From Combat Veteran to Horror Author

Before we get into this, there is a quote from Michael Herr in his book, Dispatches, that I’d like to share. It’s a long quote, so bear with me. Herr says:

“I keep thinking about all the kids who got wiped out by seventeen years of war movies before coming to Vietnam to get wiped out for good. You don’t know what a media freak is until you’ve seen the way a few of those grunts would run around during a fight when they knew that there was a television crew nearby; they were actually making war movies in their heads, doing little guts-and-glory Leatherneck tap dances under fire, getting their pimples shot off for the networks. They were insane, but the war hadn’t done that to them. Most combat troops stopped thinking of the war as an adventure after their first few firefights, but there were always the ones who couldn’t let that go, these few who were up there doing numbers for the cameras… We’d all seen too many movies, stayed too long in Television City, years of media glut had made certain connections difficult” (Dispatches, 1977).

My reasoning for sharing this quote from Herr is because, in more ways than one, his voice sums up my own feelings regarding my experiences in the Iraq War, OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom for those in the know), and writing/living with those memories today. Allow me to explain.

There seems to be a surge of “war stories” finding their way into the media nowadays. I’m in no way saying this is a bad thing; I wish there were more veteran writers. However, I have to be somewhat suspicious when I see books marketed as “another action-packed heroic tale of contemporary military service.” Such as from a Navy Seal’s perspective or some high ranked officer sharing their “retelling” of command with low fidelity storytelling. I’m not trying to be quip here, nor am I trying to call out any one individual. What I am trying to call out is similar to what Herr stated in the quote shared above. There seems to be this carnivorous appetite for war stories, but not war as it really is, rather war from a heroic narrative, or worse, war stories where soldiers are nothing more than pawns in a Mad Hatter’s political chess game. I feel these kinds of stories are for people who do not have a genuine interest in the reality of war from the perspective of, say, Joe-Shmoe from Littlerock, Arkansas. These kinds of stories are for people who want to be entertained, not enlighten to the cruel banality of combat.

For a long time, I didn’t write much about anything. A few poems, here and there, but nothing I was willing to share with anyone, under any circumstance. Well…except for maybe in death, if I was dead then I guess I couldn’t really do much about someone reading my work, could I?

iraq me 2003

I signed up for the U.S. Army in Sept 2001 and was honorably discharged in February 2008. Roughly seven years of service, including three tours in Iraq, 2003-2004, 2004-2005, and finally 2006-2007. The last tour was probably the hardest, not only was my deployment extended for the great 2007 Iraq War troop surge (Operation Arrowhead, I think), but I took more hits than in any of my previous two tours, and on top of that, I had someone other than my parents waiting for me at home. My wife and I had just met a few months before I deployed. She stayed with me the entire deployment. We wrote dozens of letters to each other, we chatted on the phone and on the internet, and that’s if circumstances made it possible. She supported me, with more than just care packages, but by giving me focus, reminding me that I was more than just a soldier. Being away from her was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Let me say, I don’t mean to sound callous towards my parents, I love my parents very much, but with my wife it was different. For the first time, I couldn’t imagine myself dying and not being afraid. Not just for the circumstance (bodily suffering) but for the recompense of leaving her behind (emotional suffering). I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want to be robbed of this imagined life we could’ve had together. I didn’t want to lose that. And I didn’t want her to suffer for my loss.

 

In 2008, after being pushed by family to get into college, I finally agreed. I’m glad I did. College helped with more than just furthering my career. Slowly, through the course from 2008-2014, I began to open up. I didn’t really want to at first, again, back to the “glamorization of war,” I feared any attempt to recount my experience would be a cheapening of it, a cheapening of other veteran’s experiences by attempting to sell my own. I didn’t want to do that, but I felt drawn to write something.

