Holy Crap! I’m an Author

Making the transition from reader to writer to published author is a unique journey.

My novel The Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key is a sword-and-science fantasy adventure set in the third century. In it, a Persian warrior-prince discovers an obscure culture that seems to be using twenty-first century technology. Look for it on Amazon.com July 30! Available as both e-book and paperback.

OriginKeyCover_lo-resIf you’re like me, you’ve always loved to read. I mean love to read, as in reading the cereal box during breakfast when nothing else is handy. If you’ve ever had an idea for a story that wouldn’t go away, that only blossoms into something more complex as time goes on, you may be like me. There’s that one idea buzzing in the back of your head that pushes itself to the forefront at the oddest times and soon you have characters coming to life in your mind. They are fully realized, well-rounded people with thoughts and feelings and lives of their own inside a fictional existence. Then you feel compelled to share this amazing story and these amazing people with others. That’s when you’ve crossed the line from a love of reading to a love of writing.

Writing can be incredibly fun, but it isn’t easy. It takes time to nurture whatever natural talent may exist and develop the skills to write well. It can sometimes be a long, lonely road with the only encouragement coming from the fictional people populating your story. As with anything else, the more you practice, the better you get. Then after the story is written, there’s a lot more work—and many drafts—to make it fit for publication. That steep learning curve is why it takes most new writers quite a long time to actually publish works that others want to read.

I am now a published author. In three days my first novel will be on sale to the public, a feat that makes me both elated and nervous. Elated because this is an enormous accomplishment that took years. Nervous because it is unrealistic to expect the world at large to love this story as much as I do. I am fully aware that my sword-and-science fantasy adventure won’t appeal to everyone, but I still hope for good reviews and a positive sales response.

Either way, though, I’m going to write more adventures like this one featuring the characters I have come to know so well. I’m an author and that’s what I do now.
DodrazebLOGOIn the third century, the Persian Empire was a world power whose influence stretched from China to Europe. The king and his sons maintained peace with a powerful army—until the day a horde of screaming vandals attacked the king.

KEYFLATEDGEPursuing a criminal known as the Viper, Prince Rasteem becomes suspicious when the Persian army easily conquers Dodrazeb. Princess Laneffri is desperate to expel the Persian invaders from her kingdom and she will stop at nothing to protect its secrets—especially the Origin Key. Is Dodrazeb hiding the Viper or something even more dangerous? When Rasteem learns what the Origin Key can do, he must find a way to make the princess an ally to save both their kingdoms from annihilation.

“A smart, thrilling mix of history and fantasy. S.D. McPhail is definitely an author to watch.”
Brian Niemeier, Campbell-nominated author of Souldancer

Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key is a stunning debut novel. McPhail’s creation is packed with tension and excitement, from the political machinations of the empire to the almost Atlantean history of Dodrazeb and mythical Anutupi. The imagery is enchanting, but the adventure is mesmerizing.”
 Ashley Chappell-Peeples, author of  Of War and Taters and the Dreams of Chaos series

Ilsa J. Bick: Award-Winning Author or Renaissance Woman?

Last week I had the opportunity to attend a talk by another successful, well-known author. My local library does these events as a fundraiser, so it was a low-key evening full of wonderful gems of writerly wisdom. This time it was Community Conversations: Ilsa J. Bick. What has she written? Well, most recently, award-winning YA apocalyptic thrillers and sophisticated horror for older teens including Draw the Dark, Drowning Instinct, The Sin-Eater’s Confession,  the Ashes trilogy, White Space, and The Dickens Mirror. But before Ilsa settled into YA, she wrote Star Trek, Mechwarrior, and Battletech, among others.


First and foremost, Ilsa is simply one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. (That says a lot, because I’ve met a lot of people, including astronauts. Trust me, astronauts have an interesting job and that does not necessarily make them interesting people.) Her bio should be titled “True Renaissance Woman” because she is also a well-traveled child psychiatrist, a former forensic psychiatrist at a women’s prison, a trained psychoanalyst, a surgery intern, a film scholar, and a former Air Force major. Fortunately for those of us who love to read, she discovered her passion for writing.

At her Community Conversation, Ilsa was introduced as one of the “most underrated YA authors writing today.” Her cinematic style of storytelling appeals to fans from 12 to 88 years old, proof that a story with a young adult protagonist can be enjoyed by anyone of any age.

As a psychiatrist with a love of film, she wrote scholarly papers analyzing movies such as Alien, Back to the Future, Peggy Sue Got Married, and television shows The X-Files, and Star Trek. It’s no wonder I feel some kind of kinship with this woman—our favorite cinematic and televised entertainment align very nicely. I even like to analyze themes and symbolism in movies, though I wouldn’t call my dabbling in it “scholarly.” Her favorite author is Stephen King. I agree completely that he’s such a good storyteller, even when he’s bad, he’s better than lots of others.


