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My First Sale by Jennifer Donnelly, Just Keep Writing

new_home5_05.jpgJennifer Donnelly is a multi decorated author of the fiction books, A Northern Light , The Tea Rose, and her most recent release, The Winter Rose which is the second book in the Tea Rose trilogy. Her books are set in intriguing time periods (early 20th C) and feature strong, dynamic heroines. A Northern Light is set in 1906 Adirondacks and features 16 year old Mattie who has a gift for writing which can be explored if she goes to college but her desires war with her family obligations.

140130103701mzzzzzzz.jpgThe Winter Rose showcases India Selwyn Jones who graduates from London School of Medicine in 1900 and decides to use her skills to bring medicine to the poor. India falls in love with an entirely appropriate man, a notorious gangster, and the saga takes them from “London to Kenya to the wild, remote coast of California. When the review request was delivered to us for this book the Dear Author group fought over who would get to read it first. (Jayne won, by the way).

***

I waited years for The Call. Ten years, in fact.

Like my first novel, The Tea Rose, the story of how I finally got The Call is a rags-to-riches tale. Got a few minutes? Good. Pull up a chair.

I was in my mid-twenties when I started to write The Tea Rose. I’d gotten the idea for the book a few years earlier, while I was a student in London. My then-landlord, Clark, took me to the Brick Lane market in Whitechapel. Clark loved antiques. He had a Model A Ford. We drove east from Notting Hill early one Sunday morning. This was the mid-80s and East London was totally off the map. There were no wine bars or posh hotels, then. No multi-million dollar flats or art galleries. There were lots of crumbling houses, though. And dark, cobbled alleys. There were smoky pubs, boarded-up warehouses, and silent, brooding wharves.

I’d read about this area; it was notorious. It was Jack the Ripper’s London. Ben Tillet’s London. The Kray brothers’ London. It was a worker’s London, where dockers, factory hands, builders, seamen, and costers lived. The smallness and plainness of the houses spoke of hard lives and meager resources.

Clark pulled up just before a rusted railway overpass. As he cut the engine, I heard music. When we emerged on the other side of the bridge, I discovered its source. Burly costermongers were singing the praises of their fruits and vegetables. They smiled and winked as they did, their voices rising in competition. Watching them, I felt as if I’d left modern-day London and stumbled into the same city that Johnson, Hogarth and Dickens knew. We bought some clementines and walked on, passing in and out of musty warehouses, stalls, sheds and old stables. Picking up trinkets. Tripping on cobbles. Sampling apple fritters, jellied eels, pickled whelks. I found a rhinestone necklace for a pound. A tweed jacket for two. Clark found a toilet.

I found something else that day, too — inspiration. East London was a shadow city to the western metropolis, a place to soothe a darker heart. It was honest and raw and in its own hard way, breathtakingly lovely. I fell in love with it then and there and knew that I wanted to write about the place and its people.

And so, a few years later, I started. I started the way you just start things when you’re young and optimistic and energetic and a little stupid. I jumped in with both feet.

I loved words. I loved books. I knew I could write. I’d been a reporter, a copywriter. I had a story idea. What else did I need?

A lot, as it turned out. I needed a skin as thick as a rhino’s. The endurance of a mountain climber. Persistance, courage, and faith. (A bottle of Prozac would have helped, too.)

There was so much I didn’t know. I didn’t know how to structure a very long novel. I didn’t know what point of view was, pacing, narrative drive – and a thousand other literary terms. I didn’t know my way around the world of agents and publishers.

All I knew was that I wanted to write. That I needed to write.

So I started writing.

I wrote mornings from 4:30 am until 7:00 am, and then I went to work. I wrote on weekends. Instead of taking vacations. I wrote pages upon pages upon pages. Draft upon draft.

But it didn’t matter. The story didn’t work. It didn’t flow. It bogged down in description. It meandered. So I ripped up what I had and started again. And again. A year passed. Two. Five. Eight. I watched my friends got ahead in their chosen fields while I cobbled together a living from part time jobs, temp jobs, freelance jobs. I watched others get agents, get editors, get contracts, get published.

And I kept writing.

