Brandon Marie Miller On Writing & Fear

 I'm lucky (or cunning) enough to have lured yet another successful writer over to my blog for an SAT - Successful Author Talk. SAT authors have conquered the query, slain the synopsis and attained the pinnacle of published. How'd they do it? Let's ask 'em!

Today’s guest for the SAT is Brandon Marie Miller, an award-winning author of U. S. History for young people. She earned a degree in American History from Purdue University and now lives in Ohio. Her books have been honored by the International Reading Association (IRA), the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), the Society for School Librarians International, Voices of Youth Advocates (VOYA), Bank Street College, and the Junior Library Guild.

Are you a Planner or Pantster?

I’m both!

As a mostly nonfiction writer I am definitely a Planner. I have notes, some neat, some scribbled on scraps, some in MS Office OneNote. I have outlines. I have timelines. I have stacks of books ready to tip over. I have piles of photocopies spread all over the floor. Now that I think about it—things are a lot less planned and organized than I’d like.

For fiction, I usually have main plot points in mind, but I go with the flow after that and see what develops in a bare bones draft.

How long does it typically take you to write a novel, start to finish? 

The only novel I’ve written (YA historical) took me 8 years off and on to finish. It is not yet published but I have hopes.

My history and biographies take about 2 years to research and write.

Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multi-tasker?

I only work on one project at a time, although there are always small things going on and fires to put out. I might be waiting for comments from an editor while working on a nonfiction book proposal or writing a blog. But multi-tasking at writing is not one of my strengths and I don’t beat myself up about it.

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Did you have to overcome any fears that first time you sat down to write?

I’ve had 13 books published and I have fears every time I sit down to write. It’s huge, it’s a long process; you need thick skin, persistence, and self-confidence, which are often in short supply. I always worry I won’t be able to do IT (write something) again. I worry I won’t be able to sell the next thing or will I go through a long drought of nothing. But, the writing community (especially in kid lit) is supportive and helpful. I don’t think I could do this without my writing buddies.

How many trunked books did you have before you were agented?

I handled my own submissions, rejections, and contracts for many years before getting an agent. It used to be that more houses were open. And for nonfiction you have the chance to sell a book based on a proposal and a sample chapter instead of a finished manuscript. Contracts are so complicated now with e-rights and different things, and so many houses are closed to submission, that I was very happy to have an agent for this last book.

Have you ever quit on an ms, and how did you know it was time?

I don’t have any half finished ms stashed away. I finish what I start and quit the rough way-- when the market tells me to quit through numerous rejections!

Who is your agent and how did you get that "Yes!" out of them? 

My agent is Dawn Frederick at Red Sofa Literary. I actually queried another agent at Red Sofa who wasn’t taking on new authors at that time, but she loved my query and told me to send it to Dawn. I sent Dawn my book proposal and she offered representation after we talked on the phone. So I had a referral, but also wrote a query letter and a book proposal. 

How long did you query before landing your agent?   

For the project that got me an agent I probably sent out a dozen queries, maybe more.

Any advice to aspiring writers out there on conquering query hell?

Patience. Also, if you don’t have writing credits, don’t point it out—just leave any comment about that out of your query. Read successful queries. Use the internet and social media to refine your focus on agents who like what you are writing.

How did it feel the first time you saw your book for sale?

Unreal. Fantastic. That first book, now long out of print, is still so special to me!

How much input do you have on cover art?

None. And out of 13 books, only one has my working title! 

What's something you learned from the process that surprised you?

How very slow it all is. How bruising the process can be. And the biggest surprise: How little money a writer actually makes.

How much of your own marketing do you?  Do you have a blog / site / Twitter?

I do what I can, but it is out of my comfort zone, for sure. I submit for book festivals, and spend time on social media. I’ve tried to build relationships with other writers, librarians, teachers, and hope they will put in a good word about my books once in a while. Share other writers’ news. Be generous. But you can’t count on other people doing the same for you. I share a blog with two other nonfiction writers and I have a website that is chronically in need of updating. Marketing is hard. A good marketing team at the publisher can be uplifting. Sometimes you have to ask for what you’d like to have. Be kind, thoughtful, respectful, but ask.

