Category Archives: Writing

William Hertling’s New Technothriller “Kill Switch” – Where Social Media, Freedom, Privacy, and BDSM Collide

William Hertling is the author of the award-winning novels Avogadro Corp, A.I. Apocalypse, The Last Firewall, and The Turing Exception. These near-term science-fiction novels explore the emergence of artificial intelligence, coexistence of humans and smart machines, and the impact of social reputation, technological unemployment, and other near-future issues. His last novel, Kill Process, is a technothriller about data ownership, privacy, and trust. Hertling’s novels have been called “frighteningly plausible,” “tremendous,” and “must read.” His newest thriller, Kill Switch, the sequel to Kill Process, has just been published.

I first encountered Will’s work back in 2009 when Avogadro Corp, then a novella, surfaced in my slushpile. I’d just founded Panverse Publishing and was accepting submissions for my first Science Fiction novella anthology, Panverse One. The premise — the spontaneous emergence of strong AI (aka “Technological Singularity”) from software intended to read and optimize replies to emails — was clever and convincing, and also very prescient if we look at what Google started doing some years later. But the author’s writing was rudimentary, entirely lacking in the sort of setting detail that brings fiction to life.

I was piqued enough by the idea that instead of a form rejection, I sent Will a brief email telling him that I loved the idea but the story lacked any sense of place, and felt it was taking place in a white room. I also suggested he consider expanding it into a novel.

Will not only took notice of my suggestions, but enrolled in an eight-week writing workshop to improve his craft. Three months and many revisions later, Avogadro Corp was a full-length novel.

In the years since, Will and I have become good friends, and I’m honored to work and consult with him as his developmental and copy editor. The ambitious novella I rejected has evolved into a quadrilogy, with books sold nudging the 100,000 mark, a breathtaking achievement for any author, let alone an indie, and William Hertling has become one of the best authors in the tech thriller genre. His just-released work, Kill Switch, is a tour-de-force which takes the reader on a thrilling, unexpected, and unique ride.

DC: Will, welcome, and thanks for letting me interview you.

Kill Process, the first book of this duology, was a thrilling exploration of corporate abuse of freedom and privacy. Your new novel, Kill Switch, is a compelling thriller which centers on the same broad themes of privacy and freedom but makes them deeply personal. Igloo, the main protagonist of Kill Switch, is a lesbian who practices consensual kink and BDSM with her partner, and together they decide to open their relationship to include others, a practice known as polyamory. This novel draws strong and clear parallels between Igloo’s chosen lifestyle and the far more visible issues of data privacy and an open internet. What prompted you to explore the connections between these seemingly separate worlds?

WH: I’ve always been interested in the exploration of power, especially manipulative power. This was true starting from my very first novel, Avogadro Corp, about a super-intelligent AI manipulating people by modifying their communications. And it’s been a theme of every book since, including Kill Process, which dealt with domestic abuse. One of the things that’s fascinating about the BDSM community is that they have made a practice of studying and practicing power exchange in a way that most of us encounter only rarely, and even then without conscious awareness of what is happening. I wanted to be able to tap into that collective wisdom.

At the same time, the BDSM community and polyamory community (and there is some overlap between those two) have been greatly stigmatized. As a result, all of the issues around privacy and identity and data ownership are far more keenly felt by these people than ordinary people. People can and do lose their jobs, family, and friends over exposure. It’s hard to imagine greater sensitivity to privacy. In my research, I frequently saw people taking extreme steps, akin to what Igloo and Angie do for operational security, to maintain the security and confidentiality of their own personal data.

DC: There’s a strong sense in this novel that the practice of consensual BDSM is still, for many people, a misunderstood and closeted lifestyle. Given the huge mainstream success of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey a full seven years ago, why do you think this is still the case?

WH: There are a few reasons. First, the LGBTQ community has been pushing for acceptance in many forms for a long time, but the movement around coming out, to help reduce isolation and increase LGBTQ visibility and pride dates back to the 1980s. That’s thirty plus years of work on acceptance, and there’s still a gap compared to heteronormative standards. Seven years to make inroads into BDSM acceptance is a small blip by comparison.

Also consider the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (commonly known as DSM), Homosexuality was removed as a disorder in 1987. By comparison, BDSM wasn’t removed from the DSM until 2013. That means that up until this decade, the majority of mental health professionals were still treating BDSM as a mental health issue.

