Lest we forget: 100 years since Passchendaele



Today is Remembrance Day, variously called Armistice Day or Veterans Day in various countries.

99 years ago, the First World War came to an end. Over the years and many wars since then, on the anniversary of this day we pause to think about the war and the people who fought, were wounded and died in it.

And we often think, too, about the families and communities they left behind.

As the author of three books set during wartime, I do a lot of research into the wars, and I am struck by the very different ways we think about it now compared to a hundred years ago.

Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the end of the Third Battle of Ypres, known in Canada as the Battle of Passchendaele because that phase of the battle was fought by the Canadian Corps.

The Canadian Corps had established a reputation at Vimy Ridge six months earlier as the most effective Allied fighting force. They relieved the Anzacs at the Ypres Salient on October 18. Their three attacks, on October 26, October 30 and November 6, met fierce resistance, but the final attack captured the town of Passchendaele in three hours. By November 10, the Canadians had cleared the enemy from the high ground north of the village.

Learn more about the battle at the Veterans Affairs Canada website.

Almost 16,000 Canadians were casualties in the battle, including over 4,000 killed.

From Veterans Affairs Canada

Euphemisms

Think about some of those words, like “cleared” and “casualties.” They’re stand-ins for “killed” or “horribly wounded.” Men who were not wounded so badly they could not fight were patched up and sent back to the front lines. Those sent home lost limbs, eyes, the ability to walk, or such severe “shell shock”—known now as PTSD—they could not continue to fight. They all carried these wounds for the rest of their lives.

Think about those numbers, too. 12,000 Canadians wounded. Over its course from July to November, the Third Battle of Ypres killed more than half a million soldiers on both sides.

That’s a good-sized city wiped out, and that does not include the numbers wounded.

The numbers are shocking.

Also shocking is the attitude of the commanders who kept sending men into the fight, following the thousands already killed. The commanders called the men killed during “quiet periods” on the front “normal wastage”—up to 35,000 men per month.

Thirty-five thousand every month. More than a thousand killed every day, for no reason, achieving no goal.

Legacy

We tell ourselves today that the men who fought and died for our countries in these conflicts did it to preserve our way of life, freedom, democracy and human rights.

That’s arguable, but let’s accept it for now. Let’s remember that the people on all sides of a conflict believe they’re defending something worthwhile.

And let’s remember the impact on the families and communities left behind by those killed. Widows, orphans, parents grieving. After the First World War, the number of women who would never marry climbed significantly because so many young men had been killed.

A century later

The First World War ended a century ago. For many young people, that makes it almost ancient history. They think about it much differently than I did, because when I was a teenager, there were still people around who lived in those times and fought in those battles.

I remember talking about the First World War with my grandmother, who told me about how thoroughly the people at home in Canada believed the narrative (or propaganda).

But there’s no one, or almost no one, left who can remember that time first-hand. There are precious few who can remember the Second World War.

The focus of Remembrance Days now is shifting to later wars. For Canadians, that includes Korea, Somalia, Yugoslavia and Afghanistan.

We lost so many irreplaceable people in those conflicts. The world lost so much.

And yet we continue to go to war.

We remember, but it seems we have not learned anything.

RIP: Canada’s everyday poet



Gord Downie passed away last week.

Okay, that’s not news anymore. Every Canadian and many others around the world know that. But I need to acknowledge the passing and honour the man whose words have meant so much to me over the years.

Gord Downie was the front man and lyricist for The Tragically Hip, which has become known as “Canada’s Band.” Which makes Downie Canada’s principal poet and conscience over the past 30 years or so.

So I thought I’d share with everyone the words of the first Tragically Hip song I remember. Please, pay attention to the words. They are powerful, and like all great poetry, they have many deep layers of meaning.

“New Orleans Is Sinking”

All right

Bourbon blues on the street, loose and complete
Under skies all smoky blue green
I can’t forsake a dixie dead shake
So we danced the sidewalk clean

My memory is muddy, what’s this river that I’m in?
New Orleans is sinking, man, and I don’t want to swim

Colonel Tom, what’s wrong? What’s going on?
You can’t tie yourself up for a deal
He said, Hey, north, you’re south, shut your big mouth
You gotta do what you feel is real

Ain’t got no picture postcards, ain’t got no souvenirs
My baby she don’t know me when I’m thinking bout those years

Pale as a light bulb hanging on a wire
Sucking up to someone just to stoke the fire
Picking out the highlights of the scenery
Saw a little cloud that looked a little like me

I had my hands in the river, my feet back up on the banks
Looked up to the lord above and said, Hey, man, thanks

Sometimes I feel so good I got to scream
She said, Gordie, baby, I know exactly what you mean
She said, she said, I swear to god she said

My memory is muddy, what’s this river that I’m in?
New Orleans is sinking, man, and I don’t want to swim

Swim

What’s your favourite Tragically Hip song? What’s your favourite poem? Leave a comment below.

