Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Guidelines for writing a Silhouette Desire!

As I mentioned earlier, I had no idea how to fashion my recently purchased contemporary romance proposal, SECOND HARVEST, into a Silhouette Desire. And since no books in this line had as yet been published -- this was in the mid-eighties, remember -- I wasn't even sure how to begin.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending upon how you looked at it), my editor sent me a three page, single-spaced typed letter describing in some detail how I should proceed. As I read the instructions, my mouth fell open until it very nearly reached my chin. Here is a brief list of what it covered:

First: It was of utmost importance that my story be totally original -- as long as it followed a standard set formula, that is.

Second: I must not allow the book to become bogged down with plot. The crucial things here were characterization and passion. I was told I had to get inside the heroine's head until readers felt as if they knew her as well as their best friend. (I had a lot of trouble with this at first since I'm a big fan of plot. But I must admit that it turned out to be better than any writing class in teaching me how to portray characters in such a way that they come alive on the page.)

Third: Among other things, this formula laid out which parts of the body could be named with anatomical correctness, and which ones could not. Generally speaking, anything below the waist was to be referred to with "inoffensive, non-specific euphemisms." The word "bosom" was allowed, but not the word "breasts." (It made no sense to me, either. Since the Desire line was aimed at women between 18 to 45 years, I figured there was a good chance they'd all heard the word "breast" at least once in their lives. But evidently they were not allowed to see the offensive word issuing from my pen!)

Fourth: The letter established very specific guidelines on how to handle the love scenes. At least five or six pages must lead up to the act. The act itself was to go on for another set number of pages. (These were the most difficult pages to write, since I was so limited on what I could say, and which body parts I could name. Trust me, you can run out of euphemisms really fast!) At the conclusion of the act, the heroine and her lover must spend at least three more pages talking so that readers could see that the two really cared for each other, and that the act had not been tawdry.

Fifth: Hero and heroine must begin the book as enemies. However, the issues which divide them have to be realistic and too serious, or complicated, to be resolved through a simple five-minute conversation. When the two finally do come together, it must be with irresistible passion and love -- even if the characters do not yet recognize their true feelings.

Sixth: Something unexpected and beyond our heroine's control must come between them, once again dividing our lovers. Then, when all seems lost the obstacles are somehow overcome and love triumphs. The Desire line, as with all romance novels, MUST HAVE A HAPPY ENDING!

Seventh: A final reminder: The book must be completely original!!

(Next: Do not disturb! I'm being paid to write a romance novel!)

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Welcome to the world of romance!

I carefully read the agreement my new agent mailed me, showed it to my husband Bob for his opinion, then signed and sent it back to her. It was short and appeared to be fairly standard, stating that she was to receive 10% of any book earnings I received. She also wanted to be paid for postage, copying the manuscript, phone fees, and other incidentals, but I crossed these fees off and signed my initials to every change I made to the document. (I did this upon my husband's advice, since he regularly dealt with contracts at work. I have to admit I was a bit nervous that this might scotch the deal, but agreed with Bob that over the long run this might result in significant savings).

To my surprise, my new agent never even mentioned the changes I'd made to the contract. She just called me about a week later and said she was submitting the first proposal to Simon and Schuster's Silhouette romance division. She knew that they were launching a new contemporary romance genre to be called the "Desire" line, and thought my book might be what they were looking for.

Then the waiting once again began. Oh, how I hated counting the days and wondering if my book would be accepted, or if I needed to start reading the Employment pages in the newspaper. One way or the other, it was clear that we would have to bring in more money with so many children approaching high school and college age.

Thankfully, the wait was much shorter than I expected, and in less than a month I was informed that Silhouette Books had bought my first proprosal, and that SECOND HARVEST was to be one of the first books in the Desire series. These books, they told me, were to be more mature and sexually explicit than any other romance novels that Silhouette had published up to this point. I found this a bit surprising, not to mention a little daunting, but oh well...

My new editor promised to mail me a set of guidelines that I would be expected to follow while finishing my book. I was also told that they expected me to complete the book within the next six months, since they operated on a tight time-line, and that SECOND HARVEST would have to be added as soon as possible to the publishing schedule.

(Next: Guidelines for writing a Silhouette Desire!)

Friday, September 24, 2010

Crossing my fingers, I send in my romance proposals!

The time had come to send out my three contemporary romance proposals – each consisting of three chapters and a concluding outline – but I was anything but sure where to submit them. I knew I wanted an agent to represent me, but I hadn’t been entirely happy with the woman Nancy and I had chosen on our trip to New York. Once she had agreed to represent us, she’d seemed a bit distant and less than thrilled with our work. Yes, she’d dutifully submitted the manuscript to a number of publishing houses, but I never had the feeling that she was putting her all into the effort. Her attitude seemed to be, sure, I’ll give these new writers a try, but no skin off my teeth if their book doesn’t sell.