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My first attempt was during a creative writing class into my second semester at San Jacinto Community College. The assignment was to write a short narrative story. I wrote, “There will be Ghosts,” which was my ode to both my experiences and the Tom Cruise Vietnam movie, “Born on the Fourth of July.” From there I dove head first into fiction-writing. I began a little science-fiction piece which never came to fruition, and probably never will. I consider these first works to be a learning curve, not something I’d want to see published. A dabbling, if you will, in the creative cosmos, finding my voice and all that fun stuff. When I left community college to enter the university (University of Houston-Clear Lake), I had to put my fictional writing on the back burner and focus almost exclusively on my history studies. While this may seem like a setback, I do not see it that way. In fact, I believe these two years of hardnosed historical study gave me an element lacking in my previous fictional-writing attempts. Dedicating myself to my studies gave me a depth I wouldn’t have been able to include in my work otherwise. My studies focused on 20th century Germany, namely the Weimar Republic and Nazi eras. I also took  Vietnam War history classes, Texas history, and the Civil Rights Movement, each class taught from the ground-up. This is a somewhat relative new way of teaching history. Traditionally, history is taught from the top, that is, from famous generals and presidents or other such impressive folk. From the bottom-up, history is taught from the Joe-Shmoe perspective, the everyday lives of everyday people. It was fantastic. A new way of looking at our world and the people that fill it by giving them relevance. In 2014 I graduated from the University of Houston-Clear Lake with a Bachelor of Arts in History…now what?

 

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Suddenly I found this huge pocket of empty space. My mandatory studies were over with nothing to keep my mind focused on. I decided to get back to fictional writing no longer for term papers, but something that would keep my mind busy, keep me sane, and present a challenge. I wrote two short stories soon after graduating. “Hobo: a horror short story,” and “Are you hungry, dear?” Both are of the horror genre. And before you ask, “why horror,” let me be brief and just say that I’ve always been a fan of horror and dark fiction, ever since my big sister let me watch “Night of the Living Dead” one Friday night. And even before then, I read Goosebumps and then grew into Stephen King. It made sense for me to gravitate to the genre that I felt more comfortable in. And besides, horror gives us the most honest and straightforward media for social commentary…sometimes we need that ugly non-decorum. And Hobo was as direct a social commentary piece I’ve ever written. Through storytelling, I discussed this growing issue with perspectives and homelessness and then threw that into a gory tale of cannibalism. Perhaps over-the-top…but it was fun to write! “Are you hungry, dear?” I was thinking about this problem with identity, are we who we are because of what we have done in the past, or can we be better. This, of course, was told in thru a story basically about a witch who performs a dark ritual on a pizza!

While these shorts were fun, they also gave me some traction toward my first full-length book, Reinheit.

Reinheit was published originally under Booktrope’s horror imprint Forsaken, and now currently resides with Shadow Work Publishing, was, to be frank, the most serious thing I’ve ever written, other than my wedding vows. But let me be clear, this was not my “Iraq War” piece, though, as a writer you have to draw emotion from somewhere, and it would seem a lot of my emotion still streams from my experiences in Iraq. I think some of that bled into Reinheit. As for the story, I tapped into my history studies and focused on Nazi Germany. I didn’t want this to be just a historical fiction piece, I wanted to say something about some of the issues going on in 2014, in the media, and on social websites, such as Facebook. The total disregard for looking at people as simply that, people. Reinheit drew from real history, but the story was really about the here and now. A school teacher dealing with an abusive husband, an SS officer pushing himself to carry out his ghastly orders, a thug of a husband who views the world from a very narrow hall, an old man looking for redemption, and of course, a curious armchair with a very dark purpose.

While penning Reinheit, I was able to develop my, what authors call, “writers voice.” When you read a lot, which is a must if you want to write, you kind of take on the voice of the authors you are reading. You need to write to chisel away all those voices, and hopefully find your own in the process. I think this is intended to be an ongoing thing. The more you chisel, the more defined your voice becomes, until maybe reaching some point when your aged and withered and giving lectures to a new generation of writers. Obviously, I haven’t reached this milestone yet. I’m still having fun with it. So, yes, writing Reinheit helped define my own voice and gave me the necessary encouragement to take the next step, writing my “war story.”

