“From the Top Down” Review

3-star rating
From the Top Down book cover

The subtitle to this book by Susan J. Ellis is “The Executive Role in Successful Volunteer Involvement,” and that’s true as far as it goes. For executives in businesses or organizations in which volunteers make up only a small fraction of the total workforce, this book is an excellent resource. Ellis devotes full chapters to budgeting for volunteers, the impact and financial value of volunteer contributions, understanding the volunteer/employee relationship (especially how it can go wrong and what to do to prevent or fix it), legal issues, and managing volunteers at all levels, from those performing basic tasks to those supporting the executive suite. For these topics and others, the book provides a wealth of information and keen insights, including how to address and change dismissive or fearful attitudes among employees about the volunteers who are working with them.

However, there’s a whole range of other organizations the book barely even mentions: those in which volunteers make up the vast majority of the workforce and the paid staff represents the minority. These organizations include veteran or military-affiliated groups, medical condition or other single-issue advocacy groups, and many others. They have chapters or similar teams spread across a wide area, such as the entire U.S., supported by a small organizational headquarters, often located in a state or national capital. An entire, separate book could be devoted to these groups.

To read the rest of the review, please click here.

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“Friendly Fire” review

5-star rating

Friendly Fire, by Scott A. Snook. Copyright 2000 by Princeton University Press

As I did when I reviewed Joan Piper’s book, A Chain of Events, I need to begin with a set of disclaimers.

Friendly Fire cover image
  • I am a retired Air Force officer.
  • I was a Mission Crew Commander (MCC) on the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft.
  • On the date of the shoot-down of the two Blackhawk helicopters over northern Iraq—April 14, 1994—I was deployed to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to fly missions enforcing the southern no-fly zone over Iraq for Operation Southern Watch/Desert Calm, the counterpart to Operation Provide Comfort (OPC).
  • In July 1994, when the first investigation report was released, I was deployed to Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, to fly OPC missions. I was in the audience at the base theater when the report was briefed to the aircrews there the evening before it was released to the public.
  • I knew slightly both of the MCCs who were on the AWACS crew the day of the shoot-down, and have since gotten to know one of the senior officers involved in the decisions on who to prosecute or not. I did not know the one AWACS officer who was ultimately court-martialed but declared not guilty by the jury.

Because this book was my second one on the shootdown, I was prepared for another difficult read. I also came to the book with a fair degree of skepticism. The author, Scott Snook, was an Army officer: what biases was he going to bring to the work? I had skimmed the book before I actually sat down with it and was concerned that, as a psychological study, it was going to be dry and uninformative.

I’m pleased to say that, on the first count, I think Snook did a fairly good job, although hardly a perfect one. More on that in a moment. On the second count, Snook’s in-depth and cross-level evaluation of the events, non-events, and individual, group, and organizational psychology of what happened was far better than I expected.

To read more, click here.

“Too Close to Home: The Samantha Zaldivar Case” Review

5-star rating

It’s hard to say I “enjoyed” this book. After all, how can one “enjoy” a book about the real murder of an eight year old girl by her mother’s boyfriend? Indeed, at times there were tears in my eyes.

That said, there’s a lot to like—or maybe “appreciate” is a better word—about Too Close to Home. Let me set the scene first.

Cover and photo by Jesaro Photography. Used with permission.

Samantha’s home life was anything but easy. Her mother, Rachel Stra, had been divorced by Samantha’s biological father. Samantha and Rachel had moved with Rachel’s boyfriend from Florida to western New York to “get a fresh start.”

Angel Colon, the boyfriend, was no angel. He’d been involved in drugs and crime in Florida and Georgia, and was abusive with Rachel and Samantha. Despite that, he and Rachel had had two more daughters together, but Samantha became the odd girl out in the family. To top it off, Rachel was not the best of mothers: inattentive almost to the point of neglect.

Then one day in February of 1997, Samantha didn’t show up for school, although Angel claimed he’d put her on the bus that morning. She didn’t come home that night, and her classmates reported they hadn’t seen her. The search began. By the time a week had passed, suspicion began to focus on Angel and the possibility that Samantha was no longer alive.

To read the rest of the review, click here.

