Dan Sheehan's After Action: The True Story of a Cobra Pilot's Journey earned a starred review from PW Select, with our reviewer writing that "Sheehan presents with brutal clarity the illusory assumption that veterans can easily resume their prewar identities, and the impediments that the culture of wartime present to those needing assistance in adjusting to civilian life." We talked with Sheehan via email about his memior, self-publishing, and life after military service.
Tell me a little about your military service and what compelled you to write After Action.
My 12 years in the Marine Corps were everything I could have hoped for. I got to fly a helicopter gunship off of amphibious ships all over the world, had the opportunity to use my training to protect fellow Marines in combat, and got to experience the excitement of special operations missions. The fact that I had hoped for exactly those types of experiences made it even harder for me to admit I was having trouble dealing with them.
I returned home from both of my combat tours without a scratch. I was determined to move on with my life and saw no reason to ever think about Iraq again -- unless I was preparing to go back. Then I left active duty and the possibility of going back into combat faded away. I kept my focus on moving forward, but something was bothering me. For five years I pushed the low rumble of unease out of my mind, but it never went totally away. Then my younger brother’s helicopter went down in Afghanistan and my facade crumbled. It was in the aftermath of that event, in an effort to figure out what was happening inside me, that I started writing.
Why did you decide to self-publish?
I didn’t decide to self-publish until about two years into writing After Action. By that point my book had transformed beyond a simple war story into something that could potentially save lives. Through writing, I came to understand my experiences in a way that could help other veterans -- past, present and future -- deal with the aftermath of war. I felt what I had learned was important enough to share with others and was determined to make it available, publisher or not.
Prior to self-publication, did you try selling your books to publishing houses? Did you have a literary agent?
I did not have a literary agent. When the manuscript was about 75 percent complete I sent out proposals in an attempt to land one. What responses I did get were along the lines of “This sounds great, but I don’t think I can sell it. Good luck and thanks for your service.” The time and effort to research and craft targeted proposals started to feel like wasted energy, so I stopped. That was when I decided to self-publish.
Once you made that deicsion, what was the process like?
The process of self-publishing couldn’t have been easier. The primary reason for that ease is my relationship with David Hazard, the Director of Ascent. Ascent provides full spectrum support and guidance to authors. After I’d written my first draft I entered into Ascent’s 10-month guided writing program. As a developmental editor, David provided invaluable feedback that helped me transform my rough manuscript into a polished book that captured the intensity of my experiences and the nuances of how they affected me.
The depth of knowledge at Ascent was very helpful when I decided to self-publish. Through their industry contacts, I found a design firm to create my cover, format the internal layout, and translate my Word document into the required formats for e-readers and CreateSpace. Once the book launched, I again used Ascent to locate a web designer to create my web page and assist me with marketing and outreach. While I did pay for these services, the quality, responsiveness, and professionalism of David and his team were well worth it. In a marketplace where anyone can publish anything with a few keystrokes, a professionally designed product can really help you stand out from the crowd.
What were the biggest challenges with self-publishing?
The biggest challenge I can think of with self-publishing is figuring out who to trust. The publishing world is transforming at a blistering pace that offers new writers incredible opportunities and money-sucking pitfalls. The trick is figuring out which is which.
What have you done to publicize the book?
Much of the publicity the book has received has come via word of mouth. Friends and family have spammed their entire email contact lists with information about After Action. Through these contacts I landed several speaking engagements and interviews that gave me the opportunity to publicize my work. Active duty military personnel have also been very vocal in their support. Favorable reviews in Military Times and this magazine give me reason to believe that momentum is building.
I did create a Facebook page for After Action and recently launched my own website and blog at www.dansheehanauthor.com. In addition to communicating with readers, I use social media to post pictures I had intended to include in the printed copy of the book. Unfortunately, the reality of print on demand meant I wouldn’t be able to ensure the pictures would print clearly enough for a reader to understand what they were looking at. So I made them available online instead.
What has the reaction been to your book now that you have self-published? Have you had feedback from other veterans or people still serving in the military?
The initial reaction from my friends in the Marine Corps was generally “You wrote a book? I didn’t know you could read!” But after the initial shock wore off, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. The reason for this is simple -- my book is an honest look at what I did, and experienced, in combat. I’ve received emails from servicemen and women, their family members, policemen, widows, parents of deceased Marines...the list goes on. Each of them, in their own way, wrote to thank me for explaining emotions and reactions they too had experienced but couldn’t communicate. I’ve been tremendously humbled by their feedback.
What advice would you give to other writers considering self-publishing?
Writing the book is a good start -- but it’s only half the battle. Marketing, publicity, building a platform, being accessible to readers...these things take time and effort. Traditional publishing also requires authors to do those things, but at least there you can expect some guidance and support from your publisher. Self-publishing means that you are launching a book and a business at the same time. The best advice I can give is to find a mentor who understands how to do both. If you harness their knowledge, you can employ tried-and-true methods while maintaining flexibility to exploit new technologies that can make your book successful.
There have been quite a few books by veterans in recent years, perhaps most notably American Sniper. How do you see your book fitting into that landscape of books?
I haven’t read American Sniper so I can’t comment directly on that book. Many of the military non-fiction books I have read focus on fantastic experiences and extraordinary courage. These books provide exciting entertainment, but don’t often explain the human costs of combat.
Books that focus only on the excitement and adventure of combat provide a one-dimensional picture of war. Those components do exist in combat -- but so do self-hate, disgust, fear, and guilt. My story explains how all these aspects of combat impacted me, both during and after my tours in Iraq, and offers support to other veterans struggling to understand what they’ve been through. I think intimate honesty and a helpful message are what set my book apart from the rest.
What are you working on now?
Besides chasing my two kids around, packing to move across country, cleaning up after the dog, and promoting After Action? Oh, not much. Well, okay, that’s not totally true. I’m using my blog to further explore the veteran’s experience in America and actively brainstorming some fiction ideas. My fiction voice is what I imagine would result from an unholy coupling of Tom Clancy and Carl Hiaasen. I’m excited to turn it loose and see what happens.