What People Ask Me
I LOVE to talk with kids, teachers, librarians, readers, game players. Such bottomless curiosity! Here are answers to common questions that people ask me.
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.)
I also wrote short stories and a little poetry in high school and took all the English literature 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 (it's true!) 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.
How old do you have to be to be a writer?
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.
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.
Do you have to go to college to be a writer?
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!
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.)
Do you ever write just for fun?
I mostly write for work, but I read for fun. I can't help it. I'm addicted to books and magazines, especially longform journalism. I love movies, too, and have sketched out a couple screenplays just to see how they're put together.
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 board game closet is overflowing and I keep chipping away at a long to-play list of video games.
How did you get your first writing job?
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 published by Scholastic (though it's no longer around). The editors 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.
After graduation, 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 another 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.
I didn't realize it at the time, but I had lucked into a great place at a great time—the dawn of the PC boom. That expertise, in a rapidly expanding market, soon meant that my skills and knowledge were in demand. Few people, let alone writers, were on the leading edge of tech in those days.
What other jobs did you do?
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! eye-opening)
- office assistant (honed my typing skills—on an IBM Selectric typewriter)
- bookstore clerk (spent what I made on discounted books, stacks and stacks).
Those experiences taught me to work harder—at becoming a writer.
After working as a reporter, writer, and editor on two computer magazines, I decided to work for myself so that I could explore the world beyond tech. I became a freelance writer and editor, mostly for magazines and software (games and digital stories).
When a new science magazine called SuperScience needed an editor, I jumped at it. Helming and shaping a publication from the start was too good to pass up. (I like a steep learning curve.)
Next, I had the incredible opportunity to invent board games for a living. That job was definitely too good to pass up! I moved from New York City 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!
Now, I'm back to freelance writing, editing, and game designing full-time. I love it.
Do you like writing for kids?
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.
Now, after some 50 books and hundreds of shorter pieces, I find that I can write naturally and easily for 8 to 14-year-olds.
What do you like most about writing?
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. I am always curious.
Where do you get all your information?
I read tons of great books and articles as part of my research, almost to a fault.
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 many 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.
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.
What else do you like about writing?
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.
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!
How much of your work is the publisher's idea versus your idea?
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.
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 or producer 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.
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 or produced 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.
Should I approach publishers with ideas?
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).
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.
What's your favorite thing you've written?
Interactive Fiction! A recent project was editorial director and narrative designer on Inanimate Alice, a digital novel told in episodes, journals, and across the internet. Alice, the main character, is an aspiring game designer, so she embeds fun interactives in her stories. My love of games and my writing became one!
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), and others. The early story-games work like those Choose Your Own Adventure tales, in which YOU, the reader, are the star of the story and get to pick what happens next.
More recently, I had a blast writing three interactive fiction scripts called Adventures of a Crater Creature, The Stormy Voyage of Captain Reckless (about an ore freighter voyage on the Great Lakes in my home state of Michigan), and The Lost Pirates of Waylay Bay (more humor than adventure).
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.
Where do you get your ideas?
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.
For nonfiction, I pitch books or articles about things that I'm genuinely curious about, and I go through obsession phases. I really dig my teeth into a topic and can't let it go. I've done that with periodical cicadas, sharks, word origins (language is a passion), pirates, the Bounty mutiny, polar exploration, asteroids, Leonardo da Vinci, tornadoes, ants, elephants (I'm still in that phase), orangutans, and other diverse subjects.
What next? It's unpredictable, and I like it that way.
Are there any topics that were boring to write?
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.
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.
Have you ever missed a deadline?
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 adult immigrants in English, and I love it. I lead conversation groups in which they learn English by playing games and telling stories, which is much more fun than formal lessons or worksheets. My group has included amazing people from China, Morocco, Nicaragua, Brazil, Russia, Macedonia, Senegal, Niger, Colombia, Afghanistan, Iran, and many, many other countries.
Tutoring English is like traveling around the world without leaving home!
I probably would have gone into education if writing hadn't panned out, or maybe travel and tourism.
What does it feel like to be a writer?
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.
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. I call it my creator cave.
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.
Do you have any pets?
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.
Did you ever go horseback riding?
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 the next day, in northern Wyoming on an old, little black and white horse named Chief.
I got along with Chief well enough and the company was fine, including my horse-crazy 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.
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.