This was enough to cause me grave doubts about sending her my own book proposals. I was so unfamiliar with the romance genre that I felt I needed all the help and enthusiasm from an agent that I could get. I talked to Nancy about it, and went over the notes I’d taken about our meetings in New York. After much agonizing, and way too many cups of coffee, I finally decided to submit the proposals to the agent we’d visited the morning of our second day in the city. She’d been a bit reserved (which is one of the reasons Nancy and I had chosen the other agent), but she seemed very knowledgeable about the business. Perhaps I was naïve to think she’d turn out to be anymore successful than the first agent, but I comforted myself with the thought that she couldn’t be much worse.

Since little happens quickly in the publishing world, it was nearly three months before I heard back from the agent. By then I had convinced myself that she’d been so turned off by my first stumbling efforts to write a contemporary romance, that she’d simply tossed all three proposals into the waste basket. Evidently, I wasn’t even worth an, “I’m sorry, but upon further consideration your story does not fit in with the manuscripts our agency is currently handling.” Or, “I’m sorry to have misled you, but our agency is not presently seeking new authors.”

I’d done such a job on myself, that I almost passed out in surprise – and of course joy – when a letter finally arrived informing me that she would be delighted to represent my romance novels. Talk about beginner’s luck! I'd had no idea at the time I contacted her, but it turned out that this woman was one of the most successful romance agents in the business. Included with the letter was an agency contract, which I was instructed to sign. After that, she promised me that she would begin her representation by sending off the first of my three proposals to likely publishing houses.

(Next: Welcome to the world of romance!)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A crash course in writing romance novels!

The night I brought home those three books from our library's "Honor Bin" (anyone could borrow these books without a library card, but were honor bound to return them when finished), remains a blur in my mind. For some reason I honestly can't remember, I decided to sleep on the living room couch that night, sparing my poor husband having a light on until all hours, read the books and figure out the formula for writing them. Easy peasy, right? NOT!

For openers, since my goal was to finish all three books in one sitting, they managed to intertwined with each other in such a way that I never could say where one left off and another began. They all just ran together in my sleep-deprived brain. Despite this, I was surprised to find the books not only interesting, but well written. Of course it didn't hurt that I just happened to choose books written by three of the most talented authors in the business. How lucky can you get? If I'd picked novels by lesser writers, I very well might have given up the whole idea that first night, which would have required me to hit the streets in search of a real job.

Despite not being able to remember the plot lines of each book, I was nonetheless inspired to try my hand at this genre. After few inquiries, I learned that the best way to submit a romance story to a publisher at that time, was to send them the first three chapters of the novel, along with a concluding outline. I bravely swallowed my doubts and set out to come up with some unusual -- and romantic -- ideas.

Searching out the journals I had kept of my travels as an international flight attendant following college, I let my imagination go wild in an attempt to come up with interesting story lines. Happily, one of my flights to New Zealand brought back memories of the wonderful vineyards I'd visited there, and a story quickly was born which would eventually be titled, SECOND HARVEST.

Shortly after finishing this first proposal, I began to imagine a romantic tale set in Japan, another of our flight destinations. Believe me, Japan is one of the most beautiful places in the world to place a romance; the love scenes practically wrote themselves! This book was titled, FLOWER OF THE ORIENT, and eventually went on to become a Silhouette Special Edition.

I set my third romance proposal in France, titling it, TIME FOR TOMORROW. Because my family had originally come from France many years ago, this book was especially fun to write. While researching it, I was excited to find many of the customs, French dishes, and sayings I fondly remembered from my childhood. Although some of the romance scenes made my grandmother roll her eyes and caused her face to flush, I think she secretly enjoyed the book. I know for a fact that she showed it to several of her French-speaking friends, so she couldn't have found it too outrageous!

After a couple of months, and a great deal of work, I finally had three proposals to send out. But how to maximize my chances of making a sale remained the $64,000 question!

(Next: Crossing my fingers, I send out my romance proposals!


New rejection slips to paper our walls!

There's no need to drag out the next part of our story. Suffice it to say that our fun, funny, clever book, WE INTERRUPT THIS FUNERAL TO BRING YOU BACK , evidently wasn't as fun, funny and clever as we thought. Before long, the dreaded rejection slips began to fill our mailboxes. This time they were being forwarded to us by our new agent, but the pain of being rejected still pierced our hearts as much as when they had come to us directly. To give her credit, our agent continued to submit the project for the better part of a year, until even we had at last given up hope. When she could think of no more places to send the manuscript, we thanked her and released her from representing us. With admirable class, she agreed with the condition that we send any future manuscripts her way. Believe me when I say that this went a long way toward softening this latest blow to our fragile egos.

