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My First Sale by Carolyn Jewel

carolynjewel_color30percentWelcome to the My First Sale series. Each Friday, Dear Author posts the first sale letter of bestselling authors, debut authors, and authors in between. Carolyn Jewel writes historicals for Berkley and paranormals for Warner.   Her latest, Scandal, is in stores now.

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Way back in the dark ages, I decided to write a novel after spending too much time thinking about writing and no time actually writing. So, single and with no children, I wrote what I loved to read: a historical romance. Somehow I was clever enough to get a hold of a Writer’s Market from which I learned how to go about selling a novel. I decided I could only stand two rejections at once. Therefore, I prepared two queries and mailed them off. A bit of literary foreshadowing here: I am slightly dyslexic (I have siblings who are far more severely affected) and as it happens, I transposed some digits on one of the query packages. About six months later, that one came back to me as undeliverable. Yeah. One query made it to its destination.

About two weeks (I am not kidding about the two weeks) after I mailed off my queries I came home from work to find the following message on my answering machine: "Hi, there, I think we have an offer on your book. Can you call me to discuss?" There was more, but my brain kind of froze up. I had to go walk around the block until I was able to think coherently and listen to the voice mail again.

Long story short, an author had failed to timely deliver a book to St. Martin’s Press, and they desperately needed a book for that slot. The line was called "Americans Abroad" so would I mind very much changing my French heroine to an American one? Not at all I said. And could I do that in six weeks? Sure, I said. Which I did. This was February, I believe, and my historical romance, Passion’s Song, was in bookstores in November. Yes, I realize it’s not supposed to happen that way except in the minds of those massive idiots who think this business is easy; all you do is write a book and sell it two weeks later!

Scandal Carolyn JewelI wrote a second book pretty much the same way I wrote the first one, secured an agent and sold that book, too. My next book, I told myself, would be written deliberately. I would plan and mold and sculpt my story until it glittered like gold. Well, let me tell you, this approach was a monumental disaster. That book did not sell. It was beautifully written (everybody said so) and boring as all get out. I wrote another book, trying to plot and plan and logic my way to what I had done pretty much on instinct before and produced another epic failure. I also had a child so there are some fuzzy sleep-deprived years in there. But I wrote when I could.

Basically, I spent the next several years writing and rewriting and gathering blurry photocopied rejections. One publisher rejected me and, about six months later, rejected me again even though I hadn’t re-queried. At least the second one was on their stamp. I can just hear the intern saying, "I hated that query from Carolyn Jewel so much, I think I need to reject her again, just to make sure!" I started another book and it showed every sign of being just as bad as the other two clunkers. By then, however, there was the World Wide Web and I was a member of RWA and I could inflict my beautifully written yet incredibly boring stories on people who were obliged to tell me what they thought. I also studied what I was doing and what other writers were doing; I deconstructed every bit of knowledge to come into my head, and I made sure I owned it and took responsibility for what worked and what didn’t. I discovered I am a seat of the pants writer and that anything much beyond bare bones planning is fatal to my process-’I have the doorstops to prove it.

I ended up with a book that wasn’t boring and I queried about with it, gathering rejections (and doing more revisions) along the way. I eventually I got an agent who called me one day after two or three months and told me we had an offer. I was at work when that call came so I couldn’t jump up and pump my fist in the air or anything. But when I got off the phone, I did go out and take a walk around the building to privately reflect on a success I’d begun to think might never come again.

As far as I’m concerned, I had two first sales. Both taught me some Very Important Lessons. I won’t bore you with all of them, but feel free to suggest lessons learned in the comments, I’m always looking to learn. I’ll end with one that’s pretty obvious; Talent is required, but good timing sure helps.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She 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

16 Comments

  1. Leeann Burke
    Feb 13, 2009 @ 07:48:10

    What an inspiring story. I'll have to check your latest release on my next trip to the bookstore this weekend.

    Jane, I just love starting my Friday mornings with your First sale stories.

  2. vanessa jaye
    Feb 13, 2009 @ 08:34:48

    What a great story, Carolyn! Thanks for sharing that. And might I add, thank goodness you didn’t give up. Love your books. :D

    Unabashed fan of yours,

  3. Sherry Thomas
    Feb 13, 2009 @ 09:42:20

    I know all about beautifully polished crap. I specialize in it, until my editor kicks me and makes me write something readable instead. :-)

    Welcome to the club.

  4. Maya M.
    Feb 13, 2009 @ 09:45:50

    More power to the pantsers! Yay! From listening to the stories of many repeatedly pubbed authors I had this impression that pantsers are on the slow extinction list – only half (or however many) start out that way before selling, and over time as they get better at what they do they transform more and more into plotters. I don’t feel so threatened now. And that two week thing would be very, very unobjectionable.

  5. Jill Sorenson
    Feb 13, 2009 @ 09:55:14

    “I hated that query from Carolyn Jewel so much, I think I need to reject her again, just to make sure!”

    LOL! Love your story. I’ve heard great things about Scandal. Looking forward to reading it.

  6. Kaley
    Feb 13, 2009 @ 09:56:57

    Hello, Carolyn. I just finished Scandal this week–my first book of yours, but I’ll be searching out The Spare soon. There was something just so true and lovely about Sophie and Banallt, their individual characters, and in how they discovered each other. And your dialogue–again, just true and lovely and subtle…

    I wondered as I read if the Duke was trying to help out his friend Banallt, sort of pleading Banallt’s case to Sophie or providing opportunities for them to be together. Was I reading too deep, or was that part of his motivation?

    Thanks for this story, and how you told it.

  7. Carolyn Jewel
    Feb 13, 2009 @ 10:52:30

    Thanks for all the kind comments, everyone.

