Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Pod people

I'm a huge fan of 1950s science fiction movies. You know, the ones that are usually in black & white and are maybe "B" movies? However, some rise above the "B" status, and the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of them. I usually watch it on DVD about once a year, in fact I might be due . . . 


In the movie, aliens take over a California town through the use of "pods," thus the cultural term "pod people." My wife simply can't stand the pods, especially when they start to form humans, and they truly creep her out.

On one of the main roads we travel here in our city is a manufacturing company. This company instituted a new policy a few years ago that forbids smoking anywhere on the company property, which includes the parking lot. So smokers can't just go to their cars and light up.

We were driving by the gigantic parking lot one day right after the new policy went into effect, and there were about a dozen or more people standing on the public sidewalk, smoking. It was a cold, dreary winter day and they were huddled together wearing their heavy coats. Clouds of breath and smoke hovered over their heads.

I quickly said the first thing that came to mind: "Oh, look, it's the pod people!"

My wife laughed so hard . . . it was sure worth it. Now, every time we drive by and see folks on the sidewalk, I'm obliged to say, "Oh, look, it's the pod people!" Works every time.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

A little bit about my writing history Part 3 (conclusion) – The road to self-publishing

When we lived in northeast Kansas, I coached scholastic chess from 1993 to 2000. My son was the trigger for that. We lived in a small town of about 1,100 people, yet we had a Saturday chess club of about 8 to 10 players. The players eventually became strong enough that the team won 2nd place at the Kansas State Championship tournament . . . twice. They beat out teams from much larger schools from cities like Kansas City, KS, Wichita, Topeka, and Lawrence. When we moved to Iowa in 2000 due to the Quaker Oats plant in St. Joseph, MO closing, and I transferred to Cedar Rapids, my son was going into the 10th grade. We didn’t continue with chess because at that time, there were very few scholastic tournaments in Iowa. I only played in a few tournaments myself. I’m back to coaching and have been coaching since 2009, inspired to return to it by writing the chess book (below).

In early 2009, my wife told me I should write a book about coaching chess so people could learn from my successful coaching experiences. That was very exciting and I started writing it on February 1, 2009. My original intent was to write a book about how to coach a scholastic chess club, but not to get mired down in having a section on how to teach players the game. It wasn’t long before I realized you couldn’t have one without the other.

I used the same Excel spreadsheet template I’d used for the two novels, with some changes, of course, since this was nonfiction. Worked great, though. While working on the book, I was also researching how you “pitch” a non-fiction book. The process is quite different from a novel. For a novel, it’s a gigantic no-no to try to land an agent without first finishing the book. For non-fiction, the reverse is the norm. You pitch the book with a three chapter sample, an outline, and where the book will fit in the market. Sort of like what makes your book so special?

Somewhere along the line, I’d also started researching self-publishing. At that time, self-publishing, also known these days as indie (independent) publishing, was still carrying a stigma that the writer was “not good enough” for the traditional publishers. I think a large part of this was due to two things: 1) people thought it was the same thing as “vanity” publishing, which it most certainly is NOT. More on this in a second. And 2) Few people believed the quality of the self-published books was very good. Back to vanity publishing: this is where YOU pay a company to publish your book. They offer “services” like editing and book covers, but you pay them for each service including the actual printing. You typically have to order quite a few copies of the book. As a general rule, self-published writers take the position that we should never pay someone to publish our books. Paying someone to edit our books and / or to create our covers is okay and is considered a cost of our publishing the book.

Back to the chess book, which ended up having the rather lengthy title of Chess Handbook for Parents and Coaches. Those were the two target audiences. The first half of the book helps a person teach a student (or child) how to play the game. It’s based on how I taught many kids to play. It includes the benefits of playing chess. The second half of the book is about the world of chess: the United States Chess Federation (USCF), famous players, world champions, how to start and run a scholastic chess club, how to prepare for a tournament, and what actually happens at a tournament. How to help players during a tournament, but not during a game, which is expressly forbidden by the rules of chess.

I finished the book and used Amazon’s CreateSpace to publish the paperback in early August, 2010. I had done it! I had published a book. Whoo hoo! I really didn’t do any marketing and I sold a few books a month for some time. I contacted the USCF, which has a great online store (www.uscfsales.com) for all things chess, and they agreed to buy six books on consignment. If they sold, then they would reorder. I’m happy to say I get orders from them every year. I also sell to www.wholsesalechess.com every year.

Meanwhile back at the ranch . . . I figured if I couldn’t land an agent for Operation Devil’s Fire, why not publish it myself? I finally did that for the paperback in July the next year, on 7/11/11. Again I sold a few a month, sometimes only one. Sometimes only zero. I also had figured out how to publish for Kindle and did that a few weeks later (7/23/11). I did absolutely no research on Kindle pricing for WWII books, so I just picked $4.95, thinking that was an okay price. It sold just as many as the paperback, sometimes zero.

