In his Goodreads profile, author Todd Keisling admits that he is “awkward and weird” and that if you were his neighbor, you’d probably die. Mercedes M. Yardley recently sat down with Todd to get the details on his latest projects and jot down pointers on how to dispose of cranky men who steal things off your lawn.
Mercedes M. Yardley: Todd, you started out with A Life Transparent. Its sequel, The Liminal Man, was a 2013 Indie Book Award finalist in the Horror/Suspense category. Congratulations. Are you currently working on the third book of the trilogy? Did you plot the trilogy out start to finish before you began?
Todd Keisling: Thank you! Being a finalist for the award was a big surprise and an even bigger honor. Initially, I didn’t plot the trilogy from start to finish. A Life Transparent (or ALT) was originally intended as a standalone story, but about a year after its initial publication I had an idea for what became its sequel, The Liminal Man.
That second book was a monster and went through many iterations (I think the final version was draft #5). When my editor finally got her hands on it, she gave me a choice: either add another 150 pages to make the existing ending work, or change the ending and complete the story with a third novel. I took some time to think it over, wrote a broad outline for what a third book would look like, and decided to move ahead in that direction. So to answer your question, no, it wasn’t a planned trilogy.
I spent most of this year working on some shorter fiction since TLM took so long (almost four years) to complete. I really just needed a break from that storyline. That being said, I’m in the early stages of the final Monochrome novel, and while I have the high points of the novel already plotted, I’m still trying to keep the process as organic as possible.
MMY: What’s the draw to writing a series vs. a standalone work? Do you do standalone as well? How do you keep the series fresh?
TK: That’s a good question and I don’t have a straight answer for you. I’ve written standalone novels before, but the Monochrome books are my first real series. I find it’s interesting to watch a character develop over the course of multiple titles rather than a single work. It’s liberating in some ways, and constraining in others: liberating in that I don’t have to tie up loose ends right away (which leaves a sense of mystery, keeping things fresh for the reader), but constraining in that some minor plot detail written in the first book can come back to bite me on the ass in the final book (which makes me cry). Those loose ends that were left untied in the first book always have a way of becoming tangled up in your plot later on, and fixing them always makes for a fun exercise in problem-solving.
It’s just a lot to juggle at one time, and for the third book I’ve started keeping track of extensive notes and details in Scrivener. You know, so minor character names don’t change halfway through, or so one person’s eyes don’t suddenly change from blue to brown.
Overall, I’m enjoying the experience, but I’m also looking forward to being done with the series so I can work on other ideas. Honestly, I think I prefer writing standalone fiction, and I don’t see myself doing another series any time soon—not without planning it, first.
MMY: I know you’re working on a collection of short stories. There seems to be a resurgence of the short story, lately. Would you consider yourself more of a novelist, a short story guy, or both? What are the pros and cons of each form?
TK: I’d like to believe I’m both. I used to write a lot of short fiction, but I turned away from it for a while after writing ALT. After TLM’s publication, I realized I had a number of ideas for stories that had accumulated over the last few years. I wanted to try my hand at shorter fiction again, and I quickly discovered that particular art form is even more difficult than I remembered. Two of the stories in the collection (titled Ugly Little Things) aren’t even “short” by today’s standards; at 14k and 17k words, they’re more novella than short story.
I think novels are fun because they allow for so much development and exploration. The canvas of a novel can stretch as far and wide as you want it to. The danger, of course, is that it can become overwhelming at times, and something complex can require years of commitment. Short stories are harder to execute, but more rewarding if you manage to pull it off. The usual word count restrictions that come with the typical short story markets are also fun to work with, but can be a thorn in your side if you have an idea that begins to take off and grow beyond your original scope.
Ultimately, I believe in letting the story be what it wants to be, which works well in the realm of novels; with short stories, you have to be a lot more hands on, directing the story where it needs to go.
