What is the life of an author like? Steve provides personal insight about his journey writing books and articles for publication.
He touches first upon childhood influences and then delves into the nuts-and-bolts of the writing process.
T H E E A R L Y Y E A R S
What are some of your favorite books?
When it comes to children’s books, I have a fondness for Charlotte’s Web, Winnie the Pooh, Island of the Blue Dolphins, My Side of the Mountain, and The Pushcart War. As for adult novels, I have long been enthralled with The Source by James A. Michener. Why? I love archaeology, history, and artifacts. Other novels that have influenced me include The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton, Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien (I took an entire college course on this book), and Youngblood Hawk by Herman Wouk. The latter explores the rise and fall of a young writer.
Your father was a career naval officer. Did you like moving around?
Yes, I enjoyed moving (and we did so every two or three years). By the time I was in college, my family had lived in 11 different places, including Hawaii, California, Virginia, and Spain. Traveling the world taught me how to be self-reliant, responsible, open minded, and flexible. I learned to be accepting of other cultures and to embrace people with different ideas, beliefs, and lifestyles. In hindsight, I also think the experience helped me greatly with my writing: I met a lot of characters along the way.
How old were you when you explored Europe?
I was 16-years-old. At the time my family was living in Rota, Spain. I spent the summer traveling Europe by train and backpack. Among my many adventures, I was robbed in Copenhagen and I subsequently worked at a camp in Sweden making speed bumps from felled trees to earn enough money to return home. But first I took the train to the end of the rail at Narvik, Norway, way up in the Arctic Circle. Then I raced back to Spain before my Eurail pass expired. Had it not been for the kindness of a Mexican diplomat’s daughter, whom I met in Paris, I wouldn’t have made it. She helped pay for some food and my last train ticket. I arrived home with just $1.25 in my pocket.
A college teacher encouraged you to become an author. Did you ever thank him?
Barney Pace was the instructor whose note to me on an English paper compelled me to become an author. I dedicated my first book to him and visited him in New York City to thank him. In addition to Barney, there were two other teachers who positively impacted my writing career. The first was Ms. Ebba Spettel (Stephen Foster Middle School, 1973), who identified my creative-writing ability and brought it to my parents’ attention. And the second was Ms. Estelle Tankard (Chantilly High School, 1978), who helped me recognize my poetic skills. After months of searching, I finally located both teachers (now retired) and was able to thank them for influencing my literary career.
What did you do before you became an author?
I graduated college with a book contract in hand, so I guess I’ve always been an author. For many years, however, I simultaneously pursued two careers. During the day I worked at a “normal” job and at night and on the weekends I wrote. In fact, it was not unusual for me to wake-up at 4:00 a.m. and write before heading to work. Admittedly that wasn’t much fun, but I was able to write several books following that routine. §
T H E N U T S A N D B O L T S O F W R I T I N G
You wrote your first book using a pencil. Do you still do that?
I did indeed write my first book using pencil and legal pads. I literally cut-and-pasted the text until I was satisfied, and then typed the final manuscript using a manual typewriter (and admittedly a lot of whiteout). Such was the technology of the day. Over the decades since then I've transitioned to computers to write. My first computer was a TRS-80 Model III with 64k of memory. Today I'm a staunch Macintosh user. While I've used Word in the past, I've recently explored Scrivener. It's a very powerful writing tool. I'm quite impressed with it. The only time I still prefer to use a pencil is when drafting poetry. There's something about it that demands a tactile approach to connect with the poem's essence.
Where do you get your inspiration?
I connect with my Muse and do my best thinking when I'm outdoors. Usually that entails a long, leisurely stroll. As I explore Nature my mind wanders and I allow whatever happens, to happen. It's not unusual for me to revisit book scenes, eavesdrop on conversations between characters, or simply ponder a long string of "What If's." I always return home enthused and re-energized.
Do you write from an outline?
Yes, like most writers I use an outline. There are two strategies when it comes to outlines. In the first, a very detailed outline is jotted down – literally scene-by-scene – and the writer strictly adheres to it. In the second, a less restrictive approach is taken. That is the one I prefer to use. I always know where my story starts, and where it must end. I identify key things that must happen between those two points to make the story work. After that, I simply enjoy the journey and allow the characters and events to unexpectedly influence things. It’s much like driving from Boston to Los Angeles by way of Grand Rapids, Kansas City, and Las Vegas. I know in general where I’m going but I allow my actual path to be influenced by the weather, road conditions, tourist sites, special events, and scenic vistas.
You said writing fiction is like watching a movie inside your head. Can you explain that?
I don’t know if I can. You almost have to have the experience yourself to fully understand what I’m talking about. But I will say this: When I’m writing, I fade from this world and enter the one I’m writing about. It is indeed like watching a movie in my head, only the people seem real to me. They talk. They laugh. They carry on. And many times they end-up doing things I never considered.
How do you edit what you write?
