Stories from the Trenches of Authors Who Took More Than Ten Years to Sell
I was going to call this article Giving Up Can Be Good for You before I decided that was a little prejudicial. But one of the best decisions I ever made was giving up my dream to become a writer – oh, and coming back to it, of course!
A Personal Journey
When I sold my debut historical romance Claiming The Courtesan to Avon in 2006, it was twenty-seven years since I’d completed my first manuscript. That’s a long time to be in the wilderness.
Heading for the twenty-year mark, I told myself becoming a published writer was a childish fantasy. I should grow up and be sensible about life. When I was a little girl, I decided I wanted to be a writer. But I’d also wanted to be a ballerina and I put that dream aside when I realized your average brick had more grace and coordination than I do. Seeing a book with my name on it was obviously another dream that had reached its use-by date.
So I gave up writing.
For eighteen gray, horrible months.
I’d trained myself to be a writer, noticing things, asking what if?, shamelessly eavesdropping. But now I wasn’t going to be a writer anymore, every time I started to take note of something interesting, I’d stop myself and say, “No, you don’t do that. You’re grown up and sensible.” My lovely technicolor world shrank to this depressing black and white existence.
Eventually, I couldn’t stand it. Not writing was too depressing so I went back to my dream, having discovered it was the writing that mattered for me, not necessarily getting published. That was one good lesson I learned from giving up.
I also learned I needed to approach things differently. I couldn’t do this on my own so I plucked up courage to join Romance Writers of Australia and, later, Romance Writers of America. I joined a critique group, the Turramurra Writers in Sydney. Having people around me who understood romance and what I was trying to do made a huge difference. And there was the side benefit that I made so many marvelous friends in romance writing, people who kept me going through bad times and helped me celebrate good times. I learned there were techniques I needed to develop before my work was publishable, principally writing emotion. I learned that not only did I need to work harder, I needed to work smarter.
Through the next few years, I started entering writing contests. First in Australia and then about two years before I sold, in America. Success in those helped me persevere through an even harder part of my pre-publishing career. The stage when you’re getting closer and closer to your goal but you’re not quite there yet.
Then the magic moment came when someone wanted to buy my book. Twenty-seven years after finishing that first manuscript, I was finally going to see my work in print. Fantastic.
Stories from the Salt Mines
I’m not alone in taking a long time to publish. I asked some writing friends who wrote for at least ten years before they sold to tell me what kept them going.
Gerri Russell wrote for thirteen years and had completed seven full manuscripts and several partials before she sold. During this time, she won the Golden Heart twice and finaled three times. Her first book The Warrior Trainer sold to Dorchester last year after she won RT Books Reviews American Title II. Her second book, Warrior’s Bride, comes out in October, 2007. “What kept me going? The insane belief that I would succeed someday. I was determined to keep writing and submitting until I was 102 if necessary. But I knew, without a doubt, that someday I would succeed if I just continued to write. Here’s something that really helped me: When I finished a book, I would create a cover for myself. I would spend time finding just the right images and make a mock-up that looked just like a real cover. That process was so therapeutic: mentally, physically, and spiritually. I’d post the cover on the wall of my office, and every time I looked at it I would experience the greatest feeling of hope.”
Paula Roe wrote seriously for twelve years before she sold to Silhouette Desire (Forgotten Marriage, September, 2007). What kept her going was, “A burning desire to see my name in print, to have a reader pick up my book like I’d done many times before, get to the end, smile, sigh and say, ‘Wow. That was brilliant.’ An unwillingness to give up – I simply can’t not write. There’s too many stories in my head. Most of all, encouragement from contest judges. By the time I got a judge telling me my writing was crap, there were a dozen others who’d said it was great. So then I got stubborn 😀 ”
Trish Morey, who recently hit number one on the Waldenbooks list with The Italian’s Virgin Bride, has had ten books accepted by Harlequin Presents. As she puts it, “It took eleven years from me deciding that writing for Harlequin was my destiny to Harlequin coming to the party.”
When I asked her what kept her going, she said, “Pure boneheaded stubbornness. I honestly thought getting published would be easier – I’d never failed at anything I tried – and the fact getting published proved elusive meant I was more determined than ever. But I honestly always believed in my heart and soul I’d be published. I couldn’t give up. (Plus I wanted to show all those people who thought I was wasting my time that I could do it)”
The Urge to Surrender
I’m ashamed to admit that, unlike the seven authors I asked to contribute to this article, I actually did give up. But my stalwart friends admitted that at times the thought did cross their minds.
