Q&A With Paul Hollis 2nd Place Winner Of 2014 World’s Best Story

by Vincent Salera 29 Jul 2015

Q: Your story The Hollow Man was the 2nd place winner of the 2014 edition of World’s Best Story. Did you think you were going to make it to the top 10, especially 2nd place? How did you react when you got the news live from The Toronto International Book Fair during the live finale this past November?

I’d like to say my ego had faith The Hollow Man would be the winner but truthfully, I was ecstatic just being a finalist. The closer the announcement came to number one, the more I started to believe however I was no longer in the top ten and I was simply watching someone else’s contest. Then I heard The Hollow Man selected as second and I was a bit stunned.

I’ve always felt I’ve been able to pick the locks on the backdoors to the world’s wonders where I could sneak in for a peek but now I’ve just been handed a key to the front door. Q: The Hollow Man, a mesmerizing thriller set in Madrid 1973 that tackles the horrors of terrorism head on, can you tell us a little more about The Hollow Man and some of its main characters?

The story is based on true events so I’m sure you can guess the main characters are also based on real people.

The main character is exactly like me when I was 24 years old. Doc is adventurous, more than a little impulsive, certainly headstrong, and probably reckless as well. He doesn’t know enough to know what he doesn’t know. Doc is just a guy who asks more of himself than the world believes he can do. But still that’s not the kind of man we want responsible for protecting us.

Zita is Doc’s counterbalance. She keeps him grounded and adds some sensibility to his lack of focus. She is smart, sensual, sexy, and a trained killer. These skills save their lives more than once in the dark, unfamiliar world of espionage. I left her a bit mysterious since every woman should have her secrets.

The terrorist, Chaban, is the most complex character. Though I knew him well, I didn’t know how he thought or what exactly drove him. Not being a stereotypical sociopath, I had to completely separate him from my own memories and feelings then look at him objectively. As I say at one point: “He (Chaban) was going to shoot me and go about his day.

I peered into his steel-grey eyes and saw something I hadn’t expected. I wanted to see a total lack of empathy. I wanted to see the black bottom of fourth-world paranoia. I wanted to see swamp alligator crazy. Instead, the crystal-clear sanity of reason and right was staring back at me. I saw the calm intelligence he used to calculate and recalculate every brush stroke in his masterpiece.

I saw the untroubled conscience allowing him to pull the trigger without another thought.” Q: World’s Best Story 2014 judge James Kahn gave you a rave review, “Draws you right in with imagery and intrigue of a strange dream, very well plotted, left me feeling I was comfortably in the hands of someone who could take me along on a great ride.” What does his review mean to you?

It is a real honor to have someone of James Kahn’s caliber and standing within the writing community critique my work. I was thrilled he took the time to read The Hollow Man and regarded it as quality work. I would like to personally thank him for participating as a judge in the World’s Best Story contest and for allowing us the opportunity to use his glowing endorsement.

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Q: Part of your prize package includes being published by Wavecrest/FastPencil. How has the experience been so far?

My experience with Wavecrest/FastPencil has been outstanding. The overall management, editing and artwork teams have been awesome. Everyone has been responsive, helpful, and sensitive to my needs. They brought a high level of professionalism to task and we have been able to form an in depth relationship focused on the best product we can produce.

Q: What story has influenced your life?

As a young boy I was fascinated by the Robert Louis Stevenson classic Kidnapped. I dreamed of the open sea, with the wind in my hair and salt spray on my face. It was the definition of freedom. My love affair with travel began with this book and has lasted a lifetime. Being my first memorable book, Kidnapped also opened a world of imagination and learning for me. I earned a degree in English Literature, where I took full advantage of the best in novels, poetry, and drama.

As an adult, To Kill a Mockingbird has stayed with me the longest and most affects my writing today. Harper Lee has a talent for narration, visual with a cinematic flare that effortlessly blends scenes without bumps. And it would be difficult to find two better characterizations in modern literature than Atticus and Scout. Q: Do you have any advice to aspiring writers?

First-time authors may be overwhelmed by the amount of conflicting information that’s going to be flying at them. Try to tune the noise out and write. Write the story you need to write with your own style and voice, not the one you think agents, publishers, and readers want. Find the time to write on a schedule, every day and write until your story is drafted.

Proof it, edit it, or stylize it until you’re satisfied with the result. Then hire a professional editor. An editor will raise your work to the next level. You will hate her, disagree with her, and argue with her but listen to your editor and make the suggested changes. In the end your book will be much better for it.