Fire, fury and quiet



The Furies

Carl Rahl’s Orestes Pursued by the Furies (1852). Wikimedia

This has been an extreme week when it comes to North Korea—extreme political tension, extreme possible consequences and extreme differences in communications strategy, tone and messages.

Furious rhetoric

There’s no shortage of reaction to and analysis of the continuing verbal exchange between the Trump White House and the leadership in Pyongyang. I’ll let others debate the merits of two national leaders threaten each other with nuclear annihilation. What I will say is that the rhetoric itself is extreme, and shows an extremity of intention.

On the other hand, two days ago the world learned that Hyeon Soo Lim, Pastor of the Light Korean Presbyterian Church in Mississauga, Ontario, was released from prison in North Korea. Pastor Lim had been sentenced to hard labour for life for sedition—in the words of the North Korean state, for attempting to destroy North Korea through religion.

Canada sent a delegation, including the senior national security advisor, to North Korea earlier this week to negotiate the pastor’s release. Apparently, the Swedish embassy was involved, too, providing consular support to Pastor Lim over these past two years because Canada does not have an embassy in North Korea.

This came as a huge surprise to the public. Apparently, there have been communications behind the scenes among Canada, North Korea and Sweden for some time. The opposite in tone and volume from Donald Trump’s style of shouting threats of “fury, fire and power.”

How to choose your approach

Kim Jong-un does not back down to threats of nukes.

Image source: SkyNews

There are many who have supported Trump’s messaging. “It’s the language that Kim Jong-Un understands.” One author described it as “mad dog complex”: because nuclear war would destroy all sides in a conflict, each has to make the other believe they’re willing to use nukes, to make the opposition back down.

On the other hand, the Canadian and Swedish governments’ approach to communication, while not at all dramatic, was effective. They wanted to have Pastor Lim released from jail, and that’s what happened.

This is an excellent example of strategic communications in action. Whether your communications is effective always comes down to knowing your audience and knowing what you’re trying to achieve.

With the Canadians and Swedes, the audience was the North Korean government and judiciary. The goals was the release of the pastor. And it was effective.

When it comes to Trump and his communications, the strategy is completely different—if there is a strategy at all.

A guess at the strategy

I don’t have any insight into Trump’s mind or the communications team he has working for him, but I will assume that they do attempt to develop a communications strategy, with goals, hoped-for outcomes, audience analysis, key message development and so on. All the elements of a communications strategy.

So I will attempt to guess what the strategy was by looking at it from the receiving end.

Donald Trump threatens

Image source: The Independent

Threats of “fire and fury” have not worked—they’ve only escalated the rhetoric and the tension. Yet they continue.

Threats have an inherent problem: if you don’t follow through with them, you lose credibility not only with your enemy, who will no longer be afraid of you, but also with your friends. Unfortunately, following through with the threat of nuclear war, as I said, will only lead to losers, with no winners.

What is the goal, then? Before answering that, let’s look at the audience.

Trump’s audience is not Kim Jong-un. His messaging, whether spoken or tweeted, are not directed to Kim, but to other Americans. To the media, political aides, and the voters.

Trump is not trying to achieve peace—he’s bolstering the United States’ reputation as the greatest military power in the world, and his own as a strong man.

Trump’s “brinksmanship” is not a strategy to solving the North Korean problem. It’s a tactic in a long-term strategy to get re-elected, because he perceives that his supporters, his “base,” react well to his bullying and showing off.

What it will achieve in terms of international diplomacy—even international war or peace and the lives of billions—is not part of the calculations.

 

Dark clouds in Bohemia



The wind ruffles the surface of the Tepla River in southern Bohemia, Czech Republic, just before the dark clouds roll in—very similar to my 2011 short story, Dark Clouds: The Mandrake Ruse.

Elmore Leonard said “never open with the weather.” But he never said anything about opening with his admonition against opening with the weather.

Another writer’s rule is to avoid clichés like the plague. I guess I’m going to break that rule, too.

