Monday, May 23, 2022

Writing For Ukraine


Image Credit: Rospoint — Ukrainian Photographer/Shutterstock

Ukrainians need your help

👉UPDATE 2022/06/15👈 I haven't gotten much traction with this plea. I understand that a lot of my fellow indie authors need the money they earn from royalties, but what about you, Stephen King? What about you, Danielle Steel? What about you, James Patterson? I've earned around $350 in royalties to date this year. You guys earn that in less than a day.

Around a year ago, I watched a documentary about Operation Barbarossa, the savage invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany. As they had done in Poland and throughout western and central Europe, the Wehrmacht swept across Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States, and western Russia in the summer and fall of 1941. In their wake, they left a swath of blood and fire on a scale never before seen. By the end of August 1941, the Nazis occupied or controlled a vast expanse of Soviet territory extending from the Gulf of Finland to the Black Sea.

These early successes would not last. The formidable Red Army would regain its footing and push the invaders back. Hitler’s invincible war machine would be turned back at the gates of Moscow, humiliated at Stalingrad, and crushed once and for all at Kursk. Still, it was not until late 1944 that the Wehrmacht would be driven out of Ukraine. For more than three years, Ukrainian civilians would endure some of the harshest conditions of any population affected by the war. More than 1.5 millions Ukrainians would die of starvation and disease alone. By the war’s end, nearly 1 in 5 Ukrainians would lose their lives. With a population of 40 million at the war’s outset, this is a staggering number.

I wondered what life might have been like for a Ukrainian family during the invasion and occupation. This had the makings of a story, which began to tell itself in my head. In the spring of 1941, a close-knit family of four sit at a table talking about the events of the day in a rural village near Kyiv. Katya, a slender, pretty girl of 16 dreams of being a dancer. Georgi, her older brother, is arguing with their father Pyotr about joining the military because he wants to become a pilot. Maryna, a smart and gritty woman in her 40s, keeps the peace among her children and husband.

When the invasion comes, their lives are torn asunder. Georgi has left, against his father’s wishes, to pursue his dreams of flying. Pyotr, a skilled mechanic, is conscripted by the invading Nazis to perform forced labor in eastern Germany. When a German soldier takes an unhealthy interest in young Katya, Maryna kills him with an ax, and the two women flee to the forests where they join the partisans to fight the invaders. Katya becomes the central character of the story, but each member of the family has a story line of their own.

I realized that I did not know enough about life in Ukraine before and during the occupation to provide an effective backdrop for the story. What little I did know was tainted by anti-Communist propaganda from my formative years during the Cold War. Far more objective information had become available in the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, so I began an ambitious campaign of research. What I learned was shocking. Learning of the horrors inflicted on the Ukrainian people by Josef Stalin in the years preceding the war forced me to question whether I could, as a fledgling novelist with only one title in print, even attempt such an ambitious story. At the outset, it seemed clear to me who the bad guys were. Who could be worse than Nazis? The more I learned, the muddier those waters became.

I learned of the Holodomor (Ukrainian: Голодомо́р), a campaign of deliberate starvation inflicted on a people who lived on some of the world’s richest farmland. More than 5 million people, many of them innocent children, would die between 1932 and 1933. The idea that a government ostensibly founded on the Communist ideal, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” could commit such an unspeakable crime against its own people filled me with both sorrow and rage.

Many more innocent Ukrainians would fall to Stalin’s executioners during the Great Purge of 1934–1938. Those who were not killed were sent to gulags where more likely than not, they would succumb to the severe conditions of imprisonment there.

Even at the war’s end, the outrages continued. The forced repatriation of slave laborers who had managed to survive the brutality of their Nazi overseers often resulted in their being sent to a gulag or worse, for “treason” against the Motherland. Stalin’s campaign of terror against those he deemed “enemies of the state” would continue until his death in 1953.

