When I first started writing I lived on a farm in the middle of nowhere in a county without a single stoplight. I didn't know anybody who read fiction let alone wrote anything more than a grocery list. Only flaky townies wasted time on stories that weren't real, and college was considered a silly indulgence. Completely clueless, I found publishing house addresses inside books and I sent complete manuscripts to these addresses. They would come back months later with the standard rejection letters. My favorite return was a torn package complete with boot print courtesy of UPS. There was no internet, and home computers were just making an appearance. And I had to walk five miles in two feet of snow to buy crack. Oops. Dropped into fiction mode for a second there.
I had an electric typewriter and a four-year plan. When that four years was up, I would stop. That was that.
Four years and four manuscripts later I hadn't yet sold -- but the rejection letters were getting more personal. Was it realistic for me to continue? I didn't want to stop, but what about my four-year plan? I worried that I was deluding myself.
I needed feedback. I needed to find someone familiar with the genre to read my stuff, someone other than my husband who was very encouraging with comments like: Well, yeah. It's just like all the rest of that crap.
I joined RWA and attended a chapter meeting sixty miles away in gasp -- a CITY. This was scary and huge because I rarely saw another human other than immediate family. These meetings were actually critique groups with several published writers in the bunch. I brought something to read to the first meeting. I wouldn't be returning. Read it and slink away, that was my forty-minute plan. When my turn came, I was shaking. I'm not a person who likes to speak in front of people, so to read something of my own in front of a group of 25 strangers scared the hell out of me. I was cold. I was sweating. But I had to find out. I had to know the truth.'
I read my ten pages. Several times people burst out laughing. They whooped and clapped. Hmm. This hadn't happened with the other readers. Is this good? (In retrospect, I think they were just really bored.) When the meeting was over, several people told me how much they'd liked what I'd read. Did I have an agent? Three of the published authors had the same New York agent. Did I want her name? They would call her. Tell her about me.
A few months later I sold my first book to Pocket Books. Two weeks later I got a call from Silhouette about a manuscript I'd submitted months earlier without an agent. They wanted to buy it and were offering a two-book contract.
I don't do critique groups anymore, but I'd desperately needed that feedback at that point in my career. And the published authors? One of them - Linda - hasn't written in probably ten years. (And much happier.) We're still good friends and get together a couple of times a year. The other two? One is a New York Times author, the third hasn't had a book out in quite a while. I kept the agent for a few years. She was charming, funny, but completely wrong for me. That was almost twenty years ago. I think my career would have gone a much different direction without her horrible guidance. She advised me to quit writing single title and do nothing but series romance. Completely insane, but I didn't know any better. She eventually talked the rest of the group into moving from single title to series - possibly because she didn't have to do much, or maybe she didn't like being the bad guy. There was no fighting with editors or negotiating series contracts at that time. I was able to avoid actually dumping her. She ended up leaving the agency to work on her own. I simply stayed, then found a new agent who has been my agent ever since.