Jane Porter put it particularly eloquently. Jane wrote for over fifteen years and completed twelve manuscripts before she sold to Harlequin Presents. Since then, her titles have graced numerous bestseller lists. Her book FLIRTING WITH FORTY is being made into a movie. Her next book, ODD MOM OUT (5 Spot), is on sale September, 2007.
When I asked if she was ever tempted to give up, she said, “There were times the rejections decimated me. I took the rejections harder and harder, especially the closer I got to being read by senior editors. When your manuscript is under consideration for a year or longer, you get your hopes up. When you have two manuscripts under consideration for a year or longer then they both arrive in an envelope together on the same day with a ‘thanks, no thanks,’ you hurt. You might try not to get your hopes up, but you do. You imagine how wonderful it’d be to have an editor, an agent, people who want your work. You get excited thinking that this editor will help you improve as a writer, really find your voice and stride. At one point I took six months off from writing since I was so depressed. I couldn’t even go into my office or look at my computer. Just being near my computer made me feel like throwing up. In fact, just before my big break I was at my lowest. I wasn’t even writing anymore, and when Tessa Shapcott, the senior editor for Presents, asked for a partial, it took me months to do it just because I felt so discouraged. But knowing I’d see her at the national conference, knowing I had a group appointment with her, made me suck up my fear and my insecurities and my desire not to write and I sat down and wrote a partial and mailed it off. After conference I got a note saying Tessa wanted the rest of the manuscript and January 2000 I got my first sale-with the manuscript I couldn’t initially write because I was so blue.”
What Made the Change?
What tipped the balance toward selling rather than not selling? Was it something they did or something that changed in the market? For me, it was a combination of the two. I started to write dark and sexy just as the market got hotter. The influence of erotica on mainstream romance also made a courtesan heroine acceptable whereas I’d have had difficulties selling Verity’s profession when I started CLAIMING THE COURTESAN back in 2001.
Annie West now writes for Harlequin Presents after ten years of targeting a number of other category lines. Her first book A Mistress For the Taking hit the Waldenbooks list in early 2006 and her most recent release, For The Shiekh’s Pleasure, was out in the US in August, 2007.
“Targeting the right publisher helped! I read a variety of romance and thought I knew where my stories fitted. Strangely though I hadn’t seriously attempted to write for Harlequin Presents, even though Presents stories had been a constant in my reading for years. I didn’t think I had what it took to write one. Maybe it was a confidence issue, or perhaps just coming to grips with my own writing strengths and preferences. When I sat down to write A Mistress For the Taking, it felt different. Corny as it may sound, it felt like I’d come home. I wasn’t confident that I could pull it off but I spent a lot of time letting instinct guide me (that’s an instinct carefully honed from years of devouring these stories). ‘Write what you know best’ worked for me. Around this time, I heard Stephanie Bond talk at an Australian writers’ conference. She asked the questions I’d been avoiding. Did I take my writing seriously? Did I have a plan and achievement targets? Did I spend more time talking about writing than actually writing? In the next year I worked harder than before, polished more, changed the style of book I was writing and the rest was easy (!).”
Colleen Gleason wrote for seventeen years before she sold The Rest Falls Away, the first of her Gardella Vampire Chronicles to Signet Eclipse. The second book in the series, Rises The Night, was released in June, 2007. “I think it was simply that I wrote the right book at the right time. My craft had been improving over the years, but even in the early stages, I had rejection letters that told me that my writing was good. It was mostly the plot and the demand (or non-demand) of the market that kept editors from buying. The one that broke through for me, The Rest Falls Away, was a very high-concept, unique idea in a very hot market.”
Yvonne Lindsay’s first Silhouette Desire The Boss’ Christmas Seduction hit number one on the Waldenbooks list. I asked her why this book broke through after she’d been writing for thirteen years. “I think it was the intensity of emotion. This was the first book I wrote that ever made me cry (think that scene in Something’s Gotta Give where Diane Keaton’s character is howling over her typewriter – that was me.) Actually, to be honest, it’s the only book I’ve ever written that made me cry (so far). I really believed in my characters and believed in their motivations, more than I ever had before. There were no halfway measures. It was from the heart, all the way. My other books have been no less motivated but there was something in the core of The Boss’ Christmas Seduction that really hit me.”
