I have been waiting for a long time to have Maggie Dana on Women’s Fiction Writers and now she’s here! Maggie and I met on Backspace (the provider of many of my great writerly connections). When you read her great post below — you’ll see why it took so long. You’ll also know why it was worth the wait. And her definition of women’s fiction is spot-on! (IMHO, of course)
Please welcome Maggie Dana to Women’s Fiction Writers!
Painting Naked And My Trans-Continental Publishing Journey
by Maggie Dana
Here’s what the audience saw: a middle-aged woman in need of something to fill the empty hours between hairdresser’s appointments, coffee klatches, and neighborhood cocktails parties.
Backtrack a few years, and you’ll see a newly divorced mother with three kids and a massive mortgage who worked two jobs that barely covered expenses. One of those jobs was editorial assistant to the head of Weekly Reader’s super secret New Products Department. It was so secret, the other employees didn’t know what we did; half the time, we didn’t either. When my boss was in the office, I had plenty to do. When he wasn’t, I was bored witless.
So when he was laid up at home with a bad back, I called and asked if I could help out in other departments (they were overloaded with work). He refused. Clearly, it would reflect badly on him if his EA was idle. He told me to look busy.
“I don’t care what you do,” he said, with an audible groan. “Write letters. A shopping list.” Another groan, louder this time. “Write a book.”
So I did.
On their typewriter (yes, it was that long ago), their paper, and their time clock. Then, sweet irony, I sold it to them. THE GOLDEN HORSE OF WILLOW FARM (middle-grade fiction) was published by Weekly Reader in 1980. Still bored beyond belief, I left Weekly Reader to pursue a career in typesetting and printing. Two months later, one of Weekly Reader’s book club editors asked me to write them another book.
So I did.
REMEMBER THE MOONLIGHT (YA this time) was published in 1981. At this point, the Weekly Reader editor suggested I get myself an agent.
So I did (it was a lot easier in those far off days).
My new agent introduced me to Jane Stine at Parachute Press (her husband is R.L. Stine of Goosebumps fame) and together we produced BEST FRIENDS, a 4-book series for horse-crazy girls, published in 1988 by Troll Communications, a publisher who sold to the school markets, much like Weekly Reader. (I wrote the stories; Jane hired the illustrator and copy editor and handled all the production.)
[An aside: Troll also produced foreign-language versions and I wound up with a box of Best Friends I couldn’t understand. So the box remained in my attic for a couple of decades until recently when I rediscovered them and took another look at the copyright page. It said they were published in Malmö. As luck would have it, I have Swedish neighbors so I took a set of books over. Sure enough, the books were in Swedish and my neighbor will be giving them to her pre-teen granddaughter who’s an American but is learning to speak Swedish. Now all I have to do is find a few Norwegians and Danes to take the other foreign-language editions I found.]
Back to the main story: After Best Friends was published, life got in the way. I launched a book typesetting business, survived breast cancer, made costumes for my son’s medieval wedding (think velvet and brocade and young men looking fierce in chain mail), moved 1,500 miles from home (temporarily) and back again, and welcomed several grandchildren into the family. Writing took a back seat for ten years until a friend, who was tired of me whinging that there weren’t enough novels about feisty, middle-aged women, challenged me to write one of my own.
So I did.
My first iteration (CIRCLES IN THE SAND) weighed in at 190,000 words. This was in 2000 and I didn’t have a clue about publishing except for my children’s books, and they were already more than a decade old (and a lot shorter).
Surprisingly, this doorstopper novel landed me a new agent (my previous agent had retired) who promptly told me cut it. So I did. Then she had me cut it again. This took a year of her editing (a.k.a. slashing and burning) and me grumbling like mad — “How dare she kill all these wonderful words/phrases/paragraphs?”
However, after putting in all this work, my agent inexplicably dropped the ball and only submitted CIRCLES IN THE SAND to three editors, right in the middle of 9/11 and the anthrax scares. After another year with no further action on her part, we parted company, and I shelved the project. I then plunged into writing picture books for kids, won an award for one of them, and landed a well-known children’s agent, but she also dropped the ball.
I felt a bit doomed, like I had a big sign on my forehead that told agents to scoop me up and spend countless hours helping me fine-tune my books, only to fizzle out when it came to submissions.
For a month or two, I sat around feeling sorry for myself until a writer friend jump-started my enthusiasm for women’s fiction. She told me (a.k.a. bullied me) to get back into “that book” (Circles in the Sand) and re-write it.
So I did.
New POV, new voice, and a hot new title: PAINTING NAKED. It landed me a new agent within 3 weeks. She loved the book, said it was “an almost perfect novel.” We did a few minor edits and off it went to all the usual suspects in New York.
We came close. “I loved the voice,” “Those characters really spoke to me,” and “This is a book I’d tell my friends about,” said several editors, but nobody offered the golden ring. My agent was disappointed and told me to write her another novel, that she’d sell it, and then we would revisit the first one.
So I did.
And she didn’t like it.
Discouraged, I parted company with her. Then a British writer friend suggested I approach her editor at a well-known publishing house in London. One of their smaller imprints took unagented submissions. So I fired off PAINTING NAKED (with a suitable query letter) and they bought it.
