For Heather Grace Stewart, writing has always been a long-standing love affair. She’s been ‘writing poems and stories since [she] could write’, she tells me, somewhere around the age of five. A lot has changed since then, but one thing that’s stayed, of her own admission, is her tendency to ‘use self-deprecating humour, as do [her] characters in [her]novels’. One of her early poems, she recollects, was about falling down a lot whilst skating: ‘It opened, ‘I went ahhh! when I fell down!’ and it was published in our school’s newsletter’. A sterling start to what would turn out to be a sterling writing career.
Fast forward many years, Heather still skates, and she’s had a fascinating journey. Originally trained as a journalist, she spent some time as a writer and editor for national magazines, until she eventually set off on her own, starting her writing and editing business. She later left journalism aside and moved into writing fiction full-time but she ‘still loves to blend the two interests’. In fact, she explains, ‘all of [her]novels and screenplays are inspired by headline news stories, or stories that went viral and also ended up in newspapers’.
One thing that caught my attention when looking into Heather’s story, is that she started out traditionally published, but then decided to switch and self-publish. In a community where landing a traditional publishing deal often seems like the holy grail, I was curious to hear what motivated her decision.
Her first novel Strangely, Incredibly Good was originally published by a small Canadian publisher, and she enjoyed her experience of working with them. When they branched out into offering broader Author Services however, Heather was seduced by the flexibility of making her own publishing decisions… and the more than tempting idea of getting her book rights back. When her sequel made it on the Canadian and UK bestseller in the Time Travel Romance category, it was all the encouragement she needed to keep self-publishing.
When I ask her how she’s found the process, she answers ‘[she] loves so much about self-publishing’, because ‘[she] gets to be as creative as [she] wants and work at [her] own pace, and [she] can also set up [her] own book discounts and do [her] own marketing’. As someone who’s found the road to self-publication and self-promotion a bit of a rollercoaster, I find Heather’s view refreshing. For her, it’s a lot about perceptions: ‘I don’t like the stigma that’s still attached to (self-publishing), but I’m trying to encourage the writers that I coach to always hire professional editors and cover designers so that they produce quality product. The more self-publishers who put out work that’s as professional as traditionally published books, the less of a stigma we’ll have’. I couldn’t agree more.
So, if it’s not the pitfalls of self-publishing that she finds tricky, what has been the most challenging part of her journey? ‘The writing isn’t hard for me anymore’, she says, which in itself is impressive, ‘it’s deciding what story to move forward on’. She admits she has several works in progress she’s working on—four unfinished novels and a screenplay she’s adapting into a book. Talk about prolific writing! But to Heather, it’s less about quantity, and all about quality: ‘I only want to put out my best work, so I’m publishing less work and taking my time on it’. I can’t help but admire that.
Though she enjoys the freedom of doing her own marketing, she also confesses that she finds advertising challenging, describing it as a bit of a ‘chore’ she wishes she didn’t have to do. This, despite taking relevant courses to improve her skills over the years. It requires daily monitoring, ‘even on vacation’, she adds.
I suspect that balancing all this requires organisation, and I’m keen to hear about the routines and rituals she has to keep everything on track. Her days include morning writing sessions, starting early and going until midday; a break for lunch and her coaching sessions in the afternoon, followed by time set aside to work on marketing. It’s quite the schedule, but you only have to look at her results to see how well it works. And that’s not to say she doesn’t give herself time and space when she needs it. In the summer for instance, she ‘always works reduced hours’ to make the most of the gorgeous weather. That’s when you can find her ‘going for a skate or do a yoga flow class outside before writing’. Yes, writing discipline is important, but so is self-care.
And speaking of what’s important, I had to ask Heather: amidst the great sense of balance and success she seems to have found, what’s her favourite thing about being a writer? ‘I love that I get to build new worlds all the time’, she explains, ‘and that people around the world are entertained by those worlds’. To her, it’s all about ‘making other people laugh, or cry if it’s a therapeutic cry, and helping them escape their stressful day, if only for half an hour’.
