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The Making of a Book: My Debut Punk Literary Novel

I started what would become my first novel in 2008, at the ripe age of 25. (The novel was sort of Catcher in the Rye meets The Basketball Diaries meets the Sex Pistols and Ramones; punk kids who get into trouble but love literature and philosophy.) Back then the “novel” was 98% autobiography, more or less a thinly veiled memoir. I was simply laying down my story as I recalled it. Real people. Real names. Real locations.

At the time I was still drinking—something I explore in the novel—and was living in Ocean Beach, the foggy, mellow, druggy neighborhood near the Pacific Ocean in San Francisco.

This was my first stab at writing something book-length. Since 2005—age 22—I’d started journaling, writing bad amateur poetry, and attempting my earliest sketches of what would later become my published short stories and eventually drafts of novels (14 I’ve written so far).

I finished about half of the novel by the time I hit a spiritual bottom and got sober, in the fall of 2010 at the age of 27. Within a month of getting sober I made an impulse choice and moved to Portland, Oregon, where my one sober friend lived. (She’d gotten sober in 2008.) Almost immediately—surging with the adrenaline of creativity—I spent several months feverishly writing all day and all night, in a sort of Hunter S. Thompson trance, until I completed the first [very rough] draft of what was then called The Cannonball Complex in early 2011.

By June, 2011 I was living back in North Oakland. (I lasted a meagre eight months in Portland.) I edited and revised my nascent manuscript, making the classic rookie mistake of sending it out to dozens of literary agents far too prematurely. I didn’t know what I was doing. I hadn’t read any literary agent submission guides. I didn’t grasp how to approach people professionally online. My writing was decent by then but I hadn’t found my literary voice. I didn’t get how to properly plot a book. I didn’t understand character and story ARC. And I didn’t understand, fundamentally, how to transition from a memoir to a novel.

Between 2011 and 2024 (when the book was finally published)—thirteen years—many things happened. I got older and gained more life experience. I interned for a literary agent for nine months who I’d met at the San Francisco Writers’ Conference. I went back to college and got my bachelor’s in creative writing. I began attending writing conferences around the country. Voraciously, I devoured writing how-to books such as Stephen King’s brilliant 2000 memoir On Writing, and Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir, as well as Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. My short stories started getting published in little magazines and journals for the first time. I even got paid for my writing. I started making money as a developmental book editor.

In 2016, after many revisions on and off for many years, I finally, for the first time, started getting literary agent interest in my book, whose title had changed from The Cannonball Complex to The Crew. The book had morphed from autobiographical  pseudo-memoir to genuine novel, with much of it made up whole cloth, and some of it only loosely “based” on real people. Over time the book had developed a literary life of its own.

Dozens of agents requested to read part of and even the full manuscript. One agent specifically loved the book and read it not once, not twice but fully three times, sending me long, epic, glowing emails about the book. (Including its powerful voice.) Yet that agent dropped off a digital cliff after that, never to be heard from again. I’d even hired a former Random House acquisitions [freelance] book editor who loved my book and helped me prep it. Said editor declared the book ready after we worked together for six grueling months and she even said if it had landed on her desk while she was at RH she’d have accepted it.

But then that one big agent who read it three times dropped off a cliff, never to be heard from again. This was a big blow. It hurt. I set the book aside for a few years. I tried once more during Covid to send the manuscript out to agents, but got no responses. At last, in 2024 I realized the obvious solution: Self-publishing. Why not? Slowly over time I’d realized that there were fewer and fewer financial and artistic incentives provided by the legacy publishers. Almost always debut authors made very little money, and sometimes nowadays advances were either miniscule or even non-existent.

Generally speaking, as the author, even with a major publishing house, you had to do most if not all of the legwork when it came to book tours, promotion, reviews, etc. Not only that but artistically-speaking you possessed little to no control over your book cover and how the book was promoted if it was at all by said publisher.

I’d already crossed the writing threshold of non-traditional publishing when I started writing on Substack in August, 2022. Why not go the extra distance and self-publish my first novel?

The Crew had gone from 98% autobiographical to about 50%, perhaps less. It had become, over the course of sixteen years—2008 to 2024—a serious novel, with all the elements I’d wanted in it.  Countless professionals in the book industry, from literary agents to publicists to editors and famous authors, had pronounced the book solid. Many of them had even connected me to important people. And yet: Ultimately to no avail. What I learned along the way was that writing a book is not simple, nor easy, nor always fun. It’s staggeringly slow, hard, challenging work. And it ultimately falls on YOU to do the work. No publisher can make or break you, or very rarely at least, especially in 2024.

There was also the matter of political bias and ideology which had permeated the traditional book world. My book was about male white upper-middleclass (oh my!) punk rock kids in the year 2000 who talked like kids of that era talked. Some agents over the years had tried to get me to change the year to more contemporary times, to give the kids cell phones, to add in more feminism, a non-white character, etc. But I was never interested in any of that. My goal was translating raw life experience into Art. I did not believe then and I do not believe now that true Art should ever suffer from dictated ideological goals, whether from the Right or the Left.

This is why I write on Substack. This is why I chose self-publishing. Control falls to me, the author, not to agents or publishers with agendas outside the realm of Art. Reviews are coming in. People seem to really like the book. Teachers are reaching out to me to potentially teach the book at the high school level. The protagonist is 16.


Michael Mohr


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