RED LEGION: Chapter 20 (Draft)

In Her Name: RED LEGIONThis is a draft of Chapter 20 of IN HER NAME: RED LEGION. If you have any feedback on it, feel free to leave a comment(s).

Enjoy!! – MRH

The platoon leaders and sergeants gathered around Ortiz and Stalin after their return from the battalion briefing. Reza was there, too, at Ortiz’s order. They occupied one of the corners of Marine Country where the Marines bunked down, while the rest of the company was arming up.

“Okay, folks,” Ortiz began. “This one is a little more nuts than what we’re used to, if you can believe that.”

“Sign me up!” Davis said with idiotic enthusiasm. Walker threw him a look, and he clamped his mouth shut.

“Here’s the situation,” Ortiz continued. “A miner was going about his business out in the system’s asteroid belt, and came across a bunch of enemy warriors clustered around a big hunk of rock. No ships, mind you: just warriors. The miner wasn’t sure what they were doing, but his best guess was that they were digging for something. There was definitely some sort of below-surface facility there.” She looked at Reza. “Any ideas?”

Reza paused a moment, then said, “That is indeed strange.” That was true, as far as it went. It was not a lie, but it also was not the full truth. Two possibilities had instantly flashed through his mind. The first, that his sisters were converting the asteroid to the black matrix material used by the builders, he quickly dismissed: the Empress would never risk builders near an enemy, and there was no reason for them to come this far from the heart of the Empire to do it. Plenty of lifeless rocks were strewn throughout the Empire that could more easily serve as fodder for the mysterious black substance that was at the core of the builders’ art.

The second possibility was only slightly more likely: that some clue had led a group of warriors to that asteroid in hopes of finding the tomb of the First Empress. But had such a clue been any more substantial than a breath of wind, the Empress would have sent an entire fleet of the Empire’s most powerful warships, not a group of warriors.

He could think of no reason the fleet would deposit a war party and then depart, leaving them with no ships. Even the most far-flung garrisons and outposts, even the worlds that were hostile hunting preserves, had at least one ship attending them.

It made no sense to him. Unless…

“It is a trap.” The words passed from his lips as soon as his mind made the connection.

“For who?” Asked one of the platoon leaders in a tone of undiluted skepticism. She was from one of the other tattered detachments that had been scraped together to form the company, and was not well known to Ortiz’s people.

“For whom,” Davis said quietly, following his remark with a long-suffering sigh.

Walker hissed a curse through bared teeth.

“Us, of course,” Stalin answered, his eyes locked on Reza. “But why? Why make a trap when they could just as easily land warriors like they normally do? Why not just attack this planet?”

“I do not know,” Reza said, and that was the complete truth. It puzzled him. Why would a leader of warriors set a trap, using her own warriors as bait? Why not just attack? He knew they did not attack every human planet, nor were the attacks random, although they often appeared so from the perspective of the humans. The human core worlds, like Earth, were sacrosanct, as were worlds like Quantico where young warriors were trained. But beyond that, even he did not know the reasoning behind which worlds were attacked and which were left alone: that was determined by the warrior priestesses in the name of the Empress.

This was different somehow. But why?

“It doesn’t matter why,” Ortiz made a dismissive gesture with her hand. “What matters is that we’re going out there to kick their asses. If it’s a trap, we’ll spring it, then we’ll still kick their asses.”

“How many warriors are out there?” Walker asked.

Ortiz shrugged. “The info the miner provided was sketchy, but battalion intel estimates a company’s worth, maybe more. It doesn’t really matter so much, as we’ll be backed up by the guns of the Pegasus and two tin cans.” The cruiser currently had two destroyers in company. “The entire Marine detachment in all three ships, plus a reinforced company from the surface, will be coming to our little party, so we shouldn’t be short on firepower.”

“This doesn’t make any sense,” the leader of the third platoon interjected. “Why don’t the ships just cream the asteroid? Why do we have to go in at all?”

“Because the task force commander and our battalion commander, both, want to answer that little question of ‘why.’ The brass doesn’t like it when the enemy doesn’t do what they’re supposed to.” She frowned. “I don’t like it, either. For what it’s worth, I asked the same question, and I’m going to tell you what the brass told me: gear up and get ready for battle.”

She looked around at the others, her gaze lingering a bit longer on Reza, before she went on. “Looking on the bright side, the op is fairly straightforward. We’ll be divided up into four roughly equal companies, dropped by assault boats on the far side of the asteroid, and then we’ll come at the bitches from four different directions, with us bounding ahead of the other three companies. We have the job of drawing the enemy’s attention and hopefully enticing them out of their little hole. Once that happens, the other three companies will come at them from the flanks and rear and wipe them out. Or so the theory goes.”

“Jesus,” someone muttered.

“Hey, don’t bitch,” Ortiz snapped. “The other companies have to send some poor assholes downstairs to explore that base, or whatever it is. I was just as happy we didn’t draw that particular straw. I’d rather have a stand-up fight on the surface in near zero-gee any day.”

“Sorry, ma’am.”

“Any chance of getting some powered combat suits for this one?” Walker asked.

Ortiz nodded. “Oddly enough, yes.”

There were hoots of joy. The powered suits were a godsend in battle, but they were so expensive that only a handful of regular Marine units had them. They were almost never available to detachments of the Red Legion.

“Don’t get too excited,” Ortiz said, and the others fell silent. “The garrison dirt-side has some. But each company is only being allocated two suits.”

Walker stared at her. “Two suits? Per company?”

“You heard me right,” Ortiz told her. “Two.”

“So how are you going to decide who gets them?” One of the newcomers asked.

“I’ll do all your laundry for the rest of your life if you let me have one,” Davis interjected before Ortiz could answer. Walker punched him in the shoulder.

“I’ve already decided who’ll get them,” Ortiz said. “One’s going to the Marine who’s logged the most combat time in one.” She nodded toward Stalin. “The other…” She turned to look at Reza, “…is going to the other Marine I think may be able to make the best use of it.”

“I am honored,” Reza said, bowing his head.

A few mouths hung open at that, but only among those who had joined Ortiz after Carillon. The old hands who had come to know Reza well wore satisfied looks on their faces. None of them were happy that they wouldn’t be getting a powered suit, but every one of them knew that Ortiz had chosen the best Marines to use the ones they would have.

“Any questions?” There were none. “All right, then. We’ll be getting a final intel pass-down on the boats on the way out. We’ll be boarding at fourteen-hundred, so we don’t have time to screw around. Get your people briefed and ready, then let’s get this shit done.”

***

While the suits were a godsend, they were also something of a curse in terms of tactical operations when used in a hybrid unit where not every Marine had one. Much more heavily armored than the standard Marine combat vacuum armor, the powered suits carried more weaponry and were fitted with maneuvering jets that could be used both in zero gee and on a planet’s surface. Battles had been fought where a single Marine in a powered suit had held off a small army of enemy warriors, but the suits were not invulnerable. Even if not damaged or destroyed by enemy fire (or by sword: the devilish Kreelan blades could cut through the joints of the suits), the suits did not have an endless supply of ammunition or power.

After discussing the matter with Stalin while Reza listened, Ortiz took Stalin’s suggestion to keep him and Reza together as a strike team, rather than portion them out to the platoons.

“You must keep the powered armor together,” Stalin had said, holding up his hand and curling in his fingers, “like a fist. Individually they are powerful. Together, much more so. Let the other Marines do most of the killing. We,” he nodded to Reza, “will kill any that bunch up or try to flank us.”

“And if they do spring a trap,” Reza added, “we will be ready.”

