Sunday, January 29, 2012

Old School Wargaming

I consider myself lucky.  I was a wargamer back in high school in the 1970’s and it was a great time to be a wargamer.  Avalon Hill cranked out about a game a year but they were awesome.  I still enjoy Panzer Blitz though it has become harder to finder opponents over the years.  When Squad Leader first came out I went to a game convention (about 70 guys) in Kalamazoo Michigan and I got to play with John Hill, the designer.  The game was Squad Leader in miniatures – using microarmor for the tanks and the counters from the game for infantry and gear.  That was the day I learned to respect the T-34 tank.  I had him autograph my rules – how geeky is that?  Back in those days game designers had followers and Squad Leader was a fantastic game to play back in the day – before the 20 supplements and the massive binders of advanced rules.    

SPI was an incredible company who turned wargaming into a production line (of sorts).  I will never forget playing Strategy I for the first time.  One of my first game purchases ever was Strategy and Tactics magazine (The Road to Richmond).  I had entered a model contest (at the age of 16 ) and had won second place (for the record it was a 15mm SdKfz 251/1/10 and it was incredible – thank you!) and had a gift certificate for the hobby store.  I got that game and magazine combo and spent hours trying to figure out how to beat Lee on the Peninsula.

At the time it was a rocking idea, to produce a game in each issue.  My copies got read from cover-to-cover because the articles were incredibly informative.  You didn’t just get the game in each issue, you got articles to give you the context of the game.  And some of those games were fantastic designs.  I remember playing Cobra and really struggling to meet the victory conditions as the Germans mounted stiff counterattacks.  I can remember breaking out the Siege of Constantinople an playing it for hours, just so I could wrap my hands around how siege warfare of the period operated.  SPI’s games were of moderate graphic quality in term of counters – but they were well researched and highly balanced (at least most of them). 

My gaming tastes changed of course.  I still have my white boxed edition of Dungeons and Dragons and really thrilled to what RPG’s brought into the mix of gaming.  I never got into the collectable card games.  Miniatures still thrill me.  I have a ton of Flames of War minis I paint but never seem to find the time to play.  I’ll address this in a future blog. 

But in the last few years my thoughts have been going back to Strategy and Tactics.  I really enjoyed that format – a game and supporting articles.  S&T is still around, but the format leaves me wanting the good old days of SPI.  I used to like the ratings of games by genre, and the projections of the games that were forthcoming.  The “feel” of the current S&T does not have me hearken back to the good old days for some reason. 

I have recently subscribed to Against the Odds.  ATO follows the same format as the old S&T – but focuses on battles where one side struggles against incredible odds.  I have been picking up issues over the last two years and am deeply impressed with the graphics quality of the games and the in-depth articles.  More importantly, the designers are sometimes the same guys that used to impress the hell out of me when I was much younger.  I’ve become so impressed with ATO, I’ve actually penned a couple of articles for them.  That says a lot – I don’t write a lot of articles, my focus is books.

I got my first subscription issue two weeks ago and I was like a kid all over again.  This issue was the Battle of Sluys in 1340.  One of the first battles of the 100 years war, I knew nothing about this battle.  Just like when I was younger, I found myself reading the issue from cover-to-cover.  Whoever said you can’t relive your youth is wrong – at least wrong if you are a wargamer. 

If you haven’t checked out Against the Odds – do so.  S&T is still out there and worthy of a look too…I’m just stating my personal preference is ATO.  For you old school gamers, it’s a real treat worth exploring.  How does that saying go, “there’s no school like the old school?” 

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The winds of change in the publishing industry

Up until the last year or so, being a writer was a mix of pleasure and frustration.  Example:  I would get a good idea for a book.  I would write the first few chapters and an outline for the book, then I would prepare a full-blown proposal.  I would send it to my agent who would read it and decide if it was marketable – based on his knowledge of the industry. 

Sometimes the book got killed right there.  If my agent did decide to try and sell it, it might take a year and a half of him knocking on doors to either sell it or come back with rejections.  After all of that time if it didn’t sell, my agent would give up.  I’d be left with a proposal, an outline, and the start of a book.  By then, I’d already started work on the next great idea. 

This is the cycle of traditional publishing.  Writers have great ideas, sink time and effort into them, but risk rejection.  That doesn’t diminish their ideas.  It also assumes the traditional publishers know what is going to sell and have a very tight pulse on what the consumer wants.  For years we have been forced to contend with this or seek out a risky paid-for self publishing option.

