Douglas Wynne: Five Things I Learned Writing His Own Devices

In 2016 an occult cabal activates a psychic trigger in a popular video game and a countdown to chaos begins.

While her husband is deployed in Afghanistan, Jessica Ritter finds herself navigating the pitfalls of parenting on her own. That includes moderating her ten-year-old son’s screen time—an obsession that hits a fever pitch when YouTube sensation Rainbow Dave releases an addictive new iPad game. Gavin knows he isn’t supposed to keep secrets from his parents, but when his achievements in the game unlock personal messages from Dave instructing him to embark on real world mini-quests, he can’t resist.

In the aftermath of an ambush that leaves her husband missing in action, Jessica grapples with fear and sorrow while clues to a threat closer to home evade her detection. Rainbow Dave, the charismatic host of Scream Time, is America’s cool big brother—a gamer who built a video empire on the strength of his personality. He is also the focus of a shadowy conspiracy hell-bent on sowing chaos with vast technological resources. Dave’s anonymous benefactors have granted him a glimpse of paradise between the pixels, and the real world hasn’t looked the same since. Now, wired with a head full of unholy revelations and a crate full of dangerous devices, he’s on a mission to help his fans “level up” at a live event. Scream Time is coming to town, and it may be too late to stop a deadly game.

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SOMETIMES TIMING IS EVERYTHING

This book took me longer to write than any other since my first novel. The first draft came pretty quickly, but that was followed by several years of revisions before finding the right shape for the story in between working on other projects. I will generally tinker with a book for as long as I’m allowed to, but I knew this was a timely story, focused on a cultural and technological moment that would eventually pass. So while I spent years reworking the manuscript and pitching it to agents and editors, I had a panicky sense of urgency that it would eventually expire like a carton of milk before it was ever published.

His Own Devices is set in 2016, on the brink of what we now know will be a cataclysmic upheaval in America. Because I felt confident I had a story that spoke to the moment, I was willing to wait for the right allies to hopefully bring it to a mainstream audience. But that clock was ticking, and then Covid hit, and maybe it was me or my book but all of the sudden no one was answering those follow-up nudge emails. Eventually, after a lot of deliberation, I decided to self-publish and strike while the iron was hot. And to my surprise, all that time I’d spent working on the novel had only made its themes more prominent in the news. Russian psyops, YouTube horror memes like Momo, dark web open source domestic terrorism, and quasi-religious social media conspiracies were all more relevant than ever.

None of this gives me any joy as I finally arrive at promoting the book, but in the final drafts I realized I could enhance the resonance that was built into the story from the start by keeping it set in 2016. That year turned out to be the inflection point for much of the digital chaos we’re grappling with now. And that “foreknowledge” enabled me to calibrate the final version of the book to set the stage for every horrible thing we now know happens next.

TEST YOUR STORY BUT TRUST THE SPARK

Part of what took so long between the first draft and the last was my openness to criticism and feedback. After years of publishing with small presses, I felt like this could be the one to break out if I didn’t screw it up, so I gathered a lot of notes from beta readers, agents, mentors, and editors who read the early versions. At one point I even had the data scientists behind The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel run the manuscript through their “Bestseller-ometer,” which uses algorithms trained by thousands of blockbuster novels to run a diagnostic check on a text’s style, pacing, emotional beats, and character agency. I know how cynical that sounds, but the approach seemed consistent with a novel that’s mostly about the dark power of technology. (I’ll spare you the details of the forty-page report, but that version of the book scored 4 out of 5 stars, for whatever it’s worth.)

I do think the novel benefited from all of this feedback—or most of it, anyway. For one thing, I heard consistently that my main character came off as a bit of a high-strung helicopter parent, a criticism I haven’t heard repeated by the final readers of the final draft because I realized it was better to let the reader do a lot of her worrying for her. On the other hand, I also realized late in the game that I’d taken the advice of one agent too far and padded the opening with boring details intended to make the protagonist more “likable,” hindering the thriller pace in the process. That all ended up on the cutting room floor.