Again, Stalin nodded.

Now, the two men stood in their armored hides, massive shoulder to massive shoulder, in front of the rear ramp of the assault boat as it maneuvered through the field of rocks, great and small, toward the asteroid that was their target. Stalin and Reza would be the first out.

“I heard you were almost killed in your only drop in one of these,” Stalin said on a closed circuit that only Reza could hear.

“Yes,” Reza told him. “I believe my academy company commander sabotaged it, although that was never proven. Eustus and a mutual friend of ours saved my life.”

“That is good. I just hope you remember how to use it. It is a complicated weapon.”

Behind his reflective armored faceplate, Reza smiled. He had inherited the ability of Kreelan warriors to understand weapons on a near-instinctive level. While he did not care for the suit, much preferring his Kreelan armor, he knew everything about it, probably more than Stalin. “I remember well.”

“I hope so. Neither of us must die today. You and I have unfinished business.”

Reza wished he could have looked the older man in the eyes. “Our business, as you say, was concluded the moment you saved my life on Carillon. You could have killed me then. If you wanted me dead, that was your time to act.”

Stalin snorted. “To kill an opponent who is unconscious, helpless? No. That would not do. When I kill you, I want to watch the life fade from your eyes, which I suspect will be wide with surprise.”

“I do not understand you,” Reza told him, his heart heavy with frustration. “I am not your enemy, and I do not want to kill you.”

“Your understanding is not necessary, and not wanting to kill me will prove your undoing. Just stay alive today.”

Their conversation was interrupted by the boat’s loadmaster on the override channel. “Ten seconds!”

The ramp opened, revealing a rock-strewn star field that whirled as the boat’s pilot twisted his craft in flight, pointing its stern at the target. The boats would not actually be setting down for this assault, but would be sending the Marines on their way using momentum.

“Five…four…three…two…one…GO!”

Together, the two enemies leaped from the ramp, their suit jets flaring, followed by the rest of the company.

***

“They come.” Hayan-Tir, the leader of the warriors who were the bait for the trap Syr-Kesh had set, watched the human attack craft as they wheeled overhead. While warriors normally gave an enemy even terms or better, this particular battle was intended to draw out the Desh-Ka warrior priest, Reza. As on the Homeworld when hunting a genoth, warriors were granted the right by honor to stalk and trap such a mighty beast. While sacrifice was in the code by which Her Children lived, sacrifice without honor was an empty waste. A scout ship had followed the human cruiser from the planet where the landing party had encountered Reza; Syr-Kesh had known it was him by the intensity of their Bloodsong when they faced him and died by his sword. He was far more powerful than any genoth, and she would give her own warriors fair advantage against him and his human companions in a battle.

Not knowing how the humans might attack, Hayan-Tir had spread small war parties across the surface of the asteroid, in addition to the main force in the underground cavern that had been hastily converted into a temporary garrison. She had fully expected the humans to simply launch a bombardment from their ships, but Syr-Kesh’s intuition had been prophetic: the humans were victims of their own curiosity, and could not help but investigate what they could only perceive as anomalous behavior on the part of their enemies.

While she could not sense Reza in her blood, Hayan-Tir knew that he must be among the attackers that were now falling like rain among her concealed warriors. Surely the humans would not leave the most powerful among them behind?

She would know soon enough. “Be prepared, my sisters,” she said through the communications device of her suit. She despised the primitive apparatus in which she and her warriors were encased, a relic that the keepers of the Books of Time had found that approximated the level of technology of the humans, and which the builders had in turn replicated. But to use anything more advanced would take unfair advantage, and that would simply not do. “Let them land, then let us see what they would do.”

Silence was her only answer over the communications channel. But she did not need to hear any of their voices; the ferocious anticipation in their Bloodsong told her all she needed to know.

***

“Alpha Company, in position,” Ortiz reported to the battalion commander, who was with one of the other companies.

“Proceed,” came the terse reply.

Ortiz scanned the visual display in her helmet, noting with satisfaction that her platoons were all where they were supposed to be. “Company,” she ordered on the unit channel, “in wedge formation, advance.”

Response indicators winked on her display from each platoon and from Reza and Stalin. The platoon on point, led by Walker, moved out, with the two other regular platoons moving out to the flanks of the wedge. Ortiz, who was at the center of the formation, kept abreast of them. Behind her came the heavy weapons platoon, with Reza and Stalin bringing up the rear.

She grimaced at the terrain around them. The asteroid was a huge gray rock that looked like it had originally been blasted from a volcanic furnace. The surface was made up of ridges and spikes of rock that were both uneven beneath their feet and sharp as razor blades. Pillars rose here and there, along with what she could only imagine were the rims of craters where meteors and other asteroids had slammed into the surface. “Watch your suits on this damn stuff,” she cautioned. While the rock could only scrape the armor, she had no doubt it could slice right through the more vulnerable material that made up the flexible joints.

While all of them had trained in both gravity and zero gee environments, movement here was an awkward in-between. The asteroid was large enough to create a perceptible gravity field, but it was so weak that she could have easily launched herself free of it with a modest jump. Moving forward was accomplished with shuffling jumps, each time praying that her feet didn’t snag on something to make her fall face-first into the nest of natural razor blades on the “ground.” The flip side, also not good, was that when the shooting finally started, the Marines wouldn’t be able to dive for cover quickly, like they would on a typical planet.

“Ah…shit. Uh, some help?”

She looked off to her left, toward where the faceplate display indicated the transmission had come from. One of her Marines had jumped too high and was sailing off into space.

“I have him,” Reza’s voice came over the channel before she could tear Chou, who was now tumbling ass over teacups over the formation, a new asshole. Ortiz paused, watching Reza’s powered suit maneuver with economical movements to intercept the hapless Chou, then return him to the ground.

“Watch your footing, everybody,” Ortiz said. “Reza and Stalin have better things to do than wrangle your asses back to the ground. Reza, I assume you didn’t see anything?”

“Negative, captain. I could see what should be the entrance to the enemy mine, or whatever it is, over the next ridge.”

“Roger.” Ortiz was starting to get impatient. It wasn’t like the Kreelans to just let the humans walk into something. “Flankers, keep your eyes peeled. And Reza and Stalin, watch our asses.”

“Affirmative.” Stalin’s gruff reply offered her some reassurance. She knew the old bastard wouldn’t let them be caught unawares from behind.

As they approached the rim of the crater that was the last obstacle obstructing their view of the mine, Ortiz opened a channel to the company and said, “If they —”

She was cut off by a cry from a Marine in the platoon on the left flank.

“Contact!”

***

Reza’s mouth compressed into a hard line as threat icons exploded into life on his helmet display. He instantly understood the enemy’s strategy, for it was one studied by every warrior tresh in the kazhas across the Empire: how to kill a genoth. He and Esah-Zhurah had killed a genoth, from which they had taken the eyestones that were inscribed with the rune of the Desh-Ka and now were affixed to their Collars of Honor. But that had been a fluke; by all rights, the two of them should have died in that horrific battle. In the ancient times, when hunting the genoth had been a necessity of survival, the great beasts were stalked and killed by warriors from ambush. The beast was drawn in by one or more warriors, fleet of foot, who lured the monster into a kill zone where the other warriors would attack. Even then, the contest was hardly even. More times than not, the warriors would be wiped out by the enraged beast.

