You know, I’ve often joked that one day I’m going to have #1 NYT best-selling author tattooed across my forehead. Because it’s honestly the most miraculous and surreal thing imaginable to me. Kind of like when they handed my sons to me after they were born and actually let me leave the hospital with them. What? Are you people nuts? I don’t know what I’m doing with this kid? OMG! It’s leaking out both ends! Help!
I wish I could say publishing was easier than parenting, but really it’s not.
I spent many years attending writers events as both a published and unpublished writer, sitting at big round tables, wondering . . . well A) will I ever be published and B) what would it be like to have the honor of being a keynote speaker.
I have to say it seriously doesn’t suck . . . but it’s very scary.
And as I sat down to think of what all of you might want or need to hear, it forced me to walk back through my life and my career. Something I honestly try not to do because well . . . I always say there are two things you never want to ask me about: Publishing and pregnancy because I’ll scare you off both.
However, the theme of being a writer is stories. Everyone has one and so I wanted to share mine along with some unvarnished truths.
We are all the heroes and heroines of our own lives. As Kalil Gibran once wrote, “Your daily life is your temple and your religion. When you enter into it take with you your all.”
Of course, he’s also the man who said, “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”
Anyone who’s been in publishing for five minutes knows the truth of this.
You can’t look at anyone and tell what they’ve been through. Ever. The deepest scars are never the ones that mark our skin. They are the ones that mar our souls. Unknown and unseen by everyone, but felt deeply by those of us who bear them and we can never fully escape their wrath.
Like the characters in our hearts, they whisper in our ears as a constant companion. They tell us that we’re not good enough. Smart enough. Talented enough. That we don’t deserve our dream. That we’re stupid. Fat. Ugly. Untalented. That we don’t have what it takes. Those voices are the hardest thing to let go of. Twice as hard when critics and others, especially those who claim to be well-meaning give an exterior voice to them.
Other people say that when they going gets tough, the tough get going. What they never talk about is finding the courage inside you to pursue a dream when it seems like even heaven itself has conspired to keep it from you. When obstacle after obstacle is not only thrown at you, but dropped on top of you with such force that you feel like Wile E. Coyote. But notice that Wile E. never once stopped pursuing the Road Runner. No matter how badly squashed he was, he always got up, dusted himself off and kept going after his dream.
If you only take one thing away from this speech today, I want to be the belief that you can achieve any and every dream you hold in your heart. That you have the power to be whatever it is you decide.
Your fate isn’t determined by what life brings to you as it is by the attitude you bring to your life. It’s hard to make lemonade out of lemons. Believe me, no one knows this better than I do.
But you have to keep fighting. No matter what. Don’t ever be a casualty of fate.
As a girl, I was never allowed to complain about anything. You have to remember that my father as a drill sergeant who believed that no matter how hard you worked, you could always do better.
And he was my sympathetic parent.
My parents had one basic belief. The world will not take mercy on you. Your enemies will not take mercy on you and I will not be doing you any favors if *I* take mercy on you.
That was from my mother, which tells you a lot about my childhood.
I wish I could say it was happy, but it wasn’t. Anyone who has ever read my books can tell there was nothing blissful about my past. It was the kind of childhood that psychologists on Forensic Files use to justify criminal behavior.
But that which doesn’t kill us . . . Serves as a motivational speech for others. And I am grateful to God for the fact that my parents and others were so cruel to me in my youth. Had they not been, I would never have survived my adulthood.
And that is the sad and honest truth.
Every statistic I ever heard or read growing up said that I was destined to be a teen mother. A drug addict.
Some people brag that they were the first in their family to go to college. I’m one of only two of the twelve my mother raised who graduated high school.
As I said, you can’t look at anyone and know what they’ve been through.
One of many things that no one can tell by looking at me now is that I grew up with one of the worst speech impediments imaginable and I had a thick Appalachian drawl. It was so bad my speech therapist in grade school said that I would never be able to have a job that involved interacting or speaking with the public.
I was so mocked for my accent and speech impediment by others that I learned not to talk to anyone. In college, even when class participation counted for an entire letter grade, I refused to speak in class. So when I say I’m nervous about being up here, it’s on many levels.
