Wednesday, May 05, 2010
Writer's Wednesday : : Lessons Learned
Anne McAllister has been published in romance for 25 years. That seems like a long time. But, as time is relative, it doesn't seem nearly as long as the time she spent waiting for them to buy her first book.
Back in the dark ages when I was a thirty-something mom of four, including a two-year-old who didn't know the meaning of the term "daily naps," I started writing my first book.
That was 1981 (see, I told you it was the dark ages). And I had discovered romance novels the year before. I had never read one until I was visiting a long-time friend in an unnamed state where she worked in a VERY STRESSFUL job in the state public welfare system. As an antidote to her work, she read romance novels to shore up her belief in the good of humankind and the possibility (albeit perhaps imaginary) of happy endings.
As it happened we were vacationing with several children between us, I was recovering from a broken ankle, and she said, "I'll chase the kids. You read some of these. I think you could write one." And she thumped a box of books down in front of me. It was full of Harlequin romances.
She chased. I read. I fell in love. With several heroes. With half a dozen authors (like Jane Donnelly, Robyn Donald, Anne Mather, Charlotte Lamb, Essie Summers, and Mary Burchell). With an entire genre of books.
I went home and began reading them voraciously. I read -- conservatively -- four to five hundred of them in the next six months.
I had epiphanies along the way: the discovery of an approximate number of chapters was cause for rejoicing. A general word length was a wake-up call. A general sort of notion of structure -- it had a central focus on a man-woman relationship with a guaranteed happy ending -- was thrilling. I loved to write, but structure was my downfall. So to know the story had to end happily, well, how fantastic was that?
Plot? What plot? Characters? Yes, vaguely. But mostly, with the relationship I had something to work with, and with the happy ending, I had a finish line.
So I started to write one.
It took me a year. There was the two-year-old (see lack of naps, above). There were the grade schoolers. There was the one entering junior high. There were baseball practices and cello lessons and tennis team and several thousand other distractions.
Worse than all of them was the feeling that I didn't know what I was doing, that the finish line was for some book other than the one I was writing, and, above all, there was the terrifying feeling that if I let my hero and heroine talk to each other, they might resolve all their difficulties on page 19. And then what, for heaven's sake, would I do for the rest of the book?
It was a nightmare. But I stuck it out. And a year later, I had a book. It was even a romance. They actually got to their happy ending. I was exhausted but relieved.
Little did I know that the ordeal was just beginning.
I had already determined to send my manuscript to Harlequin. I thought it fit with the books they published, and, even more, I thought I might as well start at the top. They were the biggest and most respected game in town. And I was a staunch admirer of many of their authors. So I got out my Writer's Market and did what it told me to do.
I sent off three chapters and a synopsis to Toronto, which is where Americans were supposed to send their stuff in those days. I included the self-addressed envelope and International Reply Coupons so they could tell me that it had arrived.
It was April 1982. Then I sat down and watched my mailbox for signs of acceptance.
Two months later, in June, I got my postcard back -- postage due!-- saying the partial had arrived. What the IRCs went for is anyone's guess.
By that time I had figured out that it wasn't going to be an overnight event, and I began on my next book. After all, I hadn't been rejected yet, so I had no reason not too get busy and work. So I did.
Another five weeks went by. It was late July. I got a letter (this was in the days of real paper letters, remember), saying that Toronto had sent my partial on to Mills & Boon in London. Yippee, I thought and kept writing on book # 2.
Six more weeks went by. In mid-September another letter dropped into my mailbox. An editor at Mills & Boon thought my partial looked interesting enough to ask for the whole manuscript. I had a typescript of it finished and sitting on my desk (computers? Not in those days), so I bundled it into the mail and kept on writing book two.
Three more months went by. In December, 1982 I got a three page revision letter from the editor at M&B. The book was "promising." But there were some things that needed my attention (three pages worth of them). If I boiled those things down, it turned out there were four things I needed to work on: the hero, the heroine, the plot and the ending.
Dear God. 'And the ending?' I couldn't even nail that?
Whatever. I ripped into it again. I cut the first three chapters. I sharpened. I whittled. I didn't tweak so much as gut. I retyped it again. And I sent it back in a month later. Then I went back to writing book two.
