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Where do you get your inspiration?

Posted by Greg Miller on November 25, 2011 at 10:50 PM Comments comments (0)
How are you “inspired” to write? Some people get inspired, no doubt, scraping the last peanut butter from the bottom of the jar, trying to get the last bit of that sticky chemical from the swirling plastic nub at the center of the bottom. The whirlpool scene from the Pirate of the Caribbean might have been the afterthought of the construction of a peanut butter sandwich. Probably chunky peanut butter.

I have no problem coming up with ideas; some are just more usable than others. I think one of the best jobs in the world would be those screen writers who come up with a movie by sitting around playing “what if…” Leaving Stephenson's Treasure Island out of this, what Muppet movie was ever based on a book? In The Muppets Take Manhattan, there was a great cameo of Mayor Ed Koch. That must have been brainstormed when they came up with the original idea, like “let’s make this movie take place in Manhattan and we can have all these hilarious cameos.” What Ed Koch said was immaterial; whatever he said would draw a laugh. Make it in the least way funny and you get double-plus laughter.

When I was a press card carrying reporter I had all these opportunities that came up in the normal course of business. I filed many of those instances in the back of my head and I find that I am drawing on more and more of them lately. That means that they were either fortuitous opportunities that don’t come around that often or my life has gotten a whole lot more boring since those salad days.

The point I want to make is that when an opportunity comes along, keep a very open mind and try to be as aware and observant as you can be in the moment. If something looks odd or curious or even unidentified, ask the question. You’re there, make it worthwhile. Last summer I happened to cross paths with a cousin I hadn’t seen in 10 years. He mentioned that he would be in New York in August and that we ought to get together. As it turns out he has an unusual job. He’s the captain of a yacht. I mean yacht as in capital “Y.” He said he would berth at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan (at 23rd street and the West Side) and he had to babysit the boat that night so we could sit and talk. He also promised a complete tour.

How many times have I ever had the opportunity to peek into every nook and cranny of a large boat before? How about, never? So I made my way after work over to the Chelsea Piers that night, a pleasant balmy 68 degree evening in August. We sat on one of the three afterdecks and looked out at the Manhattan skyline as the lights came up, focusing straight ahead at the Empire State Building. My cousin was great, taking time to explain all the electronics, daily life on the ship, and how everything operated. He was patient with my 1001 questions. I’m not sure I’ll ever write about a boat but, should I have to consider a plot that involved a boat, I would be prepared or know where to go to ask a specific question, a great way to start. No pressure, just go and have fun and scribble a few thoughts.

Years ago, my publisher called me into his office, a paneled version of Ward Cleaver’s den, the location of many lectures to the Beaver. He gave me two tickets to a luncheon junket that was a promo for a movie. It would be the first review I ever wrote and a good start because I would be given identical opportunities in the next few years. I would be attending in his place and I could preview the movie and have a freebie lunch along with cocktail hour. I arrived at the huge movie theatre on Route 46, arriving several minutes early at a large dining room still being set up by the staff. The press corps, a motley crew of middle-aged adults, was bunched in a group at one end of the dining room and at the other was a collection of chairs, folded and stacked against the wall, some of those serving tray holders stacks, and a short-bearded man with a small felt hat, a trench coat and an umbrella. As I remember that day, there was not a cloud in the sky, no rain in days and no prospects of rain in the near future. Since he was clutching that umbrella on such a beautiful day I immediately figured out that he had to be the movie director. As he shyly backed away from the scene, he was moving into the stacked serving tray racks and they were pushing into the chairs and the whole arrangement was in danger of cascading down. I hurried over, caught the chairs and gently steered him away from the impending avalanche and introduced myself.

We struck up a conversation and I realized that I was a friend indeed and he needed an anchor because he was too nervous to face all those nasty press people alone. In fact, he was great one-on-one but looked like he was going to his execution when he was asked to stand up and greet everyone with a few words about his movie. He was 27 at the time. By now, he’s 61 and in between he’s learned to stand up to a bevy of reporters and calmly discuss his projects. Back then, he thought the press was the enemy, like they were going to find out that he was a canard. Success breeds confidence.

We had a great lunch and he was very open and friendly. He pointed out where the flaws in the movie were and told me to watch a scene were a man is being chased down the hall of a hotel and at the last instant jumps into an elevator, and into the open arms of four nuns. A close look reveals that the nuns were men, one even having a mustache. Naturally it happens so quickly the brain is fooled when the eye is not. The eye records the event but the brain only reports out what it’s used to seeing. Nuns don’t have beards.