Critique Technique, Part 27— Narrative and Dialog

This post begins a series on narrative and dialog. Stated most simply, narrative and dialog are the tools writers use to tell their stories. They take different forms and serve complementary functions, but with plenty of overlap.

Writers use narrative to:

  • Describe—to show—action (“Bob ran down the street after Alice’s car”) or emotion;
  • Describe a person (“Alice’s hair was dyed souvenir-shop-coral red”), a place, or a thing;
  • Make connections between people, places, actions, emotions, or things; and
  • Provide the reader with whatever other information she might need.

It is the words not placed inside quotation marks or used for internal monolog (sometimes shown in italics).

While it’s true that dialog can do many of these same things, and often does, narrative is the better choice in many cases. Consider how awkward it would be to have characters discussing the details of every setting in order to present that information to the reader:

“Oh, look, Alice. This room has windows through which the sun is shining on a round oak table with two chairs set opposite each other.”

“Yes, Bob, and the far wall is nothing but bookcases filled with leather-bound volumes and the occasional knick-knack.”

Oy.

On the other hand, while it’s possible to write a story that contains little or no dialog—I published one that had only internal monolog; none of the characters ever said a word to each other—it’s rare and unless done well, hard for readers to stay engaged with.

One reason is that we engage in dialog every day: we talk to each other. Characters need to do that, too. Dialog:

  • Allows characters to interact with each other: to support each other, provide information or direction, deceive each other, etc.
  • Illustrates character. What a character says reveals what he knows, how she’s feeling, what he thinks about a situation, how she perceives another character, and so on.
  • Can build or relieve tension and conflict.
  • Lubricates the plot and the narrative and keeps them moving forward.

In short, dialog is all but essential to a story.

Much of what I wrote about in earlier Critique Technique articles dealt with problems in narrative. This next series will, too, because many problems in dialog appear in narrative, too, and vice versa. But there are also some problems that are unique to dialog, so this is where I’ll address them. Specifically, we’ll be looking at:

  • Awkward, choppy, and stiff or stilted writing;
  • Overused words, phrases, or text patterns;
  • Writing that is verbose or cryptic;
  • Inappropriate language, including but not limited to obscenities and vulgarities;
  • Unintentionally contradictory language and statements;
  • Imbalance between narrative and dialog;
  • Name-calling within dialog; and
  • Using dialog to blatantly convey information to the reader, including the “As you know, Bob” problem.

I may add other items to the list as we go along, but this is where we’ll start. What other problems would you like me to discuss in this section? Add your suggestions in the Comments below.

 

TFOB 2012

Well, another Tucson Festival is in the books, you should pardon the pun.  I’ll bet everyone who went can feel a few muscles–walking muscles, stair-climbing muscles, book-toting muscles, and writing muscles.

I didn’t take a lot of notes this year but would like to share a few points I found worth jotting down.

T. C. Boyle, novel and short story writer:

  • Take an ordinary event, such as a man not wanting to go to work, and see how you can up the stakes, push it over the top.

Sy Montgomery, author of The Good Good Pig:

  • When you can’t believe in yourself, you can believe in your animals.
  • When the student is ready, the teacher appears.  Sometimes it’s an animal.
  • If you’re writing about animals, ask why you were attracted animals in the first place.  What do you get out of your relationships with animals?

Ilie Ruby, Naomi Benaron, & Sarah McCoy – panel discussion, Capturing a Sense of Place in Fiction:

  • Capture the moment when everything changes for good or ill.
  • History and myth can add depth to a setting.  Show what it has come to mean in people’s minds.
  • Capture the voice that makes you want to write.  Then just write the story.

William Pitt Root, poet and teacher:

  • What do you need to be in touch with in order to write well?

Richard Russo, Margaret Coel, & Louis Bayard – panel discussion on Edgar Allan Poe:

  • Remember to get to the interior life of all your characters.  Villains are people.  They have mothers, too.
  • Everything a character experiences in a story prepares him/her to face himself/herself and  the external challenge at the story’s climax.
  • Read “up”–that is, read work that is better than yours is at the moment.  Read like a writer.  See how good writers achieve the effects that make their work excellent.

