How We Got Here

I announced my new sale at the end of last week and said I’d talk about it a little today. Mostly, I want to talk about the reality of how up and down this writing career can be. A few people knew about the deal before I announced. One person said something about how my career has always zipped along without trouble. For the record, that is not true. It’s not even close to being accurate.

It’s been a rollercoaster ride for me. I’ve had lots of doubts. I’ve had some books not sell that well. There was a point last year when I said “nothing is working” and really wondered if I should try doing something else.

My husband is super supportive and always believed and told me not to give up. He did this chart for me showing how many copies I had to sell in self-publishing to earn the same amount I had been earning so that if I truly thought the traditional publishing route wasn’t working or never got another book offer I had a choice. I could take control. I’m not a big sharer, so only some of my friends knew I was drowning. Honestly, there were a few months where my friend Jill Shalvis had to believe in me enough for the both of us because I was done. I had nothing left.

It didn’t start out this way. I had an editor who loved my work and fought for me. She bought a lot of my books pretty quickly and when she died I was devastated on a personal level. A few months later I realized her not being there to be my champion also meant bad things for my single title career. It wasn’t the publisher’s fault. It’s just a reality that when the person who really pushes your career is gone, you could be in trouble and I was. At the time contemporary romance was on a huge downward spiral and romantic suspense was glutted. Since those are the two things I write, my career spiraled.

Rather than give in, I regrouped and kept trying. I started writing for Harlequin. I know a lot of authors badmouth Harlequin. I am not one of them. I started writing for Intrigue and loved it. Those books were a lifeline for me. So was Angela James – an editor for whom I have great respect and has forever changed how I write heroines – who asked me to be in a Carina Press holiday anthology. The combination was what I needed to get my emotional equilibrium.

Still, my writing self-confidence was at an all-time low and stayed there. I loved what I was writing but was convinced no one else ever would. Around the same time I realized it was time to leave the agent I had had from the beginning of my career. He’s a good agent but he was no longer the right agent for me. We weren’t connecting. I stayed on even after I knew the relationship wasn’t working. That’s on me. It’s my fault…and that’s a topic for a separate blog post…but it added to my inability to rebound.

Fast forward to the fall of 2012. My husband and friends were in full-on support mode. And, after much chatting and setting of ground rules, I switched agents to someone who is actually a friend, Laura Bradford. Then everything changed. In January/February of this year I sold 3 books to Harlequin Intrigue, 1 to Samhain, 2 to Berkley Heat and 1 to the new Cosmo Red-Hot Reads by Harlequin. Last month I sold 2 more books to Berkley Intermix.

All of that gave me the confidence to write 2 chapters and an 8 page synopsis for a romantic suspense series I’ve always wanted to write. One that captures my love for the TV shows MI5 and Strike Back as well as my love of thrillers, alpha heroes, strong women and lots of action. No serial killers or small towns, which I enjoy reading but thought were well represented in the romantic suspense genre. No, these were about guys with guns on the run, stopping international threats, and have sexy times with amazing women.

This series was the wrong genre (no one was buying romantic suspense) and the wrong time of year (conventional wisdom is editors don’t buy in summer) and not enough pages (I’d written 20 pages of this first book and didn’t even include series synopsis). This time instead of worrying I went in with the “I’ve got nothing to lose” attitude and it worked. This turned out to be the right series at the right time and ended up with 5 offers – which NEVER happens to me. I got lucky.

The reality is readers might not like the books I have coming out in 2013-2015. I get that reality now. My books from Berkley Heat are hotter than I usually write and I’m not sure how readers will react. A lot of readers don’t like romantic suspense, so I don’t know how the Avon series will go, though I am really hopeful. But the one thing – maybe the only thing – I’ve learned is to stop operating in panic mode. I calmed down and sold 12 books in 8 months. In fact, even with the deadlines I already have there is a sexy contemporary romance series I’d love to write and one I’ve been thinking about ever since talking with one of my an editors at RWA who specifically asked me to think about writing a sexy contemporary series. I’m not sure how or when to fill it in, but the point is I have options. We all do.

