Monday, 19 December 2011

Interview with Jenny Milchman

Today we're talking with a fabulous writer who has a great story to tell about wanting to tell a story. Sound good? Then let's get right to it. Welcome Jenny Milchman to the blog!

Hi, Jenny! First of all, I'm dying to know. Tell us about your amazing journey to getting your first book contract.

As Dorothy hints at, my journey to publication was, um, not easy. When I began there was no Kindle. There was hardly any email—I snail mailed queries to agents. The publishing world changed while I was in the midst of trying to get published—we’re talking about a span of eleven years—thirteen if you count the two I spent learning to write (better).

Because I was lucky enough to have a strong agent in my corner pretty much from the beginning, there really wasn’t a gap in which I might’ve said, “Is this worth it? Do I want to keep going?” We kept getting interest in my work from editors, and so during those eleven years I was either revising a book, writing a new book, or looking for a new agent.

By the time I got my offer, I was working with my third (and hopefully forever) agent, who was submitting my eighth novel, to the sixteenth editor who wanted to make an offer. (Fifteen editors before had been turned down by their boards). And it still wouldn’t have happened without the help of one angel author, who read my unpublished novel, was kind enough to say she loved it—and put it in the hands of her very own editor, who bought the book in a heated flurry (can flurries be heated?) that still brings tears to my eyes when I think of it. Which is often.

Anyway—I know those are high numbers. Clearly it doesn’t take every (or even most) writers that long to break in. But at the same time, the message I want to give is that if it is taking you a long time, that doesn’t mean you won’t make it. Traditional publishing is not for everyone, but if it’s your dream, hang in there. Dreams can come true—even after a very long time.

A worthwhile fight to your goal, I'd say. Wow! Tell us about COVER OF SNOW and OUT OF NOWHERE. What are the stories about?

COVER OF SNOW is my debut novel. It will be out in early 2013. It’s about a woman who wakes to find her police detective husband missing from their bed. The book takes place in a fictional Adirondack town in the middle of winter. OUT OF NOWHERE—which I hope will come out either second or third—is in some ways the polar opposite. It’s about a family that goes on a much needed vacation, and runs into a mad man from the husband’s past. This book takes place in northern California in summer. But both are literary thrillers, and I think they’re joined by things like the pacing and the emphasis on relationships in the stories. In COVER OF SNOW, Nora has to race to find out who her husband really is. In OUT OF NOWHERE, Emily has to race to make it back to her child.

What’s the hardest part of writing for you?

Revising. Hands down, no question. When I am writing a first draft, I live in a stunned kind of bliss. Every aspect of my day is filtered through the joy of the writing. I am sometimes mile-less miles away—miles that can’t be measured physically—from where I really am, alive in the world of my book. It’s like in Stephen King and Peter Straub’s THE TALISMAN, where you flip from one world into another.

I don’t breathe a word about what I’m writing to anyone before the book is finished. It’s hard even to give a pitch sentence or two to my editor and agent. My husband—who knows everything about me and is my first critiquer—doesn’t even know what I’m working on. I don’t like for people to know so much as the title. When I get to ‘the end’ I do as good a rewrite on my own as I can…and then I hand the manuscript around.

And lo, if anyone has any constructive comments to make (and of course, everyone has constructive comments to make—how could they not), beware. Oh, I am bad. A brat. I stomp around. I complain. I say I can’t possibly fix it. I whine. My kids would be shocked that anyone can act that badly—and kids aren’t easily shocked by bad behavior.

Finally, I do mellow out, apologize, and express intense gratitude for the incredibly cogent, helpful points I’ve gotten. In my new editor’s case, her latest suggestions were positively brilliant. But that initial shock after being partnered alone with my story for so long is definitely the hardest part of writing for me.

Any tips you’ve learned about writing you’d like to share?

