Life lessons from a CIA operative turned NYT bestselling author

An interview with legendary thriller writer Barry Eisler.

Barry Eisler could be the protagonist of one of his espionage thrillers. With a black belt in Judo and a three-year stint in covert operations at the CIA, I imagine that in between penning novels, he sneaks away from his home in Berkeley to single-handedly take down corrupt governments or trade tidbits of classified intel. Given his articulate and controversial political blog and the deeply-researched real world social issues embedded in his tightly-plotted thrillers, he would be a spy version of Robin Hood, aiding whistle blowers and refugees struggling to survive a rotten system.

Not content to let his backstory end there, Eisler has also worked as a technology lawyer and startup executive in Silicon Valley. His bestselling books are known for political intrigue, realistic tradecraft and martial arts, exotic settings, and compelling characters. The fast-paced stories often wrestle with topics you’re likely to follow in the news, like human trafficking and government surveillance.
Eisler was generous enough to share some of the most important lessons he’s learned from his various and sundry adventures.

How and why did you start writing novels? What was the first piece of fiction you wrote? How has your creative process evolved over time? What drives you?

I’ve been writing something or other since I was a kid. I used to spend a couple weeks every summer at my grandparents’ house on the Jersey shore. I would bang out short stories about vampires and werewolves on my grandmother’s typewriter. Glad no records have been kept!

As for my first novel, I have a long-standing interest in what I like to think of as “forbidden knowledge:” methods of unarmed killing, lock picking, breaking and entry, spy stuff, and other things the government wants only a few select individuals to know. When I was a kid, I read a biography of Harry Houdini, and in the book a cop was quoted as saying, “It’s fortunate that Houdini never turned to a life of crime, because if he had he would have been difficult to catch and impossible to hold.” I remember thinking how cool it was that this man knew things people weren’t supposed to know, things that gave him special power. Anyway, since then I’ve amassed an unusual library on some of the foregoing and on other esoteric subjects, I spent three years in the CIA, I got pretty into a variety of martial arts…

And then I moved to Tokyo to train in judo. I think all the other stuff must have been building up in my mind like dry tinder, waiting for the spark which life in Tokyo came to provide. Because while I was there commuting to work one morning, a vivid image came to me of two men following another man down Dogenzaka street in Shibuya. I still don’t know where the image came from, but I started thinking about it. Who are these men? Why are they following that other guy? Then answers started to come: They’re assassins. They’re going to kill him. But these answers just let to more questions: why are they going to kill him? What did he do? Who do they work for? It felt like a story, somehow, so I started writing, and that was the birth of John Rain and my first book, A Clean Kill in Tokyo.

I don’t think my creative process has changed that much since that first book, but it has gotten more efficient. A talent for writing is to writing a novel as a talent for tools is to building a house: necessary, but not sufficient. And probably the first time you try to use your talent with tools to build a house, you’ll make a lot of mistakes you’ll then need to correct. But by the time the house is done, you’ve learned the basics of how to do it, and the next one will go up much more smoothly (and maybe it’ll be even more beautiful, too). That’s what novel writing feels like to me.

What drives me…I’m not really sure. Writing a novel is hard work (not like digging a ditch, but still, deep thinking requires effort and it’s amazing how hard the mind will struggle to do something else), and I don’t know what keeps me at it. I certainly enjoy telling stories for a living more than I ever enjoyed being a lawyer. And I like to think that some of the political or social commentary that fuels some of my stories can raise consciousness on important topics. We should all be striving to leave our campsite better than when we found it and I hope my stories are part of how I can do that.

You’ve assembled an actionable set of resources for new writers, what is the single most critical piece of advice you give to people just starting out?

The single? Believe in yourself. If you don’t have that, nothing else will matter.

But of course “believe in yourself,” while necessary, isn’t sufficient, and I offer some related advice for writers in this short talk I did at TEDx Tokyo in 2009.

You’re a master storyteller who is also very savvy about the publishing business. You’ve worked with the Big Five publishers, Amazon publishing, and self publishing. How is the business model of art changing? What variables are staying the same? What should writers/artists/makers who want to make a living with their work focus on?

Now you’ve gone and done it: for the rest of the day I will torture my wife and daughter by randomly telling them, “Did you know I’m a master storyteller…?” :)

Anyway, this is big topic! But I’ll try to boil it down.

It’s always been true that publishers needed authors. If authors stopped selling publishers publishing rights, it’s hard to see how publishers would survive. Maybe they could scrape by selling previously acquired and public domain works, but that would involve radical restructuring.

And it’s also true that authors needed publishers. Because in a paper world, pretty much the only cost-effective way to reach a mass market of readers was with a distribution partner — AKA a publisher.

Digital has altered this equation. Publishers still need authors to the same extent they always have. But authors no longer need publishers at all. That’s not to say that having a publishing partner can’t be potentially useful to an author — even potentially tremendously useful. But even “tremendously useful” isn’t the same as “need.” When you need something from someone, you have no choice. When you have no choice, you have no power. So the shift from “publishers are necessary” to “publishers are potentially useful” strikes me as pretty significant and important to understand. At a minimum, the change seems upsetting enough to various establishment publishing types to induce some strange and petulant behavior.

What hasn’t changed? Certainly the importance of writing the best story you can. And your ultimate responsibility for your own career. But there are a lot more choices for writers today than there were ten years ago, and new tools for reaching readers, as well.

Not long ago, I had a more detailed discussion on this topic with writer Chris Jane on Jane Friedman’s website. For anyone looking to learn more, that wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

What role does fiction play in our culture? Why do we love stories? What makes them powerful? What does that mean for writers and readers?

This is a little like asking, “What role does a hammer play in carpentry?” :) The answer, I guess, is: A big one…

The role fiction plays in culture is related to the question of why we love stories: I think because we’re just wired to. We relate more to people than we do to events or other abstractions, and so framing events in the context of human action automatically resonates in our psyche in a way other means of communicating just don’t. So whatever role fiction plays — entertainment, enlightenment, propaganda — it will always be a prominent one.

