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My First Sale by Julie Leto, It All Started with Cheap...

Julie Leto is constantly honing her craft to be a better writer, so much so that her group blog is called the Plot Monkeys.   She’s had her writing ups and downs but Leto is a survivor, as any girl raised with three brothers would learn to be.   She’s on the high point now with a new paranormal series starting with Phantom Pleasures that is in stores now and shares another high with her story below.


I started writing romance novels on account of White Zinfandel. Yes, it’s true. It was November of 1987 and I was out with a friend to celebrate her birthday. This particular friend is the one who’d introduced me to romance novels in our freshman year of high school, though she’d been swiping historical romances from under her older sister’s bed for years. We took to hiding them inside our Catholic school textbooks so we could devour Johanna Lindsay and Cynthia Wright and the like instead of actually, you know, learning algebra.Book Cover

But in ’87, we were in graduate school and getting tipsy on cheap wine at our favorite Italian café when she suggested we write a romance novel together. I had just received a degree in creative writing and was working toward a Masters in education and so was she. So on the paper tablecloth next to our order of pasta fritti, we plotted out our first book.

Amazingly, when we sobered up the next day, we actually stuck with our plan. We joined RWA and the local chapter, wrote the book, went to conferences, met and pitched to editors and agents and caught a ton of flack for being young, pretty, college co-eds who thought they had the stuff to be published. After a few years of rejections and two and a half pre-Internet researched historical romances, my friend decided the writing business was not for her. I was on my own.

So just after my wedding in 1991, I switched from historical romances to my deepest love, paranormal romances. I’d been hooked on this new subgenre since reading Rita Clay Estrada’s IVORY KEY. I toyed with many ideas and completed two manuscripts while working full time as a teacher at my alma mater. I had this one manuscript about a hotel heiress who inherits a haunted island with a castle and who finds a sexy phantom trapped in a painting that I nearly sold to Silhouette Shadows, but after doing extensive revisions, I received a form rejection. The line announced it was closing two weeks later.

That was probably the closest I ever came to quitting.

But I soldiered on and a year later, met Brenda Chin (now a Harlequin Senior Editor, but then an editorial assistant) at a workshop sponsored by my local chapter. She described what she was looking for at Temptation Blaze (which had not yet launched) and I immediately recalled a story idea I’d tried to write as a novella for my good friend, Alexandra Kendall, who was just starting a company she would call Red Sage (and which later became a leader in erotic romance with the Secrets novellas.) Trouble was, I had too much story for a novella. But a short contemporary? Why not? I adored Temptations. So I dropped the idea of paranormals and after a two-minute plotting session in the bathroom with my critique partner, I approached Brenda with the idea. She loved it. Of course, I hadn’t written a word. I went home and started writing.

My day job was very demanding, so it took me a year to finish the manuscript. By the time Brenda had time to read my manuscript and request revisions, six months had passed. It took me another six months to actually do the revisions, which required a complete rewrite of the second half of the book. Then I waited while she read. Another couple of months. Then more revisions (to the pesky second half, which had become a bit too emotional for a fun, flirty Temptation Blaze) which I did, then she read it again and finally, felt she had a book she could sell to her senior editor. Nearly two and a half years, maybe closer to three, had gone by from start to finish.

In the meantime, I’d retired from teaching and was working as my father’s secretary, which I have to tell you, was the best damned job in the universe. My family owns a business (we celebrated 50 years last month!) and my mother and three brothers also work there. Needless to say, when Brenda called to tell me she was recommending the buy, I went around to all the other secretary’s desks and put a note on their phones that said, “If Brenda Chin calls Julie, GET HER.” Being the boss’s daughter does bring some clout, after all.

The day was March 14, 1997–nearly ten years after that fateful birthday dinner. It was just after 11am. One of the secretaries took the call and immediately paged me. My desk, which was in the center of the office without walls, was too noisy, so I dashed into the conference room. I picked up the phone and not fifteen seconds later, my entire family (father, mother and three brothers) ran in after me. They heard the whole conversation. Much screaming ensued. Brenda asked me if she should call back after the party for us to discuss the details of the sale, but I said no, shooed the family out and proceeded to negotiate my contract.

My first book, SEDUCING SULLIVAN, came out in June 1998 and was reprinted and re-released in January, 2006.

Oh, and that paranormal book with the sexy phantom and the hotel heiress? It came out this month under the title, Phantom Pleasures. Okay, so it’s not the same book. I completely rewrote it without ever looking at the original. I don’t think I even own the original anymore. But it was the same idea and many of the same characters–and I finally had the skill to pull it off. It was like making that first sale all over again.

