Author Interview: Dustin Brady, Creators of the Trapped in a Video Game Series, the Escape from a Video Game Series, and Other Books
Dustin Brady is a best-selling author who writes funny, action-packed books for kids that can consistently be found at the top of various Amazon best-seller lists, making him the envy of middle-grade authors everywhere. Although Dustin regularly gets locked out of his own accounts for forgetting passwords, Dustin still remembers the Super Mario Bros. 3 Game Genie code for infinite lives. (It’s SLXPLOVS.) Dustin lives in Cleveland, Ohio, with his wife, kids, and a small dog named Nugget.
The Trapped in a Video Game series has become such a phenomenon that I feel like I have to start with that. Can you tell me what inspired you to write it?
My goal with this book was to write my 10-year-old self’s favorite book ever. I made a list of all the things I was into at that age, and one of the things at the top of that list was the game show Nickelodeon Arcade. At the end of that show, real kids got to “go inside” a real video game. That was one of the things I would think about all the time as a kid.
At what point did you realize you had a hit on your hands? Did it happen with the first book or later in the series?
I specifically remember an evening about a month after I wrote the first book when I was walking the dog, and I had 15 sales for the day. I did some optimistic math and figured that I could be a real, live author with income like that, then I literally did the Rocky thing where he’s jumping with his fists in the air. It obviously wasn’t a bestseller at 15 books a day, but that was a hit for me, and I’ll always remember that.
Why do you think this series resonates with so many kids? Speaking of which, do you have any idea how your audience breaks down in terms of gender?
Because I wrote the book for my 10-year-old self, it’s almost all action. There’s a legitimate cliffhanger every 10 pages or so. It’s just fun and easy to read. That connects well with boys, specifically boys who are reluctant readers. Judging by the reviews, probably 80-90% of my readers are boys.
The Trapped in the Video Game series is published by Andrews McMeel Publishing. Has that been the case from the beginning, or did you initially self-publish it?
I initially self-published it. I’d been selling other types of products on Amazon for a while at that point, and I felt like I knew enough about how to market on Amazon to try my hand at self-publishing. About a year in, the series had sold around 50,000 copies, and Andrews McMeel expressed an interest in republishing the books. I was nervous going in, but the relationship has been amazing.
What are some of the advantages of going with a traditional publisher over the self-publishing route? Have you—or would you ever—consider self-publishing?
The books have sold over a million copies and been translated into nine languages, and Andrews McMeel is a big part of that. They’ve been able to expand distribution to physical stores, get a bigger presence in schools, secure foreign translation rights, and explore film rights. They have been great. Having said that, there are some titles that work better for self-publishing and others that are a better fit for traditional publishing. Traditional publishers are much slower and generally can’t take as many chances as indie authors. I have continued to self-publish other series even after signing with Andrews McMeel and will likely continue doing both.
Before you started writing for middle-grade readers, you wrote the Life Lessonbook series, collections of humorous essays that started with A Marathon Is Really Long When You Have to Pee. What caused you to shift from that sort of writing to writing for children?
That series came from a blog I wrote every week for about two years. Writing the blog taught me a lot about writing consistently and helped develop my writing style, but there’s not really a market for that type of writing. I always wanted to write books like the ones I enjoyed most when I was a kid, so making the switch to children’s books was a way to continue writing things I loved while attempting to earn a living as an author.
Who were some of your early inspirations as an author?
I loved Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and many of Ronald Dahl’s other stories. I also really enjoyed Matt Christopher’s sports books.
How did you get started as an author? Did you start by writing books or something else?
After college, I worked at a small local newspaper, then a magazine for high school athletes. Trapped in a Video Game was my first book—I wrote that at age 30.
Are you able to do this full-time, or do you have a day job as well?
I’m very fortunate to be able to do this full-time.
What advice do you have for other authors who are just starting out, particularly those who want to write for middle-grade readers?
