Fire up Your Decks, Cyberpunk 101 is Now in Session

Cyberpunk science fiction has been around for 40 years now – with roots that stretch at least a decade earlier – and the genre resurfaces in popularity regularly as new works are released.

I’m expecting the release of “The Peripheral,” an adaptation of William Gibson’s novel of the same name, on Amazon Prime Video this year to cause another spike in interest. The releases of “Blade Runner 2049” in 2017 and the “Cyberpunk 2077” video game in 2020 also brought attention to the genre.

Cyberpunk is not as neatly defined of a subgenre as some other sci-fi categories, and a lot of discussion on cyberpunk forums centers around the topic of “Does ~insert work here~ count as cyberpunk?”

But in general, cyberpunk novels are set in high-tech dystopias and are heavy on crime, violence, computer hacking and body modifications. They also often feature villains that are rich or corporate and usually include at least one dangerous female character. The technology in cyberpunk novels commonly revolves around altering the human body or consciousness in profound ways.

Cyberpunk also has a stylistic, know-it-when-you-see-it element. The Hunger Games novels meet a lot of the criteria above, but they most definitely are not cyberpunk. Cyberpunk usually features a grittiness, darkness, and bleakness – interspersed with flashes of black glass and glowing neon – that distinguish it from more general techno-dystopian literature.

So where to get started reading cyberpunk?

I’ve outlined four novels below that offer different entry points to the genre. My recommendation would be to either pick whichever book sounds the most appealing to you and go from there or to start at “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” and go down the list, which works well as an encapsulation of the genre’s development over time, like a cyberpunk canon or a Cyberpunk 101.

“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” by Philip K. Dick   1968

While the term “cyberpunk” is believed to have been coined by Bruce Bethke in 1982, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” by Philip K. Dick in 1968 is widely considered the progenitor of the cyberpunk subgenre.

The story follows bounty hunter Rick Deckard as he hunts down androids, also known as replicants. These replicants were given to humans as servants as an incentive to leave the radioactively polluted Earth and colonize Mars. But the androids, which are nearly indistinguishable from people, didn’t enjoy being humans’ slaves so many of them escaped Mars and returned to Earth to be free. These are the replicants Deckard hunts down, using various methods, including an empathy test.

Deckard works for the San Francisco Police Department and receives a bonus for every replicant he kills. In the book, he’s assigned to hunt a group of six replicants that recently escaped Mars, and if he bags them all, he’ll earn enough money to buy a real pet sheep – a status symbol in his world where so many animals have died – to replace the electric one he currently owns.

If this story sounds familiar, it’s probably because it inspired the first Blade Runner movie in 1982, which was directed by Ridley Scott and starred Harrison Ford.

The novel is a convenient way to sample a taste of cyberpunk to see if you’ll like the genre. The setting is the prototypical gritty, polluted, crime-laden world you’ll find elsewhere in cyberpunk. It introduces themes typical of the genre, like the debate over what qualifies as human and what value should be placed on non-human sentient life. The writing has a dark, wry sense of humor that makes for effective jabs at religion, consumerism and culture. 

The text is easy to follow, so it’s an enjoyable read, and the novel is short, so it’s not much of a commitment. It’s the best place to start in cyberpunk and a must-read for any sci-fi fan.

Who will like this book? You’ll probably like this one if you enjoy classic science fiction and retro futures. It’s also a good one for people who prefer short, quick, easy reads.

“Neuromancer,” by William Gibson, 1984

If “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” laid the foundation for cyberpunk, “Neuromancer,” by William Gibson, is the great temple of the genre that’s built on top of it.

“Neuromancer” is William Gibson’s first novel and the first entry in his Sprawl Trilogy. The book follows Case, a former digital thief who’s addicted to drugs because of his shattered nervous system and is generally circling the drain of his life. He meets a contract killer named Molly, who introduces him to a mystery man named Armitage, who hires him to conduct some digital heists and promises to restore his health. The trio travels the world and even into space, encountering other criminal lowlifes, facing off against corporations, cops, and even artificial intelligences.

