How I Sold my First Novel / D.J. Donaldson


The other day I opened the first book in my New Orleans mystery series and looked at the publication date. I was shocked to see that it was 1988. My God… that means the time between that book and the new one in the series, Assassination at Bayou Sauvage, was twenty-nine years. Wondering if that was some kind of record, I searched the Internet and found it wasn’t even worth a mention because, in the site I checked, there had to be ten books in the series to even qualify for the list. The winner was the late, Ed McBain, who wrote fifty-four 87th Precinct novels over a span of forty-nine years. That means some years, he published more than one. Now I’m really feeling like a slacker. But in my defense, between the first book in my series and the new one, I wrote five medical thrillers. (“Big deal,” Ed McBain might say.)

Though greatly humbled by McBain’s accomplishments, I still feel like writing about me. (See, that’s the thing about authors… you can’t keep them from discussing their favorite subject.) The first book in my series was titled, “Cajun Nights.” I don’t remember the exact timing, but St. Martin’s Press must have acquired it at least a year before publication, so it’s been three decades since my then agent, the late Oscar Collier, called me one day and said “There’s an editor at St. Martins who wants to speak with you.”

I’d been waiting for a call like that for years, and I was so excited I didn’t even realize that it would have been much better for him to have said, “I sold your book to St. Martins.” Arrangements were made for the editor to call me and I was soon listening to an actual editor at a big publishing house tell me that he loved everything about the book, but the ending. He didn’t feel that the existing conclusion was good enough. He then gave me a few guidelines for a new ending. We agreed that I would think about what he’d said and we’d talk again.

Check out Assassination at
Bayou Sauvage here!

During that call I gave every indication I could give him what he wanted. But inside, I’m thinking, I can’t possibly change the ending. I thought about the existing one for weeks. I just can’t do it. The next morning, I woke with an idea. I called him, told him briefly what I’d come up with, and he said, “I love it. Now, I’d like for you to write me a description of how the new ending will affect each chapter of the book.”

Oh great, I thought, how am I going to do that? When I write, I know the general direction I’m headed, but get there by actually sliding behind the wheel and stepping on the gas. He was asking me to not only plan my exact route but tell him what I’d see along the way. I figured If I tried that, I’d kill the deal. So instead, I simply rewrote the book and included the new ending. It never occurred to me that I had just demonstrated I couldn’t follow directions. Apparently, the editor at St. Martins didn’t notice either, or if he did, he didn’t care, because he bought that book and wanted more. Ever see the old movie, “Singing in the Rain”? Picture me as the male lead in that film’s big production number and you’ll know how I felt after getting the phone call saying I was not only going to be published, but there was money on the way.

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