My first sale was not to a book publisher. Nor was it to a magazine, newspaper, website, e-zine, or anything like that. My first short story sale was to a restaurant.
I’ve never considered myself very good at short story writing. For whatever reason, my brain is just wired to think in bigger terms. The prospect of writing a 5,000 word short story is infinitely more terrifying than writing a 90,000 word novel. That’s not to say that I didn’t try.
When I decided I wanted to be a writer–literally an official decision around my sophomore year in college, when I declared to nobody in particular that “I want to be a writer!”–I went about researching how exactly one became this mystical creature. At first I went about it all wrong. The only person I knew who’d written a book was my physician, who’d penned a book on teenage health care. So I asked him how one becomes a writer. His unvarnished, unfiltered advice was simple: “The first thing any writer needs is an agent.”
This made sense to me. I mean, actors had agents, I was pretty sure screenwriters had agents. Why not novelists? So I began querying literary agents, figuring it would be no time before I was snapped up by some high-powered New York agency who would be chomping at the bit to represent a 20-year old with loads of potential (at least that’s what I told myself). But anyone who’s tried to get published knows one thing–it’s pretty hard to land an agent if you haven’t written anything.
No, my query letters were the extent of my writings. I had no manuscript, no novel, no short stories. My query letters were along the lines of, “At some point I’m going to write a book. Will you represent it?” Needless to say these letters were not exactly replied to with positive responses.
Once I realized I couldn’t get an agent without having written anything, I began to do some research. It seemed agents were more likely to represent you if you had a few writing credits under your belt, namely a few short stories published in reputable magazines or quarterlies. So I went about writing short stories, not because I liked writing short stories, but because I felt i had to do build my resume to land an agent.
My stories were terrible. They rarely had a beginning, middle and end, but were more rambling escapades, like a bad SNL sketch that goes on forever without realizing that it hasn’t gotten a laugh in five minutes. I sent these stories everywhere, without much regard for what the publication was looking for or what the requirements were. I was somewhat proud of one short story I’d written about a college kid on the road trip from hell with his family. I thought it was quite funny, and even though it didn’t really have an ending (or beginning or middle for that matter) I thought it was worthy of getting published.
Everyone else disagreed.
So this brings me to my very first published short story. I was looking online for more venues to submit my work, when I came upon an online zine that published short fiction. They did it bi-monthly, and every issue had a theme. The next month’s theme was ‘crime’. The story had to be under 3,000 words and the theme had to be some sort of crime story. So I wrote mine. It was about a hapless crook who steals a man’s wallet, only to have the bad karma from that act pay him back in spades. I even went against the grain and wrote the story with an actual ending. And then I sent it off to this zine, wondering if I’d just wasted my time essentially writing on spec for one specific publication.
But then the strangest thing happened…I got an email back from the editor saying they wanted to publish it. I was ecstatic, beside myself. I told them of course they could publish it, and it didn’t even occur to me that I might actually get something in return for this story. The editor then asked me for my mailing address for my gift certificate. “Gift certificate?” I said. “What gift certificate?”
It just so happened that the publisher of this online magazine was a New York City restaurant, known for being somewhat hip. I’m as hip as your grandfather’s tweed jacket, so being a New Yorker I’d of course never heard of it. But this zine, sponsored by the restaurant, paid its contributors in gift certificates for the restaurant itself. So once I signed and faxed back my consent, I received a $75 gift certificate in the mail. I took my then girlfriend to the restaurant, and that $75 paid for our dinner and a nice glass of wine. I even told the waiter that I’d received the gift by publishing a story in the restaurant’s online magazine. He was not impressed.
“Instant Karma” was the very first story I ever professionally published, and about six years and a whole heaping help of rejection slips later, I sold my first thriller, THE MARK. I’ve only written one short story since then, a piece called “The Point Guard” for the KILLER YEAR anthology that came out last year from St. Martin’s Press. To my great surprise, when I wrote “The Point Guard,” it even had an ending. And as I write this, I’m sitting in a hotel room in Chicago where I’m preparing for my first panel of the day at the annual Love is Murder convention. My first panel? What else–writing short stories.
I never really know where to start when I’m asked what my First Sale story is. You see, my very first sale was to a very well known men’s magazine. Yes, a porn rag. One that paid very well, for very few words. And after I started delving into the publishing world a bit more, I found that some -okay, many authors looked down on that sort of writing as easy, and not really writing. Personally, in my opinion, writing is writing, and getting paid to write is even better, no matter what the content. And getting paid to write was my ultimate goal.
