The Story Behind the Story: “Charcoal”


Sometimes it’s interesting to understand the inspiration for a story. If you’re curious about the origins of my story “Charcoal,”  published in the Fall 2015 issue of Prairie Schooner, here’s a little about what went into it.

In August of 2011, I attended a screening of the film “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” a documentary by Werner Herzog about the Chauvet ice age paleolithic cave paintings in France. The film is remarkable, not just because of the subject, but because of Herzog’s treatment of it and his unprecedented access to the cave. I highly recommend the film, which is available on Netfllix and elsewhere.

When I was in elementary school, I wanted to be an archaeologist. In college I took anthropology and archaeology courses, but in the end decided against pursuing it as a career. I still have my amateur fascination with prehistory, so this film held me rapt, until one line of dialogue in the movie pulled me completely out of the cave. I haven’t watched the film again since then, so I don’t know the exact wording, but it was a comment about the security guard or guards stationed outside the cave to keep intruders out.

At that moment, my attention went from the cave to the idea of a security guard for a cave. I couldn’t stop thinking about that job, that person, what a strange way that would be to earn a living. What would it be like to be that person? After the film was over, I remarked to my friends how interested I was in the security guard, and of course they hadn’t even noticed that one tiny, crazy detail. It was not the thrust of the film for anyone in the theater but me. I decided on my way home that I had to try to write a story from the point of view of that security guard.

In September of 2011 I went to Gilman, Illinois for a residency called “Writers in the Heartland,” anxious to start this story. I wrote part of the first draft there. A month or so later, I had a residency at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and continued to work on the story.

My initial vision of the story was that it would be an exploration of how something profound and moving like 30,000-year-old cave paintings could affect one’s psyche. I could imagine becoming obsessed with the drawings and wanting to possess them, to recreate them, to retreat into one’s own version of what must have been a sacred place for prehistoric people.

Of course, when you write a story, other things creep in. Suddenly my protagonist had a nephew that I hadn’t known about. Their relationship infiltrated the story. In my head, since the Chauvet cave was discovered in the 1990s, that’s when my story was taking place. Also during the 1990s was the founding of the European Union and discussion about globalization, which was kind of a new topic then. I started to think about what happens to jobs during globalization and outsourcing and how a person without much education, like my protagonist, was going to face this new world.

Soon after I returned from VCCA, where I probably revised the story 3-4 times over the three weeks of the residency, I began sending it out to literary journals. TOO SOON! I have a patience problem, a history of sending work out before it’s ready. It was rejected 3 times in that round of submissions. I stopped sending it out, set it aside, and later worked on more revisions until I sent it out again at the beginning of 2013. Fortunately, I use Duotrope to track my submissions, so I can easily look back over the submission history of this story.

My habit is to send a story out too soon, pull back and revise it more, send it out more, revise it again, lather, rinse, repeat. I don’t recommend this method. I still haven’t worked out how to know when a story is finished, but now I know it’s probably not finished when I think it’s finished. “Charcoal” was rejected a total of 23 times over a series of quite imperfect drafts.

Between the end of 2013 and the end of 2014, something about my latest revision was working. The story was a finalist in 4 different contests. I asked friends whether that meant it was close to right, but not quite there, and should I try to “fix” it more. Everyone I asked said that I shouldn’t change it if it was that close so many times. I was sufficiently insecure about my writing that I considered revising it again anyway, but instead decided to send it out again, this time to Prairie Schooner.

Prairie Schooner does not accept simultaneous submissions. I know a lot of writers don’t consider themselves bound by that requirement, but I do. That meant, for the time I was waiting for a response from Prairie Schooner’s editors I couldn’t send it elsewhere and so would not be continuing to revise the story. According to Duotrope, after a wait of 152 days, I received an email from the editors of Prairie Schooner, offering to publish the story, but requesting that I consider revising the ending.

Endings are hard. I have read so many stories that are engaging all the way to the ending and then disappoint. Either they just end, with no feeling of resolution or inevitability, or they wrap things up too neatly. It’s very hard to get an ending that works.

I had always felt the ending was the weakest part of this story. I had changed it several times, mostly in response to readers’ comments. I talked with Kwame Dawes, the editor of Prairie Schooner, about his suggestions for the ending, took a long walk in the woods, made one last draft of the ending and sent it off for publication.

I hope this will give new writers some perspective on publication. This story took about 4 years from inception to print. I don’t know whether there was anything I could have done differently, except to wait longer before submitting it, revising and going back over it over a longer period of time. It might have been rejected fewer times before an editor somewhere liked it and thought it worthy of inclusion in his journal. I’m beginning to get the hang of this, maybe, and beginning to have a little more confidence in my own work. It all takes time, patience, practice, trial and error. Like pretty much everything else in life.

