Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Chasing the Rabbit of Success

Believe me, he's faster than he looks.
Yesterday, I had conversations with three writer friends of mine. We discussed pricing, promotions, writing our product descriptions, cover art and design, tracking sales, royalties, and other writing business minutia. Some good discussions with nice guys, talented writers all of them.

It wasn't until this morning that I realized, the one thing we didn't really discuss was the writing itself. We didn't talk about plot hooks, or character concepts, or cool scenes we were working out in our heads. We didn't bounce ideas for new stories off each other, or ask questions about the progress of current projects. In short, all we focused on was the business side of writing, and we all but ignored the writing itself.

In the movie Pacific Rim, a new Jaeger pilot can find themselves caught up in the memories that flood their minds when they enter "the drift" and join consciousnesses with their co-pilot. The pilot "chases the rabbit" and pursues a fleeting memory, getting lost in the conjoined memories and becoming distracted, disoriented, helpless, or even a danger to themselves and others. When I realized this morning how much time and energy I spend on scrutinizing and micro-managing the business side of writing and publishing, I know part of it is because I can see that rabbit ahead of me, that dream of becoming financially self-sufficient off of my royalties, quitting my day job (which, by the way, I loathe) and becoming a Full-Time Writer. I want to catch that rabbit more than I care to admit, and there are times when that feeling of wanting becomes akin to desperation.

When a new title goes live, I'm checking the sales page fifty times a day. When it starts to sell, I'm still checking the page while thinking of what I can do to spread the word and all but click the "buy" button for people. When a title flops, I look at it like a houseplant that's slowly withering and dying, no matter how much water and light and plant food I give it. Tweaking the cover, re-writing the description, playing with pricing, hitting the social media marketing pavement, launching promos - I'll do anything I can think of to get the word out there and sell sell sell. The only thing that keeps my promotional drum-beating in check is the fear of being "that guy" - the jerk on Twitter or Facebook who does nothing but spam followers with links to buy their books over and over again.

And the problem is, of course, that the rabbit is real. Becoming a financially successful author isn't some fantasy no one achieves except the luckiest of a lucky few. This post over at the Passive Voice Blog is filled with people who've either gone full-time or are anticipating doing so in the foreseeable future. The new publishing paradigms of the last few years have made it possible for more people than ever before to make a living - or at least, create an appreciable second income stream - from their writing. And the harsh reality of it is, you do have to pay attention to things like your cover design, your pricing strategies, your marketing, your product description, and so forth. If you don't, even the best book will languish in the doldrums, and you'll get discouraged, perhaps giving up the idea that you're any good, that you should keep at it despite a poor start.

What makes matters worse, of course, is seeing the real A-listers crushing it time and time again, and hearing the "Coffee is for Closers Only!" speeches they throw around. This Passive Voice Blog post discussing an article by powerhouse author Russell Blake became so incendiary, the blog owner had to turn off comments, because once Blake showed up and began kicking people in the junk over their own wishy-washy definitions of "effectiveness" and 'success", the knives came out. That's not the only example of such advice, of course - plenty of the more successful indie authors have thrown down the gauntlet, inadvertently or not, and made less successful writers question everything they're doing. Can't write for two hours every single day? You're a slacker. Can't get a new "book" out every month? Slacker. Your book can't stay above the "dreaded" 10,000 marker on the Amazon best-sellers list? It's a failure. Not willing to pay out $500+ for a book cover? You're just not taking this seriously, go wade in the kiddie pool with the other wannabes. And, oh, by the way - this business is only getting more cut-throat by the minute as the "tsunami of swill" covers the world, so if you're not selling a hundred copies a day right now, just give up, because the next new dino-porn craze will mean your novel will go unnoticed forever.

Chuckle at that last paragraph if you will, but I've seen all of those statements, and many more, over the last year or two, and no matter how hard you try to ignore the negativity, it's going to eat into your soul a little bit every day. You're going to start thinking to yourself, "Hmmm...maybe writing Bigfoot erotica isn't that hard...I can just use another pen name...", or paying out to professional marketers in the hopes that your poorly-selling book will finally find its audience, and some journalist will be interviewing you to ask about the secret of your success, and your story will cause other writers to furiously jot down notes, because hey - you caught that rabbit! That means it's possible after all!