Anyway, to continue on …After that short story sold, I sold the next one I wrote sold to Black Lace, in England for their Wicked Words 8 collection. Over the next year, I sold over a dozen more short stories – to the magazine, to various erotica anthologies. My plan was to learn how to write, get some experience in the business. To build a resume. In my mind, writing short stories was easier than novels, because they were less words. (I later learned that not everyone sees things this way)
I’d started to think about writing for a career in 2002, and wrote my first story , and sold it in 2003. In 2004 I had sold four short stories, and attended my first writers conference, the Surrey International, where I discovered that many many people looked down on erotica, and erotica authors. That didn’t really bother me though, I tend to be pretty goal oriented, and I just came home, with the idea that the next logical step was a romance novel because erotica was very much a niche thing, and 5 years ago no New York Publishers were even hinting at an interest in that genre. So, with publishing a book, and not just a short story, in mind, I decided to write a romance novel.
Yes, I admit it, I thought the shorter the book, the easier it would be to write, so I figured I’d target Harlequin, and since I liked writing spicy, I’d aim for their Blaze line.
I started on my novel, with no-plotting, no planning, just a character in my head, and the goal of a Happily Ever After for her. I wrote that story in less than three months, but it was way short on their expected word count. I submitted it anyway and after a request for the partial, was rejected because of my writing style. What exactly that meant I didn’t know, but I took it to mean my “voice”. (And this is how I learned what Voice is!)
I didn’t bother to do anything with the manuscript for quite a while after that. It sat on my computer for a year while I started on my next project – a novella aimed at Brava, a new line that was aiming for a steamier market, but still romance. When I stalled on that one I pulled Gypsy Heart up again, and reread it. And at the urging of my new Critique Partners, decide to try for ePublishing. The story was too short to try to sell to a big NY publishing house, and too long to try to sell as a novella somewhere. I chose two ePublishers I liked and submitted to both, both requested the full within a week of each other. Gypsy Heart was originally published with Liquid Silver Books, and is still available from Samhain publishing.
It was around that time that I heard back from my then editor at Black Lace on a short story submission I’d sent in months earlier. They wanted it, but I was hesitant to sell. The characters in that story had stuck with me afterwards. I’d liked them, and for the first time, felt I might actually try to write a true full length novel with them. The editor said, “Sell me the short story, and when you write the novel I want to see it.”
“Cool,” I thought.
Then went back to writing my novella for my new e-publisher. This was in early 2005, and I was happy with the way my career plan was working out. I finished that first novella, and was getting ready to start on another one when I got an email from my Black Lace editor asking where my novel proposal was. I was like “Uhmmm, I thought you said when I write the novel.” I had no idea she was waiting for proposal from me. I’d never written a proposal before! I quickly emailed my new writer friends and asked advice. Then I pounded out three chapters and a one page synopsis that weekend, and emailed it to her – and got an offer for it.
An offer I thought was low, but I really had no firm knowledge of these things. When I mentioned I wanted a lawyer to look at the copy of the contract I’d been emailed, I was told it was silly to do that. “There’s no room for negotiations in that contract.”
I was clueless about the business, but I was smart enough to know I needed help. So I emailed the agent that I knew represented some best selling erotic authors, and asked her if she’d take a look at it. She did, and she offered to represent me. After talking business stuff about the first offer, and the fact that the editor who’d made the offer was leaving the publisher, and wouldn’t be the one I worked with. I admit it . I felt no loyalty to the publisher because they’d bought my short stories. If the editor would’ve stayed, I would’ve sold to her. I did feel loyalty to her, because she’d been the one pushing me. But with her leaving, I was fine with my new agent seeing if we get a better deal elsewhere – especially since, thanks to Jordan Summers yearly report of publishers Spotlights at conferences she attends, I knew that some NY publishers were looking to start up erotic lines.
My new agent sent out my proposal on Tuesday July 5th, 2005. And on Wednesday I had offers from 2 NY publishers. Within 2 weeks I had several contracts, and deadlines for the next 8 months. And I still had never actually written a full length novel!
That first single title novel was BOUND, and it still holds a special place in my heart. It’s the book I consider to be my First Sale, even though I’d been getting paid to write before that.
It took me ten years to make my first short story sale, “The Haunting of Princess Elizabeth,” to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword and Sorceress Vol. 17. I’ve never counted how many rejections I collected before then — too scary. Part of the reason it took me ten years to sell a story is I started submitting them when I was 16, and I wasn’t a very good writer. Very few people are good writers at age 16. I took a long time just learning how to write, and am a poster child for persistence. I actually recommend starting young — I was naive and thought it would be easy. By the time I realized how hard selling a story was going to be, the motions — writing, sending out stories, collecting rejections — was habit and I just kept doing it.