During the writing process, join social media and make friends, not followers. Ask questions on your social networks and I guarantee we will answer from personal viewpoints of experience, knowledge, and strength. Avoid most of the Googled ‘how to’ articles which ask your same questions but never seen to get to the ‘how to’ part.

Q: What are the ingredients for a blockbuster story to you?

A blockbuster story has three characteristics; an identifiable main character, an insurmountable problem, and girls with guns.

Seriously, a blockbuster story to me is one that stays with the reader long after it has ended. It contains powerful descriptions, poignant lessons, strong and believable characters, and unique plot twists. I also see blockbuster potential in the story’s ability to tap into multiple markets such as gaming, movie, television, etc.

Q: What story do you enjoy reading over and over again?

More than any book I can read over and over, I continue to be drawn back to my favorite twentieth-century poets. The poetry of T.S. Elliot, W.H. Auden, and Dylan Thomas have done more to shape who I am as a writer than any other. An American, an Englishman, and an Irishman have taught me in my writing to search for the exact word needed by its sound, its meaning, its shape, and its feel to create my own form of poetry in my prose. At the very least, their words never fail to lift me above whatever sea bottom I may be roaming at the moment.

Q: How would you increase literacy?

If the world of literacy were mine to redesign, I would link literacy to imagination as early in life as possible. Imagination is the basis for all creation. It’s the inspiration for inventions such as computers, cell phones, the Internet, and video games. Along with other mundane things like toothbrushes, car keys, and mousetraps. The key to literacy is to awaken imagination then reading and writing will follow.

Begin by telling children tales of adventure, dreams, and other worlds before they are old enough to read. Then read the same or similar stories, using books to impress upon their minds that this is where imagination lies. Since I believe a digital world is becoming more and more inevitable, incorporate technology into the reading process. Read from an e-reader when you can.

Closely related to reading, writing is the legacy of speech and, until mind control has been fine-tuned, it is the only method we have to pass information to future generations. The written word is dictated by its own imagination.

Q: What is your favorite drink while writing and/or reading?

I never acquired a taste for coffee like most writers so my favorite beverage is iced tea. I keep a glass close all year around.

Q: What is your favorite tech brand? App?

Having spent nearly forty years around computers, I’ve been fortunate enough to watch many tech brands come and go. As an IBM retiree, I’ve always been partial to PCs since Apple was considered the “Dark Side” during its growing years. I have both Lenovo and HP machines, usually running at the same time so I’d have to say those are my favorite brands at the moment.

As a writer, my favorite apps include the MS Office Suite for writing and the Abode Group for marketing.

Q: What is your favorite genre of music, artist?

I have eclectic tastes in music. Though the rock and roll explosion of the sixties still owns my heart, I also enjoy pop, jazz, blues, reggae, and even the occasional cowboy song. My favorite artist has changed over the years but the Rolling Stones currently hold the number one position.

Q: What is your favorite movie, tv show, superhero?

My favorite movies tend to be comedies such as Get Smart, Paul, Knight and Day, Christmas Vacation, etc. with the exception of the Bourne Trilogy. I love that series. My favorite TV shows run toward crime dramas such as NCIS, Forensic Files, and Castle.

I don’t have a superhero because I tend to see them as flawless but shallow characters who the audience knows will win every battle and vanquish every enemy. I’m drawn to complex and flawed characters that readers / viewers can identify with.

Q: What is your must have snack?

My go-to snack is a handful of nuts – macadamias, cashews, or pistachios.

Q: If heaven exists, what is the first thing you would like to hear from God when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Take off your shoes; we’ve just waxed the clouds.

Q: What ice cream flavor would you invent?

I’m a purist when it comes to ice cream. I can’t imagine a better flavor than vanilla, with five or six toppings.

Q: What are the special challenges in writing a series?

There are three important challenges I encounter in writing a series.

First, sustaining a character arc can create difficulties. A character begins a series with certain viewpoints that change through events in the initial narrative. As the second narrative begins, the character should reflect the impact of the first novel and the third installment needs to show continued growth.

It’s also not easy to maintain the story arc across multiple books while ending each with a resolution that leaves the reader satisfied. Try to plan a high level view of your series then plot convenient ending points.

Lastly, the tone of each book should reflect the series but not serve as a rerun. There should be something that surprises but at the same time, the reader is reentering the same world left at the end of the last book. If it is too different, the reader may feel betrayed and stop reading.

