If I Knew Then…

- by Judy Griffith Gill

If I knew then what I know now… About writing—I started out a long, long many years ago, without the faintest idea of how to write a book, or even that I was writing one. It sort of crept up on me that the words filling my type-written pages were telling me a story, one I liked. I read a lot of contemporary romance, so that was the kind of story somehow filtering from my brain to my keyboard. So, okay. I finished that manuscript, tidied it up—a lot!—because it needed it, and sent it off with great expectations. Surprisingly, those  expectations were met. Books were in greater demand and editors were more tolerant. Nevertheless, the people who offered me money for it thought it was “a bit too long” for their needs. I offered to shorten it. They declined.  All their revisions were done in-house.  So, who was I, a first-time author who knew no other writers, had no idea how the game was played, to argue with a publishing house’s practices? Maybe this was the way it was always done.

Big Mistake number One, I said, “All right, go ahead and revise it for me.” They did—by cutting my last chapter almost in its entirety, simply taking the last two paragraphs from it and tacking them on to the penultimate chapter. The next book I wrote for them, they changed not only the color of my hero’s hair, they changed his name, and for no good reason that I could (or can) see! I noticed, though, that many of the paperbacks from the house I was selling to were reprints from a hardcover house. Hmm . . . Why not send directly to that house? So I did. And they liked my work. If I had it to do over again, I’d have gone to them first, and bypassed the in-house editing one altogether.

Big Mistake Number Two was in not writing enough, not writing consistently, in treating it like a game instead of a job. I worked when I chose and goofed off a lot. I let the world and my friends interfere. “Lunch today? Sure. I’d love to.” Or “I’m honored to be asked to chaperon the fourth-grade class on their week-long trip to Lucerne, Switzerland.”  Not really as exciting as it may sound–the Alps were in our backyard then. But six 250 page mss in six years, even though they all sold, simply wasn’t enough. It didn’t give me the name recognition I should have had, and it didn’t earn me the money it could have, that would have made me and others around me see my work differently—as a viable career that deserved respect.  It wasn’t until I learned to take my work seriously myself that anyone else began to. Even now, after all these years, it’s still tough teaching new friends the rules. And some family members? Hah! Forget it!

Big Mistake Number Three was letting myself be interviewed on radio or TV without at least some idea of what kind of questions would be asked, or whether the interviewer was sympathetic to the romance genre or contemptuous–the latter all too often being the case, especially in the early years. If he or she is the latter, I now refuse those interviews. I used to let interviewers box me into corners, make me stammer and stutter and embarrass myself by trying to justify what I do and why I do it. Now, I have a fairly-well memorized stock of replies that suit almost any question.  It’s better to sound glib than stupid. I’ve also learned how to turn the interviewer’s question back into the track I want to follow by failing to answer what was asked and giving the message I really want to impart. 

For example:

