Tag Archives: writers

INTERVIEW: William R. Hincy

“Life is the accumulation of scars. Tell the stories.”

William R. Hincy is an L.A. area author whose work has been featured in many of America’s best literary magazines. His short fiction collection Without Expiration (Whiskey Winged Lit, 2019) has been included in Kirkus Review’s Best Indie Short Story Collections of 2020. Without Expiration was also a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award, and Hincy’s novel But the Ripping Apart (Whisky Winged Lit, 2020) has just been released.

All fine authors, particularly the ones we like to call “literary,” write with deep empathy and insight into the human condition, but that doesn’t mean a thing if our wounds don’t coincide, if a story doesn’t move me. But once in a long while I run across an author whose work not only rings and resonates with insight, wit, empathy, and the rest, but thrills me to the core because their insights directly and indelibly affect me: they laugh at the things I laugh at, bleed from the same places I bleed.

William R. Hincy is such an author. His work shimmers and hums with empathy, wit, and above all a deep acceptance, even love, of our limitations as mere flawed humans.

For a thumbail sketch of Hincy’s work, I’ll simply quote the Kirkus review: “Flawed, despondent characters show a surprising wit and humanity,” the review begins. “Hincy’s taut prose makes the entire collection a quick read but still fills the stories with indelible passages. […]  The book strikes a chord with characters whose defects make them simultaneously believable and with descriptions of moments involving a loved one’s death, either its prolonged aftermath or its inevitability.”

Hincy likes to say that “some people run from their demons; others sit down and have cocktails with theirs.” So let’s get that shaker going and sit with Mr. Hincy and his attendant imps.


DC: Bill, thanks for joining me for this interview. Tell me how you came to be a writer.

WRH: You know, I can’t pinpoint one moment, but I can trace back the influences.

As a kid, I remember mostly being alone. My parents both worked, and we transplanted from the western Pennsylvania area to California when I was four, so there wasn’t much family around. I didn’t have many toys, and the desert town I grew up in (Palmdale, shout-out!) was just being developed. So my imagination kept me company as I tromped about in the desert and through empty housing developments. At home, everyday items and the few toys I did have became actors, taking on different roles in the narratives I created to keep myself entertained. I think it was during this time that I learned to use story as the main means for which I understood myself and the world around me.

My parents worked long hours and commuted, so by the time they got home, they ate dinner, watched some TV, and went to bed. But on the weekends my mom would go on and on talking about genealogy and stories about growing up in Appalachia. Genealogical narratives certainly have elements of nonfiction—facts that are beyond dispute or verifiable, like so-and-so were married on this date; George had brown hair; Bill was a sarcastic jackass—but it quickly became apparent to me that they were also colored by point of view biases, misinterpretations, foggy memories, and other tiny fictions that popped up from an epic game of generational telephone.

But rather than dulling my fascination, I found the fictions more stimulating than the facts. I found truth, humanity, substance in those elements that couldn’t be verified. They fostered a love of storytelling that persists to this day. It became clear to me that the narratives we tell ourselves shape our characters, our responses to events and stimuli, our understanding of the world, in almost magical ways. And as I became older and experienced the darker side of life, it was through story that I was able to find the humanity in myself and others even when we did hurtful things.

So being a writer for me is synonymous with becoming an adult, becoming a father and a husband and a friend. It is part and parcel to my journey.

(As a side note, for anyone who knew me in high school, sorry to all of those who had to witness me pretending my pen was a Galaxy-class starship battling the world-killing scourge of three-ring binder. And to the crew of the USS Pen Cap, for your brave sacrifice in the Battle of Sixth Period, you will be remembered.)


DC: Some would describe your work as literary, but I’m not a big fan of the literary vs. genre method of categorization. How would you describe your own work?

WRH: At my core, I’m a goofy satirist with a deep empathy for flawed people. To me, it’s in our contradictions, idiosyncrasies and foibles that we find meaning and identity, and it’s also these areas where I find the most humor. But I’m driven by challenges. I’m exhilarated when I’m challenging myself, society, literary forms, philosophies, the contemporary zeitgeist, et al. And I want my reader to be an active participant in the process—I want them to intuit, to connect emotionally, to imagine, to activate the neocortex and thalamus, and ultimately to reflect on themselves and the world. To do this, I think the reader needs to be invested in the work, to do some of the heavy-lifting, so I don’t lead them by the hand, explaining how every nook and cranny looks, why exactly things are the way they are and characters are who they are. I take them to a scene, a moment, a dilemma, and leave them holding the consequences with as little authorial intrusion as possible.

All of this leads to challenging the type of stories told and how they’re told. Story by story, I consider the questions being raised and invent new processes to pose them, and the effect is the general eschewing of literary norms and formulas. Unfortunately, I think “genre” has become synonymous with “formula,” while “literary” encompasses everything else. I don’t personally agree with that notion or like the literary vs. genre dichotomy either. Frankly, I think genre fiction’s formulaic nature tends to result from the big business modus operandi of looking for things that fit into a box they know how to sell. So from acquiring new books to editing to promoting, the goal is to fit everything in a tidy package that’s been proven to have an audience.

The stuff traditional publishers “take a chance on” becomes their “literary” work. It may not fit into the neat formulas they’ve devised for genre, but I’d contend they have formulas just the same, be it theme, characterization, content, etc. Realism and character-focus sometimes get conflated with literary fiction, as well, but historical fiction, murder mysteries, and other genres abound with realism, and work of any color can be character-focused.

None of that is to say that every book produced by trade publishers is formulaic, but compared to indie books, there’s no comparison in risk-taking, boldness and just sloppy, ecstatic wackiness of content and variety. I think because of the lack of formula, character focus and generally realistic plots (though I’ve certainly written surrealist and absurdist works, as well), my works gets labeled literary, but if I were to write fantasy, sci-fi or erotic, the same focus on character and rule of consequences would remain.