This, he thought, looking at the numbers on the display, could very well turn out the same. The enemy warriors had been well camouflaged, somehow evading the thermal and radar sensors of the powered suits. Now, breaking from their concealment, he saw there were hundreds of them, with small war parties completely surrounding their formation, as well as some inside the company’s perimeter. Some of the warriors fired weapons similar to the rifles carried by the Marines, but Reza knew this was largely a distraction while the bulk of the warriors closed to sword range. In some cases, that was barely a single leap.

Marines quickly began to die.

“Open fire!” Ortiz’s order boomed over the company channel, although the Marines hadn’t waited for her permission. Crimson and emerald lances of energy already criss-crossed the deadly terrain of the asteroid as the Marines defended themselves.

“Choose your targets wisely,” Stalin cautioned as he and Reza simultaneously opened fire. Stalin blasted a warrior who appeared like magic almost directly beneath him, her sword swinging at his leg, while Reza killed a pair who were sailing at Ortiz. The suits containing their dead bodies tumbled past her.

Unlike the Marines in their standard vacuum armor, Reza and Stalin had more than one primary weapon. Leaping high to get a better vantage point, Reza switched from the integrated pulse rifle to a rocket launcher, sending a round into the midst of a group of warriors moving toward the platoon on the left flank. Not wasting any time, Reza used his jets to zoom back to the surface. Remaining exposed like that was deadly, and his suit registered three grazing hits from pulse rifle fire.

“Stay low, you fool,” Stalin growled as he moved close to Ortiz, who was trying to gain control of the chaos.

“Kill the damn warriors inside the company perimeter,” she snapped. “Platoon leaders, square formation!” Ironically, modern warfare against the Kreelans often used tactical formations employed by the Greeks and Romans, thousands of years before.

Reza and Stalin went to work, shooting, lobbing grenades, and sometimes smashing opponents with their armored fists, trying to clear the inside of the defensive formation Ortiz was trying to form.

“There are too many,” Stalin said in a private channel between himself, Reza, and Ortiz. “We need support from battalion.”

“That’s not going to happen,” Ortiz said in a gasping voice. She had been hit twice by pulse rifle fire, and one of the hits had superheated a patch of armor that was now searing her skin through the flexible pressure suit in between. “The rest of the battalion has its hands full.” She paused as she blasted a warrior who was trying to cut Walker’s head off. “Even the battalion reserve was ambushed. And hundreds of these bitches are streaming out of the mine.”

Before Reza could reply, he saw a swarm of warriors closing in on Eustus and the survivors of his squad. “Eustus, beware!” Reza called, but it was too late. The red icons converged on the four blue ones.

Without thinking, Reza launched himself like a missile across the surreal landscape, his jets flaring. Ignoring, Stalin’s curses, he flew toward Eustus’s last position, cutting down warriors left and right as he went. After a moment, he saw that Stalin was following him. Reza’s lips twisted into a grim smile. You must keep the powered armor together, like a fist.

***

“Back to back!” Eustus cried as he frantically ejected the spent power pack from his rifle and inserted a new one. His squad had become isolated from the rest of Walker’s platoon as it fought its way toward Ortiz’s position. The damn warriors had just appeared out of nowhere, right out of the ground, and must outnumber the Marines by at least ten to one, if not more. Eustus was shocked that any of the Marines, himself included, were still alive.

A warrior slammed into him, sending him cartwheeling across the deadly surface of the asteroid. Both his rifle and the fresh power pack he was trying to ram home went flying into space.

As he tumbled, he saw that the warrior was coming right after him, launching herself from a nearby pillar of rock like some sort of alien acrobat. She flew straight at him, her sword extended like a spear, the tip aimed right at his heart.

Training overcame fear, and he drew his sidearm and shot her in the faceplate, sending fragments of her helmet, gobbets of blood, and other organic bits he didn’t care to dwell on exploding into vacuum.

Before he could savor his victory, the gun was knocked from his hand by a rock outcropping, which also sliced through his pressure suit at the gap between the armor at his wrist. A pressure warning began to blare in his helmet.

“Dammit,” he hissed. He would have liked to grab a patch to seal his suit, but three more Kreelans were coming for him, so he drew his combat knife instead and rolled to his feet. He didn’t have any illusions about the outcome of this coming fight.

Just as the enemy trio came into sword range, three crimson bolts took each of them in the head in the span of half a second. Their bodies, carried by inertia, tumbled and rolled past him as a powered suit set down in front of him.

“Reza,” Eustus breathed as he and Reza knelt down behind the rock, taking cover from the maelstrom around them. With shaking hands, Eustus took out a patch kit and applied it to the tear in the wrist of his suit, then silenced the warning.

“I am sorry I took so long,” Reza told him.

Another suit briefly touched down. “Here.” Stalin shoved a rifle into Eustus’s surprised hands. Then, grabbing hold of the pack on Eustus’s back, he turned to Reza. “We go!” Without another word, the jets of Stalin’s suit ignited, and he hauled Eustus off toward where the rest of the company was still fighting for its life.

Pausing just long enough to kill some warriors who thought to try and hit Stalin and Eustus with their shrekkas, Reza leaped after them, his suit jets flaring.

Introducing Sunsets and Sangria on Youtube

Sunsets and Sangria Travel Channel

As you may (or may not!) know, my wife, Jan, and I are gypsies at heart and love traveling. Now that retirement isn’t too ridiculously far away, we decided it was time to start sharing more about our travel experiences. Well, actually, I wish we had started this a long time ago, because we’ve had the opportunity to go to so many places and see and do so many things, but we didn’t document them for the benefit of others as, looking back, we would have liked.

So, if you enjoy travel or just would like to hang out with us as we explore, check us out on our Sunsets and Sangria channel on YouTube!

To get you started, here’s our first episode:

2019, the new year: Looking back, Looking ahead

USS Arizona Memorial

So, here we are again: a new year is upon us! As we recover from our New Year’s Eve hangovers, for many it’s a time for a bit of reflection on the past year and contemplation of the coming one.

For me, 2018 was, like 2017, a year of major change. I went back to work full time in early 2017 after book sales fell to the point where they couldn’t sustain us financially any longer (more on that in a later post), which required us to pick up and move from our home in Sarasota, Florida, back to Maryland.

As part of that decision, however, my wife and I knew that we weren’t going to stay in Maryland any longer than necessary, since we’d already spent the better part of thirty years there. I have nothing against Maryland, but for people who are gypsies at heart, that’s a long, long time.

Our cat, Nina, getting in some lap time before moving out of the apartment in Maryland
Nina, getting in some lap time before moving out of the apartment in Maryland

So, earlier this year — no, dang it, LAST year, in 2018! — I managed to land a job in, of all places, Hawaii! The processing and logistics took forever, but at long last we — myself, my wife, and our cats, Sasha and Nina — landed in Honolulu on 7 December (and yes, I’m aware of the irony!) to begin our new life as islanders. We’ll be here for at least three years, and if a job doesn’t come open somewhere else at that point in a place we really want to go, I’ll just extend another year and retire. Then we’ll pack up, head back to the mainland, put our stuff in storage, and live full-time in the RV. But that’s a ways off yet!

