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August 8, 2014
By Oren Smilansky
I chose nontraditional publishing because my book fell outside of the forms that presses were buying.

In M. Dolon Hickmon’s debut murder mystery, 13:24: A Story of Faith and Obsession, detective William Hursel investigates the case of an emotionally scarred teenager who killed his mother and her boyfriend. Our reviewer complimented Hickmon’s ability to “[stare] into the distressing abyss of child exploitation with daring honesty” while “eschewing easy answers for moral complexity.” We caught up with Hickmon to discuss self-publishing and raising awareness about the prevalence of child abuse.

Why did you choose to self-publish 13:24?

I chose nontraditional publishing because my book fell outside of the forms that presses were buying. I think my success proves that modern audiences can deal with these issues more directly. Ultimately, I would like to see other writers using pop-fiction to add depth to the public understanding of trauma.

How did you come up with your unique approach to a common theme?

As the driving element for crime fiction, the theme of an endangered child is probably second only to murder in popularity. However, when writing distressed children, authors must take pains to arouse more outrage than horror. The accepted formula is to keep audiences outside of the victim’s head. The natural result is that victims are shown in tragic glimpses; often they are given a single monologue to describe events that have altered their lives. Going deeper means being asked to fit into a different genre -- that of the fictional child abuse memoir. 

As someone who overcame childhood trauma, I found both formulas disappointing. I imagined hard-boiled detectives sharing the stage with heroic victims, who gave readers real-life insights into trauma. I saw ways to do justice to their ordeals without resorting to sensationalism or sentimentality. 

Why did you decide to use an animated trailer as a marketing tool? 

"My conviction was that the message wouldn’t matter if the story was weak."
Our video is effective because it conveys the book’s edgy, dynamic feel, which is the opposite of what people expect from a story about childhood trauma. It was exciting to see my characters brought to life. And because I contracted directly with the artists, it did not cost a fortune. Beyond the video, I have gotten considerable mileage out of the drawings, which appear in marketing materials and as illustrations in the Kickstarter special edition. 

Can you talk a bit about how the novel -- and your decision to write it -- grew out of your duties as an activist? 

Before writing 13:24, I spent much of my free time campaigning for children’s rights. I corresponded with government officials, and my opinions appeared in newspapers in the U.S. and Europe. I published a study that continues to be cited by activist organizations, including Human Rights Watch and the ACLU in a joint letter to a committee of the U.S. Congress. 

In 2007, I read a Prevent Child Abuse America study called Making the Public Case for Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention. The authors concluded that although Americans were aware of child abuse and saw it as a significant problem, they were exhausted by statistics and felt there was little they could personally do about it.

After reading this, I had the inspiration to create a crime thriller that would convey real-life facts about childhood trauma. In 2008, I set aside my other activism to write13:24.

How did you go about trying to make a statement in the novel without sacrificing the quality of the story? 

I labored over it.

As a teenager, I’d dropped out of high school in the midst of my parent’s divorce. I completed my GED several years later, but the last schooling I finished was the tenth grade. I’d read novels as a kid to escape the turmoil at home, so I had an intuitive feel for how to tell a story; however, I knew almost nothing about writing fiction. I taught myself, using other novels to figure out details like how to punctuate dialog. Writing sessions often ended with me telling my wife it was hopeless. If I hadn’t been driven to expose the plight of mistreated children, I wouldn’t have had the patience to keep going.

My conviction was that the message wouldn’t matter if the story was weak. That thought pushed me to write and rewrite. After 20 chapters, I hired developmental editor Marsha Butler. She slashed half the words from my manuscript, and I howled until she fired me as a client. But when I resumed writing, I’d adopted the crispness that reviewers now rave about. Finally, I used Kickstarter money to hire Miranda Ottewell, a freelance copy-editor who has worked with dozens of bestselling authors. Miranda offered many subtle suggestions, which greatly heightened my book’s professional sparkle.

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