ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Weston Ochse is a former intelligence officer and special operations soldier who has engaged enemy combatants, terrorists, narco smugglers, and human traffickers. His personal war stories include performing humanitarian operations over Bangladesh, being deployed to Afghanistan, and a near miss being cannibalized in Papua New Guinea. His fiction and non-fiction has been praised by USA Today, The Atlantic, The New York Post, The Financial Times of London, and Publishers Weekly. The American Library Association labeled him one of the Major Horror Authors of the 21st Century. His work has also won the Bram Stoker Award, been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and won multiple New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards. A writer of more than 26 books in multiple genres, his military supernatural series SEAL Team 666 has been optioned to be a movie starring Dwayne Johnson. His military sci fi series, which starts with Grunt Life, has been praised for its PTSD-positive depiction of soldiers at peace and at war. Weston likes to be called a chaotic good paladin and challenges anyone to disagree. After all, no one can really stand a goody two-shoes lawful good character. They can be so annoying. It's so much more fun to be chaotic, even when you're striving to save the world. You can argue with him about this and other things online at Living Dangerously or on Facebook at Badasswriter. All content of this blog is copywrited by Weston Ochse.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Velvet Dogma - The Road to Cyberpunk

I've always loved Cyberpunk.The raw, neo-noir, underground feel of it is one of my favorite kinds of science fiction. When I think of cyberpunk I think of the movie Blade Runner, and the books Neuromancer William Gibson) and Dr Adder (KW Jeter). So I was extremely pleased when I was able to write a cyberpunk novel for a major publisher.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the term cyberpunk, allow me to provide a short Wikipedia-produced primer:
Cyberpunk is a subgenre of science fiction in a near-future setting. Noted for its focus on "high tech and low life," it features advanced science, such as information technology and cybernetics, coupled with a degree of breakdown or radical change in the social order.
Cyberpunk plots often center on a conflict among hackers, artificial intelligences, and

 I played the pre-Windows video 
game based on the novel. Brilliant!
megacorporations, and tend to be set in a near-future Earth, rather than the far-future settings or galactic vistas found in novels such as Isaac Asimov's Foundation or Frank Herbert's Dune. The settings are usually post-industrial dystopias but tend to be marked by extraordinary cultural ferment and the use of technology in ways never anticipated by its creators ("the street finds its own uses for things"). Much of the genre's atmosphere echoes film noir, and written works in the genre often use techniques from detective fiction.
"Classic cyberpunk characters were marginalized, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change, an ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body." – Lawrence Person

The article goes on to say that 'Cyberpunk writers tend to use elements from hardboiled detective fiction, film noir, and postmodernist prose to describe the often nihilistic underground side of an electronic society. The genre's vision of a troubled future is often called the antithesis of the generally utopian visions of the future popular in the 1940s and 1950s.'

Now that we have an understanding of Cyberpunk, on to my story.

It was 2005, I'd just won the Bram Stoker Award from the Horror Writers Association for my dark fantasy novel, Scarecrow Gods. I was looking to break into the mass market paperback market side of the business. I'd heard that Medallion Press was taking submissions and trying to expand into the fields of horror and science fiction. I could have tried a horror or dark fantasy novel, but I have many loves, and cyberpunk has always been one of them. The idea of inventing a new future, reflecting what I think could be the terrible consequences of current behaviors and inventions, was too good to pass up. Plus, I'd just spent four years living in Los Angeles and had a terrific understanding of its culture and its heartbeat.

Not only was it a welcome challenge to create a near future 'high tech low life' setting, but I had to populate it, creating entire subcultures. These included skater hackers whose skateboards are mobile servers; an underground religious-technology group who eschews modern computers and longs for a return to the early days; and a group so against the idea of a persons organs being levied to the highest bidder that they'll poison themselves with a most awful disease.

I wrote the pitch and sent it in- synopsis, three chapters, and a complete outline. It took about three months to get a reply, but I received a message on my answering machine from an editor who was on her last day at Medallion. She said she loved the idea, and would like for me to send Medallion the completed manuscript. She then gave me the name and contact information of her replacement. I was giddy. Not an acceptance, but damn close enough. They wanted my novel!