Getting back to 2019, I’ve got my list of New Year’s Resolutions that I wanted to share with you:

  1. Write consistently. I’m aiming for a chapter per week, which for me is around 3,000 to 6,000 words. We’re going to set up a dedicated space in our apartment that’s just for my writing, and every night I’m going to plant my butt in that chair and work on my next book, whatever it may be.
  2. Reengage with readers. I have to apologize for this, because over the last few years I really fell off the wagon in terms of interacting with folks. I’m not going to offer any excuses for it, but am going to find ways to restore that sense of community. That was one of the most rewarding parts of my writing career. I’m going to do a separate post on this soon, as I’d like to get some ideas about where folks stand with social media and the like.
  3. Eat clean. This is the year that my wife and I stop eating a bunch of crap. Now, we have certainly eaten better the last couple years than we probably have in a long time, but I’m determined to shift us over to a much healthier way of eating to help us stay healthy longer.
  4. Get my fat butt in shape. I know that this, along with #3, is sort of a perennial item on many New Year’s Resolution lists, but it’s gotta get done. I could stand to lose about 20 pounds and need to get in much better cardiovascular shape. Jan and I used to run half marathons, and I’d like to get back to that level of fitness.
  5. Explore, explore, explore! We came to Hawaii for a variety of reasons, but first and foremost (well, after choosing a place where we’d never have to freeze our butts off!) was to see as much as we could see in the time we’ll be here. We’re on Oahu, where there’s already tons to explore and do, but we also want to explore the other islands, as well as venture to other destinations like Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, and hopefully other places like Japan, South Korea, and maybe even China. Who knows?

So, that’s what’s on my list. What’s on yours? Let me know in the comments section, and have a Happy New Year!

Happy new Year – Welcome to 2019

New Year’s 2019 at Ford Island, Pearl Harbor

While the fireworks haven’t started yet (still several hours to go for that), I just wanted to take a moment to wish you a Happy New Year for 2019 from where we’re enjoying a bit of time here at the Navy Lodge on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor. I’ll fill you in more on that and more later, but I just wanted to drop you this quick note before I get back to working on Red Legion (In Her Name, Book 10).

Again, Happy New Year!

Chapter 18 of RED LEGION is Now Available

I know that it has been a RIDICULOUSLY long time since I’ve posted anything OR added a chapter to RED LEGION. My apologies for that, and I’ll try to explain why in a subsequent post. But for now, I just wanted to let you know that the draft of the latest chapter – #18 – of RED LEGION is finally done! 

In Her Name: RED LEGION

For those who have been reading along on Wattpad, you can find the latest chapter here. If you’re waiting for the completed book to come out (and yes, I’ll be publishing it through all the regular distribution services like Kindle, Nook, etc.), it’s still got a ways to go, although I have the very general outline of the plot sorted out for the rest of the book. 

So, have fun reading the latest chapter, and I hope you enjoy it!

Managing Author Expectations For Non-Paid Book Promotions

Book Promotion

I’ve read several some author blogs where people have expressed disappointment with results from venues where the author can give a book(s) away for free. I wanted to give my impressions of my own experiences with freebies to help authors find ways of getting the most leverage out of them.

Freebies, regardless of the method or channel through which you offer them, are neither “bad” nor “good”. It’s a promotional tool that, like any other tool, has strengths and limitations. There are two primary cases to look at: one for an author who only has a single book out, and one where the author has multiple books, some of which are likely part of one or more series.

The Single-Book Author

Let’s get something straight right off the bat: just because you’ve written and published a book doesn’t mean you’re going to be the next Amanda Hocking. Unlike John Locke (who was tarred and feathered for some questionable promotional practices: another lesson to learn), Joe Konrath, and a number of other bestselling authors who have either paid their dues in the publishing industry or already had an in-depth business background, I consider Hocking a genuine phenomenon. She won the lottery, albeit after a lot of work that led up to her “overnight success,” which itself is not directly replicable. It happens, but not often, and the luck factor trumps any level of skill at writing or promotion.

If you wrote your book with the intent of eventually writing as a career, consider your first Great American Novel – and probably your first three or four – like the drawings or paintings an artist creates to build their portfolio. While your first book may indeed earn you some money, its main value is in helping you build up a readership over time that will nag you constantly for your next book, and the one after that, etc.

“So you think I should just give away my first book for free? But…but…my effort deserves to be rewarded!” It will be if you stick with it. But your first book is just that: your first. You’re not going to be making $300,000 a year and join the Kindle Million Club with one book. Take the long view and do everything you can to get it into as many readers’ hands as possible (this assumes you’ve had someone edit the hell out of it, it has good cover art, and a good blurb that draws potential readers in to read a sample) while you’re working on the next one, which is where you’ll really start building your paid sales.

Amazon’s KDP Select is a great compromise for a first book, because you can alternate between offering it free (5 days out of 90) and paid (the other 85 days). And while I’ve become disenchanted for various reasons with Smashwords, that’s still an excellent venue for free book offerings, because aside from direct sales, they feed all the big retailers, including Barnes & Noble and Amazon (note: while you can select Amazon as a retailer, I don’t know for certain if books you list for free on Smashwords will show up for free on Amazon, but they definitely will on other retailer sites).

For those authors who have one book and have been disappointed in sales through KDP Select, the bottom line is that your readership is still in its infancy. You have to have thousands of existing fans to create enough word of mouth, fanned by consistent promotional efforts through social media, to sustain sales in significant volume. Most of the time after you put your book on a free promotion, you’ll see a spike in sales after the book goes back to paid status. But it might not be a big spike, and it probably won’t last for long. You shouldn’t expect it to until your following reaches critical mass.

It’s impossible to predict exactly when that will happen. But to give you something to use for comparison, I published the original version of In Her Name (which then became the Omnibus edition, then the Redemption Trilogy – which are largely unavailable now – and includes Empire, Confederation, and Final Battle) in 2008, but hardly did any promotional work other than chatting in a couple forums. Even at that, enough people liked that book and the next two (plus splitting the original one into a trilogy) that when I wrote the next one, Season Of The Harvest, early in 2011 and worked my butt off promoting it, my sales exploded.

Part of that explosion, I’m convinced, was because I’d been giving Empire, the first novel in my bestselling sci-fi/fantasy series, away for free for a while. I’d also built up my Facebook following and had about two thousand (which has grown a LOT since then) followers on Twitter. And when those readers found out I’d published my next book, they went out and bought it. And the spike in initial sales drove HARVEST up into the bestseller charts, where it stayed in the top 20 of both the horror and sci-fi categories throughout the summer.

So, the bottom line for your first book: it’s not a profit generator, it’s a reader grabber. If you make some money from it, great. But the main benefit it can give you is to build your following of readers who will eagerly await your next book, which they’ll happily buy (if you don’t overprice it). And the one after that, and after that.

The Author With A List

If you’ve got a list of titles, which ideally includes at least one series, freebies are gold. The basic rationale is the same as I indicated above, except now you have paid titles that you can lead your eager new readers to. Of the almost 150,000 books my readers grabbed in 2011, I’d say around 60,000 were freebies. Most of those were copies of Empire, the first in my In Her Name series, but that also included around 10,000 of the first In Her Name trilogy and 15,000 free copies of Harvest that went out the door as part of the KDP Select program over the course of two and three free days, respectively (I haven’t used the rest of the five days for each book yet).

Far from saturating the market, those KDP Select freebies drove paid sales back up into the 200 rankings in the Kindle store for a while for both books. Harvest doesn’t have great hang time, so it fell off the charts in about two weeks (note: different books seem to have different hang times on the charts, regardless of your efforts at promotion – wierd!). But the In Her Name trilogy is right around 1,500 overall in the Kindle store as I write this a month later, and is still in the top 30 of three categories.

The other books of the In Her Name series got dragged back up, too. Not nearly as high, but significantly better than before I gave away that big pile of freebies.

In the meantime, Empire is free just about everywhere: on Amazon, B&N, my web site, iTunes, Smashwords, etc. I tell people to download it, read it, and send it to their friends if they like it. Because a lot of people do like it, and those who do are either going to buy book 2 of the series (Confederation) or the trilogy collection. Ka-ching. Happy reader, happy not-starving-for-another-day author.

