I had the great pleasure of working with Rhonda Hayes Curtis on her memoir, Love at the Last Minute, which she has just self published. When she first came to me, I knew that this was a story that could take the world by storm and soon learned that Rhonda was the kind of person who would settle for nothing less. She was one of the most determined writers I'd ever met -- willing to throw our giant chunks of pages to tell the best possible story, willing to go back again and again to get things right, and UN-willing, in the end, to take NO for an answer.
Despite a valiant effort, Rhonda's book was not picked up by a literary agent. I have to admit that I was truly baffled by this reality -- which is proof that there are simply no guarantees in publishing! But Rhonda refused to let other people's rejection stop her from her dream. She learned everything she needed to know about self publishing, hired some good advisors, and brought her book to life herself. She is having a big book launch celebration on Valentine's Day.
I predict that this book is going to sell like wildfire -- and that all the agents that turned her down will be kicking themselves. It's like a Nicholas Sparks novel but it's REAL!
I asked Rhonda to answer some questions about her book-writing journey so we could learn about determination, rejection, and how sometimes the path to publishing takes twists we never imagined.
Here is the book blurb:
Rhonda Hayes promised to give her thirty-five-year-old dying daughter, Sherry, anything she wanted. When Sherry requested that her mother sign up for a dating site, Rhonda was panic-struck. What would people think? Only nine months earlier, Rhonda’s devoted husband, Greg, had died from cancer. Keeping her promise, Rhonda acquiesced to Sherry’s wish. Together they completed a dating profile; moments before hitting SUBMIT, Rhonda added these words: "My daughter has terminal cancer and she is my life right now. Why would I be on a dating site? She is encouraging me to move on with my life and what a treat it would be if you had the opportunity to meet her. She is an angel." Weeks later, Rhonda was immersed in two worlds: the exhilaration of falling in love and the despair of watching her daughter die. Love at the Last Minute is a memoir about finding courage, acceptance, and love. It’s also about how opening up to God’s plan can truly bring miracles into your life
You can read the opening chapter excerpt on Rhonda's website by clicking HERE.
And just to help you keep the people straight:
- Greg was Rhonda's former husband.
- Sherry was Rhonda and Greg's daughter.
- Larry is Rhonda's current husband -- the one she met online in the last days of Sherry's life.
- Chris is Sherry's widower.
- And this is Rhonda:
Q: Can you talk about what led you to want to write a book about your experiences?
You’d written an article that got a lot of attention – perhaps start all the way back there with the impulse to write that piece and how it led to the book?
I never dreamed or aspired to be a writer. In 2005, I began journaling during a difficult time in my marriage. I was trying to make sense out of my life. It was September 2006, in my darkest hour, that I wrote: “Dear God, Please help me.” Looking back, I believe that’s when the first seed was planted. When I was called to write. That’s when things began to change in my life.
The article evolved organically.
In 2010, I wrote a short essay, “Life”
Around the same time, Larry sent eHarmony an email thanking and telling them about how we met. It was through this contact, that eHarmony asked me to do an interview with CNN
Then, Guideposts magazine contacted me, asking if I would share my story.
This article was selected as one of The Top Ten Most Inspirational Stories of the Year.
Q: At what point in the process did it occur to you that you wanted to write for a wider audience than yourself and your family?
It was June 15, 2009. The first thing I wrote in my journal that morning was:
“Well now I have the crazy idea of writing a book. I may be losing my mind, but I think it’s worth a shot. The lessons I’ve learned along my journey are very different than most people will have to endure.”
Ironically, it was three days before I sent Larry the first communication. Little did I realize at that time, that my book was going to be a love story. I thought it was only going to be about the lessons that Greg, Sherry, and I learned along the journey.
Q: How did thinking about publication change your intention and your outlook on the writing process?
My intentions are always good in whatever I do in life. Writing, or not.
As far as the writing process, when I first began, I tried to make it perfect. That didn’t work. My writing was dreadful. Then, I wrote with no filter at all. I wrote about everything in great detail. That was cathartic. Then with the help of great editors, self-study, and the tenacity to revise, again and again, I eventually found a balance. I wrote the book I wanted to read. Writing has helped me in so many ways. Hopefully, my writing will helps others.
Q: What are some of the things you did to learn how to write your memoir? What worked well? What didn’t work so well?
First of all, I sat down and wrote. I wrote 10-12 hours a day. It was easy to transport myself back to the past, good and bad. I relived everything. Diligent about accuracy, I was grateful that I had journaled, kept calendars, and the writings of Greg and Sherry. All the text messages, eHarmony communications, emails, etc. were easy to document. I was lost in my work. Larry would bring me food. When I wasn’t writing, I was thinking about it. It sounds like I was obsessed. I don’t know, I suppose I was. But I was doing what made me happy.
