A Late Bloomer’s Bumpy Road To Publication

Hey there, PubCrawlers! I’m excited to have award-winning author Christy Stillwell as my guest for the first PubCrawl post of the new year. It feels right to start the year with her essay about staying on the path and doing the hard work to reach publication goals. Her debut novel, The Wolf Tone, is out from Elixir Press today! So without further ado, here’s Christy.

Christy Stillwell author photo

My debut novel officially releases this month, one month from a Very Significant Birthday for me. I’ve been writing seriously since I was twenty-five, a lifetime ago. My long route to publication might scare younger writers, but it shouldn’t. Some people bloom late, and this is work that must be given the time it needs.

In my late twenties, I used my first novel manuscript to apply to a number of MFA programs. I didn’t get in. I recall the galley kitchen where I stood when I read the final rejection letter. I felt a sinking in my chest, countered by a determined fire in my gut. This was rejection. I knew I’d have to get used to the feeling. I could take it, I thought. If ever there was a time I was going to pursue another avenue, this was it. Instead, I told myself that writing could be done without an MFA. At least I had dodged the need for a loan. Debt of any kind was death to a writer. Too much pressure.

The Wolf Tone cover image

I went on to finish that novel, a process that took eight years. I got an agent; after months of editorial work, she sent it to publishers, but it didn’t sell. I wrote another novel. This one took seven years. Another agent, another round at big publishers. No luck.

In the meantime, I lived my life. I got a Master’s degree in English. I taught and worked retail. I got married, had kids. Always, I was writing a novel. Other parents would ask and my answer was the same: Yup. Still working on the book. I didn’t bother to explain when “The book” became the second novel, and then the third. People who don’t write don’t understand the process, a lesson I learned the hard way when my daughter was in first grade. Another mom was complaining about how little income she earned at her part time job. I tried to commiserate, admitting to the financial contributions I made to my family—zero.  Actually, I explained, my work put us in the hole because I was selfish enough to pay for childcare. The look on her face fell somewhere between horror and disgust. “Surely you bring in a little something,” she said. I had grossly over-shared, I knew. Dodging her gaze, I feigned a kid emergency and beelined for the exit. I never, ever brought up the subject again.

I went back for my MFA in my mid-forties. A draft of my third novel—which would become The Wolf Tone—was my MFA thesis, yet I knew when I graduated that the work had just begun. I went home and rolled up my sleeves. I did not write stories or poems or essays. My kids were older; I was no longer lingering in the schoolyard. Again and again I passed on social invitations, to the point where people stopped calling. That was fine. I’d catch up when I was done. I asked every writer I knew to read the manuscript, multiple times. I hired an editor. I invested so much in the manuscript that I was practically blind to it when I called it done, three years later. I offered it to my most recent agent, who passed.

With serious feelings of deja vu, I began seeking a new agent. As before, I started with my favorite authors, noting who represented them. I knew which agents liked to go to which conferences. I could name a partial client list for each of my top contenders. This kind of snooping reminded me of that thrill you get when you recognize little-known actors in several miniseries. It’s oddly satisfying, and hugely distracting. In four months I’d sent three dozen query letters. I got two partial requests and one full. But no contract.

At this point, I reassessed. I’d been through this process and knew that signing with an agent didn’t necessarily mean publication. And more than I wanted an agent, I wanted a book. A big contract would be nice, money for publicity, a table at AWP. But a book would enable me to apply for fellowships, residencies, even jobs. Even better, it would afford me the legitimacy I’d been seeking for years. I could teach creative writing, something I’d wanted to try but didn’t feel qualified for without a published book.

I opened up my search to include small presses. I discovered dozens of independent publishers that were releasing exciting books, places like Two Dollar Radio and Red Hen Press and, finally, Elixir Press. Many of these companies offered contests that included a cash prize and publication. The money wasn’t huge, but I was grounded by my clear goal.

I continued to send out agent queries even as I entered a dozen small publisher contests. This felt blasphemous. For twenty years I had pursued the traditional publishing route: agent first. Then, agent queries publishers. The writer waits. What if I had the manuscript at small publishers and an agent offered a contract? What if she had bigger plans, like a two-book deal with Viking-Penguin? I should have such problems, I reasoned. If that happened, well, what a delicious dilemma.