A worthy mission, especially since she’s expanding into more formats to share her stories with the world. One of her books, The Ticket, is optioned to be adapted to screen—a tremendous achievement. I wanted to know how she made that happen, and she revealed that she’d ‘written all of [her] novels with the intention of selling them as films’. It took some trial and error to make it via the book-to-film route, but she finally succeeded, and she tells me she’s ‘thrilled The Ticket now has a stronger chance of being filmed’.
Wait a second… a stronger change? Yes, she says, ‘even though the company has optioned the rights to film it, [she’s] learning that the road to production is a long and winding one!’. I didn’t know that, but I’m not surprised. Apparently, it could ‘years, even decades, before it’s made into a movie or TV series’. Far from deterring Heather from moving forward, it’s only motivated her to build a wider portfolio of books and screenplays ready for producers to look at, to improve her odds. If that’s not the way to pave your way to success, I don’t know what is!
There’s another piece that caught my eye whilst going through Heather’s website, and that’s her commitment to a cause bigger than herself: educating young girls around the world. Her passion for the topic started back when she was a journalist, when she interviewed someone who told her about their charity operating in an African Orphanage. Heather recalls: ‘I ended up donating profits from Where the Butterflies Go, my first poetry collection, to a little girl there named Mercy. Eventually, I was able to help not just her but her class in getting school supplies, pencils, workbooks, etc. She and her peers started attending school more often’.
Since then, she’s done her research on the extent of the issue, finding out how difficult it is for girls around the world to have access to education. From there, she came across ‘Because I Am A Girl’ and she’s been donating all proceeds from her poetry sales to the program for the last few years. ‘Last year, readers bought a girl a bicycle to run her own business, and we also sponsored Miriam and her community in Bolivia,’ she states. An inspiring accomplishment, and one that makes me want to strive to do better in my own journey.
I can’t help but marvel at how much Heather does, I feel I have a thing or two (or ten!) to learn from her. When I ask her what’s most important to her, I love what she has to say: ‘Time’. And ‘making sure [she] uses [her] time wisely so that [she] has enough to spend with [her] loved ones’. Pretty ironic, for someone who doesn’t wear a watch and has switched off all notifications on her phone…! Or maybe not so ironic after all, because her ability to ‘lose all sense of time and just be’ is exactly what allows her to live in the moment.
She has a lot going on with her writing, but that’s not what matters most. She’s very clear on what constitutes an emergency and, more importantly, what doesn’t: ‘You or a loved one being in the hospital, that’s an emergency. But if I can’t get a paragraph right, or an ad isn’t making a profit, that’s not an emergency’. When it comes to her work, she’s learnt to trust that, with time, she’ll be able to figure out what’s not working and move on.
She actually finds that when she’s stuck with her writing, it’s often less to do with the writing itself and a lot more about something else bothering her. Her way to deal with that? Rather than pulling her hair out over it, she gives herself time and space: ‘I usually go for an inline skate, or I’ll put on a fast song and I’ll just dance it out. I also like trying a completely different art, like painting a canvas or sketching a cartoon. For some reason, doing another art form gives my writing brain a break, and the next day I’m in the mood to write again’. Another fantastic lesson on how not to lose your mind on your writing journey, I’d say.
Hearing about Heather’s experience makes me reflect on what truly lies at the heart of being a successful writer. Of course, writing skills matter, but I’m starting to feel that it’s a lot more layered than that. It takes hard work, discipline, organisation. It takes a clear vision of where you want to go. It takes compassion and generosity, active steps to give back to others through whatever success you have—big or small.
And, above all, it takes a way of living that focuses on making the most of every moment, of reminding yourself of what matters most and giving your craft the attention and space it needs without making it your everything.
That last one is a lesson Heather’s truly absorbed during the pandemic. That you can make all the plans you want but, if you don’t live in the present, you may wake up one day to find out life’s passed you by. ‘I hope I have many more new mornings to wake up to’ Heather concludes, ‘kiss my husband, feed our cat, make strong coffee, look for the cardinal at the feeder and talk to our squirrel “Friend.” Everything after that for me is largely unplanned. And that’s what makes life so frightening, exciting and beautiful all at once’.
If that’s not the biggest, most precious lesson of all, I don’t know what is.