Perhaps the sensible thing for me to do would be to abandon my writing project altogether. Yet how could I now look away as the world had done in those horrible years? The more I learned about the Ukrainian people, the more my affection for them grew. I had seen photographs of starving children and emaciated corpses similar to those taken in the Nazi extermination camps. Yet I had also seen images of idyllic rural villages set amid vistas of vast fields of grain beneath a crystal blue sky. Images of pretty young girls in festive costumes with flowers in their hair. How could I turn away? I resolved to press on with my story idea despite the enormous difficulty of providing a historical background that would not overwhelm the story lines of my characters.

In late February of this year, 2022, Vladimir Putin, the malevolent dictator of Ukraine’s powerful neighbor to the east, ordered an invasion of this country I had come to love. The news was once again filled with images of blood and fire so much like those from WWII. Shock and outrage overwhelmed me. One photo in particular burned itself into my brain, an image I will never be able to unsee: a family of four, so very like the family in my story, were struck by a mortar shell while trying to cross a bridge, fleeing for their lives. A woman, a boy, and a young girl were killed, while the father was severely wounded. They had been deliberately targeted by Putin’s forces, part of a widening campaign of terror aimed at demoralizing the Ukrainian people.

I was terribly upset by the photograph and the story it told. I did not sleep well that night, and I remember sobbing. I was overwhelmed with emotions — sorrow, despair, grief, and rage. How could this happen? What must I do? I cannot turn away. I cannot stand on the sidelines. In the weeks to come, I learned of the ferocious defense mounted by the valiant Ukrainians. Putin had sent in his thugs expecting a swift and decisive conquest. Instead he found his advance stalled and even repelled by fighters both skilled and cunning. My rage became tempered with pride, my sorrow tempered with hope. Yet still I was filled with frustration at being able to do little but to express my outrage at Putin and my solidarity with the Ukrainian people.

My local Ukrainian friends came by with a yard sign proclaiming I STAND WITH UKRAINE.

I placed a Ukrainian flag in the back window of my car. I pledged a monthly donation to the International Committee of the Red Cross. I changed my social media avatar to the colors of the Ukrainian flag. I told my Ukrainian friends I would be proud to host a Ukrainian family should the U.S. admit Ukrainian refugees in any number. Yet I still wanted to do more. Were I a younger man, one with military training, I would gladly pick up a rifle to help Ukraine repel the invader.

But alas, I am 73 years old and disabled, at times barely able to walk around my house with a battered wooden cane that is my constant companion. I worked as an engineer and programmer before I retired, but I have little to offer the Ukrainians there that they cannot do better themselves. Yet I do have one skill that I can offer Ukraine: I can write. Three years ago, I published a novel Joshua, a coming-of-age story that has been well received and supplies me with a modest flow of passive income. I have been paid for my writing before, but I’ve never cared so much about the money than about the idea that I am reaching an audience.

Right now, I am reaching out to an audience of my fellow writers with a pledge and a challenge. I have pledged to donate the royalties from my novel to humanitarian aid for the Ukrainian people, for the duration of the conflict and the reconstruction that will follow. I am challenging my fellow authors to do the same. If you have just one title in print that you could dedicate to this cause, I challenge you to join me. If you receive income, be it regular or not, from your writing, I challenge you to devote part of that income to helping Ukrainians who so desperately need it. If you are a bestselling author and this missive somehow reaches you, think of the good you can do by dedicating just one title to this cause. And whether your writing brings in a little or a lot of money, please ask other writers of your acquaintance to join in this effort.

Contributing money is not, however, all you can do. If you are angry, saddened, or frightened about what is happening in Ukraine, write about it. If you believe the world is not doing enough, write about it. If you feel that Ukraine may be slipping out of the public’s consciousness, write about it. Remind anyone who will listen, or whose attention you can arouse, that tyranny and oppression affect us all and must not be tolerated no matter how far away it seems. This conflict will not end before the next news cycle, or before the next crisis threatens to push Ukraine off the front pages. As writers, we do not fear to speak our minds. We have the power and responsibility to speak for many. If we speak as one, we can make a real difference.

How to help:

There are many international organizations working to provide humanitarian aid to Ukraine. I have mentioned the International Red Cross. Here are some others, provided to me by fellow Medium member Tatyana Deryugina. Dr. Deryugina is an Associate Professor of Finance at the University of Illinois and a Ukrainian native and activist.

