Prizewinning horror writer Steve Burt talks about professionalism

Wendy Burt-Thomas connected her father, the liberal-progressive pastor and award-winning author Steve Burt, to Treated & Released last week. I’m pleased to share his comments on the writing profession, as well as his thoughts about what inspires and motivates him.

—Robin

How did you get started as a writer? What were your influences?

My second-grade teacher got the high school newspaper to print a one-paragraph story of mine. The third-grade teacher encouraged rhymed poems and limericks. The fifth-grade teacher read aloud to us, and I wrote stories using the read-aloud stories as inspiration. But my sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Youngs, kept me after school for being a chatterbox; and instead of making me clean the erasers or write “I will not talk in class” until my hand fell off, she had me write stories, and then she’d critique them.

I wrote fiction in college; edited the literary magazine; and, discouraged there was no money in writing, went into the ministry. There, I got to write articles; practiced the discipline of writing a sermon every week (the equivalent of a short story in length); and cranked out a few hundred devotionals, articles, and poems and a dozen books. Eventually I decided to write fiction again even if there was no money in it, since I had my pastoral job as an anchor.

From early on I loved Poe, De Maupassant, Saki, Twain, Keats and Shelley and Wordsworth, Bram Stoker, and Mary Shelley. And before I hit my teens, I gobbled up Homer, Virgil, and the stories of the Norse gods. The last thirty years I’ve really enjoyed the short stories of my old neighbor Stephen King, and Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas series, James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series, Robert B. Parker’s Spenser books, Tony Hillerman, John Sandford, Sue Grafton, and Thomas Perry.

Even OdderYour stories sometimes fall into the horror category, but they’re not gory. How would you describe them?

Lite horror since they’re in the young adult category, some supernatural adventure, and a few paranormal mysteries like my Devaney and Hoag stories. While it appeals to a large adult audience, because my readers are mostly young adults, I lay off the gore, preferring instead Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock off-camera approaches and character-driven stories over plot-driven ones, where there’s far less dependence on shock and special effects. Myself, I’m sorry horror literature took the turn toward splatterpunk and gore in the early seventies with movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, and Nightmare on Elm Street, because it de-emphasized good writing. That may be why I read a lot of what my Brit colleagues call “weird fiction,” the high quality stuff you get from Ash Tree Press and the Ghost Story Society.

Is it true that you’re the first person in history to win what is arguably horror’s top prize, the Horror Writers Association’s Bram Stoker Award, for a self-published book?

It’s apparently true, at least for the Young Reader category. It’s pretty certain I’m the only ordained minister to win one.

The question points up an interesting issue about self-publishing today. It’s lucky the Stokers are awarded for “superior achievement” and not “superior achievement with a traditional publisher,” because even the open-minded Horror Writers Association (HWA), which sponsors and awards the Stokers, has a bias built into its membership strata requirements (even though many horror writers are self-published or publish with small presses). Here’s what I mean: based on dollar sales for my work, I’m a pretty successful horror writer, one who made a full-time living at it for four years, but despite all the money and the awards, I’m still not an Active (read: Full Voting) Member of HWA—only an Affiliate Member—because I haven’t sold a novel to a publisher (other than my own publishing house) or sold the required number of short stories (I think it’s three) at such-and-such a minimum price to magazines. The bias is, I think, a holdover from the old days when all self-publishing was equated with “vanity” publishing and meant little or no editing, maybe not even any proofreading.

To its credit, the HWA is striving to have “pro” standards (accepted by and edited by someone other than the author) as a requirement for Full Member status, and at this point it still translates into “other-than-self-published.” Publishing has changed. I own and operate an award-winning publishing house that publishes only my work, due to limited funds. Yet, HWA’s membership guidelines don’t account for that shift. It depends on “professional-level” sales, but doesn’t consider self-publishers’ sales “professional.” That said, I still belong to, support, and enjoy HWA as an Affiliate Member, and I haven’t pressed to change the rules.

Are you interested in finding a traditional publisher for your work, even though you’re doing so well as a self-published author?

I’m interested in finding a traditional publisher because it might give me more writing time. Right now I wear too many hats and spend too much of my energy as editor, publisher, publicist, marketer, salesperson, packer, and bookkeeper.

Can you talk about your writing process a bit?

