More About the Author
Q and A about Janice VanCleave
1. Where were you born and where did you grow up? I was born in Houston, Texas and grew up there. Our home was about 10 miles from downtown and at the time was very unpopulated. There were dirt roads and lots of trees. I lived in a forest and there were many animals, including turtles. Once I collected turtles and kept them in a large tub. The turtles made their great escape the day I decided they needed exercise. Knowing that turtles move very slowly, I placed the turtles in the grass and expected them to only wander a short distance. But, when I returned the turtles were no where to be found. Since I had written names on their backs with red fingernail polish, I periodically saw the turtles, but decided they were happier in the wild. Since turtles have a very small average velocity, it wasn't the rate of motion that allowed them to escape. Instead, it was that I got interested in something else and lost track of time. With enough elapse time the displacement of even slow moving turtles was great enough for them to escape.
2. How did your parents motivate you?
Neither of my parents nor any close adult family member finished high school and most had not been educated past junior high. But all were very supportive when I decided to attend college. Actually, I disliked school and asked my dad if I could quit high school and be a cosmetologist like my mom. My sweet dad was not very strict with me. His answer, which was in a tone that made me sit up and pay attention, was "You may choose any profession that you wish, but YOU WILL FIRST finish high school if I have to go to class with you every day!" Yikes! That was loud, clear, and shocking. I did graduate from high school, but in less time than most. Since I was not involved in much of anything at school it wasn't fun to be there. So I attended summer classes in order to graduate early. I was 15 when I entered my senior year and was 16 the following year when I entered college. I loved college. I enjoyed going to one to three classes a day, then having free time. I felt so grown up and was very attentive to my studies. I'd been a volunteer worker at a local hospital and had plans to be a medical lab technician.
Soon after entering college I married and changed my major to education. It was a good choice, and I taught science for 27 years. As a science teacher, I was never satisfied with just doing the lessons in the textbook. I was always researching in an effort to make my lessons fun with maybe even a touch of magic. Bizarre was also ok as long as it led to kids understanding the science behind it. Teaching turned out to be research for my present day writing career.
While my parents loved to read, neither was particularly interested in science. My dad's primary occupation was truck driving, but he was also an entrepreneur. Some of his business adventures included selling cars or any bargain items he happened across. As a teen, I found it fun to sell cars but was not very happy about sitting on the corner selling the truckload of peaches he got a great deal on. Neither my dad nor I recognized this as basic hands-on salesmanship training. We certainly did not relate it to physics, but many daily activities are physic related. While we may not have recognized it as a fundamental concept of one-dimensional motion, placing the bushels of peaches as close as possible to the display table was an act of reducing our displacement while transporting the peaches. Selling cars was much more fun because I got to drive them. Acceleration was definitely a term that I understood, but more in a practical way than mathematical.
My mother was a cosmetologist, so as a teen and young adult, my hair color frequently changed. Or in a more scientific description, my physical properties were very dynamic.
2. What schooling did you receive in order to become a science writer?
I attended no special writing classes and did not pursue a writing career. Mine is a Cinderella story in that a publisher asked me to write a book. This was the result of being a high school physic/chemistry teacher in Arkansas and directing an after school elementary science enrichment program for a local community college. I designed the program and called it "The Magic of Science." A New York publisher saw a write up about the program and sent a letter asking if I was interested in writing a science book for young kids. I was leery--was this a scam? But, I called and asked if the letter had come from the "real" Prentice-Hall Publishing Co. It had and yes I was interested. It didn't take long to realize that while I had skills in writing experiments for my class, I didn't had a clue about how to write a book. Thankfully the publisher really wanted the book, so I was given a great deal of personal instructions as well as a book titled, "How to write a book." The book was helpful, but as usual, I was breaking new ground. In the late 80s there were very few hands-on science experiment books for kids. So, I learned by trial and error. In fact, even after writing 50+ books, I am still learning how to better write a book.
Did everything just click into place after that first book? No! In fact, my editor left the company and as a new writer that could have been the kiss of death for my career. But God had other plans. The same editor introduced me to another publishing house and I was back to writing. The company went bankrupt before my book was published. Writing just didn't seem to be the direction for my life. But again, the same editor managed to get my book picked up by another publishing house--John Wiley and Sons. It has been a good match.
3. What about science writing made it more interesting than other fields?
How was the transition from teacher to writer?
