Written by A Guest Author August 17th, 2023

Don’t Change Your Debut

By Grace Bialecki

I was nearly finished with my first novel when I met up with an author acquaintance to ask for advice about getting a literary agent. It was a bitter New York winter night, and I felt icy and invigorated as I slid into the bar. Soon I would send out my manuscript and take another step on the path to becoming a published author. As we talked about writing, my acquaintance recounted the many years it took him to finish his first book.

At one point, he’d rewritten the entire novel from scratch. “I’d finally figured out the story,” he told me. “And all I had to do was sit and write it.”

I took a long sip of my drink and felt a frigid fear that matched the weather. “I couldn’t do that,” I replied, trying not to sound horrified.

Flash forwards a few months, and there I was sitting at my desk in front of a blank Word document. A beta reader had helped me see the light of day, and I’d decided that my 64,000-word manuscript didn’t need to be that long, or in the third person. Now that I knew the story, I could write it in a new way. After months of diligent work, what I ended up with was a 40,000-word novella in the second person. Titled Purple Gold, I didn’t know that what I’d written was essentially unsellable.

My manuscript’s inherent un-marketability became evident as soon as I started querying: form rejections, dismissals of my chosen POV, not a single mention of novellas on agents’ wish lists. Not to mention, the disheartening void of unanswered emails. But this version of my book was its truest form. I couldn’t imagine doubling its length to bring it up to an industry standard length. And I loved effect of the second person — it gave the narrator a dreamy disconnect which mirrored her stoner persona.

As every author does, I kept trying. I found novella contests and submitted directly to independent presses. I emailed everyone I had ever met in the industry and asked for advice. Eventually, the founder and editor of the small press, ANTIBOOKCLUB, agreed to read the entire manuscript.

His email response with detailed notes was the most thoughtful one I’d received. In my bleak months of querying, he was the first person to understand my work. He had read my manuscript and taken the time to think about making it better. Not drastically different, but an improved version of what it was. This was the most validated I’d ever felt about my project, and I dove into his notes.

After getting through his edits, my project was much stronger. It was also still…a novella in the second person. Even the editor at ANTIBOOKCLUB didn’t give me a green light, so eventually, I stopped querying altogether. As much as I wanted my novella to be published, I had to work on something else. Without intending to start another novel, I was struck with an idea and started writing to get its words down on the page.

Back when I was getting my literature degree at Pomona College, I’d studied fiction with the writer Jonathan Lethem. He warned us that our first novel risked becoming our second or our third. That while it was important to see ways to rewrite it, we also needed to know when to stop. As I worked on my second book, I knew I had to keep its momentum instead of being stymied on a project I’d started five years ago. Maybe I would turn the novella into an audio book. Maybe I would release it to friends and family. Maybe the manuscript on my computer would be its finished form.

In March 2020, almost a year after I’d stopped querying, I was living in Paris when life froze with the pandemic. Overnight, I lost my copy-writing job and faced a strict police-enforced lockdown. As the world contracted around me, I received a miraculous email. The editor from ANTIBOOKS was organizing an e-book release. With the pandemic in full swing, he wanted to give readers the gift of literature. How would I feel about having a digital version of Purple Gold published?

My project would be finished. My book would be edited and in readable form. By that point, those were my only two goals. Yes, I was disappointed I wouldn’t get to hold a book in my hands, but friends and family across the globe would have instant access. And most of all, my book would be finished.

I haven’t re-read my debut since I skimmed the final proofs. It’s a time capsule of that era in my writing, like looking at a snapshot of me back in college, dressed in tie-dye under the LA sunshine. But I’m proud of the years I devoted to Purple Gold — it’s the book I needed to write so I could move on to my next ones.

Bio: Grace Bialecki is a writer, editor, and book coach who teaches for The Bridge and Hugo House. Her work has appeared in various publications including Catapult, Barrelhouse and Epiphany Magazine where she was a monthly columnist. Bialecki is the co-founder of the storytelling series Thirst, and the author of the novel Purple Gold (ANTIBOOKCLUB). When she’s working with clients, Bialecki emphasizes finding clarity and authentic voice, alongside techniques to be present while writing.


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