Pardon my mistake

During the course of researching multiple pronunciations of common words (tomayto vs tomahto) I discovered a slightly different category: words we (or many of us) often mispronounce. In other words, while tomayto/tomahto may be optional, depending on where you live, some pronunciations are just plain wrong.

I’m as guilty as the next person on some of these, so I thought I’d reproduce them here.

Arctic NOT artic. There’s a “c” in the middle as well as at the end.4-P200

Diphtheria. Most of us say “dip-theria” and it’s now so widespread it’s considered acceptable. But the original pronunciation was difftheria.

Espresso NOT expresso.

February NOT Febyuary

Forte NOT fortay. Interesting, this. In music it’s “fortay,” from the Italian. But in the sense of a strength (e.g., “math is my strong suit”), it’s “fort,” from the French, where the “e” is silent. Apparently, the two meanings are so widespread both are considered acceptable. This is just as well: I’ve been wrong all my life and I’m not in the mood to change now.

Jewelry NOT jew-lery. Say Jewel. Now add “ry”.

Mischievous NOT mischievous or mischievious. There’s only one “i”.

Nu-clear NOT nu-cul-ar

Supposedly NOT supposably.

Wimbledon NOT Wimbleton. This mispronunciation seems to be less prevalent among North Americans than it used to be, thank goodness.  There’s no T in Wimbledon!

It beats me how immigrants manage to master the English language. I’ve been at it all my life and I still can’t spell concensus. Concencus. Whatever.




Publication day: A Knock at the Door

balloons244Here at last! A Knock at the Door is now up and running and available for purchase on Amazon. Other retailers will, I hope, follow within a couple of weeks. Right now, I’m just trying to get the little book moved out of the “facts of life” category (don’t ask; I have no idea) and into—oh, I don’t know, bedtime stories or humor or chapter books. But regardless, you can find the paperback here and the e-book here . All you need.

Want more details? You’ll find plenty on the Amazon books pages or you can stay on this site and move a few pages over.


Cruising Along

cheesecakeThe night before my interview with Pastry Chef Vinay Myakal, White Chocolate Cheesecake appeared on the menu at dinner. Of course I chose it—indeed, in view of my interview I felt it my duty to eat both this featured dessert as well as a second, different, offering just to be absolutely sure the quality was no aberration. Perhaps I was unduly skeptical, since this was the seventh night of our cruise, but I felt a duty to be thorough.

Vinay and I met in the International Café at 10am the following morning and I asked him how many of the cheesecakes he and his staff had made. 1650. I had a mental hiccup at this picture.  Some 3500 people were cruising, so Vinay must have reckoned nearly half of them would choose the cheesecake.

The production process lasts three days, I learned. They start by making the base (all sixteen hundred and fifty of them), then add the cheesecake. Glazing and finishing work is done the afternoon before dinner.

Vinay has 17 people working in his department, four of them at night. Pastry-making is a 24/7 operation and they turn out ten to twelve thousand pastries a day, storing them on trolleys in their fridges. They can do wedding cakes with a bit of notice and they always provide birthday cakes to order, baked fresh. They seem to go out of their way to find an excuse to cook, since I was awarded a cake even though my birthday was a week before the cruise.

If I had my life to live over, I might conceivably become a pastry chef. Thanks, Vinay, for some truly delectable sensations.

Finding the Right Book Cover

I’m an ignoramus when it comes to art. I can’t even claim to know what I like: sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t.

Today I like Mona

Today I like Mona

This was a problem when it came to my latest book, Return to Kaitlin. I had no idea, none at all, what the cover should look like.

I’ve been fortunate in the past, having had my first two books designed by a colleague, Felix Ferreiro, with whom I’ve worked on nonfiction projects for years. I supplied the words, he supplied the graphics. But Felix wasn’t available for this book, and so I set out to find a new graphic artist.

LinkedIn was a good starting point: I’m a member of several writing groups there, and found names of two or three artists in a discussion on covers. Searching the internet for “book covers” produced some names, certainly, but most looked to be far too expensive for my means. At the other end of the scale, I tried a designer on fiverr, a marketplace that offers just about anything you might want for five dollars.

I also found a really useful resource compiled by BookBuzz, a directory of book cover designers. Several designers looked very good to me, and their prices turned out to be competitive. I nearly took the plunge and went with one of them, then panicked and got cold feet: what if he didn’t come up with anything I liked?