Secondly, Fifty Shades and similar material is focused primarily in titillating the reader. At best, it might help people bond over the fantasy of BDSM, but it does nothing to promote the acceptance or normalization of real-life BDSM practices.

Thirdly, even with the long struggle of the LGBTQ community for acceptance, homosexual romantic love still looks essentially like love: people often couple up, they marry, they eat breakfast together, they kiss, they make love, they walk the dog together. They do all the normal things that any couple does. I think this is part of the reason why children don’t think twice about homosexual couples. I don’t mean to take away from the uniqueness of an LGBTQ experience — I’m sure there are many nuances that are different — but the basic relationship framework is more or less the same as what you’d find in a heterosexual relationship.

By comparison, a BDSM relationship is very different and especially looks very different from the outside. Bondage, dominance and submission, sadomasochism, the rituals of BDSM — these are not found in most romantic relationships. From the outside, the naive observer might confuse what they’re seeing with some form of abuse. The road to destigmatization of kink requires much more education.

DC: That’s something I found fascinating about your novel. The BDSM relationships portrayed in Kill Switch are loving, nurturing, and playful. This is very different to the widespread image of BDSM as a brutal and perverse practice, a perception which I believe began with De Sade, was reinforced by the sensational 1960s book The Velvet Underground, and lingers today even after the success of Fifty Shades. Where’s the truth here?

WH: Relationships of all kinds, not just kinky ones, come in a broad spectrum, ranging healthy to unhealthy. At one end of the spectrum, people in a relationship enhance each other’s lives, encouraging them to flourish, and to be healthier and happier than they could be on their own. This is loving and nurturing. At the other end of the spectrum, people in a relationship can do real mental and physical harm to each other. This is brutal and perverse.

BDSM relationships are no different. BDSM itself does not make a relationship healthy or not. It’s the mental and emotional health and skills of the people who are in the relationship that dictate the health of the relationship.

Healthy BDSM relationships are characterized by a great deal of communication, including especially the identification of each person’s needs and the explicit goal of meeting each person’s needs directly or by setting up the underlying conditions to allow them to meet their needs themselves.

In particular, BDSM relationships are very playful. In fact, kinky people call the very essence of what they do playing. (To be clear, people who take a 24/7 or lifestyle approach to BDSM also do activities that fall outside the realm of play, but even these folks also have designated playtime.) How many non-kinky folks specifically make play a core part of their relationship?

DC: I know this book took you over two years to write. Reconciling such apparently disparate plot elements as privacy, a free internet, and sexual lifestyle choices — which you succeed in doing brilliantly, by the way — must have been difficult, even for an author with five previous novels under his belt. Were there times when you thought you couldn’t pull off it off? Any aha! moments you’d like to share?

WH: Oy. I’m still not sure I pulled it off. I see the connections between all the themes, but I worry about whether others will. With this book, more than any other, I still felt like there was so much more to say. For example, I wanted to convey the intersectionality of what it means to be poly and kinky and queer and a woman working in tech, but I didn’t manage to capture that on the page. And I have never felt like a greater imposter than when trying to write a scene with two women having sex. Keeping the balance between tech and relationships and kink was also a juggling act. In order to keep the book from growing without bound, I had to focus the tech a little more narrowly then I usually do. I kept the core elements of the primary tech plotline (creating a new distributed, secure Internet architecture), but I had to keep the secondary tech plot aspects (such as hacking and surveillance technology) lighter than usual to make room for additional topics.

DC: Today, privacy and a free Internet seem to be lost causes. With an entire generation with little expectation of privacy or the sense of personal freedoms which anyone over, perhaps, thirty-five grew up with now coming to maturity, do you think we have any hope of ever regaining either?

WH: Let me answer with a little anecdote.

Recently I had a really rough week. I’d broken up with my primary partner a month earlier, and was still grieving. I was home sick with a really bad cold, and because I was sick, I’d had to cancel a number of fun activities I had planned. I spent the better part of two days in bed fighting off this cold and feeling miserable.

I spent a good portion of that time chatting online and texting with a number of good friends all throughout the two days.

In the evening of the second day, a friend came by to borrow something. We spent less than an hour talking together in person. We didn’t discuss anything substantial — we just chatted about everything and nothing.

When he left, I felt much happier than when he arrived — in fact, much happier than I’d felt anytime during the previous two days. At that moment, I realized that forty-five minutes talking to someone in person had done far more for my emotional well-being than hours and hours of chatting with people online.

