Thursday, August 29, 2013

How to write a report I will read

My last post focused on fiction: how to write a novel I would enjoy reading.
There are far more people in the world who have to write other kinds of documents: letters, proposals, memos, instructions, report — which may or may not be fictitious.

These writers also need some guidance, at least to judge from many of the reports I have to read. So here are a few tips on how to write a report that I will be able to read.

1.   Start at the end

Get to the point immediately. No one reads reports for pleasure. They want to know “what’s in this for me?”

Start with your more important point: what does this report mean? In other words, the conclusion. State that up front. In fact, write it down first.
Think of writing your report as taking a road trip. What’s the first thing you do? You enter the destination into MapQuest (or Google Maps, or whatever). You find out exactly where it is and you get directions from where you are now.

Your conclusion, which should be the thesis statement of your report, is your destination. Now, you need to work out how to get there.

2.   Get a GRIP

Regular readers will know my copyrighted formula to writing: Goal, Idea, Reader and Plan

Goal — Your purpose. Why are you going to your destination? What will you do when you get there? In terms of writing, what result do you want from this report? It could be to change a policy in the workplace, or it could be to inform colleagues about safer working procedures. Whatever it is, have a clear idea about it. If you have trouble clarifying the purpose, answer this question: what do you want the reader(s) to do after they finish reading the report?

Reader — Whom is this report for? Who are they, specifically? What interests them? What motivates them? Why should they care about what you have to say?

Idea — Your main message, your thesis statement, the most important thing you have to say. Sum up your whole report into one grammatically correct sentence. If you can’t do that, you cannot make your point clearly to anyone else.
Image from Jamie Rubin, science-fiction author

Plan — This is your MapQuest/Google directions to the conclusion. A map has two main points: starting and destination. Now, your audience is uninformed, or at least not as aware of all the information you have. Where you want them to be is responding according to your Goal statement.

Typically, you need to present facts, show the links and relationships among them, and demonstrate to the readers why these are important. Tell the reader how the facts and links affect their job or life. 

For example, if you want to cause change in your organization, you will have to show how the current situation costs more money (or time, which is the same thing) than it has to. You have to demonstrate this is a pressing problem, or imminent threat to safety, employee morale or bottom-line profits. Then you have to demonstrate how your conclusion will solve all those problems.

3.   Write backwards

Write the conclusion first. That will put your destination, your main point, clearly at the top of your mind. And it will show you how to get there.
Then write the persuasive information that will bring your readers there. Follow your outline. Don’t skip anything. Fill in all the information your readers will need to accept your conclusion and take the action you want them to take.

National Museum of Health and Medicine. Educational and non-commercial use only.
Write the introduction last. State the problem (if there is one) and summarize your conclusion.

If you’re going to summarize anything, you have to have the full statement written out first. It’s far more difficult to say something succinctly first, then extend it to a full argument.

It’s like that old statement that’s been attributed to Mark Twain, Samuel Pepys, Oscar Wilde and many more: “Sorry to write you such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one.”

4.   Control quality

Avoid jargon and business terms like “going forward,” “institutional arrangements,” “at the end of the day” or “outside the box.” These are emptyphrases. Just write what you mean.

Eliminate empty words and phrases that don’t add information. Replace noun phrases with verbs. Keep your sentences active (see my post on Writers Get Together).

And before you deliver your report to the audience, edit it. Go over it again. Watch out for clichés and vague thinking, as well as downright mistakes. Was the number supposed to be 51 or 15 cases of ammunition? Did that shipment arrive on February 8 or August 2?

5.   Proofread it one more time

It can’t hurt, and you may just catch something egregious. Better yet, have someone else read it over. You can’t proofread your own stuff.

Follow these guides, and you’ll have a much easier time writing a document that will have the results that you want.

Questions? Ask in the Comments section below.

Good luck!

Saturday, August 24, 2013

How to write a book I will like

Image "3D judges gavel" by Chris Potter (Flickr: 3D Judges Gavel) via Wikimedia Commons
I have reviewed a number of books by independent authors lately: Rachel Thompson, Bruce Blake, Seb Kirby, Doug Dorow, Chris Ward and of course RS Guthrie. All the reviews that I have published on this blog have been very positive: four or five stars out of five.

I thought I would now explain how I arrive at that judgement. Just in case you were wondering “What is it you want from a book, anyway, Scott?”

First, before you dismiss me as a the kind of reviewer who gushes over every book he reads, I have to tell you that I do not publish a review of every book I read.

About a year ago, I published a negative review of a book that I thought was bad: badly written and not edited even once. I gave it a one-star review.

I expected the author to react badly. What I did not expect was for her friends on Goodreads to rate my books poorly without reading them, in some kind of lame revenge.

From that point, I decided to publish a review only if I liked the book and felt justified in rating it at four or five out of five.