Be aware, however, that not all books are going to have this draft effect with freebies. I also have book 4 of the IN HER NAME series, FIRST CONTACT, in KDP Select. While giving it away has helped sales somewhat, and I’ve done it twice now, the number of downloads hasn’t been earth-shattering, and the effect on paid sales hasn’t been that significant. There are other forces at work there that I haven’t yet been able to pin down.

Also, while I’ve only had one go at putting the first IN HER NAME trilogy collection and SEASON OF THE HARVEST out for free on KDP Select, I’m not necessarily expecting the same stellar results from the next round. For one thing, when I put them free the first time, it was right before Christmas for HARVEST, and New Year’s for IN HER NAME. Both of those are big shopping periods, so I probably got a nice boost from that from holiday bargain hunters and newly-minted Kindle owners.

On the other hand, while HARVEST has fallen to a level where it makes sense to put it up for free again (because I’m not going to lose a lot of sales, anyway), I’m not going to do that for IN HER NAME yet. At a rank of 1,500 in the Kindle store, it’s still selling extremely well (the average for the month of January is over 100 sales per day), and it doesn’t make sense to give it away in the hopes of boosting the rankings what will probably be a nominal amount. The old adage “don’t fix what isn’t broke” comes to mind.

My last suggestion is that if you have a list and decide to enter them all (or some portion of them) into a program like KDP Select, don’t offer them free at the same time. If you do, and you give away your entire series free, well, that may not be so good. If a reader can pick up all of your books free, they’re obviously not going to come back to buy more, because there’s nothing to buy. Stagger your freebies, emphasizing the lead titles of any series, and try as much as you can to have your free days (if in KDP Select) bracket any convenient big sale periods.

Anyway, the bottom line if you’re an author with a brace of books under your belt is to offer at least one of them free. Ideally, I’d say offer the first book of each series you have for free once their initial sales taper off. Use them as loss leaders and get them into the hands of as many people as you possibly can, and make sure you’ve got your bibliography prominently displayed at the front and back of the book so people can find your other offerings.

Instant Pot Wine – Yes, It’s A Thing!

Instant Pot Wine

Instant Pot WineI suppose to many the title of this post sounds like it must be rhetorical: after all, why wouldn’t you try to make Instant Pot wine? Seems like a silly question, right?

Beyond the obvious (and humorous) reasons, my attempt to make wine in the Instant Pot – or at least use it to help get the wine started – is because my wife gets really bad headaches from many store bought wines, and particularly red wines, presumably from the tannins. So, we decided to give Instant Pot wine a go to see if she has the same sort of reaction. After all, we only stand to lose $4 or $5 in ingredients and a little time.

Before I go any further, let me state loudly and clearly that while I (among many others!) have pondered how to make Instant Pot wine, the inspiration for this endeavor is David Murphy, who should be immortalized in the Instant Pot Hall Of Fame for coming up with this idea and posting it on his blog, FoodNService! We love you, man!

So, using David’s easy to follow directions, I gathered up the whopping list of three ingredients*, mixed them up, and dumped the resulting grape slurry into my 6 quart Instant Pot Duo. I wasn’t worried about not having my Instant Pot available for the lengthy time the wine has to sit, because I also have an Ultra that’s my main pot.

And now we wait! I’ll keep you posted on the progress of the experiment…

* If you have trouble finding yeast for making wine, you can find it on Amazon for making both red wine and white wine.

FYI, I used to make wine quite a few years ago, and my wife didn’t seem to have issues with headaches then. So, we’ll see if Instant Pot wine will be the same. 😎

Update: While the wine I made won’t win any awards at a wine festival, it was certainly decent enough and had a great kick. I can’t say if I’ll be making much more this way, but it’s an easy and really inexpensive way to make some decent home brew wine!

Are There Still Real People On Twitter?

Twitter

I’ve been away from Twitter, at least as a regular user, for a long time, probably a couple/few years. After becoming annoyed with Facebook, I decided to return to the Twitterverse for a little social interaction. Let’s just say that I was a bit shocked by how things are now versus how they were back then (whenever that was).

Let me start off by saying that back in 2011 when my books, led by Season of the Harvest, finally “broke out” and started selling oodles of copies (grossing over well over $150,000 that year), I had focused on building up a big Twitter following prior to the release of Season of the Harvest that February, and I feel like the platform played a significant – nay, major – role in boosting sales.

I also invested in TweetAdder, a program to automatically follow/unfollow users according to a variety of filters, and that really helped build up my following to over 80,000 users before that and other programs like it were banned by Twitter. The nice thing about TweetAdder was that I could focus on people who, at least based on their profiles, were interested in reading and books.

Despite using the automated approach, I still tried to directly engage with as many people as possible, particularly with those who tweeted to me or DM’d me (excluding spam, of course!). I made a number of really good friends on Twitter during that period, and wasn’t just blasting out a bunch of promo crap without engaging with real people, which is what made things fun and rewarding.

But then, as with most things, people went totally crazy. Authors (looking at my particular niche) went ga-ga with marketing on Twitter, with many, if not most, just sending out endless streams of promo tweets and little else. It was at that point that Twitter’s value to me, at least as a promotional platform, fell off to near zero. I’m guessing that was maybe in 2015 or so, give or take a year, and that’s when I stopped using Twitter on a regular basis.

Sasha The Cat
Sasha after looking over my Twitter feed…

So, just a week or so ago, I decided to jump back into the Twitter pool, hoping to rekindle some of the fun social media interactions I used to have back in the day. I started going through my feed, really looking at the posts people were making, rather than just skimming through, and was aghast. What the hell was I thinking when I followed so many of these accounts?

Of course, the answer was “follow-backs.” I don’t know what the convention is now, but it used to be that if someone followed you – particularly if it was any sort of business concern – they wanted you to follow them back. That way you can get oodles more followers! They’ll retweet your stuff and you’ll retweet theirs! Your sales will explode! Gaaaaaah!

That sounded fine on the surface, but in retrospect was a really idiotic approach, especially if, like me, you also wanted to use Twitter as a venue for actual personal interaction. Looking back on it, why in Hell would I want to follow anyone whose feed was packed with tweets that I wasn’t interested in? Was I ever going to retweet their stuff? Hell, no. Were they ever going to retweet mine? Hell, no! And doubly so, why would I follow someone who didn’t tweet in a language I could understand? Aside from a user who maybe posted images I found fascinating (which is certainly possible), what’s the point of following when I can’t even understand what they’re saying? Duuuuuuuh!

And then we get to the retweets. Okay, yeah, RT’s have been a thing since forever. But now it seems like a huge amount of the Twitterverse is just a massive echo chamber of accounts (many of which I’m sure aren’t even used by living, breathing people anymore, if they ever were) retweeting crap. Some, I swear, seem like retweets of retweets of retweets! I mean, sure, if you want to share something you found that you like and think your followers might like, that’s great. But if you look at your stream and the only things you’ve tweeted the last half dozen to a dozen times are RTs, you’re likely going to find yourself on my growing list of accounts to unfollow.

So, speaking just for myself here (well, obviously, since it’s my damn blog), I’m interested in what you have to say. I can get news direct from the news sites if I want. I can scope out products I may be interested in by following the brand or company accounts. I don’t need to follow anybody to get that stuff. Heck, I can even get loads of cat pictures – which, of course, was the whole reason for the invention of the Internet – all on my own. But I probably wouldn’t see a picture of your cat, or know the funny (to your followers) story about how he tore down the drapes while chasing after a fly. I won’t know from anyone else if you scored a great new job, or if you got hit by some sort of crap and could use some words of encouragement, or something you cooked in the Instant Pot today that I’d love to snag the recipe for. While some folks may not think so, everyone has unique and interesting interests and things going on in their life to share.