For the record, that director was John Landis, whose next movie months later was Animal House. The movie we were previewing was Kentucky Fried Movie, made on a budget of $650,000 that eventually grossed $20-million. He went on to add to his credits: The Blues Brothers, 1941, American Werewolf in London, Beverly Hills Cop III, The Twilight Zone, Trading Places and Coming to America.

That whole experience got filed into the back of my brain file so that if I ever need to write about a conversation over lunch with a movie director, I’ll just know that it’s almost like every other lunch conversation. Having said that, I am sure the next director that I am discussing my movie deal with will be a vastly different experience.

The next time you have access to an extraordinary occurrence, flip on that recorder in your memory and then file the event for future “inspiration.” Some writers carry notebooks around, not trusting their memory. You could do that, and then toss that notebook onto a pile of scads of other notebooks and rely on some sort of personally developed filing system for a recall of which notebook had what experience. Or, have a memory like mine, wired for eclectic and strange recall. That’s how I am “inspired” when I write.


Working In The Background

Posted by Greg Miller on November 14, 2011 at 1:50 PM Comments comments (0)

The brain is amazing. Recently, I’ve just spent several visits to the brain rehabilitation unit at a center just outside of Philadelphia. I’ve seen a whole variety of ways the brain is affected by various accidents and illnesses. One thing that made a lasting impression is the resiliency of the brain. You’ve heard the expression “spark of life” and I think that what they look for in those rehab units are sparks. All you need for a fire is a spark and all you need for a brain to reboot, so to speak, is just a spark.

In my own writing I am discovering my subliminal thought processes. My brain (everyone’s not just mine, so to speak) works on ideas long after I’m consciously entertaining them. We all know that but because I am working on very specific things, I’m noticing how much this is true and to what extent.

When one beta reader finished reading my manuscript he shocked me by saying that he especially liked the way I had set up a sequel to the book. I was surprised. What sequel? I had no intentions of writing a sequel and my interests are too eclectic to pigeon hole my writing into one area. I think that must have come from the permission to write about anything I chose when I was the editor of a weekly newspaper.

Everything was fair game for a story and when it wasn’t timely and newsworthy it became a feature. Having a press pass was a huge advantage because of the access you have. Not to mention the fun of speaking directly to people about their craft. I asked Mario Andretti about race cars and Virginia Wade about tennis. With Bill Bradley I stuck to his Senate race because asking him how he missed that buzzer shot in the 1971 playoffs against the Baltimore Bullets would have been poor form. Looking back, he might have been more comfortable had I asked him that.

Getting back to how the subliminal brain works (that digression was a revealing example how my conscious brain works), I have found lately that not only is it active but my subliminal passes off to my conscious brain in a persistent, forceful way. It’s a nudje. The only way I can get it off my mind is to write something down my brain’s subliminal suggestion. If I don’t, the “request” gets louder, louder and then more persistent, until I can’t stand it. A little voice kicks in reminding me that if I don’t write it down, it’ll get lost forever.

In the early days newspaper computers and filing stories, the Passaic bureau, that I wrote from in the last days of my reporter years, had workstations that were connected to the Hackensack main office of the Record, called “The Bergen Record” at the time. After and event, a meeting, and interview, I would drive back to the office and word process a story. When I was satisfied that it was complete, with no holes, the story would be transmitted to Hackensack. In those days, there was a one in five chance the transmission would get lost. I was composing live at the time so the story would be lost unless I had printed it out just before sending. If you can imagine that we thought the crude, dot matrix printing on that paper with the sprocket holes was cool rather than extremely clunky then you’ve put yourself back in the time frame of those heady days.

My newspaper luck had me hitting that one-in-five jackpot more frequently than I cared. Each time a lead headed into cyberspace it was a pain because once you write a good lead and lose it, you never get it back. Many times you can get close but for some reason, the lead never sounds as good as the first time you compose it. On the 15-20 minute ride back to the office, the lead would be composed and rewritten several times in my head. It was just a matter of getting there and inputting the characters. I think this is how my brain trained itself to keep being a nudje.

So now that a sequel was suggested my subliminal brain took the handoff from conscious brain and started working feverously on ideas for a sequel. Conscious brain would have never done that. It would have thought it presumptuous to write a sequel when the original idea hasn’t been published yet. But subliminal brain forged ahead and then started tapping me on the shoulder. Finally, to get rid of it I thought of a workable situation but it was still in the vague stage so subliminal brain didn’t pester me to write it down.

