Saturday, March 28, 2009

Welcome Courtney Milan

Selling the Unmarketable Transcript

Prairie Writers, thank you for inviting me to guest blog with you today! Janet asked me to blog about my call story. But I’ve written about that, and I wanted to come up with something special for you. I decided to share a piece of my call story that I haven’t talked about anywhere—how I wrote a manuscript that was so marketable that it went to auction among five publishing houses.

When I started the manuscript that would become PROOF BY SEDUCTION, I gave it the following working title: "Untitled Work of Ornithological Unmarketableness." I’m not making this up—you can see me call it that on my blog in 2006. I wasn’t calling it "unmarketable" to be cute. My hero was a Regency-era science geek (an ornithologist, in fact). My heroine was neither wealthy nor gorgeous, and more than one person who read the manuscript remarked that she was a little unlikable because she didn’t pay proper respect to the authorities.

I reached "THE END" and set it aside. I knew it needed revisions. When I came back to it in November, I’d learned a lot by writing another (unmarketable) book. I loved my characters from that first book, but I knew that I needed to up the conflict, raise the stakes, and bring the writing up a notch or five. By that time, I’d figured out that if I wanted to sell the book, I needed—drat it all—to think about the market. A geeky hero pursuing an unlikable heroine was not going to sell.Want to know how I fixed that unmarketable manuscript? I made my manuscript more unmarketable.

I moved my story out of the marketable Regency era. I deleted all the marketable balls and parties. Then I made my hero even geekier. I turned him into a man who embraced science to get away from all social interaction, a man who needed hard, rigid rules to function because he couldn’t handle the messy unpredictability of emotion.

My heroine had once been a fairly simple girl, a little unlikable because she waffled between her own happiness and what her parents wanted. I made her less likeable. In fact, I turned her into a con-artist who made a living pretending to tell the future.

I knew I’d made the manuscript less marketable, because I entered it in contests and got back a smattering of low, low scores complaining about my hero and my heroine. In one of the few contests where I finaled, an editor gave me a "one" for marketability. (To be fair, I also had my share of successes—but the low scores still smarted.)

When I submitted the finished version to agents, I expected to be smacked down. It was a shock when Kristin Nelson loved my manuscript. It was even more bewildering when she submitted it and we got offers.

But I think I understand it now. In the first version of my manuscript, thoughts of the omnipresent "market" lead me to tone down my hero until he was bland instead of different. They’d made me imbue my heroine with mouse when she needed to be full of fire. I needed to stop pulling my punches. The very things that made it "unmarketable"—the long journey my heroine faced to redemption and the amount of sheer social rehabilitation my hero needed—gave the book a power and an emotional complexity that I wouldn’t have been able to tap with characters who were more closely aligned with the market.

I just turned in a novella to my editor. It is actually going to be my publishing debut, scheduled for an October 2009 release. The novella also features an unmarketable hero. William White is not remotely wealthy. He’s not even the fake-poor of the aristocrat living in "reduced circumstances"—you know, the kind where the massive London townhouse leaks, and the poor earl is dressed by a loyal valet.

My hero is a glorified accountant. . . minus the glory. He makes eighteen pounds a year. This novella came together when I stopped hiding from his poverty and let that element carry the story. William is too poor to support a wife.

Impossible love. Can a romance ask for anything better? I desperately love this unmarketable story, and I hope you will, too.

So you tell me: What’s your favorite unmarketable romance novel? And why do you love it?

Courtney Milan lives with her husband, a marginally-trained dog, and an attack cat. Courtney wishes she could say she has lived in numerous fabulous places. But aside from her husband, there is a distinct lack of fabulousness in her life. Instead, she is happy when standards in the Milan household hover above mediocrity. Her husband attempts not to kill people for a living. In exchange, Courtney attempts not to do the dishes.

Before she started writing historical romance, Courtney experimented with various occupations: computer programming, dog-training, scientificating. . . . Having given up on being able to do any of those things, she's taken to heart the axiom that those who can't do, teach. When she's not reading (lots), writing (lots), or sleeping (not enough), she can be found in the vicinity of a classroom.

You can learn more about Courtney at both her website and her blog.


Hayley E. Lavik said...

What a fantastic story, Courtney. It's so inspiring to hear about someone who stuck to her guns rather than bending around to fit the established concepts of marketability. Your hero and heroine both sound incredibly compelling, and very unique.

Are there any elements with your 'unmarketable work' that you did have to compromise on or adjust for the audience, large or small?

I loved your query on Kristin Nelson's blog, by the way. I still remember that 'wardrobe malfunction' reference :)

Janet said...

Welcome to the Prairies, Courtney! I loved this look into your manuscript and, as Hayley has said, loved the fact that you were unwilling to compromise on your original premise. I, for one, enjoy reading an unconventional romance.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but if anyone's interested in Courney's query letter, they can find it on your website. It was a great read unto itself.

