I’m going for a more light-hearted look at love with this week’s choice. In fact, I’m thinking I need to write this hero – the lovable goofball whose main talent is that he can always make his girl smile. I’m picturing a guy who just kind of glides through life having a good time, and then he meets a serious girl who knocks him off his feet. What do you think? Sound like a romance you’d read?
When we bought our house almost six years ago, there was an odd little holly bush/tree thing planted right smack in the middle of the backyard. It was a weird location, but it wasn’t hurting anything, so we pretty much ignored it. Despite Himself’s attempts to keep it trimmed, it kind of got away from us, and gradually became unruly and not very attractive.
I made a passing comment to Himself a month or so ago that it was getting downright ugly, but that in the middle of that clump of trunks and spiky greenery, there was actually an oak tree growing tall right through it. It was as if the ugly shrub had protected that oak, and now it was flourishing.
You can imagine my surprise on Mother’s Day when Himself dragged me away from my desk (I was on a deadline!!!) and showed me his gift to me. He had cut away all the ugly stuff and left the beautiful oak tree standing alone. It was as if he gifted me a brand new twelve-foot oak tree, and I loved it (and him)!
Every time I look into our yard now, I think of how that beautiful tree was buried in the chaotic mess of holly and vines. It’s a lesson for several things in life, including editing. As writers, we tend to go big and messy on our first drafts. In fact, we’re supposed to! We throw everything in there, including the kitchen sink. We may fall in love with scenes and sentences, but those treasures are often being choked and hidden by all the other “stuff” we’ve filled our pages with in that first draft.
When we head back in for the 2nd, 3rd, 4th or whatever drafts, that’s when we start hacking away at all the messy chaos in an attempt to find the hidden treasure of a story that works. And if we’re determined enough, and willing to chop away a few of our darlings in the process (favorite scenes that just don’t work for that particular story), sometimes we end up discovering a strong, nurtured, beautiful oak tree growing right there in front of us that we never saw before.
So, fellow writers, don’t be afraid to take the hedge clippers (or maybe even an ax!) to your first draft – just be careful not to chop down the buried treasure in the process.
And for everyone else – – – what part of your life might need a little pruning to let the treasure shine through?
So the website is getting fired up again, less as a log of my struggles to get a contract (mission accomplished) and more as a conversation about the writing and publishing process. Hopefully readers will enjoy not only hearing about the books I’m working on (and reading excerpts from them), but will also enjoy my observations about the writing process, which is definitely not for the faint of heart, and about the publishing business and all its twists and turns.
If you’re an aspiring writer, you might learn something from my journey (Lesson One: NEVER GIVE UP!). If you’re a published author, you might be able to teach me and my followers a thing or two – feel free to share! And if you’re a reader of romance or any other genre, I hope you’ll find this “peek behind the curtains” interesting.
Let’s start with the timeline of my journey so far:
HOW I BECAME A ROMANCE AUTHOR
1968 (approx.): My best friend and I started writing our “Great American Novels”. We were ten. Mine was a romance. I no longer have it, but I remember it took place on a farm, there were horses and a tornado, and the heroine’s name was Destiny.
1970s – 1980s: I grew up, got a job, and dreamed of writing “someday”. In the meantime, I devoured books by Victoria Holt, Danielle Steele, Jude Deveraux (my all-time favorite romance: A Knight in Shining Armor), Johanna Lindsey, Kathleen Woodiwiss (my all-time close-second-favorite romance: A Rose In Winter), and many, many others.
1990s: I call these years “The Oprah Effect”. Suddenly the only cool thing to read was “lit-er-a-ture” (spoken with a fancy accent). If it wasn’t tragic, it wasn’t considered serious writing. I finally had the time to write, but I allowed myself to be intimidated by the book snobs who were convinced that romance was tacky and somehow undesirable. I tried to make myself write “lit-er-a-ture”, but damn it, I like happy endings!
2000s: Buried myself in a corporate career.
2013: Heard a lot of buzz about a sexy romance called Fifty Shades of Gray. Yes, that book. And the next one. And the next. By the time I got to the end of it all (and I’ll admit I enjoyed a lot of it), I realized it was basically a regular romance novel with some naughtiness added and enough mind-numbing detail to stretch the story over three books. It made E.L. James a boatload of money, and it showed me that romance novels were far from dead. Where had I been, and why the hell wasn’t I writing? That summer I sat at my laptop and started my first romance novel. It was basically a learning experience only, but I did get some positive feedback from agents/editors. And the hook was set. I was going to be a writer, come hell or high water.