It was a very visceral reminder that social media and online communication is not improving our lives. We all know this. We all feel this. Real life, in-person interactions is what we’re evolved for. That’s what we need emotionally and physically.

The purpose of online tools should not become how we interact with each other, but they should instead be the minimal tools we need for planning and creating the real-life, in-person shared experiences that actually bring us true joy and happiness.

This anecdote makes me think about the Great Horse Manure Crisis, in which it was predicted that due to population growth, New York City would be buried under horse manure. They didn’t anticipate (and couldn’t have) that the invention of the automobile would challenge all of their assumptions.

Let’s come back to your question about privacy and a free Internet feeling like a lost cause. If our assumption is that our current trends in technology continue unabated, then yes, maybe privacy and a free Internet are gone. But what if the role of technology in our lives is dramatically different in ten or fifteen years? What if, like the horse manure crisis, we’re worrying about things that will be completely changed in the near future? Perhaps privacy and a free Internet will be meaningful again.

DC: As a professional programmer, Web strategist, and futurist, you’re uniquely qualified to consider the future of the Internet and the way it’s reshaped, and continues to transform, our society, thinking, and behaviour. Privacy and freedom issues aside, those of us old enough to remember the golden days of the Internet, back in the early to mid ’90s, hate that it’s become something largely indistinguishable from television. Today, the only thing resembling the freedom from advertising, tracking, and lack of corporate dominance of that early Internet is the darknet. But most users, even if they’ve heard of it, either don’t know how to access it or see it — with some justification — as a seedy underworld of illegal drug markets and hackers to be avoided. Is it time for a third net to be created? Is that even a possibility?

WH: One of the great inspirations for both Kill Process and Kill Switch is IndieWeb, the movement toward a more independent and self-owned internet. It’s a people-focused alternative to the corporate-owned web. IndieWeb is a collection of people, processes, and tools, all working together to give people control of their online presence, and the ownership of their own personal data. The darkweb is interesting from a privacy and security perspective, and it is a way to get free of the current mass government surveillance. But over the long run, I think it’s IndieWeb that is the more relevant option. Tapestry, the social network I describe in both books, is essentially what the IndieWeb would look like over the long run if it was created and funded by a truly benevolent corporate entity. But the actual IndieWeb is in many ways even more interesting because it’s being created by a loose coalition of individuals without any single leader or benevolent dictator. Anyone who wants to contribute can. Like most open source projects, they can benefit from developers, designers, writers, social media influencers. They’re building this third web right now.

That being said, IndieWeb talks about there being four generations of potential users. The first generation consists of developers, because it’s technically challenging to install and use the IndieWeb tools. The second generation consists of journalists and bloggers — people who have a considerable stakeholding in their online presence, and who are willing to invest the time and energy to benefit from IndieWeb. The third generation are people who currently run their own websites and blogs on their own personal domains. These are people who are invested enough to make those kinds of technical decisions and investments. And it’s not until we get to the fourth generation of IndieWeb users that we get to the vast bulk of people out there: users of social media like Facebook and Twitter and Instagram.

IndieWeb is currently focused on gen 1 and gen 2 users. It won’t be until the tools mature enough to be accessible to the average social media user that we’ll see IndieWeb make a serious dent in the web as we know it. My hope is that we’ll see a 10x growth in investment in IndieWeb over the next year or two. That would give it the attention, investment, and progress that it needs.

DC: Do you have any new novels planned or underway?

WH: Not yet. Most of the time when I finish a novel I have no idea what I’m going to write about next. At first that would send me into a panic. Now I’ve learned to worry less and trust more that something will come to me. I like to take a couple of months off to be creative in some other domain entirely, and then come back to writing with fresh enthusiasm.

One possible idea I might explore would be imagining what a post-social-media world might look like. One where we use technology to plan and create real-life experiences, not substitute for them.

DC: Will, thanks so very much for this fascinating discussion. I wish you every success with Kill Switch. Like Kill Process, I believe this is an important, perhaps critically important, novel that every thinking person should read. Everyone go out and buy it!

Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Kill-Switch-Chain-Book-ebook/dp/B07JLL5CP9

Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Kill-Switch-Chain-Book-ebook/dp/B07JLL5CP9

Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/William-Hertling/e/B006J8EIY6

Website: http://www.williamhertling.com/

 

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The Devil’s Workshop: an interview with author Donnally Miller

When Donnally Miller hired me to copyedit his 400-page Fantasy novel, The Devil’s Workshop, he was partly looking for a reality check. The work had, like far too many terrific books these days, been passed over by scores of agents who would rather go with the standard safe, formulaic garbage. Nothing new there.

Now, freelance editors get a lot of commissions from new writers, and consequently one’s expectations are rather low. But just a few chapters into the edit of this novel, I realized what I was reading was no standard first novel but a polished, utterly compelling work of fiction. Curious, I sent Donn an email asking how long he’d been writing, and he replied, “thirty-five years”.

So what’s it about? Donnally describes his book as

A tragic love triangle set against the background of a ripping pirate yarn.

In a sea tale filled with witches, werewolves, pirates and Indians, there are many scenes of wit and whimsy, and many more of romance and dark intrigue. The main characters, Katie and Tom, have drunk a love potion and are fated for one another, but they have parted, just as a slave rebellion and an Indian war roil the waters and transform the landscape. They will search for one another through many hazards and perils.

And this is just the moment that Crazy Dog and his pirates have chosen to enter the mouth of Cutthroat Bay in search of the giant emerald that is the eye of Maddibimbo the monkey god.

The Devil’s Workshop is a delicious, sprawling, thought-provoking epic Fantasy so well-crafted I can only compare it the work of giants like Fritz Leiber, Gene Wolfe, and Ken Liu. The worldbuilding, character work, and dialogue are on a par with anything that’s ever won the World Fantasy Award. The novel is also replete with profound, humorous, and tragic insights into the nature of love, good and evil, society, power, and human nature.

This was, in short, a book I passionately felt had to be published. I advised Donnally to go indie, and the book is now finally out in the world. I strongly advise that you read it.

Now let’s hear from Donn.

 

DC: Donnally, thanks so much for letting me interview you. I know that you’ve been writing for over three decades now. Tell me a little about your trajectory.

DM: I’ve actually been writing sporadically on and off ever since I was in high school.  My first love was drama.  My mother used to stage abridged versions of Shakespeare’s plays in our backyard when I was growing up.  In college, I spent most of my time at the college theater, working on student productions.  When I got out of college I moved to New York with the intention of becoming an actor.  I also started writing plays at that time.  Acting never worked out, and I eventually had to get a real job, but I never stopped writing plays, I even got a couple of them produced Off Off Broadway, but could never get anything accepted anywhere else.  After many years I thought I’d try fiction, so I turned one of my plays into a novella and tried sending that off, but then again got nowhere.  At that time my wife was working in admissions at a local prep school.  A young man who was helping with their IT saw my wife reading a mystery in her office one day and asked if she’d be interested in reading a story he wrote.  So she read it and brought it home for me to read.  Anyway, she told this young man I was also a writer and he asked if I’d like to join a critique group he was in.  I said sure, why not?  And I started meeting with this critique group which would get together every month at the meetings of the New Jersey Horror Writer’s Association.  So I started trying to write the sort of stories they were writing, and when I wrote some that I thought were pretty good I tried sending them out.  Of course, none of them were ever accepted.  At some point I realized that nothing I wrote was ever going to get accepted anywhere so I thought what the heck, why not try a novel?  I was in my sixties then and I’d never written a novel before, but I was well read; I knew the effect literature could have on a reader and I also knew that nobody making a living writing commercial fiction was having that effect on me, so I thought I’d write the sort of book I liked.  And I did, and it was The Devil’s Workshop.

DC: Donnally, this is a complex, sprawling, epic work. How long did it take you to write?

DM: It took me two years to write, and then six months to revise.

DC: The Devil’s Workshop seems very strongly character-driven. Tell me a little about your process. Did you plot in detail, or just give the characters free rein?

DM: As a reader I can tell the difference between a character who’s been closely observed and inhabited, and one that’s being jerked around to fit the requirements of the plot.  So yes, absolutely, for me it all starts with the characters.  I had no idea of the plot when I began the book.  I don’t care much about plot and I certainly never read a book for the plot.  In fact, till I started researching what agents were looking for, it never occurred to me that anybody would read a novel for the plot.  I’ve seen infants of one or two years, when they get Christmas presents they often get more enjoyment from the box than they do from the gift.  That’s basically how I feel about people that read a book for the plot.  Of course you’re going to ask how can I then avoid plot holes?  But you’ll find that if the characters are acting entirely naturally it is absolutely impossible for plot holes to happen because everything will be motivated by what the characters want.  It’s only artificial plots that have plot holes.

