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Breaking In: Debut Author Christy Stillwell on Perseverance and Publishing with Small Presses

In our Breaking In column in Writer’s Digest magazine, we talk with debut authors—such as Christy Stillwell, author of The Wolf Tone—about how they did it, what they learned and why you can do it, too. Here, Stillwell talks about her experience publishing with a small press and more.

In our Breaking In column in Writer’s Digest magazine, we talk with debut authors—such as Christy Stillwell (christystillwell.com), author of The Wolf Tone—about how they did it, what they learned and why you can do it, too. Here, Stillwell talks about her experience publishing with a small press and more.

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Tell us about your book. 

In the The Wolf Tone (January 2019, Elixir Press), Margot Fickett, principal cellist for the Deaton, Montana, symphony orchestra, is waylaid by 20-year-old Eva Baker who claims that her son is Margot’s grandchild.

What were you writing before breaking out with this book? 

I have written and published poetry, short stories and essays. I wrote two novels previous to The Wolf Tone. With each novel, I had an agent who believed in the book and sent it to publishers with no success. Those were difficult years, to be sure, but they certainly solidified my determination to understand the long form. I feel at home in the novel now. I especially like the room it offers, the limitless possibilities. The novel is a great taskmaster. If one doesn’t make the hard decisions about time and point of view, the book will balloon into a formless mass and threaten to swallow your life.

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What was the time frame for writing this book? 

In The Wolf Tone, I explored ideas I’d had with me for years. For instance, when my son was in swim lessons nearly a decade ago, I caught sight of another mom on the pool deck reading papers spread on her lap. Wringing my neck to see over her shoulder, I was shocked to discover that she was reading a musical score. I knew I wanted to write about a musician. Years later, I became captivated by the burgeoning medical marijuana industry in my state. Almost overnight a pot grower’s status changed from drug dealer to medical provider. It took a long time to see how these two ideas might intersect. A lot of simmering took place. The number of years I was actively writing the manuscript: six.

Do you have an agent?

I do not have an agent. I offered this novel to my previous agent but she passed. I began the querying process. In four months I queried two dozen people. I got two partial requests and one full, but no contract. I did some serious soul searching. I had already been through the agent/publisher process and ended up disappointed. I found that my perspective had changed. I understood something: more than I wanted an agent and big contract, I wanted a book.

I took the plunge into the indie press world. I discovered dozens of exciting small presses, and many of them offered contests with publication. The money wasn’t huge, but I was grounded by my clear aspirations: I did not want to be rich. I wanted a book. I entered ten contests concurrently with my queries to agents. In four months time, I learned that The Wolf Tone had won the Elixir Press Fiction Prize. I was stunned, grateful and overjoyed.

What were your biggest learning experiences throughout the publishing process?

With a small press, much of line editing and proofreading falls to the writer. It helps to have a good team in place. Getting as many eyes as possible on the manuscript helps it stay clean and crisp.

Also, it all takes a really long time. Much longer than you think it should.

Looking back, what did you do right that helped you break in?

I was honest with myself about my goals. I took the time to understand exactly what I was pursuing and why. In today’s complex publishing industry, having a goal to simply “make it as a writer” could mean a million different things. Getting clear on what I actually wanted, and then working to prioritize and strategize about how to get there, helped me achieve success.

On that note, what would you have done differently if you could do it again?

In my earlier attempts to publish a novel, I think I’d change a lot. Slow down. Make the book the best it can be. Be clear on my goals. But with The Wolf Tone, I must say I like the chain of events. I like my honesty with myself and of course I love that my path crossed with Elixir Press. I wouldn’t change anything.

Did you have a platform in place? On this topic, what are you doing the build a platform and gain readership?

I had a blog and a website at the time of publication. I started my blog, Say Something You Mean, to make a home for the many essayistic ideas I wanted to explore. I know if I posted more, I’d reach a wider audience, yet in keeping with the theme of the blog itself, I want to post when I truly have something to say. I’m trying to do readings and events, both endeavors that are out of my comfort zone, to gain readership. I’m also trying to be more present on social media, becoming more vocal about books and presses that I admire, and why.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on my next novel. I hope to cut my writing time in half, but I know that with this form, completion time will take what it takes. That’s true of all stories. As writers we must cultivate this wisdom: Let it happen. Guide and shape it but do not rush.

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