One dusty old chestnut about making it in life is that overnight success is a 20-year business. Maria Imbalzano laughs at that kind of nonsense. It only took her half that time.
“Ten years after I thought I’d made it I finally got published,” she said. And the book was the fifth one she wrote. “I have a lot to say about persistence.”
Indeed she does, and long has. Before she put her name on romance novels, Imbalzano spent 30-odd years in family and divorce law as an attorney at Stark & Stark. Over much of that time she did a lot of public speaking, and much of it centered on how to just keep forging ahead in life, family, and work.
Imbalzano grew up in Hamilton and Trenton, where her father was “Joe the Barber,” a man nearly everyone in Trenton knew. She earned her bachelor’s in psychology at Rutgers in 1976 and had designs on becoming a counselor. But, needing to get straight to work, she enrolled in a paralegal school in Philadelphia that guaranteed a job to graduates. She was placed at a Park Avenue law firm in New York.
Bitten by the lawyer bug, Imbalzano went to law school at Fordham, but Joe the Barber wanted her to come back to Mercer County, so she took a summer job at Stark & Stark. That fall the firm offered her a full-time job, and there she stayed until this year.
Now that she is officially not a career divorce attorney, Imbalzano is a full-time romance author. Her third published novel came out in July. And if you’re doing the math, that means her latest, Sworn to Forget, is actually book No. 7 in her oeuvre.
That’s not a bad output for someone who says she wasn’t any good at creative writing. She sure read a lot of it, though. Romance novels were her go-to at night, after a long day in a job where none of her clients were ever in a good mood and nobody ended up happily ever after.
So her escape from constant examples of the death of love was the venerable romance novel, where you just know the guy’s going to get the girl and everything will be all right.
But two things happened in short order that got Imbalzano off the bench and into the game. One was something that seems to happen to most serious writers at one point or another—she read a book that started to infuriate her.
“I was reading this bestseller,” she said. “And she was really annoying me. She would say one thing and then say the same thing a couple pages later. I said, ‘We’re not stupid.’”
Yes, she said that out loud, and from a literal page of Stephen King’s seminal On Writing, Imbalzano thought that if something this lousy got published, she could do it too.
The problem was, she couldn’t. She had a lot of ideas, except the one about how to actually get started. Cue a well-timed coincidence that would seem contrived in a fiction book—she got a flier at work from the New Jersey Institute of Continuing Legal Education. NJICLE was offering a seminar called “How to Write Your Book in 14 Days (A Lawyer’s Guide).” She thought of it as fate.
The seminar was packed with what she refers to as “would-be John Grishams,” which makes a certain amount of sense, given it was a room full of attorneys. Imbalzano, however, had no Grisham-esque ambitions. She loves a good legal thriller, but it’s more like enjoying the food without wanting to cook it.
“I think I just really love romance,” she said. “The conflict, the art of getting to the happily ever after.”
She learned quickly that writing romance is an awful lot like being a character in a romance novel, i.e., tormented, subject to endless mistakes, and having to work ceaselessly on making things work out. But the seminar was an actual spark, and remains the moment Imbalzano points to as the true beginning of her writing career, seven novels and a whole lot of lessons ago.
She set to writing seriously in 2003, with a detailed outline that promptly became a 400-page finished draft. The writing happened after work, on weekends, in the mornings. She worked and chipped away, flushed one set of pages and replaced them with another. Lather, rinse, repeat, until she finished it.
Imbalzano had a friend at a major publishing house in New York, to whom she hopefully shipped off her freshly minted tome for a critique (Note: Do not try this at home. Editors at major publishing houses don’t actually do critiques for writers. This one happened to be a friend.).
“The editor there gave me a four-page critique,” she said. In the language of book editors, a call to a writer means wow, a rejection slip means it’s not for them but nice try, and a four-page response means you have a generous friend who wants to help you get past your … let’s call it “unpolished” style.
“I thought, ‘I think I have a lot to learn,’” Imbalzano said.