A friend had mentioned 99designs and crowdspring, both of which offer a range of prices. I checked them out and liked the concept: you submit a brief, which is presented on a member bulletin board where everyone and his dog can submit designs. That way, you get lots of choices. But will they be good choices? And will they provide the finished art to your specifications?

I decided to stop messing about and take the plunge, and because I’d been hit by the devalued Canadian dollar when it came time to pay my US editor, I went with, which took the worry out of that particular aspect by quoting in Canadian dollars. I chose their low-end package, $299. I posted my brief, consisting of a description of the book and a blurb (the cover copy). I added a full synopsis, which many of the designers dumped onto the back cover, slightly startling since I had intended it for reference only.

Anyway, the trickle began and within three days had become a flood. These contests are time-sensitive: designers have only four days (as I recall) to submit a design, and it’s my job to winnow out the ones I definitely don’t like. I found this incredibly hard to do. In the first place, I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. In the second, these clever artists from all over the world were submitting art for my book. I wanted to kiss them. Most of them, anyway. A couple of offerings were quite easy to reject. But the entries ultimately totaled 94, and I had to resort to polls, and to buttonholing friends and forcing them to make a choice and tell me why, before I could reach a decision.

I wish I could display the shortlisted entries. They were all good, all quite different. But two seemed especially striking from the start. They had similar colors, but the first had a silhouette of a roughneck (which seemed appropriate: my novel was titled The Roughneck until very recently) and the second, an image of a young man. And because Return to Kaitlin is about a young man, that’s the cover I ultimately chose (you can see it on the book page, here). It was not the popular choice: the roughneck entry had by far the most five-star awards in the polls. But it was the most appropriate choice and I think it will linger in the mind.

The designer, Ivan Zanchetta, is my new best friend. 😉 He read between the lines of my brief and found the central character’s vulnerability. And he provided final art for both LightningSource and CreateSpace, at no additional charge.

As for 99design, I can recommend them without reservation. Their customer service is always there and always helpful, and they run their contests with both sense and efficiency.

The Land of Moose and Cattle

mooseI saw moose everywhere on my journey last August through western Canada. Moose, elk, deer, bear. I saw them all—on signs. Lots and lots of warning signs, the most unnerving of which was “Watch for moose next 65 km” followed seconds later by “Moose next 2 km.” They never materialized. Not once during my 4,000 km journey did I see a live moose. Nor any other wildlife except for a herd of goats by the roadside in Lake Louise.

Dead wildlife, however, was another matter. When roadkill is larger than a rat or a rabbit it’s not only messy but painful to see and I worried for miles whether that deer, coyote, dog or muskrat lying by the roadside had died quickly and painlessly.

As for other living things, I saw far fewer cattle than expected, and most of them in Alberta. The Caribou-Chilcotin region of central BC (aka “cattle country”) had as many camels as cattle, which is to say, none. A Williams Lake resident assured me there are plenty around. They had probably been out of sight, somewhere in the shade, he said, which made sense: the temperature was around 33 Celsius. And in Saskatchewan I felt and saw plenty of bugs, especially dragon flies.

In northern BC, long, empty highways wound through wonderful uplands, vast tracts of grass already hayed.  Pines, cottonwood and aspen lined the roads, and mile upon mile of wild flowers: fireweed and Indian paintbrush and profuse yellow flowers that might have been buttercups or dandelions or something else entirely; I didn’t stop to find out.

I live in southern British Columbia, in one of the richest dairy-farming valleys in the world. But hundreds of miles to the north, the country of the Peace River looked every bit as verdant. If I were a cow, I believe I’d be quite content there.

Why my books aren’t longer

I came to fiction writing much too late, and only after I’d mastered a technique that earned me a good living as a nonfiction editor and writer, but which was absolutely disastrous to a would-be novelist. It was this: for any piece of prescriptive writing—speech, presentation, brochure, anything where persuasion is involved, which means most business communications—a three-paragraph introduction works best.

This technique was developed by McKinsey consultant Barbara Minto, and, as I say, I clutched it to my bosom and made a lot of money with it.

The three-para intro starts with “As you know” and while its content is strictly business, its construction is rooted in Hollywood tradition: situation, complication, solution. Or in film terms, boy meets girl, boy loses girl to rival, boy wins girl back with intrepid action. In three paragraphs.

Bear in mind, this is only the introduction. It is designed to get the audience on the same page as the presenter. (You’d be surprised how hard this can be: everyone comes to a meeting with other things on their minds, and perhaps with built-in disagreement to the proposal under consideration.) The three-para intro defines a small space where everyone is in agreement, and goes on from there.