Why historical romance, Courtney? Is that the subgenre you love to read? Would you consider writing contemporary?

Looking forward to your visit here. I hope you enjoy your day :)

Silver James said...

Good morning, Courtney. Unmarketable favorite? Probably the one I've been writing for about ten years now. I've started and finished many others in the time, but I keep coming back to Uninvited. My villain is so evil, I want to scrub my brain with bleach to get him out. The love story for the hero starts in the prologue but he has to wait for the heroine to grow up. (Since he's immortal, the years are a drop in the hat.) The first half of the book details her youth and why the villain wants her. It's a dark paranormal with touches (okay fistfulls) of horror.

No matter what I'm working on, that book remains in the back of my mind. It goes against every romantic tenet and likely will never sale (especially if I don't finished writing it - lol). I'm only four or five chapters from the end. I'll see when I finally type "The End."

Do you find historical romance more or less confining when it comes to plotting?

Silver James said...

Ouch. I need more coffee. My inner editor is *headdesking* over the typos. And my spam word is "quittype". LOL!

Karyn Good said...

Hey, Courtney, welcome to the Chicks. Thanks for sharing your story. It encourages me to think outside the box.

Courtney Milan said...

Whew--I almost forgot about this. I am knee-deep in copy edits.


Thanks for commenting! I do have to say that having called my manuscript "unmarketable" I think it did have a number of "marketable" elements--it is set in England, for instance, and these days for a historical that is a big help.

(It is possible, though--my critique partner, Tessa Dare, has a manuscript that is mostly set on the High Seas & in Tortola--it is called Surrender of a Siren, and it will be out in August of 2009.)

I don't consider the setting a "compromise" though, because it is what I like to read, and also a time period I know a great deal about. The one change that did come about between draft 2 and draft 1 that might look like a "compromise" was that my hero became a lord--but that was material to the conflict, and in particular, his own arrogance and sense of duty, and so it did not feel like a compromise.

Courtney Milan said...


It's historical romance because I have never had an idea for a contemporary. I like to write about really strong women, and that means I need to put them through a lot of adversity.

For the heroine of Proof by Seduction, I didn't want to leave her with many options. She's well-educated, but doesn't have the birth to match, and isn't willing to accept a life of drudgery. In the modern world, birth just doesn't mean that much and women are less circumscribed. So it's hard for me to write strong women in hard circumstances because we have so many advantages today!

I just think historicals are uniquely suited for the stories of my heart.

Courtney Milan said...

Silver, I *love* dark paranormals! Especially ones with dark villains and brooding, lustful immortal heroes.

I think that sometimes it's the power of the characters that allows you to transcend "marketable" boundaries. I say go for it! If the characters are big enough to fill your life they may just well be big enough for readers to fall in love with.

Courtney Milan said...

Hi Karen, thanks for the welcome!

I do have this piece of advice to add to people writing unmarketable manuscripts.

1. If you are going to have unmarketable elements in your manuscript, FLAUNT THEM. Do not apologize to the reader for their being there. Never, ever pull your punches.

2. If you are going to have unmarketable elements, the bar is set higher. If you're writing a Western, your plot will have to be more compelling, your writing a notch above everyone elses, and your ending that much more sigh-worthy. What you cannot ever do is skimp on any of those things. If you were writing solely to market, you might get away with a few awkward phrases. If you're not--there is no mercy, and so do not show any to yourself in revising.

(Says Courtney as she slogs through copy edits on the novella she mentioned in the blogpost.)

C.J. Redwine said...

Love it! I'm not coming up with any titles off the top of my head (Oh, fine. I'm not coming up with *anything* off the top of my head.) but I do love a book that delivers the unexpected. And I can't wait to read yours!

Molli said...

Hi Courtney. Welcome, and thank you for sharing both your story and your insight.

In my latest work I've wrestled with trying to design a story/protagonist/plot for a particular line, i.e. keeping my market in mind, advice I've heard in "so many words" more than once. That may work for some, but apparently not me. I realized I was struggling because I was trying to force something so I recently decided to go back to writing the way I started, to write the story as it comes to me, then worry about whether it's ready for market, or even if there is a market, later.

Your comments today support that decision. I'm curious about what prompted you to take the direction you did in making your revisions once you decided it was time to "think about the market"? Was it a natural function of the characters themselves, or the story needs, alone? a deliberate decision to move away from the market norms? some combination? or...?

Thanks for joining us, Courtney. I'll look forward to following the commentary.

Courtney Milan said...

Hi CJ! Thanks for stopping by. If anyone here wants to see the unexpected, definitely visit CJ Redwine's website, and read the first chapter of her awesome manuscript, SHADOWING FATE:

So cool!