Frustration set in. A sense of futility. Depression. Despair. I took hope, no matter how slim, from wherever I could find it: horoscopes, songs, fortune cookies. I picked up lucky pennies and wished on stars.

And I kept writing.

I knew that nothing and no one could guarantee I’d ever get published, but I myself would guarantee that I didn’t if I stopped.

And then one day, I had it – a finished manuscript. I knew it wasn’t perfect. But some people – my family, my friends – liked it.

It was time to get an agent. Once again, not knowing what I was doing, I got out a big fat guide to literary agencies and sent a letter to every single one that sounded nice. Luckily I got a response from an agent at a very good one – Writers House – inviting me to submit my work. His name was Simon Lipskar. He read my work, told me the good news: “You can write,” then told me the bad news: “You need to do a lot of work on the structure. On plot. On pacing.”

I started again. Rewriting. Reworking. Trimming down a 1,000 page manuscript to a workable size.

I kept writing.

It took me another year to get the manuscript right. Another year of frustration. Of going back and forth with Simon, page by page. Of tears and doubt and worry.

But I kept writing.

And finally, it was done. Again. It was polished and perfect and I thought we’d sell it immediately. I was so wrong.

The manuscript was rejected from every publishing house in New York, and a few outside of it. Simon tried hard to sell it for over a year. And then I got a call. Not The Call, not by a long shot. It was Simon, and he was calling to tell me we he’d tried everything and everywhere and he couldn’t sell it. At least, not yet. We had to take a break. Put it on a shelf.

I was so down, I can’t even describe it. Ten years of my life. All that work. All that sacrifice. Such a labor of love. And no one wanted it.

My wonderful husband took me for a weekend away. If he hadn’t, I think I would have jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge. My mom and dad and sister told me to keep the faith. I thought they were all nuts.

I went back to work. I tried to forget I’d ever written a book. Weeks passed. Then months. It was winter.

I kept writing.

And then one dreary, cold, gray afteroon, as I was sitting at my desk at Saks Fifth Avenue, writing ad copy, the phone rang. It was Simon.

There was excitement in his voice, I could hear it. My heart started thumping. My hands went cold. And sure enough, he said the words I’d been waiting to hear for a decade: “I have an offer for The Tea Rose.” There was an editor a St. Martin’s – a new hire – and she liked it.

It wasn’t riches, not even close. But it didn’t need to be. It was priceless. I said “Yes.” And then I called my huband and my parents, who’d been there for me every step of the way, then I told my copywriting pals, who cheered, and then I went for a walk on Manhattan’s streets – feeling like I finally had a right to walk them, to stand tall upon them.

I bought a bottle of champagne, went home and drank it with my husband, and danced on our dining room table. After ten long years, I’d made it. I was a writer. Soon I’d be an author.

So when it gets hard and cold and lonely, and you think it’s all useless and you’re never going to get anywhere, know that there’s only one thing you should do, only one thing you must do, only one thing you can do: Keep writing.

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

21 Comments

  1. Marg
    Jan 11, 2008 @ 06:13:34

    I can’t wait to read the Dear Author review of The Winter Rose. I LOVED it! and I am telling anyone I know that they should read it!

  2. Maggie Robinson
    Jan 11, 2008 @ 06:23:39

    Gosh, even this “call” blog is lyrical. Ms. Donnelly, I have only read A Northern Light (I moderate a teen girls’ reading group in my high school library) and I thought it was simply stunning. I know it’s marketed as YA, but I’m well past the age of sixteen and thought it was truly one of the most beautiful and compelling books I’ve ever read. I look forward to reading your other work.

  3. Janine
    Jan 11, 2008 @ 06:44:36

    Wonderful first sale story. Thanks so much for sharing it!

  4. Jayne
    Jan 11, 2008 @ 07:46:26

    I knew that nothing and no one could guarantee I'd ever get published, but I myself would guarantee that I didn't if I stopped.

    I think all aspiring authors need to remember this.