This disheartening lack of sales continued into January, 2012, when it finally occurred to me that maybe I should see how much other Kindle WWII novels were actually selling for. Well, that turned out to be both a smart thing to do and an embarrassing thing (that I hadn’t done it back in July!). Almost all of the WWII novels were selling for $0.99. Less than a dollar. I didn’t even have to think about it, I mean what did I have to lose? Zero x $4.95 was still zero. So I changed the price and let it go.

It sold a few in February and March, and a few more in April (remember, this is 2012). Then in May it sold more than a few. I got excited, but figured it was due to Memorial Day coming up. But sales kept climbing into June. Then July shot through the roof. Then August through November all doubled July. The book was in two categories. All 9 books are in the same ones: War and Military. Operation Devil’s Fire’s ranking peaked at #7 in the War category, and somewhere around #1,300 in Paid in Kindle Store!

I could hardly believe my good fortune. A book turned down by 50 agents was selling! I was getting good reviews and very kind emails from readers, some of whom shared their personal stories about WWII such as their family members who served.

During June, 2012, when the numbers per day were really climbing, my wife and I started a nightly tradition: just before bedtime, I would check the total sales for the day (and yes, I used Excel, and still do, to track these numbers) and give her the number. We’d stare at each other in disbelief and then grin. I felt then, and still do now, very humbled by the success of the books and grateful for readers’ support.

In July, 2012, I decided to shelve a modern-day thriller I’d been working on because of what was happening with Operation Devil’s Fire. I still really like that story, and may someday finish and publish it. Anyway, I started writing Behind German Lines in August, which I finished on June 23, 2013, so a little less than a year. It was published on October 25th.

So that’s my writing story. Not all glorious, but I learned what to do, when to do it, became a disciplined writer, and wrote books that I loved writing for readers who enjoyed them. I had perhaps tripped and fallen into my niche, WWII novels. And I was thrilled because I love WWII history and I’ve shown you how that came to be in earlier posts.

Here’s a list of all my books, the date each was published, and how many calendar days elapsed between publication dates.

* Remember, I started writing the book on 1/4/2004, so it actually took 7.6 years to get it published.

** I retired from my day job on this date! Note that the frequency really jumped after that. My goal had been to hit three per year and I’ve done that.

I’ll be forever grateful to my wife for suggesting I write the chess book. With that idea, she is responsible for everything that came to pass with the Sgt. Dunn Novels. She also provides me with encouragement for each book, as well as being an editor.

I hope you enjoyed a little peek into my writing life. If you’re a reader of the Sgt. Dunn Novels, please accept my heartfelt thanks for your support! If you’re a writer, I hope you can draw some inspiration to persevere, and learn from some of the things I did.

The main thing is be disciplined. This means writing every day. This means writing when you don’t feel like it. This means write what you love.

Thanks for stopping by!

Monday, April 16, 2018

Scary things Part III

So maybe you've already read my Scary things Parts I & II. Here's another from 2010. I'm not sure now if I should keep posting these since I probably look a bit like a scaredy-cat. All I can say, is I'm not normally a jumpy guy, but these things really got me.

My wife and I went to Two Harbors, MN for a week in August of 2010. Absolutely, stunningly, beautiful around Lake Superior. I put some pics below. We went out driving, heading north on Highway 2 out of Two Harbors. I should point out that it was about 10 am. We drove 25 miles and the road hit a T-intersection. We turned right and followed Highway 11 for 0.6 of a mile and turned left onto U.S. Forest Service Highway 15, going north. A white cargo van, which has been behind us for awhile, had turned right, and then left, still following us. It was the only other vehicle we'd seen for miles And so it began.

This road was narrow, with the blacktop edging right up against the trees in some places. The trees hung over the roadway in places.

Pics from Google Maps

The van kept pace and I got creeped out. Too many Stephen King novels I guess. Suddenly, ahead there was a little picnic area. I turned on my turn signal. The van slowed. I turned off. The van kept on going north! Thank God!

I did all this without letting my wife know what was spinning around in my noggin. So I survived the moment and enjoyed the rest of the day.

Here are some of my own pics from that trip.

From the top of Palisades Head

The 1001 foot long Edgar Speer
Tid bit fact

Two Harbors is north of Duluth, MN. The Great Lakes ship Arthur M. Anderson departed from Two Harbors and joined the ill-fated Edmund Fitzgerald in a trip across Lake Superior. A trip which the Fitzgerald did not survive. Gordon Lightfoot sang a wonderful song about the wreck.


