My Debut Novel
My debut novel, Owed: One Wedding Night, will be released next month by Harper Impulse(UK).
Jake Carlyle always gets what he wants... especially when it comes to his runaway bride. To save her family's business, determined Madison Ellsworth must turn to Jake Carlyle, her ex lover and the man she left standing at the altar. Jake eventually agrees to help, but on one condition - he gets what he's owed. His wedding night. Still in love with Jake, Madison agrees, but once the passionate honeymoon is over, she can't help but wonder if their marriage is based on convenience, love - or revenge. As they deal with the failing business, Madison and Jake soon learn that high-stakes games played in the boardroom inevitable will spill over into the bedroom! Under the title, Games Without Rules, this novel was a 2010 Golden Heart award finalist.
Born in California (and always a California girl at heart), I now live in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. I wrote my first novel at the age of seven – a saga about a family of chipmunks and the family of ducks who lived in the pond next door. I’ve been writing ever since, have published some non-fiction and a poem or two, and once even had a ten-minute one act play produced by a local theatre. 2010 RWA Golden Heart® finalist represented by the Greyhaus Agency.
Nancy Holland lives in Minnesota.
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Owed: One Wedding Night is the (retitled) story that was a finalist in the Romance Writers of America® 2010 Golden Heart® contest, but my journey to publication has been much longer than that. I wrote my first romance over twenty years ago and my stories started winning RWA® chapter contests over ten years ago.
Three steps were key to my journey from contest winner to published author. First, I formed a critique group with three friends (Ellen Lindseth, Laramie Sasseville, who writes as Naomi Stone, and Lizbeth Selvig). They helped me hone my craft and provided a nurturing mini-community within the larger community of romance writers that has sustained and supported me almost from the beginning. Second, I signed with an agent (Scott Eagan) who knows the business, loves my writing, and helps me make it better (see below). And, finally, with his help, my story landed on the desk of Charlotte Ledger, who was willing to work with me to make it the best story it could be. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to all of them.
Owed: One Wedding Night has made quite a journey of its own. The story has gone through no less than five rewrites. I realized early on that it had an "unsaleable" premise and rewrote it once before I submitted it to the 2010 Golden Heart® contest. When one of my critique partners pointed out that the ending didn't fit the rest of the story, I rewrote the ending. (Thanks, Laramie!) When I sent it to my agent, who'd signed me based on another story, he told me to rewrite both the beginning and the ending. Then he told me to rewrite the beginning again. Finally, my editor told me to rewrite all the stuff in between. Oh, and rewrite the ending again, too. Strangely (or maybe not so strangely), it wasn't until this last revision that I realized what the story was really about and could put its full emotional impact on the page.
So, two morals to this story.
• Never give up, and
• Never be afraid to rewrite.
Simple, isn't it? And it only took me twenty years to figure it out.
The Uses (and Abuses) of RWA® Chapter Contests
For those who don't know, many RWA® chapters hold annual contests where writers can enter the first few pages or even chapters of their stories (or other specific sections, such as a first kiss, or parts of a query). The entries are judged in the first round by 2-3 members of the chapter, and occasionally other RWA® members, based on a scoresheet that awards points for different elements of the story such as character, plot, etc. Based on those numeric scores, 3-5 finalists are named and their entries are sent to final round judges, usually editors or agents, who make the final rankings and frequently often request partials or fulls of the stories they've ranked highly.
Since coming in second in a recent chapter contest earned me a request for my fantasy romance from an editor I'd been hoping to get to look at it for quite a while, I've been thinking about lately about better and worse reasons for entering any particular chapter contest, or any of these contests at all. Based on my experience (which is shockingly extensive, I fear), there are at least two good reasons to enter a contest and at least one bad reason.
My fantasy romance is a great example of the first good reason to enter chapter contests. Since I'd never written anything like that before, I was afraid to invest much time or energy in the story, as much as I loved it, without having at least some clue that I could successfully write in that genre. So I tested it out in a series of contests, each involving more and more pages of the story. And it won enough of them to convince me to finish the book (and its sequel). So, chapter contests can be a good way to test out new ideas, new genres, a new voice for your work.
Earlier in my writing career, I entered chapter contests for the wrong reason. I'd lost my critique group and entered a series of contests that asked for different parts of the story -- first chapter, first kiss, conflict scene, ending, etc. -- primarily for the feedback. The idea itself wasn't so wrong, but didn't mesh with the reality of chapter contests. Some of the feedback I got was great and helped me improve my story, but a lot of it was either non-existent (comments by judges aren't required in most contests), unhelpful ("your voice is too bland and generic"), contradictory ("your voice is too strong" as a comment by another judge in the same contest), or simply random ("The Pacific Ocean isn't cold" -- yes, in California it is). If you need a critique group, find or create one -- in my experience, the judging in contests isn't consistent enough to be a good substitute. (And notes that the RWA's® Golden Heart® contest doesn't give any feedback at all, only numeric scores.)
