Thursday, July 3, 2008

Guest in Progress: Justin Nicholes

Once you finish the book, what to do with it? It’s important to remember that a book can take many paths, and the “high-powered New York agent” path is only one choice of many, and perhaps not even the best path. Here’s a discussion of the benefits of taking another approach to sending your precious novel out into the world.

Justin Nicholes was the very first guest essayist on Work-in-Progress; you can read his earlier piece here, where you’ll learn that place has exerted a strong pull on his writing. So it’s no surprise that he has ended up teaching in China, the second of the MFA students I worked with in my visiting writer position at Wichita State University who has done so (the first has written of his experiences here). Something in the air, perhaps?

Underground Intrigue, and Forwarders of the Craft: Going with a Small Press for a Debut Novel
by Justin Nicholes

When Another Sky Press sent me an email last year saying they loved my debut novel and wanted to publish it, I didn’t hesitate. The advantages of going with a small press weren’t all clear to me then, but what was clear was the enthusiasm the people at this press were showing. Communicating with the press through the Internet while I was in China (teaching for several months in Xinzheng City and just living and writing in bustling Beijing), I worked through more than ten additional revisions of the entire novel (at the word, sentence, and sometimes organizational levels) before Ash Dogs was published on June 15th, 2008, and this was after spending four years of writing several drafts, three of which happened with the help of writers at Wichita State’s MFA program. In general, if this press is representative, small presses have something unique at stake with each release, put unheard of energy into the production of novels, and get writers in touch with other dedicated artists hungry for recognition.

Small presses care a lot about engaging the writer in the process of putting out a novel. For me, this harmonized with my concept of the kind of writer and editor I’ve decided to be. The online literary journal I’m a fiction editor for, Our Stories, interviewed T.C. Boyle this year, and when asked what he thought of the Our Stories mission of commenting on every single story submitted to us, part of Boyle’s response was, “How do you find the time?” It’s true that commenting on every writer’s story takes time, and no other journal I know of does it, but the reason we do this is the same reason small presses like Another Sky do what they do: it’s exhilarating to encourage writers to revise. As anyone can imagine, we get many email messages thanking us for taking the time to read stories carefully and comment on them. Another Sky gave my manuscript to several readers, and on many mornings I would start up my computer, placed on a desk by a window overlooking part of Beijing’s cityscape, and sharpen sentences or paragraphs, or not, according to readers’ suggestions.

Yet what a small press can do for a writer, especially, perhaps, writers just out of an MFA looking to place their debut novels, isn’t unprecedented. Some of the most admired writers I know of are admired partly because of the energy they’ve shown to others. It’s easy in almost every area of life to compete instead of cooperate. Leslie Pietrzyk, who visited Wichita State in 2005, inspired me and my classmates to nod and agree for at least a year after she finished that here was the kind of writing teacher worth modeling ourselves after.* Think also of the legend of John Gardner, just as recognized for his fiction as for his books on craft as well as the time he spent with his students. Coincidentally, I was lucky to find at Wichita State one of Gardner’s students, Richard Spilman, and I suspect it’s no accident that he had the passion to read and comment on approximately 1,000 pages worth of drafts and revisions of Ash Dogs while I was there, sometimes meeting with me in the summer on his own time.

And let’s not underestimate the way small presses bring together hungry artists with an intimacy that seems unique. I was in touch with the cover artist, Mike McGovern, for my debut, as well as with writers already published by Another Sky. Then there are the reviewers online whose magazines and blogs get numbers of hits that publishers, big and small, can’t deny. Also the fact that I was able to submit my manuscript online from China helps show how the Internet has become an efficient and powerful networking tool for the serious artist.

In the end, and most important, going with a small press absolutely should not seem like a compromise because you’ll still find people dedicated principally to craft at these presses. The goal should be to find dedicated, serious people wherever you look to place your work. For my debut novel, I found these people at a small press. ~~Justin Nicholes

About: Justin Nicholes, from Ashtabula County, Ohio, has appeared in American Poets Abroad, Mikrokosmos, and Karamu. He got his MFA from Wichita State and is a fiction editor with the literary journal Our Stories. His debut novel, Ash Dogs, was released through Another Sky Press (June 15th, 2008). He currently teaches writing in Xinzheng City, in the Henan Province of China.

*Editor’s Note: I did NOT insert this! I certainly appreciate the wonderful compliment.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.