A few days later, when subliminal brain found a suitable scene it started pestering me to write it down. But before all the details came to me I had to figure out how the scene would be used in the story. I had a great scene in mind. Years ago, a Russian delegation had been sent by the state department to tour a US factory. There was an incident that happened that only those present knew about and, of course, those people to whom the story was related. The story made an impression on me so that I conscious brain called it up about 20 years later. The two brains working together came up with this really great scene. To subliminal brain’s joy I wrote it all down and then wrote an outline of the general sequel plot line, and gave the conditions under which the scene could occur.

To my relief, so far, subliminal brain has left me alone. I am not being pestered to jot anything down and unless this blog entry dredges anything up, I may not hear from subliminal brain about the sequel for a while. When the time comes I’ll poke and prod him to nudje me with ideas until I commit them to paper. In fact, I have a tremendous guard against “writer’s block,” something that never seems to be a problem with me. Should I ever get stumped, I’ll just saturate my consciousness with a subject and hand off the task to subliminal brain. When he’s ready, I’m sure he’ll get in touch with me. Meanwhile, I am terribly busy.


Posted by Greg Miller on October 15, 2011 at 10:45 AM Comments comments (0)

By the end of this summer, I was reasonably comfortable with the final edits of The Fastnacht League. Now I am going through that excruciating period of sending queries to agents and publishers, an involving process. I thought my writing on The Fastnacht League was done. I was wrong. Each query letter has to take into account several different factors. I have to research each agent and write to their specific instructions. I have to find a publisher with similar books and then craft a letter explaining why my novel fits into their line of books. Instant rejections come from sending out a one-size-fits-all, impersonal clone of a letter. The annoying part is that these exercises in letter writing take time and energy away from several other projects that need attention.

The "Bonnet Ripper" - Amish "Bonnet & Buggy Romances"

Posted by Greg Miller on October 5, 2011 at 12:20 AM Comments comments (1)

I am running into an interesting wall.

If I tell people that The Fastnacht League is about the Amish, I get a strange look because they think I'm writing romance novels.

If I tell them it involves baseball, then immediately it gets stamped as a sports book.

Then there is the third reaction. My son was a senior at the University of Maryland last year and at a career day for seniors he noticed Tim Kurkjian, Major League Baseball analyst on ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight” and “SportsCenter," standing in the corner. Kurkjian is a University of Maryland alumni. My son is anything but shy and he is a rabid sport fan so he knows Tim Kurkjian and most other ESPN personalities, so naturally he walks up to him and starts talking sports. After a while, he mentions that "my dad is writing a book." Mr. Kurkjian graciously asks what it's about so my son says "the Amish and baseball." He said at that point Mr. Kurkjian gets an odd look on his face and he says, in surprise, "I never heard anything like that before. When he finishes that book I have to have a copy."

I will be sure to get Mr. Kurkjian a copy to read.

The downside of that is when someone writes a book that is unique, there may be a reason why a book like that might never have been published before. In this case, I wonder if I didn't fly too close to the sun of Amish serial romances, and my chances of getting a serious read are melting.



Update on projects

Posted by Greg Miller on August 4, 2011 at 6:00 PM Comments comments (0)

The past few weeks I have been involved in several projects, each one threatening to be a huge time sap. Ideas that were starting to form have come into focus and they are all competing for my discretionary time. I’m overwhelmed.

I am in the query process of the Fastnacht League novel. I am contacting prospective publishers and agents and that is a time consuming process. The contact is the easier part. Finding the right publisher or agent, the one that publishes or represents my type of novel is a difficult task. There are about 400 publishers in the US and finding the right fit is correct approach. Telling a publisher who specializes in apples that you have this great orange is not going to get the book printed. Finding the agent or publisher who likes oranges takes a bit of research and I am hoping to get better at that skill. Maybe that’s an art form.

Meanwhile, it’s on to the next project and that’s where I am being tugged Gumby-like in several directions. After discussions with a British science publisher, I think I’ve tried to cover too much in my book about the missing moon rocks. I essentially have three books. The one they are interested in will focus on what the rocks retrieved from the moon tell us. The second book would tell the story of the missing rocks that were given to 135 countries and all 50 states and the efforts being made to find out where they are. The third book would be a recounting of the Space Race, described by what was happening in America at the time, told from my personal perspective and minor involvement in the Apollo program.