Advantages of the Long Haul
Awful and frustrating as it is to wait for the validation of a publishing contract, there are advantages. I absolutely agree with Trish Morey, who says, “You get to appreciate your own voice and where it fits; the apprenticeship you serve stands you in good stead for dealing with deadlines, revisions and editors after you’re published; you learn all about the industry you want to be part of so you don’t have to catch up in the busy post-contract times; and you gain some of the best friends you’ll ever make. A long apprenticeship won’t hurt your career, in fact, it will probably strengthen it – my first two US releases were Waldenbooks number one bestsellers. In fact I’ve written an entire article on The Upside of Not Selling – or at Least, Not Selling as Fast as You’d Like. It’s on my website.”
Jane Porter has also come to appreciate her years in the wilderness. “I’m a fighter now. I work so hard. I am fierce about my books, and my readers, and giving my readers an unforgettable read. I write for myself, yes, but I respect my readers so much and I will not give them a book that’s ‘less than’. I want every book to be worthy of their time, their money and their emotions. Also, being rejected for 15 years before selling helped me handle the ups and downs of publishing. Not every book sells in the top tier. Not every book gets glowing reviews. Not every book is easy to write. But if you’ve worked hard to sell, and you’ve a strong work ethic, and a determination to succeed, you don’t give up when things get bumpy. You expect to have bumps and problems and you expect to get knocked down and you expect you’ll get up and try again. I’d rather have a hard road to sell than not because it mentally prepared me. It made me Scrapper Jane, and that’s the Jane who’s learned to give readers the stories I do. Working hard didn’t just make me a published author, it made my themes in my novels so much stronger, and my heroines stronger, too.”
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
If you’re downhearted because you’ve been writing for a long time and you haven’t sold, don’t despair. All of these writers got contracts after trying for many years and so can you. I asked my interviewees for any final words of advice.
Colleen Gleason says, “If you like to write, keep doing it! If it’s a hardship, and you feel badly about it, then don’t. Don’t do it. Getting published is one part luck, one part talent, and one part perseverance. You have to have all three to do it.”
Gerri Russell’s advice is, “It sounds so glib, but hang in there. It only takes one ‘yes’ to take you from unpublished to published. For me, the source of hanging in there came when I realized I did absolutely everything my published friends did. I worked every day. I set goals. I met self-imposed deadlines. I attended conferences to improve my skills. The only difference was they had a contract and I didn’t. But I was still very much a writer just like them. That realization helped me keep my focus on the only thing I could control–my writing.”
Paula Roe also focuses on what the writer can control. “Learn why you haven’t sold – some people complain about it but never send anything out! Dig out your rejections and analyze the comments. Do you lack emotional punch? Is your writing too ‘big’ for your targeted category? Too emotionally intense for mainstream? Learn about writing, publishers and their requirements in order to fix what can be fixed. Treat your writing seriously, allocate writing time, set achievable goals, e.g. enter the Golden Heart, finish five chapters by Christmas, submit a proposal to a publisher.”
Yvonne Lindsay says enjoy the journey. “Make friends with other writers who are going through the same thing you are. Don’t be poisoned by envy if they sell before you. Don’t get bogged down in other people’s bad news (an easy trap to get into with all the message boards we have available to us. Support is a great thing but misery does love company and it’s a whole lot harder to dig yourself out of a pit when you can’t get to the sides for the company of other miserable people. That sounds callous, but you have to draw a line somewhere.) If you can’t get to conferences, buy the CDs and listen to them! Read widely. Keep going, keep learning and listen to advice from people who’ve been there before you. One of the things I wish I’d learned earlier was to listen to advice from the long-stayers in the industry. Things like, finish a manuscript (it was years before I did that!). And above all NEVER EVER GIVE UP!”
Annie West’s message is also never give up. “The difference between a published writer and an unpublished one is that the published writer didn’t give up. If you want this enough, if you work at it and focus on improving your work, you can succeed. I’d also urge people to write what they enjoy. If you create the stories that speak to you, that you really feel, your strengths will shine through.”
Thank you to all the authors who contributed to this article and shared their encouraging advice so generously. The message is enjoy the journey, learn everything you can, hang in there and above all, keep writing and submitting. Good luck!
This article first appeared in The Romance Writers Report, the magazine for Romance Writers of America, September 2007