Drown the Cat: Video Trailer

Are you ready, world?
My new and somewhat contrarian guide to writing craft, Drown the Cat: The Rebel Author’s Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules, releases on July 4, 2017. I chose to release the book on U.S. Independence Day because Drown the Cat is all about empowering writers to take back their freedom by questioning all the so-called “rules of writing”. Check out the awesome one-minute video trailer and turn it up!

If you like the sound of this, the click here to pre-order the Kindle version and have it delivered wirelessly on Independence Day! Print and other retailer links will follow on release date.

Just to whet your appetite, here’s a brief excerpt from the book in which I address what may be the most misunderstood writing rule of all:

Show, Don’t Tell

The show, don’t tell dichotomy is entirely false: all fiction is telling; if it weren’t, it would be called storyshowing. The author is telling you a story, and you, the reader, agree to either play along or not. And given that you’re paying for the privilege, it had better be well-told.

The nonsense spoken on this subject is legion, with the result that writers drive themselves mad, often wasting days of their time trying to dramatize, in onstage action and dialogue, scenes that could be far more effectively and economically handled another way.

Remember when we talked about narrative distance in the interiority chapter, and I pretty much said, “screw pulling back the camera, keep the narrative distance tight”? Well, strong interiority will feel most like showing to the reader, and pulling back so that the reader’s not tight in the PoV character’s head anymore will feel more like telling.

When you read, as any editor does, a lot of newer writers’ novels, you’ll find they’re often puffy, too long by thousands, and sometimes tens of thousands, of words, with stiff, awkward scenes that stand out in contrast to the faster, free-flowing sections.

One major reason for this is that the poor author has had the tyrannical Show, Don’t Tell dictum pounded into their brain by so many writing books and blogs and fellow authors that they’re terrified to summarize in narrative things which don’t need to be dramatized. So they go ahead and build a “live” scene around every particle of information or setting they think the reader may require.

This perceived need to dramatize everything can, among other things, result in pointless scenes where characters talk about things for no reason other than to avoid a narrative passage. The scene isn’t doing anything else, and the characters who were so alive earlier have turned strangely wooden. At its worst, you have the dreaded “As you know, Bob” dialogue, a scene in which characters tell one another things they already ought to know.

Don’t do this. Ditch these scenes mercilessly.

[…] There, now—that didn’t hurt a bit, did it? No need for dialogue or having it all happen onstage, you’d have been bored to distraction. Narrative summary in viewpoint works just fine.

I’ll say it once again. The show, don’t tell dichotomy is entirely false: all fiction is telling.


My sincerest thanks are due to Allison Rose for her spectacular work on the book trailer


 

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Drown the Cat: the Rebel Author’s Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules

I have a nonfiction book coming out this summer from Panverse.

Drown the Cat1 is a somewhat contrarian book on writing, and one that encapsulates my understanding of the craft and my core belief that being true to oneself is the single most important thing any writer or artist needs to do.

Drown the Cat is intended for all writers, especially intermediate-level ones, who already have some grasp of craft but want more. My goal is to help authors transcend formulaic, cookie-cutter fiction. If you want to understand the limitations of all the silly rules and dogma endlessly parroted in writing books and blogs all over the web, this book is for you.

Those who believe — as much of the publishing industry does today — that there’s a template and a formula which can be applied to a novel or screenplay to make it a bestseller, and are okay applying that rigorously to their work rather than trying to be unique and different and true to themselves…well, good luck to them: hell, they might even make money. But that method doesn’t suit me, not one bit. 

My own approach, refined over fifteen years of writing, critiquing, editing, publishing, and mentoring newer authors, is to question all conventional wisdom on the subject. Because, frankly, most of it is bullshit. You do need to know the (few, useful) rules when you begin to write: but in order to become a good writer and produce work that goes beyond the ordinary, you have to see beyond the dogma. You have to put the work and the vision first, and not give a damn about the market. As multiple-Grammy winning Jazz great Branford Marsalis put it,

I don’t care who likes it or buys it. Because if you use that criterion, Mozart would never have written don Giovanni, Charlie Parker would never have played anything but swing music. There comes a point at which you have to stand up and say, this is what I have to do.

My purpose in Drown the Cat is to explore every aspect of the craft from character to critique, tone to theme, suspense to subplot, priming the pump to playing with time. I examine all these and much more from different angles and, occasionally, in greater depth than may be common2. In the process I  intend to raise questions and challenge assumptions at every turn. My point is that if you’re good enough and know what you’re about, you can do just about anything in your book. Literally. What matters is the reader experience: they, not your critique group, agent, or anyone else, are whom you should be writing for. And what readers want is very demonstrably different to what agents, publishers, and many writing book authors and writing bloggers think readers want, or every book published would be a bestseller.

So whether your interest lies in genre or literary fiction, my goal with Drown the Cat is to help you tell your story in your voice and place it before your audience; to bring out your unique vision while adhering to the few rules that actually matter. If my book goes even some small way to achieving that, we’ve succeeded.

Interested? To be informed of the release date and perhaps win a free copy (yes, there will be a free draw!) of Drown the Cat, please click here to sign up to my no-spam, guaranteed-privacy mailing list. You will not be deluged by mail, and only receive at most three or four emails a year.

Thanks, as always, for reading, friends. And please do share or link this post!

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1 For those unfamiliar with the reference, my title, Drown the Cat is a nod to the near-cult book on screenwriting, Save the Cat, which lays down rules and dogma thick as the ash that buried Pompeii. If you want to write a book with all the uniqueness of a supermarket war-porn thriller or a generic Hollywood summer mega-action movie, you’d better buy that instead of my book.

Regular readers of this blog will recognize my approach; indeed, Drown the Cat draws in part from thinking hard on the topic of questioning conventional wisdom, and includes, along with a great deal of entirely fresh content, some material previously published in different form here and elsewhere.

 

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Breaking Writer’s Block

Since I’ve spent most of this year struggling with a difficult-to-write novel, I want to talk a bit about writer’s block.