Friday, April 6, 2018

A little bit about my writing history - Part 2

How I decided on WWII novels

I grew up watching all the WWII movies I could find on TV on our old black and white, we never had a color TV. The TV shows Combat (1962 – 67), 12 O’clock High (1964 – 67), and The Rat Patrol (1966 – 68) were a weekly staple. Some of my relatives served during WWII. My mom had a box of various brass, patches and stripes that I examined endlessly. I memorized the navy’s ranks, both enlisted and officers. She had been in the Coast Guard from 1944-46. She gave me a copy of the navy’s nearly 600 page training manual published in 1944, called The Bluejackets’ Manual – 1944, Twelfth Edition. I actually read the entire thing! I still have it in my book collection. The inside of the front cover is inscribed by mom in her beautiful cursive:

Oct. 20, 1944

Billet 614 Co. 272
U.S.C.G. Training
Palm Beach, Florida
U.S.S. Biltmore
(The Biltmore Hotel was used by the Coast Guard for SPARS training in 1943 & 44)

Below her inscription, I printed in my 8th grade hand:

Ronald Munsterman
1215 E. 36th Street
K.C. Missouri

In the 5th grade, through the Scholastic Books program at school, I bought Robb White’s excellent Up Periscope, which was later made into a movie starring James Garner. A couple of years ago, I bought another copy of it and read it all over again. Great story.

I once saved my weekly allowance (35 cents!) long enough to buy a toy kit that included an army helmet and a Thompson .45 submachine gun (caps) complete with a charging handle. I think I shot up every car in the neighborhood (Armour Blvd. and Forest Ave., Kansas City, MO.)

So, yes, I was fascinated by everything to do with WWII.

How I picked Sgt. Tom Dunn as my main character

In the fall of 2003, when I was working on coming up with an idea for a novel, I already knew it would be set in WWII. That was never a question. At first, I considered making the main character a member of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), who would, after the war, become a member of the newly formed CIA. I discarded that idea pretty fast because I wasn’t that interested in writing a “spy” book. The very next idea took roots and stuck. A soldier. Not an officer – there are lots of books on officers. A sergeant. Hm, a Ranger! A Ranger who went on secret missions! A whole squad of them. As for the sergeant, he became our beloved Tom Dunn.

I began searching for a plot. I watched an episode on the History channel that introduced me to the Horten Brothers, the brilliant German aeronautical engineers. They had developed a jet plane and were working on a bomber that would have the range to reach the United States. In the span of about ten seconds I had the plot for Operation Devil’s Fire: the Nazis had a jet bomber and an atomic bomb.

I started writing the book in January, 2004. However, because I was an undisciplined writer I made sporadic progress. I wrote exactly 2,569 words in 6 days. Yay me! Then I went 2 months without writing at all. This became my pattern. I stopped writing the book on May 8, 2005, a year and 2 months later and was only 38% done. Not very earth shattering.

Why Operation Devil's Fire was NOT the first novel I finished writing

My wife came up with an idea for a modern day thriller (about a serial killer), which I really liked and fleshed out by early June, 2005, a month later. This was why I had stopped working on ODF. I finished the first draft of that book, called Border Gap, on February 3, 2006, just under 8 months later. The difference? I made myself stick to a daily word count of 600 (about 2 book pages) that I had to hit. If I missed it, I had to make it sometime before the writing week (Sunday – Saturday) was over. My average daily word count was 676 over that period. I had learned writing discipline! By the way, at the time, I was working 50 hours a week and traveling back and forth to Chicago for another 9 hours a week.

The pain of trying to find an agent

From late April, 2006 through March, 2007 I sent 70 query letters to agents for Border Gap. A query letter is one page and briefly introduces you and the book for which you’re asking representation. You specifically ask the agent if you may send them a partial manuscript (about 50 pages). I received exactly one request for the partial. The rest were either rejections or I received no answer whatsoever from the agent. Grr.

I sent the partial on and hoped. The agency in question was a husband-wife team. My hopes were eventually dashed when they wrote back declining further interest. However, they had both read it and they finished their rejection email to me with:

“We agree that you have good, strong talent. Keep writing. Keep polishing your work. Best of luck.”

Well, okay, cool. Something’s not quite right with my writing, but it shows promise.

Holy crap!

I knew I had a choice: I could be angry with them for rejecting my masterpiece, or I could take to heart what they’d said. So I re-read the opening pages of my manuscript. It had been perhaps a month since I last did that. I finished the first page, which introduced the victim, a young woman. It was great! Then I got to the exciting part of the opening where the killer strikes for the first time. My eyeballs practically popped out of my head. In the paragraph describing the killing, I had started 6 (six!) consecutive sentences with the word “He.” Palm plant. Holy crap! How did I miss that? Now I saw what they saw. Raw, but unpolished, talent.

