Behind The Book: Jenny Milchman

Behind the Book, or The Story Behind My Story
Jenny Milchman
Originally in Crimespree 49

Writing a mystery is something of a mystery itself. Where do ideas come from? How do all those words get on the page? And what would make an otherwise perfectly pleasant person murder someone?

But when you try to publish a mystery…well, that’s when the real mayhem starts.

When I first set out to get published, I didn’t set out at all. I was working as a psychologist-in-training on a particularly tough case, a real-life suspense story. Or not real life: here were a messy accumulation of facts I had little control over. As a writer, I could at least order the world of the book.

When I was a good twenty-thousand words in and counting, the idea of publication had still never occurred to me. I started out my writing life with poems, and quite frankly, when you write poetry, dreams of being read widely don’t exactly loom. For me, writing was something I did for myself, and that was just fine.

But then at my husband’s suggestion, I joined a writer’s group. We were a motley collection. One bearded, sloppily-bellied bear of a guy who encouraged us all. A slim girl with piercings and black clothes, before Goth was ubiquitous. A housewife named Dorothy. And me.

I remember bringing to our Friday meeting the latest fistful of pages in what was rapidly becoming a suspense novel. I knew nothing about layering in clues or raising stakes, let alone steering a story to a successful conclusion, but I read aloud with the impetuousness of the beginner.

When I finished the chapter, Dorothy sucked in her breath and said, “You know what this reminds me of? Have you read…” [Insert name of that summer’s hot suspense novel].

From that moment on, publication was in my sights. I had considered it too- difficult-to-ever-achieve, but now I flipped to the opposite extreme. Like many newbie writers—at least I hope I’m not alone in this—I figured it would be easy. After all, Dorothy had sucked in her breath at my clearly brilliantly conceived cliffhanger. Now it was just a question of getting a lot of other people to do the same.

Oh, and finish the book. No problem.

So what happened then? Well, I wrote seven other novels after drawer-ing the first, which, sucked-in breath or not, turned out to be clearly unworkable. (Remember the part where I had no idea how to foreshadow or structure an ending?)

It didn’t matter. Another story-question had grabbed me around the neck. What would make a good man do the worst thing he possibly could to his wife?

Of course, I didn’t even know what that worst thing would be at this point. I wrote my way to an answer. And then I wrote some more.

I was learning as I went. I’d shed my greenhorn confidence with a faint blush of shame , like a teenager discards her dolls and stuffed animals. I now understood how enormous was the task of turning a single spark into a coherent body of a book.

People helped me along the way. Though I couldn’t get an agent, I did get lovely, long letters (this was before the dawn of email) telling me everything I was doing wrong. I say lovely even though of course each of these letters caused me to stomp around in fury for a while. But after the soles of my feet stopped smarting (from all the stomping), I saw the wisdom in the criticism. And then I went back to my computer, and began working again.

Gradually those rejections stopped telling me what I was doing wrong and began saying what I was doing right, although there was always a but at the end, denying me that brass ring of representation.

And then one day there was no but. I had an offer! In fact, within a few days, I had two. The second came via my shiny brand new email account, and was the very first email I ever received. I was so new to this whole instant-answer game that the note asking to represent me sat in my inbox, unread, for a week after it had been sent.

No matter. I was finally, finally there. The man who did the worst thing he possibly could to his wife would have his day in the snow. (My book was set in the season Julia Spencer-Fleming made famous, the bleak mid-winter in the Adirondacks. Not much sun).

I chose an agent and waited for my book to sell.

It didn’t sell.

I guess I’d kept one favorite stuffed toy around—a final shard of innocence—in that I believed that finding an agent equaled getting published. But agents sell only a certain percentage of the books they take on, and I had to learn that the hard way.

Years went by. More books were written, more were submitted, more failed to sell.

One day I sat down and took another look at the story about the man who did the worst thing he possibly could. And I realized what was wrong with it.

A lot.

But that story question was still grabby, and the setting—with snow an endless hump over the Adirondacks—still made me feel my own brutal sort of chill. I took those two elements, and began writing again. In the end I’d salvaged about eight-hundred words and had a brand new book for my third agent to go out with.

By 2011, she had gone to everybody she could—and even a few she couldn’t—with the new novel. We’d gotten achingly close again, but it looked like there wasn’t going to be a deal this time either.

In eleven years, I’d been through twelve submissions of five novels, gotten fifteen almost-offers, had each editor turned down during the editorial process, a few times at the very top by the publisher of [insert name of house here].

And in the intervening years, something had changed. Just one little thing. The world.

The publishing world at least. Now it was possible to self-publish your work. Indie-publish, it was called, to reflect the difference between yesterday’s vanity presses and the much more legitimate path of today.
Maybe indie-publishing was meant to be my way. Sure, I’d put over a decade of my life into trying it the traditional way. And I had dreams of being in bookstores, a colophon on the spine. But I had a book that I thought I could put out there with hope, and some small measure of confidence.

And then one night an email came that changed everything. A few weeks before, I’d asked an author I admired for advice. Nancy Pickard had written a book that everyone was talking about that year, called the Scent of Rain and Lightning.

I’d told Nancy some of the loop-de-loops my non-career had gone through. I’d even wondered if she might be willing to take a look at my unpublished manuscript. See if it might possibly grab her as the question about the husband and his perilous act continued to grab me.

And on that dark night when I’d just begun to consider setting aside my decade-plus dream in favor of a totally different road, Nancy emailed me.

Jenny.Milchman.PrintI remember it was snowing, just as in my book.

“I couldn’t wait to finish to tell you how much I am enjoying your novel,” Nancy wrote. “If it doesn’t disappoint me—and I can’t imagine it will—I am going to put it into my own editor’s hands.”

What do you do when an author you adulate tells you that? Well, first you jump around. You start to scream with joy. And then you caution yourself not to get your hopes up. You’ve been here before. Well, not quite here. But still, it doesn’t pay to count chickens…

And then the second miracle happened. Nancy’s editor liked it, and made an offer on my book.

Now I could scream.

I look back on that unlikely series of events and I draw a few conclusions from them.

One, there are different roads to getting published, and it’s important to consider them all. It could be that the path you’re envisioning isn’t the only one to take.

The second conclusion may seem to contradict the first, and that’s that if you have a dream, stick to it with everything you’ve got. Write another book. And another, and another. Query another agent. Write a letter to an author you love. Believe in miracles.

The final thing is that the mystery community is the greatest, most generous one in the world. I am so glad to think of becoming part of it that my skin breaks out into chills.

The husband whose fate grabbed me around the throat over a decade ago is finally going to have his day in the snow.

Jenny Milchman is a suspense writer from New Jersey and the founder of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day. Her debut novel, Cover of Snow, will be published by Ballantine on January 15th.