Jenny Milchman wrote eight novels before finding a publisher. It took 13 years. Cover of Snow debuted in 2013 and earned starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist, as well as praise from the New York Times, San Francisco Journal of Books, the AP, and many other publications. It recently won the Mary Higgins Clark award.
Her family embarked on a seven-month book tour. I first interviewed her in the midst of that tour. She told me that the family rented out their house, settled on a homeschooling curriculum for their 7- and 9-year-old children and traded in their car for one more suited for the weather conditions they could encounter while traveling across the country. “I’m teaching them when you have a dream, go for it,” said Jenny.
During that trip, an idea sparked while tucking her children into the sleeper sofa in the outer room of a hotel suite. “It occurred to me that squestering the adults away from the hall was an architectural move replete with frightening potential,” she wrote on her website. Thus, Ruin Falls was born. A thriller about a woman’s search for her young children after they disappeared from a hotel room, Ruin Falls was published just over a year after Cover of Snow and has received rave reviews.
The family is now enjoying another book tour. She found a quiet place with cell service and updated me on her journey through book publishing.
She is Chair of the International Thriller Writers Debut Authors Program. She founded Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day. In 2013, 650 bookstores in all 50 states and four other countries participated. She has featured more than 300 authors on her Made It Moments blog, founded the literary series Writing Matters (which attracted guests coast-to-coast and received national media attention), and teaches writing and publishing for New York Writers Workshop.
Jenny’s Advice to Aspiring Authors
- Never give up. When a door opens, go through it. It might close, but another will open. Most will lead to dead ends. Eventually, one will take you where you want to be.
- Heed constructive feedback. “When a writer thinks their manuscript is ready, it never is,” Jenny said. “My first manuscript was unpublishable. Agent feedback helped.” Jenny got a lot of her feedback at pitch conferences. The important thing is to learn the craft and write the best possible manuscript you can before trying to get it published. Don’t use family as readers unless they’ll be constructively critical. If your mother loves everything you do, she most likely won’t give criticism that will help.
- Decide your publishing path. There are pros and cons to self publishing, small presses and being published by a large press. Decide which path is best for you and give it your all.
- Send targeted queries to agents. This may not apply to you if you’re self publishing or going to be published by a small press. If you decide to pay 15% of your royalties to an agent, NEVER blast a form letter to hundreds of agents. Research them. Jenny recommends subscribing to Publisher’s Marketplace, which has a link in the sidebar for agents actively looking for new clients. She also suggests going to a bookstore and looking in the acknowledgements section of books you like. Find out who the agent is. In your query to that agent, reference authors they represent. You can also look at who is attending conferences. Those agents are actively seeking new clients.
- Have realistic expectations when you land an agent. Jenny’s debut novel was the eighth she had written. She worked with three different agents, who submitted five of the eight. Fifteen different editors said they wanted to buy a manuscript, but they couldn’t get permission from the rest of the publishing house. “I went through many highs and lows,” Jenny said.
- Network with other writers. If they like your work, they’ll talk about it and maybe even refer you to their agent or publisher. You can go to author events at bookstores. Even if you don’t buy a book, you can build relationships and ask for advice. “Authors love to have their brains picked,” Jenny said. If you choose to join a writer’s group, be very picky. You want at least one published author in the group, and be certain the group dynamics are healthy and positive.
- Value face time. “I’m a big believer that whether you’re self published, with a small press, or got picked up by a big house, you need to get out there and talk to people,” Jenny said. Rub elbows with the people you look up to. You can also join organizations like International Thriller Writers, Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America. Even if you’re an introvert, you can find some way to network. “Mine the depths of yourself,” Jenny said. “Find out what you love to do, and do it.”
How Jenny Finds Joy in Life
“I find joy in doing what I was meant to do,” Jenny said. She believes she was meant to write, and she’s fortunate to have a supportive family. While driving through Iowa on her current book tour, they were headed toward Omaha but had to stop short because of the weather. Instead of staying in the nice hotel room they had expected, they were in a much smaller one in a different town. “It was Mother’s Day. I looked around and thought, ‘This is joy. I’m here going after my dream, and the people I love most are all in one small room going after it together.'”