She joined New Jersey Romance Writers, which she said was “the key” she needed to really make something of her writing. Being around other writers in her favorite genre, who kept her on a schedule of drafts and development ideas, taught her things that now seem so obvious as to be almost painful. For example:
“I had no idea you needed one point of view per scene,” she said. She had been switching POVs throughout passages until someone pointed out how to fix the narrative problem. Lather, rinse, repeat, and suddenly Maria Imbalzano had a second book. And then a third.
She entered that book into a contest called “Put Your Heart in a Book.” To her admitted surprise, she won. It got her an agent. She was on her way.
Here’s a free writing tip to any aspiring authors out there: Conflict drives a story and shapes the characters in it. And conflict is best wielded at exactly the moment everything is going great for a character.
Imbalzano had a head of steam and an agent, but after a year or two of that agent lackadaisically sending out manuscripts here and there, and of getting rejection after rejection, after querying and honing and writing other romance books to no definite end, nothing was happening. Imbalzano fired her agent and got back to work.
Actually, that’s a bit of a misrepresentation. Imbalzano never actually stopped working. Like most writers who do get places with their work, she actually likes the rewriting and the editing. She almost brags when she talks about always throwing out the first three chapters of any book she writes; and when she talks about how she’ll edit her work 100 or more times.
That fourth book didn’t go anywhere, but with four under her belt, Imbalzano felt she had learned a thing or two about developing characters and story arcs, about conflict and resolution, and about the inviolable rule of being a writer, which is to keep writing, no matter what.
Once she finished her fifth book, the publishing world agreed that she was ready to get in the game for real. Unchained Memories hit the shelves in January 2014. She found the outcome “very validating” after years of entering contests, winning a few or placing close to the top in the rest.
A year and a half later, book six (overall), Dancing in the Sand, came out as her second release, and last month, Sworn to Forget was released. All three were published by Wild Rose Press.
For its part, the publisher is delighted by that fact.
“Unchained Memories,” said Rhonda Penders, president and editor-in-chief of Wild Rose Press, “was our first introduction to this wonderful author. Today, we have three of her books and she is working on a series. We are so proud to have her returning to us again and again. We look forward to her next book.”
About that series Penders mentioned, something Imbalzano has in common with a lot of successful writers is that she has a hard time letting go of a good idea. Remember that lengthy first novel she wrote that got the epic response from her publishing industry friend? Well, she now knows why she got four pages of “don’t quit your day job” kind of critique.
But the story was fundamentally good, she said. Or, more accurately, the story was a good set of stories. Imbalzano will be turning the story of four high school friends into four distinct novels in a series.
Imbalzano said she’s looking forward to writing a series, but being smart, she’s pacing herself enough to make sure that she doesn’t say something in one book that flies in the face of something in another. Or, at least, she’s pacing herself so she doesn’t do that again, because once was enough, she said. Even for someone who likes to rework her stuff, it was daunting to be going through book four in the series and realizing she’d upended something from book one.
But things are moving along at a good clip now, Imbalzano said. The series, and ideas for others, are brewing up nicely, and her first book in the series should be out next year.
Here’s another free tip for aspiring authors: Suspense is killer. So for those looking forward to finding out how those four high school friends will get through their stories, you’ll just have to hold tight.
“You want to make readers wait,” Imbalzano said. Just enough to where they can barely stand it.
Readers certainly seem eager for more. In fact, something that’s surprised Imbalzano is how much readers attach to secondary characters in her work, she said. She often hears from readers who say they want to know more about this character or that, who isn’t in the book for much time.
So ideas, she’s not running out of anytime soon. And now that she’s retired, she’s able to concentrate on the characters and their stories in a way she couldn’t before.
But keep in mind. Imbalzano’s only retired from the law, not from work. The business of writing, from the first draft in a notebook through to the marketing and social media, takes up a lot of time. Which she’s grateful for. But it’s not going to be a lazy raft ride into the sunset. She’ll save that for the characters in her books.
“People ask me, ‘How’s retirement,’” she said. “What’s retirement?”