You are currently browsing the monthly archive for July 2009.

A few updates:

  • Past-Due Pastorals is, as the Monty Python skit posited, an ex-parrot. I have a few copies at home and a couple of them floating around in Billings bookstores, and once those are gone, that’s it. The reason is simple: The essay collection, while warmly received by those who have read it, simply didn’t gain much traction. I tossed off the book while I was dipping my toes into the publishing world. Now that I’m fully immersed, my concentration is firmly on the fiction.
  • Six-Hundred Hours of a Life is also unavailable, albeit temporarily. There will be some exciting news attached to its reappearance, so stay tuned …
  • Work continues on the new project (tentative title: Gone to Milford), although it’s been slow of late. I’ll get back on it with full vigor next week.

Until then …

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author_portraitWelcome to what I hope will turn into a semi-regular feature in this space. (I’m not promising anything, like every Friday or whatever, because that’s just tempting a crash.) I’d like to turn the focus on authors and how they approach the craft. The feature is likely to lean toward those who have chosen an independent route to publishing, but in time, I’d like to take on all comers.

The first guest is R.J. Keller, author of Waiting for Spring. She’s based in Maine and a member of Backword Books, a collective of independent authors.

Q: Where did the idea for Waiting for Spring come from, and once you had the basis for a story, how long did you spend working on it?

I just really wanted to tell the story of a group of regular people dealing with the kind of problems everyday people face, the kind of things I saw the people in my life dealing with. So many authors tell stories about ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances — housewives or businessmen who stumble into danger and end up saving someone’s life, or saving the world — and that’s cool. I like those kind of books, too. But getting out of bed in the morning and forcing yourself to go to work when your heart is breaking after a divorce, or when your world is falling apart because someone you love has died, is heroic, too.

I began work on the novel in March of 2006. The first version of the first draft took me about six months to write, but it went through a series of rather intensive edits, so it wasn’t completed until early fall of 2007.

Q: You chose to publish Waiting for Spring independently. Why?

waitingforspringI did try for a while to get it published traditionally, and I found some interest. I kept getting turned down, even though several agents liked the manuscript, because they felt it wasn’t marketable. It doesn’t fit into a particular genre or have an easy answer to, “What’s your book about, in ten words or less?” I felt like Jerry Seinfeld trying to pitch his ‘show about nothing,’ except that my novel felt more like a ‘book about everything.’ It’s more about the way the story is told than about what actually happens.

I finally decided that since I believed in myself and in my novel, who better to put it out into the world? The Internet opens up a so many new ways of publishing, of finding and reaching readers directly. I knew I had something worthwhile, so I used those tools and found the readers.
 
Q: The book is an intense character study of your protagonist, Tess, someone who sees some of the grittier aspects of life. How do you approach the writing of intense scenes?

I have to dig very deeply for those scenes. I can’t just ask myself, “What would I do if I was in this circumstance.” I have to become my character at that point. I crank the music in my headphones and close my eyes and play the scene in my mind, not as though I’m watching it or choreographing it, but as though I’m there in the thick of it and it’s happening to me. I wait until I’ve hit the particular nerve I need to hit in order to make the scene real (I call it “exposing the core”) before I start to actually write it. I usually start writing with my eyes still closed, so that it doesn’t feel like clunky words being typed onto a computer monitor, but rather that the emotions themselves are dissolving onto it. I suppose it’s a little like method acting.

Q: How do you plot out a story? Is it mostly in your head, or do you do detailed outlines and notes?

I nearly always start with my characters, and let the plot spring naturally from them. Once I get going, I make notes based on what I’ve already written — timelines and family trees, for example — so I can keep things organized.
 
Q: You’ve said that Waiting for Spring was, on some level, your attempt at writing female-driven literature that spoke to the world as you see it. What do you mean?

I live in a very rural, somewhat poverty-stricken area of Maine. So much of the contemporary women’s fiction that’s been popular over the past ten years or so deals with urban characters and situations. There’s so much attention paid to where these characters shop and what brands of clothes they buy there and what kind of shoes they wear, and not enough to the actual characters. It was hard for me to relate to these women, or to care about them.

