Thursday, January 8, 2015

My 2015 Prospective Writing Projects

Whenever I have a book idea, one of the things I do for fun is to draft up a simple cover design that conveys the feel of the book. It is both a focusing and motivational technique for me, and although some of the covers will never result in stories - at least in 2015 - I thought I might share a few of them as a sort of "teaser" for the rest of the year. Keep in mind, these are just draft covers, and might change considerably before the titles (maybe, eventually) go to print. Any and all feedback is certainly welcome!

HANGMAN #2: Battle for the Blacktop. The next book in the HANGMAN series. Ex-Green Beret Sergeant Jamie Lynch is hired to provide protection for a long-haul trucking company when attacks by a gang of outlaw bikers threaten to ruin the business. Not only must Lynch take on a roaring pack of chain-swinging, gun-wielding, maniacs, he must figure out who is backing the outlaws and attempting to ruin the trucking company. It'll be death by bullet, blade, and bumper along the highways and back roads of southern California.

KANSAS KILLERS, the sequel to RENEGADE'S REVENGE. Paul and David Miller decide to leave Missouri and head west, but as they ride into Kansas, they find themselves dodging both U.S. Cavalry patrols and packs of roving Jayhawkers, many of whom are now little more than murderous, pillaging outlaws. When the Miller brothers save a young woman from death at the hands of a pair of Jayhawker bandits, they find themselves on the run from a dozen more, as the band's leader seeks revenge for the deaths of his men.

STREET SWEEPER, a vigilante cop novel set in Boston, 1985. Detective Nick Malone used to be a good cop, always playing by the rules. But when Malone makes a move against the Irish mob, the rules set free the gangsters who killed Malone's partner. Unable to find justice while working within the bounds of the law, Malone decides the rules don't just need to be bent, they need to be blown away. Maintaining the facade of a good cop by day, Malone cleans up the streets of Boston at night by sweeping away the filth with a loaded shotgun and a magnum revolver.

KRUEGER #1: Boston Bloodbath. Another Boston-based story, set in 1921. Krueger is a former German storm-trooper who'd fought in the trenches and no-man's land of the Great War for four bloody years. Wounded by bullet, blade, and bomb shell, Krueger survived and returned to the front again and again, a killing machine who just wouldn't die. Now a wandering soldier of fortune, Krueger is hired by a gang of bootleggers fighting to dominate the black-market liquor trade in Boston. But when you hire Krueger to fight your battles, you better be prepared for all-out war..

PANZER ACE: Crushing Poland. Cannons roar and tank treads grind men into pulp as the Blitzkrieg of the Third Reich rolls into Poland. Panzer commander Victor Krieger has no allegiance in his heart for Hitler and his gang of Nazi thugs, but he is a soldier born and bred, and the business of fighting is what he knows best, the razor's edge between life and death the only place he calls home. Krieger pits the armaments and armor of his Panzer against waves of stout-hearted Polish defenders, where quarter is neither asked, nor given. It is war at its ugliest and most savage, just the way Krieger likes it.

DOGFACES: A Day at the Beach. It'll be one hell of a summer's day for Private Jonathan "Jack" Russell and the other men of Dog Company. Along with Captain Collier, Lieutenant Shepherd, Sargent Barker, Corporal Basset, and all the rest, Russell finds himself bobbing around off the Normandy coastline, about to hit the bloody beaches of Fortress Europe and drive back the Germans one hard-fought step at a time. Unfortunately for the men of Dog Company, the same cosmic prankster that put them all together in the same outfit is going to make surviving their day at the beach tougher than a concrete pillbox.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My 2014 Writing in Review

Two years ago, I wrote a piece called "In 2013, Always be Closing". The year after that, I laid down a 2014 Short Story Challenge. This year, I want to take a look at the past twelve months, where it has brought me, and where I'm going from here.