DC: Your dialogue is exceptional, and it absolutely crackles throughout this entire work. How did you get so good at it?

DM: As I said, my first attempts at writing were plays, and I wrote nothing but plays for many years, so I worked hard on dialogue.  Dialogue is the best tool there is for revealing character.  I also had the experience of seeing a couple of my plays produced, and of hearing good actors give readings of my works, even if I had to pay the actors to do it.  There’s nothing that teaches you to write dialog like hearing it acted out.

DC: I know that your father actually compiled dictionaries1. Tell me a little about that, and whether you feel that influenced your interest in fiction and writing.

DM: My father, George A. Miller, was one of the founders of the so-called cognitive revolution, and was the first person to create an online dictionary.  So I grew up around ideas about cognition and linguistics, and was familiar with Chomskyan linguistics from an early age (along with Shakespeare from my mother’s side).  A lot of the ideas that went into The Devil’s Workshop stem from that, particularly the idea that God is language.  When my father passed away, I had the pleasure of finding some of his early writings that he’d preserved from his college days, and one of them was an uncompleted novel that I’d never known anything about, but that must have meant a lot to him since he held onto it all his life.

DC: What first got you interested in Fantasy?

DM: I think that’s the wrong question.  The real question is why wouldn’t anyone be interested in fantasy?  I know what I was interested in when I was a boy, and I’ve seen my own boys grow up, and I believe that the first stories all people are interested in are fairy tales, fantasy, horror and science fiction.  Many people eventually move on and their tastes change.  Mine never really did.  There was a time in my late teens and early twenties when I started taking myself seriously and decided I should read something different, but even as I grew to love great literature I realized that much of what I loved about it was what Tolkien called an ‘arresting strangeness.’  So my love of fantasy goes hand in hand with my love of all reading.  What I’m not interested in is commercial fiction, including virtually all the fantasy being written today, but that’s because it’s dreck, not because it’s fantasy.

DC: The world in your novel, The Devil’s Workshop, is rich and complex, with a strong Alternate History feel. Did you intentionally craft it as an AH story?

DM: I was drawn to the Caribbean around 1700 because it was such an exotic environment, with pirates, Indians and slaves and I felt it had been underutilized in fantasy, unlike the typical medieval setting.  However, I didn’t want to do research to make it true to the real Caribbean.  I felt the Caribbean of my imagination was sufficient.  So I made up the world of the Coast.  This world clearly has had a classical period like the one in our world (there are references to the Bible and Socrates and so forth), so the idea was that in a world very similar to our own, when Columbus crossed the Atlantic, instead of discovering the New World that he actually discovered, he discovered this fantastical land instead.

DC: The book has a lot of strong philosophical elements and countless, very resonant insights into people. Your character work is remarkable. But I happily had no sense of a writer with an agenda which is, sadly, all too often the case with modern SFF novels. In fact, I’ve spoken to many authors who believe it’s their duty to imbue their fiction with social and political messages. What’s your feeling on this? Should fiction preach or entertain? Or can it do both?

DM: I’m glad you didn’t have that sense.  I would like the reader to be unable to spot the author intruding at any point.  Of course I’m intruding all over the place, but I don’t want to be caught in the act.  As to what fiction should do, I have no clue.  Writers should do whatever they’re interested in doing, but only if they’re able to do it.  You only sense writers with an agenda when they’re clumsy about it.  If they’re good at it, you just take it all in.  Did Orwell have an agenda when he wrote 1984?  You bet.

DC: Who are your favourite authors?

DM: In general, the writers who have taught me what writing is are Cervantes, Swift, Sterne, Fielding, Melville, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.  In the SFF field, Lord Dunsany, R. A. Lafferty, Jack Vance and James Branch Cabell.

DC: I know you’re a great fan of eighteenth century literature. What is it about the period and prose style that so appeals to you?

DM: Three books I discovered in my teens and valued highly were Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.  Of course they’re very different books, but one characteristic of eighteenth century literature is what I would call a devastating lucidity.  The authors of that period had a way of observing the world clearly and describing what they saw with elegance and precision.  For instance, try reading David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature.  If anyone is better at making the most complex, abstract ideas appear simple and understandable, I’m not aware of it. I find the writers of the Enlightenment can bring the world into focus for me, while most writers of today seem more interested in obscuring what they say.  Also, when you’ve been mocked by Swift or Voltaire you have been well and truly mocked.