It works like this. Let’s suppose your company builds sewage plants. You’re bidding on one. Your presentation to the town’s council starts as follows:

  1. As you know, your present facilities are too small for your population.
  2. However, you haven’t the funds to build a Truly Huge plant, which would serve your community for generations or even centuries to come. Instead, you propose to build a medium-sized facility which will become inadequate in ten years.
  3. Here’s what we propose instead: a Truly Huge plant using our proprietory technology, at a price you can afford. Let me show you how.

You have their attention and can devote your presentation to the steps that will enable you to deliver what they want.

Now why, you ask, was this such a terrible thing for me to learn? Because it taught me the story should be over in three paragraphs. As soon as I reach paragraph four, I start to get twitchy. I feel I’ve stayed too long at the fair. I worry about boring the reader. And once I’m mired in the complexities of Act Two (all fiction has an Act Two, not just plays), I’m terrified that I’ve lost them. At that point my instinct is to abandon ship: to say “Okay, okay, here’s how it ends, sorry I took so long.”

I’ve spent the past twenty years trying to forget the three-para intro. I’m learning (slowly) to trust the plot. I’ve learned to build in lots of complications that have to be worked out before the problem resolves. I’ve learned to stop worrying about being boring.

But for anyone who asks why my books aren’t longer, that’s the reason. If I ever write a doorstopper, you’ll know I’ve shaken the past from my feet, ground it under my heel, climbed out from beneath the rubble and so forth, and moved on.

It would help enormously if, like Dickens and others, I were paid by the word. I could do a lot of shaking under those terms.

Researching “The Roughneck”

It’s astonishing how much detail you can find online for just about any background, locale or occupation. For my forthcoming book about oil drilling (working title The Roughneck) I have pages and pages of link references to forums, videos and websites. Much of it is good stuff, and most of it’s reliable, although you have to be careful not to rely on a 1990s website, say, for details on contemporary drilling equipment.


Statue, Williams Lake

But I wanted a taste of real life in northern BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan, and so I recently spent two weeks exploring these areas, travelling more than four thousand kilometers over wondrous highways and, less happily, over truly ghastly streets filled with frost heaves and pot holes.

I spent a night in Williams Lake, where some of the action in my book takes place. I felt an instant liking for this town, 550 km north of Vancouver. It’s predominantly lumber and cattle, with friendly people who were glad to help. I chatted with Phil, a Korean who owns a carwash, while he washed my car, and with Kim, the reception manager at my hotel. Waitresses are a great source of local info and I chatted with several during dinner and breakfast.


A hydrovac truck; note the size: Doug is over 6ft tall

In Fort St John I had an interview with Rob Smith and Doug Phillips, managers at Scott Hydrovac. I was given a tour of one of these mammoth trucks, each costing about a million dollars. The cab height is about twelve feet and even with the steps I had to work to get up there.

I’d gone in armed with two boxes of doughnuts, and Rob and Doug gave me solid information not only about hydrovacking (using high-pressure hot water to drill post holes, expose cables or clean tanks), but also about their experiences working on oil rigs.


Rig, Northern Lights campus

I had a tour of a rig set up at the Northern Lights college campus and Arnold Drschiwiski, the retired roughneck who took me round, told me some hair-raising stories of rig collapses and the harsh working conditions.

In Whitecourt Alberta, which plays a pivotal role in the book in both bad and good ways, I learned how desperate northern employers are for workers, how kids today don’t work because they know they don’t have to; their parents will give them what they want. When they do take a job, they won’t take direction, and they almost always think they’re instantly ready for a management position.(I took this information with several grains of salt but have since learned that it is a view held not just by northerners.)

Bryan Passifiume, the editor of the Whitecourt Star, recounted stories of the dire shortage of workers in the region. I learned about the raids by the service companies, who will offer any young person, male or female, $25/hour to work in the oil camps as cooks or cleaners. A restaurant manager who one evening went into his office to do the accounts, came out later to find all his staff had quit, lured away by higher wages than he could afford to pay.

Whitecourt fire chief's truck

Whitecourt fire chief’s truck

I had an interesting chat with the Whitecourt firechief on matters having to do with rescue, and admired his truck.

On through Alberta and in to Saskatchewan, I was astonished at how North by Northwest so much of it was. On the side of the highway, with nothing in sight but wheat and sky, I could believe I was Cary Grant running from the crop duster.