Alison Hawthorne Deming, Heid Erdrich, Ofelia Zepeda – Layers of Knowing – poetry reading & discussion:

  • Efforts are being made to save indigenous languages that may contain ways of knowing that we need for survival.
  • Arts improve empathy between individuals and between people of different generations.

Pam Houston, writer of fictionalized memoir (I’d recommend Sight Hound)

  • Looking for something to write about?  Feel around for your own emotional bruises and press on them.
  • Shine the light as strongly on yourself as you do on others.

Hope there’s something useful in this potpourri of ideas.

Moose Mystery Explained

Last Saturday, I was driving down Davis Road from our isolated home in the hinterlands of Cochise County, Arizona. I was counting the turns–how many left and how many right–so that during the week, I could stop at the County Recorder’s office, look through one of those big books of maps, and find out who owned that property on the outside of the curve around the thirty-one-mile marker.

Why? Because back in September–as I mentioned in a post on this blog–I spotted a moose-crossing sign at that spot. Burned up a week’s worth of rubber, skidding to a stop and backing up to see if I’d really seen what I thought I’d seen. This was in the Sulphur Springs Valley, about a dozen miles from the Mexican border and hundreds of miles from moose habitat.

In that September blog post, I said that mysteries were good for writers because they can kick start the imagination. But then solving mysteries is good, too; it’s satisfying. Which was why I pulled over next to the white pickup parked just off the road, introduced myself, and asked the man behind the wheel if he could tell me about the moose sign.

First, he told me that the story was on the back of the sign. I gave myself the flat-forehead salute because it hadn’t occurred to me to walk behind it. Then, in tears, he told me that on January 6, 2011, his friend, Marvin S. “Moose” Barker III, had rolled his pickup truck at that spot and had died.

We sat quietly for a moment. Then I told him I was a writer and had posted a picture of the sign on our group’s blog, along with a piece about my surprise at seeing it. In response, he handed over a small notebook where he’d written a few thoughts about Moose. By the time I read his last line–“those who didn’t know him missed out”–I wished I’d known the man whose death had inspired such grief in his friend.

I told him how sorry I was for his loss and pulled back onto Davis Road, determined to stop next time I came this way and read the back of the sign.

Until then, thanks, Mike from Mud Springs, for sharing your loss with a stranger and for satisfying my writer’s curiosity.

Gratitude List

‘Tis the season to be thankful, and I have a lot to put on my gratitude list, in general and in my writing life.

For one thing, I’m blessed with a wonderful bunch of writing partners, the Cochise Writers’ Group that puts out this blog.  For years, I tried to pull myself up by the bootstraps as a writer.  It was only when I found classes and critique groups that I began to grow in my art.  This group is serious about writing and publishing–and we often laugh so hard at our meetings that the librarians come in for a dose of humor.

I grew up in the Age of Manual Typewriters and thought correcting electric typewriters were the ultimate technology.  Now we live in the Age of Computers that make revisions so much easier.  On a computer, my fingers can almost keep up with my thoughts.  Grateful?  Oh, yeah.

I’m also grateful that we can afford to be a two-computer family, partly because Dennis and I shared a computer for a long time and partly because I can use his while mine is recuperating in the computer hospital, also known as Two Flags Computer in Douglas, Arizona.  (Over the phone, Charles said I brought in a computer, and he’s giving me back a rocket ship.  I’m both excited and apprehensive to find out what that means.)

Technologically, I’m grateful for the Internet and its proliferation of information, notwithstanding the frustration of getting 37,000,000 hits for the query “writing rules.”  In the late 1980s, I was dating a techie from Los Alamos National Laboratory who impressed me by dialing the computer he’d brought home from work (even he didn’t have a personal computer) into the Internet’s predecessor, set up by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).  I was awed that he could search for data on a computer in Germany.

I’m grateful to have more ideas written down for poems, short stories, and novels than I would have time to write if I were twenty again and expected to live to be a hundred.  Those ideas are like gold coins in a treasure chest.

Did I mention how grateful I am for my fellow scribblers?  Thanks, Annette, Bob, Debrah, Jeri, JoySue, Pat, Priscilla, Ross, Steve, Terry, and everyone who’s dipped into our meetings and found that life had other plans for them.

I couldn’t do it alone, any more than the Pilgrims could have done it without the Indians.