I don’t want to knock traditional self-publishing, but it is hard to not do so. Most self-publishing houses and their business models stripped wannabe authors of their money and often (in the older models) left them with a garage full of books to try and sell.  Yes, I know there are some more dynamic models now – but I find that their business is more about taking money from the author than putting out a quality book.  In that model, the author often becomes disillusioned, financially drained, and frustrated. 

Those days are over folks.  Things are different thanks to Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). is changing the publishing paradigm – make no mistake about it.   What Amazon offers with Kindle Direct Publishing is a chance for an author to publish a book with no up-front costs for the Kindle.  You format the book and upload it and in a few days your book is available via for Kindle users. 

So what?  Well, there are some incredible success stories out there of people who have made a ton of money (hundreds of thousands of dollars) on books that traditional publishers and agents killed.  New authors have a venue for their ideas – and established authors can finally get those wonderful ideas that might have been rejected years ago…out the door. 

From a writer’s perspective – you no longer have to worry about a book being rejected.  If you like the idea and are committed to a quality product, your book can come out – to hell with the traditional publishers!  You say you don't own a Kindle and feel your market is narrowed by this option - wake up and smell the coffee people.  More digital books are sold than physical books now.  The Kindle is changing how people buy books too - more on that in a future blog.  Don't fight the wind - go with it! Amazon also offers a self-publish model that you can get into for almost nothing as well, if you favor physical books.  On every front, Amazon is aiming to change the stoic and stale ivory towers of traditional publishing. 

The Kindle Direct Publishing program can net the author upwards of 70% of the royalties on a book, minus some incredibly minor data size/transmission costs.  No publisher out there gets close to this.  Yes, there are some rules you have to follow to get that royalty rate, but trust me, there is gold in them thar hills!

Now, there are some downsides to this concept.  Anybody can publish a book.  That includes people who can’t string three words together.  There are some books I’ve paid for that were pure garbage, their editing had to be nonexistent.   Some are simply crap.

Once more though, is freaking brilliant.  They don’t try and weed out the horrible books.  The market does that for them.  Bad reviews protect readers from purchasing garbage.   In the meantime some very good books that normally would not make it to market are now available and the authors are making good money from them. Amazon seems content to let the market guide what sells and what doesn’t. 

This is a game-changer. is not just changing how we read books with the Kindle (more on that in a later blog).  They are altering the very nature of the publishing industry.  Agents are going to face some real pressures.  Amazon is shattering the illusion that publishers somehow mystically can pick books that sell.  The truth is they reject a lot of books that are proving to be of great entertainment and value.   Some of the publishing houses are attempting to get in on this – but it is far too little far too late. 

I’ve been researching and following this trend for the last year or so and trust me, the world of publishing is changing and Amazon is making that happen.  It’s an exciting time to be a writer.  I am going to be leveraging this program in the coming months myself.  I have a few books I know are fantastic in their market, but have been rejected by agents and publishers alike.  I’ve hired an editor and an artist (for the cover) and I’m jumping into this pond.  I will share with you my experiences, good and bad, as I go through this process. 

Some tips I have already learned in my research that I share for my fellow authors:

You really do need to have a good story to begin with.  Duh.  Have some brutally honest friends give you feedback before you embarrass yourself.  Let them read it and tell you if it is any good or not.  Be prepared to make changes. Now, more than ever, the market is going to guide what works and what doesn’t in this new model. 

You have to know the market you are writing for.   While this should go without saying, you’d be surprised how many first timers attempt to write for a market where they don’t know the proverbial landscape.  This means knowing who your reader/audience is, what they expect, and ensuring your book delivers them what they want. 

Hire a book editor.  Sorry, having Aunt Martha reading your book doesn’t count.  The biggest complaint that readers have about KDP books is that many authors don’t hire editors to improve their books.  Yes, it will cost you some cash up-front; it is also money well-spent. 

Covers do count.  Even the thumbnail of the counter on helps draw in people.  KDP has a cover building application.  I suggest finding an artist that can come up with a cover that looks like other books in the market – not some home-done attempt at art. You can spot a self-done cover pretty quickly.  Get a professional – it is worth it. 

You still have to market and promote your book.  Don’t think you can just sit back and that the money will come to you in wheelbarrows.  Even the big publishing houses don’t do a good job any more in promoting books – so you have to be proactive in promoting yourself and your work.  It’s the part of being an author that none of us like but is required. 

The publishing world is changing folks.  You can either be a part of it or watch it pass you by.  I for one intend to try it out.  Who knows, maybe I'm wrong....but I'm willing to try it and find out for myself rather than sit back and watch from the sidelines.  I will keep you posted as I move through this process - so stay tuned!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Twilight of the Clans that Never Was

Okay, now picture this without the 'Mech and a warship instead...

