Graduate Essay: Author David H. Hendrickson, “Blending Genre and Experience,” Part 1

dave-hendricksonAuthor David H. Hendrickson is a 2006 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. His first novel, Cracking the Ice, was praised by Booklist as “a gripping account of a courageous young man rising above evil.” He has since published four more novels, including most recently, No Defense and Offside.

His award-winning short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines, most recently Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and the Fiction River anthology series. His titles have populated multiple Kindle bestseller lists. 

Hendrickson has published well over one thousand works of nonfiction ranging from sports journalism to humor and essays. He’s been honored with the Joe Concannon Hockey East Media Award and the Murray Kramer Scarlet Quill Award.

For more information about his writing, visit him online at http://www.hendricksonwriter.com where you can sign up for his mailing list and be notified of new releases.


Do you always write within your comfort zone? How widely do your stories vary?

So many writers constrain themselves within a narrow area of interest, creating stories that seem not only similar to each other but similar to other stories within that sub-genre. Sometimes breaking free of that ‘comfort zone’ and realizing you are a person with many interests and many different types of stories to tell can bring new energy and originality into your work.

I didn’t used to think so. I used to cling to my comfort zone. But I learned better, and perhaps my experience can help you. Let me start at the beginning.

Write what you know.

That’s what some long-forgotten book told me to do shortly after, at the age of twenty, I read my first Harlan Ellison short story and said, “Ohmigod, that’s what I want to do!”

I was horrified at the book’s advice. Write what I know? I didn’t know anything. Oh, I’d been captain of the math team and chess team in high school, and as an MIT student, I was learning a lot about computers. But I sure didn’t want to write about any of that. All that was software career stuff. I didn’t want to read fiction about math and computers, and I sure didn’t want to write about it.

So I wrote fantasies in the vein of Harlan Ellison as best my incompetent skills would allow. And the form letter rejections followed.

And followed.

And followed.

By the time I attended Odyssey in 2006, I had achieved considerable success with sports writing, specifically in the area of college hockey. For the first time in my life people were reading what I wrote! And liking it! I’d won major awards and not to be immodest, I had become a big fish in that sport’s tiny pond.

But I couldn’t sell fiction to save my life. Heck, I couldn’t give it away.

More than one person suggested that I stick to what I was good at and quit torturing myself with writing stupid stories no one would buy. (Although these people didn’t include the word stupid, my subconscious instinctively added it.)

But fiction was my passion. I would give it up in frustration, but every time I came back.

When I attended Odyssey, I was perilously close to the big five-oh. In almost three decades of writing, I’d sold only one story and that was to a friend so it didn’t really count.

Odyssey was my last-gasp attempt to find out if I was just wasting my time. I peppered Jeanne Cavelos and the writers I worked with—Robert J. Sawyer, Christopher Golden, and Jeff VanderMeer—with the same words: “Please be honest. You won’t be doing me any favors if you tell me a gentle lie to save my feelings. Am I wasting my time?”

If they told me what I secretly thought, what I secretly knew—that I had no talent—I had promised myself that I’d put on my big boy pants and quit. I’d get on with my life, this time for good.

I didn’t quit. Odyssey’s greatest gift to me was the belief that I wasn’t wasting my time. My mantra became “the only person who can stop me is me.”

The next year, I wrote fiction all 365 days. Even with a full-time job, multiple evening computer science classes that I taught, and from October through April, a weekly college hockey column, game stories, and features. Nothing was going to stop me. Through the Odyssey graduates’ email list, I found out about a Master Class being taught by Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith, to which I applied and was accepted, largely because of that 365-for-365 average.

One of the many things we did during that two-week master class—easily the toughest two weeks of my life—was play “The Game,” a role-playing exercise that simulated the ups and downs of a freelance fiction writer’s career. Every day, we would have to submit three or four novel pitches to a pretend publishing company made up of Kris, Dean, and two other local full-time writers. If you sold enough pitches and for enough pretend money, you stayed full-time; if you didn’t, it was back to the day job for you.

In no time, I had used up my pretend savings and was teetering on the cliff that led back to part-time writing. I’d stuck to my comfort zone of fantasy and horror ideas, a comfort zone that the pretend publishers must have felt was a boring zone. I was striking out with one idea after another.

With all my “good” pre-existing ideas used up and another four pitches to write that day (and more looming in the days to come), I searched valiantly for some new direction. Someone else had pitched an idea in the Young Adult genre—an arena I’d never even considered—so I figured I had nothing to lose. Other than my pretend freelance fiction writing career, of course.

Based on my love of hockey and the success I’d experienced writing about it, I began thinking of young adult hockey ideas. Where was the conflict? In no time, I intermingled hockey with my fascination for the Civil Rights era, and I had my story: in the sixties, a black teenaged hockey player gets recruited to break the color line at an elite, all-white prep school.

For the first time in “The Game,” the pretend publishing company got excited about one of my ideas. It became one of the two expanded novel pitches I chose to discuss with Ginjer Buchanan, a major New York editor, near the end of the master class. She gave her enthusiastic approval.

cti-cover-webTwo weeks after I returned home from the master class, I began writing what became Cracking the Ice, my first published novel. A few years later, I sold it to WestSide Books, a publisher that specialized in YA titles.

It all happened because I was forced to look outside my comfort zone and all of its tired and stale ideas, and consider something different.


David has more to say on writing outside one’s comfort zone. Be sure to check out Part 2, the conclusion to this post–to be published next Sunday, 10/17/2016!

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