Have you ever read a book that changed the course of your life?

I think the ratio of books we’re aware had an impact to books we’re unaware had an impact is probably something like one to a hundred. But for one example of the former, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four had a huge impact in how I see the world. I don’t think anyone could understand the way the world works nearly as well without concepts like the memory hole, doublethink, thoughtcrime, Big Brother, the Two-Minutes Hate, and others from the novel. Certainly I couldn’t. And wouldn’t our oligarchical masters prefer that we didn’t have such conceptual and lexical tools at our disposal to analyze their depredations? In fact, the political uses of language is itself a concept straight from the book — the way Ingsoc tried to dumb people down by depriving them of a nuanced vocabulary, replacing words like “abhorrent,” for example, with “double plus ungood,” instead.

As a one-time CIA operative, Silicon Valley executive, and Judo black belt, your own bio resembles one of your protagonists. What are the most important life lessons you’ve learned along the way?

Oh man… so many. Don’t trust the experts. Don’t surrender your own judgment (I guess that’s pretty similar to the first one, but it’s important enough to restate in a slightly different form). Indulge your passions (for more on that one, see the short TEDx Tokyo talk I mentioned above). Try to see others the way you see yourself, and yourself the way others see you. Try to see common patterns more than specific details.

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Enjoy this interview? Then you’ll probably like my reading recommendations curating amazing books that explore the intersection of technology and culture.

What Minority Report tells us about America in 2016

Minority Report is one of the most prescient science fiction movies ever made. It's the second most cited piece of science fiction in policy-making circles after George Orwell's 1984. Steven Spielberg assembled a team of leading futurists and technologists including Kevin Kelly to inform the world the movie takes place in. It's amazing how much they got right, and what that says about America in 2016.

So when the folks at decipherSciFi asked me to come on the podcast and discuss the movie with them, I was delighted. We dig deep into the future of policing, artificial intelligence, prediction, digital democracy, privacy, and the many, many parallels between Minority Report and the world we live in today. If you want to geek out with us on your commute, give it a listen.

Thanks to Nick Farmer for introducing me to decipherSciFi. Thanks to Kevin Bankston for writing an incredible talk/essay which I pillaged ruthlessly for ideas in this interview. Thanks to Berit Anderson and Brett Horvath who produced an amazing Scout dispatch on the future of policing which nails so many of these issues. Thanks to Brad Feld for his various posts about working with the folks at Oblong Industries who created the incredible user interfaces in the film and now build them for the real world.

Listen to the podcast right here.

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Enjoy this interview? Then you’ll probably like my reading recommendations curating amazing books that explore the intersection of technology and culture.

Cumulus audiobook now available

The Cumulus audiobook is available now. Give it a listen and let me know what you think.

It’s been been quite a year for audiophiles! The entire Uncommon Series is now available in audio format, the Cumulus audiobook comes out today, and the Neon Fever Dream audiobook is in production and should be available within six weeks or so. Jennifer O’Donnell really brings the characters to life in her narration and the award-winning production team at Brick Shop Audio has been great to work with.

If you haven’t read it yet, Cumulus is a fast-paced science fiction story with a diverse cast set in a near-future San Francisco Bay Area ravaged by economic inequality and persistent surveillance. It’s been praised by folks like Tim O'Reilly, David Brin, Businessweek, Ars Technica, Popular Science, TechCrunch, io9, GeekDad and others. I’ve been shocked and delighted by how the story seems to be resonating and am donating the first six months of proceeds to the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Chapter 510 to support a free and open internet and literacy programs for underprivileged youth in Oakland. You can find out more about the inspiration behind the story here and what I learned from the experience of writing it here.

Two weeks ago I visited Park City to speak at the Future in Review conference, a gathering focused on important tech trends and regularly attended by Silicon Valley luminaries. It was a great community to connect with and I met amazing folks working on everything from fighting international human trafficking, to creating software that enables animal communication and hardware to monitor marine life in the deepest oceans. Every year they host a science fiction author to talk about the far future and it was humbling to follow in the footsteps in some of my favorite writers like Neal Stephenson, Kim Stanley-Robinson, and Cory Doctorow. Berit Anderson, founder of the new hybrid scifi/tech journalism publication Scout, and I discussed the technologies that will shape the next few decades, Elon Musk’s recent Mars announcement, the intersection of geopolitics and tech, and how we’re rocketing towards an unprecedented artistic Renaissance.

Finally, I’m getting momentum on the rough draft of a new novel. It was a rocky start but the story seems to have grown some legs. I can’t wait to see where the characters take it. Now, time to get back to work…

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Uncommon Stock: Exit Strategy audiobook now available

I'm delighted to share that the audiobook of Uncommon Stock: Exit Strategy is now available, you can check it out and start listening right here.

Exit Strategy is the third and final installment in The Uncommon Series, the #1 highest rated financial thriller on Amazon (you can find the audio version of book one here and book two here). The trilogy follows Mara Winkel as she leads her tech startup from garage to IPO and gets caught up in an international conspiracy along the way. I did a ton of research to inform the story, which you can read about here.

Audiobooks can be difficult and expensive to produce, especially for indie writers like me. But it's a format I've adored since I was a child. There's something special about listening to a story that sets my imagination on fire. Just this morning, I finished the audio version of Malka Older's excellent debut novel Infomocracy, a cyberpunk tale about the future of geopolitics that crackles with energy and big ideas (highly recommended). That's why I'm not surprised that the popularity of audiobooks has skyrocketed in recent years, and also why I take production so seriously. I worked with award-winning house Brick Shop Audio on Exit Strategy and Jennifer O'Donnell did a fabulous job narrating the book.