Anyway, I hope that gives you some food for thought. Make your social media presence – whether on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc. – about you. You don’t have to make yourself “more interesting” by retweeting tons of stuff from someone else. And if you want to say hi to me on Twitter, just click here and give me a shout!

Some Advice For New Or Aspiring Authors

Tips for Authors

A lot of folks who want to publish a book (typically a novel, but non-fiction, as well) have asked me, “Hey, do you have any advice on how to get published?” Here are a few general observations from my perspective, for what they may be worth:

1. First and foremost, you need to sit your butt down and write. Today. “Oh, I want to write a novel some day…” Stop wanting and start doing. Like everything else, it’s easy to make excuses to not do it. I have to combat that myself every day, even doing this for a living now: there are all kinds of things (like blogging!) that creep in to steal away my writing time, but if you’re not writing, you’ll never be an author. So stop putting it off and write as much as you can, even if it’s only a little bit, every day.

2. Decide how you want to be published. By that, I mean that you have to decide if you’re going to self-publish or go the traditionally published (trad pub) route. I’m going to be blunt on this one: if you’re not going the self-published route, you’re screwing yourself. I’m not going to go into gory detail here, but the bottom line is that if your book is good enough to be picked up by a trad pub house, assuming you won the lottery to get a contract in the first place, you’ll almost certainly make a LOT more money self-publishing. And I emphasize the money aspect because for me, writing started out as a hobby, but it’s now the means by which I put bread on the table for my family. So if you want to go with a Big 6 publisher for the prestige or whatever, power to you. But while your book is sitting with your agent (whom you have to pay) for a couple years, and then sitting in the production queue with the publisher for another year or two, after revisions, I’ll have put out about a dozen new books, each of which will earn me at least some (and in a few cases, a lot) of money right away. Good luck.

3. Exploit all the media possibilities you can: ebooks, print, and audiobooks immediately come to mind. You may not be able to do them all at once, but over time try to cover all those bases, because they represent different market segments (i.e., more readers) and additional potential income. The time investment, particularly for audiobook production, can be pretty steep, but once it’s done, it’s done, and aside from the promotional angle, you don’t have to do any additional work to generate money from your sales. Can you say residual income, boys and girls? I knew you could!

4. If you go the self-publishing route, do it right. Here’s what I mean by that:

– First, find a fiendishly picky editorial team. You want people who are going to tell you what sucks about your work so you can make it better. Learn to embrace the red ink – your readers will thank you for it. People do things different ways, but the editorial system I use has three major stages. First, my wife reads each chapter as I finish the draft to make sure I’m not taking the story down a blind alley or doing something outrageously stupid. Once the manuscript is done, I go over it, then send it on to my editorial team, which is stage 2. My team currently comprises three people (two of whom are Norwegian!), and they go after the manuscript with butcher knives. Once they’re done hacking and chopping, I go back over the story and incorporate the changes. Stage 3 is for the beta readers. Their job is really just to read the book and see if anything irritating leaps out at them. If they pick up any stray typos, that’s great, but their main job is just to test-read the story and make sure it comes off well. When they’re done, I incorporate any changes, then hit the publish button. Poof.

– Second, get some decent cover art. This is one of the few places that I recommend you spend some money if you can’t do a decent job yourself. There are lots of folks who offer this service now, and you can also find artists on DeviantART, for example, who are amazingly talented and can do custom work, often at extremely reasonable prices. And please remember the sole purpose of the cover: to catch the eye of potential readers and get them to read the blurb. That’s really all it’s for, but it’s a very critical function that you don’t want to screw up with lousy cover art.

– Third, make sure you have a decent blurb for your book. This is actually one of the most difficult things to do, and is something I still struggle with. You want something that’s catchy, fairly brief, and – most important – gets the reader curious about your book, enough so that they’ll at least check out a sample or read some of the reviews.

Doing those three things won’t guarantee you’ll have a bestseller, but it’ll make your book competitive.
5. Get involved with writing/reading communities. This is something I didn’t do until after I’d published my first book back in 2008, and the quality of the book suffered for it. Why? Because these places – forums, Facebook, Twitter, etc. – is where you’ll likely find your editors and beta readers, as well as a lot of good information on, well, just about everything. HOWEVER, approach this with one thing in mind: it’s incredibly easy to get sucked into spending tons of times on forums, etc., talking about the issues related to publishing and being an author, when you should be writing your books. I’ve seen authors make multiple posts on threads that added up to thousands of words in a single day, then they complain about not making much progress on their current book. Well, yeah…

6. BE PATIENT. This is the hardest thing to get across to a lot of folks. So many people think that just because they wrote and self-published The Next Great American Novel that it should be an overnight bestseller. While there are some “quantum leap” authors like Amanda Hocking who leap onto the charts out of nowhere, she’s the exception, not the rule. It’s akin to trying to win the lottery versus an intelligent long-term investment strategy. You can spend your life’s savings on lottery tickets and never win it big, but if you invest the same money intelligently over time, you’re going to make money. Will you make millions? Probably not, but you can probably make enough to make a living at it…given time. It took me a total of seven years working like a dog between my full-time job and squeezing in enough time to write seven books before I was making enough to consider quitting my day job. Patience and perseverance, grasshopper.

7. Learn all you can about marketing, book promotion, and – most important (from my perspective) – social media. You can write the greatest story ever told, but if you can’t let people know about it, entice them to read it, and build a fan base interested in buying your next book, you’re never going to succeed. It’s not rocket science, but it takes a willingness to learn, experiment, and, most important, that perseverance thing. You’ve got to work promotion every single day over a long period of time to build up your fan base, and that process should never stop.

8. Lastly, keep writing more books. Even if you have a bestseller, don’t make the mistake that I did and assume that it’s always going to be a bestseller. Sooner or later, that top-ten book is going to fall off the charts into your backlist. Accept it. Get over it. Just be working on the next book, with the understanding that not every book you write is going to be a bestseller. It dosen’t matter, just keep building up your list. The nice thing is that books in your backlist will continue to earn money forever (assuming you’re self-published; if not, you’re at the mercy of the publisher). Even if each book is just earning a trickle, that’s okay, because by the time you have a bunch of books out, those trickles can combine into a river of money. Again, though, that’s going to take time (see #6).

Amazing Instant Pot Chicken Biryani

My wife and I love Indian cuisine, and one of our favorites is Chicken Biryani. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a dish that combines chicken, basmati rice, onions, and a variety of spices into a “one pot meal” that is absolutely delectable and gluten free.

Now, as with most of the things that I cook in the Instant Pot, the original recipe is not my own, but was created by the wonderful Archana of MinistryOfCurry.com. She’s come up with some really amazing Indian cuisine recipes tailored for the Instant Pot, so make sure you check out her site!

Archana’s original Chicken Biryani recipe is here, and below are the specific modifications I made (with links to some of the ingredients I use):

Marinade Modifications:
3 tsp garam masala (instead of the recommended 2 tsp)
1 tsp ground ginger (instead of 1 tbsp of ground ginger)
1 tsp dried mint leaves (instead of 1/4 cup mint leaves)
¾ cup heavy whipping cream (instead of 3/4 cup of yogurt)

  • I’d like to make a note here about the chili powder used in the recipe. I recommend that you do as Archana recommends and get some Kashmiri chili powder (like this from Amazon, which is what I used). Using the same chili powder as you might for a BBQ recipe is definitely not going to taste the same!