I loved teaching science because I learned so much and I had fun writing experiments for the topics covered. Often times, schools did not have the needed equipment to perform experiments, so I designed experiments. For example, an Â acceleration experiment that was a favorite with my physics classes involved tying a rope to a box filled with rocks. On an outdoor surface, a stopwatch was used to measure the elapsed time for a specific displacement. This information was used to mathematically determine the average acceleration. Of course there were races between different groups. In other words, we played and had fun while learning about the concepts of motion. One positive difference in writing about science and teaching science is that I have more quality time to write. A downside is that I have less time with kids. But this has been solved by my own children who have children who have children. At present I have three children, six grandchildren, and five great grandchildren.
4. What is the nature of your work? What are your duties? What sort of
Equipment do you use?
Unlike most writers, I do not write a manuscript and seek a publisher. Instead, I write for the same publisher and have a multi-book contract. The contract indicates the number of books to be written by a specific date, but does not describe the content of the books. Each book topic is decided on by a team of people, including me, my editor, and representatives from marketing and publicity. Research is done to decide what topic is most marketable. Once the topic is selected, then my editor and I decide on a suitable format and finally it is up to me to research science content and write the book. My personal library consists of no less than 1,000 science books. I use online sources to find current printed research. But most important are science consultants in each specific field, such as NASA astronomers, research chemists, and as many teachers from elementary through college level as I can find. The tools of my trade include a computer, laser printer, a fax machine, telephone, mechanical pencils, around the house stuff for experiments and acres of wooded and grass land, ponds, and clear Texas skies to investigate the wonders of God's creation.
As a writer I prepare a manuscript by a predetermined date. Writing the book is much easier than work required for production. My review schedule includes two preproduction reviews in which my editor makes suggestions about needed changes. I make the changes or convince my editor that no change is needed. Then I prepare the first revised copy of the manuscript. We repeat this process and the second revised copy is off to a copy editor. For the three remaining reviews, I make my comments on the pages sent to me. At last the work goes to the printer.
5. What is your favorite thing about your job? What would you most like to
change about it?
The best part of my job is learning more about science and creating new ways to make science concepts more understandable. As a science writer, I have had the opportunity to visit places that most have never seen, such as the facilities at the Geographic South Pole as well as the most northern city in Alaska, Barrow. Barrow is on the coast of the Arctic Ocean. What I like the least is all the copy editing reviews, but this is necessary and cannot be changed.
6. Are you currently writing a book?
Instead of a book, I am working on creating a science website. It gives me the opportunity to introduce educators and kids to my science books. But even more beneficial is introducing parents to ideas for "home study." This started out as a way to help parents who choose to home school their children. But, it is evolving into ways that parents can play and find out about science with their kids. Working parents are very appreciative of easy, fun activities that don't require expensive materials. All educators--teachers, parents, librarians, grandparents, etc.--are pleased to find explanations that make sense to them.
I am researching a new business idea. Since my brain is full of ideas for science presentation, I could train science presenters. I wonder...Could this be done via my website? So far my experimental research on this idea has been very positive. But one person testing my material has decided to continue her education and teach. I may have lost one of my presenters, but children will gain a very science savvy teacher.
7. What advice would you give to somebody who is considering a writing career?
First of all READ!! READ!! READ!! Learn as much as you can about everything. While your interest may be in science, you have to have the skills to express your ideas. Grammar and punctuation is very important. You need math for living. History is the story of life. Take advantage of each and every subject offered in school. Use what you learn in school to write stories. Keep these in journals that are easily stored for later use.
I cannot say that I actually take off from writing for vacations, because no matter where I go I am collecting ideas for science projects. I am never a tourist; instead I am a researcher away from home. For example, while standing on a glacier in Alaska, others in the group were questioning how deep a hole in the ice was. For fun, I dropped a stone into the hole and counted until the stone hit the water below. Using gravitational acceleration (a)of 9.8 m/sec2 and the displacement equation of
distance = 1/2 at2, I calculated that the hole was about 21 meters (70 ft) deep.
We were all interested in knowing how deep the hole was, and I was able to tell them. This was just one of many times that my knowledge of physics has been useful in a practical way. I also observed that leaves had sunk down in the ice on the glacier. Now what caused that? The leaves absorbed more light than the ice causing them to get hot, thus melting the ice below them. This observation led to a science fair project in one of my books. My point is that a writer of any genre should always be on the alert for interesting information. Keep notes and file them for later use. BE OBSERVANT!
Writing a book may be the least problem. Getting it published can be a big obstacle. It has to be something that a publisher can sell. Some people are great writers but not very good salesmen. So they hire an agent to represent them.
What about rejections? If critical comments are given, evaluate them and decide if you need to change your work. But remember that one publisher's trash could be another publisher's treasure. It often depends on what the publisher needs at the time. Never give up. Try publishing in magazines. When writing for magazines, ALWAYS keep the copyrights to your work. You may later decide to publish it in book form. The same is true for online publishing. Keep the right to publish your work in other forms.