Nova Ukraine

Economists For Ukraine


Слава Україні!

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Wait, What?

When you get old, your mind doesn't work the way it once did. This is not (necessarily) a sign of dementia, but rather a result of having piled up a lot of time consuming oxygen. I would call this phenomenon "Non-relativistic time compression." Days and weeks run into one another, and every year seems shorter than the one preceding it.

In a way, it actually is. The reciprocal of one's age is a diminishing quantity. 2020 has been a smaller fraction of my life than 2019 was. I would argue that it is perceptively smaller. Maybe this is just a result of my having done more in 2019 than I have this year, but I cannot say for sure. If I look at the past 11 and 24/31 months in terms of how much I might have done on a daily basis, did I really do less? I know I did something different.

The global nightmare of COVID-19 has been good to me in a couple of ways. It's led to an enormous spike in the demand for bicycles. People want to get outdoors, so they've been buying bicycles so fast the market can't keep up. They have also been taking their long-neglected bikes out of their garages. When they discover that the bikes do not work so well, they turn to me. Yes, me, Bob the Bike Whisperer. That title was bestowed on me by my brother-in-law, but it's stuck in part because of the exposure I've gotten from him and others on the neighborhood website.

About 3 years ago, I ran across a post from a neighbor who wanted a tune-up of his bike. The shops were all backed up, but he wanted to ride, like, right now. I know the sentiment well, so I responded, publicly, that I did that sort of thing. He brought me his bike. It needed some adjustments and a new derailleur cable. I turned it over the same day, and he was delighted. Not wishing to look the fool and give it back to him gratis, I decided my work should fetch $25/hr. - which is around a third what bike shops charge, and billed him accordingly.

He told some of his friends about me, and mostly by accident, I had a business. Fast forward to the spring of 2020, and all of a sudden, I was nearly turning customers away because of the demand for repairs. Although my infirmities keep me from working more than four or five hours a day, I had a steady stream of business throughout the spring, summer, and fall. My last paying customer came in on November 3.

Needless to say, my new career as the neighborhood bicycle mechanic had completely distracted me from my new career as an author. I thus failed to notice that, after a long period of dormancy, people were reading my books. Now, I am not about to crow that I have become the new James Patterson, but I have sold more books in the last three months than I had in the year preceding them.

I do not know, but I suspect that COVID-19 is the source of my good fortune as an author just as it has been for my bike repair business. After smiling at my latest sales figures from Amazon. I thought I should have a look at my site here to see when was the last time I posted something. I was rather shocked to see I hadn't been here since October 2019.

Non-relativistic time compression.

It has occurred to me that perhaps the same people who have been reading my books might be looking at my long-neglected website to find out a bit more about me. Well, here I am. I'm not working on any bikes at the moment, and I'm also sorry to say that I have no writing projects in the works right now. I did, however, come up with an idea for a novel after watching a Russian television documentary on WWII. I don't know whether I'll run with it or not, but it's been a while since I had an idea for a larger writing project. I'll let you know.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Friday Freebies

Today, 11 October 2019, and every Friday through 1 November, my novel Joshua will be available for free in the Kindle Store. Regular price $2.99 and always free to Kindle Unlimited members.

I guess I should be using my blog to plug my own books, right?

Friday, September 27, 2019

Testament Of A Bullied Child

It's customary of me to wait a few weeks between blog entries. I'm breaking with custom now so as to follow on to my last entry, in which I explained how I got the inspiration for my novel Joshua.

The blogger who emailed me about the story also told me, and her readers, that she believed the bullying I portrayed in my story was a little too brutal, a little over the top. I found this puzzling at first, as I did not believe that bullying was a central theme in the story. After giving the matter more thought, I realized she was on to something. Joshua is a bullied child, and he thinks like one even when no one is actively picking on him. That's the real damage inflicted by bullying. It gets into your head and sticks there long after the bully has had his fun.