The book is a must-read if you’re trying to work your way through the sci-fi canon. It firmly established many of the tropes of cyberpunk, including male-female dual protagonists, computer hacking, biohacking, drug use, and crime. It also coined the phrase “cyberspace” and established the genre’s gritty linguistic style. That’s not to mention that the book’s opening line is one of the best of any novel ever.

The downside of “Neuromancer” is that it was written long enough ago – and with very little emphasis on explaining things to the reader – that unless you’re 40 years or older you won’t remember the cultural milieu the book grew out of, so you’ll miss a lot of the references, and parts of it won’t make sense or won’t land with much impact. The upside is that if you are familiar with those times – or just comfortable with difficult prose – the book is immersive in a way few novels achieve.

Who will like this? Neuromancer is the best place to start in cyberpunk if you’re coming from a more literary fiction background and don’t mind a bit of a challenge. It’s also probably the purest hit of cyberpunk you’ll can find – and possibly the pinnacle of the genre.

“Snow Crash,” by Neal Stephenson, 1992

“Snow Crash,” by Neal Stephenson, takes many of the themes and tropes that had developed in the now-mature cyberpunk genre and cranks the volume on them all the way up.

The story follows a pizza-delivery man and hacker named Hiro Protagonist (yes, really) and a young, skateboard-riding courier named Y.T. as they try to prevent a hybrid computer-physical virus from brainwashing humanity. The action takes place in both a massive virtual world known as the metaverse and a comically dystopian 21st Century American West Coast that has been corporatized and politically fractured into an implausible but recognizable facsimile of our world.

In this world, the American government has shrunk into irrelevance while political-economic franchises like Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong have established beachheads throughout the country and many citizens choose to live in semi-autonomous communities called burbclaves. Oh, and the Mafia runs the pizza-delivery service.

Like all of Neal Stephenson’s works, “Snow Crash” veers into wild and interesting digressions, in this case into musings on language as computer code for the human brain, ancient Sumerian culture, and the economy and culture of virtual worlds. The book is largely credited with popularizing the idea and terminology of the metaverse, the virtual world that the company formerly known as Facebook is now trying to build.

“Snow Crash” is relentlessly tongue-in-cheek and way over the top. If you’re into that, it makes the novel supremely entertaining. If you’re not into that, you’ll find something to eye-roll and groan at on almost every page. The book can almost be read as a parody of cyberpunk so some readers debate whether it belongs in the genre or is more of a takedown of the genre.

For me, it’s a cyberpunk book because it loudly hits the genre’s action notes and has some legitimately interesting musings on culture and technology, along with a fun satirical and comedic edge. But this same emphasis could turn off readers who prefer cyberpunk’s darker, more serious incarnations.

Who will like this? This is a good place to start in cyberpunk if you’re interested in the technological aspect of the genre or you enjoy manic prose and satire. 

“Altered Carbon,” by Richard K. Morgan, 2002

On the opposite end of the fun-to-dark spectrum from “Snow Crash” is “Altered Carbon,” by Richard K. Morgan.

The book tells the story of Takeshi Kovacs, a former elite soldier turned private investigator who’s drafted – not entirely willingly – to solve the attempted murder of a rich man.

In the world of “Altered Carbon,” people’s consciousnesses are stored on “decks,” basically hardened computer drives, that can be inserted into different bodies. Since consciousness is essentially a digital construct, people can travel the universe by having their data transmitted between decks, can have their decks inserted into different bodies, and can live indefinitely so long as no one destroys their deck, which is a difficult process because the things are sturdily built.

Even if a deck is destroyed, some people can afford to have their consciousnesses backed up on other decks, so they can continue on.