I uncovered yet another space story that I think is worth telling. A comet hit the earth millions of years ago and the debris from the impact were thrown as far as Greenland. I know what you are probably thinking and it might be along the lines of “yeah, right!” The scientist who told me about it last week can show me the crater on the ocean floor in the China Sea and another scientist has already found dust from the Gobi Desert in Mongolia in ice core samples he took from Greenland. That was interesting but what freaked me out was the scientist telling me that the ocean floor is cratered just like the moon and that you can see many craters as long as you look in places about 1,000 feet below the surface. The idea that many large enough objects have hit the earth with enough impact to make huge craters is unsettling to me. I never thought of it before.

My current interest in China has nothing to do with the comet crashing─that was millions of years ago. Bob Dylan’s tour in April got interested me and then, in May, I got to talking with a Chinese publisher about rock and roll and an idea for a novel I have and how it could be translated directly into Chinese and marketed in the Far East. The publisher interested me in writing a history of rock and roll in China. I told him that as I researched China for the novel I’d probably have enough information of a history. He liked that idea more than my novel but he did say he’d consider publishing both.

I understand that publishers and agents like to know that there are other books in the pipeline but, seriously, my pipe is getting pretty jammed.

Book Expo America

Posted by Greg Miller on June 17, 2011 at 3:22 PM Comments comments (0)

Last month, at Book America Expo, I got to visit the booths of various book publishers. As large an exhibit as it was, housed in theJacob K. Javits Center in Manhattan, there were only a smattering of book publishers, and it still took hours to see all of them. The Javits Center is huge but if they were all there, even the Javits Center wouldn't be able to hold them.

As it was, I could pick and choose who I wanted to speak with, and it was invaluable because of the immediacy of being there. To find out by email or text message would have been a painful experience. It was amazing to be able to walk right up to a book publisher and pitch my ideas.

I found out some valuable information about how the publishers work. They are looking for authors with new ideas. Their main function at this type of expo is to attract wholesale dealers (buyers) with their line of books. Their most attrractive book covers were displayed prominently and copies of most of their big sellers were right there to peruse. Each booth gave you an instant survey of the types of books they felt were valuable.

In the picture below, a publisher's representative speaks with a potential buys, probably a bookstore owner [buyer]. 

Amish Online ?

Posted by Greg Miller on April 25, 2011 at 7:42 AM Comments comments (0)

The Internet can be wonderful and amazingly handy at times. I have found a site that is not "just for fancy" but very useful in my research of the Amish.


Elizabethtown College (near Hershey) is a center for Amish studies and the person currently wearing the mantle of probably most respected author on the study of this religious sect is Dr. Donald B. Kraybill. I came across his name after locating the few books in my local library that are published on the subject. Between Dr. Kraybill and the late John Hostetler, who wrote the touchstone book, "The Amish," the most informative books in existence have come from their pens.

Another good source is the Elizabethtown College site itself - just look to the Young Center for Anabaptist Studies and there is a separate tab with this link:


Following the menu on the left hand side is a listing:"Experts" and there you will find a Who's Who of Amish studies.

There is also a tab for reference books and if you are going to look for anywhere to start learning about the Amish, this website "makes for a beginning."




On The Road To New Jerusalem (Pennsylvania)

Posted by Greg Miller on April 10, 2011 at 10:34 AM Comments comments (0)

I spent parts of two days back in the Amish country. This morning I went for my morning run and spent an hour gaining long gradual hills and rolling down the backs. The workout in spectacular rural scenery was rewarding. The visual contrasts were everywhere. Abandoned farms tucked in between prosperous ones. Nice, tidy homesteads next to chaotic, desperate-looking homes.

With deserted roads and an unlimited running course stretching out in several directions, you only need to select the type of run you want. The road was in excellent condition even after such a harsh winter as we had this year/. No need to come all the way out here and salt roads to death. There were fields on both sides, either hay cut down to stubble or corn, with row and row of neat, sheared off stalks. There were a few hayfields that were not harvested, the hay just laying bent where the wind and snow had carved still discernable patterns.

A few cows turned their heads to watch me run by. They probably don’t get much day-to-day variety and I was a sight a little bit out of the ordinary for them. I never realized that a cow can turn his head and neck about 180 degrees and put his head alongside his back like that.

I came across a sign that said “Hidden Valley Road.” And when I crested a hill there were three cheese box suburban houses in a row and looking between them I could see that they had a spectacular view of what must have been “Hidden Valley” dropping off below them. I suppose the backs of those homes had wide expanses of glass to make the most of that view.

