Monday, March 21, 2011
The first sale, the toiling unpubbed writer's ultimate drool-covered lust object. Oh, how things will change when you get The Call! Stress, to be sure, but exciting stress. You'll have an editor or an agent or both, professional deadlines like the big girls and boys, to be followed by cover art, perhaps an advance, a release day, fame and praise and endless, glowing reviews as everyone finally discovers your humble but undeniable genius!
Or not. I don't assume anyone apart from a true narcissist believes that it will quite so easy. And as we all know, authors are only selectively narcissistic. Most of the time we're quivering, shell-less masses of goo, cowering as we await the sticks that are surely poised at all times to poke our delicate viscera.
I decided to write this post to dispel some myths. Chiefly, that everything falls into place when you get that oft long-awaited call from a Being on High (your agent or editor). When we start out, The Call seems like the finish line—sprint or jog or crawl, it doesn't matter, but if you progress forward long enough, you'll break through the ribbon, triumphant.
I won't pretend I'm much of an authority on the industry. I still consider myself a newbie, having only begun writing two and a half years ago, and had titles available to readers for a little over one year now. I'm no seasoned veteran. Most of the time, I have no idea what I'm doing or how it is I've tricked someone into buying my work. But during my short journey, I have enjoyed more than one "call" of my own:
November 2009, an e-mail telling me Ellora's Cave wanted to buy an erotic novella I'd submitted to the slush pile, sans agent. I'm published! I'm published!
March 2010, a call letting me know I'd finaled in the Golden Heart—a contest some view as a shortcut to Easy Street, which turns all your queries to gold.
June 2010, an e-mail telling me that my Golden Heart manuscript was in fact going to sell to the progressive digital-first publisher Samhain—my first choice for the shorter-length romance, which wouldn't fly at a traditional print house looking for a longer single-title. Yes! Now I'd be published under two genres!
July 2010, an out-of-the-blue call from Harlequin Blaze, informing me they'd like to see revisions for a book I'd submitted fifteen months prior, before I'd even written any of the half dozen erotic novellas I'd since sold. I'd long ago given up on that book (only the second manuscript I'd ever completed), assuming it was so bad they'd burned it and blacklisted me. But no, they're just very busy people. Not long after the revision request, another call informed me that they liked my changes and wanted to buy the book. And by the way, where do we send your advance to?
And those four "calls"—though none of them what we think of as the BIG BREAK holy grail of selling a single-title to a huge New York house via an agent—when lumped together sort of imply that I've arrived. I made it to the party, and I didn't even have to sneak through an unlocked basement window! And many days I do feel as though I've arrived…but I won't for a single second tell you there's any such thing as Easy Street.
Nine months after selling to Harlequin, I'm still looking to land an agent to represent my two 90,000-word single-titles. Although I've made some efforts, they've so far been fruitless, met with a couple nibbles but no bites. Acquaintances say, "Oh, you should beating the agents off with a stick! You write for Harlequin!" But I'm sad to report that the offers, they are not busting my door down. This could be for all sorts of reasons, all of them legit… Agents are cagey about signing new authors when publishing is in the midst of such whopping-great flux, its future unclear. The book I'm hoping to sell doesn't have the wow-factor (in fact I suspect it does not—it's quirky and engaging, but not especially commercial or easy to boil down into a snappy, high concept pitch). Perhaps none of my shortlisted dream agents are intrigued by the premise, for the simple reason that it's not their personal cup of tea. Perhaps they got their purse stolen or their heart broken in New Zealand and don't want to read a book set there. Maybe all of those factors. Either way, my agent-beating stick is presently collecting dust.
Here's another myth—once you have an editor, you're in! They will buy everything you send them! I've been very fortunate with both Ellora's Cave and Samhain, in that they have yet to turn down any of my subsequent submissions. Their digital-first publishing models allow them to take chances on wonky-shaped pegs like me. Harlequin, however…that's an entirely differently ball game.
