Author of The Hollow Man Series
Although I’ve heard of people who have been “everywhere,” I’ve never met one until now. Hearing what I’m sure is the tip of the iceberg on Paul Hollis’s word travels, conjures up Johnny Cash singing “I’ve Been Everywhere” in a smokey bar, or maybe Folsom Prison. Hollis says that if you name a place, he’s likely been there to either travel or live for a while. His stories, although only briefly touched upon here, make it easy to see where he drew inspiration for his fast-paced international thrillers.
Writing his first book at sixty-three, the ever-popular The Hollow Man, Hollis was able to use those many years of life, travel, love, experience, and adversity, to gather boatloads of material for books that bring out the inner hero in us all. Of course, as Hollis tells me himself, his protagonist is an ordinary man trying to survive extraordinary circumstances. If that’s not an award-winning recipe, I don’t know what is. Oh wait! It is award-worthy! Hollis has won numerous literary awards for his fiction, and is an Amazon Best-Seller!
I learned about the ins and outs of writing and publishing from Hollis throughout this interview. I think you will, too. He has a lot of specific, helpful advice for new and unpublished authors. He’s quick to break the bubble on false thinking regarding getting published (and it’s a bubble we want to break, trust me). He sheds light on the importance of setting, character development, and dialogue. Finally, he stresses the importance of editing, self-promotion, and creating a writing support system through social media. Hint: Look for friends, not just followers.
I hope you’ll enjoy this interview as much as I did. Here is a conversation with Paul Hollis…
L.A. Can you introduce yourself to my subscribers? I’m sure they’d like to know where you’re from, how long you’ve been writing, and what you enjoy doing in your free time!
P.H. I was born in Alabama, where I brewed and sold moonshine with my father, grew up in Chicago, where I distilled LSD in chemistry lab for the Cicero mob, and came of age in California, where I hung with musicians like Santana, Garcia, Joplin, Grace Slick and others. I majored in “Staying Out of Vietnam” in college and soon after graduating, I joined the Peace Corps.
I only seriously began writing about 10 years ago and I most often mix playing the guitar for inspiration in my writing.
L.A. Did you have a career before writing? If so, what was it, and at what point did you transition over to writing full-time?
P.H. I retired from IBM in 2009 at the ripe young age of 59 after spending almost 40 years in IT. During my final years there, I was a DVS (Digital Video Surveillance) Solutions Executive. I created first-of-a-kind digital video surveillance solutions for cross-industry environments for the retail, banking, casino, government and other industries. Our team incorporated IBM’s multi-patented video analytics algorithms into modern surveillance technologies, allowing clients to perform real time queries of fraudulent events and conduct forensic analysis of criminal trends.
L.A. How many books have you published so far? Also, how old were you when you wrote the first book?
P.H. I have written three books in my bestselling and multi-award-winning Hollow Man Series that follow a U.S. Government analyst in a trilogy of suspense across Europe. The first two books in the series are Amazon #1 bestsellers – The Hollow Man (also World’s Best Story 2014 winner) and London Bridge is Falling Down (also 2021 Finalist in Page Turner Screenplay Awards). The third novel, Surviving Prague, was just released in March 2022.
I was 63 when I published the first novel.
L.A. Have you ever written a manuscript that didn’t translate into a finished novel?
P.H. So far, I’ve not written a manuscript that hasn’t translated into a finished novel. Because The Hollow Man Series is based on my genuine experiences as a young tourist in Europe working off-the-books for an American Intelligence agency, I still have many stories yet to tell.
“I always talk to the characters and let them tell their story the way it needs to be told.”Paul Hollis
L.A. Can you talk a little about your writing process? (Do you write at the same time each day? Where do you do your writing? How long does it take you to complete a book?)
P.H. At the same time each day, I write at my desk. I usually begin about 7 p.m. with a quick round of social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.) to see what’s going on in the writing world and to start the creative juices flowing. I read what I wrote the night before and jump in the deep end of the story for 3 to 5 hours per night.
If it’s writer’s block that you fear, I’ll say this. I once heard that when a writer gets writer’s block, it’s because they are trying to make the characters do something they do not want to do. I always talk to the characters and let them tell their story the way it needs to be told. As a result, I finish a novel from start to finish, including editing and indie-publishing, in approximately 6 months.
L.A. Do you write with music, or do you need it quiet while you work?
P.H. When my thoughts slow down or I need to rethink a situation, I turn off the background music. I will pick up my guitar for a while and play a few live 60’s oldies until I’ve sorted out whatever picture I’m trying to create.
L.A. Do you outline your stories before you begin writing them?
This is a troublesome question for me. Am I a pantser or an outliner? Well, I do not physically outline stories on paper; however, each story exists in my memory in full technicolor before I write it down. I usually tell readers that 80% of my books are about 90% true, so I’ll leave the question of whether I’m a pantser vs. outliner for my readers to better define.
