Monday, January 15, 2018

The Facebook Purgatory of Michael Yon

An historical photo of Michael Yon. The New York Times said that no other journalist spent more time in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yon prefers to be described as a writer. 

Missing the incisive commentary of my brother, Michael Yon, whom Facebook banned from its platform for 30 days. His thoughtcrime? He made some comment about the Korean comfort women issue, an issue that he dominates. Nobody knows more about that dispute, that Chinese information op, than Michael Yon. 

Michael Yon brings eyeballs to Facebook, he has more than 637,000 Likes on his page. Yon earned those eyeballs the hard way, in combat, in Afghanistan and Iraq, shooting iconic photos and writing unsettling, precise analysis. 

Yon talks to everybody. He talks to Prime Ministers, to Secretaries of Defense, to grunts, to me, to everybody. And he sets an example for fairness and evenhanded discourse that I try to follow and fail. It was Yon who told me to stop swearing in my posts. I grumbled, but as I observed, attuned to the issue after he focused me on it, I realized that he was right. Again. 

Yon is often right. He talks about issues big and small, and he is often right. He and I do not agree all the time, but Mike listens, and if you can handle his response, he will teach you something that you did not know before. 

I asked him what his thoughtcrime was, and he said that he was discussing the Korean comfort women issue. I cannot imagine what he possibly said, what he possibly could say, that would merit a 30 day ban from Facebook. 

This just underscores how despicable social media is becoming. The behemoths of social media, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, increasingly enforce thoughtcrime standards on us all, primarily suppressing conservative commentary. Even on my own page, the suppression is obvious. 

I often call for social media to be regulated like any other communications utility. More and more of us use social media as our primary means of staying in touch with everybody and everything on a daily basis. As much as I dislike Facebook, and I do dislike it, I still end up writing on Facebook everyday, for an artificially suppressed audience. 

That is partly one reason why I do it. Because to hell with them. They can suppress us, they can use their fake algorithms to marginalize our points of view, but they will never succeed in shutting us up. 

When Facebook bans somebody like Mike Yon for 30 days, they expose themselves, they expose their dictatorial values, and they confirm that they are unworthy of so much control. Who are these Silicon Valley idealists to impose their values on us? 

We disagree. We see our world another way. We are entitled to hold our views, we are entitled to express our views, and no Silicon Valley twerp will ever throttle us. 

My guess is that the disgust that I feel for Facebook will continue to grow, it will spread, more of us will feel it, and eventually, at some future point, that rejection will culminate in a great correction. 

They got it coming to them. 

This post was originally a rant on my Facebook page. 

Mike Yon and I walking off Soi 20 in Bangkok, 2017. 

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Slow Motion Death of Traditional Publishing

The banner ad for A Tale of the Grenada Raiders that my Ranger brother John Czarnecki made for me. For sale on Amazon, iBooks, and now, on GooglePlay. You can also read this book on GoogleBooks. I am working on a print edition on GooglePlay and an AudioBook version. 

"Technology makes publishing houses redundant. Publishers are now under siege, and Amazon is poaching their income streams."

As I wrote my first book, a war memoir, it dawned on me that a default format for war memoirs emerged over time. I read a million of them, just like you. 

I could have written this book following that template, I could have written my memoir just like everybody else's war memoir, but honestly: Grenada was 34 years ago, it was a minor intervention in the greater scheme of geopolitics, and nobody cares what happened there anymore except for the protagonists. 

So I could not write a conventional war memoir. It would be boring, lost in a sea of Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq memoirs, and nobody would read it. 

So I wrote this one my way, and as I wrote it, I wondered if anybody would get it, or if readers would even notice that I wrote this memoir differently. 

I am surprised to see that almost every reviewing reader on the Amazon page did indeed get it. Some more than others, but not one reviewer, not one reader, complained that I broke rules writing this book. 

A few of the reviewers really got it. They picked up on what I tried to do. We all read war memoirs. This one is different. 

As I write this article, the book is now up to 39 reviews on Amazon, all 5-stars. Some of those reviews were written by folks who should be writing their own books. Some of the reviewers are famous within the special ops community. Most of them are veterans. 