DC: Why did you settle on the title, Without Expiration?

WRH: The title is derived from one of the fictions, a story entitled “Best If Used By” which was a finalist for the Short Story America Fiction Prize. In it, a grieving mother ruminates on the death of her son and subsequent loss of her marriage as she puts away the groceries. Even though she is now living alone in a new apartment, everything around her acts as a mirror to those painful times, and she pauses, haunted by the expiration date on a box of fruit snacks. With memory and regret and heartache swirling inside her, she finally accepts that there are “those things with no expiration.”

At its heart, the title is speaking to the unresolved. And the unresolved nature is both internal and external. The inner machinations are the same now as they have been at any point in human history—when we lose someone close to us, we never forget the sorrow of that loss, the emptiness, the regret. What has changed is the intensity and relentlessness of the external influences. With the advent of the internet and in particular social media, our actions are recorded and retrievable by the masses in a way that we’ve never dealt with before. The effect is that things we may have internally resolved—mistakes we’ve grown from; hatred we’ve dispensed with; crimes we’ve been held accountable for—are now remembered in perpetuity or uncovered and used against us with a swiftness and ferocity that we’re not equipped emotionally or intellectually to handle. The collective memory fits us with dunce caps and scarlet letters that stream unimpeded into every corner of the globe upon the quad-staked crucifixes of hashtags.

So how does one live a good life? How do we cope, how do we thrive, how do we forgive and allow for the possibility of redemption? How do we live with ourselves when there is no expiration date on our failures?


DC: The subtitle for this collection asks the question, “Are we bad people who sometimes do good things, or good people who do bad things?” Having looked deep into this, are you any closer to an answer?

WRH: I don’t think there is an answer, and if there is, I certainly haven’t found it. The question itself is intentionally double-edged to make a point—we all do bad things. To be clear, most of us aren’t serial predators, tyrants or fortune 500 CEOs, but it’s hard to imagine a life, especially in this day and age, where we haven’t lied, stolen, been callous with another’s feelings, cast aspersions (I think the Twitter platform exists precisely for this), taken more than our fair share, or just damaged another inadvertently. And what about those who have committed true crimes? The teenager from an abusive home who goes on to bully, beat, even murder? The husband or wife that “has it all” but has an affair, destroying two families in the process? The broker whose Ponzi scheme destroys the life savings of thousands? The list of scenarios and misdeeds could go on forever, but the question remains: are we good or bad people?

Implied in the question is the question from the title—do those labels have an expiration date? Because maybe we can agree that a twenty-five-year-old man who gets in a bar fight and kills someone is a bad person in that moment, perhaps during that period of life, but what about twenty years later, thirty, forty? And if we label someone “bad,” can we still recognize that they’re capable of good? Can we forgive or understand the “good” person when they commit offenses? Can we hold the good person accountable for their crimes the same way we do the bad?

That tagline and the title are meant to frame the narratives so that the reader is considering the humanity of the characters in that context. We are all flawed. We suffer and try to figure our way through it, or maybe “with” it is better said, and things get messy and we hurt people. That’s really the bad thing. And it’s crucial to include hurting ourselves in that equation.

In the end, I hope the stories provide a place of reflection and meditation where the question itself is challenged and, perhaps, the concept of labeling people “good” or “bad” is abandoned.


DC: These short fictions cover a wide spectrum of experiences and emotions ranging from garden-variety passive aggressiveness to homicidal vengeance, from surrealist satire to the most poignant tragedy. Although you never flinch from exploring the most raw truths, the reader also has a sense of huge humanity and a deep compassion for the human condition. One of your stories, A Study in Discontinuity, digs into the disintegration of a relationship in a painfully incisive way; yet, as in the majority of your work, there’s an underlying sense that redemption is possible. How does that work? Can there be redemption even in a world where our misdeeds have no expiration?

WRH: Wow, I’m not sure there’s enough space on the internet to fully answer that question!

To your point, with the advent of the internet and social media, it has gotten harder and harder for society to allow room for redemption. Even if we have undergone true personal change, our “sins” are stored in posterity or can be uncovered years later, and a major component of redemption is the acceptance back into society. It’s not mandatory, of course, but even our personal redemption can be disrupted when we are pelted by our past wrongdoing again and again.

“A Study in Discontinuity” captures this not through the collaborative memory of the internet, but through the story of a woman who is in a devastating car crash moments after her marriage dissolves. She is left in a persistent vegetative state, but five years later, she awakes. And the pain she feels is as raw as the day of the crash. When her estranged husband wants to put the past behind them, she tells him: “Your past is my present—do you understand that?” But he has had years to move forward, to change. And that’s the dilemma we’re all faced with—dealing with pain we still feel while somehow allowing room for individual growth and change.

All that said, I think that if we don’t believe in redemption, there is literally no hope for humanity. And I do so want to hope, and I believe there’s great reason for hope, even in the darkest of times. There have certainly been notable examples of people being redeemed, and I’d take it further and say that we are all examples of redemption. We’ve all learned from mistakes, failed and tried to do better. Without struggle, we’d know nothing about ourselves, so we have to cling to the possibility of redemption even in the midst of a pandemic, social unrest, and corruption and scandal on a global scale.

And I believe redemption begins with laughter. How many times have you read something, watched something, or experienced firsthand hitting rock bottom and just starting to laugh at the absurdity of it all? Perhaps that’s where the satirist in me reveals itself. So I hope as the reader goes through this anthology, they laugh and cry and are frightened by the characters. If it helps provide an avenue for even just a few people to develop a deeper, more open empathy and understanding of themselves and others, ridding the need for labels and cancellations, then I think we move a little closer to the how of it all.


