Tuesday, September 16, 2008

My First Sale. . . seems like it was yesterday!

My first book. Rapture's Ransom. Yes, I know, I've cringed at that title for more than two decades. I was first published in the era when historical romances had to have one of the "magic" words in the title: rapture, ecstacy, passion, or love. At least for many publishers.

Let me take you in the "way back" machine to the early 80's. Romance was booming, everybody was getting published (or so it seemed), and everywhere you went, you saw racks of paperbacks: gas stations, drug stores, supermarkets, restaurants, truck stops, and even hardware stores.

I started writing when a friend gave me a copy of Kathleen Woodiwiss's "Shana." (Interestingly, I had read a book by Frank Yerby years before ("Lord Johnny") with a similar plot.) At first I dragged my feet about reading the book; it just wasn't my cup of tea. But I knew my friend would ask AGAIN if I had read it and I was desperate for some diversion. (I had a five year old with a broken foot.) So I picked it up and by page 75 I was hooked. When I finished the book I went back to the start and read it again. The whole thing. Then I headed for one of the paperback "racks" and picked up another historical romance. . . and started to have some prime fantasies of my own.

One fantasy kept going around and around in my head: a handome hunk would kidnap me and make love to me every day until I lost 40 pounds. Yeah, I know. Everybody has that fantasy. Anyway, one day I got a yellow legal pad and started to write it down. Forty or fifty legal pads later, I had a book. And I had to learn to type in order to put it into legible form. I sent it to my sister, who had a subscription to The Writer magazine, and she encouraged me to submit it. . . even sent me a list of publishers names and addresses.

I chose four and sent out a letter and a sample of my manuscript. Chapters 3 and 4. Hey, they said "sample" and nobody told me they had to be the FIRST chapters. I knew nothing about publishing. I didn't even know anybody who had published a book.

Believe it or not, one of the houses asked to see the whole manuscript. I sent it and waited 6 months. I finally got up the nerve to call and got-- the janitor. The publisher had gone bankrupt and the printer had seized the assets! I have no clue what happened to that manuscript. For years my nightmare was that somebody pulled it out of a dumpster in New York, put their name on it, and sold a million. FYI-- I no longer have that nightmare. I don't think anybody else would have wanted to put their name on it!

My sister sent me another list of publishers and I sent it out to 13 more houses. That made 17 altogether! I made a chart to keep track of my submissions. 12 more rejections came back. . . #13 asked for the completed manuscript. I sent it and waited again.

About six weeks later, I got a telegram asking me to call the publisher to speak to an editor about my manuscript. I couldn't believe it. I called the next day from work and she made me an offer over the phone. I was terrified to let her off the phone without saying yes-- so I said yes! Pitiful advance. Just pitiful. But to me it was just a thrill to know that I'd be seeing my words in print and my name on a book jacket. I had to do a few revisions. . . which I did in record time. And then I settled in to wait for publication.

Then I got a one line letter from the editor saying that my book "Destiny's Choice" had been retitled, "Rapture's Ransom." ACKKKK! Ptooey! I hated the name, but when the cover came with my name on it. . . yes, in teeny tiny white letters. . . I forgave the indignity.

I didn't tell anyone-- except my family-- that I had written and sold a book. I was delighted when it came out and I got author copies. I just loved having this "secret writing life." And as soon as I could, I started on another idea. I wrote that 2nd whole book before submitting it. I didn't know you could sell a book "on proposal." I didn't know you could "negotiate" for money. I was a lamb waiting to be fleeced. And I was.

But I kept writing.

It took another two years before a friend mentioned seeing in the paper a meeting of romance writers. . . the RWA National Conference. It was too late to attend, but I got contact information and the week after the conference, I called Susan Johnson. . . who graciously invited me to a chapter meeting. I had published two books by then, but felt like a complete newbie. Everybody knew more about the business than I did.