Cocky, freshly Harlequin'd newbie that I was, I expected that I had it made when I sold to Blaze. Part of this delusion came from the fact that my first sale to them—the first book I'd indeed ever written to target the line—sold. And in fact, the way in which I was invited to submit the full manuscript was very flukey, one of those right-place-right-time, make-your-own-luck strokes of good fortune you often hear about as an aspiring writer. Though I worked very hard to ultimately make the sale, in many ways the opportunity fell into my lap. Well, if I could sell to Blaze that [relatively] easily, I must be a natural! Surely I will go on to grace international bookstore shelves alongside my fellow Blaze Babes, in perpetuity, until I die peacefully of old age, swaddled in the glittering robes of my myriad successes! Well, I will share those shelves, as of April 1. But there may be crickets for some time after that.
My path to penning a winning Blaze proposal since Caught on Camera sold has been as daunting as the initial sale was "easy", and not for lack of trying. I've been rejected three times (once before Caught on Camera was accepted and twice on proposal, post-sale). My latest proposal is currently with my benevolent editor, and my fingers are crossed so tight they're turning gangrenous.
There is a certain trick to writing series romance, and it requires you to understand your line intuitively. I fear I'm still learning the nuances of my line and my audience. It doesn't come merely from reading every Blaze that comes out, or absorbing every scrap of advice my patient editor has generously offered. It is a skill that many authors possess, but I do not rank among them. This was a very disheartening hunk of reality to stumble over, and after two rejected proposals I began to think my first flukey sale was just that—a fluke. I'd never crack the code and sell another Blaze ever again. But goddamn, I'll keep trying until my editor files a restraining order.
After a series of calm, professional conversations with said benevolent editor (followed always by bouts of private, hysterical sobbing once I'd hung up) I came to accept that precocious or not, I was not a magical wunderkind, shat from the heavens in a gilded gown and anointed with immunity to the trials of publishing. The reasons for my rejections were gently and frankly tendered—this story was too dark for the imprint, this other one just didn't have a solid enough "sexy hook", the required DNA of a successful Blaze.
Dag, I needed help. It's been offered most kindly from the same mouth that's rejected me. Because my editor wants me to be successful, she has very patiently allowed me to submit multiple Blaze premises to her for her opinions before I begin writing the actual proposals, as it's coming up with the right Blaze-y hook that's most challenging to my woefully non-commercial, marketing-inept brain. But I want to sell more Blazes and I believe I could be good at the job, and so I must train myself to understand the line the way my editor and my fellow authors do, much the same way I taught myself to self-edit for all those new-writer foibles when I began this whole journey. If that requires a bit of hand-holding in the beginning (or anywhere else along the way), I'm no longer too proud to ask for it. And I count myself very lucky to have a editor (a very busy editor) willing to offer it.
I have discovered something intensely important during this painful process—I am not a natural at every aspect of writerdom. But I do have the drive and the willingness to take criticism and wring all the pain out of it (after a few days of healthy sniffling) and use it to make my next attempt more likely to hit the bulls eye. Or at least the dartboard.
Later this week, I have a call scheduled to discuss my latest Blaze proposal with my editor. Gone are my illusions that I'm the second coming and my expectations that all I squeeze from my noggin and into a Word doc will be ready to publish. But I hope to hear that my story has promise, and with tweaks could be accepted. I've adjusted my assumptions and my definition of success. I'm also about to send an agent query out into the world, to precede me before I meet with said agent at a conference next month. She may reward me with nothing more than a handshake and a polite "pass", but should more heartening news be in store…well, I'll never know if I don't print the pages out and stick them in the mailbox.
I hope it's clear that this is not a woe-is-me post. Nor is it a slap in the face to aspiring authors, some bitter old crone looking to take the shine off that glorious moment they'll likely one day experience, if they're patient and ambitious—The Call. The Call is wondrous, no matter what form it takes, and you should wallow in it when it arrives. Wallow and gloat and toast, just don't expect that feeling to last forever. It can't, and it won't, and even if it did, you'd be too high on it to appreciate the next bit of good news.
What I'm trying to say, I suppose, is that writers, no matter what stage they're at, are equal beings. Perhaps not so tidily, according to the numbers on their paychecks or their Amazon ranking, but no matter what stage we're each at, we have the struggle in common. We share the struggle, along with triumphs both small and large, hopes for new successes in the coming weeks or months or years, and thrilling news to share with those who care about us and have watched us struggle and get knocked to the mat only to stand up again and invite the next punch en route to victory.
I better cut this off before the boxing metaphors get much worse. Fingers crossed for myself for my queries and phone calls, and crossed for all of you, for whatever your own goals may be, no matter how modest or lofty, looming or distant.