    Sherry Thomas, oh my gosh, the polished crap just never goes away does it? Dang, but this writing stuff is hard!

    MayaM: When I heard J.R. Ward considers herself more of a plotter now than a pantser, I gasped. I think everyone’s writing evolves, and from what I’ve seen, every writer in the world is looking to be more efficient. Maybe sometime in the future I’ll be a plotter, too. I just haven’t figured out how to do it without killing the spark. Chill, though, because there are lots of pansters out here. The only thing you need to worry about (mostly) is what’s working for you now. Well, and what’s not working, because that’s something that probably needs to change.

    Kaley: Regarding the duke, I think he understood Sophie had issues with Banallt and so did her brother, and he was looking for a way to make peace between them so the political work would go smoothly. And since he had reason to admire Banallt, and in fact did, he wanted Sophie to understand this, too. There are many ways to read and interpret the duke’s behavior, and I think yours is quite valid.

  8. Sunita
    Feb 13, 2009 @ 11:21:55

    What a great story! I *loved* The Spare, and Lord Ruin and Scandal are in my TBR. I read The Spare years ago, and I can still remember how atmospheric it was. So I’m glad you’re still writing beautiful prose!

    And welcome to the Gratuitous Rejections club; when I was first applying for academic jobs, I was rejected by *two* different committees at a University That Will Not Be Named. I had sent my file to one committee, which turned me down and apparently sent the file to another search. Their staff were so efficient that I got “no thank you” letters from both searches.

  9. Janine
    Feb 13, 2009 @ 12:22:24

    I just finished Scandal and wow, what a book! It kept me up until 3AM.

    Thanks for sharing your first sale stories. I always find them inspiring to read, and this one was no exception.

    I discovered I am a seat of the pants writer and that anything much beyond bare bones planning is fatal to my process-’I have the doorstops to prove it.

    However frustrating that must be, it is great to have that kind of self-knowledge.

  10. SonomaLass
    Feb 13, 2009 @ 13:29:32

    Thanks, Carolyn, for sharing. I really look forward to the First Sale story each week.

    As an academic, I am trained to write beautiful boring crap. This is why I read fiction but am never tempted to try my hand at writing it! Hmm, maybe that’s why you and Sherry Thomas are two of my favorite writers. You have overcome what I cannot.

    I was looking forward to reading Scandal this weekend; it has been sitting tantalizingly atop my pile since I bought it a week ago, waiting for me to finish the epic fantasy that was on seven-day loan from the library. But last night (as I was in the last chapter of said epic), my almost-18 daughter came home from a date, plopped herself down on my bed, and idly picked up the top book on my pile. Yours. She paged through it a bit, stopped, read a bit, looked up and said, “Wait, this heroine isn’t perfect, young and beautiful?” I said that was one reason I was eager to read it, but I don’t think she was listening. She had flipped to the beginning of the book — last time I saw it, it was going out the door in her greedy little hands. So I’m going to have to wait a couple more days to read it, but I think you have a new fan.

  11. Gennita Low
    Feb 13, 2009 @ 18:27:01

    Carolyn,

    I’m another unrepentant pantser here ;-). And I love your books, which are on my Keeper Shelf. Can’t wait to read your new one!

  12. Carolyn Jewel
    Feb 13, 2009 @ 20:36:08

    Thanks everyone! I have to confess that I LOVE the First Sale feature, too. It’s always so inspiring. I look forward to reading it. It’s a great way to start a Friday.

    The Gratuitous Rejection Club. Snort. Finally I’m member of a club! We should all get together for drinks. And wow, getting rejected from something you didn’t even know you had applied/queried for. That’s just terrible!

    The whole discovering myself as a writer is an on going process, but I can be such an analytical thinker that I analyze things to death. Ironically, it was my need to analyze that led me to the awareness about how I write. That and sheer stubbornness. I need a way to stop that from happening. Deadline panic is great for that. Not fun, but great. Pantsing (hmm, I think this sentence is headed someplace dangerous) is a completely valid way to write. So is plotting. I don’t think it’s possible to tell from Julia Quinn’s wonderful books that she falls more on the plotting end of the scale anymore than you can read, say, Scandal, and tell I’m a pantser. At least I don’t think so.

    SonomaLass: I see your handle around and I always wonder if you live near me. I live in Petaluma and work in Sonoma. I hope you get your copy back, and thank you, very much for sharing that story. Tell your daughter I hope she enjoys it.

    Gennita Low! squeee!!! Thank you.

  13. Sherrie Holmes
    Feb 13, 2009 @ 20:40:49

    Hi, Carolyn! *waving* I’m one of your followers on Twitter. Thought I’d do a little cross-pollinating and drop by to say hi. Like you, I am a pantser, and I don’t see that changing. The minute I am faced with character grids and plotting forms I rebel. Obviously you’re doing right because you’re selling and you have fans! ‘Atta girl!

  14. Jael
    Feb 13, 2009 @ 21:36:09

    I just read Scandal this week and loved it! I really enjoyed getting both sides of the story from Sophie and Banallt as it unfolded. Thank you so much for writing such a beautiful story.

  15. SonomaLass
    Feb 14, 2009 @ 17:04:01

    Carolyn: Yes, we are practically neighbors! I’ll send you a message through your web site. And I WILL get my copy of your book back!

  16. Trish
    Feb 15, 2009 @ 15:09:19

    Carolyn, I am halfway into SCANDAL and am loving it. I also adored LORD RUIN and THE SPARE. Matter of fact, Olivia Willow remains one of my favorite romance heroines ever. I’m looking very much forward to INDISCREET.

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