It dies with him.
In the winter of 2018, a friend of mine said those words during a conversation we were having about family legacies, and almost immediately, the vague idea of a story (and title) formed in my brain. As a writer, having new ideas has never been my strength, so I let my imagination run wild for those next few weeks, hoping this particular idea would stick. Before long, it wasn’t so much my imagination that was keeping me awake at night, as characters and a story world started to take shape in the ether; rather, it was my gut instinct I couldn’t silence. This is a story that needs to be told, a tiny voice seemed to whisper. So I set forth to do just that. Fortunately, my gut feeling was right. My debut novel, It Dies with You, is set to release in June. And as organic—and dare I say, easy—as this novel’s inception was, my journey to becoming a published author was far from it.
That same summer, I’d just ended a long period of submissions with my former agent and previous manuscript (a Southern Gothic novel about an abduction), receiving over thirty rejections, including a last minute close call from one of the “Big 5” publishing houses. It was a rejection that haunted me for months, though, in hindsight, I realize that manuscript was never meant to be my debut. What that process did, however, was teach me many valuable lessons, the biggest of which was this: I hadn’t found my “writer voice.” I was simply imitating great fiction. When it came to tackling It Dies with You, I knew if I didn’t find a voice that was uniquely my own, I’d be in the same situation as before, opening rejection email after rejection email.
Once I decided on the general idea of the novel, a story about a young man inheriting a junkyard from his estranged father, I started writing what I thought would be an interesting opening chapter. I kept revising that chapter, over and over, until I knew who my narrator was and where I wanted him to go. If I’m remembering correctly, that original opening chapter, which was around 1,500 words, was the only thing I wrote for nearly two months. The result was a beginning that left plenty of possibilities, but most importantly, a first person narrator, Hudson Miller, that truly showcased my writing voice: a Southern-tinged combination of simple prose and subtle smartassery.
Since I wasn’t under any deadline, I spent over a year on the first half of the novel, and at some point, I felt like I needed a kick in the ass to reach the finish line. In the summer of 2019, a friendship I struck up on Twitter resulted in just that. A seasoned crime novelist named Eryk Pruitt invited me to read at his newly opened bar in Hillsborough, North Carolina, alongside several other writers, including some dude named S.A. Cosby that would soon be shopping a book called Blacktop Wasteland (I think that one ended up selling). After the reading, Eryk told me he was starting a writers group that would meet every Sunday at his bar, and he graciously invited me to join. I mulled this invitation over, my biggest drawback being that his bar, Yonder, was an hour away from my house. But those miles and weekly sacrifice didn’t outweigh my undeniable reality: I needed eyes on my work. I needed accountability. A few days later, I messaged Eryk; I told him I was in. That very week, as fate would have it, my wife found out she was pregnant and was due in March 2020. As challenging as it sounded, I promised her I’d finish a draft of my novel before the baby came. If it wasn’t for Eryk and the other four guys in our writers group pushing me, I never would’ve met that goal. Certainly not with a draft worth submitting to an agent.
I ended up finishing a draft of my novel in early February, and on February 26th, my daughter Ruby was born. A couple of months later, while Ruby bounced on my lap, I returned a call to my dream agent, accepting her offer to represent me. Fast forward eleven months, after some targeted revisions and a round of mostly positive rejections, I’m opening the email I’d been waiting years for; it was an offer of publication from Crooked Lane Books.
It was quite the fitting end to my journey to publication (or beginning, I should say). Three years prior, it was Crooked Lane who had sent me a personalized rejection on my previous manuscript, with an encouraging line that always stuck with me: “He’s one book away from really nailing it.”
As it turned out, they were right, and it’s no mystery as to why. I’d finally found my voice.