That's me at 15 months old, getting a head start on my book career.
I grew up in Northville, a small town in Michigan. I have a small family: my Mom (a high school teacher), Dad (a manager), an older sister (now a sixth grade teacher), a younger brother (now a lawyer), and Clyde the tiger cat. I went to a small college, Kalamazoo College. I'm small, too—just 5 feet 2 inches.
Three days after college graduation, I landed in New York, a really big city. I lived there for 10 years, working as an editor and freelance writer. There, I met Chris. To me, he looked like one of those tall buildings in New York. (He's 6 feet 4 inches.)
Chris and I married and moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, a medium-size city, where I landed a dream job of creating board games for five years and then turned full-time freelance.
While I still visit New York regularly, we live in a quiet country home with a natural, unruly pond and three embarrassingly productive pear trees. I work at home, in a book-lined office with a stone fireplace, writing and inventing games.
Our life is big.
I'm still trying to catch up on my reading.
My parents had their hands full with three toddlers. My sister Louise (left) was the mischief maker. I just sat back and took it all in (right).
Senior year at Kalamazoo College: reading a film magazine with Sappho the stray cat. I learned to knit that sweater while studying in France.
Tino and Bosley (right) share window duty at dusk.
Q: What do you call groups of slow-moving whales?
Q. Why do Scots (like me) tend to wear orange?
A. It's haggis-forming.
Courtesy of my sister Louise, a 6th grade teacher who has heard 'em all:
Q. Why do the Irish (me again) only put 239 beans in their soup?
A. So it's not 240 (say it with an Irish accent).
I love to visit schools and libraries to keep in touch with kids and teachers. Such bottomless curiosity!
Here are answers to a few of the many, many questions that kids ask me. If you have a question that I haven't answered, you can contact me by email or snail mail.
Notice the notebook. I learn more far than I teach when I visit classrooms.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
More or less. When I was 10 years old, I started a neighborhood newspaper with the cheesy name Hopping Readums. I typed it on an old manual typewriter with carbon paper (ask your parents or grandparents) and sold it for a dime. If I sold out, my Dad made copies on his Xerox machine at work, even though it was probably against the rules. (Photocopiers were new and expensive back then.)
How old do you have to be to be a writer?
I also wrote short stories and a little poetry in high school and took all the English and French language classes I could. A couple of my poems even made it into a journal called Hanging Loose, a very 1970s title.
On the other hand, I loved math and thought about a career in engineering. It wasn't such a stretch. I grew up near the Motor City, Detroit, and was surrounded by technical types—including several cousins and very good friends. Engineering was cool where I grew up!
Halfway through college, though, I realized I had to do something creative to be happy. I couldn't draw, act, sing, or dance. (Still can't.) Writing was my best bet.
I started writing a steady stream of letters to a favorite uncle when I was in kindergarten until the time he died, when I was 17. Those letters were never published, but I still look at them as some of my earliest and most honest writing. My uncle, who worked at a publishing company, encouraged me to include stories, poems, and anecdotes about daily life, and then never failed to comment on them when he wrote me back. His comments and questions made me a better writer, without me realizing it at the time.
Do you have to go to college to be a writer?
I think a lot of people say, "I'd love to be a writer," but then they don't write. It sounds really basic, but being a writer is about writing—as often as you can. And you can do that just as soon as you know how.
College taught me how to think. I chose a small liberal arts school, Kalamazoo College, so I thought about lots of different subjects. I ended up with a double major in French and English literature, but took classes in philosophy, history, math, etc. I'm really glad I did. In my career, I've had to write about almost every subject under the sun, and so I've put that broad thinking to serious use!
Do you ever write just for fun?
The big point, though, is that I'm still learning, and not just by taking classes. By being a writer, I get to explore topics that aren't even taught in the schools, often by interviewing amazing people who talk to me because I'm a writer. (See "Writing Adventures," above.)
I mostly write for work, but I read for fun. I can't help it. I'm addicted to books and magazines. I love movies, too, and have sketched out a few screenplays just to see how they're put together.
