Tag Archives: writing

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 been 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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Self-Editing: The Inconvenient Truth

A few days ago, I found myself reassuring an author on Twitter. The author had shown someone their final novel draft, which they’d gone through countless times, and the reader found a number of mistakes in just the first ten pages.

This isn’t in the least unusual. And although there’s currently a rash of books and blog posts on how to self-edit, the reality is that you’re not — unless you’re already a seasoned pro, and even then — going to catch the majority of issues with your own work. It’s impossible.

I’m not talking about typos here, or even commonly confused words (discreet for discrete, effect for affect, etc.), missing quotation marks, and the like, all of which will slip past spellcheck and most authors’ revision passes. No, the dangers lie in far more significant errors such as plot holes, continuity glitches, confusing passages of insufficiently-tagged dialogue, impossible actions, viewpoint slips, mangled syntax, and so much more. (More here on what good copyeditors look for and how they go about it.)

The two main reasons self-editing doesn’t really work are that the author is so familiar with their own manuscript they can’t read it slowly enough, and (worse) they understand their own creation so well that they’re not going to see the holes and missing links that will prevent the reader from fully understanding or following it.

Looking back over dozens of manuscripts I’ve copyedited in the last several years, I find the following rough metrics emerging (based on 80,000-100,000-word novels):

 

WRITING LEVEL Mistakes/corrections (average) Comments, editorial (average)
Newer writers 2,000-3,500 200-300
Intermediate 800-1,500 50-150
Advanced/Pro* 200-1,000 30-50

 

Sobering numbers? They should be.

Now, bear in mind that the mistakes/corrections listed in my table above will include a large number (up to 50%?) of quite minor issues, such as punctuation, paragraphing, indents, etc. Still, punctuation errors can change the meaning of a sentence; and although most readers are somewhat forgiving if the story is engaging, if the text has repeated errors, they’ll likely ding the author in a review, or put the book aside for good. With between one and three thousand new books published every day in the US alone (yes, you read that right) and millions of books for sale on Amazon alone, the competition for the reader’s time and money is beyond ferocious. And although good editing/copyediting doesn’t come cheap,** the author who publishes a book without having a professional go over it is taking a big risk.

As for the editorial comments column in the table above, those usually constitute actionable items or issues – plot holes, say, or something not believable, or worse — serious enough to require flagging for the author. Things that need fixing, or at least consideration.

Some authors may also be a little wary of copyeditors, because they see the process as inherently adversarial (“red pencil syndrome”), or because they’re concerned about having their style altered. These aren’t unreasonable concerns: as an author myself, one of my guiding principles is to respect the author’s style and intention and make every effort to hew as close to their original text as possible when making corrections or suggesting changes.

Perfect examples of this are sentence fragments and even comma splices: while most copyeditors will unhesitatingly treat each instance as a transgression, I try to determine if they’re intentional stylistic choices; if there’s no significant grammatical issue, the author gets the benefit of the doubt. And many authors have thanked me for respecting their style choices.

Secondly, I try (if it’s not an obvious case) to give the author an insight into the reasoning behind my strikeouts and, at the risk of seeming overly didactic, to supply any applicable rule behind errors I see repeated, in the hope this may help the author in future.

It’s true that good beta readers, if you’re fortunate to have some, will catch quite a few things. But even the best readers aren’t going to spend twenty minutes recasting an awkward paragraph (it’s very rare to find a manuscript that doesn’t have many), check your facts, scrutinize capitalization use, address incorrect punctuation, monitor for consistency, and so on. It’s unlikely they know their style manuals inside out, or have the broad array of general knowledge a good copyeditor should. Given they’re doing this as a favour to the author, they’re unlikely to give a ms. the close and careful scrutiny and the time a copyeditor will.

Finally, copyediting is not critique. If your betas are writers, there’s also a good chance some of them may have their own ideas of how your story should go, and that’s not always a good thing. Copyediting is a necessary and valuable step in preparing a manuscript for publication, and an investment in both the current work and the author’s career, whether they’re indie publishing or going the traditional route.