Last week, the first review of the audiobook came out and made all that work and investment feel worth it (you can read the full review here). "Exit Strategy leaves nothing in the tank. Action-packed from the beginning as Mozaik fights to stay afloat and tries to bring down the biggest money laundering schemes in the world. Every page bleeds with realism and authenticity. The production quality was perfect and you couldn’t ask for a better narrator."

I hope you agree with Brian's assessment, and would love to here what you think if you give it a listen. We're now working on producing audiobooks for both Cumulus and Neon Fever Dream.

It's been a busy month since my last missive. GeekDad ran a glowing review of Cumulus that includes an in-depth interview with me on how to dissect technology trends, what companies need to do in order to succeed with innovation, and the real world issues that inspired the story. Cumulus also reached 100 reviews on Amazon, which got me unreasonably excited. I really love hearing what you think of the stories, and reader reviews make a surprisingly large impact.

In late August, we hosted a party to celebrate the release of both Cumulus and Neon Fever Dream. As always, it was a delight to chat with friends and fans about the books. Novels might be penned by authors, but they only come alive in readers' imaginations.

Shortly after the party, we madly packed our gear and set out to spend a week in the desert at Burning Man. This was our third Burn, and it was as profoundly fun and transformative an experience as ever. One special treat this time around was hearing from Burners who'd read Neon Fever Dream, including one who gave copies to everyone who attended their playa wedding. Black Rock City is a temporary city humming with creativity and adventure and if you haven't visited, you might want to consider adding it to your bucket list.

Finally, next week I head out to give a talk at this year's Future in Review conference in Park City, Utah. Future in Review is a conference focused on the next 5-10 years of tech and regularly attended by Elon Musk, Vinod Khosla, Craig Venter, Paul & Irwin Jacobs, Larry Brilliant, Paul Allen, and Michael Dell. David Brin, Cory Doctorow, Ramez Naam, Kim Stanley-Robinson, and Neal Stephenson have all been featured science fiction authors in the past few years and I'm honored to participate this time around. I love telling stories live as well as on the printed page, and between this and my Talk at Google a few months ago, it's been a fun summer for speaking.


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Waking up from Neon Fever Dream

This is an update from my author newsletter, which you can sign up for here.

Whenever a book comes out, I'm always filled with an odd mixture of conflicting emotions. I'm excited to share it and see it widely read, but I know that the work has to speak for itself. I'm thrilled to hear what readers think, but nervous that it might not resonate with them. I'm both anxious and relieved that a creative project I poured my heart into is finally out in the wild.

Neon Fever Dream came out two weeks ago. In addition to a number of blog reviews, Popular Science ran a review, TechCrunch ran an excerpt, La Soga ran an interview, Rocketship.fm ran a podcast, Don Houts ran a review, Talkshow.im hosted a chat, Product Hunt featured it, and Hugo and Nebula award-winner David Brin praised it in his reading roundup. You can even see a funny picture of me at Burning Man in this little photo-essay I wrote about the inspirations behind the book. Right now, we're frantically gearing up to head back to the desert at the end of the month.

But more than anything, I've been delighted to hear from you. You've shared your loves, hates, questions, comments, and detailed accounts of what the story made you think and feel. Even before the book came out, advance readers taught me about everything from the institutional dynamics within the LDS Church to the onset time for rigor mortis. With Cumulus, you refined the story's intelligence tradecraft, gear transmission mechanics, and so many other important factors. For The Uncommon Series, you helped me understand what it actually feels like for a CEO to go through an IPO and how expert money launderers manipulate the financial system. I'm lucky to have readers with sharp eyes and even sharper minds.

Any attention Neon Fever Dream earns is also thanks to you. Grassroots word-of-mouth helps art succeed by including it in our larger communal conversation. It's the cultural equivalent of compound interest. Things that might seem small or unimportant make a surprisingly large impact over the long run. So when you recommend it to a friend or leave a review, you're accomplishing far more than you might imagine.

After releasing a book, my next step is always to dive into a fresh manuscript. Last week, I started drafting a new story. Gene Wolfe once told Neil Gaiman, "You never learn how to write a novel, you just learn how to write the novel that you're writing." Time to see what's at the bottom of this rabbit hole. Wish me luck.

Neon Fever Dream is out today

I'm delighted to share that my new novel, Neon Fever Dream, is now available. You can get it right here in beautifully-designed digital or trade paperback formats.

Neon Fever Dream is about a dark secret hidden in the swirling dust and exultant revelry of Burning Man. It's a fast-paced thriller with a diverse cast that weaves together everything from the ripple effects of the Sri Lankan civil war to the impacts of new technology on international organized crime. The story required substantial research and I'm really excited about how it came together.

In 2013, my wife and I travelled through Asia and East Africa for nine months. We spent 33 days on a trek through Himalayan backcountry in Nepal, scrambled up crags in northern Ethiopia, and dove the colorful reefs off the northern tip of Sumatra. But perhaps the most otherworldly place we visited was Burning Man, where we went immediately after our wheels hit American tarmac.

Burning Man was powerful precisely because it was so hard to define. Rather than a wild narcotic-infused bonanza, we discovered that the atmosphere was far more diverse and creative. Lacking the formal structure of a large music festival with stages and schedules, each participant's experience was shaped by where they wandered when, and whom they happened to meet. It wasn't a party. It was a temporary community populated by artists, technologists, doers, makers, scientists, goofballs, geeks, and freaks united not by their interests, but by a proactive mandate to accept, support, and give.

Much like spending time in a foreign country, Burning Man made us question the things we took for granted in our everyday lives. Friendships formed quickly and spontaneously. We have since returned, and plan to do so regularly.

Burning Man was a wonderful port of reentry into the United States. At the same time, it reminded us of the impossible adversity people face every day in many of the countries we had just returned from. While we were playing on the playa, the Maldives was wracked by political upheaval, our favorite bookshop in Kathmandu went up in flames, and Sri Lankan dissidents disappeared without a trace.