That doesn’t mean that if I do not publish a review of your book that I didn’t like it! I may not have gotten around to reading it yet, and even if I have, I may just not have had time to write a review, yet. And not every blog post is a book review. But if I really like a book, I will write a review of it, eventually.

Tell us what you  like, then!

Okay, okay. I was getting to that.

First, I demand that a writer knows what he or she is doing: writing in English. That means the writer has to know the rules of the English language: grammar, spelling, punctuation.

And the writer has to be able to string together sentences that are interesting without seeming forced. The words have to flow naturally.

I don’t want a writer to show off his or her vocabulary of archaic expressions. Far too many fantasy stories are full of words like “countenance” and “vouchsafed.”

Books written entirely in slang are tiresome, too. Yes, a cop has to speak some cop jargon, but that risks losing the audience.

Writers, don’t show off your way with words. Tell the story.

Don’t waste pages setting the scene or telling the character’s back-story — or  explain how the fantasy world came to be and how the secret orders of wizards or knights or whatever are holding things together.

Instead, let the explanation flow out of the plot. Show the consequences when the good witch dies,  don’t tell me about the danger.

And don’t get bogged down in details. I don’t need to hear the organization of MI6, how a Sig Sauer handgun works, or the relativistic underpinnings of your time machine. If it’s necessary to the plot, have one character explain it to another.

Details can make a scene come alive for the reader, but too much bogs the story down. Keep the story moving forward, and add details necessary for the action to make sense. If someone falls into a lake, the water temperature may be important to her survival. But the size of the lake or the colour of her shoes probably are not.


As readers of my reviews may guess, I like believable characters, even in unbelievable situations. Think Life of Pi.

Believable characters are like people you know: complex, with strengths and weaknesses. Even someone you love dearly must have some characteristics you find objectionable, if now downright obnoxious.

Look at yourself: what are your weaknesses? Where are your inconsistencies?
I have little patience anymore for the sharpshooting superspy who speaks 11 languages, takes out multiple bad guys with a combination of every martial art ever developed, flies jet fighters 15 feet above the city streets without hurting any bystanders and goes home to whip up a soufflé.

I prefer heroes I can identify with. The flawed ones. The guys who arrive at work with a stain on their pants and forget to pick up the eggs on the way home. Women who have to juggle families, jobs and career aspirations and don’t have time to learn a twelfth language.

It’s a lot more interesting to me if the hero has to figure out how to beat the bad guy. Think of even the action movies you’ve seen: isn’t it a lot more satisfying when the hero defeats someone who is far stronger and more capable?

It’s also a lot more interesting when the main character has to overcome one of her main weaknesses. That provides something else I look for in a story: character growth.

People do change. We age, we learn new things, we fall in and out of love.
And people who don’t change? They’re not interesting at all.

It’s the story

Ultimately, the story has to be engaging. It has to matter to me, and it has to keep moving.

I’m not going to try to prescribe a formula of dos and don’ts. There are enough bloggers and advisors to do that.

And I do not believe that there is a single right way to tell a story, either. The most successful books are those that do something different, even if the quality of the writing or the characterization is lousy.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was an unlikeable, borderline-autistic geek. Twilight introduced sparkly vampires and made teenage female lust for non-humans okay. 50 Shades allowed women to read about kink on public transit.
Do you want me to review your book?  Just make sure it has believable characters, a plot that moves quickly — and an editor.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Cover reveal: Martha Bourke's Deadly Call

Deep in the shadows of Boston, Massachusetts, the Order—a secret brotherhood of New Breed warriors—is all that stands between a takeover by shifter supremacists.

Diesel, the most charismatic of the brothers, exudes a love for life all the while carrying a terrible burden. A veteran of the Iraq War, he is haunted by the traumatic events of a single night. Poisoned by shame and certain he is cursed, Diesel fears he is a danger to everyone around him.

Helen, the Order’s stunning and gifted surgeon, has a few demons of her own. Even as she and Diesel give in to the deepest pleasures of the mating call, something still holds her back. Destiny threatens to divide them, until, in the midst of unimaginable tragedy, they must banish the ghosts of the past to save their future.

Deadly Call launches Thursday, August 22.

About the author 

Martha Bourke grew up in Burlington, Vermont, a magical place where street art meets cosmopolitan sensibilities meet nature. She is an accomplished teacher who has spent the last fifteen years creating Spanish-language programs for elementary schools and travelling extensively. For most of her life, she has had a fascination with foreign languages, culture, and mythology – a passion that colours and enriches the world of Jaguar Sun, which now comprises two series, Jaguar Sun and New Breed.

Martha and her husband of fifteen years have carved out their own little piece of Vermont in the Massachusetts countryside. When not writing, she loves spending time with her animals, listening to good music, thrifting, and adding to her Converse collection.