In addition to not being able to stand up here and speak, I shouldn’t be able to read . . . never mind write a novel. I’m severely dyslexic. So severe that it even manifests verbally, especially when I’m tired or nervous. Another thing I was relentlessly mocked for and called stupid over.
Even those who were supposed to love and shelter me. The only reason I can read today is because my older brother took me aside when I was in first grade and said, “I’ve already got one ignorant sister, I ain’t having another. You gonna sit there, girl, until you’re literate.”
And with a crumpled up Spider-man comic book, he taught me how to read.
I became a writer as a small child because it was how I coped with the trauma of my childhood. There’s no worse feeling than to be completely at the mercy of those who lack it for you, and to have no way out. And I have been in that position way too many times in my life.
As a child and adult.
For those of you in the room, and to my horror, I know some of you are here, who know what I’m talking about, I am so sorry that you do. I wish I could make that better for you. No one should ever feel that powerless and hopeless. That downtrodden.
But I made a vow to myself that if I could by some miracle make it out alive I would never put myself back into that situation.
Oh but Fate was never going to make that vow easy on me.
Have I told you guys how much I hate that bitch?
I wrote because in fiction, I could eviscerate all the evil in my world. I couldn’t fight the real bullies and villains in my life, but I could slay them on paper. And I did.
I still do.
When I was five years old, before I could even read a book and back when I was already drawing pictures to tell stories, I told my mother that when I grew up I was going to be a New York Times best-selling author. My mother looked over at me with a mask of total disbelief that I can still see to this day and asked if I even knew what that was.
“Nope. No idea. But it’s on the front of a lot of the books you read, so I figure it must be good and since I want to be a writer when I grow up, that’s the kind of writer I want to be.”
She laughed at my dream that day, and she by far wasn’t the last one to do so.
But the one thing my childhood and family taught me was to fight for what I wanted.
With both fists and with everything I have.
You could never say to my father that something was difficult. If you did, he always countered with, “Girl, you don’t know what hard is. You try taking two bullets in the chest. One in the leg and then belly crawl over the bodies of men you once called friend to get to help while enemy bullets fly over your head. It’d been far easier for me to lie down and die that day in a blood-soaked field than it was to get the medics who were pinned down by gunfire and save my own life. You don’t wait for others to come help you. You take responsibility for yourself. Life ain’t never easy. It ain’t supposed to be. But you do what you have to do to survive it. So don’t you dare tell me how hard you think it is.”
The battle my father talked about? He was one of only ten in his unit who survived it and he was only nineteen years old.
I think about that a lot whenever I want to whine about something. As my mother always said, as bad as you think you have it, trust me there’s always someone out there who would change places with you in a heartbeat. My mother at sixteen gave birth to a daughter with severe cerebral palsy. The doctors told her that my sister wouldn’t live to see the age of fifteen and that she’d never walk. It took my mother nine long hard years, but she got her on her feet. Trisha will turn seventy this year and she’s walking to this day.
Sometimes impossible just means you have to try harder.
Growing up, I wrote through all the arrows that outrageous fortune shot at me and by no means was I ever spared. I’m still not. And I was lucky. I published my first piece in a local paper when I was in third grade.
I made my first professional sale at age fourteen. I used that money to buy a subscription to Writer’s Digest Magazine. I was on the school paper and yearbook staff. Anything I could do to be published, I would do. I guess the experts were right, after all. I was a junkie, but my drug of choice was publishing.
Contrary to all the experts and odds, I made it to college where I was the editor for our school paper, and one of the three jobs I had to hold down to pay for it was as an editor for a small SF magazine. By then, I’d made numerous sales to national magazines. But do you want to know why I don’t have a degree in Creative Writing or Journalism?
They wouldn’t let me in those programs. I applied three times to the Creative Writing department and even though I was already published, the professor told me that I didn’t write well enough to be admitted to her prestigious department. On the third try, she told me not to waste her time by applying anymore as the slots in her program were reserved for students who actually had futures as professional writers and that my writing . . . well, sucked.
I couldn’t make it in Journalism because they had a typing requirement and my right hand is partially paralyzed. I can’t type on a regular typewriter so I couldn’t pass that the typing test and they wouldn’t let me in even though I was an editor for the school paper and a magazine. This was the days before ADA laws were in place.