  • Why don’t you write ‘real’ books?” Answer: “Define ‘real.’ My books have physical substance, are made, as are most books I’ve ever seen, of printed words on paper set into a binding. What’s unreal about that? My next book takes place in the real town of. . .”
  • “Where do you get your ideas?” Answer: “From reading newspapers, watching TV, from other peoples’ real-life experiences, and even some of my own. The manuscript I’m just about finished came from the germ of a notion that occurred to me while listening to a couple sitting behind me on the ferry. It’ll be published in May and . . .” (Truth? Mostly, I have absolutely no idea where the ideas come from. They’re just . . .there when I need them.)
  • “Don’t you think you’re giving impressionable young women false expectations regarding love and life?” Answer: (sounding horrified.) “Heavens, no! The people who read my books are mature, sensible men and women who know what life’s all about, but enjoy the fantasy that I can help them create. I trust my readers to be able to tell fact from fiction. Have you ever read Watership Down? Did it persuade you that rabbits talk and wage wars? And how about Harry Potter? Do you think impressionable children believe in kid-wizards? And speaking of wizards, did I tell you I’m now writing futuristic and fantasy romance? It’s a lot of fun and readers keep coming back for more.”
  • I’ve read bits of some of your books. How about those sex-scenes? You must have a pretty active sex-life yourself to come up with some of those.”Answer: “I’ve heard that men give love in order to get sex, that women give sex in order to get love. What do you think?” (This works best if the interviewer is male. He’s usually at a loss for words and, hating deat air, moves on quickly to something else). Otherwise, a good answer is along the lines of “I wonder if Agatha Christie committed murders?”
  • “How much money do you make?” Answer: A blank stare.
  • “Heh-heh-heh. Okay, you don’t want to talk about that. How much does the average writer of the kinds of books you write, make?” Answer: “I didn’t know there was any such a thing as an ‘average’ writer. Writing is very much an individual undertaking. You can give ten different novelists the exact same starting point, such as a first sentence, and end up with ten completely different stories. The one I’m working on now starts out in an abandoned quarry because that was the starting point a group of us were given at a recent writing seminar. It’s amazing how my first few paragraphs differed from everyone else’s. My heroine got herself out of that quarry really fast because I don’t like abandoned places and she’s a gutsy woman who won’t be put at a disadvantage by anyone.”
  • “All those romance books are the same, aren’t they, with that formula you have to stick to?” Answer: (Eagerly) A formula? When did they come up with that? Where can I get it? That sure would make writing easier.”
  • “Oh, you know what I mean. The parameters you have to work within. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, then girl and boy get together at last for a happily ever after ending.” Answer: “Oh, yes. Certain parameters are very important. They give my readers—anyone’s readers—the kind of story they expect. It’s like a contract between me and them when they buy my book. If I fail to give them a satisfactory read and ending, I’ll be breaking faith, and I’d hate to do that. Authors of mystery novels need to work the same way so as not to disappoint their fans. In a murder mystery, someone dies, someone realizes the death was murder, someone figures out who done it, the bad guy gets caught and punished. The end. Or in a spy novel, someone knows some secrets he shouldn’t know (at least from one point of view), gets caught, gets locked up in a small room by big guys with rubber hoses and has the crap beaten out of him but divulges nothing because he’s a hero. He somehow escapes and the right side wins. I guess you could call that a formula if you want.  I don’t. I simply call it meeting the readers’ expectations. That’s my task in writing. Giving my readers a fun, often funny ride down sometimes bumpy roads, but having all the problems worked out in the end. In an upcoming book of mine, for example…
  • “All the problems worked out in the end? Do you believe the romance books you write are reflective of real life?” Answer: “Whose real life? Do you think the guy who greases your car and reads thrillers on his coffee break thinks the actions of those characters reflect his real life? Readers of almost any genre want to be swept away from the boring routine of their normal environment. I write romance to entertain my audience the same way an author of a spy vs. spy novel writes to divert his or her readers from the ordinary, humdrum routine most people live. It’s a real calling and it takes hard work and talent to lift people out of their every-day grind and give them a look at a whole new world engendered by my imagination. I love doing it. My current book has been getting some excellent reviews. Here, let me read you some. . .”

There were, of course, lots more mistakes over the years, but they didn’t hold me back. Well not much.  I just kept on writing, but if I knew then what I know now, having had nine books published before I hired an agent, I wouldn’t hire one to sell series romance fiction. All my romance agent did during the time we worked together was cost me an unnecessary percentage of what I could have gotten all by myself. She never got me a better contract, never even looked at my books. I sent them directly to my editor with the agent’s blessing—she knew she didn’t have to be bothered. The editor and I agreed on revisions. The best service that particular agent provided for me was when the time came to get out of my former contract because I didn’t like the direction things were taking, was make the divorce call for me. That saved me a great deal of trauma during what was an extremely stressful period in my life. 