You can see all her books on her website,
follow her on Twitter @Martha_Bourke 
and like her on Facebook:

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Ninth District: the way thrillers should be written

An independent novel review

I like it when an author sets his book in his home town, especially when it’s a place that doesn’t normally get mentioned in much mass media. The depth of knowledge comes through in the detail and that makes the story that much more realistic. For me, even nicer that it’s a place I visited a number of times, and where the geography is similar to the place where I grew up.

But that’s not the important reason that I liked Doug Dorow’s The Ninth District. It’s a terrific book, a thriller with a unique story and believable characters.

The story:

Minneapollis is the Ninth District of the Federal Reserve, where the US prints its currency; the Federal Reserve has a big, very secure building in that city. No Federal Reserve has ever been robbed, so it must present a huge temptation to robbers — and to writers of heist thrillers.

Dorow succumbed to the temptation and crafted this excellent yarn. It has all the elements required for a heist story: a good plan, cliff-hanging suspense and lots of detail about methods, setting, skills and contingencies. Dorow has clearly done his homework.

He also presents a number of excellent plot twists, particularly in the way the villain anticipates the hero’s action. The book opens with the hero, Jack Miller, watching a security video that shows a bank robber murdering a pregnant woman unnecessarily. The murder and several minor bank robberies are all part of the villain’s (whom the cops have dubbed “the Governor” for his habit of wearing a face mask of a former governor of Minnesota) plan.

Strong characters

The hero is FBI agent Jack Miller. He’s a sympathetic character. Separated from his wife and child and trying to work on reuniting, he’s also working through the transition from the young hotshot FBI agent to the veteran teaching the new guy the ropes.

Far too often, new thriller authors make their heroes way too heroic: the genius sharpshooter who’s also a martial arts master, speaks ten languages and is irresistibly handsome.

Jack Miller is flawed, fallible and far easier to identify with — and that makes him much more interesting as a character, too. Sure, he’s smart, he knows how to investigate cases, but he also reacts to threats against himself and his family in believable ways.

The protégé, Agent Ross, is also believable. He’s young, smart and eager for action — a little too eager, sometimes, and his mistakes get him badly hurt.

Jack’s wife, Julie, is well presented, as well. I wish, though, that she was a somewhat larger part of the story.

The villain, the Governor, is smart and ruthless, killing innocent women as part of his plan to throw the cops off his planned heist. However, Dorow has possibly tried too hard to make the villain appear mysterious and threatening. I would have liked to see a little more detail about him, his background and his underlying personality.

Smooth, competent style

Dorow is a professional writer of fiction and has earned all those good reviews. He knows how to bring out the characters through words and actions – showing, not telling. He know how to provide lots of detail about the city, the environment and police procedures without bogging the story down – I couldn’t stop turning pages (or swiping my finger across the screen of my iPad).

There’s lots of action and suspense in The Ninth District, and you want the good guys to succeed in not just the case, but their personal quests, as well.

If you like thrillers, download The Ninth District right now.


The Ninth District on Amazon

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Big Lie from a corporate publishing shill

Have you ever noticed how people talk faster and louder when they have to defend a position they know is wrong? Like the Toronto cops defending the officer who shot Sammy Yatim nine times?

A member of the commercial publishing industry is doing the same thing in blog form with statements like this:

There are exceptions to every rule, and I’ll address that in a minute, but for now let me just say, the Indie Market is shit.  It’s a little pile of shit, wrapped up in shit, to make a shit burrito covered in shit sauce.
I wrestled with the idea of dignifying this idiocy with acknowledgement, and I finally decided that readers deserve the argument to be exposed for the vacuous, dishonest nonsense it is. But I will not do the author the favour of a link.

The Big Lie concept

If you want people to believe a patent falsehood, keep repeating it, and denigrate anyone who argues with you. In this case, the big lie — that all independently published books are bad — is backed up by many other lies. The reader who knows better has a difficult time knowing where to start pointing out the lies.

... The unedited, untalented, unresearched drivel that has been rejected by every publishing house
No: I know of many independent authors who spend a lot of time doing research (myself included). And any professional writer gets his or her work edited by a professional editor.

As for a whopper, the guilty blogger admits to fabrication:

On the other side of that you’ll find authors who have never tried the traditional literary market.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and pull this percentage out of my ass…Ahhhhhhh.  96%.  I believe about 96% of those who have never tried the traditional market don’t because they know they’re going to get rejected. 
Speaking of unresearched drivel ...

The blogger then tries to establish some credibility:

I work for a publishing house (and no despite your begging, I will not tell you which one, nor will I give you a recommendation, so please stop asking) so I know what it’s like.

