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Guest Post: Author Brian Petkash Discusses his Journey to Publication

Author photo for Brian Petkash
Author Brian Petkash

Brian Petkash's Journey to Publication

We are all on different legs of a shared journey, and I’m honored to be able to share about my particular publishing journey in the hopes that it’ll help you on yours.

My book, Mistakes by the Lake, a collection of short stories centering around Cleveland, Ohio, came out in May 2020.

And, despite the world being on fire at that time, my book coming out meant the world to me.

Of course, the journey didn’t begin or end there. It started over 10 years before that with the writing of a few pages of what eventually became the title-track novella that caps the collection.

Back then, in 2009, I was teaching a high school Creative Writing class. But I was a hypocrite. I would often admonish/encourage my students that they needed to write every day in order to be a writer, yet I was not following that advice myself.

But I decided to do as I say so I could honestly tell my students I heeded my own advice. I wrote every day for about a month, getting up around 5:30 each morning to do some writing before school. (I now don’t, technically, write every day. I count research, revision, and any act that is helping me with a particular work as “working on my writing” and I do try to do one of those things each day. Perhaps I’m fooling myself, but … sometimes we writers need to fool ourselves a little, at least I do).

At some point, I ended up with about 25 pages.

Now what? I liked what I had but had no clue as to what I was doing, nor did I know what I should do with the work.

And, so, it sat.

Until I signed up for Eckerd College’s Writers in Paradise, a writers’ conference with fellow aspiring writers and top-notch mentors. There, I brought my 25 pages to be workshopped, to see if I had anything worth continuing, really. I met a bunch of talented writers in my workshop group, which was led by a remarkable teacher and writer, John Dufresne. While the feedback I received was mixed, I was encouraged that I was on to something. That encouragement felt good. But I was still uncertain.

I took John out for a beer, asked him that question all writing teachers get asked, that, I think, they dread getting asked. Do I have it? Or do I have it? It’s that question of: If I keep working at this, will I be a real writer? Will I be able to publish? I wanted that secret squirrel handshake or sign that said, yes, I have it. But John wouldn’t give me that; as one would expect, it’s a tough almost unfair question to ask: There are too many variables and unknowns. He just said that he’d liked what I’d done so far. And, hey, work at it and you never know.

And while I know we ultimately need to write for ourselves, etc., etc., it felt good to get a little supportive outside validation.

After Writers in Paradise, I revised those pages based on the feedback I received. And then …

… it sat again. Teaching is more than a full-time job and I just rarely found the time to write.

I realized I needed structure and deadlines. So, I gathered up those revised 25 pages and applied to University of Tampa’s MFA program.

Now, I don’t think you need an MFA to get published, but, for me, I needed the environment and the deadlines and the feedback and the guidance to produce and revise more work.

And it was here, while working on what I hoped would be a novel, that I really started to uncover this idea of writing a collection of stories centered around Cleveland.

It started simply enough with researching for the novel: I was just looking for background details for the lives of my central characters, became fascinated by the city’s old and defunct trolley system, and saw a headline about a conductor who stole a trolley for a night’s thrill ride. I just jotted that down, a throwaway detail, really. But it was a detail that wouldn’t leave me alone. I came back to it over and over, fleshed out that trolley thief’s life, and before I knew it, I had a story set in 1928. It was then, and only then, that I had this concept album idea for this collection: a series of linked stories that would roll through various decades of the city’s rich history.

During my MFA, I also realized another thing: that novel didn’t have the legs to be a novel.

So, with this new idea and new realization in mind, I started drafting new stories.

The support helped. Mentors offered profound guidance, as did other writers in my workshop groups, and it was during my MFA that one of my mentors declared one of my stories ready to send out for publication. Getting that blessing, after having revised the story many, many times, was huge for me. By the time I was done with my MFA, I had 7 of the planned 10 stories more or less done.

It was time to try my hand at submitting to journals.

I found a site that ranked hundreds of literary journals and I made a spreadsheet—I love spreadsheets—of these journals and just researched every one of them. Found out deadlines and reading periods and word counts and contests. I then tiered them into ten groupings of ten, considered which stories would be right for which journal. Some stories I thought highly of and aimed high. Other stories I thought would best fit a particular journal.

Now, I’d heard submission was fraught with rejection. And I was ready for it.