Let me say right up front that I don’t believe there is such a thing in the sense most people apply the term. I think the popular image of writer’s block—and one that’s shared, unfortunately, by a good many writers—is that the muse has abandoned the author. Even taken as a metaphor, I don’t feel this is a helpful definition. Why? Because it’s disempowering. It makes the writer the victim of a mythical entity with superhuman gifts.

It’s natural for a writer who suddenly can’t make headway to panic. Unfortunately, not only is that likely to result in even greater paralysis and stress, but it’s distracting you from the real issue.

First off, a muse, which I believe is actually the writer’s subconscious, requires work on the part of the writer to nourish1. This work primarily takes the form of sitting down every day at the keyboard, whether or not you feel inspired, and typing something. In addition, the writer needs to be reading, getting out, exchanging ideas, experiencing life, and generally feeding their muse. If you sit around waiting to be inspired, you’re likely to have a very long wait, and any inspiration that does come is likely to be short-lived.

I think the well of creativity can temporarily run dry, especially after a long spell of intense work. If you really believe writing burnout is your problem, worrying isn’t going to help. Better to simply accept that you need to recharge. Go for long walks. Go on a reading binge. Travel. Have a torrid love affair. Try bungee jumping or Go-Kart racing. Or even simply allow yourself time to get bored. Just living and experiencing life will help far more than fretting or obsessing or trying to force something to come.

In my experience, writer’s block, especially with a work-in-progress, is always a signal from the subconscious that something isn’t working, and specifically that I don’t understand some specific aspect of what I’m trying to write. I always look for this first in character and ask myself if I have all my characters squarely in focus, whether I know them all as well as I should. Since I don’t plot much in the abstract but rather let my characters create the plot under pressure from a strong setup, the problem for me is almost always one of character…because if they aren’t moving and acting, the plot stops. If I don’t fully understand their goals and motivations and internal conflict, how can I write the next scene? I want to write about real people, not puppets. Digging deeper and earnestly into character can solve a lot of story issues and unblock you.

It’s also possible that the blocked writer is simply bored with their work. This happens. In this case one answer is to write an exciting scene even if it’s out of sequence: this can often get you engaged and moving again.  It that fails, try rethinking the story altogether and ask yourself if the idea will actually carry a novel, trilogy, etc. To paraphrase Elmore Leonard, leave out the boring bits2. If they bore you, they’re likely to bore your reader too.

On a related note, it’s also worth asking yourself how much you care about the story, whether your heart is really in it. Newer writers in particular may find, on honest reflection, that they’re trying to write something they think will be popular rather than telling a story they really want to tell. You need to have passion about the work for it to really come alive.

Sometimes writer’s block can be a result of the writer’s own growth process. As we start learning our craft, our appreciation and admiration of others’ talents and the realization of how much we don’t know and still have to learn can amplify our self-doubt to the point where it becomes  a paralyzing wall of terror. This is something that makes or breaks writers, a demon that comes with the territory. When one finds oneself at this pass, it’s helpful to remember that every single one of the writers you read and admire also had to learn their craft and overcome these same terrors3. They say it takes a million words to learn your craft, and I believe there’s some truth in that. It’s also good to bear in mind the saying that “it takes ten years to become an overnight success.”

It’s also possible the writer may just be overwhelmed by life. Demands of work, money concerns, domestic discord, caring for aging parents, family illness, all consume time and bandwidth: by the end of the day you’re too fried to do even think, let alone write.

My advice in these cases is the same advice I give writers in every case: write daily, and first thing in the morning, before your head gets filled with junk and other people’s words, and the world begins to pull you every which way. Get up an hour or two earlier if you need to. Find the courage to say no to everything that’s not critical. Ditch TV for sure, go to bed earlier if you need to, and get your social media and online time under control. All these things can be huge time sinks.

I can hear the chorus now: “But how am I supposed to relax?” Nuts. If you want to write badly enough, you’ll push other things aside. Think how much more relaxed you’ll be when that damn novel you’re stuck on is done!

Fear of failure can be a factor, too. Writing is a hard, solitary business. You ask yourself if the possible returns—because, honestly, very few of us will ever make anything like a living off our writing—are worth the effort. Hell, you could be having fun: playing games, watching movies, partying with friends, learning some other skill. Instead, you’re stuck at your desk trying to pile up tens of thousands of words about made-up people which, in the end, nobody may give a damn about. Well, those doubts are real, and we all face them at some point, often more than once. My approach is to face them squarely, stare them down. It’s your decision, nobody else’s. You can choose to go forward or you can stop. So far, I’ve chosen to go forward4.

So how did I break through the obstacles with my own work-in-progress? Time wasn’t the issue in my case. I had that. The problem was a multifaceted one stemming in part from the odd way in which I write, in part from the conceit of the novel. The solution—and it took me months to dismantle, brick by brick, the wall I seemed to have pulled up against—lay in further character work, and pulling apart what seemed like an absolute tangle of character arcs into separate threads. I don’t plot in detail much, but because of the present-day, real-world settings and outrageous premise of the novel, I was forced to do far more intense tracking and actualization of my characters and the situations in which they found themselves than ever before. I set up spreadsheets to track character interactions, and spent more time listing each character’s foibles and peculiarities, down to star signs and unconscious conflicts.

I used Google Street View, too, a favourite tool of mine. Using this amazing tech to walk the streets your characters walk, to see their neighbours’ houses and the locations where bad things happen, can really help get the creative imagination flowing again and spur progress. You have to be in your novel, standing right by each character as you write about them, to forge ahead. When one is stuck, it’s often because—like Timothy Leary—you’re on the outside, looking in.

