Writing 20 books in 15 years is nothing short of mind blowing.
“I looked up the other day and I got my [author] copies in the mail, took a picture of it to post on Instagram and I thought, ‘Oh snap! This is No.20,” said Denene Millner, whose 20th book, Sparkle: A Novel, based on the screenplay of the movie starring Jordin Sparks and the late Whitney Houston, debuted this week.
“When I got my first book deal in 1997, I didn’t see myself as an author,” Millner said. “It just wasn’t something that I thought would be in my plans.”
- Millner will be talking about Sparkle and signing copies Tuesday, August 14, at 7 p.m. at the Barnes and Noble in Atlanta’s Edgewood Retail District, 1217 Caroline Street at Moreland Avenue.
Millner was an entertainment reporter for The New York Daily News and had carved out a nice niche for herself, writing about and interviewing actresses like Halle Berry and soon to be hip-hop royalty Jay-Z and Biggie Smalls.
Then an article Millner wrote about a dating book called The Rules, noting that some of the “rules” wouldn’t apply to relationships between black men and women, caught the eye of an editor who wanted to expand it into a book.
“What 20-something-year-old is not happy going to premieres, getting free music? And then God pops this thing on me,” Millner said. “I get this call asking, ‘Can you turn that into a book in 30 days?’ I got the call at 10 a.m. and by 3 p.m. I had a book deal and an agent.”
The result was The Sistahs’ Rules (Secrets for Meeting, Getting, and Keeping a Good Black Man).
That was followed by What Brothers Think, What Sistahs Know: The Real Deal on Love and Relationships, co-authored with husband, Nick Chiles.
Since that first book in 1997, Millner has written novels, co-authored books with celebrities and penned other relationship books—at least one book a year, every year with the exception of 2011, she said.
And while writing books, Millner continues to work as a contributing editor or writer for a slew of magazines including Parenting, Health, Entertainment Weekly, Real Health, Money, Essence and Ebony, running her parenting website, MyBrownBaby.com, and raising two daughters and a stepson with her husband.
After leaving The Daily News, Millner became features editor and then executive editor of Honey and then moved on to Parenting.
Millner credits her journalism training—including a stint covering state capital news at The Associated Press in Albany, N.Y. where she wrote six stories a day, all before 3 p.m.—with helping her to focus and meet deadlines.
“And we were doing it at a time when there was no Google, there was no Facebook, there was no Internet. It was just straight up gangster journalism that we were doing.”
And the celebrity memoirs create a special kind of pressure. Projects like The New York Times bestsellers Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man and Straight Talk, No Chaser with comedian Steve Harvey and Never Make the Same Mistake Twice with TV reality star NeNe Leakes.
“The challenge with Steve and NeNe is sitting with someone and you’re really digging into the project and pulling that information out of them,” said Millner. “I had to take all of that information and turn it into a 10-page story by the end of the night.”
Then each 10-page segment was reviewed by the celebrity and submitted to editors at the publishing house, getting it all done while the celebrities were working on other projects.
“We had 28 days to interview, write, edit and then hand in that book,” Millner said of Never Make the Same Mistake Twice.
“[NeNe] was working with me while filming the second season of ‘Housewives of Atlanta’ and that was the season where she was meeting her real father, doing the DNA tests and she had a nasty argument with Sheree [Whitfield] and ended up slap-boxing with Kim [Zolciak].”
By comparison, Millner said, Sparkle was an easier project.
“With a novel like Sparkle, the easy part is I was working from the screenplay, so I have Mara Brock Akil’s words in front of me. She just has a beautiful way with words, a lyricism to her work.”
The story is updated from the 1970s film about the formation of a girl group. The storyline shifts from Harlem to Detroit and the 1950s to the late 1960s
In the current version, which opens in theaters Aug. 17, three siblings, Sister, Delores and Sparkle (Sparks), find local success as a girl group, but Sparkle plays down her ambitions to let Sister shine. The trio learns a lot about the ruthlessness of the real world, the impact of ambition on family and the struggle in trying to have it all.
Sparkle: A Novel provides extra storylines and details that wouldn’t fit in a feature-length film. But like Millner’s other projects, she faced the challenges of space and deadlines.
“I guess the challenge in writing a book like that is letting your imagination soar in such a limited space,” she said.
For someone who once thought she’d never write one book, much less 20, Millner sees her success as a gift.
“You make plans and God laughs and says, ‘I’ve got something so much bigger and better for you,’” she said.
Jackie Jones, a journalist and journalism educator, is director of the career transformation firm Jones Coaching LLC and author of “Taking Care of the Business of You: 7 Days to Getting Your Career on Track.”