I always tell new writers to finish writing something and share it with someone who might enjoy it. For me, the best part of being an author is entertaining or inspiring an audience—even if it’s just one person. For middle-grade writers, my biggest piece of advice is to think about the stories you loved reading as a child and why you loved them. Try to fill your stories with those types of things.
What are you working on right now?
I just turned in the manuscript for the third book in my Escape from a Video Game series of interactive stories. Right now, I’m working on the puzzles for that book.
I know you like classic video games, but do you still play? If so, what game(s) are you excited about right now?
Definitely! I just finished Spider-Man for the PS4, and I’m playing through the Miles Morales Spider-Man game for the PS5. Both are amazing games! Also, I play Tetris every night with my wife after the kids go to bed, and although I can’t say Tetris excites me, I always get excited about Tetris time because it means we made it through bedtime.
You can learn more about Dustin and his books by visiting his official website.
Note: As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases made using links
Believe it or not, Pumpkins is best read while wearing a pumpkin. The book is available here. As for the pumpkin, you'll have to bring your own.
I thought this would be a fun way to promote Pumpkins. I'll be posting a pic a day until Halloween! If you're in Canada, you can buy it here. If you're in the US, get it here.
I just came across this on Amazon.
I have been reading all 5 of these books to my grandsons via FaceTime. They live many states away and this is our connection. The boys are 6 and 9 and both of them identify with the charecters in the books and all of the creative trouble they get themselves into. No matter where we are in the books they are sad when I say....we must end. I often read for 2 hours at a time while they play with legos. I must admit that I am enjoying the books right along with them and we all end up making comments like " Oh man, now what!?" or" Oh no! There is going to be trouble!" What really works for these books is that there is an age span of the charecters so the the youngest in the story will ask his older brother to explain something thus explaining it to the reader at the same time so no one is confused. So it is great for both my grandsons. We are sad that we are on the final book. I reccommend reading them in sequence.
Today I'm doing something completely different and hosting my very first guest post on this blog. This post comes from author M. Liz Boyle. Liz is the author of the Off the Itinerary fiction series for young adult readers, the wife of a professional tree climber, and the mom of three energetic and laundry-producing children. Liz resides with her family in Wisconsin, where they enjoy hiking and rock climbing. Liz and her husband have also backpacked in Colorado and the Grand Canyon, which have provided inspiration for her writing. She makes adventurous stories to encourage others to find adventures and expand their comfort zones (though she confesses she still needs lots of practice expanding her own comfort zone).
Hey, readers, writers, and adventurers! Thanks to Kevin Miller for the opportunity to guest post. Today’s topic? Engaging the senses to immerse readers in our stories.
As an energetic hiker, wannabe climber, national parks traveler, and always-ready-for-the-beach girl, I love outdoor adventures. As a writer I love sharing adventures and inspiring others to experience their own. When I write adventure stories, I want my readers to feel the adrenaline surge, hear the roar of the snow, see the rush of floodwater, and feel the heat of the flames. I want my readers to grow from the experiences along with my fictional characters. Playing to the senses helps readers engage in the characters’ adventure.
Think about how much of life is experienced through our senses. Imagine if fruits and vegetables were all gray, or if all food tasted like broth. Imagine if you couldn't feel the horse’s mane, smell the cookies baking, or hear your favorite song or the birds’ music. Our senses enrich our whole lives, and sprinkling sensations into our writing enriches our stories.
Life without senses would be woefully boring. Now I’m not saying that people lacking a sense or more have less enjoyment in life. Not at all. In fact, they may enjoy life more than someone with all their senses because they’re so in tune to the senses that do function. Readers love to get lost in a story, and authors can use sensory descriptions to make that happen.
So, as authors, how do we write scenes that totally immerse the reader in the story? Let’s study a few passages.
Smith could’ve written, “Holly Angelo was tall and gangly,” but with this vivid description, we can see her in our mind’s eye.
This description makes it clear what the narrator’s eyes look like, and also what she thinks of her eye color, so it does double duty and never even uses words like brown, green, or gold.