Hmmmm…that’s a good one. The process is so different for everyone. Some people begin a book without planning a word or scene in advance, others know what’s going to happen on every single page before the book even starts. I guess my first tip would be about tips—don’t necessarily take them. I think tips should be assessed by the writer individually: Will this other writer’s approach work for me, or do I have to tap into something that will work better?

But I do have one tip, which I think is pretty universally good to follow. It comes from a talk I saw given by screenwriter Richard Walters who said the #1 mistake he sees writers making is submitting their work too soon. I know I was guilty of this myself. The first novel I queried with was 180,000 words—unpublishable. And so this is one of the first things I work on with students—that we all have a tendency to think our work is ready before it is. I think this is because we are so close to it. It’s very hard to imagine the range of responses people might have who weren’t involved in the creation.

Let’s get to know you on a deeper level. What do you absolutely have to have nearby when writing?

I need things to be neat and uncluttered. I’m afraid I’m a little freakish that way. The converted closet in which I write novels (as opposed to doing work on the net, blogging, email) has a few special items in it. They come from a range of people in my life, but I don’t have one thing from every special person yet. That’s a collection I hope to build. So far there’s a photograph of my parents taken on a boat, a decoupage bottle my daughter made, a set of tiny hand-painted stacking dolls from my brother, a collage my sister made, a bowl from my husband’s stepmother, and tiny pot that could go in a dollhouse (I love miniatures).

What a collection! If you could have any super power, what would it be?

Oooh, another good one! My daughter says she’d like to fly. I agree that would be cool. But I think I’m OK with the senses and powers we’re given. It’s hard enough to learn to use them in the best possible way, to do the most good, and try and give to others, not as a superhero, but just as a human being.

Quick writing test! Use the following words in a sentence: lightning, magnifying glass, and teddy bear.

The flash of lightning illuminated things for a moment, convincing Audrey that the tiny clue was hidden in her teddy bear’s fur, although she didn’t have a magnifying glass to prove it.

Cool! Here’s the part where you thank the people who are supporting you. Let's hear your shout outs.

Well, my husband definitely gets one. He not only has to find all the ways to make those first drafts better—but as I described above, he doesn’t always get appreciated for it, at least not at first. My husband has done almost everything but write the novels—he got me my first book on learning to write, he encouraged me to join writers groups, he made me hang in there when things were dark. My kids deserve credit too, for giving me the time and mental space in which to write, even when they were teeny tiny. There’s also my brilliant editor, dedicated agent, and that angel author, without whom none of this would be my happening. Plus many other authors who supported and tried to lift me up during the last of those eleven years. And last, but far from least, are all the writing and reading friends I’ve met at conferences, in classes, on the web, on listservs and forums and FB and Twitter and blogs and Amazon and Kindle boards and GoodReads, who have become a second sort of family to me.

And finally, where can people find you online?

My blog welcomes writers and readers as guests:

We’re in the process of updating my website:

Please drop by and learn how you can get involved in Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day 2012

I’m also on Facebook and Twitter—please come find me and I will find you back!

It was great talking with you, Jenny. I look forward to reading your books, and I wish you tons of success. I'd say you deserve it!

Jenny Milchman is a suspense writer from New Jersey. Her short story ‘The Very Old Man’ has been an Amazon bestseller, and another short piece will appear in the anthology ADIRONDACK MYSTERIES II in fall 2012. Jenny is the Chair of International Thriller Writers' Debut Authors Program. She is also the founder of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, and the Made It Moments forum on her blog. Jenny teaches writing and publishing for New York Writers Workshop and has designed curricula to teach writing to children. Her debut novel, COVER OF SNOW, will be published by Ballantine in early 2013.


jenny milchman said...

Thank you so much for having me to the blog, Dorothy, and for putting together such *fun* interview :)

Dorothy Dreyer said...

Thank you for letting us get to know you better! :)

Anonymous said...

Great interview! Congratulations with your success!


jenny milchman said...

Thank you very much, Natasha :)