Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Yin and Yang of Writing: a guest post by Jenny Milchman

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: The day after Christmas, thoughts tend to turn toward - well, yes, toward returns and post-Christmas sales, but also toward the New Year. A time to start fresh: a new calendar, new prospects, new resolutions. For many of us who write, the New Year will be marked with one important resolution: get that novel started. Or finished. Or both.

Jenny Milchman knows this resolution well. It took her eleven years, twenty-two drafts and a one hundred and eighty thousand word manuscript to get to the place she is now: awaiting the January 15th publication of Cover of Snow, a stunning thriller that's gotten rave pre-pub reviews from Lee Child, Laura Lippman, Louise Penny and Yours Truly. Obviously, the years spent honing her craft were well worth it. But how does a writer keep going? How does he or she handle the crazy ups and downs of the literary life? Jenny is going to tell us how to stay motivated and make that resolution a reality:

Writing is a craft that wears two faces. You know the ones I mean. There is the part where the writer finishes his or her day’s work, sits back, and smiles like the Cheshire Cat bathed in cream.

“Man, am I a good writer. Not a good writer. A great writer. In fact, a word has not been invented yet to describe what a fantastic writer I am. Maybe I should coin a word to describe what a great writer I am, like Lewis Carroll coined the word chortle. Lucky I’m such a great writer.”

A few days pass. Maybe the writer gives those pages out to some trusty readers. Maybe he or she submits them somewhere, or begins querying on the project. The feedback and rejections start trickling in.

“Man, do I suck. What made me think I should let anyone even read this dreck that just came spilling out of my incompetent fingertips? I am such a bad writer, not writing isn’t sufficient consequence for me. I shouldn’t stop writing, I should stop living.”

Right now you’re either nodding in recognition, or looking at me like I’m crazy. Maybe I am crazy. I’m a writer. This passion of ours could drive a person nuts.

I started writing my first novel in 1998 (I’m not including that Victorian-esque thing I wrote when I was studying English Lit in college, or the ones with magic marker illustrations from when I was six.) I was an intern pursuing a graduate degree in psych, and I had this very intense case. I think the reason I’d never finished a real novel before was because I thought I had to write something like the classics I’d studied, and hadn’t come to the fairly obvious realization that you should write what you like to read (even if you’re not going to write what you know).

What I read was suspense. Thrillers. Mysteries. And now I had a case that was right out of a suspense novel, and don’t we all start with something autobiographical? So I created a sleuth who was, what else, a psychologist-in-training. And got her into all sorts of fixes. 180,000 words later, I was done. My novel wasn’t, but you couldn’t tell that to me. I was firmly embedded in the every-word-I-wrote-is-a-freaking-miracle phase, and refused to revise until a handful of kindly agents showed me the error of my ways.

There’s another aspect of writing that wears two faces, like one of those tragedy/comedy masks from theater, and that’s publishing.

Cruelest business in the world. It could make you long to be a coal miner. (I fully understand that coal mining is harder than any day ever spent at a computer. Just sometimes it doesn’t feel that way.)

A hasty auto-sent rejection might be the only response you see to your carefully crafted query and the pages you suffered through the aforementioned yin and yang of writing to create. And that’s if you’re lucky. You might get no rejection, no response at all, and just be left hoping day after day after day that this could be the morning when your pages are finally read. And that the agent will call to say she or he didn’t even bother signing you before getting you a major book deal and selling the film rights to boot.

But every yin has its yang, and one day that tragic scowl just might flip.

I wrote eight novels, signed with three agents, and stayed on more or less continuous submission for eleven years before the magic happened, and so I know just why people keep at this for so long.

When the publishing game is going well, there is no greater high. Publishing is like gambling, writing is, too, and we risk it all every time we sit down at our machines, or take out a pad and a pen, or slide a slice of paper into a typewriter (which I hear is gaining in popularity again).

Of course, typewriters are gaining in popularity again! At least a rejection won’t ever come in on one.

But this could be the day that your agent calls on the honest-to-goodness telephone, instead of emailing, to say that an editor wants to buy your book.

