IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Tried to Write a Romance Novel and Ended Up with a Five-Book Publishing Deal

I could tell you that I researched the craft and how to tell a proper story and any number of other responsible, professional things. I didn't.
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Publish date:
March 3, 2016
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writing, book publishing, romance novels, writing a book, Novels, Literary Agents

Sitting in my car at 29, suddenly cut loose from the job I'd spent the bulk of my twenties in, I should have been terrified. The recession was officially over, but anybody with half a brain knew the job market was still a nightmare. I should have been panicking; all I felt was relief.After working 80-hour weeks for almost a decade, I was ready for a lifestyle that didn't involve pants, but I needed to do it with a high chance of success. (My car isn't big enough to sleep in and my dog is pretty attached to his fancy, grain-free food.)Enter romance novels.I've loved romance novels my whole life. I loved them when I was 13 and churning through three books a day. I loved them when I was 18 and figuring out that real relationships are pretty underwhelming sometimes. I loved them when I was 25 and flat-out too busy to date.Romance novels have always had respectable sales. Different sub-genres rise and fall, but romance itself has stayed strong for decades. I am particularly partial to historical novels — in the nineties, Amanda Quick was my shit. (She still is, no matter which name she writes under.) Since then, I've discovered Eloisa James, Courtney Milan, and a Kindle-full of others, but I'm always searching for more.I needed a new career. I wanted it to be in writing and I was fairly certain somewhere out there were more me's — chicks who love historical romance novels but are feeling the burn as the genre greats move off to newer, hotter sub-genres.

I decided I would write a book for them.I could tell you that the next thing I did was research craft and how to tell a proper story and any number of other super-responsible, professional things. I didn't. I sat down and thought about what I wanted. (I am inherently selfish.) The list I came up with was simple:

  • Hero who wasn't a glorified rapist.
  • Heroine who solved her own problems.
  • A book that made people laugh.
  • A book that could make people cry.

Eventually, those ideas evolved into wanting to tell an updated fairytale. One that says "just because someone falls in love with you, even if they're super-sexy and you really like them, it doesn't automatically entitle them to your future." One that admits that being in love, even when it's real, doesn't fix everything and is not enough on its own.I would love to say this was the part where I researched the fundamentals of writing, but I would be lying. Off to Wikipedia I went, where I promptly fell down a rabbit hole of neat people in history, and a book started forming in my head.Most of that initial Wiki-inspired plot never made it to the page. What did was an unapologetic, overly dramatic male lead with a tendency for untrustworthy narration. Back then his name was John, later Duncan, and finally Gavan. (Gavan is way better. Nobody says "fuck me Duncan" with a straight face. Sorry, Duncans.)

In the beginning, I felt bad because Gavan was definitely my favorite, and our heroine, Hannah, was just the girl I created to suit him. But as I figured out her story, she started to overtake him. She became a close friend who'd been through some shit, the one you sit across from at coffee and think "she deserves to have everything she's ever wanted and I wish I could give it to her." And unlike real life, I actually had the power to do that.But first I had to ruin everything.The first time I tried to throw a wrench in the feels my characters were developing for each other, I discovered an appreciation for stupid characters. Hannah and Gavan are both smart, and it became a massive pain in my ass. I would try to write them into dramatic situations and they just ... wouldn't do it.I made promises, out loud, like a crazy person:Me: "Guys. I know it's a trap, but do it anyway. It'll be worth it later."Them: "Nope. We're fine."Me: "Once you get through this, there's a lifetime of bliss ahead of you."Them: "Maybe, maybe not. We're pretty happy right now. No need to be greedy."Cowards.I got stuck for weeks. Eventually, I realized I could use my meddling secondary characters to help me. They were on board with my happily-ever-after (after some trauma) plan. They helped me trick them.After that, I spent a long time struggling with whether the fact my leading lady didn't want to get married was reason enough to keep them apart. On one hand, why the hell shouldn't it be? What she wants matters. On the same hand, marriage for a woman in that time period takes a legally represented individual and turns her into a literal piece of property. That's some heavy shit. I've failed to pull the trigger more than twice, and all I'm looking at if I pick the wrong dude is the cost of a divorce.On the other hand is the way things are. Traditionally, in romance novels, when the charismatic hero reveals his love for you, you're not supposed to have to think about it. I'm not particularly attached to doing things purely because that's how they're done, but I'm also a realist, and I wanted to sell books. In romance novels love is supposed to conquer all.