You may think, dear reader, that this justifies the rant. This blogger is a publishing insider, and must know what he or she is writing about, right? That’s part of the Big Lie, too: make up some kind of credential to manufacture credibility. This blogger works for a publishing house — but in what job? Janitor? Boss’s kid who pretends to do “marketing”?

This is the same strategy that advertisers use when they tell you that 9 dentists out of 10 recommend their toothpaste. Remember the cigarette ad that said that doctors prefer their brand?

Now, for the one bit of truth, which you always find in the Big Lie:

Editors are necessary.
Image source: The Bleacher  Report Blog
Well, duh. Of course. The blogger puts this in not only because the shaky logic of the post demands it, but because one bit of truth helps convince the audience of the truth of the whole lie. It’s like “With milk and a glass of fresh fruit juice, this cereal is part of a good breakfast.”

It’s all to soften you up for the Big Lie:
The truth is, unless your work is good enough to be accepted by a traditional publisher, it shouldn’t be on the market.
I couldn’t let that go. So, I commented, more or less this way:

Well, what can you expect from an industry insider: defence of a moribund industry’s obsolete and dysfunctional business practices.

I have worked in publishing, too, for over 30 years, for book publishers (including one of the Bix), magazine publishers and newspapers. Guess what: their sales are all falling. The traditional publishing business model doesn’t work anymore, and the big publishing corporations cannot keep up with the market, or the zeitgeist, any better than dinosaurs could keep up with climate change.

What irked not just me but, as I write this, 163 commenters, is the blogger’s presumption of superiority. This blog is the first time I have seen anyone from any commercial publisher to say explicitly that only traditionally published books are worthy of publishing.

Every publisher I’ve ever read, or spoken with, admits that there are many excellent manuscripts in their slush pile, and they just don’t have the resources to publish every good book.
Source: Rebecca Berto
Novel Girl

In fact, most books published do NOT make money, particularly in fiction. The publishing business model works this way: the few successful books, the ones that sell, make enough money to make up for the larger portion that lose money.

E-books and print-on-demand have made that model obsolete.

I’m not the only person who thinks so. There are at least 162 others who commented on the blog, every one of them objecting. Most of them supplied their names or avatars and contact information — unlike the blogger, who remains (cowardly) anonymous.

One commenter, in fact, responded to my comment:

Well said, Scott. I’m self-published but I had a professional cover done and have had my books edited. I also work as an editor and all my clients are, wait for it … self-published authors. Surprise, surprise. Some of us actually do care about quality. We all know there are a lot who don’t, but they won’t stay in the business for long, and because the prospective purchaser of a book can read a sample, well, they can decide for themselves whether the book is up to scratch or not.
Traditional publishers have made a living off authors for a very long time and now that living is threatened. Not only that, contracts are getting worse and so are the editing services some publishers provide. I’ve seen many a traditionally published book that has sub-standard editing. And guess what, Anonymous (at least have the guts to rant with your real identity), a recent survey has shown that readers don’t give a toss about whether the book they’re reading is self-published or traditionally published.
I find [the] rant offensive, ill-informed, self-important and a generalisation. Thankfully, your opinion won’t stop anyone from following their dream to be published. Let the public decide what they like or don’t like. I’m not afraid for readers to have more choice, but I find it interesting that you do. I, for one, won’t let someone else dictate whether I achieve my dream or not :) .
The blogger is a crank — like the old guy who yells at kids on skateboards for going too fast.

Commercial publishing, the way it has been done for the past 500 years, is over. There’s a new reality, and whether you like it or not, independent authors are producing excellent books and gaining market share.

No, the commercial publishers have no monopoly on good writing. You know this, and many of you produce excellent books, too.

It's now time for readers and writers to dismiss cranks, and look at independent writers in the same way they look at independent musicians: as creative people who produce the most interesting work available.

What do you think?

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Independent novel review: Double Bind by Seb Kirby

“The guy with the bad attitude has been following me all week.”

Seb Kirby gets right into the story in Double Bind. There’s not a wasted word in this book: no background, no world-building, no nonsense. The writing is spare and clean, active yet evocative, told in first-person present tense, which enhances the action and immediacy.

Take this for an example: “Elmington Drive is a wealthy suburban street. Smart gardens, no parked cars, large houses, most with gravel drives and tall shrubs.”

Because he gives readers credit for knowing something, Kirby is able to painted a picture in a few phrases.

In short, Kirby is a true professional writer of fiction.

The story begins with the narrator, successful author Raymond Bridges, meeting his double at a book signing. The double accuses Bridges of stealing his face and identity — and his pen name. Soon, Bridges finds himself in a new body, victim of spreading ripples of identities displaced into new bodies. Double Bind is a science-fiction story presented like a mystery — not an easy assignment for any writer. Kirby has the skill to pull it off.