When do you build your platform? After an agent? Or should you be working before?

I think you should start before you get an agent—after all an online presence may help you get that agent.

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

For some authors, yes, but it certainly doesn’t translate for all authors. I see people fretting about the number of followers they have. Don’t. Instead, have generous interactions with a smaller number of followers who are actually interested in what you do. These are the people that will support you and share your information. 

 

 

Jess Redman On Turning Questions Into Middle Grade Fiction

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.

Today’s guest for the WHAT is Jess Redman, whose middle-grade debut, The Miraculous, will be published by FSG/Macmillan on July 30, 2019. Her second middle-grade novel, Quintessence, will be out on July 28, 2020. You can find her at www.JessRedman.com, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book? 

I didn’t have a specific point, but rather lots of different inspirations from all over the course of my life. I think this may be especially true because this is my debut. This story has been a long time in the making.

The Miraculous is a middle-grade contemporary about an 11-year-old miracle-collector named Wunder Ellis who stops believing in the extraordinary and the magical after the death of his newborn sister.

When I was around Wunder’s age, I faced several losses. In the grand scheme of life, they were smaller losses, but I found myself asking a lot of questions about death and life and meaning—you know, those Big Questions. 

Then, in the year prior to writing The Miraculous, there were lots of losses—and near losses—in my friend group and in my own life. And those questions, always in the background, came up again in new ways.

The Miraculous is about grief, but it’s also about community and love and connection and memory and mystery. And more than anything, I think, it’s about asking questions—even when answers aren’t easy or clear—which is what I hope readers will do.

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?

I don’t have a lot of time to write, so I don’t do a lot of pre-writing.

Instead, I do a lot of thinking. This is my FAVORITE part of the process.

Mostly, I like to think about the characters. When I’m stuck, it’s usually because I don’t know my characters well enough. When I really know them, know them through and through, then I don’t have to wonder what they would say or do next. The story flows and the characters can lead it. 

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Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

All. The. Time.

I tend to start by sticking my characters in very complex, word-consuming storylines. And then there isn’t enough time and space for their internal development. So then I have to cut and cut and condense and condense until I’m left with something almost manageable. And then I have to cut some more.

Luckily, I have gotten a little better at eyeballing my outline and determining how many words I will realistically end up with.

And then there are changes that come because the characters are not going to do the things I had planned for them. Their dialogue feels phony, their motivations ring false, and then I know that the plot needs to shift.

Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

In my experience, the more I look for stories and the more I tell myself stories and the more I listen to the stories around me, the more I find to write about. Which seems obvious, but I just mean that sometimes a storyteller mindset is all you need. There is no lack of stories in this world.

I am not an idea a day person, however. I could not write multiple books a year. But I think I will have enough stories to last for a lifetime of writing (at a fairly slow pace).

How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?

That can be really hard! My contract was for two books. I had one older completed manuscript and two new ideas that I was tinkering with. I ended up outlining and writing about 50 pages of the new ones and submitting all three to my editor. Then I let her make the call!

She chose Quintessence, which is a middle-grade contemporary sci-fi-fantasy about falling stars and astronomy and alchemy and features a main character with an anxiety disorder. It’s full of magic and feeling, and I love it deeply! It publishes on July 28, 2020, and you can already add it on Goodreads.

Eventually, I hope to complete (and publish—fingers crossed!) all three stories. But I also have plenty of false-starts and half-written messes stored away in files and notebooks that I will probably never touch again.

I have 5 cats (seriously, check my Instagram feed) and I usually have at least one or two snuggling with me when I write. Do you have a writing buddy, or do you find it distracting?

I have a cat, a fish, two small children, and a husband, and my preference is to have none of them around when I’m writing!

Well, the fish is okay. She’s very quiet. And she never crawls on my keyboard or asks me to make her a snack.

Finding Inspiration In Your Passions: Malayna Evans

Inspiration is a funny thing. It can come to us like a lightning bolt, through the lyrics of a song, or in the fog of a dream. Ask any writer where their stories come from and you’ll get a myriad of answers, and in that vein I created the WHAT (What the Hell Are you Thinking?) interview. Always including in the WHAT is one random question to really dig down into the interviewees mind, and probably supply some illumination into my own as well.

