At Writer’s Digest, we love to highlight the success stories of debut authors: How they did it, what they learned and why you can do it, too. In this interview, WD managing editor Tyler Moss spoke with Patricia Beal, author of the upcoming novel A Season to Dance (inspirational contemporary fiction, May, Bling! Romance/Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas).
A Season to Dance Is About: The heart wrenching love story of a small town professional ballerina who dreams of dancing at the Met in New York, of the two men who love her and of the forbidden kiss that changed everything.
Writes From: My husband just retired from active duty service, so I started the novel at Fort Benning (Georgia), finished it in Baumholder (Germany), and edited it at Fort Bliss (Texas). I got a job as an editor for the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy in May, so we will probably stay in the El Paso/Fort Bliss area. My publisher has an aggressive plan to get the book noticed, but I want to have the income to go beyond their budget. I need marketing and publicity money to reach different groups that will benefit from the story, and I’m already working with Wynn-Wynn Media on a robust publicity campaign.
Pre-Dance: The desire to write a novel came 30 years ago, when as a teenage girl back home in Brazil, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist touched my heart. I wanted to do that to people, touch their hearts with a simple story that had something to say about the human condition. I moved to the United States, learned English (for the most part—must I really ride on a plane? I would be much more comfortable in a plane), and graduated magna cum laude from the University of Cincinnati with a B.A. in English Literature.
I was the news editor of the university newspaper for two years and continued in journalism after college while trying to come up with a story idea for a novel. After an internship at the Pentagon, I worked as a public affairs officer for the U.S. Army for seven years. I was in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, when the first Operation Enduring Freedom detainees arrived, and the stories I filed during the early days of the detention operation there gained national attention. Writing from Iraq in the first year of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I focused on feature stories for Army newspapers, and my feature on a day in the life of “Bad Luck Squad” won a Keith L. Ware award in print journalism. Then came marriage and babies. Then the story idea and the book baby—at long last.
Time Frame: The Writer’s Digest cover of January 2011 said in big blue letters: “Write Your Novel in 2011!” So I did. I wrote it in 27 Saturdays. I spent 2012 getting rejected and 2013 rewriting the whole thing. Then in 2014 I got an agent, and we sold the novel on February 4, 2016.
Enter the Agent: I met my agent, Les Stobbe, at a writers’ conference in St. Louis—the craziest writers’ conference of my life. I’ve been to five. Why crazy? Because my mom called me at almost midnight on day one saying that my grandmother had just died. To make matters worse, I knew that I would never make it to Brazil in time for the funeral and cremation ceremony set for the following afternoon (these things happen fast back home). I didn’t want to do conference anything, but I had an editor appointment with HarperCollins in the morning, and my mom urged me to go, so I did. I looked rough and told the editor what had happened. She was very caring, asked if she could pray with me, heard my pitch, and told me to email the proposal to her after the conference. She also urged me to meet as many agents as possible while in St. Louis, because if she liked the proposal, she would need me to have an agent. Marching orders. Cool. I needed that. I took the rest of the day off from conference activities and watched my grandma’s funeral online, remembering the woman who’d first planted in my heart a passion for stories and who’d told me many with complete disregard for a child’s proper bedtime. I woke up on Saturday focused and ready, and I booked tons of extra pitches, all with agents. I finished the day with five agents interested in seeing my proposal, and two weeks later, Les Stobbe offered to represent me.
Biggest Surprise: Remember the January 2011 Writer’s Digest cover I mentioned? The words “Write Your Novel in 2011” were next to Harlan Coben’s face and his interview highlighted plot twists. Foreshadowing? I think so … I started my journey to publication not knowing or caring about God. In the summer of 2012 when the novel was rejected in three different continents in the same week, the thought of God crossed my mind. I stood in the middle of my empty German kitchen—husband deployed, kids at school, my first dog had just died, and I stated to whomever or whatever was out there: “God is dead.” Six months later I was in the Chihuahua Desert being born again and giving my life to Christ. I always imagine God in heaven laughing and yelling, “Plot twist!” I wrote a blog post about that part of the journey: A Season to Dance: The Book That Wrote Me.