I’ve told this story before at Gen Con but never in my blog.  This is the story of the original first story of the BattleTech book set, Twilight of the Clans.  For people who write novels in a shared universe, or writers in general, this is a story to help you see some of the thought process that went into a big event in the BattleTech universe. 

When this idea was first floated up, Sam Lewis told me, “We’re going to take the fight to the Clans and wrap this phase of the universe.”  Prior to the Gen Con BattleTech summit, we were given preliminary assignments.  Somehow I got the first book of the set.  My job, “pave the way for the Inner Sphere to get to the Clan homeworlds.”  Bill Keith was to follow me with a two book set about the attack.  Mike was to tie the bow on the entire affair. 

The BattleTech summits were really just meals with the authors where we could brainstorm ideas, talk about the next year’s products etc.  I always got a chuckle watching the serving staff bring us our food while we talked about how we could kill Melissa Steiner-Davion.  They must have thought we were crazy – but then again, it was Milwaukee and Gen Con…they probably just ignored us. 

The original plan I came up with was to hijack a Clan warship and take the information of the route to the homeworlds from their navcomputer.  That was what I drafted at least.  There was a ground battle at a spaceport (you had to have some ‘Mech combat after all) then the team would make their way to the ship in orbit, seize her in a furious shipboard battle against Elementals – and the route to the Clan homeworlds would belong to the Inner Sphere.  I called it Exodus Road, the route back along Kerensky’s exodus route.

There were flaws with the idea in terms of a novel.  One was that it was going to lack cool ‘Mech battles which were the mainstay of the novels at the time.  That made everyone, including me, a little nervous.  At the same time it would get us onto a warship which opened up some cool possibilities. 

To execute this book I had to map the Clan homeworlds (an honor I might add) and map out the planet that Bill would be attacking.  The map I drew up was originally for Strana Mechty.  My thinking (and Bill’s at the time) was that we would be hitting that planet for the main assault. 

Bill came up with a great idea for the attack – one he shared with me and I was allowed to contribute to (albeit in a minor way).  The Inner Sphere fleet would jump on Strana Mechty.   Their target, the Clan’s central genetic repository which was a massive pyramid.  The premise he floated was that the Clans kept all of their genetic material in one secure location, never really fearing an external attack.

The assault would come in several parts.  One DEST team was going to seize Kerensky’s flagship (which held his coffin) orbiting the world and use it to augment the planetary bombardment.  This was my little contribution to all of this – I loved the idea of using the McKenna’s Pride to bombard the Clans.  The rest of the forces would drop on the pyramid and take it.  Holding their precious genes they would force the Clans to submit.  Sure it was blackmail, but it would work…I was sure of it. 

But we all know that the Clans would come in – with everything they had.  The battle would be horrific.  In the end the Inner Sphere would beat the clans (thanks to the bidding system) but the losses would spell the end of the Gray Death Legion (Bill told me that Gray would simply walk off into the jungles, horrified at the level of war he was forced to unleash).  Holding the Clan genes as a bartering chip, they would force the Clans into eventual submission. 

Bill and I both thought it was awesome.  And to this day, I still think so. 

But at the breakfast summit we bounced the ideas off the other writers.  Sam Lewis and others were concerned about my thought of simply stealing the map of the Exodus Road from a warship.  As I remember it, “Blaine, the Clans wouldn’t be that stupid.”  (Notice that he didn’t say they weren’t stupid in general – just not that stupid.)  I preferred to think of it as arrogance on their part, but ultimately Sam said, “Let’s make it a traitor to the Clans that betrays them.”  Thus the concept of Trent was born in a hotel restaurant in Milwaukee.  I remember thinking, “oh boy (sarcasm) a traitor as the lead character in a book.  Yeah, people will bond with that guy.” 

Mike Stackpole, (if I remember correctly) suggested that we didn’t have to go after all of the Clans, we needed to wipe out one of them.  There was some discussion about which one we should target too – a fairly active debate.  Ultimately the Smoke Jaguars were chosen as the sacrificial lambs of the Clans.  So, my map of Strana Mechty was changed, albeit slightly, to become Huntress – the new target of the assault. 

