Jess Riley: How I Write

"Self-publishing allows for more experimentation in terms of genre, and I love how it feels so democratic."
By Allison Futterman | Published: October 2, 2017


Jess Riley

 

Writers are increasingly embracing self-publishing as a route to publication. While “going indie” might not be the best answer for every writer, author Jess Riley has found great success with self-publishing. After traditionally publishing her first novel, Driving Sideways, with Random House, Riley self-published two additional novels, All the Lonely People, a finalist for the 2013 National Indie Excellence Awards, and Mandatory Release. Riley, who works as a grant writer when not penning fiction, just completed her fourth novel, which she describes as “taking place decades from now, revolving around a future evolutionary event that has the potential to both smash and reinforce human tribalism.” As the novel progresses, she says, she’s “aiming for a ‘love child of Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell’ kind of vibe.”

 

The good and the bad

Self-publishing allows for more experimentation in terms of genre, and I love how it feels so democratic. You stuff your ego into a box, march your book right into the coliseum, and wait for the crowd to cheer, jeer, or collectively “meh.” It also appeals to the control freak in me. It’s a lot of work to be your own publishing house, but I do enjoy hiring my own subcontractors for each step in the process: conceptual editor, copy editor, proofreader, cover artist, formatter, publicist.

However, for a debut author, the sheer volume of indie titles released now makes it difficult to find an audience. It’s important to have realistic expectations, and it’s important not to rush a book to market before it’s ready.

 

Why novels?

I essentially write nonfiction for my day job, so the idea of writing more nonfiction in my free time gives me hives on hives. I like the immersive experience of novels: spending enough time with characters to really flesh them out, become emotionally invested in their growth, and miss them when I type “The End.”  Also, I’m terrible at writing short stories or poetry.

 

Dialogue

I like to eavesdrop. And when I talk to people, I really try to listen: not only to what they’re saying and how they’re saying it, but to what they’re not saying. Later, when I’m writing, I try to be brutally honest when I write dialogue, holding a mirror up to the way people I know actually speak in a given situation, tics and all. If a piece of dialogue seems wonky, I read it aloud. I’m probably guilty of having too many jokey, potty-mouthed characters, but that makes it fun for me.

 

Juggling grant writing and novels

My current project has presented the biggest challenge in terms of shifting gears back and forth. I will say grant writing has honed my research skills and given me the discipline needed to finish a novel before a deadline. I find that I can’t write fiction when the grant-writing season is at its peak. I only have so many brain synapses to spare, and unfortunately, I like to eat and live in a house with a roof – so the gig with the steady paycheck gets priority.

 

Finding time

I am so lucky to have three months “off” in summer, and that is when I do most of my writing. I treat it like a day job: get up, drink coffee, write until I hit my page goal for the day. When you tack on time for research, organization, and tasks related to the business side of writing, it adds up to a standard eight-hour day. I pick away at whatever I’m working on the rest of the year, dropping ideas into my story folder, editing, writing scenes and metaphors and bits of dialogue as they strike me.

 

Allison Futterman is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.