Monday, December 22, 2014

Happy every holiday

Happy holidays, all readers, whichever holiday you are celebrating, or not celebrating.

I would also like to extend especially positive wishes to those who get very little attention at this time of year: those who choose or, or have to work on these days so many consider special. These are not just nurses and police officers, but also those forced to work because they just cannot afford to take time off.

So take a moment to appreciate the people in the corner store, the drug store, the movie theatre, ski hill, gas station and anywhere else that might be open on your holiday.

I'm not the first to remark on how many cultures have a special celebration at this time of year. Nor am I the first to notice that many have a celebration involving light when the days are shortest (in the northern hemisphere). So there is a lot more about our various celebrations that brings us together than drives us apart. 

So please share these inclusive sentiments, readers. And have a happy, healthy and successful dark season. Unless you're in the southern hemisphere, where it's the bright season.

And share a wish for a good, safe and peaceful new year.

*
Happy Yule
Happy Sadeh
Happy Kwanzaa
Merry Christmas
Happy Hanukkah
Happy Saturnalia
Happy Diwali (a little late)

Happy Eid (a different time every year)

Monday, December 15, 2014

Technology weirdness: a warning and a tip


Written Words has whined about technological bugs before, but here’s a warning: don’t always believe the network when it tells you it does not recognize your password.

I have gone through this problem periodically: I come down to the computer in the morning, try to check my email, and get a message that either the password is incorrect or that the server does not recognize my outgoing (smtp) password.

This always mystifies me, because the email had been working perfectly the night before. When this has happened in the past, I have logged into the self-service site of the affected ISP and updated my password. Then I have to go to all my devices that can access email and change them, too. Then I have to update my secure, written list of all my passwords, because there are only so many words that combine letters, numbers and special characters, and don’t reference names of family, friends, pets or places I’ve lived, and are easy to remember.

It’s a process bound to create confusion. When the problem occurs again, and I have to enter the old passwords and then a new password.

And it begs the question: why did the server no longer recognize the password? I did not change it. It worked the night before, but stopped the next morning.

The latest time this happened, I tried re-entering the password, which did not solve the problem. I logged into the webmail program, and that worked fine. So I called my service provider. After waiting on hold, listening to lame music and enduring the repeated “We apologize for any inconvenience” recording, I explained the situation to the technician.

I looked at the email client, and an email had come in while I was on hold. But clicking Get Mail still gave me the error message that the server did not recognize my password.

“I don’t see any problem on my end,” the technician said. “Let me check something else.” She put me on hold for another five minutes. When she came back, she suggested I try sending a test email. “But don’t put ‘test’ into the message or subject line. We sometimes get problems with that.”

I did. And guess what? The message went through.

I did not change any settings. I did not reset the passwords.

“We are migrating our servers. Perhaps that caused a glitch,” the technician suggested.

Then, as if by magic, the email clients on all my devices connected with the email server, and messages started coming in.

Tip

So here’s my tip: when you get an error message that your email account information is wrong, and you know you didn’t change anything, don’t go through the process of changing all your email passwords on all your devices and remote connections. Call your ISP and just wait for a while. See if an hour’s wait doesn’t solve the problem. Changing all your passwords should be a last resort.

What about you techies? Do you have an explanation for this, or alternative solutions?

Monday, December 08, 2014

Narrative is important for fiction, but bad for reality


Exodus, Christmas and other mythic narratives

I’ve been reading a lot about “narrative” in news and social media lately. Not as in literature, as in a story arc, but narrative applied to public discourse about current events. The narrative of global warming, for example, is now being derided by climate change deniers.

In other words, “narrative” is a story that we use as a context to understand the world around us.

The prospect of using a narrative appeals to a writer like me. Stories are my bread and wine. And a narrative, a consistent story arc, is essential to a work of fiction. A narrative is particularly important to genre fiction, as it helps provide background information: the underpaid detective who lives on his own because his work prevents him from having a family life; the distant love interest who spurns attachment because of a past trauma; boy-meets-girl; the odd couple; revenge. There are only seven plots, said the ancient Greeks, and every story follows one, or more of these basic seven narratives.