I’ve since sold over thirty and I’ve been in the business for over twenty-years. Yet every single sale is as exciting as the first. Well, nearly. J

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


  1. carolyn Jean
    Apr 18, 2008 @ 09:06:30

    Thanks for this, Julie.
    This was a really inspiring story – it sounds like you worked hard and it’s paying off. Good for you! I actually have Phantom Pleasures winging its way to me now, and I can’t wait to read it!

  2. Roxanne St. Claire
    Apr 18, 2008 @ 09:08:44

    So children aren’t the only thing to be conceived with cheap wine? Great story, Julie. You are testament to tenacity and an inspiration to so many in this business. I love the image of the entire family listening to the call!

  3. Charlene Teglia
    Apr 18, 2008 @ 09:12:31

    Well, that makes Phantom Pleasures an extra trimphant release! Congrats!

  4. Charlene Teglia
    Apr 18, 2008 @ 09:12:58

    Gah. Can’t spell. TriUmphant.

  5. Jill Monroe
    Apr 18, 2008 @ 09:22:00

    Glad you didn’t quit, Julie!

    Julie is one of the first people to offer encouragement and advice.

  6. Anne-Marie
    Apr 18, 2008 @ 09:27:20

    Gotta love that wine. Julie Elizabeth, what an absolutely awesome and inspiring post. I could listen to your first sale story over and over. Your determination is instigating me to get back at my synopsis and plotting board so I can get my story finished and go on to the next. Thank you. I’m BICHOKing right now, and I promise you’ll be one of the first to hear, if and when, I get the call. I’m so glad you were able to write your dream novel that you had shelved so many years ago.

  7. Cher Gorman
    Apr 18, 2008 @ 09:53:48

    Julie, readers around the world, including me are thrilled you did not quit. Thanks for sharing your inspiring story. :-)


  8. Grace Draven
    Apr 18, 2008 @ 10:39:15

    What a great first sale story! Very inspiring, and I loved the part about your family following you into the conference room to hear the conversation. Awesome when family supports each other like that.

    I still have THE IVORY KEY! One of my favorite books, and I’ve reread it multiple times since I bought it all those years ago.

  9. Terry Odell
    Apr 18, 2008 @ 10:42:25

    Thanks for sharing your story. I’ll have to stock up on more cheap wine.

  10. Jill Sorenson
    Apr 18, 2008 @ 10:42:53

    Great story, Julie. Congrats on your success! Can’t wait to read Phantom Pleasures.

  11. JulieLeto
    Apr 18, 2008 @ 10:51:13

    My family has been instrumental in making me who I am. If there is anything in my career I am grateful for, it is their unending support. I hear so often about writers, especially romance writers, who struggle with their family’s inability to accept their dream, much less support it, and I’m thankful for mine.

    My father and my older brother read all my books. My mother, who reads very little fiction and is very religious, does not read them. However, she sends many people to my booksignings and will usually be found in the bookstore, telling everyone about how fabulous her daughter is. My younger brothers also buy my books, though they don’t read them. (Wives and girlfriends do, thankfully!) There are just some things they don’t want to know about their older sister, LOL! I am so glad I was able to share that special moment in person with all of them because they’d always been so supportive before.

    BTW, I should mention that my older brother’s wife proofreads all my manuscripts and my younger brother’s wife always buys many copies to give as gifts. I’m one lucky woman.

    Never once did my parents say “don’t write.” Or even “don’t write romance.” They’re self-made, so I think they totally saw how that would appeal to me. They never put a time limit on my achieving success because the fact that I was doing what I loved was success enough. I can only pray I can be just as supportive with my own child! Honestly, despite many, many rejections and switching genres three times, the only time I thought about quitting was that one time. And I didn’t manage it…quitting just was never an option.

    I actually think about it now more than I ever did then. I wonder if it was youth? I don’t have much of that anymore, LOL!

  12. Janine
    Apr 18, 2008 @ 11:13:39

    Great story! You are indeed very lucky in your family.

  13. Kristen
    Apr 18, 2008 @ 11:56:41

    Awesome story, thanks for sharing. Note to self: stock up on cheap wine and start plotting in the bathroom.

  14. Liviania
    Apr 18, 2008 @ 12:38:25

    Amazing story! I’m glad you kept trying and working on improving your skills – and that your family supported you.

  15. JulieLeto
    Apr 18, 2008 @ 13:49:23

    CarolynJean, THANK YOU…and all of you…who purchased PHANTOM PLEASURES. It’s sort of strange to actually see this story in print after all these years. Strange in a good way!