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Again, I couldn’t write something heroic, though I know a lot of whom I consider to be heroic. I didn’t want to pass the war off as some grand adventure. I wanted to rip the decorum off war, the shininess of it. I wanted to bring audiences into the preverbal trenches of “All Quiet on the Western Front.” I wanted to bring an air of hardnosed poetry as Philip Larkin had done for his own generation with his masterpiece, “MCMXIV.” And above all this, I wanted to be direct and honest, no matter how difficult or depressing that may be. Even for myself, rehashing brutal memories. With my pile of one-subject notebooks (yes, I write everything longhand before MS Word), a set out on this endeavor. What I had titled Subdue was inked in about nine months, from paper to MS Word, and has recently been picked up by my new publisher. I cannot go into too many details about the book just yet, but I can say that within those pages are real, raw, and utterly difficult subjects. While hopefully still entertaining, because of the relationships between the characters, it was not written to entertain, it was written to discuss the reality of war and living with the memory of war, I wanted to talk about PTSD, anger, war-guilt, and suicide because these are discussions that need to happen by getting away from the myth of superman and disconnect of high-adventure combat by focusing on the naked ugliness of it and how we can live with those memories through expression…and the sad gut punching fact that many cannot live with the memories of war…

While there will always be “those” books that do not give much substance to the echoes of war, I’ve been seeing more and more veteran writers coming forward from the trenches, unabashed by unrepentant honesty. BRAVO! There was a recent Vanity Fair article called, “The Words of War” that included a few of these up and coming writers of poetry, novels, and screenplays. I felt encouraged reading it. Seeing fellow veterans picking up the pen and expressing themselves. I’m proud to be part of this “Lost Generation,” for as Elliot Ackerman, one of the veteran writers mentioned above, puts it, “it might have been better to be part of the ‘Lost Generation’ than the lost part of a generation.”

Welcome!

Greetings and welcome to my new author site. For years, I had resisted setting one of these things up, believing a proactive blog (Machine Mean) would be good enough to bring readers in and introduce them to myself and my work. And while I believe that still holds true, the problem with running a traditional blog site is that your work tend to get overshadowed with the sites content, which was mostly movie and book reviews. Not a bad problem to have, if you ask me, but I found myself needing a separate branch in order to help those poor sods who enjoy reading my books,  giving them a way to streamline information (and for you, hopefully) regarding new releases, sales, promotions, and upcoming projects without having to wade through a VERY active review site. This is a site for those interested to keeping up with my work, my eBooks and paperbacks and audiobooks, and perhaps also with keeping up with me as a writer. If you’re reading this, I invite you to take a moment and explore the features offered here.

My inaugural book signing

I recently read an article by a fellow author who kept emphasizing the word “do.” As in, book signing. Not “host,” or “have,” but “do.” And I couldn’t agree more with at least that much of what she had to say, everything else, beyond “doing” is and should be up to the potential author “doing” a book signing. The implied meaning behind “doing” is proactive, the author should be proactive during a book signing. I’m sure you’ve seen those authors, just as I have, perhaps at your local shop or Half Price, cramped inside a tiny space, little to no imagination to the table or placement, and the author sits there, immobile, either glaring at customers as they walk quickly by or at their phone or tablet waiting for that special someone to come to them. And if you are one of the poor sods to ever make eye contact with such a person, the look of desperation will chill you to the bone. Its the look of something kin to saying “I just buried my loved one in the cellar, would you please come buy my book…” And you feel for these authors cause you fear deep down that if you ever did a book signing, that would be you, the strange loner stuck in some hobble corner watching with that same crazy look as people avoid you as if you’d been quarantined by the CDC.

Now, I’m not going to sell you a ketchup popsicle. I’m very new to the game of publishing and recently had my own very first book signing. And I can say with pride and honesty that I too, like you perhaps, was a little nervous meeting and greeting people I did not know and/or being shunned as readers shopped for other peoples books, or laughed and pointed at or worse, became the dreaded disinterested weirdo hawking my wares to no one but an empty table and some smelly fellow calling himself Fernando. So, what did I do to overcome these fears? What did I do to prepare for my book signing event? Where was my location? What did I wear? Etc. etc. Well, I’m so glad you asked!

Let me tell you what I did, and perhaps in reading both my successes and blunders, you can take away something that you can either avoid or implement in your own book signing.