Grain elevator, Sedley SK

Grain elevator, Sedley SK

I eventually reached Carlyle in southern Saskatchewan, where I had interviews with Mark Scott and Billy Wilson of Savanna Well Servicing, executives with both drilling and servicing experience. They answered my long list of questions and provided rich details about equipment and rig life, about danger and injury and disability pay, though I must admit the most insightful thing I learned on this subject came much later, after I’d returned home, when I had the good fortune to chat with a derrickhand.

Lastly, I met up with Gerald and Jeannette Biberdorf, owners of a farm near Carlyle, and took a tour of their barley, wheat and flax fields. A number of pumpjacks worked away on small plots of their land and I learned that although farmers generally don’t own the mineral rights and therefore can’t earn a royalty on the oil coming up out of the ground, they do get an annual rent for each pump.

Pumpjack in wheat field

Pumpjack in wheat field

There are pump jacks dotting the fields all over southern Saskatchewan, and when the wind’s in the wrong direction, you get a whiff of the rotten egg smell of natural gas.

I also learned of the difficulties confronting farmers with the growing demand for oil shipping that stretches rail resources too thin, leaving farmers holding the short end of the stick. Every town has a Railway Avenue and I saw many many trains throughout my trip. In Alberta and Saskatchewan, it seemed to me that black oil tanks outnumbered brown wheat cars.

I enjoyed a beautiful sunset that evening, and the following day I set off westward to return home after a fantastic and fascinating trip. I learned that every hotel, motel, cafe and hospital in northern BC and Alberta has rubbermaid mats inside the entrance door, where visitors are expected to leave their muddy boots. I learned a lot of country songs. I learned that McDonald’s lids work best for coffee on the road. Still trying to clean my seatbelt.


What a country.

Getting the Lowdown on Big Equipment

I recently completed a first draft of my fourth novel, set in the Canadian oil fields. The research had an appeal all its own and might have gone on for weeks, but I finally called a halt and simply pushed out the draft. Bitter experience has taught me that you can make research the end rather than the means—you can go on and on and on researching the background to a story before you know where the story’s going or how it’s going to get there.

Writing a draft gives you boundaries. You learn how much you still have to learn about a given procedure or setting, and what you can dispense with. My novel is partly set on an oil rig, and for the first draft I was able to conjure up some issues, some problems, a couple of incidents and a suggestion of the day-to-day routine on a rig. This information was sufficient to allow characters and plot to develop.

Now the research goes to the next level. I can rule out all the areas where my surface knowledge was sufficient, and concentrate on those where I really need some detail. How and when is a well cemented? How long does it take to drill 30 feet (the length of a piece of pipe)? What can go wrong with the drawworks? The catwalk? What, oh what, is invert? It’s some sort of drilling mud and you get bonus money for working with it (which suggests that it’s unpleasant) but exactly what is it? Can a rig do both vertical and horizontal drilling? Can you trip pipe on a horizontal bore? Do rigs ever stay in one place 6-8 weeks?

The most important thing I learned from writing the draft is how hard it is to convey the size, weight and danger of the equipment used in rig work. Roughnecks work with heavy equipment—iron tongs, steel pipe and pipe collars—and injury lurks around every corner. I watched hundreds of hours of videos covering the processes involved, yet conveying a sense of this on the page is not easy.

That’s why I’m off to see the wizards: the rig wizards who work in northern BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan. I’m going to explore the oil fields, look at rigs, talk to rig workers, and get a sense of life in the oil world. No matter what we think about this stuff, we need it if we want to drive cars or heat our homes. I’m off to talk to the men (and I’ve learned, women) who produce the oil that powers our world.

Self-Editing for Self Publishers

I’m apt to exhaust my editing budget long before my book goes to press. I want the developmental and structural advice my editor can provide, and that advice generally comes midway in the process and necessitates revisions to plot and character and substantial rewrites.

The trouble is, once I’ve executed the recommended changes, I’d like another edit, but at that point the cupboard is generally bare. I can’t touch my cover or promo budgets, so I have to make do. Beta readers can be helpful in pointing out glaring errors, but mostly it’s up to me.

As a former editor, I’ve got a few tricks that help me to simulate the objective eye of an independent editor, and the easiest is the one I use very late in the game, just before publishing. It involves a bit of expense, but nothing compared to the cost of an editor. It’s simply this: I run the manuscript out several times, each in a different font, size and layout.

First, however, I do a little spadework on the computer, using my cast list and style sheet to check for consistency in names, ages, descriptions, and in use of numbers.

