There are days when I feel like this flower seller in Kalver Street, Amsterdam. (Even the dog doesn’t look that interested.) But then I remember the difference; I love what I do and books—especially now, in the internet age—don’t wither and die after a few days. They’ll be here long after I’m gone, making my offspring’s offspring cringe at the notion that grandma wrote sex scenes.
For years my website has been like a billboard on the highway: the advertisement stayed the same, but the information faded, became outdated, and parts fell away. To stretch the billboard metaphor further, you might say I left it up as a signpost in the wilderness while I went off to explore other literary roads….
I didn’t mean to leave off writing historical romance (despite my mother’s response to the news that I’d sold one: “That’s great. When are you going to write a real book?”) I thought changing genre was what I need to do to keep writing. Though my books were well reviewed, even before they hit the market it was pretty clear my publisher wasn’t interested in continuing the series. (Let me just say, though I wasn’t thrilled, I wasn’t totally devastated. My first experience in the publishing world wasn’t exactly every young writer’s fantasy—unless of course, that young writer is a masochist. In which case, it was AWEsome.)
Note: This less than awesome experience included my agent, who I will not name and will not publicly bash. Except to say, if you’re thinking of using her you’re better off signing on with a used-car salesman. (Great at selling, hates to be bothered with questions about the fine print in the contracts, and really doesn’t want to be bothered after she’s made the sale.) I only mention the agent thing because if you stick with my story, you’ll notice a theme. For those of you with short attention spans, it has to do with a) wasting time following other people’s advice instead of doing what you want to do and b) wasting time waiting for other people to give you permission to do what you want to do.
A lot of people kept telling me, “If you want to sell again, you need to change genres.” A lot of people kept telling me to “write what you know.” And lot of people kept telling me I needed a “platform.” This advice, coupled with the fascination people tend to have with my time at the CIA—yes, it was an amazing experience; no, I can’t tell you the details—made me think I ought to write a contemporary romance set at the CIA. I will admit that my heart was not entirely in it. I mean, how excited would you be about writing about your job?
A lot of people also said if I was writing in a new genre, I needed to write a whole new book to get a new agent (because a lot of people said you can’t sell a book without an agent). So, I wrote the book, sent it off to a bunch of agents and got a new agent. (Did I mention that agents take months to respond to queries and more months to respond to complete submissions?)
Not counting the time to write the book, nearly a year went by before I got my bright shiny new agent. She sent out my book. And a proposal for a paranormal romance set at the CIA. Then I waited. And waited. After six months, I decided, hey it’s been nearly two years and I haven’t sold a new book and isn’t the whole point of agents supposed to be that they get you a faster response than if you send in the book yourself? (Call me naïve.) I pulled the book and the proposal, and left the agent.
My departure wasn’t based solely on frustration. I also left because I wanted to try my hand at writing a genre the agency didn’t represent. You see, my kids had started handing me books and demanding I read them. And because I was constantly telling them they should do stuff because I said so, I figured I ought to do at least some things because they said so….
Reading middle-grade and young-adult (YA) books blew my mind. There are a ton of rules (or so I’ve been told) about what you can and can’t do in romance. They don’t apply in YA and middle grade. Read Garth Nix’s Shade’s Children, Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief, or, of course, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. I wrote a middle-grade goblin book called The Goblin Prince. (As I was researching my historical romances, the Souvenir series, I’d read about miles of tunnels under the streets of Paris, and I remembered a wonderful book I’d read as a kid called The Princess and Curdie.) I was inspired, I had a blast writing the goblin story, and of course, I sent it out to agents.
While I didn’t get any offers of representation, I got a lot of strong responses, so I knew I was on the right track. With all the advice about CIA rattling in my brain, I also decided to write a CIA-set YA. And I sent that out to agents.
After nearly two years of submissions, I got six offers of representation. I went with the “big name” agent whose clients had major deals and movie spin-offs. I was excited, she was excited—she even remembered my goblin book. Here, I thought, was an agent who wanted me for my “voice.” She warned me she didn’t edit, but what she didn’t warn me about was that she would immediately hand me over to an associate. An associate who not only didn’t edit, but couldn’t even write a clear e-mail, that is, when she bothered to write them at all.
I guessed at needed revisions and revised. The book got sent out. While I waited, I worked on revising the goblin book. The “big name” agent had been intrigued by a rewrite, but the associate never answered e-mails about a proposal, or even a chapter-by-chapter synopsis. When, finally, enough time had passed for me to completely rewrite the book, the associate sat on it for four months. Then she sent me a brief e-mail that said basically, “I’ve had this for so long I suppose I should tell you why I hate it.” Several more months passed, the YA spy book didn’t sell, and the associate dumped me by e-mail.
Though it might seem the case, I’m not writing this to bash agents. (Okay, yes, maybe, a little.) You’ll notice I’ve not so subtly sprinkled in references to time. At this point, roughly four years had gone by. Most of it was spent chasing agents. But I also spent time working for a romance publisher. It was an educational experience, though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to other writers. It’s a bit like being a pig working in a sausage factory. Among the things I learned: books are products; a strong commercial hook is almost always more important than the quality of writing; and editors and agents aren’t necessarily better judges of a good book than the college intern sifting through the slush pile. (Also, again not to agent bash, but in my limited experience, many don’t pitch well and a shocking number don’t negotiate contracts well, or at all.)
So, let me steer this rambling ride back to the billboard and the website. After all these years and all these experiences, I can say I have a pretty good understanding of what makes a book sell. (I’ve pulled bestsellers out of the slush pile and, though I haven’t read 50 Shades of Grey, I know why it has crossover appeal.) I’m also a far better writer than I was when I started out.
But I’ve realized that while I’d like to write books that make money, if writing is how I spend six to eight hours a day, I want to write books I enjoy writing.
So I’m going back to writing historical romance. Romances with lots of wild adventures, smart-talking heroines, and swashbuckling spies. Romances that don’t follow a lot of other people’s rules. Romances set during the French and American Revolutions, because that’s the kind of rabble-rousing history nerd I am.
And even though although a lot of people say these historical periods don’t sell, I don’t care.
I’m not waiting for permission any more…I’m doing what I damned well please.