Many writers not only read widely, but write widely. In my tenure as a fiction writer I’ve dabbled in short stories that use different voices and points of view. I see them as experiments at first, yet some have become my favorite work.
Author Jess Riley shares with us how she stepped out of the realm of traditional women’s fiction and how it’s her favorite book to date. Jess has been both traditionally and self-published. I don’t know if Jess knows this but I remember her from Backspace when her first novel was published. It feels good to be in on her career all along the way!
Please welcome Jess Riley to Women’s Fiction Writers!
Author Jess Riley Masters Writing The Story That Demands To Be Written
I cut my teeth in women’s fiction, with my debut novel DRIVING SIDEWAYS (2008) and my second, ALL THE LONELY PEOPLE (2012), both written from the point-of-view of a female protagonist and focused on friendships, romantic relationships, and the struggle to find both redemption and a rewarding place in the world. And while women’s fiction (especially an edgier, darker variety of “chick lit”) is the primary genre I like to read and write, I also dabble in its masculine counterpart, “lad lit” … also known as “dude lit,” “dick lit,” or simply “literary fiction.” (I’m being a little eye-rolling and tongue-in-cheek now … more on that later.)
First, some backstory. To make ends meet in college, I worked part-time as a teacher in a medium-security men’s prison. This sounds strange for any young woman, but at the time, I was so shy I could barely make a phone call without a script. But my parents met in prison (that’s the running gag, which I included in the dedication of my new novel—they actually worked there together), so it didn’t seem entirely abnormal to me. It turned out to be a life-changing job, and my experiences were a gold mine for any writer.
Years later, I decided to integrate those experiences into a novel: MANDATORY RELEASE. I developed two protagonists, and I wanted them to tell their stories in an alternating chapter format. However, given the subject matter, setting, and the kind of story I wanted to tell, I was drifting farther and farther from the women’s fiction camp. The more I wrote, the more I felt I was entering Nick Hornby territory: the novel was darker and snarkier, tackling some uncomfortable subjects in an unconventional setting.* Oh, and I was writing from a first-person/present POV for my male character, and third-person/past for my female character. I have no idea how that happened, but you write the story the way it demands to be written, and that’s how it came to me, fast and furious.
Not only was my primary “voice” a man, but he was also in a wheelchair, which required extensive research and added layers of bitter, heartbreaking, and sometimes hilariously honest complication to the unfolding love story. The funny thing is that he was incredibly easy to write, because my own sensibilities, humor, and interests lined up with his raw take on life. In a way, I neutered him with a spinal cord injury, which one could argue made him both easier to write and sympathize with, but he’s still a guy, with a more masculine outlook on life.
Tell me if you agree with this statement: The snarkier, funnier, and angrier your protagonist, the easier that character is to accept if he’s a man. Likeability and familiarity are important in commercial women’s fiction; I knew I was in trouble the more honest and real I was getting with how my characters thought and spoke, and holy cow: the setting? I love that Orange is the New Black is big now, because I got lots of crooked looks when I tried to explain what a strangely fabulous setting a prison can be for a story.
This is getting long, so it’s time to bottom-line it. This novel was the most difficult story I’ve written, but it’s my favorite. It’s also my agent’s favorite, my freelance editor’s favorite, and many of my readers’ favorite, judging by the reviews. However, it’s also the toughest sell. A bestselling author friend of mine actually wrote me to say (and I quote), “This is some straight-up Tom Perotta/Jonathan Tropper business and it’s making me crazy that it’s not being marketed by a major publisher, put on the front table everywhere … is there any chance you and your agent could hatch a scheme … as in market MR as having been written by a guy? Like, assume a pen name? I mean, there’s such a bias against female writers; why not make the misogyny work FOR you?”
Well, I think that ship has sailed, but if I bend genres again, I may consider a pseudonym. (Jen Weiner, who is pretty much the queen of women’s fiction and all kinds of amazing, has lots to say on that subject.) I hate the word “branding,” but it is important if you want to keep selling novels to traditional publishers, especially today. However, I wrote what I wanted to write with MANDATORY RELEASE, and I wouldn’t trade that feeling, that experience, for anything; however, I would warn aspiring authors to be careful if you mix it up too early in your career. Have fun, but keep readers’ expectations in mind. And when you write what you want to write, don’t forget that the formula is: rewards for the reader (humor, rich language, relatable and developed characters, plot twists, etc.) – self-indulgent writing = a satisfying book. One you can be truly proud of, even if you release it yourself.
*(I did an interview with OnMilwaukee recently, and one of the reporter’s questions cracked me up: “This novel was laugh-out-loud funny, but also deeply profound. How, as a writer, did you combine the levity and humor with the backdrop of a prison, along with storylines that included paralysis, pedophilia and even murder?” I saw that and said to my husband, “Now that’s going to sell some books!”)
Jess Riley’s teaching experiences in a prison inspired her latest novel, MANDATORY RELEASE. Her debut novel was DRIVING SIDEWAYS, a Target bestseller now in its fourth printing, published by Random House in 2008. She is also the author of ALL THE LONELY PEOPLE (2012) and the novella CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR. She lives in Oshkosh, Wisconsin with her husband and a nutty Cairn Terrier who despises the theme music to certain public radio shows. Follow Jess on Twitter (@jessrileywrites), Facebook (www.facebook.com/JessRileyAuthor), or her blog (www.jessriley.com).