Opening with the weather

Last month, my wife and I travelled to the Czech Republic. On our last night there, we had supper on a patio overlooking the Tepla River in southern Bohemia. Darkness came early, presaging a summer storm.

We had thankfully finished our dinner and were enjoying the last of our wine when I looked up and across the river. Dark clouds had covered most of the sky, but under them, a lighter-coloured cloud was moving fast, like a carpet unrolling—straight toward us.

The ragged edges of the cloud reached for us, some like ragged fringes, others like grasping tendrils of an undersea predator.

The sight unnerved everyone on the patio that night—not just my wife and me, but also the group from Poland at the table next to us. I could see gusts ruffling the river’s surface into flotillas of tiny ripples that dashed from one strand to the other.

Life imitates art

The second work of fiction I published was called “Dark Clouds: The Mandrake Ruse.” There’s a scene where the heroes see a dark cloud moving fast toward them, across the sky. When the cloud reaches the protagonists, the son and daughter-in-law of the Witch Queen, it throws up a storm of dust and pebbles, blinding and stinging the couple.

In Bohemia that night in June, the strange dark cloud continued to unravel over our heads—but if it had been unrolling, the rolling motion was counter to the movement of the overall cloud, itself.

When it hit us, the wind whipped a napkin off my lap and a glass bottle off the table. My wife stood up to move indoors, and her chair flew off the patio, landing three metres away, then sliding down three stone steps.

The wait staff reacted immediately, picking up napkins and cutlery and small items, sweeping up broken glass before the wind scattered the pieces. We guests retreated indoors and watched the clouds come lower and closer.

Then the rain hit like surf crashing on a beach. When the lightning began, it illuminated the forested tops of the rides and hills surrounding the hotel. It continued flashing for hours, light filling the dark hotel room, providing entertainment unmatched by any summer blockbusters.

Living what I write

It was a memorable moment, a memorable night. Even my wife said “It’s like your story, ‘Dark Clouds.'”

It’s always been important to me that my writing is as realistic, as believable as possible. That’s why I do so much research about the settings of my stories and the history behind them. It’s why I describe little details about the places, the furniture, the light and, yes, the weather. It helps put the reader into the story, helps them understand and, ultimately, experience the story.

Because that’s why readers enjoy books: they take the audience out of their everyday reality, and allows them, in a small way at least, to experience the exotic, the fantastic or the downright impossible.

So when something happens to me that echoes so closely what I described six years ago, I have to admit—it’s gratifying.

When has your life reflected art?

Tell me about something that happened to you that seemed to echo something you read or saw in a book, film, song or picture. Leave your description in the Comments.

Independent book review: Smoke Road



Scorch Series Romance Thriller Book 3

By Toby Neal and Emily Kimelman

Luca Luciano is a jerk.

The books of the Scorch Road series are gripping, fast-paced page turners that will thrill, scare, arouse and thoroughly entertain you.

Smoke Road is the third volume in the new Scorch Road, six-book series being launched at a rate of a book a month by co-authors Toby Neal and Emily Kimelman. Both best-selling authors in their own right, teamed to write a six-volume series, releasing them at about three-week intervals.

The books I have read so far in the series follow a pattern. Each one has two main characters: one of the six Luciano brothers from South Philly, and a strong woman he meets. Together, they have to fight their way through the chaos unleashed by the Scorch Flu, a pandemic that kills 90 percent of those infected. Along the way, they gather clues about the source of the virus and a deep conspiracy that caused it.

Smoke Road’s male protagonist is Luca, the eldest Luciano brother. He’s the “alpha male,” a former Special Forces member built like a superhero.
The female lead is Dr. Haunani Kegawa, a medical researcher and advisor to the U.S. national security establishment who has found intelligence about the source of the Scorch Flu: a neo-Nazi skinhead group in Texas who has stolen a virus developed by the government and dispersed it across the country.

The plot of the whole series follows the well-established apocalypse scenario. As most of the country falls sick and dies, society and government fall apart. Gangs loot towns. Communities are reduced to scavengers, pirates, raiders or slaves. Think The Walking Dead, without zombies.

Dr. Kagawa is charged with finding the skinhead neo-Nazis responsible for the calamity, and given a unit of National Guardsmen to help her—the only military force close to the enemy that has not succumbed to the flu—which includes Luca Luciano.