While you may be able to measure a person’s aptitude or even their talent, what you can never measure is a person’s determination and their resilience. As my brother so often said it’s not about the size of the dog in the fight, it’s about the size of the fight in the dog.
My personal motto is: over, under, around, or through. There’s always a way to get to what you’re trying to reach . . . just ask any toddler who wants a cookie from the top shelf. The only person who can stop me is me and I don’t think enough of myself most days to let me be much of an obstacle.
At age 20, I’d decided that I was going to finally polish one of my novels and submit it to New York. Don’t get me wrong. I’d written dozens of novels by that point and I do mean dozens. But I was an editor so I knew they reeked.
I spent what little free time I had writing the draft. During Christmas break, between my jobs, I diligently typed those pages on a typewriter that I’d borrowed from my older brother’s roommate.
I will never forget when my brother, who as a teenager with a driver’s license had spent his entire summer teaching a six year old how to read, came to get the typewriter back. “I know it’s going to be a winner, baby. I can’t wait to see it in print.”
He died a few days later. Out of everything that has happened to me in my life, that was the hardest blow. He’d been my only light in many a bleak darkness. Needless to say, I trunked that book. I couldn’t stand to look at it. I chucked all my writing. I crawled inside myself and to this day, a part of me died with him.
My brother will always be my greatest hero. And with him, my best friend Kim who gave me a copy of Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and The Flower when we were thirteen. A book that gave me hope and showed me that a bad past didn’t have to define the rest of my life.
God bless Kathleen Woodiwiss and Kim Henson. I shudder to think where I’d have ended up had Kim not introduced me to a genre that finally empowered me. That showed me I didn’t have to be a victim and that I could defy all odds.
I’m not a survivor.
I am a warrior. Battle-scarred and ready to take on whatever hell life is planning to rain down on me.
A few years after my brother died, I was still weak from grief made the mistake of marrying my ex.
As I was moving in with him, he found my old notebooks with the manuscripts I’d written on for years. He looked up at me and said, “I remember before we broke up that you were always writing something and plotting a new book or story. Why don’t you do that anymore?”
I couldn’t tell him then that after my brother’s death, I didn’t believe in dreams anymore and that I honestly expected him to abandon me at any moment like everyone else in my life had done or turn into some ferocious monster who abused and belittled me.
But that darn fate was still there and she wasn’t through with me.
Let me repeat how much I really hate that bitch.
Anyway, like most newlyweds, we struggled hard that first year and honestly many years after. But that first year, I couldn’t find a job even at McDonald’s. I’ve never felt more worthless, which given my past is saying something.
In my darkest hour, my best friend who happened to be an editor for a magazine did the most incredible thing of all. She offered me work. “Now I know you haven’t written in awhile, but if you’re willing to do it . . .”
Oh my God, are you serious? I can get paid and not take off my clothes? I’m so there!
I hung up and went to the closet where my ex kept his old typewriter. Then I sat down on the floor– we had no furniture in our apartment at that time— and the moment my fingers touched those keys the most amazing thing happened. Every character. Every voice I’d silenced on that cold winter night when my brother had died came back with a screaming clarity.
I had no choice, but to write.
Again, I was addicted.
Contrary to what I wanted, my books didn’t sell right away. Still, that didn’t stop me. I joined a local writers group and I was finally going in the right direction again.
And I did what most writers do. I entered contests and waited patiently by the phone, hoping some publisher somewhere would take pity on me. I wish I could say I’d finaled in a major contest, but I didn’t. As an unpublished writer, I only finaled and won one award and it was small writer’s chapter award.
Those were long, hard years. I always say that it’s easy to write a book when you have a contract. The hardest thing in the world is to write one when you don’t know if it’ll ever sell.
At first, everyone’s excited for you. You’re writing a book! Woo hoo! And then as time goes on and you don’t become Stephen King or James Patterson overnight, that support dries up pretty fast. In fact, one of the last things my father said to me before he died was that I should spend the money I was wasting on writing to buy lottery tickets. At least with the lottery you’d win once in awhile.