Kirby makes it all make sense by explaining the process and the science through the characters’ actions. Bridges, who becomes Erin Pascoe (that’s a man’s name in the UK, apparently) gradually learns the details, like one of Raymond Chandler’s detectives.

Kirby makes his characters real through their words and actions more than through verbose descriptions. Bridges is actually not that likeable. He’s a liar, an imposter, someone more than willing to take shortcuts to get what he wants, no matter what they do to others.

Victoria Bletchley, Bridge’s love interest, is one of the most desirable and admirable women I’ve read in fiction lately. An English professor, she’s a long-legged looker, too. She loves “rutting” and reading, more or less in that order, and she’s smart. Even for an English professor.

Here’s my favourite passage featuring Victoria:
Strang [a cop] is sounding impatient ... “Pascoe is a suspect in at least one, possibly two, murders. Keep stalling like this and you’ll leave me with no option but to take you in for obstruction of justice. That’s if I don’t arrest you as an accomplice to murder.” 
I’m wondering how Victoria is going to get out of this when she uses her contextualizing skills to great effect. “OK. I do porn. Looks like I’m well off, but this is my mother’s place and I have expensive tastes.”
Smart, sexy, beautiful, brave and able to think on the spot of something sure to throw a cop off his game — what more could anyone, even a writer, want in a woman?

All the characters are believable, especially the villains, who range from London gangsters to corporate types. Again, Kirby is able to evoke them clearly in the readers’ minds with a minimum of words.

All the way through (it’s not a long book), Kirby keeps us hooked with tantalizing clues and a style that you just cannot put down.

Double Bind may not be Kirby’s best-known book, but if you want a read that won’t let you go, that tells a good story well and doesn't waste your time, download Double Bind now.

Seb Kirby's website and blog

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

It's time for writers to shine light on conspiracy theories

Image borrowed  from Zazzle
In Foucault’s Pendulum, semiotics originator Umberto Eco wrote the argument that should have killed any conspiracy theory involving Templars, Freemasons, Rosicrucians, the Illuminati and any other secret society that manipulated governments, courts, corporations and international organizations. Sadly, the nutbar ranters of the world are not very well read.

I received a spam email apparently from Alfonso Luigi Marra, who it turns out is a member of the European Parliament. The email exhorts unspecified justice systems to prosecute the twin dynasties of Freemasonry, the Rothschilds and the Rockefellers, or “R&Rs.”

The R&Rs who are evident or silent owners of almost all the major banks in the world, or at least they control them and, through them, they have been controlling, for three centuries, the thoughts of the people, their orientations, their tastes in food, sex, sports, music, the gods they believe in, the scientific discoveries to be made known and those that are to be hidden, the laws to be enacted, the fashions, and in short everything that moves or is immobile under the sun, because they control the economy, the media, governments, the judiciary, trade unions, political parties, police, culture, revolutions, wars, Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, and Twitter.
Wow. That’s a lot of control. Apparently, my bank controls my thinking. And everything that moves or is immobile under the sun. What does that leave?

Mmm, nutbars.
Image from Creative Commons.

At first glance, this speech is laughable. It reminds me of cheap tracts that would show up inexplicably in my parents’ or grandparents’ home when I was a kid, or the sheets handed out by shaky-handed men in threadbare tweed jackets at bus stops. Can any rational person believe any of this?

Normally, I glance at these things, laugh at the bad writing and chaotic reasoning and throw them out. But now that it’s come as email spam, and in keeping with my recent posts about the comment spam this blog gets, I thought I would present it to you, dear readers, as a warning.

People who believe in deep, dark conspiracies perpetuate damaging stereotypes and promote intolerance. The first sentence is actually chilling, if you consider where the author is going logically:

It is necessary to eliminate the Rothschilds and the Rockefellers (R&Rs) through the justice systems to thus eliminate Freemasonry, which they have used for three centuries to dominate the world with their criminal policies. An invocation to make provisions for the part of the judiciary that is neither Masonic nor pro-Masonic and especially the Italian judiciary and the ECHR (European Court of Human Rights), the last of which sold its role to the Masonic lobbies and reneged the jurisprudence that it had managed to wrest from it in twenty years of trials.

