Kindle Author Interview: Todd Russell

Todd Russell, author of Mental Shrillness, discusses his book, his journey as a writer, and self-publishing on Kindle.

DAVID WISEHART: What can you tell us about Mental Shrillness?

TODD RUSSELL: It's a curious collection of six twist ending horror stories. These were all online contest entries back in the late 90s posted under my pen/screen name at AOL: ToddRWrite, with two being first place winners. Five of the six stories are less than 700 words and readers can re-read and pick up on things they have missed through the first flash through. They were all read and commented on in public writing areas (no longer online as far as I know) and received overall favorable feedback. I wanted my first book to contain stories that have already faced some level of online public scrutiny.

The Mental Shrillness theme is characters facing a strong mental experience. Thought processes covering: memories, betrayal, love, devotion, voices and the most all-consuming thought: death. I am excited for readers who haven't read these stories and look forward to their feedback.

DAVID WISEHART: How do you develop and differentiate your characters?

TODD RUSSELL: Characters strike me with stand-out traits and personal conflicts. Let's take Bill, an overweight janitor with erectile dysfunction (E.D). His wife is unhappy, he's unhappy and so he eats. And eats. What does Bill like eating most, what types of food call out to him? Where does Bill enjoy eating and what do these places say about him? Does he eat alone or like eating with others? When Bill looks in the mirror he is repulsed by his own reflection and this contributes to his sexual inadequacy. Now when he goes to work and uses his mop, squeezing the dirt out of the mop head, he sees this as a metaphor for his life.

By the way, Bill just came to me. Bill must be somebody I'd like to learn more about, somebody that recurs in my mind and tells me why he wants, deserves and demands to have his story told. Or maybe he dies right here, never to touch a mop handle again.

When I'm interested enough in someone like Bill I'll toss him into the pressure cooker and see what happens. It's literary torture but there must be some chance—however remote—at hope, redemption, meeting some greater goal, or readers will become jaded. Bill might be a bit player, a walk-on appearance, or evolve into a main character depending on how he handles the scene(s) he's thrust into. And if he doesn't work in a story, if he bores, he'll be yanked during the editing phase.

Now what about Bill's wife? Is she solving her sexual frustrations elsewhere or taking care of business herself? How does she handle her conflicts within their marriage? And do any of Bill's friends know about his issue? Perhaps it's Bill's supporting cast that will come more to life in a story than Bill. I won't know until they enter the stage and sing. It's all about the way individual characters with their own stories intersect and interact with the main story being told.

I differentiate my characters by trying to understand and explore their imperfections inside the framework of a central story. In the short stories due to word constraints it's challenging to get any depth in the characters, so somebody like Bill or his friends and loved ones might only be a quick sketch.

A key difference between short stories and novels is the depth of characterization. In the short story we get the kiss from the person we hardly know and that can be nice and sometimes unsettling.  In the novella we can go out on a few dates and still be shocked and disturbed, but in the novel? Oh yes! We can marry these people, they can cheat on us and we can love them and hate them and try to forgive them for their warts.

Part of the thrill in a novel is the sense of closeness we can get with the characters seeing the boulders tumble toward them and hoping they duck or—in the case of the bad apples—become apple sauce.

DAVID WISEHART: Who do you imagine is your ideal reader?

TODD RUSSELL: Somebody that loves delicious plot twists, exploring the human condition, and is intrigued by life on an eerie, sometimes graphic canvas. I'm not a romance writer but my longer works do explore how love drives people. It's a basic human need not to live in this world alone and the characters who inhabit my stories often seek love from others on some level. It might be dark, scary love or sweet, unpredictable and sometimes (gasp) fatal attraction. This isn't me getting all cheesy; it's my contention that there can be no horror if we don't care about the people being horrified. If we know what they love, we will also learn the opposite: what and who they don't like, what and who they despise and fear.

DAVID WISEHART: What was your journey as a writer?

TODD RUSSELL: I've been writing since eight years old and scary stories in particular since the early eighties. Like some other writers, my first two novels were about learning how to write novels and it's doubtful these will ever emerge from the trunk. My third completed novel attracted, and was represented under contract by, a literary agent with some high profile authors in 1990. While I received some positive feedback from traditional publisher editors and interest in my follow-up work (hopefully more than simple courtesy, but who knows), nothing came together. Meanwhile, I was raising a young family and working 70+ hours a week and had to focus more on doing something that put roof over heads and food on the table.

Before putting my writing dreams on a temporary hiatus, I would complete four more novels from 1990-1993.  To my knowledge none of these novels that I sent queries and synopsis out ever escaped my agent's hands and eyes.

In the mid to late 1990s I spent a lot of time in online writing areas and entered numerous short story writing contests. This is the era that the stories come from in Mental Shrillness.

From 1999-2009 I spent a significant amount of time blogging and being infatuated by the tech/geek scene online.

The last two years I decided it was time to do something good locally and donated most of my time offline raising money for worthwhile charities. I gained valuable experience doing community service (and no, I wasn't forced into it because of some bad action on my part). The only writing I did during this time was on the organization's newsletter where I was editor.

Today, in 2011 with the growing popularity of e-readers and ease and affordability of self-publishing, I see an awesome opportunity to share some of my past completed work as well as get back on the horse and blaze some new story trails. I've already written my first twitter fiction (yeah, I know, only 140 characters to tell a story? Crazy!) and have completed my first short story in almost 14 years and entered the first writing contest in about that long.

