This month, Writer-in-Residence Emma Carlson Berne speaks with Brandon Miller. Brandon is an author of books on history for young people. Her books cover subjects like Women of Colonial America, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin. Miller’s stories have been honored by the International Reading Association, National Council for Social Studies, and more. During the interview, Millers gives insight on the importance (and fun) of research for historical nonfiction writing, and writing from different historical perspectives. She shares what it is like working with an editor to get a book published and what her daily life as a writer is like. Anyone looking for insight in to writing as a professional career, give this interview a listen!
I met with a high school student recently, who was thinking he might like to be a writer. You know, for a job, when he was done with college. He wanted some advice on what this kind of life was like. I told him that he has a decision to make – not now, but once he’s sure he wants to be writer: he can choose to be an artist or he can choose to be a craftsman.
Maybe I’m making this sound too black-and-white. Of course you can be both things. But the divide in writing is still there. Artists are what many people think of when they think of writers. Producing a great work of fiction, head incandescent with words, eating bread and maggoty cheese, washing out your one shirt at night in a garret, to paraphrase Margaret Atwood. You exist in the realm of other artists: painters, dancers, playwrights. You write a novel and the novel is the art and whether or not someone chooses to publish it is almost beside the point.
Craftsmen are the less sexy writers. Craftsmen are writers who write for money, for an employer or for a client. In-house writers, business writers, technical writers, freelance writers. Journalists are in this category, and copywriters. Becoming a craftsman means you get to make money writing instead of waiting tables. You employ your writing skills to serve your own ends. You don’t suddenly decide you want to write a poem instead of a press release. You write the press release the way your boss or your client asked you to.
I wonder if the high school student felt deflated when I presented these two choices to him. He didn’t look deflated. He looked buoyed up and excited by the thought of going to college. All these words I was saying to him were just rolling around in his head. They were going to be buried by thoughts of living on your own in a dorm and riding a bike across campus and playing a guitar at open-mike night in the Union. But maybe, when he’d lived through that, and it was time to make some money out in the world, he’d find those words again. And maybe they’d be helpful.
I’ll be leading our third Writer-in-Residence Workshop on September 29, at 1:00, at the Main Library, in our same beautiful meeting room with the soaring arched windows looking out over downtown. Here’s the blurb, in case you missed it:
The Big, Hairy World of Book Publication: Revisions, Agents, Queries, Editors
You’ve written a book manuscript! You’re done! Right? If only. This workshop will plunge into the often-scary, sometimes-hairy world of book publishing. How do you write a query letter? What is a literary agent and what do they do? We’ll discuss all aspects of the book publishing process from revision to editing to publication and publicity. Discussion will include both fiction and non-fiction. Bring your questions! Will include Q & A session for all stages of the writing journey.
During our previous workshops, I’d do a lot of talking and we’ve have just short periods for questions. My plan for this workshop is to have it be almost half Q & A – in my experience, people have a lot of questions about publishing and while I may not have a lot of answers, I will have some answers. That’s why it’s important you be there to ask those questions. Don’t leave me staring at the empty seats, clutching my notes. Y’all come!
Please note: this workshop is now full.
In this very special episode of Inside the Writer’s Head, the Library’s Writer-in-Residence speaks with Cincinnati’s poet laureate Mauel Iris. Iris promotes poetry appreciation in our community, and encourages the reading and writing of poetry for all ages. The award-winning poet talks about his origins as a poet, and how music has influenced his lyrical poetry. He tells the story of how his grandfather introduced him to the dictionary, kindling lifetime love affair with words. “Every poem is a love poem, we write because we love something,” Iris says. Iris reads an original poem from his latest book, “Translating Silence,” in both Spanish and English. They also discuss the publishing process, and how different writing poetry is from publishing it. This episode with a local leader and artist is full of insight on writing and the power of words – don’t miss out!
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We recently went up to Michigan to a lake house, along with half of Ohio, and we went with our friends. Each afternoon, the two 10 year-olds and the 6 year-old and the 5 year-old and me and the other mom would go up the stairs to the hot tub that sat in a little hut overlooking the lake. It was as dreamy as it sounds and we would loll around there in the foam with the chlorine fumes stinging our eyes and somehow, we got into a thing of telling stories. Or rather, the 10 year-olds would ask for stories and the moms would tell them and the little kids would listen with their eyes getting big.
