Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Guest Blog: The Sinister Minister
Bio blurb: Rev. 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, 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. He’s the father of writing authority Wendy Burt-Thomas (Writer’s Digest Guide to Writing Query Letters) and grandfather to Ben and Gracie. In February 2009 he was profiled in Connecticut Magazine (“The Sinister Minister”). His book Even Odder was a runner-up to Harry Potter for the 2003 Bram Stoker Award, and his Oddest Yet won it in 2004 (Young Reader category), and is the first self-published book to do so.
1. The major TV stations and Connecticut Magazine recently profiled you as “The Sinister Minister” for being the clergyman who won the world’s top horror award, the Bram Stoker. That’s a joke, isn’t it?
No, it’s the ironic truth. After 30 high-profile years in my primary vocation as a pastor, national lecturer, and writer of church leadership books, articles, and inspirational pieces (like for Chicken Soup for the Soul), the spotlight was suddenly shined on my low-profile avocation as a closet writer of horror and dark fiction when Oddest Yet won the Bram Stoker Award. Funny thing is I was nearly outed the year before when Even Odder was runner-up to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter in the young readers category. So now people come up to me when I’m autographing books at arts & crafts shows and exclaim, “I know you. You’re The Sinister Minister.” The accidental branding was serendipitous for me.
2. Your output is impressive--a thousand shorter pieces in print, over a dozen books, not to mention cranking out a sermon the length of a mid-length short story or article each week—all while working as a pastor and national lecturer on small church issues. And you say you manage to read a book or two a week. When do you ever find time to write?
When do doctors and lawyers find time to play golf? How do other people carve out time for bowling leagues? We find time for what we’re passionate about. I’m passionate about writing. I only watch three TV shows a week—LOST, Desperate Housewives, and Two and a Half Men (oh, and the UConn women’s basketball team), while most people spend hours either watching TV or simply channel checking. I don’t channel check, and that alone must save me twenty hours a week. If I can get three hours a day in for five or six days or nights a week--at only 3-6 manuscript pages per sitting—that’s a minimum of 15 pages a week, and a maximum of 36. Do the math. Pages pile up.
3. How did you get started as a writer? What were your influences?
My fifth-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 also read voraciously—comics, weird magazines, mysteries, whatever I could get my hands on from the school and public libraries: The Mushroom Planet, William O. Steele’s frontier adventures like Buffalo Knife with their young protagonists, stories of the Norse, Roman, and Greek gods, Sir Walter Scott Ivanhoe, Daniel DeFoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Stephen Crane, everything in the Weekly Reader and Scholastic books-to-buy programs (my classmates and I traded). Before I hit my teens I had read The Odyssey, The Iliad, The Aeneid, Poe, O Henry, Twain, DeMaupassant, Saki, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley. The last thirty years I’ve really enjoyed work by old seminary neighbor Stephen King, 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. That’s the tip of my reading iceberg. And I read a lot of theology, too.
4. Your stories sometimes fall under horror, but they're not gory. How would you describe them?
Horror Lite, some supernatural adventure, a few paranormal mysteries like my Devaney and Hoag stories. Right now I’m writing a young adult novel that falls under “realistic fantasy.” While my work appeals to young readers and adults alike, just as Harry Potter does, I lay off the gore, preferring Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock off-camera approaches. And I like character-driven stories rather than plot-driven ones, so mine have far less dependence on shock or 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 they 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.
5. Have you always self-published? If not, what made you decide to do it?
No, I wrote church leadership books for traditional publishers like Judson Press and Alban Institute. But making 3% to 6% on a $10-$13 book that has a first run of 2,000-3,000 books isn’t very rewarding monetarily. They changed my titles, insisted on covers I didn’t like, and—in one case—had a 3 year delay before the book came out. And I had to do all the p.r. myself anyway. I’d rather run 2000 of my own books (from final manuscript to published product in 3 months) for $2-$5 cost apiece, and sell them at fairs and public readings for $15 a book. Other than Amazon.com I don’t even bother with bookstores or distributors. When I did have a distributor, I sold fewer than 1% of my books through bookstores, and the store and distributor made all the money. I mean, by producing books myself, meeting my audience face-to-face (young readers), and selling direct to my market (teens, parents, grandparents, teachers and librarians), how many copies do I have to sell per year to beat the money offered by those “real” publishers? I owe this realistic approach to self-publishing guru Dan Poynter, author of The Self Publishing Manual, whose weekend course I took.