But then the miracle happened. On Feb 3rd, 1991 I got the call that every writer dreams about. Well, okay, even that was backwards. I’ve never done anything the way I was supposed to. Instead of the editor calling me, I called her to interview her for another magazine I was working for, She mentioned my manuscript and I quickly assured her, “I’m not calling about that!” I was terrified that she’d think I was harassing her.
“Oh well I was going to call you later today about it. I want to buy it.”
I was stunned. Ironically, that was the same book I’d typed on that Christmas break that my brother had been so sure would sell. And in the next year, I went on to sell a total of six books. When they came out, they hit bestseller lists and at my first signing, I sold though all of my books in under 45 minutes. They went so fast that the writer sitting next to me kept gaping and asking if I was someone famous. “Who are you?”
Like most writers would, I thought I had a career I could bank on.
But keep in mind that neither success nor failure is ever final. As quickly as it came to me, it left. And that was hard. Harder still was the fact that most of my writing friends abandoned me too as if they were afraid what I had was contagious and they might catch it if they stood too close.
And when it rains, it pours. I’ve noticed that whenever a writer has trouble in their career, they have it in their personal life, too. I was no exception. My father died just after my first book came out. My mother was diagnosed with the same cancer that had killed him. My son was born prematurely a few weeks later. I was told twice to pick out funeral clothes for my baby. And I remember standing the NICU, telling God that He could take anything from me. My career. My house. My car. Just don’t take my baby.
It was a bargain He accepted.
Because of the medical bills and the fact that I’d lost my job due to the days I’d missed, we lost everything. I *was* homeless with an infant who had horrifying medical problems. While my ex was at work with our one and only car, my son and I would stay in the hospital waiting room, just in case, and because it was the one place you can stay for hours on end and no one thinks anything about it.
When we were lucky enough to have a roof over our heads again, it was a roach-infested apartment next door to drug dealers.
I could not write this stuff, people. I wouldn’t do it to my worst villain.
We’d sold everything we had except my 386 DOS computer with a whopping 240 MB hard drive that used a 5.5 inch floppy. This was in 1996. I had that as my PC until 1999. The only reason we still had it was because no one would give us anything for it. We didn’t have cable TV. No internet. No phone. We couldn’t afford it.
Nietzsche said that hope is the worst of all evils for it prolongs the torment of man. At times, he’s right. And I was running out of hope. By 1998, it’d been over 4 years since I last sold a book. I’d tried every genre and every story I could think. If a new line opened, buddy I was there for it.
Desperate, I sat down and wrote the most marketable book of that time. A regency set historical romance. How could I lose? My critique partners at that time were all New York Times best-selling Regency historical authors. It had every element that had made numerous authors famous. My critique partners loved it. My agent thought it was one of the best books she’d ever read and she eagerly sent it out.
Then, one by one, the rejections rolled in again.
Until the day my agent sent me the worst one of all. And if any of you ever gets a worse one, dinner’s on me.
No one at this publishing house will ever be interested in developing this author. Do not submit her work to us again.
Yeah, it devastated me. But you know what? I’m grateful to this day for that editor and for those words. ‘Cause I’m Southern, y’all. The best way to fire me up is to try and kick me down. As my uncle Carlos used to say. We don’t run. Sometimes we want to. Sometimes we probably ought to. But we don’t ever run.
I decided right then and there that I would rather be a first rate version of myself than a second rate version of somebody else. If I was going to fail at this career that didn’t seem to want me, I would do it on *my* terms and I’d do it writing the books *I* wanted to write, market be damned. I have never since that day chased a marketing trend and I never will.
And I will not write a trope. I will be the trend that others follow. And I will blaze the trail others struggle to catch.
So after I unpacked that 386 PC I’d packed in its box and swore I’d never touch again, I started writing the book I wanted to write. Now, I knew that thing wasn’t marketable. It was a pirate book set in 1791 and this was years before Pirates of the Caribbean was even a thought for a movie script. I sent it to my critique partners who read me the riot act and I don’t blame them. They were right. No publisher had bought a pirate novel in over a decade and even when they had none had been set in 1791.
In spite of their protests, I sent it on to my agent who promptly reiterated everything they’d said and that I knew. More than that, she told me that we’d had a good run, but that it was time to go our separate ways. I don’t blame her. She was a great agent and she’d stood by me longer than most.
