Monday, July 15, 2013

"Throws Like a Girl, Writes Like a Boy" by Jess Riley

Hey look, a box-o-books!
“Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex, and work. Especially work. People love to read about work. God knows why, but they do.” –Stephen King, On Writing

I once read in a writing guidebook that you should avoid writing about certain settings, because they’re a turn-off to readers.  Guess where they said you should never set a story? A prison.

So it’s just my luck that: a) I taught part-time in a prison in college and stumbled over so many story threads on a daily basis that b) I had to write a novel loosely inspired by my experiences, which finally releases today.

Mandatory Release. And yes, it is one, fourteen years in the making. I’m banking more on Mr. King’s insight than on that espoused in that long-ago guidebook, and we’ll see where the dust settles in the weeks to come.  (This doesn’t even get into the fact that I wrote half of the novel from a first-person male perspective, oh and did I mention I gave this poor guy a spinal cord injury?) 

Here's the scoop: Lad lit meets chick lit in this dark comedy about broken people who work in a dangerous place, finding hope where they least expect it. Because no matter what you lock up—a person, secrets, or your heart—sooner or later, everything must be released.

People have asked some fun questions about this one, and here are a few tidbits:

1) Yes, my parents did meet in prison. My mom was a secretary, my dad a unit sergeant. They continued to work there together for years, which made dinner table conversation interesting, to say the least.

2) My dad is also a writer, and his desk is a gorgeous behemoth that was actually made by inmates registered in a carpentry program. I only have a set of decorative wooden reindeer made by inmates, and I display them every Christmas.

3) Most people who work in an institutional setting have a terrific sense of humor, because you’re exposed to the infinite capacity of humanity for weirdness, evil, good, and even hope in the face of incredible loss.

4) When my father worked as a DOC social worker, I remember him bringing home a prop he used during staff training events: a suitcase like one a traveling salesman might use, filled with confiscated shanks and shivs.

5) I did have to remove my underwire bra when I passed through the metal detector for my interview, and a few of the interesting inmate anecdotes in the novel are real, but beyond that? Everything’s fiction. Sadly, Joe, Drew, and Graham don’t exist anywhere but on the page. Or in the pixel, whatever the case may be.
A Thank You card signed by the inmate students I worked with.

So what happens if you’re compelled to write a story that bends your typical genre? If you’re passionate about the characters and their journey, if sitting in front of the blank page every day feels more like a trip to an amusement park than a chore, you’re in great shape. Write a book that YOU would want to read.  Write it honestly, from the heart, breathe life into even your secondary characters, and then either put it in a drawer or release it into the world.

This one’s been with me so long it’s starting to feel like an adult child living in my basement, so it’s time to push it out of the nest and hope it flies.

What do you think? Are there settings or subjects to avoid if you’re aiming for commercial success? CAN commercial books get away with handling “literary” subjects?  Or do you write the story that demands attention and let the chips fall where they may (and get eaten by the dog)?

Jess Riley is the author of Driving Sideways, All the Lonely People, and Mandatory Release. Now available on all platforms: amazon, BN, iTunes, and Kobo. She lives in Oshkosh, Wisconsin with her husband and crazy terrier. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, or her own blog, where she'll be featuring some awesome authors in the weeks to come.

If you live in the Oshkosh area, help Jess celebrate her book launch at Becket's Restaurant on Tuesday, July 16 at 5 pm. There will be snacks, drinks, and a photo op involving fake jail bars. Wear your favorite jumpsuit and ankle bracelets!


  1. Jess, fabulous post! What a great story line...I can't wait!

  2. Jess, fabulous post! What a great story line...I can't wait!

  3. Congratulations, Jess! I'm so happy for you.

    This writing advice is dead on--you should always write the book that you want to read.

  4. Terrific advice, Jess. Congratulations on getting that "child" to leave the basement! I hope it flies!

  5. Terrific post, Jess! I wish you the very best with your new book! Congratulations!

  6. Love it. I loved it when I read it ... what, seven years ago! Nah, it couldn't have been THAT long ago, could it? Congrats on RELEASING MANDATORY RELEASE!!! XOXOXO

  7. So interesting about your folks? Are you watching Orange is the New Black? And oh the literary vs. commercial thing is always on my mind, especially when starting a new project. Congratulations on Mandatory Release! Can't wait to read it.

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