Centennial

This Sunday is the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day.  World War One holds special significance for me, as you will read below.

(side note: if you have not yet seen Wonder Woman, it is a surprisingly good war movie.  The Western Front scenes alone make it worth the time to watch.)

 
The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.  

When the bombs finally stopped.

Armistice Day.           Veterans Day.            Remembrance Day.

It started as a recollection of the cessation of hostilities in Europe during World War One.

Although the day has evolved over the years to remember all the War Dead, it is worthwhile to pause and contemplate its origins.

To set the stage, in the various wars since 2001 about 7,000 U.S. service members have been killed to date; each a horrific loss to their families, their communities, and their country.  They are remembered, and they are mourned.

The Battle of the Somme, one of the largest and bloodiest battles of The Great War, produced more than a million casualties, with  British forces suffering over 60,000 casualties in just one day.

These are impossible numbers.

My grandfather was hit by Mustard Gas, and spent months recuperating in a hospital in France. He was lucky. His older brother, my great-uncle Donald, is buried in Belgium near Ypres; his pieced-together regiment found the “End of the World” at the infamous Battle of Mont Sorrel.

It’s not just an old family story. It’s also an ending of further generations. The children never born that would have been my aunts and uncles. Cousins never met. Nieces and nephews to cherish… not there. Multiplied by impossible numbers.

Each November 11 I think of those who fought. I think of young, young men in the mud and the filth and the fear of those trenches; or at Gallipoli, at Caporetto, at Ypres and Canal du Nord, firing blindly at other young, young men now lying quiet beneath fields and forests. Of those who lay unmarked and still unknown; of the ones recognized with stones growing mossy and worn, soon to be unreadable.

I think of doctors and nurses struggling to heal the broken and bleeding in field tents awash in mud.  Working by torch- and candle light without antibiotics.  Without suture thread.  Without sufficient medicines, heat or water.  Without anesthesia or antiseptic beyond the raw alcohol that was poured half into the wound and half into the solider. Without CT scans, MRIs, or Xrays, or anything but a guess at whether the bleeding went on inside as well as out.

Below is a chart I pulled down from a historic website:

Country Men mobilised Killed Wounded Missing Total casualties casualties in % of men mobilised
Russia 12 million 1.7mill 4.9mill 2.5mill 9.15mill 76.3
France 8.4 mill 1.3mill 4.2mill 537,000 6.1mill 73.3
British Empire 8.9mill 908,000 2mill 191,000 3.1mill 35.8
Italy 5.5mill 650,000 947,000 600,000 2.1mill 39
Romania 750,000 335,000 120,000 80,000 535,000 71
Serbia 700,000 45,000 133,000 153,000 331,000 47
Belgium 267,000 13,800 45,000 34,500 93,000 35
Greece 230,000 5000 21,000 1000 27,000 12
Portugal 100,000 7222 13,700 12,000 33,000 33
Germany 11million 1.7million 4.2million 1.1million 7.1million 65
Austria 7.8million 1.2million 3.6million 2.2million 7 million 90
Turkey 2.8million 325,000 400,000 250,000 975,000 34
Bulgaria 1.2million 87,000 152,000 27,000 266,000 22
Grand Total 61.3 million 8.35mill 20million 7.7mill 37million 57%

My Canadian forebears are represented in the British Empire numbers above.  The U.S. sent 4.3 million soldiers, of which 126,000 were killed, 234,000 were wounded, and 4,500 remain unknown.

Civilian casualties aren’t represented above, and these battles were fought through peoples’ homes, their fields and farms. Nor do the numbers reflect casualties that resulted post-ceasefire, when shattered remnants of communities had to feed and clothe themselves in the brutal years that followed as the countryside and its people tried to recover without husbands, fathers and sons to work in the still-agrarian society.

If a family was lucky and Jean-Luc came marching home again, more than half the time he came home crippled. Or blind. Or insane.

One last piece of information to mull.

France – through whose countryside coiled the famous “Western Front”– got hit with approximately 1.5 BILLION mortar shells over the course of the War. Unexploded ordnance still shows up nearly every day, much of it dangerously active. Mustard gas was a surprisingly stable mix and even at 100 years old, a canister that breaks is lethal.

There are teams of professionals dedicated to combing the countryside to collect what the French call “The Iron Harvest”.  These teams bring in between 50,000 and 75,000 tons annually (at that rate, they’ll have enough work to keep them busy for the next 500 years.)

On any given walkabout, one can find old rifles, munitions, shells, grenades, and human remains.

With 7.7 million soldiers still listed as missing and unknown they are still finding a lot of bodies.

Poppies for Remembrance

Lieutenant-Colonel Jon McCrae, a Canadian physician, wrote the poem below to commemorate a friend who fell at the second battle of Ypres. It was published and quickly adopted as a remembrance. Paper poppies became a way to raise money to support wounded soldiers, who would make them in the military hospitals as a way to pass the time. They used to be sold on every street corner in early November – as a child I remember seeing elderly women with small metal collection cans and fists full of red, and how my Mom or my Grandmother would make a point to buy one and tie it around a button on my coat for the day. I rarely see them any more, but when I do I buy as many as I can.