I don’t have to have to be told that there’s high energy in the scene, because I can picture them scrambling out and up the hill.
With this description, we can put ourselves in Peak’s climbing boots and feel the aching muscles right alongside him. Obviously this is much stronger than saying, “All my muscles hurt.”
Khoury didn’t say, “Dad smells like a garage,” and I think we all agree that this detailed description puts us in the narrator’s spot, breathing in the specific smells around her.
I feel like I’m clutching the radio, straining to hear my own dad, much more poignantly than if the author had said, “We had a bad signal.”
This weary-of-turkey description simply and effectively puts readers in the narrator’s place at the table.
Okay, So What Next?
Looking through these examples that transported me (and hopefully you, too) into the scenes, one thing that hits me is the absence of some of the most obvious key descriptive words.
In the Sight excerpts, Smith didn’t tell us Holly is tall and skinny; he showed us by comparing her to a scarecrow and a daddy long legs. Moving onto the eye color example, Carlson didn’t use a single color’s name, but instead compared the hazel eyes to a watercolor mess. We can imagine the color without being told the color!
In the feeling excerpts, none of them contain words like hurt or pressure. Instead, the authors again used comparisons to explain. It’s one thing to say “it’s wet and blustery,” but by comparing the wind to getting slapped with a wet towel, readers can experience the weather as the character does.
In the smelling example, the author doesn’t give any indication to whether these scents smell good or bad. They don’t smell nice, and they don’t stink. Instead, we’re told exactly what the smells are and that they’re familiar smells to the main character. It puts us in her shoes.
In the hearing example, we aren’t told, “It was hard to hear him,” or “His voice was faint through the static.” With the blasts and pops, we know it was hard to hear him, and we know how badly she wants to hear his voice!
In the taste excerpts, I again noted that we aren’t told if the food tasted good or bad or boring or overcooked. We can imagine the seasoned turkey and the soft, melted granola bar because that’s what is said.
For authors, I think this means that we should focus on explaining sensations without using obvious descriptors. Don’t tell me she’s tall, show me what she looks like. Don’t tell me your legs hurt, show me how bad they hurt. Don’t say he smells woodsy, tell me exactly what he smells like. Instead of telling me the cell service is spotty, show me how impossible it is to communicate. Instead of telling me the food is good or bad, show me that there’s not a bite left or that nobody asks for seconds even though they don’t act full yet.
This exploration of descriptions has made me realize that comparisons are often more effective than a string of carefully chosen adjectives. I’m not by any means casting off adjectives (they are perfect in many situations), but I am suggesting that as writers, when we want to launch our readers into our scenes, let’s describe scenes with comparisons and clear explanations.
Readers, what are some of your favorite sensory descriptions you’ve read? Writers, what are some of your best descriptions?
To learn more about Liz, visit her Amazon author page or her personal website.
I gave myself 20 days to do it, and I managed to complete it in 7. What a good feeling! The manuscript came in at 60,744 words, which makes it the longest book in the Milligan Creek Series to date by about 5,000 words. (Snowbound! was the longest book before this.) That word count is certain to change as I begin the revision process, though which direction it will go won't be clear until I have a chance to read the entire manuscript through from start to finish, which I plan to do tomorrow. That'll show me where it's running long, where I haven't explained things thoroughly enough, and so on. However, I'm hoping that when all is said and done, it'll come in about 1,000 words shorter than it is right now.
Meanwhile, it's time to step away from the computer and celebrate this milestone--starting by showering and eating lunch (I'm still in my pajamas because I didn't want to break my momentum). I like to joke that being an author involves days and nights of misery punctuated by brief moments of despair--and then something really bad happens. So, as difficult as writing is, when something good happens, such as completing a draft, celebrating is not an option. This is my seventh novel in the last five years, which feels like an amazing achievement considering I mostly write these books in my spare time. Hopefully it inspires other aspiring writers out there to go for it. You don't know what you're capable of until you try.
Brief thoughts and updates on writing, publishing, and life