2014: Wrote Halcyon, the first of four stand-alone romance novels about four cousins finding love. Submitted it, got some nice rejections with some encouragement. Entered it in the 2015 Golden Heart Award competition at the Romance Writers of America conference in New York City. While it didn’t make it into the finalist division, it was in the top 25% of entries.
July 2015: Completed The Hide-Away (second in the series) just in time to pitch it at the RWA Conference in NYC (my first conference). That’s where I met Victoria Curran from Harlequin’s SuperRomance collection, and she loved the concept and requested a full manuscript.
August 2015: I started working on my next book, The Wishlist (all titles here are working titles only), and completed a couple chapters of the first draft.
September 2015: Victoria, like all editors and agents in the industry, is swamped with work. She sent very encouraging updates on Hide-Away, but no commitment yet. In a bit of a panic, I decide to start submitting Hide-Away to a few agents…just in case. I pick five agencies that are at the top of the food chain in the industry (in my opinion). Why not dream big?
October 2015: I get The Call from Victoria on October 16th. Harlequin SuperRomance wants to offer me a contract for Hide-Away. Angels sing, bells ring, rainbows arch through the sky and unicorns dance in the front yard. Yeah, I’m that happy. My dream was to get a contract, and now I had one! All I had to do was rewrite a couple of major scenes and cut 8000 words. By Thanksgiving. Piece of cake. Oh, and I created a Twitter account (@JoMcNallyAuthor).
November, 2015: Once I have the signed contract for Hide-Away in my hand, I reach out to the literary agencies I’d queried to let them know the book was now under contract. It’s a professional courtesy to keep them from wasting time reading the book if it’s already taken. I received a couple brief thank yous and congratulations. One agent seemed sincere in her regret that she missed it. And another was not only sorry to have missed it, but asked me some interesting questions about representation on other projects. We emailed back and forth. The emails became phone calls, and Veronica Park of the Corvisiero Literary Agency became my agent, representing Halcyon. Unicorns danced again! Of course, first I had to complete the rewrite of Hide-Away. That was accomplished just in time, and it was submitted on Thanksgiving morning.
December, 2015: One deadline down, and another is already looming. I have to rewrite the beginning of Halcyon, and have three chapters and a synopsis (outline) ready to submit to Harlequin by the end of January. And oh, yeah. It’s Christmas. My church choir tackled a simple little ditty for the holidays called Handels Messiah. Parties were planned and attended. Family time. Did I mention I work a Monday-Friday, 9-5 office job? And have a marriage to pay attention to? Writing got squeezed into every spare moment, but it was stressful!
January, 2016: With the tireless assistance of my now beloved agent, Veronica, I work like a madwoman and complete three brand-new chapters for Halcyon. And I like them! We will be meeting our deadline (again). And I start messing with this website again. And I made my Pinterest research pages for the books public (JoMcNallyAuthor). Came in First Place for Contemporary Romance in the Windy City Romance Writers Four Seasons writing completion (Hide-Away). My first win!
Wow. No wonder I’m tired. And very, very happy. Thanks for joining me on this crazy ride, and stay tuned for more adventures!
Last night, I did something I haven’t done in years. I went to a live country concert to hear Dustin Lynch at the North Carolina Seafood Festival. Dustin is one of the newer country artists, and he sings lots of songs about drinking and partying and about how his girl “cranks his tractor.” It was loud and fun and I had very little voice left this morning in church. But those pounding songs weren’t why I wanted to see Dustin Lynch perform. He co-wrote and recorded one of my all-time favorite love songs, and indeed, a song that very much inspired my most recent book, The Hide-Away.
The song is “Cowboys and Angels,” and he wrote the song in honor of his grandparents. It’s a nearly perfect love song, at least for this romance writer. And it was worth the drive and the noise and the crowd to hear him sing it live last night. And come on – look at that smile!
I love listening to music. I love to sing music. I love to dance to music. In fact, I have a hard time sitting still and not breaking into song if there’s something great playing. I’ve been known to boogie my way through the house while cleaning, much to the amusement of the dog. I love music of all kinds, although I confess I can only take small doses of heavy metal, rap or opera. My music of choice tends to be country with a healthy dose of pop. The common denominator is, of course, love. Finding love, losing love, fighting to win love back – it’s the stuff romance novels are made of.
And yes, I usually write to music. Many writers do so, some even going so far as to create a playlist for each of their books. Often those playlists are ones only known to the writer, but more and more frequently with contemporary romances, the author’s playlist will be printed at the end of a romance novel so the reader can listen to the same music.
