Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Today my guest is Jenny Milchman.Jenny is the founder of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, and the Made It Moments forum on her blog. She teaches writing and publishing for New York Writers Workshop, as well as online, and has designed curricula to teach writing to children.I'm pleased to welcome her to Terry's Place.

I thought I’d talk today about perseverance.

They say success in this business is 1% talent and 99% perseverance, so it must be pretty important stuff.

But what is perseverance? The dictionary defines it as: “Steadfastness in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success.”

That definition pretty much sums up my own journey to publication. It took me almost eleven years to sell my “first” novel. And my first was really my eighth. Along the way, I was lucky enough to have three terrific agents, and fifteen editors who wanted to make offers on one or the other of five novels submitted.

Whenever I reveal these numbers, I get met with a range of responses. Some writers don’t want to hear them. And I don’t blame them a bit. Writing even one novel is hard. Really hard. During that process, the prospect of doing it again, and again, and again and again and again (you get the idea), before ever getting published is not a pleasant one.

I felt the same way. When I had just finished my first novel and was sending out queries to agents, my mom had one of those mother-is-always-right moments, though neither of us knew it then.

“I think you’re going to make it,” she said. “You’ve been a storyteller from the time you could talk. You have stories in your soul.” (I may be making my mom a tad more poetic than she was). “But I think it will take a long time,” she went on. “Whoopi Goldberg says every overnight sensation is ten years in the making.”

Well, I’m not a sensation, but my mom was only off by a few months.

Other writers hear those numbers and seem to relate. They say things like, “It took me nine years,” or, “My tenth novel is the one that sold.”

Now the publishing world has changed, of course. You no longer have to follow the traditional path to publication, which does tend to take a chunk of time and a closetful of manuscripts, except possibly for a few lucky writers.

But I still think perseverance is just as key.

It takes perseverance to write a novel. And to perfect it. Whether published by a major house, a smaller one, or independently, the author may come to realize that his or her first novel shouldn’t be the one to come out. We all have manuscripts in a drawer, and those stories took a bit of life blood as they were written.

Whichever novel does come out, it takes perseverance to market it and build a readership.

Perseverance to sit back down in that chair and start all over again, when the possibility of success—success being typing those two words, the and end—is far from certain.

So how do we acquire that persistence? What separates the talented writers who stop writing from the talented ones who don’t?

I think that the writers who wind up doing this seriously—whether that means making money at it, or continuing to produce story after story that gets better and better—are able to block out almost everything I’ve said in this post, lost in their own fictive dream.

The power of that story is so fierce that it needs to come out, and then it needs to find readers.

Perseverance will come—if you are meant to be doing this, it will find you. Perseverance is the gift that accompanies a story that needs to be told.

For more about Jenny, visit her website. Her debut novel, COVER OF SNOW, will be published by Ballantine in early 2013.

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Hart Johnson said...

Hey, Jenny and Terry-love the perseverence theme. I know for a fact this is probably my greatest strength... just keep swimming... baby steps... all that. My 7th novel will be the first published (and my 6th is being shopped). No clue if those early ones will ever be polished enough. I'd like to think so, but... who knows.

jenny milchman said...

Hiya Hart! So nice to see you here! And Terry, thanks for having me as a guest to your wonderful blog. Hart, you're speaking of a road my blistered feet know well (as you know). You're getting there before me, but I'm so happy to be on it together!

Elizabeth C. Main said...

Hi, Jenny and Terry,
Great post. The subject of perseverance is near and dear to me, as the time lag between each of my published novels shows. If it's not too personal, Jenny, I'd like to ask about those earlier offers from 15 editors. Obviously, you chose to pass on them. I'd love to hear your thoughts on that decision, and I'll bet others would, too. Liz

Terry Odell said...

Just a heads up...Jenny has to be at work, but she'll respond to comments later today. Keep making her feel welcome!

Cindy Keen Reynders said...

Thank you for the reminder to persevere, which gets difficult at times. I try to remind myself constantly that writing and being published is a journey.

Karen C said...

Perseverance is certainly applicable in all aspects of life(says the non-writer)! Although I certainly hated hearing it throughout life. Enjoyed the post.

jenny milchman said...

Hi Karen & Cindy! I agree--the 'p' word is key to many things, along with writing/publishing. And yes, it gets very, very difficult at times. If anyone ever wants some commiseration on the difficulty part, please come find me. I know the dark times, and also know that you will find the light.

Liz, I was unclear in the post. The fifteen editors wanted to make offers but were turned down by their editorial boards as whichever ms rose up the ranks.

For me it was really a question of the magic combination of the right book, the right editor, the right agent--and in my case, even the right author/angel who stepped in at the right time.

It's impossible to predict, so we just keep writing, and reaching out...and I think both those things add up to perseverance--and success.

Thank you for all your comments--and thanks again to Terry!

Anonymous said...

Great post, Jenny and Terry. Perseverance is key. It took me 20 years from the moment the desire to write took hold to publication. Book 5 was the story that sold.

What kept me going was an article in RWR by Jenny Crusie. She discussed a lab experiment where a group of rats were divided and dropped in two tanks of water-one with a submerged island, the other without. The group with the island swam longer than those without. They knew the island was there, all they had to do was find it.

That island's name is HOPE. Without hope, without believing, writers (like rats!) have less stick-to-it-iveness!

DMS said...

My co-author, Stephanie Robinson and I are truly experiencing what it takes to get published and you are right; Perseverance and patience are imperative to finding the right agent, the right editor, and ultimately the right publishing home for your work. There is so much to this cloak and dagger industry, and sometimes it feels like it would be easy to just give up, feeling discouraged, rejected- mentally, it's a challenge. But, our journey has also been sprinkled with wins and successes, which can be, at times, overpowered by the negative. However, the best advice I can give to a writer trying to publish is to remember to recognize your wins and to give them the credit that they deserve. After all, the goal of success comes from moving from one failure to another and not giving up. If you believe in your work- it's worth the time and effort. To me, there's nothing more magical then when my target audience (in this case, middle grade) reads my book and tells me how much they enjoyed it. I absolutely love seeing the pictures that they draw of scenes in my book and send to me- this is why I write, to share my work with the world. It is the core of who I truly am- a storyteller.
~ Jess Haight

jenny milchman said...

Anne, I love that about the island of hope! I will be using this anecdote of yours. Thank you.

Jess, so glad you and Stephanie have gotten that encouragement. You're right--it makes it all worthwhile. By the way, you guys might want to check out Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day. Perhaps there's a store you could do an event at in your area!

Best of luck to all of us on our writing journeys.

And Terry, today's green beans sound delish!