What does the writer mean by “judicially eliminate?”
First of all, however, I think it is necessary to identify the criminal responsibility of the Rothschilds and Rockefellers and strike them personally by arresting them, confiscating their assets, and in countries where it is allowed, condemning them to death.
There you have it. The nuts are still asking for the execution of whole groups of people because they control the world’s banks, industry and media. Remind you of anything?
Do we clear-minded people need to worry? On one hand, no. It seems that everybody and everything is part of Marra’s conspiracy of enemies:
The 'Enlightened' who, since they have existed (let’s say from 1723), have always been used, bought and sold, by the Rothschilds and the Rockefellers, in their seignorage strategisms, to promote, infiltrate, corrupt and hijack everything: the French, Russian, Chinese, and Cuban revolutions, the Italian Risorgimento, the unification of Italy, and so on; every movement or event on every continent, the wars of independence, the world wars and politics today. 
What’s left? By Marra’s reasoning, most people in the West are Freemasons, whether we know it or not. Look at his list of secret, if prominent Freemasons:  
Robespierre, Napoleon, Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Cavour, Mazzini, Garibaldi, Einstein, Freud, Roosevelt, Churchill, Allende, Spinelli, Gorbachev, Obama, the UN and the EU.
Similar conspiracy theorists describe the Illuminati as also controlling pop stars like Jay-Z, Beyoncé and Rhanna. The proof: they make triangular symbols with their hands, evoking the image of the eye in the pyramid. 
Image from Lazer Horse:

(You can see it on the back of the US dollar bill. Hey, the Illuminati must be behind the repeated failure of the US to bring in a new dollar coin!)

Conspiracy theories can be a lot of fun. There's something seductive about them, too: the fact that they can never be proven supports the theory about their secretive nature. 

I keep telling people, especially those who love books like The DaVinci Code, they have to read Foucault's Pendulum. In it, Eco's heroes, three editors from Milan, prove that the easiest way to create a secret society is to start a rumour that it doesn't exist. Within weeks or even days, some nutbars will start up a wannabe conspiracy.

The down side

Creative Commons
Tracts and speeches like these are symptoms. If Marra believes this drivel, many others who don’t write about also believe it. Where have we heard of this before: there is a secret society of people, prominent among them a Jewish family, that controls banks, media and  governments, and that manipulates art and society?

So what’s the solution? First, let’s not shove these ideas into a dark corner. Let’s bring them out and understand them for what they are (which, given the quality of writing they typically display, can be a challenge). And then, let’s expose the hateful, damaging and just plain wrong reasoning. Let’s start with the obvious falsities, then the illogical reasoning, and finally, the underlying prejudice and racism that feeds on the ignorance and fear that these theories perpetuate.

And Professor Eco, if you read this, any insight would make a huge difference.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Sample Sunday — An excerpt from Army of Worn Soles: Battle at Poltava

Here is a sample from my work-in-progress, Army of Worn Soles, based on the true story of my father-in-law, who was drafted into the Red Army in 1941, just before the Germans invaded. He fought across Ukraine, was captured, escaped a POW camp and made his way home.

This chapter, "Battle at Poltava," is based on his descriptions of fighting as well as historical research. 

Let me know what you think.

Kyiv was gone.

The rumours arrived well before the official news. On September 17, 1941, Stalin finally gave the permission to General Kirponov that he had denied Marshall Budenny: to withdraw from Kyiv. Once the orders went out to withdraw behind the Dnipro River, the Germans pounced and took control of the city in less than 24 hours.

The withdrawal order had come too late. “Hurrying Heinz” Guderian, the great Panzer general, had already crossed the Dnipro in Belorussia in late August and had penetrated far east of the Ukrainian capital, to the area around Romny. General Ewald von Kleist blasted past the Dnipro south of Kyiv by September 10, and on the 14, the two generals shook hands 100 miles east of Kyiv—having trapped five Soviet armies, nearly a million men, in the huge pocket between their forces.

It had not been the first time, nor would it be the last: the Soviet 6th and 12th armies had been encircled and trapped in the “Uman Pocket” in mid-August; and after the wehrmacht’s capture of Minsk in July, they had captured another five Soviet armies.

There were many reasons for the Soviets’ collapse; they continued to reel from the shock of Nazi Germany’s surprise attack on June 22; the Red Army was unprepared for modern war; and Stalin refused, over and over again, to allow strategic withdrawals that would have allowed the Red Army to shore up defences further back from the invaders. Stalin instead ordered every man to fight to the death, to not give in to the enemy. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers died, were trapped and taken prisoner, or, despairing, surrendered, guns and tanks an armour intact.

Gereral Kirponos, head of the Soviet 5th Army, had fought hard to break out of the encirclement in September, but was killed by a land mine. A few in his army managed to break out.

Part of the 38th Army under newly-appointed Major-General Vladimir Tsiganov managed to escape the Kyiv encirclement, and Maurice and his men joined it, heading south-east to defend the bridgeheads between Cherkassy and Kremenchuk. The Germans send more panzer divisions, and in October, the remnants of the army pulled back another 100 kilometres and dug into the eastern banks of the shallow Psyol river to protect Poltava, where Marshall Timoshenko had his headquarters.

Maurice’s unit took shelter in trenches that had been built by the locals, but there were no bunkers this time. Food delivery became sporadic and the men griped continually about the autumn rain, the way the soft soil of the trench walls crumble, the bad and inadequate food. But they could not indulge in this long—the Panzers kept coming.

