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Monday, February 28, 2011

Covers, Colors and Subjectivity

In an earlier blog post, I wondered aloud (well, not really aloud...atext? Aprint? Ablogged?) about why people like and dislike certain colors. And why pretty much everyone disagrees with my aesthetic tastes. Well, the subject has come up again.

Recently, someone was kind enough to explain to me (in detail) why they hate my book cover. No, not the old one. The new one I was so proud of and happy with, and which I thought had addressed the shortcomings of my first attempt (as well as incorporating snippets from some reviews, and a new blurb). Not as aesthetically offensive as the first one, I was informed, but they both pretty much suck.

(The colors came out pretty dull in these photos. But that's probably a positive to everyone but me.)

Well, in a nutshell, a lot of what I was told made sense. I'm still not convinced I should change the print cover as radically as suggested, but I've decided to change the ebook cover to a more conventional (yawn), simple design. The points that really sunk it are as follows:

1. Ebook shoppers see thumbnail images first. And when a detailed cover ("busy" is the graphic design/marketing term, I guess) like mine is reduced to that size, everything is muddled and confusing, or "ugly."

2. Even when displayed at size, a 72 dpi web image of even an attractive cover murks up the details and makes it kinda' ugly. So...

3. The name of the game is to keep it simple. Stone friggin' simple, judging by all the other book covers out there. Outside of western, sci fi or fantasy covers, the most detailed illustration you're gonna see on a book these days is the presidential seal with blood splattered on it, a sinister shadow cast over it or a figure running across it. (I've just described every other paperback cover in Barnes & Noble, BTW.)

4. Evidently the only colors acceptable to most of Earth's population are black, white, or (dull, drab, bland) variations on blue or green.

5. Despite the wise old adage, people do judge a book by its cover.

Somewhat aware of this, even a year ago, my original cover concept for Hell and Gone was merely a Halliburton-type metal suitcase with a radiation symbol on it. But, to me, an image like that does not connote a military adventure/action novel. More like a Sum of All Fears technothriller or maybe an espionage novel. Besides, doggone it, I wanted a five-body fireteam standing in wedge formation in the desert with the sky behind them aglow from a nuclear blast. I thought it would look cool, so nyah-nyah, orthodoxy.

Well, keeping #5 above in mind, I'll soon be conducting an experiment of sorts. I took some pictures. A grenade on various camo-pattern BDU shirts. A grenade next to a bandolier, with another camo pattern as background. A grenade on a stack of ammo boxes. A helmet on a stack of ammo boxes. A carefully composed shot with loaded magazine in the foreground, a nylon assault rifle case standing up on the right (topped by a helmet), web gear on the left, a flack vest in between, tactical kneepads above that...even as I took the last couple photos of that display, I could hear the voice of the Great Sage of Advertising Orthodoxy whispering, "Too busy...too busy..."

I don't particularly like how any of these photos came out, but I'll probably take one of them, sandwich it in between letterboxing in an approved color with title and author in bold, stark letters, and see how it looks. If it's boring, but conveys what kind of book it is somehow, logic dictates that it should improve sales.

No, actually what I think I'll do is take one of the bodies in my fireteam (probably the guy with the M21), sandwich him between some drab letterboxing  with fat, stark letters, and call that my ebook cover. Yeah. Look for that, coming soon.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Unwanted by Daniel L. Carter

Back in October, I interviewed Daniel L. Carter about his book, The Unwanted, the first in an urban fantasy/thriller trilogy. At that time I had not read it, but Daniel later sent me a free PDF copy as an apology for some chaos that ensued when he switched blog addresses. After interviewing him, then reading the book, I decided it would make a nice gift for certain family members, and purchased three print editions to send out before Christmas.

Clever marketing tactic, Daniel!

Anyway, I've intended to review The Unwanted here for a while, but just had too much on my plate. I may never completely catch up on everything I need to do, but I am starting to chip away at the pile.

The great deconstructive revolution in superhero comics began (IMO) with Alan Moore's Watchmen series and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns in the mid-1980s. Its influence has affected every medium featuring superheroes to this day. In comics, perhaps the aftershocks can be felt strongest in Astro City. On television, the recent Heroes series followed in Moore's footsteps (or more accurately, perhaps, it took the superhero to the logical destination on the route Moore initiated). Daniel weighs in with his own deconstructive depiction, though in prose form and (thankfully, for me) from a markedly different ideological perspective.

