Living Dangerously

“It’s against regulations.” The phrase is everywhere these days.

When four boxes of books arrived from my printer, the delivery driver backed his vehicle up to the garage but would not carry the books inside. “It’s against regulations,” he said.

I bent to lift a box while he stood flatfooted at the entrance to the garage and watched. It turns out regulations now forbid delivery operators, haulers and other shippers from carrying anything across the threshold.

Where you stand on this depends on your liking for government regulation. For my part, I’d much rather see the problem of on-the-job injury tackled company by company or even industry by industry. That way, we might see one sector or business leapfrog another with different techniques or solutions. Instead, we have a blanket rule imposed on all businesses. As far as I can see, this permits no latitude to the business and allows no room for individual judgement by the driver.

Exercising your judgement is part of what enables you to grow as an individual. Does it overstate the problem to suggest that excessive regulation stunts personal growth? I don’t think so. But these days flouting the regulations means you’re living dangerously, in more ways than one.



What Day Is It?

It must be Sunday, because New Year’s Day, like Christmas Day, always falls on a Sunday. That at least is what happens with the Hanke-Henry calendar, a proposed replacement for the Gregorian calendar (the one we know and love).

The Hanke-Henry has eight months of 30 days and another four of 31, for a total of 264 days in the year. “It stays exactly the same year after year” is the slogan. Sounds like the kiss of death to me.

The calendar then throws out a caveat: every few years we’ll get an extra week, just to stop winter becoming summer, I guess. So how would that work? An extra week’s holiday? An extra week’s work/pay? It would happen every five or six years: a leap-week year. Would it happen in winter or summer? Tacked on to the end of a month, so that you get married (or divorced or born, for that matter) on, say, December 38th?

Adopting this calendar in place of the Gregorian could save the world billions and billions in annual updates and reprintings because it never changes. Would we die of boredom in the meantime?

Under the Hanke-Henry, my birthday would always be on a Friday. I’m fine with that. But Halloween would fall on a Monday, unless parents united to push for Saturday the 28th, which seems wrong somehow. As for July 1, Canada Day would fall on a Sunday, making Monday an annual holiday. But July the 4th? That would fall on a Wednesday and I can’t see the Americans buying that. Wednesday doesn’t lend itself to a holiday. You can’t bleed it into a Saturday; it sits, stark,  isolated and unloved, in the middle of the week.

Maybe Wednesday could fall on Sundays instead. And while we’re at it, let’s get rid of this dotty 24-hour day. Time to go metric: 100 seconds/minute; 100 minutes/hour; 100 hours/day.

According to my calculations, that makes me 32. Now that I could get behind.

happy new year

(Happy Sunday, too).

The English Words to Silent Night

You can make a lot of money writing a Christmas carol these days, and in the twentieth century, people did, notably Irving Berlin (White Christmas) and Johnny Marks (Rudolf), to name just two. Prior to that, people just wrote them because that’s what they liked doing.

country chapelTime, then, to give a shout out to the early carol creators: dear old Isaac Watt who, along with American banker Lowell Mason, gave us Joy to the World; Cecil Frances Humphreys, the lady who batted out a trio of much-loved childrens’ hymns that included Once in Royal David’s City; insurance broker William Chatterton Dix (As with Gladness, What Child is This?); and scholar John Mason Neale, who drew from a collection of medieval Finnish spring songs to produce Good Christian Men, Rejoice and Good King Wenceslas.

It was a quartet of American ministers who kicked the carol-writing business into high gear: John Henry Hopkins (We Three Kings), E.H. Sears (It Came Upon the Midnight Clear), Phillips Brooks (O Little Town of Bethlehem) and J. Freeman Young (Silent Night).

Wait a minute—Silent Night isn’t an American carol. All the world knows it was written by a couple of Austrians, Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber, in 1818. Young’s words weren’t to see daylight until 1863.

Nevertheless, it is those English words that propelled the little hymn to the top echelon of favorite carols.

How do we know this? Simple. Silent Night did well in the United States but never gained traction in England, although it was translated many times. Here’s a sampling of 19th Century opening lines (drawn from John Julian’s A Dictionary of Hymnology):

  • Holy night! Peaceful night! All is dark . . .
  • Silent night! Hallowed night! Land and deep . . .
  • Holy night! Peaceful night! Through the darkness . . .
  • Peaceful night, all things Sleep.
  • Silent night, holiest night. All asleep
  • Still the night, holy the night! Sleeps the world . . .
  • Silent night, holiest night! Moonbeams . . .
  • Silent night! Holy night! Slumber reigns . . .

Young’s words have a simplicity and depth of conviction that wins over even the most jaded listener. True, the music helps,simple and affecting as it is. And the story of the carol’s creation is wonderful. But let’s not make the mistake of thinking that just anyone could have translated it. “Stille nacht, heidige nacht” may seem dead obvious to us today. But it wasn’t then, as the above examples show. The Reverend Young’s words illustrate as well as anything the gulf between the workmanlike and the work of art.

Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright;
Round yon Virgin Mother and Child,
Holy Infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds quake at the sight;
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heav’nly hosts sing “Alleluia,”
Christ the Savior is born,
Christ the Savior is born.

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love’s pure light;
Radiant beams from thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.

Silent Night limped along in England until World War II, when American GIs brought over Young’s version. Its popularity was probably helped along by Bing Crosby, who, along with Gene Autry, had a corner on the carol market back in the 1940s. But make no mistake. He was working with pure gold to begin with.

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.

Books I’ve been reading

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold FryThe Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I may be a little stingy with the stars for this story, and that could be because I did some long-distance walking myself once, and found myself questioning one or two details of Harold’s walk. But that’s really a side issue. It’s a nice story, some of the descriptive passages about the English countryside were very good and my favorite part was actually the last section about Queenie. But overall, I don’t know, I found something a little contrived about it.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the UniverseAristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a fine piece of writing, the story of two fifteen-year-old boys over two years of their lives. Introvert Ari, the narrator, and extrovert Dante meet at the swimming pool one El Paso summer and become friends. Ari battles not being able to talk to his dad and resentment that no one will talk to him about his older brother, serving time. Dante seems to have no problems.

The friendship strengthens and survives separation as Dante moves north with his family for a year.

The families are strong in this book and I liked both of them. The boys are loved and supported and Ari’s first-person point of view is completely plausible. This is another in the growing list of Young Adult novels that can be read and enjoyed by anyone.


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.

Mary Stewart: A Fine Old Storyteller

The Moonspinners/Nine Coaches Waiting/The Ivy Tree/Madam, Will You Talk?The Moonspinners/Nine Coaches Waiting/The Ivy Tree/Madam, Will You Talk? by Mary Stewart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed all Mary Stewart’s early books, and some of her historical novels. She had a deceptively simple style that pulled you in and allowed her to work quite effectively on your emotions, while being light and literate and entertaining. My favourite of all her books was always Madam Will You Talk?. It was probably the first one I read and I loved the lazy sidekick and the small boy (like her heroines I’ve always had a soft spot for small boys) and the car chase. But all the books in this edition are good, as I recall, and I plan to revisit them this summer.

View all my reviews

I was surprised to read of Mary Stewart’s death–I guess because I thought she’d died years ago. But she lived to a fine old age (97), and I hope she enjoyed her books as much as her audience did.

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.