My guest this week is truly a unique and creative author with so many interesting ideas and opinions…really, you just have to dive in and read what he has to say. Eloquent and thought-provoking, Mark Biddle shares on everything from technology, his various creative pursuits, his thoughts on writing and the writing market…Read on, Friends, and meet this fascinating author.
Mark! It’s a pleasure to have you with us today. Can you start by telling us a little about yourself?
I grew up in rural Pennsylvania in the 1970s, among cornfields and dairy farms, in a time and place where advanced leading edge technology was about as familiar to me as the surface of the moon. I can’t point to a single experience that put me onto the path that I ultimately followed, but that path led me to an 18-year-long engineering career, working in many different capacities, for several government and industry organizations. In my last official role, I was a systems engineering director for a division of a Fortune 500 tech company. During the last decade of my professional career, I was involved with the research and development of simulation based technologies and virtual environments. Part of that work included studying how human beings think, learn, act and interact in specific contexts of interest, and another part focused on applying the lessons learned to create cutting edge virtual and immersive training environments. I left corporate life 6+ years ago to pursue my own personal objectives, which include speculative fiction writing, visual art, and other forms of creative expression.
Are you interested in other forms of artistic expression besides writing? Where does writing fit in? What keeps you motivated/inspired?
Writing is my current full-time profession, but it is not my only form of artistic expression. There is a pattern, which initiates in the recesses of my mind and has done so for about as long as I can remember. It manifests as repetitive surges of surreal and abstract enthusiasm, which consume my cerebral real estate and crowd my containment boundaries until it overflows into the material world as paintings, drawings, and digital artifacts. It is a persistent motivation, bordering on obsession, and I often engage it as much to keep it at bay as to entice it. Since the proofs lay primarily in visual mediums, and if you require additional accounting, I would advise direct observation of the artifacts over further consumption of my written demonstratives. You can check out examples of my art work here: www.deepdivestudios.com
I have sold art in the past, and I continue to entertain that pursuit, but only as a part-time effort, subordinate to my writing. In my spare time, I develop software and dabble in independent film making. All of these enthusiasms inform my writing, and in some cases vice versa.
What forms of writing (short stories, poetry, novels, essays, etc.) and genres do you prefer and why? What can you never see yourself writing?
During my engineering career, I wrote technical papers, work proposals, program management plans, system specifications, software programs, training materials, corporate level engineering processes and policies — and make no mistake — those are solid examples of creative writing. They incorporate amazing tales of money, political intrigue, superhuman abilities, science fiction, and wild predictions about the future.
I have also dabbled in poetry as a hobby for many years, not only as a form of creative expression, but also as a way to appreciate language from different perspectives and as an art form.
Although I write and read science fiction, it has never really been my favorite genre. In fact, I can’t say that I have a specific favorite genre. I like a wide variety of work: historical (ex. “Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation” by Joseph Ellis), biographical (ex. “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer”), literary and philosophical and modern works by lots of authors whom you might choose to categorize in a number of different ways (Steinbeck, Tolstoy, Kafka, Sartre, Hemingway, Vonnegut, Douglas Coupland, John Irving, Jennifer Egan, on and on).
As for something that I could never see myself writing, nothing readily comes to mind. I can envision myself writing just about anything, given a sufficiently inspiring context. Whether or not it would be good quality writing is another story.
As a reader, what do you think makes a good story? What’s one thing a ‘bad’ book taught you to not do in your own writing?
Naturally there are many components to a good story, and I am somewhat flexible, because for me, strength in one area can to some extent make up for weakness in another area. Of course there has to be an interesting storyline. Beyond that, I generally don’t like reading something and feeling like there’s nothing new in it. I like work that is fresh. I don’t necessarily mind if the pace of a novel is slow or fast or varied, as long as I’m constantly being offered something of value. I particularly don’t like dialogue that seems unrealistic or forced. I also don’t like wording that is overly simple or pedestrian — not that it has to be a work of literary genius, but I do prefer authors who have an appreciation for language and the power of words. As far as the rules of grammar and punctuation are concerned, I don’t really mind if an author takes liberties, as long as I’m convinced that it was done for a deliberate and interesting purpose and not for lack of an ability to do it the “right way”.
Of course, I can also make a case against all of my aforementioned likes and dislikes with the acknowledgement that sometimes even a bad story can be good, because as a writer I read not only for enjoyment but also to improve my craft, and I learn as much and often more from a bad book as I do from a good one.
As a writer, what elements do you find are the most crucial to include in your stories? What are your strengths and weaknesses?
I’m a firm believer in the premise that the best works that one creates are those that they create for themselves — the ones that they are personally most passionate about. Along these lines, I think that the most crucial elements to include in a story are the ones that satisfy the authors own needs.