In 2014, I sold a little over 7,600 copies of my various works, roughly half of everything I've ever sold in the past 3 1/2 years, and 800 more than in 2013. That figure averages out to a little under 21 sales a day over the course of the year. Granted, in the third quarter of the year my daily averages dropped to significantly less than that, but I had a strong opening to the year with the release of Operation Cannibal around Thanksgiving of 2013, as well as a couple of really strong Kindle Countdown Sales during the first quarter. In addition, I'm finishing off the year with a very strong past six weeks, thanks to the release of Operation Dervish, which has sold over 460 copies so far.

I lay out all of the above so that people can decide for themselves how successful I am, and do some comparative analysis with their own and others' sales figures. I was glad to see overall sales increase substantially, and royalties increase as well (I made about a thousand dollars more this year than last year), but it certainly wasn't a bowl-me-over sales year. Let's break it down...

The COMMANDO series made up about 81 percent of my total sales this year, utterly dominating all my other titles. With four novels and a short story, that's certainly understandable, but it is important to point out how much my sales figures depend on this series. Without it, I wouldn't be breaking a hundred sales a month on average. In addition, while I used to sell at least twice as many copies in the UK as in the US every month, the ratio is now mostly even, and with my new title in the series so far, I'm selling far more US copies. There are probably a variety of factors at play here, from the much larger Amazon customer base in the US, to what might be a more saturated genre market in the UK (there are several UK-based WW2 series that aren't available as ebooks in the US), the dominance of the UK sales region is now firmly over.

RENEGADE'S REVENGE was a surprise hit for me this year. I sold a little over 700 copies of this title in eight months, accounting for roughly nine percent of my total sales this year. Since a significant number of these were Kindle Unlimited borrows, I actually made pretty good money off of this title, especially given that it was originally written as a project that failed to launch. For many years, publishers and critics considered the Western genre one of the worst-selling, but there seems to be a resurgence in the last few years, both in re-releasing old titles as ebooks, as well as original content. I fully intend to write a sequel to RR at some point in the next year, and maybe a few other standalone Westerns as time goes on - it is certainly a fun genre to write in, with a great blend of action, adventure, and history.

SPIDERS & FLIES was released at the beginning of the year, and has gone nowhere since. It sold 28 copies in 12 months, 18 of those in the first month of its release. The few reviews it received were positive, and people seemed to like the cover art, but the title simply doesn't sell, even when I have tried free giveaways. Considering its poor performance, and that of NANOK, while I'm glad I finally got around to finishing and publishing this piece, I think even if I can write decent fantasy stories, it isn't worth my time or energy. I doubt I'd even write a sequel to this title, but while I do have several NANOK stories in mind, that's where they're going to stay for the foreseeable future, until I have enough "legroom" to take a chance on writing them.

HANGMAN #1: SAN FRANCISCO SLAUGHTER was also well received by both beta readers and those who've written reviews. However, it did not take off like I'd hoped it would. I sold about 130 copies in the six months it's been out, better than S&F but terrible even compared to RR. I have a number of sequels in mind for this series, and perhaps with an additional couple of titles it'll have more appeal, but so far, I'm not that hopeful. Still, I really enjoyed writing the book, especially since it allowed me to ramp up the "mature content" compared to the COMMANDO titles. SFS contains a lot of swearing, a little sex, and some very cruel violence. It is definitely a darker work, and getting out of my morally-cleaner mindspace was definitely interesting.

KILLER INSTINCTS continues to perform terribly. More than a few people still feel my first novel is the best thing I've written, and I certainly believe it is a good, solid story. I did a cover change for the ebook mid-year, and a couple of promotions helped bring in more sales, but of the roughly 350 copies sold in 2014 (~4.5% of my total sales), at least half were during promotions, meaning I made nowhere near the money I could have with those numbers. Next year I would like to get the title into a BookBub promotion, which would be amazing, but I don't have high hopes. In a market choked with thrillers of all stripes, KI goes largely unnoticed. I would still love to write a sequel to this book, but at this point in time, I feel it would fail to thrive just as KI did, a pointless gesture.

