I was standing in the bedroom of our Air BnB in Pasadena, CA, 3000 miles from home, midway through the tour for my third novel, when my agent called and gently delivered some bad news. My editor had turned down the book we’d recently submitted.
It was supposed to be my fourth release.
My first novel—which was actually the eighth I’d written—took thirteen years and rejections numbering in the quadruple digits to get published. That book went on to win a major award and appear on the USA Today bestseller list, and after that things happened fast—two more novels out in the next two years. Another award. Some nice Picks, starred reviews, and inclusions on lists that made me feel, well, if not all that, then at least a little something.
I thought rejection time was over.
I thought I was married for life, or its publishing equivalent.
And now out on tour, having to muster enthusiasm for a book I’d written two years ago already, I learned that I’d careened into a massive brick wall.
What was there for a writer to do, when her career seemed to be at a dead end before it’d hardly started?
Here’s what I did: finished up that tour, went home, and started a new book. I’d written several novels before my debut was acquired, so this wasn’t a new approach.
Then, deep in the blissful tangle of a new novel, I learned something that constituted even more of an upheaval: my editor was leaving the publishing house.
There my agent was again—writers who have such passionate advocates and dedicated advisors are some of the luckiest out there—to talk over what this meant. We began to consider the possibility of a change. I had three novels out. What kind of step could I take to reach the next level of my career?
Going on submission is one of the scarier prospects a writer can face. The wonderful Southern Gothic Family Lit author, Joshilyn Jackson, once referred to submission as a “special kind of hell.” And just because I’d had some successes in my relatively-early career didn’t mean that being unanchored again was any less frightening.
In addition to having been summarily tossed over the side of the boat into rough waters, I had also lost the captain of my ship (to extend the metaphor). Would I find someone as inspiring to work with again?
My agent assured me that we’d come through this storm. The multinational writers’ organization I have pledged time to since getting published also helped. No fewer than ten ITW authors read my book so that it could go out on submission accompanied by blurbs. One of those authors even helped me see a soft, rotten spot in the manuscript that had lingered across revisions—and brainstormed with me about how to address it.
When the book went out, it wasn’t easy, nor any less fearsome than I’d expected, but after a few months, my agent was able to attract multiple offers and sell it at auction.
Best of all, I was able to choose a publisher that in these times of corporate monotony presents a different face. A publisher that tries bold things, emphasizes the crucial role of the author in its family, and—perhaps most impressive to me—values relationships with those involved in the physical side of the book business. After my deal was announced in Publishers Marketplace, forty-five booksellers, librarians and bloggers/reviewers wrote me to say how much they love working with Sourcebooks.
As an author who spent fifteen months on the road, meeting many such book-loving folk, this told me I had made the right decision more than anything else.
But there were still first date jitters to come. I had a new editor in addition to a new publisher. How would that feel, after not having been in the dating pool for four years?
My editor and I had lunch the day after I accepted her offer. She flew in from Chicago and took me to a Mexican restaurant with the best guac I’ve ever had. Before I arrived, I wondered how the conversation would flow. If we would make each other laugh. If the two of us would talk, back and forth, together, even over each other, as the best book nerds sometimes do.
“I loved that one!”
“Wait, have you read her other—”
“Her second! Yes!”
But it wasn’t until I got my first editorial letter that I knew I’d found my way onto dry land again.
(Jeez, am I loving this metaphor or what?)
My editors—yes, I am lucky enough to have two people poring over my book, my baby—found every thin patch, each scene that needed fleshing out, and a depth of motivation in the characters that even I didn’t realize could be mined.
Whatever happens next year with my fourth novel, Wicked River, it will not be bobbing on the wave-crested seas alone, but in the hands of people who love it and know it as well as I do.
I hope that all of us together can make it happen.
Jenny Milchman is a board member of International Thriller Writers, and the author of three acclaimed novels: Cover of Snow, Ruin Falls, and As Night Falls, as well as the forthcoming Wicked River.
To learn more about Jenny Milchman’s most recent novel, click on the cover below.