Oh, wow! This was great. I’m a Brit. My novel takes place in Connecticut, where I live, and in London and Cornwall in England where I grew up. With much excitement I went through several rounds of editing and I thought we were all set until I got an email … “About the title …”
“You don’t like PAINTING NAKED?” I said.
My beta readers had loved it … a provocative title about a middle-aged woman who rediscovers an old flame. One of my author friends described it this way: “Funny, sophisticated, and wise, Painting Naked is a coming-of-middle-age story about girlfriends when you’re no longer a girl, about growing up when you’re already grown up, and the price you’re willing to pay for the love of your life.”
But no, my publisher didn’t. Their sales and marketing thought the title would damage the book’s chances. I fought and argued long-distance and sent a bazillion emails, but in the end, a debut author has no legs to stand on. Unable to think of another title, I accepted theirs:
A perfectly nice title, but kind of bland. The cover was perfectly nice, too:
Beachcombing enjoyed moderate success in the UK, but no US or foreign rights were sold. I flew over (on my dime) for the launch in June 2009, and my editor set up a few author events and a radio interview; the rest, I set up on my own. I contacted book bloggers, libraries, and bookshops and did everything I could, but when you live on one side of the Atlantic and your print book is being sold on the other, it makes promotion and marketing a wee bit challenging.
The publisher wanted to see my second novel, NOT MINE TO KEEP, about a middle-aged birthmother who searches for the child she gave away, but they turned it down. It was an American-centric story and given the vast differences in adoption and adoption search laws in Britain and the US, I’m not surprised they rejected it.
So I went back on the agent query-round, and landed my fifth agent. She loved NOT MINE TO KEEP and actually rang me up while on vacation with her kids (on the beach in the Virgin Islands) to offer me representation. We spent a couple of months fine-tuning and in February 2010, she submitted NOT MINE TO KEEP to women’s fiction editors in New York.
We got a DEFINITE INTEREST that involved a 3-way phone conversation with a NY editor, my agent, and me. The editor suggested a few solid changes to the novel, which I agreed with, and said she would re-read and get back to us with an offer. I made the changes which were quite substantial and we re-submitted.
And heard nothing back, despite my agent’s follow-up emails and several phone calls to the editor.
Again, I switched hats. By this time, the rights to my children’s Best Friends series had reverted to me, so I rewrote the stories, from the ground up—new voice, fresh plots, but with the same girls and their horses, and I published them myself. The first 3 books are up on Amazon and B&N in e-book and print, and I’m now working on book #4. You can find them here or here.
The print production part was easy for me (I’ve been a book designer and typesetter for 30+ years) but I had to learn HTML and CSS in order to create the Kindle and ePub versions. It’s been fun and challenging, to say the least. I’ve also had to learn how to create my own covers and web sites (http://www.maggiedana.com and http://www.timberridgeriders.com) with Photoshop and Dreamweaver. Both have huge learning curves.
There is nothing like stretching the mind at my age.
About two years ago an idea began niggling around in my head. Why didn’t publishers—the big ones—offer a digital only option for books they really wanted to publish but couldn’t take on because of budget constraints? Producing an e-book (with no print counterpart) involves a lot of the same costs (editing, cover design, proofreading, marketing), but ends up costing less to produce given there’s no printing or warehousing involved, and only minimal delivery charges. Surely if they did this they could publish a whole lot more books than they already did, and they would have the option of producing print versions of the e-books that took off and did well.
Turns out I wasn’t the only one thinking along these lines. I ran across Momentum Books last November on Twitter. They’re a digital-only branch of Pan Macmillan, and they’re in Australia—ten thousand miles and ten time zones away from me. But in this day and age, who cares? For e-books, time and distance are no barriers.
[Another aside: of course, many of the big publishers are now offering this, but they weren’t two years ago or even last November.)
So I sent the link to my agent, thinking it might be a venue for my unpublished novel about birthmothers, NOT MINE TO KEEP. But, to my surprise (and delight) Momentum wanted to republish BEACHCOMBING as an e-book. Luckily, those rights had also reverted to me, so no worries, right!
They were absolutely fine with using its original title, PAINTING NAKED, that my original publisher had nixed. Even better, they hired as their cover designer a good friend of mine, Carrie Kabak, a fabulous artist and women’s fiction writer. Her debut novel, COVER THE BUTTER (Dutton, 2006) is one of my favorites. She’s also the friend who badgered me into rewriting my old novel and producing PAINTING NAKED back in 2007.
Here’s the cover Carrie came up with …
… and Momentum was thrilled. Painting Naked launched on August 1st and is available pretty much everywhere. Since then, they’ve hired Carrie to produce several more e-book covers.
So, in the spirit of global publishing … I’m a Brit who lives in Connecticut. My debut novel was published in London, my New York agent signed me while on the beach in the Virgin Islands, and then she sold digital rights to a publisher in Australia who hired my British friend, Carrie, who lives in Kansas City, to create the cover.
* * *
Amy, I know you invariably ask your guests to describe their ideas of what women’s fiction is. I’ve struggled with this one for years, and the best description I’ve ever seen is yours and I’d like to repeat it right now:
If the main point of the book is for the woman to improve herself, her situation, her life, her relationships and the focus is on internal growth of self, if the most important part of the book is not about moving toward romance, then that to me, is women’s fiction.
THANKS, MAGGIE! I AGREE! xo