And Molli, I'm afraid it's just sheer obstinance. I'm not good at writing women who are martyrs, who do things for other people. I think most people--even very good people--are a little bit selfish at heart, and that they do things, even very good things, for reasons that are selfish. I don't identify with women who seem preternaturally good and so I can't write them.

It's far more interesting for me to write about people who do things wrong--who make mistakes--and then have to put together the pieces of a life that seems irreparably ruined.


Or in my novella--I put myself through college, and god knows there were days I was counting ramen noodles. I always knew people who could just call their parents and ask for an extra thousand dollars, and truth to tell, I always kind of . . . not resent, but envied them. So it was nice to have those old fears of mine reflected in fiction.

I just couldn't maintain interest in a book long enough if I didn't write the way I did.

Tara Maya said...

What a great story, and thank you for sharing it. I remember reading about your book on Kristin Nelson's site and I love the premise. I look forward to reading it.

Beth Trissel said...

I LOVED THIS, COURTNEY! Wonderfully refreshing. Thanks so much. :)

Carey Baldwin said...

Great Blog! I must disagree about your bio however. Any dog who rings a bell when he needs to gooo deserves credit for being more than marginally trained! Even if he does chew earbuds.

Eloisa Jame's first book POTENT PLEASURES comes to mind. I hear she was told it was unmarketable because the hero was rumored to be impotent. I guess we know how things turned out for her. And I know you'll make a fabulous success just like she did. Can't wait to see you on the Times list!

I have an unmarketable manuscript of my own--a nonlinear multiple pov mainstream formatted novel with a secret baby. Siiigh. Well, at least my daughter loved it! And my son quoted one of the hero's line and won a lovely girl with it. So I suppose it's not a total loss!

Captain Hook said...

My own unmarketable fave? Revenge Is Sweet (still in rough draft stage) that is full of b*****s. The 5 FMCs are completely unlikeable and stereotyped - the rich and powerful divorcee whose ex cheated on her; the childless woman who put her career first, but whose biological clock is now ticking; the mousy homebody; the slut in an "open" marriage who runs an escort service with her husband; and the abused wife. All very stereotyped.

And they are all out to kill their spouses/exes in a Survivor-style game.

BTW, welcome to the Chicks.

Courtney Milan said...

Cap'n Hook:

SWEET on the girls killing boys. I have a rule that says that any book in which a girl shoots a boy on purpose is instant win.

For instance: Devil's Cub by Georgette Heyer.

BEST HEYER ever and that is saying a lot.

Or, for instance: Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase. Awesomest book in the world.

And India, I hear you on that manuscript. Personally, I would represent a very large market for that book. Sometimes the thing with unmarketable manuscripts is that it is just a matter of timing--you hit at the moment someone is ready to take a chance.

Courtney Milan said...

And Tara and Beth, thank you for stopping by!

Annette McCleave said...

Thank you for sharing that experience, Courtney. What a terrific way to look at the marketability element. I think you've proven that it isn't the marketing hooks that sell a book, it's the writing.

Janet said...

Wow - I had to go into the city to a meeting and now I'm back and has it ever been busy over here on the Prairies. Welcome to all our new visitors.

I loved reading the comments -there's some good manuscripts out there and I wish everyone luck finding a home for them. And thanks, Courtney, for answering the questions posed and inspiring everyone to write from the heart.

Can I ask what's on the horizon for you? We know about the nouvella, and your debut novel will be out in January 2010, but after that? Are you working on another full length?

Jana Richards said...

Hi Courtney,
Thanks for joining us. What a great story!

I think I might have an unmarketable story on my hands, assuming I actually finish it. It's a time travel, but it's mostly set in World War Two. It takes place in England, though. Does one marketable asset cancel out the unmarketable negative? And are World War 2 stories still considered unmarketable?


Louisa Cornell said...

Hey, Courtney! It's a Chick Invasion - Pixie Chicks to Prairie Chicks!

I do love this story. It's amazing what being stubborn AND creative can do, isn't it? I am so anxious to read Proof by Seduction and have been for a long time.

Of course Lord of Scoundrels comes to mind. I DO love a heroine with the conviction to take a shot at the hero.

Another unconventional romance is Laura Kinsale's Flowers from the Storm. She is a prim, religious, almost self-righteous woman. He is a cad, scoundrel and rake who has a major stroke early in the book. I can just hear the editors saying "Nobody wants to read about a guy recovering from a stroke and a prude." It really is one of the most magnificent love stories ever.

What about The Mysterious Miss M by Diane Gaston. I am sure they told her a heroine who is for all intents and purposes a prostitute would never sell. It is an amazing book!

Which brings us to Claiming the Courtesan. There are moments in Anna Campbell's book where you don't like the hero OR the heroine. She's a courtesan. He's a bully and worse according to some. However, the story of Kylemore and Verity is without a doubt one of the most gut-wrenching and magnificent romances you will ever read.