The story is dark, violent and has explicit sex scenes that would push it well beyond an NC-17 rating. Still, the writing is clever and has a grim, smirking humor at times. The mystery is well-executed and the whole thing is paced to keep you interested. The central technology concept is interesting and raises profound questions, and the world feels complete and lived-in.

Side note: There’s a Netflix series based on this book. I haven’t watched it yet, so I can’t weigh in on it just yet. (More to come at some later date.)

Who will like this book? You’ll probably like this book if you’re coming to cyberpunk from hardboiled fiction or if you’re seeking action and not averse to violence.

So there are my top four options for where to start in cyberpunk. If you’ve read a bunch of cyberpunk, let me know if I’ve missed any good books.

And if you’re new to the genre and you start with one of these recommendations, let me know how it works out.

Where to Start Reading William Gibson

This year’s premiere of “The Peripheral” on Amazon Prime video is likely to bring legendary science-fiction author William Gibson’s work to a wider audience than he’s had in a while. I’m thrilled that one of my favorite writers is set to reach a new batch of fans.

What follows is a guide for all you potential new William Gibson readers. I’ll describe his writing style so you can decide if you’ll want to try out his books, and I’ll provide an overview of his major works so you can pick your entry point.

Let’s start with the basic question of whether you’ll enjoy reading William Gibson.   

You might like William Gibson if: You enjoy dense reads, you like immersive novels with heavy atmosphere and detailed descriptions, and you gravitate toward thought-provoking speculations on the future of technology and society.

You probably won’t like William Gibson if: You prefer easier reads, you want fast-moving action, you don’t have much patience for description.

Gibson’s style is dense, heavy on description and detail, and delivered in the slang from his imagined future worlds. He doesn’t hold the reader’s hand and walk them through the setting or explain why things are they way they are. He shuttles you into his worlds in a windowless van, kicks your ass out into a seedy neighborhood, and leaves you to make sense of it all on your own.

The downside of this style is that it can be hard to understand what’s happening early on, and that can make it difficult to get into his stories. The upside is that once you find your bearings, the worlds feel more real, more complete, and less contrived than other speculative fiction.

The other two hallmarks of Gibson’s work are his talent for explaining our present world through his conjectured futures and his unintentional knack for predicting key concepts of the future. 

Let’s start with the first talent: his ability to use imagined futures to illuminate the present world. Perhaps the best example here is the concept of the Jackpot — basically his apocalypse scenario — in “The Peripheral.” Gibson describes the Jackpot as a mix of interconnected, concurrent crises like droughts, species collapse, wars and pandemics that killed the majority of the global population but left a super-rich remnant with the run of the world that remained. Can you think of a better description of what the last few years have felt like they’re pointing toward? I can’t.

Second, even though Gibson says he’s not necessarily trying to predict the future, he does an awfully good job of it. The most famous example is how he came up with the term cyberspace and a pretty good approximation of hackers in “Neuromancer” all the way back in 1984. There are other little spot-on predictions sprinkled all throughout his work.

The other common tropes in most of his books are characters that run the gamut from criminal underworld types and others living on the fringes of society all the way up to the richest, cleanest — and most ruthless — beings of the world. He often has dual lead characters, with one male and one female. There’s usually an emphasis on clothing, cars, gadgets, and all other facets of the material culture of his worlds. He likes to globe trot in his settings, which provides a nice range of backdrops for the action. There’s also some occasional biohacking and a few bursts of extreme violence.

So to sum it up, William Gibson’s books can be a challenge, but if you’re up for more exertion in your reading time, there’s a big payoff in store.

If all this sounds interesting to you, you’ve got a few good options for where to start reading his work.


OPTION 1: “Neuromancer”

The first choice would be to go back to the beginning and start with “Neuromancer,” his first novel and the first book in his Sprawl Trilogy. This book follows Case, a former digital thief who’s addicted to drugs because of his shattered nervous system and is generally circling the drain of his life. He meets a contract killer named Molly, who introduces him to a mystery man named Armitage, who hires him to conduct some digital heists and promises to restore his health. The trio travels the world and even into space, encountering other criminal lowlifes, facing off against corporations, cops and even artificial intelligences.