Once I learned this lesson and found a critique group, the primary reason I entered chapter contests and, I think, the primary one for most writers, was to get my work in front of editors and agents I wanted to work with. This is what worked recently with my fantasy romance and what has gotten me several requests for full manuscripts from my "dream editors" over the years. As I've already said, I'm mostly off the contest crousel now that I have an agent, but it served me well over all. Other writers might want to seriously consider looking into RWA® contests to find those that will suit their needs best and use them to advance their writing careers the way they've advanced mine.
Another Turn in the Trail - and How Having an Agent is Different
Found out this week that after a major revise-and-resubmit, my target publisher passed on the story I sent them almost two years ago. Not what I'd hoped to hear (I was expecting another revise-and-resubmit), but still not as painful as it could have been. That might gave been because it had been so long since I originally sent it in, or because I'm in the final stages of making the major revisions my agent suggested on my Golden Heart® story, so I had something else shiny, if not exactly new, to focus on.
Or it might have been because I do have an agent, which made this rejection different from all (and I do mean all) the previous one. First, I found out about it not via a hard copy letter that arrived with the rejected ms., but via a sympathetic email from my agent, who was already thinking about where to send it next. Second, both his email and the hard copy letter that arrived a couple of days later referred to his conversation with the editor and the fact that she is now expecting to see my revised GH® story as soon as my agent says it's ready.
But the most likely reason was that when my agent let me know where he'd sent the rejected story next, it was at another top publisher, which means he still has faith in me and in my story. That boost got me past the rejection in record time. I think my agent just earned a big piece of his 15%.
One bit of feedback I've consistently gotten from contests, critique partners, and beta readers is that I'm pretty good at writing "love" (i.e., sex) scenes. Not exactly what I most want to be known for (since I don't write erotica), but you go with what you have. And apparently what I have are good, sometimes great sex scenes.
Which may turn out to be a good thing. The full manuscript I revised a while back for one of the "home and family" lines at a major publishing house has been passed to an editor who asked to see it for one of their "spicier" lines. Partly in response to that development, and partly because the story demanded it, I changed a "kiss" scene in the book I just fiished into a full-blown sex scene (which meant moving it off a public beach to some place more private). And now I'm starting my newest story with a sex scene in the first chapter. Two actually. And it's not erotica.
While I've clearly gotten over any hesitation about writing sex scenes, I still haven't gotten used to the idea that someone who knows me (besides my critique partners) might actually READ one I wrote. Colleagues--ish! Students--*shudder*. Family--ugh! It's almost enough to make me seriously consider a pen name. In a foreign language. Or maybe just a number. "Another sexy romp from 367."
But why? How are sex scenes any worse, any more personal than anything else I write? I'm a very private person, but I've chosen to write romantic fiction for publication. Putting emotions on the page is part of the job. Isn't sex, the kind of sex I write, part of my characters' emotional journey? And if it is, and I think that journey is worth sharing with others, then my sex scenes have to be out there, too.
Which isn't to say that everyone has to write sex scenes in their books, or even that I always have to. The point is that writers have to be true to their stories, whatever their story may be, and park their fears and foible at the door before they enter the always challenging world of writing romantic fiction.
Writing Through the Holidays
The holidays can be a paradoxical time for writers. Many, perhaps most, of us with day jobs will have time off, which offers the possibility of getting more writing done. Many of us, however, whether we have a day job or not will also have special social and family obligations -- guests, travel, etc. Those of us with children will have them home from school for two weeks or more. And almost all of us will have greeting cards to write and presents to buy, wrap, and send. Keeping focused through it can mean the difference between a month that is normally, if not extrodinarily productive and four week's worth of lost work time.
This is where I should have some magic answers about how to keep writing through all the joy and chaos of the season. I don't. What works for me, with two grown but unmarried children, won't work for someone with a house full of overexcited young kids or bored and resentful adolescents (been there, done that). Nor will it work for those overwhelmed with visitors from out of town, on the road, or worse in the air through all the mess of holiday travel. And it won't work for anyone whose job involves more hours and more stress at this time of year. We each have to find our own way through the season, and through our lives. Knowing we aren't alone as writers, however, even if we are all unique offers some hope of comfort.