Even the above wasn’t enough. I had to dig deeper, more than I ever have, to really get to the core of what was the novel was about. The core plot conceit—an engineered coup and the complete collapse of the status quo in a major Western democracy—kept pushing the novel towards being a formulaic, testosterone-fueled yarn about the machinations of people in the halls of power, and the military: I didn’t want that, I wanted a visceral book about real, sympathetic, knowable people. It took that realization, and a concerted effort of will to repeatedly steer the focus back towards a group of ordinary Janes and Joes, people like you and I, faced with the meltdown of pretty much everything they know. I had to not only leave out the boring bits, I had to leave out everything that would prevent this from being my book. That meant sifting through the piled-up garbage and cookie-cutter tropes I’ve absorbed for years and disregarding all the accumulated BS from watching Hollywood and reading bestselers. To hell with Save the Cat. I’m gonna let it drown.

Finally, talk to people you trust. Your wife or husband, fellow writers, your ideal readers. Simply doing that, talking through the problems and fears, can bring fresh insights on what is really causing you to be stuck and help you move through it.

To conclude, then, I believe that writer’s block comes in many forms, and each is eminently capable of a cure. But it takes effort, intelligence, courage, and, most of all, determination to work through them. Writing is mostly about tenacity and will. The only one who can finish the work is you. And though your muse may feel like some fickle, external supernatural being, they’re not: they’re a part of you, the writer.

Writing is hard. But with courage , creativity, and sheer willpower, you can break through any block.

Have you experienced writer’s block? How did you get past it?

Notes

1 Both Stephen King and Damon Knight have written at some length about this

2 The actual quote is, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

3Robert Silverberg, in “Science Fiction 101,” gives a wonderful, detailed account of his own struggle to master his craft

4I strongly disagree with all the writing coaches and bloggers who exhort and badger you to keep writing at all costs: I believe that knowing one has a choice and the freedom to stop if the cost–mental, emotional, or otherwise–becomes such that your life suffers is empowering, and I’m not going to take that away from you. You need to choose to keep writing, not do it to please me or anyone else.

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Print Design and Novel Openings: New Services for Writers

I’m pleased to announce two new services.

PROFESSIONAL PRINT DESIGN & FORMATTING

Starting with your doc or rtf file, I’ll work with you to professionally design and format your manuscript to realize your vision and make your book look the very best it can in the reader’s hands.

While it’s perfectly possible for an author to format their own book for print in MS Word, Scrivener, or other software, there are many areas in which a lack of experience and specialized knowledge will result in a product that looks just average; at worst, the book may end up looking amateurish or even unreadable.

Formatting for print is as much art as it is science. There are many decisions to be made, all of which will impact both the price and appearance of the finished book. Factors such as optimized interior margins, adjusting tracking and other parameters to eliminate widows and orphans, optimum leading, font selection and sizing for chapter titles, body text, page headers and footers, numeration, the choice and use of glyphs for page separators, determining ideal page count and how that impacts price, etc., are all things that strongly affect the finished result.

Drawing on my experience over several years and many book designs, I will design your book using Adobe’s InDesign software—the gold standard for book and magazine layout—and deliver your final file in PDF/X-1a:2001, the format preferred by Ingram, Amazon CreateSpace, and printers everywhere. Initial discussions, professional advice, and three rounds of representative sample pages (usually an entire chapter) are included in my fee. In addition to advising on design, I can also help you decide on front- and backmatter, copyright notices, acknowledgments, ToCs, dedications, and the like.

My fees for an average length novel (80,000-130,000 words) typically range between $300 and $400 depending on wordcount. Books which include several images or require unusual treatment may cost more. To get a firm quotation on your project, simply contact me and we’ll take it from there. I’m of course happy provide a sample of my work.

NOVEL OPENING ANALYSIS 1

Everyone knows that the opening pages of any work are critical. Given a reasonable baseline of quality, most readers will be generous, allowing the author perhaps a few dozen pages before deciding whether the book is for them or not. The reader opening  a book wants to enjoy the work and starts off on the author’s side. Still, small early mistakes can and will often make a reader put the book aside, perhaps for good.

First (aka slush) readers working for agents and publishers are another matter entirely: they’re actively looking for reasons to reject a manuscript so they can find the few diamonds in the mountain of coal that is the slush pile. Having compiled several anthologies and taken hundreds of story and novel submissions myself, I can assure you that any experienced first reader or editor can tell within a few paragraphs, and often just two or three sentences, whether the story is worth their time. The percentage pass rate of queries and submissions is typically in the very low single digits at best.

As an author who also lives on the other side of the editor’s desk, I can help analyze issues and glitches in those critical opening pages to ensure that your reader is hooked through your opening pages. This opening assessment service is similar to my Single Edit Solution (see Services page), but tailored specifically to making the beginning of your novel work.

My fee for this service is $125 for the first 5,000 words (approximately 20 double-spaced manuscript pages). I use Word’s native inline comments and Track Changes tools to mark up your pages; in addition you will receive a written “macro” giving an overview of the opening’s strengths and weaknesses. Simply contact me if this service is of interest to you.

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1 Please note that all writing critique is subjective, and other readers may feel differently. Do not use this service if you’re not comfortable with honest, constructive feedback. Use of this service does not imply or offer any guarantee of future acceptance or sales.

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Affordable Editing for Indie Authors

As indie publishing1 matures, the need for new editing approaches has become apparent, with some freelance editors changing their protocols to accommodate indie authors looking for affordable editing and copyediting.

In traditional publishing, the standard process has always involved several steps, with the ms. (manuscript) being returned to the author for revision and corrections between steps; this is one reason a trad pubbed book takes between a year and two from acceptance to release. These stages are typically:

Edit (general); line edit; copyedit; proofread. There may even be a major developmental edit before the general edit.

Since each of these steps requires a careful and complete read of the ms. as well as annotation, the traditional process quickly becomes expensive: a line or copyedit on a novel will easily take forty to fifty hours or more. It’s therefore obvious that the traditional sequence of editing tasks, costing upwards of $5,000 at a minimum, will be beyond the means of all but a very few indie authors and small presses.

And yet, most indie authors of even moderate experience are aware that the success of their book may well depend on it being properly edited and proofread: the days of just completing a novel and uploading it to Amazon full of errors and inconsistencies are (thankfully) long gone. For those who still do it, their book is likely to get awful reviews, if it gets any, and sink like a stone.