Starting with “Neuromancer” gives you one of the purest hits of Gibson’s style and transports you back into a previous generation’s version of the future. The effect is of a universe that simultaneously more familiar and more foreign than any of his other worlds. Also, it’s his most famous book, one of the foundational texts of the cyberpunk genre, and has one of the best opening lines of any novel ever, so it’s a must-read if you’re trying to work your way through the sci-fi canon.

The downside of “Neuromancer” is that it was written so long ago that unless you’re old enough to remember the cultural milieu that this was based on, you’re going to miss a lot of the references and much of it won’t make sense.

In short: “Neuromancer” is the most quintessentially William Gibson novel, but it’s also the hardest to follow.

OPTION 2: “The Peripheral”

If you’re intimidated by the idea of the density of Gibson’s work, it might make sense to start with “The Peripheral” since some of the material will be familiar from watching the show. This will give you a foothold in the world and make it easier to digest and probably more enjoyable.

I’m writing this after watching the first episode of the show, and while the universes in the book and show are consistent, already there are major plot divergences. That means the book and the show won’t spoil too much of each other plot-wise and will reinforce and deepen the experience of each other if you tackle them at the same time.

“The Peripheral” is Gibson’s most recent work, and it’s also my personal favorite of this. The characters are some of the best he’s ever invented, the worlds are both cool as hell and eminently believable, the social and political commentary is so incisive and enlightening, and it has one of the best time-travel mechanisms and solutions to the many worlds problem that I’ve ever read. So I think “The Peripheral” is worth the extra deep dive that you get from reading and watching the show concurrently.

The other upside of starting here is that the Jackpot Trilogy, of which “The Peripheral” is the first book, isn’t done. The second book, “Agency,” was released in January 2020, and Gibson tweeted in July of that year that he was getting started on book #3, titled, simply, “Jackpot.” There’s no firm information on when it will be released, but there’s always something fun about being immersed in a series that isn’t finished and some fun that comes from eagerly awaiting a new book.

You might not want to read this one if you like surprises or want to expand far beyond the show, or if you like to binge book series and don’t want to wait for this one to wrap up.

In Short: “The Peripheral” is the most current and most comprehensible of the books since you have the show as a guide, but you probably won’t break much new ground than the show will cover.

OPTION 3: “Virtual Light”

Gibson tends to write in loosely connected trilogies, where three books in a row share the same universe and some of the same characters. Aside from the Sprawl Trilogy and the Jackpot Trilogy, his other two major trilogies are the Bridge Trilogy and the Blue Ant Trilogy. Of those last two, the Bridge Trilogy feels more quintessentially Gibson-like. It still has much of the grime, grit, and edge of Neuromancer, but it’s more comprehensible since it was written more recently. 

The Blue Ant Trilogy is good, interesting, and very heavy on the social and artistic observations, but it’s something of a departure from the rest of Gibson’s work and is likely to be unsatisfying to most science fiction fans.

You might want to read “Virtual Light” if you started “Neuromancer” but put it down because it was too hard to follow, or if you’re interested in the idea of ultra immersive virtual-reality.

In short: “Virtual Light” is a good compromise between avoiding the intimidating foreignness of “Neuromancer” while providing a difference experience than “The Peripheral.”

I hope you find this post helpful. If you’re already a William Gibson fan, feel free to drop a comment on where you recommend starting. If you’re new to him and you took one of my recommendations here, let me know how it went for you. 

Why I’m Not Making Fun of Mark Zuckerberg for the Metaverse (Even Though it Is Tempting)

There are a lot of reasons to dislike and make fun of Mark Zuckerberg, but the fact that the metaverse isn’t yet ready for primetime isn’t one of them.

