(This post is for junebugger–thanks for asking, June!)
When I first started writing romance novels in the early 90’s, I was still in college and didn’t know anything about trying to get published, only that I wanted to. Very much. So I sought the advice of books (please note the distinct lack of references to internet for these first few paragraphs) and found a listing of houses that accepted unsolicited manuscripts, though I don’t think they even called them that then; it was so common to send something in without representation.
I quickly amassed a collection of personalized rejections from Avon, Harlequin, Silhouette and others. I kept every last one and suggest everyone do the same (digitally or in hard-copy), particularly those responses that offer even a whisper of advice.
More romance manuscripts followed (Victorian, Vikings, Antebellum!) as did more rejections, bu more and more the responses were offering personalized critiques (I know! Can you imagine!?)–sometimes even full page line edits or the request to send the next manuscript.
But after several more years of writing romances and still not finding representation, I decided to switch gears and wrote a horror story about a female executive who is bitten by a wolf on vacation and subsequently finds her world turned upside down when she realizes she’s turning into a…Yes. That.
I queried the manuscript, sending it out to agents, some familiar and some not (it was a different genre, after all) and within a few weeks, I received a phone call from an agent who was very interested in the book and wanted to meet. (I was living in NYC at the time –otherwise, we surely would have simply talked on the phone as most do now). At the meeting, she had complimentary things to say about my writing, but was concerned about the plotting of the novel. We agreed that I would revise the story with an eye towards representation. It was a tremendous opportunity and this agent was incredibly generous and so lovely to work with. When the story still didn’t come together after another draft, she offered me the chance to propose a series of storylines to her which I did, but when life stepped in a few months later and I had to leave the city for personal reasons, my writing took a backseat. This agent was beyond gracious and I will be forever grateful for her.
In the years that followed, I wrote sporadically but didn’t complete a manuscript. I kept notes on story ideas and even jotted down a few proposals. I moved a fair amount and finally landed in New Orleans in the summer of 2002 to get my masters in Historic Preservation at Tulane’s School of Architecture. There I fell in love–first with the city and then with my husband Ian a few months later. Ian encouraged me to get back into my writing and I began a new novel about a shrimper’s wife who finds herself unwittingly involved in the disappearance of a graduate student on the eve of a catastrophic hurricane. That was the summer of 2005. Katrina made landfall two months later.
When Ian and I left New Orleans (we stayed through the storm with four dogs) and made our way to Maine to stay with my family, writing was the last thing on my mind. Yet as we began to put the pieces of our world back together, I found myself drawn to the story I’d started and finished my manuscript within a year. I queried widely and received a few requests for fulls but still no offer of representation came.
Two years later, after a move to Indiana where my husband had accepted a job teaching biology at a boarding school, I wrote a manuscript about four faculty wives (hmm, wonder where that inspiration came from…?) who find themselves at crossroads in their lives. It caught the interest of an agent and, after a few revisions, he agreed to represent it. (The project, not me–an important distinction I would learn later on.) We reworked the manuscript for THE CRYING ROOM, he submitted it to many editors but ultimately, no takers. I assumed we would revise it and send it out for another round of submissions, but he declined. I was crushed, but grateful for the experience and his expertise.
Eager to get back on the horse (not so dissimilar to rebound dating after being, well, dumped), I fired off a novel that was essentially a piece of women’s fiction with a male protagonist. In STILL, MARTIN, my rumpled, far-too-sensitive-for-his-own-good hero heads off to Europe to take his honeymoon after his fiancee leaves him the night before their wedding. (If you think that sounds ill-advised and unconvincing, yeah, you’re not alone.)
So after some soul (and genre) searching, I realized my writing heart was in women’s fiction, where it had always been, so I set about writing what would become LITTLE GALE GUMBO.
Now before this novel, I’d had the good fortune to connect with a wonderful agent who worked at a large agency. Ever since responding to a query of mine years before, she’d agreed to see my follow up manuscripts, and even granted me a second look after a revision of one, but the projects had never been right. So when I asked her if she would consider LITTLE GALE GUMBO, this agent was as generous as always. After reading it, she said she saw great potential but that she simply couldn’t take on another client at that time, but (and this is one of those GOOD “buts” in a query response) she knew another agent who was looking for women’s fiction projects named Rebecca Gradinger. She had already forwarded the book to her, and Rebecca was intrigued. I was beyond thrilled.
Rebecca called a few days later. She and I clicked at once. I loved her sense about the book, her ideas for revising it and making it stronger, so I agreed to do a substantial revision, again with an eye toward representation. Within a few months, I had a new draft and Rebecca and I made it official. Best of all, Rebecca said she wanted to help me build my writing career, that the offer for representation wasn’t just for LITTLE GALE GUMBO, but for future books.
We tweaked and tweaked until we had a draft we both felt tremendously good about, a draft that had little resemblance to the manuscript I’d first discussed with her almost a year and a half before. Rebecca sent the book out. Then, just months away from my fortieth birthday, NAL made an offer for a two book deal for LITTLE GALE GUMBO.
(Now if I could just make two decent batches of pralines in a row.)