An interesting thought occurred to me when I saw the cut hay fields. In The Fastnacht League, the baseball is being played in the hayfields in early spring. I thought there would be no hay bales for bases if there was no hay to cut. However, I saw that there were open barns showing stacks of hay that was still left from the long winter. I also saw that the hay bales were dragged out into the hay fields and left for cow fodder.

The objective of my visit to Amish country was to get some fastnachts and take some countryside photos. After Shrove Tuesday, fastnachts become scarce. My good friend, Kevin Freeman, ordered a dozen from a bakery near Lancaster and we met in Adamstown (you all know where that is, don’t you?) so I could trade for them with a square of his favorite crumb cake, made by a bakery in Hackensack. I’m not sure who was more excited. Meeting at a restaurant and trading bags was a humorous watered-down French Connection moment.

Fastnachts come in all shapes and sizes. In my prior, sheltered fastnacht existence, I only ever saw one type, my Aunt Mim’s version. She was the local master of the delicacy and made more than 200 dozen for her church very year. There was no need to go anywhere else. This trip to Berks and Lancaster counties, I’ve seen two completely different types- one was very evenly rounded, the second a uniform rectangular shape. They both have that fastnacht smell, so they can be nothing but fastnachts. My aunts were more irregular, shaped like odd angled diamonds. Fastnachts are made by shaping the dough any way you want and apparently thy used a rounder cutter mold and the other square ones were hand cut into strips from a large piece of flat dough.

When is a book done being written?

Posted by Greg Miller on April 4, 2011 at 11:14 AM Comments comments (2)

When is a book done being written? The answer could be as equivocating as a law prof in undergrad used to say, “It depends.” I’ve been told that some people love the writing part but have a hard time changing anything they’ve written. Others enjoy the revision process so much the manuscript has to be pried out of their hands before they destroy it. Richard Nixon was said to be that way. He would write a magnificent speech, revise it until it was bad, and at some point his staff had to get it away from him before he self-destructed.

Writing The Fastnacht League took an unusual turn for me. On much shorter pieces I usually go straight through from start to end. When I started writing The Fastnacht League, I knew I wanted to showcase the cultural differences of the Amish but I wanted to explain how what may seem odd or contradictory to the outside world is rooted in a logical explanation. My interest in the Amish came from reading about their history and how their society evolved during the 1900s into present day. I had no idea the story would take a baseball turn.

I had heard other writers talk about how a story takes a life of its own and didn’t exactly know how that worked. My background is in newspaper reporting, so everything I used to write was immediate. Sure, there was a back story, especially researching a feature, but the facts are there in front of you; it’s more of a selection process to get them on a page and that process becomes more of selective omission, especially for a chronic rambler like me.

I had come close to finishing my story and I knew my ending well in advance, sometimes a great advantage but my particular problem was getting from a point near the end to the actual ending. I must have wrestled with that problem for a year. Thankfully my brain was working on the problem unconsciously and one day the answer just came tumbling out and I had my ending.

I cleaned up my draft, finishing at the end of October. Then I revised the 94,000 words, fearfully watching my manuscript shrink to 88,000 words. My mentor assured me this was normal. Now I’m rereading and finding the annoying continuity problems that escaped me from before - like a character’s name changing, Kate to Katie, Annie to Anna. For some reason I flip flopped and kept using the names interchangeably. I will continue to polish the manuscript until I get an answer from my query letters hopefully asking for more pages or the entire tome.

I find it curious when I hear writers say, “It wrote itself.” That would be great, but that is not my experience. My brain could be doing other things while I write--just call me when it’s done.

There's a first time for everyone

Posted by Greg Miller on March 25, 2011 at 2:03 PM Comments comments (5)

Whoa! This is the first entry. Normally this could be intimidating but that would be only for perfectionists or people worried about first impressions. This is just a kickoff entry and the take away from this post is a description of what will be in future posts.

The posts will take on several different themes but the two most important, the driving themes behind the need for this blog are: why I am writing or have written about a particular subject, and the general progress I am making in the my primary, concentrated effort, that is, getting the fiction novel I am writing, "The Fastnacht League," traditionally published, in tree book form.

From time to time, I will comment on recent incidents that might have to do with the other articles I have written and possible future article ideas.

Since I am also professionally connected to the Publishing Industry, specifically digital POD printing, I will be commenting from time to time on some aspect of the industry that I find might be of use for those interested, passing along the latest in this constantly changing field.

This could all change but for the moment these are the subject areas this blog will cover.