Using a style sheet

I build a stylesheet for each book from the preceding one. Here’s the style sheet for The Money Tree. It holds words or phrases I often trip up on, plus anything else I may forget during the course of the book. Double-barrelled words like noisemaker, drydock, shopkeeper (and stylesheet) are troublesome. I’ll search for both versions of these words, changing the wrong ones. Proper names (Lego, Truvia, Febreze) are checked for consistency.

Number are harder. My second book, Ang Tak, was about golf, and numbers drove me up the wall. I favour the spell-out-up-to-ninety-nine rule (rather than one to nine only), but as the sample shows, I like to get other opinions.

Minor copyediting matters can drive you nuts, but because they can be so glaring, they’re also a red flag to a prospective reader that your book hasn’t been edited, so they’re worth hunting down.

On to the next stage: the read-through. Now you want to pretend you’re looking at your book for the first time. Here’s where you start using up paper.

The standard submission look

I generally start with a standard manuscript layout: one-inch margins all round, text double-spaced in 12pt Times. This is the format required by agents and publishers. Since I never use it when writing my drafts it has the merit of being completely fresh to my eye. I’ll read the entire story carefully, and edit freely. I’m looking for logical errors, redundancies, infelicitous phrases—anything that holds up the story’s flow.

Depending on how marked up the manuscript is, I may go back through again, keeping an eye out for common clunkers (common to me, that is). I tend to use “grinned” a lot and if I see that or other words appearing again and again, I’ll mark them once or twice then do a global find when I’m back on the computer.

After correcting the manuscript, I’ll reformat. This time, I’ll make the margins very wide: say 1¾ and 1½, and use a different type face and size. It’s surprising how altered some words look in different typefaces, and in this rendition, more errors and oddities will crop up: overused ellipses or exclamation marks, for example.

I’ll often run a finger along the line as I read: it’s a proofreader’s trick that can help you catch things like “the the.” Having different paragraph indents or page endings can also help you to see fresh the words you’ve been living with for months.

I continue to run out drafts with different formats until I’ve reduced the errors to a tolerable level—say, no more than one or two per chapter. Then it’s on to final formatting.

I do my own interior design for both books and e-books, so this time, I run out the book format, with facing pages, folios and running heads.

One thing at a time

In the production stage, focus on one thing at a time. Go through separately for chapter numbers, then back through for folios and running heads, and again for hyphen-ending lines or hyphens on the last line of right-hand pages, and again for unbalanced pages.

My last job is to read the story through as though I were a buyer (that elusive creature). I simply sit back and browse, trying to relax and enjoy it.

You may end up running your manuscript out many times in the course of preparing it for publication, but you’ll find errors every time. I learned very early in my editing career that there’s no such thing as an error-free book. But the foregoing technique should help you to remove the most obvious of them.

We’d all like to have a captive editor available to us at every stage of the process from conception through to publication. Failing that, use your budget at the best point for you, and pick up the slack as best you can using the above techniques.

Gulf Island Memory

Off the west coast of British Columbia lie the Gulf Islands, hundreds of them. The smallest have a population of none, or one plus guests, while the larger islands are home to hundreds or even thousands of permanent residents.

The Islands’ climate has been described by the people at Environment Canada, incorrigible optimists all, as “mediterranean.” The vision of sun and sand conjured up by this word is not met in reality quite as often as the tourist might like, though the weather is certainly mild. That’s one reason why my latest book, The Money Tree, was set here. I felt Juniperus lucre would flourish in the Islands’ environment.

In an early draft, my fictional family, the Frisbys, lived on Thetis Island. It has the distinction of lying directly on the 49th parallel, the border between Canada and the United States, thereby allowing the Frisbys to grow both Canadian and US dollars in their north and south groves. However, for reasons having to do with the plot, the family needed to be further south, which led to the creation of the fictional Ledyard island where they were ultimately planted, along with their trees.

I spent a day on Thetis as a 10-year-old, when our family took the ferry over with my grandfather, visiting from England. I’ve never forgotten it, partly because I ate oysters in the shell for the first time, plucked off the beach by my grandfather, and also because we had two flat tires, one when we were visiting a retired captain and his wife on their farm and thus missed the little ferry back to Vancouver Island; and another one in the evening, while en route to the larger ferry at Nanaimo, a few miles north. We arrived home very late indeed, but that day remains as a happy memory.

The greatest drawback to living on one of the Gulf Islands is the ferry service, which can be infrequent or expensive or both. Many islanders have their own boats or (like the rich realtor in my story) seaplanes, allowing them easy access to Vancouver or Bellingham at any time. However, the ferry is no issue at all for those who live there because they love island life, and feel no need to go anywhere else. I think I’d be one of that group.