So, if you’re out there not selling, or your genre is tanking, or you lose your editor, or you’re losing faith in your abilities, or your publisher is letting you go, or you’re not working well with your agent, or you feel like you’re working your ass off and not getting anywhere – you are not alone. I’ve been there. Don’t give up. If you need a pep talk, email me. Bottom line: keep believing and keep writing and know that it can all fall apart over and over and somehow you’ll be okay.

23 Responses to “How We Got Here”

  1. I, for one, am so glad you stuck with it, though I’m so sorry you went through all that self-doubt. I adore your RS as well as the contemps.

    Looking forward to reading all these new books!!

  2. Thank you so much for this post. I was just writing myself about how sometimes it takes a smile from a kindred spirit to keep going.

  3. Thank you for being so honest – I’m so glad that your support network kept you going through the low times. And MI-5? Where’s the pre-order button…that sounds amazing! I’m going to bookmark this post for when I need some perspective.

  4. Thanks for sharing this story, Helen Kay. I think this is an aspect of the business that a lot of writers – particularly brand new ones – aren’t aware of. A long career requires resilience and reinvention. Good on you for doing it!

    (and loved our reckless cab ride at #rwa13 – I never found out if you made it in time!)

  5. I’ll admit it–that post choked me up. I’m so glad you’ve persevered, HelenKay. You’ve been such an inspiration to the writers in your chapter and to me. *bug hugs*

  6. Lori – Thank you! I know we share a love of romantic suspense. I hope you enjoy these.

  7. Leigh – We all need that sometimes. Happy this helped. You are definitely not alone. :)

  8. Zoe – Thank you! And didn’t you love MI5? Man, so good. If you haven’t yet, try Strike Back. It’s on Cinemax.

  9. Jeffe – Very true. It’s the reality of writing but it’s a bit of a secret. That cab ride…man. I was late but did eventually get there. Somehow. :)

  10. Cassi – Thank you! That’s lovely to hear and means a lot to me.

  11. Fantastic post. A great shot in the arm for when we each get a little lost. As someone else already remarked, I’m totally bookmarking this post for when I need perspective and some friendly encouragement. Your story is an inspiration. Thanks for sharing it with us. :-)

  12. Thanks for sharing your ups and downs. As we all know, it’s a difficult business. It’s part talent, luck, and timing. And you don’t always have all 3 at the same time.

    I’m glad you worked through the obstacles and didn’t let them win. I love your books and can’t wait to read your next one.

  13. Thank you for sharing your story. It is definitely good to know I’m not alone in the doubt and frustration that seems to go hand in hand with success in this business.

  14. Helen Kay, I heard you speak at the women’s fiction mini-conference in Atlanta and thought you were fabulous. This post just confirms it. Thanks for hanging in there and being so inspiring!

  15. I wish I’d had a support system and friends like you when I went through a very similar situation. People I did talk to told me I was silly to walk away, but that was it. A comment here or there. No real support, no family or hubby or friends in every day life who had a clue about he writing world or if I was any good at what I did. An agent, and two editors who let me walk away. I sank, and sank hard.
    I had no idea you were struggling so much, or I totally would’ve kicked your butt to keep at it. *g* I’m so glad for Jill and Laura and your hubby who helped you through it. Big congrats! *hug*

    And BTW: LOVE Strike Force, and can’t wait.

  16. 😉 This was terribly inspiring to me. I’ve gone though numerous ups and downs in my career and am inspired by your story. Thank you. Meg Lacey

  17. Thanks so much for sharing this, Helen. You have my heartfelt respect for doing so. Best wishes on your new series (ack – how do you write series in plural, LOL?) I’ll be watching for them. :)

  18. mesummerbooks – if you need encouragement, email me. Really.

  19. Maria – Thank you! I’m so happy you enjoy them. That’s lovely to hear.

  20. Maria G – Thank you! I love talk to your group. You were all so engaged and smart. It was a joy for me.

  21. Rhian – You are not alone!!

  22. Sasha – We’ve known each other a long time. IF you need support, email me. I totally get it. We can kick each others’ butts and talk about Strike Back :)

  23. Susan – Thank you!

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