a janky notebook–see photo. (I tried keeping a tidy Excel file, but that’s just not me–I’m a pen-and-paper gal at heart.)

In 2022, I hope to hit the 100 rejection mark. If I double my rejections, I might just double my acceptances, too. Who’s in?

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