Me with Ilsa. She is welcome to Captain Kirk. I’ll take Mr. Spock any day.

Ilsa explained that she got her start writing fan fiction. In fact, she’s likely the biggest fan of William Shatner’s chest on the planet. Okay, not exactly… She’s the world’s biggest fan of Captain James T. Kirk’s shirtless escapades on Star Trek. In her words, “That’s some serious beefcake!” Ilsa shared a hilarious story about an opportunity to actually meet Shatner in person. It didn’t go quite as she had hoped, but neither did it dampen her enthusiasm for that magnificent chest. We can agree to disagree about the attractiveness or desirability of Kirk/Shatner’s chest because I was always, and forever shall be, a Spock girl.

When Ilsa’s husband challenged her to write for “real,” she found a contest for Star Trek fiction calling for short stories of 7,000 words or less. With a 10-day deadline, most writers would have reluctantly passed up the opportunity. Not Ilsa. She wrote her story, submitted it, and won the grand prize, enough money to buy a refrigerator. That appliance, she says, still holds great sentimental value and is one of her dearest possessions.

She continued to enter contests and learned that she had to have a deadline, had to write fast, and had to get out of her own way. Ilsa won so often, she soon became ineligible for contests, so she turned to writing for magazines for hire. When her writing had gotten a little too edgy and dark for Star Trek, she began writing Young Adult fiction. She was trying to write a mystery that was going nowhere when she brainstormed a YA novel. She finished the paranormal mystery in a mere eight weeks and has been admired by a growing fandom ever since it was published.

Ilsa offered several pieces of advice for writers learning the craft.

  • Don’t be reluctant to enter contests.
  • When you are writing genre fiction, you must read widely in that genre, analyzing the structure of the story to find the points where the plot lunges forward and where it slows slightly.
  • Learn to weave in a secondary plot that can allow the reader to get to know your characters a little better.
  • Attend workshops taught by pros who make a living at writing. Anyone who makes their living by teaching workshops—not writing—won’t have the same insights and or the same passion for the craft.
  • Learn to outline. The one time she didn’t begin a novel from an outline, the manuscript ended up at 1,000 pages because she had no clear idea where it was headed.
  • Do your research! Don’t make egregious mistakes that will turn off readers who know something about what you are writing.
  • Lie with authority.

How about your own writing career? What lessons are you learning, or have learned, on your journey to publication? Has a successful author made an impression on how you approach the craft? Leave a comment below.

How Do You Spark Your Own Creativity?

Do you ever get stuck, creatively speaking? Ever find yourself frustrated when the words just aren’t flowing the way you want, or not flowing at all?

You are not alone. It’s part of the creative process that every writer experiences.

Yes, I know you know that. You’ve heard it before. We all have. The problem is, how do you get unstuck? How do you break through that wall of frustration?

I suppose every writer eventually finds a solution that works best for them. Taking a break from the page is usually the first step. After that, some writers will take a long walk to clear the head and generate
ideas. Others opt for a long, hot bath. Some have been known to throw themselves into mindless, mundane cleaning until the house is a spotless, sparkling work of art.

I wish that cleaning thing worked for me. Unfortunately, I would rather stay rooted in the chair in front of the monitor staring at a blank screen or starting over for the umpteenth time waiting for inspiration than spend time cleaning.

The point is, you have to do something different, get your mind on something else, and relax long enough to recharge your creativity. For me, the solution is an activity that is also creative, but doesn’t involve words.

I like to color. With pencils, not crayons.

You know those fancy “adult” coloring books you can buy at the bookstore or craft store? I have some of those. I also have a small daily calendar with a different scene to color every day. The calendar pages are great for when I have a little time to kill. The larger, more complicated pages give me something to look forward to over the course of a few days.

When I started coloring a few months ago, I was amazed at how much it helped me relax. Then I noticed that when I wasn’t thinking about the words I couldn’t conjure up, or the plot point I needed to work out, or the scene that just wasn’t coming together, the ideas starting flowing. Just a trickle is all I needed, something to get me past a sticky place and back on track. Now I make time to color nearly every day.

What do you do when you get frustrated? How do you generate inspiration? Share your favorite method in the comments below.

The Writing Secrets of a Best-Selling Author Revealed

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending a special event. This one was in my hometown, my own backyard you might say. It was fairly low-key and inexpensive, a fundraiser for our local library. The event was Community Conversations: Homer Hickam. Yes, that Homer Hickam, NASA engineer and author of Rocket Boys, a memoir that became the movie October Sky.

carryingalberthomeI was incredibly excited when I heard about it. I’ve known for decades that Homer Hickam lives in the same small city I do. I know somebody who has known him and his wife since forever. I met him years ago and I’ve spoken to him at book signings. I could bump into him at the grocery store in the produce department. Why was I so excited about this event? Because I’ve recently started writing with the idea that I want to publish a novel. He is living, breathing proof that an ordinary, yet talented, person—someone I actually know—can become a best-selling author. So I was thinking, maybe I really can do this too.