Creating a compelling virtual-reality environment is a monumental undertaking, and it’s going to take a long time and cause many failures along the way. The task is made even more difficult for the fact that we’ve spent decades imagining this technology. 

Neal Stephenson gave us a comprehensive view of what fully immersive metaverse could be like  in “Snow Crash” in 1992, and the Matrix movies set our imaginations loose on the idea of a virtual environment that’s indistinguishable from reality.

Even the bleeding edge of current technology falls far short of either of those scenarios because of limitations to computing power and our biology. I expect computing power will eventually catch up, but it will be trickier to avoid making people nauseous when their brains think they’re moving while they’re really sitting still with a headset strapped over their skulls.

This problem of our imaginations running ahead of the currently available technology — and being disappointed by that gap — hasn’t been a problem for many of Silicon Valley’s other creations. Most people didn’t grasp the potential of what home personal computers could be, so the early Apples still seemed special despite their limitations. Many people also didn’t fully understand the possibilities of the mobile phone, so early iPhones still seemed wondrous even though early versions couldn’t even multitask.

Clearly, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg have always occupied different positions in popular culture, but Jobs didn’t face nearly the level of ridicule for those shortcomings that Zuck is catching today.

As a corporate strategy, making sure that you’re the one who disrupts your own business — as Zuckerberg is doing with the metaverse — is bold, difficult, and surprisingly self-aware. Companies that even attempt self-disruption are notable and rare. Rarer still are the companies that succeed.

The real test for Zuckerberg will be whether he sticks with this strategy through the inevitable technical setbacks, internal opposition, and financial losses. 

For my money, I think augmented reality is more promising virtual reality because it solves the dizziness problem and doesn’t require people to completely check out of reality, which makes it usable for a much greater portion of the day and thus potentially more profitable for service providers and advertisers.

Shameless plug: I wrote a whole series of sci-fi novels about a world where AR becomes humans’ dominant interface with the world. If you’re interested in that kind of thing, you can check the books out here. They’re free for Kindle Select subscribers and only $2.99 for people who aren’t. 

Back to Zuckerberg, I want to reiterate that I’m no fan of the guy. The company’s problems with content moderation, data harvesting, fact-checking, and a host of other internal practices are serious and signal a need for someone with entirely different skills to run the company.

And I’ll admit to chuckling at the pictures of the legless, sub-Sims-quality avatars and the stories of staffers who are sitting next to each other yet being forced to hold meetings in the metaverse.

Also, the dude just seems weird in a lot of ways.

However, if Zuckerberg has any talent, it’s for building new products, which is why I suspect he’s so invested in creating the metaverse.

My best guess is that it will take at least a decade before the metaverse is anything like what we’ve imagined it could be. And I’ll put the odds at 50/50 that Zuck will be the one to make it happen. But I won’t fault him for trying.

Three Lessons I Learned From Writing a Trilogy

My first trilogy — the Vizion series — is live on Amazon today, and to mark the occasion, I want to share three lessons I learned from writing it. (I’m also running a promotion where the first book is free from Friday through Sunday.)

I’m far from an expert on writing fiction, and with only single-digit sales to my name, I’m also a total beginner at self-publishing. My hope is that this post will inspire someone else go from zero books to three books.  

Finishing a trilogy represents a serious start for anyone working to become a full-time fiction writer. For me, clearing this hurdle has also provided a burst of momentum in my writing that is now reinforcing itself and inspiring me even more to pursue the dream of becoming a successful author. 

So even if this series doesn’t find any readers, my writing is already benefiting greatly from the lessons I’ve learned while completing this trilogy:

Lesson 1 –  I learned what kind of writer I am

Writers typically fall somewhere along a spectrum that ranges from meticulous outliners to those who start writing chapter 1 and figure everything else out along the way. I am deep in the outliner camp.

