Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Back on Track

I guess it’s obvious that I haven’t been blogging this summer. Truth is, I haven’t been doing much writing at all. At first, that downtime was a relief. After a busy spring with tight deadlines, I was happy to relax a bit. With no new due dates in sight, I was looking forward to developing my own writing ideas.

That may sound like a strange statement, so let me explain. For twenty-five years I’ve been writing for the educational market. Those publishers target school and public libraries with their marketing. Because the books are usually curriculum oriented, educational publishers have needs they want to fill and writers try to get those assignments. It means that for most of my writing career, I’ve written books on assignment knowing from the start that the publisher wants the book I’m writing and that it will be published.

The other publishing arm in writing for kids is the trade market. For those publishers, the author writes a book or does a proposal and then tries to sell it to a publisher. I was eager to focus on the trade market this summer, but unfortunately, I’ve floundered for a couple of reasons.

First, there is no certainty that publishers will be interested in my ideas. It means that I could spend a lot of time researching and writing a book or doing a proposal and then never find a publisher for it. I know how that feels because I’ve been there. Along with writing for the educational market I’ve developed some of my own ideas too. So far, I haven’t sold any of them. That has weighed on my mind this summer making me wonder if it’s possible that I can come up with an idea that a publisher will want. What’s the secret? I seem to have no clue.

I’m also discovering that it’s hard to stay motivated when I don’t have a definite deadline set by a publisher. I’ve read books and articles with suggestions about how to stay motivated without deadlines. One is to set your own due dates. That doesn’t work for me. If I’m feeling lazy and unmotivated, it’s easy for me to ignore self-imposed deadlines.

Another suggestion is to set deadlines and then have writing friends hold you accountable. But my friends are too understanding, especially if we’re all in the same boat. So, I’ve struggled this summer with trying to find an idea and gather the motivation to see it through.

As always, the way to pull myself out of a writing slump is to get to work. With that in mind, I’ve been researching possible ideas. Unfortunately, I’ve also been discarding those ideas because they are topics that have already been done. Finally, I decided to continue researching one of those ideas because it was about women in sports, a topic I love. My hope was that a new idea would come from that research, something that hadn’t already been done. And that is what happened. I’ve landed on an idea now that I believe has potential and I’m enjoying the research.

The next step is motivating myself to stick with the project even on the days when doubts fill my mind. I think I’ve figured that out too. I’ve penciled in a writing conference for the spring of 2019. It’s a big conference, which means there will be several editors there. It’s a custom for editors who speak at conferences to accept submissions from attendees after the conference even though those editors usually only take manuscripts from agents. That is a motivator for me because I’m cheap. I feel like it’s a waste of money to go to a conference if I don’t have anything ready to submit after the conference.

So, I’m doing my umpteenth rewrite on a picture book biography and I’m working on my new idea with the conference due date in mind. In the meantime, I would like to hear from other writers. How do you decide if an idea is strong enough to stand out in the marketplace? And how do you stay confident when self-doubt threatens to derail you?

My Coffee Shop Office

As I write this, I’m sitting at my regular table by the window in the coffee shop where I like to start my day. People laugh when I tell them I can concentrate better there. I see their point. It’s definitely not quiet. There is music playing and people are chatting with friends who they have met for coffee and bakery. Some are gathering for business meetings.

It’s easy for me shut out those sounds though because I don’t need to do anything about them. At home, I’m tuned in to sounds. One of those noises may be something that needs my attention. At the coffee shop, it’s all just background noise, and there are studies showing that some noise can be good for creativity. According to those studies, an environment that’s too quiet can be just as bad as a very noisy one. In fact, there are Apps now with coffee shop background noise to play when you’re working.

I don’t think those Apps would work for me because better concentration is only one reason I like going to the coffee shop. Those morning trips also help me get a better start to my day. When I stay home, I tend to dawdle in the mornings. I eat breakfast and read the paper. I may even turn on the TV to get the morning weather report. I don’t do any of those things on days when I go to the coffee shop. Instead, I get up and get going as if I have a regular job. And when I’m at the coffee shop, I can’t throw in a load of laundry or pick up a few things around the house. All I have to work on is the writing I brought with me. So, I settle down to business, and that’s good because getting started is the hardest part of writing for me. Once I get going on a project, it’s easy to keep the momentum going when I go home to the computer.