6. Have you any advice for those considering the self-publishing route?
Yes. If you can’t devise a concrete, workable, realistic plan for getting your book in front of (#1) your audience, which in my case is mostly teens, and (#2) your market/buyers, which in my case is parents, grandparents, and teachers--don’t write it. Or at least, don’t pay the money to self-publish it. Once you’ve given the first 10-50 copies of your press run to family and friends, who will purchase those books (cases of them!) stored in the attic? And don’t think you’ll get them sold through bookstores or online, because you still have to do the PR and marketing to drive customers there to ask for them (if you can even get those bookstores to stock them).
7. Do you have to deal with writer’s block?
Hah! Every week I first have to deal with sermon-writer’s block. So I just sit down and start. My congregation wouldn’t like it if I stood up on Sunday morning and said, “Sorry, no word from God this week.” That pressure, and the discipline I’ve developed by producing an 8-10 page, double-spaced manuscript each week, has helped me write fiction. I usually just sit down and apply myself. (And I have a large sign above my monitor that says “Writers write. I am a writer.”
A side story about writing process. After Odd Lot won a Ben Franklin silver medal for Best Mystery/Suspense Book in 2001, 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. Damn! Writer’s block! Dead end! A month of it! Finally my writing-authority/editor/daughter Wendy Burt-Thomas (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 MS Word, edited on-screen, and published Even Odder (not a great book, but runner-up to J.K. Rowling for the Stoker). I didn’t write the book, I told it. We may not all be good at writing stories, but everyone tells them.
8. Do you have any funny stories?
Yes. Oddest Yet, won the 2004 Bram Stoker by outpolling Dean Koontz and Jeff Marriotte, and tying Clive Barker’s Abarat (a terrific book). After getting drubbed in New York by Rowling the year before, I figured an unknown minister with an unknown self-published story collection had no chance against the biggies, so I opted to skip the black-tie ceremony in Burbank, California. But my L.A. agent, always looking for photo ops with the biggies, attended, and at 2 a.m. my time phoned. “Guess what?” she teased. “You won the Stoker.” I was still pretty much asleep and had to preach the next morning, so I muttered “Shit” and went back to bed. The Stoker arrived via UPS that week (a haunted mansion modeled after Poe’s House of Usher), and I placed on the altar above my fireplace. After two weeks of kissing it goodnight at bedtime, I eventually noticed the little door in its front and opened it. It had Clive Barker’s name inscribed there for Abarat! He’d walked off the Burbank Hilton stage with my Stoker! After a mediated hostage exchange, Clive graciously and apologetically surrendered my trophy and I returned his. (Apparently he hadn’t thought to open his little door, either). Afterwards, when I told my author/daughter/capitalist Wendy, she emailed, “Are you nuts, Dad? Clive’s is worth a lot more than yours on eBay.” Kids are here to keep us humble, right?
9. 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 from those low-pay and no-pay small magazines and zines); it then went on to win awards and made me some money. That’s contrary to what you hear from most writing-advice columnists who are selling nonfiction and advise you not to ever let it go unless you get paid for it. Learn from writing-related magazines and books. Learn from rejections (I had a thousand before an acceptance), then 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 (for me it’s 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.
10. What books do you recommend fiction writers read?
Everything in their favorite fields or genres, then beyond that. I gobbled up hundreds of romances for awhile to see if I wanted to write them (which I didn’t). But even though I chose not to write them, I learned a lot about character development, plotting, and how to begin and end a chapter. Oh, and there are two absolutely essential primers every fiction writer should read: Gary Provost’s Make Your Words Work and Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer. Most of us try to write instinctively, but Swain shows us things like Motivation/Reaction Units, so we see how and why our best writing works, so we can learn to do it again and again.
15. Where can people buy your books?
At public readings, school visits, writers’ conferences, arts & crafts shows around New England. Use your Visa or Mastercard on my in-home answering machine (860 885-1865) or hit the website www.burtcreations.com. I only sell autographed copies, and it’s only through me that you can get the 4-pack special deal of $10 off for the series. Request a brochure (29 Arnold Place, Norwich, CT 06360. As a last resort, get an autographed copy from www.amazon.com.