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If you have a dream to become a published author but you’re just not sure what you want to say or what you should write about, this podcast episode is for you.
Today’s conversation is with Dan Sheehan. He’s the author of After Action: The Story of a Cobra Pilot’s Journey and Continuing Actions: A Warrior’s Guide to Coming Home. Dan shares his self-publishing journey and how he took his experience as a Cobra pilot in the Marine Corp. and turned it into an engaging series that has impacted thousands of military lives.
Here’s the thing. Dan gets it. Even as a best-selling self-published author, he wrestled with the same questions you’re asking yourself.
In this episode, Dan shares how he went from struggling with PTSD, unsure of what to think of his story, to a successful self-published author whose story has been read and shared by thousands.
Simon Villeneuve: All right Dan, welcome to the show. Thanks for joining us today. How are you doing?
Dan Sheehan: I’m really well. Thanks, Simon. Got the kids dropped off at school, got a good six hours of free time. This is my time to do my work.
Simon V.: You’re in San Diego, near the beach. That means you have some play time in the ocean a little bit too, huh?
Dan Sheehan: Well, that’s an important thing, yes, to get down to the beach and get all the work done in the early part of the day so we can get out and play in the afternoon. Both my kids love the water. My wife and I are water people. If there’s no waves, then we’re out snorkeling. If there are waves, then we’re surfing. One way or another we’re playing in the water.
Simon V.: Awesome. Awesome. Give some context to us here. You said you dropped your kids off, and you have some six hours of free time, give us a bigger picture of what does life look like for you right now?
Dan Sheehan: Well, I’m a stay-at-home dad. My wife travels for work, and she’s gone for a couple months at a time. So I’ve got the two kids full time when she’s on the road. Luckily, being a self-published author, and working on some additional projects, I have the free time and the ability to do that. This isn’t a position I really ever thought I was gonna be in. I started my career as a Marine Corp. Cobra helicopter pilot, and served about 12 years on active duty, and then flew as a commercial pilot for some years after that before I started writing.
To get to the place where I am today, there was no path that I really plodded out for myself. This is just where we ended up, and it’s a really neat spot to be in. I get the dogs out for their walk in the morning before the kids are up, and then get them fed and off to school. I have my workout period in the morning, and then from 10:00 to about 2:00-2:30, that’s my time. That’s my time for my creative process for whatever projects I’m working on. If I’m gonna write that day, then that’s my window to do it. I’m not quite writing right now on the project I’m working on, but I’m still in the brainstorming and story boarding phase. That’s my window. Carve that time outta the day, and try and focus on it.
Simon V.: Did you imagine yourself being an author?
Dan Sheehan: No. I never did. Not really appropriate to say I was going to be a career helicopter pilot, but that was the path I was on through college. I was gonna go into the Marine Corp. I knew that I wanted to do that. My family has a history of military service from my grandfather and grandmother on my dad’s side, both being int he Navy during WWII, and then my father being in the Navy during Vietnam as a pilot. He had a 20-year career as a Navy pilot. My uncle did an extended career in the Navy and then in the Coast Guard. A younger brother
joined the Marine Corp as a Cobra pilot. My wife was a Marine helicopter pilot as well.
Dan Sheehan: So you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a pilot around our house. That was just how my life was set up, and I really had a great 12 years of experiences in the Marine Corp. About the 10-year period, I decided hey, you know what, I think I’ve done everything that I came to do, and started bouncing the idea around of getting out and moving on to something else. But what that something else was, I had no idea.
Author certainly never popped in my head as hey, this is what you should do. No, I left active duty and flew for a civilian company for several years during which time, my wife had our two children, and then concurrently finished her Master’s degree, and then started her second career. She’s now got the career outside the house, and I’ve got the home front.
Simon V.: Very cool. Wow, that’s awesome. Where along that story did you realize like I’m gonna tell my story in a book? Where did that thought come from especially that that wasn’t ever there before or it does sound like you were surrounded by authors or anything?
Dan Sheehan: My brother was a helicopter as well in the Marine Corp., and he suffered some injuries in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan, and my reaction to that phone call when my dad told me that my brother had crashed, was overwhelming and it floored me. It wasn’t a reaction that I expected. Up until that point, I’d done two combat tours in Iraq, 2003 and 2004, had been home for about five years, and had told myself so many times that I was fine, and that there was nothing about those experiences that I needed to go back and dig through, and I believed it.
