Saturday, November 23, 2013

My electronics are crazy

Who can tell me where to turn off the setting on the computer for “Cause random problems” or “Unpredictably shut off critical functions”?

Have you ever noticed that your electronics will suddenly stop doing what they have been doing, more or less reliably, for months or years, when you haven’t changed any settings? My earbuds for my iPhone do that. I’ve had the thing for almost a year now, and most of the time it works fine. But then, for no reason that I can discern, one day the little control on the right-hand wire will cease to function. Yesterday, for example, I was listening to music on my iPhone when it rang. I pressed the button, which in this circumstance, should switch it from music to phone mode and answer the call. 

Nothing happened.

Neither did the volume control on the earbud wire work. To adjust the volume, I have to use the on-screen controls or the buttons on the side of the handset. This may not seem like a big deal, but it is inconvenient when you have to put your book away, re-sling your briefcase on your shoulder and dig the phone out of your jacket pocket. Of course, by the time you do that, the call has gone to voice-mail.

This same thing happened last spring. I noticed that the control button on the wire didn’t work to adjust the volume or skip to the next song as I was listening while riding my bike to work. I thought perhaps that I had damaged the wire by taking the iPhone on my bike, although the phone had never suffered an impact. But after a couple of weeks, the button began working again of its own accord.

This happened a number of times over the spring and summer, but by August or so, the functionality seemed to settle down and just work as it should. Until yesterday.

This same self-discombobulation happens other electronics, too. My DVD player gets grumpy when I press the buttons too quickly, and then seizes up. I have to unplug it to clear it. 

At unpredictable intervals, my printers will cease to function — without any changes to the system, settings or options.

Yesterday, I printed a letter I wrote on my desktop computer, no problem. Today, my son tried to print a report for a university assignment, and got an error message that said his computer couldn’t find the printer.

In that two-day interval, no one made any changes to the settings or the operating system. But in a span of two days, repeating the same instruction once brought two different results. 

Einstein supposedly said that the definition of insanity is doing the same actions and expecting different results. Einstein, obviously, never had to put up with microcomputers.

Naturally, I welcome any suggestions to solve these problems. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

How a friend's comment solved a major writing problem

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I have been wrestling for years over how to organize my work-in-progress, Walking from the USSR. An almost casual comment from a friend over dinner presented a solution.

Now I feel I can wrap this baby up!

The book is the story of my father-in-law, Maurice, who served in the Red Army during the Second World War. It’s a complex story, because his life, like all of ours, I suppose, had several distinct phases. Understanding this story requires an explanation of the shifting borders of Poland, Germany, Ukraine and other countries, and some little-known facts about the war itself and who was on whose side.

I have written separate chapters and have enough raw material written down now to fill several books. All I need is to organize it and write a few connecting passages.

The trouble is, I’ve been at this same stage for well over a year now. I have made almost no progress in all that time. I have to admit, in that year I also wrote and published my second novel, One Shade of Red, and wrote a few other short stories and poems (and kept up with the rest of my life, but all writers do that). But the bottom line is that I didn’t get anywhere with the book.

Until last week, when a group of old friends got together at a local steakhouse for our quasi-annual bull session. One friend, Michel, asked how the writer was going. I summed up: “I’ve written most of the book, but I’m stuck on how to organize it.”

“What’s the book about?” Michel asked and sipped his beer.

“My father-in-law. He was drafted into the Red Army, was captured by the Germans, escaped from their POW camp, made his way with his 12 men back home, joined the resistance, was re-drafted when the Soviets came back, and fought through to Berlin before he could come back home to Montreal.”

I had to explain a little more — how a Canadian-born man ended up in the Red Army in the first place — and then Michel said “Why don’t you just tell it like that? He was drafted into the army, was captured and then escaped?”

I couldn’t say another word. Of course. It’s so simple — why hadn’t I worked that out long ago?

Sometimes, you’re too close to the subject to see it. It took someone who knew nothing about the project to make sense of it.

But that's the point of beta-readers, editors and literary friends. They can tell you about the obvious things that you, the obsessed writer, just cannot see.

That's another reason that we writers have to stick together. And have to get out of our homes or writing studios or wherever we write and talk to human beings occasionally. It just makes everything better. And far from being another distraction from writing, human contact is the stuff of which writing is spun.

Okay, now I have to get down to finishing the book. But at least now I can see the path clearly.

Thanks, Michel!

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Breathing life into long-lost cultures: Zoe Saadia's writing style

What is style? Written Words continues to explore the issue of style among independent authors. This time, I’ve asked historical novelist Zoe Saadia to weigh in.

Saadia is unique among writers of historical fiction. Her novels, like At Road’s End, The Warrior’s Way, The Highlander and her latest, Two Rivers, are set in pre-European contact North America. The cultures of the place and time play very important roles in the stories. These factors place a particular challenge for the novelist, whose job it is to bring the audience into the created world.

I faced a similar challenge, if not as steep, with my historical fantasy, The Bones of the Earth, set in Dark Age eastern Europe. At least in my case, I could find some historical information about the peoples and the cultures of that setting. Pre-Columbian Americas, though, have less background information readily available.

