How I Almost Wrecked My Book
Updated: Sep 4
This week, we are continuing our series on the independent publishing journey of my book, The Goodbye-Love Generation: A Novel in Stories
After my thesis was approved, I received my Master of Fine Arts in fiction writing, got my cool academic hood, and put the manuscript as a whole (then known as My City Was Gone) away in a corner of my laptop.
Don’t take this as an indication that I was giving up on it—far from it. I did have a game plan. I was going to let it sit for awhile, then revise it into a traditional novel.
It wasn’t that I was unsatisfied with the book as it was. I just knew that if I had a prayer of getting it published, it had to be marketable, and short story collections from new, unestablished authors don’t sell.
Meanwhile, I spent the next couple years picking at the individual stories, revising them, and sending them to literary journals. I was thrilled to have four of them placed at different publications. One of them, “No Sugar Tonight,” even won the University of San Francisco short fiction prize though its literary journal, Switchback.
In addition to revising the stories, though, I spent a lot of time banging my head against the wall trying to figure out how to take my ten stories and unearth a coherent plot that could crystallize into a novel. On my hard drive, you will find five repeated attempts at first chapters of a novel derived from the collection. Yet, I couldn’t make any of them work. No matter how I played with the timeline, created different storylines for the characters, or rewrote or developed their backstories, the Purple Orange members just didn’t want to be in a novel.
There was another level to my frustration, though: the 50th anniversary of the Kent State shootings was quickly approaching, and I wanted to publish the book independently in time for the event.
To be clear, this wasn't my first indie rodeo. Three years before, I published my chapbook Bone China Girls: A Poetic Account of a Female Crime, and the experience made me realize that I wanted to publish my next book independently as well.
(Note: You can read more about why I chose to be an independent author in this post from last fall)
I knew that the endgame was to publish my revised novel-version of the book through my own imprint and do it in time for the anniversary of Kent State.
However…my creative process wasn’t cooperating. And I was getting mad.
At least until February, 2020.
My mom had just called me about getting tickets for the 50th anniversary concert at the university, which was slated to star David Crosby and Joe Walsh. I was excited to honor my family’s musical heritage, as well as my personal connections to May 4, by attending the event.
But I was also disappointed in myself. I hadn’t accomplished my goal. The novel wasn’t done; in fact, it wasn’t even started. So there I was, moping around vacuuming the living room and generally having a pity party for myself, when all of a sudden it hit me:
The book was done.
It had been done for years.
The problem wasn’t that I couldn’t make it work as a novel.
The problem was that it was never meant to be a traditional novel to begin with. In a nutshell, my book is about four characters and how they respond to a traumatic event that takes the successful future they imagined for themselves and blows it to shreds.
A story like that is too fragmented to be a more cohesive novel.I was trying to tell my story in a way it was simply not meant to be told.
I quickly did the math in my head. It was March. May 4 was still two months away. That was plenty of time for me to do revisions on the existing manuscript, do the book design, and lay out a marketing plan.
I could do this. I was going to do this. So on March 1, 2020, I posted this cryptic photo on Instagram as I began the process of analyzing what I already had and what I needed to do to finally get this baby out there.
The first challenge I ran into was that I wasn’t a fan of how I originally ordered the stories ten years before. I’d attempted to make them bounce back and forth throughout time, but I quickly discovered during my first read-through that a chronological approach was the best way to make it work. I also discovered, though, that the first story was really bad. Not just bad, but dissonantly bad, and even kind of terrifying. It was a weird hippie horror film that had more in common with my poetry chapbook about the death of sixteen-year-old Sylvia Likens than the world of Kent, Ohio in 1970. So, that story was the first thing to go.
What was great, though, was that the opening paragraph of the story that followed it made an ideal beginning for a book:
“The day Alex Johnson graduated from high school, his father took him to Burger Chef and told him that for his present, he could order anything he wanted.”
I love this opening because it accomplishes a lot in just one sentence. It introduces the conflict of Alex’s struggle with his abusive background and where he finds his self-worth, which follows him throughout the book. It raises questions about his relationship with his father—what dad takes his kid to a fast food restaurant as a graduation gift? It was precisely the note I wanted to kick off the larger story on.
Remember, writers: the beginning of what you’ve written may not be the actual beginning.
Below, you can see a comparison between the original table of contents and the final version from the published book. Not only has the order shifted, but the format is different as well. Because of the musical themes of the book, I decided to organize the stories like the track listing for a record album, categorizing them into "Side A" and "Side B."
Also, take note that a couple of the titles are different. When "May" was accepted for publication in Prick of the Spindle, it was under the condition that I change the title to "The Question of Noel." "Throwback" was also renamed "The Magnificent Throwbacks" to make it more specific to the story's contents:
I did three rounds of edits on the project once I had settled on an order for the stories. To keep myself from overthinking it (which writers are prone to doing), I limited myself to only line level corrections—typos and sentence structure only, no serious changes to the plot. There were two stories that I updated, setting them in the present day instead of the 1990s, to make the book more contemporary and timelier.
Finally, in about ten days, I had a book I was genuinely happy with.
The biggest takeaway from this whole process is never dismiss your book in its original form, especially because you think it can’t sell.
If you think independent publishing is the right course for you—and believe me, it’s not for everyone—you have the freedom to adhere to your vision in ways you might not with other avenues.
If you want to go the traditional route, you might have to fight for your vision a little more, but there are plenty of precedents for writers who have done that and succeeded.
The point is this…
I almost robbed myself of making the book I was supposed to create because of what I thought I “should” be doing.
It’s one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made as a writer.
That’s not creativity. That’s tyranny.
So at this point, the book was ready to go. I’d downloaded the template for the book size I wanted from Kindle Direct and was about ready to go. My plan to be at the Kent State events with my own tribute to my community’s heritage was unfolding. But remember…it was March, 2020.
And we all know what happened next.
Obviously, though, I still made my goal. The book is out there. So clearly, there’s a happy ending here somewhere.
Next week, come back and find out how it went down.
In the meantime…there are a couple of things you can do: First, check out the official website for The Goodbye-Love Generation to learn more about the book and read a free story. Second, if you’ve got some writing ideas you feel inspired to tackle, I’ve got the perfect resource to make that happen.
With The Ultimate Writing Project Workbook, you’ll get worksheets, templates, writing prompts, activities, and more to pursue the full potential of your ideas to inspire and impact readers. Plus…did I mention it’s free? Click here to get yours now.