I feel SO good to have finally reached this stage. I first started writing this YA horror novel about 2.5 years ago. While teaching screenwriting for a week at a film school in Brisbane, I went to a writers' accountability circle on Saturday morning and spent two hours pounding out a rough outline for the book, the premise of which had been floating around in my head for a year or so. Shortly after that, I wrote the first chapter, eventually returning to it from time to time and tweaking it but never quite feeling ready to write the rest of the book.
That changed in November 2020 when I inched forward on the manuscript, writing a second chapter. Then, with about 5,000 words written, I decided to devote an hour or two every morning during Christmas break to working on the book. I was able to sustain that for about 12 days, emerging from the holidays with just over 17,000 words. From there the manuscript progressed in fits and starts as I worked out various story problems until I had a series of breakthroughs that finally enabled me to tunnel all the way through to the other side of the mountain.
Now I have is on my computer and backed up on Google and Apple's cloud systems ready for editing. So far, the manuscript sits at 57,599 words. It's hard to say if the word count will go up or down from here as I do revisions, but I'm willing to bet it will come out closer to 58,000 rather than 57,000 words, not that I care too much about that right now.
For the moment, I'm just so excited to have the first book in a new series (Uncanny Icons) so close to the finish line. Meanwhile, I already have most of the plot figured out for book 2 in the series, Brooms, which involves witches and curling. I plan to get on that right after I write book 6 in the Milligan Creek Series, Quiet on Set! Exciting times. I think I'll bask in elation for a bit and then get right back to work.
I just finalized the hardcovers of The Great Grain Elevator Incident and Snowbound! In the process, I discovered that I accidentally included a chapter 26 in the table of contents for Snowbound! even though there's no chapter 26 in the book. So, whoever has those copies has an instant collector's item!
I'm slowly working my way through process of converting all the Milligan Creek books into hardcover. As of today, Up the Creek, Unlimited, and The Water War are now available. The next two books will be available in hardcover next week. I'm also planning on bundling the first three books together as a single hardcover volume. Plus, audiobooks are in the works as we speak! More news on that soon.
I love doing research, especially for novels. I'm always amazed at what I discover and how it spurs completely unexpected story ideas.
Case in point: right now I'm very close to completing a solid first draft of Pumpkins, book 1 in my new YA horror series, which I'm calling the Uncanny Icons series, with each novel based on a different icon of Halloween.
Today I took a short break and did a bit of research for book 2 in the series, Brooms, which is about, you guessed it, witches. But it's also about something else that is quintessentially Canadian: curling.
While I thought I had a good start on an idea for the story, it didn't come together until today when I was doing some research on the history of curling. All I'll say for now is that an incredible idea was spurred when I read that curling used to be called the "roaring game" back in Scotland due to the sound the rocks made as they slid down the ice. That simple term blew something wide open, and the entire story suddenly fell into place. Now I can't wait to complete Pumpkins, so I can get started on this story.
But wait! I'm having too much fun on Pumpkins for it to be over. So I think I'll savor it for a bit longer.
Meanwhile, I also have book 6 of the Milligan Creek Series to write. I can't wait to get going on this book either because it involves one of my greatest passions, movies. Plus, last night while reading a book on maverick B-movie filmmaker Roger Corman, I got a fantastic idea for that book as well.
All that to say, if you want to write fiction, especially if you're stuck on a plot point, do your research. You'll be amazed at the connection your brain makes when it's in "hunting mode."
I've held off on turning the Milligan Creek Series into audio books for a while now, partly because I wasn't sure if there was a market for middle grade audio books (I've since learned there is) and partly because I wanted to narrate the books myself but never seemed to find the time to do it.
However, recently I read something by fellow indie publisher, ad guy, podcaster, and coach Bryan Cohen where he said that even though you may be good at doing a lot of things, it doesn't mean you should be everything yourself. Instead, you should be focusing on what you do best and, perhaps most importantly, what makes you the most money.
That was a tough pill for me to swallow seeing as I enjoy learning new skills and seeing if I can pull them off. Case in point: on my last documentary, I was writer, director, producer, and editor. We only had a two person crew (me and my son, Huw), so I also worked as a cameraman, sound recorder, sound mixer, gaffer, grip, post-production supervisor, music supervisor, second-unit cameraman, and the list goes on. Contrary to appearances, it's not a control issue, just a desire to see if I can do it.
