Questionable: How did you get started writing and what challenges have you faced?

Tricia asked:
I was wondering if there are any interviews you’ve ever done that talk more about your journey to becoming published and the challenges you faced, starting your career later in life. I’d especially like to know more about what in you did prior to becoming a published writer, and what encouraged you to pursue it. If not, would you be willing to either reply to my reply or make a post talking about it?

I’ve done a million interviews but most of them are lost in time (as they should be). So here are the answers to your interview questions (g).

What did you do prior to becoming a published writer?

I earned a BA in Art Education and taught art for ten years at the elementary and junior high levels, and then earned an MA in Literature and Professional (Technical) Writing and taught high school English for five years, with a break to do all of my coursework for a Phd. I quit to go back to teaching at Ohio State as a TA while I worked on my dissertation on the impact of gender in storytelling, and the research included reading a lot of romance novels, and that reading had a profound impact on my state of mind (I’d been insanely depressed and reading romance novels was energizing and positive). I was an academic so of course I had to find out why reading trashy novels had such an impact, but when I began to study them, I realized that the “trashy” part had been received from patriarchal assumptions and that romance novels were actually the most feminist form of fiction I’d ever read. So I decided to write one to see if writing the narrative had the same impact as reading them.

What encouraged you to pursue writing romance?

It was fun because I could write about angry, mouthy women who kicked ass and won the day. I really saw it back then as a form of feminist rebellion. Actually, I still see it as a form of feminist rebellion, putting a woman at the center of the narrative and giving her agency in her life (and if you think that’s not at risk right now, looking at what those fuckers in Texas are doing, may they rot in hell). Then it turned out they give you money for writing feminist rebellion, so I just kept going. I didn’t have any big plans to transform romance or transcend the genre, I just loved writing stories about women who had no time for the patriarchy. And the men who were smart enough to love them.

Talk more about your journey to becoming published . . .

I started my first romance at 41 (it was awful), wrote three more, took the first awful start and turned it into a novella called “Sizzle,” and entered it in a Silhouette contest which I was sure it wouldn’t win but thought that they might ask for my novel, Keeping Kate.. They picked twelve winners and “Sizzle” was one of them, which made me cringe–never offer anything for publication that you don’t want to see published–and turned down Keeping Kate. But the editor sent it to a book doctor at Harlequin, Sherie Posesorskie, who was brilliant and helped me save the book. That was when I realized that degrees in English did not teach you anything about writing fiction and I started to study that in seminars like Michael Hague’s (highly recommended) and working on an MFA with Lee K Abbott at OSU (also highly recommended), plus reading a lot of writing books. Harlequin published Keeping Kate as Manhunting (always hated the title) and took my next book, Getting Rid of Bradley. And then rejected the next one I’d written before I’d sold anything, The Cinderella Deal.

So I asked my editor if I could sell The Cinderella Deal somewhere else, and she said, “We have the option on your next book,” and I said, “Yes, but you just rejected it,” and she said, “WAIT A MINUTE,” and came back shortly and said, “We’ll buy the book,” and then asked for so many basic changes (new name for protagonist, new career for protagonist, no father issues for protagonist . . .) that I said, “Why did you buy this book?” and she said, “We didn’t, we bought your option, write any book you want, just not The Cinderella Deal,” so I rewrote The Cinderella Deal into Strange Bedpersons, and then a couple of years later sold The Cinderella Deal to Bantam. Publishing is a weird business.

I did six books for Harlequin and then they put a new clause in the contracts that said the publisher would hold the moral rights to the work (meaning they could change anything in the book and I would have no recourse) so I said, “Nope” and left. By then I had a great agent in Meg Ruley, and she sold two books to Bantam so I could eat while I wrote my first single title, Tell Me Lies, which she sold to Jennifer Enderlin at St. Martin’s Press, one of the best editors in the business, and I got a two book contract for paperback originals. When I turned the book in, Jen said, “We’re doing this in hardcover” and that’s when things took off.

and the challenges you faced, starting your career later in life.