So I wrote the novel. It took me about five months. And I sent it to the editor in question. Several months went by. I contacted them by email. Medallion Press had moved their offices. Could I please resend. I did. About two weeks later, I followed it up with a phone call to the direct line of the editor. After all, this editor was expecting it. Hell, she was probably looking forward to it. The call went something like this:

Me: Hi. This is Weston Ochse. I just wanted to let you know I finished and sent in Velvet Dogma. It should be somewhere on your desk.
Editor: (the sound of crickets)
Me: You know. Velvet Dogma. The editor you replaced called me on her last day and asked me to complete the manuscript and send it to you. She said she loved it.
Editor: (I can hear her breathing)
Me: Velvet Dogma. It's a cyberpunk novel about a woman imprisoned for 20 years, only to be released in a society that--
Editor: Stop. I don't know what you're talking about.
Me: You don't?
Editor: I'm also not working on my predecessor's projects.
Me: You're not?
Editor: (I think she's now doing the NY Times Crossword Puzzle. What's a a six letter word for pain in the ass? A-U-T-H-O-R.)
Me: Uh, thanks very much.

 Sigh. As it turned out, I wasn't writing the novel at the request of an editor, but doing it on Spec and Medallion Press didn't look like it would be its home. Three weeks later I received a form rejection confirming the obvious.

Thanks for that.  Sigh Redux.

Thus began the cold sad life of a lonely manuscript trying to find a home. As I write this, I think of that old School House Rock animated jingle (I'm Just a Bill, Sitting on Capital Hill). My manuscript is singing too, a lonely jazz dirge about being homeless in the big city. I let it make the rounds for about a year, then shelved it.

I moved on.

I wrote several more books and saw my first two mass market paperbacks come out from Abaddon Books: Empire of Salt (Zombies) and Blood Ocean (post-apocalyptic sci fi).

Then came Crossroads Press. David Wilson was putting together a publishing house for eBooks. He asked me to submit. I looked around and realized I still had Velvet Dogma. Then I thought, how perfect to have a novel that centers around the internet, published on the internet for the first time. He didn't offer an advance, but the royalty share was more than competitive. I thought, why not?

But I wanted to design the cover. After searching for images, I came across the image which was finally used for the cover. I contacted Danielle Tunstall in the UK, negotiated a purchase price, and the cover for Velvet Dogma became one of her first images sold as book covers.  Collete Von Tora was the model and I just loved the action and movement in the image. Then I put the book cover together, concentrating on the use of space to highlight the image, not crowd it. I also worked on using a font that was clear, but didn't detract from the overall cover. The cover ended up winning an eBook Cover Design Award (ironically from the site I used to learn how to best use space on an eBook cover).

So the book was published. I made a thousand bucks the first two months. I've been making several hundred bucks a month on it since 2011. I've far surpassed what Medallion Press would have paid for it and the book is doing well, so well, that it was recently #1 on Amazon's Cyberpunk and Steampunk lists, the latter I have no idea why.

Some observations about the book now that it's been out three years.

  • I should have hired a professional editor. I tell people to do this all the time, but didn't follow my own advice. There are about 20 errors in the book. I'm actually working with the publisher to correct these now.
  • I pitched a softball in a lot of areas. What I liked about many of my cyberpunk influences was the raw grit and darkness they brought to sci fi. While I achieved this holistically, I missed a lot of opportunities to get darker. I blame this on myself. I wrote the novel for a publisher who wasn't then known for publishing science fiction, much less cyberpunk. I softened the effects to fit the market, something I've never done again. 
  • For the most part, reviews are good to great. There are a few readers who took the time to itemize what they didn't like, many of whom complained of recycled parts and unreal technology. I'll buy that. I took all that I liked best, and invented my own ways to use them. At the time I wrote the novel, there were no other novels about organ levying. Since then, however, there have been quite a few. What was new then, was no longer new six years after I wrote it when it was eventually published. This tells me how fragile near-future fiction can be, and like Rutger Hauer, who plays Roy Batty, the leader of the rebel replicants in Blade Runner, this sort of fiction has an expiration date.
So that's the journey so far.

I'm not sure if this will be my one and only cyberpunk novel. Whether or not it is, it remains my only journey into a wonderfully dark and inventive subgenre of science fiction.

If you are interested, Velvet Dogma is currently only 99 cents and available for immediate download.

Thanks for reading.

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