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My First Sale by Helen Brenna

new_then-comes-baby-web_b54nWelcome to the My First Sale series. Each Monday, Dear Author posts the first sale letter of bestselling authors, debut authors, and authors in between. Helen Brenna writes contemporary romances for Harlequin. I’ve been enjoying her Mirabelle Island stories from Harlequin Superromance with the first three books in that series released back to back to back. The most recent, Then Comes Baby, should be in stores now.


Let’s just say the exultant cry was no doubt heard for miles when I got The Call in March of 2006.
It all started close to twenty years ago. I’d decided to quit a stressful accounting position to stay home for a little while with my-‘then-‘one year old daughter. One afternoon, I sat down to finish a LaVyrle Spencer historical romance. I remember closing the book and, contented smile firmly in place, thinking, "I could do that."

Right. LaVyrle made it seem so easy.

I set out in my typical over-achieving, perfectionistic manner to tackle this craft of writing and get published. I knew nothing. And I mean nothing.

My first readers, mostly family, were patience and kind, which gave me the courage to join my first critique group. They weren’t so Minnesota nice. But they taught me so much. I was an eager student, swallowing my pride and absorbing every tidbit of wisdom any reader, published author, agent, or editor bothered to offer. I worked and learned, went to conferences and entered contests and got deservedly sucky scores.

When I finalled in the Golden Heart contest for the first time in 1994, I thought this is it. A month later, the day I came home from the hospital with my second child, I got my first agent. The sale seemed inevitable.

Only no publisher would touch that book. Who knew that setting a romance in the Middle East killed a story (back then) from an editor’s perspective?

The let down was terrible. I’m not a quitter, but the Golden Heart is it, baby. If you can’t sell after that, what’s the point? I cried. I got angry. I couldn’t write. I was paralyzed, scared to death of putting tremendous effort into something that would once again go nowhere. Fear is my worst enemy. I quit writing for five years.

Over time, creative urges sabotaged me. I loved writing. Maybe a more marketable setting was the ticket. I tried to tell myself that I didn’t care if I got published. (Yeah, right. I’m the seventh of eight children. I crave attention.)

I wrote my next book for fun, something that excited me. It didn’t do great in contests. It didn’t sell. It didn’t get me an agent. But I’d enjoyed the process, so I wrote another book. Lo and behold it finalled in the Golden Heart, along with a previous book. I was a double finalist. This was it. I had three agents offering me representation. Three! But I’d been in nearly this exact position ten years earlier. I knew what might not happen.

Sure enough, during the course of the next year, my worst fears were realized. In one of the most agonizingly slow processes know to womankind, one editor after another turned my book down. Fear threatened to knock the legs out from under me again.

My agent stuck with me, bless her heart. Editors loved my writing despite not being able to buy my book, so she encouraged me to rework a previous story. I was skeptical, but I followed through. In fact, I rewrote that darned manuscript three times for three different editors. Finally, I got it right.

Ten years of fairly serious writing, four completed manuscripts, three Golden Heart finals, a Maggie win, too many regional contest finals to count, three critique groups, two agents, and one study group later, I finally became a published author.

The icing on the cake? My first book, TREASURE, was a double finalist in Romance Writers of America’s RITA contest. It was up for Best First Book (the only series romance amidst a group of well-deserving single title romances) and won the RITA for Best Series Romantic Suspense.

TREASURE hit the shelves in February of 2007 and I’m currently writing my tenth book for Harlequin. As frustrating as my journey was, it was the journey I needed. I’m not sure I could have written my Mirabelle Island Superromance series without the bumps and bruises I earned along the way.
If you’re reading this, you’re likely on your own publishing journey. Stay true. The Call is just the beginning. This is a crazy business, isn’t it?

THEN COMES BABY, the third in my Mirabelle Island series will be on bookshelves December 8 and the first two in the series are still available for order.


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. Jayne
    Nov 24, 2009 @ 08:12:27

    Ten years of fairly serious writing, four completed manuscripts, three Golden Heart finals, a Maggie win, too many regional contest finals to count, three critique groups, two agents, and one study group later, I finally became a published author.

    Hang in there would-be authors! Maybe one day this will be you.

  2. Missy Lyons
    Nov 24, 2009 @ 08:45:54

    That’s a very encouraging story. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Ellen Hartman
    Nov 24, 2009 @ 09:58:13

    Hi Helen!

    What a tremendous story. I never knew all these details about your journey.

    You continue to be an inspiration to me. Not only are your stories wonderful, but you let me hold your Rita. What an honor! I was only a little tempted to snatch it and make a quick getaway. Lucky for you I can’t run in heels, especially not while lugging a (surprisingly heavy) Rita. ;-)

    I know I’ll come back to this story when I’m feeling out of patience with this crazy business.