The most important thing through it all, I've found, is balance. Keep writing, if only a few words day. That keeps your story fresh in your mind, and will make it easier to get started again when life goes back to normal. Devote some time to your loved ones everyday, whether by sitting down to a real meal at home or texting, emailing or phoning to some far-off place. Enjoy the season a little every day, too -- listen to holiday music, dig out the photos from past years, take a walk in the snow, eat a special food, read a favorite holiday story. Most important, take time for yourself every day, too. As my writer friends always say, you have to refill the well. Then, when January comes, you'll be ready to write more and better than before.
Another Aha! Moment
It's been a while since I've updated this website, but I have some pretty great excuses: a request from one editor to revise and resubmit the full manuscript of one of my contemporary stories and a request from another publisher for the full manuscript of my fantasy romance, which needed a final edit before I sent it out. So for the last three months or more, I've been less a writer than a re-writer. I think/hope I've learned something in the process.
The biggest "aha!" moment was mid-way in the revision process of the contemporary. As I sped up the pace, went more deeply into my character's motivations, and made my heroine a lot less weepy, I finally asked myself why I hadn't done all this before I sent the requested full ms. out in the first place. Aha! Sure, now I knew more exactly what things the editor thought needed changing, but most of them were things I'd known about, suspected, or been told about before by critique partners. If I'd fixed them sooner, maybe my revise-and-resubmit would have been a sale-plus-some-edits".
Lesson learned, and assured that a delay in sending the requested full was okay with the editor, once the R&R ms. was sent, I went through much the same process with the second ms. And learned something else in the process. While one problem my beta reader found with the contemporary story was a tendency to include too many mundanities of my characters' lives ("They had chicken for dinner"), those same everyday details were an important part of building the world of my fantasy romance. What my characters would have for dinner told my reader a lot about how they lived ("He took his bow and killed a rabbit for them to eat"). Aha! While almost everything that I'd learned from revising the first story applied to the second, here was at least one exception. Which means, once again, that there are no rules, only guidelines, whether you're a pirate or a writer.
Writing "Full Time"
As my bio says, I'm a teacher. That means I have my summers "off" (ignoring how much time I've spent since school was out finishing the paperwork from last year, how many meetings I've had since the end of the term, the days I'll spend before school starts getting ready for the new year, the time I've spent reading to keep up, and an endless flow of work-related email). This means that for a few months I can write "full time".
I've learned, however, that a writer's "full time" is not exactly forty hours a week of writing. First there's the revising, right now for several RWA® chapter contests. This means that I'm now intimately familiar with every comma and question mark in the first two chapters of both of the books I currently have on the contest circuit. Then there's the judging -- once you have some experience as a contestant, it's a good thing to give back by judging entries in other categories of the contests you're familiar with. Reading other people's entries can also teach you a lot about your own writing, but it takes time out of your "full time".
The thing that really cuts into my "full time", however, is the rhythm of my own writing process. First, after 1000-1500 words, it takes a real effort to write any more, no matter how excited I am about my story, or how easily the words have flowed to that point. Sometimes I can get past the 1500 word mark, and presumably after I sell I'll have to learn to be better at it, but for right now, most days it's an insurmountable roadblock.
Another complication is that in the summer most people prefer to do whatever work they have to do in the morning and have their afternoons free. This means lots of meetings and appointments during my prime working hours. I can write after lunch or even after dinner, and have several times so far this summer, but what I could write in an hour earlier in the day takes me two or three to write in the afternoon.
For all these reasons (plus a commitment to enjoy at least some of the summer with my family), my "full time" writing is closer to half-time, or less, but I am making progress. My current WIP is on schedule to be finished before I go back to work, and writing becomes my "part time" job once again.
I don't know how Club 100 started. I do know you can't find it on Google (or at least I couldn't). I also know that it's changed my writing life, so I thought I'd explain how it works, in hopes that you can either link up with an existing Club 100 loop or start one of your own.
The basic principle behind Club 100 is that if you write 100 words a day for 100 days, you'll have 10,000 words written toward your book. My Club 100 loop is more flexible than that. We let everyone set their own daily minimum of words written or time put in on revisions and other writing-related stuff. We also let people decide how many days a week they have to write, or if they can take random days off when they need a break or life intervenes (that's what I do). We have an email loop and report in on how we're doing, cheer everyone's progress, support each other through dry spells and other hard times, and celebrate each other's 100 days and other successes.
One important point -- the 100 words or whatever number you set is a MINIMUM. Writing more is strongly encouraged. But once you sit down and write that first 100 (or whatever), writing more can be amazingly easy.