Are you interested in having your work copyedited? Please check out my services here, or drop me a line.

Notes

*The very cleanest manuscript I ever saw was from a longtime professional who’d written dozens of novels and short stories. In the whole 80k words, I only made thirty corrections and eight comments. One of these, however, was a doozy: at the pinnacle of the climax, the hero gets the chance to draw his pistol, saving the day. Unfortunately, he already had both hands full, a catch for which my client was very grateful indeed.

**Copyediting an average length novel takes anywhere from thirty to forty hours and up, depending on how much work is required. It’s intense, high-focus, and highly skilled work, and a good copyeditor is worth every penny they charge.

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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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On Conflict in Fiction

As some of you may know, I’ve just revised and re-released my 2017 book on writing craft, formerly titled Drown the Cat, as The Fiction Writing Handbook: The Professional Author’s Guide to Writing Beyond the Rules.

The Fiction Writing Handbook takes a hard new look at common writing myths and diktats and challenges conventional wisdom with the goal of helping writers to develop an individual voice and understand the reasons underlying the so-called rules of writing.

Here’s an excerpt on the topic of conflict. If you find this interesting, you can find the book on Amazon.

 

External and Internal Conflict

It’s a truth of the human condition that our interest is more easily sparked and our attention held by threats than by good news. We watch the nightly news and read newspapers to keep informed of threats and crises, not to feel warm fuzzies at the good fortune of others—unless they’ve been snatched, against all odds, from the jaws of death. This focus on negatives and threats is a hardwired survival mechanism from eons past when we weren’t at the top of the food chain and lived in constant fear of attack from predators and other small bands of early humans. So it’s no surprise that conflict—a condition born of clashing goals between ourselves and others, ourselves and nature, or simply our conflicting inner drives—is a core component of story.

Conflict in story comes from the presence of obstacles between a character and their goal. The conflict can be external or internal. When a rival tries to steal the heart of the woman the hero loves, you have conflict; but the conflict could equally well stem from the fact that geography and life circumstances (distance, children, jobs they can’t quit, etc.) keep the couple apart. Going more internal, if the hero’s drinking stops him from gaining the affection of the woman he loves, the potential result is the same: hero loses girl. Going deeper still, if the hero’s insecurity and lack of self-worth undermines him in his interactions with the object of his affections, he still won’t get the girl.

There’s a widespread assumption that, since conflict of some sort is an essential component in fiction if we want to have an audience, more must be better. This, like so much else, is a fallacy based entirely on the commercial drivers of the narrative and dramatic arts in the modern world. It’s nonsense.

The word conflict means serious disagreement or struggle, and we’re continually told that for a story to keep the reader hooked you need conflict in every scene, and even every page. This is idiocy. What keeps the reader hooked are questions, often of the will they/won’t they kind. Some of these may contain oppositions—a character is hungry but everything conspires to prevent them from eating. Are these conflict? You decide.

Then there’s the problem of forced conflict and melodrama.

Take the television series Downton Abbey, most of which I enjoy enormously. Despite some superb writing and often brilliant character work (Lady Mary, Mr. Barrow, et al) this hugely successful series frequently crosses the boundary into soap opera and melodrama. This is of course a subjective judgment; but I contend that though the series is compelling viewing and full of conflict, it often achieves that at the cost of being manipulative. Take for example Mrs. O’Brien, a character entirely lacking in roundness and whose sole purpose is to stir the pot; or consider the repeated and ultimately tedious crises of Mr. Bates’s plot arc, and you may see what I mean. The longer the series ran, the further it strayed over the line between natural and forced conflict.

Good conflict needs to be unforced, naturally occurring rather than engineered. The quality and dimension of conflict in a given story is important—a hero risking death will command our attention more than a hero risking a few bruises; the protagonist facing ruin engages us more than one facing a parking ticket. But when, as in so many contemporary crime novels and virtually 100 percent of TV and film detective stories, every protagonist comes literally crushed under the weight of internal and external baggage, the effect is inevitably formulaic.