How did you get your first writing job? What was it like?
I also invent games and make puzzles for fun, especially language games to play with the immigrants I tutor. And, of course, I play games. My game closet is overflowing.
For three months, as a teenage college student, I lived in New York City and worked as an intern at Dynamite!, a colorful magazine for kids. They even let me write some of the articles: how ice cream is made, the history of Frisbees, flower decorating, the artistic weirdness of Magritte, you name it. I had fun! Just as importantly, I learned how to write for kids, thanks to a wonderful, young-at-heart editor, Grace Maccarone.
What other jobs did you do?
After graduation, the publisher, Scholastic, hired me as a reporter for a new computer magazine. I'd never seen a personal computer (this was waaaay back in 1982), but I picked it up fast. I even learned programming in BASIC and a language called Logo.
Above all, that job taught me not to be afraid of new or difficult topics and, again, that education definitely doesn't stop at graduation.
As a teen, I worked hard at a parade of jobs: doughnut maker at a local cider mill, cafeteria line server, waitress (I was terrible at it), film factory worker (night shift!), office assistant (honed my typing skills), bookstore clerk (spent more than I should have on discounted books). Those experiences taught me to work harder—at becoming a writer.
Do you like writing for kids?
For four years, I worked as a reporter and editor on two computer magazines. Then, I decided to work for myself so that I could explore the world beyond computers. I became a freelance writer and editor, mostly for magazines. When a new science magazine called SuperScience needed an editor, I jumped at it. Helming and shaping a publication form the start was too good to pass up.
Next, I had the incredible opportunity to invent board games for a living. That job was definitely too good to pass up! I moved back to my home state of Michigan and worked for five years as the product development director at Aristoplay, an educational game company founded by former teacher Jan Barney Newman. What fun! One of my favorite games, Mars 2020, is still in print (see "My Creations").
Now, I'm back to freelance writing, editing, and game designing. I love it.
Sure! But, writing for kids wasn't easy to learn. It took me a lot of practice to get it right. Here's why: You have to think way, way, way back to when you were little—how you thought, what you liked, what you knew. Then, you have to think about how the world has changed and how kids have changed since you were one. Then, you have to write to a reading level, using a limited number of words and a limited amount of space. Finally, of course, the writing has to be fun and energetic and accurate and interesting. Whew.
What do you like most about writing?
Now, after some 50 books and hundreds of shorter pieces, I find that I can write naturally and easily for 10 to 14-year-olds and, with a little brain adjusting, write well for 7 to 9-year-olds. I just can't wrap my brain around preschool and kindergarten and picture books. I admire people who can.
Learning new things, like the bottomless topics in the fields of science and history, is the number one reason I do what I do. I'm rarely bored.
Where do you get all your information?
What else do you like about writing?
I read tons of great books and articles as part of my research.
I also get to interview fascinating people—astronauts (Sally Ride, Jack Lousma, Tom Jones—I'm a space fanatic!), forensic scientists, police detectives, amazing kids, and others. Among my favorite interviews:
• a pilot who flies through hurricanes, routinely as part of his job (but not always so routinely).
• two scientists who chase tornadoes across Texas and Oklahoma, and, one time, a tornado chased them!
• an ice-jam engineer who tiptoes across rising ice-covered rivers to determine if they're about to flood a town, and knows exactly what she's doing (so it's perfectly safe . . . )
• a scientist who deliberately triggers avalanches to make slopes safer for others and another avalanche expert who buries himself in snowslides (protected only by a wooden shack) in order to study their behavior.
• a lightning scientist who climbs mountains to release weather balloons into the heart of dangerous thunderstorms. (Why do these scientists do such risky things?)
• an American rescue worker who crawled under an apartment in Turkey that had been "pancaked" flat by an earthquake to save the life of an eight-year-old boy.
You can read about these and other real-life science adventure stories in my Wild Weather series and Wild Earth series (links at right).