L.A. Do you have a test reader(s) such as a spouse or friend that reads your work along the way? Or do you write the whole thing and then show it around?
P.H. I used to ask the opinions of others as I wrote pieces of my novel. Responses seemed few and far between. Most would excuse themselves with busy schedules or with questions outside the context of the work presented. As a result, I now keep the work intact so beta readers can experience the whole book at their own pace. For me, this method also seems to cut down on the why questions.
“Holding The Hollow Man paperback in my hands was one of the five or six most incredible events in my life.”Paul Hollis
L.A. Can you discuss your experience with publishing? (How you were first published, the process, how it felt, how long it took, etc.).
P.H. My first novel endured 26 edit cycles until I was satisfied with the result. I sent the manuscript to my editor for feedback on corrections, character development, continuity, etc. and made those changes. Finally, soft copies went to my beta readers, and I incorporated their feedback before publication.
I indie published The Hollow Man in 2013. I wanted to get it out there so interested readers could experience the thrill of terrorism from the viewpoint of an ordinary protagonist. He was no hero: not clever or capable, not talented or tested. He was just trying to survive after being thrown into the world of espionage.
Being an old IBM guy, the technology was straightforward, so within a few hours. I had the book formatted, the cover designed and uploaded to Amazon. I ordered 20 paperback copies and waited. Holding The Hollow Man paperback in my hands was one of the five or six most incredible events in my life.
Having this experience in mind, here’s what I’ve personally experienced with traditional publishing. As the writing industry changes more and more to an online presence, it has inevitably pushed most of the work down to you as a writer.
In 2014, I won The World’s Best Story contest, where the top prize was an agent and a publishing contract. My belief at the time was that a writer can have the best well-written, most creative, most exciting, most interesting book ever written but if agents don’t read it and publishers don’t print it, then readers cannot buy and read it. I had always imagined that agents and publishers were supposed to embrace the book selling marketplace so writers could get back to their business and write. But, if you thought agents and publishers do this for you these days, you would be wrong unless your name is Patterson, Baldacci, Child or Connelly (in my genre).
During the initiation process of agent and publisher, a fresh cover was created for The Hollow Man (this turned out to be a plagiarized drawing, which neither the agent nor the publisher would help defend or recreate), the pitch of the print was reduced to 9 points, making the book half its original size and difficult to read, and the retail price doubled. There was no mention of marketing or media distribution. Finally, came zero sales. Within 6 months, I took my book back from both the agent and publisher because of a lack of action.
I don’t want to scare anyone. This is a once in a lifetime experience that 99% of those reading this interview will never experience with agents or publishers. But I will add this. As sad as all of this seems, it gets worse for us authors. Marketing your work is not a once and done activity. Every spare hour of every day will go to some kind of marketing; writing queries, networking, trying to connect with agents /editors / potential readers / etc., building social media outlets, creating your brand and author platform, designing printed materials such as business cards / bookmarks / other giveaway trinkets, and on and so forth. Get ready for it.
However, there are many ways to mitigate the marketing process. It’s a subject for another time, but I know you can all do it. Personally, I find it fun.
L.A. Where do you draw inspiration for your settings, characters, and plot?
P.H. The inspiration for my storylines comes from a series of true incidents that occurred during the early 1970’s. The Hollow Man traces some of my lesser-known exploits when I traveled in Europe as a young man. To make a long story short, I met a guy in early 1973 who thought I was wasting my time digging latrines in East Africa for the Peace Corps. He had a better offer for me.
At that time, terrorism was on the rise in Europe, and they assigned me to learn as much as I could about it. I was to gather intelligence on specific people and plans in Europe that might bring terror to our shores here or otherwise go against U.S. worldwide interests. When I collected the information, I was supposed to turn it over to the professionals for final resolution, people who operated outside of U.S. borders. That’s how it was supposed to work. But when you’re young, wild, and untrained, things don’t always go according to plan. Here’s the environment I was working in:
Most early acts of terror were specific, personal, and damage was focused on a distinct, definable enemy. But by the early 1970’s, terrorism was beginning to change its strategy to the familiar, senseless chaos we now recognize. The death of political figures no longer seemed to bother us as much as these new, random attacks against our children we see today. Targets of innocence became preferable to politicians because it was this kind of shock and hurt that hit the hearts of us normal human beings. The fear inside us grew larger with each incident.
L.A. How do you handle negative reviews and general criticism of your writing?
It is always difficult to not take any sort of criticism personally, whether it’s from a reader, agent, publisher, or your family. But I first look for constructive criticism to take away from the comments. That’s always the best. Not everyone will like your work, so it’s easier on the stress level to either apply the criticism or walk away from it.