I didn’t sell the first novel I wrote. Or the second, or the third. In retrospect, I think I could have if I had tried a little harder, but a funny thing happened: by the time I started getting rejections on the first novel, I’d written the second, and it was a lot better. So I stopped sending around the first one and started sending the second. Then it happened again — the third novel was much better than the second. I also wrote two novels that I didn’t bother sending out. But I was learning a ton about how to write novels.
Then I wrote Kitty and The Midnight Hour. I’d spent five years writing “practice” novels at that point, and the Kitty idea had been brewing for several years as well. This preparation converged with excellent timing in the market. (So yes, there was some luck involved in this whole process.) My previous novels were all traditional fantasy, the usual fighters and thieves and magicians in a pseudo-medieval world. But Kitty was urban fantasy, and it started making the rounds right at the moment that every publisher and their brother’s dog were looking for urban fantasy. I never could have predicted the boom in that particular genre when I started submitting Kitty in 2003.
Still, the road to that point wasn’t exactly smooth. I fired my first agent. That’s a long story that I’d rather not go into, even though this blog is supposed to be talking openly about such things. It was traumatic, because getting an agent is such a big deal, and when I realized it wasn’t working out I felt like I’d lost a year of my career. A year of my life. I went to the World Fantasy Convention that fall, met lots of magazine editors and such, and realized I didn’t have a single short story on any of their desks. I didn’t have anything in the mail at all. I hadn’t sold a short story in something like year. It was the lowest point in my career, and the closest I came to quitting. But I came home from the convention and put a bunch of stuff in the mail — queries, stories, everything. Then in December, I got a positive response to a couple of my agent queries: send the manuscript. Those are magic words. In February 2004, I signed with my current agency. In August, I got the offer from Warner Books (now Grand Central Publishing) for the first two Kitty books.
From what I gather listening to other writers, my numbers — ten years to sell a short story, four tries to sell a novel — are about normal. In fact, this seems to fit right in with Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of practice idea making the rounds.
I tell people I got published the old-fashioned way: I wrote a lot of stuff, I sent out a lot of stuff, and eventually I made a sale. And after the first sale, I just had to do it all over again.
It’s first sale week here at Genreality and it’s my turn to tell you how I managed to get that first big break. So let’s step aboard the wayback machine and turn the dial all the way to the left, back in the dark ages, you know, before they had electricity and running water? Yep, all the way back to 1988.
I was in college at the time, getting a degree in Soviet Studies at Fordham University in New York. (Yeah, I know – Soviet Studies? Don’t ask.) As most of my classes that semester were independent studies I had some free time on my hands and I did my fair share of reading. After finishing the latest book by a hot NY Times bestselling mystery writer I was so disgusted that I wouldn’t shut up. The entire novel had been so damn predictable that I was actually insulted that it had been published, never mind that my fellow readers across America had bought enough copies to make it the author’s Nth bestseller. It seemed like such a travesty to me.
Apparently not to my roommate, who quickly tired of hearing my tirade. In his usual laconic way he calmly suggested that if I thought I could do better maybe I should give it a go. He even put a case of beer on the line, a case of Bass Ale no less, betting that I wouldn’t even finish the book. Forget whether it was any good or not – all I had to do was actually write one that made some coherent sense and was long enough to qualify by current publishing industry standards.
That was all I needed. He was dangling liquid gold in front of my face and I was enough of a cocky sonofagun to think I could pull it off. So that afternoon, never having written much of anything else before that, I sat down to write a novel.
I had no idea what I was doing. I had never taken a fiction course. I was a voracious reader but I’d never had any thoughts of being a writer. I probably never would have either, if I hadn’t been dared to give it a try.
I quickly settled on a genre (horror, which I had been reading a lot of at the time) and got to work. I wrote long hand on yellow legal pads, working during the day and often at night. I worked several days a week at campus security, sitting alone from midnight to seven am in a little booth on the far side of campus, and it proved to be a godsend for getting some writing done. It took me three months, but by the end of that time I had four hundred some odd pages of hand written manuscript and pronounced it done.
My roommate and I consumed that case of beer rather quickly and I soon forgot about my little experiment as a writer. Like I said, I really didn’t have the drive to want to do that for a living; I was just curious to see if I could do it at all.
Fast forward twelve years. I’m on the other side of the country, married, and my wife and I are moving into a new house. I’d been carting boxes of junk around with me ever since college and we finally decided that this time we were going to get rid of some of it. At the bottom of one carton, nestled in an oversized shoebox, my wife discovers that original, handwritten manuscript. She begins to read it, finds that it isn’t half bad, not half bad at all, and suggests that maybe I might want to do something with it. After a bit of hemming and hawing, I agree.
I knew a bit more about writing by then, having had some passing interest in it in the years since college, and spent some time knocking that old manuscript into shape before typing it all up on my computer. Once I was finished, I set about trying to find a home for it.