As I mulled over this advice, realizing Bryan was right, lo and behold, last Sunday my wife mentioned that someone I knew right here in town is an audio book narrator. I contacted him immediately, had him record a short sample, and just last night greenlit the project.
With any luck, Up the Creek (which just came out in hardcover) should be ready to go by the end of April, with the other books to follow. I'll keep you posted here.
I finally took the plunge and made Up the Creek available in hardcover, exclusively on Amazon. The other Milligan Creek Series books will follow shortly. The move involved resizing the book slightly and tweaking the cover, shown below. It also gave me an opportunity to add "A Brief Note About the Inspiration Behind This Book," which I've included in every other Milligan Creek series book. Plus, this edition contains a sneak peek at the first chapter of Unlimited. which will be the next book to get the hardcover treatment.
I just completed the last of nearly three dozen virtual writing workshops that I booked as part of a promotion for the release of Snowbound, book 5 in the Milligan Creek Series. I was skeptical of how virtual workshops would go at first, thinking they would have to be more of a one-way interaction. However, I quickly developed a routine that allowed for lots of back and forth with the students as we engaged in all sorts of creative exercises.
The highlight of it all was three consecutive sessions I did with a group of grade four students in Smokey Lake, Alberta. Not only were they an exceptionally bright and keen group, we got a long way toward creating an excellent fantasy story together. Who knows? Perhaps one day one of them will turn it into a book. They were certainly urging me to do so.
I have one more session booked for June and perhaps a couple more between now and then. As fun as it's been, I'm glad I can return to business as usual, which for the moment means finishing Pumpkins, book 1 in my new Uncanny Icons YA horror series, and starting on Quiet on Set!, book 6 in the Milligan Creek Series.
During non-pandemic years, I typically do dozens of writing workshops each winter for hundreds of students across Western Canada. These days I'm stuck at home doing virtual workshops, which are also fun in their own way but not quite the same. At any rate, that got me thinking about my past author visits, both good and bad, so I recently wrote an article on that very topic that was picked up by the Canadian Libraries Journal. You can read the article here.
The second in my series of interviews with other middle-grade authors is Steven K. Smith, creator of the Virginia Mysteries Series, Brother Wars, and other books.
Steve first came to my attention when I looked up my own books on Amazon and kept seeing his smiling face under the header, "People who bought this book also bought . . ." Then I got to meet him and several other authors virtually when Steven started a "middle-grade mastermind" group that he invited me to attend. After hearing about his experiences as an independent author, I thought he would be a great person to feature here.
Who were some of your early inspirations as an author?
The biggest inspirations for me were books that I read when I was younger, things like the Chronicles of Narnia, Where the Red Fern Grows, Bridge to Terabithia, and those kinds of books. There’s something about books that you read when you’re in those years from 8-12. You’re filled with wonder and starting to explore and figure things out about the world and yourself. It’s a magical time, and books can play such a part in that. Even now as a grown-up, those are some of the books that were most impactful in my life.
How did you get started as an author? Did you start by writing books or something else?
My wife and I have three boys, and when my youngest was born about twelve years ago, I started a blog called MyBoys3 about being a dad to three little boys who were all five or under. I wrote a couple times a week about all our crazy adventures, changing diapers, pretending the UPS truck was chasing us, going camping, playing sports, and all kind of things. I always enjoyed writing in school, and my first job out of college was as a correspondence writer for the Pennsylvania State Legislature (extremely boring!). So, blogging got my creative juices flowing again after a long break, and perhaps most importantly, it also got me used to other people reading my words from the heart, which proved crucial when I started publishing books.
What was your inspiration for the Virginia Mysteries Series?
About midway through my blogging efforts, we moved from New Jersey to just outside Richmond, Virginia. I started making up a bedtime story for my two older boys about a couple of brothers who moved from up north to Virginia and started having adventures in the woods behind their house and looking for a treasure of valuable coins. It happened to be a lot like our house and woods, and the brothers started out a lot like my older two sons. I love history, and everywhere I went around Richmond seemed to be dripping with history. Sometimes it’s helpful to start writing about things you know and then see where things go from there.
How about Brother Wars?