I’m not saying that audiences don’t get hooked by this: the runaway success of novels like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and TV series like Breaking Bad speaks for itself. What I am saying is that manipulating your audience doesn’t equate to good fiction or storytelling. But such is the grip of suits and money on the publishing business that things have become confused.

Each era has its fashions, but the drive in publishing to expand the bottom line has led to a pedal-to-the-metal, all-conflict, all-the-time formula being applied to so much drama that it all starts to look the same. The protagonist was abused as a child, has a deeply dysfunctional family background, custody issues with their ex, struggles with drink, drugs, or both, has endless interpersonal and discipline issues at work, possibly a life-threatening condition…and that’s just their backstory.

Sound familiar?

You don’t have to cynically manipulate your reader with every tool imaginable to keep them interested. To my mind, the real craftsman strives for economy and originality instead of milking the reader dry by using the exact same template every other novelist and screenwriter out there employs. Yes, some people in real life do carry a similar and crushing baggage set, but I submit that to just throw in the kitchen sink because it sometimes works erodes our art and ultimately damages our soul. I’m tempted to use words like “cheap” and “lazy” in regard to this way of overloading a hero with conflict except for the fact that too many writers I respect do this very thing: but I stand by my opinion that the protagonist struggling to even breathe under the load of their internal baggage is a fad born of Hollywood and the ever-intensifying pressure of the bottom line rather than any requirements of story or craft. Was Homer’s Ulysses an alcoholic? Was Shakespeare’s King Lear abused as a child? While both these things are possible, the power of both these dramatic figures certainly isn’t undermined by our not being told.

We are all who we are because of our past, and it’s true that our past, and especially deep-rooted childhood experiences and trauma, can predispose us to certain behaviors; but this doesn’t mean we have to take it to excess.

Let’s take as an example John Le Carré’s character George Smiley, one-time head of the British Secret Service. A somewhat introverted, cerebral figure, Smiley is endlessly cuckolded by his wife Anne, who has taken for a lover one of Smiley’s colleagues, the suave, worldly Bill Haydon. But that’s it. Along with a sense of his growing age and concomitant vague melancholy, that’s the sum total of Smiley’s personal baggage and, my God! how much more believable and unique a character Smiley is for that. Nor do audiences balk at Smiley’s lack of inner demons: the Smiley novels have sold in the millions, been translated into thirty-six languages, and adapted for radio, television, and film.

To show that it’s entirely possible to have very successful narrative drama without resorting to crushing internal conflict, and that a perfectly normal, well-adjusted protagonist can still be at the core of a compelling and hugely successful story, consider Frodo in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. At the onset of the story, Frodo is a normal, happy, and well-to-do hobbit. Once the truth about the Ring is revealed, it’s all downhill, but Frodo doesn’t start off conflicted or struggling against inner demons.

Then there’s Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby in the hugely successful British TV series, Midsomer Murders: Barnaby has a good family life, lives in a lovely village, and is in fine health and good spirits most of the time. Or Elizabeth Bennett in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: other than the ordinary, everyday concerns of living with a neurotic mother, a few silly sisters, and a bookish, eccentric father, Elizabeth is a happy, carefree, normal young woman.

Do we care any less for any of these because they’re not struggling to even stand under the burden of emotional baggage? Of course not.

To conclude, the writer doesn’t have to follow the herd and pander to current cults in storytelling. One can craft powerful, resonant fiction without overloading every available slot in a character’s makeup. Like everything about your story, your characters’ backstory is a choice—your choice. Not being bound by ludicrous assumptions and conventions frees us up to tell our own story without imposing someone else’s tired template on our characters.

What do you think? Do you find contemporary genre fiction and television predictable, formulaic, and ultimately tedious in its overuse of these devices?