DC: There’s also a very strong metaphysical element to this work, as the title implies, and supernatural forces have a lot of agency in this novel. Can you talk a bit about that?

DM: As a writer, I try to use words to make the reader feel and understand things that can’t be expressed in words.  I wanted to make the reader feel that the first principles of things, including such concepts as being, substance, essence, time, space, cause, identity, etc. are linked to forces or causes that transcend the powers or the ordinary course of nature.  Any attempt to explain this linkage can only end in failure, but maybe it can be experienced in a story.  I tried to tell a story that would leave readers feeling they live in a universe that is terrifying and inexplicable and at the same time give them a good laugh.

DC: Now The Devil’s Workshop is complete, do you have any future novels planned? Would you return to this world or do something completely different?

DM: No, I don’t.  All the time I was writing this novel I felt inspired, and I’d love to feel that again.  I have started something new.  I’ve written a dynamite first chapter, but I’m having trouble coming up with chapter two.  I’m sure it’ll come to me.  It has nothing to do with the Coast.  I have no plans to return to that world.

DC: Donnally, thanks so much for your time, and I wish you every possible success with this novel. Is there anything you’d like to add?

DM: There’s always something I’d like to add, but I never know what it is till later.  I guess I’d just like to say I hope everybody enjoys the book.

 

The Devil’s Workshop is available here at Amazon in both print and Kindle format. Just do it. 🙂

To learn more about Donnally Miller, The Devil’s Workshop, and the genesis of this novel, visit https://www.donnallymiller.com/

Notes

1 Donnally Miller’s father’s remarkable online dictionary project can be found at https://wordnet.princeton.edu/  To input a word and utilize the database, just type it into the search box at http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn or click the link in the lefthand sidebar of the site.

 

 

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Gardner, We’ll Miss You.

Gardner Dozois in June 2006. Photo by Ellen Levy Finch reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

GARDNER DOZOIS, a giant of modern science fiction, left the building this week.

Others have written at length about his enormous accomplishments as an editor, so I’ll keep my comments on that brief. Dozois was a key player — perhaps the key player — in shaping today’s science fiction (SF) and especially in elevating the quality of writing in the field. He was also a very accomplished author himself, and though his oeuvre is small, I highly recommend seeking him out.

I had the fortune to know Gardner a little personally. He was our week four instructor at the Clarion West intensive SF boot camp I attended in 2002. Beyond his quick laugh and trademark ribald humour — he was just delightfully goofy — two things impressed me deeply about him. First, his intelligence. Gardner was brilliant, but in a modest and low-key way. There’s a saying: “Mediocrity knows nothing but itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius.” This man listened and watched as others spoke in a way very few people do, weighing each word said in a way that made a very strong impression on me.

The second thing which impressed me about him was his fairness and equanimity. As longtime editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and editor of scores of top anthologies, his criterion was always simply the writing. Whether he personally liked an author or not – and I know he published some individuals he didn’t — had nothing to do with his selections. For him, it was, as it should be, always and only about the work.

In the sixteen years since Clarion West, I had some occasional correspondence with Gardner, and he was always kind, helpful, and honest, especially when I began to publish my own novella anthology series, the Panverse series (Panverse One, Two, and Three). A fan of the novella form himself, he read and reviewed each volume in the series with his usual fairness and humour, encouraging me and, on one occasion, making me crack up as I read his review of one story.

It’s hard to imagine a life better lived than this man’s. Quite apart from providing readers with so much wonderful fiction to enjoy, Gardner discovered and nurtured literally hundreds of new authors, transforming the field of science fiction in the process.

Finally, since I know at least some of you reading this are writers, I’ll leave you with two words of Gardner’s, which are probably the single best piece of writing advice anyone ever gave me: “Be audacious.”

Rest in peace, Gardner. You’ll be missed.

You can read more about this remarkable man at his Wikipedia page, and find the scores of excellent anthologies Gardner edited through his Amazon page: I own a shelf full and that barely scratches the surface. If you’ve never read truly great science fiction, give some of these a try. For a sampling of Gardner’s own remarkable body of body of work, this ebook contains several of his very best stories, ranging from the humorous to the truly moving. I can’t recommend his fiction highly enough.