As soon as he meets Dr. Kagawa, they’re irresistibly attracted to each other. This is where Luca becomes a jerk

Luca has deep-seated issues. He doesn’t trust any women. He uses them for his own pleasure—and to be fair, many use him for theirs. He’s a hunk’s hunk. But he believes all women are devious.

Dr. Kagawa is anything but. She’s clearly drawn on Toby Neal’s main character, Lei Texeira: she’s part Hawaiian, part Japanese; she has baggage stemming from a bad, nearly abusive past relationship; and she carries a piece of beach glass in her pocket at all times, which she holds and rubs to allay anxiety. This is a direct carry-over from Lei Texeira.

The story is basically a love story, with the pandemic apocalypse a setting. Luca and Nani are drawn together by circumstance and biology, and their personalities are just similar enough that they clash repeatedly. They drive each other crazy in many ways.

Like reality, it’s the man who’s wrong.

Toby Neal

Toby Neal

Emily-author-photo

Emily Kimelman

It’s frightening to me just how well women can read men’s minds.

This book is compelling and exciting, full of action, suspense and hot sex scenes. It’s a true mark of a writer’s skill to be able to write hot sex scenes without coming off as either pornographic or silly.

Well done, Toby and Emily. You’ve done what every writer strives to do: make a nightmare fantasy completely believable.

5*

Writing tips: What is style?



Creative Commons: dbdbrobot

I’ve been thinking a lot about writing style lately. Actually, I’ve thought a lot about it for a long time — as long as I’ve been writing, which is most of my life.

I find that my response to a book or to a writer, no matter what the subject is, depends a lot on style. I like an author who is original, who does not just try to copy a best-seller or the current trend in books you can pick up at the drug store.

But there is also something else that determines how well I like a story, something about the way the writer uses language.

I’ll give you an example: Margaret Atwood is generally accepted as one of today’s greatest writers. She has written a great many books in of a range of types — I am trying to avoid using the word “style” in different ways here — and, it could be argued, in different genres. Alias Grace could be called “historical fiction,” set in 19th century Upper Canada and based loosely on real events. The Handmaid’s Tale is a set in a dystopian future and, while it doesn’t have a lot of sci-fi tropes, it won the Arthur C. Clarke award for best science fiction.

Atwood is both accomplished and unarguably a master of the writing craft, but while she writes about many different subjects, there is something about her manner of writing that puts me off a little. The only word I can use to describe it is heavy. Her writing is heavy — I don’t read it quickly or easily; on the other hand, I can’t put it down once I start, either.

One writer whose style I really admire is Mark Helprin’s, particularly in his Winter’s Tale, a fantasy set in New York City. In addition to his ability to meld fantastic elements, humour and action into a setting simultaneously believable and fantastic, Helprin also manages to be very descriptive as well as economical with prose. It’s as good an example of magical realism as any I’ve ever read.

But what is it that determines the style? Word choice? Sentence length? Description? Active voice? Those are just a few items in the writer’s toolbox. Also critical are creating realistic, believable and interesting characters, pacing, mixing action and pathos and so much more.

The accepted good

There is a tension between popularity and what is accepted as “good writing” by the publishers and the leading literary critics of any time.

For instance, today, “good” writing is usually characterized by lean prose, active voice, realistic dialogue and sparse description. Writing coaches keep advising us to avoid adverbs in favour of more precise verbs, except when it comes to describing dialogue. We should only use “said,” and not try to change that around with “exclaimed,” or “replied.”

Crime novelist Elmore Leonard came out with ’s 10 rules of writing a couple of years ago; he admitted that he was at least a little facetious at the time, but now he says he seriously believes them. Okay. And Leonard is a great writer, and changed the literary world, and sells zillions of copies, okay, okay — but is he the arbiter of the English language, now? What if something happens in a sudden way? Elmore, what is wrong with the word “suddenly”?

The exemplars of great writing are still supposed to be Fitzgerald and Hemingway. I love their work, but again — should we all try to emulate their styles?

On the other side of that tension is writing that flies in the face of those rules, yet sells millions of copies. The current target of criticism is EL James’ Fifty Shades of Grey. Here’s a passage:

I watch José open the bottle of champagne. He’s tall, and in his jeans and T-shirt, he’s all shoulders and muscles, tanned skin, dark hair, and burning dark eyes.

Descriptive, yes. Also clichéd — it’s been done so many times. “Burning dark eyes”? While we can all imagine what those must look like, couldn’t the author have thought of something original?

