In Which I Give You Something Free to Read

When I posted this on the 19th, it was day #3 of my county sheltering in place. By the time I promote this post and you see it, it’s probably #8. We’ve got a little routine down: I take the kids in the morning so my wife can do her work from home, and in the afternoon I search for a day job. The kids are in contact with their schools online, and we’ve got a bunch of educational workbooks picked up from Office Depot. We’ve made sure to take them out in the sun once a day for a little running around, and Sunday we packaged up some meals to give to a food bank.

I was going to write some stuff about how you should glove up, wash your hands often, and stay informed, but if I’ve learned anything from the quarantine, it’s that there are times when your brain wants to take a break. Through this all, movies, video games, and books have been a lifeline for my family. And it’s made me think about how little and how much I can do for others without leaving the house.

So here’s the deal: I’m making the Kindle version of my vampire novel Civil Blood free, all this week, Monday March 23rd to Friday March 28th. (It’s also free on Kindle Unlimited.) I’d do it for the paperback version, too, but Amazon doesn’t make that anywhere near as easy. Besides, right now, who wants to touch a book that might have been handled by a stranger?

I’m not pretending my writing is what the world needs. But it doesn’t hurt anyone, and it could help a little, so I might as well.

In case you somehow navigated here without hearing Civil Blood‘s pitch, I usually sum up the story as “the class-action vampire rights trial to determine who gets to be called human, as told by the people assigned to kill its plaintiff.” There’s a bat virus in it, but it’s a lyssavirus rather than a coronavirus, so my application to be the next prescient prophet is firmly rejected. The book is a 400-pager, so it’s a decent time sink. Here’s the link.

Stay safe out there. Or if you can, in there.

In Which I Talk About Violence a Lot

“Behind the judge’s bench stands an American flag, a Virginian flag and, on the wall, the state seal. A woman with a spear, a helmet, and an unbound breast is trampling a man beneath her, with Latin words meaning ‘thus ever to tyrants.’ John Wilkes Booth said that phrase when he pulled the trigger. Aidan Lawrence echoed those words when he detonated a vest filled with fishing weights and Semtex in the Supreme Court. And yet here the words stay, suggesting bloodshed is not only part of legal proceedings but somehow can give them a blessing.”

Civil Blood: The Vampire Rights Case That Changed a Nation

Note: This post contains spoilers for Civil Blood‘s ending.

When you have a novel with only a handful of reviews, you have the luxury of reading and thinking about each one. Civil Blood is still in that magical period where nobody who really hates it has given it a review on Amazon, so the people who really love it give it five stars and the people who have reservations go for four stars. Naturally, I’ve mulled over the points of the criticism, because I think it’s good and healthy for a book when its discussion goes beyond “I liked it” vs. “this is trash” and readers spend some time on the ideas presented in the story.

Recently, I read a review that didn’t care for the ending, which made the reader disturbed that all the good guys appear to be bad guys, and the bad guys appear to be good guys. So let’s talk about that!

Civil Blood has a lot of ideas in it, and hopefully they are comprehensible to an audience without me explicating the intention of the text. But since this website allows me to be as self-indulgent as humanly possible, and since no literary critics are beating down my door for an interview, I thought it might be interesting to the reader to illuminate the theme of the novel, which, really, is the road to political violence in the United States.

“Whoa,” you may be saying. “It’s just a novel about vampires.”

Yes, and no. It’s even a little farther afield than that. It’s a novel about a future America with magic and vampires in it. Whenever one creates a vision of the future, it tends to invite comparisons and analysis with the present. I gave it the nonspecific time period of “a generation from now” because I didn’t want the story to be obsolete too quickly. I did use a calendar for a specific date far in the future to get the days of the week straight, but that is not explicitly called out in the text. (First person to name the year gets a gold star.) The idea is, the future is slightly darker than it is now, but the U.S. is, as the back cover copy states, “still recognizable as our own.”