But without her, I had no way to submit. I couldn’t afford to. Plus, my ex had become the monster I always feared, and worse than even I had imagined and let’s face it, I have a pretty good imagination.
I’d wasted a lot of money chasing a dream that kept eluding me at best and at worst kicking me in my teeth. How could I take another cent from my destitute babies for this stupid dream?
I was through.
Until one fateful day when I pulled a newsletter out of my mailbox. It was a market update with a name I knew. Laura Cifelli had just been added to the Harper Collins staff and was looking for submissions. My heart started pounding. I knew Laura. She’d been an editor at Dell years ago, and for two solid years in the early 1990’s had tried to buy my Dark-Hunters but couldn’t get the unique premise of the series past their marketing department who was sure the buying public would never be interested in any kind of paranormal or vampire series.
But I’d promised my ex that I wouldn’t waste anymore money going after my dream. I debated and agonized and finally decided that I would give it one more shot and one more only. If Laura said no, I’d never, ever try again. So I sat down and wrote the most pathetic query letter you’ve ever seen. It actually started with , “you probably don’t remember me.” Laura had also been my agent years back when I’d been selling and I was her first client.
But I had no ego. I still don’t.
In that query, I pitched her two novels. First, the pirate books everyone had told me would never sell, and second, the one she’d held on to for so long at Dell that was about a Greek general who’d been cursed into a book– which were both part of my Dark-Hunter series.
I’ll be honest, I actually stole a single stamp out of my ex’s wallet. I didn’t dare take two because I knew with his rampant OCD he’d know they were missing and he’d know exactly what I’d done with them. Not to mention, if it was a rejection, I didn’t want to see it. I didn’t think I could take another one.
Three days later, I was changing my baby’s diaper when my neighbor came running over. “There’s a call for you on my phone and it’s someone from New York.”
I think I had a small stroke as I handed my baby to June and ran to catch it. It was Laura. Since the paranormal market was completely dead and Laura knew Julian’s book was tied to a vampire series– something no one would touch back then, she passed on Julian’s story and the Dark-Hunters. But she wanted to see the pirate book. I was too afraid to even hope. Not to mention,
I didn’t have the money to submit a partial.
But June was kind enough to loan me the three dollars I needed. I worked on it all night long, after the ex went to bed so that he wouldn’t know I was writing again and sent it off the next day with a lump in my throat.
Laura called back to offer me a three book contract. To this day, I’d throw myself under a bus for her. And that book with that pirate that I was told wouldn’t sell is still, eighteen years later, in print.
For one 29 cent stamp, my entire life was forever changed. Sometimes our lives are defined not by the big decisions we make, but by the small chances we take.
And for the record, I did pay June back.
Laura did so much for me. She helped me to get a great agent who did an awesome job, but who didn’t want to handle the paranormal stuff. For one thing, she’d never handled it before and for another, it still wasn’t selling. No one, other than Anne Rice, had hit a list with a vampire novel in over twenty years. My agent couldn’t understand why I wanted to write the same stuff I’d been writing when my career initially tanked.
But I believed in those Dark-Hunters that I’d written in college. And I finally wore my agent down after much begging and nagging. She began submitting them . . . and again, over and over, rejection from every corner.
Until St. Martins was finally willing to buy those first two books – from the same editor who had rejected them three times before. I sat down and cried. There was still no market for paranormal. No one was writing it then, no store wanted to carry it and everyone was convinced we wouldn’t sell more than ten copies. And that was only if I bought nine of them.
In fact, they bought the series in 1999, but didn’t bring the first book out until 2002.
Because they didn’t know what to do with it, they kept constantly pushing the release dates for it back.
Yet against all odds and expectations, ten months before Night Pleasures came out, it had an overall Amazon sales ranking of #6.
I was the first writer to take a paranormal genre novel to #1 on a major list. I was the first one to take a historical paranormal novel into the top ten of the NYT.
I’m the first genre author to put a science fiction novel at number one without it being tied to a major movie franchise and again, thanks to my wonderful fans, have landed multiple League novels in that spot. And they were the books out of the first series I’d ever sold. The same series that tanked my career on the first go ‘round.
Of course, I also have the distinguished honor of being the first author in RT history to get a one star rating. They used to only go down to three stars. As my luck would have it, they dropped their system all the way down to 1 star they very month my first book was published.