Oh, and I haven't had contact with my literary agent for almost 20 years now but a recent Google search tells me the agency is still in the business and appears to be doing well. This agency will be among the first contacts I make if/when (crossing fingers) I should ever need help with overseas and film rights for any of my work.

I will be brand new to many readers, which is exciting and somewhat scary, but I've been writing fiction in some shape or form for 30+ years now and it's time to start sharing my work in book form with the world.

DAVID WISEHART: What is your writing process?

TODD RUSSELL: With my eighth novel I'm trying something new and different (for me): outlining. I've never done an outline before writing any of my first drafts. I've written down ideas, made a few character sketches, but outlines were something I've done in second and subsequent drafts. I'm trying out some open source software called Storybook to see if I can lay out the framework of the novel burning in my head before writing a word.

Time management is the reason. With my publishing goals I won't have the 9-12+ month window it's taken me with past works. I think with an outline I can get my entire novel written and edited down to around four months or less. This doesn't include the settle time between drafts, so the actual written to edit to pre-promotion to publish date might still be six months or longer. I see the importance of regularly and routinely releasing new material, so I want to work toward a six month or less cycle for new books. I think outlining can help me get there.

I don't—and won't—outline short stories or novellas, and am only trying this experiment with my next novel or two. And if the outlines in any way douse the creative fires, I'll have to try something different or accept the way I wrote the others.

The shorter fiction I write is usually completed in one writing session. Novellas take one or more sessions and novel first drafts have taken me around three months. I write until my energy is depleted. That could be 150 words or 15,000+ and I never know until I sit and start typing. I also try with novels to leave something hanging at the end of each writing session so that I can start the next session with a spark.

After the first draft, I'll let the writing settle for a little while. The more distance the better.  This is a good time for me to go read some books, watch movies, start working on a new story, whatever. When I can get back to the work objectively I try and read with editor, not writer, perspective and precision. Rip out the unnecessary bits and bad writing and tighten, tighten, tighten. Nothing can be sacred.

When the second draft is complete, I'll let it settle again, come back later and read and tighten once more and then off to some beta readers for their opinions.

DAVID WISEHART: What authors most inspire you?

TODD RUSSELL: Stephen King, Robert McCammon and Rod Serling.

DAVID WISEHART: What one book, written by someone else, do you wish you'd written yourself?

TODD RUSSELL: Only one? The Wolf's Hour by Robert McCammon is the perfect werewolf book. It uses a WWII backdrop and the werewolf is the good guy for a change. If you like The Stand then Swan Song by McCammon is another excellent book. Oops, gave you two, send me to the rack!

DAVID WISEHART: How have you marketed and promoted your work?

TODD RUSSELL: I'm beating the pavement, virtual door to virtual door: asking for blog reviews, interviews, blurbs, anything I can do to get the word out there. My first ever blog tour starts in May. I went around and personally contacted bloggers that have an audience of readers I felt would be a good fit for Mental Shrillness. I'm also involving myself in related genre messageboards, twitter, Facebook and so on. Offline I've joined a local book group and have plans to hit the local bookstores when the print edition of Mental Shrillness is completed soon.

DAVID WISEHART: Why publish on Kindle?

TODD RUSSELL: Why not? The Kindle is a hot little device. There is passion everywhere among Kindle owners. It's also drop dead easy to get books on the Kindle. And what about that cool notes sharing feature? I want to get my books on every e-reader and in every store that I can.

DAVID WISEHART: What advice would you give to a first-time author thinking of self-publishing on Kindle?

TODD RUSSELL: The Kindles is a great place to start your publishing but before self-publishing any story you should make sure you are ready. Have you let the work settle and edited the basics (grammar and spelling). Have you cut your published teeth on shorter works? There are a bunch of places online to get feedback on shorter works and I'd suggest going there first and see what unbiased readers have to say. Ask, plead and beg some published writers you admire to review your work and confirm that you're ready. You don't want to jump in too soon or wait too long. Next, are you ready for heaps of rejection? Every writer out there has been rejected and criticized, from Stephen King to that author of Mental Shrillness that you've never heard of. If you can't handle people saying that your writing sucks, you aren't ready to self-publish a book anywhere.

Polished your work? Check. Shared short stories online? Check. Can handle rejection and extreme criticism? Check. Now comes the hardest part.

Write something different; be as creative as possible, stretch. Don't accept that because there are a ton of YA paranormal vampire stories that you must join the club. This might not be the easiest way to become 'popular' overnight and sell a bunch of books (if that's your primary goal), in fact you'll have to work a thousand times harder to get people to recognize and read your work, but when the day is done you'll feel that you've contributed something to make the world a little better

DAVID WISEHART: Thanks, and best of luck with your books.


Todd Russell started writing at eight years old and has honed his bizarre style along the likes of Rod Serling, Robert R. McCammon, and Stephen King. Mental Shrillness is his first book.

What are some things that scare Russell? Broken shards of glass, rock music after the 80s, cliches, Sunday night, predictability, stalemate chess matches, who really shot JFK, the iceberg that downed the Titanic, asteroids hitting earth, the insatiable beast known as ET Cetera.

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