TRR Forum:
The Care and Feeding of an Aspiring Romance Writer
by Jean Mason
Well, it happened at last. By Arrangement by Madeline Hunter is finally on the shelves, and doing very nicely, thank-you. Last week it was listed as #6 on Waldenbooks romance bestsellers, and it appears on USA Todayís top 150 seller list. Now granted itís 113 on that list, but there are only perhaps a dozen romances that rank higher, and most of these are by authors with names like Roberts, Krentz, Delinsky, Gaffney, Brown, and Johansen. So for a book by a new author to be found in such august company is no mean feat! And yours truly is delighted with this development. You see, I am personally responsible for the existence of this book.

No, I didn't write it. But without me, there would be no David de Abyndon, no Christiana Fitzwaryn. You see, I introduced Madeline to romance novels and prior to her first sale was the only person except her agent who had read her books. I was also the first person she called when she got those rejection letters that are also a part of an unpublished writer's career.

I thought that perhaps TRR's readers might be interested in discovering how an aspiring romance writer becomes a published romance writer from someone who has been through the whole process with one of her best friends.

Of course, a writer doesn't decide to write romance unless she reads it. Let's face it; romance does not have the best reputation in the circles where Madeline and I both work. Academics can be pretty snotty about books that actually have happy endings. Now it happens that Madeline and I are both members of the same department. When she arrived twelve years ago, I was already a tenured full professor. We soon discovered that we were kindred spirits and became good friends. One day, when she brought her son to play with my son (they are also good friends), she asked if I had a good, entertaining book she could read. I gave her a novel by Roberta Gellis. She looked at me in some astonishment and remarked, "You read romance?" I informed her that I certainly did and that it was great fun. Well, she soon discovered just how much fun romance is and before long, we were exchanging books, discussing them avidly and having a grand old time with our subversive novels.

I think it was about three years later when Madeline called me and told me that she had something she wanted me to read. I thought it might be a committee report; Madeline and I spend lots of time writing committee reports. Instead it was the first 100 pages of a romance that she had been working on for several months. She wanted me to tell her whether or not I thought it was any good. I sat right down and read away. An hour later I was on the phone to tell her that I thought she really had something. I was completely engrossed in the tale. So Madeline kept on writing...and writing...and writing. And I kept on reading...and reading...and reading.

Neither of us knew a darn thing about romance publishing at that point. Madeline just knew she had a story to tell and I just knew that I was enjoying the ongoing adventures of the characters. By the time the happy ending came, I think this manuscript had about 185,000 words or maybe more.

Madeline knew that the next step was to get an agent. She did some research (academics are pretty good at research) and decided to send a query to Pam Hopkins. Pam asked to see the book and must have been as impressed as I was, because, in spite of its unwieldy length, Pam agreed to represent Madeline.

Pam gently informed Madeline that romance publishers weren't accepting 185,000 word manuscripts these days and that the book would have to be cut substantially. So Madeline went to work, both on that book and the other one she was writing. My contribution to the editing process was crucial; I refused to let her cut any of the love scenes! The rewriting completed, the process of submitting her work to publishers began.

I really came to understand how important a good agent is watching Pam work with Madeline. Obviously, Pam really liked Madeline's work or she wouldn't have taken her on. An agent is taking a risk when she agrees to represent an unpublished author. Heck, just mailing the manuscript costs money and unless the book sells, the agent doesn't make a penny. And then there is the time and emotion involved in working with an author whose dreams are wrapped up in her work and who views the books she writes almost like her children.

An agent is important for an aspiring writer for a lot of reasons. First and foremost, a good agent is a good reader. She can read a manuscript and point out the weak spots, suggest ways to make the story better and more saleable, insure that what gets sent to editors has the best chance of getting a positive response.

Secondly, a manuscript sent via an agent has a better chance of getting read. Oh, I know, there are still unsolicited manuscripts that get pulled out of the slush pile and get published. But many editors these days aren't accepting books sent in "over the transom." They are so busy and so overworked that they are more likely to pick up a manuscript sent in by an agent they know and respect. They know that at least one person believes that said manuscript is good enough to be published. Moreover, an agent has a bit more ability than an author to send those reminder letters to editors asking, after a couple of months have gone by, "Did you have a chance to read X's book yet?"