Here’s my list:

  1. Remembering the emphasis “doing,” rather than “having.” Stating the obvious here, but “having” implies inactivity, it implies the author sitting on their rump while thousands of fans are lined up out the door waiting to see you. If this is the case, well…you don’t need to read my ramblings, do you? However, assuming you’re a bit like me, and the fans are not quite lining out the door, you may want to reconsider your game plan. Be proactive. What does that mean? Get off your butt. Walk around, talk, chat. Smile, hand out flyers with your work (more on this later), but please, don’t be weird about it. Just be yourself, so long as yourself isn’t glued to your chair or on your phone. In fact, keep that phone hidden. The only time you should be on your phone is if you’re taking a picture with someone who bought your book and you want to tweet it out. We have a bad habit nowadays (not to get on a rant) with always having something in our hands keeping our attention. The idea of “doing” rather than “having” also implies that you’re there to work. Keep that in mind.
  2. Location. I feel like location will determine a lot of different things, including the proactive emphasis. Some book stores are really cramped and there’s not much room to wander about. And there are other book stores that are so massive, your little table will get swallowed into irrelevancy. Also, some book stores have themes which will determine your attire (we’ll get to that soon). So what do you do? Simple enough, seek out a venue that will suit YOUR needs. If you’re like me, you need your space. Being cramped will do you more harm than good. For my first signing, I went after Barnes & Noble, who are generally super friendly to authors (for B&N you’ll need to get a hold of the Customer Relations Manager or CRM in person or over the phone). If your B&N is like my local B&N, the store is rather large. This is nice on the nerves because your not cramped into a small space, but because of the square footage, people may miss your table among the many other displaces and shelves and what not. What to do? Here’s what I did. Ask the CRM if you can set your table next to the Starbucks. Yup. Don’t scoff. Panhandling to coffee addicts will help boost your table traffic, especially if you’re walking around and talking with them. I did not go inside the Starbucks, I was place strategically outside, quasi near the registers, which made it really helpful when people wanted a signed copy but needed to pay first. Making it easy for potential buyers/readers is the name of the game!
  3. Your table shouldn’t be cluttered. Clutter looks disorganized and unprofessional. Lucky for me, the B&N CRM at my store already had a table, a nice thick wood table, and already had ordered my books and made posters directing people to the event. Just another reason why I love and will certainly go back to B&N for any future book signings. On my table I had, obviously, the books B&N ordered for the signing, a stack of flyers with my backlog (all my work), bookmarks, and business cards, a note pad (for spelling out people’s names), a large bowl of candy (the good stuff, not leftover Halloween or Easter crap) and a couple of fine point acid free pens. That was pretty much it. Your table will be YOUR table, so decorate as you see fit, just be sure to discuss whatever you do with the store and/or CRM, and so long as you avoid clutter, AND be sure not to bring along books not sold at B&N, if the store has agreed to order your books for the signing, keep to those books. Your backlog flyer will point people to your other works. In conclusion regarding the table, I considered my table as the base of operations, but as any decent troop will tell you, you need to get out into the field, whilst keeping a close eye on your base of operations.
  4. Materials of obsession…i.e. FREE STUFF!!! As mentioned above, I had bookmarks, business cards, and candy, all free. Now my experience may differ from yours, but folks coming to my table were not very interested in the free candy. I did however ensure every book signed came with one bookmark and a business card, both or at least one of these should include your information, as in where the reader can find you in the vastness of cyberspace, you may want to include your Facebook info, Twitter, and blog. The one thing I forgot to include on my table, and I’m kicking myself in the butt for it, is the newsletter signup sheet. So…ya…you’re going to want to do better than me.
  5. Attire. Again, depending on your book store, dress accordingly. For me, B&N is kinda a nice place, I dressed in slacks and a nice polo. You may want to consider something between full on hobo and wedding attire. You don’t want to look unprofessional, but you also don’t want to overdress (unless the book store has a theme and/or part of your pro-activity is wearing a costume that has to do with the book you are signing, such as fantasy book wizard robes or maybe crime thriller James Bond-esk tuxedos). Some basic rules ought to apply regardless of theme, deodorant, do not go heavy on the cologne or perfume, brush your teeth, and comb your hair. Bathing would also be helpful.
  6. Attitude. This should be a no brainier, but I feel it must be said, cause we’ve all seen those authors at signings that act like crazed loons selling severed heads in baskets. Don’t be that person, don’t have an angry face, especially not when people are not coming to your table. Don’t be overly pleasant either, too pleasant comes off sounding fake. Be yourself, but as stated from the beginning, also be proactive. If someone is not interested in your flyer or your book, say thank you and walk away. Don’t start with “do you want to buy my book.” Give the reader a reason. Be normal. Here’s what I did, I walked around the store, keeping a close eye on my base of operations (table) and approached people I felt wouldn’t mind being talked to and asked if they would like a flyer. Most people did. This is your foot in the door. Next, I told them who I was and what I was doing at the store. I kept it short and sweet, mentioning the books I was signing, generally, theme or genre, nothing too in-depth. So, chin up solider. If people are not flocking to your table consider what I’ve mentioned above, but also keep in mind the store traffic. Its been a while since I was last in retail, but customers come in waves. Be prepared for that. ALSO, if you think a book signing event is about selling book you might want to adjust your thinking. A book signing is only marginally about selling books; the most important part of a book signing is talking with your potential readers. Selling you more than your books.
  7. Book Manager. If you don’t have an official BM, get one, or get a close friend or family member to help you out at the signing. This was something I did not plan for but by some strange miracle my BM from another publisher drove 3 hours from her place of residence to help me with my book signing. My BM had asked previously if I needed help, and me being who I am (taking no help typically from others) said no. But she came anyway and stayed the entire slotted time (11-2) and even almost 2 hours extra, cause the CRM was cool and let me stay as long as I wanted. What did my BM do? She helped talk with folks coming to my table, which was super helpful when I was engaged with another potential customer. She helped guide people to my backlog, promoting my other work and not just the books I was signing. Basically, a BM ought to be an extra hand, helping guide store shoppers to you. This was something I did not plan, but helped tremendously. Plus, the help passerby’s think you’re not alone at your table, other people are interested, maybe they should be too. As in nature, a flock draws crowd. Maybe not right away, for those readers who are introverts, but once the crowd disperses, they’ll approach, or send their kid, as with a few who ended up purchasing my books did.

