Monday, September 22, 2008

Debra - How I didn't win the Golden Heart

For most of us, writing is something we do because we must. It's not a choice. We are driven to put words on paper. Publication is obviously the goal, but I've found that people who ONLY write for publication rarely make it in this business. There are so many easier more secure ways to make a buck. Seriously.

I knew this. I wrote anyway. For eight years. Well, longer than that but who really counts a sequel to GONE WITH THE WIND written at age twelve? (Even at twelve, I was looking for the happily ever after and I wanted it on the page and not implied.) I wrote a gothic in college. I think it was 96 pages long. And awful. There were twins with switched identities, a fire, a secret passage, a governess and a emotionally damaged child. And very little dialogue.

"Are you...the new governess?"

"Yes...I am."

Did ANYONE hire governesses in the late 1970's? Or speak like a Barbara Cartland novel?

This was written for my own amusement. Never circulated (thank heavens!).

Then in the eighties I met someone who published romance novels. For the first time my brain woke up to the idea that maybe I should consider writing a published novel as a serious and achievable goal. ::gasp:: I read. I studied. I even managed to snag a NY agent. An editor was interested but then she left the publishing house before the manuscript was bought. (I had no idea that this was life in the publishing biz!) Then my agent (a well-credentialed big NY agent) wanted revisions. Big revisions. I was stupid. I said, "No, I don't think so."

I no longer had an agent. But I had learned two valuable lessons. "Don't count your contracts before they hatch." And, "You aren't *that* good." It was back to the trenches for me. I moved from the romance genre to the fantasy genre. My luck wasn't much better, or so I thought. I didn't know it at the time but my rejection letters were stellar. Brilliant, actually. But I didn't know anyone who wrote and submitted to publishers, so I assumed that everyone who submitted got 2 page rejection letters, single-spaced with tiny margins and "pity" invitations to submit more projects.

One day I got a letter from Carin Rafferty, a Harlequin author who was moving to town and wanted to start an RWA chapter. I blew her off twice (I wasn't actively writing romance) but when I got the third reminder of the organizational meeting, I grabbed a sweater and wandered down to the library. We had to tell a little about ourselves and I soon found out that my rejection letters weren't the pathetic responses I thought they were.

I signed up to participate in a critique and got a phone call from Carin. She said that if I was serious, and I wouldn't cry, whine or procrastinate...then she'd work with me one-on-one. To this day I have no idea how she made it through that first manuscript we worked on. She knew it was unpublishable. By the time I'd finished it, I knew it too. I put it away and begin a romance about a woman whose editor sends her back to her hometown in the west to write a story about an adventure vacation cattle drive. Cowboys, cattle and westerns, Oh My!

I'd tapped into one of the strong story genres that publishers like to see in new authors. I didn't know a western was smart. I just knew it was a great story for me. I entered it in the Maggie contest. I didn't final. I did get a note from one of the judges who asked me to come see her at the conference. The lovely Sandra Chastain, now dear friend and business partner, introduced me to agent # 2 and said, "You have to sign this girl. She has amazing talent."

Okay, I added the word "amazing" but Sandra did literally introduce me to every agent at the conference which secured a private appointment with each of them. My new agent didn't ask for revisions but I would have done them! While she was sending the book out, I entered the Golden Heart and FINALED! The Loveswept editor who had requested a revision of my book was the final round judge! Oh, frabjous joy!

I did not win. When introduced to the editor at the conference, she said, "Why on earth did you enter the unrevised version of the book in the GH???" However, shortly after the conference, my agent called to say that editor loved the revision and wanted to offer a 2 book contract. I'm not sure what was said other than that I accepted. I hung up, then I sat down in the middle of my den floor and stared at the phone.

An editor had bought TALL, DARK AND LONESOME.

Next I told the dogs, while I was dialing my hubby, and after telling/screaming the news at him, I began dialing the whole Eastern seaboard--one number at a time. My mother arranged (unbeknownst to me) to buy the original art for my first book as a Christmas present that year.