And even the books that are set in rural areas seem very out of touch to what I see around me, because most of them are written by people who live in the city. They might drive through the sticks to get to the lake or the coast while they’re on vacation, but that’s about it. They don’t live and work and breathe in these small towns, so too often their characters are stereotypical: Big Town Fish Out Of Water, Oppressed Small Town Girl Who Longs For Bigger Things, or Ignorant Hick. I wanted to shine a light on what we’re really like out here.
 
Q: Like many other writers, you’re balancing a “regular” job and family life. How and where do you carve out time to write?

It’s a real challenge, especially now that I’m home schooling my kids. I do my writing after everyone in the house has gone to bed, which works out well, because that’s when I’m at my creative peak. In fact, I think it’s more accurate to say that I have a harder time carving out enough time to sleep than I do carving out time to write.

Q: You’ve been at the forefront of experimenting with low- and no-cost offerings of your book in electronic formats. What is your thinking there?

I put myself in readers’ minds. R.J. Keller is an unknown, self-published author. She doesn’t have a big name publisher behind her, so what guarantee is there that they’re not throwing their money away on her book? The only way is to make that risk negligible by offering my work inexpensively, even free. I was, and still am, gambling on the hope that once people read my stuff, they’ll trust me enough to pay more next time around.
 
Q: Who, if anybody, helps you shape your work? Do you have a writing group? Trusted friends?

I don’t belong to an official writing group. I tried it, and it was counter-productive for me, although I know that other writers really benefit from that experience. I’m good friends with two editors who do me the favor of reading my work, and the even bigger favor of being brutally honest with me about it.
 
Q: What are you working on now, and how far along are you?

I’m working on what I call a ‘sort-of sequel’ to Waiting For Spring. It explores the relationship of my male protagonist (Brian)’s parents, Rick and Wendy. Most of the “action” of the novel takes place in one day. Their story is shown through Rick’s eyes, in flashbacks, as he’s preparing to carry out a brutal murder.

Q: What lessons have you learned in independent publishing? How will you bring them to bear on your next project?

Practically speaking, I’ve had to learn a whole new set of technical skills that will make formatting my next novel a lot easier. I’ve also gained a lot of confidence in myself and in my writing. But I think the most important thing I’ve learned is that I’m not alone. There’s a growing number of talented indie writers who are building a community, sharing what they’ve learned with others, encouraging each other. It’s a very exciting time, really.

Q: What question would you ask of fellow writers who are trying to make a go of it?

I like picking other writers’ brains for marketing ideas. There are so many avenues out there and I’m sure there are methods for promoting my novel that I’ve never heard of.

*****

Here are some links to more information about R.J. Keller and her books:

Blog: http://rjkeller.wordpress.com/
Web site: http://www.rj-keller.com/
Waiting for Spring on Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B001MTEN6K
Waiting for Spring in print: http://www.amazon.com/Waiting-Spring-R-J-Keller/dp/1440461163/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1229752118&sr=8-2
Waiting for Spring on Smashwords: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/268
Waiting for Spring on Scribd: http://www.scribd.com/doc/15651830/Waiting-for-Spring-RJ-Keller
R.J. Keller on Twitter: http://twitter.com/rjkeller
R.J. Keller on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/rjkeller

scene

About a third of the way into the draft of my new manuscript, I made some decisions about the course of the story that prompted some retrofitting of what I had already written — and then some soul-searching about the approach I had taken.

I started the manuscript in first person (for those scoring at home, my second consecutive novel written in that point of view). For the story I started writing, that seemed the appropriate vantage point. After I changed the arc of the story, I spent a few weeks ping-ponging between keeping the first person and rewriting in third person. (Ask my friend Jim Thomsen: I was all over the yard.)