Bridget approves of my book, in both softcover and Kindle versions. Bridget's human, my bro Brian, is a civilian test reader. He gave me priceless feedback on early drafts. 

A few civilians also read the book, I am always astonished when civilians read what I write, but their feedback can be eye opening. 

One reviewer whom I do not know personally, Ms. Jeanette Beardsley, wrote this review
It has taken some time to fully digest. It is a book like no other on your shelf. The physical size, the text sizing, the layout, the photography alone make it a surrealistic pleasure to hold, a work of art. Unique in writing style, impossible to compare to another author, I can only place him in the haze between Stephen Crane and Michael Herr. It's essence can only be felt in its printed form, and is difficult to describe intellectually. Only a Ranger could produce a work where Beauty, Suffering, and Menace converge like this.
I can never explain how gratifying a review like that is. You never know what is going to happen when you publish a book. You dread the inevitable criticism, the nitpicking, the comparisons, and most of all, the unsolicited "advice" from more experienced writers and those who style themselves as "editors." 

One editor told me, "everybody needs an editor," apparently oblivious that this opinion puts food on his dinner table. He desperately wants that opinion to be true. 

It is not universally true, not all writers in fact do need an editor, but he can never admit that, as admitting that some writers need only light editing and others need none would undermine his relevance. Everybody likes to be indispensable, and everybody wants to put food on the table. 

Then that editor made observations about my book that confirmed that he scanned the text, at best, and its deeper layers of meaning went straight over his head. This is an editor who pays his rent by massaging memoirs into that same old tired default format that I repudiated. 

Not surprising, his critiques were diametric to my intentions, and I realized that publishing this book through traditional channels would expose me to vampires like him. 

So that is one benefit of self-publishing. There is no need to tussle with editors and proofreaders, justifying your approach, your organization, your word choices, or your writing style. 

While many writers can benefit from a fresh set of eyes on their manuscript, those alternate eyes were never mandatory, and readers more than ever are now the ultimate arbiters of your success as a writer--or your failure. 

I gave this book almost a year in the hands of an agent. I am sure that he never looked at it. But while it was in his hands, I was honor-bound not to send it to any other agents.

Who made up that lousy convention? It only benefits agents, and it puts writers at a disadvantage.  

Finally, I decided to just publish this book on my own. I feel zero regrets about that. Yes, a traditional publishing house might advance me a chunk of money, but the book's sales are surprisingly good, and my royalties are honestly earned. I am not getting rich, but I am earning a reasonable cut of each copy purchased.

I do not have to share those royalties with an agent (15%), nor do my royalties filter down to me courtesy of the bookkeeping of a publisher with every incentive to cheat me. 

It is highly unlikely that a traditional publisher would ever agree to publish this book in large 8.5x11-inch format, and I am sure that they would reject the number of photos that made it into the final draft. At 377 pages, this book weighs 2.4 lbs. You can smack somebody upside the head with it. And Pepsi approves of this book. So I got that going for me. 

If you consider the expenses that a traditional publisher will recoup before it ever pays a writer another cent in royalties, you realize that this is a big deal. Amazon can seem a bit greedy, but their bookkeeping is impeccable, and their royalty structure is straightforward. All rights remain with me. There are no catches.  

The GoogleBooks and GooglePlay Conundrum

Technology worked a revolution in publishing, you see. Anybody can publish on Amazon and iBooks. GooglePlay and GoogleBooks are harder, as Google is technically not accepting new publishers, except that they are. 

Here is the work-around, when you tire of seeing that "no new publishers accepted at this time" dialogue box. Go to this page and submit the form. 

I spent a couple of days working through Google's system, and this was bizarrely complicated by Google's insistence on serving me pages in Thai. Their server senses my IP address, and assumes that because I am in Bangkok I must surely want all pages in Thai. 

I do not read and write Thai. Google never envisioned an American expat living in the Kingdom. I cleared browser caches and reset preferences, and still, their pages came down in Thai. 

This drove me nuts. The solution was crazy: download Google's Chrome browser, and enable the option that automatically translates pages from Thai to English. 

Keep GoogleTranslate open, as some pop-up boxes will not auto translate, and you will need to copy and paste their contents into GoogleTranslate to understand what they say. 