The political system has changed, to be sure. At some point in this future history, the Democratic and Republican parties imploded at the same time. At that point, the first-past-the-post system of counting electoral votes was chucked, allowing for more proportionate representation in Presidential elections. I think this is the only way you’d get new, viable parties, because currently the hyper-partisanship means if either party has a substantial defection to a third party, the opposing party gets rewarded with electoral victory. And the reason they both imploded is because they started using violence to get what they want. In my imaginary world, this was a bridge too far, and both the red and blue parties paid at the ballot box, spawning the Solar Citizens party (liberals with an emphasis on environmentalism) and the Great Nation party (conservatives who embraced big government).

But the world-building bits aren’t quite as important as the theme expressed through the characters, that “civil blood makes civil hands unclean.” Violence, or the threat of violence, underpins our system of laws. If you violate the law, you have reason to fear that the state will punish you. If you resist sufficiently, the state will use violence to ensure the punishment is enacted. We’re supposed to elect our politicians with the consent of the governed, but unsurprisingly, we don’t trust them much any more. Conditioned by movies, games, and books as well as our preferred brand of political propaganda, we want a leader who is not just a civil servant, but a hero.

The book offers up many point-of-view characters who are the hero of their own story. But to others, they aren’t. And this is where the reviewer didn’t really like the way I executed the climax and resolution. Most of the characters are morally gray — there is, in fact, something to dislike in all of them. There’s plenty of bloody hands to go around.

Morgan expects the justice system to save him: it does not. It is flawed, and the vipes resort to criminal means in their attempt to rescue him. In the process, Infinity and the gang are, to varying degrees, willing to use violence. While the average reader may think Infinity is justified in striking back against a corrupt system, and is heroic for standing up to the forces that murder vipes, she is a protagonist, not a paragon. And I don’t mean this in a 2016-era “you shouldn’t punch Nazis or you’re as bad as them” way. Infinity’s tools include heist-like tricks to get her inside the BRHI facility, but they also include Cass, who covers the vipes by gunning down private security and committing suicide by cop.

“So,” one might ask… “are you portraying that as permissible, or not?” A lot of the language in the climax shows that Infinity is growing into her role as a hero. However, the picture is much more complex than “evil megacorporation = bad, heroes who break the law and shoot them = good.” I was not interested in making a vampiric superhero with an upstanding moral code, as there are plenty of those already available at the local bookstore or theater.

Infinity performs at least one heroic action. When she’s getting Morgan out of the facility and has a clear path to freedom, she chooses to run back into danger, armed only with a disguise, to save Ranath’s life. She sees this as necessary to redeem herself from her habit of running from trouble. Even so, she and her friends don’t succeed in their rescue mission the way they intend. Three out of five of the vipes pay the ultimate price, leaving Morgan and Ferrero grief-stricken. Infinity is numbed by the human cost as well, but her heroism has left her with a direct, tangible accomplishment: Ranath is present to console her, and he gives her a little hope. So despite her early protestations that she is not a hero, she has some reasons to call herself that at the end. Ranath would probably call her that too.

But one of the reasons I went with multiple first-person points of view is to show that when it comes to the events of the climax — the incarceration and murder of vipes and the bloody shootout that exposes it to the world — you can’t just look at just one character. Pretty much everyone tries to do what they perceive as right and it leads to an unholy mess.

  • Cass thinks that because he’s just shooting hardasses with guns, he’s more like a soldier and less like a maniac with a high-capacity magazine.
  • Jessica and Ferrero try to avoid violence personally, but they are in on the plan.
  • Kern thinks because he can “cure more diseases than penicillin” with VIHPS, incarcerating and murdering vipes is worth it in the final analysis.
  • Morgan abhors violence, but realizes he can’t escape without it and raises a hand in an attempt to save Jessica.
  • Deborah takes it one step further, using a pistol only in a gambit to become a martyr rather than face capture.

This last was important to me because it’s easy for an action writer to get caught up in the bloodshed and portray noncombatants as timid, or ineffective, or dependent upon the violent types to effect meaningful change for the people they care about. The most important blow against BRHI is Deborah’s, bringing out the truth and harming its public status as a savior. In this way, I wanted to return the reader’s perception of the future not as one that is unremittingly dark, but one that ranges back and forth with victories and losses as does our political system in the real world.