That was the seed of Neon Fever Dream. International intrigue makes for a compelling page-turner, but in the real world such machinations tear people's lives apart. A few of those lives might collide against the incomparable backdrop of Burning Man. Stranger things have happened, particularly in Black Rock City.

From there the story grew and changed, taking on its particular shape. A friend-of-a-friend became involved in a federal investigation of Tongan Crips in Utah. My wife and I took some Krav Maga classes in Oakland. A refugee taxi driver told me about how his loved ones had been persecuted by the Karuna Faction. I met journalists and security experts following the evolving relationship between the expansion of technological surveillance capabilities and the role of international criminal organizations. The pieces fell into place.

We often read nonfiction to learn about the world around us. But fiction offers something else, a chance to explore our own subjective experience of living in that world. It gives us a glimpse into the minds and hearts of other human beings. It empowers us to escape and in escaping, reflect. The most powerful stories compel us, move us, and leave us with more questions than answers.

Give it a read and let me know what you think.

The technological trends that will shape the next 30 years

An interview with Kevin Kelly, Senior Maverick at Wired Magazine and author of The Inevitable.

The Inevitable by Kevin Kelly is the most interesting nonfiction book I've read about the future in a long time. I constantly found myself rereading passages and marking pages to come back to later. Kevin has been an enthusiastic observer of both the human condition and the state of technology for decades as a cofounder of Wired, and his insights are deep, provocative, and wide ranging. In his own words, "When answers become cheap, good questions become more difficult and therefore more valuable." The Inevitable raises many important questions that will shape the next few decades.

Kevin was generous enough to answer a few questions I had after finishing the book. Read on to find out why most people fail when they try to make predictions, what the future holds for the creative class, and why The Inevitable will be Kevin's last print book. See these notes by the estimable Derek Sivers for more background.

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If none of the important things of the next 100 years have been invented yet, how do you generate or select the next project or idea to pursue?

It is wide open! Most new ideas -- including my own -- will fail in the long term, but the ones that will succeed in becoming dominant in the next decades are most likely to come from the edge, as they have always. I'm good at working on the edge, so I look for ideas that are NOT popular at first, that seem marginal, niche, barely plausible. I'm looking for the places where technology is abused, misused, or unsupervised in order to get a glimpse of its natural inherent leanings. Where the edges go, the center follows later.

David Pogue points out that what differentiates your work as a futurist is that you have an incredible track record of getting it right. What are the most common mistakes you see people make when they try to make predictions? Why do so many intelligent analysts get it wrong?

The most difficult part about looking at the future is unlearning what we know. There is so much baked into our generally held assumptions that tend to blind us -- all of us. You have to keep questioning the assumptions. But at the same time, most assumptions of what is correct are actually correct! So you have to keep knocking at the door, even though most times it yields nothing: "Is this really true? Who says? Why? Do I really believe it? What if it is wrong? What happens then?" That can be exhausting, frustrating, unproductive, so unless it becomes a habit, it gets old fast. You also have to question without too much stake in the answers.  You want to have strong opinions loosely held, ready to shift rapidly when needed. Most people have trouble changing their minds. I like to have my mind changed.

Most sweeping surveys of what to expect in the coming decades focus on economic and geopolitical implications, but The Inevitable goes far beyond that. What does the future hold for artists, writers, and creatives? What practical steps would you recommend we take to set ourselves up for success over the long term? 

There will be a thousand new creative genres developed in the next two decades. Each of these forms will breed a new crop of stars that did not exist the year before. Cultivate a techno literacy. The tech will constantly change faster than you can master it, so you master life long learning. Aim lower; you don't need a million fans; it's a world of niches. The biggest challenge is to think different while being connected. It's easy to think different while in isolation; it is easy to be connected. It is vastly harder to see different, make different, be different while connected to 7 billion humans all the time.  Taking vacations and sabbaticals from the hive mind become important; cultivating a lateral view, nurturing the orthogonal will be essential. Not living in Silicon Valley will probably be an advantage.

In the ever-propagating multiverse of the cloud, we will rely more and more on filters to deliver us the stuff we want. You discuss some potential ways to escape the filter bubble or overfitting problem. But if relevance is what captures attention and attention is the scarcest resource, isn’t building filter bubbles commercially optimal because that attention drives profits higher?

Social media is less than 2,000 days old. It is unclear to date whether or not overfitting a filter optimizes commercial profits, or whether or not consumers want to optimize relevance. We simply don’t know yet. But we do know that if a service tends not to produce what consumers ultimately want, they will leave and use a different service. So it is very much in the commercial interests of social media to provide its customers with the attention tools they need. Since neither side yet know what those tools are, this will be an ongoing development.

Books are one of the primary examples used in The Inevitable to illustrate the forces shaping our future. How are you applying those insights to your own work as an author?

This will be my last native text book, meaning the last book I write in print. My "books" in the future will either be born as update-able digital e-books, or will be very visual photobooks, or will be bookish videos, or full bore virtual realities. At some point these processes may throw off a printed book, but that will only be a derivative of the more native digital form.

In addition to providing a blueprint of what to expect over the next 30 years, you provide “fly through” subjective glimpses of what our lives might be like that read like science fiction. What role do science and speculative fiction play in our culture? What are some of your favorite science fiction novels that you think “get it right”?

I think the Speilberg film Minority Report got it right, but I am very biased because I was part of the group of futurists hired by Speilberg to create believable world of 2050. He got it right because he kept asking the right questions. In general science fiction is under-appreciated for its vast influence on science itself, and even on culture. Hundreds of thousands of engineers are working on projects today because they saw some product in a science fiction story that they want to make real. With the advent of computer-generated science fiction films, we can witness sci-fi's power. I would expect sci-fi worlds, a la Star Wars and Star Trek, to continue to grow in popularity, particularly as these worlds enter VR. VR may indeed become the greatest platform for science fiction, where the audience can experience the future rather than just watch it.