Since then I've worked for four publishers-- five now, with Harlequin-- and probably a dozen editors. Through it all, I've met the most wonderful women. . . creative, generous, open-hearted women. . . smart, savvy, intelligent women. . . women I am honored to say I'm writing in the same genre with.

And I've had two young women tell me they named their daughters after my heroines. Now that's humbling.

Through all of this what have I learned? Persistence pays. Almost nothing else does. If you fall on your face or your rear: get up, dust yourself off, and try again. And I've learned that I probably do better when I have to "earn" my way along. Instant success might have made me a one-book-wonder. Having time to develop my voice and style was a blessing-- even though it didn't seem like that at the time.

I'm turning a new page-- writing a historical for Blaze and planning my first contemporary. I've written a small non-fiction book that's out for consideration right now and I'm working on two larger pieces-- one a paranormal and the other a women's fiction. You just never know what's around the bend, folks. It pays to be open to all kinds of possibilities.

Oh, and I did meet Kathleen Woodiwiss later, at an Avon party in Minneapolis. She was warm and gracious and lovely-- and I did a fangirl "Oh, I love your books so much; you inspired me to write" number on her. She didn't even flinch.

So, does my story ring any bells for you? Have you ever gone all "fangirl" on an author you admire? If you write, how do you handle success? Does it make writing easier or harder for you? What is your definition of success these days?


Debra Dixon said...

Hey, I went fangirl on Kay Hooper once about a million years ago!

And I remember taking a solo conference attendee into my "posse" at RWA national one of the first years I attended.

She would later become Laura Kinsale. Well, she'd already sold a book but it wasn't out and no one knew who she was. I think it was two days before she told the group of us that she'd actually sold a book. LOL.

Helen Brenna said...

Betina, I'm just so happy that you're working on so many different projects and enjoying it all again.

I remember going all "fangirl" on you once at a conference a loooong time ago here in Minneapolis. Gushed over My Warriors Heart. God, I loved that book!

Cindy Gerard said...

I think, Betina, that I played fan girl to you the first time I met you :o) And why not? You're amazing!
I love hearing these stories. And I love hearing everyone restate the perseverance part of the equation and that even after a person is multi-published, sometimes they have to reinvent themselves to keep in the game. It's just part of the business in a business that's constantly changing. Mega congrats on all your new endeavors!

Michele Hauf said...

I've gone fangirl on Susan Carroll at an RWA Literacy signing. Except I didn't know who she was until I saw a copy of one of her old books by her with her pseudonym Serena Richards. Then I think I scared her with my enthusiasm.

I used to go secretly fangirl at our local chapter meetings when the 'biggies' like Betina and Kathleen Eagle would attend. Hee.

Michele Hauf said...

You know what I think the definition of success is? Staying power. Hanging in there in a tough career. If you don't accept that next offer, then there's tons of other authors waiting in the ranks to snatch it away from you. You just gotta keep honing your craft and making smart decisions.

Betina Krahn said...

Deb, leave it to you to to have a sort of reverse-fangirl story to tell! How cool!

Helen and Cindy, thanks so much for remembering me. Now I wonder if this is how Kathleen felt. Old.

Michele, wonderul of you to recall the early Minnesota days! And Serena Richards! I also agree with your definition of success-- continuing to write and to put ouot books that have a piece of your heart in them. . . no matter what. That's true success. Weathering the ups and downs and coming out on top.

Liza said...

I went fangirl the first time I met Nora Roberts and a litte bit when I met JR Ward. Both were so nice.

Betina Krahn said...

Nora continues to amaze us all with her accessibility and consideration for her readers and fellow writers. She's a phenomenon of Nature.

And J.R. . . . at first I was a little put off by the sunglasses-all-the-time look. But basically underneath it all she's still Jessica. And that's five-by-five with me! I LOVE the Brotherhood.

Playground Monitor said...

I went fangirl all over Suzanne Brockmann a year ago in Dallas. I have a gay nephew who is a wonderful, successful young man but has been shunned by his father, and I told Suzanne how much I admired the work she does in the gay community.