Finally, one of his best short stories, “Morning Child” is available to read free online at Lightspeed Magazine.

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Breathe! The Copyeditor Has Your Back

One of the things a good copyeditor will do, beyond dealing with infelicities of grammar, syntax, style, composition, and general meaning, is cover your back. And I mean totally cover it.

In my experience, what most indie authors require is actually a combination of line, copy, and general editing*, not least because the cost of the numerous editing passes a big publishing house would do (general/developmental edit, line edit, copyedit) can add up to several thousand dollars, a prohibitive sum for the vast majority of indies.

When I’m copyediting a manuscript for a client, I’m in a watchful mode, consciously noting and monitoring a broad swath of detail and information. The characters’ physical characteristics, the revealed details of their backstories, geographical locations, dates and times events take place, even character names—all these are prone to inconsistency and slippage over the course of a long work and revisions, and it’s the copyeditor’s job to spot these errors and fix them. But that’s just the beginning.

A copyeditor takes little for granted. If, say, I find a reference to a company called Datavision in the text, my first instinct is to wonder if it might not be styled DataVision, or Data Vision, and I’ll google it right away to see if a correction is needed. If I’m working on a science fiction novel and the author states that the universe is 13.8 billion years old, I’ll check that this figure is current and correct—science and tech are especially tricky, since our knowledge is increasing at such a rate that “facts” are constantly changing.

Or let’s say the author has used a Latin or French phrase, like non plus ultra (nothing beyond compare, as far as you can go) or cherchez la femme (look for the woman). A good copyeditor will, if not familiar with it, check both the spelling and the meaning of the phrase to ensure the author has used it correctly. German words like schadenfreude (taking pleasure in others’ misfortune) are especially hazardous. It’s terribly easy to make mistakes in this area.

Firearms present notorious problems for writers, many of whom have little or no firsthand knowledge of them. I’ve come across more than one hero flicking the safety catch off a revolver…but revolvers don’t come with safeties. Whenever a gun is used in a story, details need checking. Is that brand made in that caliber? How many rounds does the standard magazine fit? And so on. As to the actual use of firearms in fiction, it’s the copyeditor’s business to know and alert the writer that anyone who isn’t an experienced shooter is very unlikely to hit a person at more than fifteen yards with a pistol, especially a snubnose or a large caliber model with heavy recoil.

It helps if the copyeditor has a good memory and a large store of general knowledge. Just recently, I was going through a manuscript where the author invoked the European terrorist group of the 1970s and 1980s, naming them the Red Brigade. Fortunately, I was around then, and know that they styled themselves, and were known as, the Red Brigades (plural). A small error, but these add up.

Then there are the logical and physical errors and impossibilities. If the author has a terrorist at Dulles airport notice “a group of heavily-armed cops in the distance, maybe a thousand feet away,” the copyeditor should be thinking, wow, that’s a fifth of a mile…and go googling for maps of Dulles airport to see if there really are sightlines that long, as well as adding an inline comment for the author. In another recent manuscript I worked on, the author has a fellow chopping a line of cocaine on the railing of a ship at sea, which is a great way to prevent any actual drug use: better to find a more sheltered spot well out of the wind.

Sex presents a lot of fun for the copyeditor, and fortunately, most writers have a sense of humor when it comes to edits on the subject. I once had to point out to an author that the words vibrator and dildo aren’t interchangeable, the two devices being functionally different in significant ways. No, please don’t ask.

In summary, a good copyeditor working with indies usually does a lot more than check grammar, syntax, and punctuation. Though some of the above falls into the grey area between copyediting, line editing and developmental or substantive editing, it’s my belief that the copyeditor’s job is to protect the writer from every possible circumstance that may cause embarrassment, criticism, scathing reviews, or ridicule. No editor or proofreader is perfect: we all miss things. But the manuscript needs to leave the copyeditor’s hands in a condition such that even if errors remain, they are so minor that no harm will come to the author’s sales or reputation.

So go on, create awesome fiction and don’t worry about taking risks. The copyeditor has your back.

Have you worked with a copyeditor? What was your experience like? 

*I call this the “single edit solution.” Details of my editing services can be found here

Note: This post was originally published as part of the Indie Author Series at Janice Hardy’s Fiction University, 8/11/2016

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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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Breaking Writer’s Block

Since I spent most of last 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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