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Amanda Hart Miller

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creative writing

“The Fishing Lesson” Unveiling and My Visit to Fountaindale Elementary School

 

I’ve had such fun with “The Fishing Lesson” book! On September 20th, the beautiful sculpture was unveiled at City Park, and I was honored to present the Mayor with a copy of the book. Here’s the boys and me by the statue, as well as a pic of me with talented sculptor and illustrator Paul Rhymer.

 

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Then the following week I visited Fountaindale Elementary to talk to the first graders…

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…and the second graders about how to write a story. Thanks for scheduling my visit, Mr. Bassler and Mrs. Leard!!

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Unveiling of the City Park Bear Sculpture on Saturday @ 11:00 — first 50 kids get a free book!

I’m so excited that the “Fishing Lesson” sculpture will be officially unveiled this Saturday @ 11:00 AM during the Fallfest at Hagerstown City Park! I’ll be presenting the book to Mayor Gysberts shortly after 11:00, and the first 50 kids at the events will receive a free copy of the book I wrote, Paul Rhymer illustrated, and Terri Fleetwood laid-out. The books were also distributed to all first-graders in Washington County, MD, and they will be on sale at the Washington County Arts Council and the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. All proceeds go toward the fund to bring more public art to the area.

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There will be many activities at City Park during Fallfest on Saturday, so please come out and join us!

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2014 Nora Roberts Young Writers Institute (August 9th and 10th)

Wow, the teens at the Nora Roberts Young Writers Institute were fabulous! What a remarkably talented group! We had a number of writers who had already finished novels or had already won awards and contests, and we also had writers who were brand new to the craft.

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Contest winner Sean Kenney started us off on the morning of the 9th by reading his horror story “Blink” so effectively I got chills!

Contest Winners

Then author Brad Barkley served as our keynote speaker and told us about how he got into the writing business and how important it is that creative folks find a primary outlet for our creativity. He offered great advice about the writing process and about fiction techniques. Thanks, Brad!

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Throughout the day on the 9th, Michele Poacelli, Kate Benchoff, Alicia Drumgoole, and I offered breakout sessions on dystopian fiction, action writing, romance scenes, quick write prompts, and world-building. Writers also had an opportunity to have their work critiqued by instructors and workshopped by peers.

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On the 10th, we focused on publication advice, and the writers researched literary magazines using Duotrope. They also submitted work to Hagerstown Community College’s Hedge Apple magazine, where they will be featured in a special online edition in September.

We ended the institute with a Coffeehouse Reading, complete with the ambiance of lamps, couches, and tablecloths, and a good many writers presented their work to an audience of other writers, friends, and family members.

Thanks to everyone who made this year’s institute possible. I’m already looking forward to teaching again at next year’s institute.

Visiting Author Day at Mercersburg Elementary

I visited Mercersburg Elementary School yesterday as their 2014 Visiting Author. The kids and I had an amazing time! I’m hoping to visit schools like this more often. So much fun!

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I think this is me reacting to a girl’s confession that the annoying thing her little brother does is bite her in her sleep. Yup, that would be pretty annoying.
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Look at this kid’s smile! How cute!
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The kids were so smart. They already knew about plot and could explain rising action, climax, and resolution.
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What? All of you like video games? No way! This is shocking.
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Photo op at the end. I like it that some of the kids called me “Mrs Author.”
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The kids asked me great questions, too, like why and when I started to write, how long it takes me to write a book, if I ever make mistakes when I write, and whether I’ve ever been to the flower shop by City Park.
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Sometimes the kids would be ecstatic to answer, but then they’d forget what they had to say. I feel that way in meetings sometimes, too.

The Collaborative Process of Creating a Children’s Book — from inspiration, through drafting and sketching, to final text files and computerized illustrations

My brother and I had lots of laughs while collaborating on SuperDylan and the Powers of Just Right.

Click here to view the Herald Mail interview about our process.

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Have you ever been involved in a collaborative creative project? How’d it go for you?

Tell us a little bit about your collaborative experiences and be entered in a raffle for a free copy of SuperDylan and the Powers of Just Right!

What I Learned about Writing and Self-Publishing a Kids’ Book

coverTwo aspects of self-publishing always worried me.

  1. Without agents and publishers as gatekeepers, would it be too tempting to publish a product before it was ready?
  2. Was the process of self-publishing going to be a huge hassle?

Creating a Compelling Product

I always thought it would be fun to write a kids’ book. I’ve certainly read a lot of them. In fact, for a few sleep-deprived years when I had no time to read novels, I sustained myself on the bedtime stories I read to my kids. I’d ask my college literature students what they were reading, and when they got embarrassed and said all they had time to read was Dr. Seuss, I’d nod adamantly.