Very quietly, without a lot of fanfare and a moderately expensive long-distance phone bill, the direction of my life changed. I became an 8 year over-night success.

How about you? What's the best contest you didn't win?? Who's offered you a helping hand along the way?


Kylie said...

Love your story of the 8 year old overnight success, Debra :)

I knew nothing when I started writing and knew no one to tap for help so I began from a state of total ignorance. When Leslie Wainger bought me she told me to join RWA! Perhaps she thought I needed someone to tell me which font, paper and printer quality to use. I actually had sent my manuscript in on that double paper that has to have the perforated sides pulled off and then the back removed, LOL. I'm pretty sure she thought I took ignorance to new heights!

But since then (and especially since the advent of the internet) I've found other writers to be the most giving, helpful people in my life. And I've always been grateful I found two fab Iowa authors, Roxanne Rustand and our own Cindy Gerard who have shared industry wisdom and friendship with.

Betina Krahn said...

You know, I'm getting a common theme from lots of these "first sale" stories. We made mistakes, we didn't know our arses from our elbows, but we still managed to get published. BECAUSE OUR STORIES WERE WORTH TELLING and because we were willing to work at it and learn.

Eight years and overnight success. Deb, you're a dear to share your start with us. yet another example of how perseverence pays. And how growing a few friends in the biz can help to carry us through.

RWA may have it's flaws, but there isn't anything like it anywhere else in publishing. It's helped so many of us start and sustain a career! I think we should be damned proud of good old RITA's company.

Cindy Gerard said...

Great story, Deb. I have always maintained that RWA is like a sisterhood. There is so much warmth and giving in the membership and like Kylie, I've found strength an support from many amazing authors who I now call friends.
Four, people, however, will forever remain special in my heart - Darlene Layman, Patti Knoll, Deb Sheets and Tiffany White. These people either judged contest entries or provided much needed advice to a newbie who knew NOTHING. Seriously, without them I don't know if I would have had it in me to continue when I was on the cusp of throwing in the proverbial towel. Thanks, Deb, for making me think about those amazing ladies again.

Helen Brenna said...

Yay, Deb!! What a fun story!

I've had so many helping hands along the way, I'd clog the blog up listing them all. But a few - our dear Susie Law was one of the first. As was Connie Brockway. Then came Monica McLean (Caltabiano) and a whole list of critique partners who still, STILL, read my stuff today! They're awesome!

Playground Monitor said...

Terrific story, Deb. I've had so many published authors who have been so encouraging (and who I feel I've let down because I still haven't written a full-length novel). I'm not a creative person by nature so why I decided to try writing fiction is beyond me.

I used to write non-fiction pieces for an online magazine. They had an idea file. I'd pick an idea, research it, put all the facts together in some semblance of order and send the finished product in. They loved me. I was flattered. However, they weren't a paying publication and somewhere I read where some famous person said something like "only a fool writes for free." Can't remember who but they had a good point.

I don't write ONLY for publication, but I at least want there to be a possibility of money at the other end. LOL!


Michele Hauf said...

Wonderful story, Deb!
I do claim three wonderful critique partners--we've been together since '94--but we haven't critiqued for years.

I have to mention here that it doesn't matter 'when' a writer gets that helping hand or advice. We'll always need it.

For example: You Deb, asked me to write a short piece for you a while ago. I came back with "Really? But I'm not Southern, and the story is set in the South. I'm not sure I can do that."

Your reply? "Of course you can. You're a writer."

You're a writer.

Best piece of advice I've had in a long time. Thanks, Deb!

Anonymous said...

Great story. I won the second contest I entered, so it was a shock when I didn't win every contest I entered afterward! LOL

The best thing about writing with the mindset of "writing to be published" is that the writer if familiar with what that particular market is looking for. A book written for HQ Blaze won't be bought for Steeple Hill, etc.

Look forward to meeting you Deb in Oct in OK

Debra Dixon said...

Kylie-- LOL! I can just imagine your face when the penny dropped and you realized just how green you'd been! But, RWA sorts that all out really quickly. And the internet has changed life for so many solitary writers.