And when you get that call, you’re not going to remember the fifty or eighty or hundred form rejections, all the months (years) spent on submission, getting close but smoking no cigars, or anything else from the tails side of this particular coin. You’re rolling heads now, baby, and there is no better business than this.

Which is only reasonable, you chortle.

After all, the pages you just submitted were the very best ones ever penned in the entire history of the world.

Until you look at them again the next day.

How about you, dear reader? Is this the year you're going to write that novel? Or are you just looking forward to reading some great new ones? Let us know!


Jenny Milchman is a suspense novelist from New Jersey whose short stories have appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Adirondack Mysteries II, and in an e-published volume called Lunch Reads. Jenny is the founder of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, and the chair of International Thriller Writers’ Debut Authors Program. Her first novel, Coverof Snow, will be published by Ballantine in January.


  1. Rooting for you, Jenny. Great picture here of our up and down lives, the perseverance that it takes to keep going. Big congrats on getting the job done! 1998 was the year my wife sent me to a writers conference and I learned there was something called craft. Ha. I'd already tossed a good career for my art and written five manuscripts. Hopefully, the JRW crew has me on a better track: the new agent's going shopping next month with my JRW- aided mystery. Good luck with COVER OF SNOW.

  2. Congratulations Jenny--you must be over the moon now! what a tale of perseverance.

    And Jack, wishing that this will be the year for you too!

  3. Hi everyone! First, let me say a huge thank you to the Reds for the community they've built and the support they have offered me. Julia and Hank both were kind enough to read my book and offer words that still, when I wake up in a state of quaking terror in the middle of the night, wondering if anyone is ever going to read this thing, allow me to close my eyes and take a deep breath. I am so honored to be here on the blog on this special day, when we all realize the new year is upon us, no more presents to wrap, or Christmas cookies to eat (OK, I may eat one or two more of those), that I can take another much-needed deep breath.

    Jack, congratulations on your agent's faith in your book, and best, best of luck on submission. It's a process I know well, and if I can offer any tidbits along it, please email me anytime.

    Roberta, we met at RJ Julia a year or so ago, just very briefly, and I appreciated your encouragement then and your words now. I hope our paths might cross again.

  4. I love your story Jenny! I'm a sucker for that story of the struggle especially when there's a happy ending. How often I've heard authors on panels answer the question: "What does it take to write a successful novel" with "Perseverance."

    For me, too, really good news has always come by phone.

    Jack, you're up next year, I feel it in my bones.

  5. Thank you, Hallie! I do really like the idea that unless you quit, you haven't failed, you just haven't succeeded YET.

    Jack, it's neat to get to hear a little about the cusp you are on. I'd love to hear more about how your mystery evolved in some ways thanks to this blog.

  6. Yay, Jenny! I was thrilled (And flattered) to be read your book--and cannot wait to see the real thing!

    And I always say--every "no" is one step closer to yes.

    Jack, let me know when to schedule you for your JRW guest soon as you hear yes!

    Jenny--what are your launch plans? Very exciting!

  7. That roller-coaster ride to getting published is oh-so-not-fun, eh, Jenny? But we're all excited for you. Best of luck with your book launch.

    If you're like me, you're constantly searching for ways to improve your craft. You then become the harshest critic of books you published years ago, even those that earned awards. You may not be able to avoid re-reading them. So do it and move on. :-)

  8. Congratulations and best wishes for a wonderful book launch!

    Your story is a good testament to perseverance and hard work. Kudos to you for believing in yourself.

  9. Jenny, I love this rollercoaster assessment of our writing careers. Best wishes on Cover of Snow. ... And is it true, typewriters are making a comeback. Off to get mine out of mothballs ;) Happy Holidays.

  10. (quote) " should write what you like to read (even if you’re not going to write what you know)."

    Awesome advice to the struggling author, Jenny. A great and inspiriational post!


  11. Can't wait to get your book, Jenny. It's been pre-ordered for-fereaking-ever. Best of luck with it.

  12. Hank...words aren't enough to respond to the idea that you might read my book TWICE. I mean it. Which might be a bad thing to say as a writer. But still. Your support has been a life buoy to me--and there are days I feel like I'm drowning. (Oy, the panic attack I had in the middle of the night last night.)