Perhaps the most important role that a good agent plays is cheerleader. Sure, I had told Madeline that her books were good. But I was her friend. Could she really trust me? Was I really telling her the truth? But knowing that someone else, someone who really knows romance and the publishing business, believed in her made all the difference. Without Pam's unwavering support, her constant reassurances that Madeline would sell her books, I think she might have given up. Because the road from manuscript to publication was pretty bumpy.

I think that any aspiring author believes that as soon as an editor reads her book, she will buy it. And sometimes this is exactly what happens. Sad to say, such was not the case with Madeline's manuscripts. Instead, the rejections came in. Sometimes they were encouraging, such as "I really like the author's voice, but we're not buying medievals right now" or "I enjoyed the book but we just published something very similar." Sometimes they made me wonder if the editor had read the same book that I had, or indeed, read the book at all. One got me really angry and probably is directly responsible for my own career as a romance reviewer.

An editor informed Madeline that her book was "too historical." I was so incensed that I posted a long, impassioned screed on the Prodigy Romance list which I had just joined. My post started a lengthy thread to which I added more of my thoughts about the current state of the romance novel. Cathy Sova saw my posts and the next thing I knew, I was being invited to review for TRR. So I guess Madeline and I are equally responsible for our current unusual careers.

I learned one thing about writers by watching Madeline. They can't not write. Even before her first book was finished, she had started the second one. I remember sitting with her on the beach, brainstorming some plot points that she was chewing over. We spent many a pleasant hour talking about her stories and her characters, at the beach, over coffee, in the office. Why we were having so much fun that we even stopped talking about university politics.

Write Madeline did and read I did. She wrote the book now titled By Arrangement. She wrote By Possession which will be released in September and she wrote three other books as well. I also learned the writing is hard work and that storytelling is a gift. Sitting in front of a computer, creating characters, finding the right words to make them live on the pages, writing, rewriting, and writing again until it is just right -- this takes stamina and dedication as well as talent.

Then in February, 1999, the call finally came. In fact, there were two calls in the same week. Two publishers wanted to publish Madeline's books; two editors had recognized what I had known from the start. Madeline Hunter writes very good historical romances.

Living through the subsequent contract negotiations with Madeline was also an eye opener and a further demonstration of the value of a good agent. There are all sorts of clauses in a standard contract that can work to the disadvantage of an author unless she has some good guidance.

For example, I learned about BATCH ACCOUNTING. An author signs a three book contract for say, a $15,000 advance, or $5000 a book. Maybe she receives half at signing and then the rest as the next two books are produced. But if her royalties are "BATCHED," she won't earn any extra royalties on book one until the full advance is covered, or "earned through." So she could wait a year or more after book one is published or maybe even until book two is published to earn any additional royalties.

And it's not like royalties are that high. 4%, 6%, or if one is lucky, 8%, of the cover price is what a new author can expect to earn. That's 20 or 30 or 40 cents for a book costing $5.00. It isn't easy to get rich writing romance novels. I'm not sure most readers understand how small the earnings can be for many writers or how long they are in coming. If a book sells 50,000 copies -- quite good for a midlist writer -- and the royalty is 6%, the author "earns" $30,000. But don't forget that 15% of that goes to the agent and another 15% might go to pay Social Security. Then there are taxes. Moreover, unless the writer has a day job or a husband with health insurance, she is responsible for paying that as well. Earning a living as a writer is a chancy business.

Thank heavens that Madeline and all our other writers persevere despite the rejections and the sometimes meager rewards. We need them to create the stories we so enjoy.

I wish I could say that I had something to do with the great stories and neat characters Madeline created, but I can't. Oh, I occasionally pointed out an infelicitous turn of phrase; I sometimes indicated that a character's behavior or motivation didn't seem quite clear. Every once in a while, I suggested a possible solution to a plot problem or provided a bit of historical background. But I have to admit that my contribution to the books themselves was pretty minimal.

But I still take credit for the existence of By Arrangement. If I hadn't introduced Madeline to romance reading all those years ago, if I hadn't been there to tell her that her first efforts were really very good, if Pam and I hadn't been around to reassure her that all those editors who rejected her work were wrong, then maybe she would never have aspired to be a romance author or given up the whole idea. And that would have been a shame.

Obviously, I'm prejudiced, but I think By Arrangement, By Possession, By Design and By Command will appeal to lots of romance readers. They have marvelous heroes (I've been in love with David since I first met him), great heroines, plots with all sorts of interesting twists and turns, and good history to enrich and enliven the stories. And I haven't let Madeline cut out a single love scene from any of them.

June 30, 2000

But that's my opinion. What's yours?

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