Whereas Moore's story concept grew out of the question: "How would the world be different from what we know if someone like Captain Atom ("Dr. Manhattan") really existed?" Daniel may very well have started with a question like, "What would it have been like for Ma and Pa Kent to raise a child like Clark/Superman?" Or Xavier raising the X-Men. You get the idea.

FBI agent Nick Catlin is on the tail of some interstate arsonists with a penchant for black market hospital equipment. But every time he gets close to the perps, they are tipped off, a secret laboratory goes up in smoke, and bodies of five infants (always five) are found dead at the scene.

This time, though, nurse Janet Renard, a woman with a conscience, was hired by the bad guys to work at the lab. Rather than let them die, she and a friend spirit the babies away before the explosion. Rightly fearing the resources available to her erstwhile boss, she disappears off the grid, sneaking from Chicago to Oklahoma where she seeks refuge on the ranch of her estranged Uncle Leigh.

From here, the story really becomes about these children, who it turns out were genetic experiments. They begin to demonstrate superhuman/supernatural abilities at an early stage, as well as rapid aging.They're a youthful superteam-in-waiting, kind of like the X-Men, though there are no masks, capes, costumes or grandiose platitudes about "fighting crime." There's a huge, strong one, a fast one, an empath/intuitive one, a technological savant, and a berserker. The latter, Marcus, becomes the heavy-hitter in the narrative after Nick Catlin disappears through the second act. His abilities are not precisely explained, but he strikes me as a Wolverine-type character whose superhuman amp-ups work much like the TV version of the Hulk (Bixby/Ferigno) did.

The action is crisp during the first chapter. Then the novel, necessarily, shifts emphasis to character development. All these characters are human, so there's some drama and conflict you'd expect to find with real people in real life...compounded by the challenges of raising five superbeings on the down-low. Saving your property from the bank and tax man is a tall enough order without the added stress of an evil supervillain scouring the earth to find and kill you. (But am I being redundant here? Nevermind.)

The Unwanted: Book One does work toward a climax, but one which leaves plenty hanging for the next book in the trilogy. I can't be specific on chapter and verse because I'm going on a reader's subjective sensibilities here (my own, in case you were wondering), but the ending is the weakest element IMO. Daniel was careful to let his Darth Vader get away, but I didn't feel the closure of the Death Star being destroyed, either. This is my biggest gripe and, like I said, it's so subjective I can't argue it with tangible bullet points.

In summary, Daniel has written an entertaining, thought-provoking urban fantasy here, which I expect to get even more interesting, and have plenty more action, in the next two novels now that the "origin story" has been established.

Book 1 The Unwanted is available now through Amazon, Barnes & Noble,, Parable or you can simply purchase it directly from Daniel's official website via PayPal.

Friday, February 18, 2011

An Indie Adventure E-book

In coming months (and years?), I'll probably be reviewing more and more indie books here on the Two-Fisted Blog. Specifically, I'm always on the lookout for dude-lit. I've got some really cool books from my personal library I'll be touting here, some of which you may have never heard of. But I'm gonna try to give priority to indie authors who write in genres which interest me.

I've already dabbled in indies here a bit with my review of The Seventh Compass Point of Death, and Patriots: a Novel of Survival in the Coming Collapse. But much more is forthcoming.

So I'm gonna revisit my earliest days of fiction marketing for a moment.

Writing a book is kinda' like least for me it is. When you successfully stalk your game, score a clean kill and drag it back to the truck, you feel like you've really accomplished something and life is good. But all your Pavlovian salivations imagining how tasty that venison (or wild turkey, or whatever) is gonna be dries up when the reality of cleaning/gutting the animal bops you in the nose.

Earlier last year, I had a finished, published novel available for sale. It was well-written, and had little competition in a genre which appeals to what I hope is a sleeping giant of an audience. I felt I had really accomplished something. Then a stampede of adventure-starved readers found my book, bought umpteen-bazillion copies; I quit my job, was offered movie deals and merchandising opportunities (there's an action figure deal with Hasbro going through for Christmas of 2011), and now Vin Diesel won't stop leaving messages on my voice mail to please cast him as Jake McCallum in the big-budget summer blockbuster in pre-production.

April fool!

No,what happened then is that the real work started. It's been a knock-down, drag-out uphill battle getting visibility for Hell & Gone, and unlike the guest posters on Konrath's blog, I still have not cracked the code yet. I do know a lot more than when I started, though, and that's why I no longer waste time on the Amazon genre boards. That place is a morass of half a million writers trying to pimp their books to half a dozen readers. But my naive wanderings there did lead me to discover Mahko's Knife by John O'Dowd.

