Find out how her disability has shaped her creativity, discover all you need to know about literary Easter eggs (hint: they are much healthier than the chocolate variety), and learn all about Steff’s comprehensive bibliography of romance and paranormal books for adults. And if that isn’t enough, Steff gives aspiring authors an outline of how to write a book in two months, so you too could become—with a bit of magic—a full-time, successful author!
Thanks for having this chat with us Steff. Could you tell Parent to Parent readers a little about yourself?
I have a genetic condition called achromatopsia, which is quite rare—there is only a handful of us in NZ (1 in 30,000 live births worldwide).
Eyes have rod cells and cone cells. Rod cells are used for night vision, cone cells are for colour and day vision and I haven’t got any cone cells. I don’t see any colour, and I’m sort of using my night vision all the time. It’s like being snow-blind when you go out in the light. And there are some secondary conditions such as severe short-sightedness from astigmatism.
I was born with the condition, it’s stable so it’s not getting worse. But it’s unlikely to get any better—was unlikely—there’s new research being done, which has shown some promise.
I think I was always the ‘weird kid’, not the slightest bit cool. I liked reading and archaeology and collecting strange artefacts. I grew up to be this slightly weird adult as well!
I’m big into music, my husband is a musician and we like to travel around the world to see our favourite bands and music festivals. We also love history, so when we travel, we can be found traipsing around old ruins too.
When did you start writing books? What did you do before?
Probably like most writers, I have always written books. But I’d wanted to be an archeologist since I was a kid, so that’s what I studied at university. It wasn’t to be. When I started to look for work in that field it soon became clear it was going to be hard as a person who is legally blind. There was a lot of discrimination, and there were some things that I simply couldn’t do. That closed certain career paths—laboratory and conservation work, for example.
I was hunting around for another idea: thinking about what I wanted to do for the rest of my life—was archeology really the career I wanted if everyone was convinced that I couldn’t do it? I thought about things I was good at, and where my eyesight wouldn’t be an issue. The one that came up was to be a writer. So, from that moment, not only did I want to be a writer, but I wanted to be a writer who wrote for a living. There is definitely a difference.
At age 20/21 (about eighteen years ago), I started to pick up freelance writing work, while also writing novels and pitching them to publishers. For about ten years, I was writing a book and pitching, writing another, and pitching. I got a publishing deal, then it fell through and that was around the time the Kindle was making an impact worldwide and had arrived in NZ. I thought this is just amazing! I can carry around loads of books!
But there was more to it than that, authors were starting to publish on KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing which allows authors to directly upload books to the Kindle Store) and talk about it online. I had all these books in my drawer that publishers didn’t want, so I thought I’d try self-publishing.
It was around 2013 when I self-published my first novel—a science fiction book—and in 2015 I published my first romance novel. Previously I was selling a few copies a month and when I published that romance novel, the sales went up to about a thousand a month. I had found my people. Once you have seen a bit of success it spurs you on. So, I just kept writing romance.
You have said that characters can be children of their settings. How has where you grew up, and where you live now shaped your personality?
I can’t remember saying that, but it sounds like something I would say! I am a bit of a romantic about travel, cities, places and interesting buildings. I feel it’s a really important part of a book.
Every sentence in a novel has one of two purposes, which is to develop character or to move the plot forward. And the best sentences do both of those things. When you put your characters in settings and give them a backstory that includes places, any of the details you reveal to the readers are there to reveal character. (What you are not doing is describing a place.)
Say if you set a book in London, every character in that story has a different relationship with the setting, the city. Some people love London, some people hate it. Many have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with it: some are desperate to escape it, then return later; others are desperate to go there, and then get there to discover it’s not quite the place they had in their head.
I guess you could say that’s a bit like real life. I grew up in this little town and I didn’t really like it there, I always wanted to be somewhere else. Somewhere far away from the middle of nowhere in NZ. Near the action. That pushed me into writing the books I do. As soon as I could, I moved to Auckland to study, then never really left. But I have sort of gone back – I live out of the city in a rural setting, back in small town NZ, so to speak. But it feels different now, it’s my choice. I have the freedom to be in this beautiful place to write and to go off on adventures when I chose.
What impact do you think your disability has on your creativity?
It’s a really interesting question. Because I have another friend who has the same condition, although it’s very rare, and we were friends for a little while before we realised. We talk about this a lot. About how much of our personality is connected to what we can see. If we hadn’t been born with this condition, would we be the same people? Or would we be quite different? There’s no easy answer.
With writing it’s particularly interesting because most writers start off being readers, and that’s me as well. I was bullied a lot at school because of my eyesight and books were a real escape for me.
When I started writing, what I wanted to do (without realising it) was create the experience that I would have wanted, as a disabled person who was struggling with the world; who wanted an escape for a little while with a character who got to be themselves, and have adventures, and fall in love and have a happily ever after just like everyone else. That was what I was trying to create.
