Musings of a Part-Time Writer
By Alan Goldstein
Writing is an art… or perhaps I should elaborate and say that creative writing is an art.
When conversing with friends and coworkers over the years, I have been told that many people can’t write at all, but I believe anyone can write with enough practice. Could there be a “writing gene” that makes it easier?
The hardest critic to satisfy is oneself. If you can get past that obstacle it becomes easier! The only way to become a writer is to write, and let’s face it writing is not a task if you enjoy it.
Alan interviews a computer monitor
How long have you been writing?
For as long as I can remember… In fourth grade, I turned in my first research paper (on fossils) which was over 20 pages, complete with hand-drawn illustrations. In ninth grade my (then newly) favorite hobby was astronomy. I took earth science because that includes astronomy. Naturally, the year-long substitute teacher didn’t have time to cover it in earth science. Each student had to write a research paper on astronomy for a major part of the third semester grade since it wasn’t being covered in the curriculum. Mine was 120 pages long – with color artwork. The effort garnered the highest grade in the class (A+++). I still have it. In eleventh grade I wrote my own astronomy book during study hall. Teachers offered encouragement telling me the best way to become an expert on a subject is to write a book. How true! That document fulfilled its purpose and became fodder for a landfill.
While in high school, I had other two seminal experiences that echo today. An assignment in a creative writing class was to take a popular song and make a short story out of it. I latched on the Gordon Lightfoot’s “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and imagined what the day was like when the crew departed Whitefish Bay until the storm sunk the freighter. My teacher loved it so much, she posted it in the teacher’s lounge; I never saw it again. I learned that my creative writing skills must be decent or she wouldn’t have done that.
Second, in late 1976 I founded an astronomy club called the National Deep Sky Observers Society. It didn’t take long to have members across the world. In addition to being the coordinator, I edited and published its bimonthly 8 to 12 page newsletter called Betelgeuse, named after the red supergiant star in Orion. I wrote a few articles, but mostly badgered members into submitting material. I plugged at those duties throughout college, as a museum career, marriage and two daughters. Around 1992 I was able to convince someone else to take over getting it published. I still edited and badgered members to contribute. In 2000 it expanded and became The Deep Sky with a stiff glossy cover.
By 2003 I realized that I couldn’t devote the necessary time to run this organization and when no one stepped up to carry the workload, the publication and organization ceased. Sad? Not really. I have fond memories and because of this organization, had the opportunity to travel coast to coast with friends and meet many respected astronomers – amateur and professional. It enabled me to observe in America’s truly dark skies with a variety of home-built and commercial telescopes of all shapes and sizes. I was able to visit “behind the scenes” of many observatories and walk the catwalks around the inside and outside perimeters of the domes.
Did you want to be a writer?
Heavens no! As a young child I wanted to be an equipment operator. I moved sand with Tonka dozers, shovels and dump trucks for hours on end. I built roads from one side of the box to the other. Then I moved on. How many people you know created several museums out of opened refrigerator cartons by age 10 for the neighborhood carnival? My hand is raised.
In college I majored in geology while dabbling in astronomy and business. A professional astronomer must be fluent in mathematics… and my brain isn’t wired like that. I organized geology department fieldtrips and wrote guidebooks. In 1981, my first article was published in a major national magazine with some 300,000 readers (Astronomy). I got my first check, I think for $150. That was the coolest thing ever! Another article was published in a prestigious mineral collector’s magazine (The Mineralogical Record) in 1983. No money, but another rush!
My career as a museum curator allowed me to explore writing through the Museum of History and Science’s Quarterly. One of my many duties was to write on a variety of topics for museum members. I also wrote text for exhibits. When I became the naturalist / paleontologist at the Falls of the Ohio State Park, my writing opportunities diversified. They include articles in the National Association for Interpretation (Legacy magazine) and research with a world-renowned expert in crinoids, Dr. William Ausich. With him, I am the proud co-author of ten new species of Mississippian Period crinoids!
Are you an avid reader?
Yes… but I walked the path of randomness to get where I am today. I read voraciously as a child – Charlotte’s Web, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to list a couple. Scholastic books were purchased through school as often as I could afford them. I thrived in my elementary school library. My best friend in seventh grade extolled the virtues of J.R.R. Tolkien (1973) but didn’t read him until 2007.
In high school I took classes in science fiction literature and what I would call the “non-classics.” Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolstoy, and other literary giants weren’t part of my lessons. (I lived in the high school library, too.) Those books could be described as science “faction” rather than science fiction.