But I’m going to put it to you today, oh my wonderful and valued readers, that narrative as a way to understand the real world around us is caustic. Destructive.

Some common narratives today

I realize that I have grown up accepting a lot of narratives. The Christmas story, for one. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was born on December 25 in a manger in Bethlehem. It’s a powerful story, one that drives so much of our culture and activity. But it has its flaws. Historians who have looked at the story rationally point out that lambs are born in spring, not in the winter, for example.

Still, it’s a powerful narrative—obviously.

The Exodus narrative is the foundational story of the Hebrew people and to a large extent of the modern state of Israel. It’s another powerful narrative: God led the Hebrews out of Egypt to the Promised Land.

According to the Bible, hundreds of thousands of Jews, along with all their livestock, left Egypt somewhere around 3,000 years ago, and after 40 years settled in Canaan, the Promised Land, after being pursued by Pharoah.

Except that there is absolutely NO architectural or other corroborating evidence of such a monumental event. It’s a nice story, though.

Caustic narratives

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD—all soldiers returning from Afghanistan, or Iraq, or any conflict, are permanently psychologically damaged. For a distressingly large number, this is true, but it’s not universal.

Get tough on crime—governments in the US and in Canada like to use this one. According to the narrative, lax criminal law enforcement, luxurious prisons and short jail sentences only encourage crime, while long sentences and jails that are not desirable places to be will discourage criminals from committing crimes. Except that experience has demonstrated the opposite. If society’s goal is to reduce crime, then programs that teach poor people skills and provide jobs, food and mental health care have proven to be much more effective than being tough on crime.

Tax cuts—none of their proponents call it “trickle down economics” anymore, but the idea is the same: cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthiest people will make them spend more, and thus create jobs for the working and middle classes. Except this has never been demonstrated to happen. If you remember, in the 2008 economic crisis, the banks, those epitomes of the capitalist philosophy, demanded and got government intervention to prevent their failing. The crisis and the TARP were examples of Keynsian, interventionist economic policy at work, and the repudiation of Milton Friedman’s hands-off ideas.

Narratives are great for fiction, for novels. But they’re counterproductive as a way to look at the real world. Instead of looking for a narrative, why don't we look at the world the way it really is? Look for facts, look for actual causes and effects. 

How is narrative a problem? Let's consider one narrative that most people (not all) have abandoned: that humanity was created in one special moment and did not evolve from an earlier, different species of animal. A century and a half ago, the idea of evolution was largely rejected because it did not fit into the narrative most people had accepted because they'd been taught it as children by adults they respected. To accept the idea of evolution, the authorities and teachers said, was to disrespect those authorities.

And yet, many years later, we have (mostly) accepted the fact of evolution, and those institutions that strove against the idea, the churches and schools and authorities, are still with us. Yes, they've changed; some have weakened, others have become stronger.  

But adhering to a narrative causes us to ignore facts that don't fit into it, and encourages choices that cause harm.

Yes, narrative is important. But it's important to construct the narrative to fit reality, and when we learn new things, to change the narrative. 

Narrative is a story, and as all writers know, the story can always change.
-        

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Thank you, audience, for growing


The audience for this blog has reached another record high point: in November 2014, more than 20,000 people viewed a page. Three times during the month, daily numbers reached or exceeded 1,000, and the all-time number is approaching 400,000. In fact, I fully expect to reach that by next week. If things keep going the way they have been, even without any more growth, it will have reached half a million by June.

Here’s the graph from Blogger. You can see that I started blogging in March 2006, but I didn’t post very much at first. I published seven posts in March, mostly reused material like reviews of printers, cameras and other communications technology. But by May, the frequency had dropped to once every week or two. I didn’t publish anything in June, just once in August and nothing all that fall. I only published six posts in all of 2008 and only one in 2010.

It’s not surprising that my blog got little attention then. Why would anyone come when there’s nothing new to see?