We told some good ones, including the one about Great-Great-Grandpa Jack Roth running away from his abusive father in Cleveland at the age of 12 and hitchhiking to the mining town of Crested Butte, Colorado, where he got a job driving a dynamite wagon. The mules spooked one day and ran and Jack was afraid the wagon would tip over and blow up if he tried to turn them. So he drove them, running at top-speed, pulling a buckboard full of dynamite, through the center of Crested Butte. (They eventually got tired and stopped and the wagon did not blow up. Jack also contracted syphilis during this period of his life, but we left that part out of the story.)
And my friend, who is a doctor and felt unnecessarily self-conscious about her abilities as a storyteller, told what wound up being one of the scariest stories I’ve heard in my life. It was about a recurring nightmare she had when she was four or five, during a period when her family was looking for a new house to buy.
In her dream, she would go into the basement of a new house with her father. Sitting in the basement room was an old woman with short gray hair. Behind the old woman, the basement wall was filled with undulating caterpillars. The caterpillars were all half blue, and half red. Then my friend saw that the old woman too had one eye that was red, and one eye that was blue. The father told my friend that she had to stay in the basement with the old woman. As he spoke, he turned around. And he had one eye that was red. And one eye that was blue.
That was where the dream ended. I found it so chilling that even as a 39 year-old sitting in a hot tub at 4:00 in the afternoon, I got shivers. “The only thing better,” I said to my friend, “is if then, you looked in a mirror on the wall. And you had one eye that was red. And one eye that was blue.”
What was it that was so frightening about the dream? Something about the split colors. Something about the unnaturalness of the eyes. Something about the father being sort of infected with this unnaturalness. Definitely something about your parents changing, about your parents somehow not being trustworthy. As a child, if there’s anything more scary than that, I don’t know what it is.
Oh, that was a good story. And now I’ve given it to you.
Well, folks, I’ve done it. Opened myself up to abject humiliation and despair: I’ve submitted an original manuscript to my agent.
Some of you know that for the last fifteen years, I’ve written some original fiction, which has been published, but the majority of my work is commissioned. That means someone asks for it, and I produce it. They want it. They asked!
But for various reasons which are too embarrassing to mention here, my agent gently suggested I might want to think of writing a piece of original fiction again. A novel, he meant. And because I didn’t have a whole lot of better options, I agreed that he was probably right.
So I wrote it – all 15,000 words. It’s a middle-grade novel for girls, and it’s about one of the great loves of my life: horses. Actually, it’s about one particular horse I used to know and whom I’ve never forgotten. He wasn’t exactly a dream steed, but he did teach an extremely undersized and fearful nine year-old some important lessons. Not through the nobility of his character either, you understand.
It’s awful, writing your own stuff. It’s embarrassing. It’s like taking off all your clothes. It’s like being drunk in public. It’s like showing everyone what a sloppy, hot mess you normally are. And that’s when the writing is good. When it’s bad, it’s like all those things plus stupidity.
One fellow writer, whom I admire, suggested that I might celebrate turning a manuscript in to my agent. He’s clearly insane, though a nice man. Another friend texted me, when I told her that I’d turned this manuscript in, “That’s awesome! Now you can punch yourself in the face.”
Now that girl understands me.
Here it is! The last of the three posts covering our June 23 workshop. Mark your calendars for our next workshop on September 29! I hope you all will be there.
June 23 WIR Workshop: This Won’t Hurt a Bit: Part 3
For this last bit, let’s move away from the content and talk about how to sustain yourself over a long period of time writing. I’ve been doing this for fifteen years and I can tell you that it’s not easy to write a full-length manuscript. So I use a few techniques to get that manuscript finished. And let me just emphasize that these are highly personal. What works for me might seem very wrong for you. So take what I say with a grain of salt.
Chunk It Up and Make a Plan
This is the absolute number one technique I use to get through manuscripts. I take commissioned work so I almost always have a deadline set by my editors. But for instance I’m working on a book right now of my own about horses, and I’m using the same system, though this book has not been sold and so has no deadline.
I count the number of days I want to work between now and the deadline and then I divide the manuscript by words per day. I build in time for revision and for research on either end, and then I’ll write something in my planner like “Dolphin Book #4 341” – that means I have to write 341 words per day of my dolphin book. That’s no matter what, whether I feel like writing or not, set in stone.
