Friday, December 17, 2010

Tell Me a Story, and Don't Make it a Stinking Pile

I tell my ‘writing story’ to my Dad’s freshmen classes at UW-Oshkosh every spring and fall semester. Because he is awesome, he got permission to use DRIVING SIDEWAYS as a required text in his ‘Coming of Age in America’ theme-based writing courses after the book came out. (Not to be outdone, my English teacher brother also secured similar permission with his high school honors English class.)

Ah, nepotism, you dear, sweet, old friend. Yay, nepotism!

My father asks his students to submit their questions to me in advance, because we learned the hard way that if you expect a thoughtful response from a room full of hung-over 19 year-olds when you follow your speech with “Any questions?”, you are probably high on some kind of industrial solvent.

The kids usually submit insightful and entertaining questions, and this year, I was surprised to see that many were particularly curious about how rich publishing a novel had made me.

After I finished polishing my monocle and stepped down from my diamond-crusted throne onto the back of the young man I pay $0.35 an hour to be my personal step stool, I decided to give an honest answer.

“How much did I make? Well, when you add the hours spent researching, writing, revising, editing, developing and executing my publicity plan, meeting with book clubs, mailing books and PR materials, organizing and attending events…I believe it came to negative fifteen cents an hour.”

I also enjoyed the response paper written by one of his male students, who said that reading my book made him feel “a little gay.”

But on to the writing story. It began, as these things do, when I received the lowest score in my Chem 101 class on a major exam and realized that a career in dentistry was probably not in the cards. I know! I thought, I’ll be a famous novelist!

How hard could it be?

Ten years later, after shelving my first novel (let’s call it STINKING PILE) because it garnered over 120 agent rejections, I got the idea for DRIVING SIDEWAYS. My experience with STINKING PILE taught me that plot was a very important element in a novel. As was time to research, polish, hone, revise, and edit the hell out of it. But the most important ingredient? FUN. Somewhere at the tail end of those years of practicing and being rejected and learning from STINKING PILE, I developed my own narrative voice and gave myself permission to be playful and irreverent. I stopped taking myself so damn seriously. So when I began to write DRIVING SIDEWAYS, I actually found myself having fun again.

When I had three polished chapters and a synopsis, I thought I’d test the waters and enter two writing contests: the James Jones First Novel Fellowship, and the “Get your Stiletto in the Door” competition sponsored by the Chicklit Writers of the World. After a few months, I learned that I was one of 8 finalists from over 600 entrants in the James Jones Fellowship, and the only entrant in the Stiletto contest to have a request for the full manuscript from both the agent and editor judges.

Once I finished the celebratory shrieking and skipping around the kitchen, panic set in. Holy hell, I only had three chapters…now I had to write the damn book!

Which I did. I let it age, I solicited feedback from a dozen early readers, I edited, I revised, and then a year later I finally submitted a polished query package to 10 agents who had worked with the editor requesting to see my full novel. In the end, I was able to pick which agent I wanted to represent me (swoon!). Then, after an auction, I was able to pick the editor I wanted to work with (double swoon!).

It’s been a wild, amazing ride; I received some emails from readers that made me cry (in a good way), and some reviews that also made me cry (in a bad way). I still need my day job, but it provides the security (and some entertaining fodder) that supports my fiction writing habit. And despite having a somewhat successful debut, yes, there has been a STINKING PILE 2: The Stench Returns.

But, as they say, onward and upward! Forward and sideways!

I am having a lot of fun with my current project, which is a good sign. Of course there will always be parts of the process that feel like marathon-training in moon boots, because tenacity is the name of the game. But that’s a huge chunk of the appeal; because without the trials and tribulations, victory—which can be defined in many ways—wouldn’t feel nearly as sweet.

Jess is also here, when she's not obsessively catching up on Dexter.
Stalking my book at Target. God, my forehead looks huge here.


  1. This thread of posts has come at a most opportune time for me. I am probably six to seven weeks away from agent querying my first book and the perspective I have gained from reading this blog is priceless. Jess, I love your wit and tenacity! Thank you so much for sharing your story. I'm actually looking forward to receiving my rejections, hoping (perhaps against hope) they will be insightful. But if they aren't, at least it will make my success story all the more interesting someday!

  2. Jess,
    I love that nepotism has provided real world answers to promising writers. Fabulous of your Dad and brother, and of course you.


  3. How could anyone NOT want to read Driving Sideways after this post?

    Jess, you are so funny and charming and honest! I love this ...

  4. Love your post, Jess! Did you order your diamond-crusted throne from a catalog? I've put Driving Sideways on my must-buy list.

  5. What a funny, heartfelt, HONEST story! I love that you chose not to tell us about the parts that are all glitter and sunshine.

    "Driving Sideways" was just added to my wish list :)

  6. I really enjoyed the humor and the story of that post.
    Jess Riley is on my AuthorRadar now.
    Thank you!
    All the best,

  7. Great post, Jess! I've got a few of those Stinking Piles here, too . . . but, as you say, onward, upward, sideways . . . just not backwards.

  8. Jess, I think we all have our own personal Stinking Piles;) Thanks for the fun post. I needed it today!

  9. Loved the "industrial solvent" line, Jess. I ould use a little nepotism.

  10. Oh Jess, this is great! You know I adore you (and your book). xox

  11. Way to go, Jill! :) This is such an exciting time for you...enjoy the process and good luck!

    Thanks guys; I am so happy to be part of this group of wonderful writers, readers, book lovers!

  12. Jess, your blog posts are always just so completely hilarious. This one does not disappoint!

    I love that you posted a pic of yourself stalking your book at Target. I used to stalk my first novel at Barnes and Noble, until one day, someone picked up my book and said, "Is this you?" I mumbled something silly about how I like to visit my book, and she looked at me like I had two heads. Needless to say, she did not purchase my book. I think she reported me to management....

  13. Ha, Brenda, almost three years after my debut, I *still* visit my books whenever I'm in a book store.

  14. LOL about the nepotism, Jess! Hey, that's what family is for...and to tell us our stories are unconditionally wonderful ;). Wishing you and your family a very happy holiday!

  15. I've officially filled two notebooks of advice with all the funny smart anecdotes. Jess, yours has sent me to CVS to buy a third! I agree, how could anyone not want to read your novel after reading your post!

  16. Jess, this was a great post to read today, and yet another book to add to my list. I love that your dad and brother were able to add your book to their classes, how did you escape being an educator?

    I'm glad you gave some reality to that young man, while it may not lead to riches all at once, it's such a wonderful thing to write something others love.

  17. Very funny post, Jess. And you have a great forehead.

  18. Too funny, Jess! Now you've got me envisioning the release of STINKING PILE 2: THE STENCH RETURNS, no doubt with a quick movie sale to follow (sounds like a Leo DiCaprio project to me!). Such a fab title would ensure a spot on "Oprah." Well, maybe Jerry Springer. ;-)

    Seriously, have a blast with your WIP. I'm sure it's anything but a stinking pile!