When the Story You’re Writing Isn’t Working: An Interview with Donald Miller

Donald Miller is the author of multiple New York Times Bestsellers including Blue Like Jazz and A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. He has served on the Presidential Task Force on Fatherhood and Healthy Families and is a sought after speaker regarding narrative structure as it relates to a persons life and their projects. Don recently launched the Storyline Conference (donmilleris.com/conference) that helps people structure their lives using a cohesive narrative. He is the founder of The Mentoring Project and blogs almost daily at www.donmilleris.com.

What advice do you have writers in that moment when they look around and realize the story they’re writing no good?
That’s part of writing the book. You can’t look at that as a false start. I explained to somebody yesterday like this: When a daredevil motorcycle guy tries to jump across a canyon or something like that, he may have to take 5 or 6 passes at the ramp first. But sooner or later he’s gonna hit it, he’s gonna commit to it, and he’s gonna go.

I think there are some false starts, false runs at books. I think I’ve got 50,000 words into [my next] book and don’t have a complete chapter yet. It’s just the nature of the business. The one way to get it without getting frustrated is just to love the process. And, too, I’ve realized that your have to make decisions. You have to decide a direction to go, and you have to and move forward in that direction amidst a sea of second guessing.

You said recently on your blog that your editors helped you chose the voice and tone of your next book based on three versions of the first chapter: What elements and considerations do you take and do you editors take to establish the voice for each of your books?

It’s really intuitive. It’s just a matter of what’s hitting. What’s the most compelling? What’s the most interesting? That is, of course, subjective, but my team of editors has been working with me for a long time so they know what my good work is like—and when my work isn’t good.

Usually they just affirm what I was already thinking. We all just try to get in agreement about what voice is best and what direction is best. It’s so helpful. Many writers write by themselves, so you have a suspicion of what’s good, but it’s hard to be sure.

I tend to write first drafts that are incredibly cognitive, very rational, very boring. They come off as justification. Like this is my idea and here’s all the reasons that it’s right. It doesn’t make for very compelling reading. So, [once we have a voice and a direction,] I have to go back and create a narrative around the content to make it more compelling.

What advice do you have for writers who have a strong faith background?
It wouldn’t be any different than a write who doesn’t have a strong faith background. It’s just a matter of sitting down to do the work—and realizing that there’s a good chance you’ll write three times as much as you’ll publish. The big shift that happens for me, that made writing doable, is that I enjoy the process more than the product. That’s the transition I think we all have to get to if we want to keep doing this. It’s not easy to make it, so if you just love it, then hopefully you’ll get paid for it.

Your writing pushes some of the conventions of inspirational Christian writing, altering the expected tone and content of the genre. Is that something you intentionally chose to do, or does it just flow out of who you are and what you write?
Probably a little of both. Mostly, it’s out of who I am and what I write. There are times, as I keep doing this, that you know that if I say this it’s going to make some people upset. So I weigh those options. I don’t mind upsetting people if it helps the point of the book. I don’t think I strategically try to position myself as someone who’s controversial.

You’re pretty active online—blogging, Twitter, Facebook. How to you keep up with that, public speaking, and actually writing books?
I love writing books—I really do. If I could just quit everything and work on a book every day, I would love that most. So everything else is more or less a sacrifice. There’s good reasons for that: The blog I wrote yesterday was testing whether or not a book would be interesting to people, so that’s part of the process. It’s just a sacrifice. I don’t like balancing it. I’d rather be home writing books, but if you want to live off your writing it does help to get out there and talk to people and meet with people and interact with those who are reading your material. [It’s part of] the process of planting seeds so you can harvest something when you’re sitting down at your computer.

How do I balance that? I work all the time and I’m not married. I have a dog. I guess I don’t balance it very well.

You’ve been publishing books for over 10 years. How have your writing and writing life changed over time?
It’s become professional. Before it was hobby. Now I’m a professional writer, so it’s priority one in terms of my work life. I used to write when I was in the mood or felt inspired. Anymore, I write whether I feel inspire or not. It’s a discipline. So that’s definitely different. It’s part of maturing as a person and as a professional.

I don’t write as much to get praise from an audience. I think it’s very important for the writing to be good, but I used to be very motivated by the desire for people to think that I was a good writer. I’m more motivated by the content, by establishing a connection with the reader and helping them. I tend to believe that what I write is actually good for people. That’s a huge transition. I used to think it was an arrogant transition, but I don’t believe that anymore. People are lonely. They want company and your book can provide them company and a little bit of hope. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

What are you writing next?
It’s a book called The Graduates. It presents the idea that the church in Western culture is basically a large educational system in which nobody ever graduates to do anything great. It’s a book encouraging people to graduate from church and move on.

What do you think Jesus would say if he read one of your books?
I don’t think he would. I would hope that he’d have better things to do. I think he’d want to get to know me, and I don’t think he’d want to do that through a book. But, if he did read them, I think he would see flaws in them. He’d see things that weren’t true. And I don’t think that that would matter very much to him over just being encouraging and establishing a relationship with me. I think he would use the book in order to connect with me.

What are your top 5 favorite books?
Anything by Annie Dillard helps me set a bar for what quality writing is. Catcher in the Rye is an impeccable book. John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel is a beautiful book about a guy in the process of writing East of Eden—a look inside the writers mind while he’s working on a great piece. Sailing Around the Room (or any of the other poems by Billy Collins) just pick up and read a little bit.

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