I’m very anxious person and really at this point, a lot of writing is a mental game because it is so entirely solitary and self-motivated. So I feel less panicky when I know that if I do this chunk of work, these 341 words, every day that I’ve written it down, then by the deadline, I’ll have a completed manuscript, no matter how ugly it is. This a very workmanlike way of writing and it works for me because writing is my job. If writing is your recreation, you might think of it differently. But I always feel better when I have a plan.
Finishing Is Hard – Keep Your Rear in the Chair
I will be first to tell you that finishing a manuscript – if you don’t have a deadline—can be very hard. If you’re having trouble motivating yourself, try these techniques:
- Try writing first thing when you get up, before you do anything else. Your brain is fresh then.
- Give yourself a reward when you’re done with your word count, like ten minutes on Facebook, or a walk around the block. But you can’t have it until you do your word count first.
- Give yourself a time limit – tell yourself you’re going to write 200 words in twenty minutes, and set a timer.
You can see that a lot of writing is overcoming the mental blocks that come with working alone – there’s a reason that the writer going crazy ala The Shining is a popular trope.
And there’s something to be said for churning out the words, whether you feel like it or not, whether they’re going well or not. I’m big fan of just plowing through the worst, messiest, ugliest draft you ever saw and then cleaning it up in revisions. Sometimes your draft looks surprisingly good the second time around.
In the latest episode of Inside the Writer’s Head, Writer-in-Residence Emma Carlson Berne talks with Michelle Bisson. Bisson is the Senior Acquisitions Manager at Capstone, a large publisher of educational books for kids. They discuss her long, unexpected journey to publishing and Bisson shares some uplifting advice for anyone who might feel like their career is headed in a wayward direction: “Everything that I’ve ever done sort of happened by mistake…” but it lead her to exactly where she wanted to be. You’ll learn about what it’s like to be an editor, and see evolution of a story from manuscript to print. Get a glimpse in to the relationship between author and editor and why humility is so important in the publishing world. Anyone interested in writing or working in publishing will learn a lot from this podcast!
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As promised, I’ve got the second section of our June 23 workshop below. You can talk to me in the comments. Or email me your questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m here.
June 23 WIR Workshop: This Won’t Hurt a Bit: Part 2
I’m not going to try to be the guru of all book openings. I’m a writer, like all of you, and I struggle with what is arguably the most important part of the book: the first page. No, strike that. The first line.
“Where’s Papa going with that ax?”
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all that before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going to into it, if you want to know the truth.”
No pressure or anything, right?
(The first was the first line of Charlotte’s Web, the second the first line of Catcher in the Rye, in case you’re stuck.)
The opening is your first chance to make an impression on the reader. It’s a door you’re holding open. And all the axioms you may have heard are true. A good opening plunges the reader right into the story. You’ve done a lot of thinking about your story, and it may be tempting to start the reader where you started – way back at the beginning. But your job here is to lift the reader right over the top of all that lead-up, all the lead-up you’ve prepared in your mind and thrust them right into the story.
A good opening will have
- Your protagonist
As I’ve been working with writers this year, and reading a lot of your work, I’m seeing something that I often notice in myself: many openings – let’s say the first five pages—have a lot of explanatory information crammed into them. Maybe family history, explanation of the world the author’s created. And here’s the thing: you will have time in your manuscript to get all of that out. But the opening is not the time to do that. There’s a certain anxiety among writers, myself included, to make sure your reader knows as much as possible, as soon as possible. And one thing I’m working on myself, is relaxing a bit. The reader is on your side. They want to read your story. They don’t care if they don’t know every detail of everything right from the start. They just want a good story, and they trust you that you’ll let them know what they need to know to understand the story. We want to emulate a confidence that this world is real, these people are real, and that this story we’re telling is so compelling, the reader will follow us into it. I know that’s a bit philosophical.
The opening is like having a cup of coffee with someone. It’s interesting, stimulating, fun, but it’s not a board meeting. The opening is the place for you to introduce your protagonist. How does she talk? How does she react? What kind of a place are we in? What is around us? And – a hint that there is going to be a problem approaching.