In conclusion, I face some tough choices. It is clear that my niche genre titles (WW2 and Westerns) sell much more than my more mainstream genre works (thrillers, crime, fantasy). COMMANDO titles and RENEGADE'S REVENGE make up ninety percent of my sales this year. Clearly, this is where my focus should lie, but on the other hand, I don't want to limit myself in terms of what to write. Writing is not my full-time job, nor will it be for the foreseeable future, meaning I am not as much a slave to the market as I could be were it my only income. And, in addition, I might stumble upon another genre with a title that's more popular than I'd imagined. Certainly, when I wrote both the first COMMANDO title, as well as RR, I never anticipated their degree of success.

In a few days, I hope to follow this column with one discussing my hopes for 2015. Until then, Happy New Year!

Friday, December 19, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Into the Gates of Hell - StuG Command '41

I was curious about a WW2 novel focusing not only on the Germans (of which there are many), but on the StuG assault gun - a fighting vehicle overshadowed by the mighty "Panzer" but just as, if not even more, important. I did notice the title received very mixed reviews, but the price was cheap and I took a chance.

Overall, I have to say this is a flawed book. The story of the siege of Brest-Litovsk is an interesting one, and there's certainly great opportunity for an incredible amount of action and drama. Unfortunately, the book immediately stifles any expectation of said action and drama by choking the reader with an overwhelming amount of exposition over the course of the first third of the book. In fact, the beginning of the invasion doesn't take place until literally 33% of the way through the novel. There are some brief discussions of past combats - especially during discussions of the characteristics of the Russian soldier - but they're not even delivered as flashbacks, just conversations about past events. Along with these are multiple grinding discussions of the various technical details of the StuG III, the Nebelwerfer rocket mortar, the protocols for air support and ground forces signalling to each other, and so forth.

Even once the book takes off and the real plot of the story begins, there are a number of areas where the story bogs down. One particularly irritating example was when a character gets sent back behind the lines for training in Morse signalling, and we are subjected to multiple lectures - yes, lectures - on Morse code and its usage. That Morse signals are tied into a small plot thread at the end of the book makes little difference, and making the reader suffer through so much nonsense, only for it to matter so little, proved doubly frustrating.

With all of the above, I felt justified in knocking a star off the rating. But in addition, the novel doesn't really even focus all that much on the "StuG Command" itself. Although the reader is stuck with the StuG "command" for most of the first third of the book, once the attack begins, the book shifts back and forth multiple times, and by the end, spends most of the action with a German Brandenburger who'd infiltrated the fortress. Since I bought the book largely to read about StuGs battling it out with the Russians at the kickoff to Barbarossa, I thought this book really missed the mark. It really should have been crafted/sold as the Siege of the Russian fortress of Brest-Litovsk, which was a long, bitter, horrible struggle anyway.

Also, I'm not sure what to make of the whole "Ritter Von Krauss" as the real author angle. According to the blurb at the end of the book, this title as well as the book "Tiger Command" and a host of other, unpublished works were originally penned by a German officer whose pen name was Ritter Von Krauss. There's a long "biography" about this German soldier-turned-author, but it smacks of nonsense, and some web searching reveals nothing. Surely there'd be a little more out there about this guy if he'd really written dozens of manuscripts for books after the war, so I feel like this is all made up to lend some hackneyed "authenticity" to the story, just as the book's subtitle calls it a "true" account.

All in all, for three bucks, it's not a bad read. Although the prose can be a little dense at times (and all those SS ranks get a little mind-numbing to read over and over again), it isn't badly written for what it is, and as a book about the opening moves of the German invasion of Russia, it's interesting. I do advise skimming over the first third of the book VERY quickly, though. Almost nothing you learn there plays much significant relevance to the rest of the story.

Monday, November 17, 2014

On Sale Now: COMMANDO Operation Dervish (Book 4)
Click the Cover to Visit on Amazon
North Africa, November 1941. Days before the British launch Operation Crusader, Corporal Lynch and the other Commandos are given the task of accompanying a makeshift strike force of British tanks and armoured cars deep into the Libyan Desert.
Their mission: carry out a series of lightning-fast raids against Axis bases, creating a diversion to confuse the enemy commanders in the critical hours before the British Eighth Army pours over the border into Libya.

Meanwhile, Afrika Korps Captain Karl Steiner guides a squadron of German panzers into the deep desert in order to provide warning against any British advances. The two forces, German and British, are on a collision course than can only end in blood and flames, littering the desert sands with slaughtered men and shattered tanks.

