Please introduce yourself and your book(s)!
Hi. My name is John Briggs. I’m a Philadelphia native living in upstate New York. I’m mostly known for humorous children’s books, particularly the picture book Leaping Lemmings! and middle-grade non-fiction about people I find fascinating. I also recently published an adult novel. It’s a political satire because I occasionally have to show my family I’m using my political science degree for something.
What is/are the real-life story(ies) behind your book(s)?
I’ll tell you my favorite story. It’s about my first book, Mary Dyer, Friend of Freedom. Mary Dyer was a 17th-century women’s rights and religious freedom advocate. My great-grandmother idolized her, so I grew up with stories about Mary. When I was maybe ten, I looked for a children’s book about her but couldn’t find one. Just some adult books and encyclopedia entries. Thirty years go by, and I went looking for a kid’s book about Mary to share with my kids but once again struck out. That’s when I decided if you can’t find one, write one. And although my great-grandmother had passed twenty-five years before, I dedicated it to her. I think she would have loved having a book about her hero dedicated to her.
What inspires/inspired your creativity?
Everything. I have such a long list of ideas, whether it’s full story arcs or notes about places I’ve been that would make great settings, or people I’ve met, experiences I’ve had, etc. It always gives me something to write about and a way to fit things in. As a writer, you’re supposed to observe life around you. Take it in and relay it to your audience. You’re part psychologist, actor, philosopher, teacher, and photographer. You need to notice everything so you can write about something.
How do you deal with creative block?
I’ve been fortunate that I’ve never had it. I think it’s because I keep that long list of things to write about. What I will say is that somedays I produce better work than others, and on those days I just write through it, knowing I’m going to have to rewrite everything anyway—including a good day’s work. I figure all writing is rewriting, whether I’m transferring it from my head to the page or going over revisions, so on the bad days, I just keep plugging away knowing I’ll fix it later. The most important thing is just to get those words on the page because second drafts are easier than first drafts.
What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?
Being uncertain. You can have a hesitant character (like Hamlet!), but as the author, you have to know where the story is going and be able to show that to your readers. You want to keep your reader off-guard and guessing, but they have to believe you’re in control. If they don’t, readers are likely to lose interest. Also, give your readers details. You don’t have to be Faulkner, but you have to describe setting and characters and things that might seem insignificant yet really help fill out a scene. People can see little things on the screen, but they can’t see them in a book. Yet I find that so many writers today learned to write by watching films and TV and not reading books that they write these pithy, dialog-driven stories that end up being rather empty because the reader can’t see what the author sees. You don’t have to go overboard, but you have to guide the reader a little bit.
Do you have tips on choosing titles and covers?
Yes. Make sure your title matches your genre. If you write fantasy or romance or thrillers or non-fiction, make sure the titles fit. Of course, that alone makes it tough to stand-out in a crowded market. Search-engine optimization and keywords have changed everything. You could never just call a book To Kill a Mockingbird in this day in age. Amazon’s algorithms would probably put it in murder-mystery or nature. Okay, that’s a joke, but not by much. The title today would have to be To Kill a Mockingbird: A Single Dad Lawyer Fights Racism in the Deep South or something even longer. So, my tip is don’t be afraid to tack on a subtitle to help readers find your book. As for covers, with very few exceptions, add people. Turns out, prospective readers look at covers longer if they see people on them.
How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?
I generally just ignore them. Sometimes they flat-out make me laugh, particularly when it’s on the reviewer. For instance, most of the bad reviews for my middle-grade biography Judy Garland: Little Woman, Big Talent criticize the book by saying things like, “It’s a good book for children.” That’s because it’s a children’s book! I think they bought it because of their interest in Judy and then are disappointed to find out it’s written for fifth-graders. They didn’t do their homework, but I’m stuck with the one- or two-star review. Nothing you can do but laugh it off and know that some reader somewhere loves your book. You just have to accept that we live in an era in which everyone gets to post their opinion no matter how (un)qualified. You have to know you can’t please everyone because If you tried to please everyone, you’d get a bad review for that, too.
How has your creation process improved over time?
I wish I could say that it had!
What were the best, worst and most surprising things you encountered during the entire process of completing your book(s)?
Best: Saying something in a way I never said it before. Writers often fall into traps and write on autopilot knowing how to create a certain scene or character, but every once in awhile you say, “Hey, that was new!” and it inspires me to bang out ten more pages.
Worst: Outside of rejection? Removing a great joke or scene because it severely interrupts the flow of the story. Although I got lucky once. In my picture book Leaping Lemmings, my editor felt one of my favorite jokes interfered with the story but we recycled it by placing it on the back paste-down page.
Most Surprising: Finishing ahead of schedule. Hey, that happened once, with my Judy Garland book. The surprising part was that the kids gave me enough free time to write!
Do you tend towards personal satisfaction or aim to serve your readers? Do you balance the two and how?
I think they’re one and the same. If I’m not satisfied, I know my readers will never be. That doesn’t mean if I’m satisfied they will be, but I know if I’m not, they can’t be. So first I satisfy my expectations and then hope they agree.
What role do emotions play in creativity?
The only emotions I feel are those of my characters. I don’t get angry or depressed if something’s not working. There is always a moment of self-doubt, maybe even fear, right before something comes out, where I think, “What if this isn’t as good as I think?” but then I just pour myself into my next project so I can forget about it.
Do you have any creativity tricks?
No, but a friend of mine writes a limerick every day to get his creative juices flowing. I wish I had something like that, but I take the Bob Dylan approach: this is my job so I better get to it.
What are your plans for future books?
Right now, I’m pushing my political satire (called A Vote for Jesus: A Satire on Campaigning, Corruption & Political Crucifixion – there’s that long subtitle!) while developing a companion book to it, but I also have one children’s book in the pipeline set for release in late 2020. And I have two future nonfiction projects for young readers in the planning stages. I really love the idea of bouncing back and forth between different audiences – adults and children, fiction and nonfiction. Anything to avoid being pigeonholed, I guess. Authors aren’t one-dimensional, so why should our work be?
How can we learn more about you?