That’s what I asked Zoe first.

Your books are set in a place and time unusual, if not unique, in literature: pre-Columbian MesoAmerica, specifically the Toltec, Aztec and Mayan cultures. What was it that inspired you to write historical fiction in that setting?
My main goal is to present pre-contact Americas to the wide audience of readers, to make people discover and enjoy these neglected cultures and periods. 

For some reason, historical novelists paid no attention to such large chunk of history, while doing to death all those well familiar times and places. Rome and Greece, Medieval Europe, Stuarts and Tudors and the Regency’s sparkling balls and receptions, all those and more have tomes of wonderful historical fiction to represent them, plenty of movies to fill our screens; while two large continents prior to their “discovery” seem to have no history at all — judging by the historical fiction genre, that is. Their conquest is well covered, and the post-conquest times, but what was there before?

Well, fifteen years of research had shown me that there were many fascinating things to find in pre-contact Americas, many different cultures, ways of life, upheavals and revolutions, empires rising and falling, democracies being born. A wonderfully rich field for historical novelist, and so far untouched by others – what a treasure  
So for now I have Central America covered with “Pre-Aztec” and “The Rise of the Aztecs” series, presenting the turbulent Mesoamerican history of the 14th and 15th centuries and how the well-known (to us) “Aztec” Empire came to rise. 
My North American books, the Peacemaker Trilogy, cover the process through which the great Iroquois confederacy was born — the famous democracy the constitution of which inspired quite a few clauses in the modern-day USA constitution (a fact admitted by the Founding Fathers in quite a few letters).
How long does the research take for one of your novels? What sources do you use?
The initial research takes long, a few years and more, but as I write series, I use the already accumulated information for one novel for the next. This way the research and the writing advance alongside each other. 

For example, when I was writing the novels of Pre-Aztec series, which are set in the capital of the regional power that preceded the familiar Aztec empire, I did not intend to write “The Rise of the Aztecs” series. 

Yet, as the general story progressed along with the research, I found myself yearning to learn more. The cultural details of the daily life were already there, the people’s mentality, their attitude, their way of life. So, I checked and rechecked the facts outlining the events. Tthe conquered cultures are always more difficult to research, as the original documents get destroyed and the version of the past events reported to us by the conquerors is terribly distorted, coated with a thick layer of unashamed propaganda. 
This way it was much easier to write the next series, with even some of the characters sneaking in, insisting on their own private history being developed beyond the general happy, or unhappy, previous ending.
How would you describe your own writing style?
My writing style is not a customary way of writing historical fiction. As I truly want to make a wide range of people discover the cultures I’m featuring in my novels, I write in a lighter style of action-adventures stories, as much for history lovers as for the enjoyment of a person who would not pick a history book given a choice.
So, while grounded in solid, well researched history, my stories are full of action, centered around all sorts of people, fictional and historical characters, behaving like regular men and women with feelings and desires of normal human beings all around the globe and in all times. Cultural values and technology aside, to my firm belief, people were always people, with their basic needs and ambitions, in Caesar’s Rome, Napoleon’s France, Moctezuma’s Tenochtitlan or modern-day New York City.
So, as I myself love fast-paced, easily flowing books to read, I make a point of writing my stories in this way, full of action, adventure and humor whenever possible.
What are the important elements of your style? What are you trying to achieve?
I want to make people discover pre-contact Americas; to meet the fascinating nations and cultures that inhabited these lands, all those various different civilizations. I want to break the terribly wrong image the colonial books and records created, which Hollywood cemented later on with its terribly distorted Westerns. This is my main goal
One challenge for writers of historical fiction is finding the appropriate “voice,” particularly in dialogue. How do you write dialogue that is at once reflective of the characters’ culture, and not outlandish or irritating to the readers?
Oh yes, it is a challenge. The cultural conceptions are, indeed, difficult to “translate” to our language, sometimes.
But then, it’s a very interesting, satisfying challenge — to make your characters likeable, understandable to the modern-day readers, while avoiding turning them into modern people dressed in costumes. There is nothing more irritating for me as a reader of historical fiction as running into a shallow historical novel full of modern-behaving characters. 

To avoid that, good cultural research helps. To just sift through the heap of the historical records is not enough. One needs to understand the people one is writing about, sometimes by enlisting the help of the modern-day history enthusiasts from these areas, many times the descendents of the involved cultures. I’m very lucky to have many friends all over Mexico, people who help me understand the events I may have misinterpreted otherwise, people who even are teaching me Nahuatl, the original language of the Aztecs and the other local peoples, which is still very much in use all over the western Mexico.

This way the characters of my books behave naturally, making the readers sympathize with them and their action, even though some of these may not make sense according to our values.
Are there any authors whose style you admire? Do you try to emulate them?
My main idols are Colleen McCullough and James Clavell, both exceptional historical novelists, whose every book I reread many times. Each time, I learn about different times and cultures without noticing, while enjoying myself immensely. Both these authors made me realize the power of the historical fiction as opposed to the non-fictional historical accounts. 