Operation Dervish is the fourth book in a series of military action - adventure novels written in the spirit of classic war movies and wartime adventure pulp fiction. 

I managed to get the ebook version of Operation Dervish out a little earlier than expected. I hope to have the trade paperback version out the first week of December at the latest. This book was a ton of fun to research and write, and features, if I may say so myself, some kick-ass action scenes. The big challenge of writing a series like this is keeping the stories fresh, and I think Operation Dervish pulls that off quite handily.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Book Review: TRENCH RAIDERS by Sean McLachlan
Click the Cover to Visit on Amazon
TRENCH RAIDERS is a well-written historical war adventure story, short but tightly-paced and full of engaging characters and gripping action. Author Sean McLachlan has a lot of experience in writing historical reference materials for companies like Osprey Publishing, and he knows how to research a topic and bring it to life.

This novel starts out in the first few months of World War One. It is evident to anyone who has at least passing familiarity with the war that so many of its iconic images have yet to be developed. For instance, the trenches that give this series its name are only just being dug in temporary fashion as both sides come under heavy artillery and machine gun fire. Steel helmets aren't worn by either side yet, and the usual "charge across an open field and get shot to pieces" tactics are in full swing. Several well-placed hints by the author indicate how various developments are going to come about in the months and years to come, little "Easter eggs" for knowledgeable readers.

The story also features a good cast of characters, from the roguish shirker who'd rather be plundering farm houses than stand sentry duty, but who is still the man you want with you in a fight, to the stuffy officers eating their lunch with porcelain and silver while shells drop all about, to young educated gentlemen suddenly thrust nose-first into the horrors of 20th century warfare. I also liked how the story involved some of the French colonial troops, and showed the various socio-political relationships between them, the British, the Germans, and their French masters.

Overall, I think this is an excellent introduction to a series that has the potential for many volumes to come. The war has years to go and many, many battles yet to be fought before the end of 1918. I hope the author sticks to his guns, so to speak, and continues the journey his characters have started.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Movie Review: FURY (2014)

It's been two days, and I'm still processing my feelings about this movie. It was grim, brutal, intensely graphic, and both heroic and depressing at the same time. I walked out of the theater emotionally drained, and the three others I saw the movie with all seemed to feel the same way. If you are looking for an uplifting war movie (is there even such a thing?), walk away, because this ain't it.

The movie is set in April, 1945. For those of you who don't know, these are the last days of WW2 in Europe. The Americans and British are closing in on Berlin from the West, the Russians from the East. Victory for the Allies is utterly inevitable, and the only question is, how far will the Germans go in fighting to the last man, woman, and child before the war ends? At the time, Hitler was ordering the mobilization of the entire national population, forming barely-trained militia units armed with a hodge-podge of weapons, as well as a lot of reserve soldiers who'd previously been wounded or otherwise considered unfit for front-line service. Some of these "Volks" units were tenaciously fanatical, while some couldn't wait to encounter Americans or Brits so they could surrender, and were just happy they weren't facing the Russians!

On the Allied side, you have grim-faced veterans (such as the crew of the tank FURY), who've been fighting the Germans since late 1942 (or much earlier, if you weren't American). However, three years of hard fighting had resulted in considerable casualties, and a steady stream of fresh-faced recruits - many of whom were poorly trained - are heading to the front from "repple depples" or replacement depots. Many of these men are unfamiliar with the tasks and units they are assigned to, and the units they join react poorly to these new men, many of whom are taking the place of old comrades the veterans viewed as brothers. This strategy was one no one liked, and it was viewed, both during and after the war, as ultimately a bad decision on the part of military high command.

