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Part-Time Lover

An essay on the new year as I reflect on the old ones

By Mark CoughlinPublished 4 months ago Updated 4 months ago 8 min read
Top Story - January 2024
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Part-Time Lover
Photo by Héctor J. Rivas on Unsplash

In response to your request, I have begun to contemplate the progress made since my arrival on this platform, and what the forthcoming year portends in relation to my own goals. The process of reflection brings me back to the ups and downs of story writing, the creative process that challenges me to dig a bit deeper, drive my vocabulary to expand, find new ways to forge vague, nebulous ideas into something relatable or at least entertaining. And then there is the raison d'etre

I had been interested in writing since my teen years, having read mostly golden-age science fiction. My heroes were Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury and countless others. They took me to places far from the everyday, with people who were intelligent and skillful. I wanted to tell stories like that. I wanted to take readers to places and times like that. My ability to tell a tale was admittedly rudimentary early on, and my imagination was colored by a childhood spent with Rod Serling and Gene Roddenberry. Were there any stories I could tell that weren't already told? I had to find out somehow.

So, a few times in the 1990s I set out to do just that. I wrote a short called "U" which had a simple premise: What if an alien scout accidentally allowed the locals to witness their presence? It had dire consequences. Okay, not too bad. Then, there was the time I entered a writing contest at the local sci-fi convention judged by Terry Pratchett. The prompt was again surprisingly simple: to include "Excalibur" somehow in the story. My friend Kathleen wrote of a spaceship called Excaliber. I won the contest with a story called "The Antique". (On a side-note, I intend to dig out the original typed draft of that story to re-publish on Vocal) The story was to be published in the convention's newsletter. I had occasion to ask Mr. Pratchett if that counted, and his reply of 'yes' gave me no small sense of satisfaction. I could now call myself a published author.

Then there was the local radio show on our NPR station called Sundial. The couple who produced the program held an annual writing contest. In 1994, my entry called "Seconds To Live" was deemed good enough for third prize. This entailed them recording my reading of the story to broadcast on their radio program. I managed make a copy of that reading on a cassette tape during the broadcast. A humbling experience to work on a story so hard and to make the short list, but tempered by the fact that others were deemed of a higher quality. I had to rethink what I wanted from this hobby. Contests are fine, and a way to motivate myself, to urge myself to try harder. But in the end, what would I have to say? Are my writings just mere entertainment? What do they say about me as a person? Should I care what they say about me as a person?

Years went past, as Life has a way of asserting its priorities on us all, and the stories were few and far between. As work, marriage and home were primary in my mind and heart, the writing was delegated to a dim corner, gathering dust but always brewing, those vague ideas simmering, waiting for the light of day. I watched as television and the movies evolved fitfully, my beloved science fiction genre grow and spread like kudzu (which may not be a good thing, if you know how kudzu works) and the quality suffered for the most part. There were a few nuggets that really floated my writer's boat ("Gattaca" comes to mind), that showed me that truly good, original concepts could be developed. It was encouraging. Daunting, but encouraging. How does an amateur such as myself create a story compelling, entertaining, even thought-provoking and not just rehash someone else's idea? And on what outlet could my stories be shared with whomever is interested in reading them?

I had been an early aficionado of home computers and later an early explorer of the Internet, back in its publicly available infancy. Having found IRC and entering chatrooms, I found that the written word was very important in conveying one's thoughts to others. Conversations among not just one or two, but groups of people from disparate places and walks of life brought a unique opportunity to express oneself in interesting and entertaining ways. Call it training if you like, or space-age penpalling even. It forced me to think on my proverbial feet and to choose my words carefully. This practice continued even into the age of Facebook and X-the-social-media-platform-formerly-known-as-Twitter. But now, the responses often were of the emoji variety as much as written replies. Okay, short and sweet witticisms play well in social media, but where to go for the real writer's gold?