If I’m doing heavy-duty writing, as in starting a new book, tackling a major scene, or breaking through writer’s block, I write best in silence – preferably in an empty house (thank God my husband golfs). But if I’m editing or working through an easier stretch, I like a soundtrack, and I have an ever-evolving playlist. In fact, it’s playing as I type this.
At the moment, I’m listening to Justin Timberlake’s “That Girl.” So sexy. I have several favorites from Justin’s first 20/20 album, including “Mirrors” and “Pusher Love Girl.” Speaking of sexy, there’s always the frankly-titled “I’ll Make Love to You” by Boyz-II-Men or “Let’s Get It On” by Marvin Gaye.
Some songs are perfect for the passion-filled moment that comes along in every good romance novel (no, not that moment – I’m talking about the first realization of love). Songs like “That’s When I Knew” by Alicia Keys, “Come Away With Me” by Norah Jones, “Come a Little Closer Baby” by Dierks Bentley (hell, any love song by Dierks Bentley!), Adele’s version of “Make You Feel My Love,” and a personal favorite of mine – “Wreck You” sung by Kristen Chenoweth. That song is the true ballad of the romance novel heroine.
One of the reasons I’m drawn to country music is that it tells a story that is so easy to visualize. Brad Paisley is a master of the story song, including one of Hubby’s favorites, “We Danced.” It’s an entire love story told in a song. Another great example is the lesser-known song playing right now – “Fall” by Clay Walker. It’s what every single woman wants to hear from her man (take note, guys!).
While The Hide-Away doesn’t have a specific playlist, it was heavily influenced by the aforementioned “Cowboys and Angels”, as well as “Walking Away” by Jason Aldean, and “Who I Am When I’m With You” by Chris Young. Those last two reflect a lot about Cole’s character.
My first book, Halcyon, actually does have a short playlist, because music factors so heavily in the story. The romantic ghost of Halcyon likes music, and has fun messing with playlists at times. The playlist is listed below, and all of the songs appear in the novel. So tell me, what are the songs from your soundtrack?
Playlist for Halcyon:
“Let the Groove Get In” Justin Timberlake
“A Thousand Years” Christina Perri
“Say Something (I’m Giving Up on You)” A Great Big World (with Christina Aguilera)
“I Won’t Give Up” Jason Mraz
“Tonight I Wanna Cry” Keith Urban
“All of Me” John Legend
“The Mess I Made” Parachute
“Make You Feel My Love” Adele
“Hymne” The O’Neill Brothers
Last week, I talked about the “joys” of trying to break into traditional publishing. It’s pure luck to have your submission looked at for more than a few seconds by over-worked editors and agents. And then you have to hope it’s what they’re looking for and they actually like it. It’s been a long, painful slog of rejections for me. Even the personally-written encouraging ones (as opposed to form letters) hurt.
But traditional publishing is no longer the only route to writing success. You’re reading this post on a computer, or perhaps a tablet, or even a phone. And I’m willing to bet many of you read at least some of your books on an electronic device like a Kindle, Nook, or iPad. And that technology has brought some earth-shattering changes to the publishing world. Some publishers haven’t survived it. But eBooks are here to stay. I do 95% of my reading on my Kindle, which has hundreds of books on it.
The alternative to traditional publishing is self-publishing. I know, I know – “self-publishing” used to mean “vanity press” – people would pay a not-so-small fortune to have boxes and boxes of books printed that they would either hand out to friends and family (“look, I wrote a book!”) or attempt to sell to bookstores, at flea markets, etc. For fiction writers, it was almost always a losing proposition unless all you wanted to see was your name on a printed book. Finding a paying audience was tough, although a handful of people made it (it’s easier for non-fiction writers). But I can’t afford to quit my day job and drive around the country selling romance novels out of the trunk of my car.
Technology has changed all of that. It costs virtually nothing to publish an eBook, if you want to do the formatting yourself. I’d rather have four root canals that fight with formatting, so I’ll pay a nominal fee and let someone else handle that hassle and then the book just gets uploaded to Kindle, Barnes & Noble, etc. Easy-peasy, right? Why haven’t I done that already? Why shouldn’t I control my own destiny?
Well…because it’s scary as hell. Publishers provide a corporate team for writers, as well as help with publicity. I have worked most of my life as a corporate gal, and I’m used to that environment. Going it alone is frightening. I’ll be responsible for trying to find an audience for my writing – an audience that will hopefully write nice reviews and recommend the books and build sales until the book starts getting noticed and moves up the rankings at Amazon et al. It’s like jumping off a cliff and praying for wings on the way down.