Ultimately, I have to come to terms with the fact that I may never become a Full-Time Writer. Right now, my royalty stream is roughly equivalent to working a part-time job for 20 or so hours a week at a coffee shop or grocery store. It is definitely a solid, substantial source of income, and I appreciate every dollar. Over time, as I write and publish more, I hope that income stream grows, but there's no guarantee. My latest book has pretty much performed a face-plant a yard from the starting line, And I can already feel the first twinges of despair over it joining the pile of "failures" in my portfolio. That despair, of course, fuels the drive to figure out what I can do next to write something more profitable - the rabbit has gained more of a lead, and I'm pushing myself harder trying to catch up.

But what about the joys of writing? I actually love writing my Commando novels. Hanging out with Lynch, Bowen, McTeague, and the rest is a blast for me. I had a great deal of fun writing Renegade's Revenge, as well, and despite its abysmal performance over the years, I do want to write another Nanok short because I had a ton of fun writing the first story, and I want to get back to that goofy pastiche-y world I created. And of course, there's the sequel to Killer Instincts, which I do, in fact, want to write, but so many other projects come along and push themselves to the front of the line because I've decided to put success first.

This article on writing has gone on so long, it's becoming a book in its own right, so I'll conclude by saying that although someday I hope to write for a living, I never want to care more about promotions and marketing and price points than I do about my characters and their stories. Those two forces - the urge to create something I love to write, and the urge to create something I hope will make me money - will need to find a point of balance if I'm going to continue down this road without driving myself (and everyone around me) crazy.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Click the Cover to Visit on Amazon
The first book in this series of hard fantasy novels (no magic, elves, dragons, etc.), The Pirates of Alnari, was an excellent debut effort on the part author Dan Eldredge. A long-time fan of fantasy fiction as well as the maritime novels of Patrick O'Brien, Eldredge's first book was a blend of swashbuckling, seafaring adventure with the kind of cutthroat political intrigue that fans of George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series have come to enjoy. There was also a buffet-sized portion of grim, brutal violence, displaying the author's keen understanding of medieval hand-to-hand combat.

Now, Eldredge has just released the second book in the series, The Grand Masquerade, and while there are a few seafaring chapters, the bulk of the story takes place on land. This story is, if anything, even more reminiscent of GRRM's storytelling, but in all the ways in which GRRM's books make for great, highly engaging reads. An assassination during a masquerade ball, coupled with the fallout from the events of the first book, results in nobles and generals maneuvering against each other for the fate of four nations. Knights charge home with lances couched and blades held high, as warships hurl deadly incendiaries and flights of arrows at each other in massive fleet actions ending the lives of thousands. War on a grand scale is always difficult to get right, but in this book, Eldredge has done an excellent job of making the narrative thrilling and fast-paced, but at the same time, delivered with great attention to detail.

Of course, trapped between the crushing jaws of nation-states locked in mortal combat, protagonists Martyn, Arycke, and Starissa try to stay alive and one step ahead of their foes, no mean feat in a world where no good deed goes unpunished, and death can come at any time, in any form, and from any direction. A number of major and minor characters get ground into mince-meat by the wheels of war and politics during this novel, and I found myself turning the pages as quickly as I could during the most intense moments, hoping that characters I enjoyed would make it through a particularly perilous scene. More often than hopes were dashed to bits, like a skull shattered by a warhammer.

If you like grim, hard-hitting fantasy fiction that doesn't need to rely on elves, dragons, and fireballs to get the job done, I think you'll really enjoy The Grand Masquerade. Although it can be read on its own, you're better off reading The Pirates of Alnari first, as the events of the first book lead directly into the second, and if you're not up to speed, it might be a little overwhelming.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Len Levinson's THE SERGEANT - Great D-Day Weekend Reading
Click the Cover to See This on Amazon
I am a huge fan of Len Levinson's THE SERGEANT, as well as his Pacific Theater series THE RAT BASTARDS, and the folks at Piccadilly Publishing were kind enough to work with Levinson and bring the former series to the Kindle. The WW2 European Theater exploits of Master Sergeant CJ Mahoney make for great, pulpy, Men's Adventure wartime action reading, at a price that just can't be beat.