DC: I know that you spent years on some of these fictions. Tell us a little about your writing process. Do you begin with character or idea? And how do you develop a story?

WRH: I usually begin with a challenge. For instance, the idea for “A Study in Discontinuity” stemmed from the following challenge: can you write a compelling, human piece of fiction in the format of a scientific research paper? Similarly, the surrealist religious satire “Amen” originated when I challenged myself to write a story in first person omniscient. Other times I challenge myself to get to the root of the humanity of a character who may not appear likable. And other times, it’s just a flash of inspiration, an almost biological imperative to bring a specific idea into existence.

As far as developing a story, I tend to think of myself more like a sculptor than a writer. Rather than outlining or writing character synopses, I usually write what is sometimes referred to as a “zero” draft. I think of this part of the process as finding my materials, but rather than granite or clay, I’m cobbling together clay and backstory, marble and context, wood and irony, story and shadow and distorted points of view. After I’ve finished the zero draft, I step back, examine what I have, and begin shaping. Sometimes this requires adding material here and there, or it might involve whittling down to the essential core of the thing. For example, the short story “Teeth” began as a 12k word story and was distilled down to a 1k word piece by the time it was published.

Generally after the zero draft, though sometimes before, I step back from the idea and consider what process is needed for that particular work. Changing or adjusting your process is not for the faint of heart: it can be unsettling, scary even, and requires a lot of grit to tough your way through the inevitable self-doubt. But it helps to produce variety and opens you up to possibilities a rigid, constant process is unlikely to unveil. For instance, the novel I’m currently working on (more on that later in this interview) is an epic absurdist satire with a range of POVs. To stimulate distinctness and liveliness between characters, after the zero draft I worked out a full outline of the events, then wrote the next draft one character at a time, charting my way through the story and their development as I went. In the process, I learned that a couple characters I thought were minor were in fact pivotal, and exchanges between characters suddenly took on exciting new meanings. For the final draft, I’m going work through the book front to back to ensure unity and cohesiveness.

A final note, I do almost all of the heavy-lifting—from ideation, story development, momentous sections, and difficult passages—subconsciously. I purposely set my schedule so that I write for a few hours, then go for a bike ride, take a shower, lift weights, or another activity where I’m not actively engaged in language-based thinking and my imagination has free range. I also spend time writing or editing before going to bed, so what I’m engaged with is front and center in my mind while I sleep. Once I feel a piece is too conscious that I have a hard time stepping away from the nuts and bolts, I let it rest and work on another piece.


DC: A number of your stories have been published in well-regarded literary magazines including Short Story America, Passages North and the Avalon Literary Review, and received good critical attention. This would have put you in a better position than most authors to land a traditional publishing deal with your collection, yet you chose to go the indie route. What led you to that decision?

WRH: My intention has always been to be a hybrid author, publishing some pieces traditionally and others independently. Theoretically, traditional publication can help with visibility, wider distribution, perhaps get your work in bookstores and libraries. Meanwhile, going indie allows for full creative control and a larger portion of the profits. By going hybrid, I’m aiming to bridge the gaps and, as Hannah Montana would say, “Get the best of both worlds!”

Both have their pluses and minuses to be sure, as I learned the hard way. An earlier version of my novel But the Ripping Apart was traditionally published under a different title roughly seven years ago. And wouldn’t you know it, I hit the unholy trinity of the bad trad publisher experience: ignored and forgotten (judging by other authors I’ve met, this is just their way of doing business); no say on the final packaging (resulting in a hideous cover and goofy author photo… although I guess I can’t blame them on the picture considering the model); and no coherent advertising push. Throw in the lack of copy-editing and ebook, and I ended up requesting out of my contract and spent two years editing, revising, and completely repackaging the novel on my dime. (Disclaimer, I don’t believe this is the common publisher experience by any means.)

Being that so many of the stories in WE had been previously published and I had such an unfortunate experience, it was an easy decision to go indie. Furthermore, to be true to the subtitle, A Personal Anthology, I felt I had to have complete creative control to develop an artistic expression unique to me. To do that, it felt imperative that the collection be diverse and unusual and bold. The contemporary trend is for anthologies to have an overarching tone and storytelling style, so it’s unlikely I would’ve been able to package “Amen” with “A Study in Discontinuity” because tonally and narratively they are so different. But for WE to truly be a personal anthology, both works had to be included.


DC: Your recently released novel, But the Ripping Apart is a touching, irreverent, tragicomic look at a young father’s battle with his demons and his search for purpose amid crippling self-doubt and a sense of failure. It’s often said that first novels are largely autobiographical: was that the case with this work?

WRH: In some ways, you could say But the Ripping Apart is an account of my early thirties as remembered in a fever dream. Events occur out of sequence, are distorted, heightened; every feeling is intensified; and delirious hallucinations snake in and out of the narrative as impactful and real as any of the actual memories.

The novel’s opening scene is based on a night my wife and I visited a woman she knew that was a hoarder. But as a fiction writer, I wasn’t interested in capturing that night or those events—I was intrigued in the underlying truths behind them, the challenge of crafting a story that captured the humanity of flawed, heartbroken characters as they try to help each other despite their faults. Jack, Erica, Ms. Lyon became vessels for telling that story, rather than representations of real people.

As the novel progressed, the characters developed into unique entities as they responded to the story’s circumstances and situations. And during the editing process, there was little recognizable about any of the scenes or characters. In the end, I saw very little of myself in Jack, except for our shared inclination to patron our demons. But that’s no small similarity. Like Jack, I’ve been shaped by my failures, my limitations, my openness to the taboo.