Chicken Modifications:
3 lb boneless skiness thighs (instead of 2 lbs bone-in skinless)

  • Note that you can get even better flavor if you get bone-in skin-on thighs, then debone them and pull just the skin off, not the fat that clings to the muscle. Yes, this is definitely extra work, but I believe the resulting enhancement in the taste was worth it.

Rice Mixture Modifications:
2 cups Basmati rice (instead of 3 cups)
2 cups water (instead of 3 cups)
1 cup raisins (not in the original recipe)

  • Cutting back on the rice further intensifies the flavor of the spices and the chicken, especially if you modify the chicken as I outlined above.
  • As for the raisins, every restaurant I’ve been to serves Chicken Biryani with raisins, so I was actually a bit surprised it wasn’t in Archana’s. Someone once commented to me that in India it’s typically prepared without raisins, unless it’s for a special occasion like a wedding. But since having Chicken Biryani is always a special occasion for us, I add raisins every time I make it!

Following The Recipe

Instant Pot Chicken BiryaniTo prepare the Chicken Biryani, follow Archana’s recipe as you normally would after substituting the ingredients, with the following exceptions:

  • After cooking the onions and setting them aside, once the chicken is done sautéing I add the onions in a layer on top. But feel free to save some to use as garnish if you like!
  • After pouring the rice over the chicken and onions, DO NOT mix it in. Just leave the rice as a layer on top, then add the water.
  • Add the raisins on the very top. Then you’re ready to cook under pressure!

Just FYI, I happen to use the Instant Pot Ultra for most of my Instant Pot cooking, although I have an Instant Pot DUO, as well.

Tips For Making Instant Pot Popcorn

Instant Pot Popcorn

If you’ve been having trouble making Instant Pot popcorn (yes, it can do that, too!), this video will show you how I do it and hopefully will give you some good tips so you can be a successful popcorn popper!

The recipe I use is very simple:

  • 3 tbsp of olive oil (you could probably use any high heat oil)
  • 1/4 cup of popcorn kernels (I happen to be using America’s Best White Popcorn, but any kind should do)
  • 3 tbsp of butter and 1/2 tsp of salt for flavoring (substitute whatever you like, or none at all)

I use an Instant Pot Ultra, but the results should be the same across the different models, and I suspect across the different sizes, as well.

Note: While I used an Instant Pot glass lid in the video, you don’t need one…but you do need some sort of lid, or you’ll have popcorn flying all over your kitchen! 😁 The regular lid will do fine, but there’s no need to lock it down.

Time for Body Beast by Beachbody

Body Beast by Beachbody

It’s way past time for New Year’s resolutions, but I’ve got to get my silly putty body back into some semblance of shape. Everybody has their own reasons for trying to get in shape, and their own definition of what that means. I’ll be 55 in a few months, and I don’t want to fall off a cliff in terms of my health. I’ve got a much better handle on the nutrition angle than I used to (you can read more on that In The Kitchen), but the workout piece is still missing. And so, once again, I’m turning to Beachbody to help out, this time with the Body Beast program. Okay, fine, go ahead and laugh at the incongruity of me and “body beast” in the same sentence. Get it out of your system… 😂

Now that you’re done laughing, I chose Body Beast because when I’ve gotten into shape in the past (yes, that’s actually happened!), I’ve had the greatest success building on a foundation of resistance training, then moving off in whatever direction I wanted. As I said earlier, Beachbody programs have been berry, berry good to me, and in the past have gotten my wife and me into fantastic shape several times, including as a springboard from being couch potatoes to running half marathons, which I’d like to do again. That is, in addition to not being a blob and worrying about suffering a pulled muscle when making the bed. That can happen to us old farts, ya know!

Oddly enough, I’m also hoping that this will help act as a catalyst for my writing, which crashed into a stone wall a while ago and still hasn’t recovered. I’ve got lots of ideas and a half-written novel (two, actually, counting a novella I started a long time ago and haven’t yet finished), but my muse has gone on vacation. I’m hoping that transforming my lumpy body into something beach-worthy might help. And hey, it can’t hurt!

Body Beast appealed to me because it’s mainly comprised of basic resistance exercises that I’m familiar with, without a lot of the complex moves that have me falling on my ass or plyometrics that will destroy what’s left of my knees. I know going into it that I won’t be able to do every rep and every set, but that will come in time, probably after the first couple weeks. Assuming, of course, that it doesn’t kill me first. That is a YUUUUGE assumption!

So, wish me luck! And if you want to join me in transforming yourself from a couch potato into a six-pack endowed walking sculpture (I’m trying really hard to keep a straight face here), check out Body Beast or do whatever else works for you and join me.

Farewell to Facebook

Facebook

I know many people have a love/hate relationship with Facebook, and I’m no different. While I generally like the engagement on my personal Facebook page (although Facebook seems determined to find endless ways to annoy us), the “Pages,” like my author page, have become all but useless, unless you’re willing to shell out a lot of money to boost – advertise – your page posts. If you’ve liked my page, or someone else’s, there’s an increasingly small chance that you’ll actually see anything I post, because Facebook simply won’t show it to you.

I’ve tried boosting posts on a few occasions, but even with the amount of money Facebook recommended (ha!), it still only reached a fraction of the people who liked my page. Gah!

What I’ve decided to do is just post links on Facebook to posts I make here. So, if you see it on Facebook, great, but I’m hoping you’ll sign up for notifications here on the site so you can have more direct interaction.

So, what do you think about Facebook pages, or Facebook in general?

Reflections On My Career As An Author

Beach Reflections

The year 2017 is rapidly coming to a close as I write this, and I wanted to share a few thoughts with you as I take stock of where I am now and look back to where this all began. Come May 2018, it will have been ten years since I published my first book, In Her Name (which was subsequently divided up into Empire, Confederation, and Final Battle). In February, seven years will have gone by since I sent Season of the Harvest, which was my “breakout book,” to press. Six months later, in August 2011, I resigned from my long-time government job to write full time, and the following April (2012), we moved from Maryland to Sarasota, Florida to enjoy some Gulf Coast sunshine and prime beaches.

I know a lot of folks think this would be the absolute dream come true, and it was for me, as well – for a time. After getting through some major ups and downs (although mostly downs) in terms of book sales – sales would never again reach the heady highs of the summer of 2011 – our finances stabilized in 2012 and we did well for a while. The boys came to really like Florida, and my wife and I loved it down there. I also had the opportunity to take long summer trips in our RV with my parents, who own their own RV, and we toured the Southwest, New England, Florida, and some of the National Parks in the Rockies, including Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons.

But then in 2015, book sales started a long, drawn out descent. I can’t attribute that to any specific cause, because there are so many spinning wheels – along with sheer luck – involved in selling a lot of books that it’s hard to point to a given thing or two and say, “There, that’s the problem!” If it was that easy, everyone would be a bestseller, but clearly that’s not the case, although I have a few more comments to make on that in a bit. In any case, despite doing everything I could think of to stop it, it was clear that my career was inexorably sliding into the slush pile, and it was clear that if we were to continue to make ends meet, I was going to have to go out and get a real job.

Unfortunately, “real jobs” with wages that would keep us afloat were in short supply in Sarasota, and while I considered myself highly skilled in certain fields after working in the Defense Department for 25 years, those skills were very niche in nature and didn’t translate easily into any of the better paying jobs I was hoping to find. I came to that conclusion pretty quickly, and decided to apply back to the Federal government. I did that in early 2016, was interviewed that summer, and was hired back early this year (2017), thankfully before we had to eat too far into our cash reserves as my book royalties fell way below what we needed to stay afloat.

