My First Sale by Sherry Thomas: Love in the Ruins of Home Improvement
Sherry Thomas came to my attention last year when the buzz began about her remarkable debut novel. I had the pleasure of meeting her at RWA in Dallas. Her writing is big and exuberant and I find her a welcome addition to our romance genre family. I hope you all check her out for yourself. You can read an excerpt of Private Arrangements on her website.
If you won a book in the contest that we ran, I had a delay in getting the books out but I did mail them priority mail. I am so sorry about the delay though.
This is Thomas’ promotional book trailer. You have to wait for the credits.
In a way, Private Arrangements is my first story. It started all the way back in 1998, when I was a young, overwhelmed stay-at-home mother. One day, during my son’s nap time, I read a new book by an old favorite author. I hated the book–it was beyond stupid. And the thought popped into my head that surely I could write a better book than that.
I became excited about the idea. I did have a college degree, but it was in one of those useless fields (economics, pah) that needed a graduate degree, preferably a Ph.D., to be of any cash flow value. The costs of my working outside the home-‘childcare, professional wardrobe, additional taxes-‘almost negated the economic benefits of doing so. But but but, if I could write romance novels sitting at home and make a little money doing it, it would be the perfect solution for me.
(Yeah, you read it right. I would fall in love with writing later but I’d started solely for monetary reasons. And no, I’d never had any prior fiction writing instruction or experience. Ah, the naive arrogance of the young.)
Now I had the gleam in my eye, but no concrete story. All the historical romances I’d read up to that point always either had an epic storyline, Ã la Rosemary Rogers, or some sort of murder, intrigue, or suspense. And plotting, I knew from the very beginning, was not my strong suit.
Then came that fortuitous moment in a Barnes & Noble. I picked up my first Susan Johnson book, and not just any Susan Johnson book, but Wicked, which, after the initial setup, was almost entirely sex. I love the book and I absolutely adored the fact that it had very little external plot. I could do that, I thought.
(I was so influenced by Susan Johnson in those early days that the first version of Private Arrangements had an onscreen love scene between the hero and another woman-‘which was often the way we were introduced to a Susan Johnson hero.)
Not sure at what precise moment the bones of PA coalesced out of the chaos: that of a young woman whose marriage was doomed when she decided to have the young man she adored by means fair or foul. But I do remember that I wanted something different. I’d read a lot of historical romances in which the hero believed the heroine to have done something awful when she was as innocent as a daisy. What if she really did do something beyond the pale, then what would happen?
I finished writing that first version in the summer of 2000. Right away I consulted Publisher’s Marketplace and sent off queries to some of NYC’s finest literary representatives. Nobody wanted it, though one agent did very nicely call me and tell me that I had talent, but she wouldn’t be able to sell the story as it was.
Fast forward to August of 2005, not the most spirited time in my long slog toward publication. I’d finished several more manuscripts and grown gray and sere waiting for The Call. Okay, maybe not quite. But the failure of my epic martial arts action adventure love story to win agents and influence editors did deal a heavy blow. I was still writing, having gone back to my romance roots and started a couple of new manuscripts, but in each of those new manuscripts I’d also come to a point where I wasn’t sure what to do anymore.
That was when the home improvement started. We had relatives coming from overseas to visit. Our house was twenty years old and criminally neglected during our six-year tenure, and we couldn’t possibly welcome esteemed guests with the abode in such obvious dilapidation.
To this day I don’t know why we decided to paint the walls and change the floors ourselves. I’m handy enough, but there was just so much work, I was in a state of fatigue-induced despair, certain the work would never, ever be finished. In the midst of all this, trying to make room in the mess, I moved some papers and came across a hard copy of Private Arrangements, which had been quietly feeding bookworms in a cardboard box for five years-‘incomplete on top of it, because often when I needed to print something, I’d pull a page out and use the back side of the paper.
(I owe DA favorite Kathleen O’Reilly a big thank-you here. I run an entirely paperless operation; I never, ever print out any of my manuscripts. Through various computer upheavals, I’d lost the e-files for PA. And the hard copy existed solely because Kathleen, who still lived in Austin in 2000, had kindly read it for a critique.)
I thought I’d turned my back on PA forever. I certainly had no intention of ever resurrecting a crappy first manuscript. But for some reason, on that crazy-busy, dead-tired day, I sat down on the carpet, read a few pages, and then a few more. Something struck me. Awkward execution aside, I was still as taken as ever with the fundamental story itself, that of a terrible decision and its aftermath.