I clicked on a thread titled, "New West Meets Old-West Values."

Turns out that's a pretty accurate description. Having grown up in the Southwest, and hearing many a tale of Apache prowess from my father (an old cowboy and wannabe pioneer), there was a ring of truth throughout O'Dowd's manhunt story.

Mahko's knife is a Ka-Bar, by the way, like the one I still have from back in the day (it's hanging from my lowrider webgear in my profile pic, though details are nearly impossible to make out in that untactical night photo). Knife enthusiasts will prattle on about how outdated it is, but I still think it's a great knife and have never had the urge to replace it.

Said knife is to be passed down to Mahko's son, Geronimo (they are Apache) when he completes his rites of passage. Thanks to some low-life drug-dealing gang-bangers, Geronimo gets his chance to earn it independent of his father's training.

Make no mistake: ex-Ranger Mahko is a bad dude, and model of an old-school action hero, but not without his flaws and not invincible. The tough love and surreptitious raising of his son appeals to me, and probably would appeal to any man who feels shortchanged and underequipped for life by his own father. The tragedy that befell Mahko's wife, Maria, is hinted at now and then, and finally explained, but I would have enjoyed just a touch more delving into that poignant aspect of Mahko's character.

The villains were believable, and painfully human. I found it...I dunno, refreshing? charming?...that despite the barbaric behavior of some characters in this novel (making for gritty, if not gruesome, action), the budding romance between Geronimo and Laura was depicted so innocently, with a tender finesse.

While O'Dowd's storytelling ability surpasses that of most indie authors I've encountered, his text is unfortunately plagued with the typos and general lack of editing so common in indie fiction. Actually, it's increasingly common pretty much everywhere. (I don't know why, but I've become a little sloppy myself.I thought I'd gain precision with age, but I catch annoying mistakes in my drafts now that I never made when younger. Go figure.)

Last I heard of Mr. O'Dowd, there were rumors of a sequel to Mahko's Knife. Whether there is or not, this would be a solid title for your e-reader's fiction bin.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Masquerading as an Action Novel: The Hunger Games

Hello, Two-Fisted Bloggees! I'm pleased to post a review by my first guest blogger tonight. Winston Crutchfield (Mindspike)  is a podcaster and a regular contributor on the Mack Bolan forums. Here he goes:

With the aggressive promotion surrounding Suzanne Collins' trilogy of Hunger Games novels, it seems unlikely to have missed any fan of dystopian sci-fi action novels. Unfortunately, the Hunger Games trilogy only wears the trappings of sci-fi action surrounding books that are rabidly chick-lit - violent chick-lit to be certain, centering on human brutality, gladiator-style duels to the death, and culminating in a brutal urban military action.

Even given the action-novel wrapping, dudes looking for a good sci-fi, adventure, or military series will be too easily deceived by the marketing campaign. While the cover copy depicts the story as focused on the dystopian world and the inhumanity of the Hunger Games themselves, the reality is somewhat different. The stories are told from the first-person POV of a teenage girl, and predictably focuses on those things that a teenage girl finds most evocative.

"The Hunger Games" follows Katniss Everdeen into the Hunger Games, where she must fight for survival against eleven other teenagers. In the process, she comes to know love - thereby establishing the romantic triangle between herself, her friend the violent hunter, and the sensitive baker who becomes her partner in the Hunger Games. In "Catching Fire" Katniss struggles to pacify the ruling government in order to keep her family safe while she sorts out her feelings for the two boys in her life. When she goes back into the Hunger Games, she finds her feelings a source of conflict between team members in the Games. In "Mockingjay", Katniss spends the majority of the book in a state of emotional confusion, finally showing up for the climax in an emotionally charged, but physically unsatisfying conclusion. I don't feel it spoils anything to say that this book ends like most other chick-lit, with the heroine happily married and raising children.

While "The Hunger Games" reads quickly and easily enough, the remainder of the trilogy doesn't concern itself with the physical action, the political reality, or the actual process involved in rebellion and revolution, focusing instead on the feelings of the characters and how they respond to a government that actively oppresses them and a rebel leadership that cannot be trusted. If the setup sounds too good to be true for a bestselling action-adventure series, it is. This isn't really a series written for dudes. Even though it claims to be.

- Winston Crutchfield

Email Winston/Mindspike

Catch the Critical Mass Podcast

My thanks to Winston for this thoughtful analysis. It certainly has informed my opinion.