Four months later, I learned that The Wolf Tone had won the Elixir Press Fiction Prize. I was stunned, grateful and overjoyed. Almost a year later, I held the book in my hands. This moment was every bit as good as people said it would be.

What I love most about my path to publication is the sense of purpose I found when I stepped outside my perceived notion of what publishing was supposed to look like. There are so many routes to success, none more legitimate than another. I love my bumpy road full of side trips and detours. And I adore the sense of freedom that comes in living, as in writing, without an outline, letting the story take me where it wants to go.

Christy Stillwell is the author of The Wolf Tone (January 8, 2019; Elixir Press) and the poetry chapbook AMNESIA (2008; Finishing Line Press). She is the winner of the Elixir Press Fiction Prize, a finalist in the Glimmer Train Short Story Contest and the recipient of a Puschart Prize nomination, a residency at Vermont Studio Center and a Wyoming Arts Council Literary Fellowship. Her stories and essays have appeared in journals such as Pearl, River City, Sonora Review, Sou’wester, The Massachusetts Review, literarymama.com, and The Tishman Review. You can visit her online at ChristyStillwell.com.


24 Responses to A Late Bloomer’s Bumpy Road To Publication

  1. Tara Powers Jan 8 2019 at 8:23 am #

    Thank you for sharing your journey. You’ve helped that light of hope at the end of the tunnel flicker a little brighter.

    • christy Jan 8 2019 at 12:11 pm #

      It’s never too late, especially when you are clear on what you want, and you can push yourself to become the best writer you can be. Let the light flicker and burn!

  2. Vince Santoro Jan 8 2019 at 9:32 am #

    Congratulations Christy! Many (including me) who are on the same bumpy road as the one you travelled can empathize with your experiences and your success, after the long journey, is a reminder to never give up. As for “a late bloomer” – that, you are not. A flower does not bloom before it is ready. You bloomed when you were ready to bloom. All the best!

    • Christy Jan 8 2019 at 12:12 pm #

      Oh how encouraging! Another gift of age: acceptance of what is, exactly as it is.

    • Christy Jan 8 2019 at 12:15 pm #

      Yes! Another gift of age: allowing everything to be exactly as it is. No late or early about it.

  3. Jody Jan 8 2019 at 10:25 am #

    You are an inspiration! Thank you for sharing your story. I hit the big 5-oh a couple of years ago while in the middle of a major rewrite on my WIP. I’m currently querying agents but will consider all options to publication. You’re so right, there’s more than one way. Congrats on your debut novel! Wishing you much success in your writing career.

    • Christy Jan 8 2019 at 12:18 pm #

      Jody, thank you! I think considering all options makes sense, especially considering the way publishing has changed in our lifetime. I worked in bookstores for years and knew a lot about the industry, pre-2000. It was a different world, for sure. Good luck with your WIP!!!

      • Jody Jan 8 2019 at 1:58 pm #


  4. Tracy Abell Jan 8 2019 at 10:54 am #

    Thank you for sharing your journey, Christy. Much of it resonated with me and I’m so happy for your hard-earned success. Your cover is beautiful and I look forward to reading The Wolf Tone (which I just requested from the library.) Congratulations!

    • Christy Jan 8 2019 at 12:19 pm #

      Thank you Tracy! Happy reading!

  5. Mary C. Moore Jan 8 2019 at 12:34 pm #

    I absolutely loved reading this. As a literary agent, it’s so difficult to explain to aspiring authors that just because I passed, does not mean there aren’t many many other possibilities. And that we want you to succeed, by any means, not just the traditional route. Congratulations!

    • Christy Jan 8 2019 at 12:41 pm #

      Mary, your perspective is invaluable on the topic. Writers, at least writers like I was when I was young, can easily get caught up in wanting to be accepted…. by anyone! The need is part of what draws us to writing in the first place. An agent’s rejection just crushed my younger self for months–years! If I could tell my younger self anything, it would be: get clear on what you want. Set approval and acceptance and a sense of belonging aside (difficult). What. Do. You. Want.