In college, I scoured the university’s library examining hundreds of geological survey publications and technical literature including The Astrophysical Journal, Journal of Paleontology, and tons of others. I loved them! I went through rolls of nickels copying articles on subjects I wanted in investigate more thoroughly. I used interlibrary loan to get publications not available in their rather pitiful holdings.
The one place where I spent little time was the public library. Go figure. I recently got a library card after my wife complained I was spending too much at the used bookstore. Since then, I’ve plowed through novels at a rate of three to five per week. I really don’t have the space for all the books I have read, but I can understand why some homes look like used bookstores. Since about 2010, I have maintained a list of books I’ve read to avoid re-reading the same book years apart (with a rating scale). As 2022 begins, that list is 34 pages long – single spaced.
Are you a fast reader / writer?
Yes. I can read an enticing novel rapidly. For instance, I read the sixth book of the Harry Potter series (652 pages) in a single day – enjoyed it, and still had time to work in the garden. I may read a hundred pages in bed before turning off the lamp. (No TV or computer in my bedroom.)
When I’m in “the zone” it is easy to write quickly. I knocked-out several 600-word gardening articles for the local newspaper each taking about one hour. When working on Earth Heart, I could write five or six pages (about 3,000 words) in a couple hours (although my goal was to complete one page per day).With a full-time job personal writing is limited to the evening, except on weekends.
What advice would you give a new or young writer?
Authors are consistent with a two-word answer: write, read. But more than that, you must enjoy putting thoughts into words. (It helps to have a vivid imagination to write fiction.)
- Read to become familiar with styles.
- Write what you know – even if you don’t know a lot (yet).
- Get in the habit of setting aside at least one hour per day to write something. Not sure how? Start by keeping a diary that you write in before going to bed. It can be a simple summary of what you did today or your thoughts and dreams.
- Keep a notepad handy because story ideas can come when you least expect them. File your ideas for those moments when you have the time to bring them to life.
- Write down unfamiliar words when reading a book. Can you figure out what it means? Look it up!
- Learn to use a thesaurus. Don’t use the same words time and again when there are ten words that mean the same thing. Don’t go too obscure, either.
- Research to provide accurate detail to enrich the story.
What was the impetus to “dive” into fiction for young adult readers?
Was it because I married a bibliophile who reads novels of fiction faster than me? Nope. I read my hobby-related magazines and books on astronomy, geology and gardening. It was more to the fact that my youngest daughter (well, both daughters) read, following in my wife’s footsteps. Eventually I was forced to endure a nine-hour trip from Honolulu to Atlanta in complete silence as all three bought the seventh Harry Potter book pre-ordered at a bookstore in Waikiki to be picked up as we headed to the airport. I decided that it must be a good book. When I got home, I picked up a dog-eared, worn copy of the first book in the bookshelf at the end of the hall. I was hooked.
After that series was history, I read other books in my wife’s, daughter’s and father’s collections. Authors included John Grisham, Frank Herbert, C.S. Lewis, Tom Clancy, Phillip Pullman, Christopher Paolini, Dan Brown, Michael Creighton, and others. And yes, I read Tolkien! Horror, mystery and romance aren’t my thing.
I observed a style that permeated all those books – the use of vocabulary, the way it flowed from the page into the mind, and all the sudden – “it” resonated within me. When I borrowed Eragon from my daughter and discovered it was a page-turner – I could hardly put it down. Written by a teenager? If Christopher Paolini could write successfully, why not me? After all, I told myself at that time, “I have been getting stuff published for thirty years!”
Is The Dragon in My Back Yard your first attempt at writing science fiction / fantasy?
No. It’s actually manuscript number seven. I started with a mainstream sci-fi story called Sfere. It involves a teenage girl on Earth’s first mission to another star system with a habitable planet. She makes contact in her dreams with something sapient in deep space. I was nearly at page 80 when the idea for another novel hit me like a splash of hot water. As well it should – I was in the shower! After I dried off and put on my pajamas, I rushed down to the computer and wrote the first several pages. More than two years and over a half million words later, Earth Heart was written. It’s a five-book series currently unpublished. A couple of years later The Dragon in My Back Yard came along.
Do you know how a story is going to end before you start?
In vague terms, yes, but I don’t hold myself to it. Sometimes I will write the last chapter or two, but don’t have any qualms about tossing it out if the story mutates in a different direction before I reach the final chapters. Sometimes I will write an “orphan” chapter and then find a way to incorporate it in the story.