They stayed awake all night, squinting west across the Psyol River to the invisible, continuous rumble of heavy vehicles. Some of the men prayed. Commissars and officers moved up and down the lines, inspecting and admonishing the soldiers to vigilance and readiness. “At the first sign of the Germans, we counter-attack,” they said.

Maurice doubted it.

That first sign came at dawn. As the sky greyed behind the Soviets, the early light picked out German tanks advancing along the roads, cautious yet swift.

Fear spread from Maurice’s heart through his body and along his arms and legs. His fingers tingled as the rising sun revealed columns of armoured vehicles and marching men, of officers’ staff cars and motorized cannons, lines that stretched for miles. The German army moved in unison, fast and alert like a single predator, fearless.

Two Panzers ventured onto a small wooden bridge. They weren’t even fazed when the bridge collapsed under their weight. The water didn’t reach over the tops of their treads, and they just down-shifted and continued.

An officer shouted to Maurice’s right and anti-tank guns fired. Shells burst on the lead Panzer and flames erupted around the turret, but didn’t damage the tank. Its machine gun fired and then its cannon barked. Maurice saw Red soldiers’s bodies fling up out of the destroyed trenches.

“Fire!” he ordered and Orest pulled the trigger, but the shell went wide. “Reload!” Machine guns fired from behind and then a German armoured car carrying dozens of soldiers exploded. Bodies hit the ground and bobbed in the water.

Maurice’s men fired again, and this time they hit a tank front-on. The shell stuck, burned into the metal plate and burst, but did not penetrate the armour. The tank reversed gears and drew back from the riverbank.

The Panzers halted on the west bank, waiting for something. Then shells fell behind the Soviet lines, bursting and burning among the men. The Germans, prepared for everything, were firing heavy guns at the resistance.

Down, boys!” Maurice said, pulling his helmet as low as he could. It’s hopeless, he thought. If a shell doesn’t land in this trench and kill us all, it’ll only be sheer luck.

Soviet guns answered, sporadic and uncoordinated. They were only aimed generally westward, in contrast to the German shells, which seemed demonically guided to Red Army targets.

When the heavy fire let up after what felt like hours, Maurice chanced a look over the trench. The German tanks were advancing again. Somewhere, an anti-tank gun fired, hitting the lead Panzer square on. The explosion blew its treads off and it lurched sideways into the river, crippled, smoke pouring from its front plate.

More Panzers kept coming, splashing through the river; behind them came soldiers, running from cover to cover, firing their fast submachine guns. As they climbed onto the near bank, some hit land mines and fell, crippled, but more Panzers drove around them.

Pull back!” Maurice yelled, and the boys picked up the gun and ammunition and ran, crouching low as they could to the next trench, where they joined several other odalenje. Maurice’s boys hurriedly set up the gun and aimed at the Panzers.

They were too late: the Panzers swept past them, crushing wounded men under their treads. The boys swung the gun around. “Aim at its back!” Maurice ordered. “FIRE!”

The gun barked and the shell hit the Panzer’s cylindrical tuel tank, oddly exposed on its rear deck behind the turret. They explosion Maurice continued to ring in Maurice’s ears for minutes. The tank’s rear end lifted high and Maurice thought it would flip over. Shards of metal flew in every direction and the tank’s hull split and burned.

The Panzers halted and Maurice saw the Soviet infantry charge, advancing in a line, running fast and shooting their rifles. A hundred must have been cut down by German machine guns.

By now, the battlefield was full of smoke from explosions and gunfire, from burning tanks, cars and trucks, from burning trees and grass. Behind the black clouds, the sun rose, red.

Rifles ready, boys,” Maurice ordered, but he wouldn’t order them to charge before he absolutely had to. Let the commissar threaten me with a pistol, first, he thought. Another wave of Red soldiers charged forward and were cut down in turn. A third wave came forward, tripping over the corpses of their comrades. Time after time, the Red Army charged, sending men with obsolete rifles against the unmatched German machine guns that fired rounds at triple the rate of the few Soviet machine guns. Soldiers fell like wheat before invisible scythes. But they kept charging. A few stopped for a moment to fling grenades or molotov cocktails, which burst and flamed on the Panzers. It didn’t look like much, but gasoline burns too hot for the men inside the tanks to tolerate. The crews threw open the hatches and tried to escape, dying as Maurice’s men emptied their rifle magazines.

Panzer machine guns strafed the Soviet lines, and then the German infantry arrived, charging across the Psyol River on foot or on speedy armoured cars. The soldiers hid behind anything they could find for cover, gradually creeping up on their tanks. They jumped behind any cover they could find, fired to cover their comrades ahead or behind them, leapfrogging toward the Soviet lines. They jumped into the first line of trenches the Soviets had abandoned minutes earlier and set up machine guns that added to the fire.