All the other history and rules of the world or backstory—those things will come out. They have to. And you’ll make sure they do—this is where letting go of the anxiety comes in. You’ll weave them in to the first three or four chapters. But if you’re writing a book about an orphan train, let’s get on that train right away. Let’s be on the train when the story opens. Or let’s be on the platform, watching the train roll in. Or let’s be standing in the farmyard as the wagon jolts up to take you and your brother away to the train station. All the explanation, you’ll get that later. Right now, bolt your reader into the story. Don’t bury the lead. Don’t hide the story. Get the essence of the story out in the first page. All the rest is details.
Thank you, thank you, everyone, who came downtown, and parked, and made your way to the third floor of the Main Library, to the very, very back, down a hallway to the huge and beautiful light-filled room where we held our Writer-in-Residence workshop on Drafting the Manuscript. Talking with all of you was the best part of my week. I’m already looking forward to being with you again in September.
In the meantime, I’ll repeat my routine from June and will put chunks of the presentation here on this blog for the next three posts. I hope you’ll find the material useful, if you couldn’t come to the workshop. And always, please, reach out to me with questions: email@example.com. I’m here.
June 23 WIR Workshop: This Won’t Hurt a Bit
The concept is the first step toward the manuscript. A concept is very simply, the idea of the story distilled down to – let’s say one paragraph. It describes what this book is about: this is the story of a man’s relationship with a service dog and how each helps to heal each other. This is the story of one night in the lives of five teenagers. Then say what’s going to happen, in the most basic sense, and they read like the back of a book blurb.
But who are you writing this concept for? Unless your book has been sold, the answer is: yourself. This concept is the core of your book, and will remind you what you are writing about. You’ll need to know your concept before you start your book, if you want to finish it. It’s easy to start a book without a concept. It’s hard to finish it.
To Outline or Not to Outline?
You’ve got your concept. It’s the core of your book. From here, we just start expanding – we expand the concept into an outline, and the outline into a manuscript. So, let’s talk about the outline.
An outline is your friend, your guide and your map.
I think that outlines feel intimidating to some writers – we’re having terrible visions of incomprehensible list-like things with Roman numerals, and letters here and numbers here, all in a very specific order, that we probably had to do in “Library” in middle school – at least, that’s what I had to do.
But a story outline is different—at least the story outlines I use. There are entire books devoted to book maps and outlines, but the outlines I use are simple.
And I love them.
Now, let’s pause for a moment and discuss not outlining. We are creative people, right? And some writers do feel, totally legitimately, that outlining a story stifles their creativity. What if they want the story to go in a different direction than their outline takes them? What if a previously minor character starts seeming much more major and needs more room in the story?
Guess what: That’s fine.
An outline can be just a suggestion
Think of the outline as a security blanket. It’s there, you’ve got it, you know that if you follow it, you’ll have a really excellent and complete manuscript when you’re done. But guys, you made the outline. If it’s starting to feel stifling for you as you write, tear it up. Write a new outline. Write fifty. But here’s the recommendation from me: have an outline you’re working off of.
An outline is your story, in miniature
So what should your outline look like and what information should it contain? There are so many ways to outline and none of them are wrong.
The Chapter Outline
The chapter outline is nothing to get worked up over. It’s where you’re going to hammer out your plot, and your character’s motivations. The motivations will help you decide what plot actions will take place. Make a rough decision on about how many chapters you want to have. I can’t emphasize enough that this is rough. You can change it at any time, and you should. But let’s start from somewhere.
Make yourself a nice plain list that says: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3. Then write a paragraph about what you envision happening in each chapter. Include all the characters, and the basic points of action. And remember that when you write a good chapter, your protagonist should have moved forward from the beginning of the chapter to the end. So when the reader finishes that chapter, the character should be in a different place – physically or emotionally—than when he or she started. This is just for you, so say anything you want. Write little notes to yourself. Make the paragraphs as long or as short as you want, but when you’re done, a stranger could read the outline and understand your book pretty darn well.
The Acts Outline
The other type of outline is an acts outline. This is for people who get nervous with too many parameters. An acts outline is the same as a chapter outline, except that instead of the story broken down by chapters, it’s divided by Act 1, Act 2, Act 3 – chunked up into three bunches. I often start by chunking my plot into actions, and then divide it into chapters once I’ve got it clearer in my mind. When you’re writing from an acts outline, you’ll know that by the time you reach what you think is the end of the first third of your book, you better be at the end of the Act 1 action on your outline.
This will keep you on track, hold you accountable and give you a great chance of finishing your manuscript.