As for the idea that Kern is a hero because he wants to cure VIHPS and get stinking rich by alleviating untold suffering — no. Kern is directly responsible for the F-prot program, which is kidnapping, killing, and experimenting on vipes. He set up a system to glean as much biological data as he can out of the vipes because “they’re going to die anyway,” which is only true because he’s laid the groundwork to make it true.

Besides violating the Hippocratic Oath, Kern’s excuses were based on the justifications Nazi doctors used for their experiments in concentration camps — data that was then largely thrown out by the Americans because it was always done with a political agenda in mind, making for bad science. He’s literally got a plasma furnace to cremate rooms full of bodies en masse, echoing the extermination camps. Also, he ordered a hit on Ranath when he was afraid Ranath might talk to the law, so he’s not particularly loyal to his friends, either. He shows no mercy to anyone who is perceived to be an enemy, and the simple act of getting infected makes you an instant enemy. (This “othering” occurs in our political process, albeit more slowly, as we come to think of our political opponents as villains, a process that will lead to violence if left unchecked.)

So yes, he’s an antagonist with a compelling motivation and a set of ideals — but everybody has ideals. What he’s done, rather than what he’s said, sets him in the villain camp, despite all the good that a vaccine or modified VIHPS strain could do. Illustrating this, Ranath takes his work and literally gives it to someone else less compromised, the Centers for Disease Control.

I could probably go on about this theme for a long time — it’s something I intend to explore in future stories, and America’s relationship with violence can fill quite a few shelves. But I think for the moment, I will stop here. There’s only so much illumination you can give before the light starts to get annoying.

Click.

In Which I Post a Civil Blood Sequel FAQ

Well, the Kindle promo giveaway of Civil Blood: The Vampire Rights Case that Changed a Nation has come to an end, and now it’s back up at the not-so-tyrannical price of $2.99. Some very nice folks on Goodreads are inquiring about a sequel, so I thought I’d better explain my thought process.

1: Was the promo successful?

Considering my average sales of the novel… holy cow, yes. I ran the promo for five days, and if you add up all the copies I gave away, I moved 44 times my best month of normal sales. It sounds like a lot, but to be honest, my average sales per month are miniscule. There’s definitely people out there who like the idea of the book enough to download it when it’s offered. The question, of course, is “are they just jumping at a chance to nab something for free, or do they actually intend to read the book/buy the book/buy a sequel?” It’ll take a little while to gather data on those questions — I’ve got to allow the readers a few weeks to read 398 pages before I can expect any word of mouth to spread.

2: Do you want to write a sequel?

Yes. Without getting into spoilers, it doesn’t take a genius to read the end of Civil Blood and see that I want to publish volume 2 of the Skia Project. I want to revisit the main characters and have them front and center in another adventure that combines vampirism and politics.

3: Can you sell a sequel?

This is a much thornier question. Civil Blood was self-published. I fronted all the costs myself for the editors, the cover art, ISBNs, and advertising. If I want to do that again, I need a certain amount of disposable income that I have earmarked for that purpose only. Sales of Civil Blood count toward that amount. So in theory, when the book makes back its costs, I could take that money and publish a sequel.

The reality is that may take years, and it may never happen at all. The book has garnered a bit of good press from blogs, but they have not translated into financial success. As of this writing, five days after the promo has ended, there are no signs of increased sales. I’m willing to be patient, but I’m also looking at a variety of options.

Option 1: Sell a direct sequel novel to a traditional publisher.

The most obvious pie-in-the-sky fantasy of mine is to write a sequel that’s so good and so high-concept that when I submit it to a traditional publisher, they want to print it themselves. Poof, I don’t have to front any money and they pay me to boot. They get me a cover, they advertise for me, the book shows up in bookstores and libraries everywhere. I appear at conventions and do dramatic readings of the book while standing on one leg, and legions of Infinity cosplayers create a path for me by throwing rose petals and marshmallows. (I’m pretty sure that’s how signing parties work, anyway. There’s always a few grand set aside for the marshmallow budget.)