I was a single dad (a #girldad before it was trendy), and I have a running emotional ledger of all of the times I failed my kids. As a parent, you try to shield your demons from your kids, but can you really? I remember driving home completely hungover to take my first- and second-grade daughters to the Father-Daughter dance. The countless times I snapped at them rather than nurture them. Moments I failed even to be there. My hope is that by reopening those real wounds in the novel, as painful as they were to write and revisit, the reader will contemplate on their interactions with their own demons in a space devoid of judgment or expectation.


DC: In your bio – and I’m going to encourage every reader to visit your website, since it’s one of the absolute best writer sites I’ve ever seen – you have a delightful line: “Some people run from their demons; others sit down and have cocktails with theirs.” Would you expand a little on that and how it relates to your fiction?

WRH: I actually wrote that quote for But the Ripping Apart. In the scene, a retired schoolteacher who has spiraled into alcoholism and hoarding is confronted by a young father who is dealing with but not exactly facing his own problems. She recognizes the kinship between them, even if he doesn’t, and says, “My life may seem foul to you now, but you’ll understand…. Some people run from their demons; others sit down and have cocktails with theirs. You and I—we can’t even recognize ourselves without them.”

A prevailing way of thought has been to fear and vanquish our demons. Psychological torment, physiological dependence, and unsavory compulsions are compared to monsters, plagues, demons. But what if “the dark side” isn’t something to vanquish, but something to harness? This is probably an unpopular statement and may make Star Wars fans squeamish, but sometimes igniting our inner turmoil can fuel greatness we wouldn’t otherwise be able to achieve. There is a peculiar insanity, almost immorality, necessary to reach unreasonable peaks. You see it across the spectrum, from sports stars to artists, to corporate moguls to homemakers—sometimes our irrational, dangerous drives can be focused to drive irrational results.

I’ve struggled. I’ve fallen. I’ve failed—I’ve let down the people I love the most when they’ve most needed me. None of that is easy. But it is intensely human. Running from or combating demons does not capture the sum of our experience. There are certainly those of us who indulge them, whether just momentarily, in fits and starts, or as a way of life. So often that indulgence is frowned upon, but I think it’s dangerous and unfulfilling to turn away from any aspect of our humanity, however unsettling, or to assign it to the realm of monsters. I think being understanding and accepting our impulses is a crucial step towards self-awareness, then we have the hard work of learning to live with them.


DC: You have a corporate career which only recently became part-time, as well as a large family; on top of that, you homeschool your young son. That’s a lot to juggle and still get writing done: how do you manage your time?

WRH: That is the most common question I get—just, how?

I think the first and most important thing is understanding what your goals are. I’ve always had an abstract idea of what I wanted to accomplish, but I sat down a few years back and committed them to paper. And by goals I don’t mean fantasies—we can fantasize about anything we choose, walking on the moon, selling a Harry Potter-esque hoard of books, appearing on Carson, etc., but I focused on what was most vital to me. At that point, I’d already been published numerous times, but I was by no means treating writing like a career, so this was the first step in that process. And what I learned was that I want to be an important writer. What does that mean, exactly? To me, it means that I connect on an emotional and intellectual level with a reader, and it means that I have to challenge not just literary forms, contemporary zeitgeists, societal biases, et al., but also my readers themselves.

But how do you measure that—how could I ever say I’ve achieved that goal? Well, for one, it means that I expect some mixed reviews. Some people don’t like being challenged, or it simply may not speak to some readers. And that’s okay because I’m not aiming for quantity or popularity, I’m focused on impact. But for it to have an impact, my work has to be read to some capacity, so attaining some visibility and sales is necessary. I just don’t worry if I’m ever widely popular or a best-seller because I don’t equate fame to importance. Importance is connecting with individuals, not appealing to the masses. This also helps determine the stories I want to tell. I’m not trying to catch the coattails of a trend or fit into a neat, acceptable package—I’m trying to tell stories that emotionally resonate, that unsettle, maybe even trouble the reader.

Once I concretely understood my desires and developed ways to measure them, I then planned my schedule. Putting family first was pretty straightforward, and with two adult daughters and one entering high school, the primary focus became on homeschooling my son (which I’ve done even before the pandemic made this a reality for most of the world). Since I’m no longer moving up the corporate ladder and my role is part-time, work is no longer a prime priority. I get my job done in my hours, then focus my time on my writing, with the craft always coming before promotion. I also recognized that my health was critical to ALL of these endeavors, so I made sure to include working out in my schedule.

Because I understand exactly what I want and what success looks like to me, I’m able to ruthlessly prioritize. My daily must-do, can’t-fail activities are homeschooling, working out, and actual writing (because Lord knows there are a ton of writerly activities that could cloud that item). To keep me on track, I make detailed lists of any miscellaneous things that need done, then sprinkle them into my schedule throughout the week (feels so good to check those boxes). I also keep a monthly calendar so I remember to pay bills, take the trash out, clean up after the dogs, etc., but when things start to overflow—and they will—I’m always grounded by what is essential.

It helps to have an amazing, supportive wife. Her tireless work ethic and drive inspire me to put the same dedication into my writing—I never want to fail just because I was outworked.


DC: Marketing is often difficult for indie authors, typically because of personality, lack of funding, or both. How do you approach marketing your work?

WRH: Fingers crossed—the same way every writer does!

Like many writers, I often put marketing on the backburner. Going back to ruthless prioritization, I set specific writing goals that must be done before going onto social media, writing on blog content, or working on promotions. But I do want to get my work out there, and because I’ve been historically so busy with my family and corporate job, I don’t have much of a platform or marketing experience. Even my day job as a Quality Director for a medical device company isn’t about selling—it’s about keeping products safe and effective and ensuring compliance with federal and international laws.