MMY: Musical inspiration. You have it. Tell me how the process works when you’re writing. Do you have something playing at the time? Do you purposely seek out soundtracks for each piece you’re working on, or does it happen to be whatever you’re listening to at the time?
TK: I always write to music. Whenever I sit down to work, I’ll try to find a piece of music that fits the mood or theme of what I’m writing. Doesn’t matter if it’s lyrical or if it’s an instrumental piece—if it fits, I’ll listen to it on repeat until I’m finished working.
I got the idea from Chuck Palahniuk. Several years ago I read an interview in which he talked about listening to the same song over and over while writing. The idea is to listen to something so much that it puts you in a kind of meditative state. Doesn’t matter what kind of music—if you listen to it enough times, you’ll eventually tune it out. I have no idea what the science is behind it; I just know it works for me.
MMY: I met you a bit earlier, but we really started to talk after being in the Exquisite Death audiobook together. Was that your first audiobook? What was the experience like for you? Would you turn your other pieces into audiobooks as well?
TK: As a matter of fact, Exquisite Death was my first audiobook and my first anthology. I had a great time working with In Ear’s Mark Chatterley, and I hope to submit one of my longer stories to him in the near future. I love audiobooks (otherwise I never would’ve made it through Atlas Shrugged) and podcasts (Pseudopod, NoSleep, Welcome to Night Vale, et al), and I intend to pursue having my other work adapted for audio.
MMY: You’re an analytical guy as well as a creative. Does this grounded side help you as a writer?
TK: I think it’s a blessing and a curse. The creative side always wants to rush ahead; the analytical side throws up its hand and says, “Wait a minute. Let’s think about this.” It’s sort of like the classic angel/devil dynamic, with one on each shoulder, keeping one another in check. I’ll have an idea that seems really cool and great, but I always have to think through the logistics—even if I’m completely making it up, I still have to make sure that what I’m writing works within the universe I’ve created.
Something my editor, Amelia, has always done is ask my why or how things work. Even if it doesn’t end up in the story, she asks me those questions as a way of reinforcing my understanding of the plot, scene, whatever is under scrutiny. If I can’t give her a straight answer, that’s usually a sign that I need to a better grasp of what I’m writing about. Sometimes I do have a clear answer; other times I don’t, which has led to several scene rewrites.
I’m trying to approach the final Monochrome book in a more analytical manner, creating a working document filled with questions that a reader (or Amelia) might have. The questions can be about anything, from character motivation to the repercussions of certain actions if they come to pass within that narrative’s universe. Once I answer them, I try to poke as many holes into them as I can, and if they don’t hold up, I try to think of a different solution.
This is the first time I’ve done something like this, but as I head into the final book of an unplanned trilogy, I feel it’s a necessity. Yeah, it’s a little grueling and painful, but I think it will make for a much tighter narrative a year down the line.
MMY: You write horror that easily crosses over into thriller territory. Does the ability to straddle both genres help or hinder your marketing?
TK: In some ways it helps; in others, it hinders. Writing a book that can be classified as a number of genres works well from the angle of appealing to as many people as possible. People who normally don’t read horror or suspense have emailed to say they loved my books, and I think that’s because the stories defy genre.
Unfortunately, the flip-side of that coin means that it may also put off people who stick to a particular genre. My books are speculative fiction, but you’ll find them in the Horror category even though they aren’t 100% straight horror. Some diehard horror fans probably don’t like that; the same goes for the folks who like thrillers or suspense stories—they want serial killers, not weird supernatural creatures. I have both, and they go out for drinks at the end of the day when the work is done.
This defiance of genre is my “brand,” I guess, and it makes the marketing aspect much more difficult. I’ve thought about compromising, sticking to one particular genre to make things easier for myself, but I don’t think I’d be happy doing that. The stories are what they want to be; it’s my job to record them as accurately as possible, and if they happen to deal with parallel realities, monsters, murderers, and noir-like atmosphere, then so be it. I’ll write them down. Maybe people will want to read them.