31 August 2021

Guest Post: Room for Real Life

     James A. Hearn—Andrew, to his friends—first came to my attention when I found one of his stories in the slush pile for The Eyes of Texas. (He’ll tell you all about that below.) Since then, Temple and I have spent quite a bit of time with Andrew and his wife Dawn, and it’s safe to say our families have become friends.

      After you’ve read Andrew’s guest post, visit his website (https://jamesahearn.com) to learn more about this up-and-coming writer.

      —Michael Bracken

Room for Real Life

by James A. Hearn

“If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.”—Henry Ford

In the spring of 2016, the bean counters at my company relocated the entire Austin, Texas, office to Chicago, where a cheaper labor force of unemployed attorneys took our jobs. Before we were shown the door, management had us create written manuals of how our jobs were done (as they had no idea what we really did) and to train our replacements. I won’t bother explaining the nature of this job; it was an odd intersection of technology, law, and finance where I could work in jeans and a T-shirt.

James A. Hearn
My job wasn’t the greatest in the world, but it was comfortable. It was basically stress-free and, best of all, client-free. And it was gone. I had plenty of notions of what I didn’t want to do—no more jobs with Big Law, for example—but no idea of what I wanted to do.

I sat at home, collected unemployment, and fell into a strange combination of depression and anxiety. Some days, after my wife left for work, I crawled back into bed, as being asleep was preferable to being awake. Welcome to Rock Bottom, population one.

Get up, Andrew. Do something, or you’re going to lose everything. Your self-respect; your home; your marriage. Maybe even your life.

One day—I don’t know what day it was—I sat down at my computer and started to write. You see, I had always dreamed of being a writer (a science fiction and fantasy novelist, to be precise). I had a vision of walking into a bookstore and seeing my name on the shelf. After college, I dabbled with novels, never quite finishing, never quite knowing where I was going. There was always tomorrow to finish or get organized; gradually, the dream withered and died. I went to law school, made money, got married. I had a mortgage. Real life took over.

But in 2016, when real life got too real, I had to unplug myself. At the computer, I found new purpose in writing. Short stories were coming out, from years of crazy ideas and bottled-up dreams. I wrote about telescopes that could see into the future, of aliens discovered on a terraformed Mars, of monsters prowling train tunnels deep within mountains.

None of these stories sold (at that time), though I was achieving recognition through personal rejections from top markets and writing contests. I became a two-time Finalist in Writers of the Future, a quarterly contest for amateur science fiction and fantasy writers. Winning WotF would be like getting the Golden Ticket to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory—you go to Hollywood, you meet contest judges like Orson Scott Card and Brandon Sanderson, and you get into a kick-ass anthology.

But each time, the calls from the contest came back with bad news. You didn’t win. You were one of eight best stories submitted this quarter, out of hundreds of submissions. But the judges can pick only three . . . Who were these judges? Was it Orson Scott Card? Did he read my story? Did he hate it? . . . However, we’d like to hold your story for possible inclusion as a Published Finalist IF there’s room and IF it balances with the other stories. Would you like that? “Sure, I’d like that!”

Months of agonized waiting would follow these calls. Did someone else write about aliens? Was there room for me? No, there wasn’t.

Somewhere along the way, I found a new job and forged a work-life balance: work Monday through Thursday, write on Friday. Life was settling back into a familiar pattern, one I could enjoy. Through writing, I’d found a way back to the real world again. But was I any good? Could I make even one sale?

Then ArmadilloCon happened. In the summer of 2017, I attended a panel on anthologies where I heard Michael Bracken talk about The Eyes of Texas, a private eye anthology he was editing. Something clicked. I’d never written a private eye story in my life. I wrote about robots and wizards! But I walked out of that panel determined to write a story.

A few weeks later, “Trip Among the Bluebonnets” was submitted to The Eyes of Texas. In late December, I received a belated Christmas gift: my first acceptance! Other sales in crime fiction followed—“A Beretta, Burritos and Bears” in Guns + Tacos; “I’ll Be Seeing You” in Peace, Love, and Crime; “Hard Luck Case” in Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir; “Becoming Zero” in Black Cat Mystery Magazine. (I also sold one horror story, “Tunnel Visions,” to Monsters, Movies & Mayhem, winner of the Colorado Book Award for Best Anthology).

I’m a football nerd. My Guns + Tacos story centers around Brian Piccolo, a die-hard Chicago Bears fan named after the Bears’ famous running back. Guns + Tacos editor Michael Bracken later came to me with a fantastic idea for a football-themed story. One problem: he didn’t know beans about football. Would you like to co-author the story? “Sure, I’d like that!”

“Blindsided” was born—and sold to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine! My childhood dream—walking into a bookstore and seeing my name on the shelf—will come true when I buy the September/October issue of AHMM. Next year, I will have the pleasure of repeating this experience when I buy “When the Dams Break”—my first solo sale to AHMM.

It’s been a crazy road for me. I’m not sure why I’ve found more success in the crime genre than others. Maybe my experiences in the law give me a unique perspective on those operating outside its confines. Maybe I have warped notions of justice in an unjust world.

I’ll continue writing about my robots and wizards. They make me feel good, and they may yet find homes. But there’s room in my heart for crime, mystery, and private eye stories. And there’s room for Real Life, too. 


  1. Congratulations on your successes, Andrew.

    Great post! I especially like your resilience, and how you pick up opportunities that will improve your position. It is a message of hope.

  2. Congratulations on your recent sales. I couldn't help thinking as I read about your experience being downsized that there is a story in the whole business of having to create manuals for employees successors as they are being eased out the door.

  3. Congratulations, Andrew! And welcome to SleuthSayers.

    Looking forward to reading your story in the Sep/Oct AHMM.

  4. Welcome to the neighborhood, Andrew. And congratulations on your breakthroughs.

  5. Congratulations, Andrew, and welcome to the gang. The simple fact that you went from writing your first story in 2016 to getting multiple publications within 5 years proves you're a hell of a writer.

  6. Thank you all for your kind words. I feel blessed to be a part of the great community of writers on Sleuthsayers. You all have set a high bar for me, but armed with your advice and encouragement, I hope to continue to grow. Thanks again!

  7. James, congratulations both for surviving law school, surviving a law firm, and for surviving the submission process. Well done. And trust me: The population of Rock Bottom is a whole lot more than 1… but it's so dark that 1 is all we can see.

    1. Leigh, wonderful insight and thanks for sharing. With everything going on in the world, it's good to keep in mind that we need not be alone in our personal struggles.


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