So if this D-Day has you reflecting on those historic events from 70 years ago, instead of popping Saving Private Ryan in the DVD player for the umpteenth time, give THE SERGEANT a try. The first few volumes are available now, with more to come as time goes on.

Monday, June 2, 2014

HANGMAN #1: San Francisco Slaughter - Available Now
Click the Cover to See on Amazon
My '70s-era Men's Adventure novel SAN FRANCISCO SLAUGHTER is now available on Amazon for the Kindle, with a trade paperback format to follow later this month. I'm copying the Amazon product description below. Thank you again to everyone who gave feedback and support to this project - I couldn't have done it without you!

Amazon Book Description:

California, 1973. Back home after three years in the jungles of Southeast Asia, former Green Beret Jamie “Hangman” Lynch is enjoying the good life, drinking beer and chasing skirts along San Diego’s Mission Beach. But Lynch finds himself growing increasingly restless, and dreaming of getting back into the fight again.
Lynch asks his former commanding officer for guidance, and is offered a chance at some excitement: a private sector job working for the CEO of a San Francisco tech company in need of a man who’s not afraid to get his hands dirty. The assignment? Hunt down a man named Roth, a whiz-kid engineer in debt to the Vegas mob. Roth has stolen an advanced military prototype and is looking to sell it to the highest bidder.

Lynch accepts the job and finds himself working with Richard, an enigmatic Texan mercenary, and Blake, the company’s head of security. The three men face off against Cranston, a murderous ex-cop turned enforcer-for-hire, who’s got an army of ruthless thugs turning San Francisco upside down looking for Roth. If Cranston gets to Roth before Lynch and his partners do, Roth can kiss the prototype - and his life - goodbye.

SAN FRANCISCO SLAUGHTER is a hard-edged action-adventure novel. There's drinking, profanity, and sex. There's fast cars and big guns, sharp knives and loose women. Arson, torture, and murder are just tools in the hands of men who’ll do whatever it takes to get the job done. And while the good guys aren't so great, the bad guys are even worse.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Pulp Fiction is a McDonald's Cheeseburger

I almost never eat traditional "fast food". In a city with over 300 pubs, bars, and taverns, the most common fast food is really pub food, but I've noticed over the years that traditional chains like McDonald's and Burger King are becoming increasingly rare. About the only time I'm ever inclined to eat from one of those chains is when I'm on the road, because they are the kings of interstate rest stop food establishments.

This past weekend, while stopping at one such rest stop, I had a terrible craving for a McDonald's cheeseburger. I eat one maybe once a year, so I figured now was as good a time as ever. I bought it (it cost me $1.19) and scarfed it down in about two minutes, mostly because I was taking the time to check my email on my phone.

Back on the road, I began to think about what makes those crappy little cheeseburgers so appealing. I won't say "so good", because they're not "good" in any real sense of the word, but there is something that draws you to them. I came up with a few reasons:
  • They're cheap (under two bucks)
  • You can eat them fast and on-the-go
  • The bulk of their ingredients aren't terribly special, but there's a them that makes them tasty. For the McDonald's cheeseburger, the ketchup and mustard combined with those little chopped onions and the pickles, contrasted with the sweetness of the sugar-laded bun, makes for an interesting flavor combination.
  • They're bad for you, but in moderation, they can be a "guilty pleasure".
It occurred to me that the qualities that make these little bundles of joy attractive are the same things that make pulp fiction attractive. They're cheap, fast reads that you can take and consume anywhere. The basic ingredients (overall writing proficiency, characters, plots) might not be that dazzling, but they're always something special in each series that makes them appealing. I mean, even a series as often disturbing as the Death Merchant wouldn't have lasted over 70 volumes if people didn't read it, right?