What I Learned: [How to] trust others with my writing. Accepting feedback is hard. I’ve been in two writing groups, had two coaches, and have two editors at Bling! Romance/Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas. I hated making changes to my novel. Passionately. But now that it’s finished (it just went to production for internal design last week), I’m in absolute awe of it. Not because of what I did, but because of what a team of talented and experienced people were able to bring out of me and polish. When we finished developmental edits I cried for two days—really—because A Season to Dance is exactly the kind of book I spent 30 years dreaming I would write one day.
What I Did Right: I worked with freelance editors/coaches, went to writing conferences, and built a platform. One of the main reasons my agent offered to represent me was because the manuscript was polished by two people he knows and trusts: Gloria Kempton (via Writer’s Digest 2nd Draft) and Jeff Gerke (WD Books author and Lexus of editors). I met all the big players in my career (and writing friends!) at conferences. Remember the St. Louis conference? The one when my grandma died? During a break in my Saturday agent-appointment marathon, I went to a class and sat next to a young woman with a weird dream. She’d just finished a masters in technical writing and was looking for a job editing fiction—her passion in life. Edit away! Have fun! We exchanged cards. A year and a half later, I got an email from her saying she’d been working for Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas and had just been promoted to managing editor of one of their newest imprints. She’d been following me on social media since we’d met, loved everything about my online presence, and was dying to see my proposal. Two weeks later she requested the full manuscript, and in four days my agent had an offer.
What I Would’ve Done Different: That’s tough. I don’t like the hurt of the journey, but I like where it got me. I suppose I could have been smarter about contests. I never won one, but I semi-finaled/finaled in two big ones for the inspirational market: Genesis and First Impressions. I think I could have moved further in the Genesis 2015 if I’d entered the manuscript in the right category. So this goes back to genre definition. Some people said the romance element of the story is so predominant that I should try to call it a romance. I did. The entry got a lot of love in the early stages of competition, but when it got to professional romance writers, they said the writing was very strong but that A Season to Dance is not a romance novel because in my in medias res opening the heroine is married and also because of how it reads overall. That was the end of my pre-published contest experience. I signed my publishing contract soon after. But I learned from it, and when people say things like, “Ooh, this sounds so much like romance,” I’m able to have a smart conversation about how the story indeed has a foot in that camp but how it breaks some of its conventions. I’m also able to join the debate about the differences between contemporary and women’s, having had to dig deeper to define what it is that I wrote.
Online Platform: I started building online in late 2014. I have about 12,600 Facebook fans in 46 countries (with about 3,000 engagements per week) and 10,100 Twitter followers (with an average of 2,500 impressions a day). I don’t spend any money on Twitter, but I do invest $5 a day on Facebook—$2 promoting the page, and $3 promoting the post of the day—I gave up daily lattes for it and don’t regret it. I also have a website and quarterly newsletter, a Goodreads author page and a Pinterest page. I need to claim my Amazon author page next. Facebook and Twitter are definitely my strengths, and I’ve written about it extensively. If you want to grow, shoot me a note. I will send you links and answer any questions you may have. I don’t charge for advice, but I will take Pinterest growth tips if you have some. The A Season to Dance board is so pretty because the story is so visual: American gardens, ballet, good looking leading men, and company changes and tours (Germany, Prague, Mallorca). But very few people are seeing it—99 to be exact. I also need to grow my email list—taking tips on that too.
Advice for Writers: 1) Don’t quit. 2) If you have a great novel that’s not selling because of the market, write a different novel. If you have a great novel that’s not selling because the writing is not as mature as it needs to be, keep improving the same novel, or you’ll repeat the same mistakes in the next one.
More About Me: In 2014 I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder. Ballet is my fixation. I’ve been dancing for almost 40 years, and I cannot stop.
Next Up: In 2015, agented and sure the writing was mature, I wrote a new novel. The Song of the Desert Willow is a split-time military romance with a Southwestern flavor. I’m still editing it and plan to have it ready for pitching in late 2017.
Tyler Moss is the managing editor of Writer’s Digest. Find him on Twitter @tjmoss11.