With my first book, I wrote myself into corner after corner, dug a field full of plot holes, and even had to double back and add a whole new first half of the novel. I expended so much mental energy on plot and consistency while I was composing that the flow and tone of the book suffered. It also took forever to finish.

I’m not alone in this. There are some solid books on how outlining improves writing speed, including 2,000 to 10,000 by Rachel Aron and 5,000 Words an Hour by Chris Fox. I recommend both, but for me, even more important than accelerating my word count, was how having a roadmap improved my quality.

With the second book, I crafted a detailed outline for the first two-thirds and a rough outline of the last third because I grew itchy to start writing. This served me better and allowed me to mentally stay in the scenes as I wrote them because I knew what was going to happen and only had to bring it to life. 

On book three, I wrote a detailed outline for the entire novel and even revised it twice to make the story more thematically coherent. The composition of that book went the quickest and smoothest of any three. 

But even that book had some blank spaces for me when I started writing, largely character motivations and backstories, that I had to stop and think about while in the composing stage. 

So for the book I’m working on now, in an entirely different series, I devoted a week to world building and character outlining so that my outline has even more depth. 

Lesson 2 – I learned how to find time to write

I wish I could say that I have settled into a writing routine, that I wake up early and bang out a few chapters before hopping on the train to the office, or that I tuck my kids into bed, kiss my wife good night, and crack open my laptop to type late into the night. 

The reality is that my life has changed so much in the years that I worked on these stories that I’ve learned to write wherever and whenever I can. Sometimes that means getting up early, and sometimes it means staying up late. Other times, it means ducking away from the office at lunchtime or skipping a workout on a weekend afternoon.

A consistent routine would be ideal. Failing that, a schedule is second best.

So now I spend Sunday evening looking at my week and figuring out where I can fit ten hours of writing in the upcoming week. That’s less time than most professional writers clock, but it’s decent for a part-timer like myself, and it’s more than enough to keep my momentum from flagging.

Lesson 3 – I learned the value of finishing

In college, when I thought I should probably start on my dream of becoming a writer, I began dozens of stories. I’d outline an interesting plot idea, spend an hour writing in the voice of a character I found intriguing, or sketch out a rambling philosophical dialogue that led nowhere.

But I never actually finished a story. 

Fast forward about ten years after I graduated, and one day I decided that I was going to finish a short story and submit it to some literary journals. I did, and to my amazement, it actually was accepted. 

Finishing that first story propelled me into completing more stories and even a novel that I haven’t published.  

With every story or novel that I finished, the inspiration to finish the next project grew even stronger. 

I published Waking Dream in June, and holding the first paperback copy of that book in my hand a week after it hit Amazon has permanently altered my relationship to writing. 

The experience of bringing a whole universe and a cast of characters into being — not just once, but three times — makes it impossible for me to ever turn back from this goal of becoming a successful author. 

The pride of finishing a task as monumental as a trilogy is a feeling I’m going to chase for the rest of my life. And if you want to be a writer, I can’t help but think it will have the same effect on you.

As I mentioned at the top, the first book in the series will be free from Friday through Sunday. If you want to be notified about future promotions, click here to join my mailing list.

At Last…

It took me more than five years, and a lot of wrong turns and false starts, but I finally finished writing a three-book series. I published one of the books on Amazon for a while, then pulled it off, then put it back on, then pulled it off again. I had my reasons, and maybe I’ll got into that at some later date.

For now, here’s the book, which is back on Amazon for good:

Books two and three in the series will be released in the coming weeks. If you want to be notified when they’re out, click here to join my mailing list.

I’ll have a lot more to share in the weeks ahead, but for now I need to return to proofreading to make sure these books don’t have any tpyos.

Back From the Dead

It has been more than three years since my last post, so I think I should explain where I’ve been.

This is hard to admit, and I know it sounds crazy, but I was abducted by aliens. They took me to an invisible space station of theirs that’s parked behind Mars. They couldn’t bring me all the way to their planet because warp drive isn’t real (obviously) and they knew I wouldn’t survive the 900 years the trip would have taken.

