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Steve Alten, author of MEG

Interview with Steve Alten
By: Kenna McHugh

The first book Steve Alten ever wrote, MEG, about a prehistoric shark became a bestseller on three bestseller lists and became top twenty on eight, including Wall Street Journal, USA Today, New York Times, Publishers Weekly, WaldenBooks, Barnes & Noble and Literary Guild Alternate.

How did he do it?

Steve worked hard for ten years without any luck in selling his manuscript. He pitched his book to Kenneth Atchity of A.E.I (Atchity Editorial/Entertainment International, Inc.). Atchity liked the story and sensed a bestseller. Steve paid Atchitys company $5,000 to have his manuscript edited and defined into a salable commodity. And, boy did it sell. Atchity became his agent and optioned the story as a movie for 1 million to Disney. Then, Atchity formulated a bidding war for Steves manuscript that ended up with a 1.2 million, two book deal.

How hard did he work?

After a full day of work at Steves real job, he wrote MEG from ten at night to four in the morning. He was living in a two-bedroom apartment with his wife, two kids and a 2 1/2 year old baby. Atlen didn't have a lot of money when he dished out the 5K. Even had to sell his beloved 71 Chevy Malibu to make the total payment to A.E.I.. His family and friends told him he was crazy. He gambled it all, time and money, and he hit the bestseller lottery.

Writers recognize editors as valuable resources. Richard Sessions, author of ISLAND WOMAN, acknowledges Kenneth Atchity for encouraging him to pursue fiction writing. One of Hemingways wives edited FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS. Playwright Lillian Hellman worked extensively with Dashell Hammet on her first play, THE CHILDRENS HOUR. One could pick up any book and find a dedication to the authors editor.

Kenna McHughs interview with Steve Alten gives an insight to one aspect of the publishing business. Through her questions and Steves answers, you will get a better idea of how Steves collaboration with A.E.I. was the key to his first successful publication.

KENNA: What did you write before you wrote MEG?
Before MEG, my only writing experience consisted of a masters thesis and doctoral dissertation, plus an article published in the Physician & Sports Medicine.

Tell us a little bit about your writing process, e.g. Do you just sit down and write it all out or do you organize your thoughts (outline) and then write?
I begin with a basic concept of what I believe will make for an action- packed story. Then I do a lot of research, allowing the information gathered to build the storyline. Once I feel that I have all the necessary basics, I'll do a preliminary outline and submit it to Ken Atchity, whose opinion I value regarding the content and marketability of the project. Once I begin writing, the story tends to tighten up, bringing out details that I could have never anticipated during the outline process. Future editing will complete the process.

Did you do all your research before you wrote or while you wrote MEG?
Research is an ongoing process. The bulk of what went into MEG was done before I started writing, but as chapters developed, there was a need to complete more.

When did you know you had done enough research on the Megalodon to able to complete MEG?
Once I had the basic storyline down, I felt I was ready to write.

Is there some aspect of your story, MEG, that you really liked but couldnt keep in the final draft?
No, everything that I liked made it into the final draft...except for one scene where I had Terry sunbathing topless and Chi-Li Wong, Ken's partner, wanted her clothed. Oh well...

I noticed that quite a few young teenagers enjoy your book. Did you have an audience in mind when you wrote the story? Or, did the editor handle that?
This is the type of book that is not going to win any literary awards, but is fast-paced and full of action, the kind of book you are willing to stay up all night to read. I knew it would appeal to guys like myself (25-48 age bracket) but was pleasantly surprised at how many young teens have enjoyed it, and written me as well.

How do you go about developing characters in a story like MEG, which is based on fact yet fiction?
I wrote MEG with the intention of allowing the 60 foot prehistoric Great White to be the main character. I remember reading JAWS, one of my favorite books. I would skip through a lot of the Amity goings-on just to get back to the shark scenes. In MEG, its all shark, which keeps the pace furious.

At the same time, strong character development is something that I want to improve. Thanks to AEI, I feel I've become a better writer in that I'm more aware of the importance in establishing a character's motivation and development in the storyline. This is the heart of developing characters, and what I now look for in the planning stages.

Who are your favorite authors?
My favorite authors are Anne Rice, Tom Clancy, Michael Crichton, Ian Fleming, and Howard Stern.

When you paid the $5,000 to get your book edited, did it feel like you were playing the lottery or did you just know it would all turn out to be a million dollar jack-pot? What was going through you mind at the time?
What was going through my mind was my wife's fist. We were flat broke, living in a tiny rental, with our 2 year old daughter sleeping in a cot in our bedroom and my two step-children upstairs. I had tried many ventures over the years and my wife just looked at writing as another project that would take time away from the family and cost us money. To raise funds, I sold my only possession, a 1971 Malibu convertible which I had owned since 1977. I've always believed that success requires sacrifice. Playing the lottery is gambling, and I'm not a gambler. I assessed my life, knew I wanted to become a successful writer, and believed that I had a winner for a story. All I imagined was getting a huge publishing deal and attending the premier of my movie. In fact, every time my wife and I went to the movies, I'd tell her that, one day, we'll be in a theater in Hollywood watching MEG.

