THE REST OF THE STORY: How I Got Started Writing

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When I start doing interviews for a new release, I’m always asked how I got started writing. Because the real story is a long one, I give a brief version or answer that I always wrote. Here’s the rest of the story….

 

The first story I ever wrote was called The Pink Dress. I stapled the pages into a book and drew a cover. I don’t remember how old I was. Maybe eleven. Many years later, I wrote a short story, submitted it, and received a rejection from Redbook magazine. I was fourteen and I still have the story and the rejection slip. I still remember the feeling of rejection and disappointment when I received it. My first complete novel was titled The Rebel. I’m actually too embarrassed to tell you what it was about, but the title would have sold well to Silhouette, don’t you think? In fact it probably has. I was sixteen when I wrote it.

 

I wrote in notebooks for years while my children were growing up, and I started a couple of books that way. I never got serious until my youngest daughter went to first grade. I was lost without her, but instead of having another baby, going to school or getting a real job, like many women with empty nest syndrome, I decided that was the time to write the book I’d always wanted to write.

 

cherylAll The Tender Tomorrows. Great title, eh? Ambitious undertaking. Great characters. No plot. Passive, passive, passive writing. A totally unsellable time period. I typed it on an old manual Smith-Corona, with an “A” that struck half a line below all the other letters, and the manuscript underwent at least three or four complete rewrites.

 

I didn’t know it was passively written. I didn’t know it was a time period no one would buy. I thought it had a great plot—I was involved. LOL I sent it to many, many publishers—most major publishers, in fact. What they should have said in their rejection letters was: “This doesn’t fit our present needs, and if it ever does, we’ll shoot ourselves.” But they didn’t.

 

However, I did not receive constructive rejections; I got vague form rejections. But I did learn to persevere. I wrote the whole thing from beginning to end and rewrote it as many times and as many ways as I knew how. And if one of those publishers had told me how to change it to make it better, I’d have done that, too.

 

Soft Summer Magic came next, a contemporary. The pool man story. Spoiled rich girl gets her comeuppance when her father’s Midwest bank goes broke and she has to work as a nanny for the guy who maintained her pool—and she learns he is the owner of the company. A slim bit of conflict. A lot of steamy romance and sexual tension and some love scenes I still remember…not terrible. Would it sell today? Perhaps rewritten. Will I? No.

 

Brotherly Love a.k.a. A Kindred Oath followed that. It was another contemporary. A young man’s dying brother makes him promise to take care of his widow after he’s gone. Some conflict. Some plot. Fair characters. Not redeemable. But I sent it out, too. Both of those were rejected by all the contemporary publishers.

 

typewriterThrough All The Tears. This was an attempt at the inspirational market. (I also tried to sell articles and devotionals and all other kinds of projects in between these stories.) Dumb story. Dumb plot. Didn’t finish it. But it had some really well written pages in it, so I was developing something. A voice perhaps.

 

The Birthright was a story I loved from its very conception. I fell in love with my research on this endeavor. The first draft had page after page after page of all the fascinating details I’d learned. I included nearly my whole notebook full of notes into the story.

 

Mind you, this was still before I ever found a writers organization. I was reading the outdated how-to books from the library and thinking I could do this. I worked on this story for a few years. After several rewrites—and buying a second-hand IBM Selectric typewriter, I had a good thing going. I really thought I was uptown with that electric beast. Baby, I had arrived. This book would be a best seller.

 

I mean this typewriter even had those nifty little eraser papers you held against the paper and re-typed over—no more globs of white out all over the striker keys, or white out plastered so thick on the page, it chipped off all over my desk.

 

I did great—unless I took the page out of the carriage. It was not impossible to get it back just exactly the way I took it out so I could fix it, but there’s only so much time in a year, you know?

 

I submitted that manuscript to all the publishers. And they all rejected it. By that time I was the query letter queen. I knew just what to say to get them to ask for my entire book. Everyone asked to see it–no one wanted to buy it.