Besides, I liked the way I could count on the best of these books for a happy ending that felt right but not cheesy. I envied these authors because, in my own attempts at writing adult fiction, “happy” and “cheesy” were awfully hard to separate.

When my older son entered kindergarten, we were introduced to the Junie B Jones books. I loved how Junie B’s voice was able to disguise the moral of the book well enough that kids didn’t have time to put on their moral-lesson-deflector shields. They were learning without even realizing it. Bwahahaha!

Since I have sons ages 6 and 7, I wanted to explore the world of a kindergartner through a boy’s perspective. That’s why I created SuperDylan, a five year old boy trying to find his place in the family. He’s sassy, but he’s got a sweet side, too. As one reviewer wrote, “Impossible not to love, Dylan deals with his role in the family with occasional frustration, frequent bewilderment, and just enough harebrained schemes to make readers of any age laugh out loud.”

After much revision and editing, I researched agents and sent SuperDylan and the Powers of Just Right out to my top 10 agents. I got one rejection, but heard nothing from the others. I know I was supposed to have sent it out to more agents and gone to conferences to meet agents, and so on and so forth. But I didn’t want to. The book was a fun, simple book, and I wanted a fun, simple publishing process. So I shelved it. I got it out every month or two over the next year, re-read it, and felt sad that I hadn’t made the effort to put it in the hands of readers who would enjoy Dylan as much as I did. That’s when I started to consider self-publishing.

I was lucky enough to enlist the help of my brother, a talented mechanical engineer who had been sketching as a hobby for years. Maybe he’ll help draw some basic poses for me, I thought, and then I’ll just somehow miraculously make this work.

Grant’s an amazingly generous and helpful guy, so he said yes. He drew up some initial sketches and we talked about how cartoony (versus realistic) we wanted these characters to look. As soon as the characters and styles were determined in these first sketches, the book took on a life of its own in Grant’s hands, and what a wonderful re-birth it was. He envisioned the 12 color illustrations in a much better and more creative way than I had.

In the crucial epiphany scene, Grant thought to meld BabyNate and the hamster Chubster.

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He added angel wings and a halo to show Dylan’s attitude while being lectured by his mom.

image009He used unique perspectives so that even the pictures of the bookshelves and the laundry room boxes (two illustrations with no characters at all) communicated a feeling.

image008He’d send me the illustrations and I’d literally laugh out loud when I opened them.

We sent the book out to a few people to read before we put in on Amazon (many thanks to Jeanne Ford, Sherri Woosley, and Kate Benchoff!), and then we looked over it another 50 times to make sure it was the best book we could make it. We were ready!

Self-Publishing on Amazon through Createspace and Kindle Direct Publishing.

The actual process of self-publishing your product can be done in less than a half hour, especially if you don’t have illustrations or are particularly good with MS Word, so now I understand why self-publishing can get a bad (though unfair) name. Self-publishing is easy and fun to do, but if you do it, you have to be your own critic and really hold yourself up to a high standard.

The self-publishing process itself is a series of mesmerizing green traffic lights.

We used Createspace to publish the print version of the book. It ran us through a series of idiot-proof screens where we listed the basic information. There was a royalty calculator and there were many additional options for help. Since we designed our own cover and formatted our own interior, the process was free, but Createspace offers add-ons for people who need help with these processes.

We used the measurements they provided for the cover file, and then Createspace used that cover file to create the thumbnail for our book.

The interior file is an MS Word file converted to a pdf. We submitted our files to Amazon;  they checked for inappropriate content and major formatting issues and they got back to us in less than 24 hours. Then we had the options of viewing the book online and also ordering a print proof through the mail. I would recommend doing both. A few times, we had to adjust the dpi of the illustrations, and I managed to screw up the dimensions of our first cover, but these little bumps in the road were relatively small. Once we approved the new proof, our product showed up on Amazon in less than an hour.

Createspace imported our files to Kindle Direct Publishing so we could create our Kindle version of SuperDylan and the Powers of Just Right, but the interior needed to be a little different. The interior file of the Kindle version is a Word file, saved as a filtered HTML file and placed in a zip file along with all the image files. This is pretty easy, especially if you download the free e-files “Publish on Amazon Kindle with Kindle Direct Publishing” and “Building Your Book for Kindle.”

At first, Amazon wouldn’t allow us to sell the print version for less than $8 because of the color interior. This was a bummer because we really wanted to sell the product for more like $6. We knew we wanted full color, but we wanted an affordable price, too. When we originally published it, the book was listed at $8.99 (our royalties were set at $1.18) and we were a little disappointed with the pricing. However, only a few days later, Amazon changed the price of the book to $5.33, and it appears we’re still getting the same royalties.