But, the first two stories I submitted—a story about baseball and loss and a story about a stockyard worker witnessing the Virgin Mary in the head of a steer he’s about to fell—received a scant 7 rejections between them. One won a contest from a journal called Midwestern Gothic, the other was a runner-up in a Southword Journal contest. Another story got published after only 1 rejection. And I thought, stupidly, this publication thing is easy.

Don’t worry, my rejections would come soon. In droves.

The other stories racked up a combined 100+ rejections over the course of many years.

Rejections got really demoralizing. But, despite an inner critic saying mean things about my writing, I somehow found it in me to send the work out again and again; I, ultimately, felt there was something worthwhile in the work. And I made rules. Rules helped. For example, if a rejection came in, I immediately resubmitted the piece to another journal, the next one on my spreadsheeted list.

Also, every now and then, I’d get that coveted “good” rejection, one where the editors took time to write how much they enjoyed the story, but it just didn’t fit this particular issue, etc. etc., but please send in more work.

Those near misses gave me added fuel to continue to send the work out.

What also gave me energy was finding a writing group. It’s a lonely world, sometimes, being a writer. Rejection can feed a bit of despondency. But finding a writing group of serious-minded writers intent on honing their craft and getting published, fellow writers who offered me generous critical feedback, was a lifeline to continuing to work on the collection.

And then, after writing and revising three new stories that fleshed out my vision for the entire collection, and after continuously revising the stories I thought were “done” (even to insane measures: in the novella, a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, I wanted my Prince Hal’s language to be in actual conflict with his father’s language, so I wrote their dialogue in dueling iambic and trochaic pentameter)… I was ready to send the collection out.

Now, I was told by more than a few mentors that agents rarely look at short story collections (unless you’re getting stories published in the New Yorker), so I first made a round of submitting to small presses and contests. Some of these I found in Poets & Writers, some of these I found through other writers, some of these I found through just researching small presses who published story collections. (Plus, over the years, I’d been to a number of conferences where I met various small presses, knew who published what, and had that list to work with, too.)

Again, rejection came mighty and not always swift. But I got a couple of near misses, publishers who held on to the work for a period of time because they found the work good, but ultimately decided it wasn’t right for them. After being rejected about 40 times, and just when I was about done sending it out, once again wondering if the work really did have any merit—I mean, how much rejection can one writer take?—I was a finalist in a contest.

With renewed vigor, I sent out the manuscript for another go. I also decided to research agents who stated they considered story collections, just in case I could get lucky.

Across several rounds, I sent out a total of 30+ agent queries. One requested the full manuscript based on the query letter. And that was exciting, felt like a win. But I was not hearing back from them, so I figured it was a “no.”

I always kept tabs on other writer friends and acquaintances. Around this time, too, a poet I knew, Gianna Russo, was getting a new book published by a small press: Madville Publishing.

I looked them up, noticed they were open to submissions, and queried the editor, Kim Davis. Kim got back to me quickly, said she liked the sound of my book, that she wanted to publish more fiction, and asked that I send her the manuscript.

She has a stable of trusted readers who evaluate submissions—they write up a fairly thorough critique including a directive as to whether or not Kim should acquire the book—and, within about a month, Kim sent me that critique along with an offer to publish.

I was ecstatic. Years of submitting, rejection, questioning, all of that, finally washed away.

Now, not wanting to miss out on possibly acquiring an agent, I nudged that one agent, let them know I had an offer for my book. They quickly acknowledged there’d been a mistake, that my manuscript had fallen through the cracks, and they’d get back to me in a few days, which they did. With a pass. And that was fine. Madville was where I wanted to be.

Kim and I went back and forth on the contract a little bit. Within a week or two, I’d signed. My book would come out in about 16 months.

Now, it was time to design a cover and make final edits.

And the first cover Kim sent me I initially liked. A lot. I mean, it was my book, with an actual cover! It had the skyline of Cleveland in the background. And this old-school viewfinder in the foreground symbolically captured the many and varied views of the city that my stories themselves attempted to capture. I liked how the full image would serve as a nice wraparound cover, too.

But, after living with that cover for a few months, I realized I wasn’t in love with it. You know, this might be—I hope not, of course!—but this might be the only book I ever publish. I wanted to love the cover. And I felt the cover didn’t fully capture the scope of the collection’s contents: this walk-through Cleveland’s history via these many and varied fictional characters.