 

succeedAround this time I found RWA and a local chapter. And I started learning. All along I’d thought I was so prolific. I never had writer’s block. I just sat down at the keyboard and wrote and wrote and wrote. Words flew off my fingers onto the pages.

 

Well, then I learned about passive writing and studied Swain, and found out about motivation/reaction and feeling/action/speech and CONFLICT! And I learned why I’d blissfully written so easily for so long. Ignorance was bliss. I was writing crap. Fixing it was a monumental task.

 

At this point, since I’d learned so much and was now such an improved writer, I decided to start something new.

 

This Business of Love. (I’m still going to use this title someday.) Another contemporary attempt. I had joined a critique group by this time. Boy, was it hard learning how much work my writing really needed.

 

The characters wouldn’t leave me alone, so I went back to The Birthright. I rewrote it. And then I got very, very, very brave—and had it critiqued by (the late) Diane Wicker-Davis, an Avon author and member of our chapter at that time. A few weeks later, I got the critique; Diane went over her thoughts with me. She’d Xed out page after page and written “nothing happening” in the margins. I couldn’t look at it or go back to any writing for two solid months. But in my heart, I realized she knew what she was talking about.

 

I was never going to have a better opportunity, so I rewrote it again, using her edits and suggestions. And I submitted it again–and had it rejected by an agent who actually gave me two pages of suggestions. I rewrote it again. And she rejected it again.

 

I stuck it on a shelf.

 

rain-shadow.jpgMy next project was Rain Shadow. By that time I was taking care of my first grandchild while my daughter worked, still raising two children at home, and working 40 plus hours a week at a “job” job. When I look back, I can’t imagine how I managed it all, but I did.

 

I wrote every available minute. When I was writing Rain Shadow, I was working some pretty crazy hours, but whenever I wasn’t at work, I was in front of my computer. My children took turns fixing supper, and they learned to leave me alone while I was working. My husband, who’d never turned on the washer in his life, learned to do laundry. I wasn’t always happy with the results, but hey, he did it. For nearly a year, I barely attended any family gatherings. My husband took the kids and left me home, undisturbed, to work.

 

The first editor I sent the manuscript to was one I’d met at a conference—I spent the entire morning before the appointment in the bathroom being sick. She asked to see the complete manuscript. For months, I waited on pins and needles.

 

heaven-can-wait.jpgShe rejected it: Anton was unheroic and Rain Shadow was unfeminine. Well what did she know? She was just the senior editor at Big Publishing House. Being me, I had the manuscript out to other people and places, too, and soon an agent called to tell me she loved the story and she was sure she could sell it. Harlequin bought it four months later.

 

stjohn.jpgThen I learned about line edits and copy edits and cover art sheets, and after the dust settled, I went to the pile and thought, “Hmmm….” I pulled out The Birthright, which I had retitled Heaven Can Wait in one of the many rewrites, and mailed it to my editor, with a letter asking what I could do to get her to by it. A few weeks later, she called with the answer. “Cut a hundred pages and much of the God stuff.” I did. She cut more. I finally saw that book in print.

 

After selling Land of Dreams, Saint or Sinner, and Badlands Bride, my agent convinced me to test the contemporary waters, so I’ve written several contemporaries over the years as well.

 

The Preacher’s Wife, which will be out in just another week or so, is my thirty-second published book, and my first inspirational for Steeple Hill Love Inspired. I’ve come a along way since stapling pages and drawing my own covers, but I still enjoy the process of creating stories.

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Land of Dreams for Kindle: http://tinyurl.com/awe75qd
Colorado Courtship (Winter of Dreams) Anthology LIH 1/13
Visit me on the web: http://www.cherylstjohn.net/
From the Heart: http://cherylstjohn.blogspot.com/

37 thoughts on “THE REST OF THE STORY: How I Got Started Writing”

  1. Cheryl,
    This was simply inspiring! I have been terrified of more rejection, but I am determined enough to finally get back up on that horse! I know I may get thrown off another hundred times or more…but hopefully after all of that I’ll be proudly riding around the ring, my head held high in triumph!

