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One Writer’s Humbling Beginnings
Though my first novel was #3 on Essence magazine’s bestseller list in 2001 and my other novels appear in the top 100 on Amazon every now and then if you don’t blink, I am not a bestselling author.
Though my work has been under consideration for movies by BET, Harpo Productions (Oprah’s company), Spike Lee and 40 Acres and a Mule, Giovanni Ribisi, Quentin “Pulp Fiction” Tarantino, and Rob “The Princess Bride” Reiner—which has to be the strangest mix of movie directors and producers ever assembled—I still vividly remember my humble beginnings.
And all the foolishness.
I can't forget about the foolishness of several literary agents, an entire marketing department, and a long list of bookstore owners.
I will also never forget the sting and confusion of rejection back in the 1990s, but I wouldn’t trade my writing journey, surreal as it was, for anything in this world.
A wife's suggestion
I wrote my first novel on an old Tandy 1000 to prove to my wife that I could do what I taught. I created an interracial Romeo and Juliet called Renee and Jay, and I wrote it only for my wife to read, one chapter at a time. She took it to work, and one of her friends started reading it. This friend handed pages to another friend, and eventually I had quite an audience. Whenever I was “slow with the pages,” my audience complained. When I finally had a 120,000-word novel, my wife suggested, “Why don’t you try to get this published?”
When my wife suggests something, it’s not really a suggestion.
A cheap way to find literary agents
I first went to Ram’s Head Book Shop to find a copy of The Writer’s Market. I didn’t have enough money to purchase it, so I plopped down in a dark corner with the book and took notes. I listed publishers that I thought might be interested in publishing a multicultural romance, and it wasn’t a long list. Other than Sandra Kitt’s The Color of Love, the first interracial romance novel I ever read,there weren’t many interracial romances out there in 1998.
While the Ram’s Head workers eyed me suspiciously, I came across an article in The Writer’s Market about the increasing necessity for writers to have agents. I then bought that year’s Guide to Literary Agents (it was thinner and cheaper), took it home, and read it cover-to-cover as if it were the greatest novel ever written. I folded back pages, starred, underlined, circled—and dreamed. Of the hundreds of agents listed, however, I only found eight who represented any type of multicultural fiction. The Scotsman in me thought, I will save a great deal of money on stamps.
Pacing around the mailbox
I sent a 300-word query letter and the first three chapters of Renee and Jay to eight agents. For the next two weeks, I paced in front of the mailbox. Four agents passed on the novel within days because they said that there was no market for this type of novel. Three didn’t respond at all. One agent wrote a lengthy critique and gave me some excellent suggestions for revision. She advised me to shrink my novel to 75,000 words “because most first novels are about this long.” I assumed that if I made these “corrections” she would want to see more of my work. I cut and chopped and slimmed down my novel to 75,000 words, dumped one of my dual narrators, focused solely on my female lead, and wrote back to that agent.
She never responded. Ever.
I burned off many calories going to and from my mailbox, but I learned a valuable lesson—you only get one chance to make a favorable impression with an agent.
Shut out with my first attempts to publish Renee and Jay, I moved on to write other, more marketable novels, ones I was sure the publishing world had a market for—action adventures and murder mysteries.
No bites and then a "hit"
Agents still weren’t biting. For two years, I kept writing and sending. Several agents wanted more chapters and a few gave me suggestions for revision, but no agent told me to send the balance of any novel. Technically, no agent had ever rejected any of my novels in their entirety. It was some comfort but not much.
My wife once again urged me to do something with her novel, which I had set aside for two years. I returned to Ram’s Head, found an updated copy of a guide to literary agents, took notes in a corner, earned several evil stares again, and went home with a list of only four agents. I again sent out a query and three chapters.
And I got a “hit.” An agent in DC said he would represent me.
I danced (not very well) from the mailbox to the kitchen and called him immediately. I was pumped!
Until he said, “I want you to change your twenty-something black female narrator into a forty-year-old white woman.”
