By Brenda Novak


"To be a successful writer, you have to sell yourself, not a manuscript."

I received that piece of advice shortly after I finished Of Noble Birth, my first attempt at writing fiction-at writing anything-and though I don't remember who offered me those words of wisdom, I do remember how hopeless they made me feel. How could I "sell" myself? I had nothing I could include in a query that would lend me credibility as a writer, nothing that would set my letter apart from the avalanche of mail on an editor's desk. I had no degree, in English or otherwise. I had never written or published any articles. I had never tried my hand at nonfiction. And I couldn't say I was an expert in any one field: I wasn't a doctor, a lawyer, a pilot, a policewoman, or a firefighter. I couldn't even claim I had dreamed of writing my entire life. I had stumbled upon the desire to do so at thirty, had a background in business, and was raising four children, with one more on the way. I doubted anyone in New York would be impressed.

Fortunately half of this business is luck and timing, and more than anything else, perseverance. You might be starting on the ground floor, but a solid manuscript and an abundance of determination is a foundation worth building on. Start by educating yourself, creating opportunities to meet editors and agents, and cultivating relationships in the industry.

Romance Writer's of America and other writer's organizations like it make this first step easy. I joined RWA a month before their 1996 national conference and showed up in Dallas five months pregnant and without knowing a single soul, and it was still easy. I attended workshops, met agents, listened to editors give presentations on their respective publishers, garnered advice from the multi-published, and left Texas with more information than I could process in a single week.

I also went home with the discouraging knowledge that the manuscript I had worked so hard to prefect was twice as long as it should be and was way off target for the market. No one was going to buy it in its current form. But that's where determination came to my rescue. I believed in my story, and in my dream. I rewrote Of Noble Birth, along with a second book. Then I took step two: I entered several contests to see if I was getting any warmer. I didn't place in the first few, but I took the feedback I received, improved both manuscripts, started my third book, and kept entering. Soon all three manuscripts were consistently doing well, and my score sheets were returning with compliments scrawled across the pages from multi-published authors-names I had long admired-and others who had judged my work and were offering encouragement. Before long I had won or placed in fifteen contests.

Through these contests, my work was being sent to editors. My manuscripts were getting read instead of waiting at the bottom of the slush pile. And I finally had a little something I could include in the queries I sent out on my own with words like "award-winning" and "1997 Golden Heart finalist." In addition, I had the names of several published authors who liked my "voice" and had voluntarily identified themselves. They had the name recognition and credibility I lacked, so I asked them for permission to use the comments they had written on my score sheets in a letter designed to interest an agent.

Which brings me to step 3: Get an agent (actually, I should specify here-get a reputable agent). Your first agent might not be a big name, but having one pulls you another step up that credibility ladder. Now someone else believes in your work and in your work's potential to make you both money. You usually get your submissions read quicker, and sometimes by someone a little farther up the chain of command because having an agent tells an editor you've made it through the first line of defense against a bad manuscript. Also, editors generally feel more accountable to agents. My first agent offered me sage advice on certain story elements, gave me some much-needed positive reinforcement, and managed to sell Of Noble Birth last fall, about a year after she took me on as a client. Since then I have sold three contemporary novels to Harlequin Superromance. The first, Expectations, will be coming out mid-February 2000.

I would never presume to say that my little resume building is a foolproof plan. Nor would I intimate it is the only way, or the best way. Whether or not contests truly help your career and whether or not you need an agent are hotly debated topics in writer's circles, and the answers aren't the same for everyone. Building a writer's resume is just one way-the way I scaled the walls and climbed in the window of the fortress called "getting published."


Brenda Novak, 1997 and 1998 Golden Heart Finalist, is Vice-President for Sacramento Valley Rose RWA. Her first release, Of Noble Birth, is a November, 1999 HarperPaperback, available October 15, 1999. Here is a short synopsis of her book:

When Nathaniel Kent is born deformed, his arrogant father, The Duke of Greystone, tries to kill him. The duke might have succeeded if not for the steady housekeeper, who steals Nathaniel away and raises him as her own. As an adult, Nathaniel is tall, broad-shouldered and darkly handsome, but has only one arm; the other dangles uselessly at his side--a constant reminder of the deprivations of his youth and the hatred that burns inside him. Determined to have what should rightfully be his, he takes to the sea as a pirate, preying upon his father's ships, but when he kidnaps Alexandra Cogsworth, a beautiful seamstress he mistakenly believes to be his half sister, he gets more than he bargained for. He must fight his desire for her while engaging in a dangerous battle of wills with the powerful duke. And when he learns Alexandra's true identity, the stakes are raised again because he has something he can lose...besides his heart.

To learn more about Brenda and her upcoming releases, visit her web site at

To buy Brenda's book from, click here!

--For more sources on Romance Writing, we suggest the following references:

How To Write Romances by Phyllis Taylor Pianka, ISBN#0898798671
Romance Writer's Sourcebook, edited by David H. Borcherding, ISBN#0898797268
Writing Romances edited by Rita Gallagher and Rita Clay Estrada, ISBN#089879756X

These books are available for purchase in our on-line bookstore in the non-fiction section.
Also see the
Researching the Romance page of Literary Liaisons for more suggestions.

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Copyright 1999, B. Novak