Have a similar story? Share in the comments the length of your favorite stories’ journeys from first draft to publication (print or online).


SBCAWhen it’s used as a verb, I think of “retreat” in a military sense–to go backward to safety. There is an inherent tension between this meaning and the meaning of a writing “retreat,” since the purpose of the latter is to make forward progress. Sometimes in order to make progress, I feel like I have to detach myself from the rest of my life and go somewhere else.

That’s what I’m doing this month. I’ve gone away to an undisclosed location (OK, the photo is a big hint), to a place from my past, to revise the novel I’ve set here.

I’ve heard tell there are people who can work on their novels without retreating, withdrawing, from their regular lives. They have a lot more self-discipline than I do. I have a difficult time segmenting my brain in a way that allows me to switch back and forth at will. So, I’m revisiting another episode in my life, a different time and place. The trick is to keep this location from distracting me. I’m trying various schedules to figure out what works best. This morning I went to the beach around 7:30, walked and read, then came back to my rental house to work.

Revision is not a pleasant task for me. Today I’m writing a brand-new scene, expanding the role of one of the secondary characters. This is the kind of work I enjoy best. I’m also employing one of the techniques suggested by Michelle Hoover in her revision class (part of the Grub Street Novel Series): retyping my whole novel. I was skeptical, but I’m finding that the act of retyping from a paper manuscript serves a few purposes. One is to free up my mind by distracting my fingers in the mechanical act of typing. Another is to scrutinize each word and sentence and cause me to ask its purpose. Finally, I hate revising. I never know where to start, what to cut, what to rearrange. I like composing from scratch. This gives me the illusion that I’m writing a whole new novel, in a blank Scrivener file. So far, I like it. We’ll see if I make it through the entire manuscript this way.

Can I trick myself into finishing this novel revision by the end of the month? Stay tuned. I’m feeling pretty good so far.

How to Make Writing Pay

How_to_Make_Writing_PayOn March 23, 2013, as part of the Virginia Festival of the Book, I moderated a panel called “How to Make Writing Pay,” with freelance writers and professional authors (from left) Don Fry, Leslie Truex, Edie Eckman, and Gabe Goldberg. The panelists shared a wealth of insights from their many collective years of experience earning money as writers. The podcast is available here for a listen.

The Last Ten Percent


Why is it that the last ten percent of anything requires ninety percent of the effort? Finishing any project, whether it’s writing or something else, threatens to nullify everything I’ve done up to that point. A reader isn’t interested in a story that’s extremely close to being done; nor would a friend be excited about wearing a hand-knitted sweater with three-quarters of a left sleeve. If I don’t finish, I’ve wasted the other ninety percent. So here I sit, with a handful of short stories that are just about there, only not quite. Why is it so difficult to finish?

Sometimes I run out of time. When I start something like a thorough house cleaning in advance of guests’ arrival, I’m often overambitious, tackling the woodwork and the dust on the crystal droplets of the chandelier. At some point, after admiring my reflection in the streak-free bathroom mirror, I look at the clock and realize there’s still clutter covering the kitchen counters. TIme to start throwing things in drawers. Some stories feel like that too. I’ve set my sights on sending a story to a contest. As the hours tick toward the deadline, the loose pieces of the story start getting thrown in metaphorical drawers. Hitting the “submit” button brings closure and a sense of relief, but rarely first prize. I end up editing the story yet again before submitting it elsewhere.

Sometimes I’m just bored, tired of going over the same paragraphs, the same sentences, and feeling they just aren’t going anywhere. There was something in the story that made me want to write it in the first place, but I can’t seem to find the level of enthusiasm to sustain me until the end. A couple of times I’ve tried to go back to the inspiration for the story, to see if I could throw out everything else and start again. For some reason, that hasn’t worked. My mind wants to travel back down the same path. So I set aside that story and start a new one. I have an inventory of “set aside” stories that I like and want to finish polishing, get them just the way I want them, but my attention span just isn’t that good anymore. Too much distraction, too accustomed to instant gratification. The way we live now isn’t conducive to sticking with one thing through to the end.

Today I’m determined to finish rewriting a story I wrote at Writers in the Heartland September 2011. It’s been through a few drafts and two or three workshops. It’s been rejected by three journals. I love the characters and the themes. I really want the story to be published. Somehow I need to push through the last ten percent. Today’s the day. I need to do it. It’s simple as that. Today I want it more than I did yesterday.