Well, menopause screwed with my brain, so that wasn’t a help. Otherwise starting late wasn’t a problem. It’s good to have some life experience to draw on.

But the pressures of rising in any career are always difficult: the better you do the better you’re expected to do. There is no free lunch, no point at which everything gets easy. Every book is a new product launch. The hardest thing about writing novels that get published is keeping the publishing part out of the writing part because the expectation can kill you. (This is where I make it clear that my agent and editor were always completely supportive, even when they wanted to strangle me.)

I think one of the hardest things was the brand trap. It pays off big if you establish a brand for yourself. SMP went for “Jennifer Crusie, funny contemporary romantic comedy,” and that was fine with me until I wanted to write something a little different–romantic adventure, black comedy, supernatural with demons, supernatural with witches, supernatural with demigoddesses, supernatural with ghosts–because I have a very short attention span. What everybody wanted was a sequel to Bet Me, but Bet Me was finished. Then Bad Things happened (not publishing things) and I lost my grip and my agent (we’re still good friends, she’s great) and I got a new agent, Jodi Reamer, who is fabulous and supportive, and I kept writing but I couldn’t finish anything, and the one thing I did manage to finish Jen rejected because it was supernatural, and my brand is contemporary romantic comedy. So I have one book that’s almost rewritten again and another ten started, and I haven’t published anything in ten? twelve? years, and who knows what happens next?

Publishing is not for wimps.

65 thoughts on “Questionable: How did you get started writing and what challenges have you faced?

  1. That’s amazing. You know, as a reader I’ve heard things over the years about the difficulties authors face, but really, it just sounds like involuntary servitude that women are somehow inveigled into with a bit of glamor and warm promises, and then “we own you and everything you do and you’d better do exactly what we tell you to do or you’ll never be an independent person ever again.” I mean, so much for feminism. Sheesh!

    1. That was Harlequin, although my editors there were mostly really wonderful.

      St. Martin’s Press was really good to me.

      When publishers had romance lines, romance writers were really hemmed in, and a lot of us signed terrible contracts. I walked away from the moral rights mess, but another writer I know at another publisher didn’t and she called me, distraught, (I was PAN liaison at the time) because her editor had changed the character of a small boy in her book into a raccoon and she didn’t find out until the book was in print. And there was nothing she could do about it because she’d signed a contract that gave the moral rights to the publisher.

        1. I couldn’t imagine signing a contract with that in it (although as I understand it, that’s standard in screenwriting contracts since film is so collaborative), so it didn’t take a lot of bravery. It was on the level of “If you sign this contract, the publisher can shove a sharp stick in your eye.” So no.

          My editor at the time, who was a sweetheart, said, “I swear, we’ll never change your story,” and I said, “I don’t care about the story, don’t touch my WORDS.”

          True story: A friend who wrote for HQ (not me, I swear) once wrote something like “Ralph came” and her editor changed it to “Ralph reached his release.” I think she got it changed back, but there’s the reason for the moral rights clause right there.

  2. In fairness, the category romance editors are hell-bent on providing the customers with the expected reading experience, especially if the style of title is something like THE BILLIONAIRE BOSS’S UNWILLING BRIDE.

    1. Editors, yes, but back then the upper management had some very weird ideas. Like no books about athletes because women didn’t want to read about athletes. And no older woman, younger man romances; my editor had to fight for Anyone But You. They weren’t big on artists, either.

      1. The disconnect between what publishers seem to think readers want and what readers actually want can be huge, in my experience as a bookseller.

      2. Yep, I’ve read and listened to authors describing how a book of theirs was the first accepted that had an unconventional plot, sometimes eventually leading to a line — Second Chance, for instance — that would include plots of their sort. And when the subsidiary line folds, as most eventually do, the unconventional plot has become accepted and the stories are then included in the main line.

  3. A sincere thank you to all the writers who persisted in writing outside the exspected box (no athletes? No younger man/more refined woman et al.? Gosh, how boring reading life would be?

