Meredith Duran’s first sale might be known already. She won the first Gathers.com/Borders/Simon & Schuster romance writing contest. 500 manuscripts were submitted and Duran’s was the cream that rose to the top. Her winning novel, Duke of Shadows, is in stores now.
Back in third grade, Mr. Butzen wrote a mysterious word on the chalkboard-‘QWERTY-‘and then asked each of us students to write a one-page story about this word. I decided Qwerty was the name of a donkey who very much wanted to become a horse. Mr. Butzen liked my work; when he handed it back, there was an "E" for "Excellent" written at the top.
After a suspenseful twenty-four hours, Mr. Butzen finally spilled the secret behind QWERTY. I was disgruntled to learn that it referred to something as pedestrian as keyboards; my donkey was far more interesting. I decided to prove this. And so began my extended harassment of poor Mr. Butzen.
Every morning, for several weeks, I would march into the classroom with a new installment in Qwerty’s saga. I filled an entire hot-pink notebook with chapters on that donkey (and his friend, Marina the deer). Mr. Butzen-‘after gently remarking that I was not required to turn in a new Qwerty story every day-‘dutifully continued to read the stories, and to give me Es.
All this to say, I always thought of myself as a future novelist, and a number of amazing people encouraged me by taking my ambition seriously (even before my head topped their waists). In fact, had you asked me in third grade, I would have gravely described "Qwerty" as my breakout novel. Those Es said it all!
Of course, it took a bit longer to actually sell my work. False starts include: that fantasy novel I wrote in high school. The contemporary I wrote during college. Once in the working world, I managed to land an agent with a novel whose theme-‘a young American obsessed with the fantasyland of popular Indian cinema-‘failed to light fires in publishers’ hearts. The agent shopped it and shopped it, and my hopes-‘which had soared so high on securing representation-‘gradually sank.
Shortly after I realized that the book wasn’t going to sell, it occurred to me that if I were to travel back in time and speak with the third-grader, she would be sorely disappointed in me. She might even give me a "U," for "Unsatisfactory." Here I was, out of college, into grad school, unpublished-‘and now, suddenly, doubting my own writing abilities, wondering if I had what it took to write a book somebody wanted to buy.
Here is where the story takes a fantastic turn.
With my next manuscript, The Duke of Shadows, I queried a short list of agents, none of whom seemed thrilled by the fact that the first half of the book was set in India. Discouraged, I decided to take a break on the whole "selling" part of the business. I tossed the manuscript beneath the proverbial bed and focused strictly on writing. My sister, however, had other plans. Last summer, she dragged the manuscript back into the light, read it, loved it, and urged me to try once more to sell it.
This takes us into August. August in Chicago gets very hot. On a particularly bad night, driven out of bed by sweaty insomnia, I turned on the computer and started surfing the web. It was my usual routine: Dear Author, Smart Bitches, All About Romance. I came across a mention of a romance writing contest sponsored by Pocket Books and Gather.com. The deadline was the next day. Curious, I clicked over to Gather. All you had to do was email an electronic copy of your manuscript to the organizers, and post your first two chapters on line. Hmm. I had a manuscript sitting on my hard drive. Why not? At the least, it would get my sister off my back.
I shrugged and sent off my entry, then promptly forgot that I had entered. A few weeks later, I got a call from Gather telling me that I’d been selected as one of twenty-five semifinalists. I was surprised and pleased. The odds were against me, though, so I didn’t dwell on it too much.
A couple of weeks after that, I got a call from Gather telling me that I was one of the five finalists. Now I was flabbergasted, and no matter how hard I tried, I could not rein in my hope. I had some great workouts in the days that followed-‘chugging away on the elliptical, telling myself, Don’t think about it! Don’t think about it Pedal faster!!
A few days before the official announcement of the winner, it occurred to me that, in keeping with the pattern, the winner probably would be notified in advance. I began to obsessively check my phone for missed calls whenever I returned to my apartment. And so, when I got home from class one day and saw a missed call from New York, I actually felt my heart skip. I set down the phone, then sat myself down on the floor. I thought, Come on, don’t be silly. You have friends in Manhattan. It could be one of them.
My body didn’t seem to accept this explanation. My heart had started to race. My hands were shaking. After all, my friends don’t usually call in the middle of a weekday afternoon.
I said aloud, "This is so stupid." I thought, Don’t do this to yourself. If you do this, you’re going to be heartbroken when they announce the winner.
I picked myself up off the floor, looked at the Caller ID again, and typed the phone number into Google.
The first result: an address located on Avenue of the Americas.
Wasn’t that where the Simon & Schuster offices were located?
Another Google search. Why, yes. Yes, it was.
I sat at my computer, frozen. The silence in my apartment was immense. Out the window, the sun was shining, and people were passing on the sidewalk, kids laughing on their way home from school. But my own universe had shrunk: all I was aware of now was the silence. The phone was not ringing. If it was Pocket Books, wouldn’t they call back?
I sat in that chair for about forty-five minutes. Did small, random things: check emails, pay bills. I thought about calling my mother. I needed to share this agony of suspense! But I couldn’t bear to raise her hopes for nothing. Only-‘I had this immense, weighty feeling in my chest, and my hands wouldn’t stop shaking, and I had never hoped like this in my life.
The phone rang. Caller ID flashed: New York call. I picked it up. Lauren McKenna from Pocket Books introduced herself. She asked how my day was going. I said, "I think it’s about to get a whole lot better."
Oh, and it did. It so did.
For the first few minutes of the conversation, my heart just raced faster and faster, and I babbled my disbelief at Lauren while she laughed and (bless her heart!) patiently reiterated that yes, she was serious, I really was the winner. And then, out of nowhere, as I listened to her, an eerie calm fell over me: a case of joy-induced shock. I was preternaturally composed as I made a phone date to discuss revisions, and when I hung up, I walked over to the window and stood in the late autumn sun and stared out at the trees. There were no words in my mind. My interior monologue had vanished. As I recalled later during a Gather.com chat, I then called my parents, and could barely muster monosyllabic responses to all their excited questions. It actually took several hours to regain my ability to string sentences together.
When I talked to Lauren later that week, she asked me if I’d gone out with friends to celebrate. But The Call really left me in no shape for company. There is something so profoundly intimate about realizing a dream that you’ve nursed since you were a child. I went out into the sunlight and walked to the bookstore; I celebrated winning the contest by buying myself the new Anne Stuart novel. Being in that bookstore, looking at the spines of the novels on the shelves, realizing that one day my own would be among them-‘it was the most incredible moment of my life.