For anyone who hasn't experienced this kind of rejection, it's difficult to describe the way it makes you feel. Putting your thoughts and ideas into words is rarely easy and what follows -- letting other people read your material -- is always scary. There are just so many doubts: What makes me think I have the talent to write? Just because I consider my ideas clever and original doesn't mean anyone else will. What if people read my stuff only to laugh about it behind my back? What if someone finds out how many rejections slips I've received? Do my family and friends think I'm just wasting my time, but are too polite to actually come right out and say it? Sadly, the list goes on and on, especially when you're trying to go to sleep at night.

Clearly Nancy and I had reached a critical point in our "writing careers". Nancy was itching to get back to writing her plays (always her first love), and although my husband Bob made a good salary, our children were rapidly approaching college age, which would necessitate our finding some extra income to pay for so many tuitions. (At one point, we had five children in college at the same time, with two more to follow! You can see the problem.)

It was about that time that one of my friends happened to mention how much money could be made by writing romance novels. They'd long been popular in England, particularly the Harlequin books, but were just starting to catch on in the States. Since I was primarily a mystery, suspense, history and adventure buff, I really had little idea what kind of books she was talking about. In the back of my mind I think I had the notion (unfounded as I soon discovered!) that these books were a little sleazy and not very well written). But, in the interest of research -- and motivated by a dire need to earn college money -- I slipped on a pair of dark glasses (yes, I actually did!), ducked into our neighborhood library where I was well known, ergo the disguise, arbitrarily picked up several paperback contemporary romance novels from the "Honor Bin", and brought them home to read.

(Next: I set out on a crash course in writing romance novels!)

Why must everything in this business be so darn hard?

Nancy and I returned to the San Francisco Bay Area feeling very pleased about our trip to New York. All four agents had promised to get back to us as soon as they'd read the rest of our book, WE INTERRUPT THIS FUNERAL TO BRING YOU BACK, and we had no reason to doubt that they would do just that. (As I mentioned earlier, could we have ever been that naive?)

Well, we waited, and we waited, and then we waited some more. Nothing. Not a single word from any of the agents we'd seen. When our patience was finally exhausted, we gave each of them a call, thinking perhaps that it had just slipped their minds. Yeah, right! To our dismay, we discovered that two of the agents -- the man we'd met who worked out of his apartment, and the last young woman we'd spoken to the next day -- had both decided to pass on the project. Oh, had they neglected to inform us about this decision? Sorry, their assistants must have forgotten to put our letters in the mail.

Our last two phone calls produced even more astonishing -- and bewildering -- news. It seemed that the teenager we'd met that first afternoon (okay, maybe she wasn't exactly a teen, but she couldn't have been more than a year or two out of college), as well as the woman we'd spoken to who had been in the business for nearly thirty years, had both taken it upon themselves to send out the book pages without bothering to tell us. On the one hand, the fact that they'd both liked the book enough to submit it to publishers was exciting. On the other hand, we suspected that the two women would be less than thrilled to discover that they weren't the only agent sending out the same proposal. We might be new to the publishing business, but even we knew this kind of behavior probably wasn't looked upon as kosher. The question now was what the heck were we going to do about the mess? Which agent should we keep, and which one would we be forced to "fire"?

As far as dilemmas went, we figured this one wasn't all that bad; after all, two New York agents thought enough of our work to actually send it out to publishers. No matter what we did, however, we were sure to make an enemy, the last thing we needed at this stage of our writing careers. We finally decided to go with the more experienced woman who'd been in business for several decades. We figured that during all those years she must have made a lot of good contacts. At least we hoped so.

Instead of calling the junior agent on the phone and admitting our mistake, we gave in to our mutual cowardice and wrote her a letter instead. We kept it short, polite, and hopefully professional. Signed, sealed and in the mail, it was time to start biting our fingernails. How would she respond? Was there an agent hot line somewhere out there and our names were even now being added to a black list? Would editors burn any manuscript that landed on their desks bearing our names? Had we just sabotaged our careers before we'd even been published?

For the next week we cringed every time the phone rang or the mail was delivered, expecting a blistering response to our letter. None ever arrived. For all our worrying and gnashing of teeth, we never heard from the woman, or her agency, again. It was as if we'd never existed. In one way it was a relief. It was also @#!&*# humbling to say the least!

