Author R.J. Keller on the notion of the “second-book slump,” how she dealt with a book idea similar to her own beating hers to the market, why to write the things that scare you, and more in this 5 On interview.
R.J. Keller (@rjkeller) is the author of Waiting for Spring. An avid independent movie enthusiast, she was managing editor of The Movie Fanatic website and created episodes of the writer-centric YouTube series Inside the Writers’ Studio with author Kristen Tsetsi. She co-hosted Book Chatter with Stacey Cochran from 2011 to 2014. She lives in central Maine with her family, where she enjoys gardening, collecting geeky memorabilia, and watching other people cook.
5 on Writing
KRISTEN TSETSI: There’s no shortage of sex and/or swearing in books, but for some reason you seem to get passionate(ly negative) feedback about the sex and swearing in Waiting for Spring. Why do you think that is, and though you didn’t put it there with the intention of riling up readers, is some small part of you pleased that it does?
R.J. KELLER: I’d like to say that there’s sexism involved. Probably there is, a little. But most of the pushback has come from women who appear to be around my age, which still surprises me. Didn’t we all grow up reading Judy Blume, then Jean M. Auel, then finally graduate to Erica Jong? No? Was it just me?
What’s funny about it is that the sex scenes in Waiting for Spring aren’t particularly explicit, in an “insert A into B/tongue goes there/mount and thrust” way. They’re emotionally explicit. For Tess, it’s about trying to connect, trying to feel something, to reach out for something, about almost getting there, but not quite making it. Maybe that’s what makes some people uncomfortable and, in a way, yes, I’m pleased that it does. It should make people uncomfortable. That’s the point.
In an episode of Inside the Writers’ Studio (incidentally, the only one in which the F-word is used), the two *characters dramatically lament the pressure of writing a second novel after the first one has been well-received. It was presented as a joke, but I think a lot of writers worry about the second book. Have you felt any of that second-novel pressure? If not, what has been the greatest challenge in writing a follow-up? *Disclosure: R.J. Keller and I are the characters in the episode and the co-creators of Inside the Writers’ Studio.
I’ve been told that a writer’s second novel is the most difficult to get through. I’ll let you know if that’s true when I’ve begun writing my fourth. But I do know that there is an incredible amount of pressure.
I wrote my first novel without any idea of showing it to anyone. I suppose that’s not entirely true. I’d had vague dreams of becoming a Best Selling Novelist with Legions of Devoted Fans since I was about fourteen years old, but I never envisioned specific human beings reading the actual words that I was typing out as I was typing them out. Suddenly there were emails from readers who had been inspired by my book and social media posts quoting it and reporters wanting to know about my motivation for writing it. I was, and still am, incredibly grateful and surprised and scared and excited by the reaction, but now I have something that I didn’t have before: an expectation to live up to. It can be quite daunting.
You’ve said you think about Australian poet and author Luke Davies, whose writing you called “beautifully brutal,” when you notice yourself “being cowardly about opening up.” What aside from Davies helps you get it on the page, and what advice would you give an intro to creative writing class about how (and why) to overcome the fear of writing things that make them uncomfortable?
Oddly enough, having a pen name helps. Kelly is the woman who goes to work and hangs out with friends and raises a family and shares her life with her husband and putters in the garden. R.J. Keller is the writer who sifts through the joys and struggles and other messy emotions from Kelly’s everyday life and turns those things into gritty fiction. I’m sure it sounds a little psychotic, but it works for us. (I’m only half kidding here.)
I wouldn’t necessarily advise young writers to create an alternate personality, but I would–and do–say that honesty is absolutely vital if you want to write stuff that affects others. Ask your friends to recommend books that moved them, or that made them uncomfortable, and read those books. Read everything you can get your hands on. Discover what moves you or what makes you feel uncomfortable or angry or horny or happy, then write from that place. Because that’s where the good stuff comes from.
I can’t be the only one who, when excited about a new story idea, will feel rushed to get it done just in case someone else has a similar idea. I think it’s one of the top writers’ nightmare scenarios to spend six months to a year writing something only to learn the latest release mirrors a lot of what you’re currently still pulling out your hair over. You were unfortunate enough to have had that happen to you in real life. Will you talk about that?
I was in my fifth year of writing my second novel. The story was kicking the shit out of me. The protagonist was an alcoholic deadbeat father who is preparing to kill the drug dealer who murdered his addict daughter. The story was told in alternating points of view: his, in the present day, and his late wife’s, through her journal entries, dated some fourteen years earlier.
The novel was difficult to write in every possible way. First, I had trouble nailing down the protagonist’s voice. It was a challenge to write from a male point of view. Do guys not feel things as strongly as women, or is the pressure to suppress their feelings just that intense? Do they really think mostly about sex, or have I been watching too many Super Bowl commercials? And why the hell do their shirts button from the wrong side? Second, this guy was kind of a douchebag. He cheated on his dying wife, then abandoned his kids the moment he could. How could I make him relatable without making excuses for his horrendous behavior? Finally, I needed to make sure the late wife’s journal entries were relevant to the action of the story without being too conveniently on point.
I finally got to the point where I thought I’d nailed it and showed the (I think) sixth draft to a trusted friend who isn’t a writer. I wanted a reader’s reaction before letting another writer have a go. Her initial response was, “Hey! The synopsis sounds just like Gone Girl!” Then, after she read it: “Oh, shit. This reads a lot like Gone Girl.”
