Guest Post | From Dragons, to Dukes, to the RITA®s – Oh My! by RITA Finalist @kerryblaisdell1 #guest
Alex Trebek of Jeopardy! fame (in case you somehow didn’t know that ;)), once said, “If you really wanted it, you would have done something about trying to get it.” This resonates with me, on a number of levels, but mostly because I’ve wanted to be a published author for literally as long as I can remember—and I’ve been trying almost that long, too.
That’s not hyperbole—I’m one of those writers who’s been writing since before I could read. Some of my earliest memories are of sitting with my dad, dictating stories, which he wrote down for me, sometimes in one of my mother’s college blue books. (Remember those? That gives you a clue how old I am—LOL!) Or sometimes he wrote them on cheap, uncoated “coloring” paper, so I could then illustrate them. Or on notebook paper, or typing paper, or….
In fact, I still have one that he folded and bound with twine for me, to make a little booklet. I must have been around four when I “wrote” it—it’s all about a princess who gets bored with her prince, and runs off with the dragon instead. (And now I write paranormal/urban fantasy, and other genres, with “quirky” characters who make unusual, unexpected choices. Hmm. Wonder if there’s a connection there? LOL!)
As I got older, I of course began writing the stories down myself, and later, typing them. I got high marks in English language and literature classes, especially for creative writing, and when I was in high school, submitted a short story (futuristic/sci-fi) to a newspaper contest open to all ages (not just teens), and earned an Honorable Mention. That summer, I wrote my first complete book—an epic high fantasy that, if memory serves, was so melodramatic, it practically oozed angst and navel-gazing. It has since been relegated to virtual under-the-bed status, from which it will never emerge.
But before I gave up on it, I rewrote and edited, and when I was a freshman in college, submitted it to a couple of agents. You see, even then, I was trying to get published. I wanted this—as a career. The book was, very rightly so, promptly rejected. But one agent who even then was fairly well-known (and is even more well-known today) wrote me a personal letter, with some revision suggestions in it. At the time, I was too naïve to comprehend how amazing that actually was, but while I wasn’t exactly “crushed,” I did recognize that this particular book probably wasn’t what I wanted to focus on, long-term.
For the next few years, life started happening, in pretty rapid succession. I met my future husband; we moved in together and got engaged; we graduated from college and got married; and then barely a year later, my father was diagnosed with early onset Frontal Lobe Dementia, a type of Alzheimer’s. Just before his fifty-first birthday. I was devastated—and my husband and I made the decision to move to the Pacific Northwest to be near him and my mother.
I still wrote, but I was somewhat aimless during this time. I kept trying to write fantasy, which I did read a lot of. But I also read romance. A LOT of romance—mainly historicals—and yet, somehow, I never made the connection that I might want to write it.
Finally, I got the idea to write a prequel to the Arthurian legends (which are what my thesis was on—I have a degree in Comparative Literature). I took a creative writing class at a local community college, just for fun, and the instructor mentioned our local Romance Writers of America® chapter as a good place to go to find a critique group. I went to my first meeting and…
Talk about a lightbulb moment!!
Suddenly, I was with My People. Writers—women—women writers. (I honestly don’t think there was a single male writer in our group at that time, but if so, it was only one.) And they were writing about things I cared about, which I’d instinctively put into my stories, but was now suddenly conscious of. I joined RWA, my local chapter, and a critique group, in that order.
And I decided to write my first “actual” romance—a historical, since that was the only romance genre I read back then. It featured a Duke (of course) and his now grown-up ward (of course). I never finished it, but I entered the first chapters into a few writing contests. It was terrible. Probably worse than the Epic Fantasy. But I got encouraging feedback (still saying it was terrible, but not a total loss—there was hope).
So I persisted. I learned craft. I took classes, went to workshops, read books about books, and about how to write them. And I kept writing, writing, writing. I entered more contests, I started better books, but couldn’t seem to get past the first few chapters before losing interest/running out of ideas. I loved historical romance, but decided to try a time travel with multiple points of view, à la Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series (although nowhere near that Big or Ambitious :)), and committed to finishing it, no matter how bad I thought it was.
And I did—another lightbulb moment. I’m very goal-oriented: I like to have a list of things to do, but even more, I like to check things off that list. Just finishing that one book taught me that I could write a whole novel. And it wasn’t…terrible. It wasn’t very good, either, but it was one completed manuscript (well over 100,000 words!), and it was mine.
At that point, one of my critique partners, after reading the modern parts of the story, suggested I try some of Jennifer Crusie’s books, because she thought I’d like them. I’d never heard of Jennifer Crusie (I KNOW, RIGHT??), and had a misconception that all “contemporary romance” equaled “category romance” (no idea why…!), and back then I preferred longer books. Even when I discovered her books were longer, I was trepidatious. But I gave her a try.
