Today we have an interview with Rev. Dr. Steve Burt, a.k.a. The Sinister Minister, who is not only an award-winning horror/mystery writer, but also a Christian minister. He has won the Bram Stoker, Ray Bradbury, and Benjamin Franklin Awards for his fiction.
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 released in January) and grandfather to Ben and Gracie.
In February 2009 he was profiled in Connecticut Magazine as “The Sinister Minister” and the name has stuck. His book EVEN ODDER was a runner-up to Harry Potter for the 2003 Bram Stoker Award, and his ODDEST YET won the award in 2004 in the Young Reader category.
ODDEST YET is the first self-published book to win the Bram Stoker Award.
WE: I hear they call you "the Sinister Minister." What's THAT all about? Do people get upset?
I was unintentionally but luckily “branded” during an interview on WCAX TV Channel 3 in Burlington, VT when I won horror’s top writing prize, the Bram Stoker Award (Young Readers category). The news anchor focused on my being both a liberal/progressive pastor (known for church leadership books) and a top-drawer horror writer, a unique combination.
Everybody in creation must have been watching that night, because folks started coming up to me at fairs, saying, “I saw you on TV. You’re The Sinister Minister.” Good lucky branding, and I’ve had fun with it.
In fact, Connecticut Magazine just profiled me in February using “The Sinister Minister” as the title. Occasionally fundamentalist Christians will give me a hard time at signings, but I just ask if they’ve read my material (No!) and if they’ve read their Bible (Of course!). Then I tell them there’s more blood and guts, demon possession, and rising from the dead in the Bible than there
is in my books. (Or I tell them God told me to write horror. How do you argue that?)
I believe writers should write what they’re called to write, or what they like
reading or writing. I’ve also written poetry, cartoon captions, a canoeing book, devotional material, church leadership books, and inspirational stories for Chicken Soup for the Soul. Nobody questions a minister writing that stuff. But there’s always been a connection between theological issues and horror literature (Frankenstein is about Man Playing God, Dracula is about drinking blood and the cost of eternal life). More to the point, I always liked Twilight Zone and Tales from the Crypt as a kid, so I write it now.
WE: 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 discipl
ine of writing a sermon every week (the equivalent of a short story in length), and cranked out a few hundred devotionals, articles, 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, DeMaupassant, Saki, Twain, Keats & Shelley & 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.
WE: Your stories sometimes fall under horror, 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, and 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. 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.
WE: I’ve read that you're the first person in history to win what is arguably horror’s top prize, the Bram Stoker, for a self-published book. Is that true?
I’ve heard that, too, and it’s apparently true, at least for the
Young Reader category. It’s pretty certain I’m the only ordained minister to win one. But your question points up to 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 t
o 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. But 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.”
But 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.
WE: 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 three-year delay before the book came out. And I had to do all the PR myself anyway.
I’d rather run 2,000 of my own books (from final ms to published book is three months) for $2 to $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 had a distributor, I sold fewer than 1% of my books through bookstores, and the store and distributor made all the money. I mean, do the math; 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, whose book I read (The Self Publishing Manual) and whose weekend course I took. Thanks, Dan.
WE: How do you juggle time between the church and writing?
I intentionally contracted with my church giving them two thirds of my 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 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 & 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.
WE: Can you talk about your writing process a bit?
After finishing my church work and writing an eight to ten 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 a manuscript, but heck, that’s fifteen to twenty-five pages a week—and even over my limited four-month Jan-Apr 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 won a Ben Franklin silver 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.
Writer’s block! Dead end! Finally my writing-authority/editor/daughter Wendy Burt-Thomas 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 fifteen to word processing, edited on-screen, and published EVEN ODDER (a runner-up to J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” for the 2003 Bram Stoker Award for Young Readers). I didn’t write the book, I told it.
WE: Do you have any funny stories?
Yes. My next book, ODDEST YET, won the 2004 Bram Stoker by beating Dean Koontz and tying Clive Barker. I didn’t attend the black-tie event in Burbank, figuring I had no chance against the big names (besides, I couldn’t afford the airfare and I had to preach in my church the next morning). So my agent from nearby L.A. attended, capitalized on photo ops of her schmoozing with the big names, and phoned me at 2 a.m. to say I’d won the Stoker. I was still pretty much asleep, muttered “Shit” and went back to bed.
The Stoker Committee UPS’d me my oh-so-lovely Stoker trophy that week (a haunted mansion modeled after Poe’s House of Usher) which I placed above the fireplace. Then, after two weeks of bowing down to it every night, I noticed the little door in 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! So the Stoker Committee and UPS had to mediate a hostage exchange. Barker was gracious and the mistake was righted. After I told my daughter, she said, “Dad, you should have kept Clive Barker’s. It’s worth a lot more than your own on eBay.” Kids are here to keep us humble, right?
WE: 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, writer’s write, wannabes wannabe.
WE: What are some of your favorite books?
Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Shane, Jaws, The Godfather, The Exorcist, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Poe’s short stories, and books by J.K. Rowling, James Lee Burke, John Sandford, Tony Hillerman, Thomas Perry, Stephen King (some), Dean Koontz (some), and Sue Grafton.
WE: What books do you recommend that fiction writers read?
Everything in their favorite fields or genres, then beyond that. I gobbled up hundreds of romances over three years, trying to see if I wanted to write the more formulaic stuff. But several romance-writer friends gave me a reality check when they said they were trying to write a book in 6 weeks and produce two to five a year under several names. They loved it, and more power to them for doing what they love, but it wasn’t for me. Still, I learned a lot about character development and plotting from romances. There are two absolute essential non-fiction primers every fiction writer should read: Gary Provost’s Make Your Words Work and Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer.
WE: Most of your stories - like the Devaney and Haug mysteries - are set in New England. Why?
It’s what I know. I’ve lived most of my life in different parts of New England, so I know the dialects and accents, the common words and colloquialisms New Englanders use. My fourth collection in the Stories to Chill the Heart series is titled WICKED ODD, a northern New England phrase that has spread (Wicked Good Chowdah, wicked cold, wicked funny).
I know the places, the back woods, the small towns, and the weather. It’s second nature to me to write my characters into these settings. And every year when I read the stories aloud on radio across the country (horror in October, inspirational holiday stories in December), I allow my characters to speak in the Down East Maine dialect and with the New Hampsha accent. Plus, using New England gives me four seasons to consider, which means I can have a body rotting and bloating in the summer sun or on ice and preserved in the (pardon the pun) dead of wintah.
WE: What are you working on now?
A fun new novel for young adults. It’s going very nicely and the pages are piling up. I hope to have it ready for July 4th release on Cape Cod, where my fans line up for the newest book.
WE: What's the best part and worst part 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 afternoon 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 15th 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.
WE: Where can people buy your books? Are they in most stores? On Amazon? On your Web site?
I don't bother with bookstores since they're just warehouses you have to drive your customers to. I sell direct at arts & crafts shows, on Amazon.com, and on my own website, www.burtcreations.com