So, my dear fellow Fishbowl Diva, you are in stellar company and I just KNOW your book is going to be one to remember!

Janet said...

I wanted to jump in one more time and publicly thank Courtney for guest blogging with the Chicks today. It's been a pleasure having her visit - and her story of unmarketability was fabulous. I know I'll be anxiously awaiting the release of Proof by Seduction - can't wait to read it.

Thanks again, Courtney. And good luck with your copy edits.

Courtney Milan said...


Right now I am finishing line edits on my novella, and at the same time feverishly finishing my second full length book. It is tentatively titled TRIAL BY DESIRE, and it is scheduled for June of 2010.

Boy, when we talk about unmarketable stories.... This is right up there in what are you talking about land.

Right now, my editor has given me the go-ahead on the first few chapters, but hasn't accepted the book itself, so I don't want to jinx myself by saying too much.

But here's a special two-sentence sneak preview, as a thanks to all of you for your hospitality today:

"He’d tried his best to paint himself as the least likable fellow imaginable. He’d abandoned her, for God’s sakes, after what had to have been the worst wedding night in the entire history of matrimony."

As for the WWII stories--I bet those make a come back. My agent represents a writer who has a WWII love story (not marketed as a romance, but I think those markets are all interconnected) that is sitting on the New York Times list right now. I bet that's going to bleed into romance.

And Louisa, you've put me in some stellar company there. You know what I think about your writing (she's a Golden Heart finalist, guys--for the second year in a row! I'm so happy for her!) so I'm rooting for you, and desperately wanting to read your books, too.

Janet said...

A sneak peek - thank you, Courtney. And the tagline/elevator pitch/whatever you want to call it sounds great. June of 2010 may not be soon enough for something that sounds that intriguing.

The Chicks wish you the best of luck with it.

(And good luck to Louisa in the Golden Heart :)

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hi Courtney, welcome. Sorry I'm so late but I went to the same meeting as Janet and the rest but I just got home an hour a go. (Takes me about 4.5 hrs to drive there.)

That's a very interesting story you have. It proves you gotta follow your heart.

I write historicals and contemporaries.

My most unmarketable story is Charley's Saint which is an inspy contemp. It's also done well in contests but runs the gamut. In one contest, it scored both a 41 and 100 out of 100. You either love the heroine or you hate her. The inspy editors say it's not credible. The secular editors score me the highest, but say there's not enough sensuality. I have no idea where it'll end up.

Nice to meet you here.

Helena said...

I'm sliding in late, too. Glad that all of us who drive to meet on the 4th Saturday arrived home safely.

Courtney, your tale of marketing the unmarketable is fascinating and inspiring. Thanks for being with us today.

I'm glad to hear your opinion on the WWII question. There's lots to be mined from that era. I also have a heap of ideas from the fifties, which many may consider a 'bland' decade but I would submit there was lots going on beneath the surface. So that may be my unmarketable era one day!

Rebecca J. Clark said...

Hey Courtney--
Great post. I love hearing about an author's first manuscript. Good for you for not conforming and changing for the market.

I have a book I wrote early in my writing career that got lots of kudos from editors and agents, but no offers. I was told they wouldn't know where to market it, it was too edgy for a first book (looking back now, that's laughable), blah, blah, blah. I was tempted to rework it and change it to fit the market better, but instead I moved on to other works. Now, I'm thinking about getting this story "out there" again; maybe it'll fit today's market, eh? We should never give up on our babies if we believe in them.

Thanks for sharing. Can't wait until you live in my neck of the woods.

:)Becky said...

I insist on being able to come late to the conversation and still have something valuable to add: LINE EDITS? They want to change words in your gorgeous novella?? :shaking head:

I cannot wait to read it. October is a very long way away.

Love your thoughts on the unmarketable hero/heroine. It's kinda the same way in life, huh? We just have to live in bold, bright colors, and there will be those who do not like us. But the ones who do, will ADORE.


Big congrats. You're going to make the romance genre immeasurably stronger. Can't wait to see you on the shelves (Well, your books . . .)

Thanks to the Prairie Chicks--I'd never been here before, but I'll be back. :-)


connie said...

Silver James
go for it! i'm totally intrigued now and await publication

connie said...

hello courtney
i read and reread your blog. darn! i think mine must be marketable. and that is not too pleasing because my characters are too predictable. i guess i like broad shoulders because when i read a romance, i want to dream but i don't want it to be real. i haven't dared to write about ordinary people with a streak of extraordinary and yet the people (real) who have stuck in my memory did so because they were plain, ordinary and extraordinary. you have given me something to play with - not a story but a play time of creating characters.
raise the stakes. yup.