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Enjoy this interview? Then you’ll probably like my reading recommendations curating amazing books that explore the intersection of technology and culture.

Watch my Google Talk

Last month, Google invited me to come give a talk about Cumulus. They filmed the entire event and you can watch it right here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y1mwp0uk2cQ&feature=youtube

We discussed science fiction, creative process, social impacts of technology, venture capital investing, and predicting the future. I've always been amazed by the busy intersection of speculative fiction, engineering, and policy. There's a lot of background on Cumulus and The Uncommon Series, the big ideas the stories wrestle with, and the inspirations behind them. I fielded questions on how my work as a technology strategist influences my fiction and vice versa, the counterintuitive commonalities between artists and entrepreneurs, and what to expect from my next novel. It was a fascinating conversation and I was honored to talk through these issues with folks that are literally building the future.

Ann Farmer orchestrated the entire event and I am deeply indebted to her for suggesting it. The Talks at Google program has hosted some of my favorite writers, including folks like Neal Stephenson, George R.R. Martin, and Michael Lewis. But one of the coolest things about the experience was the interviewers. David Allison leads teams and builds products inside Google and previously was the CTO of Nulu and Brightscope. Rick Klau is a partner at Google Ventures (now called gv). Both David and Rick have been dedicated early readers since my very first novel, and have generously helped vet the technologies presented in the books. That meant that we could go deep during the interview, tackling the toughest questions buried in the stories.

Watch it and let me know what you think.

Unveiling Neon Fever Dream

I'm delighted to share that my next novel, Neon Fever Dream, is coming out August 4th! The Kindle version is already available for preorder here.

[drumroll]

NEON FEVER DREAM

A dark secret hides in the swirling dust and exultant revelry of Burning Man.

Asha Amarasuriya is bored and struggling to get by as a martial arts instructor in Oakland. When an enigmatic seductress offers her a golden ticket, Asha decides to take a leap of faith and head to Burning Man. But there is more than meets the eye at the infamous desert pilgrimage and Asha gets sucked into a quest to unravel a sinister mystery at the heart of Black Rock City.

Will Asha and her friends survive to expose the shadowy conspiracy? By the time the Man burns, their lives will have changed forever.

"Outstanding. Totally nails it at all levels. Incredibly powerful female characters who are simultaneously introspective and totally kickass heroic leaders. I read the whole book in one evening and loved it."
-Brad Feld, Managing Director at Foundry Group

Brad read an early draft and already published a post about it, which you can check out for a sneak peek under the hood of the book.

Neon Fever Dream is in the last stages of proofing and design. I'm really happy with how how the story came together and can't wait to get it into your hands next month. I'm nervous and excited to hear what you think.

Finally, if you have a column, podcast, mailing list, or blog audience, would you like to do a feature, review, interview, or post an excerpt? I've made very few media commitments so far, so let me know.

A dark vision of the social impacts of social media

An interview with science fiction author William Hertling.

By day, Angie, a twenty-year veteran of the tech industry, is a data analyst at Tomo, the world's largest social networking company; by night, she exploits her database access to profile domestic abusers and kill the worst of them. She can't change her own traumatic past, but she can save other women.

When Tomo introduces a deceptive new product that preys on users' fears to drive up its own revenue, Angie sees Tomo for what it really is--another evil abuser. Using her coding and hacking expertise, she decides to destroy Tomo by building a new social network that is completely distributed, compartmentalized, and unstoppable. If she succeeds, it will be the end of all centralized power in the Internet.

But how can an anti-social, one-armed programmer with too many dark secrets succeed when the world's largest tech company is out to crush her and a no-name government black ops agency sets a psychopath to look into her growing digital footprint?

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That's the pitch for William Hertling's new technothriller, Kill Process, which came out this week. I'm a fan of William's work and we've become friends over the past few years. His bestselling four-book Singularity Series is some of the most sophisticated science fiction out there about the future of artificial intelligence.

In Kill Process, Williams brings the lens of speculative fiction to bear on the present day. The story wrestles with the social impacts of social media, the centralization of power among big internet companies, and the burgeoning movement of independent programmers working to create new options outside of a closed system. If you like computers and science fiction, you'll get a serious kick out of it.

William was kind enough to agree to answer some questions about these issues, and more. Hit him up on Twitter at @hertling if you have follow up questions or comments.

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Kill Process wrestles with many big ideas that are suffusing the zeitgeist right now. Where did the premise come from? What were the initial moments/thoughts/experiences that the story grew out of? What social struggles are reflected in the novel and why did you focus on them?

​Abuse of power is a theme I've explored throughout my books, especially abuse in the form of manipulation through the control of information. I'm also particularly interested in corporate abuse of power. As companies grow larger and wield more influence, whether intentional or accidental, abuses of power become inevitable. We see that with Facebook, for example, where something as simple as feed selection algorithms have a huge influence over how we perceive the world and what we learn.

The Circle by Dave Eggers and Future Crimes by Marc Goodman were two books I read that intensified my interest in exploring current day issues around data privacy and ownership, but one of the most influential moments for me was meeting Amber Case and Aaron Parecki, then cofounders of Geoloqi, and learning about IndieWeb.

It doesn't get much more grassroots than IndieWeb, which is a bunch of people building a decentralized alternative to the corporate-owned web, line by line of code, without any real backing in the form of venture capital money or corporate sponsorship. They're facing the combined might of Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Those giants may not intend to be evil, but their ownership of and control over everyone's data and relationships is a type of abuse. There's so much as stake, and we've got just a few programmers arrayed against the largest, most powerful companies in the world.

So I wanted to tell a story about that, but I also wanted to tell a story about a character who has many disadvantages yet still fights on. Angie is a woman working in tech, trying to recover from her brutal past, physically handicapped, and yet she never gives up. The technology backdrop is interesting, but ultimately this is Angie's story.

You're best known for the Singularity Series of science fiction novels which are set in a future that's pretty far off (at least in the later books). What was it like to write a technothriller that is much nearer term, much closer to the present day?

