In late spring of 2013, I wrote my very first romance novel—the bones of which still remain in my debut novel, The Bad Luck Bride, to be released by St. Martin’s Press. Not knowing any better, I pitched the original manuscript to a wonderful agent at my first Romance Writers of America Conference in July 2013. I was confident that I had written a sparkling, witty novel. Cool, calm, and collected, I recounted the plot, explained why this book was so unique, and why this agent should sign me. She was and still is one of the most gracious people I have ever met in the publishing industry.
This guest post is by Janna MacGregor. MacGregor was born and raised in the bootheel of Missouri. She credits her darling mom for introducing her to the happily-ever-after world of romance novels. Janna writes stories where compelling and powerful heroines meet and fall in love with their equally matched heroes. She is the mother of triplets and lives in Kansas City with her very own dashing rogue, and two smug, but not surprisingly, perfect pugs. Her debut novel THE BAD LUCK BRIDE was published by St. Martin’s Press in May 2017. You can follower her on Twitter @JannaMacGregor, on Facebook, or sign up for her newsletter.
A year later, I heard back from her via email. She thanked me for my submission, but at this time she didn’t think we’d be a good fit. My writing simply didn’t speak to her—agent lingo for your manuscript needs a lot of work. I didn’t get upset, angry, or even depressed. She was telling me something that I needed to hear. If I wanted to be published, I had to work hard for it.
Meanwhile, I had written a second novel. Instead of turning my attention to that novel, I concentrated back on my first. As I started diving into revisions, I began to realize how little I knew about writing a romance—developing a mesmerizing plot, intriguing characters, and a love story that would make people swoon was not as easy as I first thought. So I rolled up my sleeves and dug in. I learned the craft of writing and the nuts and bolts of plot structure, character arcs, dialogue, and everything required for a good story.
But I really didn’t know if I was any good or not, so I started entering writing contests. The scores and judges’ feedback were abysmal. However, I didn’t give up hope—this was another learning opportunity. So, I polished and polished. Within six months, I was a finalist in the Missouri Romance Writers of America chapter’s Gateway to the West contest. In another three months, I won my first contest, the Great Expectations Contest from the Ft. Worth chapter of the RWA. The feedback was incredible, and I kept honing the manuscript.
During that year, I was a finalist in thirty contests and won eleven. I quickly learned it really didn’t matter whether you won, as the real prize was getting your work in front of acquiring editors and agents. I received requests from the majority of these contests. But nothing happened. It was like sending the manuscript into a black hole.
Then, something magical happened. I received an email from a publisher requesting the full manuscript. I emailed it, as I had previously. The acquiring editor acknowledged receipt of the manuscript and informed me she would contact me within six to eight months with a decision. Friends told me that this was a typical response time, so I put a note in my calendar to check back in six months.
I had just returned from the 2015 Romance Writers of America conference in New York City where I had pitched this book to eight agents, including the elusive elevator pitch that everyone warns might occur when you attend such a large conference.
Now, you may ask how I got so many requests. Normally at these conferences, there is a day or two scheduled for pitch sessions to agents and editors. Romance writers schedule their appointments months ahead of time. On the day of the pitches, I would wait to see if there were any additional openings. Inevitably, people didn’t show or cancelled. I’d volunteer to take the pitch session whether the agent was in my genre or not. It was an opportunity to network and get my name out there.
The most amazing thing happened when I returned home from New York and the RWA conference. Within a week, I got a call from the editor asking to acquire my manuscript for publication as an e-book. After I finished the obligatory happy dance, I started to ask questions. What kind of editing could I expect? I explained that my story was the first in a series. How many books would she be willing to offer in this first contract? What would be the expected publication date? What kind of promotion could I expect from the publication house?
The editor answered my questions professionally and thoroughly. She explained that this would be a contract for one book, but she was certain they would buy more. As regards to editing, she believed that the manuscript only needed minor edits before being published.
Immediately, I became a little suspect. Even though I thought my romance might rival Hemingway (*cough*), I knew deep down, it could always be improved. In spite of my gut reaction, I realized this opportunity to publish meant I needed representation. Even though I’m an attorney, I didn’t have the expertise to understand the details and clauses of a complex literary contract.
Fortunately for me, every agent I spoke with in NYC during the RWA conference asked me to send a partial or the full manuscript with a synopsis. I quickly sent my submissions, listed my contests finals, and informed the agents of my pending offer.
Within forty-eight hours, two agents contacted me. One offered immediate representation. During a phone call to discuss the details, I asked the agent how much editing she thought the manuscript required. She responded the manuscript was perfect as is. With a heavy heart, I passed. I knew that under the right direction, my story could be improved.
The second agent, Ms. Pamela Ahearn, responded by email. She praised my writing and congratulated me on all my contest wins, but she wasn’t bashful about listing all the things wrong with the manuscript. It wasn’t one or two items, but a whole page full of major and minor problems. She closed by saying she didn’t know how hard I wanted to work, but if I was willing to revise the manuscript per her suggestions, she’d look at it again.
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Pam Ahearn represents Sabrina Jeffries, one of the biggest names in historical romance and a New York Times bestselling author. For me, this was a dream come true to work with such a respected professional in my industry. I didn’t think twice, immediately working on revisions. In two months, I’d revised the manuscript as Ms. Ahearn had requested and resubmitted it. She quickly got back to me with her. Since the winter holidays were upon us, she suggested we wait until January to submit my manuscript to publishers. She’d submit it to the “Big Five” and see what would happen. It could take up to six months before we received any response.
Ten days later, Ms. Ahearn called me. When I saw the number, I knew it was her and quickly assumed that she needed something else as part of the submission process. When I answered, she asked me if I was sitting down. The laughter in her voice was unmistakable. I replied that I was, but immediately jumped out of my chair and started to pace the hallway. My two pugs followed my every step, sensing my excitement.
Ms. Ahearn told me that St. Martin’s Press had offered me a three-book contract in mass-market print and e-book. After a joyful scream and a jig or two, I could finally talk. I will never, ever forget that day.
Every person’s path to publication will follow a different road. Our writing journeys are as unique as our fingerprints. But I hope you learn from my experience and take advantage of the opportunities when they present themselves. It’s a marvelous journey filled with hills and dips in the road, but perseverance is your true friend. Relish your triumphs, whether it’s completing a chapter, finishing an entire book, or becoming a finalist in a contest. Wherever you are on this incredible journey, may you enjoy every minute of it.
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