Our latest blog series here at Bad Girlz is on the theme of the best and worst days of our writing careers. If you’ve been reading the posts, you already know that writing is a roller coaster. I’ve had my share of dips and loops and suddenly being thrown into reverse. I’ll get the “worst day” out of the way first so I can end on a happy note. The world needs more happy.
Like any writer, I’ve faced rejections and the occasional one star review. I mourned when the editor who’d worked with me for my first ten books left publishing. But the worst day of my career was something else and it came in the form of an email on a “loop” of writers (how we all communicated in the stone ages before Twitter and Facebook).
It was a Thursday. I had just dropped off both my toddlers at a Mother’s Morning Out program, giving me two precious hours to write before I had to drive back and get them. I only checked email because I was impatient to hear from my editor; her boss was reviewing a proposal for a book that, if approved, was about to lead to the biggest contract of my career.
It’s worth mentioning that the first book I ever sold was to Harlequin’s romantic comedy line; right around the time it was published in 2003, they cancelled the line. I was disappointed and nervous about what that meant for my future, but I learned from my mistake. Instead of choosing a single new line to target, I chose two, realizing this would double my job security. After some collaboration with my editor, I ended up writing for Harlequin Temptation, a long-standing line that had published some of my all-time favorite authors like Jennifer Crusie and Stephanie Bond, and a brand-new “chick lit” line called Flipside that took inspiration from the urban, snarky tone of work like Sex in the City and Bridget Jones. So two years into my career, I’d sold to three different lines, all with single book contracts for around the same advance money. But suddenly the stars aligned for me. I had an idea for a Flipside trilogy that the senior editor loved. Meanwhile, I was working on two books for another senior editor at Temptation. I was on the cusp of signing a five-book deal and the advance I would receive was, at that time of my life, a staggering amount. With the stakes so high, I decided to hire an agent. Everything was in place! Until I opened my email that Thursday morning.
There was nothing yet from my editor, but a message from an author on the writing loop we used to share support and craft advice caught my eye. It was a statement of sympathy for everyone who wrote for Harlequin Temptation and Harlequin Flipside, as both those lines had just been axed.
What the HELL?
I experienced denial, panic and even some detached humor, wondering if this was a bizarre prank. I knew from firsthand experience that lines could close, but what were the odds that BOTH publishing imprints I wrote for could be cancelled on the same day and that rather than hearing it from my editor, I was finding out from some random woman on the internet who didn’t even write for Flipside or Temptation? No way. But just to be sure, I tried calling the publishing house directly. And could not get through despite multiple tries.
Then I remembered—hey, I have an agent now! I’d only been with her about a week. We’d had a few lovely phone chats, but we didn’t know each other well and I’d never even seen her face. So I tried my best to sound utterly professional when I called, stating that I didn’t want to put too much stock into an internet rumor but if she could just reassure me…
The split-second pause on her end of the phone was deafening. My heart stopped when I realized I had just gone from the brink of five-book deal to being unemployed. As it turned out, Harlequin had first sent a letter to agents to warn them about the coming emotional fallout, but editors were trying to contact authors individually to give them the news. (Why some agent passed this information onto a client who didn’t even write for Flipside and Temptation, I will never know. But the client’s dropping that bomb on a public forum caused chaos while we all clamored to contact our editors at once.) By the end of the day, both my agent and my incredibly apologetic editor had confirmed that none of my five stories were going to see the light. Those books had been tailored to fit categories that no longer existed. The thousands of dollars I’d been mentally putting to good use? Gone.
I managed to stop crying long enough to pick up my children from Mother’s Morning Out, their teachers regarding my tear-ravaged face with alarm. I called my husband at work and told him to get home as soon as possible and to bring Oreos and the largest bottle of Pinot Grigio the grocery store sold. (I’m not advocating this as the healthiest way to cope, dear reader, I’m merely giving you the facts.) I told him he was on kid duty for the rest of the night and locked myself in the bedroom with Season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer–six being the darkest season. Plus, Spike.
Somewhere during that night, I got really, really mad. I had worked damn hard to build a writing career. Was I going to give up? Hell, no. If Buffy could overcome mother-effing death, I could overcome this. I brushed off the Oreo crumbs and began outlining a rough story idea full of Pinot Grigio induced typos. Both my editor and agent were surprised when I emailed them a blurb the very next day, but they thought the book (Dating the Mrs. Smiths) had a lot of promise. Every minute of that weekend not doing something with my kids, I was parked at the computer. By Monday, I turned in my proposal.
Bad stuff happens. In publishing and, God knows, in real life. It will hit you from out of the blue and knock you on your ass. But you don’t have to stay there. Choose the best way to get back up, and let your friends and loved ones help you to your feet (even if one of them happens to be a fictional vampire slayer. No judgment here.) My anger and bitterness didn’t magically fade overnight, or even with the sale of Dating the Mrs. Smiths. Even now, practically a decade later, I worry about what will happen if my publisher suddenly decides to go a different direction or if the amazing agent who has helped me overcome obstacles wins the lottery and decides to retire to Maui. But I’ve proven I can reinvent myself when necessary. Being mulishly stubborn has its perks.
When it came time to write this post, I knew immediately what my worst day was–it’s vividly etched in my memory–but I had to think more about my best because I’ve had a lot to be grateful for. I’m a fan of symmetry, though, so I’ve chosen the following wonderful moment to share. When Dating the Mrs. Smiths was published, I opened my email to find a two page letter from my heroine. Okay, not my actual heroine, but a woman who shared her name: Charlotte Smith. She started by saying that she’s not a reader. She was never much into fiction to begin with and, raising two small kids while her husband was overseas, she had little time for books that weren’t Goodnight Moon. But the yellow cover caught her attention at the grocery store, and when she picked up the book to discover that the heroine had her name, she bought it on impulse. In her letter, Charlotte shared with me some of the challenges she was facing in her life and how instances in the heroine’s life inspired her and gave her courage. It was amazing praise, knowing that my words had somehow helped this woman and given her a glimpse into the power of books. Some of my earliest memories are of reading–or of being read to–and books are my favorite hobby/vacation/escape/coping mechanism.
When I was a teenager sighing over the perfect ending of a great story, I didn’t care whether the author was award-winning or rich or bestselling, whether what I’d just read was their debut or their fiftieth novel. What mattered was that their stories had touched me. And now a woman with so much going on in her life was taking the time to share with me how my story had moved her? Best. Day. Ever.
My wish for all of you is many happy days, many good friends to help you weather the not-happy days, and great books to read every day!