And so far they're great! Here are a couple of quotes.
Pumpkins is a fast moving thriller suited for readers moving from junior into young adult. It's creepy and foreboding . . .
A story with paranormal pumpkins might sound like it strains credulity a bit too much to make a good story, but Pumpkins, by Kevin Miller pulls it off. I actually had trouble putting it down, and over the two days that I read it, I was actually looking forward to finding time to read so I could see what happened next.
This comes from Briar's reviews. A brief excerpt.
These wickedly smart kids (in good ole Canada), grab some canoes and decide to ride the waves in the creek. They get into some seriously funny mischief, getting lost along the way. But, don’t you worry! These boys are geniuses of getting into and out of trouble. Add in Canadian humour, play on words and a book full of pure friendship and you’ve got yourself a real winner!
You can read the full review here.
When the lockdown started in March 2020, I had just arrived home from a week of doing writing workshops across Saskatchewan. Like most people, I had no idea how things were going to go from there, but this past January I decided to make myself available to do virtual writing workshops.
I was pretty skeptical at first, thinking it would be a sub-par experience that would be more of a one-way interaction rather than the back-and-forth brainstorming sessions that I'm used to. However, after a few initialy hiccups, things started to groove.
The cool thing was, rather than have to drive halfway across the country and then travel from town to town, focusing on one region at a time, I could do a workshop in Abbotsford, BC, in the morning and another one in Alberta an hour later. All told, I did workshops at 21 schools in BC, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. Some of those were one-offs, and others were multi-day, multi-workshop affairs.
I hope to be able to do them in person next season, but I'm happy things turned out as well as they did. If you're interested in booking a writing workshop--in person or virtually--for your school or classroom next year, just let me know.
You've heard his voice. Now you can see his face. This is Tanner De Bruyne, who is narrating the first three books in the Milligan Creek Series (and hopefully the rest of them as well). You can experience his handiwork now by listening to Up the Creek on Audible, ACX, Amazon, or iBooks.
Way back in 2008 in the midst of the financial crisis, I suddenly found myself unemployed for the first time in my adult life. And by "suddenly" I mean all three film projects I was booked to work on (as a screenwriter) were canceled virtually overnight. So, what was I to do?
Like so many other people during the financial crisis, I groped around for anything that might possibly lead to some sort of income. Seeing as I lived just outside of Vancouver, a.k.a. "Hollywood North," one of those options was signing up with an extras agency.
I got one day's work as a submariner on the set of 2012. I was supposed to appear in a scene with John Cusack, which would have been cool. However, I never made it onto the screen. Turns out they had hired more of us than they needed, and only the extras who were buddies with the second assistant director assigned to oversee us got the call. Lesson learned: get chummy with that guy. The highlight of that day? Walking past an open studio door and seeing a full-scale Viper fighter from Battlestar Galactica. If only I had had my cell phone.
My next call was a bit more exciting. It was to audition to double for Michael Rosenbaum, the actor who played Lex Luthor on Smallville. Michael had left the series, but they wanted to include Lex--or a Lex clone--in the script, so they were looking for someone who could fool the audience into believing the character was actually Michael.
In preparation for the audition, I shaved my head right bald, removed my five-day's growth, and even shaved my chest. I was committed.
When I showed up to the holding room for the "look see," I met about six other guys who all looked pretty much like me: white, thin, and bald. Furthermore, two of them had already doubled for Michael in the past, so I figured my chances were nil. Nevertheless, I stuck around until it was my turn to be trotted out in front of the producers.
Figuring there was no way I had gotten the part, imagine my surprise a couple of days later when I received a phone call saying not only had I gotten the part, rather than simply double for Michael, they wanted to know if I'd be willing to speak some lines. Would I? Did they really need to ask? Minutes after I hung up, they emailed a few pages of the script, and I was suddenly bumped up from extra to actor.
What did that mean? For starters, about a 1,000% increase in pay. I also got my own trailer on the set, my own contact lens person--that's right, she stuck with me all day--multiple makeup tests (Lex was horribly burned and on a breathing machine for my episode, which meant I had to spend hours in the makeup trailer prior to going on set), you name it. Plus, when the trailer for the episode came out, I was prominently featured, and now I have my own page on the Smallville Wiki and the all-important imdb.com credit. The only down side? They dubbed in someone else's voice over mine. Hello, David Prowse.