So I’m using Without Expiration and But the Ripping Apart as experiments. WE was released in November 2019, when COVID-19 was still just a blip on the news radar, which allowed for a bit of guerrilla marketing. A group of about fifty of us staged the #WithoutExpiration Exhibition, a mock protest in which the protesters held signs announcing fictional transgressions. Poster boards proclaiming “Cheated on my taxes,” “Neglected my dog,” and “Was careless with a heart,” streamed through old town Pasadena, CA, along with chanting and good-natured revelry. So much of the anthology centers around questioning the notion of moral authority, so the protest fit right in and got a fair amount of media coverage.

I’ve been lucky enough to do some readings and speak at colleges, which I love doing because you get to connect with people in-person, which I still think is the best way to build a community around your work. It also gives me a chance to exercise my acting chops, which is always great fun (in my younger days, I performed in quite a few community theatre plays until I could no longer accommodate the night rehearsals with being a single dad).

Of course, with the pandemic none of these options were available when But the Ripping Apart was released in March, so I’ve focused on the digital end. I’ve never enjoyed spending time on social media, and I quickly found the clickbait aspects less than satisfying, so I’ve focused on looking for sincere, thought-provoking exchanges, and less on the volume of followers. I had the notion of writing original content for Twitter and Instagram. I even produced two living obituaries earlier in the year, which were mainly satirical and focused on accepting and even laughing in the face of death, but when COVID hit in all its gory I couldn’t wrap my brain around it any longer. The problem with original content was that my standards for content and refusal to use formulas make it hard to churn out quickly, and it took too much time away from my WIP.

Being that I’m still working part-time, I don’t need to turn a profit on either book, so I’m reinvesting anything I earn to learning about the business, trying to build a presence around content-creation. It’s interesting, though, because as a “non-genre” writer, there aren’t many support services I’ve found in the indie community. So I’m really out in the Wild West, which is a fascinating learning experience, if a bit lonely. At least I can karaoke campfire songs!


DC: I know you’re currently at work on a large, even a landmark, novel. What can you tell us about it?

WRH: I’m currently working on a no-holds-barred, nothing’s sacred, completely irreverent satire entitled Pirates of Appalachia. There’s geopolitical intrigue, true love, hostile takeovers, sharkittens, esports, mermaids, prophecy, and some shockingly potent rum!

Pirates is set in North America about a decade after a series of events collectively referred to as the “Trumpocalypse.” Central to these was the War of Four Domains, a cyberwar pitting Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google against each other and the federal government. Widespread internet outages ensue, packages aren’t delivered, latte foam art goes unposted, and no one can GPS their way home from work. It’s truly the dark ages! In the aftermath, parts of the United States and Canada are sold off to foreign countries, mega-corporations, and celebrities (giving new meaning to Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network). Other areas form city-states, and vast expanses of the continent become “unincorporated areas,” where self-ruling settlements, homesteaders and social justice warlords struggle for survival.

The grandest city-state of them all is the Independent City of Pittsburgh, which has swallowed up most of what was formerly western Pennsylvania. As the novel begins, the city is in the midst of the gubernatorial election to select a new “guber,” the city’s top elected official. Adam Patterson of the Twitter Party, formerly a Father in the Church of the Everlasting Wander, is having a health crisis and a crisis of faith heading into the final debate with Michael Hawk, the savage, charismatic candidate for the Heel Party who moonlights as an esports star. At stake are how to allocate the tax payout, the retirement age for government employees, and what to do about the war with the Xioddarm being waged a world away by citizens patronizing the DroneStrike arcade. But after Patterson receives a vision during the debate, he goes off-script and references the “forbidden hashtag,” turning election season upside-down.

Meanwhile, in unincorporated West Virginia, Kohl and Keet search for the fabled treasure of the pirates of Appalachia in hopes of becoming rich and impressing the women they love. In their quest, both are transformed in surreal, fabulous way, but when they return, they learn that Kohl’s betrothed, her home, and everything she owns has been taken to Pittsburgh. The city is metastasizing, consuming more and more of the hills daily. Fueled by legends of their father’s taking to the rivers and looting the countryside, Kohl and Keet set sail with an ever-growing band of eccentric buccaneers and a vengeful ghost to sack the Independent City of Pittsburgh once and for all.

The past and present, cyber and RL, technological and magical are on a collision course—there’s no better time for a drink!


DC: Bill, thank you so much for spending time with us, it’s been absolutely fascinating. Is there anything you’d like to add?

WRH: First off, thanks so much for having me here for this interview. I’m a great admirer of your work, both your editing and your writing. Sutherland’s Rules, Black Easter and Aegean Dream truly touched me, and I think about them routinely. I hope selfishly, and for the world at large, there is more on the way!

It hasn’t been announced yet, but Without Expiration is now available as an audiobook. Narrated by the supremely talented Darren Eliker, the audiobook accentuates the anthology and helps unpack the dense stories and uncover new layers of emotional resonance. Being that Without Expiration is a short read (about 150 pages), I encourage everyone to read the book and then listen to the audiobook—it’ll take you about as long as you’d spend on an average-sized novel, and I think you’ll find more connections to the work at the end of it.

For free fiction, more about the author, cinematic book trailers, living obituaries, the working prologue of Pirates of Appalachia, and more, visit  WilliamRHincy.com

To order/Buy:

Without Expiration: A Personal Anthology (print and ebook)

Without Expiration: A Personal Anthology (audiobook)

But the Ripping Apart (print and ebook)


(Full disclosure: Bill Hincy is a personal friend and I am also his editor.)