Now we’re thrilled to offer a full-color, quality early reader chapter book for under $6. We’re excited to see our work enjoyed by others. And best of all, we got to work together on a project that makes us smile.

This Doesn’t Mean that Self-Publishing is Right for Every Project

I have a very different project in the works, an 80,000-word novel about hoarding. I’ve been working on it for about 3 years now, and I’ve put more hours into it than I’d ever be willing to admit. As you might imagine, I have less of a “we’ll just see how it goes” feeling about this one. If I put it on Amazon and sold a hundred copies, only to realize that was pretty much the end of the line for the book, I would be disappointed.

However, with the SuperDylan book, I know that self-publishing was the right option. I’m able to share this lovable character with others without waiting years and years to find a publisher.

As we prepare book 2 in the series, SuperDylan and the Night Horse, to be released in time for Halloween, we are still laughing with Dylan and his family, and we’re still loving every minute of the process.

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You Gotta Grow a Pair (of Vocal Chords): Voice in Fiction Writing

Regardless of point of view, the voice of a storyteller is just that: one voice. It isn’t the voice of no one, nor is it the voice of everyone. A story is told by one voice, allowing a reader to co-experience through the eyes of one particular person.

A voice that tells a subjective story is arguably the one powerhouse writers have over film, and the more I learn about fiction, the more strongly I believe that the quality of fiction all goes back to the strength of the narrative voice.

As Emily Dickinson said, Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.

I want a narrative voice that grabs me by the throat, submerges me, and holds me tighter, tighter, tighter. It should make me see more than I wanted to see and to see myself in a way I never thought I would. Even though that voice may be unreliable at times, even hateful at times, I want to trust that voice to always be true to itself.

Some of my colleagues and I discuss our most hated thesis statement in ENG 101 essays: “There are many similarities and differences between Subject A and Subject B.”

What? In what way is this an interesting statement? It’s so vague it can be applied to everything. There are many similarities and differences between a pen and a pencil. There are similarities and differences between a wooden table and a wooden pencil. There are many similarities and differences between an artichoke and an aardvark.

Right. This is stunning information. I’ll need a while to ponder this.

 

Not seeing the connection between a compare/contrast essay and a piece of fiction? Well, come closer and let me tell you a secret. Yes, closer. This one is a doozy. Here it is:

There are many similarities and differences between a compare/contrast essay and a piece of fiction.

Or, let me say it this way: Both essays and stories must feel urgent. They are not reports. While we can break them into parts (an essay is comprised of an introduction, thesis, body paragraphs, and conclusion while a story is comprised of exposition, rising action, climax, resolution) they are more vital than the sum of their parts. They must matter, not to everyone, but certainly to someone.

 

Here’s what happens in a lot of beginning fiction:

Story A is a story that follows an arc of rising action until the climax, and then the resolution both resolves the conflict while opening the topic for further thought. The writing is competent and clean and the reader is supposed to come away from the story believing that life is imperfect but precious. The narrator is, for the most part, likable. The narrator’s faults are equivalent to an interviewee answering the question “What’s your biggest fault?” with the statement: “My biggest fault? Yes, regrettably, I tend to work too hard.” The interviewer sighs and shakes his head in a fake acknowledgement of the courage it took the interviewee to come clean like this. Yet another over-achiever in the interviewee chair. The horror.

Come on now.

Be an individual. Glimmertrain accepts under 20 stories a year. They receive 15,000. You have to distinguish yourself from everyone else.

A story written for everyone in a voice unwilling to cause any discomfort or disagreement is a story that, ironically, will do very little to interest anyone. Or, as Nietzsche says, “Books for the general reader are always ill-smelling books.”

Voice is all about distinction. Voice is one specific mouth urgently whispering into one specific ear.

And sometimes, even once you’ve found your voice, it takes a while to find the right ear. Keep searching. Don’t try to compensate for a broken link in communication by mumbling.

80/20 Rule in Creative Writing

A friend recently told me about the 80/20 rule, and how it applies to what people often mistake for talent.

It takes 20% of your effort to reach 80% of your true potential, but it takes 80% of your effort to reach that last 20% of your potential.

Think about it for a minute. It’s so true, right? The initial learning curve is steep, but that plateau is a bitch. It just goes on and on, with little change in altitude.

 

So, if you happen to be mired in the guck of creativity right now, maybe that’s because you’ve passed the first stage and moved onto the second.

And… if you put enough soul-blood into your work, hopefully someday you’ll be lucky enough to have people jealously scoff at your natural born “talent.”

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