    Btw, all my hearts were pre-liked. Which was fine by me, but is still strange.

  4. I see your stories as consistently looking at angles of family and friends with the romance satisfying my wish for a special compatibility, love, and understanding between the two main characters. (I’m only interested in f/m but if I would have the same wish if I read m/m or f/f or t/t or any other combination.)

    Also, I see some level of “beyond real life possibility” (awkward, I know) in all your stories — fate, magic, ancient gods, chaos theory, whatever. So, I’m surprised that your publishers have difficulty seeing the connections when the family happens to include ghosts or demons. After all, Cynthie in Bet Me is just one of the characters whose lack of imagination leaves her outside the romance she wants.

    Anyway, I think a billionaire, a major league athlete, or any sort of celebrity has nothing to do with the success of a story; I’m not apt to read anything that advertizes that it includes such exotic persons, at least in contemporary stories.

    Jenny, are you willing to tell us your top 5 selling books? I imagine they would be Welcome to Temptation, Faking It, Cinderella Deal, Agnes and the Hitman, and Maybe This Time. But then I think of Crazy for You — that must be close to the top. And you said that Maybe This Time didn’t sell as well as expected because another book with the same title came out at the same time. Anyway, I’m curious.

    1. Actually, I don’t know what my top selling books are. My guess is that you got it, except maybe for Maybe This Time. Also, those HQs are still selling. I’m pretty sure Bet Me is the single top selling because articles keep recommending it (and thank you very much).

      Maybe This Time, I think, didn’t do as well because people were expecting a romance and got women’s fiction with ghosts, which is completely understandable. I think what I said back then is that it was hard to search for “Maybe This Time” because the song ate up most of the beginning hits (same thing with Crazy for You).

      1. “Those HQs are still selling.” I’m re-reading Getting Rid of Bradley: Harlequin Comics, the manga of the book. As previously observed, it reads right-to-left, back-to-front. The characters are “comically” idealized – even the dogs. Much of the story is edited out.

        And it’s still fun. But if you don’t get royalties, Harlequin should be burned to the ground and the earth beneath them salted.

      2. Just for fun, here’s my vote for top five:
        Fast Women (Must include Fast Women; it’s great!)
        Welcome to Temptation
        FAKING IT (my very favorite)
        Bet Me
        Maybe This Time (I also was not expecting a ghost story and had some resistance at first, but it grew on me with every rereading and now it’s in the top five.)

  5. I LOVE Maybe This Time. I have the audio book and listen to it often. It is so fun!

    Would you ever self-publish all those books that are waiting? Or is that more trouble than it’s worth?

    1. I have a book I started that’s episodic, and I’m starting to think it’s actually five or six novellas, which would probably make it too big to be publishable as one book. So it might be fun to publish the novellas for two or three bucks. I need to (a) finish at least the first two, which are very close and (b) see if Mollie can deal with that kind of hassle.

      Otherwise, yes, if nobody ends up taking Nita, Mollie’s already said she’ll do the self-publish thing. And thank you for asking.

      1. Jenny, if you have a book that feels episodic and are open to self-pubbing it, you may want to consider the new Kindle Vella option before packaging it as a novella. Kindle Vella is designed for episodic stories and appears to be getting some traction with readers.

        As I understand it, the way it works is that you would first release it on whatever schedule you choose (ie once a week like traditional TV or 2x week or more depending on your preference). Then once the story is considered complete, there’s the potential to package it as a book, but not until all the episodes are finished on Vella. As I see it, this can be similar to a TV season in that the episodes would make up a season and ergo could then be a novella that may or may not continue next “season.”

        I’ve had my eye on this for a while and am writing something new I’m considering releasing this way. Some writers are actually writing episodes in real time and releasing as they go. This isn’t the way I work, though, so I need to have my story completely done and then I can break it up into appropriate episodes I’d be comfortable releasing.

