Interview with Jan M. Flynn, 2nd Place Winner of WOW's Q1 2024 Creative Nonfiction Essay Contest

Sunday, February 11, 2024
Jan M. Flynn
I'm thrilled to chat with Jan M. Flynn today about her award-winning essay, "How to Avoid the Use of Adverbs While Telling You How My Husband Died." Isn't that a spectacular title? Be sure to read her essay, then pop back here for our interview! Jan and I chat about the inspiration behind her essay, garnering a literary agent, her forthcoming novel, whether it's harder to write fiction or nonfiction, and more.

Bio: Jan M. Flynn’s short and flash fiction has won First Place and Honorable Mentions in Writer’s Digest annual competitions and appears in literary journals including Midnight Circus, The Binnacle, Noyo River Review, Far Side Review, Grim and Gilded and Bullshit Lit as well as anthologies. Her essays appear in HuffPost Personal and Chicken Soup for the Soul: Lessons Learned From My Dog. Her debut novel, the first in a middle-grade fantasy trilogy, is forthcoming. She is represented by Helen Adams of Zimmermann Literary Agency in New York. Visit her website at

----- Interview by Angela Mackintosh

WOW: Welcome, Jan! We all fell in love with your deeply moving essay, “How to Avoid the Use of Adverbs While Telling You How My Husband Died,” which won second place in WOW's Q1 2024 Essay Contest. Writing about grief is so hard, and yet, you found a brilliant way of coming at it sideways using adverbs. How did the idea come to you and how did the essay evolve?

Jan: Grief is such a strange and bewildering place to negotiate: it's like a dense forest with overgrown trails that seem to wander endlessly before you hit on one that leads to some light again. And at some point, we're all going to have to stumble along those paths. When I first wrote this piece, it had been about 15 years since my first husband's death, so I'd had time to integrate the loss. But all such loss carves itself on one's heart like a memorial stone that invites revisiting at the oddest times. In this case, I was thumbing through Stephen King's superb On Writing and came upon his advice about adverbs (which in his view are to be avoided). That got me thinking about the word "suddenly," which is indeed overused, and then I realized how I couldn't imagine conveying the experience of my husband's death without using that word. Approaching the essay as a sort of apology for not being able to avoid "suddenly" gave me, I think, the distance to tell the story without wallowing in it.

WOW: "Suddenly" is such a hard adverb to avoid! I actually listened to the audiobook of On Writing for the first time a few months ago and loved it. Stephen King has great advice. I bet your agent does, too! Your bio mentions you garnered an agent and your middle-grade fantasy debut is forthcoming - congratulations! What's the book about?

Jan: I have a wonderful agent, Helen Adams of Zimmermann Literary Agency in New York — and it means the world to have an advocate who believes in my work and who can tolerate my inability to stick to a single genre! As for my debut, I am obliged to be a bit coy about it as the publisher wants to wait to announce it until we're closer to publication, for strategic reasons (and I am happy to trust their judgment on that). I can tell you that it's a middle-grade fantasy series about a girl from the lowest rung of a strictly hierarchical society, whose friendship with (let's just say, a being that would be a mythical beast in our world) offers her the chance to transcend her fate — but also threatens to upend the entire social order. One thing I'm learning as a debut novelist is that there can be a very long runway from acceptance to launch — the bright side of that is it gives me lots of time to work on the stories!

WOW: Oh yes, there's such a long runway. Your novel sounds fantastic! We'll have to have you back when it debuts. I love that you write both fiction and creative nonfiction. I'm a CNF writer who recently decided to try writing fiction. I have an ongoing debate with a friend about which genre is harder to write. She says CNF is harder because you have to include all the wisdom and takeaways, and I think fiction is harder because there are way too many possibilities. Which came first for you, and which do you think is harder?

Jan: I've journaled ever since I was old enough to scribble in a diary, so it's fair to say that for me CNF came first. Not to discourage you, but in my book fiction is much harder. That may be because most of my CNF is prompted by my own life experiences, and I have those "at hand" so to speak — an essay requires that I put them into some form that can speak to and be in some way valuable to a reader, but I don't have to make them up out of whole cloth. Fiction, especially long-form fiction, means cooking up an entire world peopled with beings who don't actually exist. That's true whether you're writing fantasy or contemporary thrillers.

WOW: Well put, and so true! Score one point for me. Lol! That's why it's so impressive that you wrote a novel, garnered an agent, AND had it picked up by a publisher. A lot of our writers are in the query trenches right now, desperately trying to get their manuscript picked up by an agent, so I'd love to know about your agent journey. How many queries did you send out before you got a yes? Did you use query trackers? What was it like when the call came? Any query tips for our authors-in-waiting?

Jan: It took me a long time and scores of rejections: a lot of form no-thank-yous, a number of full requests, and one revise-and-resubmit request from an agent with whom I'd had The Phone Call, but who then ghosted me (ouch). As it turned out, it was an entirely different book from the one I have under contract, a historical novel, that found me my agent — and even that was circuitous since a different agent had loved the book but couldn't take it on for various reasons, so referred me to who is now my agent. I can tell you that when she and I had "The Call" I was over the moon: we simply "got" each other, and that's important. As for tips for those in the query trenches: be kind to yourself and at the same time demanding. There's nothing harder than writing an effective query letter, so take advantage of all the expertise and help you can access, and be willing to rewrite again and again. And be prepared to spend a lot of time researching agents!

WOW: Thank you for sharing that rough journey with the agent who ghosted you! Writers need to hear that because so often we think getting an agent is the end goal, but ultimately there's a lot work left to do, and sometimes it doesn't work out. I'm so glad you found an agent who gets you. You are certainly prolific, writing a historical novel and your fantasy series! Where do you like to write?

Jan: I do almost all my writing at home unless I'm stuck on a long plane flight. I have a writing office upstairs in our home which is my official workspace. But I often like to sneak back downstairs and write on the couch next to the fireplace, especially in the winter.

WOW: That sounds really cozy right now as I'm looking out my window at the snowy mountains. You've had a lot of success winning contests! Your short fiction has won first place and an honorable mention in Writer’s Digest, and an excerpt from your novel won first place in the Novel division of the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. And of course, there's your WOW essay contest win! What are some tips for choosing and entering contests?

Jan: I think contests can be great confidence-boosters! It's important to be strategic with contests too, of course: make sure the contest is from a legitimate source, read the submission guidelines very carefully, and then follow them to the T. If you're attending a conference that includes a contest like the Mendocino Coast conference and you have work that fits their parameters, that can be a great opportunity because the pool of entrants may be smaller and your pages may be judged by the conference faculty — having their eyes on your work is a win even if you don't win a prize!

WOW: That's a great point about the conference contests! Having eyes on your work is invaluable. I'm curious, who is your writing hero and what do you admire about them/their work?

Jan: Honestly, I'm in awe of anyone who can weave a spell with their words, who can convince a reader to give up their most precious commodity — their time — and come away feeling that it was time well spent. Neil Gaiman (who is, of course, among my heroes) says that writers need to have a core of audaciousness "normally only seen in seven-year-old boys" and I believe he's right.

WOW: Love that quote from Neil Gaiman! Thank you, Jan, for spending time and chatting with me today. It's been such a pleasure! Wishing you a fantastic 2024, and please do reach out when your novel is close to publishing! We'd love to have you back.

Find out more about WOW's creative nonfiction and flash fiction contests here:


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