I recently had the pleasure of interviewing McKenzie Swenson, a writer whose work is starting to receive acclaim, about her first published novel and how she was able to pursue her dreams as a millennial interested in a creative career. In her answers below, she discusses what it took to pursue her passion and change the course of her life.
What is your book about?
Well, the book that I had published last year is actually three books called the Dysfunctional series. It’s the whole series bundled together (Origins, Dark Imagination, and A Mighty Long Fall). This young adult series is about four high-schoolers who are all “flawed” in some way. Reuben Skinner is a kid with a troubled homelife and can not empathize with other people. Sally Talbot has sporadic fatal insomnia, a rare disease that keeps her from sleeping. Theo Aldridge is depressed and suicidal after his family was murdered. And last but not least is Jane Hopkins who is socially awkward and a loner.
One day, all four teens wake up and discover that they have superpowers that fix these flaws. Reuben can touch people and see what they were doing and experience exactly how it made them feel. Sally can now utilize electricity like a battery, thus eliminating the need for sleep. Theo physically cannot be killed as long as he is still feeling suicidal. And Jane can suddenly bring the characters in her imagination to life, creating her own friends instead of having to make real ones.
The first book, Origins, covers them discovering how they got their powers and how those powers bring them together as unlikely friends. They also realize that there is a supernatural evil right in their own school, and the reason they now have superpowers is so they can save their classmates.
I have another book that is going to be published in April 2019 called My Dark Passenger. It is a supernatural horror novel (not YA this time). The main character, Kevin Wolf, picks up a teenage hitchhiker on his way back to his hometown, but this hitchhiker might not be human. This will be my second time through the publishing process, so I am pretty excited!
How long have you been writing?
I have been writing for a LONG time! I think I wrote stories even back in second or third grade (mind you, they were not very good stories). I definitely started getting better and more serious about writing when I was around fourteen or fifteen years old. I wrote a few short stories for school, but I was much more interested in creating longer and more intricate plots that were better suited to novels. I had a bad habit of not finishing any of the stories I started, though. I did not actually finish writing a full-length novel until I was out of college.
When did you start to realize that writing was a passion and not a hobby?
I vividly remember when I came to the realization that writing was not just a hobby for me. It was after college and during the time when I was working a desk job. I did not dislike my job, but I also was not passionate about it either. It was just a job and nothing more. To combat boredom, I started writing during my breaks, or if I had to wait for a specific test to run (I was a software system tester), then I would jot down a few sentences here and there as well.
I remember one of my coworkers made a comment about me possibly retiring from this job one day, and the thought of doing this job that I only felt lukewarm about for another thirty years was both depressing and terrifying. It really made me realize that that job was not what I wanted to do long-term. The only thing I could see myself doing as a career that really made me happy was writing. So, that was the moment when I told myself, “Okay, I need to start getting serious about this.”
What were some of the steps you took to get your work published?
At first, I posted a lot of my work to online platforms, like FictionPress and Wattpad. Inkitt was actually the platform that took my series and offered me a contract. I figured that the way I was probably going to get started was self-publishing, so why not try to build a readership online first? Personally, I was okay with going about publishing this way since I wasn’t dead-set on going the traditional publishing house path.
For my book that’s coming out in 2019, I searched around for independent publishing companies that didn’t require me to have a literary agent, and I found Crazy Ink. Since Crazy Ink is not the online platform and publisher combo that Inkitt was, the novel that I am publishing with them is one that no one has ever read before.
I’ve also been contemplating using a different pen name to self-publish some of my stories that I’ve already posted on FictionPress and Wattpad to Amazon.
How do you balance building your craft with your other responsibilities?
When I was still working my desk job, I had to write whenever I had a few minutes. So, I would write during my break or if I just had five or ten minutes to spare. I would also spend a few minutes after work writing at home. For a few months, I worked a gig ghost writing under a pen name for a small publishing company, and I found it was harder to find time to write my own stuff then. I just felt creatively burned out all the time.
Since I am single and I have no kids, I do not have those types of responsibilities to contend with. I know writers that are parents, though, and I have no idea how they do it!
What do you think the future holds for your writing career?
I hope that my writing career will continue to grow. I’ve learned that in order to get my work out there, I really need to be proactive. I can’t just send out one or two query letters and then sit on my thumbs and wait. If I want my writing career to have a chance of taking off, then I’m going to have to take steps to make that happen.
What advice would you give to young aspiring writers?
Keep writing!!! It’s so easy to get discouraged. So, so, so easy. I have ups where I feel like the sky is the limit, and then I’ll have downs where I feel like a failure. You have to be cautious during the good times (look out for scams and opportunities that seem too good to be true) and be tough during the bad times. If you feel like crying, then cry. Just get it out. Then once the tears run dry, pick yourself up and keep writing.
Learn how to accept constructive criticism. I’m still working on this. Your first instinct is to get defensive when someone critiques your work, and you have to learn how to beat that instinct into submission. One thing that’s helped me is participating in a writing group. The purpose of the group is for all of us to write and give feedback to each other. It’s giving me regular practice at receiving critiques and not having a panic attack every single time. In the not so distant past, I wasn’t even able to be in the same room as someone who was reading something I wrote. Now in my writing group, I can sit across the room from people who are reading my stories, and it’s not intensely uncomfortable anymore.
Write the kind of story that you want to read. If you like the characters, if you feel invested in them and their problems, then your readers will too. Don’t get caught up by labels. If you know that you like to write sci-fi or romance, then awesome. But don’t feel like your story needs to fit neatly into one genre. I have stories that I am currently writing, and I have no idea what genre they are. I just know that they’re good stories! When it comes time to stick your book into a genre, get your friends and family to help you. Sometimes, all it takes is an outsider’s perspective.
Think about what kind of publishing experience you want to have. Some writers are very opposed to self-publishing, which is fine. But if that’s the case, then you probably shouldn’t post your book to an online platform. It’s possible that a big publisher could pick up your book on Wattpad or something, but it’s unlikely. And if your story has already been online, then a lot of publishers won’t take it. If you really want to get in with the big publishing houses, you almost certainly need an agent (I don’t have one of these, so I can’t help you there). However, if you’re not opposed to working with indie publishers, there are quite of few of those that don’t require you to have an agent (publishers like Crazy Ink!).
If you don’t mind self-publishing, then be sure not to rush the process. Find someone to help with editing and cover design and all that jazz. You could even try posting online first to build up a readership. It’s a decent way to get some feedback from people who aren’t your friends.