I was called back a few weeks later to double for Lex once again. No lines this time, which meant no trailer and no contact lens person. Instead, I was stuck in the holding room with all the other extras. Unfortunatley, they didn't have time to film my scene that day, so they put it off until later that month. The probme was, I had to fly to Brisbane to teach a screenwriting course, so I wasn't in town when they called. Thus ended my brief career as Superman's archnemesis.
Why do I share this story now? Today I had the privilege of speaking with an actor who had a similar experience to mine--signing up to be an extra and then being bumped up to an actor. Only instead of a couple of days' work, his opportunity turned into a career-defining role on the X-Files. That's right, I'm talking about William B. Davis, a.k.a. "The Cigarette Smoking Man," a.k.a. "Cancer Man," a.k.a. "The Smoking Man," a.k.a. "C. G. B. Spender," a.k.a. "Carl Gerhard Busch." He started out as a silhouette in the pilot episode and wound up being Special Agent Fox Mulder's archnemesis throughout the series.
Why was I talking to William? Because he's just written a book about acting. Think of it as an actor's answer to Stephen King's On Writing. And William should know, having acted on radio, stage, and screen for over 70 years! Once again, I just happened to find myself in the right place at the right time, and now I have the privilege of editing William's book.
Another strange connection between William and me: my wife and I actually appeared as extras on an episode of the X-Files called The End when they did a huge cattle call for an audience to watch a chess match. To be honest, I never did watch that episode to see if I could pick myself out of the crowd. And to be really, really honest, I've never watched the entire episode of Smallville I appeared in either. I don't think that's too uncommon for people in this biz. I don't like to watch my own movies after I've completed them either.
Even though the 50-year-old version of me tends to downplay these experiences as no big deal, the kid inside me who grew up on a farm outside of Foam Lake, Saskatchewan, dreaming about being part of the entertainment biz but not really believing it was possible can't help but admit it still feels pretty "smokin'."
It's time for another instalment of my series of interviews with other middle-grade authors. This time it's Zander Bingham, a.k.a. Brett Swain, who writes the Jack Jones Series and other books with the assistance of his wife, Diana. Seeing as they work as a team, I invited them both to be part of this interview. Enjoy!
Who were some of your early inspirations as authors?
Brett: My path to becoming an author, and my journey into books and reading, came about in a rather unconventional way. As a child and even a young adult, I didn’t really enjoy reading very much and often struggled to get through assigned books at school. Instead, as personal computers emerged in my “tween” years (as my kids call them), I took to them like a duck to water. I’d spend hours and hours tinkering with computer parts and learning to code in the text-based languages of the era. And I played, perhaps, too many video games.
I was never interested in fighting/war games. Instead, I consumed titles produced by companies like Sierra Entertainment with great passion: Kings Quest (Roberta Williams), Police Quest (Jim Walls), Gabriel Knight (Jane Jensen), Space Quest (Mark Crowe and Scott Murphy), etc. The graphics were, at least early on, fairly simplistic, but I was drawn to the narrative-based journeys, with problem solving and exploration unfolding over weeks or even months depending on how complex the puzzles or mysteries were. These were my stories (and I still play games like these when I can).
Books really entered my life in my late twenties/early thirties when I discovered the travel and adventure genre, some factual/biographical and some fantastical. Around this time, the release of the Kindle e-reader, and increasing content for it, also made books a lot more accessible and convenient for me and likely contributed to my growing interest in the written word as a source of entertainment and inspiration.
Diana: I was an avid reader as a child. I would read anything I could get my hands on. I loved Eric Carle and Maurice Sendak. I devoured Ann. M. Martin’s Baby-Sitter’s Club series. I had one of those glow worm dolls where the face lit up, and at bedtime, I would pull out the little torch from inside the doll and pull the covers over my head and read late into the night. Growing up I recall being introduced to Roald Dahl books when I was around eight. After reading George’s Marvelous Medicine, I was hooked. In high school and college, I enjoyed reading John Grisham novels.