It wasn’t until 2011 and I had finished writing my first novel, The Bones of the Earth, that I started blogging regularly. By that fall, and most of the time since (with a few lapses, sorry) I was blogging at least once a week. For a while there, I was doing three posts a week. And, not surprising, that’s when pageviews started to climb.

That’s also when I got my twitter account, and putting a link to my blog in most of my tweets. Pageviews, driven by frequent announcements about posts and attracted by new content, started to climb dramatically.

As you can see from the graph, pageviews climbed in spurts. There’s the long, flat head from 2006 to 2010, then a more or less steady rise through 2011, when pageviews averaged around 6,000 per month—that’s 200 a day. There are peaks and valleys from month to month, then another surge to another plateau around 10,000 per month for most of 2012 and 2013.

And now, a new high: from 13,734 pageviews in September 2014, to 16,548 in October to over 20,000 in November! And the pace so far in December (okay, I know we’re just two days into it, but taking that as a trend) is over 700.

Getting the best help

What accounts for that? I have to give some credit to Lisa Jey Davis, also known as Ms. Cheevious. In addition to being a kick-ass lady and always entertaining writer and blogger, she’s an awesome social media consultant. She created some Facebook pages and posts for me, and is doing some other mysterious things in social media on my behalf. And since she started doing that, my numbers have been climbing strongly. In addition, the Army of Worn Soles page she created for me on Facebook now has over 100 likes. To me, that’s a lot.

The view from the peak

I remember being so excited in 2011 and 2012 as I watched my daily, monthly and “all-time” pageview statistics climb. I remember thinking “Wow. Those statistics were really pathetic before 2011, but now, this is serious.” I compared this to my experience working on Canadian magazines (remember those things, printed with ink on paper?) in the 1980s. Thirteen thousand readers per month was a respectable, healthy readership for a “trade,” or industry magazine. With a staff. And postage expenses. And here I was, getting those kind of numbers all by myself.

A note here about Google’s graph: the numbers I see today don’t jibe with my memory. And the graph doesn’t show the odd-numbered years. You cannot see the statistics for 2007, 2009, 2011 or 2013.

Why do I do it?

Three times a week required an effort and a devotion of time that were too great to sustain. Other things, like writing novels, began to suffer. So I scaled back to twice a week for a while, and now am pretty content with once per week.

Now, if there were only a way to make money from that. Don’t tell me about Google ads. I have those, as you can see, and I haven’t gotten a penny. I’m not complaining; that’s not why I write this blog.

“So why do you spend so much time on that blog and on setting up tweets every day?” my lovely and supportive wife is fond of asking.

I’ve used the standard answers (that I am, umm, repurposing from consultants and self-described authors’ advisors): “building the platform, raising my profile.” It’s partly true, but as a method of driving book sales, well, I can’t say it’s had the impact that other writers report.

But it does show that I can get an audience. My writing is reaching important people: you.

Thank you, readers.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

iAi cover reveal: The Dark by David C. Cassidy


The multi-talented author David C. Cassidy has completed his third book. He's releasing The Dark, a very creepy, scary and riveting tale on December 15. It's available for pre-order on Amazon right now. 

What's it about?


It knows what you want. It knows what you need.
In denial over his father’s death in a horrific accident, Kelan Lisk has grown fearful and withdrawn. For this meek and bullied child, a burning desire to tame a deadly sledding hill consumes him, drawing him inside a wondrous place where anything is possible … including his father. But as this strange new realm spills into this one, twisting an innocent boy into an agent of evil, the world is forever changed, devoured by an even greater evil—the Dark.

Reviews on Amazon:

“Dean Koontz would be proud of this writer.”“Exceptional writing on a par with Stephen King.”“Readers are at the mercy of a masterful storyteller.”“Eloquent and eerie … this is how a story should be written.”


I'm thrilled about this book and doubly proud of it, because I've been a fan of David Cassidy (the author, photographer and designer, not the teen idol) since I discovered his first book, Velvet Rain, and saw several of his gorgeous cover designs. In fact, I asked David to design the covers of both One Shade of Red and Army of Work Soles.

The other reason I am so proud of The Dark is that I edited the manuscript. I'm very happy with the way that worked out.