  6. Chris Bailey Jan 8 2019 at 2:04 pm #

    Congratulations! And thank you for sharing your victory. I’ve reached a point where the story is everything. If the story I want to tell isn’t on the page, then publication won’t help me. One day (this draft, maybe?) the story I intend to share will finally be clear, and then I will study my agent/small press/self pub options again. Until then–

    • Christy Stillwell Jan 8 2019 at 5:15 pm #

      I think this a great point to reach. You do the work to get the story told. Amen and good luck.

  7. Pamela Poon Jan 8 2019 at 2:13 pm #

    Hi Christy–Congratulations! I am so glad your book it out–you deserve it. If you could, please advise from which source to get your book. I know that different sellers pay the artist differently. To be blunt, from which seller do you receive the most money?

    • Christy Stillwell Jan 8 2019 at 5:14 pm #

      Pam, such a kind question! I will benefit just by selling books. I do well when the publisher does well. Therefore, an independent bookstore is the best possible option for all involved! Thanks for being mindful and happy reading!

      • Pam Poon Jan 8 2019 at 6:55 pm #

        Got it! I will swing by Country Bookshelf! Miss you at J’cise, girl! I miss you when I see your twin who walks her dog near my house!

  8. Cambria Williams Jan 8 2019 at 2:57 pm #

    Thank you so much for sharing this story, Christy. It’s wonderful to be reminded that all paths wind a little different from one another. Congratulations on the publication of your book!

    • Christy Stillwell Jan 8 2019 at 5:16 pm #

      Thanks. What a boring, limited world we would live in if all paths were the same, you know? And how limiting, if only one was valid….

  9. Minerva Spencer Jan 8 2019 at 6:31 pm #

    Fantastic story! I found the link to this article on Jeffe Kennedy’s FB page–so glad I clicked on it and came over.

    Congratulations to you on being a published author! It’s such a monumental achievement–scary and exciting to put a piece of yourself out in front of the world.

    I think a life with many different forks in the road is so much more interesting than one with only a single path. Good luck in the New Year!

  10. Peter Taylor Jan 9 2019 at 7:20 am #

    Terrific! Thanks for sharing, Julie, and many congratulations, Christy.

    No agent has ever got me a contract. My first book deal was given to me by a friend in 1986. She was asked by a publisher if she could write it (non-fiction), but said she didn’t have time and suggested they contact me. They also sold it HarperCollins UK. I didn’t get another contract until 2009, when I asked a publisher for virtual friendship on a social networking site and they asked if I’d be interested in a project. On completion of that, they offered another book.

    I got a contract by talking to a publisher at the London Book Fair in 2010.

    I did a course on ‘Professional Children’s Writing’ in 1998. It took until 2014 to have my first picture book accepted…by the editor who appraised the manuscript at a conference.

    I’m still working on one story I started in 2004. Yep, got to keep at it!

    My mother-in-law has just finished writing her memoir of growing up on a remote farm in the Australian outback. She left school early, during WW2, because her parents thought it unsafe to remain in boarding school in the city, then she married, had kids… So when her husband retired at the age of 65, and she was also 65, she went back to complete her school education so that she could go to University. There, she gained a BA in English and Ancient History to enable her to write the memoir well. It begins in 1924. Yes, she’s 94!

    • Christy Stillwell Jan 9 2019 at 11:19 am #

      I love this story. If only my younger self knew how many different paths to publication existed in the world. We must spread the news to the youngers. Maybe they already know, what with self publishing and the like. But I do think a narrow view of “making it” is just poison to the creative soul. Good luck with that story! It’s gonna be great.

  11. Marilyn Guggenheim Jan 9 2019 at 1:59 pm #

    My god, I had heard bits an pieces from you about your odyssey with getting a novel published, but this broad, years-long overview is astounding. It really does come down to “What. Do. You. Want” with the pursuit of writing. There are lots more options these days than the traditional publishers, thankfully, and I take heart that you found the right launching pad for The Wolf Tone and it won a well-deserved prize.

    • Christy Jan 9 2019 at 11:06 pm #

      Odyssey. Thank you for your part in it 🙂

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