Day 35, In Which I Talk Turning Points (part 1)

First, the deal for the day.  Win all four copies of the Wicked House of Rohan books -- RUTHLESS, RECKLESS, BREATHLESS and SHAMELESS.  Dark (I didn't really think they were) and sexy historicals.  Just make a comment (they don't show up right away but don't worry, I'll get them) and I'll pick five winners.  Or the random number generator will.

Okay, turning points.  No, not the ones that Crusie's always talking about (though those are important).  I'm talking about turning points in a long, long career.  There are always peaks and valleys, and each peak turned me in a new direction during this long journey.  I'm going to skip the valleys because for every book I'm not as crazy about there's someone out there who adores it, and I don't want to ruin someone's affection for it.

I've mentioned some of this before, but never in context.  I moved to Vermont and spent and cold, lonely, fabulous winter writing my first book, BARRETT'S HILL, which sold after 9 months.  (I once went to a fortune teller in New Orleans who told me it took me a long time to find success.  Uh, no.  Plus she told me I had a great career as a medical transcriptionist in my future).  I wrote a western gothic (what?) which didn't sell, but when I got my first rejection letter I told my agent not to bother, I was already writing something I liked better.  Ah, youth.  The next book, CAMERON'S LANDING, went to Doubleday, and I thought I was going to be the next Victoria Holt.  Uh, no.  My agent failed to mention it was part of a library program.  However, I sold the book to Doubleday at the same time Stephen King sold his first book to them, for the same advance.  After that our careers diverged.

CAMERON'S LANDING did extremely well for them (Kirkus said I was "gothically adept" and my heroine would "whisk you through the silly but sprightly doings" or something similar.  It went in paperback to Dell Candlelight (which I arrogantly thought was a badge of shame) and I moved on.  I wrote another gothic for Dell, DEMONWOOD, and then the first turning point.  At that point I was making 3k a book (we're talking late 1970s.)  I wrote THE DEMON COUNT, the story of a Venetian count who pretended to be a vampire and the gullible governess who fell in love with him.  (It was inspired by seeing Frank Langella on Broadway as Dracula, plus a photo of two decadent looking people in a Vogue pattern magazine.  Go figure.)  Anyway, I loved it so much I quickly wrote a sequel and sent it off as one big historical.  Dell bought it but split it back into two books, giving me (logically) 3k for each book.

THE DEMON COUNT was special.  It had a divine cover and it's still remembered fondly, especially for a certain scene.  When I first met Melinda Helfer at the second RT convention she turned to me (from the people she was talking to) and immediately mentioned that scene.  Which was wonderful, because I'd been standing there feeling out of place and uncomfortable.

By the time those came out I'd switched to writing regencies (well, there was one unpublished contemporary gothic that went nowhere.  I may not have submitted it.  But it was clear by now gothics were dead).  The next turning point came quickly.  I wrote LORD SATAN'S BRIDE in a white hot heat, 30 days on a typewriter, which is amazing.  I created The Heavenly Host in that book (they show up in the House of Rohan books) and of all the books I've written it's the only one I'd like to take and rewrite completely as a full-length historical romance.  It really needed to be that way, but I knew regencies.  Since the last double book (THE DEMON COUNT and his daughter) had sold for 6k I was now getting 6k for a single book.  I wrote two more regencies (I must have been fairly fast, though I never considered myself a fast writer, and sold all three to Dell Candlelight Regency who were publishing Loretta Chase and Laura London (Sharon and Tom Curtis) at the time) but by the time they were ready to publish the third, THE HOUSEPARTY, regencies had crashed and they gave me back the rights to it.