So check it out. And if you want a scary, creepy and excellent book to read over the holidays, or if you want to give one as a present, then this is what you're looking for.
 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Getting back to writing

Writing the first paragraph of anything is always difficult, because there’s so much pressure. That first paragraph, even more so, the first sentence, has to do so much: set the scene, get the story moving and grab the reader’s attention.

But I took a lot of pleasure from that pressure last week and wrote an opening for my next book, after a long period of spending my writing time doing other things. Things that are rewarding and worthwhile, but aren’t writing.

What have I been doing?

  • editing three excellent and very different books for colleagues, including David C. Cassidy, author of Velvet Rain and the upcoming The Dark
  • traveling with my lovely and very tolerant wife to France (well, that was just a week, but still)
  • finalizing the print version of my latest book, Army of Worn Soles—print is much less tolerant of mistakes than e-books are
  • working on revamping my website, which sad to say, still isn’t done.


In fact, my attempts to improve my website have so far had the opposite effect: they’ve rendered it unviewable by any browser. Oh, I still have the files, but I’ve done something in the coding that creates a looping redirect. So for the past couple of weeks, my spare home-office time has been taken up with researching cheap or free, yet easy-to-use HTML editors for the Mac.

Now, there are some excellent inexpensive programs, but I found one that’s free, and that does (or purports to do) all the things I want to have in my website. There’s something in me that just won’t let me shell out 80 buck US for something when I can almost the same thing for free. The downside is that I had to start all over again to rebuild the site.

Anyway, the revamped site is close to being done, and when it is, this blog will look very different.

This is a blog about writing, not about being a cheapskate

Clio by Pierre Mignard.
Source: Wikipedia 
Thank you, muse of writing. 

The writing. Well, last week, I pushed the website and the book formatting aside for a while to return to writing. I know that I said in June that I would have the sequel to Army of Worn Soles out by December, and we all know that’s not going to happen.

I have had this nagging feeling that comes from knowing that I have been putting off finishing the story of Maurice Bury, my late father-in-law, and his experiences in the Second World War. Now, I feel so much better that I have started to make progress again.

This is a very early draft, but here’s an opening:
Ukraine, January 1942Wind blew the snow smooth, polishing surface of the lake to a dull sheen under the full moon, and pushing drifts higher than a man along a rough fence that shielded the railway. Beyond the rails, more snow weighed down the boughs of close-growing fir trees and covered their trunks more than six feet high. 
The moonlight made steam sparkle as a train emerged from the forest to puff and groan slowly along the edge of the frozen lake. The engineer squinted through the small forward window, which gave only an obstructed view. Periodically, he would lean out the side window to peer at the track ahead, but he could only bear the frigid air, the wind from the train’s forward motion, and the smoke and cinders from the engine, for less than a minute before he had to come back inside. 
He kept the train’s speed low and one hand on the brake lever, despite the commands of the Wehrmacht officers in the cars behind him. He knew the risks of going too fast in this country. Besides snowdrifts over the tracks that could derail the train despite the plows welded onto the front of the engine, the men he knew hid under the dark boughs posed worse threats.
Army of Worn Soles chronicled Maurice’s drafting into the Red Army, his service as an officer as the army retreated across Ukraine and his capture along with half a million other men, his imprisonment and his escape along with the men in his command from the POW camp. The second story is about his experiences after that:
  • fighting in the underground resistance against Nazi Germany
  • being re-drafted by the Red Army
  • fighting across the Baltic states and then eastern Germany, up to Berlin in May, 1945
  • and finally, his narrow escape from the Red Army and Stalin’s NKVD to return home to Canada, where he was born.

I think I’ve got it all mapped out now, and about 80 percent of it is written. But I am having one problem, dear readers: the title. So I’m turning to you. In the Comments section below, tell me which of the following possible titles you think is the most grabbing:

  • Walking Out of War
  • Walking Away from War
  • Slipping Through Stalin’s Net
  • The Four-Sided War
  • Worn Soles Home

I’m looking forward to your comments!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Writing tip: Break complex ideas into manageable chunks

Photo: Building Blocks by Myfear on Flickr. Creative Commons licence.
Periodically, my university student sons ask for writing advice for their assignments. Most recently, the elder asked for another word for "prelude" or "precursor."