That scenario is unlikely to happen. First, the sequel would have to stand on its own merits and not require any experience with the previous installment. That sounds feasible in practice, but Civil Blood created a ton of backstory for its surviving characters. If the protagonists and antagonists run into each other again (and I’d want them to), I’d have to communicate their history without delving into giant paragraphs explaining what happened the last time they met. Even recapping the main romantic arc without making it sound like a sequel’s summary would require a lot of fine-tuning. This is to say nothing of the wall-to-wall news that would be breathlessly covering the events of the first book’s climax. Add the cherry on top — the magic system and how vampires work. It would be tricky, and if I couldn’t sell it, I’d be left with a big, fat manuscript that I’d have spent several years of my life on.

Second, if the traditional publisher found out that I self-published the prequel, the first thing they would ask is, “How many copies has it sold?” One look at its Amazon ranking would be all it takes to pass on it. Self-published books get traditional deals when they do so well they don’t need it. Nothing succeeds like success.

Third, I’d be giving up some creative control, and if the editor and I got into a kerfluffle over some detail in which I would be invalidating a decision made in Civil Blood, I would not be able to argue for keeping it consistent. Given how often I’ve experienced situations like that in other media, I’m not sure I want to do that here.

This leaves me with less-thrilling but potentially more-workable options.

Option 2: Sell other stories in the universe to a traditional publisher.

The quickest and most feasible option for me, and the one I am currently pursuing, is to write short stories in Civil Blood’s universe and try to sell them to magazines. I’ve got one in submissions about a new character (“Stopping the Bleeding”) and a second in the works with Infinity as the protagonist (working title “Infection in Everything”).

Short fiction in magazines would theoretically provide a little extra visibility as well as income that would go towards funding a self-published sequel. Of course, I have to get that most elusive “yes” for this plan to work… and I have to do it several times. Short stories pay more than they used to, but I’d still have to do perhaps 5-7 of them to cover a novel’s costs.

Were I to go for a novel, the easiest long-form approach would be a prequel, because it would require none of the exposition juggling act that a sequel would. Jessica’s discovery of the principles of qi, her fraying relationship with Ranath and Kern, and Ranath’s eventual slide into vipe hunting could fill up their own story. However, it’d need some special sauce, otherwise it’d just be another “viral vampires in a big evil corporation” story that doesn’t have a unique hook.

Option 3: Take out a loan and hope the sequel pays for itself.

Yeah, you can explain that one to my wife. No way.

Option 4: Run a Kickstarter or other crowdfunding campaign.

This doesn’t work well for me. It’s not that I don’t like Kickstarters, but backers are pretty sophisticated now. Not only would I have to write a good 30% of the book or so to show off some product for the campaign, make a video, come up with rewards that aren’t the book, and then I’d have to face an uncomfortable reality:

I’m a slow writer.

A good Kickstarter keeps backers interested until the product comes out. Who wants me to blitz people with a 30-day Kickstarter campaign and then force them to wait on a sequel that could be years in the making? There is also the serious possibility of failure. If the KS doesn’t meet its goal, I’m back at square one.

How can I help?

If you’re a fan burning to read the sequel, there are lots of ways to pitch in.

  1. Tell people about the book. Because there are many books with the title “Civil Blood,” be sure to use my name or the subtitle “The Vampire Rights Case That Changed a Nation.” That’ll help narrow down any search engine searches.
  2. Leave a Goodreads and/or Amazon review. Supposedly, if I get 50 of these, the algorithm for advertising the book shows the book more often to strangers. They don’t need to be long at all: “I dug it,” and some stars is all that’s necessary. The most successful viral campaigns have people who enthusiastically tell their friends they just rated a book, encouraging them to do the same.
  3. Friend has a birthday/housewarming/deployment coming up? Give the book as a gift.
  4. Tell your Goodreads group or book club about it (I’m a member of a few such as “Horror Aficionados,” “Vampires, Weres and Fae,” “Castle Dracula” and “My Vampire Book Obsession.”) Getting a big pack of people to read it as a book of the month would be super.
  5. Put your favorite quotes from the novel into Goodreads’ Quotes page. Authors are forbidden from doing this for their own books. Quotable lines can sometimes grab a reader’s interest where an excerpt might seem too long.