Three more months went by. It was April again. Another letter. The manuscript was much better. More promising. But they wondered, since I was American, if they shouldn't send it to the new North American line that was just starting up. What did I think? (Harlequin American was not yet on the stands. I had no idea if they should or not.).
I said, "Whatever you want." What was I supposed to say? No? Reject me instead? I'm not that crazy.
They sent it to New York. I kept writing book two. The youngest child, who had been two when I began and three when I finished the first book, turned four. The Harlequin American line appeared on the stands. And after reading the first ones, I knew at once my book didn't belong there, but I thought it very likely my second book did. It was almost done. I kept writing.
Months passed. Five of them. No word on book one. I finished the second book. I sent it to Harlequin American. I started book three. I also joined Romance Writers of America and decided to go to a conference in Minneapolis. I knew there would be an editor there from Harlequin American. So I actually mustered my courage and called (as in picked up the telephone and dialed the number, quaking, breathing fast, and sweating) and asked about the status of the book I didn't think belonged there. "We'll get back to you," they said.
They did. Three days later I got a letter from a Harlequin American editor agreeing with me. It didn't belong there. It didn't have the tone that their books had. They'd be happy to send it back to Mills & Boon, who had apparently indicated to them that they would be willing to look at it again should American feel it didn't work for them.
"Send it to me," I said. And I went back to book number three. I also, while I had my courage up, called the editor at Mills & Boon and told her what had happened, then asked if they really did want to see it again. "Yes," she said without hesitation. "Then, er, what can I do to make it work for you this time so you don't want to send it somewhere else?" I asked her. Again, no hesitation. "Cut 3000 words," she said.
I began cutting. I also went to Minneapolis. I met another Harlequin American editor at the conference. She was editing the book of a Wisconsin author I knew. They invited me to accompany them to dinner on the basis of kindness, I guess.
We discussed the book that hadn't worked for them -- and why. Then I said I had sent them another book more suitable. "Oh?" she said. "Yes," I replied. "It has a heroine with five kids and a hero who gets chicken pox." She blinked. Then she said, "Well, I'll certainly remember it when I read it."
I went home, finished cutting the 3000 words from the first book and sent it back to London. I finished the third book in December, 1983. Two weeks after Christmas the non-napping kid would turn five. His eldest sibling was in high school. I sent book three to Mills & Boon and set about wrapping Christmas presents. I also got an agent. I told her my saga. She said, "I'll take care of it."
She did. Three days into the new year, Harlequin American, bought the hero with chicken pox and the heroine with the five kids.
Three weeks after that the editor from Mills & Boon wrote to say she really liked book number three, but could I please cut 6000 words. I did. I typed it again (remember, no computers). I sent it back. I waited.
In April 1984 -- two years almost to the week from when I sent the first book out into the world -- my agent called to say that Mills & Boon had bought both books one and three.
What did I learn from the experience? In a word, patience.
And not to give up. Always to keep working. To focus on what I could control -- the book in progress, not the book on some editor's desk. They were lessons worth learning.
I also learned that, for me, it was important to follow the characters, to be true to them and their story. Each of those books came out in a different line. The first, Dare to Trust, came out as a Harlequin Romance. The second, Starstruck, came out in the Harlequin American line. The third, Lightning Storm, was a Harlequin Presents. It is not the accepted method of writing for a series romance publisher. It cuts into the audience base if they don't know where to find you.
But the truth of the matter is, if I had to fit all my stories to a marketing department's vision of what constitutes a line, where you'd find me is not writing at all. So I'm blessed that Harlequin has let me follow my characters and never asked me to do that.
Anne's most recent title, One-Night Mistress...Convenient Wife, is a RITA finalist this year.
Her next book, The Virgin's Proposition, will be out from Mills & Boon Modern in May (she thinks) and from Harlequin Presents in November (she thinks). She finds out online, like everyone else, which is where she found her new cover, which she loves.
If you want to read an excerpt, please stop by her website sometime after next week when she is home from visiting the now 30-something year old son (who would actually like a nap if he could find time to take one) and his family, and can send the said excerpt to her webmistress to put up on her book page.
In the meantime, stop by her blog and contact her to get in the drawing to win one of the 365 wonderful books she is giving away in her Great Book Give-Away contest to celebrate her 25th anniversary of publishing this year!