Here's a tip: You can interview people, too, if you're serious and polite about it. Don't limit your school research to what others have written. Find experts and reach out to people you'd like to meet and talk to (again, respectfully). If you research your topic ahead of time and ask smart questions, you'll get smart answers.
I enjoy the creative process—making new things. I have two floor-to-ceiling bookshelves packed with the magazines I edited, the books I wrote, and the games I invented—a couple decades' worth of creations.
How much of your work is the publisher's idea and how much is yours?
Much as I love creating things, the math lover in me isn't dead. Designing games and puzzles has stretched both the creative and logical parts of my brain. In truth, I've become temporarily addicted to games at times and had to ration my playing time!
Most of what I write or create is on assignment. An editor or producer calls me up with a project—a book, a radio script, a game concept—and asks me to execute it.
How can I get published? Do I just approach publishers with ideas?
Some assignments have a long list of specific rules; others are more flexible, and I get to make suggestions or go down a road that the publisher might not have considered.
The bottom line, though, is the bottom line if you want to make a living at writing. Working on assignment is easier in that regard, but you have to write what the publisher or studio wants. If you can just follow directions, you're ahead of many other assignment writers. I worked as an editor for years and was amazed at how many freelance writers don't listen to the specifics and go off and do something completely different (and unusable).
From time to time, I come up with ideas, write a proposal, and approach editors and producers I know. It's harder to get published that way, a bit like making a key and then looking for a door that fits it. The advantage is that you have more creative control. You can make the project your own. You still need to pay attention to the company's needs, the audience, and the bottom line, but there's more freedom and a keen sense of ownership.
No, ideas are rarely enough unless you're a top author with a long track record. Everyone has ideas. Writing is about putting those ideas into words (or pictures or sounds or code, if you're writing screenplays or software scripts).
What's your favorite thing you've written?
If you're a new writer, you need to prove to publishers that you can write. And, again, that means actually writing. Spend some time polishing, revising, editing a piece that you really like. Hold it up and say to yourself, "Is this the best I can do?" If not, let it rest for a while and then approach it with a fresh brain.
When the answer is "yes," show it to some friends and teachers. See what they think. Listen to their ideas and criticisms. You don't have to do everything they say, but you need to be open to their advice. Then, revise some more.
When you feel in your heart that you have a showpiece, a piece of work that's as good as it gets, then you can approach publishers with confidence. You need to sell yourself, as well as your writing, and it helps to have pride and to know that you've worked as hard as you can
A good place to search for outlets for your writing is Duotrope, which catalogues and links to thousands of publications, including their submission policies and acceptance statistics.
Fiction. In the 1980s, I wrote a series of interactive fiction scripts for software, including "Escape from Antcatraz" (about an action-adventure ant colony) and "The Balloonatics" (about a high-flying, 'round-the-world trip). These stories work like those Choose Your Own Adventure tales, in which YOU, the reader, is the star of the story and get to pick what happens next.
Where do you get your ideas?
More recently, I had a blast writing three interactive fiction scripts for kids: Adventures of a Crater Creature, The Stormy Voyage of Captain Reckless (about an ore freighter voyage on the Great Lakes), and The Lost Pirates of Waylay Bay.
One of my favorite fiction assignments was writing humorous science mysteries for the Kinetic City Super Crew, a children's radio program that is now a website. Having grown up with TV, writing for radio was an exciting challenge, and the first script took three times as long to nail as the rest of them.
Fiction ideas come easily to me. I have stories, characters, dialogues that play in my head, especially when I'm bored. I jot down a lot of these ideas in notebooks, on napkins, on my phone. Ideas are easy. It's the execution and polishing of them that's hard and time-consuming.
Are there any topics that you didn't want to write about or that were boring?
For nonfiction, I pitch books or articles about things that I'm genuinely curious about, and I go through phases. I really get into a topic and can't let it go. I've done that with periodical cicadas, sharks, word origins (my number one love), pirates, the Bounty, polar exploration, asteroids, Leonardo da Vinci, tornadoes, ants, elephants (I'm still in that phase), and other diverse subjects. What next? It's unpredictable, and I like it that way.