This process will take some time, as you will need to enter bank accounts and tax ID information, but you can upload a .pdf of your manuscript and struggle through their procedures while Google's servers grind away on your uploaded files. 

I finally got my book posted on GoogleBooks and on GooglePlay. Now I will work on getting a softcover released through GooglePlay. Tomorrow. I am tired of Google right now. 

My Ranger brother Murph purchased three copies. My other Ranger brother Scott, who is depicted in the book, bought five. But Rangers are not the only readers and purchasers. 

The consequence of the revolution in publishing is direct access for writers to a Darwinian marketplace. Good writers sell books and their ideas propagate through the zeitgeist. Smart writers care more about getting read than about getting paid. Though lesser writers fade in relevance, they still get to say, "I published a book." 

Since anyone, literally anybody, can publish a book, some books will sell a grand total of one copy, or ten. Some will sell more. I am closing in on 400 copies sold. And climbing. I am not boasting. I am marveling. And I am profoundly grateful. 

But Amazon, principally Amazon, made Random House, Penguin, Simon and Schuster, Crown--all of the big houses--redundant. The primary marketplace for books, Amazon, is now also a publisher. 

This revolution in publishing marginalizes the big houses, and it erodes their dominance of the industry. Traditional publishers are no longer the gatekeepers in an ecosystem that writers must placate in order to sell books. 

This means that all the encumbrances of a publishing house, all the bureaucratic layers, the finance departments, the marketing departments, the pre-readers, the proofreaders, the editors, the illustrators, the fact checkers, and the lawyers, are all erased from the equation. 

Many writers, no question, do need an editor. Unfortunately editors are not created equally. One editor that published an excerpt of my book a couple of years ago in The Daily Beast was truly gifted. 

That editor, Jake Siegel, quit his job at the Beast and he decided that he was a writer, period, and that he would never edit anyone else's work ever again.

No traditional publishing house would ever permit me to include so many photos, like these from pages 183-4. Photos are expensive. They crank the price of a book up, even for print-on-demand operations. The Amazon list price for this book is $64.99. Amazon took a hit and they sell it for $21.xx. Amazon made a business decision, acting with greater nimbleness and flexibility than a traditional house ever could. 

Which brings me to my next observation about editors. With the exception of Jake Siegel, and theoretical others, too many editors are actually failed writers. It took me some time, as I am not that smart, but many of the criticisms that random editors sent to me unsolicited were in fact motivated by jealousy. 

"Everybody needs an editor?" Maybe so. But not an editor who is secretly covetous of the accomplishments of the writer. Sometimes such editors do not even realize that they are jealous. But it comes out in their comments. 

I can feel editors out there in internet land seething over these observations. I do not care. Editors in the current publishing milieu must be outstanding, because they are running out of safe places.

Technology makes publishing houses redundant. Publishers are now under siege, and Amazon is poaching their income streams. 

There may still be a place for some editors and fact checkers and legal reviewers in the ecosystem, but their relevance is diminishing, and it is no coincidence that editors are getting fired wholesale everywhere that we turn. Editors are increasingly an endangered species.

If a publishing house wishes to make me an offer, I will consider it. In the hands of the right publisher, this book could sell harder than I can accomplish on my own with the help of those of you reading these words. 

But money is not the sole purpose here. 

Omitting a publishing house enabled me to focus on those other important priorities. I did things with this book that most editors would not permit, and most houses would not accept, and I enjoy a direct relationship to my readers. 

Technology marches on. 

We all must adapt or fade into irrelevance. 

That includes writers, agents, editors, and publishers. Some of us are making a graceful transition. Some are burning in. 

Such a spectacle.

Ranger Jeff Mellinger was one of the earliest purchasers of this book, buying when its Amazon price was $64.99. Jeff really wanted this book. He sent me the first photos of the book in the wild, including this depiction of page 277. Jeff also wrote an epic lead review

Friday, December 01, 2017

I am No Expert, But This is How to Write a Book

My brother Brian Donovan sent me this photo of my first book, A Tale of the Grenada Raiders. Available on Amazon and on iBooks, Ranger Karl Monger at The New American Veteran published an interview and my friend Greg published an excerpt from Chapter 13 in Soldier of Fortune Magazine. At this writing, there are now 40 5-star reviews of the work on Amazon. 