If you belong to a chapter of RWA®, ask around to see if your chapter already has a Club 100. If not, see if people are interested in starting one. Even if you don't belong to an RWA® chapter, you can start a Club 100 with your writing friends. Two or three is enough at the beginning, and you can recruit more members later. Then choose a moderator, set up a email loop, and start writing.
Even if you have to start alone, the discipline of setting daily goals and tracking how well you do will be a big boost to your writing. At the risk of sounding like an infomercial, try Club 100. You'll be glad you did.
As I’ve chronicled here, my writing world has changed enormously in the last year. Partly that was because “Games Without Rules” was a finalist in the series contemporary category of the 2010 Golden Heart®. Being a finalist not only brought me new opportunities, but also a whole boatload of new writing friends in the other GH finalists. Even after all the GH hoopla was over, another of my stories, “The Christmas Pony”, won two major contests, garnering me requests for the full manuscript from an agent and an editor.
The thing is, I’ve won contests before. (In fact, I’ve won both of the two I won this year before.) I’ve had editors request full manuscripts before. (In fact, I’ve had the same editor request a full manuscript before.) And, while this was my first year as a GH finalist, I didn’t win “the big one.” While wonderful, the contest finals, the wins, the requests would probably not have changed how I see my writing and myself as a writer without one other vital element.
January 1, 2010, I sat at the dining table in a rented apartment in Paris and began my first day as a member of the Club 100 loop of my local RWA® chapter, Midwest Fiction Writers. In the past year, because of Club 100, I have written a minimum of 100 words or edited at least an hour everyday each of almost 300 days (with heavy travel days, heavy work days, and an occasional sick day off). In that time I’ve produced all of “The Christmas Pony”, a short novella, and most of a second novel; I’ve also made major revisions to “Games Without Rules” and a requested partial of a fantasy novel. In short, I’ve become a (semi-) professional writer (and made another batch of wonderful new writer friends), all because of Club 100.
You can do the same. Set yourself daily goals, decide how many days a week or month you can commit to your writing, and get started.
The most important thing is that tomorrow morning you can sit down in your workspace and change your writing life, one 100-word day at a time.
My schedule at work has been changed this year, making it possible for me to write before I go to work without having to get up too early in the morning. So far, the change has been great for my writing. Sitting down at the computer after just a cup of coffee and a quick scan of the front page of the newspaper means that I'm still half asleep when I start writing. That allows me to tap into something like a dream state. Not only do scenes and dialogue come to me more easily, but the pictures I see in my mind are richer, more filled with colors, tastes, and smells to make my writing richer, too. Plus it just feels good to know I've done my writing before my day really starts.
Despite its obvious benefits, however, writing first thing in the morning has a downside, too. When the writing is going well, it is very hard to pull myself away and do what needs to be done before I leave the house. I haven't quite been late to work yet, but some days it's been close. Another problem is that when I do get to the office, I sometimes feel as if I've already done a day's work, and I am always exhausted by the end of the day, which makes writing in the evening anymore almost impossible. Luckily, I can use that time to catch up on my email, read blogs, and sometimes even spend some time with the family!
I've always envied the dedicated souls who could get up at 5 a.m. to write, and I still do, but for those of us who find that more of a challenge, I'd strongly recommend getting up even half an hour earlier (my schedule change was only an hour) to see if putting writing first in your day makes as much of a positive difference for you as it has for me.
Following the Beacons as I Write
According to the RWA lingo, there are two kinds of writers – plotters, who plan their story out completely ahead of time, and pantsers (as in flying by the seat of your pants), who just jump in and write. The classic description of a pure pantser is Eloisa James' article in Romance Writers’ Report® “Flying into the Mist”.
My writing style is something of a hybrid. I generally have the first chapter or two (the inciting incident) pretty clearly in mind before I start a new story, an outline of 2-3 major turning points, and a reasonably clear idea of how the story will end. This makes the process more like flying from beacon to beacon, with a clear destination and a clear starting point, but much vagueness in the middle.
Why explain all this? Well, this is my process and I have to own it, but it does give me lots of chances to bog down in writing a story. One place I bog down is love scenes, but that’s a story for another time. The more obvious place to bog down is all those spaces between the beacons when I haven’t a clue how my characters are going to get themselves from, say, point C to point D. In the story I’m writing now, I got so bogged down looking for how to get from one beacon to another that I had to rethink everything and ended up with one less turning point. Luckily, that change made my story much tighter, and I’ve been moving forward pretty well since then, until now.
