Like a lot of the Gems, I started writing my first novel when I was a young stay-at-home mother in the ‘70s. Many of us wanted to be able to make an income while being able to full-time nurture our most precious possession—our children.
I didn’t exactly wake up one day and say, “I’m going to write a novel.” First, I luxuriated in the fact I could read whatever I wanted. I no longer had to spend every waking moment reading textbooks. So when my two sons were of preschool age I was able to read voraciously for the first time in my life.
I read everything Agatha Christie ever wrote. This was before there was an official genre of romance. I bought a lot of used paperbacks from garage sales and in these discovered gothic romances. The “formula” was single woman comes to isolated locale where there’s a brooding hunk. We never got in the hunk’s head, but by the end of the book it was obvious the hunk had always had the hots for her and the story ends with his proposal.
Some of these were not well written, so like so many of you, I told myself, “I can write one of those.”
I might add here that I had majored in journalism and had written extensively. When I was in journalism school, we had learned to “compose at the typewriter.” Which means no scribbling out your story in longhand first. I was good at this, which I thought would give me a leg up with fiction writing.
My first complete manuscript, at age 25, was a romantic suspense. I was so stupid, I typed it out (making carbon copies for myself as we’d learned in journalism school) and shipped off the entire book to a publishing house, along with return postage. I did this to every publishing house and never got a personal rejection. I even sent the manuscript in the box from our Jeopardy! game so a prospective editor might know I was of Jeopardy!-caliber intelligence.
I dreamed of getting The Call. I would buy a very expensive bottle of wine to celebrate. I would become rich and famous.
I wrote another complete romantic suspense, using a gothic formula in a present-day setting. Rejected.
By the time my children started school, I had obtained a master’s degree in night school, and since I hadn’t sold a book, I entered the work force as a journalist. Six years later, I switched careers and taught public school English. All the while I continued to dabble at fiction writing.
When I turned forty in the late eighties I really got serious about novel writing. That’s when I learned of all the things I’d been doing wrong over the years. I joined a writers group. I entered contests. I won or placed in contests. I took a class. My education ratcheted up when I joined Romance Writers of America in 1993.
I began to enter a lot of RWA chapter contests and did well. I still didn’t have a good handle on the market. I kept entering my World War II love story in historical categories. Publishers don’t have a category for that subgenre. In fact, most romance houses won’t touch that subgenre. The book did very well in contests but no nibbles from publishers. Finally, the senior editor at Harlequin Historical read it because it had made the finals in a contest and told the contest coordinator to tell me that if I wrote something set before 1800 she would like to see it.
The only historical romances I’d ever read were Georgette Heyer’s; so, I started writing a Regency romance. I entered the beginning of it in a few contests, and it did well. I finished it and sent it to Harlequin Historical. I was unagented.
I came home for lunch one day in 1997 (by then I’d quit teaching and was back in journalism), checked my answering machine, and Margaret Mallory of Harlequin Historical asked me to call her. I was shaking all over. I called my husband’s office and told him. He said, “What are you doing calling me? Call her.”
Still trembling, I called her and she said they wanted to publish A Duke Deceived and were offering a $5,000 advance. “Is that OK?” she asked.
I couldn’t believe it! My dreams were coming true. Of course I told her everything sounded good to me. I was still shaking when I returned to the office and told them my good news.
My plans for a grand celebration did not come to fruition. My oldest boy had completed law school and had moved out. My youngest was working nights. My husband (a college professor) had a night class. We grabbed a quick Mexican dinner to celebrate. No Dom Perignon.
It had taken me 25 years before I made my first sale. It was my seventh complete manuscript. It was a very long and winding road. I’m not sure I would ever have gotten The Call had I not joined RWA. –Cheryl Bolen is the NY Times and USA Today bestselling author of two dozen Regency romances, including the newly released Oh What a (Wedding) Night.