And yet, millions of readers ate that up, burning eyes and all. Did the burning eyes cause heartburn, I wonder?

Description

Writing coaches also tell us not to use too much description. Hemingway and Fitzgerald did not describe what their protagonists looked like. Okay, but Dashiel Hammet did.

I agree that too much description can get in the way of the story. There is a lot of material for people to read, that communication of any kind must compete for an audience’s attention with so much more material than there ever was before, so we writers should always try to get as much information across as efficiently as possible — fewer words, more information. I get that.

Efficiency is the goal! (Photo: The Pug Father/Creative Commons )

But we do need to describe some things, some times. And occasionally, an adverb is the best way to do that. See?

Who says so?

Watch this space. Last week, children’s- and middle-grade author Roger Eschbacher opined about writing style. In future, other bestselling authors will weigh in on the subject. So watch this space, and leave lots of comments and questions for the guests, please. Maybe we can finally determine exactly what writing style is, after all.

What is writing style? Guest post by Roger Eschbacher



What is writing style? It’s an elusive topic, in many ways.

To help me chase down the essence of writing style, I’ve called upon some author friends for their opinions. First, we have Roger Escbacher, author of a number of middle-grade books, such as the Leonard the Great series,  Dragonfriend and Giantkiller, middle-grade/young adult fantasy adventure stories set in the time of King Arthur, as well as Undrastormur: A Viking Fantasy Adventure.

140d6-roger-portrait-small_dsc00275editRoger Eschbacher is also the author of two children’s books: Road Trip, and Nonsense! He Yelled, both for Dial Books. He is also a professional television animation writer who’s worked for Warner Brothers, Nickelodeon, The Hub, and Cartoon Network. His blog is The Novel Project, and his Twitter handle is@RogerEschbacher.

How would you describe your own writing style?

I would describe my writing style as cinematic. My goal is to describe the action, world and characters in my book in such a way that readers have a movie playing in their head as they read along. I think this comes from two places, the first being that I’m a television animation writer. In animation, one has to fully describe what is happening so that the artists can animate it. Detailed descriptions are required in my “day job.” Second, as a reader I’ve always preferred books written in that style. I love getting lost in the “brain movie” when I’m reading for pleasure. In general, SF/fantasy books tend to be written this way, which is probably why I read this genre almost exclusively.

Are there any authors whose style you admire? Do you try to emulate them?

Dragonfriend

I admire the writing styles of Neil Gaiman, J.R.R.Tolkien, Douglas Adams, J.K. Rowling, and Rick Riordan, to name a few. All of these folks are quite “cinematic” so I suppose that’s the reason why. Of those four, I’d say Tolkien would be the strongest influence. I love his command of the epic tale so much that I find myself rereading LOTR and The Hobbit every couple of years. Oddly enough, I try not to emulate him too closely for fear of coming off as a low-grade copy of a true master.

Are there authors whose writing style you dislike?

Oh, yes.

How important is your writing style to you? Are you happy with your style, or are there aspects of it you try to change during rewriting or editing?

My writing style is very important to me and I am happy with it for the reasons listed above. When I’m editing, I do my best to make the manuscript an exciting and easy read. My goal is to produce a page-turner — something that flows. I want readers to fly through the book and not get knocked off course by speed bumps and, as Elmore Leonard says, “the parts that readers tend to skip.”

How can readers identify your writing style? Are there particular words or kinds of words that you tend to favour? Sentence structures? Or is it more in the story, the pacing or the characters?

UndrastormurFor me, it’s all about story, pacing, and characters. Natural-sounding dialogue is important, too. I hope that readers would describe my style as fast-paced and exciting.

Do you think your genre imposes certain restrictions on writing style?

Not really. I tend to write “quest-y” stories and for me that’s liberating in that everyone expects that the hero and his friends will go somewhere, do a lot of stuff along the way, almost get killed but survive and make it home. The challenge is to tell a quest tale in a way that follows the expected rules but also continues to surprise the reader.

Do you think your audience responds to your writing style, consciously or unconsciously?

 Yes, I do. My favorite reader compliment on Dragonfriend was from a kid who said, “I can totally see this as a movie.” I smile every time I think of that.

How important do you think writing style is to an author’s commercial success?

I honestly don’t know the answer to this one.Giantkiller

Thank you very much, Roger.

Readers, let Roger and me know what you think. How important is a writer’s style? What do you like? What do you wish authors would stop doing? And does an author’s writing style affect your decision to buy or recommend a book?