As I write this, my first novel, Cover of Snow, is coming out in 35 days, 2 hours, 55 minutes, and 45 seconds. But who’s counting? Well, I am, or at least the countdown at the bottom of my website is: http://jennymilchman.com
If I’d known way back when to start counting, the first number wouldn’t have reflected days, but years. It took me over thirteen of them—years, that is—to reach this point, and whenever I share that number I get one of two reactions.
Some people nod in instant agreement. “Took me twelve,” they say. Or nine. Or even—gasp—twenty-two.
While others are shocked. “How did you last thirteen years?” they ask.
At that point, I usually start wondering, too. It’s like recalling childbirth. How did you get through all the anxiety and pain and the feeling that you just couldn’t do it? (In case you had a fast and easy labor, well, there are also writers whose books sold in seventy-two hours and became instant bestsellers. I’m just not one of them).
I thought I would share some thoughts about how I hung in there. Even if you’re not a writer, they may apply to a dream you’re hoping will come true, or a goal you wish to achieve. Hey, maybe they’ll even help in labor.
But before I do, I have to describe a few of the dark moments I faced during those thirteen years.
There was the night that a bestselling author was scheduled to read at a Barnes & Noble two hours from my house. I went to book signings and events to see how authors did these things, in case I ever got the chance myself, and also because writing, like most careers, is only helped by community-building and getting to know people in the field.
Yes, I was looking for help. By this point—ten years in—pretty desperately looking.
It started to snow while I drove, so the two hour drive became three hours. Of course, I got lost. I was late. When I called my husband (who is the best GPS ever—why can’t the Garmin be more like him?), I snapped at him out of sheer stress. I ran into the bookstore, frantic, feeling guilty for snapping, and my heart sank when I saw how crowded the event was. I couldn’t find a seat. I forced myself to stick around, last on line both because of the time I arrived, and because I was hoping to chat for a minute or two, at least introduce myself. But by the time I reached the front of the line, the author looked so exhausted that I just mumbled a hello. I didn’t even say my name.
I went outside, where the snow had thickened, and contemplated my long drive home to make peace with my husband. When I got there, my preschool-age son had thrown up for the first time. And I wasn’t even there.
Can we say low point?
There were a lot of what I call bridesmaid events. Book launches I attended for friends when my own book had been set on simmer for years. When you’re a bridesmaid, you’re happy for your friend. You really genuinely are. There are so many talented writers out there, and it’s a triumph when any one of us gets the recognition she or he deserves. But do you picture yourself in something long and white, too? Of course you do. Do tears rise when you contemplate never wearing it?
I’m here to tell you—of course they do.
Then there was the time I was at work. At a certain point I stopped practicing psychotherapy to take care of my kids and focus on writing. Boy, was this a leap of faith. Mostly on the part of my husband, Mr. Human GPS, who had to tolerate my snapping almost as many times as there are numbers in that countdown. (OK, not that many. I hope). I hadn’t earned a dime from writing. Who was I to take this sort of financial risk?
But this was before I stopped working outside the home. My first two books hadn’t sold, but I had just sent my third novel off to my first agent, and if those numbers make your head spin, it gets worse. I got a message that my agent had called. Great, I thought. Can’t wait to hear her plan for selling the new book.I placed the call between sessions.
“I read your book,” my agent said.
“Imm hmm,” I replied. “Great. Thank you.”
A pause. “And I didn’t like it.”
What did I do then? Well, I got a second agent. After sending eighty queries out and attending a writing retreat. To put some sort of time line to this, my first child was a year old when I was dumped by my agent, and I was about to give birth to my second by the time I got signed again.
How did I survive that moment and all the others? Not just survive, but get past it so that one day I could reach a time when things finally worked? I chalk it up to three things:
The most despairing moment I ever faced along this journey wasn’t any book that didn’t sell, or agent that dumped me, or rejection that came in. It was the times I decided to give up. I couldn’t do this anymore. It was never going to happen. Those are powerful words—game-killing words. Don’t let yourself say them. Don’t sink that low.