And just as there are a myriad number of different fast food burger joints, there are a bunch of different pulp fiction types and styles, from edgy hard-boiled crime to flashy swords & sorcery, to action-packed men's adventure fiction, and within each of these, different series and authors lend their own special flavors that some people find better than others. And, while I wouldn't recommend a steady diet of nothing but pulp, they can make a great break from some door-stopper of a history book, or never-ending epic fantasy collection.

As for me, although I've had my McDonald's cheeseburger for the year, I'll keep snacking on pulp fiction - at least it doesn't increase the waistline!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Assassin's Prayer by Mark Allen
Click the Cover to Visit on Amazon
Mark Allen was a "slow burn" indie writer who put out a number of short stories and novellas in the beginning of his indie career, most of which sold a very modest amount of copies. However, with his first full-length novel, THE ASSASSIN'S PRAYER, Allen's success as an indie writer took off in a very impressive fashion. Now, although his sales have slowed slightly since the book's initial release, Allen's novel of bloodshed and redemption is still going strong.

THE ASSASSIN'S PRAYER is the story of Travis Kain, a killer-for-hire who once worked for the CIA, but now most often sells his services to organized crime. He lives in a state of almost constant melancholy after the death of his wife several years ago, using violence to dull the pain of his loss.

When we meet him, Kain is contracted to kill off another organized crime "made man" of some considerable status, and while the job goes mostly as planned, there are complications involving some innocent witnesses. Kain has vowed to never harm innocents (part of the "prayer" which gives the book its title), and so walks away from tying off these loose ends, an act that has serious consequences for him later on.

Kain also runs into an old flame from years gone by, and this kindles some old passions he thought were long-dead. There's a lot of conflicting emotions going on, as Kain tries to sort out his feelings for this old flame while still hurting from the loss of his wife.

To further complicate matters, the CIA - who never drop a grudge - sends one of their top "operators" after Kain, because apparently his departure from the Agency was less than mutually accepted. The operator who goes after Kain is a real sumbitch, and he's got a whole cadre of other sumbitches along with him.

All of this comes together to create a pretty action-packed, dramatic novel. Allen is a big fan of the action genre, and heaps it on with gusto. The violence is bloody and unforgiving, and some of the fights are spectacularly gruesome. If you're not into vivid depictions of violence and gore, this may not be the book for you.

Taken as a whole, TAP is a solid debut novel. There are a couple of major coincidences that form plot points in the story, and they'll either make or break a reader's enjoyment of the novel; either you'll accept them and move on, or you'll lose your suspension of disbelief and fall out of the story. I was willing to carry on and swallow the coincidences, but I'm sure it'll be a deal-breaker for some readers.

There is also a lot of emotional conflict, most of it tied to both the death of Kain's wife and the rediscovery of his long-lost flame, but there's also some deep-seated angst regarding his former best friend, whom Kain now despises. There were several times I just wanted Kain to cowboy up and quit weeping into his whiskey. If I wanted to be cheeky, I'd refer to Kain as an "Emo Assassin", but since the story moves at a pretty brisk clip, the maudlin moments don't slow the story down, and I think it helps distinguish Kain from the legion of near-robotic Grim Hired Assassins out there. Some other reviewers clearly liked a more complicated, emotional protagonist, while others found it annoying. As usual, your mileage may vary.

So if you're interested in a cool Hired Killer Thriller, consider picking up THE ASSASSIN'S PRAYER. And if you're such a cheapskate that you don't want to invest $2.99 on the book, check out some of his other works, such as "The Killing Question" and "Resurrection Bullets". Allen has quite the collection of varied short stories, and I'm sure there's something for everyone.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Meet My Main Character - Jamie "Hangman" Lynch

My friend and fellow author Justin Aucoin has asked me to carry the torch for another leg in a great "Meet My Main Character" blog-hop. This is an opportunity for writers to introduce to readers the main character of a work in progress or soon-to-be-published work. So, I'm picking Jamie Lynch, the MC of my current work in progress.

Before reading more, be sure to check out Justin's blog post, where we meet his main character, Jake Hawking.

1) What is the name of your character? Is he/she fictional or a historic person?