One thing I appreciate about Madville is how involved their authors can be. So, with Madville’s blessing, I went a little design happy.

From April through September, I tried out different ideas. A ton of different ideas. Probably over 50 designs. I played with different Cleveland skylines, I played with various Cleveland maps, I played with overhead shots of the city, I played with iconic landmarks, I looked at (and even emailed) a few well-regarded Cleveland artists and photographers.

One of the challenges, in my mind: Since my collection spans 1796 to 2013: how could we get a cover to capture that timeframe?

And then I found this 1796 map of Cleveland that was a terrific historical artifact. I added a Cleveland skyline, and I loved how the Cuyahoga River from the map sort of explodes into this modern ink-wash cityscape. Threw in some ominous-ish clouds. And … I really liked it. I brought it to my writers group. They really liked it too.

Once my publisher took my design idea and made it into a full-fledged cover, I knew we had a winner.

the cover of a Mistakes by the Lake a novel
Mistakes by the Lake - A novel by Brian Petkash

By now, we’re about 6 months from publication. And I and my editor are still making final edits.

It was about time that I solicit a few writer friends in order to get some blurbs for the book. I reached out to the aforementioned John Dufresne, of course. As well as writers R. Dean Johnson, Stefan Kiesbye, Ander Monson, Jeff Parker, and a few others. Virtually every writer-friend I asked came through with a wonderful, praising blurb we could use on the book cover and in promotional material. Again, that supportive community was tremendous.

Finally, we were ready to start sending out advanced reader copies, see if we could procure any pre-release reviews. We unfortunately did not get any of the big ones (Kirkus, Booklist, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly), but we got a couple of smaller journal reviews which were wonderful to get.

Then, it was the end of May and time for the book to come out. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the feeling both of holding the book for the first time and of seeing it listed for sale via various sites.

I’ve been in book marketing and sales for a good chunk of my career, so I knew the traditional routes for doing promotions. But most of these were fairly closed to me during this time due to the pandemic.

I had to think differently, figure out how to leverage social media, get eyes on the book. Of course, as organizations leaned into streaming events, I lined up as many of those as I could.

But I also had an idea to do little behind-the-scenes essays for each of my stories. I wrote and posted one a week for ten weeks, promoted the heck out of them on social media, and generated some nice website traffic and word-of-mouth buzz for the book. I also ran a few contests of my own with nifty Cleveland-centric prize packs. Both of those things went really well.

I curated a list of every Midwest and Great Lakes independent bookstore I could find. I emailed them directly with offers of free bookmarks I’d had made, my willingness to do virtual events, etc. But, again, this was pandemic times and most stores were closed and those that weren’t closed were not quite geared up to do virtual events. More than a few, though, took me up on my offer to send them free bookmarks, and three Cleveland independent bookstores were willing to stock my book. One store, Loganberry, continues to sell the book at a fairly decent clip, and that remains lovely to see.

I thought my book had a unique angle. Here I am, a writer born in Cleveland, living in Florida, yet still writing about Cleveland. So, I joined both the Florida Writers Association and Literary Cleveland. Both organizations were super supportive. And Literary Cleveland helped me get coverage in the major newspaper up there, the Plain Dealer. That got me into the Cleveland Public Library system and I was also able to do a virtual event with a public library up there, too. A friend of mine writes for Sarasota Magazine. He was kind enough to write a mini-review of the book. Another friend hosted me for a reading through the MFA program he directs. And still another friend helped me line up a reading through Keep St. Pete Lit.

Throughout this process, throughout this journey, there have been so many who have supported me both in and out of the writing community and, probably, one of my biggest takeaways from this experience has been how generous people are with their time and energy. So much gratitude to all of them. Generosity I try to repay toward helping other writers, too.

We might be on different legs, but we’re all on this journey together, a journey I would make again in a Cleveland minute.

Brian Petkash holds an MFA in Creative Writing from University of Tampa. His work has appeared in El Portal, Bridge Eight Literary Magazine, Southword, and Midwestern Gothic.

Mistakes by the Lake, his collection of stories published by Madville Publishing, is out now.

Seeking an editor? Contact us at to take your novel to the next level.


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