Monday, February 7, 2011

A Return to Normalcy(?)

I've finally finished a passable trailer for Hell & Gone. I also imbedded a Youtube widget here on the blog, but had to put it way down at the bottom because it wants to hog half the screen. I don't know why, but Blogger isn't letting me tweak the template/layout, either.

In other news, Virtual Pulp received a 5-star rating on Red Adept Reviews. Now that's something I never thought would happen; but it did and it boosted the Amazon rankings for a minute. Actually, for a couple of days. I'm happy to see that the trailer is making an impact on Hell & Gone sales too, though I had hoped more friends  would watch it and give me a better launch out of the gates. (Probably less than 2% of my friends--both from Facebook and real life, have bothered to click on the Youtube link.)

What all this means for you, dear readers, is that my horrendous schedule will downgrade to merely brutal. I should be able to start working on the reviews I've had in the queue soon. So more two-fisted blogging should be coming your way this week.


P.S: Oh yeah--forgot to mention above that I'll be switching publishers for the paperback version. Will be cleaning up some technical mistakes in the text, and changing the color scheme on the cover to match that of the e-book.

Regarding those mistakes in the text: The most embarrassing one has been brought to my attention by Reflexive Fire and corrected in the e-book version already. I really appreciate that. Most readers would never be the wiser but I still will feel much better once it's been purged from the print version.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

PMCs, SOFs and Mercs, Oh My!

The word for the day is "mercenary." If you can't get past the negative connotations of that word, please substitute "soldier of fortune" (SOF) or  "Private Military Contractor" (PMC).

Over on Post-Modern Pulps, Jack Badelaire has a thoughtful, intelligent post about the Expendables and another flick I haven't seen (Machete). The Expendables is a throwback action flick in which macho mercenaries happen to be the heroes of the story.

At Reflexive Fire, the other Jack reviewed Eeben Barlow's book about Executive Outcomes, the mercenary organization he founded. A good read by itself that made me want to read the book, it also has blog comments from Barlow himself, as well as Wayne Bissett, who wrote Chronicles of the Mexican Horse Thief, about his time as a merc in the early days of EO, in Angola. While I don't agree with his anti-Christian sentiments, Part 1 of Chronicles is an informative and entertaining read.

While doing the research for my novel, Hell & Gone, I studied up on 20th Century mercenaries. I unearthed paramilitary magazines from the '80s, books from the library, documentaries for the History Channel, and, of course, web pages and sites devoted to the topic. This is when I learned about Executive Outcomes--an amazingly successful paramilitary force which became a victim of politics because of their success. Their track record was even more impressive than Five Commando and the Rhodesian merc units (which themselves were far more effective than any other mercenary operations in Africa up until EO).

I explored the subject because, as I envisioned the story, the CIA's SOG teams would be busy operating in preparation for Gulf War II, and mercs would need to be used as a means of providing some "plausible deniability" of US State Department involvement in the mission. Initially I had most of Rocco's Retreads recruited through Military Personnel Resources, Incorporated, but later replaced them with a fictional PMC organization to avoid offending anyone in MPRI. Like 95% of real-life mercs, most of my characters are veterans of national armed forces who found out they are good at war, and/or like it on some disturbing primordial level.

As it turns out, I hardly used even a quarter of the research I did. Yet the topic still interests me. One day I'd like to write a novel set during the conflict in the Congo during and after the Belgian pull-out. And, of course, there's the possibility of a Hell & Gone sequel that keeps coming up, even though I never imagined one when writing the book.

Mercs have a bad name in the public perception--with good reason in some cases. With some of them it's really as simple as killing for money. But there have been some idealistic mercs, "good guy" mercs, and others who just happen to be good soldiers with no army to serve in (or allowed to serve in anymore, as happened to some SADF veterans, for instance).

During part of my training WAAAAAAAAAY back in the day, me and a whole company full of other snot-nosed kids just out of high school sat through a phony briefing by a fake Soviet officer, meant to motivate us I suppose. Anyway, this guy asked how many of us had received an enlistment bonus. To everyone who raised their hand he said, "You are nothing more than mercenaries."

The truth hurts, even when uttered by a fake Russian soldier. The majority of soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines sign on the dotted line because they want job training or college money. (As someone who joined out of patriotism primarily, I was a supreme oddball.) When it comes down to it, most of them will do whatever they're told to keep out of trouble and get that money and job training, even when it violates the Constitution they swear to defend or when they just know, deep down, that it's wrong. How is that any better than what a soldier of fortune does?