As a writer you start off doing this without thinking then, after a while, you think very specifically about the experience you want to create for readers—what you want them to get out of your books. If I hadn’t had the disability, there might have been a different story I wanted to tell.
Basically, in every book I write, I am telling the same story, in a completely different way. And that’s the story that no matter who you are, you deserve to fall in love, to have all the wonderful things that life can give you.
Because of what I’ve gone through, that’s the story that resonated with me and with my readers. Now I’m quite overt about what I am doing. I write a lot of characters who are vision impaired or blind or disabled because that’s my experience and a lot of people who write disabled characters—blind characters, in particular—write stories that aren’t that fun to read.
It’s April, we’ve just enjoyed the Easter holidays. Tell us about literary Easter eggs and how you incorporate them into your books
There are two ways to think about Easter eggs in books. Normally, it’s a little reference that only a fan would get, which gives you a happy feeling like you’ve just discovered a chocolate treat. I often do private jokes.
I have a series set in a bookshop where characters often come in and buy my own books. They might make a joke about something that happened in the book—you would have to have read it to get the joke. That’s an Easter egg. It could also be beloved characters from other series showing up randomly in new books and having a conversation. I have occasionally put myself in books, which is quite fun.
That’s one meaning, the other thing I do is fill my books full of details that I have pulled from real life. When I write my weekly newsletter for fans, I’ll often include short articles about things that are in the books so they get the aha moment, ‘Oh, that’s where that comes from!’
My current series (Grimdale Graveyard Mysteries) is about a girl who lives in a creepy old manor house that is haunted by ghosts. There are three ghosts in particular, and when the girl grows up (in the book You’re So Dead to Me) they are all falling for one another. But the problem, and the fun bit, is—how do you fall in love and have a relationship with a ghost? There’s heaps to play with, in both the concept and characters: one of the ghosts is a slightly psychotic Roman Centurion; there’s a 17th Century prince, who is a bit of a rake; there’s also a Victorian adventurer who is blind—quite an interesting character to write, a blind ghost.
The adventurer is based on a real person from the Victorian era named James Holman, and known as the ‘Blind Traveller’. He was the first person to circumnavigate the globe on foot, using a cane he tapped on the ground to echolocate his way. Holman wrote books about his adventures and is one of my heroes. At the back of my books, I have notes from the author to explain these details and if you’re interested, you can go and read the book about the real person. Readers appreciate the extras: a bit of back story to the fiction that they can discover, should they want to. Another type of Easter egg.
Your output is prodigious—so here’s a challenge, could you tell us the secret of how to write a 90k novel in less than two months in 30 seconds?
Okay, I’ll give it a go.
You just have to write more words – it’s as simple and complicated as that. A 90,000-word book, or however long you want your book to be, sounds really big, so break it down into small, achievable chunks. For a 90k book, it’s around 1000 words a day over three months. Or 2,000 words a day over two months with some days where you don’t get any work done. 2,000 words is a relatively achievable number of words for most people. But everyone is different.
I write with a timer. When it goes on, something in my brain says, ‘You are going to get as many words as you can in 30mins!’ Sometimes it’s 700, sometimes 1000, sometimes it’s less in that half hour. Theoretically, you can get your 2000 words done in two hours. Usually, it takes me a bit more.
I work in four drafts. I don’t plan my books, but I do a very fast first, skeleton draft of the whole book. In two or three days I’ll write 10-20,000 words. By the end of that, I have got to know my main character, which is the main purpose. I flesh it out in draft two, then I stop counting words and start counting the number of pages e.g. five pages per half hour. I do two more drafts, one to bring it up to 70-80,000 words, and the last draft is just a final read-through where I tend to add another 5,000.
If you could only give one piece of advice to aspiring authors, what would it be?
Don’t quit before the miracle.
By that I mean there is a lot of luck involved in publishing, and self-publishing. But you learn through every book you write. If you want to write for money, or income, or an audience, the more you study the market and what’s doing well; the more you learn about how readers buy books—the tropes and treads in the genres—the more you improve your ‘luck’.
Every overnight success you see is probably ten or twenty years in the making. It was my third or fourth self-published book, the romance book, that started me on the path to being able to do this as a job.
I only turned to self-publishing because I spent ten years being rejected by trad pub, and even when I started publishing romance, it was my 33rd book that really hit it big. If I had given up before book 32, I wouldn’t have had that leap in success. You never know what’s right around the corner if you keep practising and believing in yourself. Just don’t quit.
It’s World Book Day on the 23rd of April, so in three words, what do books mean to you?
Adventure, Magic, Obsession.
Thank you for sharing your magic, Steff.
Learn more about Steff and her work here.