But there were some elements of the story that were never up for debate in my mind. Like the unnerving ambiguity that pervades the story and leaves us with some unanswered questions at the end. Fiction may satisfy because it often resolves things better than the Mueller Report, but I wanted to reflect the deep unease we live with in these times. That was the book I’d set out to write, the spark that got me excited about the story in the first place. To betray it for a neat and tidy ending wasn’t on the table. So yeah, you can chew on feedback until you don’t know if you’re making a book better or worse, but never sacrifice the story spark that got you invested in the first place. It’s your North Star.

THE APOCALYPSE HAS BEEN HAPPENING ON THE DARK WEB FOR A WHILE

My villain uses the dark web to research some dangerous terrorist plans. I also researched enough of that to know what was plausible while leaving out any details someone would need to cause real trouble. And hoo-boy! We’ve come a long way since the paperback copy of the Anarchist’s Cookbook we used to stock when I worked at Tower Records in the 90s. I did my homework using the anonymous Tor browser so I wouldn’t end up on more government watch lists than I’m already on as a horror writer, but when you bump into a recipe that starts with the disclaimer “Do Not Make This Until TSHTF,” you realize that some of the preppers among us are not invested in the promise of a peaceful and prosperous society. It’ll put a chill down your spine.

STORY FIRST, IN ALL THINGS

Writers, especially indie writers, have to learn to wear many hats these days. It took me a few years and a lot of frustration to get the hang of writing back cover story blurbs. It’s a different kind of writing from the fiction it endeavors to sell, with a different set of rules and techniques. And that’s just one example. I’ve had to learn how to write newsletters, pitch emails, bookstore banter, and blog posts like this one. As I set out to self-publish a full-length novel for the first time, I discovered there were all kinds of techniques I could learn from successful indie authors—like using a “reader magnet” to cultivate an audience for a book before the release. That kind of marketing speak usually makes my eyes glaze over, but then I realized it wasn’t about sleazy marketing tactics. It was about storytelling. The only thing that makes people want to download a free novella as a newsletter subscription reward, and the only thing that makes them want to read that newsletter long enough to hear about your next book, is compelling storytelling.

It was liberating to realize that every email or promo piece I dreaded writing would also be dreadful for readers unless I viewed it as one more effort to do what I’m trying to do in the first place, which is tell a story. I may not always succeed, but it has to be the intention. Realizing that led me to write a prequel for His Own Devices called Random Access, which became a way to expand on the characters and hint at some intriguing answers to those questions I left dangling at the end of the novel. In trying to write a freebie that would both hook people who have never heard of me and also reward people who had already read the book, I ended up expanding my fictional world in some surprising ways.

FORGET IMITATION—LIFE AND ART ARE IN A WEIRD FEEDBACK LOOP

Any fiction writer who’s been at it for a while will tell you they start to notice things in the real world that are uncomfortably synchronous with whatever weird shit they happen to be making up at the time. Just ask Chuck: he wrote a book in which a pandemic called White Mask competes with a white supremacist insurrection to destroy America. And he published it the year before it actually happened, which I think earns him the Carl Jung Medal of the Cosmic Mindfuck.

I can’t compete with that. But remember I told you about how I watched the country creep closer to a state of chaos wrought by shady digital actors in the few years between the conception and publication of His Own Devices? Well, when it came time to pick a publication date, I went with March 4th for the private joke inherent in the pun (March forth and conquer, little book!). I picked that date about a month ago when I set up the Amazon pre-order, and just a few days ago I saw on CNN that the latest Q-Anon theory is that “the storm” will finally result in Trump reclaiming power on March 4th. Let me tell you, friends…I’ve had enough of relevance for a while.

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Douglas Wynne is the author of the horror/thriller novels The Devil of Echo Lake, The Wind In My Heart, and Red Equinox. His short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and his writing workshops have been featured at genre conventions and schools throughout New England. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife and son and a houseful of animals.

Douglas Wynne: Website | Twitter

His Own Devices: IndieboundAmazon | B&N