What the Blond Raven wanted to do was describe how Algeria's experience in the 1990s, when a number of religious groups rebelled against the military government, was similar to the situation today in Syria.

"Why not just say that?" I asked.

"That's not ... fancy enough for a university paper," he said.

"All right," I said, realizing that the situation screamed for improvisation. "Preface your paper with this:
In defiance of the tacit pretentious approach to expression accepted in scholarly journals, henceforth this paper shall be written in style that all readers with an education beyond the sixth grade can understand.

Why is it that academic writing is purposely dense? Incomprehensible? Why does every sentence have to be dissected and reassembled to be taken seriously?

In other words, why can't academic papers attain the same standards of other forms of communication—why can't they be written in clear language?

Or to put it more plainly: why don't academics use clear writing?

How about this one:

As a result of these intermeshing trends, strengthening states through statebuilding programmes has come to be regarded by major donors as a central response to violent conflict and insecurity and a core element of peacebuilding programmes (and of development assistance). In the post-colonial states of the Global South, external peacebuilding operations are often faced  
[Sorry, my fingers got tired there.] 
not only with responding to the effects of vioent institutions coexising with other logics of authority, power, and order (ethnic, tribal, religious, criminal etc.). 
(Source: Tarya Vayrynen, "Gender and Peacebuilding," in Oliver P. RIchmond's Palgrave advances in peacebuilding,University of St. Andrews, UK: Macmillan Palgrave, 2010).

Before you read it again, tell me: what was the beginning of the paragraph about?

How about this winner from an article on nationalism: 
For present purposes, the two relevant cultural systems are the religious community and the dynastic realm. For both of these, in their heydays, were taken-for-granted frames of reverence, very much as nationality is today. It is therefore essential to consider what gave these cultural systems their self-evident plausibility, and at the same time to underline certain key elements in their decomposition.
These two examples could so easily be written more clearly. I have always belived that the audience should be able to understand a text after reading it the first time. But if you cannot remember the beginning of the paragraph byt the time you get to the end, the writing fails. If you get lost in the maze of loosely connected clauses, it means the writer has not followed the first rule of writing: know your audience.

Academic writing often runs into the problem of trying to cram too many ideas into one sentence. Broadely speaking, the job of the researcher is to find patterns and connections between facts and phenomenal. When they find connections and correlations, it's tempting to try to fit them all together in one sentence. The researcher gets excited: "Look how these ideas are connected! It makes so much sense, and together, they mean this!"

We've all been there.

Stop. Breathe in through your nose, and blow out through your mouth. There. Now, you're relaxed.

It's not easy, but the solution is to think through, very carefully, what you're trying to say. Break it down into single sentences and the just write the connections in order, as simply as you can. 

Sometimes, we need to express complex ideas. Sometimes, the connections among causes and effects are complicated. The solution is like project management: break the big, complicated mess up into smaller, manageable chunks. Deal with each one in turn, then move on to the next idea.

Like this: 
The two cultural systems relevant today can be called the religious community and the dynastic realm. Each of these systems dominated different societies at different times in history. Where they did, the people in the societies they dominated took them for granted, in the same way people today take nationality for granted as a basis for states today. What gave these other cultural systems their plausibility? What were the key elements that unravelled them?
The Blond Raven is right. This is far too simple, too clear, for today's scholarly journals. Why, if everyone could understand these articles, why should they bother with expensive post-secondary education?

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

On Remembrance Day, in honour of all who served: Chapter 1, free

Today, November 11, 2014, is Remembrance Day in Canada, Veterans' Day in the US, Armistice Day in the UK. It's a day recognized under many names in countries around the world, marking the end of the First World War, called the "defining calamity of the 20th century."

That calamity, which took millions of lives and changed the perception of war, began 100 years ago.

