Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Posts tagged ‘writing’

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.

After the First Draft

I finally finished the first draft. My sigh of relief as I typed that final paragraph could be heard across three states. The writing is in sorry shape, but that’s okay. I’m just happy to be moving on to the rewrite, the part I love.

One thing I’ll be working on is cutting. I need to delete about 1,000 words to get the manuscript down to the 8,000 word limit for the series. It could be worse, in fact, it has been. There are times when I’ve had to cut manuscripts by half. I don’t mind because what I end up with is a tighter, more focused piece.

As I wrote in my previous post, I’ve struggled with finding the focus of this book. The one-sentence summary of what is important about my subject has been elusive. The answer finally came to me when I was having lunch with a friend. We chatted about our current writing projects, and the conversation came around to the things I like about my subject. As I explained what I admire most about my subject, it came to me. I realized mid-sentence that I was actually talking about what needed to be the focus of the biography. Knowing the focus makes cutting easy because I can delete the parts that don’t support that main idea.

I’ll also be taking another look at problem paragraphs. Sometimes I work hard on a paragraph, but no matter what I do, it doesn’t sound right. I’ve learned there are a couple of reasons for that. Either the paragraph is in the wrong place, or it doesn’t belong in the book at all.

Rewriting also involves smoothing and polishing, finding just the right words to convey an idea. I need to think about energy too, using the active rather than the passive voice and choosing strong action verbs.

Finally, I need to lower the reading level a bit. That means dividing some longer sentences into shorter ones. I’ll also replace some difficult words with easier ones that have fewer syllables.

It’s a lot to think about, but I love rewriting because that’s when the book really takes shape. And that’s satisfying. As the George Peppard character on The A-Team used to say, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

Wrestling with a First Draft

As I’m nearing the end of another first draft, I’m reminded of how messy they can be. “Don’t worry about first drafts,” experienced writers advise. “The most important thing is to just get something down on paper. Allow yourself to write crap.”

I follow that advice. Yet what always astonishes me is how hard it is to get that crap down on paper. One thing that helps me is to set daily word goals. I most often set a goal of 500 words a day. It’s a word count I can reach with minimal hair pulling, and many times I surpass it. After all, the hardest part is just getting myself to the computer. Knowing I can quit after 500 words makes the whole process seem doable.

Unfortunately, the last couple of weeks, I’ve had to set a much lower goal in order to lure myself to the computer. So I set a goal of 200 words a day. That only worked a few days and then I came to a complete stop. I soon realized why.

First, I don’t have a clear focus for the book. I need to be able to tell in a single sentence what is important about the subject of my book. Usually, I have that sentence clearly in mind before I start writing. But with this book, I’m on the last chapter of my first draft and I still don’t have a clue. I’ve had trouble making that decision because the subject has had so many accomplishments and she continues to achieve.

Second, I’m not sure of what I want to include in the final chapter. That indicates a problem with my research. Fortunately, I’ve come up with a plan to get back on track.

First, since this book is part of a series, I’ll read other books in the series. Then I’ll try to tell in one sentence what those books are about. It should give me a clearer idea of the focus for my book because reading what others have done is always a big help.

Second, I’ll go back to the research. Nine times out of ten, when I get “stuck” with my writing it’s an indication that I don’t have enough information. I need to dig deeper.

Finally, I’ll keep reminding myself to relax and just do the best I can on the first draft. After all, what follows is the rewrite, and that’s the part I love.

Four Tips for Using Quotes

Quotes add punch to biographies for children and that helps to hold the readers’ attention. However, simply inserting a quote here or there does not make the writing interesting. It’s important to know when to use quotes and how to make them fit into the flow of the writing. Here are 4 tips for using quotes effectively.

  1. Use quotes when the person you’re writing about says it better than you could in your own words.

That was something I learned by chance when I was working on my very first biography which was about Alice Walker. I wanted to describe the day in 1961 when Walker left her small town in Georgia to head off to college. She took a bus to Atlanta, where the college was located, and made the mistake of sitting too close to the front. A white woman complained to the driver who asked Alice to move to the back.