How did you get started writing? Did you start by writing books or something else?Brett: I started with books. Diana and I were at a junction in life and deciding which direction to head professionally. We’d become aware of the self-publishing world, and it spoke to us as a great fit both personally and professionally. The idea to write children’s books for this age group was born from reading to our growing boys and a desire to create contemporary and relatable adventures that were wholesome and safe.
We researched the space and the process that people had followed to take an idea and turn it into a book, and we figured it was worth a shot. I sat down at my laptop,
opened Word, and began tapping away.
For me it’s been incredibly enjoyable knowing I’ve found a practical use for my wild and immersive imagination. Writing books for a living allows me to indulge the thoughts and journeys my mind likes to conjure up rather than having to push past them to “get back to work,” and that is truly a joy.
I've always been interested in the co-writing process. What does this look like for you?
Brett: I have a lot of ideas for stories. Some make sense to move forward with, others not so much. I make notes on them all and then slowly build the story in my mind. Assembling the cast of characters, who they are and what motivates them, is an enjoyable part of the process too. I usually have the beginning and the end sorted out. Then I work on the middle to make sure it all makes sense and is believable and entertaining. I plan ahead as a way to get started but find the stories and characters evolve and change as I go. I write a draft and then give it to Di, who reads it and gives me feedback. We go back and forth until we feel we’ve created a great product that readers will enjoy.
Diana: Oh, to be inside the mind of a writer! Brett has SO many ideas floating around and will often casually mention during meals or on walks, “I’ve got this new idea for a series . . .” I find it remarkable because I’m not the story maker, but if he’s ever stuck on how to make something seem viable or how to connect some dots in a believable way, we’ll collaborate and share thoughts until we reach an aha moment where we agree that we’ve found the path forward. Then Brett will write the story, and I’ll handle editing, proofreading, and reworking details if necessary. Then we enlist an outside editor (by that point we’re so close to the story it can be easy to overlook things), and then we publish.
You've chosen to publish under a pen name. What motivated that decision?
Brett: From the outset I had ideas that crossed multiple genres and audiences, so I felt that creating a pen name would ensure I could keep a space for each “world.” That way readers won’t get confused if they discover a children’s bedtime book alongside an adult contemporary fantasy fiction novel. Pen names are like tabbed files in a filing cabinet. They help to keep everything organized and compartmentalized, which is helpful to readers just as much as it is to me as the author. If I ever write a non-fiction book, I’ll probably publish it using my real name.
What is the Jack Jones series about? What inspired you to write it?
Brett: Jack Jones is a children’s series that follows three savvy kids who embark on various fun-filled adventures. It has a mild Goonies meets the Hardy Boys feel to it and was born from wanting to read safe but fun and engaging stories to my boys at bedtime. I wanted to keep the stories fairly realistic, so readers could picture themselves in these situations. I’ve loved having input from the boys on various elements of the books—the titles, the content, and the type of quest the characters might venture on next. It’s been fun collaborating with them about story ideas and things they’d like to see happen to the characters.
What draws you to write for middle-grade readers? Do you plan to write for other audiences too?
Brett: We have two boys, ages 10 and 6. They were just 7 and 3 when I launched the first Jack Jones book, so I wanted the series to be age appropriate, I wanted to spark their imaginations and share ideas for adventures that I wish I had as a kid, and I wanted to make sure they weren’t scary, so they would be suitable to read before bed.
We’re very close to launching our first picture book – it’s a bedtime story about dreaming big, so it’s for much younger children, newborn to five years—so I’m excited to see that one come to fruition.
I have also written two books under a different pen name in an adult contemporary fantasy series. One book is published and the other is in the editing stage. I plan to make it a trilogy. Unlike the middle-grade books, these novels are 120,000 words plus and take more time to write and produce. I’ve also got an action-adventure series buzzing around inside my head looking for a way out, kind of James Bond meets Jason Bourne but maybe a bit grittier, which would be a different audience—and pen name—again.
What motivated you to publish independently rather than going the traditional route?