        Since I haven’t personally released anything yet, I can’t say how much it pays per read but it works similar to KU. It’s designed specifically to work on devices where people like to read in small chunks when time allows. Time will tell if it becomes more popular or is simply a new venture that doesn’t go far. Either way, I figure I’ll have a new book at the end of it to show for my efforts so I’m finding it interesting to explore.

        Since so many of us are becoming accustomed to getting our stories through some type of subscription model, this is an easy was to try it out and your episodic comment got me thinking it may be nice fit:)

        1. No no no Kindle Vella. It sounds like absolute torture to me. Another writer I follow was considering it and asked for a poll, which was almost unanimously NO. Consensus stated that we readers would rather wait longer and pay more for the complete version.

          Personally, I hate breaking up the flow of the story. And I don’t have a good enough memory to follow a story in once a week snippets for months.

          Also, I think Amazon really botched the launch of Vella. It hasn’t been well received.

      2. I just attended an insanely intense writers’ conference (virtual), and there was a huge focus on reading apps (Vella being the least of them, honestly). Per several presenters, apps are the leading way of distributing story in most of the rest of the world (apps are to those readers what Amazon is to us). So if your agent or someone in her firm handles apps contracts, that could be something to consider.

        1. This would be for Mollie to look into, but I’m intrigued by all the new platforms and I love the idea of releasing a novella a week for six weeks. Thanks for the info, Katy and Nancy.

          1. Glad it’s helpful. To be clear, with Vella, each instalment is supposed to be written to serialized specs so that the episodes lead into each other. And the word count of each is between about 600-5000K I think.

            But if you think of those as each amounting to a chapter or two-ish and release over several weeks you then have a novella length story that may later be released as a book once the serial is complete. But not before, and it has to be original content, so say, someone can’t take an already pubbed book and break it down to put it in.

            Alternatively, if you want to indie pub several novellas in the Kindle store (or wider) over a few weeks or months, you can do that anytime simply as a “rapid release” – a very successful strategy many writers use to gain readers and maximize exposure at Amazon, especially if scheduled to prolong the 30-day cliff (that new releases have before they get less attention) so that your “brand” is kept front-of-mind for readers for much longer.

            But Vella is like a different section so it reaches other readers and has the potential to bring in a new audience as well as appeal to your current readers. It just rolled out last summer so is still pretty new.

            As for the other reader apps outside Amazon, that may come down to your contracts because some writers already gave worldwide rights in multiple formats to their publishers and if so, those publishers may already have the rights to distribute existing backlist to newer apps. As it so often does, it depends widely by publishing house and individual contracts. It also depends on readership for some writers because some authors mainly have US readers so the apps popular in other countries don’t gain much for them, while other writers with wider appeal tap new markets.

      3. I think ebook self published novellas are a great idea.
        Look at Lois McMaster Bujold Penric novellas. She has no pressures, no deadlines and publishes them as soon as they are ready, which means we get them really quite quickly.

    2. Same for me with Maybe This Time, but I remember my first reading, back when I was going for all the romance all the time. I was a little disappointed, or maybe confused by the format? It wasn’t what I was expecting. Like taking a drink expecting water and getting juice. It was a little disorienting. But it helped me grow as a reader and now it’s one of my favorites that I revisit every year.

    1. There isn’t any “they” in this situation because I haven’t shown anything to anybody except you all here. However, I would definitely not be interested in another pseudonym. If they want my real name, they could have that–Jennifer Smith (both born and married, it’s a common name, guys), but I’d prefer to just stay Crusie with the understanding that I write a lot of different stuff so my brand is my voice and my worldview, not my subgenre.

      1. Oh man, a Smith married a Smith?!

        My last name is unusual and I have no interest in changing it, but I admit I’d be intrigued to meet another guy with the last name so no one could insist that I change it 😛

        1. In some states you do not have to change your last name. Your legal name is your birth name unless you start using your married name – then it becomes your legal name. I was married for 10 years before I used my married name. My friend has been married for 40 years and has never used her husband’s surname. What is a little strange is that the name she uses is her previous husband’s surname, not her birth name. But she says that was the name she used when she got her professional degrees and first professional employment and it was better to stick with it.

