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Reached by helicopter, a summit along the Andes Mountains gives a great view of the Argentine seaport of Ushuaia. (Photo courtesy of Dan Linehan)

Ok, Not the Typical Path to Becoming a Writer

My science and engineering background gave me a great foundation. It started my writing career, helps when writing about complex topics, and gives me insight into how and why the world works. But my path from way back there to where I am now resembles a sprawling scribble much more than a straight line.

I was born in Miami, Florida, and grew up in Long Island, New York. For college, I earned an AS in electrical engineering from Suffolk County Community College and a BS in physics from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, which had a top-ranked program.

Next, I attended Purdue University in Indiana, where I received a full research assistantship. This was like a full scholarship but also paid me as a research and teaching assistant. Purdue was also a top engineering school. I received an MS in materials engineering, having made it into both the national engineering and materials engineering honor societies. My research was published in several scientific journals.

Dan wears a “bunny suit” inside of a cleanroom in a wafer fab used to make computer chips. (Photo courtesy of Dan Linehan)

From there, I took a position working for Integrated Device Technology, a company based in Silicon Valley. I worked as a microchip engineer in a cleanroom—wearing a “bunny suit”—for five years and specialized in chemical processes and contamination control. My job was to ensure things ran smoothly and to continually improve quality and productivity. I received engineering awards for reducing water usage and chemical waste and was granted a US patent.

Translating Engineer into Writer

My serious interest in writing actually began when I was a graduate student while writing my master’s thesis. Once I became an engineer, I took as many writing classes as I possibly could, from creative writing to journalism to poetry to technical writing to screenwriting. I began publishing. But what most inspired me to become a writer was The X-Files. Hey, what can I say? I was obviously a science nerd. My first major work was writing a spec episode of The X-Files, which I later turned into my own feature-length spec screenplay.

I also began writing about environmental issues and soon felt that I could make a bigger difference in changing the world for the better by being a writer. Not an easy task. I came up with a strategy to use popular forms of writing to accomplish this. I quit my engineering job in 2000 and have been a full-time writer and editor ever since. To get things rolling as a new writer, I followed the writing advice: “write what you know.” So, I started this new direction by turning my screenplay into my first novel, called Crash Pattern. But as is said, you need a book in the drawer before your first book gets published.

From 2001 to 2017, I also freelanced on projects for educational publishing companies, like McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, mainly as a science writer and editor. This work has taken me all over the US and even on seven trips to the Middle East. It has been my major source of funding throughout the years and helps offset the terrible—or nonexistent—pay of my other writing gigs.

From Poetry and Journalism to Antarctica and Spaceships

I have explored deep down into many modes of writing not only to improve my abilities, become more well-rounded, and advance my writing career, but because I simply enjoyed them. I juggle a lot of writing and also actively participate in environmental outreach programs. So, I often end up working on overlapping and interconnected projects.

A big jump came after writing about the California International Airshow (all its proceeds go back to community programs) in 2001 and 2002 for local newspapers. The next year I joined the Airshow as a volunteer writing for its event program and became lead writer then editor then publisher—all in about the first month. In 2004, the event program received honorable mention for the best event program of the year. In 2005, it took third place out of all airshows worldwide.

My poem “Sea Otter” appeared in Oil Addiction: The World in Peril by Pierre Chomat with a foreword by Jean-Michel Cousteau, and “Sardine Fisherman” was included in The Anthology of Monterey Bay Poets. I’ve won awards for poetry and screenwriting. My stories have covered MGM’s lion, Clint Eastwood’s film Bird, an NFL head coach, a Lord of the Rings animator, a trashy romance letter made of plastic, a Star Trek captain, and the list goes boldly on.

Inside the Antipodes, a minisub operated by OceanGate, Dan prepares to explore a shipwreck on the seafloor of Monterey Bay for a story. (Photo courtesy of Dan Linehan)

However, my defining moment as a writer came from a NASA report in 2002 about the Larsen B Ice Shelf in Antarctica. At 1,255 square miles, which is larger than the state of Rhode Island, Larsen B had disintegrated in a mere 35 days. This catastrophe redefined my path and reprioritized my writing to focus more on wildlife and environmental issues. Still, easier said than done.

From the Airshow experience and the success of my self-published chapbook, Spindrifting Through Ocean Archways: Poetry of Monterey (2004), I was then able to start my own little independent press. I published a very prominent poet connected to the Beats (Passing Through by David Gitin, Linehan Press, 2005). This book got noticed, and I was then asked to be a founding member and the managing editor of Ping•Pong, an international art and literary journal of the Henry Miller Memorial Library (2006-2008).

Around this time was when I felt that I had built up my writing skills enough to properly cover the subjects that I was most passionate about, such as saving the environment and wildlife. I self-funded an expedition to Antarctica to study climate change in 2006-07 and afterward started writing The Princess of the Bottom of the World. I had carefully determined that fiction was a better way to tell the story than nonfiction.

Book events for SpaceShipOne, clockwise from top left: live radio interview in Arizona, presentation at the Experimental Aircraft Association Aviation Museum in Oshkosh, C-Span BookTV interview in Atlanta, and book signing at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena. (Photos courtesy of Dan Linehan)

Based on my previous work with the Airshow, I was recommended as a potential author to write about SpaceShipOne (a private spacecraft funded by Paul Allen that went to space three times and won the $10 million Ansari X Prize). This happened in summer 2006 after I had already arranged my expedition to Antarctica.

Due in part to my poetry, I was selected as the author. SpaceShipOne: An Illustrated History (Zenith Press, 2008) has a foreword by sci-fi legend Arthur C. Clarke and a cover blurb by Cosmos host Neil deGrasse Tyson. So, for a few years, I worked on this space book and a sequel called Burt Rutan’s Race to Space: The Magician of Mojave and His Flying Innovations (Zenith Press, 2011).

Afterwards, I moved on to two big film-related projects, as writer/executive producer of Rocketeers, an unfunded documentary series, and as writer/producer of a multimedia online experience based on the feature film Otter 501.

Giving back and paying forward through volunteerism has played a significant role in my work over the years. The outreach I do on behalf of wildlife and the environment for TeamOCEAN, Marine Debris Community Outreach Program, Climate Reality Project, and others is unpaid. Many substantial writing projects have also been unpaid, such as my work for the Airshow and Ping•Pong. Nonetheless, this all has had a profound influence on my work.

After living and writing in Argentina for a year and a half, I finished the first complete draft of The Princess of the Bottom of the World. I’m a currently a feature writer for Science & Technology Review and NIF & Photon Science News for Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (NIF is the National Ignition Facility, and it was used for the set of the Enterprise’s warp core in Star Trek Into Darkness).

The Princess of the Bottom of the World is now a seven-episode series of multimedia novellas. Episode 1 was released March 1, 2019, and a new episode will follow every four weeks. [find multimedia episodes here]

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