Brett: I’ve always enjoyed working for myself, so I really like the self-publishing model. I was also fortunate to have previous experience running a business, so I was comfortable and familiar with those elements, albeit a very new and unfamiliar product. With access to resources to be able to manage all the moving parts you need to get a book to market, it was an exciting notion that drew me to want to write and publish books independently. We spoke to authors who had gone both ways with this, and one thing that resonated more than any other was a comment from an author who went the traditional route and now feels as though she is one of a thousand books at the publisher vying for attention. She has no control over production schedules, marketing, or promotion.
As unknown authors, not wanting to fall into that same situation, we enjoy the fact that our books are all we work on and can give them the required attention all the time. Our publishing future is in our hands, and ultimately, it suits the company vision much better.
Do you do this full time, or is writing more of a part-time gig?
Brett: I have been writing full time since 2016. I wrote the first three Jack Jones stories--The Pirate Treasure, The Haunted Lighthouse, and The Lost Temple—one after the other and launched those in 2018. I also worked on a contemporary fantasy series (for a mature audience) during that time as well, with the first book launching in October 2019.
Diana: It’s definitely a full-time venture. Long hours, seven days a week. I’ve heard that self-publishing is a marathon, not a sprint, but Brett and I are a team of two, so we’d like to be producing more books. Our goal in the next 3 months is to be releasing a new book each month. We’re definitely ambitious.
What are some of the biggest benefits of being an independent author?
Brett: The flexibility to write, produce, and launch your own books is incredibly rewarding and satisfying. From a business perspective, it’s great to have full control over each element of the publishing process.
What are some of the biggest challenges?
Brett: It takes a lot of hard work and discipline for sure. It’s also not always easy to “turn on the creative.” I’ve found that consistency and writing every day is the best way to keep it flowing. If I had to pick the biggest challenge, it would be finding ways to increase my output and get the ideas out of my head and down on paper faster. Second to that is working through all that my imagination dreams up, and then melding it all into marketable products. Ultimately, to be able to keep doing this as a career, selling a lot of books is necessary, so we need to make great products consistently. That means understanding and paying a lot of attention to all the components that contribute to that. Like they say, “Congratulations, you’ve written a book. Now the real work begins.”
Diana: Everything is in our hands—finding our audience, getting the message out to them, and sourcing illustrators and cover designers, editors, and proofreaders. It’s all on our shoulders to make your books the best they can be and then making readers aware that the books exist. We don’t have the backing of a publishing house with a formidable team of experts to shape and guide the story, so every element is scrutinized to perfection. Having said that the indie community is incredibly supportive, and while self-published authors might be on their own when it comes to getting your books out to the world, there are some amazing resources and successful self-published authors who are happy to share their knowledge to help others, which I think is rather unique to this industry in the best possible way.
What can we expect to see from you next?
Brett: I’m writing two new middle-grade series right now. I’m one book into a series of adventures set in space, so millions of miles away from Jack Jones, but I think readers in the same 6-12-year-old range will enjoy some new adventures with quirky characters and some goofy cosmic fun.
I’m also working through the third book in a mysterious castaways series aimed at a slightly older middle grade audience set on a deserted island, so lots of exciting new content being created. I really am loving writing these new adventures; I just need to write faster! Beyond this, once these series are moved into the production phase, I’m well into the planning of two additional series. One is a less comedic space adventure, and the other is a mystery/detective series. So many ideas swirling around!
Diana: We’re wrapping up illustrations on the seventh Jack Jones adventure, and we have the final draft of book eight almost completed as well. Then we plan to produce a boxed set for the holidays with the complete Jack Jones collection. It is exciting to see the series come full circle after three years of producing these classic adventures. Edits have begun on book two in the contemporary fantasy series, so we are hoping to be able to launch that in early 2022.
To learn more about the Swains and their books, visit their official website.
I'm super excited to announce that Up the Creek is now available as an audiobook on Audible and Amazon and soon to be available on iTunes. If you already have an Audible account, you can listen to it for free. Otherwise, you can purchase it for the seemingly arbitrary price of $13.08 (Audible sets the price, not me). Anyway, Tanner De Bruyne did an excellent job of narrating it, and he's already working on Unlimited, which will be made available on audio this summer, followed by The Water War. You can listen to the first chapter for free below.
Brief thoughts and updates on writing, publishing, and life