I started banging out a new version even before we finished the home improvement (the colors we’d picked for the walls, as it turned out, were so awesomely ugly that we had to have it professionally repainted a year later). I chucked everything from the original manuscript, except the names of the characters and their basic backgrounds, moved the time period sixty years to the turn-of-the-century, and re-built the story from scratch. No more long road trip through Austria that was nothing but me scratching my "Sound of Music" itch. No more coincidental reunion of the hero and heroine-‘this time she files for divorce to marry a nice younger man, and he descends in a fell swoop and sneers "not so fast, bitch." Well, you get my drift.
As I worked on the new version, I geared up for my third round of agent search. This time I wanted a newer, hungrier agent. Kristin Nelson had been on my radar for a while, because she represents SF romance-‘which I’ve always wanted to write but which a lot of romance agents don’t do. Then I discovered Miss Snark. And Miss Snark couldn’t say enough good things about Ms. Nelson. From a practical standpoint, not only did Kristin take e-queries-‘less postage, woot!-‘but she did not require a synopsis at any stage of the query process. For someone who hates synopsis writing with the passion of a thousand suns, that really clinched the deal for me. She was my dream agent, and I would not query anyone else until she’d turned me down.
I sent off my e-query to Kristin on April 19, 2006. The book wasn’t yet complete at that point. That’s usually a no-no, but I needed a sense of urgency to finish the damn story: I’d hit a slump, and I was due back in grad school in July-‘my second child would start kindergarten in the fall and I figured it was high time for me to get a useful degree and contribute to the family coffer.
(A big heartfelt smooch to my husband, who never, ever, not once asked me to get off my butt and do something more remunerative in the eight years leading up to that first contract, not even when the economy was scary and he really would have appreciated the security of a second income.)
The request for a partial came three weeks later. I don’t know when the full request came-‘accidentally deleted that e-mail in all the excitement-‘but I remember that for once my steady nerves failed me and I had my husband read the e-mail for me to see whether it was a full request or a "Thank you but no thank you."
It was a full request. And the manuscript was still unfinished. I went into a writing frenzy.
On Monday June 19, I sent off the full manuscript–as an e-mail attachment, per Kristin’s instruction. I settled down to wait that six to eight weeks it usually took to hear back on a full–and finally composed the official good-bye letter to my former agent, from whom I hadn’t heard in two-and-half years.
The certified termination letter went out on Friday June 23. The next day, I took the elder kidlet to Lowe’s to buy some timber. I’d been reading about Square Foot Gardening, which required some box-building. And as brown as my thumb was, I was enthused enough to give it a try.
My cell phone rang just as I arrived home. It was Kristin Nelson, who’d read and loved the story, calling to offer representation. I think I blurted out, "Omigod, I just hauled home a load of timber."
She laughed and asked if it was some Texas thing. I probably bleated some more nonsense before we got around to the important things. She sent an editorial letter. I revised the manuscript and sent it back just before I started my classes on July 10th.
Kristin sent the manuscript out on submission on Tuesday July 11. I think my stars were aligned for that month, for two days later we had our first firm offer. This led to an accelerated process whereby Kristin called all the other editors who had the manuscript and told them to read fast and get back to her by the following Monday.
She e-mailed me the next Monday-‘she’d called but I abandoned my cell phone home most days-‘and let me know that there were five houses interested in PA. The next day I took my cell phone to school, set it to vibrate, and left it on my desk. As soon as it buzzed, I rushed out of the classroom.
We had a very strong pre-empt from Bantam. Kristin was thrilled. She decided to ask for some more dough. I was still in a daze from when the first offer came. I went home and talked to my husband. Over the years, I’d always hoped that I’d one day get the Madeline Hunter treatment: She was brought out beautifully by a skillful and supportive publisher. And lo and behold, the publisher name I see on the spine of my copy of By Arrangement that I held up to show Dear Hubby was none other than-‘you guessed it-‘Bantam. It was meant to be.
Next morning Kristin called. Bantam had agreed to her terms and we had ourselves a deal. Since then, I have most definitely received the Madeline Hunter treatment, from the beautiful covers, to the lavish ARCs distributed at RWA Dallas, to the bookseller outreach on behalf of Private Arrangements.
This piece is written before PA releases, so I don’t know yet how well it will do in the marketplace. But what a ride it has been. I will always be grateful to Kristin and Caitlin Alexander, my editor and fairy godmother at Bantam, for taking such good care of me and I hope to work with them, in joy and pleasure, for many years to come.
(The timber, however, is still languishing in the garage.)