Determined to be able to say I wrote a novel before I turned 30, I finished with a week to spare. I also finished in time for the Georgia Romance Writers Unpublished Maggie Award submission, so I submitted to that. I didn't expect to win, but the first-round judging would give me three detailed critiques from strangers who had no reason to lie.This is the part where writers are supposed to leave the work alone for a few weeks. Start a new project, work on an old project, take a break, wait for the Maggie Award feedback; whatever gives you some time off from that particular book. I didn't do that. I did exactly what you're not supposed to do: I started querying.My initial query was garbage. I sent that dog-shit query out to nine agents, including (I thought) the agent of my dreams, without getting a single request for pages. I received rejections or nothing at all. I didn't understand it. My book was good. Surely someone would read between the lines of my awful query and see the potential gem waiting for them. (Hindsight tip: Ain't nobody got time for that. Get your query on point.)The internet will tell you that it's not unusual to send 50 or 100 queries before finding an agent— if you find one at all — so nine wasn't a super shameful number. Unfortunately, I was running out of money. I didn't have time for usual.Cue other ways to get agents: I discovered Brenda Drake's #pitchwars two days before the entry cutoff. I've always worked better under pressure, and apparently query-writing was the same. With a bottle of wine and a healthy sense of panic, I rewrote my query and submitted my book for #pitchwars.I knew it was a long shot, but I don't think I realized how much. Thousands of authors entered. Only 150 were chosen; one mentee and one alternate for each of the 75 mentors. I was chosen as an alternate by the wonderful Amy E. Reichert. She convinced me my book was ready and told me to enter #pitmad, a Twitter event where you pitch your book in tweet format.During #pitmad, my tweet received only one favorite (the #pitmad indication of interest). It was from Rachel Brooks, an agent with the L. Perkins agency. I stalked the hell out of her. I sent her my shiny new #pitchwars query.A week after I sent in my submission, Rachel emailed me and asked for the full manuscript. Two days later, she asked if we could speak on the phone. I may or may not have freaked out (privately in my room, where only the dog could witness it).The process of acquiring an agent is a funny thing. When I was internet-stalking my agent choices, I imagined our awesome agent-author relationship with inside jokes and GIFs, like all the cool authors on twitter had (possibly french-braiding each other's hair as well?). This BFF factor seemed almost as important as whether they represented my genre. My eventual agent and I were going to be like the twins in The Parent Trap during the nerdy synchronized dance-handshake parts (not the trying-to-murder each other parts).There were no dance-handshakes when Rachel called me. She was completely professional. There were moments of awkward, but mostly she just said great things about my book. Some of them were extremely insightful and picked up on subtle nuances I wasn't sure anyone was ever going to notice. I asked the questions I'd pre-rehearsed with my mentor and crit partner. Rachel did an excellent job of not sounding like her eyes were rolling when she answered them.While our initial communications were very businesslike, they didn't stay that way. That's mostly my fault — Rachel is a pillar of professionalism. Unfortunately, I'm ridiculously informal and I drag everyone around me down to my level. Before too long, she was rolling her eyes at me for real, sharing inappropriate inside jokes, and sending me GIFs. She frequently sasses me and I love it.After that, publishing is a lot like fight club. You're not supposed to talk about any of it, but you are absolutely not allowed to talk about the submission process or the money. I can give you the blurred out witness protection version, though.

Two weeks before my 31st birthday, we inked a three-book deal with Penguin's imprint Intermix and announced a two book print deal for Entangled's Select line. From zero books to five books — sold. (My agent is a magician.) My original book also won the Georgia Romance Writer's Unpublished Maggie Award for Historical Romance and finaled in the Romance Writer's of America's Golden Heart Award for Historical Romance.It was a hell of a year.It's not all sunshine and margaritas. I still have to write all those books my agent sold in record time, but it's hard to be upset. All told, my publishing journey hasn't gone anything like it was supposed to (according to research... and logic), but it's come remarkably close to the way I planned it back when I didn't know any better.