Bill’s thinking of the genetic repository seemed sound but there was a lot of debate that the Clans wouldn’t keep their genes in one place.  There was some logic in that – but we were talking the Clans.  Logic alone didn’t work with these folks.  Bill pointed out that going after one Clan didn’t make sense.  The Clans would clamor for a chance to wipe out the Inner Sphere task force.  Holding their genetic material as hostage seemed to be good way to blunt all of the Clans pouncing on the Inner Spherers.  Politics, it was decided, would leave the Smoke Jaguars isolated and forced to fight alone. 

Bill’s invasion obviously had to change as a result of all of this.  Bill never complained to me but I think he was pretty disappointed.  He had really mapped things out pretty well.  It is hard sometimes to work in a shared universe.  Bear in mind I was still trying to figure out how I could make a Smoke Jaguar turn traitor.  Bill ended up taking a pass on doing the novels.  The Gray Death Legion didn’t die on Strana Mechty – it clung on for several more years. 

Some things did get reused, though in different ways.  I loved what we came up with about stealing General Kerensky’s flagship (McKenna’s Pride) and using it to bomb the planet.  So, when I did Betrayal of Ideals (the infamous Wolverine saga) I leveraged the scene and finally got it into print.  That little scene is a private tribute to Bill Keith. 

I liked the final product of the Twilight Series with one minor exception, how Trent was dealt with. Mike and I sent some emails back and forth about the scene.  He argued strongly that Victor would never fully like or trust Trent.  I felt that made Victor a little two dimensional.  Trent was a man of honor just like Victor.  In the end, Trent’s alleged demise seemed somehow inappropriate.  (Don’t worry folks, I laid a plan to resolve this several years ago – you will one day see this in a slightly different perspective.) 

So there you have it, a nugget of BattleTech history.  What are your thoughts?  Would you have liked the story that was originally proposed?

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Is True Crime History?

This spring I’m adding true crime to the genres I write in.  My book Secret Witness which comes out in April, is my first foray into this class of books.  I have written business, science fiction and military history thus far in my writing career.  I have always enjoyed reading true crime books so this was not a stretch for me. 

It was also easy because for the last few years of writing military history, there was almost no difference in writing true crime.  Almost…

From a purely researching and writing perspective – true crime books are no different than writing history books.  You need to get to primary sources, you organize your findings accordingly, and the writing is not different at all.  I have encountered a few people, mostly mainstream historians, who see true crime as something less than historical books.  I don’t agree with them.  In my head, these are history books – they are simply the history of specific events which lead to death or some other crime.

The structure of true crime books is different than most historical or biography works.  True crimes usually start with the horrific event – with just enough graphic tantalizing detail to draw the reader in.  There is the pursuit of the murderer, the capture, and the resolution (trial).  History books tend to do a lot more of a build up to a traditional climax.  True crimes tend to start with the climax in many regards.  Capote’s In Cold Blood, one of the first of the modern true crime books, didn’t do this – but that tends to be the exception to the rule.   

Just like with a history book, as a writer, I have to lay the context of the event out for the reader.  Secret Witness is set in Marshall Michigan in 1967.  I had to take the reader back to that time.  There were race riots in Detroit that summer – and a real fear that racial tensions would reach small towns like Marshall.  I had to delve into small-town culture as well.  If you have ever lived in a small town in America you realize they are very different places to live. 

The research is exactly the same process for both genres in terms of gathering information and organizing it.  I have to admit, I enjoy reading the typed police reports a great deal.  You really get a feel not just for the investigators themselves, but their thinking processes during the investigation.  Since I tend to write a lot of WWI books, I don’t get to interview people who were actual witnesses to events when I write military history.  When I do true crime, there are people still around who can offer me their perspectives and views. 

A significant difference in writing true crime vs. history books is the willingness of participants to have the story told.  When I was working on a book about Medal of Honor winner Frank Luke Jr. (Terror of the Autumn Skies) everyone was willing to talk to me and looked forward to the story to be told.  Not true with Secret Witness.  Out of professional courtesy I contacted members of both the victim’s and murderer’s families to: 1.  Let them know the book was being written so they wouldn’t be surprised; and 2.  Allow them a chance to offer their perspectives.  With true crime books, people prefer to let the event remain buried – they don’t necessarily want the story to be retold.  There was “resistance” – some of which I included in the book (sorry, you’ll have to read about it.)  It is perfectly understandable.  As a writer, however, I cannot let govern whether I write the book or not. 