(Next: More rejection slips for our walls!)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Our second day in New York!

Our second day in the Big Apple started off a lot more smoothly that the previous morning. With Nancy's friend Bridget's help -- and benefiting from our mistakes of the previous morning -- we even managed to arrive at our appointment half an hour early. Using this unexpected time to fortify ourselves with coffee and a bagel, we made our way to see the third agent on our list. Her literary agency was located on the top floor of an old office building, which was constructed along classic lines, and had been tastefully furnished to make the most of this larger than life old-world style.

The agency we entered was not particularly large, but we knew from our research that it had been doing business in the literary world for nearly thirty years. A young and cheery receptionist showed us into the office of the agency's owner and namesake, offered us coffee or soft drinks, then scampered off to fill our orders. The room we found ourselves in was neat and well arranged, as was the woman behind the large maple desk. She was middle-aged and beautifully turned out, with carefully coiffed hair, perfect make-up, and a tailored suit that displayed her slender frame to excellent advantage.

The woman's manner was pleasant and very self-assured, as if she knew the publishing business inside and out. (Which, it turned out, she did.) After we'd received our soft drinks, she went over the WE INTERRUPT THIS FUNERAL TO BRING YOU BACK pages we'd sent her, then proceeded to suggest a few things here and there which should probably be changed in order for it to better fit the current marketplace. Her critique was delivered in such a matter-of-fact, pleasant manner, that it was much easier to take than the ones put forward by the man we'd met with the previous morning. And the changes she recommended weren't nearly as extreme as his had been. We took copious notes, and left her office confidant that most of the things she'd suggested were reasonable, and well within our abilities to achieve.

Our second and final appointment that day was with a younger woman who seemed to work on her own out of a very small office sandwiched between two restaurants on a busy side street. Although she seemed nice and was easy to talk to, Nanc and I had the distinct feeling that she really didn't "get" our book. It was as if she'd glanced through the pages in too much of a hurry, then jumped to the wrong conclusions. She kept referring to the manuscript as a romantic drama, which left us more than a little baffled. WE INTERRUPT THIS FUNERAL TO BRING YOU BACK, if you'll remember, was about a 76-year-old woman who is erroneously declared dead by a large funeral home, thereby nullifying all her benefits and social security. She has several elderly male friends, but the story hardly classified as a romance! At least in our opinion it didn't.

(Next: Why must everything in this business be so darn hard!)

Monday, September 13, 2010

Nancy and I go agent shopping in the Big Apple!

Fortunately, Nancy and I were young enough that a night spent sleeping on her friend Bridget’s floor resulted in little more than a few stiff muscles the next morning. This was a good thing since we had appointments to see two of four literary agents that day. (We had picked up one more agent the day before we left California for New York. We would see the second two agents the following day).

Our first appointment was in lower Manhattan, which necessitated our taking two subway trains. 
Well, that was an adventure. Although I’d spent the first two years of my married life living in New York, I was every bit as lost as Nancy when it came to negotiating the mass of humanity swarming through that maze of underground tunnels. (My husband and I had lived in Queens, but we did our best to avoid the subway during the busier hours. That morning we had picked the height of the morning rush to try to make it to our appointment on time!)

Without naming names, the first agent we saw worked out of his apartment, which was spacious but very old. Coming from California, this struck us as slightly strange, although to give the man credit, he went on to become a big name in the business. We were offered coffee, which we gratefully accepted, and shown to a couch in his living room. So far so good, until he took out the book pages we’d sent him and started tearing them apart. When he’d finished his critique, he picked up a manuscript from a young man he was representing, and began reading from the guy's book. Obviously, he was convinced his prize client was going to become the next Herman Wouk. (For all the fan fare, we never did see that guy’s book in print!)

An hour later, Nanc and I left Mr. X’s apartment a bit bewildered as to why he’d asked to meet with us, since he obviously wasn’t that enamored with our work. He did agree to represent us if we made radical changes to our book, including the main character and the conclusion to the story. Despite this, we both felt a bit discouraged as we downed hamburgers at a nearby diner. Maybe our afternoon appointment would prove more encouraging.

She did. The young woman we saw next was just that, VERY young! Good heavens, could she even be out of high school? At least her office was in an established agency, although Nanc and I suspected she was the most junior member of the staff. Whatever her age, she treated us cordially and with respect – or was that because we were probably 15 years older than her?

All in all, the meeting went well. The young agent had obviously read the chapters of WE INTERRUPT THIS FUNERAL TO BRING YOU BACK, and thankfully didn’t suggest that we make major changes to the book. Instead, she requested to see the remaining book pages, which we happily left with her. She showed us out of the maze of offices herself, promising to get back to us as soon as she’d finished reading the book.

