Becoming a Writer: My Road to Publication
When I left off the story yesterday, I’d gone back to school to pursue my passion for writing. But even still, in 1999, I wasn’t exactly sure where that journey would take me.
Then, in January 2001, I “mysteriously” received a brochure in the mail from Lifeway advertising the Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers’ Conference to be held for a week in April of that year at Ridgecrest, North Carolina. A writers’ conference? I’d never heard of such a creature, especially not one geared toward Christians. As I read through the titles and descriptions of the workshops, I got more and more excited about the idea of actually attending this conference.
After hearing about my excitement over the conference, my parents gave it to me as my birthday present that year. I couldn’t believe it… I was going to a writers’ conference! I counted down the weeks, days, hours, minutes until time to leave the first Sunday in April. An hour earlier than necessary, I was in the car headed toward Asheville, North Carolina. I didn’t even let the fact that I was coming down with a cold dampen my enthusiasm.
I arrived at three in the afternoon to a very quiet Ridgecrest campus, checked in, found my room, and unloaded the car. Then, in the quiet of my private room, doubts began to assail me. Why did I come here? I’m no writer—I’ve never even managed to finish anything. I only have one major manuscript I’ve ever worked on and it’s 200,000 words of bits and pieces.
When I overcame my innate shyness and sat at a table at dinner with several other people, I was relieved to find out that not only was I not the only unpublished writer in the room, I wasn’t the only one attending a writers’ conference for the first time. I was, however, floored and quite in awe when our conversation was interrupted by a man who came up to one of the ladies at the table to tell her that Hallmark Entertainment was interested in one of her novels for a movie of the week! (He was her agent, as it turned out—and now I wish I could remember just which author this was.)
Over the next several days, as I sat in the general assembly meetings and workshops, I heard people talking about their writing unashamedly—even signing up for times to meet with publishers, editors, and agents to pitch their work. These people talked in the same terminology I’d used for my writing my whole life—talking about characters as if they were real people, their novels as if they were their children, and writing as if it were a way of life instead of an obsession to hide.
One of the most eye-opening workshops at the conference was Yvonne Lehman’s Writing the Christian Romance Novel. Yvonne talked about the growing market for romance stories with a Christian worldview and introduced the names of several publishers’ romance imprints as places that actually wanted manuscripts that didn’t include explicit sensuality, liked for the characters to have a spiritual life, and insisted the characters retained their sexual purity until marriage… just the kinds of stories I’d always written! Then, she brought out her storyboards. On two huge pieces of poster board, Yvonne had pictures from magazines of her hero and heroine, the heroine’s antebellum home, and other images that were important for her as she wrote that particular novel.
Light broke through the darkness of secrecy in my soul. I wasn’t the only weirdo in the world! Other people did this, too, and talked about it! Not only talked about it but were proud of what they were doing.
It was in this class that I met two people who, unbeknownst to them, would become part of the pantheon of people I highly regard: Patty Smith Hall and Rachel Hauck. They were also Christian romance writers, and as we sat with several other people around the fire one evening sharing first chapters, they mentioned a writing group they were part of: American Christian Romance Writers. It was an e-mail loop, they explained, made up of about 100 people who write Christian Romance as well as a few people who write women’s fiction and other genres, as well.
Not wanting to lose what I’d found at the conference, I sent my application and membership fee in as soon as I got home. I became member #120 of ACRW in April 2001.
After I digested a lot of what I’d learned at the conference—the most important piece of which was “Above all else, FINISH YOUR FIRST DRAFT!”—I took a story I’d been toying with for a year or so, sat down with a new determination to do something bold: write with the ultimate goal in mind of getting published.
It took me nine months, but I eventually finished that manuscript. I finished the next one in only seven months. And my third, I wrote in four months—while taking nine undergraduate hours and working full-time.
In 2002, my first manuscript received an “honorable mention” in the first annual ACFW contest for unpublished writers. In 2003, the neither of the other two that I’d entered even came close to finaling. But even though many of the comments that came back seemed harsh on first blush, when I went back and read them many weeks later, something amazing happened. After the negative experiences I’d had the first time I was in college with my writing being denigrated, and selfishly keeping my stories to myself for years, I suddenly felt free. I felt like I’d been given permission to call myself a writer, to announce to the world that this was what I wanted to do with my life: write and teach Creative Writing.
By the time I got those score sheets back in 2003, I’d already started working on a story about a wedding planner falling in love while planning a wedding for someone from her past. I knew there was something special about it. It was almost as if God told me that this was the story He’d given me that was going to be the one. So that’s the attitude I had when I submitted it for the 2004 ACFW Noble Theme contest. Imagine my surprise when it not only didn’t final, but came back with mediocre to low scores! I went through several different story/character variations and wrote the first ten chapters three times before submitting it as my thesis novel for graduate school in 2004. There, I was forced to move beyond chapter ten, which is when I finally came up with the idea of what I call the “Shakespearean hidden-identity plot”; but rather than going back immediately and rewriting the first ten chapters a fourth time, I completed the manuscript—and then went back and rewrote the beginning, based on what I learned about the story/characters by actually writing it to its conclusion.
After finishing the first draft at the end of my first year of grad school, I spent the next six months revising (three revisions) before it passed as my thesis. I entered the first twenty-five pages in the 2006 ACFW Genesis contest—and then when I had to choose a selection to read at my oral presentation before graduation, I realized the opening needed to be revised yet again. So what placed Second in the Genesis contest wasn’t even the final version of the opening! But because of the revisions I’d done and the feedback I’d gotten on the full manuscript from critique partners and my grad-school mentors, I knew I couldn’t procrastinate any longer. It was time to start submitting. So I did. To two agents. One rejected me, the other signed me as a client.
After signing with my agent, Chip MacGregor, in January 2007, I felt like I was well on my way to having a book contract within a few months. And then the rejections started rolling in. One after another of the publishing houses politely “declined” the opportunity to publish my book. I started getting anxious, feeling like I’d let him down and like nothing I wrote would ever be good enough to get published. There was a glimmer of hope in September 2007, when another story went to pub board at a publishing house, but was then rejected.
When the ACFW conference rolled around, neither Chip nor I could remember having received a response from Barbour on the proposal for Stand-In Groom. For some reason that fall, even though I was pretty sure everyone had already rejected it, I spent a lot of time making up a one-sheet for it. When I got to conference, I learned that the only editor appointment I’d gotten was with none other than Rebecca Germany of Barbour Publishing. I pitched another series to her, which she passed on, which only took about five minutes of our fifteen minute time-slot. So I decided to ask her about Stand-In Groom. She thought she remembered seeing the proposal but asked us to resubmit, so as soon as conference was over, we sent it on to her.
For a couple of months . . . nothing.
Then, at one o’clock in the afternoon on December 6, 2007, I received a phone call from Chip that he’d heard from Rebecca that they were interested in acquiring the book. The next day, we had the contract!
Since then, I’ve signed two additional contracts with Barbour, for the rest of the Brides of Bonneterre series, as well as the contracts with Harvest House for the Ransome Trilogy.
When I first got “the call,” I was almost embarrassed to talk about how I managed to get an agent and a book contract on the very first thing I submitted. But then when I thought about how much work that manuscript represented, three years of my life—three years when I was working 40+ hours a week at the newspaper, 20–30 hours a week in my officer positions with ACFW, and attending undergraduate and graduate school part-time—I realized I didn’t have anything to be embarrassed about. Hard work and perseverance comes in many forms, whether it’s a pile of rejection letters or years of waiting and working.