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.
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.