In honour of all who served, I offer the first chapter of Army of Worn Soles, the true story of a Canadian drafted into the Soviet Red Army just in time to face Nazi Germany's invasion in 1941.

Chapter 1: Prisoner of War


Kharkiv, October 1941

Maurice put the bottle on the ground beside him and took off his uniform shirt. He spread it on the smoothest piece of ground he could find, then laid the bottle near the officer’s insignia on the collar and pushed down. He rolled the bottle over tattered, light-brown material until the lice cracked under the glass. Back and forth, twice, three times. He felt a dull satisfaction at his first pathetic victory in more than half a year.

The effort was exhausting. His stomach ached and his throat burned with thirst.
He slumped back until he leaned against the barracks. Men in grey uniforms stood or walked across the cobbled courtyard of the ancient castle. One came toward him, a slim man with light brown hair and hazel eyes. He stopped in front of Maurice and leaned down.

“Maurice? Is it you?”

Breathing required effort. So did looking up. Maurice had not eaten in days, but he still trusted his sight. He knew the man with the light-brown hair and hazel eyes, even in a Wehrmacht uniform. 

“Maurice?" the young man said again. "What are you doing here?”

He couldn’t swallow. His mouth held no moisture. “Dying. I’m starving to death.” Maurice closed his eyes and hung his head.

Bohdan crouched beside him. “You got drafted?”

Maurice made the effort to look up at his old friend. “The Red Army made me a lieutenant. What the hell are you doing here, and in a German uniform, Bohdan?”

“The Germans kicked the Russians out, something we couldn’t do. Why shouldn’t I join the winning side? And it's ‘Daniel’ now, not Bohdan.” He looked around to make sure no one noticed him, a Wehrmacht officer, talking to a prisoner of war. “I’m glad you survived, that you were captured instead of killed. The Germans killed a lot of Red soldiers.”

“I know. I was there.”

Bohdan looked around again. "How did you get here?”

“Like you said, we were captured, the whole army, outside Kharkiv. They brought us here.”

Bohdan shook his head. “Are you all right? I’ll see if I can bring you anything, but I have to be careful.”

Maurice looked into his friend’s eyes. “Get me out of here.”

“Set a prisoner free? Are you crazy?”

“Bohdan—sorry, Daniel, you’re my best friend. Or you were. If I ever meant anything to you, get me out.”

Daniel—Bohdan, looked left and right again. “I cannot let Red soldiers go,” he whispered.

Maurice took a dry breath. His strength was almost gone. “You’re an officer in a victorious army. You have the power. You can get me out, me and my boys.
Daniel shook his head and stood. “Stalin's going to surrender within six months, and then all the prisoners will be freed. Hitler has promised freedom for all nations. We’ll all be free. Ukraine will be free.”

Maurice looked at the ground between his splayed legs. He could no longer lift his head. “I can’t wait six months. I can’t wait two days. If you wait, you’ll find a corpse. We’ll all be dead. You have to get us out now.”

Daniel hesitated. He looked around the camp again, but no one paid attention. “So the Reds made you an officer, did they? Where are your men? All dead?”
Somewhere, Maurice found the strength to stand up again. He staggered to the barracks door, went in and called his odalenye, the unit he commanded. “Step over here, boys.”

Daniel followed Maurice inside, and Maurice wondered if Daniel wasn’t breaking some regulation by entering prisoners’ quarters unaccompanied by at least one guard.

Daniel scanned the room, taking in the defeated, injured and starving men. No one threatened him. They did not even move. Maurice realized when they saw Daniel, they saw their captor.

Daniel stepped out of the barracks and waited outside the door. “I’ll see what I can do, Maurice. But you’re on the wrong fucking side.”

Maurice picked up the bottle and returned to crushing the lice out of his uniform shirt. It was the only thing he could do to reduce his misery.

He thought about the last time he had seen Bohdan, before he became Daniel.

It was in the gymnasium, the pre-university school in Peremyshl. What used to be Poland. What a long, strange, twisted path my life has followed. 

____

For more from Army of Worn Soles, click the cover image at the top of this blog.

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