When he was growing up, writer Sam J. Miller worked alongside his father in his father's butcher shop. The work was, in Miller's words, "pretty gritty." But also, a stream of fascinating people came by, including a gentleman who lived in the woods and survived on a diet of worms. "He would come in to buy hot sauce for his worms," Miller told Spine.
Miller's father treated the worm guy the same way he treated everyone — "with a lot of respect and love. He was very much a part of their lives." This ability, to get into someone's head to the point of being able to empathize, to relate, Miller's father passed on to his son. This, says Miller, is what he does when he writes.
"My writing … is coming from a place of real love for people and a real fascination with human beings and how complex and magnificent and troubling and beautiful and damaged we are," he said.
Miller often explores the strengths and flaws of human hearts and mind by placing his characters in fantastical situations, or imbuing them with special powers. In multiple, award-winning short stories, he uses a sci-fi lens to explore characters grappling with AIDS, with global warming, and other very real issues. His first novel, The Art of Starving (Harper Teen, July 2017), features a gay teenager struggling with his sister's disappearance, his mother's alcoholism, and his own eating disorder…armed with superpowers.
The publisher's advance for the novel coincided with a budget crisis at Miller's day job with Picture the Homeless, an organization advocating for and with NYC's homeless residents. "I said, 'I'll go part time, and now I can write and you don't have to fire anybody'." Crises averted. Writing time found.
Too much writing time.
"I've been writing for a very long time," Miller said. "I've always been able to grab an hour here or there, skip out on a fun activity my husband and our friends are doing." But suddenly, Miller had two days a week with nothing to do but write. "Now that I have all of this time on my hands, it's easier to find the distractions.…Usually the internet."
Like other writers, off-topic distraction often begins with a valid, book-related question. "I'll be writing something and I'll have to research." Google google google. Type type type. "Then 45 minutes have magically passed and I haven't even looked."
After one too many writing sessions spent down the rabbit hole, Miller adopted the Pomodoro Technique, a work tool created by developer Francesco Cirillo. The method splits work sessions into four 25-minute work sprints, divided by short breaks. Another technique Miller employs? Get the hell out.
"Going to write in public places is helpful because it makes me feel like I should be focused and concentrating. It's also easy to not connect with the Wi-Fi"
Once Miller is focused, the ideas fill his mind to overflowing. When he allows those ideas, be it a woman technologically bound to an orca or a futuristic floating city, to bounce off each other, a story begins to form. Once he pins down three components — beginning, ending, and title — he's off, though often he'll stop and subject his new universe to a slew of questions designed to test the strength of his concepts.
"Say it's a superpower," Miller explained. "Does everyone know? Are there laws regulating the use? Is there a government agency? If nobody knows, who knows? Is there a secret society?
"With genre readers, different readers look for different things. I'm not going to get stuck on whether somebody's superpowers aren't 100 percent consistent, but some readers, if they see a spot where it breaks, it will take them out of the story."
Once he's tested his universe, once he's arrived at draft, Miller subjects his writing to other eyes.
"I am a very firm believer in writing in community with other writers," he said. Miller belongs to a sci-fi/fantasy/horror workshop called Altered Fluid. The group uses the Milford method of workshopping, allowing each participant to provide feedback while the author sits, not speaking.
Miller also finds feedback from his editor helpful, and said Kristen Pettit, his editor on The Art of Starving, made suggestions that strengthened the book. "If she asks me to change something, it's usually the right thing to do…I read a lot of YA but I never thought about the mechanics. Having an editor who was really, really good at that made a difference.
"I'm a firm believer in sharing my work. I get a lot of strength from other people."
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Susanna Baird serves as Authors editor of Spine. She tackles her own creative writing and client projects from her dining room table in Salem, Massachusetts. When not working words, she helps lead The Clothing Connection, a local nonprofit getting new clothes to kids who need them. Find more of her writing at susannabaird.com, and find her (re)tweeting regularly on Twitter @SusannaBaird.