Also, particularly relevant to the film, and mentioned briefly in text at the beginning of the film, there was something of a disparity in combat performance between the American Sherman tank and the German panzers, particularly the mid-to-late war Panther, Tiger, and Tiger II tanks. I'm not going to dive headlong into a treatise on American and German tank doctrine and development during the war (although this article over at World of Tanks goes into it in some good detail). There were a lot of factors in play, and it was a much more involved issue than simply "Sherman tanks suck, Panzers kick ass". For one, while the Tiger tank had a much better gun and heavier armor, there were far fewer Tigers than Shermans, and they were slower, drank fuel faster, and were more mechanically unreliable than Allied tanks. Many Tigers were "lost" in the war simply because they ran out of gas, broke down, or bogged down and couldn't get unstuck, and were therefore abandoned by their crews. In addition, by the time of the movie, the Allies dominated the skies over Germany, and attack aircraft were always on the lookout for panzers in the open. Moving a German tank out from hiding during the daytime meant there was a good chance you'd be spotted and destroyed from the air.

With all that in mind, back to the movie. FURY is a tank crewed by Sergeant Collier, nicknamed "Wardaddy". Wardaddy's crew has fought for three years, from Africa to Germany. At the beginning of the movie we find the crew has just survived a big battle, and their tank was the only one to make it out of their platoon. "Red", the tank's assistant driver and bow machine gunner (Shermans had a .30 caliber machine gun mounted in the front of the hull), was messily killed in the battle, the only member of the tank crew to be killed in the three years they'd been fighting. FURY makes it back to HQ, and Wardaddy is immediately assigned Norman, a private who'd been in the army for just eight weeks, and who had been trained as a typist (think the scrawny little guy from SAVING PRIVATE RYAN who gets brought along because he speaks German). Norman has never even been inside a tank before, but because of the way the Replacement Depots work, and the desperate need for fresh bodies to fill gaps left by casualties, Wardaddy has no choice but to take Norman into his crew.

And what a crew they are. The three other men who live and fight with FURY are a salty lot, to be sure. Three years of hard fighting has driven these men right to the brink of sanity, and probably a bit beyond that brink. They're all filthy, the way only men who've been fighting in the front lines for so long can be filthy, and they all show signs of injuries old and new. And, while Wardaddy might be a callous, hard-bitten bastard, he seems to be the most held-together of the four crewmen, because the others act more like escaped mental patients than soldiers. As a way of introducing him to his new job, the crew have Norman clean the blood and gore left behind from his predecessor, a scene that also gives the viewer a very graphic look at how this movie will not pull any visual punches.

I don't want to give away too many good moments and plot points, so I'll just sketch out the rest. FURY joins up in several actions, and Norman gets a "hands on" taste for the real face of War, especially the "total war" Hitler has decreed against all sanity surrounding the circumstances of the war at this point. We see young teenage boys fighting and dying for the Fatherland in what are essentially suicide actions, and how the SS are killing Germans who refuse to fight against the Allies. For those who aren't well steeped in WW2 lore, we're shown that the SS are the biggest scumbags of the German army, and Norman is told to always kill them, no matter what, because they're the real fanatics. This notion actually comes back around in the final minutes of the movie in an unexpected way, and undermines Wardaddy's point somewhat, adding a needed layer of complexity to the usual notion of "Allies = Good, Axis = Evil".

There is also a short interlude involving the FURY crew and a pair of German women inside their apartment. It is just about the most emotionally intense scene of the movie, and that's saying something. After the film, we walked out and all agreed that the scene was done so well that we really had no idea which way it would go until it was over, a definite credit to the script, the acting, and the direction. Even halfway through the film, you are not so sure of these guys that you really have any idea what they'll do in a given situation. Also, there is a really disturbing monologue by Gordo, the driver, about the horrors of the Falaise Pocket (where a retreating German army was virtually annihilated by the Allies late in the summer of 1944). The speech really gives insight into the psychological damage these men have suffered over the course of the war.

Eventually, FURY and three other tanks are sent on a mission to hold down a crossroads and defend it against advancing German forces moving to intercept a supply train, which also includes a bunch of rear-echelon troops who'd get slaughtered if the Germans encounter them. Unfortunately, the tank platoon runs into a Tiger tank waiting for just such an opportunity, and the most talked-about scene of the movie unfolds. At first blush I wasn't as pleased with it as I could have been, but after thinking about it, I've come to feel it was done pretty damn well, certainly one of the best tank-vs-tank fights I've ever seen on film. The Tiger used in the battle is, by the way, Tiger 131, the only surviving - and fully operational - Tiger tank in existence. That the filmmakers were willing to bring this tank into the film - the only time a real Tiger has been used in a movie - speaks volumes for the degree of realism they wanted to achieve in the film's appearance.