Does that mean that I wasn't scared? Of course not. The process is similar to crawling out on a limb of a very high tree. You know you're out there and that it's a huge drop if you fall. Out along the weakest branches grows the fruit. If you really intend on making it all the way out to the fruit, you can't hold onto the trunk, you have to let go. At the same time, you have to be smart enough not to look down (negatives), which, of course, everyone you know is screaming at you to do. If you don't want to fall, then keep looking at the fruit. This all may sound hooky, but it works and it's how I've chosen to live my life, ever since I was 13 years old. I'd never parachute out of a plane, but I would work from 10:00 PM to 4:00 AM to fulfill my goals.

What is it like working through the editing process?
Editing is designed to improve your work, so I'm positive about it. I'm a rookie and I want to learn, and I'm very coach-able. At the same time, major changes require swallowing a bit of pride. It usually takes me a few hours to swallow.

How has the editing of MEG helped you as a writer?
The process of editing MEG was terrific. In terms of the first 100 pages, the edits were substantial. Ken Atchity and David Angsten did a great job and taught me the importance of streamlining the story. I was then able to edit the rest of the book, then go back and rewrite the first 100 pages, fleshing it out a bit. The final edits were line edits, done by Ed Stackler, who was incredible. I learned a lot from him as well, and still do. As far as I'm concerned, the moment you stop learning is the moment you stop growing.

Being in dire financial straits, how could you keep your attention on your writing?
Everyone has problems. Keeping life in perspective is vital for surviving. Yes, I was struggling financially, but we were healthy and safe, which was more important. When you feel depressed, just turn on the news on any given night and you'll find a family whose problems are a lot worse than yours. It's also important to focus on solutions, not the problem. MEG was my solution and only I knew it, and only I could make it happen. Instead of dwelling on the bad, I focused on working on my solution.

In an interview you mentioned you didnt listen to any negatives while trying to get your book published. Were there any significant positives that helped you along?
My father has always been supportive of anything I've ever done. Knowing that he was there was like having a parachute. That's why MEG is dedicated to him.

Your story went to bid, which is fantastic for a first time novelist, explain the bidding process. What you were feeling during that time?
We gave one publisher an opportunity to steal it, and they came back with a $50,000 offer. That was a bit negative. The next day the bidding began and suddenly we're up to $600,000. At that point, I was probably feeling a bit greedy, like...okay, if we can get this up to $1.2 million, then I can build a nicer home (after taxes). When we hit $2 million, I got scared again, afraid that something would happen.

Do you recommend making multiple book deals when signing for the first time?
I'll be happy to comment on this after my suit against Doubleday is resolved.

Tell us a little bit about your second book you are working on?
The second book was supposed to be FATHOM. It was different than MEG in that is was far more involved, more fascinating than simply straight action, and I worked harder on it than I have at anything in my life. It's very disappointing to all of us that DOUBLEDAY's actions will delay its appearance on the market, but when it does appear, my readers will not be disappointed.

In other interviews, you mentioned you had to give up a lot and work hard to get MEG written. Are you able to still have the same perspective while writing your second novel?
I had hoped that my financial situation would be better, and for awhile, it was. As mentioned earlier, DOUBLEDAY's corporate decision to cut costs sent me reeling. The sequel to MEG, however, is so good that's it's hard to be negative.

Is it true you are no longer with Double-Day? How come?
It's true, and the situation surrounding it is baffling. Although I cannot get into details (Lawsuit pending) BANTAM-DOUBLEDAY-DELL was one of several major publishing houses that wanted MEG. If we had not accepted their offer for 2 books, then there were others ready to match, one even to exceed their offer. We chose BDD because they committed themselves to featuring both MEG & FATHOM as their summer features. Less than a month after they bought MEG, they sold the foreign rights for well over the book's guarantee. In fact, MEG was the book of the Frankfurt festival.

MEG has gone on to sell close to 100,000 copies in hardback (Domestic only), more than most first-time authors could hope to achieve. When it comes out in paperback, MEG may sell over a million more. BDD is obviously undergoing some major changes on the corporate level, including the dismissal of their President, and the jumping ship of several key people. The situation reminds me of how the Florida Marlins won the championship, then started dumping large contracts, even though the players had performed. It's upsetting, but I'm confident that I'll find another team that will better appreciate my services, and hopefully we'll forge a long and prosperous relationship.

How has Ken Atchity at AEI helped you in your writing success?
Besides being a great manager, Ken Atchity is an excellent writer. He also has a talent for knowing what works and what doesn't, and his edits are insightful (though sometimes nasty if he doesn't like something). I usually sit by the fax machine and pray when I send him a new chapter or concept to review.

What other professional goals would you like to achieve?
I have several ideas for screenplays, one of which I am working on part-time with a friend of mine. I want to keep writing novels, my goal being that each will eventually be made into a movie or mini-series. I also have a concept for a TV drama series, one that, if done right, would be on par with an ER or Hill Street Blues. All that will have to wait, however, until the sequel of MEG is completed.

Now, that you have gone through the process of getting a bestseller and movie deal, what would you do different?
If I had 20/20 hindsight, I would have budgeted myself differently to handle the unexpected set-back BDD hit me with. Other than that, it's hard to say. Why dwell on things you can't change?

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