​In some ways liberating, and in some ways challenging. In Avogadro Corp, which was set in 2015 or so, the challenge was figuring out plausible technology advances just a few years into the future. It's so easy to get that wrong in very obvious ways. For example, I wrote the book in 2009, and smartphones and tablets make only brief and insignificant appearances in the story. By the last book in the series the challenge had changed. The Turing Exception is set in 2045, and the difficulty became in extrapolating technology far enough to be plausible.

Setting Kill Process in the present day, with current technology removed the need to predict where technology is going. On the other hand, it's more necessary to get the details of the tech right, and I'm limited to existing technology, so I couldn't employ any magic bullets to solve plot holes.

Kill Process is your most personal story yet, and takes on major sociological questions. Does science fiction play a role in our culture beyond entertainment? If so, what role does it play?

​I think so. I enjoy stories that are just entertainment, but the best and most memorable science fiction makes you think about people, society, and technology, and it changes you. In many ways, I am the product of all the science fiction I've consumed, from Neuromancer to Star Trek to Buffy. I hope Kill Process helps at least a few people make different technology choices because of the implications for data ownership, and it helps at least a few people implementing this stuff see how their decisions can ultimately be abusive toward their customers.

How does your work as a technology strategist influence your science fiction writing, and vice versa? What interesting similarities/differences are there between writing software and writing novels?

Both writing software and writing novels are creative acts. Both involve lots of hours meticulously arranging alphanumeric characters according to rules in order to achieve an end product, which is then given over to other people to use and enjoy. Both are gratifying in a lot of the same ways.

That being said, it's far easier, more forgiving, and satisfying to write a large novel than a large software program. Far more time is spent in the actual act of creation in the novel case, whereas the vast majority of time is spent debugging in the software case.

The fact that both are connected, in that technology is integral to my stories, is nice. It means I get to swim in a sea of ideas all the time.

What was your creative process like for Kill Process? How did it go from idea, to rough draft, to finished product?

​It took about eighteen months from start to publication, and began only with a clear image of Angie's character, her history, and her short term objectives. Everything else--all of the bigger plot arcs, the decision she makes about a quarter of the way through the book, even the inclusion of IndieWeb--came organically as I wrote and continually asked myself what would have to happen next.

As with my other books, Kill Process is indie published, but that wasn't always a given. A well-known publisher asked me to send them the manuscript and give them a chance to make me an offer before I published it myself. I figured it couldn't hurt to hear their offer, and planned to take them up on it as soon as the manuscript was complete.

Around then I heard from yet another writer, the third in total, who had started out indie published, then took a traditional publishing deal, and ended up disappointed due to lack of creative control, poor marketing, and poor sales. The offers these writers received were attractive in theory, but in practice, were bad business. I decided that it could, in fact, hurt to hear an offer--an offer that might sound too good to pass up--and avoided the problem by going straight to indie publishing Kill Process.

What lessons did you learn from writing Kill Process?

Back in 2009 or so, I shared an early draft of Avogadro Corp with friends to get feedback, and one of them said, "Good story, but are there no women in your world?" I was deeply embarrassed and disappointed to discover I really wasn't giving women a fair part of the story, especially when I loved strong female protagonists. I started paying a lot more attention to women-in-fiction panels at writing conventions, to woman-in-tech panels at tech conferences, and to feminist issues in general.

​So when I wrote Kill Process, which tackles several issues--women-in-tech, domestic abuse, and a strong, female dominated cast of characters--I cared quite a lot about getting all of those details right. Eventually I asked a writer friend who focuses on feminist issues to read the manuscript, and then waited, practically sick to my stomach with worry, waiting for her to get back to me. When she did, her feedback was something like "Great story, loved all the strong female characters, but are there no people of color in your world?"

There is always room for, and in fact, requirement for, more growth as a writer.

Can you share some reading recommendations? What are a few recent favorites? 

​I loved The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, although it's a frightening book to read amid the current political backdrop in the United States. I'm currently reading her MaddAddam trilogy.  The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin was fantastic. Stacking in Rivertown by Barbara Bell is a well written and deeply disturbing book that will give most people nightmares.

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Enjoy this interview? Then you’ll probably like my reading recommendations curating amazing books that explore the intersection of technology and culture.

The Uncommon Series is now available on Kindle Unlimited

That's right, The Uncommon Series is now available on Kindle Unlimited. You can dive in and start reading right here.

The trilogy is the #1 top-rated financial thriller on Amazon and follows a kickass entrepreneur as she takes her tech startup from garage to IPO and gets caught up in an international conspiracy along the way.

Kindle Unlimited is an Amazon subscription service almost like a Netflix for books. In return for a monthly fee, readers get access to an enormous library of tens of thousands of digital books.

If you haven't read the story yet and you're a KU subscriber, now's the perfect time.

Audiobook of Uncommon Stock: Power Play is available now

You can find it here:

http://www.audible.com/pd/Mysteries-Thrillers/Uncommon-Stock-Power-Play-Audiobook/B01GUE4PLO/

Power Play is the second book in The Uncommon Series, the #1 top-rated financial thriller on Amazon (you can find the audio version of the first book here). The story follows an entrepreneur, Mara Winkel, as she leads her tech startup from garage to IPO and gets caught up in an international conspiracy along the way. Here's what to expect:

Mara Winkel is the CEO of Mozaik, the fastest-growing tech startup in Boulder, CO. But Mozaik doesn't just build widgets; their software uncovers financial fraud. When Mozaik's first major project reveals a dark secret at the heart of a large international bank, Mara and her team get sucked deeper into a conspiracy of dangerous money launderers, dysfunctional team members, and shady venture capitalists. Can they build a new business and survive intact? Their company and their lives are on the line.