A friend and associate on SOCNET asked me "how does one write a book?"

This is what I wrote to him. 

"...I am no expert, but I will say that the simplest way to write is to just tell stories, tell them like you would if you were around a campfire. 

Writing is writing, yes, but it is story telling, and never forget that the first stories were oral, they were told with the mouth, to a small audience around a campfire.

I took writing courses decades ago when I was a student at CU-Boulder before I enlisted. They did not teach me to write. I suppose that you can say that I am self-taught, and it took me years to find my voice.

Tim Latsko sent me this photo from Chapter 13. 

The short cut is to just tell stories. Let them be as long as they need to be, but break them up if they get too long, and just tell stories. Remember that most of us these days are reading on phones and tablets, and there are many distractions vying for our time. 

So say your bottom line up front, then tell the story. The simple way to organize is to tell your audience what you are going to tell them at the outset. Then tell them. Then conclude by telling them what you told them. 

A. Tell your audience what you are going to tell them. BLUF. 
B. Tell them, ideally organized chronologically or sequentially. 

C. Tell them what you told them. 

If you keep it simple like that, advice that I obviously do not always follow myself, you will make it easier to tell the story and for a reader to follow it.

My secret: I read everything aloud. If it sounds wrong, it is wrong. Fiddle with it until it flows and sounds just like you speak.

Final advice: never assume that nobody will want to read what you write. That is not why you write. I write because it is a compulsion for me, I have always been a writer, my entire life.

My Ranger bro Mike Stewart sent me this photo of my book with a  Ranger  tab and old scroll 2d Ranger Battalion shoulder insignia. 

You cannot envisage all the various readers who will read you. I had 14 year old girls write to me and tell me that they liked my writing. Never saw that coming.

If it works better for you, just tell the stories orally and record them, then transcribe them. 

Make an introduction telling where the stories came from and why you wrote them, and what they are about. 

When you are done, tell the reader what you just told them, tie up any loose ends and dangle something more to come so folks will want to read what you write next. 

I cannot make it simpler than that. :) 

Available now on Amazon and on iBooks. Coming soon as an AudioBook. 

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Why I Live as an Expat in Bangkok

Phra Phrom as depicted at the Erawan Shrine in downtown Bangkok. 

I am often asked why I choose to live as an expatriate in Bangkok. There are many reasons. 

Initially, my family in America imploded in 2003, and I seized the opportunity to cut myself off from all entanglements. I am grateful that I had the perspicacity to perceive that opportunity, and the decisiveness to act upon it.

My life immensely improved, as it is often said that you can choose your friends, but you do not get to choose your family. I got no patience for drama.

More, living across the Pacific Ocean makes it complicated for ex-wives or other undesirables to push my buttons or to knock on my door in the middle of the night or to make scenes in my neighborhood. 

Good luck finding me in Bangkok. Even if you follow a GPS coordinate it is difficult to navigate a Thai neighborhood unless you are Thai. And my security sensors, old lady Thai aunties, surround me. I always see unwanted visitors coming.

Believe it or not, Her Majesty is acutely aware of her surroundings, even when she is napping on the couch with Momma. 

Her Majesty, my majestic cat, is my final intrusion detector. I know it when anybody knocks on the gate in the high wall surrounding my garden and my home. They do not even need to find the doorbell.

After I checked out of a residential PTSD program at the VA in 2003 I literally had no ties to anyone or to anything. I could go anywhere that I liked. So I went to Baghdad.

Holy cow, Baghdad was fun. The war was not really serious when I first arrived, though you could see it coming. It was dangerous enough to make it sporty. Like the Wild West.

Ranger John Czarnecki, myself and Phil Warner on Southern Camp Slayer at the FBI HRT house in late 2003, Baghdad. 

I had a glorious gun collection, and a “get out of jail free” letter from the CPA authorizing me to traffic in black market guns, munitions, and petroleum. I have got to find that letter. I could not believe that they signed it. It is in these files piled around me somewhere.

