Welcome to the My First Sale series. Each Friday, Dear Author posts the first sale letter of bestselling authors, debut authors, and authors in between. Julie Ann Long writes wonderful historical romances with her latest, Like No Other Lover, out in stores on October 28, 2008. An excerpt of the book is here.
I found my first agent in a Laundromat.
Now, I should tell you that I’ve stumbled across a number of unusual things in San Francisco Laundromats over the years, on separate occasions: an ankle-deep mini-lake; a man nude apart from skirt made from a sleeping bag (the rest of his clothes were in the wash, he explained as I backed away); a Chihuahua dressed in a tiny Christmas sweater sitting by itself on a bench (perhaps its pants were in the dryer?) Bemusement is probably the default San Francisco emotional condition.
On this fateful day, the Laundromat I normally frequented was so crowded I was compelled to drag my dirty clothing two blocks farther to a different, more expensive Laundromat (a quarter more per machine! The nerve!), a detour I considered inconvenient as I was of necessity stingily rationing quarters at the time. But the Laundromat owners apparently put those extra quarters to good use: the place was a) pristine; and b) stocked with periodicals fanned neatly on a rickety little table.
One of them was the Learning Annex catalog.
As all the expensive washers and dryers shuddered and spun around me, I idly flipped through it, and discovered that a San Francisco Literary agent was teaching a class on "how to get published," and would review and give feedback on partial submissions if you registered early for the course.
See, just a few days before destiny detoured me into the expensive Laundromat, I had just finished writing my first full-length novel. And the reason I was stingily rationing quarters was in part the reason I finished the book in the first place: I was broke, I was bored.
The dot com boom had gone bust; the freelance graphic and web design work supplementing the income from my nonprofit job (which I’d taken as an antidote of sorts to the intense corporate job I’d had for about seven years-‘until I was laid off) had dried up; many of my friends had moved away from the City; I was no longer playing in bands (more on that later). I’d originally begun to do freelance web design with an eye toward ultimately setting my own hours and working independently -‘a long-time goal-‘thinking this would buy me more time to write. But the opposite ensued: I ultimately ended up working all the time, leaving no time for writing.
In fact, despite the fact that writing was my first love and deepest love, apparent detours-‘and other competition for my attention-‘always seemed to keep me from rushing into its arms, so to speak. My love affair with storytelling probably began the moment I could write; points on the arc of that affair are my first full-length work (a self-published, bound-with-staples, Crayola-illustrated story about talking apples); winning my first and only trophy in the Junior High Spelling Bee ("ukulele" was the word that clinched it); becoming a Journalism major and editor of my college paper and winning awards for writing; switching the major to Creative Writing. I knew I had a knack for writing. I knew I loved it profoundly.
But for years I’d supported myself in serious corporate jobs and spent my nights playing in bands (I was passionate about music and long-haired men with guitars-‘who could blame me?). And while all of my jobs required me to write, and I wrote songs for the band, and the delicious dream of being a novelist was ever-present, it was occasionally drowned out by power chords and all the other pleasures, angst and necessities of life in the big city.
By the time that Laundromat day rolled around, life, by methodically stripping me of diversions (and, um, of income) had finally corralled me into finishing that first book, which I did after work, methodically, every night.
That day, after my clothes were finished tumbling in the expensive dryer, I took that Learning Annex catalog home with me, signed up for the class and submitted my manuscript to the agent.
The book-‘called THE RUNAWAY DUKE-‘was a Regency-set love story; it was 500 whole pages long (an apparently mirth-inducing length for a romance-‘who knew?); there were two strong male characters, a hero and a sympathetic if nefarious buffoon; a number of subplots and such an (unnecessary, apparently-‘again, who knew?) plethora of fully developed minor characters that I gave one of my favorite excised ones (Samuel Heron, a hot gypsy boy) a role in LIKE NO OTHER LOVER, my November book. (One day a "Director’s Cut" version of THE RUNAWAY DUKE might appear; who knows? )
Everything happened rather quickly after that: the agent read my manuscript and wanted to represent me (when I got that phone call from her, I briefly lost all feeling in my extremities). A few months later we sold THE RUNAWAY DUKE to Warner books (cue another momentary loss of feeling in the extremities and a Julie-Andrews-in-The-Sound-of-Music-style twirly dance). Warner worked with me to whittle it into an acceptable romance length, in August 2004 my career was launched, and to my astonished gratification, THE RUNAWAY DUKE was a bestseller and nominated for a slew of awards, including the Rita and the Quills.
At the time, I had no idea one could be nominated for a slew of awards. Frankly, I thought writing for a living was the reward: Everything else was icing.
I was in fact unforgivably ignorant about publishing at the time. When I first sold a book, I honestly knew only this: once you write a book you send it to an agent, who will hopefully then send it to a publisher, who would then turn it into a book, whereupon you continue writing, working in lovely freedom and independence, typing stories, perhaps in a garret. That’s it. I’d never in my life before heard terms like "ARC" or "distribution" or "sell-through" or "print run." I knew nothing of marketing, of genres, of contracts, of how authors are paid. Of necessity, I learned fast and all too often the hard way. It was always interesting but not always pretty or bump or angst-free, and I’m of course still learning-‘you never stop learning about publishing.
Now I can tell you that my writing career is somehow both everything I expected and nothing like I expected-‘kind of like my first trip to New York-‘and I expect it will remain that way for as long as I remain an author. I’m sure it will present just as many surprises-‘surreal, glorious, unfathomable-‘as my hometown of San Francisco does on a daily basis.
Four years after the release of my first book, I have a different publisher (the fabulous Avon) and a different agent (the incomparable Steven Axelrod, who I found not in a Laundromat, but standing outside an elevator at an RWA conference). In the December issue of the Romance Writers Report, Steve and I are presenting a linked set of articles about the vicissitudes of publishing and how to stay sane in the face of them, an article I couldn’t possibly have written if my career had launched in any other fashion than the one I just described.
So as it turned out, all of the things I’d experienced and skills I’d acquired and people I’d known up to the moment of my first sale, all those apparent detours away from writing-‘scruffy wild-haired guitar players and millionaire corporate executives, loves requited and unrequited, the struggles and triumphs and stunning prosperity and the lying-awake-at-night-clammy-handed-with-fear from near pennilessness-‘not to mention web design-‘ were necessary before I could even write a convincing, empathetic, memorable book, manage the incredibly diverse demands of a writing career, assimilate a torrent of new information and navigate the singular world of publishing.
So even though on the surface of things my first sale seemed like a quick one-it was in fact a lifetime in the making.
And I can definitively tell you that there are really no such things as detours in life. Everything is a necessary link between came before and what lies ahead.
Even trips to the Laundromat.