And I fell in love. I read Fast Women, Faking It, and Welcome To Temptation, in that order. And I realized two more important things about myself: I like complicated, complex stories (which is why the time travel worked well for me). And I learn by doing. So, being a literature major, accustomed to analyzing stories, I made a spreadsheet of the plot vs. the romance in WTT. Yes, a spreadsheet. On my computer. I noted at what point in the story the first “romance crisis” (internal conflict) occurred, and also the first “plot crisis” (external conflict), based on the three-act concept of story structure. I did the same for the rest of the crises, and I saw a pattern that I could consciously replicate.
So I did. I wrote two romantic suspense novels that I extensively planned and pre-plotted, following the pattern. I submitted them to contests, and won a few. I sent them off to agents, and got mostly form rejections, but a few personal ones. I even sent one manuscript directly to my dream editor at my (then) dream publishing house, because I didn’t know you “couldn’t” do that. And like that agent way back in college, she sent me a fairly detailed personal rejection which I displayed on my wall for a long time!
For perspective, all of this happened over approximately a five-year period after I joined RWA, which was also around the time my father died, less than ten years after his diagnosis. That was a difficult few years, personally and professionally, as well as writing-wise. I was getting discouraged, and thought maybe I didn’t write “typical” romance enough to succeed in that market. I let my writers’ groups memberships lapse, and went back to struggling to complete a book.
Finally, I decided to just sit down and write. No plotting, no plan, but I had an idea for a story about a woman who dies and ends up working as the Gatekeeper to the Angel of Death. (Much as agents are the gatekeepers to traditional publishing houses—cough.) This was Debriefing the Dead. I pantsed my way through the whole book, and so much stuff came out. And it was good. All my critique partners told me this was The One—I was about to be a published author. (And they were all published authors themselves by then, so I took their opinions seriously!)
So I sent it off to agents. And more agents, and more agents. I can’t even tell you how many rejections I got, because I stopped counting after 125. I did get close a few times—was told things like, “We loved it, but don’t know where to sell it,” or, “We love your voice, but the Paranormal market is too saturated now.” Meanwhile, I started the sequel, and got about three-quarters done with it, before I finally decided the first book wasn’t going to sell, so what was the point?
I went back to starting stories, then losing interest/motivation to keep going. I spent a year researching a historical mystery, but when I went to write it, I again stalled three-quarters of the way through. At that point, I almost gave up. Not on writing—as my late father-in-law said to me shortly after I met him, “You’re either a writer or you’re not,” and I am most definitely a writer. But I started to think I would never be a published writer, because I wasn’t interested in fitting my voice or my books into anyone else’s perception of what would sell. I doubt I could, even if I tried.
During this time, self-publishing was becoming a “thing.” It was losing its stigma, as better and better books began to be self-published. And I did consider it for Debriefing the Dead. But I’ll be brutally honest: For me, my own personal self, I wanted the validation of a publisher. I also didn’t want my first publishing experience to be ALL about me learning how to do everything. I already knew that marketing and promo falls to the author—I didn’t also want to be learning the technical ins and outs of it all, on top of everything else.
Still, it was an option, and I thought about it.
Right around then, my aunt, who was in her seventies, asked to read the book. I doubt she’d heard of either Paranormal Romance or Urban Fantasy as genres, let alone read anything in them. But she was insistent, so I sent her a PDF, which she printed out on her inkjet printer and read in a single day. And she loved it. And I thought, if it appeals to her, it has to appeal to other readers, too.
But for whatever reason, agents don’t think they can sell my stuff. So I decided to submit to smaller presses, which don’t require “gatekeepers” the way the bigger houses do. A critique partner suggested I try Entangled Publishing, and while looking up their info, I ran across The Wild Rose Press’s submissions page. I’d heard of both houses before, but previously, they had focused on “typical” romances, which I knew my books weren’t. Now, however, they were both open to more genre-bending submissions, so I thought, why not? I’ll give it One. Last. Try.
Entangled passed right away. The Wild Rose Press maxed out the response window, and then… Requested the full manuscript.
Four months later, I got an email with the subject “Offer to Contract: Debriefing the Dead.” I made my husband read it. I couldn’t stop shaking, and he took his time, making sure he understood it, before he confirmed: I was about to be a published author. And then I couldn’t stop crying.
That was in August of 2017. Even after it was published in May 2018, I didn’t know what to expect. I figured a few people might enjoy it, and I hoped for some three- or four-star reviews. Instead, my first review was five-stars. So were my second, and my third—and these were professional reviewers, or industry publications, although I also got great reviews from readers. Then I earned InD’tale Magazine’s Crowned Heart for Excellence, which gave me my first nomination, for their RONE Awards (Reward of Novel Excellence).