And there are some god-awful self-published books out there – mis-spellings, no paragraphs, and truly terrible writing. Because there is no “gate-keeper“, anything can (and sometimes is) thrown out there on Amazon. And smart readers might shy away from indie books after being burned a time or two, so a good writer has to win them over.
But on the plus side of becoming an “Indie” writer – – – you make more pure profit on each book sold; there are multiple outlets for Print-On-Demand books for fans (and writers!) who like holding paper books in their hands; and there are many, many, many NYT and USA Today best-sellers these days that are self-published. It’s no longer a niche. It’s an accepted path, and even large publishing houses now offer e-publishing only collections.
So when I say things here like “to be published in 2016”, I mean it. One way or the other – traditional or indie, I will be published in 2016. If I can’t crack into the traditional market, then I will push myself out of my comfort zone and head into the brave new world of self-publishing.
And I’ll be expecting you all to buy a copy! 🙂
Writing can be a humbling experience. Let’s face it, any creative endeavor is humbling, because art is personal. When you create something, whether a painting or a book or a sculpture or even a building – you are in that creation in a major way. Your mind envisioned it, perhaps your own hands created it, and you followed your vision to completion. It’s your baby, and you brought it to life.
Well, you could be like Emily Dickinson and keep your poetry only for your eyes, and perhaps the eyes of your one true love, trying to burn the rest so no one else ever sees it. Or you can be like most professional artists and writers and put your art out into the world. Which means people will form opinions about it. Opinions that mean a lot.
And the opinions that mean the most are those of the Gatekeepers. In the art world, the Gatekeepers could be gallery owners – an artist’s work may not be seen without a show at the right gallery. And for writers trying to publish traditionally (more on the “Indie” option next week), the Gatekeepers are agents and editors. They hold a writer’s professional life in their very, very busy hands. They are overworked, tired, frazzled Gatekeepers. They have to believe your work is worthy before it has a chance of publication. But first they have to see it.
A good agent/editor receives HUNDREDS of manuscripts every month. At the bigger publishing houses, there is an assembly line of assistant editors who try to separate the wheat from the chaff. In most cases, they’re not even looking at the actual book. They’re looking at a query letter (sales pitch), a synopsis of the plot, and, if you’re lucky, perhaps as few as five double-spaced pages of the book in question.
That means a writer has to write a book worthy of publication AND be fortunate enough to catch someone’s attention – not with the brilliant book you wrote, but with a sales pitch summing up an 85,000 word love story in 1500 words or less. There are times when I feel the odds are better for me winning Powerball than having my query letter hit the right desk at the right moment with the right agent/editor in the right mood and looking for exactly the type of contemporary romance I wrote.
Most queries, for most-if-not-all new writers, are rejected. Charming little rejection letters start popping up in your email inbox. Each feels like a knife in the heart. The vast majority are generic (having them start with “Dear Writer” is a good clue), usually saying something blandly friendly like “it’s not right for us at this time, but golly gosh, good luck with it!” If you catch their attention for more than a nanosecond, you might get a personal reply. “Interesting concept, I liked the setting, but the hero is not very sympathetic.” It’s still a blow, but a glancing one. It gives you a glimmer of hope, and, if you’re lucky, some useful feedback to improve your chances down the road.
Last winter, when I was licking my wounds over a “you’re clearly a good writer, but the story needs development” rejection letter, my Dearest BFF reminded me that it could be a lot worse. They could have told me that the story was good, but my writing really sucked. At least the story can be fixed (and it was).
Why is all of this on my mind today? Well, the super-enthusiastic editor I met in New York City this summer is either buried in work (not uncommon in the industry), or read further into my manuscript and decided it wasn’t for her after all. Since I haven’t heard anything in a month, I don’t know. But I can’t sit around any longer. I need to create a good query letter and a synopsis (that’s the worst part) and start selling The Hide-Away. The only problem is that I’m a writer, not a salesperson.
While my life-long salesman Hubby reassures me that “every ‘no’ gets you closer to a ‘yes’”, to a writer (at least to THIS writer), every “no” hurts. A lot. This book represents a year or more of my life and my energy and my heart, and I believe in it more than anything I’ve ever written. But I have to find the right agent/editor who believes in it along with me. It’s kinda like laying in your front yard while naked, begging people to judge you (not that I’ve ever done that, but try to imagine it). It’s scary and personal and painful. And it’s all just part of the business.