Q: What part of writing a novel do you enjoy the most? The least?

I love writing dialogue. This is where characters come to life. We can describe their idiosyncrasies and characteristics. We can position them with thoughts and feelings. We can thrust them into circumstances to watch them squirm. But what comes out of their mouths immediately adds a third dimension to the script and the character jumps off the page.

I enjoy most aspects of writing a novel except possibly the inescapable frustration of procrastination and distraction that comes with a daily routine. But I’ve found ways to minimize these disturbances. A regular regimen and daily goals help me stay on pace. Sometimes.

Q: Is it important for you to know the ending of a book before you write it? The title?

Both are important to define the bounds of the book for me. I want to know the ending in general terms and the title specifically. The title sets the tone, mood and theme of the book and the ending sets the direction.

Q: Have you ever written characters that you truly despise?

I haven’t written a character that I despise. A writer should step back from a story, see a character for what he/she is, and tell the story as an impartial observer. Otherwise the story will demonstrate an obvious bias against the hated character which might cause unexpected consequences – like, a sympathetic bad guy.

Q: How much research was involved in writing your book? How did you go about it?

The Hollow Man series is based on facts and other incidents that occurred forty years ago. As a result, my research is extensive. I want to be as historically correct as possible so I explore everything from actions prior to documented events to reactions in the aftermath to local cuisine and currencies, and so on.

I use the internet for most of my research. Over the past twenty years, the web has grown from an enigma of secrets and codes to a modern oracle of answers. Ask a question and I’m immediately presented with pages of explanations, observations, interpretations, comments, and justifications. And honestly, if you’re writing fiction, it generally doesn’t even matter if the information is true or not. It’s all about the spark of curiosity that ignites the wildfire of your imagination.

Q: Do you allow others to read your work in progress, or do you keep it a secret until you’ve finished your first draft? Can you elaborate?

I do allow others to read my work in progress because I’m looking for honest reader perspectives and understandings as early in the process as possible. I want to know what’s working and what isn’t. The exercise is very helpful when I remember to disregard most of the accolades unless they are very specific to, for example, a particular passage or character. I’m looking for disconnects in time and thought, character weaknesses or inconsistencies, and plotting errors. I believe each of these discoveries increases the quality of my writing.

Having our work out there to be judged by strangers is often daunting for writers.

Do you have any tips on handling a negative review?

My first reaction is always denial, followed closely by the urge to throat-punch the reviewer for not understanding the book. Eventually though I have to go to plan “C” because the first two options do no one any good. It’s very difficult to separate oneself from the situation because someone just called your baby ugly. But the review isn’t personal, usually.

Honestly ask yourself three questions. Do I want to make my novel the best it can be? Is what the reviewer saying legitimate? What can I learn from this? I’ve learned that both bad and good reviews can be helpful, and I learn something every day.

Q: We all know the old saying; you can’t judge a book by its cover. This is true. However, how much importance do you place on your book cover design?

I believe the cover is extremely important to your book’s success. As a reader, I look at the cover first, then the title, possibly a glance at the author’s name and finally turn it over to read the back cover blurb. The cover has about three seconds to capture my attention. If it does, I pick it up. If I’m not convinced I look at the title for another three seconds if I’m a slow reader to determine how the title fits with the cover imagery. If I don’t pick it up now, it stays on the shelf.

Q: How would you define your style of writing?

My writing style is very visual. It’s important for me to completely immerse the reader, drawing him/her totally into each scene. I want the reader to see what’s going on around them, feel the excitement, and hear the voices. When readers say The Hollow Man should be on the big screen, I feel like I’ve made the story completely real.

Q: What’s on the horizon for Paul Hollis?

I’m currently working on a sequel to The Hollow Man, called London Bridge is Falling Down. By the early 1970’s, animosities between England and Ireland had become razor sharp. Mass bombings and cross border clashes were constant reminders of Ireland’s struggle to be united and free.

The media had dubbed these conflicts “The Troubles” which had already claimed almost a thousand lives and there was no end in sight. Militant activities were spiking amid rumors the IRA had developed a list of targets designed to bring England to her knees. Like The Hollow Man, London Bridge is Falling Down is based on true events and includes some of the same, unforgettable characters.

Surviving Prague is the third installment.

You can follow Paul on: https://www.facebook.com/TheHollowManSeries

Vincent Salera

Founder CEO/CCO @ World's Best Story™ amplifier of creativity & fun!