After finishing my church work and writing an eight- to 10-page sermon each week, if I can squeeze out three good hours a day for fiction (say, five days of the week), I’m happy. It’s usually in the afternoon or evening, but on days off I may do a morning. Each writing session will produce three to five pages of manuscript, but heck, that’s 15 to 25 pages a week—and even over my limited four-month January-through-April writing season—that could total 240 to 400 pages, easily enough to sugar off to a 144-page collection.

Just a side story about writing process. After Odd Lot was a silver finalist for the Independent Book Publishers Association’s Ben Franklin Award in the mystery/suspense category in 2002, I felt the pressure to beat that with my next collection. So I wrote and rewrote the first lines, first paragraphs, and first pages of the opening story for Even Odder. Writer’s block! Dead end!

Finally my writing-authority/editor/daughter, Wendy Burt-Thomas (author of the Writer’s Digest Guide to Writing Query Letters), advised me to free myself up by shifting from the write/edit side of the brain to the storytelling side. I got a mini-cassette tape recorder with headset mouthpiece and from scratch, orally created a story every day while on an hour’s walk with my dog. At the end of 43 days I had 43 stories, some very bad. But I transcribed the best 15 to word processing, edited on-screen, and published Even Odder, a runner-up to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for the 2003 Bram Stoker Award for a work for young readers. I didn’t write the book; I told it.

How do you juggle time between the church and writing?

I intentionally contracted with my church for two-thirds time, so I’d have time to write and tend to my bookselling business. I spend about two to three hours a day actually writing, but only between January and the end of April, which easily gets me a 144-page book. From June through early December, I don’t write, but instead spend most Saturdays selling and autographing at arts and crafts fairs. I also spend weekdays on school visits at middle and high schools, do read-aloud programs of my short stories for different groups (camps, schools, youth groups, senior centers, cemetery associations, civic groups, libraries), and sell a few books in other ways. There’s usually an honorarium to cover travel and expenses. So, between church work and the writing business, I stay pretty busy.

What are the best and worst aspects of being a writer?

The worst? You always want to spend more time at the writing, but there’s the other job that pays most of the bills. And there’s the countless time you have to put into promotion and publicity. And the small paycheck for most writers.

The best? Finding yourself “in the zone” and losing track of time and place while writing. The other day I started in my writing room (midnight blue walls with fluorescent stars that glow after the lights go out) in the afterooon and looked up at the end of a chapter to see it was not only pitch-black outside but in the rest of the house. Only my computer screen and desk lamp shed any light at all. I had missed supper by an hour.

Also, finishing a story you know is good, that’s worth a lot. And holding the first copy of the new book that comes out of the case—wow—even if it’s the fifteenth book you’ve written. Oh, and the fact that you can write anywhere. My friend Dan Poynter is on jets all the time and yet writes every day and night there or in hotel rooms. Writing is a portable profession.

What do you see yourself doing—in your wildest dreams—10 years from now?

Writing YA novels full-time, maybe a few adult novels too.

What advice do you have for new writers?

Read, read, read—for enjoyment and to learn.

Write, write, write anything you can—sermons, newsletter articles, jokes, anecdotes, devotional material, poems, cartoon captions, recipes, anything—but especially stories, short and long. Write what you like.

Submit stuff. Publish, even if sometimes there’s no money but only a contributor’s copy. My first horror stories went for no-pay and low-pay, but I gave away only one-time rights, then later collected them into Odd Lot (almost all reprints of mag stories) that won awards and eventually made a lot of money. That’s contrary to most writers advice columnists who are selling nonfiction and advise you not to ever let it go unless you get paid for it.

I also say, read and learn from writing-related magazines and books.

Learn from rejections (I had a thousand before an acceptance) and submit again and again. Publish your own stuff if you have to, but make sure you know your audience (for me, it’s teens), your market (their parents and grandparents and teachers), and how you can get it to the buyers.

As my old neighbor Stephen King said, “Writers write; wannabes wannabe.”Burt Creations

The Reverend Dr. Steve Burt, a.k.a. The Sinister Minister, has won the Bram Stoker, Ray Bradbury, and Benjamin Franklin Awards. In addition to horror and mystery/suspense, he writes church leadership books, inspirational books, and devotional material and has published hundreds of pieces in such venues as Reader’s Digest, Writer’s Digest, Yankee, Family Circle, and the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. In February 2009, he was profiled in Connecticut Magazine (“The Sinister Minister”). He’s the father of writing authority Wendy Burt-Thomas (Writer’s Digest Guide to Writing Query Letters) and grandfather to Ben and Gracie.

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