And no doubt Cindy and Debra thought I was in that mode the first time I met them too. Now I manage to stay in professional mode on the outside, but Lord have mercy, I'm squeeeeeing on the inside. LOL!

I'm loving these first sale stories. They are such an inspiration. I'm looking forward to the rest and to reading Betina's contemporaries.


lois greiman said...

Betina, you always manage to make me giggle. Of course, everyone has the fantasy of making love every day until they lose forty pounds???!!? :)

I really appreciate your view about the persistence. I couldn't agree more. There are so many people with talent. But there nothing like a little diabolical stubbornness to get things done

Kylie said...

I'm too reserved to go fangirl on anyone but that doesn't mean I'm not going crazy on the inside!

My first RWA was New York in '93. My first book was coming out that fall. I had only belonged to RWA for a matter of weeks. I took ignorance to new heights :)

I made my husband come with me because I didn't know anyone. (The first and last time he's been invited!) We were touring the Silhouette offices and I kept giving him an elbow jab, hissing "Hey, there's so and so.' Each time he'd say "Why don't you go up and talk to them?" But I couldn't do it.

And then I saw Linda Howard. OHMYGOD! Okay I still couldn't go up and talk to her but I was hyperventilating just from being in the same room, LOL.

As far as success...the more success I achieve the higher I set the bar for myself. And when it comes to keeping my feet firmly planted on the ground I have my family :) They're great at yanking me back down to Earth.

When I sold my first book I told my family and my then nine-year old son just looked puzzled. He said, "Why would anyone want to read a book by some kid's mom?" LOL. That still cracks me up.

Regardless of the level I rise (or sink to!) I'll always first be wife-mom-gamma. And you know what? That's really okay with me!

Betina Krahn said...

Marilyn. . . yes, it does help to hear others' stories of struggle and success. That's part of what makes the romance writing community so unique and powerful.

Lois-- you mean not everybody has that fantasy? Gosh. Color me surprised. ;)

And Kylie, you're so right about the grounding-anchoring nature of families. I remember my kids saying to friends "My mom's book was right there beside John Grisham's!" I knew I'd finally (after a dozen years of publishing!) impressed my offspring. Of course, none of my successes will ever undo the damage I did to my eldest when speaking to his 8th grade class. . . and confused (on purpose, though he'll never believe that) the words Uzzi and Jacuzzi. I thought it was funny, the kids laughed, and he turned fifty shades of red. He reminded me of it last week on the phone. The little ingrate.

Kathleen Eagle said...

Betina, I had a serious fangirl moment when I met Louise Erdrich at ABA. I stood in line for her book, and when I gave her my name, she looked up and said, "Kathleen Eagle? I can't believe you waited in this line." I said, "I can't believe you recognize my name." She wrote her phone number in the book and told me to call her. it took me forever to get up the nerve, but I finally did. We've gotten together many times. What a delightful woman. What a terrific author!

Kathleen Eagle said...

Betina, your first title makes me smile. I asked that the word "savage" not be part of my first title. It wasn't suggested--the book was a contemporary--but I would have been in serious trouble where I lived. My editor said that as long as I never suggested a title with the word "kiss" she wouldn't pitch "savage" at me.

Betina Krahn said...

Kathy, I guess we all have our title quirks.

For one of my books set in the time of the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania, I suggested the title (tongue definitely in cheek) "Whiskey My Love." A play on Judith McNaught's classic "Whitney My Love." [The heroine's name was Whitney and the hero mistakenly thought her friends called her "Whiskey," so I thought it was cute twist.]

My editor was NOT amused. She informed me curtly that they don't use "the names of hard liquor" in titles. Oooookaaaayyy. Didn't try to be cute with a working title again. For a long time, I just gave my manuscripts the heroine's first name.

Hey someday we ought to do a "worst title" or "most misleading title" blog! It could be fun!