You can tolerate a lot of badness so long as you just stay in the game. Unless you quit trying, you haven’t failed—you just haven’t succeeded yet.
Another thing Will Smith says? “There is no reason to have a Plan B because it distracts from Plan A.” In the words of Van Morrison, Born to sing.
Let’s all get out there and make some music.
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, Cover of Snow, is published by Ballantine.
Waking up one wintry morning in her old farmhouse nestled in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, Nora Hamilton instantly knows that something is wrong. When her fog of sleep clears, she finds her world is suddenly, irretrievably shattered: Her husband, Brendan, has committed suicide.
The first few hours following Nora’s devastating discovery pass for her in a blur of numbness and disbelief. Then, a disturbing awareness slowly settles in: Brendan left no note and gave no indication that he was contemplating taking his own life. Why would a rock-solid police officer with unwavering affection for his wife, job, and quaint hometown suddenly choose to end it all? Having spent a lifetime avoiding hard truths, Nora must now start facing them.
Unraveling her late husband’s final days, Nora searches for answers—but meets with bewildering resistance from Brendan’s best friend and partner, his fellow police officers, and his brittle mother. It quickly becomes clear to Nora that she is asking questions no one wants to answer. For beneath the soft cover of snow lies a powerful conspiracy that will stop at nothing to keep its presence unknown … and its darkest secrets hidden.
My husband wasn’t in bed with me when I woke up that January morning. The mid-winter sky was bruised purple and yellow outside the window. I shut bleary eyes against light that glared and pounded.
A second later I realized my toes weren’t burrowing into the hollows behind Brendan’s knees, that when I flung out my arm it didn’t meet his wiry chest, the stony muscles gone slack with sleep. I slid my hand toward the night table, fingers scrabbling around for our alarm clock.
It was late. As if drugged, my brain was making sense of things only after a dull delay. But it was a full hour past the time I always woke up. We always woke up. Brendan slept a cop’s sleep, perpetually ready to take action, and I had been an early riser all my thirty-five years.
Bits of things began to take shape in my mind.
The morning light, which entered so stridently through the window.
Brendan not in bed with me. He must’ve gotten up already. I hadn’t even felt him move.
But Brendan had been working late all week; I hadn’t yet found out why. My husband had good reason to sleep in. And if he had risen on time, why didn’t he wake me?
I felt a squeezing in my belly. Brendan knew I had an eight o’clock meeting with a new client this morning, the owner of a lovely but ramshackle old saltbox in need of repair. My husband took my burgeoning business as seriously as I did. He would never let me miss a meeting.
On the other hand, Brendan would know that if I slept late, then I must be worn out. Maybe getting Phoenix off the ground had taken more out of me than I realized. Brendan probably figured he’d give me a few extra minutes, and the morning just got away from him.
He must be somewhere in his normal routine now, toweling off, or fixing coffee.
Except I didn’t hear the shower dripping. Or smell the telltale, welcome scent of my morning fix.
I pushed myself out of bed with hands that felt stiff and clumsy, as if I were wearing mittens. What was wrong with me? I caught a glimpse of my face in the mirror and noticed puddles of lavender under my eyes. It was like I hadn’t slept a wink, instead of an extra hour.
“Brendan? Honey? You up?”
My words shattered the air, and I realized how very still our old farmhouse was this morning.
Padding toward the bathroom, one explanation for the weight in my muscles, not to mention my stuporous sleep, occurred to me.
Brendan and I had made love last night.
It had been one of the good times; me lying back afterward, hollow, cored out, the way I got when Brendan was able to focus completely on me, on us, instead of moving so fiercely that he seemed to be riding off to some distant place in the past. We’d even lain awake for a while in the waning moments before sleep, fingers intertwined, Brendan studying me in a way that I felt more than saw in the dark.