I worked and worked on that paragraph trying to find a way to show how Walker felt about that experience, but I only got more and more frustrated. I finally realized it was impossible for me to describe how she felt. It was better to let her say it in her own powerful words: “But even as I moved, in confusion and anger and tears. I knew he had not seen the last of me,” Walker wrote in her book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens.

  1. Use quotes to show character.

In The Great and Only Barnum, Candace Fleming used a quote from P.T. Barnum to show his aversion to farm work as a child. “I always disliked work,” he noted. “Head-work I was excessively fond of. I was always ready to concoct fun, or lay plans for money-making, but hand-work was decidedly not in my line.” It’s easy to see how Barnum’s gift for thinking up ideas for fun and profit as a kid may have led to his future as a great showman.

  1. Use quotes to build or expand on an idea.

In an article about how U.S. presidents kept fit while they were in office, I wrote this paragraph about Truman. “Harry S. Truman was famous for his early morning walks. Reporters and photographers sometimes tagged along, but keeping up with him was not easy. Truman kept a brisk and exact pace.” That provided the basic information, but I decided to show how brisk and how exact by ending with this quote from Truman’s memoirs: “I walk two miles most every morning at a hundred and twenty-eight steps a minute,” he noted. The quote also showed a bit about his character.

  1. Keep quotes short.

Think of quotes as dialogue in a story. Readers lose focus if a character rambles on too long. So it’s best to interrupt the dialogue with action or another character’s comments. It’s the same with nonfiction. A good way to keep quotes short is to weave in background information and then end with a short quote. It’s what I did with the paragraph about Alice Walker heading off to college. A long description of that day in Walker’s own words would have taken away from what I felt was a strong quote. So I provided the background about her sitting too close to the front of the bus and the white woman complaining to the driver. Then I ended with Walker’s words.

Finding just the right quotes and weaving them into a manuscript is hard work, but it’s worth the effort. They can turn a dull manuscript into one that holds the readers’ attention.

How I Found My Writing Niche

The subtitle for this post could be: How a Second Grade Boy Helped Me Launch My Writing Career. I’ve said many times that I started writing biographies after following the advice of another author who said, “Write what you like to read.” I remembered how much I enjoyed reading biographies when I was a kid especially stories about trailblazers such as Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, and Elizabeth Blackwell. But the truth is, it took me a long time before I considered writing any type of nonfiction. It was a second grade boy who set me on that track.

Like most beginning writers, I dreamed of writing fiction, particularly the mysteries and ghost stories I loved to read. Mary Downing Hahn’s Wait ‘Til Helen Comes remains one of my all-time favorite books. Joan Lowery Nixon and Lois Duncan were my idols. For years, I ignored the fact that there were more opportunities for writers in nonfiction. That’s because editors are always looking for nonfiction, but most writers want to write fiction.

My change in attitude came when I was working as a media secretary at an elementary school. Seated at my desk, I watched as a class of second graders hurried into the IMC for checkout time. My favorite part of the job was when students asked me to help them find a book. I was not disappointed on that day as a smiling young man approached the desk.

“Can you help me find a book?” he asked.

“Sure, what kind of books do you like to read?”

“Good books,” he said.

That was my cue to recommend what I thought were good books. “Have you read any of the Henry and Mudge books?” I asked. But they did not appeal to him. I recommended a couple of other possibilities from the fiction section, as I assumed that’s what he would want to read.

Then he surprised me. “No, I want real books,” he said.

“What do you mean real books?”

“You know, true stories,” he answered.

“Oh, you mean nonfiction.”

“Yeah, real books with facts and stuff.”

It didn’t take long to find him enough books in the nonfiction section to keep him busy for a while. I soon realized that there were many other kids like him, kids who liked nonfiction. They wanted to read about dinosaurs, sports stars, bugs, unusual buildings, airplanes, and faraway places, almost any subject imaginable.

For the next few days, I thought about that student and noticed how many other kids asked to be directed to the nonfiction section. I also thought about the author who advised me to “write what you like to read.” It soon became clear to me that I should be writing real books, in my case, biographies. Once I focused on biographies, the publishing doors started to open. I had found what I was meant to write, and I thank that second grade boy for setting me on that path.