Working at the coffee shop also gives me another way of looking at my writing. I never take my computer with me because I don’t want to leave it unattended when I get a refill. So, I write in longhand. That slows me down a bit and that’s exactly what I need when I’m trying to work out some detail or a problem I’m having with the writing.

Of course, the morning shot of caffeine doesn’t hurt. On the other hand, the bakery has consequences. Right now, I’m needing to take off a few pounds and my mornings at the coffee shop probably have a lot to do with that. I figure if I’m taking up a table at a place of business I need to buy more than a cup of coffee. So, for now, I’m limiting myself to a couple mornings a week at the “office.” I save those trips for days when I trying to work out problems with manuscripts.

I admit that there is a limit to how much noise I can tune out. The coffee shop was much quieter when I arrived over an hour ago. There were only a few regulars here then. They were reading, working quietly, and talking softly. But more people have arrived, and the chatter is getting louder. Plus, although I can’t prove it, I think they’ve cranked the music up a few notches. That’s my sign that it’s time to pack up and head home to work at the computer. I’m ready for that transition now because after an hour or so in my “office” I’m on a roll.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Big Magic”

I’ve been reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. It’s not the type of book I usually read. In fact, truth be told, I started reading it once before several months ago and couldn’t get into it. But the timing seemed better when I picked up the book again recently. I had lost enthusiasm with my writing and needed some inspiration. So, I went back to my copy of Big Magic and started at the beginning again. This time it was just what I needed.

Gilbert got my attention early with the section “Enchantment” about the magic of ideas. She says ideas come to us from the universe. When it happens, we have two choices – saying yes or no. If we say no, Gilbert believes the idea moves on to someone else until it finds the right person, someone who is eager to work on it.

Unfortunately, something that happens to me more often than I care to admit is that I begin work on an idea and then lose interest. The result is my collection of half-finished manuscripts. Gilbert has a philosophical approach to that. “If a project doesn’t work out, you can always think of it as having been a worthwhile and constructive experiment,” she wrote. I’m more into feeling guilty.

Unfinished manuscripts nag at my conscience because it seems like such a waste of time to put so much effort into a project and then let it go. So now and then, I pull out one of those manuscripts determined to finish it this time around. But it’s hard to get back into a project that has sat in a drawer too long. I usually end up stuffing it back into a drawer a few days later.

Big Magic got me thinking about those half-finished manuscripts in a different way. Instead of feeling guilty about not finishing, I tried to figure out why I lose enthusiasm for some projects. I’ve decided it’s because I start them for the wrong reasons. Most often the reason is that I thought the idea was marketable. That’s not enough. It takes a lot of work to research and write a nonfiction book. It’s hard to put that much effort into anything if you don’t love what you’re doing.

After reading Gilbert’s thoughts on the magic of ideas, I’ve started getting rid of some of those old projects. The process is very freeing. Worrying and feeling guilty about unfinished manuscripts wastes a lot of energy. So, I’m letting go of projects I feel I should do to make time for those I’m meant to do. If Gilbert is right, maybe the ideas I’m letting go are moving on to people who are enthusiastic about them and will see them through to the end. I like imagining that possibility.

Coming up for Air

A couple of years ago, I blogged about how freelance writing often ends up being feast or famine. One day I’m wondering if I’ll ever get another writing assignment. The next thing I know, I’m too busy with too many projects. Some people thrive under pressure. I’m not one of them. Being too busy makes me feel that no matter how hard I work, I’m not doing my best with any project. That’s where I’ve been the last couple of months.

I don’t like feeling that way, and I try hard to avoid it. I start out thinking I have my schedule under control. I put the due dates on my calendar and plan what to do when. It all seems so workable on paper. Then life throws a couple of curves and my well-thought-out schedule no longer works.