I read lots of books. Mostly books about writing and other memoirs. I connected with other writers. When I attended my first writing conference (SCWC), I knew I was in the right place. The energy was amazing.
The hardest thing for me was that I needed help. It was frustrating to wait weeks, mostly months, for an editor to be available. And then wait that much longer for their feedback. By then, I had already revised and moved on. I’m a hard worker.
The least helpful thing was “read and critique” groups. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the social contact and some of the writers offered good advice. But sharing five pages a week, felt like I was trudging through quicksand. Especially, when someone was writing science fiction or poetry. I needed more. If I was rich, I’d hire a full-time editor.
The most helpful thing I did was work with you, Jennie. And I’m not just saying that because you’re my interviewer. I thrive on feedback and you always responded when you said you would. You never let me down. You are amazing! [Note from Jennie: Thank you, Rhonda! That is so sweet!]
Q: Was it emotionally difficult to return in your work to emotionally difficult topics?
Not really. There were so many good things to write about. It was actually fun bringing Greg and Sherry back to life. Especially, Sherry, because there was no dark side to tell.
Although, I have to say, I spent almost a year writing about my childhood. A whole new writing voice emerged. It was fun for a while. But as I started reliving and writing about the painful parts of my youth, I wondered if I had made a mistake. Maybe, I should’ve just left it buried. At one point, I regretted going there emotionally, but now I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Writing has answered so many questions. Writing has healed me. It was great therapy. That’s why I encourage everyone to write.
Q: Did you have any pushback in your family about what you were doing? How did you approach that?
No. My daughter, Charlotte, and everyone else in my family have fully supported me in my writing efforts. Before Greg died, I had his permission to share that part of our lives. Of course, I had Sherry’s permission. I offered to let Chris read it, but he declined. I didn’t need anyone else’s approval.
Q: Were you surprised by how much effort it took to complete your book? How much time, effort, editing?
Yes. When I first began writing, right after Sherry’s funeral, I didn’t have any idea or expectations of how long it would take me. By year five, it became very frustrating. My manuscript still wasn’t where I thought it should be. Good, but not perfect. After my last revision in year six, I was finally ready to let it go. It’s still not perfect, but no writer is that good. I glad it’s done.
Q: At what point in the writing process did you start to build your author platform? How has that been going?
That’s a funny question. I never think about building a platform. I think about building genuine relationships, even if it’s only one short conversation at a party. I love to hear other people’s stories. The first few months after I began writing, Larry came home one day with a stack of books. Books I had no interest in–––books on how to find an agent, how to build you author platform, and how to write a query letter. I didn’t concern myself with any of that. It happens naturally with me. I have no problem connecting with people.
Note from Jennie: Rhonda has done so many clever things to connect with her readers, including starting workshops with Larry in online dating for over-50 adults, teaching a course in writing your own story at Escondido Adult School, and honing her speaking skills at Toastmasters. See note about her book launch party, below.
Q: You tried to get an agent and it didn’t happen for you. Can you talk about how that process felt?
I’m really glad I took the time and energy to write a thorough book proposal and query letter. The education and experience was worth every minute. I picked thirty-three agents that I wanted to pitch. The first rejection (an exclusive) was hard to swallow. I sent out eleven more queries when a BIG agent became very interested, but he was torn. He shared my manuscript with his colleagues. They gave me great advice. Revise. So I quit pitching. I hired another editor and spent another eighteen months revising.
Q: When did you decide to go ahead and self publish and how did you decide how to move forward?
After the revision, I hired another editor for the final line edits. I sent it back to BIG agent and he declined. I suppose, I don’t take rejection very well. I didn’t think it was worth the time to continue pitching to the rest of the agents on my list. People wanted to read my story. I kept getting signs from the Universe that it was time to let it go. Now, I’m so glad I glad I decided to self-publish.
Q: What has been the biggest surprise of the process so far?
The biggest surprise is that men seem to love my story as much as women.
Q: You have 200 people coming to your book launch party on Valentine’s Day. Are you nervous? Excited?
The number has grown. We’re up to 250 now. I’m excited and very grateful for new and old friends who want to come out and support me. What makes me nervous is that I won’t be able to spend the time I’d like to with each person. Some I haven’t seen in years.
Q: What is next in terms of marketing?
I don’t concern myself with that too much. Larry is amazing in that department and he will help me. Ultimately, I think if my story is supposed to reach thousands, do I dare say millions, God is already taking care of that business. I’ve been asked to speak at numerous book clubs. I’m excited about that. I could talk about the writing process and my story all day long.
Q: What advice would you give to people who are burning to tell a story from their own lives?
Do it. Tell the truth. Writing matters. It can be life changing.
You can read the first chapter of Love at the Last Minute on Rhonda's homepage.