close up of woman's hands as she writes in pink journal; laptop in foreground

I don’t know if I should feel embarrassed by this post…


Or proud of my determination. It’s about my years of struggles as an author before getting my first book deal with a major publisher.

As writers, we don’t always talk about our failures and setbacks. Many of us deal with them as though they are crimes, dumping them into the sea so no one will ever find out. After all, if we were really talented, wouldn’t success come easily? For some authors, it really does work that way!

redhead who is not actually Bryn Donovan at a shore

 

prickly pear cactus heart

 

When you read this, you might ask yourself, Why didn’t she just give up?


And if this didn’t have a happy ending, maybe you would even think, Can’t this woman take a hint?

But if a writer is struggling, maybe it’ll be nice to read about someone else’s journey and know they aren’t alone.

 

 

When I first started trying to write fiction, I had an MFA in Creative Writing and dozens of publications at respectable literary magazines, but all that was in poetry, which had always come easily to me. I tried about ten times to write a novel, and stalled out at around 100 pages every time. So that’s how I spent my 20s and some of my 30s. It took me that long to admit to myself that maybe I should try plotting in advance.

I finally finished a novel and sent it to an editor at a well-known publisher that, at the time, still accepted unsolicited submissions. She asked me to Revise and Resubmit. I was thrilled and worked for months on the revision, and by the time I sent it back, they’d had a reorganization and she’d been laid off. 

No one else wanted that book. One editor’s rejection read simply, “We thought the writing would be better.” Not especially constructive, but at that point in my fiction writing attempts, I’m guessing it was probably fair. 

Next, I wrote a sexy Victorian romance and submitted it to many agents. None of them wanted to represent it. I got my first book deal from a digital-first publisher. Due to a technical glitch, on the publication date, the book cover design still hadn’t shown up on Amazon. Still, I was thrilled about my first published novel, and even threw a big book release party for myself. Some of our family members traveled from other states to attend it! It was a good time, even if the book sold few copies.

With the next book, a haunted house romance, I signed with a reputable agent…who promptly ghosted me. 

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The only time she responded to an email of mine was when I suggested we should terminate the relationship. Within a minute, she emailed back to agree. (I’m not going to share the name…this was a very long time ago, she might’ve been going through something dreadful in her personal life, and anyway, I think she might have retired.) I managed to get it published with another digital-first imprint.

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I wrote another Victorian romance and sent it to the same editor who had acquired the haunted house romance. I thought this one was much better. It was a Cyrano de Bergerac type story involving a widowed flower shop owner, a self-made railroad tycoon, and the Victorian language of flowers. I thought it was sexy and charming. The editor declined.  

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I didn’t have the heart to submit this book to anyone else after that. 

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I didn’t even keep track of the manuscript. My husband filed it away, though. Honestly, I should probably take another look at this one now.

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Then I worked on a paranormal romance that I really loved, about a centuries-old international secret society that fought supernatural evil. I felt like I had learned a lot, and I thought, This is the one! I spent a lot of money to attend a big Romance Writers of America conference in New York, where I had scheduled pitch appointments with editors. As soon as I began speaking, the first agent said, 

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“I’m going to stop you right there.”

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She wasn’t acquiring paranormal romance anymore: the market was beyond saturated. The second agent sat politely through my short pitch, then said the same thing. 

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Still at the conference, I attended a happy hour with some writers I knew from an online community. Trying to make myself feel better, I said to one of the authors, “Well, I struck out with my agent appointments, but at least my blog is doing well.” I had started it less than a year ago, with no followers, long after the era when anyone thought starting a blog was a sensible thing to do, but a few of the posts had gone viral. They were lists I had originally made for myself, to refer to while I was writing. The author said, 

“Your blog isn’t going to help you. It’s for writers, not for readers.”

On the plane home from the conference, with her words ringing in my ears, I thought about how there was, at least, some overlap between writers and readers. I also thought, Fine. I’ll self-publish a book for writers, then. I had Master Lists for Writers up for sale three months later. It’s sold over 40,000 copies to date, so thank you, naysaying author, whoever you were. 

I got the opportunity to write a couple of treatments that were developed into made-for-TV movies. The process of discussing these storylines with producers taught me so much about high concept, story structure, and character arcs. I also self-published the paranormal romance novel, not that I had any energy to promote it. I had pitched a publishing division to an entertainment company, and they had approved it, so I was busy starting that up from scratch.