It wasn’t until I found myself kinda collapsed on the floor, hearing my dad tell me that my brother was in the hospital, that he was gonna recover, I heard the words, but in my mind, he was dead. There was no coming back from that. There was a block, and that was what it was. I recovered quickly from it, but that brief shift was enough for me to see that I wasn’t doing as well as I thought I was.
I had used writing in the past as a way to record and process emotions, and in particular when a very good friend of mine died in a helicopter crash years ago in training. I wrote to him to tell him about my grief, and tell him he’s a dick for whatever. You know, just get everything out of me and put it on paper. I understood there was the cathartic aspect to writing, and just on a whim decided all right, I don’t know what’s bothering me about Iraq, I don’t know what’s bothering me about what I did there, but I need to find out, and I need to figure it out, and I think I can do that on my own through writing.
I didn’t sit down and go, I’m gonna write my book. Let’s go. I sat down and said, All right, I gotta figure this out. I don’t know where to start so I’ll just start at the beginning. There’s an interesting meeting that happens at about this point in my life between me and a man named Dave Hazard, who turned into my writing coach, and who’s coached me through a lot of my own self-published journey. Invaluable resource. I met him at that point when I was just at that cusp of sitting down and writing it. I gotta figure this out.
Seems like timings perfect. This happens, you meet somebody, he goes, hey, I can help you. But that’s not how I’m wired. I don’t want somebody to help me right at the beginning. I knew there was a lot of stuff that I needed to figure out. I didn’t know if it was anything I wanted to share with anyone except for myself. He took my rebuke very well like the professional he is, and said, “All right, let me know if you do wanna talk or if you do need help at some point in the future, you know, let me know.” Took his card, and we exchanged numbers, and said all right no problem. Never expecting that I’d be calling him back. Then I went and I sat down in my basement for nine or ten months.
That sounds like I had long chunks of time to work. I didn’t. I had two small kids so my work was done when they were napping or when they went to bed at night. I got about two hours in the middle of the day to do my work, and then about two or three hours, depending on how awake I was after they’d gone to bed.
So just sit down there in the basement and going through my old journals, because I did keep mission journals from every flight, my old log books, the old log books of my co-pilot, and best friend, our mission videos. Because all this stuff had happened five years in the past, and when those events occurred, it was red hot in my mind. There’s no way that I was gonna ever forget them. But then five years in the future, I start looking back at these things going when the hell did we do that again, and what happened this mission, and they all just kinda run together. In the cockpit for sometimes up to 18 or 20 hours, everything runs together and get kinda goopy.
Pulling all that apart and putting in sequential missions and activities and actions was important for me, and that was the first draft. It turned out to be 450 pages of who, what, when, where stuff. I’ve never read it again. Nobody’s ever read it. There’s no reason to, because it’s garbage. It was just for me to throw out all this information. It’s kinda like in my mind or as I understand it now, it was the delivery of all the building material for a house. It was trucks backing up and dumping it in a stack, and then driving away. So I had a stack a bricks, stack of hardware, everything ready to go, but I had no structure, had no frame, had no story. There was no house there. It was just a stack of stuff.
At that point, I looked at it, and for one thing, felt pretty damn good. Wrote four hundred and something pages. Never written anything longer than a 20-page college paper the night before it was due. So to put that effort in and get that, felt really good to me even if it wasn’t gonna go anywhere. It didn’t have to at that point.
I decided to contact Dave and tell him where I was, and exchanged the manuscript with him. I think he probably read the first couple pages and said, “All right. We got some more work to do if you’re ready.” I said, “All right, well, let’s try this out.” Went through about 10 months working with Dave where we really were able to narrow down what it was that I wanted to say. What was important about my story for somebody to read. It took probably about four drafts before I kinda had that ah-ha moment when I said, “Holy crap, this is what I’m trying to say. This is the intent of this whole story. Why somebody should read it.” Then once I had achieved that, went back through and applied some of the storytelling techniques to emphasize these emotions and these reactions and to bring them into finer focus at various points and really do the storytelling aspects of it.
If I had sat down on that first day, and go “I’m starting a three-year process right now to write my first book.” I would have been done in a day. This is stupid. I’m not gonna look at this for that period of time. But at each stage of the game, it grew into something more and more important that when I was finally done with it, I was really proud of the product and the process that I’d gone through to get there.
Simon V.: That’s awesome. Wow. For someone who’s just starting self-publishing, who hasn’t written a book before, what advice would you give where to start and what kind of expectations to have? If you were to go back to before you wrote your first book, and then say, “I wish I knew this”, what kind of advice would you give?