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Writing Dreams, Writing Delusions

About six months ago I joined a very large and well-established L.A. area writing group, with the idea of getting to know and spending some quality time with other local authors, as well as the possible side benefit that some networking would bring me more copyediting clients. Six months later, I haven’t been to a single one of their meetings, and will undoubtedly just let my membership expire at the end of its term.

Conferences and events, heralded by a breathtaking daily barrage of spam emails, are frequent and not cheap. These emails trumpet “Your Chance to Meet and Pitch One of California’s Top Literary Agents!” as if this were (and should be!) every writer’s sole and desperate goal, the only thing standing between them and riches. And of course you can save big bucks by reserving a spot today.

Seriously? This is 2019, not 1999. Get real, people.

I know whereof I speak. I’ve had my own imprint since 2009; I have five of my own books out, and have had some notable success; I’ve helped several other authors get their first novels published. I’ve written on writing craft, and I guest blog for others. I’ve participated in and moderated conference panels for almost two decades; I’m occasionally asked to beta read work for some big name authors, and have interviewed many on this same blog.

Above all, I pride myself on my approach of dealing with authors honestly, even if it makes me look like a deeply cynical contrarian, rather than trying to capitalize on their dreams. I may not be rich, but I can look at myself in the mirror every morning and see an honest man.

So here’s the straight dope: a writer’s chances of landing an agent (especially a good one) today are so slim that they might as well as buy a lottery ticket. Oh, the odds may not be quite so bad, but I wouldn’t let a child of mine even think about making it their goal or dream. If, like Russian Roulette, getting picked up by a top agent carried a high risk of violent death (hmm, now there’s a story seed!), I’d tell them not to worry.

Now, there are many agents and people in publishing who care deeply about trying to give newer authors a chance; but the likelihood of anyone who isn’t already a name getting a book deal is vanishingly slim, and the road to publication time-consuming, burdensome, and peppered with potholes.

Ask yourself this: do you really want to spend years, possibly decades of your life facing rejection after bitter rejection as you struggle to shoehorn your work into  the industry’s ever-increasingly restrictive formulas in the vanishing hope that an agent will pick you up and get you a publishing deal?

And then what? If everything goes very, very well and you successfully run the gauntlet and deliver all the rewrites necessary to please everyone, including the publisher’s marketing people who think your ending may not quite please some readers, or that your brilliant magic realist subtheme makes it less easy to fit your novel into a clear category, you might eventually end up with a $5k advance for years of work, and face the very real likelihood that your novel won’t earn out its advance (because your publisher likely put zero muscle into marketing it), and a reduced likelihood of ever getting another book deal.

Years of your life, and a mountain of soul-crushing disappointment.

And yet fanning this very delusion has become an industry on the internet, with hundreds, possibly thousands of rah rah cheerleading blogs and a blizzard of stridently-titled books on Amazon promising to show you how to write a bestseller and get it published. There is, sadly, a great deal more money to be made by selling writers snake oil than by actually writing.

It’s possible you don’t care about fame and riches, but simply see being traditionally published as validation of your writing ability and the strength of your work. That ship sailed long ago: today, even publishing industry insiders no longer see themselves as the arbiters of literary quality, the thin red line protecting readers from an ocean of awful dreck.

All this said, wanting to become proficient at your craft and have your work read is a worthy and beautiful dream which I encourage every author to nurture and cherish; but getting there via the traditional trajectory of landing an agent and publishing deal — in my personal opinion — sails so close to the delusional that a visit to Vegas in the hope of returning rich seems like a great option.

Nurturing a creative’s dream (hell, I’m a creative too), is a wonderful thing. Encouraging them is their delusions and making money off them by selling them snake oil is exploitative and predatory. And, honestly, if you want to be a writer, what you need is realism, toughness and tenacity, not fairy visions and stardust sprinkles. I could make far more money telling desperate writers what they want to hear, but I’d rather keep my self-respect, thank you.