I’m working on a new true crime book set in Battle Creek Michigan in 1963, tentatively titled A Special Kind of Evil.  This involves the unsolved brutal stabbing murder of Daisy Zick in Wattles Park.  Now this book will have to break more an a few true crime rules.  First off, there was no capture and trial of the guilty party.  Having crawled through the police files on the case and doing several interviews with people connected to the crime, I know the police had narrowed their suspects down to one or two people.  Getting the evidence to prove that is something they are still pursuing – even now, almost 50 years after the crime.  As a writer this is going to make me break with the traditional true crime genre format – which is proving both challenging and fun.

So, what do you think?  Is true crime really just a variation of history book?   

Sunday, January 1, 2012

My Predictions For 2012

I am not a psychic nor do I place any weight in prophesies or predictions.   I don’t place the burden on myself of annual resolutions since I’ve found they are pointless for me.  My predictions are intended to be read tongue-in-cheek.  I’m confident that you will not see me as a great seer or savant.  Here we go:

The economy will get better – slowly.  The things that caused the economic collapse took years to be put in place.  Likewise recovery is going to be slow and ponderous.  It wasn’t just the greed on Wall Street that led to the collapse – it was also the greed on main street (as much as people don’t want to admit it.)  Realistically the economy will not get better in our country until the horrors of the 2012 election are over.    

The world will not end on December 21-23 2012.  If the Mayans could predict the end of the world, why didn’t they spot the end of their own empire?  Simple answer, they couldn’t predict squat.  For the people that are anticipating the end of the universe in December of 2012, feel free to give me your money and stuff. 

Nature will be a harsh mistress.  This was easy to predict.  There will be fires in California – followed months later with mudslides.  Snow will happen and we will all watch the news as cars slide into each other.  A hurricane or two will slam into the US – complete with the obligatory footage of Jim Cantore and Al Roker standing in the high winds to demonstrate that, to our surprise, winds accompany hurricanes.  Tornados will attack at least three mobile home parks in the spring.  An earthquake will happen so we can see the scientist being interviewed that he/she had predicted it was going to happen (it would have been nice if you had warned us in advance asshole.)

The Occupy Movement will either disintegrate or turn violent.  Images of 1968 Chicago make me wonder if that is what we will be facing this summer.  The Occupy Movement has proven thus far that their protests are uncoordinated, unorchestrated, cluster-fu*ks.  Their only real solution is to either dissolve or take it to the next level and become violent.  With two political conventions this summer, things have the potential to be entertaining. 

The European financial crisis will continue.  Could this be the end of the EU?  Everyone is so focused on Greece that they don’t realize there are three other countries that are close to collapse too. 

Iran is going to suffer some sort of attack/“accident” at their nuclear facilities.  Let’s face it, no one is happy about this country possessing an atomic bomb.  I’d be more comfortable with Stewie Griffin having one rather than this country.  Someone will make sure they don’t keep this capability. 

Lindsey Lohan will have “issues.”  Rehab again?  Sure, the tenth time is bound to be the charm.  Why is this person in the news anyway?  Her movies suck.  She will either hit bottom and turn things around or end up in a body bag.  Oddly enough, I find myself not caring either way. 

Middle East peace will not happen.  Again, I chose a safe prediction here.  Centuries of conflict will not be resolved this year. 

Gold prices will plummet.  Impossible you say?  All I know is that the price has climbed too dramatically over time.  I got a B in Economics but even I know an overinflated balloon when I see one.  Remember the housing market and how people whined it could never drop?  Can you say, “Kaboom?”  Gold is going to take a hit at some point and there will be a lot of people sitting there saying, “how could this have happened to me?”

The Kardashians will find new ways to get into the press.  Won’t these people simply die?  These people represent everything that is wrong with our country – arrogance, focus on the media, false adulation, etc.  I am confident we have not heard the end of them – sorry. 

The election will bore all of us to death…and then will get entertaining.  Can you say third party candidate?  We are already tiring of the talk of the election.  None of the candidates, including the incumbent are appealing.  This opens the door to a potential third party for the first time in years. 

Even if a third party doesn’t emerge, this entire process will prove exhausting for the American people.  We don’t all agree on anything which means all of the candidates are unappealing.  While it seems possible that Obama might only serve one term, I never underestimate the capability of the Republican Party to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. 

America will become more divided.  We have so many divisions it is hard to document all of them.  The burden of being middle class is going to be the breaking point of our nation if not addressed.  As a nation, we lack focus and even general agreement on what to do.  This opens the door for evil thoughts and actions. 

I will have at least three books out this year.  Secret Witness will be out in April.  This summer will be the long-awaited release of Virginia Creeper and The Rules:  The Cynic’s Guide to the Corporate Overlords, will be out.  Not bad for half a year.

There you have it!  Feel free to add comments and include your own predictions to the list.