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.
I love--and hate--working on book covers. I get very excited, and very anxious. I spent too much time yesterday toying with all sorts of ideas. Here's where I began.
I liked it a lot, but I was told it felt too middle grade and not scary enough to be YA. I toyed around with different versions of this cover, as you'll see below.
But this just seemed to complicate things. So, I decided to simplify. Even though the book is called "Pumpkins," I decided to pare it down to just one. This is how it came out.
For font aficionados, the title font is from the original Halloween movie, and the series title font was used on a lot of old Stephen King novels. (Speaking of which, the font for the original cover is from the movie Scream.)
I really like this cover. It's simple and emotive, but after showing it to my kids--two of whom are in the YA market, they kiboshed it. They didn't feel it was scary enough or that it told enough of the story. They also felt it still skewed too young for my intended audience. Perhaps a scarier or different style pumpkin would help, but ultimately, I decided--woefully--to go in a completely different direction. However, I may still test a version of this at some point. I'll update you on that process as well. Right now I have an artist and a cover designer working on two separate versions of the same concept.
I've never featured an interview on this blog before, but it's something I plan to do regularly this year to help feature some of the other great middle-grade authors and series out there.
First out of the gate is fellow Canadian author and British Columbia resident Rae Knightly (although she's also lived in Mexico City, Brussels, Tucson, Edinburgh, and Cape Town), author of the Alien Skill Series. Below is a quick overview of the series, followed by my interview with her.
When UFOs crash into the fields next to his grandfather’s house, twelve-year-old Ben Archer becomes a cumbersome witness in the eyes of the government. Not only that, but Ben discovers he has been entrusted with an alien power, the significance of which could jeopardize human life on Earth.
Hi, Rae. What was your initial inspiration for the Alien Skill Series?
My aim was to create a story set in the real world where a young protagonist is faced with fantastical situations. I figured that idea alone would allow readers to be transported from their normal lives into a world of adventure and wonder.
Based on that, I either needed to enter the realm of fantasy or science-fiction, and since I have a soft spot for aliens (because I’m sure some form of alien life exists out there), I decided this fantastical element would come from an encounter with an alien being. My main character (Ben Archer) goes on the run from government agents with this alien (Mesmo), without knowing the extraterrestrial’s true intentions.
From there the story began to unfold as I wrote it, with Mesmo’s mission on Earth becoming ever clearer and linked to current events in the real world.
What I enjoy the most, though, is developing interactions between characters and finding out who they are, what their goals are and what it means to become a hero.
Who were some of your early inspirations as a writer?
As a single child, books were my companions, and I devoured all the Famous Five, Secret Seven, Nancy Drew, and Hardy Boys books. The Dark is Rising trilogy by Susan Cooper definitely topped my list. I also read and reread many books by Monica Hughes (such as Earthdark) and Lois Duncan (such as Stranger with my Face). I devoured Terry Brooks’ The Shannara Chronicles, The Ice People by Rene Barjavel, Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell,and Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist.
What draws you to write for middle-grade readers?
To be honest, I thought I was writing for young adults, but after consulting with more experienced authors and editors, I heard about middle-grade books. I was thrilled to fall in that category! After all, it’s at that age (around eleven or twelve) that I discovered a love for reading, so it seemed fitting to deliver magic and adventure to that same age group.
What made you decide to self-publish your series?
When you’ve never written or published anything before, it’s hard to know if your stories will strike a chord with readers. I figured that going the traditional route was a long shot, so I decided to self-publish instead and get some feedback. Things grew from there and I’m over the moon with the way things are going!
What are some of the biggest benefits of being a self-published author?
The biggest benefit is that I have total control over my work. Since writers are creative people, self-publishing allows us to express our creativity in any way we wish, not only in terms of writing but also in terms of marketing. For example, I love to post pictures of nature but don’t enjoy taking selfies. That means Instagram is a good platform for me, whereas I struggle with TikTok.
Fortunately, I discovered that I enjoy marketing just as much as I enjoy writing, which is a blessing because marketing books can take as much time as writing them! I am my own boss, I adjust my working hours according to my family’s needs, and I have learned to treat my writing as a business.
What are some of the biggest challenges of publishing independently?
The biggest challenge is that I have total control over my work. Yes! You read that right! Because I have total control over my work, it also means I have to do everything on my own: come up with story ideas, write them, find editors and book cover designers, find readers, figure out publishing platforms, such as Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing and IngramSpark, study marketing strategies, figure out tax issues, maintain active social media platforms and a functional website . . . The tasks are endless! Sometimes I wish I could clone myself, so one person could write and the other could do all the administrative tasks.
How do you go about creating your book covers?
I found my book cover designer on the website 99designs. It turned out to be the best investment I ever made. I ran a contest on 99designs and received eighty book cover submissions from which to choose. I chose four covers and asked reader groups to vote for their favourite. In essence, I let the public pick the book cover, which is how you are going to capture readers; attention in the first place. Sometimes it’s not about what the author wants but what readers want, and nothing is truer than for a book cover.
What are you working on right now?
I’m currently wrapping up book 6 in the Alien Skill Series. It’s been a wonderful, emotional adventure, but I must now tell a story of another hero in The Lost Space Treasure Series, which has its roots in the same universe as the Alien Skill Series. I plan to publish this new series in early 2022.
I usually have a pretty clear idea of how I want the covers for my books to look. The same goes for interior illustrations and comic book panels. The problem is communicating my ideas to the artist I'm working with. Considering my limited artistic skills, that's always a significant challenge.
Right now I'm in the midst of writing book 1 in the Uncanny Icons series, which I'm developing for YA (young adult) readers. Each book in the series is based around a different Halloween icon, the kind you see in windows and in classroom walls around that time of year. For example, book 1 is called Pumpkins, book 2 is called Brooms (it'll be about witches), book 3 is called Fangs (vampires), and so on.
I'm in the midst of writing Pumpkins right now (nearly halfway through my first draft). I'm very excited about how things are going, so I thought it was time to bring in a cover artist to help usher the book into reality. For this book (and hopefully this entire series) I'm partnering once again with Hannah Doerksen, who did such a great job on illustrating Randolph the Yellow Snowman.
I tried to describe what I was looking for in a cover, but when Hannah's first draft came through, I realized I hadn't done a very good job of communicating. So, yesterday I took pen in hand and produced the following.
I realize it's not brilliant, but I was actually surprised at how closely I managed to replicate what I was seeing in my mind (minus a few details, which I communicated to Hannah in writing). We'll see if this helps the process along.
Creating covers is always a stressful process for me, but it's always exciting when things finally come together. I'll post subsequent drafts as they come in.
Randolph the Yellow Snowman is a quirky children's picture book that was so much fun to create. So, it's always gratifying to see how it's received by others. So far it's generating a lot of great reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Here are a few excerpts.
Brief thoughts and updates on writing, publishing, and life