Debra Dixon said...

Betina-- Absolutely we should be proud of RWA. It's an amazing example of generousity. Not to mention the professional benefits of networking. To often we ask what RWA is doing for us and forget that the biggest benefit is RWA has "pitched a tent" under which we can find almost anything we need if we put a little elbow-grease into it!

WK said...

Wow what a great story Debra. As I'm an aspiring author, who seems to keep putting off actually doing any contests for finishing a story (I have to get over the voice in my head that keeps telling me "it's not any good anyway so why keep doing it")

I found your post to be great. Very uplifting. I may have to print it out if I have your permission to do so.


Debra Dixon said...

Cindy-- Yep. I couldn't have gotten here either without that helping hand. Two of my dearest friends were many many rungs above me on the ladder when I first crossed their paths.

What I learned from them is that you "pay it forward." I learned that small kindnesses like simple introductions at the right time are important. You make time to pay it forward.

Debra Dixon said...

Helen-- I adore Monica too! Her "study group" model is one I often find myself sharing with other writers because I think that's such a brilliant concept.

Keri Ford said...

Great story, Deb. Cyndi (Arkansas Cyndi up there above me) taught me basically everything. Poor thing, she explained one thing to me and I latched on and sucked every bit of info out of her.

I pay it forward every chance I get.

Kathleen Eagle said...

Let's see if I can get Cindy's heart racing again.

Awhile back I bragged about meeting LaVyrle Spencer a month or so before my first RWA conference. Weeelll...during that conference LaVyrle introduced me around. Met her agent--now my agent--Steven Axelrod. I'd already "sign on" with an agent, who represented me for about 7 years. But when my first agent went out of the biz, LaVyrle re-introduced me to Steve. Been with him ever since.

Debra Dixon said...

Marilyn-- Absolutely, writers should be paid for their work! I'm on the picket line with you! But, as you said, publication isn't the only reason you write. That's why you can keep going. For someone just looking for a buck, they'll generally look somewhere else for that buck long before they learned enough about themselves and their writing to be ready to publish! (g)

Debra Dixon said...

Michele-- Cool ! I love having given a good piece of advice. :)

I have some early critique folks who were so helpful, so supportive. Love 'em.

Debra Dixon said...

Cyndi-- I'll see you in OK? Excellent! And, yep, building that network and understanding that you're writing toward publication shortens the learning curve.

Debra Dixon said...

Wendy-- Print away! Both this post and your work!

You don't have to be brilliant or the best writer ever. You have to be authentic and commit. So get in there and mix-it up!

Leap, girl, leap!

lois greiman said...

I began writing looooong before I knew how to write, or anything about getting published. But after a couple years or so of hammering at it I organized a critique group that was instrumental to my eventual publication. Susan Sizemore was one of my go to gals. She recommended me to my first agent. But there have been plenty of others. Some who are now published and some who have given up long ago. Sometimes I believe the only difference between those who are published and those who are not is how many times they send their stuff out.

Debra Dixon said...

Keri-- LOL! I'd say, "Poor Cyndi" but I suspect that she feels like the rest of us in this writing world. We're always paying it forward and learn that kindness pays big dividends throughout our careers.

Debra Dixon said...

Kathy- OMG! Did you realize then what an incredible boost those introductions gave you? Isn't it amazing that we all have stories of people who went the extra mile when they didn't have to do so.

Debra Dixon said...

Lois!!!! Perfect.

The difference between a published author and an unpublished author is the number of times they were willing to submit material!

Love it.

Christie Ridgway said...

I've had a lot of helping hands along the way too. Most of the "help" is just in the getting of what this career is like. My writer friends make my days!

I have to say, though, that the biggest helping hand came from every author whose work I love. They make me want to be able to tells stories just like them.

Debra Dixon said...

Christie-- Yes, reading! Those books inspired me to be more, better, cleaner, etc. The books that pushed the envelope let me know there was room for unique voices.

Cindy Gerard said...

Darn you, Kathy. My heart's going pitty pat! LaVryle is my hero. Big sigh