Is this series at all autobiographical? Brother Wars started off as a short story called “Pitch Black Dark” about two brothers who lock each other in their dark basement. I got the idea when one of my son’s friends said he didn’t want to play in our basement when the lights were turned off because it was, in his words, “pitch black dark down there.” Which gave me an idea! I didn’t have brothers growing up, just a little sister who I thought was super annoying. But I certainly steal ideas and dialogue from things my kids say and do. I get a lot of positive feedback about the characters’ interactions feeling authentic, and I think that mostly comes from breathing it in at home all the time.
What draws you to write for middle-grade readers? Do you plan to write for other audiences too?
Like I said, middle grade books have always been special to me, but the fact that I have kids definitely influenced what I started writing. The fact that other readers have responded well to my stories took me down a path that I never expected. I also really love getting to meet and talk with young readers at schools and other events. Seeing the inspiration and excitement in their eyes and hearing teachers and parents talk about how a former reluctant reader is now devouring my books and excelling in school is a reward I’d never considered. I also have two books for adults: a parenting memoir (Splashing in the Deep End) that is an edited compilation of all my blog posts and a coming-of-age/contemporary romance called Harborwood that I published under the name Steven Sawyer. I haven’t had the time to focus on that aspect, but maybe I’ll add to it more down the line.
What motivated you to publish independently rather than going the traditional route?
I never really intended to make this a career, and when I started looking into publishing options, the traditional route seemed like it took way too long for my patience level. I enjoy the small business aspect of my work as much as the writing part. It’s a lot of fun to be fully at the wheel of my career, be able to track my progress, and not have to ask for anyone’s permission. I worked for twenty years at an Internet startup in Manhattan, so the entrepreneurial side of things was very interesting to me.
At what point did you realize you could do this full time? What was the tipping point?
Even after I started publishing, I thought success could look like letting me retire a year or two earlier on the back end someday. But surprisingly, people were buying and enjoying my books, and I got a bit hooked on writing them. Within a few years, it felt like I had two full-time jobs and wasn’t spending the time with my family that I needed and wanted to. So, three years ago, I made the leap and quit the day job. The first year was touch and go, and I was starting to think I might need to look for something else. Thankfully, the past two years have seen significant growth, so for the time being, I’m good! I tell students that I get to make up stories and talk about them, which is a lot better than a real job! I feel extremely blessed that things have worked out this way and hope that it can be an example to my kids and others that sometimes you have to take a chance and try something. I didn’t want to look back and wonder what might have happened if I’d given it a go.
What are some of the biggest benefits of being an independent author?
Being in charge, charting your own course, a greater financial upside, much faster timeline. I’d never had my own business before, and it’s a fun kind of challenge to know that things rest on me to get it done. The best approach is to try to make my books look, feel, and read as good as any traditionally published book. Readers don’t care who the publisher is; they just want a great book.
What are some of the biggest challenges?
It’s on me to get things done, which means if I don’t get it done . . . it’s on me! Especially when I started out, there was a ton of negative stigma about self-publishing. Much has changed over the past eight years as more and more people are going the indie route. I like to tell the story that early on, when I had only two books (and covers that I’d entirely or partially made myself), I approached the owners of a great local independent children’s bookstore in town and asked if they’d carry my books. They smiled and basically said, “Thanks, but don’t hold your breath.” I kept learning, writing more books, getting better covers, better editing, and spreading the word locally at schools and festivals. A little over a year later, the bookstore reached out to me and said that schools were asking about my books and wondered if I would be open to the shop carrying them and maybe doing a signing. That was a good day.
What are you working on right now?
I’m a few chapters in on my tenth book in the Virginia Mysteries Series. Despite many attempts to change, I tend to write in batches throughout the year, which means it always takes me a little while to get moving again and regain my drafting flow, but it’s starting to come around. This book will be tied into history around Virginia Beach and notorious pirates like Blackbeard who once sailed those waters. My last book was about civil rights history, so I wanted to do something on a little lighter topic this time. I try to remind myself that writing a book is a bit like fitting together a puzzle. You have to keep working on it a little each day, and gradually the picture comes into focus.
To learn more about Steven, visit his website or visit his author page on Amazon.
Brief thoughts and updates on writing, publishing, and life