You want me to change my story?
After I finished hyperventilating, I said, “So, you want me to turn my interracial romance into an, um, mono-racial romance, like a Harlequin romance.”
“Right,” the agent said. “Most books sold in this country are read by forty-year-old white women, so any book I represent has to appeal first and foremost to a forty-year-old white woman.”
I continued to hyperventilate as I said, “You’re kidding, right?”
He wasn’t kidding.
“But I’m writing what I know,” I said. “This novel is essentially the story of how I courted my wife. I seriously doubt I can turn a twenty-something black woman into a forty-year-old white woman and make it believable.”
“Work on it,” he said. “Then send me the entire manuscript.”
I didn’t want to work on it. “I’d rather leave the novel as is, if you don’t mind.”
“It will never be published as is,” he said. “Make the changes.”
“No,” I said, and I turned him down.
After two more agents passed on the novel, I was down to one agent, Evan Marshall. On a warm fall day in 2000, he called me. “I’d like to speak to John Murray,” he said.
His name was on the Caller ID. “Is this Evan Marshall?” I asked stupidly.
Redemption at last
“Yes,” he said. “I know where to sell your work.”
I waited for him to say, “But you’ll have to make some changes.” He didn’t say anything like that at all.
“Um, are you sure?” I asked, again stupidly.
“I’ve never read anything like it,” he said. “I’m sure I could sell it by the end of the month.”
And he did. Evan Marshall, an agent who took a chance on me, found a publisher who liked to take chances—Kensington, publisher of Dafina books. Kensington wanted not one but two novels, and I soon signed a contract for more money that I would ever make in a year as a public school teacher.
I felt redeemed.
Until I received my editor’s remarks—all fifteen single-spaced pages of them. My editor told me to increase my word count to 100,000. “It needs more depth,” he said.
Marketing an anonymous writer
“I thought first novels only ran 75,000 words or so,” I said.
“Who told you that?” he asked.
“An agent,” I said.
“Don’t believe everything you hear or read about what does and doesn’t get published in this world,” he said. “Add some depth.”
Luckily, I had saved the 45,000 words I had chopped out earlier and reworked much of them into the novel. My editor loved the finished product, and I was finally going to be a bona fide novelist.
But Kensington’s marketing department was worried that an interracial romance told by a black female narrator written by a white male author might be too much for readers to handle. The marketing department asked me to come up with an “ethnic” female pen name so I could become anonymous. “It will sell better that way,” the marketing department assured me.
“You want me to write using a pseudonym,” I said.
“Yes,” they said.
“So I won’t be able to tell anyone I’ve written this book,” I said.
“Right,” they said. “And whatever you do, make your pen name sexy.”
On a hot August day out on the front porch, my wife and my mother-in-law helped me make some “sexy” pseudonyms. High on some seriously sweet tea, we came up with some really bad names: Rhoda Dendron, Trula Twolips, Betty Nice, and Shemeka Money. We settled on Desiree Holland, and I was about to have my first novel published as "Desiree Holland"--only I couldn't tell a single soul I was a published author. I could only say, "Hey, I'm a published author, but I can't tell you which one. It's in my contract." I wanted some kind of recognition, but I also wanted sales. The marketing department loved "Desiree" and set out to market her, I mean, me further.
My career as Desiree
Fortunately for my pride, the marketing department ran into trouble with New York City bookstores, which wanted to have Desiree Holland show up to do a reading and sign books in their stores. No matter how I styled my hair, however, I just knew I’d never look like a Desiree. We toyed with the idea of using an actress to play Desiree for about a minute before deciding not to bring another “Milli Vanilli” scandal into the world.
Thus ended my career as Desiree Holland. It lasted about two weeks.
“So I can be myself now, right?” I asked.
The marketing department inexplicably said no. I became J. J. Murray—no gender, just two initials and a Scottish last name.
The New York City bookstore folks still weren’t biting.