I urge you – if this weekend on your errands you happen to see someone selling them, spend a dollar to remember the Riley boys, and Dr. McRae’s colleague, and your own families and friends: gone but never forgotten.

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved, and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe;

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch, be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

 

Planning versus Pantsing

I had the chance to chat some weeks back with the sublime and wonderful S.G. Wong (who you’ve GOT to read… she’s over at http://www.sgwong.com and please check her out).  She was kind enough to sketch out her writing process, which involves planning, outlines and careful plotting of the story arc well ahead of putting actual words down on paper.

She then asked about my writing process.  My stumbling newbie answer was “totally by the seat of my pants” which is true – I often sit down at my keyboard and start typing with absolutely no idea what’s going to come out or in what direction the story will move.

When this works, it’s like I am transcribing a tale as it unrolls behind my eyes… the words flow like water and I write chapters of really good stuff.

When this doesn’t work, of course, I’m sort of stuck.  I will read and re-read the same opening paragraphs, trying to get the words rolling.  I’m currently stuck within a short story that started out en fuego – the first two paragraphs popped into my brain and I was off to the races.  But five pages in and I have no idea where to go next.  A great opening and then… *crickets*

Sometimes when this happens I keep typing, almost randomly.  I’ve broken through a few story barriers this way, and once I get words down they are usually fixable; rarely have I had to throw everything out and start again.  My background as a newspaper reporter taught me to keep typing until I had something ready by the deadline, and my Day Job for the last 22 years has similar deadline-driven requirements.

But it’s not professional, is it?  I mean, surely I can concoct an outline now and then?

Actually, I don’t think I can.  Oh, I still remember Sophomore English, with its outlining and its thesis-building (I still see the chalkboard with “Introduction.  Thesis Statement.  Three Supporting Points.  Restatement of Thesis.  Conclusion.” in my nightmares….)  But my brain simply doesn’t work that way; I’d write out the entire essay and drive the teacher nuts by handing it as “final” when the class was supposed to be working on first draft outlines.  So long as I paid attention to where my thoughts were going, I could arrive safely.

I also once dictated off the top of my head a final paper for a college course over the phone when a buddy in the Engineering College blew a mental tire trying to write about Hemingway.  Come to think of it,  I ghost-took ENG 101 and 102 a half-dozen times, as the only Liberal Arts major among my group of friends.

So – a technical response for my Day Job?  I can almost write those in my sleep by now.  But in fiction, I’m learning all over again that I have to pay attention.  Pay attention to where my protagonist or antagonist is headed, so I can type them out a path.   Pay attention to internal logic, and whether the story arc is a smooth bend or a nasty switchback.

I also have to explain things that don’t exist outside the hamster cage that is my brain, and I’m learning that writing all this out into a cohesive story is a lot more difficult than any technical proposal.

I am also learning there is no correct way to write – just because my narrative lurches like that hamster is hopping across a pond full of lily pads doesn’t mean I won’t cross safely (though I might torture a metaphor until it squeaks).

I can remain in awe of S.G. Wong’s disciplined approach – of all the writers who know every single plot point before they even begin the story – but us pantsers can get the job done, too.

It’s not better, it’s not (okay, it might be a little….) worse – it’s just different.  And if it works for you, it’s the best way.

 

 

Lazy Writing

(Caveat: I have never written a screenplay.  It is unlikely I will ever write a screenplay.  I know nothing about writing screenplays.)

I got that out of the way right up front because I’m about to discuss lazy writing, based upon a weekend of watching movies.  In a little over 24 hours I saw Deadpool 2, Mission Impossible: Fallout, Crazy Rich Asians and The Meg.

This was not really on purpose, mind you.  The Dearly Beloved and I were in Southwest Michigan for the weekend and our little cottage doesn’t have TV reception, so we watch a lot of movies.  Deadpool 2 was at Redbox so we snagged it Saturday night.

Then MI:F was at the local dollar cinema in Paw Paw and we caught the Sunday matinee, mainly to get out of the freakin’ heat and humidity for a couple of hours.

Then while driving around (because the car has air conditioning and it was STILL FREAKIN’ HOT) we stumbled upon a real, honest-to-goodness Drive In movie theater in Dowagiac, with double feature showing that night.

You can Google reviews elsewhere, but I am easily amused and had a great time with all four movies.  But through this marathon I started contemplating lazy writing, and how it’s so easy a trap  to fall into.

It all started with DP2, when (um, spoiler? maybe?) the main character twice broke the 4th wall and tossed off “that’s just lazy writing” lines.

But then MI:F seemed to work to the opposite of lazy writing; there were so many things going on, so many impossible stunts and crazy, ante-upping scenes that the writers may still have band-aids on their poor little fingers from typing it all out. I know I was exhausted and all I had to do was sit there munching popcorn.

CRA was definitely not lazy – the writing was crisp, the acting was great, and now I want to go live rich in Singapore – but then the finale of our weekend at the movies adventure came on.  Big-ass shark time.

First of all, I enjoyed The Meg more than I thought I would.  It delivered on what it promised to be.  But the characters were written like someone took a dart board with every possible cliche’, spun it randomly, took 3 shots of tequila, and then threw darts.