    My launch plans are a big, crazy, talk-about-needing-a-life-buoy thing. I would be thrilled to talk with anyone who is interested, but short version includes a big faith in real time, face-to-face encounters, wanting to meet the people I've longed for for so long (you mean I might have real, honest-to-goodness readers??), support bookstores and libraries and places that allow us to commune around books, and thus hitting the road, kids and husband and a plan to car-school in tow...

  13. Suzanne, I can only imagine what a book from long ago turns out to look like! But I hope you revel in yours. Those award-givers knew what they were doing. I don't know. Maybe it's lucky that six of mine will sit in a cyber drawer till we all power down. I'm sure it's lucky for readers, heh. But those weren't going to win any awards :)

    Ramona and Connie, thank you for your own inspiration and support over the years...

    Donnell, really? I can't wait to read your next typewritten book :) know how much that means to me. Thank you.

  14. I can't say enough about JRW and the community it fosters, Jenny. Several years now for me, and it's always a treat to visit and share, a learning experience if you use the info and feedback. However -- full disclosure -- I took the extra step of attending Seascape two years ago, and the encouragement and advice I got there from several of the JRW ladies was life-changing: New attitude, new agent, THINK MORE OF THE READER.

  15. I love this post, Jenny, and you chose some great pictures to illustrate your points. 1998, huh? You and I are both poster children for persistence. I'm looking forward to Feb when you tour down here to NC, and to reading Cover of Snow!

  16. Thanks for sharing your story, Jenny . . . I suppose perseverance is the name of the game in writing as in so many other things. Oftentimes, however, the process seems so overwhelming. So good to know your book is being published . . . congratulations --- hope you have a fantastic book launch!

  17. Jenny,
    "Cover of Snow" sounds very intriguing. It's definitely going on my TBR list!

  18. Jenny, I am so thrilled for you! And what a success story - especially on never giving up. It's amazing what writing craft you learn along the way to shape your natural storytelling craft into something of beauty. And I think we keep on learning. My goal this year is to write a better book and a better one after that and that and that one. :) I'm so looking forward to reading COVER OF SNOW! Congrats on all the pre-pub accolades. Thanks also for all you do to promote and help other authors. -Donna

  19. Jack, those are some important words about thinking of the reader first and foremost. I'm so glad you got to go to Seascape (which I hadn't known about)--working live and in person can be just life-changing, or career-changing, which is related :)

    Karen, Julia chose those photos--and I agree...they tell the story without even words. Thank you for your support and kindness and generosity--I can't wait to see you!

    Joan, overwhelming for sure. I appreciate your good wishes very much.

    Pat--thank you for thinking it sounds intriguing. After 22 drafts, it's sometimes hard to remember why you wrote a book. Then you catch a line or two--or see a character in your mind--and think, that's it. THAT'S where the story was. Or someone sees it with new eyes, and all your faith is restored. So thank you for that.

    Donna, I so appreciate your being here. I hear you on the goal--and can't wait to see what you do with #2!

  20. Jenny, even though I've heard your path to publication before, your story never ceases to inspire me! I'm very much looking forward to attending a COVER OF SNOW book event this spring.

  21. A true Cinderella story--and what great details about what it's REALLY like to be a writer! Now you can chortle with glee.

  22. Jenny, I only came in at the end of your long ride but it's so great to see you at the top, throwing down aces. I do know that New Year's feeling of it's time to get moving. Here's hoping that next year is my year.

  23. Gigi, I am so excited to see you again in person in your neck of the woods--and get my copy of your own debut signed for me!

    Savvy, let's chortle together--you are a serious contender in the persistency game.

    Karen...hi! And--to your year...yes! This is a good place to be for it :)

  24. I have deep respect for writers. I love reading the results of your hours and days and years of dedication. Thank you, all, for what you do.

    Thank you for sharing, Jenny, and thank you for persevering. There's some mighty high praise for your soon-to-be released book from some mighty fine writers. I can't wait to read it.

    Here's to much success!

