Sunday, February 28, 2010

The military and social media - hugging it out

Like all gigantasarus bureaucracies, it sometimes takes the military a while to put out official policies on new topics/subject matters. ( So, it should come as no surprise that only now are U.S. military personnel *officially* allowed to Tweet/Facebook/e-harmonize in ways that relate to their profession. And while all the PR gurus are claiming it's a match made in heaven now, based on my personal experience, I foresee a far rockier relationship ensuing between the Great Camo gods in the sky and social media.

Military structure is designed around control. There are rules, they are clear, and they are to be followed. They flow from the top-down, and on a macro level, are not conducive to interactive feedback from the bottom-up. As we've seen over the past few years though, social media allows interaction to occur between the top and the bottom, taking away control from the middle. Trust me when I say that the middle doesn't like this inability to filter messages. Further, as e-society develops, it's clear that the emo sub-current of expression is a tool utilized constantly and consistently in social media forums, especially amongst the young. Bitching about life/the job/etc. isn't just likely with soldiers at war, it's inevitable. And while the rules may claim only operational security violations will incur Higher's wrath for enterprising military social media-ites, I'm certain that the fine print includes a whole slew of other ways to do it. Like, I don't know. Describing a senior officer in an unflattering light. It's been known to happen, I guess.

If the military is going to successfully embrace social media, rather than having it embrace them - either can occur, because let's face it, even Delta Force can't kill the internet - it's going to have to do something it pays great lip service to, but isn't always great at executing - empowering junior leadership. The Pentagon can't read every blog, Tweet, or status update our brave soldiers/sailors/Marines/air-people produce. But each one of those personnel have a layer of leadership that can. If properly educated, junior leadership in the military can and will harness the beast of social media. Will they fall off, sometimes? Sure, but no rule implementation, no matter how rigidly or loosely enforced, proves perfect.

Big military has rules on underage drinking, but it relies on local leadership to enforce those rules. Social media restrictions should be no different, despite the possibility for high visibility violations. The alternative is to create a high level regulatory mechanism, which will only further the "us vs them" mentality that those on the tactical level feel exists. (Not saying it's true, just that the perception does). And pragmatically, this level of regulation simply won't work, and will only generate more acts of social media rebellion amongst the rank-and-file. (Damn the Man! And such). Official policies are swell and everything, but their direct impact in the trenches is minimal. How those are enforced matters far more. If the military is serious about utilizing social media constructs, it needs to accept the good and the bad now, and teach all levels of leadership what right looks like. If it doesn't, stories like Colby Buzzell's and mine will multiply tenfold.

In other news, I'm hoping to hire Optimus Prime's voice for the audio version of Kaboom. In no way am I kidding.

Monday, February 15, 2010

How Kaboom got Bookified - Part Deux

We last left our hero - the Sultan of Swashbuckle, the Bastion of Brash, the Perennial Pirate - mentally drained and suffering from a severe case of typist’s wrists. Dare we even mention the burnt leg hairs still smoldering from the nigh-constant laptop exposure? Would finishing his tome negatively affect his ability to sire Irish degenerates in the future? He didn’t yet know the answer to that question, but he did now understand the difference between overwriting and overwroting – though sometimes accused of the former, he had never before accomplished the latter. And so …

He slept.

And when he awoke, he wasn’t in Hawaii anymore, and he stopped writing in the third person.

I spent my summer relaxing, decompressing, and adjusting back to the blandness of civilian life. After leaving Hawaii, I spent a few weeks at my mom’s house, in Reno, playing with our old (but still perky) golden retriever, and taking weekly excursions up to Lake Tahoe with City Girl. It was all very idyllic, deserving of a photo montage set to the tune of Louie Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” The bright lights and neon intrigue of New York City awaited at the end of the summer, but in the mean time, I was allowed the opportunity to compartmentalize the events of my recent past as a soldier with an older, more time-stained past of childhood. I assure you, I didn’t feel so blessed about my boyhood during middle school, but after Iraq, even the evils of puberty seemed harmless and sweet in moments of reflection.

Near the end of the summer, Luke, City Girl, and I drove down to Las Vegas to visit my father, stepmother, and stepbrother. Now, the desert between Reno and Las Vegas is vast and mostly barren, eight hours full of old ranch towns, tumbleweeds, and “No Trespassing: Federal Government Property” signs. (Area 51, you dig?) But, after stopping at a McDonald’s in Tonapah, and discovering that I had cell reception there, I chatted with Bob Pigeon for forty minutes about the first draft of Kaboom. He liked it, but as editors are prone to doing, he was going to edit – and wanted me to sharpen it some places, while slicing and dicing it in others.

Although, like most writers, I was convinced I had already completed a manuscript sans flaw, I paused and gave thought to his suggestions. Not only did they make sense, they made damn sense. After all, I thought, he’s a professional and does this for a living. I’m still just some punk kid prone to hero worship seeking out the Hemingway dream.

Then we discussed the issue of the subtitle.

Although Bob and Da Capo didn’t mind the blog’s subtitle, “A Soldier’s War Journal,” they didn’t think it accurately captured the content of the book – while it balanced out the sizzle of the main title, it didn’t really differentiate the book from the litany of other GWOT memoirs out there. This was a big sticking point for them, because Bob wholeheartedly believed (and who was I to disagree?) that Kaboom was different, quite different, in fact, from the products already out there.

We still have a few weeks, he explained, before the subtitle has to be finalized. We both agreed to start mining our brains, and hopefully, someone would strike subtitle gold. Bob then laid out the timeline until publication – a three-step editing process, followed by the distribution of galley copies. Marketing and publicity plans would be developing concurrently.