Should you want to be published? Hell yes! (Incidentally, I wrote a post many years back on why we want so badly to be published.) But today, more than ever, you should consider taking the indie route: I talk about this, and much else, in my craft book linked below. In both that volume and my work as a freelance copyeditor, my entire focus is on helping authors tell their story in a way that will please the reader rather than conform to the stifling and questionable requirements of an industry long past its expiration date.

And as I delete the last few days’ hyperbolic emails from the big writer’s group, I feel good that even if I haven’t told you what you wanted to hear — that you’ll land that trad publishing deal and soar to stardom if you just pony up the cost a few weeks’ groceries for a chance to pitch that top agent — I’ve at least told you the truth as best I know it.


The Fiction Writing Handbook* is a complete guide for the fiction writer who wants to develop an individual voice and understand the reasons underlying the so-called rules of writing. Although a few rules really are necessary, the vast majority are either dogma or passing fads. Worse, so much advice like “show don’t tell” and “open with action” is often poorly explained and entirely misunderstood, causing writers no end of problems. Similarly, the importance of both character and narrative voice, as well as tone, cannot be overstated.

Drawing on twenty years of writing, critiquing, editing and mentoring experience, Dario Ciriello explodes writing myths, shreds conventional wisdom, and dissects the often misleading advice and diktats shouted at writers by books and blogs, agents and publishers. The Fiction Writing Handbook gives authors the necessary tools and insights to retake control of their story and make it unique.

Other topics covered in The Fiction Writing Handbook include external and internal dialog, writers’ block, traditional vs. indie publishing, PoV (point of view), creating suspense, and much more.

Whether your interest lies in short stories, novels or screenwriting, The Fiction Writing Handbook shows you how to tell your story in your voice and place it before your audience, eschewing novel plotting formulas and cookie-cutter fiction to remain true to your own, exceptional vision while adhering to the few rules that actually matter. Because writing isn’t about prose wonks and industry insiders: it’s about the reader, and most of all it’s about telling a story. Your story.

*The Fiction Writing Handbook was originally released in 2017 under the title, Drown the Cat, as it directly challenges much of the write-by-numbers advice in screenwriter Blake Snyder’s cult book, Save the Cat!

 

 

 

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The Curiously Personal Nature of Bad Reviews

Whether you’re a writer, plumber, dentist, restaurateur, or a vendor of online goods, sooner or later you’re going to get one or more mean-spirited and stinging reviews. It doesn’t matter an iota whether it’s justified or not: you can write the best book in the world, provide a flawless, customer-centric service, sell the highest quality goods, and you’ll still get them, those snide little one-star jabs out of the blue that drag your perfect five-point-oh average down to a four-point-something or worse.

As a writer, my personal experience is with Amazon. I’ve seen people with scores of four- and five-star reviews receive a one-star review that appears to have zero relevance to the book, or that is factually inaccurate. Occasionally the poster focuses obsessively on some inconsequential detail or scene which has, for whatever reason, sent them off the deep end. Sometimes the reviewer confesses to not reading beyond the first chapters; others, they state they enjoyed the book but the Amazon eBook wouldn’t open on the first try, or a print version arrived in the mail with a creased  cover and because of that they’re giving it one star.

It’s annoying and just plain wrong.

What is very clear though if you look carefully at these outlier reviews of a generally fine product or service, is the very personal nature of them: whereas good reviews are generally thoughtful and clearly phrased to be informative, targeted at potential buyers in a general spirit of helpfulness, the low-grade, plainly nasty review is often aimed as clearly as any poison dart at the service provider, vendor, or, in the case of books, the author. Personally, unequivocally, and with the intent to sting. It’s there for you to read, and is as targeted as a personal letter.

The worst reviews often fall into three categories:

  • An intentional attempt by a competitor or rival to damage your product or service
  • A mean attack of a personal nature from someone who dislikes you or has an axe to grind
  • An issue not with your service or product, but instead the way it was delivered or handled by a third party

In the case of books, it also occasionally happens that person hasn’t taken the trouble to thoroughly read the book description or look at other reviews, and is not in the target audience for the book; instead of owning their shoddy research, they blame the poor author for not writing the book they wanted to read.