  25. Hi Jenny, I loved your blog, your honesty and how it feels to produce something from your heart. I also loved the pictures, and cannot wit for "Cover of Snow."

  26. Oh, Jenny, I'm so excited for you. I know how hard you've worked, but to see such great feedback from such big names--how very exciting! I'm glad you led me here, too. You know, I've met Julia and Hank (and consider both of them out of my league... and here you are joining them. WELL DONE!)

  27. Jenny, It's great fun to read all about your ups and not so ups! It makes me think that all the struggles I've been dealing with so far (including a broken right elbow!) are all happening so that something good will happen (get that agent, sell that book!)

  28. Congratulations, Jenny! You give me hope.

  29. Wow, such great friends and new faces here on the Reds. It's such a pleasure to be with you all.

    Marianne, I appreciate your words very much. Every writer is a reader first, and I consider that one of the most joyous things to be. I saw a poster at the NYPL library last week that said, A book lover never goes to sleep alone. Books got me through many a lonely day and night, and the idea that people might read mine gives me...tingles.

    Lil, you have been a friend in the mystery world since, well, a long time, but I particularly remembering your commenting about something Tim Hallinan was kind enough to say about an unpublished work of mine. You and he and others kept me going more than the longest 'acknowledgments' section in a book--and mine are long--can say.

    Hart, I think not!! What are in the league...hope I get to be, too. Do you know, I can still remember scenes and characters from a ms Hart was kind enough to let me read of hers a long, long time ago.

    Doris, I broke my foot just before I got my first offer of representation. Maybe there is something about broken bones here? :) In any case, I hope that your way becomes clear, sooner rather than later, and please call on me anytime I can offer a word or listen to a vent--I vented 'em all, believe me :)

  30. Yes, Jenny, it's a pretty wonderful group, huh?

    YOu know, Jonathan and I don't celebrate the anniversay of the day we met. We celebrate the anniversary of the day BEFORE we met--and we call it "You Never Know Day." Because you never know what wonderful thing is around the next corner. (Or on the other end of the next phone call...)

  31. You Never Know Day. That is great. The Day things could turn on a dime. Sit down, keep putting words on the page, and/or improving the ones that are already there. Go to conferences, come to blogs like this one. Tomorrow or the next day will be the Day You Know.

  32. Jenny, great story! Thank you so much for posting it here for all of us to read. Writer or farmer, it's a universal condition for anyone who must persevere with no guarantee for distant rewards.

  33. Oh Hank… I'm going to print that out and put it on my desk - Every no is one step closer to yes. xo

  34. Yes, indeed, dear Reine! And that "yes" doesn't count as the yes.


  35. So, Jenny, how many more days until the book is released? Or, more to the point, how many seconds? I bet on one hand it feels like forever, yet on the other, the release feels imminent. And it's thrilling and scary and as heady as falling in love. Savor these moments, as I'm sure you will. You deserve them.

  36. Jenny,

    You described the writing life with honesty. Of course, I relate fully. I write and then rewrite. Then I edit again. And all the rejections serve to keep me (and the rest of us) very humble indeed. I refer to everything I've had published as the tip of the iceberg because so much isn't published. Just enough to keep me working as a writer. Wishing you every success with your wonderful novel!

  37. Congratulations, Jenny! It's your very own "made-it moment"! Here's wishing you a terrific -- and FUN -- launch!


  38. Reine, that's a great point about writer or farmer and distant rewards. The best things just don't come with guarantees.

    Barb, ack, it's 19 days...! I can't quite believe it. (And if you happen to be interested in the seconds, there's actually a countdown at the bottom of my website that has them, too. But...I'm too nervous to look these days)! Thanks for your wise words.

    Jacquie, thank you for understanding. Tip of the iceberg is right.

    Leslie, I am wishing the exact same for you!!

    Thanks to everybody for being here, and to Julia & the Reds again for being such terrific hosts. You've made the day after Christmas a very special one for me.

  39. As Leslie said - Time for your own Made it Moment! Yay you! Your book and Robert Crais's new book are my birthday presents to self. xo

  40. Pam, getting to be your birthday present *is* a Made It Moment. Thank you. Truly.