Lazy writing.

Further, there was no reason for the cast to move around in the movie like they did.  You want your square-jawed hero to go chase down a mammoth shark?  Fine.  But there’s no reason the computer expert needs to go along.  Or the billionaire who’s paying for the research.  Or the dude whose sole job seems to be manipulating the underwater drone the shark destroyed in the first 5 minutes of the movie.  The entire cast moved as a unit (station to boat to other boat to yet another boat) for no reason except to be onscreen for comic relief (the black guy, who definitely did NOT sign up for this) or shark chow (see the movie, but it’s who you’d expect).

Lazy writing.

I too am a lazy writer.  My Muse is either drunk most of the time or wants to get back to its Telenovellas, so it often tosses me garbage.  Idea for a new story?  It’s very likely the most cliche’ thing you’ve ever heard, full of offensive stereotypes (I seriously almost handed in something with an old gypsy curse central to the plot) and at most minimal forethought.

So I send the idea back into the hamster cage that is my brain and tell my Muse to do better.  Usually something slightly less offensive comes out (ooh! The gypsy can be a voodoo doctor instead!)  and back it goes again.

Eventually, an idea comes out, panting slightly from running on the hamster wheel but usable and – reasonably – inoffensive.   That’s when I sit down to write.  I still discard a great deal of what goes down on paper (my Muse can be lazy at any time, day or night) but it’s my process to try to avoid the laziest of lazy writing.

As I grow as a writer, I hope the process gets better.  Maybe if I take away the Muse’s dartboard and tequila?

When Words Collide!

Attended my first creative conference this past weekend.  I’ve been to a lot of conferences for my Day Job, but never a comic con, writer’s con, F&SF con… so another first.

IT….WAS…AWESOME!  I learned so much – from the organizers, volunteers, panelists, moderators and fellow attendees.  A special shout-out to my wonderful editor, Rhonda Parrish, who welcomed me into the circle of writers (and the evening ‘bar con’) with open arms; and S.G. Wong, who put up with my silly questions and nervous chatter with grace and equanimity.

I had a chance to read from my story at the “Fire” anthology release.  It’s getting good buzz on Amazon and Goodreads – having read through most of the short stories I see why.  I’m in awe of my book buddies… I share space with talented, creative and very funny people.   I even signed my first autographs (as a natural Lefty, my penmanship is horrid but I aimed for “legible” which is about as good as I get.)

If you’re interested, it’s available on Amazon and probably other places as well –

Thanks to everyone for the experience, and I intend to be there next year!

 

Guest Blogging Post, or “I can’t believe I wrote the whole thing”

Leah at “Small Queer, Big Opinions” hosts a Writer Wednesday, and was kind enough to publish my guest post: a few hundred words of how to incorporate drinking into your characters and their stories.

https://smallqueerbigopinions.wordpress.com/2018/07/25/writer-wednesday-a-guest-post-by-jb-riley/#more-4184

For those of you who don’t know me (and why on earth anyone other than my Mom will ever read this, I don’t know) I am a bit of a fan of drinking.  Let me explain –

My heritage is vastly Irish with a Canadian spin. That means I a) essentially burst into flame in direct sunlight; b) adore cold weather, hockey, and gloomy landscapes; and c) have the capacity of a bull moose when it comes to alcohol consumption.

(Seriously… I am still celebrated in certain circles at my day job for drinking the former chief sales officer under the table at a company event years ago.  He was 6’8″ and over 300 pounds.)

I also did a lot of bar tending in my misspent youth, and a lot of folksinging where the payout was drinks for the night and tips. So let’s just say I have a knowledge, understanding and appreciation for booze.  Leah sent out an open call for guest posts and I was proud to oblige.

I may expand on the theme in future posts here – it’s a fun topic and one relevant to a lot of stories.  In the meantime, Slainte!

PS – the photo is Lilly the Akita.  She was seeking tummy rubs and not hung over, but it’s too perfect a “morning after” picture not to use.

 

 

 

When Words Collide!

This cover is from the anthology containing my “very first, about to be published” story!  The anthology is going to be sent out into the world!  It is part of the 2018 “When Words Collide” convention this month in Calgary!  I am going! (Expect lots more exclamation points!)

Seriously – this is how it all started in August 2017.  I saw an open submissions note… somewhere and thought to give it a try.  Though I have written all my life, my last attempt at “authorship” was a couple decades ago, before I started my current job and simply had no spare time or brain cells.

What I do have is the painstakingly-polished skill of writing to technical requirements, and Rhonda Parrish – the awesome editor – had laid out very specific things she wanted to see in the stories.  I cobbled together my best attempt at meeting those requirements and hula-hula-hallelujah she liked it!  Even more amazingly, she bought it!

(See? Exclamation points…)

Since then I have written and sold a horror story (link will appear when it’s published online) and am working on more.  I still have no time thanks to my work, but have discovered fiction writing stretches different parts of my brain. I’m going to keep writing whether I sell anything more or not; and in the meantime, I’m off to Calgary for When Words Collide!