“Honey? Last night tired me out, I guess. Not that it wasn’t worth it.”
I felt a smile tease the corners of my mouth, and pushed open the bathroom door, expecting a billow of steam. When only brittle air emerged, I felt that grabbing in my gut again. Cold tile bit my bare feet.
My husband never started the day without a shower, claiming that a night’s sleep made him ache. But there was no residue of moisture filming the mirror, nor fragrance of soap in the air. I grabbed a towel, wrapped it around my shoulders for warmth, and trotted toward the stairs, calling out his name.
Could he have gone to the station early? Left me sleeping while my new client waited at his dilapidated house?
“Honey! Are you home?” My voice sounded uncertain.
No answer. And then I heard the chug of our coffeepot.
Relief flowed through me, thick and creamy as soup. Until that moment, I hadn’t let myself acknowledge that I was scared. I wasn’t an over-reactor by nature usually.
I headed downstairs, feet more sure now, but with that wobbly, airless feeling in the knees that comes as fear departs.
The kitchen was empty when I entered, the coffee a dark, widening stain in the pot. It continued to sputter and spit while I stood there.
There was no mug out, waiting for its cold jolt of milk. No light was turned on against the weak morning sunshine. Nobody had been in the icy kitchen yet today. This machine had been programmed last night, one of the chores accomplished as Brendan and I passed back and forth in the tight space, stepping around each other to clean up after dinner.
That thing in my belly took hold, and this time it didn’t let go. I didn’t call out again.
The sedated feeling was disappearing now, cobwebs tearing apart, and my thinking suddenly cleared. I brushed past the deep farm sink, a tall, painted cabinet.
With icy hands, I opened the door to the back stairs, whose walls I was presently laboring over to make perfect for Brendan. Maybe, just maybe, he’d skipped his shower and called in late to work in order to spend time in his hideaway upstairs.
The servants’ stairs were steep and narrow, with a sudden turn and wells worn deep in each step. I climbed the first two slowly, bypassing a few tools and a can of stripper, then twisted my body around the corner. I took in the faded wallpaper I’d only just reached after months of careful scraping.
Perhaps I didn’t have enough momentum, but I slipped, solidly whacking both knees as I went down. Crouching there, gritting my teeth against the smarting pain, I looked up toward the top of the flight.
Brendan was above me, suspended from a thick hank of rope.
The rope was knotted around a stained-glass globe, which hung in the cracked ceiling plaster.
Brendan’s neck tilted slightly, the angle odd. His handsome face looked like it was bathed entirely in red wine.
Suddenly a small cyclone of powder spilled down, and I heard a splitting sound. There was a rip, a tear, the noise of two worlds cracking apart, and then a deafening series of thuds.
The light fixture completed its plummet, and broke with a tinkling sprinkle of glass. A tangle of ice-cold limbs and body parts slugged me, heavy as lead blankets.
And I screamed, and screamed, and screamed, until the warble my voice had been before became no more than a gasping strain for air.
Jenny Milchman is a suspense writer from New Jersey. Her debut novel, COVER OF SNOW, is forthcoming from Ballantine in January 2013 and is available for pre-order now. Her short story The Closet was published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine in November 2012. Another short story, The Very Old Man, has been an Amazon bestseller, and the short work Black Sun on Tupper Lake appears in the anthology ADIRONDACK MYSTERIES II.
Jenny is the Chair of the International Thriller Writers’ Debut Authors Program. She is also the founder of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, which was celebrated last year in all 50 states and four foreign countries by 350-and-growing bookstores.
Jenny hosts the Made It Moments forum on her blog, which has featured more than 250 international bestsellers, Edgar winners and independent authors. She co-hosts the literary series Writing Matters, which attracts guests coast-to-coast and has received national media attention, and loves to teach and speak about writing and publishing for New York Writers Workshop, Arts By The People, and WomenWhoWrite.