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INTERVIEW: Katy Nicholas: “As the World Falls Down”

RELEASED ON JANUARY 15th, 2020, just before COVID-19 slammed into our world, Katy Nicholas’s excellent debut novel, As the World Falls Down, about a worldwide pandemic that kills the vast majority of humanity, is one of the best novels I’ve read in the past few years.

Just a few chapters into it, I found myself thinking, where did this author come from? Though I’d never encountered her work before, Katy writes with all the assurance of a longtime professional, and her novel, while vastly different in every way other than theme, is right up there with modern plague classics like David R. Palmer’s Emergence and King’s The Stand. As the World Falls Down also differs in that it’s the first volume in a planned series, Cities in Dust, though it works as a standalone novel. I would argue also that this isn’t just a Science Fiction novel, but a crossover novel which the non-genre reader will also find accessible and enjoyable.

My curiosity thus piqued, I contacted Katy, and the following interview is the result.

DC: Katy, I’m so glad to interview you. As a writer and editor used to reading debut novels and work from new authors, it’s very clear to me that you’ve been writing for at least a decade. As the World Falls Down is absolutely seamless, one of the most refreshing, thoughtful, and best-planned novels I’ve come across in a long time. I abandon a great many books because they’re simply too formulaic or fail to make me care, but your novel surprised and delighted me at every turn. Tell us a little about your development process as a writer.

KN: Believe it or not, before As the World Falls Down, the last thing I wrote was back in 2008.  In high school, I wrote daily. I had no interest in school. I remember writing stories in my economics class. After I left school, I got a job, had a family, and I didn’t really have time to write. So, there was a ten-year gap before I picked it up again. I wrote half a fantasy story about a girl who could bring the dead back to life. Again, life happened, and I didn’t write anything more for another ten years. The first draft of As The World Falls Down was basically me learning to write again, if I’m honest. It was 40,000 words. I then scrapped it and started again. I must’ve written about 200,000 words in four months. Oh to be that focused again. I began writing the sequel straight away, but I scrapped that as well, and started again. I’m currently editing it, so hopefully it’ll be out in 2021.

DC: I can’t imagine what it must have been like to release a book about a worldwide pandemic in January and have one explode in reality the very next month. What was that like for you?

KN: It was very surreal. I mean, I’d spent half of 2018 immersed in this book about a pandemic. Turns out I was right about a few things.

DC: What sparked the idea for As the World Falls Down?

KN: I had a dream. That’s so cliché, isn’t it? I have very strange dreams. In about April of 2018, I dreamed about the scene in the book where Halley finds Nate on the couch in his cabin. I had no idea what the rest of the story was about. I finished the book in September 2018. Then, I edited it, with more re-writes. I began to query agents and publishers, but my queries were dire. Then I sent five pages to The Wild Rose Press, and they requested the first three chapters, then the full MS. I signed with them in March 2019.

DC: Without giving too much away, the novel opens mainstream and slowly reveals a widening paranormal/science-fictional theme. As a writer and editor, I can clearly see the work is very tightly structured and meticulously planned. And yet your story is solidly character-driven and suffers none of the rigid, mechanical feel of intricately plotted novels. Can you tell us a bit about your specific writing process, and how you approached constructing this work?

KN: My process is chaotic. I spend a lot of time talking to myself and wandering around acting out the scenes. Then I scribble down notes. Usually I don’t make a proper chapter plan until I’ve written half the book. I feel like I go into the ring with every story and fight each round until I’ve figured everything out.

DC: Your character work is superb. Halley and Nate, your protagonists, are exceptionally well-drawn and even the novel’s minor characters are round and well-developed. Do characters come to you, as it were, living and breathing with a backstory to tell, or do you put a lot of conscious thought into their development?

KN: It’s more unconscious thought. I can’t even begin to explain how my brain works. I love to read and be so swept up in a story that I can’t stop thinking about it. I’ve not found a book like that in a really long time. I wanted As the World Falls Down to be that book. Even if I was the only person who ever read it. I also think I worked through a lot of my own personal trauma in this book. There’s a piece of me in every character— Halley more than most. None of the characters have the moral high ground either. Well, maybe Halley does. I explore that more in book two. I like moral ambiguity. I like flawed people who make terrible decisions for the right reasons.

DC: Your novel has a very satisfying roundness and texture. Nested mysteries and a sense of growing strangeness shading toward horror are interwoven with gentle notes of domesticity, of love for the pastoral beauty of the English countryside. And the love affair between your protagonists is, like so much else, exquisitely well-handled and developed, something not a great many SF authors manage. Do you read romance and other genres beyond SFF?

KN: I don’t really read romance. I usually read horror or fantasy. It’s the movies and tv shows that I watched in my youth that probably shaped my mind in terms of what makes a good romance. Princess Leia and Han Solo, Buffy and Angel, Robin Hood and Maid Marian. I like the idea of star-crossed lovers, even if it doesn’t end well.

DC: Though your actual writing style is transparent, refreshing, and entirely yours, I’m wondering where your literary roots lie. Are there any authors you feel influenced you, especially in terms of genre or thematic concerns?

KN: In my early twenties I think I read every fantasy author on the shelves of waterstones. I also love Alice Hoffman. She writes stories about ghosts, and magic, and mermaids, but it’s never really about the supernatural, its about the characters and their relationships.  

DC: As the World Falls Down is traditionally published by The Wild Rose Press in New York State. Getting a publishing deal is notoriously hard for new authors today. How did you go about finding your publisher, and had you considered going indie if you weren’t able to?

KN: I queried forty publishers and agents, using query tracker for the most part. I think TWRP were query number 30 or something. I blundered my way into the whole process— no idea what I was doing. I began querying in September/October and got signed in the following March. It was all rather miraculous to be honest.