The answer, in part at least, was to find and enter writing competitions online. There are many web resources for just that, as you dear reader know full well. And I took to entering the ones that appealed to me the most. They have some concepts in common: Starting with a prompt, giving cash prizes, a promise to publish (whether in print or on their website). That was ticket to get me back into the writing game. I would periodically receive an email announcing the next contest, how to enter and await the prompt. Once I knew I was in, those vague ideas began to beg for attention. Of course, most often the eventual prompt had nothing with anything I was already conjuring up, but the juices were flowing and that was the important part.

And then there was Vocal. While I was entering the aforementioned contests, I still searched for a platform where to rest my own cogitations that took the form of stories. If you were to read my work, you would see right away that my forte was short, speculative fiction. True, though is that some of my work doesn't seem finished. All part of the process, I decided, as opposed to berating myself over the half-baked, not fully explored themes of some of them. But here was an outlet that promised a potential audience and perhaps even a bit of money for readership. And as a cherry on top, the opportunity to compete on a regular basis, with much the same vigor as the other online resources with which I have been involved. At lasttttt, to steal a line form Etta James, maybe I can finally develop my skills and actually be read!

I am sure my work does not compare to the greatness of a Silverburg or a Brooks, or have the meaty darkness of a Harlan Ellison, but it is the urge to imagine something and then make it as real as possible that drives me. And while I appreciate and idolize such authors, I have to work hard not to copy their styles, or even to let their ideas become my own. I will read stories on Vocal on occasion, and express my enjoyment of them, but I don't want to get too far into others' mindsets or their ideas. Suffice it to say, my goals are pretty much the same as everyone else's here.

So, a mere twenty-six entries published in the last two-and-a-half years on this website, a precious few I am actually proud of. Several contests entered, and the greatest splash was sixty-two reads on a dragon story. Okay, not the worst statistic, considering I have stories that still haven't been read more than one time. And there is that "Top Story" feature on the front page of Vocal's website. A lofty goal to strive for, I suppose. It would serve as a great way to urge greater readership. But, I concentrate more on the competitions. The urge to compete seems to work as an incentive to write, place words on paper or computer screen that weave their way into the reader's mind and maybe even their heart if compelling enough. And the reads. The sheer number of reads. What is more important to me? The prize money is well and good, but it's the reads I really crave. I want to be read, it's kind of like desiring friendship or lovers or more pay. Liked or not, this seems secondary. If somebody doesn't like what I wrote, at least they read it. I am not a particularly provocative writer, maybe I could even be accused of being too safe. I could be working to cause the reader to react and respond in ways I had not dared to before. Is that a means to an end, or an interesting artistic choice? Perhaps a whole new mindset is required for the new year, to eschew the mundane and dig into places previously too dark and personal to share? Will it be a nightmarish horror story or a lofty, provocative indictment of society that I bring out? Or to really try to find that one thing never been said by anyone, a literary unicorn sought but never found? What will it take for this part-time lover to reward me with the things I desire the most? This should be the year to find out...

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About the Creator

Mark Coughlin

Mark has been writing short stories since the early 1990s. His short story "The Antique" was published in the Con*Stellation newsletter in 1992. His short story "Seconds To Live" was broadcast in the Sundial Writing Contest in 1994.

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Comments (7)

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  • Abby Kay Mendonca3 months ago

    Fantastic writing. So reflective and honest. I enjoyed it. And will subscribe:)

  • Part-time lover yeah I feel it. Online dating across oceans through the internet highways

  • Nikola Ilic3 months ago

    Excellent work.

  • Jeffrey Allison3 months ago

    Love the title! I can't help, but feel that with the relationship I'm in!

  • L.C. Schäfer4 months ago

    Pratchett is my hero! I'm absolutely bowled over that you got to enter a contest he judged 😁

  • Mariann Carroll4 months ago

    What a great Title to your love of writing. Wishing you the Best!!!!

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