Finally, Kensington convinced both my wife and me to appear together on the book flap, the first time a black woman and white man have ever appeared together on a book flap in the history of American publishing.
A book signing, anyone?
“May I be myself now?” I asked my contact in the marketing department.
“Sure,” she said. “Now go set up some book signings. By the way, Essence magazine is going to do a review. Tell this to the people at the bookstores, and they will definitely agree to a signing.”
I first went to Ram’s Head Book Shop. I figured I owed them for the “use” of their books. I showed the owner a copy of the book cover. “I’ve written a novel, and I’d like to know if I could hold a book signing here. I come in here pretty often, and if it wasn’t for this store, I wouldn’t have found an agent. Essence magazine is going to do a review, and …” I stopped babbling. This was, after all, my first time hyping my novel. I didn't have a clue what to say.
The bookstore owner only glanced at the cover. “This kind of book doesn’t sell well here, so no,” she said. “Good luck, though.”
I wanted to tell her that this kind of book didn’t sell well in her store because there were no books of this kind in her store. I muttered something like “thank you very much,” and I headed to Barnes & Noble. After finding the “correct” person to talk to about a book signing, she, too, glanced at the cover.
“What are you doing to get a buzz going for your book?” she asked.
“Well, I’ve started a mailing list,” I said. The list consisted mainly of family members. “My students are eager to read it, and Essence magazine is running a review.”
“Well, you’ll have to do better than that,” she said. “Unless there’s a sufficient buzz for your book, we can’t help you.”
I wanted to tell her that a book signing was an excellent way to generate buzz, but I mumbled something like “you’ve been very helpful” and buzzed out of the store.
The manager at Waldenbooks shrugged. “Maybe when you have a few more books under your belt.”
The manager at Books-A-Million smiled a lot, but she, too, said no. “Saturdays are our busiest day with all the kids playing Pokémon,” she said. “It’s sheer bedlam.”
It all came down to Canto’s, a small independent bookstore located downtown on the city market. I walked in, slid the cover across the counter to the only worker, and said, “I’d like to have a signing here.”
The first signing
The worker turned out to be Rob, the owner. He looked at the cover and said, “Cool.” He checked a calendar. “The drop date’s wide open, and it’s a Saturday, too. Very cool. What time?”
This would be my first signing, so I had no idea. “What do you suggest?”
“Ten to two works the best,” Rob said. “That’s when most people do their shopping around here.”
“Cool,” I said. “I’ll mail out postcards and let my students know, and I can make posters.”
“I’ll take care of the posters,” he said, “and I have a mailing list, too. Let your students know, and make sure your publisher sends us about … eighty books.”
“You think you can sell that many?” I asked.
He nodded. “I have a good feeling about this one.”
The day before the signing, my wife made twelve dozen chocolate chip cookies for customers to munch on while browsing. Rob set me up with a chair behind a table, I sat—and I realized I didn’t have a pen. I was so unprepared. I borrowed a pen from Rob, and for the next four hours, I signed eighty hardbacks.
And more people came in requesting my novel.
Rob started a “rain check” list. “This has never happened to me before,” he whispered. “It’s cool, though, right?”
It was very cool, and it became cooler when he said, “I’ll know to order more of your next book for that book signing, okay?”
That was the start of a beautiful friendship.
An agent finally responds
The marketing department at Kensington set up my next signing for Renee and Jay in Philadelphia at Robin's Books, the bookstore where Terri McMillan had her first signing. My wife and drove up on a rainy July day, walked into the bookstore in time for the signing—and talked to the owner for the rest of the evening. No one else showed up. "It might be the weather," the owner said.
When we returned home, a letter was waiting for me. I opened it and read, “Send me the rest of Renee and Jay. I think there might be a market for this book in the near future.”
The letter was from an agent I had written to three years before.
I really enjoyed writing back to her: “Renee and Jay is already in print. I guess the future is now, huh?”