Before discussing solutions, let’s make sure we define our terms, because there’s a lot of confusion on what the various stages of editing are:

  • General Editing. Will address macro issues of the draft ms. like plot and character arcs, poor plot logic, passages and scenes that aren’t working well, stylistic issues, etc.  Sometimes referred to as substantive or developmental editing, a general edit is similar to a critique in that it reviews the ms. as a whole; unlike a critique, this edit provides more specific and detailed recommendations, and offers solutions to the problems identified.
  • Line Editing. A more detailed and intensive edit whose aim is to improve the flow, pacing, polish, and overall readability of the work. Line editing addresses, among much else, dialogue, style, grammar, tense, and syntax issues. Will typically include suggestions and examples for revising and rewording sentences paragraphs that need improvement.
  • Copyediting: The pre-final pass through a ms., copyediting looks at the fine detail, including punctuation, consistency, capitalization, formatting, and anything missed at the line editing stage. The copyeditor is also responsible for fact-checking.
  • Proofreading: strictly limited to checking spelling, punctuation, capitalization, grammar, verb tense, and consistency in formatting. Proofreading is usually the final step before a document goes to print.

That’s the process in traditional publishing, and it’s still the way things are done in the big houses, although even they’re starting to cut corners for new and even some midlist authors whose books aren’t expected to become big hits.

As a freelancer, I’ve worked to come up with a solution that offers the best possible value for the indie author on a tight budget. My goal here is to catch and correct as much as possible on a single pass through the ms. as well as providing some remedy for new errors that might be introduced (it happens) when the author implements some of the suggested fixes turned up by my edit.

I call this one-pass edit the Single Edit Solution, and it comprises full line editing plus copyediting (see definitions above) as well as some limited general editing/developmental guidance where needed; examples of this would be a character behaving inconsistently, logical errors, flat scenes, continuity issues, etc.  In the case of novels, I include a provision for post-edit checking of up to 2,000 words of rewritten material at no additional cost. This last is aimed at solving the problem of new errors being introduced post-edit.

If you’re interested in knowing more, simply drop me a line at dariowriter (at-sign) gmail (dot) com. You can find my rates here, as well as references from current clients.

“I’m delighted at each opportunity to work with Dario Ciriello, who vastly improves my story and writing with every editing pass. He works with warmth and compassion to boot, supporting me as a writer and a person as we puzzle out thorny writing issues that would otherwise be demoralizing to tackle on my own. Dario has edited three of my novels so far, and I look forward to a long-term working relationship together.”

William Hertling, author of the highly-acclaimed 2016 tech thriller “Kill Process” and the hit “Avogadro Corp.” series of SF/tech thrillers.   http://www.williamhertling.com

Notes

1 For this purposes of this article, I’m using the term “indie” to include self-published authors

Check out my guest post, “Breathe! The Copyeditor has your Back” at Fiction University

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Notes From an Alien Shore

A few weeks ago I happened to ask two friends a question that had been on my mind a good deal lately. Both conversations went very much like this (I’ll call the friends “X” for simplicity):

ME: “Do you ever wonder what we are? What we really are?”

X: <Silence/blank stare>

ME: “I mean, think about it. We’re not our bodies, that’s obvious. But we’re not our minds, either, that’s just the organ that does the thinking. A Christian would use the word “soul”, but that just raises more questions, as does the notion that we’re a splinter of some kind of supreme being. So what are we?”

X: Honestly, I try not to think about that sort of thing.

Admittedly, two people is a narrow sample. But that fact that two intelligent, thoughtful friends should give me exact, identical answers really made me think.

I ask myself questions like the one above all the time. Questions of existence, of reality, time and space, life and death, meaning and ethics, good and evil; questions of everything that concerns our existence and what it means to be human…these occupy my thinking for large parts of every day. Metaphysics matters.

I also have a quirk in that I tend to consider everything from basic principles, taking little on trust or as given. So much of what we’re taught or presented with is false, biased, or founded on incomplete and/or sloppy assumptions that anyone interested in investigating the real must go back to the beginning or risk building on sand, or shaky foundations at best.

Moreover, to see reality at its clearest, I believe it’s critical to be free of any and all ideologies, especially political or religious belief. The moment you assume an ideology or a belief system is the moment you stop seeing reality as it is, but begin instead to filter it through the lens of your ideology, to try to make the actual territory of the real match your map. As someone once put it, “we see the world not as it is, but as we are.” So the answer is to just not be as anything—be you, a naked flame of being with no philosophy or ideology. Simply observe and think.

I do this with everything. When I was a decorative painter—a career I pursued with considerable success for twenty-five years—I took no classes but taught myself everything about colour, materials, and technique from scratch. Once I’d mastered the basics, I looked for new ways to achieve certain effects, as well as creating an array of paint effects nobody had ever seen. I mixed most of my own materials rather than buying off-the-shelf. The result was that within a decade or so I’d not only mastered the craft and was in high demand, but the look of my finishes was entirely different to the generic, cookie-cutter “faux painting” that my many competitors were practicing. This gave me a huge edge.

More recently, I’ve taken a similar approach with writing, approaching the craft from the standpoint of what works and gets results, and eschewing the mountains of stupid, fashionable rules and diktats endlessly touted at writers’ workshops and on countless blogs and Twitter feeds. Of course it’s important to know these “rules”, and a small minority of them are useful, even vital; the rest just need to be buried and forgotten.

It always struck me as odd that people talk about reinventing the wheel as though it were a waste of time—nothing could be further from the truth. Sometimes you invent a better wheel; sometimes you come up with something that makes the wheel like as useless as a bag of rocks.

On a related note, we were recently given a bag full of DVDs of new and recent TV shows by an actor friend; apparently these things are passed around to people in the Screen Actors Guild so that they may consider them when dvds2-crop-smvoting for Emmy nominations. The shows include a wide variety of stuff, from The History Channel to offerings from Amazon, from American Crime to Portlandia; the last three episodes of Mad Men are in there, as well as the whole mini-series of Wolf Hall (a historical about Henry VIII, and the only one of any interest to me).