Fortunately I had discovered sex.  That is, sex in contemporary series romances, which I had always avoided.  The sex made all the difference (hey, I'm healthy!)  I devoured Jayne Castle and Billie Drake (Barbara Delinksky) and Rachel Ryan (Sandra Brown) and had already written my first when Dell gave me the rights back to the regency.  They didn't want the book, but Harlequin American took that and a second book I'd already written (CHAIN OF LOVE and HEART'S EASE.  HEART'S EASE is still in print in Manga in Japan for some reason).  I was happy with the books, even happier with the next, MUSEUM PIECE, and then they told me I could write romantic suspense.  I was ecstatic.  I wrote TANGLED LIES with the same kind of white hot intensity (one month on a typewriter), and then came CATSPAW.

CATSPAW was about a cat burglar named Patrick Blackheart who roamed the rooftops of San Francisco and his stubborn heroine, Ferris (I don't remember where I got that name and it was well before "Ferris Bueller." )  I'd call it the third turning point -- people were beginning to notice, the book got rave reviews, and Harlequin wanted a sequel, which was unheard of at the time.  I continued to write - for Harlequin American and Harlequin Intrigue, but when I wrote AGAINST THE WIND, which had my heart and soul into it, HQ rejected it on political reasons and it went straight to my old friend at Dell.  No one noticed it much, but for me it was a real shift, towards taking chances and not flinching from dark heroes.  Up till then my heroes had been more charming than deadly, and my books were often called romps.

I wrote a series of dark and darker books - BLUE SAGE, where the hero was the son of a mass murderer, BANISH MISFORTUNE where the father was gay, stories of dangerous men and adventurous women.  And then my nephew died in a car accident, and I was so shattered that all rules were off.  I dove into writing to lose myself, and came out with NIGHT OF THE PHANTOM, something completely different.  It made such a stir that HQ started Silhouette Shadows in an effort to capture what I'd done (they'd tell writers to read Phantom to get an idea of what they were looking for) and I wrote a really powerful novella, MONSTER IN THE CLOSET, for them.  It was a short piece, but very powerful, and it was that novella, combined with NIGHT OF THE PHANTOM, that inspired St. Martins to offer me a blind contract for two books at 50k a piece.  I'd reached the big time.

On the other side of things, editors kept asking me for a single title romantic suspense, and I kept offering proposals which kept getting turned down (I ended up selling them to Leslie Wainger at Silhouette Intimate Moments).  But then, out of the blue I had an idea for a historical.  It was a terrible business decision -- I'd written gothics but not historicals (except for one aborted attempt that no one wanted and who could blame them?  It as baaad.)  And no one wanted a historical from me.  But this story wouldn't let me alone, so I wrote the proposal and Avon snapped it up.  It was A ROSE AT MIDNIGHT, and it really worked.  That and TO LOVE A DARK LORD were very special and solidified my place as a contender as a historical romance writer.  (Something I quickly blew by deciding Avon wasn't doing enough for me and going to a publisher who was known for being less than stellar, all for the money).

This is going on too long.  I'll write about the others tomorrow, and what each turning point did for me.  I've got good turning points coming up, and bad ones.  Good books that pushed me in a bad direction, good books that were mistakes.  But then, life is full of mistakes, or at least it should be.  If you don't try, don't make missteps then you've been too safe, and I'm a firm believer in never being safe when it comes to writing.

Here are the words I live by, from Annie Dillard: “One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

I cut that out from a review in the NYT and put it over my desk, and I try to live by it.  You give everything.  You open a vein and bleed.  You hold nothing back.  And that's where the turning points, the mountain peaks, come from.

But I'll cover the second half and how things slid tomorrow.  Right now I'll leave you at a time when I was still the Flavor of the Month (sigh).

So now I need comments so I can decide who gets copies of the divine Wicked House of Rohan series.  I could be arrogant enough to ask you which book of mine you considered to be a turning point, or a favorite, but I meekly assume not all of you have read my stuff, so instead tell me what mountaintop book stood out for you from other writers.  One book for me was CROCODILE ON THE SANDBANK.  I'd already read everything Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters had written, but this was so far and above everything else that I was stupefied.

So tell me a book that had that effect on you.  One book that stands out from a favorite author's list of books.

And I'll be back with more tomorrow.