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The Sirens of Suspense




Jenny Milchman's journey to publication took thirteen years, happening in the end thanks to one very special member of the mystery community. Jenny’s debut novel, Cover of Snow, was chosen as an Indie Next and Target Pick, won the Mary Higgins Clark award, and is nominated for a Barry. Jenny is also the founder of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day and chair of International Thriller Writers' Debut Authors Program. Her second novel, Ruin Falls, also an Indie Next Pick, just came out and she and her family are back on the road.



Find Jenny on Facebook and Twitter.


When I was a sophomore in college, my parents sat me down and had The Talk. You know the one I mean, about what the kid whose education is consuming all those gobs of money actually plans to do with her life.

Well, for me the answer was easy. I’d always known that I wanted to be a writer. That siren had cooed her song to me from the time I was two years old and began dictating bedtime stories to my mother. Or from the time my kindergarten teacher bound my first written book in blue-flocked wallpaper. The days when my friends came over to play, but asked me to make up stories instead.

So I explained to my parents that I intended to be a poet. Who lived in the woods. In a log cabin of my own making.

They didn’t like that idea so much.

Flash forwad six years. I had almost completed a graduate degree in my practical, backup profession of psychology, and was working as a psychologist-in-training at a rural mental health center. I treated this cherubic blond child who’d just killed the family pet; another patient took a gun out during group therapy and threatened to shoot herself.

And the part of myself I had tried to bury reared up like Poseidon from the sea. With life bearing more than a passing resemblance to a suspense novel, I had a light bulb moment. Why had I planned to pen poetry, or Victorian-esque stabs at novellas? If you want to be a writer, you should write the kinds of books you love to read.

I sat down and began what would become my first novel. The words poured out of me…all 180,000 of them. Then I began to query agents with the hubristic breeze of the beginner. I expected to get published instantly, not knowing that Rome was built faster than a novel gets sold, and was quite surprised when instead of an offer of representation, Jonathan Kellerman’s agent sent me a page packed with feedback. Amongst other things, he said that he didn’t like spending so much time in my “neurotic protagonist’s head.”

Ouch. I had no idea I’d created a neurotic protagonist. It was especially stinging because, like many first novels, mine was semi-autobiographical, and so my protagonist was an awful lot like, well, me.

Of course, it was pure gold to be critiqued by the likes of such an agent, although I didn’t know that back when I was stomping around saying things like, “What does he know?”

But after a few weeks, my sore feelings began to ease and my unused fingers started to tingle, and I sat down at my computer and looked at the novel again. And I saw why my protagonist was nuts, and better yet, what I could do about it. I cut 60,000 previously-thought-to-be-essential words.

That trimmed down manuscript earned me offers of representation from two agents, and then there came the day when my agent called me up at 9:40 in the morning—even though the publishing world doesn’t typically wake up till around 10 am—and said the magic word.


Not one but three editors wanted to acquire that novel sans its neurotic protagonist. They were big editors, too. One had bought Clan of the Cave Bear back in the day and was a grande dame of the publishing world. But what I didn’t know then was that agents don’t sell all the projects they take on, and that editors aren’t able to buy every book they hope to acquire. All three offers dissolved during editorial meetings.

The next ten years went about the same way. At a certain point I said to myself, “Well, published writers write a book a year, so I’m going to try and do that.” At the very least, it would give me more chances to write something someone might like. I was on more or less continuous submission with five of those eight novels. Each always attracted editor interest; each editor was always turned down by her board.

After my second novel failed to sell, my agent politely suggested we part ways. New York publishing loves the idea of the next big thing, and the same author-agent pairing can start to feel a little stale by the time of the second or third unsuccessful book submission. So during this decade, I was querying new agents as I continued to write.

I tried other things, too. I went to conferences, I joined organizations. I attended author readings and events, trying to discern the secrets they knew that I didn’t.

I had been working for three years with the agent I now call my forever agent, and we were out of options. My seventh novel had climbed all the way to the publisher at the helm of the house that was considering it, only to be turned down at the very top. My eighth novel was now making the circuit and meeting with the same dead ends.

At the same time, the world had changed. Self-publishing had become a viable option. It had become in some ways, for some writers, a better option even.

But it wasn’t a better option for me.

At this stage of the game, self-publishing precludes or at least sorely limits a writer’s entrance into bookstores and libraries, and for me that was a huge part of trying to publish, as opposed to simply penning stories in my garret. I had this dream of meeting readers and booksellers and librarians all over the country.

One of the authors whose career I had begun to follow wrote a novel in 2010 that particularly spoke to me. I wrote to this author about my many near misses. At a certain point she agreed to take a look at my latest unpublished manuscript.

It was during the early dark of a January evening, when the last submission door had slammed shut, that the author sent me an email telling me she intended to pass my novel on to her own editor.

I remember thinking two things when I read that. First, what a literary angel this woman is. To write novels as dazzling as she does and go out on a limb like this for an unpublished writer. Wow.

And second, It won’t matter one whit. I had been on this ride for over eleven years. One more long shot wasn't likely to change that.

But I was wrong. The author’s editor turned out to like my book and to make an offer on it. The siren I had never been able to resist had finally burst into song.

Jenny's Bouchercon Memory

A writer’s memory of her first Bouchercon: I attended my first Bouchercon after I became a published author. I had just returned from the world’s longest book tour—7 months and 35,000 miles on the road—for which we had rented out our home in New Jersey and moved to a hamlet in mid-state New York. (Yes, an actual hamlet). This hamlet turned out to be only fifty miles from the city in which Bouchercon 2013 took place. I had never experienced such a welter of excitement, mystery, and fun. My sense is that I flew from panel to panel, signing to signing, and meal to meal. We hadn’t really come home after book tour, but that was okay. Getting to be surrounded by all the best mystery folks in the genre—and world—was a homecoming of its own.



DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE BOUCHERCON MEMORY? Tell us by commenting on the blog below or on our Facebook page and you’ll be entered to win a a copy of your choice of RUIN FALLS or COVER OF SNOW (U.S. entrants only, please.)



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