Dan Sheehan: Well, that’s difficult because my first two books being nonfiction, and being so narrowly focused on my life, the creative process was very different than what I’m going through now. There’s still creativity there, but it was more in the organizational phase of putting things together. I definitely learned a lot of valuable techniques through that process, but I think one of the best bits of advice that I’m currently chewing on that’s kind of sustaining me, actually came from reading Stephen King’s book on writing. My sister gave it to me years ago. I read it then, and put it on the shelf, and I just pulled it back out and started chewing back on it. He had some of the best advice that I’ve heard, and the first one when he’s describing his own process, and it boils down to the first draft is you telling yourself the story.
You don’t have to sit down and go, “I’m gonna write a story right now”, and figure it out on the fly. No. You can go down rabbit holes, you can go this way, you can go that way, you can have this meandering thing that your inner muse, whatever you wanna call it, your creative process develops for you that feels right, and then you go with it. By the end of it, you’ve told yourself this story. Now you may have a whole bunch of extra crap in there that’s no longer the story. You might have thought it was gonna be on one day, but it actually isn’t. Then you go back through, and the second draft as he describes it, is removing everything that’s not the story.
In my mind, that was permission to just sit and just go for it, and to just start writing. ‘Cause the more I try to template out and get at all the nuances and get all the little threads that I want to explode into prominence later on, get all those little things laid in perfectly, the more tied up I get, and the less I’m able to follow the thread of the main story and what it’s all about. So I think there’s real value in having an idea about a story, and then writing it to tell it to yourself. ‘Cause if you’re looking to write a book, then you work in kind of a visual phase. You work through words. There are some people I’m sure who can hold an entire epic in their head, and go okay, record, and just sit down and start writing it. That’s not me. I can’t do that. I can get one little idea, and then that gains tremendous prominence, and that’s the whole thing. That’s what this whole thing’s about, but it’s not. Then I get wrapped around the axle with it.
Personally, if I was to give myself any advice, it would be just to sit down, have an idea, which I’ve got now, and I’ve got ideas around it, and I think I’ve figured out the main storyline. Now it’s time to just sit down and start writing and let those pieces fall into place. And then trust in the editing process. I really enjoy editing. I didn’t think I would. I thought that it would be an absolute chore, but I really love going through and going, “All right, this whole section here, or this whole character doesn’t work. Gone.” I keep a cuts file for everything I’m working on. I can take a whole person, I can take a whole area, I can take an entire 50 pages and cut it out. It’s not gone. It’s in my cut spot. It’s there, but it wasn’t important to the story so it can’t be there. Maybe I’ll use it some other time. Maybe it’ll be something that goes into another story in the future. I haven’t lost anything by it. All I’ve done is strengthened what I’m working on right now.
Maybe that’s the best advice to have is keep a cut file, ’cause you’re not getting rid of any of these gems that you’ve created. You’re just moving them aside and putting them into a place where they can be used later.
Simon V.: That’s good. Yeah. I love that, because I know for me, I’ve done this in the past, and when I’ve worked with other people who have written books or articles or whatever, they try to make it perfect the first draft, right? And then they get stuck, and they never make it or they get discouraged, and it never happens, right? But to just get it out there, and let it happen, and then like you’re saying, trust in the editing process is great.
Dan Sheehan: Yeah. If you want everything to be perfect on your page, then that voice that tells you that it sucks is gonna be louder than ever, and it’s gonna become overwhelming. Whereas, if you get a first draft done, every time that voice says, “It’s crap”. Say, “Yeah, well, I’m fixing it.” And you got something to go on there, and you’re working on it. That back and forth that goes on, you’ve got some ammo there to work with.
Dan Sheehan: So yeah. You just gotta get started, and then trust the process after that.
Simon V.: Do you have any advice for anyone, I guess maybe not advice, but is there any specific things that you really would encourage a new self-published author to pursue if they don’t have family members? Do they need an editor for sure? Do they need a designer for sure? What are the things they should be really focused on?
Dan Sheehan: Well, that’s a great question. My advice would be to know your strengths.
Dan Sheehan: If you know that you can do certain things, then do them. Let’s say that you’re comfortable with your grammatical knowledge, okay, then do it as best you can. Get it to the place where you’re really, really comfy with it, and then maybe that’s the point where you go, all right, am I really sure? ‘Cause if I’m really sure, then maybe I’ll go without somebody else reading this. Or maybe it’s time to just put a couple hundred bucks into a proofreader’s hands.
Dan Sheehan: And just go for it. But the key is you get that product as close to perfect to your own skills as you can, then you hand it off for a quality assurance thing.