  6. I’m sorry if you’ve already said and I missed – are you considering trying to sell Nita under a different name to get around the brand expectation trap? If it was rejected not because the story juice wasn’t there, but just because it was a different flavor of juice, maybe dropping the expectation would help save you some of the self publishing hassles.

    I mean, I know that theoretically there’s brand equity in keeping a “Crusie”…but if it’s expectation that’s actually preventing it from being sold, maybe going with a new brand would get you in the door. And those of us who know, would still know….so you’re not losing any of us.

    Just don’t use the name “Meta” if you do decided to nom de plume it. I understand there are already trademark implications around moving to that name.

    1. Seanan McGuire is very open about having to write more medical thriller-y books under the pseudonym Mira Grant, and now she’s got a third alias too. These days pseudonyms aren’t too secret unless you want them to be, I guess. Well, maybe that depends on the publisher?

      1. In some cases, I think they’ve become more about managing readers’ expectations. If you’re reading something under one pseudonym you’re going to get a certain type of experience, but if you’re reading their other pseudonym the type of book will be different, so the reader should be clued in.

      2. For me (not criticizing anybody else), it just adds another layer of complexity to promotion. But then I write very slowly so I need my name on all my books just to keep people from forgetting about me.

      3. I’ve heard Ursula Vernon started using the name T. Kingfisher for her darker or more edgy work to avoid scarring little kids for life. 😉

        1. That makes sense.
          I think Nora Roberts did the same thing with her In Death series. The publisher made sure everybody knew it was Roberts and not romance.
          I don’t have that kind of name recognition, so I’ll just comfort myself with the idea that I’m eclectic (g).

  7. For me your brand is Crusie. It’s your writing style.
    I don’t care if you change genres.
    I don’t care if you genre hop. Your brand is your voice. I am personally not much on Books about the devil. But when you write it I want to read it and I will buy it

    1. It’s not about the devil, it’s about the devil’s fixer who’s human but dead. Hey, every guy has flaws, look for potential.
      nd thank you, that’s exactly what I want my brand to be.

      1. “Hey, every guy has flaws, look for potential.” And that, right there, is why I read everything you write and don’t care what genre it is.

    2. If I like a writer’s work in one genre, I’ll usually like it in another. Your work is a great example, Jenny. I already know I like it, no matter the genre.

      1. Weirdly, that can depend a bit on which genres you mix. (Although really successful authors probably get away with more.) I’m pretty sure my historical fiction readers will follow me into women’s fiction, but when I wrote a wacky romantic suspense with spies, I got so many WTF emails and low sales, I re-released it under a pen name and had to build a new audience. I have 2 social media presences, 2 newsletters, etc. As Jenny said, an extra layer of complexity.

        1. This was a response to Caryn’s comment below about Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Not sure how it ended up here. 🙂

    3. An essayist, novelist, and short story writer, Robert Anson Heinlein also wrote using the pen names Anson MacDonald, Lyle Monroe, John Riverside, Caleb Saunders, and Simon York.

      Fellow Ohioanian, Lois McMaster Bujold has only ever used that name. She no lives in Minnesnowta.

      Asimov refused early suggestions of using a more common name as a pseudonym, and believed that its recognizability helped his career. After becoming famous, he often met readers who believed that “Isaac Asimov” was a distinctive pseudonym created by an author with a common name. Of course, there were six juvenile Lucky Starr novels, under the pseudonym of “Paul French”.

      To pseudo or not. Shakespeare said something about stinky roses that might apply.

  8. The industry is changing a bit — one writer (Silvia Moreno-Garcia) doesn’t stick with any genre and has written romance, noir, horror, fantasy, etc. She has a low boredom threshold. And for her it’s worked — Mexican Gothic hit The NY Times Bestsellers List.