With that said, I also think that there is a core competency of craft that needs to be met. For example, stories, like music, have rhythm, and I think that it’s important to keep a consistent tempo. By this I don’t necessarily mean the pace of action. Rather, I’m talking about a consistency of quality, a harmonic balance. I think that an author needs to have a sense of their own rhythm, the courage to embrace it, and the skill to make it play.
I think of the metaphor of a nest of baby birds (the story), and they all want to be fed worms by the mother bird (the writer). One baby bird represents the plot. Another represents character development. Another represents language quality. Another represents the background story, and so on. And each baby has different needs. To keep the nest in harmony, mother bird must not over-feed or under-feed any one of the babies. Mother bird must have a feel for which baby has the greatest need for a worm at any given point in time, and worm distribution must be handled accordingly.
Personally, I very much like the idea of using art forms, be it writing or any other form, to challenge rules and status quo, not simply for the sake of rebellion, but in the interest of value added expansion of ideas and potentials. I like authors who take chances, and that’s probably because my mind tends to operate naturally outside of the boundaries of conventional norms.
On the other hand, that can be dangerous business, because readers like to feel comfortable with a story, and they don’t usually want to work too hard to adapt themselves to a new paradigm. An author who is too far out of tune with respect to their target audience or with commercial/professional norms is probably doomed to failure. Nevertheless, I am instinctually driven to want to challenge these limits. I think that it’s easy for people to get too comfortable with their own, internal, well-travelled highways of familiarity and expectation, and I can’t resist trying to take readers along with me on a detour, for what I hope will be a more scenic route. I would consider this both my greatest strength and my greatest weakness, and I suspect that it is a reoccurring theme among writers.
The key to managing it, I think, as long as the work itself is good, is to find readers who not only like the genre but who also prefer the road less traveled or are at least flexible enough to embrace new concepts, and these readers may not necessarily be the ones that traditional thinking and process would lead a writer to identify as their target audience.
I think that we are in an age where niche markets have commercial value, especially for the independent author (the long tail concept), and so I think that the notion of departing from convention to march to the beat of one’s own drum can be not only a workable business model, but it may be the very thing that ultimately lets an author stand out from the crowd.
I have been writing seriously for at least five years, but to date I have only published one novel, quite recently in fact, and so it remains to be seen if my philosophy is compatible with occupational stability.
Who/what are the biggest influences in your writing? How do they influence what your write?
I don’t think that I can point to a single who as being a greatest influence on my writing, because I am influenced by so very many people, and I don’t think I can single out just one or two as significantly more important than others in that regard.
I can, however, name a what that has made all the difference, and that would be the internet. Fifteen years ago, the traditional publishing industry was still going strong, and the unknown author had to beg the attention of agents and publishers, through conventional means, and that attention was for the most part non-forthcoming. The internet has since turned the publishing industry on its ear, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. The good part of it is that an author can go right to publication, as soon as they are ready with a finished product, without the traditional year or more delay while agents and publishers determine their fate. More people are buying books online than ever before. Online publishing is, in my opinion, the undeniable way of the future. On the negative side, it’s still an uphill battle for an author to get noticed and to make a profit, possibly even worse than it was before. One book is like a single drop of water in an ocean, and every drop in that ocean is screaming for attention. Still, at least it gives an author a chance to get into the game.
The internet puts resources for research and tools of the writing trade and support communities and the answer to just about any question you can think of conveniently at your fingertips. It puts you in contact with your potential readers. It gives you distribution access to the world. It gives you avenues through which you can market and promote yourself and your products.
The other what that has influenced my writing is the proliferation of the concept of the technological singularity. I had already observed the advancing pace of technological evolution in my professional career, and I had already formed my own opinions as to where this evolution would lead. I truly believe that the human race is going to be faced with a technological event horizon within the next century, and beyond that horizon there is a great deal of positive potential but also a real and distinct possibility for calamity.
Some think that the technological singularity is less than 20 years away. Some think it’ll take longer, and of course there are many who think that it cannot or will not ever happen. For me there is no doubt, and the only question is when. I would place a potential margin of error of -50 to +100 years on my own personal prediction (which is the year 2074) for the point at which technology will have finally surpassed the quotient of human cognition and effectively enabled a full and complete re-engineering of human paradigms and of reality itself. Even with that degree of uncertainty, I truly believe that this is the single most important issue for the human race to consider. What’s more, I think that because the whole thing is not being taken seriously by the general population, we may be advancing into it without the due diligence that might let us avoid some catastrophic pitfalls. This is why I feel driven to bring some of what I believe are the more critical issues to light.
What draws you to your preferred genre? What do you think makes your genre unique? And why is it so popular? (Or perhaps less popular than it could be?)