Conclusion

So when people ask “Are you working on a sequel?” my answer is “not yet,” but the more proper question is “Are you trying to get us more Infinity, Ranath, and Morgan?” And the answer to that is, “Yes, with some obstacles.” Trust me, if I manage to sell something, I’ll be all over the Internet trying to let people know.

Thanks for reading this far and bearing with me.

In Which I Give You My Book for Free

Who needs to pirate books? Not you!

“Civil Blood: The Vampire Rights Case that Changed a Nation” is free to download on Kindles from March 18th to March 22nd, 2019. You don’t get a free 400-page novel every day, so check it out and tell a friend. The link’s right here.

Because of the way Kindle Direct Publishing works, the novel will also be exclusive to Kindles at that time. I will re-list it for other e-reader platforms once this offer has completed.

Dig in!

In Which Parallel Evolution Rears Its Head

One of the things the late, great, and very angry Harlan Ellison was good at was titles. He had stories with names like:

  • “Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman
  • The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World
  • I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream
  • Paladin of the Last Hour
  • and of course, his Star Trek episode City on the Edge of Forever

The titles put a question in the reader’s mind, namely, “What the hell does that mean?” Pretty soon, they’d read to find out what’s going on, just to erase the dissonance in their heads. But there’s another, more practical reason to have unusual titles and unusual subject matter to go with them, and it’s to avoid problems like mine.

Civil Blood is a very thematic title for my vampire rights novel. It comes from the opening lines of Romeo and Juliet, making it a little apropos just because there is a conflict between vampires and vampire hunters, and a little romance across those lines. But it also works in a second dimension, using the exact wording of the source material (quoted to the reader in Chapter 2 of the novel):

Two houses, both alike in dignity/In fair Verona, where we lay our scene/Where ancient grudge break to new mutiny/And civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

So the novel is not simply “Romeo and Juliet with vampires,” it has a theme of violence polluting the political process in the place where the story is set (Washington, D.C.). On top of that, there’s another meaning to the “civil” part, since the class-action lawsuit at the centerpiece of the book is a civil trial rather than a criminal one.

All this hopefully adds up to some unique layers, which is a really good thing, because not only are there a number of books out there with star-crossed vampires, there is now another one called Civil Blood.

Author V. Renae has written a young adult novel for New Traditions Publishing, and here’s the spiffy cover.

It’s coming out October 1st, 2018. The back cover copy is here.  I haven’t read it yet, but I wish the author well. If you ever tried to Google my novel title, you know that both of us will be fighting for space with several other books called Civil Blood.

First, there’s Ann McMillan’s 2001 Civil War mystery about  a smallpox outbreak in Richmond that may be deliberately caused.

And then there’s Civil Bloods, another Civil War-era story by Steve Nelson. Two brothers fighting for the South in the Civil War are captured and make their way to Wisconsin, in what sounds kind of like a Western.

But surely I’m safe if I tell everybody I have the world’s only vampire legal thriller, right?

I thought so, too, for all the years I worked on it. And then, this summer, just as I was polishing an ad that might use that phrase, I Googled it just to make sure. That led me to this article: “It’s Time to Look at the Vampire Novel as Legal Thriller.”

This is about when my heart stopped. Hearing that another author, who is an actual lawyer, was publishing a book about vampire Supreme Court cases and had the backing of a mainstream publishing house was so specific that it made me wonder if there was plagiarism going on. Of course, there wasn’t. I ordered the book straight away, and found it and Civil Blood were completely unrelated.

