“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.

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The Friends We Leave, the Friends Who Leave Us

Two weeks ago today, as I write this, my closest friend left all of us behind, going on to whatever, if anything, is next. She left behind a lot of broken hearts and fond memories. Fortunately, because she was a wonderful writer of poetry and prose, a painter, a musician, and much more, we will have tangible things to hold near to revive those memories.

Cappy Love Hanson portrait

Cappy left “too soon,” of course. Far earlier than any of us would have wished. Frankly, we would have wished that she would never leave and spare us that pain. Never mind that if we were the ones to leave first, we would be inflicting that pain of leaving on her.

Such is the nature of our feelings about those we hold most dear, even at times when letting go is the kindest thing to do. I do not think that was the case this time, but what do I know?

To continue reading, please 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.

Give It Up, Part 3

‘Way back in November I threw out this question: If you could keep only one piece of modern technology, which one would it be? As I wrote the post, though, it became clear how much of our technology today relies on a functioning electrical grid. Without the grid, it would be almost impossible to keep any one device or technology. Modern batteries need the grid to be constructed, but keeping even primitive batteries around to power something else would violate the terms of the question by adding a second retained technology.

OK, so maybe that was an interesting thought problem, but not even close to realistic. Here’s a different scenario that might even slide into the realm of realism. Let’s suppose that the electrical grid remained just barely intact, but power was extremely limited: you or your household could use only one electrical device. Not one at a time; just one, period.

Electrical towers
Photo by Luis Relampago, via freeimages.com

Given that limitation, which one would you keep?

To read more, click here.

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, February 26 & 27, 2013

Well, here it is: the last Great Stuff post on the Cochise Writers blog. OK, not quite. I’ll put up a reminder so everyone knows these posts and my Critique Technique posts have moved. As of Friday, March 1st, everything will be over at my new web site, www.rossblampert.com. Great Stuff for Writers and Critique Technique will have their own menu items and pages. You’ll have to resubscribe, I’m afraid, but the RSS feed links and subscribe-by-email boxes are up at the top of the sidebar so they’re easy to get to. Every site is a work in progress, so I’ll be adding new features as I can and as they become relevant. I hope you like the look and feel of the new site. I’m pretty excited about it and I hope you will be too.

Meanwhile, there’s lots of Great Stuff here as well.

CRAFT

Mignon Fogarty, a.k.a. @GrammarGirl, clears up once and for all (you believe THAT, don’t you?) when and whether to use the Oxford/Harvard/serial comma with an graphic from OnlineSchools.com in The Oxford Comma, in Pictures. You may want to ensure you’re reading the post and graphic at a relatively large screen expansion because the color contrasts in the image aren’t the strongest, but the information itself is clear, concise(,) and easy to absorb.

Rachelle Gardner (@RachelleGardner) has a post today on words that writers consistently confuse with others that are similar: Never Confuse These Words Again. Her list of doubles and triples is short—only 10 sets out of many—but still a good review. The one of her commenters pointed out a blog called Homophones Weakly (notice the “mis”spelling) that covers this topic in a fun way.

KM Weiland (@KMWeiland) deals with a problem we all run into once in a while: Episodic Storytelling. When writing is called “episodic,” that’s generally not a compliment. It happens, Katie tells us, because the scenes that make up these episodes don’t seem to matter to each other—one doesn’t build into the next. The solution is straight-forward (to describe if not necessarily to do): make sure each scene contributes to the overall story.

BUSINESS

Every so often the issue of “traditional” copyright bubbles up (I’m putting traditional in quotes to distinguish it from the Creative Commons copyright) and it has again on Writer Beware ® Blogs, in Victoria Strauss’s (@victoriastrauss) Why Not to Register Copyright for Unpublished Work. This piece has two parts: one clearly related to the title (short form: it’s not necessary and does nothing for you) and the other about why it can actually place you at risk. Say what? It turns out, Strauss reports, that there are various unscrupulous companies (she names one) that troll copyright and Library of Congress registration lists looking for naïve unpublished authors to scam with offers of “services” (exorbitant fees not mentioned, of course).

Here’s an important one for you: Thomas Ford’s Common Creativity: Understanding the Rules and Rights Around “Free” Images on the Web on ProBlogger. As Ford discusses, “free” isn’t necessarily an absolute term when it comes to images—or documents, for that matter—and if you’re going to use a “free” image, you’d better know exactly what you’re allowed to do under what circumstances. Just because something is available at no charge doesn’t mean there are no restrictions on what you can or can’t do with it. This is a long and detailed piece, particularly when it comes to the Creative Commons kinds of copyrights, and may be more than you can absorb in one reading, so bookmark it or flag it as a favorite and check out the resources the Creative Commons folks have put together for your use.

TECHNOLOGY

Rachelle Gardner (@RachelleGardner) has a terrific post on 7 Ways to Look Good on Your Webcam. As I noted in my comment, I’m not an ENT doctor—I really don’t care to be looking up your nose—so her #1 suggestion to put your webcam at eye level or a little higher is a biggie. Her other points and those of her commenters are all good. With Google Hangouts, other video chats, vlogs, and podcasts all becoming more common, these pointers are all necessary for looking at least decent on camera.