So, when the RWA RITA® award entries opened up, I asked my critique partner if I should enter. She texted back, “Why wouldn’t you?” I thought of dozens of reasons—125+ rejections from agents looking for “typical” romance novels weighed heavily against the idea. But, the Paranormal category includes Urban Fantasy, which allows for a book/series with a romance in it, that doesn’t necessarily have an HEA (happily-ever-after) at the end of the first book.
I entered. And then (tried) to forget all about it. On March 21, 2019, while I was starting my day in my classroom (I’m a math teacher), my cell phone kept buzzing with a number I didn’t recognize, so I ignored it. Finally, they left a voicemail, which I decided to listen to, literally five minutes before the bell.
It was RWA. They said I should call them back, because they “might have some interesting news” for me. I ran outside to the bus line and dialed with shaking hands.
And got the literally life-changing news that I was a RITA finalist. With a book that over a hundred agents told me they couldn’t sell. In essence, that it wouldn’t sell.
I didn’t win the RITAs, but I honestly don’t care. Just being a finalist—a published author, who finalled in the writing contest that is essentially the Oscars of the Romance world—in the top two percent(!!) of a very crowded and competitive category, with my first book—is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
My only regret is that my father, my first “publisher,” didn’t live to see his little girl’s stories in print. But I hope he’s around here somewhere, and knows how much his support meant to me, all those years ago. It kept me going, even through the darkest times, and for that, I’ll be forever grateful.
So that quote at the beginning of all this? It doesn’t mean that if nothing seems to be happening with your dream, you don’t “really want” that dream. It means that if you do want something, you will try, try, try again. You will keep fighting for it, no matter what. If your approach isn’t working, change it. If your craft needs work, work on it. But don’t give up!
Failure is easy. Success isn’t.
I should know, because I’m still failing, and still working at succeeding. But at least now I know that some readers also find the dragons more interesting than the princes.
And that’s all I ever wanted.
Title: DEBRIEFING THE DEAD
Author: Kerry Blaisdell
Genre: Urban Fantasy / Paranormal Romance
The only thing Hyacinth wants is her life back. Literally. She and her sister were murdered by Demons, leaving her young nephew, Geordi, to his father’s family in the brutal Sicilian Mob. Then Archangel Michael offers her a deal: recapture a powerful rock the Demons stole, and she can live long enough to find Geordi a safe home. Refuse, and she’ll continue up (or down) to the Afterlife.
So, slightly more alive than dead, she heads for Turkey and the Demons, taking Geordi, her mysterious neighbor Jason, and a sexy dead guy only she can see with her. But the hardest part won’t be battling Demons, meeting Satan, or dodging Middle Eastern customs—it will be later, when Geordi is settled, and Michael rips her away again. How can she abandon her nephew? Or can she outwit the Angel of Death himself, and stay with Geordi forever?
As is so often the case, once I got going, it wasn’t so bad. Opening the first crate was tough, and I won’t say I didn’t cry at all. Vadim was a good partner, and a better friend. At least he’d died doing what he loved—sailing the Mediterranean, with a drink in his hand and two beautiful women at his side. He was a devout atheist, but if there’s any kind of afterlife, I’d like to think he’s still sailing and drinking, and looking for the next big catch.
I found a roll of paper towels on a shelf and blew my nose, then metaphorically rolled up my non-existent sleeves and dug in.
The more valuable items were wrapped in acid-free paper and sealed in airtight containers, which I didn’t bother to open, because Vadim had helpfully labeled them. His clear, bold printing noted statuary and relics, both Pagan and Christian, from the ancient Phrygian city of Colossae, near what is now Denizli, in southwestern Turkey. The general period was the first century, so any Christian items were very early. While this fascinated me intellectually, and I did have some experience with artifacts from Turkey, it was mainly because Vadim brought them to me. My own interests lie more in the Egyptians, one of the reasons we’d complemented each other professionally. But it meant I had little personal experience with anything of this kind.
It took several trips to move the best items, and a few more for the midlevel stuff, plus getting more boxes. By the time I got to the third crate, the sun was well past its zenith, but I’d reached the dregs. Items down here were either unwrapped, loose in the packing straw, or else carelessly covered with rough cloth to prevent scratching.
This crate wasn’t as full as the others, and it looked like I was on my final trip. Thank God. I’d had a quick lunch—veggies, hummus, cheese, and bread—but otherwise worked straight through. Lily’d called twice more, but I didn’t pick up. I’d call her back over dinner, when we’d have time to chat, a