 Now, on to editors: If I knew then what I know now, I don’t think I’d do much a whole lot differently, but I am more confident when it comes to standing up for what I think is right for my book, my voice. Once, I treated editors like gods, and considered their word as law. I’ve since learned that it’s my name on the cover of that book, and if I think the heroine’s drug-addicted grandfather had to have been murdered by drug lords in order to motivate her properly to hate illegal substances enough to bend a few laws to get a dealer caught, then I’ll stick to my guns on the issue if an editor feels the subject is a little raw for a romance. I’ve also learned when to give a little in order to get a lot in exchange. I believe that’s called the art of compromise. I also view editors as valued colleagues and my main source of assistance in making my book the very best it can be. Nope, editors aren’t gods, but they are to be respected as informed experts in most cases. I don’t believe we could do without them.

About multi-book contracts–if I were to be offered one for a mainstream novel, while it would break my heart to do it, I’d probably suggest my agent try instead for a single book contract with a renegotiable option clause depending on the rate of sales. That way, I’d stand a greater chance of a better contract next time.  In category romance series, though, I think multis are fine, because the contracts don’t change that much from book to book apart from (hopefully) increasing advances. It’s nice to be able to go to the bank and say “I have a four-book contract over the next 15 months. It’s worth X number of dollars in advances, and royalties of course, are extra. Bankers tend to see multi-book contracts as “receivables” and are willing to advance money for such necessities as new computers, or luxuries like reroofing the house or repowering the boat.

The last question I’m sure at least some people want answered is: If I knew then  what I know now, would I do it all over again?

            YOU BET YOUR LIFE! My career in writing has been a wild, exciting, dizzying, sometimes madly frustrating ride to date and I look forward to it’s continuing for many more years to come. Please visit my personal websites and blogs and get a glimpse into how I live.

 My writing site is at http://www.jggbooks.com

My LIfe in Cosa Rica blog is at http://www.judyinthejungle.blogspot.com 

My Boating blog is http://www.bobnjudyafloat.blogspot.com 

Looking forward to seeing you there and to your comments right here.  And for heaven’s sake, don’t forget to come back to the Ninc blog tomorrow for Charlotte Hubbard’s words of wisdom.

Judy Griffith Gill, currently in the “afloat” phase of the year, cruising the BC coast.

7 comments

  1. Loved the article. It was nice to read that although you wish you knew then what you know now it didn’t stop you from realizing your dream. Thanks for the inspiration.

  2. Great article, Judy. Looking forward to the next book. The real story of what really happened to that adventurous redhead on the way to Princess Louisa maybe?

  3. No, it didn’t, Jill. That’s what youth is for, making mistakes and learning from them. Seems to be what old age is, too, since I keep making new ones and (I hope) learning from them. Keep on working at realizing your dreams, whatever they are.

  4. Uh-oh, Laurie! That story might not be what you’re looking for. You’ve heard of selkies, I imagine? Those seals that turn into men whenever the moon is full? That could well be my next subject, and selkies are sexy!

  5. I really enjoyed reading about your experiences, Judy. I especially loved your responses to interview questions. So well handled!

  6. Hello Jill, this article was very informative and interesting. I don’t think that I could ever do what you and so many other authors do. I am so debilitated by fear, that I can’t think of words to fit on a page that tell a story well. I have to really try my hand at writing one day. I actually started one or two novels, but have never gotten around to finish it. As I was reading your article right now, my heart was racing and pounding like I was the one who had to speak to editors and try to sell my work. Loved your responses to questions that interviewers make ask. I especially liked the one about there being a formula for writing…thank God there isn’t because I would never read as much as I do now, if there was. Thank you for you inciteful words. I am glad that Julie Leto led me to this site. Happy writing.

    Peace and love,
    Paula R.

  7. Hey Paula, I’m really glad you took the time to leave a comment. Keep coming back, please! I understand Melissa won the free book this week, but maybe next week it’ll be your turn. And as for those one or two books you started, there’s only one way to finish ‘em–sit down, put your fingers to your keyboard and let your imagination fly. Best of luck,

    Judy (who often gets called Jill, and doesn’t mind a bit.)