That was when the Colonel ordered the cavalry to charge. It was like something out of a movie: men on horses, capes flapping behind them, swinging curved sabres or firing machine guns. They fell on the German infantry, hacking at the men. They tumbled over their horses’ necks as the enemy shot the horses dead, or were blown out of their saddles by bullets and explosives.

Load the high-explosive shells,” Maurice ordered his men. They fired at the advancing Germans and the explosions ripped them apart. Maurice’s boys fired round after round, and then ducked low as the German machine gun fire came toward them.

A commissar appeared among them and ordered the unit to their right to charge the Germans. Maurice saw the fear on the faces of the soldiers. None of them were even 20 years old. They cradled their rifles and stared wide-eyed at the carnage on the fields. An officer ordered “Charge!” and they scrambled over the lip of the trench. Maurice watched as boy after boy was hit by bullets and shrapnel. Raw recruits with little or no training, they clustered together, firing sporadically at anything that moved. A shell — German or Soviet was impossible to say — burst in their midst, killing at least six at once.
Beyond them, Maurice could see a group of German soldiers creeping through the smoke. They lay on the ground, crawling on their bellies, until they stopped in a line, guns aimed at the odalenje that had climbed out of the trench.

Another German group crept closer just beyond the first, aiming their submachine guns, then halted until the first group crept past them. Alternately, the came closer and closer to the Soviet lines.

Aim your rifles at Fritz over there,” Maurice ordered. The Red unit that had been ordered to charge were between them and the enemy. They crouched, stupidly, in the middle of the field, exposed to fire from all sides. While some fired their rifles occasionally, they appeared frozen. They just didn’t know what to do. They didn’t even see the enemy crawling toward them.

Someone shouted behind Maurice: a sergeant at a machine gun behind him was trying to communicate with the young soldiers. “Get down! Get out of the way! You’re blocking my fire, you idiots!” But the boys didn’t hear him over the roar of battle, and even if they had, Maurice doubled whether they’d have known where to go without their commander. “Get down!” the soldier yelled again; it was futile.
Maurice tried: “Tet back to the trench!” But they remained where they were, shooting occasionally, frozen with fear. One by one, they caught bullets and fell, sometimes screaming.

The Germans kept coming and then Maurice could see their objective: a heavy anti-tank gun that was firing as fast as its crew could reload. It had been placed too close to the front line, and as the infantry had fallen back from the first trench to the second, it had been stranded. Still, it was taking a toll on the Panzers and armoured car, and that was why this group of German soldiers had been ordered to take it out. As they moved closer to the gun, the stranded group of Russian boys was ever more directly between them and the Soviet guns.

The sergeant behind Maurice screamed frantically at the boys to get out of the way. Maurice and all his boys yelled, too, but it was no use. Then two of the Germans raised themselves just enough to throw grenades.

Pop-pop-pop-pop! The machine gun behind Maurice fired. Bullets ripped up the grass between him and the crawling Germans, and one with a grenade in his hand fell forward. Seconds later, the grenade went off in his hand and he disappeared in a cloud of smoke and soil. The other grenadier flattened himself on the ground, then twisted as the machine gun tore into his body.

The other Germans turned their fire toward the machine gun, and incidentally on the company of young soldiers between them. Sick to his stomach, Maurice could only watch as the unit was torn to pieces by fire from both sides. He knew that the machine gun sergeant could not wait anymore — saving the anti-tank gun meant saving a lot more lives than one odalenje that, exposed to fire from all sides, was fated to be cut down sooner or later.

In moments, the whole platoon lay dead, scattered on the ground like broken sticks. The battle raged around their bodies.

Without their comrades in the way, Maurice’s boys starting shooting at the remaining Germany company. Orest and Bogdan fired an antipersonnel shell that ripped the survivors to pieces. For a moment, Maurice let himself fantasize that they might win this battle. Then he heard another roar and he realized the Panzers were moving again.

A commissar dropped into the trench, followed by two NKVD men in their distinctive green caps. “Fall back, comrade,” he said. “Regroup in the village.” He moved along the trench to the next platoonn, ordering them to stay behind as a rear guard. He and the men ordered knew it was a death sentence. The NKVD men were there to ensure that they didn’t break and run. But it was a death sentence for them, too.

The boys took the gun apart, picked up the ammunition and scurried along a connect trench to the next set of fortifications, and from there farther from the battle. Eventually, they reached the half-destroyed village, most of whose building were burning. “Don’t leave anything behind,” said an officer. He ordered Maurice’s platoon to load their weapons onto a horse-drawn wagon. By noon, Maurice and his boys trudged behind the wagon through fields of high grain. Behind them, smoke billowed into the sky as the last Soviets defenders fought to the death to cover their comrades’ retreat.