    I’d be happy to throw money at new Crusie ebooks of any length!

      1. I think that it might be a technology thing. It’s a lot easier to reach your audience now and explain beforehand what you are writing and why it was different. We can access blurbs and reviews, with multiple category tags on Amazon, etc.

        Prior to all of this we either picked up books on shelves blind or through catalogs. Sticking to a genre or brand was probably more important because it helped authors keep afloat and kept readers from being disappointed.

        Of course James Patterson writes whatever he wants and puts his name on everything…

  9. This is such a great reply! And the follow up questions are amazing too. I searched for Michael Hauge and found a bunch of free resources (because that’s in my current budget) that I can’t wait to get into at the end of the semester. Also, I noticed I typed “purse it” instead of “pursue it” and for some reason feel the need to acknowledge the typo. I wish I could also excuse it, but the only one that comes to mind is that I was super excited to submit the comment and see how you responded.

    1. We don’t quibble about typos here; this is the blog equivalent of a kegger. (I fixed it in the post.)

      ETA: If you’re looking into scriptwriting, look up Linda Seger’s Making a Good Script Great. It’s an easy intro to scripts.

      1. Seger’s Book taught me about structure back in the days when I vaguely knew such a thing existed but had no idea what it was. A lifesaver, that book.

        1. I always recommend it as the place to start. So clear and simple.
          Then you can go on to McKee and wade through the complex (and occasionally wrong-minded) theory.

  10. In terms of outside input, how do you sort out which to use and which to ignore? I would think that could be pretty difficult sometimes, especially for newer writers who aren’t that confident in their own voice.

    1. I’ve worked with Jen Enderlin for almost thirty years, so we had pretty much a system. She was almost always right, and when I said, “No, it would be wrong to change that,” we’d discuss why and I’d decide. There were a couple of times when she was right and I was wrong and it really screwed up the book, so I tend to trust her judgment.

      I had a very good Harlequin editor once that asked me to change something in the beginning of What the Lady Wants (another title I don’t like). It the was scene where Mae’s cousin pulls a gun on them and Mitch steps behind her and uses her as a shield. Birgit pointed out that was not heroic. I said, “I know, that’s why it’s funny, he’s a stockbroker, not a hero.” But the big reason was that at the end of the book somebody else pulls a gun on them and he steps in front of her. Her cousin was not going to shoot Mae, but the character at the end of the book would have, plus it showed where their relationship arc had ended up. And Birgit said, “You’re right” and I got to keep Mitch using Mae as a shield.

      What I’ve found is that if you can explain to an editor why you think something is necessary for a story beyond “I want it that way,” they’ll usually understand.

      OTOH, the first draft of Anyone But You had a sixteen year age difference between the older heroine and younger hero, and HQ was not going to go with that, so we compromised on a ten-year difference. It didn’t make that much difference to the story although it weakened the conflict, so I went with it.

      As long as you know why you did something, you know how to argue for it.

  11. Well . . . I had someone tell me that her London editor asked her to dumb down some history in her ms, to which she replied that HER audience knew their history and would be put off if she did (I said that some people read everything they can find about, say, Richard III, and other people are looking for something light to read on the plane, but the first group will spot any error you made, no matter how small, and your historical information had better be up to date). I told Roberta Gellis and Mercedes Lackey once that there was an erroneous title in one of their fantasy books and I thought it was probably one they didn’t intend to make (they fixed it in the paperback).

    On the other hand, if your outside input tells you to find a retired English teacher to look at spelling, vocabulary, usage, grammar, and punctuation, you’d better start looking for an eagle-eyed retired English teacher who likes your genre.

      1. Thank goodness! AND you aren’t writing in Email/Text, a language which has some truly weird homonym confusion.

    1. Some of my hearts were red, but no number. When I added my like, it incremented by one and turned grey. Or possibly gray. As if the heart issue wasn’t weird enough.

    2. FYI HEARTS: Mine are still working just as they should–gray to start and turn red when clicked.

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