A couple weeks ago I posted a review of Sweet Misfortune by Kevin Milne, and Kevin was kind enough to comment. When I mentioned I'm interested in writing a novel, he was also kind enough to answer some questions.
How do you come up with ideas?
I typically find that idea generation starts with a random kernel of a thought, be it a title, a character name, a location, or even a question. Not a full blown idea, per se, but more of a mental lead. These initial, rudimentary thoughts can pop up just about anywhere. For example, with my most recent book, Sweet Misfortune, I was having lunch with a buddy at Panda Express, and while I was reading my fortune cookie I thought of how fun it would to twist fortune cookie sayings into something less optimistic. I didn't know what story would evolve, I just knew that I wanted it to include 'misfortune cookies'. From there I sat down and started typing, which I consider the key to coming up with ideas. If I just sit around trying to think of ideas, I usually end up with a whole lot of nothing. But if I start putting sentences together on the page, ideas start to magically take shape. Honestly, I believe my brain is in my fingertips…without them moving on the keyboard, nothing happens.
Do you write an outline or character profiles to work from?
I try to wait to put any sort of summary together until I have a chapter or two written, because by then I’ve begun to get a sense for where things are headed. By virtue of working under contract for a large publisher, I am required to have a general outline for them to approve. I try to keep this to a single page—just a high level overview of what I think the story is about and a [very] rough sense of what will happen. This leaves the door open for creativity to drive the details of the plot. The one time I tried working from a more comprehensive outline, I hated the final product and ended up scrapping half the manuscript just a few weeks before my deadline.
As for character profiles, I’ve never tried them. Maybe I should, but I find that the characters tend to develop all on their own, so I let the story dictate their various personas.
What do you do when you get stuck?
Actually, I have a well-established and oft-used routine when it comes to overcoming writer’s block: First, I lie on my bed and mope about being stuck, which doesn’t help at all, but sometimes leads to a nice power nap. Then I complain to my wife about how the story is going nowhere, how the well of ideas in my head has gone completely dry, and how I’ll never be able to write another book for as long as I live. Next, I go back to my computer, stare at it for a while, and then decide that eating cookies and ice-cream will help the situation. Finally, five pounds later, I remind myself that the only way to get unstuck is to start typing again. And so I type. And I type. And I type some more. And even if I write several pages of complete junk that I end up deleting, that junk will eventually foster a new direction or an idea that I hadn’t considered before, and the mental block magically disappears…at least for a while.
How did you get published? (i.e. find an agent or work directly with a publisher, or...?)
The mechanics of getting published was fairly straightforward: I bought a book at B&N that listed every publisher in the U.S., sorted by genre. All of them have their own submission criteria, but once I got a handle on that it was just a matter of sending copies of the manuscript in the mail. Still, I never expected to get published.
From the time I was a young kid I loved putting words together—poetry, lyrics, short stories, essays, whatever—yet it never occurred to me that I could write something that others would want to read for entertainment. However, in the back of my mind I always wanted to try my hand at writing a book, just to see if I could do it. So during my lunch break at work about six years ago I made up my mind to take a crack at it. I quickly discovered that writing fiction was way more fun than responding to work emails, so I kept typing for the rest of the day, then went home and kept writing all through the night (literally). Three weeks later I was done with my first book, The Paper Bag Christmas. I still doubted that anyone would want to publish it, but I printed a bunch of copies anyway and sent them to various small publishers around the country. The first one to bite was Granite Publishing, in Orem, Utah. After the book’s initial release, I was able to take the finished product to several different literary agents, and eventually signed with one in Pennsylvania who had connections with the ‘big’ NYC publishers. From there, things sort of snowballed. Hachette Book Group (formerly Time Warner Books) loved PBC and wanted to buy the rights, and the rest is history.
Are you a full-time writer? and do you have a degree in writing/literature/english/etc., or something else?
Hmmm…am I a full-time writer? I guess that depends on how one defines full-time! Do I write at least forty hours per week? Yep. Is writing the only thing I do? Nope. If I had two kids instead of five, I would have probably given up my day job a year or two ago, but I like the comfort of full benefits and a regular salary, so for now I’m pulling double-duty. My wife keeps urging me to take the plunge into full-time writing, but I’m not ready for that leap of faith. So for the time being, I have a ‘steady’ job during the day, then I write in the evenings and on weekends.
I don’t have degrees in anything even closely associated with writing. I earned a BS in psychology from BYU, followed by an MBA at Penn State. In retrospect, I wish I’d taken a creative writing class or two somewhere along the way, because now I'm just sort of 'winging it' based on whatever language skills I acquired through high-school. And who knows, with a little more encouragement and guidance, I might have tried writing a book much sooner.