J. Steve Miller
Current Work


Authors differ widely in how they write. My method would drive some crazy. Take what you can use; flush the rest. I'll write this piece slowly, a bit at a time. So come back occasionally if you want more. 

(For more about my writing, see my blog: www.freelancewriterblog.blogspot.com  .)

Where I Get My Ideas (7/21/07)

I have a chatty muse. 

Sometimes she bugs me relentlessly, feeding me ideas rapid fire while I'm driving, cooking, lifting weights or mowing.  While I'm writing one manuscript, she taunts me by offering juicy morsels for other articles or books or Websites. 

I never stifle her. (You don't want to offend your muse!) Instead, I'm never without paper and pen, a recorder, or a computer file to capture her musings.  Ideas accumulate much faster than I could ever shape them into articles or books.  I'm sure I'll die with hundreds of ideas that never see the printed page. 

I'm not complaining. I can't recall any instance of writer's block in a lifetime of writing. Not one. My most difficult decisions involve what ideas to cut. (Remember, I write almost exclusively nonfiction. Writer's block may be more of a fiction-specific disease.) 

Perhaps my muse is chatty because I feed her so well. I'm more reader than writer, more learner than teacher.  In every conversation with both the "small" and the "great" (I find everyone to be my intellectual superior in some way), I'm driven by insatiable curiosity.  

I read a wide variety of well-researched, well-written biographies and other factual books on a wide range of subjects. A healthy diet makes for a healthy muse. A healthy muse is a chatty muse. 

Spiritually-minded readers may take offence to my giving the glory to my muse rather than to God.  Actually, I consider it more offensive to attribute all my ideas to God, as some do. Since some of my "great" ideas are proven idiotic by later reflection or sound criticism, I hesitate to ever say dogmatically, "God gave me this idea." 

Don't get me wrong. I believe that God is the source of all wisdom. But I also believe that we often err in distinguishing God's ideas from our own. The prophet Jeremiah blasted people for declaring "Thus saith the LORD" when He'd not spoken.  Thus, I shy from routinely saying,  "God told me," when the idea may later prove to be more ignorant than inspired.  

Rather, I pray constantly for God's wisdom, humbly thanking Him for the great ideas, but attributing initial ideas to my muse with a little "m", which encompasses the ideas gleaned from others, my own reasoning,  and the promptings of God's Spirit. 

Capturing Ideas (8/10/07)

I don't just research for my present project; I read for a lifetime of writing. So whether I'm reading a biography of DaVinci, a weighty tome on investing, or a technical journal on ethnomusicology, I index it for ideas, quotes and stories. 

First, I underline or put a mark beside the paragraph. Then, in the back of the book, I jot down a reference: 

  • "quote, p. 76, contentment" 
  • "joke, 103, saving money" 

It may be months or even years before I put these in my illustration databases, both at www.character-education.info and www.youth-ministry.info , where I keep over 3600 illustrations. As I harvest the illustrations from a book, I put a check mark beside each reference so that I know it's in a database. 

Additionally, I copy and paste ideas from e-mails and online reading to files in my computer.  

I love collecting illustrations as much as anything I do. I've become a useful resource to educators, pastors, missionaries and fellow-writers. While some may begrudge the time spent typing in illustrations or summing up people stories, I see it as a way to get much more out of my reading. We remember so little of what we read. By taking time to harvest the good stuff, I remember multiples more than if I'd merely read it and set it aside. And what I don't remember, I can always find in my databases.  

So I begin writing an article or book. As I write, I draw from my databases, computer files, and the back of unharvested books for my illustrative material. 

On Finding and Crafting People Stories (8/10/07)

Readers will remember my stories long after they've forgotten my witty sentences or ten point outlines. I spoke on the importance and use of people stories at a character conference in St. Louis and  wrote an article based on that seminar here

On Inviting Criticism (7/22/07)

Criticism goes with the territory.  I'd rather get as much criticism as I can  before a work is permanently in print. I finished a second draft of my present book on money management seven months ago and sent it out to over forty readers of many types -  professional financial planners, professors, school administrators, young people, successful businessmen, relatives, etc. 

Jamey Maddox (left), former business analyst with Coca Cola, was one of 30+ readers who gave invaluable input. 

Yet, after seven months of input, just last week I went head to head with a financial planner on some statements that he deemed either misleading or entirely unfounded. He was right. Yet, nobody else had even noticed! His comments saved me from getting nailed after publication and more importantly, kept me from publishing error.  Glad I didn't stop getting input after the first 25 readers!

Most readers felt it should be kept in a movie script format. One argued for traditional dialogue. Others didn't even notice. All of this input is invaluable.  One pointed out the the name of one of my characters could be construed as copying the name of a financial analyst on cable news. 

I was amazed at how every reader contributed a different type of input. It's not like I had one confusing chapter that everyone said needed to be changed. Their comments were so varied, yet so on target. 

Some readers obsessed over words and sentences. Others pointed out confusing passages, or suggested that I should have said more about this or that. Some offered illustrations from their personal experience to expand the content. Some found nothing at all they would change, but excitedly offered ideas for marketing the book. 

I learned so much from this input!

In research mode. Ratty clothes, unkept hair, books everywhere - you gotta love it!

A Messy Workspace

I'm not proud of it. Not recommending it. It's just me. I'd much rather stay on task for a month straight than clean up at the end of each day.  Hunkered down in my bunker, I lose myself for entire mornings and afternoons. 

My Favorite Editor

After I do a first edit on a chapter or article, I run everything by my wife, Cherie. If we thought exactly alike, one of us would be redundant. 

One proud husband! Cherie graduates with her Masters in Professional Writing.

Cherie is a fast reader, getting the gist, the overview. I read slowly, obsessing over minutia. Cherie reads novels. I read nonfiction. Cherie reads newspapers and magazines. I glanced at a newspaper once or twice. That was enough news for me. 

Cherie dreams up catchy titles and headings. My titles are boringly functional. 

You can see why we're so invaluable to each other. Her edits save me from a multitude of sins. 

Cherie has her Masters in Professional Writing and we love reading books about all aspects of writing and talking over the applications to our own writing. She's also the Secretary of the Georgia Writers Association, giving us great opportunities to mingle with other writers. 

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