Since I don’t watch any TV at all, the huge majority of these were new to me. After enjoying Wolf Hall, we attempted some of the others, like an episode of Mad Men, and now, American Crime.

In trying to understand what people get out of TV shows like these, I’m thrown back to the gulf I sense when trying to discuss existential truths that concern me deeply only to discover that people I care for and respect would rather just not go there. I feel—and I suspect many writers will share this feeling—as though I’m living among aliens, where I barely grasp the parameters of the society and what makes it tick.

Is it even possible to understand why people behave the way they do without buying in to pop culture? Sometimes when I see people talk (and certainly when they argue), it seems to me that rather than processing and responding with thought and intelligently, they’ve learned to interact with others from TV soaps, and are just throwing out stock phases, learned reactions, mannerisms, expressions, postures. No wonder the world is the mess it is.

Why, for instance, would any sane person want to watch something like “American Crime”, which is so drenched in realism that no shred of escapism or joy is left to the viewer, so that the only possible reaction one is left with is to just end it all now? The question baffles me.

And don’t get me started on reality shows or celebrity chef contests. What possible pleasure anyone can take in watching real people put in often humiliating conflict situations, subjected to extreme stress, and then publicly defeated or even ridiculed, I can’t imagine. The Roman games were at least honest.

Fnally, take a simple predictive Google search. The trending popular searches which flash up as you click in the box are almost invariably to do with celebrities, sports, TV shows, or something so mind-numbingly banal as to leave me shaking my head. It’s glaringly obvious that the overwhelming majority of us aren’t much preoccupied with the mysteries of existence.

I am, it seems, legend. Perhaps I’m not even real.

Are you?

 

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INTERVIEW: Under the Covers with William Hertling

Hertling2012_headshot-200x300William Hertling is the author of Avogadro Corp, A.I. Apocalypse, The Last Firewall, The Turing Exception, and the upcoming Kill Process. These near-term science-fiction novels explore the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI), the coexistence of humans and smart machines, and the impact of social reputation, technological unemployment, and other near-future issues. His novels have been called “frighteningly plausible,” “tremendous,” and “must-read.”

Hertling’s Singularity Series novels have been endorsed by and received wide attention from tech luminaries including Harper Reed (CTO for the Obama Campaign), Ben Huh (CEO Cheezburger), and Chris Anderson (CEO 3DRobotics, former Editor-in-Chief Wired).

His first novel for children, The Case of the Wilted Broccoli, was published in 2014.

 Hertling grew up a digital native in the early days of bulletin board systems. His first experiences with net culture occurred when he wired seven phone lines into the back of his Apple IIe and hosted an online chat system.

 A frequent speaker on the future of technology, science fiction, and indie publishing, Hertling has spoken at SXSW Interactive, Defrag, OryCon, University of Colorado, Willamette Writers Conference, and many other conferences.

DC: Will, thanks so very much for doing this interview. Did you start off wanting to become a writer, or did you stumble into it?

WH: I very much stumbled into it, although, in retrospect, there were a few hints ahead of time. In college I helped write and publish a set of computer manuals. I started blogging in 2003, and also wrote a magazine article that year. In 2007 or 2008, I learned about NaNoWriMo, and started a non-fiction book about the business use of social media. I abandoned that project about 35,000 words in, when I realized just how difficult non-fiction writing is.

Then in 2009 or so, I read two books back to back, Accelerando by Charles Stross and The Future is Near by Ray Kurzweil, that set my mind abuzz with thoughts of the technological singularity, the point where AI exceeds human intelligence. I noticed a gap in science fiction novels: some assumed strong AI existed, and others ignored the singularity entirely, but very few deeply explored the point of emergence and its impact on humanity.

I had the idea for Avogadro Corp over lunch one day, and daydreamed about it for six months. I took the month of December off work and wrote the entire first draft.

DC: Your four-novel Singularity Series, which began in 2011 with Avogadro Corp and concluded last year with The Turing Exception, is a deep dive and a wholly fresh perspective on the so-called technological singularity. The books in this series have sold 75,000 copies and racked up over 1,300 reader reviews with a 4.5-star average, putting you in the front ranks of success for a self-published indie author. How did you crack the tough nut of marketing and reaching visibility in a crowded marketplace?

WH: I reached out to friends and family, letting them know by any means possible that I’d published: email, Facebook, and Twitter. For these people, it was not so much selling them on the strength of the book, but conveying the excitement represented by this milestone in my life. Many people want to be supportive, but don’t know what an author needs, so I asked specifically for people to buy the book, tell friends, and post reviews.

Learning from those early experiences, I refined my website, book description, and how I asked for help. Then I reached out to more distant connections and potential influencers (other bloggers, for example). I created business cards, and handed these out at conferences. At this point I was selling 1-3 copies a day, maybe 150 books in total.

One of the most important elements of my marketing was using very finely tuned Facebook ads to reach fans of niche authors I was similar to in writing style and topic. I experimented with variations of text, images, Facebook targets, pricing, and landing pages until I finally hit on a few mixes that sold books at a profit. These ads sold an extra 5-8 copies a day, and I reached about 500 books in total.

Every success involves elements of luck and timing. But just as you can, for example, maximize the likelihood of meeting a movie star by moving to Los Angeles, you can also increase the odds of serendipity. This early phase of marketing, where you’re trying to push out a few copies a day, is mostly about maximizing the chance of acquiring a reader who is also a significant influencer.

In my case, that significant influencer turned out to be Brad Feld, a well known and highly regarded venture capitalist, who happened upon my book and blogged about it, letting a large number of about it. Soon afterwards, I was selling thousands of copies a month.

Since then I’ve continued marketing through newsletters, blogging, speaking at conferences, and experimenting with occasional ads on Bookbub and elsewhere.