Fortunately, I was able to meet my deadlines, and I have no other projects on the horizon for now. And so, I’m coming up for air. I’m taking time to read, blog, and get back in touch with friends I’ve been neglecting lately. And yes, I’m planning my next project. After all, the best part of being in the famine part of this business is having time to sit back and think about what I want to write instead of just focusing on what needs to be done.

First up, is a manuscript to send to an editor who spoke at a writers’ conference I attended earlier this month. The editor is accepting manuscripts from attendees for a short period of time, and I want take advantage of that. I’m working on something completely different than what I’ve done in the past, which means that it’s not a biography. I’m discovering that challenging myself with something different is a lot of fun.

I’ve also made a decision about a picture book biography I’ve been working on for several months. I like the subject I’m writing about, but I don’t have enough enthusiasm for the  picture book biography. I think my subject would fit better in a collective biography I’ve been researching, so that’s what I’m going to do with her.

Hopefully, I’ll soon have new due dates to meet. But for now, I’ll enjoy having time to relax and to try out some new ideas.

 

What’s in a Name?

I was not prepared many years ago when the publisher of my first book asked me what name I wanted to appear on the cover. To tell the truth, I was just excited about finally getting published. I had never given any thought to the name on the cover. But since the editor asked, I figured it deserved some consideration.

I briefly thought about using my maiden name, writing as Barbara Lynch Kramer, but I’ve always had trouble finding books written by authors who use three names. I forget the order of their names and don’t know what to type in for the search. I also toyed with the idea of using my middle initial – Barbara A. Kramer. I don’t remember why I didn’t go in that direction. I guess I just figured it wasn’t necessary. After all, how many authors would be named Barbara Kramer? Turns out there are at least three. Nampeyo and Her Pottery by Barbara Kramer was published in 1996. That was soon followed by The Bud Wilson Dream Book by another Barbara Kramer.

Those books made me regret that I had not put more thought into what name I would use, but by that time, I had a couple more books out and I figured it was too late change my name. If I did, people might think my first books were written by someone else. So I continued writing as Barbara Kramer and told myself it wouldn’t be a problem. After all, Nampeyo and Her Pottery is a very specialized book about a Hopi-Tewa potter named Nampeyo. The Bud Wilson Dream Book is a novel for adults. Both are completely different than my biographies for children and young adults. There shouldn’t be any confusion, I reasoned. Except, there was.

People who create lists of books showed Nampeyo and Her Pottery as one of mine. I contacted those people and explained that I didn’t write it. Hopefully, they made the correction on their lists because I try hard not to take credit for what other authors have done.

I ran into another problem with my name a couple of weeks ago when I decided to finally set up an author’s page on Amazon. I’m not the most technically gifted person, so I was very pleased with myself when I finally got a page set up with my books on it and even a link to my blog. That is until I decided to test it. I typed my name into Amazon’s search and came up with a listing of my books. However, the link to my author’s page was not there. Instead, there was a link to an author’s page for Barbara J. Kramer, who apparently does not exist. When I went to her page all that was listed was two books, The Bud Wilson Dream Book and my biography about Alexander Graham Bell.

I contacted Amazon and their technical department solved the problem. But the experience left me wishing, once again, that I had given more thought to the question my first editor asked: What name do you want to go on the cover?

 

The Upside of Failure

Walt DisneyOne thing I enjoy about writing biographies for children is exploring the way my subjects handle obstacles and failures. What I find especially interesting is how many times failure leads to something better. Walt Disney is an example.

Disney failed several times on his road to success. As a young man living in Kansas City, he started his own business called Laugh-O-Gram films. He made short films based on fairy tales changing them to make the films funny. Those cartoons were shown in theaters before the main feature. Disney worked hard, but he did not make enough money to stay afloat. He closed his business and packed everything he owned into one suitcase. With a train ticket and $40 in his pocket, he headed to California.