    Patty

  2. Cheryl,

    Thank you.

    I’ve recently stumbled across this blog, and as a historical and contemporary inspirational author – I laughed out loud at many times during your post.

    I wonder how many of us have stories similar to yours. Writing, in blissful ignorance, enjoying the process — and not understanding why everyone doesn’t see how brilliant we are! (I suppose we each have our own “slush pile” of learning experiences. I can’t part with mine, either. My first historical title is with a small publisher who gently led me through rewrites and line edits… *shudder* The second title was easier. I’m learning. I’m staying teachable — like the example you showed here.

    Perseverance. Dedication. A family who supports and believes in you. This is what every writer needs. Someday, I hope to finish my current WIP and go agent hunting again. Stories like yours give me courage to do so.

    Congratulations on your successes. I’m so glad to know you.

    ~Ashley

  3. Patty,

    Rejection definitely hurts, but it’s part of the learning and growth process. I have a philosphy that we sell a percentage of the submissions we send. I don’t know what the percentage is, and it differs for eachc person, but it only makes sense that the more you send, the more you sell.

    Mailing off a proposal or a complete manuscript is an accomplishment in itself. In my writers chapter, we have an award program where we get a charm for every proposal we send in. The more courage and perserverence, the more bling – the more bling, the more chance for acceptance.

    Hang in there! And buy yourself something nice each time you reach a personal goal. 🙂

  4. Spot on, Ashley!

    I’m delighted that you stumbled across Wildflower Junction. Being teachable is a huge part of reaching success. In my online classes (shameless plug for my workshops here) I said recently, and I firmly believe this, that the techniques of writing can be learned. It’s the gift of storytelling and the burning desire that are inherent.

    I’ll bet a lot of people can relate – I hope we hear from many of them today – and the the readers enjoy hearing about the process too.

    Thanks for joining us!

  5. Cheryl,

    What a wonderful, inspiring blog! I started writing much later in life – I’ll have to live to 100 to write the number of books you’ve written. But we have to keep writing. I don’t know about you but my characters would drive me batty in a month.

    I can’t wait to get my hands on The Preacher’s Wife. Congrats on the upcoming release.

  6. Cheryl, maybe it’s a writer thing but I found every word of this blog riveting.

    I’m so proud of you.

    Honestly…..proud of all of us. It takes such determination to stick to writing until we can kick our way through that stubborn door to publication.

    Thanks so much for writing this.

  7. I think the fundamental quality you need to be a writer is just that sort of strange willingness to sit alone and write…for a LONG LONG TIME.

    Not a normal predilection really.

    Everything else can be learned.

  8. Mary – I’m with you. The journey is riveting. And here’s to praying we all have the drive. With a job, two kids, a husband, and a book to promote, I’ve never been busier!

    The advice on marketing I’ve gotten from fellow writers? Write the next book. *deep sigh – and back to 1k words a day!*

    I think it’s writing when you are at your most busy–and doing it anyway. Because if I don’t do it NOW, I’ll never do it at all.

    Cheryl — I’m looking into your workshop!

    ~Ashley

  9. Tracy, it’s never too late to fulfil a dream. Aren’t you glad to started when you finally did?

    Sometimes, especially when I see young people qeiting, I wish I’d gotten serious sooner, but who knows what might have happened in any case? I’m just glad I had the gumption to finally do it.

    A LOT of people lke the IDEA of being a writer. Not so many like the work, once they find out how hard it is.

  10. Why, thank you, Mary! It’s a pretty good day when you can snag another’s writer’s interest.

    And – gee, these people at P&P are efficient, aren’t they? LOL

  11. I loved reading this Cheryl! I think most readers walk around blissfully ignorant on how “hard” it is get published. That many, many, many authors slave away for years, and complete several manuscripts before finally getting “The Call.”