Back to Operation Devil’s Fire

While working on all the damn query letters, I started writing on ODF again. From May 29, 2006 through October 7, 2006 (132 days, 4 ½ months) I wrote an average of 675 words a day, almost identical to my work on Border Gap! By the way, both books were in the 100,000 word range. My discipline was holding up. I had written 2/3 of the book in 25% of the time it had taken for the first 1/3.

From January 2, 2007 to October 19, 2007, I sent out 50 query letters and, again, received exactly one request for the partial manuscript. I heard back from the agent the very next day. “I'm afraid this didn't come across as something that would work for us commercially.”

Well, hell. Now what?
Three years.
Two novels.
And nothing to show for it.

Then comes another idea from my brilliant wife. Which led us directly to 9 Sgt. Dunn novels, with number 10 in the works.

Thanks for stopping by.

Coming next: Part 3 – The road to self-publishing. 

Friday, March 30, 2018

Very important plumbing repair tip

Watch the Youtube video BEFORE going to the hardware store and buying the wrong part.

After I got the right part, it took all of 5 minutes to complete the repair.


Here's a screen shot from the Youtube video. I was disappointed: my new washers weren't blue. Just plain black. As if I'd ever see them until the faucet begins leaking again in 10 years.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

A little bit about my writing history - Part 1

I was reflecting on my writing history today and decided I would share it with you.

I wrote my first short story in the 9th grade for a Literary Club contest. It was a horrible story about a teenager winning an auto drag race. It did NOT win anything. I might actually have a copy somewhere. Maybe I should frame it and entitle it "What not to do!"

I didn't write another one until I was 25. I submitted my first one at age 28 to a science fiction magazine - it was rejected. I sold my first one at age 51 ("He Wasn't Always Old"). I published the first of ten books at age 58.

From 1991 to 2003, when I sold HWAO, I had written about 30 short stories, all but two science fiction. I submitted about four or five and sold two, neither of which were science fiction.

The realization that I was not a science fiction writer finally hit me, and I moved on rather than trying squeeze the square peg into a round hole. In the fall of 2003, just before HWAO sold, I had already decided to write a novel. I had no idea how to do that, so I bought The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing, written by Evan Marshall, and read both the book and the workbook.

I felt I was almost ready. I read Ken Follet's excellent WWII book, Hornet Flight. I wanted to see how Follet handled point of view, so I charted the entire book noting which character was the POV for each chapter. Then I counted how many and what percentage of the total each character had. This knowledge, combined with Marshall's nice plotting "plan," gave me my personalized framework I used to plot (in Excel) my first novel, Operation Devil's Fire, which by the way had a terrible working title of The Threat Of Horten 18. Yikes!

I still use the same version of the plot plan I devised in 2003 because it works for me.

Part 2 Coming soon: How I decided on WWII novels, how I picked Sgt. Tom Dunn as my main character. Why Operation Devil's Fire was NOT the first novel I finished writing. The pain of trying to find an agent. How ODF became the first novel I published.

Thanks for stopping by.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Scary things Part II

I recently posted about watching something scary on TV and then going out at night to walk my dog.

Here's something funny (now) my wife did to me about 20 years ago.


I love science fiction movies, and as a kid watched them on TV on Friday nights (10:30 pm). One movie that scared me as an eight year old boy (same year I saw The Time Machine) was IT! The Terror From Beyond Space. It featured a monster who got aboard a rescue craft on Mars. On the way home it started capturing some of the crew and hiding them for nourishment later. One scene showed a crewman who'd been put in an air vent tunnel. His eyes had black raccoon circles and he was terrifying!

Fast forward to the nineties. 

I found the movie on TV and sat down with my son, who was about nine at the time, to watch it. It was the first time since I was a kid.

More background

Ever since we first knew each other, my wife had always tried to spook me by hiding behind doors and such and yelling Boo!. I'm not very jumpy, so it NEVER worked, to her disappointment.

Fast forward to the nineties. 

My chair faced the TV and had a door behind it that led to the foyer. You could enter the foyer from that door, or the one in the dining room. My son sat to my right on a small sofa. He could see into both the dining room and the foyer.

When the movie got to a scary part, my loving wife quietly opened the door behind me and shrieked, "Boo!"

Evidently, I jumped about three feet in the air. My son, who had seen my wife sneaking through the dining room and had said NOTHING, hooted with pleasure and my wife chortled to her heart's content. "I got you!"

Yep. You did. Is that my heart beating?

They still bring it up now and again, so I thought I'd share with you.

Lesson: When watching scary shows, don't have the door behind you.

Real-time Earth and Moon phase