I definitely considered self-publishing because I refused to let this book die. Some authors shelve their books. I can’t imagine putting your soul into something and then saying ‘oh well, I couldn’t get an agent so I’ll just forget about this novel and write something else.’ The more someone tells me I can’t do something, the more I’ll fight to succeed. 

DC: I know you’re active in the UK SF and comic convention scene. Tell us a little about your involvement and how you came to love the genres.

KN: My first ever sci fi convention was Destination Star Trek London. I only went because Scott Bakula was there. I was an obsessed Quantum Leap fan. I still am. I made friends online in the forums and we met up at the event. Since then, I’ve done many cons and made amazing friends. We try and meet up as often as possible but we’re all missing each other terribly this year. Covid 19 has put a stop to our antics.

DC: Of course, I’m very much looking forward to the next volume in the Cities in Dust series. Do you have a release date yet, or is this still open? And are you working on anything else in the meantime?

KN: The sequel had to be cut in half as it was such a long book. I’m almost done with it. I imagine it will be released in spring 2021.

DC: I know you live in southeast England. Apart from writing, what else do you enjoy doing?

KN: Being a mum and a carer takes up a lot of my time. I live near the beach which is great. I walk a lot. I find inspiration everywhere. I love people watching. I’m slightly obsessed with interior design. Whenever I can, I head down to Cornwall or Dorset.

DC: Katy, thanks so much for spending this time with us. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

KN: Thank you for reading. Thank you for your support.

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THE FICTION WRITING HANDBOOK, my Disruptive Writing Guide FREE today only!

My different, iconoclastic craft manual, The Fiction Writing Handbook: The Professional Author’s Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules, is FREE on Kindle until midnight today, Saturday September 14.

With a foreword by Janice Hardy, this book directly challenges and questions all the accumulated writing rules and dogma that rattle around the internet echo chamber and are endlessly parroted by writing blogs, teachers, and books. 

Most of the so-called writing rules are flat-out wrong, and a great many others — Show, don’t tell and open with action, to take just two — are deeply misleading and poorly-understood. Check out the reviews and grab your copy now!


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The Invisible Economy of Middle Earth, and Why Readers Don’t Care

When I finish a novel and I’m casting around for the next to read, I’ll often spend  a few evenings dipping back into an old favourite, one of those evergreens I like to re-read a few pages or chapters or beloved passages of. Lately I’ve been re-reading portions of Lord of the Rings, which I first encountered some fifty years ago.

Well, it got me to thinking.

Looked at critically, Tolkien’s masterwork breaks a great many of the rules that present-day writers, agents, and editors obsess over.

But readers, the people who actually matter (because they, not the writer’s critique partners or agent or publisher, are the ones shelling out the money for the book) don’t care one bit.

First, LotR is written in third-person omniscient, or “God’s eye view,” in which the author dips into each character’s thoughts at need. This  viewpoint technique is deprecated by writing mavens today as being distancing, and frequently dissed as “head-hopping.” Compounding his sins, Tolkien often employs the passive voice and uses adverbs liberally, with several on almost every page of the book. A writer trying this today would get mauled by their critique group, and I guarantee their manuscript would bounce off an agent’s slushpile faster than hail off a tin roof.

But that’s only the beginning.

As Frodo and his companions traverse Middle Earth, we discover a vast, empty land curiously devoid of any significant trade, agriculture, homesteads, or even travelers. Oh, the dwarves mine and craft metal, and we get the token farmer like Maggot in the Shire, and mentions of agriculture and crafts in Minas Tirith, but seriously, is any of this truly credible without a visible functioning economy?

I think it is. Certainly we never encounter trading caravans traveling between regions, but I suspect that – in fact, Tolkien implies it in a few places – the realms of Gondor, Rohan, and so on, actually do have agriculture and artisans, smiths and woodworkers, hide tanners and potters, glassblowers and stonemasons, thatchers and ploughmen: but other than one or two mentions Tolkien simply doesn’t bring them onstage or discuss them. Why? Because they’re not generally relevant to his story and thus he had no interest in describing them. There are occasional hints and implications of regional economies, and, before Middle Earth fell into a darker age, of a greater, interlinked economy, but no more.

One thing I stress repeatedly in my craft book and when I edit books for indie authors is that the only person whose opinion matters is the reader. An author shouldn’t be writing for their critique group, and certainly shouldn’t take all the nitpicky advice they’re given to heart. Yet sadly, I’ve seen more than one perfectly fine tale diluted and fractured by authors trying to address their fellow writers’ concerns over where the ore for the iron is mined, who grows the food, and so on ad nauseam. Some concerns may be valid, of course; but in the example I’m using here, I maintain they’re not.

For a story, a novel, a world to be credible, all that stuff doesn’t need to be told or shown on the page, it simply needs to be known to the author. The obsession for detailing and showing everything is a modern one, an industry fashion, and really doesn’t matter a whit to the reader. As generations of adoring Tolkien fans have proved, if the story flows and involves them and the author does nothing to break the spell, they will keep turning the pages.

Writing a great book isn’t so much about doing a ton of things right (and certainly not by the fashion of the day) as it is about telling a great story and simply not doing anything wrong.

Tolkien knew his world worked, and the reader senses it. I very much doubt that the vast majority of LotR readers give a thought to the details of Middle-Earth’s economy. What concerns them is the pressing matter of the ring and the imminent destruction of all that is beautiful and fair in Middle Earth, not to mention Frodo’s own dire plight.

To date, the LotR books have sold more than 150 million copies. Game, set, and match to the author.


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“Hands of an Angry God”: My Final Indie Book Recommendation for 2018

"Hands of an Angry God" cover image

I’ve been doing more editing and book production than writing this year, and have been so impressed by the quality of some of the books I’ve worked on that I wanted to bring them to my own readers’ attention.