There’s no doubt that bad reviews hurt. It is, however, worth remembering that most potential buyers, on researching a product that has overwhelmingly good reviews and just one or two very negative ones, will either entirely dismiss the negatives or take the time to examine them. In many cases, a negative review gives itself away in its tone, or by the obviously incorrect or unfair detail in the text. Readers and buyers aren’t stupid, and while a terrible review may sting, it rarely will hurt the author, vendor, or service provider as much as the poster would like: often, it only makes the poster look stupid, emotionally unstable, or an outright liar.

One thing I always do in the case of these outlier negative reviews is click on the poster’s name. On most sites (Amazon is one), it takes you to a page listing all their reviews. This can be extremely revealing: I’ve more than once found that someone who’s left a nasty one-star review on a book or other product hasn’t posted a single other book review. In other cases, the reviewer gives all books of a particular genre bad reviews. This sort of thing says far more about the reviewer than the product.

Sometimes the list of products the buyer has reviewed reveals a great deal about them as a person, and, in showing us the things they spend their money on, lays bare their interests, even their obsessions, in a way that doesn’t always reflect well on them.

All of us who care about our writing, or the products and services we provide are at some point going to feel the sting of these intentionally unpleasant reviews. My advice is to trust that potential buyers, by now well-experienced in navigating the landscape of the online review ecosystem, are shrewd enough to see through these nasty little missives and not be influenced by them. It’s unfortunately just the way things are, and worrying about it does no good. The best response is to get on with one’s work and put out more good product for that vast majority of readers or clients who appreciate the true worth of your efforts.

Have you been the subject of nasty, personally-targeted reviews? What have you learned from these instances?

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The Paleotech Trap

In my current read, a terrific crime novel written in 1990, I can’t help a wry smile creeping onto my face at the quasi-reverential aura which surrounds the shiny new technology of the time — computers running MS-DOS, DNA tests that take weeks to return, and not a cellphone in sight. The phrase “electronic mail” is current, and a hack is a “database violation.”

The same thing is very noticeable in long-running TV series dating from the 1990s such as Friends (1994-2004), which in just a ten-year span saw the characters go from wielding boxy portable landline phones to (dumb) cellphones; Chandler, around season two or three, is an early laptop adopter. Or the even longer-running Midsomer Murders (1997-present), in which the police computers go from using massive and clunky CRT monitors to today’s state-of-the-art tech.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the exponential rate of technological progress dates a story or show terribly fast, giving it a shimmer of history, of a fossilized world. It’s becoming increasingly hard to envisage a modern world without all-pervasive digital technology — and yet, that world is just three decades in our past.

Portraying the present isn’t so much the issue, as audiences accept a story’s temporal context. But accurately setting a film or story in the short- to medium-term future is full of pitfalls. The real-world consequences of Moore’s Law pose a particular problem for Science Fiction writers, whose work can come to seem laughably dated or, worse, wildly inaccurate to their audience in a handful of years: the safest thing today is to place the story so far in the future that Clarke’s Third Law (“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”) applies.

This was a concern when I was writing my first novel, Sutherland’s Rules (2013), but I was fortunate enough to be positing a scheme whose tech still passes muster, though real-time satellite mapping of even small moving objects on land and sea is about to change that, if it hasn’t already. Still, I’m glad I made a particular point of not fetishizing the early smartphones of the day: having got my start in Science Fiction, I knew the risks I ran.

As both a writer and editor, I’m probably hyper-aware of details that wouldn’t bother most people. But as a reader and viewer, I can honestly say I’m forgiving. If the characters and story have me hooked and the author is competent, everything else becomes secondary.

But let’s not fetishize today’s technology. It’ll be history before you know it.

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Gardner, We’ll Miss You.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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