So they kept me captive at their base, and mostly they just wanted to know why earthlings are so into potato chips, why did we ever think disposable coffee pods were a good idea, and what the seventh inning stretch in baseball is all about. It wasn’t the worst three years I’ve had.

Obviously, an alien abduction is an absurd excuse for a three-year blog absence. The simple truth is that I was in the witness-protection program. On a hike in late October 2016, I stumbled across Bigfoot meeting with the Illuminati in the forest discussing who gets to be the next Andrew WK, and I’ve had to hide out ever since.

Seriously though, I’ve spent the last three years under a plastic palm tree in the Winnipeg Ikea in a transcendent meditative state. I’ve had some deep, heart-to-heart chats with Buddha and Jesus and Mister Rogers and Pema Chodron (even though she’s still alive), and they’ve encouraged me to start blogging again. So here I am.

Feels good to be back.

Thank You, Total Strangers

I’ve  been giving away my short story collection, Horizons, on Amazon for the past few days, and the response has been way better than expected. As of right now, I’m almost to 70 books given away, and with one more day to go, I’m hopeful that number can crack 100.

Why am I so happy to be giving away a book I worked so hard on? Partly, I’m glad that there are 70 more people who know my name and think that maybe when one of my novels comes out later, they’ll recognize the name and pick up a copy. But more than that, I’m simply happy to have written these stories. I’m happy to have brought these characters and worlds to life, and I’m happy that total strangers are entering into them and hopefully enjoying them.

So thank you to everyone who’s picked up a copy so far. And if you haven’t yet, the deal runs through the end of the day. All you have to do is click here.

Horizonsv2 (1)

A Crash on the Moon


I’m thrilled to share the news that my short story “Buddy” – about a mysterious spaceship crash on the moon and a nearby miner’s attempt to save the ship’s sole survivor – is now live on Perihelion’s website. Read it for free here.

There’s a funny story about that story, too. I had spent the whole year submitting stories to publications and had been met with universal rejection. That’s not a surprise for a newer writer like myself, but it does wear on you eventually. When I’d finished “Buddy,” I had planned to just publish it straight to Amazon and be done with it. I even had a cover made, which is pictured above. But I had just stumbled upon Perihelion (which is awesome, by the way) and figured, “What the hell? What’s one more try?” And it ended up being my first sale. So to my fellow struggling writers, in a nutshell, keep going.

The Conversation You Need to Have Regularly


Courtesy of Anthony Goto, flickr

You’ve had this conversation before.

You’re lying on your back in the grass or in a lounge chair, staring up at the night sky. Maybe you’ve had a few drinks or enjoyed some of our planet’s botanical pleasures. You’re feeling good, with your mind and soul flung wide open.

“Isn’t it crazy to think that the light we’re seeing left those stars 65 million years ago,” you say to a friend lying next to you.

“Right?” they reply. “They could have exploded long ago, before the dinosaurs existed, and we wouldn’t know.”

“And how wild is it that there’s a storm on Jupiter that’s three times the size of Earth?”

“And we’ve put a robot on Mars. A robot from Earth is rolling around scooping up Martian sand right this minute.”


I hung out with my four best friends last weekend, and not long after the sky went dark, we had a version of this conversation. It’s a talk we’ve had dozens of times before, starting back when we’d hang out in each others’ backyards in high school, back before college, before marriage, before having kids.

Between our jobs and our families, it’s hard for us all to get together more than once or twice a year, but every time we are able to assemble, the conversation at some point always veers into expressions of wonder. It’s not always so cosmic. Sometimes we marvel at how rapidly technology has progressed or how strange our current lives would have seemed to the younger versions of ourselves.

At some point during last weekend’s conversation, right about the time we veered into amazement at how time slows near black holes, one of my friends remarked, “Oh man, how many times have we had this conversation?”