THE WRITING LIFE

Gabriela Pereira (@DIYMFA) continues her writing community series with the start of a sub-series on how to Build Your Online Writing Community, the key word being “Online.” While she discusses the blogosphere and Twitter in a bit of detail here, she promises more posts on other parts of the online world in the future. As she notes, there are so many options that it’s hard for someone who’s just getting into social media to know what to do first. Let’s hope this series will help people like that (like you?) make that choice.

See you next time at our new site!

Critique Technique, Part 42—The Dreaded Expository Lump

Old car stuck in the mud

photo credit: Toronto History via photopin cc

Ah, the dreaded expository lump, that moldering mass of minutiae, that exhausting example of authorial excreta, that soggy swamp of supercilious sentences that sends the reader straight into the Slough of Despond. (Yeesh, enough with the purple prose.)

You know what the expository lump is, of course: that paragraph or page—or worse yet, pages—in which the author stops the story to tell you everything he knows about a particular character, setting, situation, etc. His intent is good—there are things the reader needs to know—but not all of them, not right now. And not all at once.

Unfortunately, this lump, also known as an info- or data-dump, isn’t the exclusive province of the novice writer. We all risk writing it. As we get better, perhaps our lumps and dumps are shorter and a little less obvious: a sentence or two, rather than a paragraph or three.

New writers make two mistakes. First, they haven’t learned to trust the reader to figure things out. Second, they haven’t learned that the reader is their partner in creating the story, filling in what the writer leaves out. As a result, the new writer takes it upon himself to describe and explain everything.

Driving a story into an expository lump is like driving a car into a deep puddle of thick, gooey mud. First there’s the shock of the sudden loss of momentum, then that sinking feeling as the mire swallows the story car. The drive wheels may still be throwing around lots of mud words and making a mess but the story’s going nowhere. Finally, when the writer driver takes his foot off the gas, even for a moment, the mud words flow back into the story tailpipe and the engine vapor locks and dies. The passenger reader is left stranded, wondering how she’s going to get out of the mud, rather than looking forward to dinner at Grandma’s.

As a critiquer, you play the role of the friendly tow truck driver, come to pull the hapless writer motorist out of his self-made morass. Unfortunately, you’re going to have to wade down into that muck yourself to find where to place the hook so you can pull the story car out without ripping the bumper off.

The first thing to do is assess the situation: what happened here? As I noted above, the author’s intentions were good. He wanted the reader to know important stuff! But alas, he misjudged what was important and what wasn’t, like misjudging the depth of the puddle.  Or maybe he didn’t know what was important.

All right, then, time to pull our hapless writer out of the fine mess he’s gotten himself into. Sometimes this is easy. The puddle isn’t very deep and just pulling the car straight out—that is, deleting the lump altogether—is all that’s needed. At other times, though…

Oh, no! The winch cable snapped! Everyone’s okay, but now what? It’s time for some some serious mucking to shovel out all those mud words that are stalling the story.

But here’s the thing: not all mud words are bad. The story needs some to be interesting. The key is figuring out which ones need to stay, which need to be gotten rid of, and which need to be put in a bucket in the trunk to make mud pies with the grandkids later. (Boy, this analogy is getting really messy!)

The mud words that need to stay are the ones that give color and life and depth (in other words, traction or at least interest) to the story at that moment.

So how much is the right amount? That’s a tough question. In part it depends on the nature of the story; some genres expect more description and hence a slower pace than others do. Another part of the answer depends on the needs of the story at that moment. For example, when introducing a character for the first time, it may be important to reveal not just some of his physical characteristics but some of his motivations, let’s say, or his perceptions of his surroundings.

Deciding when the piece you’re reading is getting stuck in the mud is easy enough. You’ll start saying to yourself, “All right, already! Get on with it!” But to decide what needs to be taken out, you may have to get to the other side of the puddle, if not all the way to Grandma’s house—that is, to the end of the scene, chapter, or piece—before you can look back and make that determination.

Let’s sum up, then. The expository lump or info-dump has two main problems: it delivers too much information at one time, most of which doesn’t contribute to the needs of the story at that moment. Second, it slows the story’s momentum, even bringing it to a dead stop.  As a critiquer, your job is to identify which details should stay and which should be pulled out, perhaps to be used later, when they can be sprinkled in at the places where they add to the story. Be sure you fit your suggestions to the genre and style of the story and what the reader needs to know. With your help, the author will turn story-strangling mud into a fine and rich loam from which the flower of the story will bloom.

How do you tell when you’ve hit an expository lump? How do you help the author fix it?

ANNOUNCEMENT

This is the last installment of Critique Technique that will be posted on the Cochise Writers blog. Starting next time, these posts will appear on my own site, www.rossblampert.com, on the Critique Technique page. As time permits, I’ll bring all of the other posts in this series over to the new site too.