    And can I just say that I’m massively intrigued by the pool boy and disgraced banker’s daughter story? You could probably rework that and sell that now – especially given the current state of the economy 😉

  12. Cheryl,

    Your writing journey is fascinating. And quite similar to my own story. My early work is still tucked away in a drawer. I’m so glad I didn’t give up though in the face of all those rejections. We writers have to develop awfully thick skin to make it in this business. Even published writers have to endure scathing reviews sometime and not-so-flattering reader comments. I’ve really had to shut negativity out or it completely stops me in my tracks. I have to also remember that it’s my work they’re criticizing, not me.

    I’m glad you survived and went on to publish. The world would’ve lost an amazing writer if you hadn’t stuck with it. I’m looking forward to The Preacher’s Wife. It looks wonderful!

  13. Hi Cheryl – I enjoyed reading your writing journey and can relate to so much of it. And I’m impressed at how your family supported you by helping out and letting you get your writing done! It just goes to show how much passion writers have and even thru rejections and self-doubt there’s that drive that compells us to write.

    You’re amazing and The Preacher’s Wife is on my TBR list!

  14. Thank you, thank you, Linda!

    And others think that once we’ve sold, we never get any more rejections. How wrong that is. I’ve learned not to take rejections personally though. It’s not that they don’t like me, it’s that they don’t believe a story idea will make them money – and that’s the bottom line.

  15. Thanks, Charlene! I feel for writers who don’t get any encouragement from their families. I know a few women whose husbands resent the time they take for their writing, because before you sell, it’s not a paying job. That’s tough.

    You’re special to me, sweetie.

  16. Cheryl,

    This was so inspiring. I have had one book published and now I am attempting to locate an agent and/or publsiher again. It is very hard and disappointing. If you believe in your work just keep pushing and one day you will have the dream of your life.

    Once, again Cheryl job well done.

    Walk in peace and harmony,

    Melinda
    http://www.melindaelmore.webs.com

  17. Hi Cheryl, thanks for the inspiring words abouta your writing journey. Rejection isn’t fun but worse is that acquaintance who says, Oh, romance novels? That should be easy. I could write one. (Then give it a try, grrrrrrrrr.)

    Worst are writer-pals who are soooo afraid of rejection they don’t send anything out at all. “I gotta finish it first.” “I need another revision.” Heck, send in a partial and get it over with.

    I waited far too long to start writing, until the kids were in college. So I have about a bazillion years to make up for. It was a teaching colleague who pointed me to RWA. That was such a big help. Then I made my daughter’s bedroom into my writing room and told her she could never come back home.

    After her upcoming wedding and I have my mind back, I’m definitely on board for your workshops.

    Hugs…and keep on creating.

  18. Hi Cheryl! I can’t imagine writing a full ms on a typewriter, let alone several of them! I remember those little white correction papers from my college days. I never could get the paper to line up again!

    Your story is so inspiring, especially since your books were among the first I read when I discovered romance in general and Harlequin Historicals in particular. If your name was on the cover, I bought it and I still do. No wonder your characters are so strong and the conflicts so human! You’ve worked at it big time!

    I’m totally excited about “The Preacher’s Wife” for LIH. Talk about a winning combo! Hugs!

  19. Cheryl,
    I love your story and admire your perserverance. I’m convinced that there are hundreds of wonderful writers out there who give up before they’re published. I know a few, in fact. I wonder if the rejections ever end. I’m still getting them even though I’m published. Guess it’s part of the business.