Then as suddenly as it started, it ended. I had to leave Baghdad, and I was not happy about it. At that time anyone with a PTSD diagnosis was considered undeployable. This was DOD policy. 

DOD later changed their policy, as a PTSD diagnosis would have rendered everybody with combat experience undeployable, but that happened too late for me.

PTSD was not a factor for me in Baghdad, in fact, Baghdad healed me. I felt better there than I had in years. I think that it was the immediacy of living in a war zone and the compulsion to be present in every moment. I did not live in the past, nor ache over old wounds.

I was gloriously alive in Baghdad. Working there helped me get over the implosion of my family. I was even able to get my medications refilled at the CSH in the Green Zone.

There was something about being back in a war zone strapped with guns and a dip in my mouth and the smell of jet fuel in the air that rejuvenated me. I was back home, where I belonged. And I was with my brothers. Baghdad was a big reunion for old school Rangers.

And then the policy intervened. I could have lied about it, but I refused. I am not ashamed of that PTSD diagnosis. I consider PTSD an honorable wound, especially when you get it in combat. 

So I went back to the states for a month. I contemplated going to Nicaragua, but no. I avoid Latin America, for reasons that will be explained in my fourth book, In the Valley of the Shadows, should I be blessed to live long enough to complete it. 

Then old SF brothers asked me if I had ever been to Bangkok. I had not been. While I was assigned to 1st Group, the SF Group oriented to the Pacific Rim, I was in the Korea Battalion, 2d Battalion, so I never went to Bangkok.

They invited me, and so I came. The minute that I saw that Thailand was populated with honey colored beauties with almond eyes and puffy lips and jet black long hair, I knew that the Big Ranger was guiding my path. 

I say it all the time. I came on holiday, and I never left.

I was a horrific man whore for two years. If it was feasible and it did not involve more than one penis (my own) I did it. I literally scratched every sexual itch that there is between consenting adults.

Then one day, eating steak with a friend, I saw my wife. She was the most beautiful thing that I ever saw, and she still is, 11 years later, sleeping placid beside me in bed while I write on an iPad.

That ended my man whoring. I did not mind saying farewell to a libertine lifestyle because I am not by nature a libertine, and I checked off every entry on my sexual bucket list.

I live now like a Mormon, spiritual, domesticated, monogamous, quietly. Except that I do not research my genealogy or wear big underwear. 

I cracked the code on Thailand when I realized that traditional Thai culture is very conservative. Thai women want their men to be strong, but not too strong. They want their men to be men, and they are often delighted to be housewives. They are glorious at it. 

Thai women are indoctrinated from birth to care for their families. All that I have to do is bring in the money. As I do not hit what I love, and I do not drink or gamble, and I naturally treat the women in my life like a gentleman, as my mother taught me, I stack up favorably to the competition.

My wife graduated with a BA in Business Administration. She runs our household like a business. I just have to stay out of her way. She has it all under control.

You can say that my wife tamed me, but really, I tamed myself. It is an honor to be in this marriage with her. I am endlessly grateful to her, as she taught me how to live. 

Phaya Naga, mythical semi-divine demi-creatures in Hindu and Buddhist cosmology. 

Thailand is also a very old culture, and I immediately felt comfortable here as it is a pagan country and I am a pagan at heart. 

I see no contradiction in my monotheistic belief in a prime mover God, or a Great Architect, if you prefer, and in an historical Jesus Christ who became more than man. I just permit no priest to intervene in my relationship with the Big Ranger in the Sky, and I worship nature, the universe, in all its manifestations.

I try to know my place, and I pay attention when the universe tells me no. I believe that karma, the hammer of karma, strikes not just in the next life, but in this one, as well. I see it around me every day.

The Hindu do not stress over these doctrinal matters that spawn wars and jihad and reformation as there are many manifestations of Brahma, and many goddesses and many gods. This makes more sense if you understand that Hinduism blanketed Thailand for centuries. 

But before that, there was animism. The oldest, most pure manifestations of animism are found in Tibet. But animism also pervades modern Thailand. So in the beginning here, there was animism, then the Hindu brought their unnumbered gods and goddesses with them. Only later, relatively recently, came the Buddhists.

