Tuesday, 4 December 2018

I Put a Book Together, and It Was the Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Done


I had an idea for a collection of horror short stories, each written by some of the talented people surrounding me. Contributors to Fear from a Small Place: Writers from Canada’s Smallest Province Unleash Their Greatest Fears were tasked with defining horror as they saw it, with the understanding that their story could be as short as they wanted it to be. Tying it all together was the theme of Prince Edward Island, a province that had been home to most of us at one time or another, or had touched each writer in some way. It was the fact that each of us had a relationship with PEI that was important here, not the Island as setting. 

I would edit the book, with my friend and co-contributor Laura Chapin doing a subsequent grammar edit, with notes added about anything she’d noticed as being amiss. I had a story in mind that I would contribute, and then I set out to invite the others.

Most people were interested in taking part, and began work on their pieces. Some declined or didn’t respond to my invitation. After my initial pass, I thought that the book could use a little more diversity in its make up, so I actively sought to diversify further. A few months later, I had to put that notion aside as nothing had panned out despite negotiations.

Disappointed, but not discouraged, my first “uh-oh” moments occurred. People began asking, “Why didn’t you ask so and so?” or saying, “I can’t contribute, but so and so can!”

Contributions began to come in, and I collected them, beginning the editing process. I worked back and forth with writers to make their stories the best I thought they could be without losing their personalities or the voice of the writer. 

I also began approaching publishers. Typically, it can take up to six months to hear back from a publisher, so I wanted to get to work on this immediately. I put together what was needed for submission, and I approached a handful of regional publishers. My thought was that the book would appeal most to them as Prince Edward Island was such a key component in the collection’s make up. 

“Interesting idea, but not a fit for us. You should try Acorn Press (a PEI publishing company)” was the response I got across the board. Of course, I’d already submitted it to Acorn. 

I was encouraged when, eight months after submission, I didn’t get a “no” from Acorn, and we started communicating, albeit sporadically. Acorn is pretty much a one-woman operation in terms of daily operations, and they have a sizeable publishing schedule, so this was understandable and expected. 

In the meantime, I continued editing the stories I’d received, and set about the design aspect of the project. I work at Graphcom here in Charlottetown, an advertising company, and my boss was a supporter of the project. He agreed to provide design and layout in kind. Another item checked off the list. 
Things were moving along, and up until this point, I’d been the only one who’d read the stories. A friend, whom it was appropriate to show the work to, asked to read what I had. I handed it over, and that was when I re-learned the lesson about not showing work until it’s viewer ready. To be completely honest, I believed that she hated it, and that threw me into a depression and a negative headspace about the project. Not a good state to allow myself to fall into with so much work ahead.

More stories began coming in, and I thought that our collection could use a more expected and typical dose of horror, so I contributed a different story than the one I’d intended.

As the deadline approached for all stories to be turned in, I sent out reminder messages to all, and gave extensions to those who needed it. As each deadline passed, it became obvious that a couple of writers just weren’t going to submit. Even with the best intentions, that happens. 

Finally, the submissions were in, a nice balance of fiction, poetry, illustrative stories, and even a short film screenplay. Still, I couldn’t shake that negativity that had crept in. I didn’t realize how much I’d let it affect me.

At this point, Acorn asked if I’d be willing to replace some of the contributors with other writers. I completely get that. A publisher is putting money into a project, and they are a business. As such, they have to make business decisions. Firmly believing that this project was very much what it was as is, I declined, but thanked them. They do essential and amazing work, and we need them very much. 

I then looked at how we could self-publish. One of the contributors worked locally at Kwik Kopy Printing, and I got him to look into cost. Once established, I applied for a grant from PEI’s Arts Council… and they promptly dissolved.

Keeping at work on the project, I handed the collected and edited stories to Laura. I don’t think she’ll mind me relating this part of the process, because we have moved so, so, so far beyond it… I asked Laura to only comment on the grammar at this point. What I don’t think I shared with her was that the negativity I’d been feeling since I’d received that initial feedback had me doubting everything.

A few stories in, Laura contacted me with “Dave, I don’t think this collection is horror.” And I absolutely lost my mind.  

I really did. In lieu of getting the “yes” I was craving at this point (not from Laura, from anyone), I heard only confirmation that the initial feedback I’d received was accurate. I was wasting my time and everyone else’s. 

Now I was set to hand the project over to any one of the contributors who wanted the responsibility, and I told them so. I laid out what was left to do from proofing through to the book launch and publicity.

What I’d left out of this account up until this point is the back and forth with writers, something I find very difficult unless they’ve learned to “kill their darlings”. That’s a hard lesson to learn, but one I learned immediately with my first professional writing job. Then there was the seemingly never-ending discussion about how many copies we should print, which I found stressful, but why? I guess it was just one more thing to coordinate and finance.

With my very public meltdown, public in terms of the contributors, I’d let off some steam, and was ready to move ahead. Yeah, I was embarrassed, but the truth was, I really did believe in this project. 

Moving me further ahead was the fact that Laura had finished her edit and returned with the confirmation that what we had here was indeed a collection of horror stories, many of them very contemporary in their interpretation. 

During this turnabout, a new government body that provides grants to PEI’s arts community was in place, and we reapplied. Happily, we were approved, though not for the full amount as the adjudication committee at the time (the members of each subsequent committee are different) supported the “giving less to more projects” philosophy. 

The book gets laid out and designed, published, we have a successful launch, we sell some copies online and at local bookstores (I get a crash course in what the latter entails, i.e. book stores take between 40-50% of the sales price), get some good publicity, including a positive review in Atlantic Books Today, and here we are. 
Reading back over what I’ve written here, the process doesn’t seem all that stressful. All I can say is that, at the time, it was. Oh God, was it! I guess that's because it's all laid out here like a blueprint, rather than the unknown as it was when it was in progress. On top of that, all of the emotion is taken out of it. Perhaps it’s all about the state of mind of the person who’s spearheading a project. Regardless, I’ve learned that a passion project can be a very difficult thing to carry forward, but it’s worth it. I’ve learned some other things as well, but I’m going to keep those private. 

I’m very proud of our book. I truly think it’s something rare, and it stands as a reflection of how a group of under-represented people - PE Islanders - express our fears. Contributors are: Kelly Caseley, Laura Chapin, Margo Connors, Marlene Handrahan, Henry Harvey, Don Heisz, Rob MacDonald, John MacKenzie, David Moses, Dale Nicholson, Laura O’Brien, Randall Perry, Sam Rainnie, Kent Stetson, Dave Stewart, Russell Stewart, Ann Thurlow, Rod Wetherbie, Ivy Wigmore, and Jenni Zelin.

Fear from a Small Place is available at The Bookmark and Indigo in Charlottetown, and here at amazon.ca  

Watch the teaser trailer below.


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