My First Sale by Laura Joh Rowland, Lucky Once, Lucky Twice
Laura Joh Rowland is the well known author of a bestselling series featuring a samurai detective in 17th C Japan. (I know! I asked myself why I wasn’t reading this series too.) But her creative juices started wandering after the eleventh Sano Ichiro book. Rowland decided to switch time periods and locales and write a book about Charlotte Bronte in the 19th C called The Secret Adventures of Charlotte Bronte. And how was Rowland rewarded for taking a chance with her career? You’ll have to read the story to find out.
I’m not a gambler. I avoid lotteries, casinos, and horse races. But I have staked my fortune in one of the world’s biggest crapshoots: publishing.
1992. Having decided to be an author, I have spent three years writing two mystery novels. Neither has sold. For some reason–faith, stubbornness, or a one track mind?–this has not stopped me from writing a third. My third mystery features a character and a setting (a samurai detective in 17th c. Japan) that appear nowhere else in the genre. Its oddness should have deterred me but didn’t.
I go to the New Orleans Writers Conference. Free with the registration price is a chance to submit manuscript pages for critique by an attending editor. My pages go to an executive editor at Random House. Miracle of miracles, he likes my story and asks to see the entire manuscript. During the next year, I finish the book and acquire an agent who sends the manuscript to Random House and other publishers. The book, entitled Shinju, and its unwritten sequel sell at auction for a six figure advance.
I don’t remember much about what happened afterward that day, except that I drove to the library to pick up a key to the room for the local Romance Writers of America chapter meeting the next day, and then I cooked green beans for dinner. I was so excited that my brain short circuited.
That was my first lucky break.
Fast forward to 2007. Shinju has been translated into more than a dozen languages, made the USA Today bestseller list, and is still in print after 14 years. My samurai detective, Sano Ichiro, has gone on to star in 11 more books. He is the basis of a writing career that allowed me to quit my day job and keep my cats in kibble. I’ve done the book signings, the tours, the media interviews, the talks at writersâ€š conferences, and–best of all–I get paid to sit around all day and make things up. This is all I’ve ever wanted.
It isn’t enough.
My creative spirit chafes at the confines of one series, one cast of characters, one fictional world. It wants to push its envelope, spread its wings, and fly where no author has ever gone before. Furthermore, I have learned that publishing is an iffy business and no series last forever. Authors must re-invent themselves to suit a constantly changing market. And I have a hankering for a place as far from medieval Japan as one can get: Victorian England, the world of famous 19th century author Charlotte Bronte.
I have been fascinated by Charlotte Bronte ever since I happened onto a biography of her at the University of Michigan library while I was a college student. She had a life as rich in drama, adventure, romance, and tragedy as that of Jane Eyre, her famous heroine. A parson’s daughter from a remote
Yorkshire village, she was an unlikely person to become the author of a best selling, scandalous novel that millions of readers love to this day. But Jane Eyre sailed over the transom of her publisher and straight into literary history.
Charlotte Bronte’s story has stayed in my mind through the years while I learn to write and pen my own books. When I grew restless for a new creative challenge, inspiration struck: I would write a historical suspense novel starring Charlotte and her famous family!
I began, writing slowly while also continuing my series. The research was terrific fun, the characters engrossing, the whole experience a thrill. But self invention isn’t easy. Mastering a new voice and adapting to a new period and culture is fantastically difficult. My process was an exercise in cultural cross-dressing, in which I had to mentally transform myself from a sword-wielding samurai to a demure Victorian spinster. The book took about seven years to complete. When I finished, I was certain that The Secret Adventures of Charlotte Bronte was a winner.
It’s too bad nobody else thought so.
Charlotte made the rounds of the publishers and racked up 30 plus rejections. After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, I didn’t know if I was more upset because my house is flooded with 3 feet of water or because Charlotte hadn’t sold. I gave up hope of getting it published.
Fortunately, my agent didn’t. She sent Charlotte to The Overlook Press. Shortly thereafter, she called and said something like, “You’re not going to believe this, but we’ve got an offer.”
Miracle of miracles.
My wonderful editor, Juliet Grames, loved the book. She threw her keen editorial skill into making it the best that it could be. After much fine tuning, The Secret Adventures of Charlotte Bronte has gone to press. It has gotten some great reviews and been chosen as a Book Sense Pick. The signs are favorable.
I once thought I’d used up all my luck when I sold my first book. I was wrong. I am proof that lightning does strike twice.
To all authors who are striving to venture in new directions and praying for that next lucky break: If it happened to me, it can happen to you. Take heart.