  5. Gini
    Jan 11, 2008 @ 08:11:05

    What a lovely post. I was confused for a bit because A Northern Light was published as A Gathering Light in the U.K. I thought the book was fantastic and your post is just a taste of the writing talent in your book for anyone who hasn’t read it yet. I didn’t know it was YA. It certainly didn’t read like one, and was in general fiction in the UK bookshop I bought it from, the cover doesn’t look YA either although I much prefer the cover of A Northern Light.
    I wonder if it was given a different name in the UK so it wasn’t confused with Northern Lights Vol 1 of His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman which is The Golden Compass in the US?
    Well, I’m greatful you never gave up with the writing and wish you every success in the future.

  6. Tumperkin
    Jan 11, 2008 @ 08:38:38

    I love these posts and this is one of the best. Inspirational.

  7. vanessa jaye
    Jan 11, 2008 @ 08:59:30

    If this lovely, lyrical post is any indication of your writing, then I’m going out to buy your books today. What a wonderful ‘first sale’ story.

  8. Jennifer McKenzie
    Jan 11, 2008 @ 09:09:22

    Now THAT is inspirational. What an awesome post.

  9. Ciar Cullen
    Jan 11, 2008 @ 09:27:19

    What a wonderful post. I am going to buy your work today, as a thank-you for the inspiration.

  10. Patrice Michelle
    Jan 11, 2008 @ 09:29:16

    This was beautifully written and inspiring in many ways. Thanks for sharing your story.

  11. Shiloh Walker
    Jan 11, 2008 @ 10:04:39

    (A bottle of Prozac would have helped, too.)

    Man… ain’t that the truth…

    Loved the post.

  12. azteclady
    Jan 11, 2008 @ 10:40:29

    That’s beautiful, Ms Donnelly!

    And, as Jayne says, everyone who wants to write should remember your words.

  13. Sarah McCarty
    Jan 11, 2008 @ 11:45:36

    I’m so glad you kept writing, Jennifer. I absolutely LOVED The Tea Rose (can I say loved again?) and can’t wait to get The Winter Rose.

  14. Edie Ramer
    Jan 11, 2008 @ 12:40:14

    Thanks for sharing your inspirational story. After reading this, I’m looking forward to reading your book.

  15. Maya
    Jan 11, 2008 @ 13:52:06

    great story – beautiful cover!

  16. Brie
    Jan 11, 2008 @ 14:44:26

    Awesome first sale story! I’m really looking forward to reading The Winter Rose. It’s not in any of my local book stores yet but as soon as it is I’m getting it.

  17. Anna
    Jan 12, 2008 @ 02:28:11

    Loved this story. Two parts inspirational, one part depressing and all parts are well-written. Fabulous.

  18. Jennifer Donnelly
    Jan 12, 2008 @ 10:17:54

    Shucks, you guys! Thank you so much for your lovely comments on my post! I’m glad to know that it gave some inspiration to you.

    Maggie — ANL was marketed as YA, but I’m happy to say that it has become a total crossover book. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

    Jayne — that’s the line that I want most want aspiring writers to remember. Don’t be the one to tell yourself NO. The world is full of people ready and willing to do it. Don’t do it to yourself.

    Gini — thanks very much for your good wishes! And yes, that’s it exactly w/the title change. ANL is AGL in the UK to avoid confusion with Pullman’s book Northern Lights, which it the Golden Compass in the US.

    Thank you all again for your very kind words about my work. They’re a total shot in the arm as I sit down to do battle with a new YA novel!

    With best wishes,

    Jennifer

  19. Sunday Paper: Novel Things to Read « 2008: Year of the Books
    Jan 13, 2008 @ 11:27:25

    […] My First Sale, Jennifer Donnelly […]

  20. Patricia Fry
    Jan 15, 2008 @ 17:27:33

    Great story. I hope that other hopeful authors will keep hoping and keep writing, as you did. But let’s not forget to do our part as published authors–show them the way.

    Publishing is not an extension of your writing, folks. In order to succeed, except in rare cases, you really must understand something about the publishing business, how it works, what your options are, the consequences of your decisions and your responsibility as a published author.

  21. Deborah Friend
    Nov 19, 2011 @ 10:53:30

    For many years I’ve had people tell me I needed to write a book. I’ve heard a small voice in my head tell me to: ” pick up a pen and start writting”, my head says, you don’t know what you’re doing. Any insight?

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