DC: This series is high-intensity, core Science Fiction. It’s highly original, packed to bursting with ideas, and cracks along at a ferocious pace. But despite the series’ huge success, very few SF readers know your work, and most of your readers are people working in the tech sector. Why is that?

WH: I tried several marketing approaches that failed, including sending books to newspapers and soliciting reviews from mainstream science fiction reviewers. Both of these suffer from difficult competition because everyone wants to be reviewed there, so the actual chances of getting reviewed are quite low. Even if you do manage the occasional review, readers of the publication are inundated with daily book recommendations, so few purchase any given book.

When Brad Feld wrote about my novel, which led to other venture capitalists, CTOs, and CEOs of tech startups reading and talking about the book, I asked myself what these people had in common. It took a solid month of deep thinking before I realized the common thread was a deep interest in technology, especially where tech in going in the future.

So although my books are science fiction, and even more specifically science fiction about AI, I think of them really as exploring the theme of future technology’s impact on people and culture, whether that is AI or anything else. Once I had this realization, it helped me solidify my marketing. For example, I reached out to Brad Feld and offered him a guest post on my techniques to predict the future. The result, How to Predict the Future1, reached hundreds of thousands of people, and was the number one Google search result for that term for quite a while.

By focusing my marketing around on the themes of my writing, rather than the genre or specific topic, I’m tapping into a very different conduit to reach readers. That my book happens to be science fiction is somewhat besides the point –conceivably I could write about the same themes in a non-fiction book, and my readers would still be interested. In addition, since the influencers in this group aren’t out there recommending books every day of the week like a book review blog does, when they do make a book recommendation, it stands out, and more people buy it.

DC: A year ago, a number of leading figures in the tech and scientific community, including Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, publicly sounded alarm bells over the rush to develop strong AI, and suggested that we might be building something more dangerous than nuclear weapons. Where do you stand on this?

WH: The potential for danger is definitely there, although Terminator-like doomsday scenarios are at the bottom of my worry list.

At the top of my concerns is that AI becomes increasingly in control of the infrastructure of the planet, such that the impact of a widespread technology failure becomes much more significant. As time goes by, civilization becomes more technology dependent. For example, we can’t maintain the current standard of living for the current population based on 1950s technology, because the older technology is not efficient enough. Project twenty years into the future: if we’re dependent on AI to manage all our infrastructure to maintain a given standard of living for the population, and then we have a catastrophic failure of AI for whatever reason, we’ll be plummeted into darkness – quite literally.

Also worrisome is the scenario where AI becomes vastly more intelligent than us and decides the best way to keep us in check is to manipulate us. We’re already so vulnerable to manipulation by the media. Imagine how much more vulnerable we’d be if every communication is AI-mediated and altered. Look at Facebook’s experiment of how altering what stories were in a person’s feed affected their happiness. Very subtle stuff leads to significant impacts.

At the same time, there is potential for greatness from AI. The promise of nanobots for human health and longevity, custom DNA tweaks, and many other ultra-high-tech promises, including greater resource and energy efficiency leading to a sustainably-managed planet, are much more likely to be developed if we have strong AI here to assist us. So we can’t turn our backs on it either.

The problem is that, unlike nuclear weapons which we’ve succeeded in restricting to governments, strong AI will be accessible to anyone. Even if 99% of AI use is beneficial, it will take only one disgruntled hacker operating in their basement to build a malevolent AI. Look at the recent Microsoft AI chatbot that was unleased, where, within 24 hours, the community had managed to get it to spout racist propaganda supporting Donald Trump and Hitler.

DC: In your first, amazingly prescient book, begun in 2009, you posit the accidental emergence of strong AI from a language optimization program called ELOPe which was created to improve email. In the last few months, both Google and now FoxType have launched software to help users optimize their email. Given the current state of AI research and the hardware available and under development, do you believe strong, self-bootstrapping AI is a real possibility in, oh, the next decade, or even at all?

WH: I think it’s possible, although not particularly likely in the next ten years. Ray Kurzweil is well-known for his projections of when we’ll see AI which compare the processing power available in computer chips with the power necessary to simulate the complexity of the human brain.

I used his calculations as a starting point, and did my own comparing a wider range of input values. What I found is a variety of scenarios that depend on three key dimensions.

One dimension is complexity of the human brain. At one end of the spectrum is the assumption we can implement intelligence more efficiently than nature, and at the other end of the spectrum, that we can’t understand intelligence at all, but rely on brute force simulation of nerve cells. My perspective is that we’re not going to be more efficient than nature, at least, at first, so we’re looking at the more complex, brute force scenario.

The second dimension is processing power. One end of the processing power spectrum concerns itself with what an individual has available to them in their home, while the other end of the spectrum takes advantage of massive parallel computing power available at organizations with Google-like resources.

Finally, you have the dimension of time, and the increasing processing power available to us as chips get faster. (Aside: For those concerned about the end of Moore’s law, do a quick calculation of the total personal computing power an individual has, rather than that residing in a single processor chip, and you’ll notice the total is still increasing on the same curve it was before. It’s just distributed among more devices now.)

Plotting these three values, and looking at the extremes, we end up with an Avogadro Corp-like scenario around 2015, where all the computing resources of a big company are brought to bear on a single AI, and at the other end, a hobbyist implementing an AI around 2045 on the computing power available to them personally. I wrote an essay for IEEE several years ago about why I think widespread involvement tends to accelerate technological progress2, like it did for recommendation engines with the Netflix Prize, so I’m again biased toward seeing faster AI development when the necessary computing power becomes available to the common person.

In sum, my two biases (believing we are unlikely to be more efficient than nature, and we need widespread involvement) make me think we’ll see the first true, strong general purpose AI sometime after 2030, but certainly by 2045.

DC: Your Singularity Series looks hard at the challenges of having biological humans and transhuman AI sharing a planet. If we arrive at strong AI by building machines that think and explore ideas and refine outcomes in the organic way humans do, using neural net and deep learning approaches as opposed to simple, linear software, do you think it inevitable that AI notions of ethics and morality will range across the spectrum from “good” to “evil”, just like our own? Or are we anthropomorphizing?

