Sunday, November 27, 2011

One Writer's Process: Bobbi Miller

A typewriter made with rubberbands was one of Bobbi Miller's favorite childhood toys. Perhaps it was a sign that one day the young girl who loved playing with the keys of that typewriter would grow up to write books for children.

“I wrote my first poetry in high school English courses,” says Miller, whose first short story appeared in print after she graduated from college. “Marion Zimmer Bradley was my first editor. It was my introduction into action/adventure fantasy with strong female protagonists!”

For Miller, the author of One Fine Trade and Davy Crockett Gets Hitched, just about everything serves as inspiration for her writing.

Writing a book is a long process, she tells her students, and it “takes as long as it takes.” It can take Miller as long as a year to finish a picture book, she says, an older reader twice as long to finish.

“When I write, I travel,” says Miller, who loves exploring the landscapes where her stories take place. “The key to inspiration is becoming engaged in the life and landscape surrounding you. Inspiration and motivation do not come out of the ether, and are not created in a vacuum.”

She studied storytelling at Simmons College, where she earned a Masters degree in Children’s Literature, and then went on to Vermont College's MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Program, where she studied with Eric Kimmel and Marion Dane Bauer to further refine her storytelling ability.

Writing stories tends to be an organic process for Miller, who relies on outlines and research, but who understands that “all the ‘great plans of mice and men’ need to be tossed as characters take over. In which case, I tag along for the ride.”

The best advice that Miller can offer other writers: “Hone your skills. Read as a writer. Deconstruct elements of your favorite stories to understand how these elements fit together.... And recognize that rejection is a function of the business, and everyone gets rejections.”

Miller, who lives in a log cabin in Connecticut, was kind enough to take time recently to share her thoughts on writing with wordswimmer.

Wordswimmer: If writing is like swimming, how do you get into the water each day?

Miller: Initially, and especially after graduating from Vermont College, I was so filled with that special enthusiasm one has when starting a brand new adventure. It was hard to keep me out of the water way back then. In my case, I graduated with a four-book contract and a brand new agent. I was so ready for a new life to begin.

Then, of course, life happens. I learned about the realities of the business. There were issues with the agent, which resulted in a parting of the ways. And my books didn’t come out until 2009 – eight years after I sold the manuscripts. Many days, and sometimes weeks, I’d hit the doldrums of despair and fear and all the little nitpicking nasties of self-doubt. What if I never get anything published? Was all a waste of time? Maybe I’m not good enough?

Lucky for me, I have a master guru (Eric Kimmel) who –like any coach – keeps me moving forward. I began stretching my own abilities, working in different genres, fine-tuning my technique. I went to classes, and I teach classes. By doing this, I managed to stay afloat.

During this time, I also discovered something significant about the nature of writing as well, this with the help and support of many writer and editor friends that I have been lucky to gather in these years. It takes great courage to keep writing (or to keep swimming). Mark Twain (he’s my guy) defined courage as mastery of fear, not the absence of fear. Every writer fears. But a few keep going, despite the fear. James Bell (The Art of War for Writers) offers: “A hero fights to make his writing worthy, even when no one’s noticing; a fool demands to be noticed all the time, even if his writing stinks. A hero gets knocked down and quietly regroups to write again; a fool gets knocked down and whines about it ever after. A hero keeps writing, no matter what, knowing effort is its own reward; a fool eventually quits and complains that the world is unfair.”

The lesson I am learning now is to let go of expectations (albeit, sometimes with a whine) and just enjoy the process. There’s no guarantee of any return on our time and investment when we write a story. So, be the hero, says Bell.

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?

Miller: I enjoy the writing process more these days, experimenting with different genres, different characters, experimenting with blending aspects of American Fantasy, for example, with historical fiction. Working in creative non-fiction, I’m more daring these days. And this always keeps me swimming. Also, my studies in Vermont College (and also Simmons College) focused on voice and perspective, and stories of the American landscape. So when I am not writing, or when I get stuck, I’m exploring this landscape, literally and figuratively. It gives my mind a rest, even as it inspires me. I think Jack London once said, you have to chase down inspiration with a club sometimes.

And, I’m a big advocate for supporting my friends’ books. I began this as part of Darcy Pattison’s Random Acts of Publicity. So I review books, write articles, feature my favorite books and favorite authors, who also tend to be my favorite people.

And, even more important, a reminder as I let go of expectations, there are a few to keep in mind. It is a business, after all. It’s my job to write. As Emma Dryden reminded me recently, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. A writer writes, even if it’s one page at a time. One page every day.

Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?

Miller: Remembering, to be the hero.

Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?

Miller: The best weapon there is when we feel alone is to remember we are not alone. Oh, sure, when we write, we are lone figures huddled over our pads and pencils (like me) or computers for those who live in the 21st century. The lone swimmer trying to cross the English Channel.

But truly, sometimes, we have to come up for air or we drown. The wisest of us have support systems, our survival boats, people we have come to love and lean on when we can’t move past our own certain despair, who encourage us when we are bone-tired of it all, who remind us why we’re here in the first place, who makes us laugh at our own silly whining. The internet makes this connection easy-peasy. Reach out and touch someone, you know?

Wordswimmer: What’s the part of swimming that you love the most?

Miller: All of the above.

For more information about Bobbi Miller, visit:

For more interviews with Bobbi, visit:


Joanna said...

Thanks, Bobbi, some honest and inspirational thoughts. As a newbie writer it is good to read and understand the years of working on craft that so often precedes publishing. And this is ongoing, of course!

Donna Marie Merritt said...

NIce interview, Bobbi! Keep swimming! :-)

Joyce Ray said...

It's nice to hear your thoughts, Bobbi. I always remember EK saying, "Your mantra is volume and persistence."

Monica Kulling said...

I enjoyed reading your interview, Bobbi, and getting to know you a little bit better. You're the best!

Bobbi Miller said...

Thank you, everyone, for your kind words! Thank you for stopping by!