Dan Sheehan: Personally, knowing my strengths and weaknesses, it’s not really realistic for me to go, “Okay, my whole next book it just gonna be me. I’m just gonna do the
whole thing.”. Now I know it’s not gonna be that way. I need help with cover design. I’m horrible at cover design. My books, I love their covers. They’re great covers. I didn’t design ’em.
Dan Sheehan: I said, I like this or I like that different aspect, and we put ’em together, but the design team put that stuff together. I know that I’m not gonna be able to encapsulate my story for the emotion of that book into a picture. That’s just not my skillset.
My advice to somebody starting out on this trip is know your strengths, and if you wanna be an author, your strengths should lie with storytelling, and with telling your story, and writing your story down. Then there is additional stuff that happens on top of that that may not be your forte and that’s fine. Doesn’t have to be. But then again, maybe it is. Use your friends, use your community. That’s another thing that you might find is as you start self-publishing, you’ll find more programs like Book Worthy. You’ll find more contact, more people who are going through this same process, and it’s absolutely okay to strike up a conversation through a social media outlet with somebody. Just go, man, I love your book. You did such a good job with the internal layout, and this or that or the other thing, you know, who’d you use? Or oh, I didn’t use anybody. I did it myself. Huh. Can I send ya maybe a case of beer, and we’ll get this done
We like helping each other out.
Dan Sheehan: And especially if you’ve gone through the bit to create a real persona link, a relationship with somebody. You ask them for a favor, and hey, would you mind giving me a test read on this? That’s flattery. That’s telling it, hey, you know what? This person thinks that I could actually help them with their own project. Yeah. I’d be happy to give you a read through. Now don’t send them something that’s garbage, ’cause you’re wasting their time at that point, but if you send them something that okay, you know what, I loved this book. This was great. One weird thing. I don’t know why Tommy Cross comes through on page 53 with a horse head on his head. I don’t understand that. Where’d he come from? I’m like, oh, did I miss that? You miss those sorts of things so you go back and you go, oh, yeah, I cut a whole chapter out that I didn’t realize or whatever. Use these people to help you out. We’re all kind of on the same self-publishing journey, and there’s a bit of a teamwork aspect of it that I think we can expand upon. Especially, within genre. That might be an avenue to explore.
Simon V.: This is great. Yeah. Well, Dan, this is a great spot to end, and I just love ending there, right? Just because it’s self-publishing doesn’t mean you can do a crappy job telling your story, right? Your story has, as you have learned probably publishing your book, is your story has the potential to impact people’s lives, to change their lives, maybe even free them from some barriers that’s keeping them back in their life. If there are things like grammatical errors or a terrible cover or missing pages, your story may not get to them. Just the importance of
that is huge.
Thanks for chatting. Tell us where we can find you if we wanna learn more about your journey, buy a couple of your books, or book you for speaking, or just how can we connect with you?
Dan Sheehan: Sure. Well, thanks for the opportunity. I’ve really enjoyed our chat as well. I am on social media even though I’m not the best at it. I’m on Facebook at DanSheehanAuthor. That’s my kind of professional Facebook page. I have a personal one as well, but the DanSheehanAuthor Facebook page is a good place for contact. I do maintain my own website, DanSheehanauthor.com. That’s just my name DanSheehanauthor.com, and there I’ve got a blog that I update infrequently, but I write articles there when I feel strongly enough about something that it needs to be mentioned. So I’ve got some stuff in there that I’m really proud about. Some articles that I’m proud about. I also have a fair amount of videos from my gun camera footage in my aircraft on that website, a lot of pictures. I didn’t put any pictures in after action, because I wasn’t gonna be certain that they would be clear enough to see well. So I put them on the website and correlated them to the page numbers. So if you do have After Action, you can look at the website and go, hey, there’s this face. Who’s this guy? Oh, that’s Weasel. Okay, he’s on page 192.
Simon V.: Oh, very cool.
Dan Sheehan: Yeah, that’s all on my website, and then speaking engagements easily booked through just an email contact there as well. I’m playing around on Twitter, and Instagram, but those are more personal, I think, than my professional accounts.
Simon V.: All right. Well, Dan, that’s great. Thank you. You’re story is inspiring to me, and I know it will be to all of our listeners as well. Just really appreciate your time sharing your story, and telling us about your experience. It’s great.
Simon Villeneuve is the Co-Founder of BookWorthy.com. He's also a marketing consultant who helps organizations tell a better story that inspires their customers to action.MORE ARTICLES