He hoped to find work as an actor there, but when no one hired him, he went back to drawing cartoons. He teamed up with his brother Roy to start a new business making cartoons. One day the distributor of his short films hired Disney to create a new character. Disney developed Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. The new cartoons were a great success, so successful that the distributor got greedy. He decided he would make the Oswald cartoons himself. There was nothing Disney could do about it because the distributor owned the character. To make matters worse, the distributor convinced Disney’s cartoonists to leave Disney and work for him.

Disney had lost the character he created and his cartoonists, but he could not dwell on his loss. He had a studio to run, and the only way he could keep it going was to create a new character. That’s when he came up with the idea of a cheerful mouse with large ears. The rest, as they say, is history.

Another example is Oprah Winfrey. In 1977, she was failing as a reporter and co-anchor of the evening news at a television station in Baltimore. The problem was Oprah just wanting to be herself when she read the news. She sometimes changed the words to a story to make it sound like the way she talked. If she made a mistake, such as pronouncing a word wrong, she laughed. The station manager wanted her to be more serious in reading the news.

Oprah also showed her emotions on the air. One time when she had to interview a woman who had lost her children in a fire, Oprah cried. If a story made her angry, it showed. The station manager said she needed to be objective. Oprah was taken off the evening news and began doing short reports on the morning news. It was a stressful time and Oprah worried that she might lose her job. Things changed with the arrival of a new station manager. He started a morning talk show called People Are Talking and made Oprah the co-host. Oprah knew from the beginning that she had found her calling. “This is what I was born to do,” she said after the first show. “This is like breathing.” If she had not failed as a news anchor, The Oprah Winfrey Show may never have been born.

I could go on with other examples. The people I’ve written about have shown again and again that failure is not the end. It could very well be the first step towards something better. I hope the kids who read my books see that truth and remember it when they feel they have failed.

Five Things about Lin-Manuel Miranda

My biography, Lin-Manuel Miranda Award-Winning Musical Writer, was released this month. My initial interest in Miranda was because of his great success with the Broadway musical Hamilton. I was curious about Miranda and his writing. I wondered why he wrote a musical about our Founding Fathers and cast African American actors in the roles of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Miranda, who is of Puerto Rican descent, played the role of Alexander Hamilton. As I began my research, I quickly discovered that getting to know more about Miranda was a lot of fun. Here are five of my favorite tidbits from my research.

Miranda didn’t like piano lessons. He began taking lessons when he was six, but he did not stick with it. He didn’t like to practice. Turns out, piano lessons were not necessary because Miranda can play by ear. He can hear a song and then sit down and play it without seeing the music.

But he did like applause. Miranda performed in a piano recital when he was about seven. When he finished his song, the audience applauded. Miranda like that attention so much, that he played another song and then another. After his fourth song, the teacher nudged Miranda off the bench to give the other students a chance.

Miranda got his first acting role in sixth grade. He played rock star Conrad Birdie in the musical Bye Bye Birdie. All the girls had to pretend to faint when he walked on stage in his shiny gold jacket. That was heady stuff for a 12-year-old who was shorter than most of the girls he knew and pretty much off their radar.

Miranda writes and then rewrites, rewrites, and rewrites. He wrote his first play, In the Heights, when he was in college. Eight years later, it opened at 37 Arts Theatre in New York, and a little over a year later, it opened on Broadway. Getting a play he wrote in college ready for a New York stage took a lot of rewriting. By the time Miranda was finished, all that was left of the original musical was a few notes from the first song.

He wrote several songs for The Electric Company, a children’s show on PBS. One song featured a rap battle between a very negative apple and an optimist hot dog. Miranda appeared on the show as the hot dog, who countered the negative words spewed out by the apple with positive words. You can watch that video here.

As for Miranda’s casting decisions for Hamilton, he said he wanted people to feel that everyone is part of the United States even if they do not look like the Founding Fathers. Miranda has a lot to say about immigration, and that was another reason I wanted to write about him. I’m hoping my biography about Miranda plays at least a small part in getting kids to talk about immigration. They are important conversations to have, now more than ever.

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