Welcome to the My First Sale series. Each Monday, Dear Author posts the first sale letter of bestselling authors, debut authors, and authors in between. Jeane Westin began her writing life as a freelance journalist, then wrote a number nonfiction books and finally came to her first and true love, historical novels. She has a great website up (www.jeanewestin.com) where she updates regularly the “Fun Facts” section about life in England in the 1600’s.
After a career as a journalist writing articles for magazines and newspapers and several non-fiction books, I decided to leap off a literary cliff and write a novel. My agent at the time wasn’t thrilled. She’d had other clients infected with "novelitis" (her word) and she’d lost sure non-fiction sales. Still, I had to follow my muse and she recognized I wanted a new challenge.
In the mid 1980s, multi-viewpoint women’s novels were popular and I had a great idea for one-Love and Glory, about four of the first women to enlist in the military during WWII. As a very young woman, I had joined the army as a way to get to college on the G.I. bill. Once enlisted, I found that I liked it and for the next six years I was stationed as a cryptographer with NATO in Germany and France and at the Pentagon. (I served in my share of sun-baked red clay southern posts, too.) Although my own military experience was much later than my story, I thought I could bring an authenticity to the lives of women thrown suddenly into a completely alien male world where they had to prove themselves smart, brave and worthy every day. The story had strong feminist overtones, a very urgent message in the 80s.
So I began writing and rewriting until I had an interwoven story of four very different women pioneers from our American past. And 220,000 words! That length sounds like a monster book today, but at that time was not too unusual.
The learning experience–fiction takes dipping deep into one’s own heart–and actual writing took two and one-half years, but at the end I was totally in love with writing the past and had a severe case of "novelitis." Writers Label Warning: once contracted this disease is incurable.
That part of my first sale experience was pure love. Now for the Glory.
My agent read the manuscript, liked it and set an auction date. Simon and Schuster/Pocket made a pre-empt bid for hard-soft rights and my first novel was on its way. I got the news of the sale on the stormiest day ever in my California home town. Gale winds, driving rain, flooding and trees down, but for me the day was faultless. I was living the dream of every first novelist. I called my critique group friends, who had heard much of the novel and they rushed over, detouring around flooded streets, to celebrate with champagne.
I didn’t wake up from that dream for months. There was immediate movie interest and I flew to New York to meet with film producers. A famous name producer, who had just won an Oscar, called me after reading the manuscript and to this day, I can’t remember what I said to him. Agents for Orion studios called me one morning and wanted to fly me to Los Angeles for lunch. (Not a good idea, warned my agent; they’re salesmen and think if they talk to you, they can buy you.) Soon, I acquired a top Hollywood agent/lawyer who sold the book to CBS for a mini-series and I was taken to a famous Los Angeles restaurant with famous faces everywhere. I remember them, not what I ate.
When did I come down to earth? Perhaps after my west coast tour. Most definitely when I got back to work on my second novel, which has an after story all its own.
The mini-series became a screenplay, but was never produced for various unknowable Hollywood reasons, nor did the Broadway musical of my second book.
No writer’s career stays so incredibly high and I’ve served my time in the dark ages, but I did gradually find my way through to my real passion: writing about the women of history both imaginary and real.
Why didn’t I know my true passion from the beginning? Writing is a process of self-discovery. It takes all the time it takes.
My just published novel from NAL, The Virgin’s Daughters: In the Court of Elizabeth I and my next one His Last Letter: Elizabeth I and the Earl of Leicester (August, 2010) have tested me as a writer more than any other. Elizabeth Tudor was and still is to me the most fascinating woman in history. I really want to know: at heart who was she?
Every morning, I go to my computer to find out more about her-and myself.