Mea Culpa

If you’ve come here from my WriterHouse blog post, I am truly embarrassed at how long it’s been since I’ve updated this blog. Please forgive my neglect. Consider this the equivalent of the cute little “Under Construction” graphic that used to show up on the home page of so many web sites in the early days.

“Retelling the Tales” at Virginia Festival of the Book

Hillary Jordan, Rachel Unkefer, Margot Livesey, Sharyn McCrumb

Friday March 23 I was the moderator for a panel at the 2012 Virginia Festival of the Book sponsored by WriterHouse, an organization of which I am a founding member. This was a panel I initiated, after hearing that Margot Livesey’s new book, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, was a reimagining of Jane Eyre. I had also read Hillary Jordan’s book, When She Woke, and knew that it was a reimagining of The Scarlet Letter, so a vision for a panel began to form. When I heard Sharyn McCrumb would be coming to the festival with her latest book, The Ballad of Tom Dooley, an Appalachian version of Wuthering Heights, I knew we had a winner.

We had a lively discussion, with a standing-room-only crowd in the McIntire Room of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library main branch. Some of the topics of discussion: retelling vs. reimagining, what is it about classic tales that make them grist for retelling, how each author navigated the question of how close to stick to the original story (Sharyn McCrumb included actual dialogue from Wuthering Heights, Hillary Jordan’s characters’ names are very close to those in the Scarlet Letter, Margot Livesey used the broad plot outline of Jane Eyre with some rearranging of characters and relationships).

Responding to a discussion about archetypes in classic stories, Margot Livesey characterized her novel as an orphan story and a pilgrimage story. Hillary Jordan described her book as an outsider story and a pilgrimage. Sharyn McCrumb’s book is a meticulously researched account of a true historical event. When describing the difference between writing history and historical nonfiction, she said nonfiction writers can “walk” through the events, where, as a novelist, she must “dance.”

And afterward, there were many books to sign.

Hillary Jordan, Margot Livesey, Sharyn McCrumb signing books. Author John Casey in the background.

Newest Artifact

I just received this in the mail from an ebay seller. It’s a postcard from a hotel where I worked in 1980, which is the model for the setting of my second novel, tentatively entitled The Sea View Hotel. It’s not a great title, I know, but I’m not going to worry too much about that now. I say it’s the “model for the setting” because it’s not the exact setting. The setting is my memory of the place with some embellishments. I’ve messed with the geography and the name and a lot of other details in order to make the place fit the story. But it’s nice to have this tangible memory-jog while I’m writing. These photos were taken long before I worked there, but it didn’t change much during that period.

I’ve been thinking about other talismans that I might like to have while revising this novel. We used to have some really crummy white plastic ballpoint pens with the company logo on them. It would be fun to find one of those. I found an old matchbook on ebay, but it was from a much older era with an older logo. I could probably download some music from 1980. These things aren’t absolutely necessary, but they help put me in the right frame of mind.

I’m in the midst of massive revisions right now, and hoping to have something complete enough to enter in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award for 2012. That will require some focus and discipline. Since the month of December should be fairly quiet around here, I have a decent shot at it. Wish me luck.

VCCA and other Residencies Wiki

I’m currently at VCCA (The Virginia Center for Creative Arts) in Amherst, Virginia, working on my second novel and a couple of short stories. The idea of a residency is to allow writers (and other artists) to take a break from their everyday responsibilities and focus on their creative work for a concentrated period of time. This works extremely well, except for the wireless internet. The other day when I was not getting anywhere on my novel I realized I was wasting a lot of time online. Then I decided, since I wasn’t getting anything done anyway, I would create a wiki for writing residencies.

A wiki (like wikipedia) is a crowdsourced information repository–a website that can be edited by anyone. If you’ve ever been to a residency, please add your .02 to the listings there. There’s also a discussion page for each residency program, in case you want to start an argument.

Writers’ Residencies Wiki


James River Writers’ Conference 2011

Spent today at James River Writers’ Conference. Highlights:

  • First page critiques with literary agents Michelle Brower, April Eberhardt, and Becca Stumpf
  • Short story panel with Leona Wisoker, Michael Parker and Belle Boggs
  • Imagery and language panel with Kathleen Graber, Lucia St. Clair Robson and Irene Ziegler
  • State of the industry talk by agent April Eberhardt

I will try to find time this week to report more fully about what I learned from these panels. Looking forward to day 2.

I’m staying away from the silent auction. Last time I was near one I discovered that alcohol causes reckless bidding.