Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Helen's Call: Part One

Yes, I’m the newbie on the blog. I’m so new the ink has barely dried on my contracts, I don't have a cover yet, and I've yet to go through the copy editing process. I thought some of our readers might be interested in finding out about my journey. It was a long one!

This is the type of thing I'm hoping for on my first cover. Dangerous, I know, but I needed a visual aid for this post! The title is TREASURE and it's an action adventure set in The Bahamas.

A writer friend and one of my first critique partners, Connie Brockway, had me as a guest on her blog, Squawk Radio, right after I sold, and, with a couple minor revisions, this is the blog I wrote for her.

I got THE CALL from Harlequin Superromance, as in sold my first book, on March 31. And it couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. I was ready to quit writing. Forever. Really.

Fifteen years ago, when my daughter was taking two hour naps every afternoon, I sat down to write my first book. What difference did it make that my college degree was in accounting? That CPAs aren’t supposed to be creative? I was a voracious reader. I’d gotten an A in creative writing in high school. I had a computer. If LaVyrle Spencer could do it, I could do it, right?

My first readers, mostly family, were patience and kind, which gave me the courage to join my first critique group. They weren’t quite so Minnesota nice. But I’m thankful for that. They taught me so much. I was an eager student, swallowing my pride and absorbing every tidbit of wisdom any reader, published author, agent, or editor bothered to offer. I went to conferences. I entered contests. I got deservedly sucky scores. I worked and learned and worked and learned some more.

When I finalled in the Golden Heart contest back in 1994. I thought, “This is it.” About a month later, I got my first agent (the day I came home from the hospital with my second child) and I thought, “I gonna sell for sure.” I didn’t. No one would touch it. How did I know that setting a romance in the Middle East killed a story from an editor’s perspective? They wanted to see anything else I’d written, but I had nothing else publishable and a newborn baby.

The let down was terrible. I am not a quitter. I have never quit anything in my entire life. But the Golden Heart is it, baby. If you can’t sell after that, what’s the point? I cried. I got angry. I couldn’t write. I was paralyzed, scared to death of putting tremendous effort into something that once again wouldn’t pan out. Fear is my worst enemy. I quit writing for almost five years.

Over time, creative urges sabotaged me. Stories bounced around in my head. I tried coming to terms with being a good writer stuck in a screwed up system. I tried developing more realistic expectations. I loved writing. Maybe a more marketable setting was the ticket, but I didn’t care if I got published. (Yeah, right. I’m the seventh of eight children. I crave attention.)

I wrote my third book for fun, something that excited me. (This ended up being my first sale.) It didn’t do great in contests. It didn’t sell. It didn’t get me an agent. But I’d enjoyed the process, so I wrote a fourth book. It finalled in the Golden Heart, along with my second book. I was a double finalist! This was it! I had three agents offering me representation. Three! But I’d been in nearly this exact position ten years earlier. I knew what could happen and what might not happen.

Sure enough, during the course of the next year, my worst fears were realized. In one of the most agonizingly slow processes know to womankind, one editor after another turned my book down. This, after several loved the book, but couldn't get more senior editors to jump on the bandwagon. Fear threatened to knock the legs out from under me. Again.

I’m not sure I can tell you what was different this time around, except that maybe sheer stubbornness won out. I think I simply refused to let anyone tell me what my dream could be. I’d quit writing when I damned well wanted to quit writing!

My agent stuck with me, bless her heart. (Yes, this is Tina Wexler.) Editors had loved my writing despite not being able to buy my book, so she encouraged me to rework my third book. I was skeptical, but I did it. In fact, I rewrote that darned manuscript three times for three different editors. Finally, it worked!

Ten years of serious writing, four completed manuscripts, three Golden Heart finals, a Maggie win, too many regional contest finals to count, three critique groups, two agents, and one study group later, I’m finally a published author.

Ever been scared to write? If you had to start all over again, would you still choose writing as a career?

In two weeks I'll post on why I think I finally got published.


Jaye Wells said...

Thanks for sharing this story. It's inspiring to know that stubborness can pay off. Congratulations!

Helen Brenna said...

Thanks for chiming in, Jaye. And you're right, I think, stubborness is sometimes the only thing that gets us through. No matter where we are in our careers. It's one thing we CAN control in this industry.

Debra Dixon said...


Yours is such a great story for anyone thinking of quiting. Determination is so important in any competitive business.

One of my favorite sayings to beginning writers who sometimes think this business is almost like buying a lottery ticket! It is, except... "You must be present to win."

The reason you're published is because you were "present." You showed up. You did the work.

Oh, yeah. And you're good too. :)

Helen Brenna said...

Deb, that's an excellent analogy. Hits the nail right on the head.

It isn't in one of your books is it, cause I plan on using it some time :)

Debra Dixon said...


Thanks! Use away. :)

I never like to discourage newer writers, but I do like to be sure they understand that their chances improve the more they stayed connected to producing work and getting it out there.

Anonymous said...

wow, helen. what a fantastic story!!! and i thought i was stubborn!! i know for me it got to the point where i had to prove i could do it -- even if just for myself.

if we're being honest, i'm not sure i'd choose writing if i had it to do all over again. much as i love to write, too much of my life has been controlled by other people. how many of us have cancelled family vacactions because of writing? i'll bet everybody. and more than once. how many of us have written through christmas? everybody? i've received revisions on december 23 -- due back jan 3. i've been the only one to not make it to a family reunion. i've tolerated things i would never tolerate in any other business because of unspoken promises. or even spoken ones. you're gonna be big, kid.

Betina Krahn said...

Would I choose writing as a career again knowing what I know now? I would still choose to write, but I'm not sure I would make it my only career. There are times I find writing too isolating and confining. I need people in more regular doses than I generally get. A half-time job that paid 50 or 80K a year would be ideal!

;) Betina

Helen Brenna said...

Yeah, Anonymous, had to prove it to myself. And that control thing is a toughy for me too.

When I was in accounting everything was so black and white. You do this, this and this and chances are you get that. Not so with writing.

But there must be so much more to writing than tangibles like money. Otherwise, why would so many of us do it for peanuts? :)

Helen Brenna said...

Betina, it's interesting you should say that. I've had part-time accounting jobs through the years while I've still been writing, but I wasn't published. Because I wasn't getting paid to write, it was always what got cut out of my schedule.

But now that I've published, I think it might work better. Especially now that my kids are getting older.

Full-time's gotta be a killer! Anyone out there working part-time and writing?

Deb, you need not answer because we all know you're marathon woman and would put us all to shame!!

anne frasier said...

"In two weeks I'll post on why I think I finally got published."

tease ;)

Kathleen Eagle said...

Great stiry, Helen, but that question at the end is a killer. Ever been afraid to write? Starting out, no. I could do no wrong back then because there was no "wrong." Now I'm constantly second-guessing myself. One writer friend says, "protect the work." Another: "You're only as good as your next book." Another: "It's the body of work. The BODY of work." I've got a body of work to protect from my next book. And I can't afford to be afraid to write.

Helen Brenna said...

Interesting, Kathy. You're protecting your body of work from your next book. I think my mindset would be that my body of work should protect my next book!

Helen Brenna said...

Anne! You put a picture up!

Tami said...

Congrats Helen and thanks for sharing your story. It definitely shows that persistance pays off (at least some of the time!) Can't wait to read your next post!

Helen Brenna said...

Thanks for stopping by, Tami. Believe it or not, I think persistence pays off all the time. If a writer improves her craft, studies the market and keeps finishing books, I believe she'll sell.

Life just some times has a way of getting in the way and changing priorities at times!!