Do you create an outline to follow?
For The Dragon in My Backyard, yes. It was shorter story with a simpler plot. That makes outlining much easier.
However, most of the time, no. The story writes itself. That is, I let the characters develop. While I have some specific activities in mind, the story may go in an unanticipated direction. I come up with some ideas after lying down to go to sleep or in the shower. These times I’m not making a conscious effort to think about the story. A notebook nearby is essential.
For Sfere, kind of… I have a partial outline but have filled in areas in-between leading to unexpected adventures, such as a hidden forest that evolved on its own after the “makers” abandoned it, with “planimals” – part plant part animal (oh, how they mature will be so much fun to read)! What can I say? I love word combinations when they can be put to constructive use. This manuscript is 80% complete.
How often do I suffer writers block?
It is not so much not knowing where the story might go, but as a part-time writer, finding the time to work on it. My imagination is – and has always been – very active. If I have a difficulty in one area, I will write a later chapter or re-read a section of the book to think about where it is going.
What about editing?
My brain works much faster than my fingers on the keyboard. As a result, I make plenty of typos. One of my most consistent is writing “his” as “is.” I needed as many people as possible to read one or more chapters at time. Early on, family and friends read and edited typos and when something wasn’t clear. My dad read the entirety of Earth Heart as he tutored the child next door to sharpen his reading skills. According to his mom and my dad, it worked!
I’m a co-organizer of the Louisville Writer’s Meet Up. Since March 2015, this group meets weekly offering opportunities to critique by fellow writers. They offer positive feedback and help find typos and lines that needed clarification. Their input makes me a better writer.
Lesson: Share what you are writing with friends and family. Listen to their suggestions. Don’t feel obligated to follow them. Their comments will make you a better writer because you learn from them.
What are some differences between writing for a book versus a magazine?
Until recently, my life as a writer focused in hobby or career-related topics in magazines. This is a “different beast” than a novel because of size – 1,500 words versus 50,000+. (I have not delved into short stories… yet.) My articles are based on knowledge from personal research and / or work experience. A successful writer converts information into words that others can understand and/or be motivated into an action by reading them.
Example 1: An article on observing different types of galaxies through a telescope. You have to observe them yourself before being able to describe them for others. Research might include scientific data, observation history and how it looks in different size telescopes.
Example 2: Writing about the complex history and geology of a place that produced beautiful minerals adorning private and museum collections around the world. I sought out and read every book, article and research paper I could find, topics included mining history and geology. I had to visit every mine that was accessible, talk to miners, curators, collectors, and dealers as well as learn how to identify every mineral found or reported in the area. This process was complex and time consuming. The resulting manuscript was 60 pages, took four years to write and another six to get published. The effort netted the author a national award by peers in the field of mineral collecting and research.
Example 3: Writing about innovative programs or “how-to” articles for peers in my career. These usually generate comments from readers. One article won a national award from my fellow career professionals in non-formal museum / park education.
These examples are not meant to discourage young writers. It is just a word of caution to reinforce that necessity to write about what you know!
What is the connection between writing fiction and nonfiction?
The connection between nonfiction and fiction is simple – to make a piece of fiction realistic, it is necessary to make your details accurate. That might include how a late 19th century steamship or 17th century clipper ship functioned, how to care for and ride a horse, how a blacksmith works a forge, how plants and animals interact, and on and on.
Fantasy requires some realism in the day-to-day life of the main character(s). Does a dragon rider use a saddle or go bare back? How does he or she hang on? If the character is flying at 30,000 feet – is the air thin like it is on Earth? Do the laws of physics apply uniformly or partially? If they don’t, how do you get around them? Star Trek used inertial dampeners so that hyper-acceleration didn’t smear everyone on the ship into bloody pulp. A little knowledge about physics is necessary to make the details realistic, even when it isn’t real.
Can you give me a word about humor in the story?
Okay, more than a word.
Good stories involve the range of human emotion (and even when it is non-human emotion, it is still visceral to the reader, species Homo sapiens). Scientists trying to unlock mysteries of the mind and body are learning that certain genes (or the lack thereof) may lead to certain forms of cancer, lactose intolerance, and other traits – serious to merely annoying – that make us who we are. I am quite sure there is a “pun” gene and I inherited it from my dad – much to my co-workers’ chagrin! You will find them sprinkled in every novel, but not in every chapter. I wouldn’t do that to my readers. I love situational wordplay. I think you will, too.
If you have any questions or find a typo on any web page, feel free to drop me an email (see the contact page).