I can’t say too much about this five-year period. I worked all the time and it was terrible. I learned a lot. I wrote a wholesome romance under my legal name for zero extra dollars for the publishing division, just to help get the business into the black. 

The whole book was written between midnight and five a.m., over the course of a few months. It sold fairly well, and most readers really liked it! 

I squeezed in time for other writing projects as well, just to give myself something positive to focus on. One of those projects, 5,000 Writing Prompts, sold very well.

The publishing business attained modest success, but it was unsustainable. I parted ways with the company and the imprint was shuttered. I had a complete draft of a book three of my paranormal romance series, but I couldn’t even bring myself to revise and publish it.

My husband, an editor with decades of experience, had been laid off from his workplace before that. He’d been doing two jobs: freelance book editing, and dealing with every aspect of the household management while helping me not completely crack under the strain of my work. Maybe that was three jobs. Anyway, we started a new freelance book editing business together, Lucky Author. We loved the work, our clients loved us, and many of them got agent representation and/or book deals. We weren’t sure if we’d be able to keep up with the mortgage payments, since health insurance was so expensive, but we were squeaking by, and I had more time to write.

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Now, let’s talk about the fun part.


Two months after I stopped working in publishing, I noticed there was a pitch event happening on Twitter. It was already 3 p.m. in New York, so I figured I was already too late, but I decided to throw together a pitch of my latest unpublished novel, just for fun.

I had mostly written the book to cheer myself up. It was about a medieval knight who had been turned to stone by a curse. He’d been stuck forever, unmoving,  unacknowledged. My heroine, a museum employee who’d dealt with her share of heartbreak and disappointment, brought him back to life…and in doing so, revived her own hopes and romantic ideals.

happy redhead at laptop who is not actually Bryn Donovan

My dream agent requested it within one minute of my posting it. I told her how I needed to revise it first. Once I’d done that, I sent it to her, and she signed me. I was thrilled.

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Almost immediately afterward, I got an email from an editor at a dream publishing house, saying, 

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“Thanks for sharing Knight at the Museum...I’d love to consider the full—your story sounds like a lot of fun!” 

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I was surprised because I didn’t think my agent had even sent it out yet. Then I remembered that this publisher had held an open submissions period a while back—a rare opportunity to submit without an agent. (I’ve been cutting way back on my idle social media time, but the truth is, I learned about the open submission period on Twitter/X, too.)

I’d submitted my synopsis and first ten pages, thinking This is a waste of time, even though it only took fifteen minutes. I assumed they were looking for young, fresh authors, preferably with large TikTok followings. Fair enough, honestly. I didn’t feel fresh. I felt bitten into and bruised. But over the years, I’d developed a habit of trying even when the odds didn’t seem good. I’d promptly forgotten all about it.

My agent sent the editor my book. Less than a week later, the editor set up a Zoom call. She loved it and had great notes. I asked when she would take it to an acquisitions meeting; she said she’d already done that and everyone was on board. That evening, the publisher sent my editor the contract for a two-book deal, with a substantial enough advance that my husband I could postpone discussions of selling our house. 

It felt like I’d barely lifted a finger. 


With Her Knight at the Museum, I didn’t spend months in the querying trenches. I didn’t spend more agonizing months on submission. I hadn’t even given much thought to how or if the novel would be published. I told my husband, “This is like the movie version of what it’s like to be an author.”

Another thing has happened since that book offer that I won’t talk about yet but that, again, felt like it happened almost by magic. Even though I will probably more bumps in the future, I feel confident in myself as a writer, and I’ve had some dreams come true.

 

the paperback of Her Knight at the Museum by Bryn Donovan, next to a woman in bed with latte, jeans, bare feet

typewriter and peonies

 

If you’re a writer who’s had some setbacks, I want you to know it can get better.


 

If you keep learning, keep improving, and keep trying, you might be amazed someday at the results.

Just never forget to really enjoy the act of writing itself along the way. I’ve always told myself that writing is a cool, fun thing to do, regardless of the results. Actually, I suppose that’s why I never gave up.

 

I’d love to hear about your journey as a writer, too. 


Have you had some low times as you’ve worked toward your goals? Have you found success after a lot of struggle? Or did success come easily to you? Tell us all about it in the comments! And if you enjoyed the post, feel free to share it on social media.

Thank you so much for reading, and happy writing!

 

hot air balloon

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