Julie McDonald Commentary: Bestselling YA Fantasy Author to Keynote Centralia Writers Conference


Imagine “Vikings,” “The Last Kingdom” and “Game of Thrones” — all thrown into novels but without the sex and swearing.

That’s close to the entryway fantasy worlds created in more than 30 novels by Jeff Wheeler, a Wall Street Journal bestselling author who will teach at the Southwest Washington Writers Conference at Centralia College Sept. 9 and 10. His books — a niche between young adult and fantasy — have sold more than 5 million copies, and most have garnered several thousand five-star reviews on Amazon.com.

Although I haven’t been a young adult in decades, I love reading novels in that genre. Maybe I’m just young at heart — or I simply like escaping from the real word. I’ve devoured books by Suzanne Collins, Sarah Maas, Cassandra Clare, Veronica Roth, James Dashner, Kristine Cashore and others.

I also never considered myself a fantasy reader until I opened a free ebook by Vancouver author Jill Williamson called “By Darkness Hid,” the first in her Blood of Kings trilogy. She hooked me.

Then, a year or so ago, my sister first told me about Wheeler and his books.

“I started reading books by Jeff Wheeler about eight years ago, and he has been my favorite author since,” said Jackie Young, a banking executive in Longview who especially likes the Kingfountain series.

“The worlds that Jeff Wheeler creates in his books allow me a short escape. I can visualize myself in another world. His books always have enough detail to allow the visualization but also enough action to keep the story moving.”

Jackie and I have the same reading tastes, so I looked up the reading order for Wheeler’s books, which he conveniently lists on his website at https://jeff-wheeler.com/reading-order, and dove in. I began with “The Queen’s Poisoner,” the first in the Kingfountain series. Since then, I’ve purchased nearly two dozen of his novels, and I’m hoping he keeps up his prolific writing — three or four books a year — so I never run out.

At the September conference, writers and nonwriters can all learn from a man who described himself as “a high-school teenaged geek who wanted to play Dungeons & Dragons as a way of telling stories.” He grew up in California’s Silicon Valley and studied history at college with the idea of becoming a professor. Instead, the father of five worked 21 years in research and development fabricating, staffing, market intelligence and corporate real estate at Intel Corp., but he carved out three hours every Wednesday night to write.

Wheeler self-published his first novel, “The Wretched of Muirwood,” in 2011. The success of his Legends of Muirwood trilogy prompted Amazon Publishing’s sci-fi/fantasy arm 47North to offer him a contract to publish his next trilogy in 2012. With two trilogies published by 47North and another contract in hand, he quit his job at Intel in 2014 to devote full time to writing.

In September, Wheeler will teach two masterclass sessions on Friday, Sept. 9. “Worldbuilding 505: Stop Living in Your Head and Start Writing the First Chapter” will teach writers how to develop settings that become characters in the story using ingredients such as magic, politics, culture, geography, economics, and religion. And he’ll focus on how to exploit the tension opportunities each brings to the table.

During the second session, “The How of Creativity,” Wheeler will discuss how creativity is like a muscle writers can practice and develop. He will share creativity tips from Collins, Stephen King, Pixar Studios, Carnegie and a famous fighter pilot.

Then, on Saturday, Sept. 10, Wheeler will offer a keynote address on “Your First Million Words.”

“I’ve discovered on my journey that I had to write and toss my first million words before I’d practiced the craft enough to be successful at it,” Wheeler said. He described the keynote as “finding the will and the time to pursue the lonely road walked by writers.”

He’ll also teach two workshops. In “The Five Questions (aka Wowing the Editorial Board),” conferees will learn how to make it easy for publishers and editors to say yes to your manuscript using five questions and answers that Wheeler employs each time he pitches a book or series.

“Even if you are an indie author, knowing the answers to these questions can help improve the story before it’s even written,” he said.

The second workshop will focus on “Understanding Amazon.” Face it, Amazon is the gorilla in the publishing world today, selling more books than anyone else among its other products. This workshop will help writers understand the indie publishing market, the difference between Kindle Direct and Kindle Unlimited, the way royalties are paid, and what it’s like to work for an Amazon Publishing imprint.

Wheeler, a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who lives in the Rocky Mountains, enjoys creating clean fantasy stories that inspire people. In the past, he ran Deep Magic: The E-Zine of Clean Fantasy and Science Fiction, a quarterly electronic magazine that published short stories and novellas by fantasy and science fiction writers from throughout the world.

In his spare time, he enjoys hiking, practicing martial arts (techniques he employs in his novels’ fight scenes), and spending time with his family and his church.

Our volunteer committee is still winnowing the list of more than 40 workshop proposals to fill 18 slots. It’s exciting to offer authors, readers and others the opportunity to learn while raising money for Centralia College Foundation. All proceeds benefit the foundation. Anyone interested in sponsoring the conference can contact Joyce Scott by email at joyceascott328@gmail.com.

I’m excited about meeting Wheeler and learning from him and the more than a dozen other presenters at the Eighth Annual Southwest Washington Writers Conference. Early registration will open in April. For more information, check the website at www.southwestwashingtonwriters.com.


Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.