The truth is, I’d never read Gone Girl. Now I probably never will. But after my friend’s reaction I did some digging and discovered that, although the story line is completely different from my novel, the narrative feel is similar. And similar is just too close. Regardless of how good or bad my book is, or how much better or worse than the other book, it would always be considered a knock-off of that book, which is something I can’t live with.
So, now I’m working on reworking the book. I’ve got a new narrator: a repurposed version of the protagonist’s girlfriend. I like her. She tougher and smarter than her parallel-universe self, which is nice. I’ve even managed to fit the journal into the new version in a way that doesn’t feel forced. It’s possible that this version will be better. But I do struggle with the ghost of the other book. I miss getting to crawl inside Rick’s head. It’s still frustrating.
What part of writing do you most enjoy, and what part fills you with angst and dread?
I love everything about creating characters. Figuring out where they come from, what they look like, what they want and fear and hate. I love putting words in their mouths and making them desire or despise the other characters I’ve created. Some writers think they discover, rather than create, their characters, but I’m too much of a control freak to believe that.
What do I hate? Filling in brackets. My manuscripts are filled with things like “[make up a reason she goes downstairs, because she has to get into an argument with her neighbor]” and “[this is the part where she remembers that thing her father did].” The sad thing is, usually I end up with something as simple as “I ran down the stairs.”
5 on Publishing
To promote Waiting for Spring, you used to write a regular blog–new material three times a week–and were active on the Kindle Boards. Given how much emphasis is put on building and maintaining an online presence, how easy or difficult has it been to keep that going–and have you kept it going?
There is probably still a very strong emphasis being put on building and maintaining an online presence, but I haven’t been thinking about it lately. Most of my energy has been focused on writing. I am in awe of writers who can do both of those things at once, but I can only do one or the other. Once my second book is completed and in need of marketing, I’ll be more active and, I know, will enjoy doing it.
What revisions, if any, do you see yourself making to your initial marketing strategy when it’s time to release the next novel? Are there things you wish you’d done differently, or sooner, or more frequently, or are there avenues you didn’t take that you wish you had, or avenues you thought would be successful but were just time-consuming, etc.?
The fact that I’ll have a marketing strategy the next time around will be a revision. I self-published my book before it was picked up by AmazonEncore (now Lake Union Press), and I knew nothing about marketing. I was throwing spaghetti at every wall I could find and hoping some of it would stick. Miraculously, a lot of it did. Then, once Amazon took over the marketing, I figured my work with that was done. I figured wrong. They were on top of everything. They hired a publicist, were able to get my book reviewed in publications that never would have looked at it otherwise, organized book signing events, and much more. Now I wish I had piggy-backed off of that exposure and put myself out there more.
Next time I’ll be much more active, even proactive. I can’t say exactly what I’ll do, since the publishing world changes so quickly, but I know I’ll do my research and think deliberately about branding and publicity and all the rest.
In 2011 you were asked how you would respond to being approached by an agent. You said:
It would depend on … well, it would depend on a lot of things. I’m not anti-agent, in spite of the rejections I got. Although I’ve made a point of educating myself about the business end of the publishing industry, I’m fully aware of my own limitations, and the industry is still in flux. Things are changing very dramatically very quickly. Who knows where we’ll be this time next year? Still, I’d want to make sure that anyone representing my interests was savvy about those changes, that they were open to new ways of doing things, and not married to the old publishing world.
Five years later, how would you now feel about being approached by an agent? And what new ways of doing things would you want an agent to be open to specifically before you would agree to sign with one?
These days, most agents are more savvy about the changes in the publishing industry, and I’m a great deal more savvy about the business end of publishing. At this point, my practical side would be the one making that decision, rather than my artistic side, which would probably shock and dismay five-years-ago me.
Having experienced both worlds—traditional and self-publishing—would you be quick to turn to self-publishing again in the unlikely event that Amazon didn’t accept your next novel, or would you first try shopping it around to agents and publishers?
I think I would give myself a specific amount of time to find an agent–six months sounds good–then self-publish it. This time around I have no chip on my shoulder (sometimes I cringe when I read my old blog posts about self-publishing vs. traditional publishing) and nothing to prove, so it would just be a matter of getting my book out into the world in a way that will be best for it and for me.
Agents who rejected Waiting for Spring told you it was good, but that there was no market for it. Amazon picked it up and it sold well. What is your take on what the market is, who decides what it is, and this idea of selling to the market vs. putting out a good book (which is not to say a good book can’t also sell to the market)?
I think there is no such thing as nailing the market anymore, because it changes so constantly and so quickly. It’s a cliché to say that the market can change overnight, but it literally changes overnight, and those forces of change are too unpredictable to foretell. Social media, world events, other books and movies and music—all of those things can and do influence people instantly, and people make up the market. All any of us can do is create the best, truest thing we can and hope for the best.
Thank you, R.J.
Kristen Tsetsi is the author of the post-Roe v. Wade novel The Age of the Child, called a novel “for right now” and “scathing social commentary.” She’s a former adjunct English professor, former reporter/columnist/feature writer for a daily newspaper, former writing instructor, and a former editor of the literary journal American Fiction (New Rivers Press). She lives in Connecticut.