I remember one particularly critical review where a gentleman from Ireland said he read the first 9 chapters of The Hollow Man and stopped because nothing happened. At first, I was dumbstruck by the audacity of a reader believing my baby was ugly. After all, a street explosion kills a prime minster, Spanish police pursue the main character cross-country, and an assassin splits my hand open during a knife fight, just to mention a few action sequences in the opening chapters. Eventually, I wrote the review off as not being able to please everyone, and I told myself this reader was really not going to like the second book in the series, London Bridge is Falling Down, because I set this novel in England and Ireland during “The Troubles” when IRA car bombs were prevalent.
“Write the story you need to tell with your own style and voice, not the one you think agents, publishers, and readers want.”Paul Hollis
L.A. What is it like connecting with your readers and hearing how your stories have impacted their lives in a positive way?
P.H. I will forever be amazed how countless readers like my books. I have received so many positive and insightful reviews comparing my novels to Clancy, Brown, le Carré, and other famous and accomplished authors. I am humbled to say the least but when one reviewer stated that The Hollow Man deserves to be on the big screen as a movie, I was convinced I had accomplished what I set out to do; to fully immerse the reader in sights, sounds, people, foreign destinations, and experiences I once had.
I’ve lived in some exotic places such as London, Brussels, Paris, Madrid, Rome, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Sao Paulo, Anchorage, and many more. I’ve been fortunate enough to work in all fifty states and even more countries. If you’re thinking of your dream vacation spot right now, I have probably been there. As a result, I have had many conversations with readers about new desires to get out of their comfort zones, see the world, and broaden their perspectives regarding people, places, and cultures. There is a fascinating world out there.
L.A. What advice would you give to someone who has writing ability, but is stuck in fear and can’t go the distance with a full-length manuscript?
P.H. 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 tell 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, stylize it, clarify your “voice” or whatever 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 other authors 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.
L.A. What are you currently working on?
P.H. The epilogue in Surviving Prague, published this past March, convinced me there was another story to tell in The Hollow Man Series. It’s still early days but I’ll be focused on telling the tale through the summer months.
L.A. What books/tools did you use to learn the science of story development?
P.H. I’m an avid reader of novels in my genre. I’ve learned so much from the masters and continue to learn from them with each new novel I read. For example:
My writing style is very visual. It’s important for me to completely immerse readers, drawing them totally into each scene. I want my readers to experience what’s going on around them, feel the excitement, and hear the voices. As I mentioned, when readers say The Hollow Man Series should be on the big screen, I feel like I’ve made the story completely real. Here are some ideas I’ve learned from the masters in my genre:
Realistic dialoge is key; beyond description, scenery, and story. Dialoge is what makes characters come to life. Readers may skip parts of the description, scenery, and story, but for some reason they always seem to be drawn into what characters say. It has to be believable and has to use words the way people speak, complete with contractions (or lack thereof), slang, accents, hesitations, word selections, physical actions while speaking, etc. Each combination is unique and specific to that one character. When you get that right, your character walks off the page and enters the reader’s imagination.
“It’s important for the reader to “feel” the environment around them – the proverbial mist of the fog in London, the taste of French cuisine, the excitement of bullfighting in Spain.”Paul Hollis
The same applies to location. It has to feel real visually. Would you want to see a movie set in Paris or London that takes place exclusively indoors or on a Hollywood set? It’s important to take the reader along for the full ride. Each location provides its own set of rules in which characters must make decisions. Characters are challenged by location – language, culture and people around them. For example, a conversation with a kid on the Jersey shore in an Italian restaurant might occur very differently to a conversation with a kid in a back alley behind the Iron Curtain in Prague.
The location, or setting, also creates the mood of the story which helps shape emotions that a reader feels. It’s important for the reader to “feel” the environment around them – the proverbial mist of the fog in London, the taste of French cuisine, the excitement of bullfighting in Spain.
As far as tools go, I use ProWritingAid while I write. It helps me avoid repetition, passive voice, context, improved word choice, potential plagiarism, and so much more. This tool is also a tremendous help in short cutting the editing process. I highly recommend it.
L.A. Which authors influence and inspire you?
Along with the masters of suspense, I like to read poetry; Dylan Thomas, T.S. Elliot, WH Auden. These are the writers that truly inspire me. The magic and melody of their verses create images of faraway dreams filled with characters and places that jump off the page in a special form of reality.
L.A. Do you have a favorite book? If so, what is it you like so much about this story?
P.H. I guess a favorite book would be Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity. It was this book that incited me to write with a passion and helped me understand the difference between telling a story vs showing (or, experiencing) a story.
A huge thank you to Paul Hollis! I went back and read this interview twice because I learned so much. I’ll be filing this in a special category that I can reference often, because it’s my opinion that Hollis could write a book on writing. Who says Stephen King is the only world-renowned author who can do it? Hollis has a lot to teach, for those of us willing to take notes.