Welcome, Phil Hilliker

Pens, Paws, and Claws would like to welcome Phil Hilliker to the blog.

Tell our readers a little about yourself and your writing.

I have been a freelance illustrator and graphic designer for the past 17 years, with the majority of my work focused on role-playing games and children’s books. After spending many years making pictures for other people’s words, I decided it was time to start focusing on my own. Right now I have a middle grade (aimed at eight to twelve-year olds) sci-fi novel on submission with my awesome agent, Erica Bauman at Aevitas Creative Management. I’m also revising a middle grade fantasy novel and several picture book projects. It’s pretty much all monsters or robots with me.

I have a short story and provided all the story header illustrations in River City Secrets: Stories from Richmond, edited by Lana Krumwiede and published by Chops Suey Books Books.

Tell us about your pets. Are any of them models for pets in your writing?

My family has three pets—a betta fish named Sonic Blue, and two guinea pigs, David Bowie and Ringo Starr. We can’t take credit for those amazing names, though. They were already named when we adopted them. We wish we were cool enough to come up with those names.

All three are fairly new additions to the family! Sonic Blue has been with us about three months. We adopted David Bowie and Ringo Star about two months ago. So they haven’t made their way into my writing yet, but I’m sure they will at some point. They have such fun little personalities. David Bowie is always in the middle of the action while Ringo Starr hangs out in the background and avoids attention.

What are you reading now?
I read a lot of middle grade, because that’s what I write, and it’s important to know what’s happening in the particular category in which we write. I recently finished The Mothman’s Curse by Christina Hayes, which captured a wonderful family dynamic. It was easy to root for the characters. Currently, I’m also listening to Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey—an adult fantasy novel that’s basically Jane Austin with magic. It captures the Edwardian vibe really well, and I’m enjoying the way she’s describing how the characters use magic.

Did you have childhood pets? If so, tell us about them.
I didn’t really. We had a cat for a short period of time that we believe was cat-napped. I still wonder what happened to her sometimes. But that was it. I have a deep love of cats, but I’ve developed a sever allergy to them as I’ve grown older, keeping my family from getting one now.

How do you use animals in your writing? Are they a character in their own right or just mentioned in passing?
I don’t have any animals of note in the manuscript I currently have on submission. However, in the novel that’s currently being revised, there are several main characters who are animals. It’s a portal fantasy, where two boys travel to fairy, and in keeping with the tropes of the portal fantasy, they have a few animal sidekicks who talk and help them navigate the world.

I’m also working on a picture book that has a loveable chicken as the main character.

When did you know you were a writer? And how did you know?
I’ve always wanted to be a writer, even as a kid. But, visual art was naturally easier for me, so I went to art school and chased my natural talent with the idea that I would get around to writing when I had the time. That always seems to be the way, doesn’t it? But when I was well into my thirties without finding the time, I realized I’d better make it, or it would never happen.

So I wrote without telling anyone for a few years, figuring that pretty much everyone wanted to write a book and it wasn’t worth mentioning. Getting involved with James River Writers gave me the confidence to actually admit it aloud to folks.

What’s in your “To Be Read” (TBR) pile right now? And how many TBR piles do you have?
I have physical TBR piles all over the house, not to mention the digital one on my Kindle and the holds I’m still waiting to come through at the library! I’m excited to read Gwen Cole’s sci-fi western Ride On and the second book in N.K. Jemison’s Broken Earth Trilogy. The first one, The Fifth Season, stunned and impressed me in ways no other book has in years.

What’s the most unusual pet you’ve ever had?
A child. I know that doesn’t really count, and I’ll probably get in trouble for saying that, but taking care of a kid—really from infancy through toddlerhood—is a lot like having a pet. You’re constantly cleaning up after it, chasing it down, and trying to keep it safe. But those moments of connection and appreciation, that feeling that all is right with the world because this creature you’ve been caring for is showing their full appreciation, makes it all worth it.

What are two things you know now that you wish you knew when you started writing?
1) The literary world is one of contradictions without a lot of concrete answers. For every piece of advice out there, there’s either counter advice or someone being successful doing the opposite. It can be hard to know which advice to go with, so I’ll give you this piece of advice (knowing that someone out there is doing the opposite)—just do whatever you can to be easy to work with and don’t make other people’s lives harder. I think that’s the biggest secret to success. If an agent asks for certain materials in submissions, follow them, because you don’t want to be known as the writer who can’t follow directions. But if someone tries to give you the formula for producing a successful book, they’re probably full of it.

2) How long things would take, and to have patience. I started the novel that’s currently on submission eight years ago, never having written a novel, and totally not knowing how to write one. I completely rewrote it several times. I put it through a critique group and beta readers. I signed with my agent about a year ago and revised it four more times with her! My novel has had a long road. Now, just as I wrote in number 1 above, this industry is full of contradictions. Your book might happen very quickly. But, if you’re publishing traditionally, don’t enter into any project without some flexibility to how you think it should go.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a writer?

Find a critique group! It’s not always easy to find a functioning critique group. They are a relationship that has to be built on trust and respect, which can be difficult to find. So even if you find your first critique group doesn’t work out, find another one. That’s what I did. My first critique group fell apart through a combination of factors, and I was sad when it happened. But, I’m in a solid group now that’s been chugging along for four years, and I would do anything for my critique partners. They’re amazing. Critique groups don’t always work. But when they do, they can improve your writing at an astounding rate while being a positive accountability factor to keep you going.

Also, join a professional group like James River Writers. Having a sense of community is key, and being in a community makes it easier to find a critique group!

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