But that’s okay. That book was also a #1 New York Times bestseller and I’d much rather be ranked #1 on their list any day.
It just goes to show that careers aren’t perfect.
And I live my life by one principal. Do no harm.
Unfortunately, others don’t share that and in this industry we come across them a lot. But don’t you dare let them win. Don’t let them hurt you or stop you from going after your dream. The one thing I learned from my ex and others is that there are people out there who can never be happy for someone else. They’re only happy when they spread misery and attack others.
I could go on all day about writers who have tried to ruin me. I have been plagiarized and infringed, betrayed by people I thought loved me, and very publicly ridiculed and viciously attacked by some of the biggest writers in the business for no other reason than having a longer line than they did at a charity event.
For having the courage to stand up for other writers and to protect what I’ve worked so hard for. To stand up for my characters and worlds when everyone around me was trying to take them from me and told me that I would never have control of them again and that there was nothing I’d be able to do to keep them.
Too many people think that the only way they can rise is to tear someone else down. To destroy them. But it doesn’t work that way. No publisher ever stopped buying an author because someone new came along. No reader stops reading an author because a new one is published. They stop reading an author when that author disappoints them. One person’s success has no bearing on anyone else’s except to say this:
A rising tide will float all boats. We have a paranormal genre today because a tiny handful of us carved it out when it didn’t exist. We proved it was viable and we opened the doors for many others and I am proud to have been a part of that.
But unfortunately, no matter who you are or where you are in your career someone is going to be jealous and they will attack you. They’re going to say hurtful and mean things to you and about you. Vicious awful, untrue things. They are going to try and have others boycott your books.
But don’t despair. You are in great company.
Just remember this old Japanese proverb. If you sit by the river long enough, you will see the body of your enemy float by.
And you don’t have to lift a finger. They will destroy themselves, and each other.
My entire career has been built on the island of Long Shot. Believe me, no one is more stunned to see me still standing here than I am. In fact, the first time I hit a major list, I was the one who called my editor to tell her. She actually didn’t believe me. And she was stunned I wasn’t lying.
No, it’s not easy for any of us at any level. At the height of my career, I had one of my own publishers betray my trust in a way unimaginable and threaten to ruin me. I had a madman fight me for the rights to books that I wrote before I’d even met him and had to fight tooth-and-nail against a corrupt judicial system that invaded my home and illegally stole money from my sons and seized their property and mine while threatening my freedom and work for no other reason than to try and push me down. They threw us out of our home and bankrupted me. Just like when my eldest son was born, it cost me everything to keep my children with me. But like my father before me, I was willing to fight for our freedom. For my children, both fictional and real, and for all of our rights and liberties.
And you know why we do this?
We do this . . . well mostly because we’re gluttons for punishment. But we do it for those characters who live inside us.
Only you can give them their voice. Only you can tell that story. Don’t you dare let your babies down. They’re depending on you.
And we do this for all the readers out there who mean so much to us.
Books saved my life so many times. They gave me laughter when I needed it and they were my haven through many storms, past and present. And I want to pay that forward.
There is nothing more wondrous than having a reader tell you how much your story meant to them. To say that I helped them in their hour of need.
Gave them laughter when they needed it most.
If I could have one wish, it would be for all of you to have an easy rise straight to the top of the lists and to stay there until they engrave your name in the #1 slot. To never know any of the nightmares of my life. You can do it.
I know you can.
Remember that obstacles are the frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.
Don’t ever stop trying and never take your eye of whatever prize you’re after. You keep true to your dream. Always!
Cultivate and lay those seeds you hold in your hands.
I hope and pray the bestseller fairy moves in and leaves you gifts constantly. But until she does, remember that it’s not the hare that won the race. It was the ever diligent turtle who didn’t stop for anything.
For every career that was built overnight and skyrocketed to the top, there were many, many more that took years to build and that list includes a writer named Dan Brown and one little one named Sherrilyn Kenyon McQueen.
The Cherokee have a saying. There are many paths to the same place. The important thing is to make yours the happiest trail possible.
Stay the course and victory will be yours. Let nothing stop you. Thank you all and good luck. Now go write those books. I’m always looking for something great to read.