    Linda

  20. Cheryl I am so glad you didn’t give up, it would have been such a lost if we didn’t get to read the work you have done. I finally was able to have a few hours to read so I was able to read The Preacher’s Wife and the story was so touching I can’t tell you had many different feelings I got from the book. One minute I was crying the next I was so full of joy your books really make a person alive and I feel like I am living in their lives. When I went out today to do some errands I was thinking of Josie and her life and hoping that Sam would realize what a wonderful wife he had and he should take of her and of course he didn’t disappoint us. I am so happy they were able to :::spoiler edited::: we will do all of them good. I was so sad to see the story end. I love how your books talk about Nebraska or Florence it makes it even more real for me. I love your books and I am glad someone woke up and seen what a great talented writer you are…

  21. I forgot to tell you I am so happy that your brought God into the book it seems like the world forgets about that and I think we all need God and it is a very important part of all of us.

  22. I Hear ya, Tanya. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “Oh, I have a book I want to write- I just don’t have the time.”

    Like we just had the spare time and thought we’d fill it by writing a book! ARGH!!!

    People, writers MAKE time to write.

  23. Cheryl,

    I am so glad you kept trying. I have loved everyone of your stories I have read. “Sweet Annie” is one of my favorites.

  24. Hey, Estella! Thanks for stopping by!

    Vicki, you gave me goosebumps, because I know just how you feel, and that makes your kind words all the more humbling. I used to read Laurie Grant’s HH books before I was published – and I adored her work – now she is writing LIHs as Laurie Kingery.

    We writers are a mutual admiration society, aren’t we?

    And I love your books, too!

  25. Linda – when I went through some dark times wondering if I’d ever get published, I would think, “What if the NEXT one would be the one that would sell, but I quit now?” and that would keep me going.

    I still get rejections, too. All part of the process.

  26. It is actually a good thing to hear how hard it was for you to get published. Not that it was a good thing that it took you so long. I have an acquaintance who just finished a book and had it rejected a few times. She can’t understand why and is discouraged. You can’t talk to her about it. Have tried to direct her to writer sites that offer help and suggestions, but she doesn’t want to hear it. It would be wonderful to be a writer, but I already have grandchildren. Can’t see myself in the geriatric ward writing romance novels -” Love and Passion Among the Octogenarians”. Don’t think there would be much of a market (large large print with pictures, maybe). Should have started much younger.
    Am certainly glad you persevered. Have enjoyed your books and wish you a long career.

  27. Thank you, thank you, Brenda. It’s a real compliment to know that a story sticks with the reader and they think about it when they’re doing other things!

    What I love about the LIH format is that I can write characters whose faith is simply a part of their lives. No need to preach to anybody, just show how they react to situations and live their lives because of their belief in God. I often did so on a smaller scale with my HHs, but this is a chance to dig a little deeper.

    Thanks for visiting, Sherry! I LOVE to hear that you’ve enjoyed all my stories. I was just thinking about Sweet Annie today! It’s one of my favorites, too.

  28. Thanks OODLES, Patricia! Your friend needs to be with other writers – that’s my best advice. We encourage each other and nobody “gets” the ups and downs like another writer.

    Teryl Oswald, a friend, is writing a series set in a retirement community – sort of Stepahnie Plum goes geriatric – they are a hoot! She’s published a book previously, so I can’t wait for these to sell.

  29. Cheryl, I really enjoyed your post! It sounds like your really went through a lot to get published but you also learned alot. I could never be a writer, its just not in me! I do so love to read. Thanks for sharing with us today! It sounds like you won in the end!

  30. Cheryl . . . I loved the blog. I have a friend who wrote 30 books before getting published, but then, wow, did she have a nice career.

    As someone mentioned above, writers write because they have to write. If you don’t have that obsession, you might as well forget it ’cause it’s a long, hard road, even after making that first sale.

  31. Thank you so much for sharing such an inspirational story. I think we get so caught up in the success of others, we forget all the hard work that goes into that success.

    P.S. OK, I have to admit it – I had the baby when empty nest syndrome struck. He’s pretty cute though, so it wasn’t a terrible decision 🙂

  32. What a great story. More important, I guess, is the way you told it. Most of us have been there, and there, and over there…when someone writes it out as beautifully as you just did, there’s that little reminder that we’re not alone.

    Thank you.

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