    P.S. I’ve been LOVING the Mirabelle stories. Can’t wait for the last one. :-)

  4. Janine
    Nov 24, 2009 @ 13:41:13

    Wow. What an amazing story. Thanks so much for sharing those bumps and bruises, and the happy ending (or as you say, happy beginning).

  5. Emmanuelle
    Nov 24, 2009 @ 14:05:15

    Great first sale story Helen ! I loved your “I can do that” comment.
    And you did ! Congratulaitons ;-)

  6. Helen Brenna
    Nov 24, 2009 @ 14:57:33


    Jayne, I firmly believe it can be anyone if he/she’s willing to learn the craft and stick to it. Never give up. Never surrender!

    And thanks for posting my sale story. It’s always interesting, sometimes fun revisiting those years.

  7. Helen Brenna
    Nov 24, 2009 @ 14:58:30

    @Missy Lyons:

    You’re very welcome, Missy. I’ve told it a few times. Could probably write it in my sleep!

  8. Helen Brenna
    Nov 24, 2009 @ 15:02:39

    @Ellen Hartman:

    Hi Ellen!

    Yes, she is heavy. And shiny! LOL

    Glad you’re enjoying the Mirabelle stories. Not sure when the last one will be though. There are three out in 2009, August, October and December. A fourth out in June 2010. And I’m prepping proposals for 3 more for 2011. Keeping my fingers crossed that Harlequin isn’t sick of Mirabelle just yet!

    Great to see the lovely reviews of your books here these last couple of days. I wish I had your sense of humor, but funny is not something I do very well.

  9. Helen Brenna
    Nov 24, 2009 @ 15:03:45


    Glad to share, Janine!

  10. Helen Brenna
    Nov 24, 2009 @ 15:06:05


    Thanks Emmanuelle! Fun to see you here!

  11. Ellen Hartman
    Nov 24, 2009 @ 15:13:35


    Thanks for the update. I didn’t know about the additional Mirabelle stories, but I’m psyched to hear about them! I’ll cross my fingers for the proposals. (Not that you need luck, I’m sure the editors will snatch the stories up, but this will make me feel as if I’ve contributed to the effort.)

    Say hi to Rita for me. ;-)


  12. Helen Brenna
    Nov 24, 2009 @ 16:01:50

    Ellen, we all need a little luck when it comes to proposals, so all the good vibes help.

    Rita’s waving!

  13. Carolyn Jewel
    Nov 24, 2009 @ 17:15:55

    I just love reading the first sale stories. And I do have a special fondness for stories that illustrate that success isn’t always instant. I’m glad you stuck with it. Thanks for sharing your story.

  14. Helen Brenna
    Nov 24, 2009 @ 18:58:12

    Instant, Carolyn, no. But I do believe everyone’s journey is unique and exactly what they need at the time.

  15. Vicky Dreiling
    Nov 24, 2009 @ 20:37:54

    Fantastic story, Helen! Your perserverance paid off big-time. Congratulations!

    To Jane: The first-sale stories are wonderful, but more importantly, these stories serve an important function. They show first-hand that writing for publication is hard work, and that published authors often have a trail of rejections behind those success stories. Yes, luck and talent play some part, but mostly I think it’s the sheer refusal to give up, no matter how tough and impossible it seems.

  16. Jane
    Nov 24, 2009 @ 20:42:03

    @Vicky Dreiling I don’t disagree that writing for publication is hard work.

  17. Vicky Dreiling
    Nov 24, 2009 @ 20:48:10

    @Jane: I don’t really know you, but I’ve always sensed you understand.

  18. Jane
    Nov 24, 2009 @ 21:00:02

    @Vicky Dreiling I’ve read enough bad books to recognize good writing is part gift and part very hard work.

  19. Edie
    Nov 24, 2009 @ 23:00:16

    Helen, great first sale story. You’re an inspiration!

  20. Helen Brenna
    Nov 25, 2009 @ 07:08:19


    Thanks, Edie. If being like a pit bull with a bone is inspiration, then, yeah, maybe I am! LOL

  21. Helen Brenna
    Nov 25, 2009 @ 07:10:25


    Jane, if you ever read some of my first attempts, you would doubt the gift part! I think it was Stephen King who said good writers are made, great writers are born, or something like that. I think there’s a lot truth to that.

  22. Helen Brenna
    Nov 25, 2009 @ 07:11:56

    @Vicky Dreiling:
    Thanks Vicky. I think it’s great that Dear Author showcases these stories. They are important.

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