    This whole business is about perseverance and hard work and not quitting. Of course, so many jobs are. But I’m lucky enough to have a job that I love and that gives me that “first book” feeling at least twice a year. I’m certainly not complaining!

    Kristen, I’m a big believer in cheap wine. I also plot many of my books in the shower. I don’t know what it is about the water and the white noise and the heat…when I’m having a plot problem, I’m often the cleanest woman on the planet.

    Grace, I still have my copy, too! THE IVORY KEY is certainly a romance classic. I met Rita Clay once and gushed like a moron. She was very gracious!

  16. Leslie Kelly
    Apr 18, 2008 @ 15:21:23

    I love hearing your story Julie–talk about a lesson in being persistent and working hard! And you so deserve every bit of success that has come since.

    But…White Zin? Ugh. Oh, sweetheart, am I going to introduce you to a nice Pinot Noir in San Fran.

  17. JulieLeto
    Apr 18, 2008 @ 15:24:36

    Leslie, that was 20 years ago, when I was a very poor college student. I now drink Reisling.

  18. Paula R.
    Apr 18, 2008 @ 18:16:27

    Jules, loved this article…it took that long to write your first novel…wow…two and half years is a long time…well, I am glad the first pitch didn’t work out for you because we wouldn’t have been able to experience PP the way we do now…it is awesome and I love the idea of the story…can’t wait to read Touch…You definitely are a trooper; I probably would have given up after the first rejection…do you ever keep in touch with your old college buddy? Does she kick herself for leaving you swinging in the wind? I think she must have gotten a shock when she saw or heard that stuck it out and you published your first book…I find it rather interesting that white zinfandel played such a pivotal role in your life…congrats on a job well done…you know how much I love you and your buddies…

  19. Carolyn Roark
    Apr 18, 2008 @ 19:34:20

    What an inspiring journey, Julie! Yours is a motivational story for unpubs, especially on those days when fear and self doubt creeps in (I have them frequently). To know someone that has seen your success also struggled in the beginning makes me want to persevere. Thanks for sharing your story! Oh, and FYI – I’ll be reading my copy of Phantom Pleasures this weekend! :-)

  20. Marie lifestylerin
    Apr 18, 2008 @ 20:53:19

    Thanks for sharing great story! The family is very important!

  21. JulieLeto
    Apr 18, 2008 @ 20:58:39

    Hi, Paula! Actually, I spoke to my buddy just today! We keep in touch. Or daughters are the same age and honestly, breaking up the partnership was probably the best thing we ever did for our friendship. She’s still an avid romance reader, though she reads mostly historicals, which is where we first started. She did a career in computers and then was/is a stay-at-home mom.

    Thanks to everyone. Yes, it took me a long time to get where I wanted to be, but I started off very young and despite a degree in Creative Writing, I didn’t know squat about commercial fiction until I joined RWA. A lot of those years were just learning the craft. Then it was all about right place, right time, right idea on the first sale.

    Oh, and Carolyn…fear and self-doubt do not lessen when you get published. They get worse. So it’s good practice to deal with it before hand, when no one is paying you money in advance of success that might not live up to everyone’s expectations.

    But I’m not complaining! It’s just the way of the world.

  22. Jenyfer Matthews
    Apr 19, 2008 @ 01:48:55

    I’ll take any excuse there is to drink wine :)

    Thanks for sharing your story – it’s stories like this that keep me going!

  23. Betina Krahn
    Apr 19, 2008 @ 09:45:58

    Julie, I just finished Phantom Pleasures and was entranced by the great story and steamy loving! Wonderful stuff! And the Paschal stuff– never saw that coming– wow! Now I’m hooked– I can’t wait for the other brothers’ stories! Write faster!

    Your 1st sale story demonstrates the essential wisdom of the writing career– persist, persevere, and be patient. Timing is also critical– but we just have to have faith that our ms will land on the right desk for the right eyes at the right time. We have no real control over how or if that happens. So we live in hope. . . which makes us better people in the long run. And the writing-reading world is so much richer for the fact that YOU took time to learn the craft and to persevere. Your stories and your enthusiasm and generosity enrich us all!

    May PP sell a million!

  24. Allison Brennan
    Apr 19, 2008 @ 23:42:57

    Hi Julie! What a fantastic story! I love how you turned full-circle and are writing what you first started writing. Thirty books? Here’s a toast to thirty more :)

  25. Caffey
    Apr 21, 2008 @ 01:39:30

    I had goosebumps reading this Julie! You’re one I look up to and think things will turn out ok! I’m lost for words after reading this. Just keep believing!

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