Written by A Guest Author

Case Study: How I Published My Debut Novel Off the Yoga Mat

By Cheryl J. Fish

This is part of our ongoing series on how authors published their first book. You can read our other stories in this series, herehere, here, and here.

I am writing about what happened to me, at the threshold of publishing my debut novel. After fifteen years, after realizing there are notable paths to publication that don’t require an agent, Off the Yoga Mat is coming out with Livingston Press of University of West Alabama, a small university press.

My novel follows three characters coming of middle age as the year 2000 (Y2K) approaches: Nate is broke and in his eighth year of graduate school. Nate’s ex-girlfriend Nora finagles a position in Finland where she embraces sisu, the Finnish concept of perseverance, in pursuit of motherhood. And Lulu, Nate’s talented yogi, yearns to get to the bottom of her nightmares of childhood abuse as she returns to her hometown, New Orleans, to care for her ailing mother.

Many times, I thought I was done with Nate, Nora and Lulu. As far as I was concerned, I’d hit on the right combination of character, plot, style, conflict, and tone. But as I re-read it, and received additional feedback from my writing groups and rejections from the outside world, I realized I had not. Years passed and my sense of time wasting felt overwhelming. I put it away, worked on and published stories, poems, scholarly essays, flash fiction, and attended to my demanding teaching job. What also plagued me: jealousy. Other writers found readers. They published their books and won awards. Ironically, my character Nate researches the theme of jealousy through literature and psychology for his doctoral thesis, but claims he never gets personally jealous. What a mighty delusion! As Brandon Stosuy says in his Lit Hub essay Why Failure is Necessary for Creative Growth dated June 21, 2022 (but in a slightly different context), “You end up giving too much space to jealousy, bitterness, comparing yourself to your peers and that’s less room for the creative process to unfold.” I came to realize that.

In 2014, during a round of pitching agents, I received requests for the partial or full manuscript, but did not receive a firm offer. I questioned the novel’s opening. Would it grab a reader’s attention and make them want to turn the page? The sequencing of chapters, told in third person from three characters’ perspectives was also a challenge and took time to figure out. Their lives must stay entwined even when their story arcs take them on disparate journeys. For these and other uncertainties I had about the book, I benefited from what I am calling “key encounters,” exchanges that made it possible to keep going again. These encounters restored my sense of energy and urgency to revise with attention to craft in this coming-of-middle-age story (I kept getting older too).

Out of all the workshops and retreats I attended and consultants I hired, a few stand out as having made a difference, giving me positive energy and the wherewithal to go back into the trenches. The first was a paid mentorship in 2015 with an editor who is also an agent who represented a friend of mine. He sensed what was missing and what I hadn’t realized but needed to work on: pacing, ramping up the stakes, developing emotional layering between the characters. This was before the pandemic and before Zoom, but we mainly had sessions over the phone as he lives in Canada and I live in New York City. What was it about these sessions that helped? His candor and enthusiasm, his specific emphasis on moving the story (he represents mostly commercial fiction), and making every effort to engage the reader. My opening chapter would present all three of the novel’s protagonists even if was only a brief introduction. On his advice, I moved up Nora’s discovery of an opportunity to escape her marketing job in New York City to work for Nokia in Finland; in the first chapter, the reader glimpses her through Nate’s perspective. When the story shifts to her POV, she attends a baby shower for her pregnant boss after Nate refuses to consider her desire for a child. Rather than wait for him, she takes off. Another key suggestion from this mentor was to add a serendipitous encounter near the novel’s end which would bring together Nora and Lulu, main characters connected to Nate whose paths had not yet crossed. How exhilarating to have a careful reader suggest a possibility that brought my work full circle, unveiling and deepening the characters’ vulnerability, pushing me to push on.

A second key pre-pandemic encounter: a three-week in-person master fiction workshop in 2019 at Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida, with photographers and dancers in simultaneous residencies. This center encourages three cohorts to interact, eat, and socialize. The richness of these exchanges, the fabulous craft details and support of my workshop leader, a brilliant fiction writer with an egalitarian leaderships style, enabled a joyful time to write and walk, to explore our writing and non-writing lives. This workshop brought me back to my novel with a fresh eye, although I workshopped a short story during the residency. Our sessions focused on topics like emotional tenacity for your characters and for yourself, whether or not you need a prologue, and how to bring out sensual details that matter. One of my seminar mates said that our group “was like being in a Ninja blender with plenty of ideas and hope and laughter and tears.” The process of writing thoughtful feedback to the other writers, supportive with constructive critique, and our sessions where each of us was asked to bring in a text, visual or musical influence that informed our work, resuscitated powerful energy into sections of my novel that had thwarted me. We also had opportunities to share our work in forums, and at a gala event before a public audience. This community offered support and respect which matters most at times we doubt ourselves.

A final key encounter: my writing groups and beta readers. Over the years I have been drafting, revising and taking breaks from Off the Yoga Mat, I was in two different prose writing groups that provided constructive feedback. It was not easy finding the right groups; the writers in these were ambitious, well-published and talented. One group came about after we took the same instructor in an advanced fiction workshop through Sackett Street Writers. The other group contained two memoirists and three fiction writers struggling through their first (and then second) books. Sometimes their feedback was hard to digest and overwhelming; often, I could not return to the novel for a few weeks, or months. Yet, when I did, I understood that much of what they said was dead on. With distance, I could go through the comments and apply the ones I found most relevant.

They were especially helpful with Lulu’s back story, which took place in the 1960’s and 70’s; I struggled with scenes that involved sexual violence. How could I depict the decisions Lulu made based on her past trauma, especially with the different political contexts of today? My writing group suggested striking a balance between then and now, and write the story that made sense for the character’s perspective. I excluded graphic description, but conveyed struggle and confusion that contribute to the character’s growth and dignity. I also received an opinion from someone I hired to go over particularly sensitive areas and perspectives the novel touches upon, and she validated much of what I was trying to achieve.

At that point, more than ten years into the process, I started to query independent presses, and I am about to realize my dream of publishing my debut novel although it took much longer and has been a much thornier experience than I imagined.  The emotional highs and lows, and years of disappointment also came with breakthroughs and incredible support. Now another phase of the process of publishing a debut novel is about to begin. I’ve reached a point where I can take a deep breath and experience the joy that it will finally be launched into the world.


Cheryl J. Fish is the author of the debut novel OFF THE YOGA MAT, the story of three characters coming of middle age, to be published on 10/20/22 by Livingston Press/UWA. Her recent books include THE SAUNA IS FULL OF MAIDS, poems and photographs celebrating Finnish sauna culture, travel, and friendships, and CRATER & TOWER, poems reflecting on trauma and ecology after the Mount St. Helens Volcanic eruption and the terrorist attack of 9/11. Fish has been a Fulbright professor in Finland and is a co-editor with Farah Griffin of A STRANGER IN THE VILLAGE: TWO CENTURIES OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN TRAVEL LITERATURE. Fish’s short fiction has appeared in Cheap Pop, Iron Horse Literary Review, Liars’ League, Spank the Carp, and KGB Bar Lit. She is professor of English at BMCC/City University of New York and docent lecturer at University of Helsinki. Her website is cheryljfish.com and you can follow her on Instagram and Twitter @cheryljoyfish. You can preorder OFF THE YOGA MAT here.

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