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My First Sale by Mary Jo Putney, Before inertia took over...

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. Mary Jo Putney is a historical author who has penned over twenty nine books since 1987.   Her latest, Loving a Lost Lord, is in stores now.


My first sale, and I still don’t quite believe it

Just as Alcoholics Anonymous members have drunkologues that describe their descent into drinking and their recovery, writers have first sale stories.   Mine is-‘a little embarrassing.   Too easy.   Though the romance market was much more open in the mid-80s, it still sounds too easy.   But sometimes, the universe smiles, and it did for me then.

As a kid, I was an obsessive reader, the kind with thick glasses and a flashlight under the blanket to read books at night.   But I can’t say that I dreamed of someday becoming a writer.   I grew up in the farm country of Western New York, with 140 inches of snow every winter and lots of cows.   Becoming a writer was simply beyond my imagination.

But I did have a good imagination.   During boring classes, I composed sagas in my head, with multiple characters, heroes, and yes, romance, history, and happy endings.   I read all kinds of popular fiction, as much as I could get my hands on.   And if I fantasized about how cool it would be to be a writer, I always meant a teller of tales.   But a writer?   Wasn’t going to happen. I’m slightly dysgraphic, which makes me a rather poor typist, and my handwriting is so bad it has been suggested that I should pursue a medical career.

Life happens.   I graduated with degrees in 18th Century British Literature (because I loved to read) and industrial design (because I needed to earn a living.)   I lived in California and England before inertia took over in Maryland.   And one momentous day, I decided I needed to get a computer for my freelance design business to help with invoices and the occasional copy writing I did for clients.

And the world changed.   About two days after my SO taught me how to use the word processing program on my cool new Leading Edge computer, I realized that I’d found the perfect writing tool because once you fix something, IT STAYS FIXED!!!   (Cue the angels and golden trumpets!)

I’d been reading the hardcover Regency romances from the library, so when I started thinking about writing a story, what came to mind was a Regency romance.   History, Englishness, romance-‘heaven!   I automatically went for a contrarian plot where the quiet Regency girl was more or less forced into a betrothal to the stereotypical Regency hero-‘tall, dark, rich, and disdainful-‘but instead she oozed off and found herself a guy she liked better.

So on the first day of spring, 1986, which was a Saturday, I started writing my story.   There was a lot I didn’t know about writing-‘I’d never even tried dialogue.   But the story flowed nicely.   I thought it wasn’t bad.

A mutual friend kindly referred me to romance writer Lindsay McKenna, who very generously offered to look at the first chapter.   She sent the pages back with gold stars and Snoopy stickers, and offered to give me name of her old agent, who was fast, or her new agent, who was slow.

I said, "Give me the name of the fast one," and sent off my 88 pages to Ruth Cohen in California.   A week later she called and asked how long the book would be and when it would be done. I had no idea, but when she asked if I could do more stories, I was pretty sure that I could.   I followed Ruth’s editorial suggestions about showing motivation and tightening my leisurely Regency prose, and sent her the by now 119 pages.

A week later, Ruth called and said that Hilary Ross, the Regency editor at NAL, wanted to talk to me the next morning, and was I available between 10 and noon?   What????   Yes, I could find the time.   <g>   So Hilary called, and I thought she might say that the book looked promising, and she’d like to see the whole thing when it was done.

Instead, after talking to me (I later learned that she wanted to discern if I sounded like a Real Writer), she offered me a three book contract for Signet Regencies.

I have still not recovered from the shock of this.

That first book was published in November 1987 under the title THE DIABOLICAL BARON and became a RITA finalist.   Ruth was my agent for 19 happy years until she traitorously retired, and Hilary was my editor for almost as long.

And I had finally found what I wanted to do when I grew up.   I hurled myself into writing like a lemming over a cliff.   As it happens, being a freelance designer was perfect training because I was used to erratic cash flow and no benefits.

I haven’t stopped writing since.   Still telling tales of adventure, romance, usually history, and happily ever after.

Is this a great country or what???

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. theo
    Jul 13, 2009 @ 07:03:26

    MJ! Love the story and TPTB obviously knew talent when they saw it. :)

  2. Monica Burns
    Jul 13, 2009 @ 07:45:30

    MJ – Love your books! And the “Leading Edge” computer. That takes me back! LOL My first was an Acer. Excellent computer.

  3. Stephanie
    Jul 13, 2009 @ 08:25:39

    Wow. Loved reading this First Sale story, MJ, even though I’m sure some aspiring writers are moved to tears of envy as well as admiration. Breaking in does seem to have been much easier then. But I think you’re right in that sometimes the stars just align properly.

  4. Donna Lea Simpson
    Jul 13, 2009 @ 09:29:12

    How cool is this… finally finding out how one of my favorite all-time Regency authors got her start!

    Mary Jo, you, Mary Balogh and Jo Beverley are the three reasons I started writing Regency romances.

  5. Janine
    Jul 13, 2009 @ 10:13:38

    Beautiful story. I am a huge fan of many of your books and look forward to more in the future.

  6. joanne
    Jul 13, 2009 @ 11:01:35

    Sometimes the book gods smile on readers and we get lucky when a good author finds a publisher early.

    Great first book story. There was something — or many things — in The Wild Child that stayed with me and for that and many of your other books I want to say thank you. Yikes, it could have been industrial designs? Oh no, LOL!

  7. Karen
    Jul 13, 2009 @ 15:44:26

    Great story. Thanks for sharing it, and thanks for all the terrific books. Yes, it IS a wonderful country, with wonderful writers.

  8. Kathleen O'Reilly
    Jul 14, 2009 @ 06:55:11

    This is a great one! I have a deep and abiding love for MJP books, and I’m VERY excited about the new series. I think it sounds fabulous.

  9. Mary Jo Putney
    Jul 23, 2009 @ 20:30:42

    What with a brainstorming retreat, RWA national, and two days working on an all day workshop for the Australian conference with Anne Gracie, I’ve only just had a chance to stop by, but thanks for all the lovely comments! I feel very, very luck to me in this business, and I hope those of you who enjoy my books will continue to enjoy them for many years to come.

    Mary Jo

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