 

Editorial Feedback

feedbackI just registered for a writers’ conference coming up in a few weeks. One thing I like about conferences is they offer opportunities to get feedback from an editor on a manuscript. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it’s hard to get that kind of attention these days. There was a time when editors sometimes made comments on a manuscript before returning it. At least that’s what I’m told. But those days are long gone.

Today, publishers are more likely to have a policy of contacting the author about a submission only if interested. Otherwise, nothing. So I seek out conferences where I can have a manuscript critiqued by an editor or agent who is speaking at that event. Critiques cost extra, but I consider it a good investment.

At the last conference I attended I got a critique of my first picture book biography, which I’ve been working on for a while. The editor noted a couple of main problems with it. One was the ending. The editor called it “anticlimactic.” No surprise there. I knew the ending wasn’t strong enough, but I had run out of ideas to try. The editor also said it was hard to connect with the subject of my story.

Another good thing about conferences is that attendees are often allowed to submit to editors and agents who speak at that event, at least for a limited time. That invitation includes editors from publishing houses that don’t normally accept unsolicited submissions. Because of that, I was also able to submit my picture book to an agent who spoke at a conference, and I soon heard back from her. She said basically the same things about my manuscript as the editor. I sensed a pattern.

Unfortunately, even though I knew what the manuscript needed, I wasn’t sure about how to get there. So I let it sit on the back burner for months while I tried to figure out the next step. Sometimes that’s the best thing to do with an unruly manuscript.

During those months, I worked on a variety of other projects, but the picture book was always at the back of my mind. Finally, the answer to what to do about the ending came to me in the form of an image of what I imagined would be a great final illustration. It gave me an idea of how I could end the manuscript on a high note. Anything I want to add about the subject’s life after that can go into an Author’s Note at the end of the book.

As for helping readers connect with my subject, I’m going back to the research to find additional details to show more of her personality. My new goal is to have the rewrite done in time for the upcoming writers’ conference.

A Stressful Writing Stage

misscalimero134521953016_art1In my previous post I wrote about the excitement of starting a new project and the first stage of writing nonfiction, which is the research. But after that post, you may have noticed that I disappeared from blogging. That’s because I was busy with the next writing stage, the first draft.

I had a couple of deadlines for my current book. The first chapter and an outline were due last week. It’s not hard for me to come up with a basic outline, a listing of what I plan to include in each chapter. However, since I only have a few weeks to write the book once the outline is approved, I try to get more work done up front. That means by the time I turn in the first chapter and the outline, I have a pretty good first draft.

Unfortunately, the first draft is the hardest part for me. So I’ve spent the last few weeks writing and fretting. I did a lot of cutting and pasting to figure out the flow of the chapters and went back to the research many times to find what I needed to fill in holes in the narrative.

It seemed like I was doing a lot of work, but I had a long way to go and my deadline loomed. So I worried and daydreamed about how much easier my life would be if I gave up writing. As I contemplated telling my editor that I couldn’t do the book after all, the words “you’ll never work in this town again” played in my mind. Clearly, I had reached the next step in my writing process – the freaking out stage!

I’ve been there many times, so I knew how to deal with it. I needed to be more accountable with my time. I sometimes think I’m very busy writing when in reality I’m spending a lot of my time just thinking and worrying. So I did what I always do when I reach the freaking out stage. I started keeping track of my hours.

It’s not a complicated system. When I sit down to write, I jot the time down in a notebook. When I get up for a snack or a trip to the bathroom, I write down the time I stopped. When I get back to the computer to work again, I write down when I started. At the end of the day, I use my notes to figure out how much time I spent actually working.

Being more accountable for my hours helps me in a few ways. First, it gets me to the computer early because I’m hoping to show that I worked a lot of hours that day.

My time chart also keeps me from checking email or Facebook because as soon as I switch to something other than writing, I need to take myself off the clock. When I’m not keeping track of my time, I do those things without thinking. I guess I feel that as long as I’m at the computer, I’m working even when I’m not.

Finally, being accountable for my time helps me calm down. I begin to see that I can get a lot done in just a few hours when I’m focused on writing and not getting distracted with other things.

My time chart got me through the freaking out stage and I made my deadline for the first chapter and outline. Now I’m happily working on rewriting to meet my next deadline which is for the complete book. When you hear from me again, I’ll be on the final stage of my writing process, the empty nest. More about that later.

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