Advertisements went something like this: “What do Homer Hickam, Buddy Ebsen, and an alligator have in common? Find out when Huntsville’s own Homer Hickam leads the conversation as he recounts themes in his latest book, Carrying Albert Home. Filled with Southern charm, a bit of conflict, and lots of humor, discussion about this book is sure to be interesting!”

It was interesting. The book is fantastic. Carrying Albert Home is a hilarious recounting of (mostly) true events involving an adventurous odyssey undertaken by his parents in the 1930s to return an alligator named Albert to Florida.

I enjoyed hearing Homer’s anecdotes about growing up in Coalwood, West Virginia. He talked about loving to read before he realized he wanted to write. He told us how his mother had “suspended his first amendment rights” when he wrote a story for his elementary school newspaper that depicted her in a less than flattering manner.

Homer mentioned several of his books and how he came to write them, but my favorite by far is Rocket Boys. He talked about writing for various publications and becoming a regular contributor to the Smithsonian Air & Space magazine. He explained how Rocket Boys was inspired by a last-minute, desperate request for a 1,500-word “filler” story. Response to that little story was overwhelming, so he knew he had tapped into something special. I confess, I adore the movie October Sky, and I loved hearing Homer talk about how the movie simply didn’t do justice to every aspect of the book. Never mind how some things had to be changed or compressed or expanded—the movie made his mother look like a wimp! Wow. I never got that impression from the movie, which means Mrs. Elsie Hickam must have been quite a formidable lady.

Naturally, I was on pins and needles anticipating the Q&A after Homer spoke. There I was, a writer hoping to one day be a published author, ready to soak up all the wisdom and advice that a master of the craft was willing to impart. I scribbled away with my pen on my tiny notepad, ready to record the Gospel according to Homer.

When asked, “What does a good writing day feel like?” Homer replied, “Liking what you wrote the next day, or even better, the next week.” He elaborated that getting lost in the words and letting the story carry you where it needs to go feels wonderful. I agree with him wholeheartedly.

In response to other questions, Homer explained that his typical schedule is to write four to five hours in the morning when he has a deadline and handle rewrites in the afternoons. He’s less structured when not on a deadline, but still always has a work in progress. When asked about rewrites and the honing/polishing process, Homer was honestly unspecific. After 18 published books, he indicated that it’s different for each one. He did share, though, that it is vital to hook the reader immediately. Like many writers, he works longer and harder on first chapters more than any other. Then he commented that there comes a point when you have to stop. Rewrites can go on forever, if you let them. He confessed that there are portions of Rocket Boys he’d like to rewrite, even today.

Homer said he always wrote to be published because he wanted to be read. He learned to hone his craft and developed his simple, straightforward style from writing magazine articles. As he put it, being an engineer isn’t so different from being a writer. They both need to be creative, original thinkers who communicate well whether telling a well-crafted story or designing and developing technology.

I wouldn’t know about being an engineer, but it is essential to know how to use the tools of your trade, whether you are building a spacecraft or writing about one. Nobody woke up one day and said “I’m going to build a mile-long bridge that will last for generations” and do it successfully without spending the time learning what it takes to do it. The good news is that you are never too old to learn how to write well, if that’s what you want to do.

No, Homer Hickam didn’t wake up one day and stop being an engineer so he could focus every ounce of his time and effort on writing Rocket Boys. He wrote it while he was working full time as a NASA engineer, a challenging and time-consuming career. He “just got it done.” He’s a full-time writer now, his second career.

What did I learn from listening to Homer Hickam?

  • Write as much as you can, every spare minute you have. You won’t get better if you don’t keep at it.
  • Write about something that’s meaningful to you.
  • Polish those first chapters, first paragraphs, first sentences until they sparkle like glittering stars in the night sky.
  • Don’t quit your day job until you have a book on the bestseller list. And maybe not even then.
  • Never forget that while writing is a creative endeavor, getting published is a business.
  • Memoirs are best written by writers who have actually done things other people find fascinating.
  • Book tours are grueling, exhausting, and necessary.

Wait a minute. I knew all of that before I ever attended his speaking engagement. There are no secrets, no special shortcuts, no substitutes for talent. There’s just hard work and perseverance.

My admiration for Homer Hickam has increased exponentially.

How about your own writing career? What lessons are you learning, or have learned, on your journey to publication? Has a successful author made an impression on how you approach the craft? Leave a comment below.