The advantages of first person, as I saw them:

  • The horse’s mouth: The new manuscript is a character study, a journey through a transformative experience. Putting the story in the main character’s words allows the reader to see the unfolding as he sees it.
  • Emotion: Done right, the conveyance of anger, happiness, guilt, whatever is more immediate and more forceful. The writer still has to exercise skill; it’s not enough to say “I grew agitated.” You have to show it.
  • Directness: If you’re using the character’s words, you can wipe away any doubt about where motivation lies, if absolute clarity is called for.

But there are drawbacks to that point of view, too:

  • Limited scope: It’s hard to move 360 degrees around a story when the eyes of only one character are in play. If you want to bring aspects of the story unseen by your lead character, you have to convey them through other means — documents, dialogue, etc. Your options are limited.
  • Truth: It’s your story, so “truth,” such as it is, lies in your hands. But if you’re relying on one character to provide the narration, you at least have to give consideration to the fact that we humans filter our experiences. For example: If you were to ask me what was behind my most recent quarrel with my wife, you might get an answer that I consider truthful. But if you were to ask my wife, the answer might be considerably different — and just as truthful.
  • Rampant exposition: As I re-read my first draft, and as trusted friends looked at it, this was probably the single biggest flaw in my effort. When the storytelling is in a character’s voice, rather than in the distant voice of a narrator, it’s all too easy to jump out of the moment and go on a long-winded soliloquy that leaves the reader wondering why the character is suddenly talking above the action. In my most recent pass through the manuscript, I spent hours unwinding these talk-to-the-camera moments.

Here’s a bit of feedback I received from my friend Jim Thomsen as he read the first draft:

I feel this story, essentially, represents a tug of war between Craig The Storyteller and Craig The Essayist, with the battle being fought to an uncomfortable draw. Too much of this story takes place in Mitch’s mind for it to feel fully like a story. All of Mitch’s artful but windy explanations for how he feels and what he thinks serve to pull the reader out of the story in much the way that a commercial break would yank a viewer out of a good movie. Not only are they distracting, but they serve to send a signal of sorts that you don’t trust your own story to tell itself — and that you don’t trust the reader to follow along and figure things out for themselves. Let them decide for themselves what Mitch must be feeling and what things must mean — by telling them, you take away one of the key pleasures of reading a good story, which is, as I said, to immerse oneself in the world of characters and assign their own values and motives and interpretations to what those characters do and say. By insisting on being the reader’s tour guide into The Mind Of Mitch, you take away the reader’s instinctive desire to tour that world on their own and in their own way.

While there’s a bit too much armchair psychology in that critique — I would contend that the asides were less a matter of not trusting myself and more a product of writing a quick-and-dirty first draft — Jim’s central point is dead-on nails. Tell the story, then get out of the way. No one is served by telling the reader what he just saw. He knows, and he’s applying his own sensibility to it.

Which, if you ask me, is the biggest payoff of writing.

One year ago today, I bought a gleaming new motorcycle in Sidney, Mont., and attempted to drive it nearly 300 miles home to Billings.

My day ended 37 miles short of the finish line. I was lucky to lose only a motorcycle.

Here, from Past-Due Pastorals, is “The Motorcycle Crash.”

Every day is a gift. It’s true.

In Open Spaces and The Watershed Years author Russell Rowland posted the following note earlier today on his Facebook page:

I’m happy to report that Lynn Stegner and I have agreed to a deal with the University of Texas Press to publish an anthology of essays by Western writers exploring how living in the West has shaped us as people and as writers. We are also going to address how the Western identity has changed, and what we think is in store for this diverse region. The collection will come out in the Spring of 2010, and among the writers included are Larry McMurtry, Gretel Ehrlich, Jim Harrison, Barry Lopez, Judy Blunt, Ron Hansen, Wiliam Kittredge, Denise Chavez, Rick Bass, Lee Ann Roripaugh, Ken Lincoln, and many others.
It’s an exciting project with a stellar lineup of writers. I’m proud to be a part of it. I hear that it will be released simultaneously in hardcover and paperback. As more details emerge, I’ll be sure to post them here.

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