The book, A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising, is a lot more closely related to World War Z than Civil Blood. I wouldn’t call it a legal thriller at all, honestly. Most of the action takes place from the points of view of an FBI agent, a CDC doctor, and a Catholic priest. It winds up more Dan Brown than John Grisham.

The legal and supernatural differences of the vampires are significant, but what matters most is that the novels evoke different feels. A People’s History devotes two to three chapters to the Supreme Court decision, mostly from a law school perspective reviewing the documents years after the fact.

Now, while I really admired the world-building in A People’s History, I’m of course partial to my own approach. I put protagonists on the stand, with their fate resting on the verdict. I wrote the chants of the mobs on the National Mall. And, of course, since I can’t write a court document like a legal scholar, I just grabbed the most stirring parts of Law & Order as an inspiration and wrote a transcript of the closing arguments of each side.

There’s a lesson here, I think, that I have heard from authors before. When they say write the book only you could write, it’s for times like these. A People’s History has scenes set in Washington, D.C., but its action keeps coming back to the American Southwest and the Vatican, where the author knows his stuff. Similarly, had I written a YA Civil Blood instead of the R-rated gritty material I love so much, I’d be fighting with V. Renae rather than smiling and giving her book the shout-outs it needs. Because as Juliet might say, a name really isn’t as important as the love you put behind it.

Okay, she says that in iambic pentameter, but that’s the gist.

V. Renae’s Facebook page is here and Tumblr here. Her Civil Blood comes out October 1st, 2018.

Raymond A. Villareal’s A People’s History of the Vampire Uprising is on Amazon here. It’s available now.

And if you’re searching for my Civil Blood, use its subtitle, Civil Blood: The Vampire Rights Case that Changed a Nation. It’ll get you to the pages that matter much faster than just “Civil Blood,” which will take you to pages of Shakespearean analysis.

 

In Which I Promo “Salem’s Lot Meets Law & Order”

The life of an author post-launch is a world of promotion. The life of a self-published author post-launch is a world of degrading promotion.

My consolation at the moment is that every author I’ve ever read says something along the lines of “I didn’t expect reviews as good as I got, or sales as poor as I got.” I’m right there with you. This week, I’m throwing around a few bucks for Facebook ads, experimenting with what works and what doesn’t.

I find Kindle sales vastly easier than lowering the price on my Amazon paperback, due to Amazon’s strange rules. So for all this week (8/20-8/26) Civil Blood is available on Kindle for $2.99. Yep. I spent years on this thing, and it’s available for the price of a soda at a restaurant.

Would you like Civil Blood? Here’s my short pitch in quiz form:

You’ve just been infected with a vampire virus. Your first question is:
A) “Can I get laid and high on blood whenever I want?”
B)
 “What idiot is criminally liable for letting loose a biohazard?”
C) “Am I still legally human, or is some suit in Washington going to pass a law?”
D) “W
ho’s the richest motherf***er I can sue over this?”
E) “I never really thought about it, but I should ask all of these questions in rapid succession.”

If you answered A, B, C or D, you might like Civil Blood. If you answered E, you’d definitely like Civil Blood. 

That’s it. That’s my promo for now, as I try to scare up some Amazon, Goodreads, and Booklikes reviewers. I’m lacking in that department — my friends help retweet and do Facebook posts, but reviews are as rare as Sam Kinison pantomime routines. I actually went so far as to post a review of my own book where it was allowed.

Do I feel shame in giving myself a five-star review? Yes. I wish I didn’t have to, and I delayed about a month before I did it. My reasoning is this:

1) I didn’t try to hide it. I straight-up said I don’t think the book is flawless, but I want to advocate for its strengths.

2) As Louis Armstrong once said, “you got to toot your own horn, because nobody else is gonna toot it for you.”

3) Nobody says a politician can’t vote for themselves. They’re citizens, too.

4) If I’m getting so few reviews that one 5-star review is going to blow the curve, that book needs all the help it can get.

That’s all. Now back to your regularly scheduled urban fantasies with their teenage angst and Byronic heroes and small-town witch heroines solving mysteries. I like those books, too… I just didn’t write one.