After doing the review for Accidents & Incidents, I asked Riley if she would like to answer a few questions that mostly popped into my mind while writing the review. And she agreed. Yay! Here are her answers which I hope you will enjoy as much as I did.
What can you tell us about you that we can’t find anywhere else?
I go through phases during which I get really obsessed with a certain thing and do tons of research on it. A few years ago, it was holistic pet foods. Last year, it was The Doctor Oz Show. I had to stop watching because I couldn’t keep track of all the information and it was taking up way too much of my time trying to.
What was your inspiration for your debut novel, Accidents & Incidents?
It actually started with a play I wrote many years ago, in which a girl walks out to the school parking lot and finds a guy smoking in her car. I changed that detail (because Dennis is way too polite to smoke in someone else’s car!) but the story grew from there. And a few things are partly based on my own high school experience—feeling out of place, for instance, and being attracted to both the bad boy and the nice guy.
How did you come up with the names for your main characters?
For most of the main characters, I chose names based on how they sounded and a general feeling I thought they conveyed. For instance, Leslie sounded sort of girl-next-door to me, and it fit with my idea of Leslie as someone who blends into the background, at least at first. Keith I chose because it seemed masculine and sporty, which is how I pictured that character. For Dennis, I wanted a name that was sort of unusual, not a name you hear much anymore because Dennis to me is sort of an old soul, a loner who’s a bit wise beyond his years.
I wanted Cain and Meredith to have pretty, popular-sounding names. Cain of course references the biblical character who killed his brother Abel, and I did see him as the bad boy of the book, someone potentially dangerous and self-destructive. And even though he never uses his first name Caleb, it has special meaning too. Caleb can mean “faithful,” “devoted,” or “dog,” so I liked the way that worked on multiple levels. Cain is a “dog” when it comes to women, and certainly not faithful. But he is devoted to his sister and wants to protect her.
For the names of other characters, I often used names of people I know, as sort of a shout out to them. Anna, one of my favorite secondary characters, is named after the daughter of one of my best friends.
What was your favorite scene to write?
The New Year’s Eve party was a climactic part of the story I had been looking forward to for a long time, so it was definitely one of my favorite parts of the book to write, as was the Thanksgiving scene with Dennis and Leslie talking about their fathers. I also loved writing the last few lines of the book because they seemed to just fall out of the sky. I wasn’t sure exactly how to end the book but as I wrote those lines they just felt right to me.
A couple of the smaller scenes are favorites too, simply because I felt so “in the zone” when I wrote them. The scene with Leslie and Heather after the party for instance—it’s not a scene I had initially planned, but one that surprised me and gave Heather that extra layer I had been looking for as I tried to figure out her character.
How much time did it take you to write this novel and how many drafts?
Now comes the embarrassing part, but I always appreciate honesty from other writers so I’m going to be honest here. It took me about five years to complete a draft, which is an insane amount of time, I know. Part of this is because it was my first novel and I had no idea what I was doing (though I’m sure most other first-time novelists have done much better than I did). Part of it is because I was teaching and with all the take-home work, I found it hard to make progress during the school year, and hard to get back into the writing habit during the summer. And part of it was just plain lack of discipline.
After the first draft was finished, I did about five revisions, some more thorough than others. The biggest revision was probably the first one, in which I cut about 20,000 words from the book. A lot of it was backstory I managed to work in elsewhere, so there are only a couple of scenes that I completely cut. The later revisions were more about tightening things, and changing references that were now out of date—one of the many pitfalls of taking so long to write a first draft!
You included a lot of holidays in your novel. Is there a particular reason for that?
In the opening lines of the book, Leslie references October as a new beginning because it’s the start of the holiday season, and that gave me the idea to structure major events around the holidays. Holidays are also when we most realize our connection, or lack of connection, to others, or at least that’s true for me. So having characters’ relationships break down or come together during holidays helped heighten the tension and provide the atmosphere I was looking for.
At what age did you start writing? Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
I was always a voracious reader, from the time when I was little and my mom used to let me read in my room instead of taking a nap. And I’ve always made up stories in my head, though I didn’t really start writing creatively until I was a teenager. I think I was in eighth or ninth grade when someone told me I was good at writing and that I should be a writer. From that moment on, I knew writing was what I was meant to do. It took me longer than it should have to get serious about it, but ever since then, I’ve always felt like something was missing when I wasn’t writing.
What’s your advice for aspiring writers?
One of the things I find hard not to do, but which always makes me feel terrible, is comparing myself to other writers. So my advice would be not to do that. There’s always going to be someone who writes better and faster and has more success than you do. But since I shared that bit of advice elsewhere, I’d like to share something else here too. It’s a paraphrase of a quote that I’ve seen originally attributed to Voltaire: “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.”
Kris Rusch has a great blog post about perfection that I recommend every writer read. She basically says that there is no such thing as a perfect story, that while you should make your book the best it can be, at some point you have to let it go and move on. I found that so liberating to read, and it’s one of the things that led me to go ahead and publish Accidents & Incidents. I know it’s not a perfect book, and if I were writing it now I’d do if differently because I know so much more about crafting a novel now than I did then. But I also know I’m done with that story—to go back and spend more time on it would feel like moving backward instead of forward as a writer, and it would mean telling a completely different story than the one I told.
What’s your writing process? Do you use any apps or software for writing, like Scrivener?
I think I’m still figuring out my process, though I have a much better idea of it than I did when I started Accidents & Incidents. Even though I did a fair bit of planning on that book, a lot of it was brainstorming in Word until I felt I had the basic characters, story, and enough to get me started. But I still got stuck from one scene to the next because I didn’t work out enough of the particulars ahead of time. Some writers are great pantsers but I don’t think I’m one of them. Though I will let a story take me into a different direction from the one I planned, I need the plan to start with.
In the last year or so, I’ve read a lot about story structure and discovered Scrivener, two things that have allowed me to plan my next novel much more efficiently and write much faster. To help with the planning part I used The Story Template by Amy Deardon, as well as story structure advice from the websites of Larry Brooks and Lydia Sharp. Once I had the characters, setting, and plot down, I moved on to Scrivener, creating placeholders for each scene. It’s much easier keeping track of story threads in Scrivener than in Word, and to see how one thing relates to another as well as to the big picture.
Do you listen to music while writing? If so, do you have a playlist for Accidents & Incidents?
I never used to because I thought I had to have complete quiet to write, so I don’t have a playlist for Accidents & Incidents. But in experimenting with short fiction and drafting my next novel, I’ve found that listening to music can sometimes help get me in the right frame of mind. For the book I’m working on now, I’ve been listening to a lot of Adele and Adam Lambert.
What’s next for author Riley Graham?
My next book is another contemporary YA, this one told from the point of view of a closeted teen evangelist. It’s set in a conservative North Carolina town during the weeks leading up to the Amendment One vote, which banned gay marriage in the state even though it was already illegal. My goal is to have it completed by spring.
Thank you, Riley for all your thoughtful answers! We can’t wait for your next novel as it sounds incredibly awesome.
Readers, don’t forget the giveaway in which you can win 2 signed copies of Accidents & Incidents. You can enter until January, the 11th.