To which another friend replied, “It’s a good conversation to have from time to time.”

I’ve been thinking about that ever since. How we need to cultivate fascination, stoke our wonderment, and try to stuff big ideas into our little human minds.

For me as a writer, this exercise is especially critical. My love for these massive ideas is part of what drew me to sci-fi. Without the challenge of tackling concepts that shake my foundational perceptions of reality, I couldn’t sustain the interest necessary to show up at the keyboard consistently. And my success as a writer depends in no small part on my ability to provide my readers with flashes of this awe.

Even for non-writers, this generating amazement is important. You’ll find peace in shrinking yourself, shrinking your problems. You’ll use new parts of your brain and give the worn-out practical parts a much-needed rest. You’ll feel better.

The sky is clear in the Midwest tonight, and Jupiter is looming large in the western sky. Go outside and track it down and think about that big storm and try to get your mind around the idea of a planet made of gas.

Even if you’re alone, have that conversation with yourself. And think about how crazy it is that your brain lets you talk to yourself. Whoa.

The Joy of Hunting Tics


So far this year, I’ve written six short stories, which I’ll be wrapping together into a collection that will be released this summer. I’ve submitted all of them to multiple publications, and they’ve all been rejected. I’ve published most of them on Amazon, and haven’t had enough sales to buy a bagel and coffee.

But the effort – nights, weekends, lunch breaks, early morning train rides – hasn’t been wasted. Through the constant experimentation allowed by short fiction, I’ve learned quite a bit about outlining, character development, dialogue, and endings, among other things.

The most helpful lesson, though, has been discovering my own writing tics. One of my editing passes is always a sit-on-the-hands-and-just-read-the-story exercise. This is the editing pass where I try to pretend the piece was written by someone else. I examine whether I’ve left holes in the plot or other mysteries that wouldn’t be clear to a reader who’s not inside my cranium. Occasionally, I’d find one of these oversights. But every time I did this read, some writing tic – a repeated word or construction – would grab my attention.

After a while, I decided to start keeping track of them, and I now have a list of fifty of these little buggers. I now devote an editing pass to interrogating each one of these tics to make sure they are essential in their place and whether there is a stronger phrasing I could use. I haven’t banned these words from my stories – it is incredibly stupid to ban any word or expression from your work – but they often serve as indicators of weak language, imprecision, or missed opportunities.

For example:

I used to start a lot of sentences with some variant of “There was.” This construction is a holdover from my days of adolescent Hemingway reading. The vagueness of the two words lends a detached, Voice of God effect to a sentence, rather than keeping the reader planted in the character’s head, seeing the world the way a particular person would see it. Most of these I’d rewrite to focus on the main object being observed. So “There was a weathered boat bobbing in the ocean” would become “A weathered boat bobbed in the ocean.” Tighter. Cleaner. More immediate.

I also used to hang “began” or “started” in front of a character’s action. Those are simply unnecessary words, and they can become distracting when repeated too often.

The last one I’ll talk about is “thing” words. Something, everything, or just plain old “thing.” These words crop up when I’m writing quickly and can’t think of the exact right word, but I don’t want to stop the flow so I drop down a “thing” and keep going. “Thing” words can be replaced with a more precise word almost every single time, and the sentence is immediately improved. “That was the thing that annoyed her the most” becomes “That was the habit that annoyed her the most.” “Something about the place gave him the creeps” becomes “The way no one made eye contact gave him the creeps.”

Making these changes during editing feels like being at the optometrist with my face in the phoropter and having the little lenses click over, sharpening the clarity of my vision bit by bit.  What’s interesting is that scrutinizing my own work in the editing phase has made me so familiar with these tics that I have since cut down on them during the composing phase without much conscious effort. The stronger phrasings have become instinct.

Does anyone else devote a whole editing pass just to tic removal? What are your writing tics?