WH: If AI has free will and the ability to affect the world, it must embody some concept of ethical behavior. Even no consideration for ethical behavior is a form of ethics.

The trolley problem3 is a classical thought experiment in ethics. Pose the problem to different people, and you get different answers to what is the “right” behavior. There are hundreds of variations on that one problem alone, each representing more nuanced ethical considerations. And that’s an exercise in ethics that doesn’t take into account the messiness of real life.

You can look at the current state of American politics to see that two groups, each behaving ethically according to their own standards, thinks the other group is not merely unethical, but actually evil.

Since we humans have no one definition of ethical behavior, we certainly can’t expect AI to behave according to some absolute scale. Whatever ethics are designed into the AI by their human creators, we can be sure that some people will consider them good and some evil.

On the other hand, over time, AI may converge on a single definition of ethical behavior over time more readily than humans do, because I suspect they are more likely to rely on utilitarianism as a guiding principle.

DC: So, blue pill or red pill?

WH: Oh, red pill definitely. I can’t tolerate the notion of having reality hidden from me. One of the most terrifying scenes I’ve ever read in science fiction was from The Unincorporated Man, in which you get to see what happens when the entire human race takes the blue pill. I still have concerns over what happens when fully realistic, immersive virtual reality is created.

DC: When I was a teen, back in the late sixties and early seventies, it was widely predicted that increasing automation would quickly bring about a “leisure revolution”, and there was a great deal of concern about how people would adapt to working much less and having lots of free time. Of course, nothing remotely like that has happened and we’re all working much harder and seem to have far less leisure time than ever. What went wrong?

WH: As someone who is juggling parenthood, a day job in tech, and writing, it’s a little hard to get perspective on this question. I work hard partly because I must, and partly because I enjoy what I do. Leaving my personal situation aside, I think there are two trends that together create the current environment. One caveat: My answer is probably very US centric.

First, we have the rich taking a larger and larger percentage of the pie. For the majority of people, there’s no option but to work harder and longer because they aren’t getting paid a living wage for the work they’re doing.

Second, we have a higher standard of living including basic expectations that didn’t exist in any form in the sixties and seventies. We didn’t have cable, computers, or Internet, eating out regularly, prepared foods, or even one car per household, let alone person.

The default behavior for most people is to want it all, both materially and experientially, which crowds out any opportunity for true leisure.

On the other hand, I’ve seen people turn their back on our modern, consumer-oriented, entertainment-focused culture and live a much more basic lifestyle, and by doing so, they’re able to work part-time or live off savings. This voluntary simplicity requires a conscious, ongoing choice in a society that encourages consumption. It should be noted that this choice is a privilege of those making at least a reasonable income, although I’ve seen people at all levels of income, including part-time, minimal wage workers, make decisions that prioritize financial independence over more stuff.

In sum, I’d say the majority of people tend to prioritize material acquisitions and buying leisure experiences, like eating out, over actual leisure, like enjoying a home cooked meal with friends. Still, this choice is a privilege afforded to increasingly fewer people because of the ever greater diversion of wealth to the ultra-rich.

DC: As well as having three young children, you work fulltime in the tech industry and are a productive and successful author. What do you do for leisure, Will?

WH: Every writer juggles at least two different roles: the creative side of the house where they write new material, and the business side of the house, which is interrupt and deadline driven. Indie authors spend even more time taking care of the publishing side of things. One of the worst feelings is when I have a precious day free to for creative writing, and I end up burning it all taking care of overdue business tasks.

So doing the actual creative writing is one of the things that feels most like leisure to me, because I get so much enjoyment from it.

I’m also fairly delighted to be able to take a walk while listening to music, whether that’s an urban exploration or a nature hike. I also love connecting with the writing community in Portland in person. We have so many interesting people on all different stages in their writing careers with different objectives. It’s fun to get to know folks and celebrate their victories with them.

Other interests are on temporary hiatus, probably until I’m able to leave my day job. Some of these are live music, RC planes, and more involved video games. I’d also love to play with robotics.

DC: Are you a gamer? If so, which games do you enjoy?

WH: On and off. It depends on where I am in my writing, and how much else I have going on.

My favorite game of the last few years is Kerbal Space Program, which an insanely epic space simulation in which you get to build rockets and explore the solar system. I play in creative mode, set different missions for myself, and have just one rule: No Kerbal left behind. One specific Kerbal that’s my favorite has visited every body in the solar system.

I play with a life support mod that means the Kerbals will die if I don’t replenish their air, food, and water. I found myself playing what amounted to my own version of The Martian when a mission to Eve went awry, and rescue mission after rescue mission failed or led to more problems. Two Kerbals “volunteered” to leave the ship and walk off into the distance so as to leave enough life support supplies for the last Kerbal to live. I post journal entries to an online writing community that read like fan fiction short stories.

 DC: What do you read? Any favourite authors?

WH: Cory Doctorow is my favorite author by far, and there’s no greater delight than getting to read one of his new novels. I read mostly science fiction, although I also have a sweet spot for thrillers like the John Rain novels by Barry Eisler. I reread the classics of 1980s cyberpunk frequently. One of my favorite books of that era that’s often overlooked is Walter Jon Williams’s Hardwired which has left me with visions of armored hovercars for decades.

Reading is unfortunately one of those things that’s taken a hit due to the time I spend writing, and probably also due to time spent on the Internet. I read some research a while back that demonstrated we train our mind to a certain length attention span. By doing so much short-form interaction on the web, we’re reinforcing the pattern of paying attention for shorter and shorter periods of time. This makes it really hard to sit down and read a novel.

One of my goals for 2016 is to spend more time reading. I just finished The Handmaid’s Tale by Maragaret Atwood, which is a very powerful, devastating novel. In light of the current Presidential candidates, I found it terrifying to read. Right now I’m reading Flatland.

DC: Tell us a little about The Case of the Wilted Broccoli.

