Clete Smith should have listened to his Uncle Mike.
In a story he likes to tell, Smith was 12 years old when his uncle asked him what he wanted to do with his life. Young Smith, who by then loved reading and making up stories, told his uncle that he wanted to write books.
His uncle asked his nephew what books he had written.
"I'm only 12 years old!" Smith answered.
His uncle replied: "So what? Why not start now? Pretty soon you'll be saying, 'But I'm only 30 years old!"
Flash forward. Smith is celebrating his 30th birthday. A graduate of Sehome High School, he has earned a degree from Western Washington University and is teaching Whatcom County high-schoolers. He enjoys teaching, but the idea of becoming a writer remains strong.
"I thought, I either need to give up my dream or I need to start writing," Smith told himself.
So he began pursuing his dream. Looking back, he knows he should have done some things differently, including getting started sooner.
Still, Smith has done well for himself, with two novels for middle-school readers - "Aliens on Vacation" and "Alien on a Rampage" - selling well, winning awards and in the running for a movie from Disney Films.
The first "Aliens" tells the story a boy from Florida who spends the summer with his grandmother at her bed-and-breakfast in a fictional town near Mount Baker. While the aliens who spend time there are friendly enough, the town's grumpy sheriff threatens to blow the lid on the below-the-radar business.
In the "Rampage" sequel, the boy returns for another summer and promptly meets an alien worker at the B&B who displays major anger issues toward the human race.
Smith has more "Alien" sequels coming, and has the go-ahead for a juvenile novel in which magic replaces aliens as the focus.
Thanks to the success of his books, Smith no longer teaches and can focus more on his writing and on his book tours and talks. His is a busy life crafting and editing stories and promoting his novels. Headaches, deadlines and details abound, but that's fine with him.
"I've dreamed about doing this for so long," he says. "I try to never complain."
LOOSE IN THE WOODS
Smith lived in Ferndale until he was in second grade, when his family moved to Sudden Valley. He spent the next five years there, reading a bunch and spending loads of time outdoors building forts, sledding in the dirt and honing his skill with a slingshot. He also made up stories in his head.
"It was mostly woods out there," Smith recalls. "You could make up your own worlds."
Other moments, in retrospect, contributed to his evolution as a writer with a bent for the fantastic. He recalls sitting on his father's lap, enthralled, while watching the inaugural "Star Wars" movie at Samish Drive-In.
When Smith was 10, he visited his grandfather in Seattle. Gramps was busy one day so he gave the boy $20 to fend for himself. Smith found haven in a movie theater, where he stumbled upon a new film, "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial."
He liked it so much that he hid behind the curtains while the usher cleared the theater, and then watched the movie a second time. Then he did it again and saw it a third time.
When his grandfather arrived to take him home, Smith told him how great the movie was, so they watched it together.
After graduating from Western, Smith taught English at Nooksack Valley, Bellingham and Blaine high schools. After he turned 30, he kept teaching but he added writing to the mix, along with spending time with his wife and two daughters.
SOLITARY WRITER NO MORE
Smith, 41, began squeezing time in to write by himself. No writing classes; no book discussion groups. At first, he worried about telling anyone that he was trying to become a writer. What if he tried but failed?
Flying solo, he wrote two middle-school novels and sent the manuscripts to publishers. Both were rejected. Would he indeed fail?
Then a literary agent suggested that Smith enroll in a master's program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts for people who want to write for young readers. Smith signed up and spent two weeks in Vermont in early 2008 to meet people and plug into the program. He then conferred by email with his teachers, all of whom were published authors, and with other students in the program.
In a flash, he went from no background in writing to working with stars in the field. Suddenly, he went from doing everything on his own to joining a community of writers. It changed his life.
While working on his master's, Smith took an early-morning walk in a park in Bellingham, as he often does. He thought what a wonderful place it would be to visit for a vacation. Then he thought, what if aliens came here for a little R&R instead of arriving to kill, enslave or eviscerate people?
The seeds of "Aliens on Vacation" grew, helped, in part, with advice from his teachers and colleagues at the Vermont program.
Things started to click. Disney-Hyperion offered a two-book contract. With Smith's early success, another sequel, "Aliens in Disguise," is scheduled to appear this summer. A fourth and fifth sequel might follow.
Another middle-school novel, "Magic Delivery," a Halloween tale set in Whatcom County, is targeted to come out fall 2014.
A self-described "plodder" when it comes to writing, Smith now has plenty of work to keep him plodding happily along.
"Some people like to golf; some people like to fish," he says. "This is how I'm going to spend my life."
ADVICE TO WOULD-BE WRITERS: START ON YOUR OWN, THEN REACH OUT TO OTHERS
After years of working on his own, Clete Smith is now plugged into a community of writers as his career flourishes. At his website - cletebarrettsmith.com - he offers extensive and fun-to-read counsel for would-be novelists. In a nutshell, here's his advice:
If you want to write a novel, do it. Don't join a writers' group and don't read how-to books. Just write your book.
Why? Because the act of starting and finishing a novel will teach you perseverance, including how to move beyond the energy-filled start to what Smith calls the "muddled middle" and on to the conclusion. Also, don't show anyone your book until it's done. At this point, other's people's opinions don't matter. Later, they will.
The result likely won't win awards and likely won't be published. That's not the point. The point is to learn how and whether you can finish a novel.
Let your book simmer. Put it away for a month, then read it closely and make revisions.
Now it's time to show your novel to other people. Start with some friendly readers, perhaps a pal or a family member. Then show it to people with writing and reading chops, perhaps a trusted teacher or someone in a book-critique group.
Don't ask them "What do you think of it?" Give them a list of specifics to answer. Are the characters memorable? Is the story compelling? If not, why not?
After gathering comments from, say, three to four people, ponder their responses and revise your novel accordingly. You don't have to accept all of their ideas, but don't dismiss them out-of-hand.
With your revised draft ready, it's time to seek professional help. Options are plentiful. Read books on the craft of writing. Enroll in a writing class. Hire a freelance editor for feedback. Join a network of writers. Join writing organizations and partake of their resources, meetings and conventions.
Finally, send your novel to agents and editors, after you research the best ways to do that. That includes learning how to write a bang-up query letter.
Reach DEAN KAHN at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 715-2291.