Audiobooks have exploded in popularity over the past few years. I'm not surprised. I've loved audiobooks every since I was a kid. We'd listen to them on family road trips and I made constant trips to the local public library to borrow large sets of books-on-tape. Smart phones have made the experience that much easier, and now with the touch of a button we can dive into a story while driving or doing the dishes (right now I'm listening to The Fireman by Joe Hill).

Because I love audiobooks so much, I take production very seriously. Jennifer O'Donnell is a brilliant narrator and really brings Mara to life (we reviewed ~40 auditions). Brick Shop Audio did a great job mastering and producing the files. I think you'll appreciate the results.

Give it a listen and let me know what you think.

Cumulus is available now

I've got a new book out. Check it out here.

Cumulus takes place in a near-future Bay Area ravaged by economic inequality and persistent surveillance. It’s a dark, gritty, fast-paced story packed with political intrigue, world-changing technology, and questionable salvation.

I’m humbled that some esteemed people and publications like Brad Feld, Tim O'Reilly, Andrew Keen, Lucas Carlson, Josh Anon, Ars Technica, and Endless Magazine have said nice things about it. Google has asked me to give a talk about the book in June and I'm delighted that a number of my favorite science fiction authors requested advance copies. You can find a review here, an excerpt here, and a podcast interview here.

I’m really proud of how Cumulus came together. I moved back to Oakland in 2013. It was the city of my birth and where I grew up. Seeing how Oakland has evolved since the ’80s is at once inspiring and harrowing. Cumulus is a kind of twisted love letter to my favorite city in the Bay Area.

Over the course of the past few years, we’ve bonded with many of our incredible neighbors, sated our appetites at countless ethnic food joints, had a triple homicide on our block, installed a free little library for our community, hiked in beautiful Redwood Park, and watched a protest with thousands of people and hundreds trailing police vehicles terminate at the end of our street. We love the birdsong but hate the gunshots. Oakland feels like a special point of confluence for so many critical social issues: the implications of the growing wealth gap in American society, the extraordinary promise of new technologies and diverse world views, our failure to solve persistent social problems like poverty, racism, and homelessness, and the power of fierce, pragmatic optimism.

Writing Cumulus allowed me to explore my enthusiasm for my hometown and my fascination with how new tools like the internet are reshaping our lives in so many ways, big and small. Through years of working with startups and venture capital investors, I’ve had the privilege of seeing how some new technologies come to be and getting to know a few of the people who build and popularize them. I’ve never been more excited about the promise of human ingenuity and there’s no other time in history when I’d rather live. That said, these new developments are changing our social fabric, the texture of our personal lives, and even our geopolitics. Such change is always painful. Times like these require open-mindedness, compassion, critical thinking, resourcefulness, and creativity. I don’t have the answers but I hope that this story might contribute a few questions.

I will be donating the first six months of proceeds from Cumulus to the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Chapter 510. The Electronic Frontier Foundation fights tirelessly for a free and open internet, championing user rights in the face of entrenched special interests. Chapter 510 is a local literacy non-profit serving underprivileged youth in Oakland. These organizations are the real heroes. Day in and day out, they roll up their sleeves and work to avert the darkest aspects of the future that Cumulus portrays.

Both the audiobook and Bound serial are currently in production. Oh, and there are a few easter eggs hidden in Cumulus for fans of the Uncommon Series.

Give it a read. I’d love to hear what you think.

Newsletter 4/19/2016

I want to take a moment to extend a warm welcome to all the new readers who've subscribed to this humble little newsletter. Over the past year we have more than quadrupled and now these missives go out to 2,863 folks. A lot of newcomers have arrived after coming across my first book, Uncommon Stock: Version 1.0. I love hearing from all of you and it's been a true delight to see a community start to build around the stories...

http://eepurl.com/bYeT2n

Cumulus coming out May 5th

I'm excited to share that my next novel, Cumulus, has an official release date: May 5th! You can check out the gorgeous cover design here. The Kindle version is available for preorder here.

Cumulus is a standalone novel set in a near-future where economic inequality and persistent surveillance push Oakland to the brink of civil war. Feedback has started to roll in from advance readers and I'm really excited about how the story came together. Here's the very first blurb:

"Cumulus is a prophetic Bay Area thriller, a Jason-Bourne-meets-Silicon-Valley story of escalating technology, inequality and a crumbling state. When a former CIA-operative-turned-hired-gun joins forces with tech giant Cumulus, cracks in the digital facade emerge, laid bare by a powerful and simple analog alternative. In today's world where intimate personal details are just another row in someone's 'big data,' Cumulus is a stark reminder that data are power--and absolute data corrupt absolutely."
-Andrew Chamberlain, Ph.D., Chief Economist, Glassdoor

The last edits have been submitted, the typography has been set, the formatting is complete, and the final files are being prepared for distribution. I can't wait to get it into your hands.

How to build an organic fanbase if you write novels

You’ve written a book, but who’s gonna read it?

Now that I’m working on my fifth novel, I get a lot of inbound questions from aspiring writers. Some ask about craft. Some ask about inspiration. Many ask about building an audience for their own work.