Excellent question, especially since writing and editing are always at odds with each other. The writer in me falls in love with what I have created and, hence, wants to protect and nurture it. By contrast, the editor in me recognizes improvement can and should be made and, hence, coldly wants to slash, spindle, and delete what has been written. When it comes time to edit, I have to get in a frame of mind whereby I examine the manuscript without emotion. That’s often easier said than done; I hate killing my children. As a compromise, I cut-and-paste the original text into another document so it survives somewhere, pristine and unedited. I know it may sound silly, but it works for me.
Do you have a writing routine?
I don’t know of any writer who doesn’t adhere to a routine of some sort. You need a routine to find your Muse, overcome your fear(s), and get into a writing rhythm. As for myself, I write in the morning while enjoying a cup of espresso and wearing old, comfortable sweats. I start by reviewing what I last wrote. Inevitably I see something that needs to be rewritten. The next thing I know, I’m zipping along.
How important is research to writing?
I can’t imagine being an author and not being an excellent researcher. To me, the two are so tightly intertwined they cannot be separated. I’m fortunate that my natural curiosity makes me a good researcher and that I honed my research skills over the years while writing nonfiction. Both have come into play in writing historical fiction, especially in developing believable characters and recreating events from a particular time period.
What is the writing life like?
Personally, I think people over-romanticize the writing life. To wit: a friend once phoned and commented I must be sitting cozy by the fireplace writing. That sounded nice but in actuality it was a hot, humid summer day. Why on earth would I have a roaring fire? If anything was roaring it was the air-conditioning unit. That aside, the writing life requires tremendous discipline, dedication, and fortitude. It helps if you are self-motivated and are comfortable spending time alone while writing. §
F O R A S P I R I N G W R I T E R S
Do I have to get a college degree in English or earn a MFA to be a writer?
No. A good writer is defined by his or her ability to convey information to an intended audience in a clear, entertaining, and accurate manner. In many fields, especially the sciences and health, editors actually prefer to work with writers who hold a science degree of some sort. The same holds true for business, law, and computer technology.
Does a writer have to be good at grammar?
It certainly helps but, no, you don’t have to be a grammarian to be a good writer. As for myself, I’m terrible at grammar. I couldn’t diagram a sentence to save my life. In fact, for the longest time, I thought a "dangling participle" was code for a guy who needed Viagra. On the good news front? I rock at spelling!
Should I join a writer’s group and attend writer’s conferences?
Both are of value to a writer. In the same breath, though, I would caution about having them become the focus of your life. Over the years I’ve known many aspiring writers who have based their success solely on their affiliations, degrees, and accreditations rather than on their written works.
How do I find out what publishers want?
There are several ways to learn what magazine and book publishers are looking for in the way of manuscripts. First, visit their website. They often post submission guidelines that highlight their current needs. And second, review the publishers’ listing in the Literary Marketplace (LMP) and Writer’s Market. Both books, published annually, are available at bookstores and libraries. If you are interested in the children’s market, the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators provides its members with The Book: Essential Guide to Publishing for Children. Publishers' needs are updated throughout the year. §
O N A P E R S O N A L N O T E
I understand you have disabilities. How do they affect your writing?
Dyslexia and driving limitations have both impacted my writing career. When I was six-years-old I had an accident while playing outdoors that made me stutter and gave me dyslexia. The stuttering is long gone thanks to speech therapy, but the dyslexia arises from time-to-time. It can be humorous, though. I have a knack for switching words and letters without realizing it. For example, "washing machine" can become "mashing wachine." Don't ask me how it happens. I have no idea, and I often don't realize I've done it until I hear people chuckle.
When I write, I constantly check my document to make certain I’m not switching letters and words around. Unlike most people, I don't rely on computerized spell check to do that. Why? There are too many words that when spelled wrong are actually right. An example would be “public” and “pubic.” Each is spelled correctly, but they have dramatically different meanings! Hence, I have to focus on content and context, not spelling.
In addition to dyslexia, I also struggle with vertigo. It was caused by a bout of Lyme disease I got from a tick bite. The vertigo prevents me from driving highways and long distances. That actually has had more of an adverse impact on my life and writing career than anything else. Why? I’m unable to drive places to do research, conduct personal interviews, attend writing events, etc. I have to rely on public transportation and the kindness of friends to travel anywhere.
What does it mean when you say you’re a “Born Again Christian?”
It means I have consciously and willingly accepted Jesus as my personal lord and savior. I try to live my life by Christian tenets, which is often easier said than done, but it has made all the difference in the world.
What charities do you support?
I believe in making a difference in people’s lives. There are several charities I support, including: Room to Read (provides books to children worldwide to improve literacy and gender equality in education) and the Brain Injury Association (due to my own experience with dyslexia and vertigo). I also support the local Food Pantry and SPCA. After all, too many people and pets are struggling these days and they need some tender loving care.
What are some little-known things about you?
Like most people, there is more to me than meets the eye. For instance, I served as the coach of the US National Skeleton Bobsled team for a season. I’ve eaten alligator in Louisiana, rattlesnake in Arizona, frogs in Morocco, and fish cheeks in Newfoundland. I collect old editions of Swiss Family Robinson. I love archaeology and once discovered a 10,000-year-old relic. And I can sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in Swedish. (Not that it will ever do me any good.) §