And I think that’s about the whole enchiladas. The event went fantastic. Having and following the above items helped aleve tension and nervousness and kept me away from the always dreaded loony tunes stigma. I walked and talked with a lot of interesting people, including a few veterans who were likewise interested in writing, which is awesome for me because I too am a veteran interested in writing. I learned more about my audience as well. I had a general idea/stereotype of who reads thrillers and dark fiction, however, the majority of those who bought my books were ordinary (as in, not scary goth kids), in fact one was a wife of a WWII Screaming Eagles veteran, how freaking cool is that! Bottom line, was I hesitant about getting away from my bubble? Yes. Profoundly so. My bubble is safe and warm and far removed from crowds and strangers. But I’m glad I did. I think coming prepared mentally helped a lot too. And most of all, having my BM from Booktrope show up to help was a very nice added bonus. I have little doubt having her there helped pull in more readers than what I could have done on my own. There’s a wise saying, “For every Solo, there is a Chewbacca” (sorry Lauren, not calling you a furry Wookie).

How did I do? Well, unfortunately I forgot to have a newsletter sign up sheet, so without the sheet, its kinda hard to gauge how many people came up to my table to talk and/or purchase my books. I can say though that B&N ordered 40 copies (20 each of Dwelling and Emerging) and in the end, there was only 6 total books leftover (some sold after I left the event). Not to brag, but from what I’ve been told by other authors and by the B&N CRM, that is a fantastic sells %. And I have been asked by the CRM to sign the rest of the books because they want to keep them and sell them, AND if I would be interested in a future signing event. I’d like to think, a huge part of my success was what was done in the items mentioned above. In closing, if you’re new to book signings, I hope my experience helped you in some way. If by chance you’re an old pro, please, share your experience and/or suggestions for budding authors in the comments section below.