The problem now is that I’m almost to the end of the story, and I know everything that’s going to happen and roughly how it’s going to happen. Frankly, I miss the excitement of discovering what my characters are going to do next.
My Golden Heart® Story
My series contemporary and fantasy romance stories have won several Romance Writers of America® chapter contests over the years, so in 2006 I started entering the RWA's own Golden Heart® contest. The first three years, my entries finished in the top 25%, but in 2009 my entry tanked, so I wasn’t sure about entering for 2010. I finally took the plunge, however, and quickly forgot about the whole thing in the rush of everyday life. When I thought about the GH at all, I fully expected to mark the passing of the notification date with a few minutes of mild regret before going on with my life, as I had the previous four years.
Then a 2009 Golden Heart® finalist from my chapter told us about the countdown to the GH announcement day that the Ruby Slippered Sisterhood was doing on their blog. Reading what she and her sisters had to say there, I began to remember all the good things about my story. Worse, I began to think I maybe had a chance, which led to a totally unexpected run of nearly sleepless nights. I’d been through this before – why had the contest suddenly taken over my life?
Flash forward to the big announcement day -- March 25, 2010. Everything the Ruby Slipper website said indicated that, if you were home and near a phone, you’d probably get "the call" fairly early in the morning. By the time I sat down at the computer, it was well after 9 a.m., so I had my usual moment of regret and started work on the day’s writing goal. I was about two-thirds of the way done with that when the phone rang. Hoping it was my critique partner telling me she was a GH finalist, since she’d confessed to really caring about the outcome, I sat down in a comfortable chair to answer it.
Good thing. It was a lovely lady with a Texas accent whose name I’m afraid I can’t remember telling me that "Games Without Rules" was a finalist in the series contemporary category of the Golden Heart®!
The rest of the day is a bit of a blur. I emailed everyone I could and delurked from the eharlequin forums with the news, made myself a cup of the expensive coffee we save for weekends, then sat down and somehow finished my writing goal. My memory of the celebratory dinner with my husband is even blurrier, probably due to the celebratory margaritas.
Since then, I’ve found myself with about 60 new friends in the other 2010 finalists, and about 100 emails a day from the loop one of them set up immediately. I’ve also stressed over a picture for the jumbotron (no, really, it’s huge) at the RWA® Awards Ceremony in Orlando, blown almost all my frequent flyer miles on tickets to the conference, and found the perfect dress. And I’ve been able to share the experience with one of my critique partners, who is also a finalist, and put up this fabulous website with the expert help of my other one. All in less than two months!
From everything I hear, it will continue to be a wild ride right through to the evening of July 31, and beyond. I’ll keep you posted on all the fun along the way.
The Princess Diaries, RWA®-Style
This year's meeting of the Romance Writers of America® was held in Orlando, Florida, after the floods last spring made the original site in Nashville, Tennessee, unavailable. I hadn't planned to attend, but once my entry had finaled in the Golden Heart® contest, I just couldn't not go. Everyone will treat you like a princess, people told me. Everyone will ask you what your GH story is about. You'll have a fabulous time.
Of those three promises, only the last was strictly true. I did have a fabulous time, and wouldn't have missed a minute of it. Treated like a princess, not so much. Maybe it was because I spent most of my time with just two groups of friends. One group was the other GH finalists, who were princesses (and one prince) themselves. The other was my chapter-mates from MFW who know me too well to treat me like anyone special. And, of course, there were four GH finalists from MFW in Orlando (and one who couldn't be there), so relatively speaking, I wasn't all that special.
As to everyone asking what my GH story was about, except for the agent and the editor I had scheduled appointments with, only one or two people did. Which was a relief, actually, since pitching a story on the fly isn't exactly my favorite indoor sport. On the other hand, it would have been nice if the two top-flight agents I shared elevator rides with had asked, instead of forcing me to make inane conversation to fill the silence.
At least my scheduled pitches went well enough that both the agent and the editor asked me to see my story, which is really the goal of the whole thing anyway. At a reception GH finalists, I also talked casually to another editor about another story, and she asked to see a partial of that, too, once I make the revisions on it that I know need to be made. So, being a GH finalist (but, alas, not a winner) and the trip to Orlando did pay off.
Much more important, however, were the connections I made with my fellow finalists, my sisters from MFW (miniature golf, anyone?), and even a few people--writers, agents, editors--whom I'd never met before. The RWA® is a community of vibrant, hard-working professionals, who also luckily know how to have a good time. If you ever have a chance to attend one of their annual meetings, GH finalist or not, just go. And enjoy.