Professor David Cunningham taught in 2021 as an adjunct at Regent University and currently works as a producer, writer, and voice actor for the Christian Broadcasting Network. A born adventurer from South Carolina who enjoys paragliding, kayaking, and exploring with his wife and sons, Cunningham loves to express himself in a variety of creative mediums. He was a co-creator, writer, and voice actor for the animated series Superbook and GizmoGO!, and just recently published his first novel, Marco Swift and the Mirror of Souls.
A mesmerizing fantasy story aimed at middle-school readers, Marco Swift and the Mirror of Souls focuses on a young protagonist who embarks on a desperate quest through a strange magical world to save his mother. In a recent interview, Cunningham gave an exclusive inside glimpse into his personal life, his book, and his storytelling experience.
Q: What is Marco Swift and the Mirror of Souls about?
A: “Marco Swift and the Mirror of Souls is about a boy dealing with the death of his father and his mother’s subsequent fall into severe depression. It’s about the guilt that many children feel when bad things happen to their family that are out of their control. It’s that feeling that it’s your fault somehow; that somehow you should have been able to do something. When Marco is offered the chance to save his mother he knows he has to take it, no matter how crazy or dangerous. This leads him down a dark and dangerous path that he is unprepared for. Eventually, he learns what really happened to his father the night he died and what’s behind the darkness surrounding his family.”
Q: Is there a specific message or meaning in this story?
A: “There is definitely a message in the story, though I don’t like stating exactly what I intended because the reader may find something different. I’m not a big believer in making sure that other people understand my art. I think that’s one area that Christians are way too concerned about. Now, I am not an abstract artist either; I like clear and well told stories. However, when we focus too much on making the message the important part so no one misinterprets us, it dilutes the story and the impact it can have on the reader. I’ve read many stories where I got a different message than others… I will say that one of the common themes in the story is forgiveness and reconciliation. I’ll leave it at that.”
Q: What was your primary motivation or inspiration for writing this book? What did you hope to accomplish with it, and do you feel like you succeeded?
A: “My primary motivation was to tell a story that was true, good, and beautiful… and a crazy adventure that my 10 year old self would have liked to go on. I was inspired by many great writers: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Brandon Sanderson, George MacDonald, and Robert Jordan… not in any particular order. I wanted to tell a story that dealt with a lot of the feelings I had as a kid and I think many kids go through. I hoped to finish it, and I did. So I suppose that makes me successful in that regard.”
Q: What were the biggest things you learned during the writing process?
A: “Well, I started writing this story in May of 2015, and 6 years later, after working on it most days of the week (sometimes just 10 minutes though) I finished. My final manuscript landed at 71,000 words – and by no accident either. This is a common length for Middle-Grade fantasy novels. However, over the course of writing this one book, I wrote and rewrote close to 1,000,000 words in over a dozen drafts. I learned that if I want to write a quality story that people actually enjoy, it’s a LOT of work. I also learned that writing is a learned skill. If you work at it, like exercising, you will get better. If you don’t, you’ll slowly lose it. I learned that it is very difficult to get the pictures in my head on the page – takes a lot of practice, re-writing, and study.
The easiest part of writing a story, for me at least, is the exploration phase, where you sit down and just pound on the keys, discovering the story as you go. And the hardest part is reading your garbage work that you just wrote (that was so exciting in the moment) and realizing you have to re-write it again, and again, and again, and again, until it’s great. I will say that as I continued to write and rewrite, and cut, and start over, I got better and eventually I could write a scene that was relatively decent in the first go, if I had it planned out.”
Q: Any advice for aspiring writers, especially those interested in similar fiction for younger readers?
A: “Write because you love it. Don’t expect anything – like getting rich or famous. If you’re doing it for that, just stop now. Write consistently, read great writing, listen to smart people, and actively seek feedback and then listen to it with humility and a desire to grow. I’ve heard that some writers are plotters and others just write without a plan. I would highly advise plotting and learning story structure. Getting the structure correct is 80% of the work. You can still do the fun exploration in the outline and when you do that, you’re only revising 10-20 pages, not 200. You will still need to revise the full manuscript several times, but getting the structure correct will save you a ton of work.
If you want to write fiction there are several great resources for free just search for them – one such resource is Brandon Sanderson, [who] posts his writing fantasy fiction class every year from BYU on YouTube. This is a full 15 week class for free from an incredibly talented writer. Some book recommendations: How to Self-Publish and Market a Children’s Book by Karen Inglis, The Magic Words by Cheryl Klein, The Story Solution by Eric Edson, Structuring Your Novel by K. M. Weiland, Story by Robert McKee, and How To Think When You Write by the Etherington Brothers.”
Q: Any advice on getting published?
A: “I spent over 1 year in my writing journey querying 122 agents. I got 121 rejections with little to no explanation and 1 request for a full read that ended in, ‘This isn’t what we’re looking for…’ What I discovered from their feedback is that my writing is ‘excellent’ but it will never get published with a big publisher, because the industry is extremely political and biased. If you write a story that fits [publishers’] political or cultural agenda you might have a shot – provided you are the right ‘person.’
So, should you query? Absolutely! Because you never know what can happen or who you might find. But also remember that most agents accept less than 1% of manuscripts submitted to them. Several agents I queried said that they get between 3,000 – 5,000 manuscripts annually and only pick 3 or 4.
If you self-publish, do not pay anyone to ‘publish’ your book for you. There are a lot of these publishers, and they are mostly scams. Read the above book by Karen Inglis if you are going to self-publish, and join Facebook self-publishing writing groups.”
Looking back on the long and arduous process of authoring his first novel, Professor Cunningham wishes that he had focused primarily on proper structure in his writing, and prioritizing quality writing over speed. However, he admits that he learned much from his past writing mistakes and “wouldn’t replace them for anything.” Persevering through the painstaking writing process of editing and rewriting proved to be invaluable to Professor Cunningham as he consistently improved his writing skills. Interested in Professor Cunningham’s book? Check out the new Kindle e-book on Amazon for this resounding dive into fantasy!