Needless to say, FURY is the only survivor of the tank battle, and after a mine blows off one of the tank's tracks, they are stuck defending the crossroads alone, in a bad defensive position. Rather than running away, Wardaddy refuses to abandon FURY - his home - and tells the rest of the crew to escape while they can. Everyone is ready to run, but Norman, whose heart has hardened considerably in the last 24 hours, and who probably feels he's not going to make it through the war anyway, decides to stay. The remaining vets are still ready to leave, except that Boyd (played by Shia LaBeouf, in a surprisingly powerful performance throughout the film) stands fast and also agrees to remain. The rest of the crew reluctantly accept their fate, and the five men prepare to take on the several hundred men of an SS infantry battalion closing in on them.

The film's final fight is, to be fair, also the most unrealistic, but I think by this time, we've bought into the movie already, and it's what we want to see - five men in a steel fortress standing fast against wave after wave of fanatical enemies. If this is the scene that causes you to break faith with the film, then I feel like you didn't buy into the movie to begin with. FURY isn't meant to be realistic in the sense that "this might actually have happened", it is more of a war ballad, a story which focuses on the spiritual and emotional war between both sides, less than showing the true history of Unit A fighting Unit B at this place on that date. I suppose in some ways, that makes this movie a complement to SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, another movie that focuses more on the heart and fighting spirit of the men and less on re-creating a historical narrative. Comparing the two, the overall uplifting nature of SPR in the first days of the Normandy invasion ("we're here to do a job and protect the world from evil" etc. etc.) is counter-balanced by FURY and the American fighting men ten months later, drained of all emotion save perhaps a sense of detached horror at "what a man can do to another man".

In the end, I wholeheartedly recommend this movie to anyone who can get through some really, really rough and brutal violence. People die in pretty nasty ways, and no punches are pulled. But I think it is worth seeing. WW2 nerds are going to be at it hammer and tongs for years over this film, both for it and against, but ultimately, this is a solid war picture that is going to stand tall for a long, long while.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Book Review: TAKE THESE MEN by Cyril Joly
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While re-reading BRAZEN CHARIOTS, Robert Crisp's memoir of serving in a tank regiment during Operation Crusader (you can read my review of Crisp's book here), I noticed a passage where he mentioned a comrade at the time, Cyril Joly, who went on after the war to write a novel about their experiences. Going to Amazon (of course) and doing a search for Joly, I found his novel - TAKE THESE MEN - and immediately ordered myself a copy.

This is one of the best war novels I've ever read. TAKE THESE MEN is a massive, epic story that takes the reader across the breadth of the North African desert, over more than three long years of war. The British first fight and defeat the Italians, only to face - and be initially defeated - by the Afrika Korps, followed by several years of nearly Trench War-like back and forth, contesting the same expanses of desert over and over again, fighting in amongst the wreckage of previous battles.

While both Crisp's and Joly's works are equally enjoyable, TAKE THESE MEN is much longer, probably three times as long, and much, much vaster in scope. While Crisp's memoir covers the battle one day at a time, Joly's work can often pass through weeks or months in a single chapter, but that in no way diminishes the intensity of its narrative. It is also worth noting for the technically-inclined tread-heads reading this, that Joly's main character fights in no less than four different tanks over the course of the war: the A9 Cruiser, a captured Italian M13/40, an M3 "Honey" Stuart, and finally, an M3 Grant medium tank. Joly does an excellent job of depicting combat with all four tanks, and how they each stacked up against the German panzers and anti-tank guns.

If you have any interest in the Desert Campaign of WW2, this book is a must-read. Although it is out of print, it does appear that you can acquire used copies here and there, and one hopes it'll eventually cycle back into print some time soon. If you can locate a copy, it is definitely worth adding it to your to-read pile, and if you're a student of WW2, this should be required reading.