My genre is science fiction, but more precisely I am narrowly focused on a very specific thread within the wider tapestry of that genre. I am particularly interested in the ultimate effect of the increasing rate of technological evolution — what futurists have been referring to as the technological singularity. It is unique in that it represents a paradigm shift for the human race on an order of magnitude that we have never experienced before, and it could potentially render the contemporary human form obsolete. It is popular because many leading contemporary scientific minds view it as probable fact rather than fiction, and many of them predict a near-term arrival, perhaps within a couple of decades. The concept spawns a great deal of enthusiasm in techno-optimists, but it also generates a great deal of uncertainty, fear, and anger in others. Since I believe that the technological singularity, or some approximation of it, cannot be avoided, I think that it naturally follows that curiosity and interest in this subject will continue to grow, to the point where it will ultimately overshadow all other topics of interest.
Can you tell us about your books? What other projects are you working on?
I have published one book so far, which is titled “Ovahe”. It’s the name of a beach on Easter Island, but that is not what the book is about, and if you buy it with that expectation then you’ll be sadly disappointed. Ovahe is a science fiction tale that describes one possible scenario for life after the technological singularity, when technology has rendered traditional ways of life obsolete. It portrays a world where machines and software can do all of the work, and there is no practical need for human labor of any kind. The pace of technological change has exceeded human ability to manage and even sufficiently understand it. Everything we thought we knew — every certainty we have ever achieved — becomes negotiable. Yet the human race continues on, in what some might consider a utopia, while others would no doubt view it as a nightmare scenario. It is not necessarily a tale of either hopeless doom-and-gloom or of unbridled optimism. It is my projection for how one single potential thread of the technological singularity might evolve, based upon an extension of my own personal knowledge and experience.
Ovahe is a complete story, but it is also part of a planned series, which I have titled “The Singularity Archives”, and I am publishing it under the pen name “AuthorX1”. I’m currently envisioning Ovahe is as being the middle book in the series, with some prequels to show how we got from here to there, and a couple of follow-on stories to show how things might ultimately turn out.
I am currently working on the 2nd novel in the series, which I hope to have ready to put online by the end of the year.
I’m also thinking of writing a non-fiction book, in which I would explore specific issues related to the technological singularity from a philosophical as well as what I hope would be a pragmatic perspective. In my previous life as an engineer, I participated in technical standards development efforts, including the following:
– IEEE 1278 (Distributed Interactive Simulation), which according to wikipedia is a worldwide “standard for conducting real-time platform-level wargaming across multiple host computers”.
– IEEE 1516 HLA (High Level Architecture), which is a general-purpose architecture for distributed computer simulation systems.
– DODI 1322.26 (Advanced Distributed Learning), which is a standard for modernized training and education delivery.
Having observed how collaborative worldwide development of industry standards — even if the standards are not mandated — can positively impact technological evolution, I think that there is a need for some similar type of effort aimed at responsibly steering the advent of this synthetic superintelligence that will supposedly emerge as part of the technological singularity. Furthermore, I believe that I can potentially play a supporting role in that effort, in part by raising awareness through my writing.
What do you find is the most difficult aspect of writing and how do you cope with it?
It’s not the writing that I find difficult. Knock on wood, but after more than five years of hacking away on my keyboard, I have not yet suffered from writer’s block. It’s the marketing and promoting that I find challenging. Many times more difficult than the task of writing of a novel is the task of getting people to take notice of it. I’m still learning how to try to cope with this.
Who are your favourite writers and why?
It’s a difficult question, because I like so many writers, and my response to this question could change from month to month. Lately I would have to say that my favorite writers are other as-of-yet-unknown-but-hopeful independent authors like myself, not only because of their writing (which is sometime very good and inventive and surprising, and sometimes not), but probably more so because of the opportunity to share strategies, experiences, lessons learned, and the woes of playing the publishing game. It’s a misery loves company sort of thing.
What advice would you give to new writers?
My advice would be as follows:
A. Set your expectations low but your hopes high, and never give up.
B. Read your genre and know your target audience.
C. Read outside of your genre. In fact, read everything.
D. Join critique groups where you can share and discuss each others’ work, and don’t get defensive about constructive criticism. Instead, think long and hard about it before deciding to either reject or accept it.
E. Read your work aloud to yourself and think about how it sounds when you give it voice.
F. Read your work aloud to other people, and do enough of that to get a feel for body language feedback as well as explicitly spoken feedback.
G. Understand that being a writer (if you want to make any money at it, at least) means working two full time jobs. One of those is the job of writing. The other is the job of marketing and promoting the finished work.
How can readers get into contact with you?
Mark, thank you so much for sharing with us today. Readers, I hope you enjoyed meeting Mark and learning more about him and his work, and I dohope you’ll drop him a line here or hook up with him on his website.
Have an excellent week everyone!