Today's guest for the WHAT is Malayna Evans, author of Jagger Jones and the Mummy’s Ankh has long enjoyed crafting stories that feature and promote ancient Egyptian settings, characters and artifacts. Jagger Jones gave her the opportunity to share her passion for ancient history with today’s middle graders and pursue her dream of becoming a published author.

Ideas for our books can come from just about anywhere, and sometimes even we can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Did you have a specific origin point for your book?

Absolutely. The moment is crystal clear in my memory.

First, two things-to-know about my biography. One, I’m an Egyptologist by training. And two, my kids are biracial. Now that you know those tidbits…

I was having lunch with my son—he was nine or ten at the time—talking about ancient Egypt, one of my favorite topics. He’d asked what ancient Egyptians looked like and when I said he’d fit in well, he told me someone should write a book about a kid like him who went back in time. He spontaneously whipped up a title and set up: the book should be called The Eye of the Mummy and the kid should fall into a mummy’s eye to time travel.

He and I went home and wrote a chapter that afternoon. Not much about that initial chapter is still in the manuscript, but the inspiration is solid.

(And my son, now a teenager, loves pointing out that the book was his idea.)

Once the original concept existed, how did you build a plot around it?

When my son suggested time travel via mummy, I immediately thought of a tomb from the Amarna period--my favorite historical period--that features images of princess Meketaten’s death. Her death, and mummy, still shape the plot.

I was also influenced by an ancient Egyptian blessing: Ankh, wedja, seneb, which means (may you have) life, prosperity, and health. I wanted to examine modern vs. ancient notions of life, prosperity, and health in a format that would entertain young readers. So book one has the modern kids fighting for their own lives while the ancient characters fret about the afterlife. Book two, Wedja, will similarly explore modern vs. ancient ideas surrounding prosperity. And book three, Seneb, health.

It’s mostly mummies, magic and giant scorpions, but these elements were my scaffolding.

I find it really useful to have different projects percolating at once. I can’t edit when I’m too close to a manuscript, so immersing myself in a different one helps me see the manuscript I should be editing with fre.png

Have you ever had the plot firmly in place, only to find it changing as the story moved from your mind to paper?

Oh, yeah. My first version had a murkier (dare I admit, more academic) plot that kids probably wouldn’t have found all that fun to read. I didn’t realize it was all wrong until I had the entire idea down on paper. Once I let it percolate, and got some advice from some more experience writing pros, I realized I needed to start over with a crisper plot. I sketched out a general idea—the idea influenced the manuscript but I adapted as I went. As the characters became clearer in my mind, it was easier to figure out what they’d do in given situations. So I’d say I tailored twists and turns to my characters’ strengths, weaknesses, resources and quirks more than anything else.

Do story ideas come to you often, or is fresh material hard to come by?

I have a million ideas in my head, but most of them don’t stick long. Almost anything can spark an idea: something I read, a tweet, an image. I have one idea twirling around my brain now that was trigger by a phrase I heard in passing that I thought would make a nice book title.

How do you choose which story to write next, if you’ve got more than one percolating?

I have about five manuscripts in some stage of development on my laptop. If an idea loiters in my head long enough—for a few months—I’ll write a few chapters down then ignore it. If I’m still thinking about it a few months later, and it moves me when I review my first stab, I push it forward. I find it really useful to have different projects percolating at once. I can’t edit when I’m too close to a manuscript, so immersing myself in a different WIP helps me see the manuscript I should be editing with fresh eyes.

I have a lot of cats (seriously, check my Instagram feed) and I usually have at least one or two snuggling with me when I write. Do you have a writing buddy, or do you find it distracting?

My rescue dog, Caesar, has been by my side through a huge chunk of my writing. My ten-year-old daughter is my review partner: I read what I’ve written and she gives it a thumbs up…or down. (She is brutally honest.) And I spend an embarrassing amount of time writing in coffee shops. The energy and buzz helps me focus. Plus…. caffeine!