As for emulating, I suppose I tried to emulate them in the beginning, but today I think I developed my own style. Still, if likened to one of them, I would be extremely flattered.
Are there authors whose writing style you dislike?
I have trouble with over-descriptive writing style of many old-day classics.
Do you think your type of literature, historical fiction, imposes certain restrictions on writing style?
No, I don’t think so. I found that a novel is a novel, that every story could, and in my opinion should, be full of action, with the fictional side coming ahead of the historical one. The historical and cultural backgrounds are very important, but the story itself is more so. The trick is to manage to keep this balance
Do you think your audience responds to your writing style, consciously or unconsciously?
Oh yes, I think they are. 

For one, many people who don’t read historical fiction in general, seem to enjoy my books, appreciating the reader-friendly style of mine. 
On the other hand, sometimes I get criticized by the hard-core history fans, who are expressing their doubts regarding the depth of the historical research behind my novels. To their opinion historical novel should be suitably heavy, full of excessive descriptions. Luckily, those are not many, not enough to make me start doubting my style. 
I do want to reach many people, to make them learn history without noticing, while enjoying a good story, like a good historical fiction should do.
How important do you think writing style is to an author's commercial success?
I think it’s very important. Especially today, with the television providing a serious competition, we have to keep up, not make it most enjoyable for the readers, easy to read and to lose yourself in the story. 
Thank you so much for your fascinating knowledgable questions, Scott. I enjoyed myself immensely, answering them!
Thank you, Zoe!

After years of researching Classic ancient Meditterranean history, Zoe Saadia turned to the Great League of the Iroquois and their amazingly detailed constitution. The common points and differences in the two cultures and their take on democracy spurred more research and study, and eventually led Saadia to write two series set in pre-Columbian Mesoamera: the “Pre-Aztec” series (At Road’s End, The Young Jaguar, The Jaguar Warrior and The Warrior’s Way), and the “Rise of the Aztecs” series (The Highlander, Crossing Worlds, The Emperor’s Second Wife and Currents of War).

Her newest series is set among the Iroquois Confederacy: Two Rivers, Across the Great Sparkling Water, and The Great Law of Peace.

Zoe Saadia is a founding member of Independent Authors International.

Visit her website and blog, Pre-Columbian Americas.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Charmin: when cute passes creepy to downright aggravating

I can’t keep it in anymore: I’m completely grossed out by Charmin toilet paper’s ads.

You know them, the series featuring cute talking bears who use Charmin toilet paper to shit in the woods. (Bill Maher claims the current Pope really isn’t Catholic, so I guess Charmin completes the trope.) 

The ad campaign was stupid enough when it claimed that Charmin didn’t break up and leave little bits of paper on your ass. I mean, beyond the fact that since bears don’t wear clothes and therefore probably wouldn’t be embarrassed about having paper on their backsides, how would any human ever know about toilet paper stuck to someone else’s ass?

That was creepy enough. But the latest goes well beyond it. In this one, Mama Bear brings in the newest “improved” Charmin, and Papa Bear goes absolutely ga-ga. But no, Mama won’t let him touch it.

For crying out loud, Mama Bear! Have sex with your husband once in a while so he has something to fantasize about besides toilet paper!

And Charmin: pull your heads out of your own asses.

Friday, November 01, 2013

My Presidential address

Today, I am proud to say that I take on the Presidency of BestSellingReads, a collective of “new fiction” authors. My thanks to Frederick Lee Brooke for being such an inspiring and capable President and blazing a path for me.

BestSelling Reads is an organization of writers of fiction and non-fiction who know the value of teamwork. Each member has a track record of producing quality books that regularly top best-seller lists, win awards and earn high reviews.

Above all, BestSelling Reads' site is a place to discover new, exciting, excellent books by some of the best new writing talent there is.

The group represents a broad range of writers working in many genres — everything from romance to thriller, science fiction to mainstream literature.

You may recognize some of the names: Shannon Mayer, Andy Holloman, Rachel Thompson, Patricia Sands ... authors with books near the top of their genres. And I’ve found every one of them to be helpful, kind, and downright smart. They’re some of the best writers I’ve ever read, too.

Regular readers know how I believe in independent writers working in concert to produce and promote books without the interference of a commercial publisher. Together, we can perform all the functions of a publishing company and achieve or exceed the standards of any Toronto, New York or London company — and leave control, and the rewards, in the hands of the author. BestSelling Reads is very effective at the function I find most difficult: marketing and promotion.

I was flattered to be invited to join at the beginning of the year; I’ve participated in a number of giveaways and other promotions, contributed to the blog and been interviewed on their Internet radio show. It’s been rewarding, and I’ve seen a couple of spikes in sales of my books.

Right now, BestSelling Reads is having another contest. You could win signed books of your choice from member authors of your choice — that’s right, real, physical books with covers and paper and everything. But don’t delay — the contest closes on November 3!

Check it out, dear readers: take a look at the authors on the website, read the blog, and enter the contest. Leave some comments, too.

And remember: when you want a great read, you'll find a wealth of choice at BestSelling Reads.