“Get excited,” Bob told me. “It may not always seem like it, but this process can be pretty fulfilling.”

In all its severe and pronounced glory, the word FAIL does not even begin to describe the subtitle ideas I produced in the coming weeks. Words like “odyssey,” “iWar,” and “counterinsurgent” were tossed around, but nothing ever really stuck. Finally, as the deadline neared, Bob’s assistant editor, Jonathan Crowe, put together parts of separate subtitle ideas to form the winner, winner, chicken dinner: “Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War.”

With a bona fide subtitle in tow, Kaboom continued its evolution from a theoretical idea to something very tangible – and was subsequently assigned a project editor, Collin Tracy of Perseus. Collin would drive the project train for the next couple of months, helping me through three painful editing and rewriting stages. Jen Kelland, the copy editor, did an amazing job sifting through my ramblings and ravings – certainly not a job I envied, but I appreciated it, nonetheless. And then, in mid-December, as an early Christmas present to myself, I finished my last renditions on the proof pages, and expunged any and all grammatical and capitalization laws from my brain.

The book was now baked and ready for the decoration of marketing and publicity – something I’ll cover next time, when the third and final episode of “How Kaboom got Bookified” is posted!

Ahh, I heart me some trilogies.


As the offensive continues in Marja in Afghanistan, please keep Corporal Luis Hernandez in your thoughts and prayers. He and his fellow Marines are "mowing the grass" - also known as the clearing portion of counterinsurgency - and the more positive vibes sent their way, the better.

Monday, February 8, 2010

How Kaboom got Bookified - Part One

A lot of friends, family, and e-acquaintances have asked about the book process, and how Kaboom evolved from a defunct blog to an actual book. The short answer is simply: the luck of the Irish. The long answer isn't much more informative, but perhaps it'll help some aspiring author in the future, and/or give you all more insight into this world.

After the Washington Post article ran - yes, that article - a fair amount of publishing houses and literary agents contacted me, offering their services for an eventual Kaboom book. Although I was busy making the rounds for a new set of "discussions" in offices across the FOB, I did a little research and decided on William Clark, of Wm Clark Associates, to represent the project. This allowed me to concentrate on something far more important - the remaining 7 months of our deployment.

I spent this time serving with a rifle company in an infantry battalion. This time meant everything to me, because it allowed me to get a fresh start and perspective, and still contribute to the Iraq counterinsurgency on the ground level. The grunts took me in as one of their own, and while there were a few cav scout jokes tossed around ("where's your horse?" was always my favorite), it was all in good humor. I wrote about my experience with the infantry company - code-named the Gunslingers - but mainly in a personal diary manner, rather than in blog form. At this point in my life, I hated the Internet and it hated me. Writing though, still served as a catharsis, allowing me in my free time to digest the events of my days and nights in Iraq.

Meanwhile, William did the legwork for trying to find Kaboom a publisher. He knew I couldn't finish the project until after we returned home in the winter of 2009, but between a couple sample pieces and the blog fallout (a spade is a spade: the WaPo article kick-started all of this), he believed there was enough material to spark a deal with a publishing house. We were nearing such a deal when the economy went all Sylvia Plath on us in the fall of 2008. The houses were wary of any first-time writer, let alone a writer about a supposed "tired" topic like Iraq, so William started his search anew, and the Gunslingers and I finished out the deployment. The airplane ride back was a joyous one, something made even more special when I wandered back a few seats and discovered some of the Gravediggers riding with us.

About a month later, in March, CPT Demolition and I journeyed to the Land Down Under to broaden our cultural horizons and party away the previous 15 months of our lives. Australia is a beautiful and invigorating country, and I will forever associate it as the place I found out that Kaboom the book was going to become a reality. Very early one morning - say noon or so - I emerged from a beer coma and stumbled to the restroom to confirm that I, in fact, still existed as something more than a headache. After doing so, I checked my phone to see what time it was, and noticed I had a text message from William Clark. "Call ASAP!" it read. I did, and subsequently learned that Da Capo Press, under the leadership of a passionate editor named Bob Pigeon, had made a very gracious offer for the publishing rights to Kaboom.

"Should we take it?" I asked William. I was ecstatic, obviously, but between the hangover and my ignorance to the book world, I probably didn't sound it.

"Hell yeah!" he replied.

Not that CPT Demolition needed anymore excuse to celebrate of course, but we did toast that night a few times to the news.

After returning back to Hawaii, I began the process of leaving the service. Anyone who has ever done this can tell you this is a painful, time-consuming process - time that was precious to me, because I had a deadline to meet in terms of the first complete draft of Kaboom. I somehow made it, though, mainly due to my roommate, Chris (book pseudonym: The Great White Hope), and little brother, Luke. After graduating from college that spring, Luke joined me at our apartment in Hawaii for my last month there, and ensured that I took breaks from my writing marathons to do things like eat. Or see the sun. Or even occasionally shower.

I was honorably discharged from the Army on June 10, and nineteen days later, with two hours to spare, I sent in the completed first draft of Kaboom. And then I took a deep breath and a very, very long nap.

So, in short, all I can really offer you in terms of securing a book contract is this: find someone passionate about your project and trust in them. I was blessed to find two such men in William and Bob. But that passion must originate with you - if you believe in your writing and your project enough, the likelihood of someone else feeling that way will increase exponentially.

In a few days, I'll write another segment, chronicling the steps taken with Da Capo to turn a rambling computer document into a tangible book.

Hope all is well out there, both in the interwebz and reality.