We left the agency walking on air. Surely she wouldn’t have asked to see the rest of the novel if she wasn’t already hooked, we reasoned. It was all but a done deal. We decided to celebrate by taking Bridget out to dinner and then to a movie. Sure, we’d still keep our two appointments for tomorrow, but what a great feeling to know that no matter what happened the next day, we wouldn’t be returning home without an agent!

Yikes! Were we ever that naive?

(Next: Our second day in New York.)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Nanc and I fly to the Big Apple!

Three literary agents had responded to our query letters about our new book, WE INTERRUPT THIS FUNERAL TO BRING YOU BACK! Exciting stuff. But how to choose which agency was right for us? At long last we made up our minds that there was only one way to make this important decision: We had to fly to New York and talk to each of the agents in person!

Nancy and I were excited by the idea; our husbands a bit less enthusiastic. First, there was the money to consider. Flying to the East Coast, staying in a hotel, paying for ground transportation, not to mention feeding ourselves (all at New York prices!), had to taken into consideration, bearing in mind that our two families were operating on a tight budget. On the other hand, even the guys had to admit that it seemed like a great opportunity, especially when Nanc arranged for us to stay at a friend's apartment. No hotel bills! Maybe we could make this thing happen after all.

After a lot of thought, planning, juggling car pools and hiring baby-sitters, we finally made our flight reservations, and set up appointments to visit all three literary agencies. We wouldn't be going first class, but we would be going!

I'll never forget our excitement as we stepped off the plane in New York. We felt like two kids playing hooky from school. It was a great adventure, and we were determined to make the most out of the trip.

Our spirits were only slightly dampened when we stepped out of the airport to be greeted by 90 degree, extremely humid temperatures. I swear it was like walking into a very hot, very damp sauna! As we drove into town, our taxi driver explained in a thick Bronx accent, that the piles of garbage littering the gutters were the result of a two-week long strike by the city's department of sanitation. New York was very, very odoriferous to say the least. Welcome to the Big Apple!

Even more surprises greeted us when we reached Bridget's tiny -- and I mean TINY -- apartment, only to discover that it was on the eighth floor and the building's elevators were all on the fritz. Weary from our long flight, roasting from the unaccustomed heat and humidity, we each hauled our two suitcases up the stairs to Bridget's UN air-conditioned, one bedroom flat. While Bridget was genuinely happy to see us, when she showed us to the two sleeping bags she'd spread out on her minuscule living room floor, I couldn't help but wonder if the trip was such a good idea after all.

(Next: Nancy and I go agent shopping!)

Friday, September 3, 2010


As Nancy and I got close to the end of writing our new book, WE INTERRUPT THIS FUNERAL TO BRING YOU BACK, (a long, laborious job considering we had two husbands and ten kids between us to take care of!) we began to discuss how we could avoid the mistakes we made submitting PLEASE STAND BY -- YOUR MOTHER'S MISSING to publishing houses. Yes, the novel had been published, but we'd been forced not only to design a new cover for our "baby", but to do nearly 100% of the distribution on our own! This time around we hoped to find a publishing house that would put more money and enthusiasm into the project.

By now we had made a few writer friends, and we began to pick their brains for helpful hints on how to do this thing right. It soon became clear that the best way to get a book published was to do it through a literary agent. They had the advantage of getting our material into the hands of the right people, whereas we were shooting the pages off to names and addresses from a book, sealing our packages with little more than a hope and a prayer. Besides that, we learned that unsolicited manuscripts had a sad habit of ending up in a very high, seldom read "slush pile."

Unfortunately, we soon discovered that landing a good literary agent was just as hard, if not more so, than finding a publisher -- and of course, like everything else we attempted, we learned this lesson the hard way. Hanging out at our neighborhood library, we camped out in the reference section trying to keep one eye of our eyes on two extremely rambunctious little boys, while the other eye combed through tomes like THE WRITER'S MARKET, PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY, and other books that listed agents and described what they were looking for, along with how they wanted material to be submitted.

Generally speaking, most agents wanted a brief cover letter, along with the first one to three chapters of a book. Okay, we could do this. With great energy and a whole lot of naivete, we spent the next several months mailing out proposals to one literary agency after the other. With nary a bite. Then, glory hallelujah!, we heard back from three agents in as many days! Proving, of course, the old adage that it never rains but it pours. Now all we had to do was figure out which one we wanted to represent us. Which one of the three had the magic touch?

(Next: Nanc and I -- leaving on a jet plane for New York!)