As I sit here now, it’s hard to believe that I’ll have been back at work a full year come late February 2018. Talk about coming full circle! My plan at this point is to finish out my service until retirement (for which I’ll be eligible in 5-6 years), then we’ll see what we want to do. I also plan to continue writing, of course, although I’ve found that my muse isn’t nearly as energetic as she used to be, and my pace has slowed quite a bit. I clearly need to pump her up with more red wine and chocolate!

Do I have any regrets? Not really. It’s tempting to second guess oneself or to bang your head against the wall wondering “where things went wrong,” but on balance I think things turned out quite well. I had a nearly six year “vacation” where we weren’t bound by the constraints of a regular job and lived in a tropical paradise (if you’ve never been to Sarasota, you don’t know what you’re missing!). I was able to have some great times on our long summer RV trips with my parents that I probably wouldn’t have had, otherwise: if I’d worked through to retirement, my parents would have been in their mid-80s, and I don’t think they would’ve had the stamina for those sorts of adventures. When we moved to Sarasota, we bought a modest house that was perfect for us at the time, and when it came time to sell we made a gross profit of nearly double what we paid for it: that took care of all the money we’d put into the house, gave us enough money to put both boys through college, and left us enough on the side to buy new furniture for the first time in our lives, and we even had some left over to put away. And for me, personally, while I love writing, I found I didn’t really enjoy being an author as a profession (more on that shortly), and coming back to my old stomping grounds in the government was like coming home – I really love doing what I do, and I’d do it as a hobby if I didn’t need money to live on! I know not everyone can say that, which makes me appreciate it even more.

Beyond this brief tale of being normal to riches to just being normal again, I wanted to offer a few thoughts in the hopes that others looking at taking a similar path might have a more pleasant journey.

1) A lot more goes into being an author than just writing books. That seems pretty obvious when it’s stated overtly, but a lot of folks don’t understand just how much of a grind it can be to do the things you have to do every day to try and stay in the game. It takes a huge amount of discipline that’s very hard to muster when you’re the master of your own time and a potential victim of bright, shiny objects. Even just writing, as enjoyable as it was as a hobby, became a chore: I knew I had to write to continue making money, and after a while that became a real drain on my creativity. If anything, my production rate fell after I left my full-time job, and really fell after my sales started a long-term decline, because that’s when desperation set in. That’s not good muse fuel!

2) What is truly frustrating, however, is that even if you do everything right, you may not see the results you want. I’ve seen this with a number of other authors, and in a latent sense suffered it myself. Fellow author Robert Pruneda and I have spoken about this topic at great length, and I think a key ingredient an author needs is plain and simple luck. I’ve seen some very successful authors really work social media, while others have virtually no presence at all. Others have great web sites, some don’t. Some have big mailing lists and send out consistent content to their fans, while others don’t bother. Some have great book covers, others are drab, at best. And even some of the books are mediocre, at best, while others are amazing. Some do a lot of paid promotions through BookBub and other venues; others don’t bother. Yet, from that hugely mixed bag of do’s and don’ts, some authors and books will spring to the top of the sales lists, while others never make it at all. And some will vault to the top and keep one or more books in the top 100 paid, or even top 20 paid, on Amazon (which I use as a weather gauge) consistently, while others spring to the top – usually with a run in BookBub – then fall like a rock shortly thereafter, with almost zero hang time. There is no rhyme or reason to it. You need some of Harry Potter’s “liquid luck.”

4) Spread your net wide in terms of book distribution, and understand that ebook sales will be 90% or more of your sales. I say spread the net wide because, while Amazon is the 800 pound gorilla, it’s not the only game in town. At one point during the golden months of my sales, Amazon accounted for probably 80% of my royalties. Now, Amazon sales make up about 50%. Aside from Google Play, which I publish to directly, I decided some time back to just aggregate everything else (Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and others) through Smashwords for the sake of convenience. But my royalties from Google plus what I make through everything feeding through Smashwords is now almost as much as what I make from Amazon. Granted, it takes a while to build an audience in the non-Amazon book channels, but if you’re persistent, over time it can pay off. Amazon exclusivity, as a general rule, is not necessarily a good thing.

5) As I said earlier, I don’t really have any regrets, but if I could spin back the clock I would do a few things differently. For one thing, especially when the royalties were flooding in that first year (2011) – I made $30,000 a month in June, July, and August alone – I would’ve banked every penny of it and continued working for at least another year, living off my government salary alone, before resigning. That would’ve done a couple things. First, I would’ve had a very nice nest egg saved away before I left government service. Second, that would’ve given me time to gauge the movement of the book market and sales: as it happened, right after I resigned in August, my sales plunged for the next four months before finally turning around. Third, it would’ve saved me from making some really stupid “the sky’s the limit” financial decisions that turned out to be dreadful mistakes. And if you take away nothing else from reading my tale, remember this: do not ever, ever make any assumptions about your sales in the coming month, let alone the coming year(s). Today’s bestseller is on tomorrow’s backlist, and even authors that consistently crank out books don’t always stay above water. Finally, it would’ve given me a bit more of a chance to see if I really enjoyed being an author over a longer stretch of time, because enjoying writing and being an author are not the same thing.

6) Authors tend to lead solitary work lives, for obvious reasons. Sure, you may interact with fans, fellow authors, collaborate on projects, etc. – there are plenty of opportunities to socialize. But the work of writing itself is a lone wolf occupation that, especially after we moved to Sarasota, I found was just not for me. My entire career in the government revolved around teamwork, and while I’m an introvert, that is the sort of work environment in which I thrived. Being an author turned out to be an unbearable lonely occupation, and I think contributed quite a bit to my falloff in productivity. At some point I began to really hate it and grew impossibly bored, neither of which can be good! So, before you embark on a full-time career as an author, you need to have a firm understanding of yourself and your inner motivations, along with what makes you happy and satisfied in terms of work. You may hate your current job and think that being a full-time author would be the bomb, but in reality that may or may not be the case.

7) Be honest with yourself about what you want to do, and don’t be afraid to adapt. For example, as much as I hated to have to leave Sarasota and return to Maryland for work, that made the most sense from every angle. It was the right thing to do at the time, just like leaving work to become an author (although ideally I should’ve waited a year) was the right thing to do then. I would wager that most published authors have full-time jobs to keep a roof over their heads, and the money they earn through writing is dressing on the side. I “made it” for a while, and have sold or given away as promo copies over a million books and made over a million bucks in my writing journey, but didn’t quite have the escape velocity to make the big leagues like, say, Hugh Howey. Book publishing is a lot like a huge beach with ever-shifting sands: sometimes you don’t move much at all, sometimes you move a huge distance, and sometimes you move around a lot and wind up back where you started. The key thing is to not cling to something too tightly when the tide’s pulling you out: start swimming and stay afloat. And the truth is, you just never know: authors who’ve been on the backlists for years sometimes make huge comebacks. Tomorrow’s full of possibilities.

Anyway, there are a few thoughts for what they may be worth. As for me, I plan to continue writing and publishing books because I enjoy it, and making some money from it isn’t a bad thing at all. But I’ve also taking up cooking (especially with the Instant Pot) as a hobby, and of course we spend a lot of time exploring the country in our RV, so you’ll be seeing bits on those and other endeavors, as well as progress on my books, in these pages. So here’s wishing you well until next time!