As fate would have it, I lucked out. One of the publishers I discovered was a small indie publisher out of Florida that was just getting started. Another writer I knew had mentioned my name to the publisher and she wrote to me, introducing herself and her company. She asked to see the manuscript, which by then finally had a name – RIVERWATCH – after a family estate that plays an important role in the story – and I promptly sent it off.
Three weeks later I had an offer of publication. It was for trade paperback publication and was royalties-only. Knowing the publisher wanted to make a legitimate name for herself in the horror and dark fantasy genre, I negotiated with her to pay me a few thousand dollars advance so that she could meet the novel requirements that the Horror Writers Association (the world’s largest organization of professional horror writers) expected publishers to meet. She agreed and I soon had a check in my hands.
I had done it. I had made my first sale and gotten some decent money out of it in the bargain. I was pretty darned pleased with myself.
But that, as it turned out, was just the beginning. The members of the Horror Writers Association went on to put that little book that could on the preliminary ballot for
Pocket Books mass market paperback edition
the Bram Stoker Awards, one of the highest honors given in the genre. Figuring it would end there, given the competition I was up against, I was pleasantly surprised when it made it to the final list of nominees. In the end, I didn’t win the award, but as they say, being nominated is an honor in itself. And in this case, it truly was, as that nomination led to my landing an agent (who still represents me today) and in selling the rights to RIVERWATCH to Pocket Books, the mass market paperback division of Simon & Schuster.
My career was off and running.
So there you have it. Eight years after that initial sale I’m still writing. In fact, I’m about to sell novels ten, eleven and twelve. And it all started with that lousy book and a case of beer…
I actually have two first sale stories, one being the true first, and the second being the “first sale” everyone remembers. As with many aspiring authors who are members of RWA, I entered a lot of writing contests after joining. One of those was the 1992 North Texas RWA Great Expectations Contest. The final round judge in my category was Catherine Carpenter of Meteor Publishing. She picked my entry as the winner, and asked to see the full manuscript. I sent it, and she called to buy it six days later. It was #167 (released in August 1993 as PLAYING LOVE’S ODDS) out of the one-hundred sixty-eight books in the Kismet imprint. (Trivia: Suzanne Brockmann’s was #168 – the last.) Catherine took leave during the editing process, and handed over the manuscript to Kate Duffy – who has edited me during my time at Brava.
The second “first sale” – the fun story – came in July of 1995. There had been some buzz online (which at that time consisted of GEnie and CompuServe) about a television producer calling around, making inquiries into the industry. One day at work, my phone rang and I picked it up to find Don Dahler (who last I knew was on ABC’s GMA) on the line telling me that CBS 48 Hours was doing a show on romance novels and would like to talk to an aspiring author. Me. I explained about the above sale, but he said that was fine. I was still aspiring, yes? Well, yes. I was, and I agreed to his request for an initial interview. He came to the office to talk to me, called me a day or so later and said he wanted to bring a camera crew and reporter (Susan Spencer, still seen on CBS 48 Hours) to follow me around for, yeah, forty-eight hours. They wanted to visit to my critique group, my home, my office, etc. PANIC!
At the time, I was raising three teens on my own, working full-time, homeschooling one, and writing. The homeschooled one did most of the housework, but still. Ugh. No way was I letting the entire country into my house. I told Don he couldn’t come for a week. Then I attacked my house, including buying a new sofa, hanging crap on the bedroom walls, and cleaning out the bottom of my toaster – which remains a joke to this day between me and one of my BFF’s. The first “hour” of the 48, the crew met me at my office, and followed me and one of my critique partners to our meeting where we met our third, Jan Freed (who I paid tribute to on my blog). (Our group had previously included Jo Leigh and Kimberly Raye.)
The next day, the crew arrived at my house around seven a.m. to follow me to work. They wired me and my car (because at the time I dictated a lot of my pages) for the trip. During my lunch hour, I did an interview with Susan, and the whole bunch then came to my house that night after work. Susan read some of my work from my monitor (from the book that later sold to Kensington Bouquet and was released as LOVE IN BLOOM), and then my phone rang. On the other end of the line was Birgit Davis-Todd, editor for Harlequin Temptation, offering to buy my manuscript CALL ME. Being the sharp cookie that I am, heh, I asked her to please hold on a moment, and I turned to Don and Susan and said, “Y’all set this up, didn’t you?”
CBS had a crew in Toronto at the same time, and filmed Birgit’s end of the call, too. The show aired in October 1995, and CALL ME was released in July 1996. I have a (badly jpg’d) clip of my portion of the show on YouTube if anyone wants a good laugh. (It’s also embedded below.) BTW, Birgit and I both now have better glasses – and better hair. *g*