Ultimately, no. Sometimes, a topic strikes me as boring at first, but a big part of my job as a writer is to ask, "What makes this interesting? Why will people want to read about it? Why do I want to write about it?" From computers to hovercrafts to American history or whatever, there's always a way to dig into a topic and make it sparkle.
Have you ever missed a deadline?
Even grammar. I wrote a book of grammar games (Noun Hounds) with help from the students in my sister Louise's class, and actually enjoyed it.
An author who's incredibly good at turning mundane topics into fascinations is John McPhee, who wrote a whole, big, long piece about what merchant ships carry. He turned a simple manifest (a list of goods) into a compelling read. He brought in modern-day pirates, cool technology, sea history, and some interesting personalities on board the ship.
Sure, it happens. I'm pretty good about that, though, for a couple of reasons. I usually don't get paid until I finish the job. Also, when writing professionally, there's a whole team of people on the same tight schedule (photo researchers, editors, graphic designers, marketing folks, production and printing companies...). We're all depending on each other to step up to the plate when it's our turn to bat. If one person strikes out or doesn't show up, it affects everyone on the team.
Do you have another job?
Nope. I'm a full-time writer and game designer, and every once in awhile I pick up some editing work if a project interests me. One of the most challenging editing projects I worked on was a three-book series called The Story of Science. The third book started with the physics of Einstein and went forward from there—tough stuff!
If you weren't a writer, what would you be?
Languages and international cultures are a major interest of mine. In college, I spent a semester in France and really soaked it in. Now, I tutor English, and I love it. For years, I led a weekly group for immigrants in which I taught them English by playing games, which is much more fun than formal lessons or worksheets. My group included amazing people from China, Morocco, Nicaragua, Brazil, Russia, Senegal, Niger, Colombia, Afghanistan, Iran, and many, many other countries. Tutoring English is like traveling around the world without leaving Michigan.
What does it feel like to be a writer?
I probably would have gone into education if writing hadn't panned out. Or maybe travel and tourism, though I'm on the shy side—definitely not a "people person."
I'm not sure how to answer this one! I don't think I feel any different because I'm a writer but maybe I can share my writing experience and talk about the type of person who becomes a writer.
Did you ever go horseback riding?
Some writers, especially TV writers, work as part of a writing team and thrive on collaborating with others. I like to brainstorm with fellow creative types sometimes, and treasure working with a good editor who can make my work better, but my writing experience mostly involves working on my own. I love and feel comfortable doing that, for hours on end, but not everyone does.
When I'm writing, I have to get lost inside my own head, which means being totally absorbed in the subject and story at hand. It's not always easy, as there are always a lot of distractions (see next question). That's the reason many writers take off for a secluded cabin in order to finish their manuscripts. I try to make my home office a secluded cabin during working hours.
Another good trait for writing—at least the kind of writing that I do—is to daydream a lot. I've always let my mind and my imagination wander, easily and freely. Taking long walks, alone, is a good way to loosen up mentally.
Twice. One time was an easy one-hour cruise around the Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, on a tall but very gentle and slow horse. The second time was an all-day trek (8 hours!) into the middle of nowhere and then back then next day, in northern Wyoming on a little horse named Chief.
Do you have any pets?
I got along with Chief well enough and the company was fine, including my horse-loving sister who was in heaven. The scenery was spectacular, the air fresh, the wildlife (a moose! a bear! a pheasant!) incredible. But, I'm a city person and had a lot to learn about long distance riding. Boy, did my knees hurt on day three.
I grew up with cats. My current office mates are Valentino (Tino, for short), who has a little pink nose and dreamy eyes, and Bosley, a soft, affectionate purring machine.
Are you famous?
No. I'm not rich either. ;-) Most of us writers are just like other professionals; we work really hard at something we love and feel grateful for the privilege.
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