Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Writers Wednesday with Marilyn Pappano

This week we have Marilyn Pappano with us, talking about the rules of writing. Rules you should follow, rules you should ignore...and the fact that there are no rules...

I sold my first book out of ignorance.

Back in 1985, I'd never heard of Romance Writers of America. I'd never met a published author and knew only one other person in the whole world who even half-wanted to be a writer. Telling stories was just something I'd always done. Mom jokes that my family gave thanks when I learned to write, because then I started putting my stories on paper instead of cornering them and forcing them to listen.

Over the years, those stories had become very private; I shared them with only one person, my cousin and best friend. I never considered submitting anything to a publisher. Let someone else read what I'd written? Not in this lifetime.

But one day my cousin decided that she was going to publish a book before her thirtieth birthday. Being a good little follower, I tagged along. With all the thousands of pages I'd written, I'd never followed a story from beginning to end. I wrote the cute meets, the love scenes, the break-ups, the happily-ever-afters.

Finally I did. Being a red-blooded woman and from Oklahoma to boot, I wrote a cowboy story, with an incredibly sexy bull rider hero. I gathered all the nerve I could muster and sent it off to an editor at Silhouette Special Edition, then sat back to wait for the contract offer and the incredible money that all authors must make.

I didn't know that Silhouette received thousands of manuscripts from people just like me every year. I didn't know that they bought very, very few of them. I had no clue how great the odds against me were, or what a huge blow to my ego a rejection would be. I was as ignorant about the business as a person could be.

And, in my case, that turned out to be A Good Thing, because the truth is, if I'd known how little chance I had, I probably wouldn't have even tried. Certainly not if I'd known how devastating a rejection would be.

When the mailman delivered that manuscript back to me, I was truly devastated. I'd known the book wasn't perfect, but I'd thought I had SOME talent, along with a good story to tell.

Hah! A lot of rejection letters are form letters – "Sorry, this doesn't meet our requirements." If an editor likes an author's style, she might say that this particular book doesn't work for her, but she'd like to see something else from the author.

Not this editor. I've long since destroyed her letter (man, it felt good watching it go up in flames), but she didn't like my voice. Or my characters. Or my plot. Or, apparently, anything at all about the book or me. She saw so little promise in my writing, in fact, that the last line of the letter was along the lines of "Don't bother me again."

I cried for two days, swearing that I'd never write another word again. That sounds so melodramatic, I know, but this book was a part of me. Being told it sucked was like being told that I sucked. It hurt. Badly. I had never been a great fount of self-confidence; few writers are.
In the long run, though, it was the best thing that could have happened to me. For the first time in my life, I realized that I wasn't backing down. I was going to prove to her that she was wrong, that I did have talent and I could tell a good story. I went back to work on the book in progress, and about six months later, I sold it Leslie Wainger at Silhouette Intimate Moments as part of a special promotion featuring the four best new authors of 1987.

(Take that, Mean-Girl Editor; I was not only good, I was one of the BEST.)

I sold my first book out of stubbornness.

Since then, I've sold over sixty books. I've made the best-seller lists and won awards, from the RITA on down. I've had more editors than a centipede has legs (at least, it seems that way). I've seen editors come and go, and trends, and authors, and publishers, but I'm still here, partly due to ignorance, largely to stubbornness.

I'm not advocating the ignorance for everyone, mind you. But I've proposed a lot of stories to various editors, only to be told by other authors that "you can't do that." "You can't have a mixed-race relationship; you can't send your heroine to prison unless it's for a crime she DIDN'T commit; you can't kill off a baby; you can't let a child play a major role in a book; you can't deal with social or political issues; you can't turn the villain from one book into the hero of another. Blah blah blah . . ." (Remember, I'm talking about books over the past twenty years. By the way, the villain-to-hero book won the RITA.) I did all those things and more because I didn't KNOW I couldn't, and apparently, the editors and readers didn't know, either.

There were a lot of other "can't's" and "have to's" that I wasn't aware of until someone hit me over the head with them: stuff like "You have to write every day," and "You have to have twenty-five lines per pages," and "You can't use adverbs," and "You can't keep your hero and heroine apart for more than 3 (or 5 or 7) pages." I've never written every day and never will, I've never gotten twenty-five lines per page, either, I dearly love adverbs, and my characters don't live in each other's back pockets. In the first book under my Rachel Butler pseudonym, the hero and heroine didn't even meet until something like Page 72 in the manuscript!

So, though it's best to know your market and understand the more technical aspects of writing, there are always some areas where ignorance is, if not bliss, at least beneficial to your story.

But I do advocate stubbornness for all. The publishing biz is a tough one. In addition to the occasional rejection, I get negative reviews and nasty reader letters. I watch books I love get a so-so reception, while books that aren't so dear to me outsell them two-to-one. I soar with the ups and get whiplash from the downs. I've seen sales slowly trickle down across the board as the Internet, gaming, and all the other pastimes siphon off readers. I've dealt with editors who were a total dream, who "got" my books and worked hard to make them better while still mine, and I've had editors who couldn't "get" my books if I smacked them in the face with the hardcover copies.

Stubbornness, persistence, determination – it's funny that in a business we think of as being all about the talent, those qualities are even more important. A lot of people have talent. But it's only the ones who persevere, who are too stubborn to give up even when An Editor From On High tells them they suck, who are going to succeed.

Ignorance and stubbornness sold my first book . . . and sixty-some since then. They work for me, so I think I'll continue working with them.

The second book in Marilyn's Calloway brothers series, FORBIDDEN STRANGER, was released from Silhouette Romantic Suspense in January and features a heroine who's a stripper – another of those ignorance-is-bliss moments. Book 3, INTIMATE ENEMY, will be out in September 2008. Visit her websites at and for other titles.


  1. Great post, Marilyn, and an encouragement to us all, published or unpublished. Thank you!!


  2. What a fantastic post! I am digging in my heels and getting stubborn. Thank you!

  3. Hi Marilyn,

    I really enjoyed your post, as a new(ish) author I'm currently battling the 'your heroine can't be a journalist' rule, by ignoring it!

    I'd love to know the title of the villain-as-hero book, sounds really intriguing.