I’m usually hesitant to dispense advice because every creative person makes art in their own way. Despite that, we all love directives, especially in list format. They force the writer to form strong, concise opinions which we can quickly identify or disagree with. So here we go. Here are some simple tips I give aspiring novelists looking to attract readers:
  1. Write. A lot. It’s funny how many writers don’t actually spend much time writing. Write. Write Write. It’s the only way you’re going to hit your 10,000 hours and really hone your craft. In fiction, the rule of thumb is that you start getting good after your first 10 novels.
  2. Write a book you love. Hopefully, others like you will also fall for your story. Fans who truly love your writing will champion your work. I don’t buy books because of banner ads or billboards. I read books because people I trust recommend them. Word of mouth is the way good books find new readers. It’s not about shouting as loud as you can to try to reach new people. It’s about delighting people that are already enamored with your books and stoking their enthusiasm even more.
  3. Read. Challenge yourself. Read books that make you think. Read books that make you feel. Read the best books you can get your hands on. Share your favorites. We want to know what piques your fancy. Always be reading.
  4. Do things that improve people’s lives. If you share your book on social, invite people into your life rather than plugging your book. If you go on a podcast, don’t just talk about yourself. Instead, think about what you might be able to share that would make a real impact for listeners. If you write a guest post, don’t just try to drive traffic to your work. Craft something that’s valuable on its own as a piece of evergreen content. Put the interests of your readers ahead of your own.
  5. Fans are humans, so treat them like people. Don’t think of them as metrics, customers, engagements, or anything else. Even if you only have a few readers, do everything you can to make their day. Don’t force email blasts into their inboxes. Send them personal, substantive notes that show how much you appreciate and respect them. I respond to every single email from folks who subscribe to my author newsletter. The more we treat each other humanely, the more we earn each other’s respect.
Wait, not so fast! Don’t browse around for another article to read. Write the next chapter instead.

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Enjoy this interview? Then you’ll probably like my reading recommendations curating amazing books that explore the intersection of technology and culture.

3 quick writing tips for novelists

A friend who's in the middle of drafting his first novel just emailed me asking for a few writing tips. I fired off a response and then realized it might be worth sharing here. Now that I'm working on my fifth novel, I've found that fiction is mostly a "learn by doing" craft. Prescriptive advice can only take you so far. That said, here are a few things I try to keep in mind:
  1. Only write the important/exciting/dramatic/conflict-filled bits. A story is just a series of extremely brief snapshots into a character's life, the reader fills in the rest in their head. So skip the boring parts, even if they feel necessary.
  2. Think of your characters as friends, not fictional figments. They're real people with real lives that extend far beyond the confines of the story. If you drop occasional random details from the rest of their lives, we realize they're humans rather than dramatis personae.
  3. Pour your whole self into your writing. It's tempting to try to save your best work for a key moment or future scene. Instead, pack your pathos into everything. The more you give, the more you make yourself vulnerable, the more the story will resonate.
Finally, write. Novelists are in it for the long hall. Writing when you feel inspired is easy. Writing when you feel uninspired is what distinguishes novelists. When you look back on your own work later, you probably won't even be able to tell the difference between pieces you wrote with the muse whispering in your ear and those where inspiration abandoned you.

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Enjoy this interview? Then you’ll probably like my reading recommendations curating amazing books that explore the intersection of technology and culture.

What's the deal with VR?

Trying to figure out why VR is all the rage right now even though you probably haven't tried it? A few weeks ago I got to try an pre-release "room scale" VR rig at a secret lab down in SoCal. After donning the goggles, my immediate reaction was "WOW." I was suddenly standing in another world, a world in which I could spray paint in 3D and walk through my own creations, a world in which I struggled to fix a mad scientist's robot before it exploded. The part about experiencing VR that's impossible to capture in an article, photo, or Youtube video is that you feel like you're really there.
Luckily, our friend Josh Anon just wrote up this comprehensive guide to understanding what the deal is VR and why everyone seems to be freaking out about it. Josh spent 10 years at Pixar, knows pretty much everyone working on VR, and is the most knowledgeable human I know on the subject. If you're curious, his guide is a good place to start:

Reading Recommendation: Antifragile

Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is an acerbic, thought-provoking book about things that gain from disorder and volatility. Taleb mixes refreshing pragmatism with profound skepticism and is ruthless in his arguments against the fundamental inconsistencies baked into everything from financial speculation to medical research. Antifragile is jam packed with ideas. Although I disagreed with some of them, the overall package is stimulating and not-to-be-missed.

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Enjoy this tip? Then you’ll probably like my reading recommendations curating amazing books that explore the intersection of technology and culture.

Audiobook of Uncommon Stock: Version 1.0 is now available

Audiobooks hold a special place in my heart. Since I was a kid, I've always loved listening to stories. My parents entranced me with bedtime tales and one baby sitter read me The Hobbit over the course of a number of extended sessions. As I got older, we started to listen to books-on-tape on family road trips. If I came home from school early, my ritual was to munch on chips and salsa while listening to an audiobook borrowed from the Oakland Public Library.

That's why I'm so delighted to share that the audiobook of my first novel, Uncommon Stock: Version 1.0, is now available. You can find it right here:

http://www.audible.com/pd/Mysteries-Thrillers/Uncommon-Stock-Version-10-The-Uncommon-Series-Audiobook/B01BO2AN0E/

Audio is becoming a richer format than ever before. Podcasts have exploded in popularity, especially since Serial captured the attention of the nation. Audiobooks have been on the rise and are a big growth factor in the book business as more and more people plug in earbuds to explore new worlds during their commute.

But producing an audiobook takes some doing. Drea and I reviewed over forty auditions from different voice actors and production companies before selecting the narrator who we thought best captured Mara and the spirit of The Uncommon Series. Jennifer O'Donnell did a fabulous job and The Brick Shop in Brooklyn was masterful in post production. Fun fact, it's less entertaining than you might imagine to listen to your own audiobook. I reviewed all the final files myself but I already knew all the spoilers!

Give it a listen and let me know what you think. I'm excited with the results and look forward to reading your reviews. Production on the audiobook for Uncommon Stock: Power Play will start soon...


Interview on new Makers podcast/interview series

Crossing the street with my constant companion, Claire.

My friend Michael Sacca just launched a really interesting new podcast and interview series called Makers that digs deep into the creative processes of designers, entrepreneurs, and artists of all kinds.

He was kind enough to invite me on as one of their initial guests and interviewed me about my novels over the course of more than a year. He also talked to my beautiful and patient wife Andrea Castillo and Dane McDonald, the CEO of my original publisher, FG Press. I'm excited to have another go-to podcast to listen to.

If, like me, you're obsessed with the backstory behind any creativity, then check out Makers. Here's a direct link to my interview about key moments in the writing of The Uncommon Series, check it out.