J.K. Rowling was rejected a dozen times before Harry Potter came to life. Louis L’Amour had 200 rejections. The Chicken Soup for the Soul anthology was rejected over 100 times. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was rejected so many times that Beatrix Potter finally self-published until she found her audience. Margaret Mitchell was rejected dozens of times before Gone With The Wind was published. And the list goes on and on and on. Knowing all of that helps. But it doesn’t help much. Because every rejection still hurts.
But Hubby is right (damn, it’s frustrating to admit that!). Each rejection does bring me closer to an acceptance, and I’m just going to have to face the firing range one more time and start sending The Hide-Away out to agents/editors and pray. It’s the book I most believe in, and I really do think it will find a home. But it’s still scary to jump into the querying waters again. The sharks are there, but so is the treasure of a golden book deal.
Wish me luck!
If you read last week’s post, you know that I’d hit a rather epic wall of “writer’s block.” The characters of my last book flatly refused to leave my brain to allow the characters of my current book room to take up residence. After writing that post, I forced myself to get a first chapter on paper (well, on screen, in Word, whatever). It wasn’t easy. It’s a very rough draft of a chapter, and it has all the clumsiness and hurriedness of a draft, but it’s a first chapter completed. And it has set the mood for the book and the characters.
As the chapter began to percolate in my brain, I started to get that old feeling back. It’s the opposite of writer’s block, but it doesn’t have an official name that I know of. I suppose it’s just called “writing” as opposed to “not writing”, but it’s more than that. It’s an energy that starts building inside a writer and it starts to burn like fire. I call it my writing mojo.
Suddenly scenes are playing out like a movie in my head (I’m totally a visual writer – I see my scenes before and as I write them). It can happen at inconvenient times, like while I’m driving, or at work (I spent several lunch breaks this week sending emails to myself of totally awesome scenes that refused to wait). The new characters have not only taken up residence in my head, they’ve now taken it over. And that zip of energy they bring with them is exciting. I’ve visualized that scene that has to happen in every romance, where Melanie and Shane first feel the spark of potential between them. It’s funny and sexy and emotional and charming. I’m a little in love with it, and with them.
And just like that, writer’s block is a think of the past! I’m now typing words so quickly that my fingers can’t keep up with my brain. The story is just spewing out of me and onto the pages like a monster I can’t control. And it makes me smile. There will be a book after all, and while there are certainly points over the coming weeks and months where I’ll hit the brakes again and fight with scenes and argue with my characters about what they should and shouldn’t be doing, I know there’s a romance novel here – and it’s a story that’s worth telling.
Welcome back, mojo!
It’s hard to leave the past behind, and that goes double for leaving written books behind. The characters of The Hide-Away have firmly taken up residence in my brain, and they’re not leaving without a fight.
I love them. Truly, I do. It took a while, and a few good swift kicks in the behind from my BFF, to finally warm up to their potential. But once Bree and Cole became fully-formed characters in my head, I was a goner. Her long, red hair and fiery temper to match. His intense blue-gray eyes and gritty determination to resist feeling any emotion. The fireworks that went off every time they were together. Their sassy give-and-take and sarcastic comments. They were fun to write, and it was rewarding to watch them laugh and stumble and grieve and grow.
But I wrote “THE END” on their story in July. It’s in the hands of a (so far) enthusiastic Harlequin editor, and I pray it will be acquired and published. But it’s time to move on to Bree’s cousin, Melanie, and her story with Shane.
The problem is that very time I start to write about Melanie, I see Bree’s red hair and bristly attitude. Every time I work on Shane, I see Cole’s silent stare and crooked grin. But Melanie isn’t ego-centric and worried about appearances like Bree was. She’s a smart, independent businesswoman who’s in a bind because of one lousy decision. And Shane is the opposite of Cole! He’s big and brash and loud, full of good Irish humor as long as he can forget the legal bind he might be in because of his family. They’re really cool people with a story to tell.
But right now? Right now they’re fighting to get a foothold in my very over-occupied brain. Bree and Cole and the characters from Hide-Away refuse to give ground. They’re preventing Mel and Shane from becoming three-dimensional characters ready to build their own story. And it’s all giving me a headache.
Is there such a thing as a writer’s eviction ceremony? “Get out of my head, Cole and Bree, and go live your lives with my blessing.” Or perhaps an exorcism is needed? Or maybe it’s just good old-fashioned writer’s block and I’m going to have to fight my way through it. Groan.
Words on paper. Words on paper. Must get words on paper.
And those words can NOT be about Bree and Cole……….