My character's name is Jamie "Hangman" Lynch. He's a fictional character, part of my "Lynch Family Legacy" of characters featured in my other books, such as KILLER INSTINCTS and my COMMANDO series of WW2 novels. Jamie is the son of COMMANDO's Tommy Lynch and uncle to KI's William Lynch.

2) When and where is the story set?

The story is set in 1973, and starts in San Diego, California. The story quickly moves up the coast to San Francisco, where events take place all over the Bay area, from Palo Alto to Bodega Bay.

3) What should we know about him/her?
Jamie's 24 years old in 1973. He's a former sergeant in the United States Army, 5th Special Forces Group, and from 1970-72, served in the top-secret Military Assistance Command, Vietnam - Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG). Previous to that, he was a corporal in the 101st Airborne Division, and fought in the Battle of Hamburger Hill in 1969, where he was wounded. In 1973, Jamie has been out of the military for about nine months, living above a surf shop along Mission Beach in San Diego.

4) What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life?

Jamie made it back from Vietnam in fairly good shape, both physically and mentally. He suffered a few minor wounds, but he's in prime physical condition. Mentally he's doing okay, although he has recurring dreams and nightmares about the war. Most recently, his dreams have involved going back to the war, and even though in some of his dreams he gets killed, the overall sense in his dreams is that Jamie is happy to be back "home" in the war. He's self-aware enough to realize that the hum-drum civilian life isn't for him; he's spent his entire adult life so far in the military, training for and fighting in a war, and now he's basically a beach bum, living off some money set aside and working a part-time job in the surf shop he lives above.  Jamie begins to feel like "a tiger in a cage, restless and confined", and worries that one day he'll channel that aggression and confined feeling in a way that will wind up with him in jail, dead, or some other unfortunate outcome.

So, Jamie gets in touch with General Carson, an officer who used to be Jamie's CO back in Vietnam. He confesses his problems and asks Carson for help. Carson tells Jamie he knows of a businessman up in San Francisco, the head of a tech company with strong ties to military technology research, who is in need of someone with Jamie's skill set to "solve a problem". Jamie, not caring much what the problem is and only knowing it'd give him an escape from his cage of inactivity and boredom, accepts the job. A great deal of violent conflict ensues shortly thereafter.

5) What is the personal goal of the character?

Jamie's primary motivation throughout the story is to find purpose in his civilian life. Like many veterans, he's come back to the "real world" after being in the military for over five years, and the Army is the only adult life he's ever known, and his skills-set is, at the very least, pretty specific. He can't picture himself living the life of a 9-to-5 office dweller, driving to work every morning in a station wagon, typing up reports and sitting in meetings, then going home at the end of the day to a house surrounded by a white picket fence, containing a darling wife and two perfect children. Even at the young age of 24, Jamie firmly believes there's no way that kind of life is his destiny.

On the other hand, Jamie understands that selling his lethal skills in the private sector is a dangerous game. As the story unfolds, and the events begin to spiral out of control, with more and more collateral damage and unforeseen consequences, Jamie realizes he's essentially a murderous criminal, and there's a good chance his actions might get him killed or sent to prison for the rest of his life - exactly the sort of outcome he was trying to avoid in the first place. On the other hand, he's got several other characters in the story, especially the mysterious gun-for-hire named Richard, affirming that this is the life for him. It becomes a tug-of-war between Jamie's moral character, and his belief in his ultimate place in the world outside of the Army.

6) Is there a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it?
The book is titled HANGMAN: SAN FRANCISCO SLAUGHTER. I hope this will be the first in a series of short novels featuring Jamie as he goes on further adventures, all under the HANGMAN series title. I wrote a teaser blog post regarding the book here.

7) When can we expect the book to be published?

I hope to have the first draft completed by the beginning of May, and off to a small cadre of interested Beta readers. Depending on their feedback, and the amount of rewriting I have to do nor not do, I hope to have the novel out on Amazon for the Kindle and Trade Paperback formats some time in June.

UPDATE: Author Mark Allen is the next stop on this blog-hop - you can meet his main character, Travis Kain, here on his page.