Douglas Martin’s Hands of an Angry God is the last in this series on exceptional indie novels.

Set in a remote wilderness inn at the start of the American Revolution, Hands of an Angry God is a dark, compelling tale of mystery, suspense, murder and, ultimately, Grace and redemption.

The novel’s protagonist, Dayne, the innkeeper’s eleven-year-old son, does not speak. In the author’s own words, Dayne “withdraws inward in search of voice and a family root, but the cruel death of a brother and repeated emotional failures with his father deepen his isolation. Bitter social and political adversaries trapped by a blizzard snarl the inn with danger and war. A conniving peddler riles all and brings ancient grudge and reckoning.”

Three things make this novel extraordinary, and one I believe you should read.

First, the story is one of the most resonant and visceral I’ve ever read. This is a gut puncher of a book, with fully rounded characters driving the action to its explosive climax in a way that would have made Shakespeare smile.

Second, the author’s depth of knowledge and research of the period renders the story utterly convincing in historical and social detail. And his portrayal of the dangerous wilderness that was upstate New York in 1776 is spellbinding.

Third, Douglas Martin’s writing style is pure prose poetry. His unique use of language, along with the points mentioned above, make this an absolutely unforgettable book.

All that said, this novel is a dark and dense read: if you’re looking for fluffy and happy, it’s probably not for you. But for those who like intense, visceral fiction, and who love to savour unique prose and dialogue that crackles with tension, Hands of an Angry God is a must-read. If, like myself, you enjoy historical fiction as real as it can be, all the better. Here’s a sample:

Dayne rocked back and forth, arms closed tight to his body. The water and woods carried unspoken rhythms, life as it came, yet also unseen spirits, omens and unkind nature. Over recent months ill change crept close along edges of the forest and into his father’s fields. Disturbance, violent upheaval would follow. The arrowhead proved it.

The lonely bird called again and an answer came from dense laurel thickets on the slope across the stream.

Alarmed, Dayne glanced up. His father said Indians sometimes made such sounds and often he ran afraid through fields and forest to escape unseen enemies. He peered uneasy, unsure among barren woods. Only the waterfall, the push of the creek and scratch of windblown leaves on the ground disturbed the quiet.

Dayne placed the arrowhead in his coat pocket. He would hide it in the fields far away from his eyes and thoughts. Cloth and hole covered over he gathered the kitten, turned along the path and crested the upper bank to overlook a narrow knobbed valley.

Scattered crop remnants poked uneven farm fields and a distant road creased wilderness beyond. Forbidding mountains loomed over all, stark and unforgiving, giant bony beasts buried restless and angry in the earth.

You can find the book on Amazon in both eBook and print by clicking here, or on the book’s cover image on this page. I first read it two years ago in draft, and think about it to this day.

That’s probably a wrap for me for the year. As for myself, I’m contemplating starting on a new novel in 2019. Thanks as always for following this blog, and I wish you the happiest of holiday seasons, and all the very best in the coming year.





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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/


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.




Filed under Books and Writers, interviews, Writing

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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The Made in L.A. Anthology is here!

We at Made in L.A. Writers have been working like crazy to put our first anthology together since deciding on it late last year. The anthology is now available in print and releases in digital format on the occasion of the L.A. Times Festival of Books (April 21-22), where we’ll have a booth. If you’re in L.A., we’d love to see you there. My own fiction contribution to the 300+ page volume, a 45-page novella titled Dry Bones, is set right here in the City of Angels, as are all the other stories. I’m very excited about this anthology! Here’s a peek at the cover and the list of fabulous authors. 

Cover of the Made in L.A. anthology, vol.1

cover design by Allison Rose


Amy Sterling Casil
Dario Ciriello
Jude-Marie Green
Andre Hardy
Gabi Lorino
Bonnie Randall
Allison Rose
Cody Sisco

Readers in Los Angeles are thirsty for stories that bring their city to life. This anthology features a diverse range of voices and genres. Like the City of Angels in which these stories were born, nothing is off-limits. Literary or contemporary, noir or ghost story, fabulism or science fiction, each story in this volume will forever change the way you look at this iconic metropolis.

Made in L.A. Writers is a collaborative of Los Angeles-based authors dedicated to nurturing and promoting indie fiction. This 2018 volume is the first of the annual Made in L.A. anthology series. While our styles, themes, and story locales differ, our work is both influenced and illuminated by our hometown and underpinned by the extraordinary, multifaceted, and often surreal culture and life of the City of Angels.

From my colleague Cody Sisco’s introduction to the volume, here’s the scoop on how this anthology series came to be:

“In 2017 four indie authors first came together under the Made in L.A. banner to support each other and share a booth at the Los Angeles Festival of Books. We passed out bookmarks, watched as kids made away with our candy, chatted with a few questionable characters, and found many new fans. We expected all of that.

“What surprised us was how many people approached our booth with a version of the question: Are these books all set in L.A.? Our reluctant though truthful response, “Not really,” didn’t satisfy them and it didn’t satisfy the four of us, who saw a missed opportunity to “give them what they want.”

My own novella, Dry Bones, set in the Altadena foothills of the San Gabriel mountains, revolves around the breakdown of relationships, reality, and even time in the face of L.A.’s haunted past of cults and occultism.

The Made in L.A. anthology is already available in print at Amazon, and will release as an Amazon eBook on Saturday April 21. If you prefer the digital copy, please pre-order it now, since every pre-ordered copy will help us immensely by building momentum and interest on release day. Either click on the book cover image above or follow this link to the book page for either edition.

We had a lot of fun putting this volume together, and I know you’re going to love it. And don’t forget — if you’re in L.A. that weekend, do stop by our booth at the festival and say hello!




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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?


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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