WH: My kids begged me to write something they could read. As a kid, I had a particular fondness for detective novels like The Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown. I especially enjoyed novels in which the kids did everything and adults played only a minor role. So I knew these would all be elements of whatever I would write.

Then, a few years ago, the third element hit me when I was at my first Cory Doctorow appearance. Although adults probably form the bulk of his readers, Cory gears his books towards teen readers as well, and every one of his novels is an education on principles of technology, government, privacy, and power. At the event, there were several young teenagers in attendance, and several asked questions during the Q&A after his talk. It was really moving to see these people who had clearly been affected by his writing.

That made me realize that if I was going to write a novel for kids, I wanted technology to feature prominently in it, and the kids fully empowered as technology creators, not just users. So a subplot woven throughout is around the school science fair, and the kids use their project, a homebuilt drone to help solve a mystery.

DC: And your favourite food or meal is…?

WH: I’m especially fond of izakaya, which is Japanese bar food. I tend to put whatever food or drinks I’m passionate about at the time into my writing. If I happen to revisit an older book I wrote, it’s fun to remember oh yeah, this was when I was having a martini phase, or here’s where I started drinking whiskey.

DC: Although—or perhaps because—you work in tech, some events in your series, especially in book IV, The Turing Exception, suggest strong sympathies, even a yearning, for a simpler, back-to-the-land, communitarian lifestyle. Would you like to live in a simpler world?

WH: Around the turn of the millennium, I had an intense interest in environmentalism, especially the role of individual choice in our lifestyles, which was partly motivated by a series of fantastic discussion courses from the Northwest Earth Institute4. I was mostly vegan for a while, sold my car, reduced the amount of technology around me, and spent a lot of time with people looking for an escape from consumerism. I had several brief but amazing encounters with intentional communities.

Although I’m very attracted to all of that, I also can’t ignore the part of me that’s passionate about technology, the web, and online communities. At first glance, it’s difficult to embrace both perspectives. Many in the voluntary simplicity and intentional community movements want to minimize the role of technology in their lives, while many in the tech community embrace it whole-heartedly without any thought of what makes sense to bring into their lives.

I’d love to figure out the middle ground. I don’t think simplicity has to mean living in a cabin in the woods, although I see the appeal of that. It can mean being selective about what we choose to have in our lives.

Another possible model of embracing both comes from one of my favorite people, Gifford Pinchot III, who is a cofounder of Pinchot University, a sustainable business MBA program. When I first met him I noticed he had no leisure time whatsoever and worked every minute of the day. I asked him how he sustained that pace. His answer was that he worked very hard for ten months a year, and then spent two months a year living off-the-grid on a nature preserve in Canada, chopping wood, hiking, and drumming.

DC: How do we get there from here?

WH: I’m not sure. I have some hints of things I suspect are important.

Everyone needs some exposure to voluntary simplicity or intentional community. Even if they ultimately choose not to live that lifestyle, just being aware of it as an option, and having a vocabulary to be able to talk about it is important. Most people don’t even know that they have, by default, taken the blue pill. They’re in the matrix as defined by popular culture.

We also need to show up to anything we do as our full, authentic selves. Too often we go to work, where we spend the majority of our functional hours with other people, and we only permit ourselves to engage on a very superficial, very safe level. Which means we end up spending most of our lives having very superficial and safe conversations.

But you don’t get any meaningful change or connection at that level. You have to be willing to be vulnerable, to show when you are afraid, to risk crying with someone or hugging them. One of the biggest travesties is the way work culture, by keeping everything “safe,” robs us of the opportunity for deep connection and meaningful engagement. I’d like to see people steal that back. We have to risk being hurt to also experience joy and love.

Tim Ferriss says many people keep themselves busy because they’re afraid of what happens if they suddenly have free time. They’re afraid of asking themselves if their life has meaning, if they know what they want to do with their lives, if they have the quality of relationships they want to have. It’s easier by far to stay busy and avoid those questions, and by all means, avoid making changes, which are scary.

Conversely, the more accustomed we become to addressing those issues, the less we fear them, because we eventually learn that usually things work out okay and we develop better skills for adapting to change. Then, from a place of less fear and greater competency, we can help the people around us go through their own life journeys.

You asked how we get to a life of greater simplicity, and my answer is we should all get to the life we want to live, whether that is simple or not, so long as we have the opportunity to be ourselves, to have meaningful relationships, and to do the important things we want to do in the world. Simplicity is one way to approach that, but it may not be for everyone.

DC: You’ve just completed a new novel, Kill Process, a tech thriller with a female protagonist, due to release in the coming months; I’ve read it, and it totally rocks. Can you talk about it a little to whet readers’ appetites?

WH: Angie Benenati, formerly a teenage computer hacker in the 1980s, is now a data analyst for the world’s largest social media company, Tomo. Struggling to cope with the aftermath of an abusive relationship she escaped five years earlier, she uses her access to everyone’s data to profile domestic abusers and kill the worst of them to free their victims.

This uneasy status quo is disrupted when she realizes that Tomo is, in effect, holding users’ social relationships hostage while systematically violating their privacy and control over their own data. Seeing too many parallels to the world of domestic violence, Angie decides she must eliminate Tomo by creating a new social network that ensures such a one-sided power dynamic can never occur again.

It’s a contemporary thriller with a blend of the startup world and computer hacking exploring themes of data privacy and ownership. The themes I explore stem from my interest in where power resides between people and companies, especially when the companies involved mediate our interpersonal relationships.

DC: Will, thanks so much. You’ve been a great guest and I really appreciate you taking this time with us. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

WH: It’s been a pleasure for me, as well. Thanks so much. For anyone who has enjoyed any of what I’ve said, please check out my books or sign up for my monthly mailing list, especially if you’d like to find out when Kill Process is available.

 

Notes

1 How to Predict the Future

2 Why I think widespread involvement tends to accelerate technological progress (IEEE essay)

3 The trolley problem

4 Northwest Earth Institute

 

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