the set-up: the beginning and the end
In the summer of 2017, I met Gale Massey at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. We were in the same workshop – Randall Kenan’s and Margot Livesey’s – and we quickly bonded over our love of tightly-plotted novels.
One afternoon after lunch, we walked out to the overlook behind the inn, and Gale told me her novel had received an offer. Now that novel, THE GIRL FROM BLIND RIVER, is in stores and libraries, and is even being used in high school classrooms.
In the academic writing world, lots of us want to write novels, but we often struggle with the revision and publication process. We also tend to hear only the superstar stories – how the agent Bill Clegg flew to Wisconsin to ask Lauren Groff to please be his client, for example – but this isn’t how most books get published. I’ve asked Gale to share her story over the next couple of months about how her book came to be in the world, and to share some of what she learned in the process. – Nancy Dinan
In January 2010 I attended my first writing conference. I was intimidated and clearly out of my league. I had never published so much as an essay or a short story and yet these talented writers accepted me and made me feel welcome. Writers can make for wonderful friends. I’m still connected to several people from that workshop and we continue to support each other. They’ve taught me just how important it is to build community.
I had been working on a manuscript for many years, but in February 2013 I accepted the fact that it wasn’t really going to come together as a novel. It was a collection of semi-autobiographical stories, some of which were published in various literary journals and in the Tampa Bay Times, but it wasn’t a novel. Reaching that conclusion was very difficult, but I put those pages in a drawer. The next day I went to work on an idea I suspected had the legs to go the distance and two years later the first draft of The Girl From Blind River was complete. Finishing the first draft of a novel is an amazing accomplishment; however I had no idea of how long it would take me to find it a home.
In May 2017 I approached an agent that was receptive to my work. I found him online and saw that he was making deals and was listed on the professional sites as a top-selling agent. He was traveling extensively to many conferences, and was employed by a large and influential agency in New York. When he read my manuscript in three days and offered representation, he seemed like the perfect champion to place my novel. More on this in future entries.
Two months later my debut crime novel was purchased by a wonderful and reputable small press. I can’t tell you about the conversations that took place to create that deal. What I understand now is that publishing is a business that often leaves the author out of the loop. Writers celebrate our success online, but we don’t often talk about the difficult parts of the journey. We give our loyalty to editors and agents because they are the keepers of the gate. We need to question this blind loyalty because just like in any other relationship, loyalty is not a thing to be given away, it is a thing to be earned. It shouldn’t be a power play by a person or an agency holding the future of a writer’s career in their hands. I’m going to discuss this in depth in later blogs.
In July 2018, The Girl From Blind River was published. Was it a dream come true? Yes, and no. Writers talk about the first time they hold their book in their hands, the intangible thing that existed only in thought now has a spine, cover art, ink and paper. It’s a beautiful moment in a writer’s life, but it doesn’t come without suffering a few disappointments and regrets over missed opportunities. Publishing a debut isn’t easy for anyone. It’s hard work and there are a lot of ways a creative project can go sideways. I made plenty of mistakes but I also learned that sometimes there are ways to resurrect a project that seems dead. In the end, you will be your own best advocate and you have to be willing to make some moves to get your work out there.
In the coming months I’ll discuss some of these mistakes and how I corrected course. This story isn’t terribly pretty, but I’m in a place professionally where I can be honest about some of the pitfalls and setbacks that authors can fall into. Most of all, I want to tailor this discussion to what you really want to know about being a debut author, so please feel free to ask questions in the comments section.
Gale Massey lives in St. Petersburg, FL. Her stories have appeared in the Tampa Bay Times, Walking the Edge, Sabal, Seven Hills Press, and other journals. She has been the recipient of scholarships and fellowships at The Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Writers in Paradise, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The Girl From Blind River is her debut novel.