Loi Krathong, Lumpini Park, Bangkok, 2007. WikiPedia

The Thai will tell you if you ask them that they are Buddhist. They will tell you this as they set candle-bearing boats adrift as offerings to the river goddess. Loi Krathong 2017 is mere hours away as I write this. 

The Thai will say, “I am Buddhist,” as they festoon old trees with ribbons and offerings for the tree spirits, and as girls wai to the golden idol of Brahma from the elevated walkway at the heart of the great city.

It all makes perfect sense to me. 

As Thailand is near to China, you see different blends of Buddhism, and you can get authentic Chinese acupuncture here. I do it when I have enough money to afford it. It works really well.

Buddhism is the state religion in Thailand, and they can be doctrinaire about it. But they are also quite lax about interfering in matters of faith, and there are some Christians here, and Mormons, and a small cell of secret Israel.

A Christian church as we saw it on a night cruise from the Phrao Chaya River. 

Then there is the food. Only the Thai know how to throw a party in your mouth and to treat your tastebuds like an amusement park. Hot, sweet, spicy, sour, it all happens in the same bite. Once you get acclimated to Thai food you come to crave it.

Then there is the fruit. I encountered many fruits for the first time in Thailand. Gigantic fruits. Exotic fruits. It just grows on trees. My wife brings me a chilled coconut when she comes back from the market. I drink coconut juice straight from the gourd here. It costs the equivalent of .25¢.

Then there is the tropical climate. I suffer from chronic and severe arthritis, the consequence of too many years under the ruck in elite units. Only narcotics and the hot, moist blanket of the Thai climate keep me ambulatory.

I see a pain specialist at an expensive Thai hospital for the narcotics. I take them most carefully. For the heat, I just open my windows and I cut the air con, or I walk around my neighborhood. When I walk out of the terminal at Suvarnabhumi airport and get hit by that wall of Thai heat, my face aches from smiling so hard.

This is no small matter. When I am stateside, in Orlando, for God’s sake, I cannot move when the temperature hits the mid-40’s. I freeze my ass off. I feel good in the Thai heat.

Then there is Thai massage. Like their food, the Thai just came up with their own thing and there is nothing comparable to Thai massage. You have to be able to communicate in Thai with your masseuse as they can hurt you if you do not ask them to back off. 

In the same way that Thai chilis can kill you if you do not restrain yourself, a Thai masseuse can hurt you. They seek the borderline between pain and pleasure, and that, I think, is the secret to Thai massage. But nothing works better.

My big brother Uncle Ray Caron took me and Momma out for Thanksgiving dinner at the JW Marriott. They lost money on me and Uncle Ray, just on lobster alone. Such a repast!

Then there is Bangkok itself. It is a gourmand’s paradise. Any food can be found here, and there are expensive delis at Asoke and at Emquartier. You can get fragrant croissants straight from the oven here. Glorious slabs of prime rib. Italian meats and cheeses. Dean & Deluca New York style pizza.

Bangkok malls are world class, and you can buy anything here from the illicit in word of mouth street markets to authentic Apple hardware. Bangkok Street food is justifiably famous, and there is no place better just for people watching. Everyone comes to Bangkok. It is one of the great capitols of the world.

Outstanding medical care is available here if you can afford it. It costs less than in the US, though I cannot use my Veteran’s Choice card here as I can back stateside. I make inevitable pilgrimages back to the VA when I need treatment.

So there are many reasons why I am an expat in Bangkok. I find the clash of cultures useful as a writer, it helps me see clearly through otherwise invisible filters and I get distance from the culture wars in America. It is simple to be red-pilled in Bangkok, as I control what goes into my mind. 

The Thai pay me no mind. I tip generously and I observe their social niceties. No people on the planet smile as much as the Thai,  though I could write an article just on the implications of the Thai smile, not to mention on the variations of the wai

My main reason, the primary thing that keeps me here, and makes me homesick when I am gone, is sleeping contentedly beside me. Where she is, is my home. 

For many years home was where I hung my hat. Now my home is with her. And with Her Majesty. Who just walked in at 0548 hrs in a somnolent Bangkok morning announcing that she had a nightmare. 

So I will leave this right here. This is why I live in Bangkok.