Joshua finds the courage to confront his tormentors, and the story wraps up with a nice, happy ending. I've explained that Joshua is a lot like me as a child, but unlike my young hero, I didn't have so happy an ending. I just grew up. In time, I found my center, just as Joshua does, but it was as a grown man who'd spent too many years as a lost child, a bullied child. Long after I grew into a man, I remembered the shame and intimidation inflicted on me, not just by other kids, but by adults who thought it was the only way to knock some sense into me.

I'm an old man now, and I no longer cut such an imposing figure as I did in my prime. I walk with a cane and park in the handicapped spaces in the parking lots. You would think that by now I would have put all of that childhood torment behind me, but through my writing I discovered that it was still there, looking for a way to come out. The blogger I was corresponding with thought that maybe some of it was gratuitous. If she were to realize that I went through things I still can't talk about, she would see that I merely wrote those passages when the feelings were closest to the surface.

It's difficult for me to admit that I was bullied. It's easy to say that it wasn't my fault, but when you do admit to such a thing, you're taking a risk no matter how old you are. The bullies are still out there, looking for any vulnerability, any opportunity to ridicule. And they're not just looking, they're looking hard. Well, here I am, scars and all. I am, however, not so easy to intimidate these days. I've known for some time now that these situations can almost always be dealt with by remaining cool under fire, letting the other guy make a fool of himself until he realizes he's not going to get what he wants from me.

This is, however, a luxury afforded to an adult. It's not so easy for a child, or even for an adult who is so damaged and vulnerable as to know to avoid taking the bait. Just seeing it now makes my blood boil, so I suppose that if you want to get to me, all you have to do is pick on someone else.

Also posted on Medium

Thursday, September 26, 2019

Whence Joshua?

I got an email yesterday from someone who'd read my novel Joshua.

She wanted to know where I got the name and why I chose it as the title. I told her, truthfully, that the names of my characters just pop into my head as I start writing about them. She thought the title was not something that would reach out and grab readers, but to that, I answered that Joshua is a quiet boy who doesn't like to draw attention to himself. Perhaps this isn't a good way to choose a title for something you want to sell, but I don't think I could have given it any other title, and if I could, what would it be?

This leads to the question of where I get the ideas for my stories. This takes a bit of introspection. I have a pretty good idea of where other authors, many of them, get their ideas: from other authors. I don't have a problem with this; nothing succeeds like success, and if you can ride an idea that has captivated other readers while making the book your own, that's fine. It's called writing in a genre, and it's pretty much expected of you.

Let's look at a genre that's very popular right now. It's called Vampire Romance, and at its root is the novel Twilight by Stephanie Meyer. The novel itself is the first in a five-part series – I'll get to series later – but it has spawned hundreds, if not thousands, of derivative works. Vampires in general have been in vogue for a while, in large part because of works like Interview With The Vampire by Anne Rice. Ultimately, all of these works stem from Bram Stoker's Dracula, first published more than 100 years ago and immortalized by the 1931 film of the same name. Vampires themselves, however, come from folklore that originated centuries earlier.

Other authors, in particular Jeff Kinney and James Patterson, gave me my initial ideas for Joshua, but as the story developed, it resembled the works of those authors less and less and started to look more and more like my own life as a child. There were clearly a lot of emotions in me that were looking for a way to surface, and when I started to write a few stories about a 12-year-old boy, they found their way out.

A few of the scenes in Joshua were taken directly from my own experiences, but most of the story arose from feelings about my experiences, rather than the experiences themselves, and the empathy I feel for other children who struggle as I did. My brief experience as a high school teacher provided some of the ideas, while my experiences as a parent provided others. The story is fiction, but the feelings, my own and the feelings I've sensed in others, are real.

As I look back at other things I've written, and at my ideas for things I have yet to write, I realize that all of my stories have some basis in my own experience even if I have borrowed an idea or two from the works of others. For example, my character Spike Bike is loosely inspired by the films Mad Max, First Blood, and Robocop. What Spike feels, however, is all me.

I think this is a good explanation of why I'm not more prolific as an author, and why my stories may seem unusual to some. I think I have the mechanics of writing down well enough that I could write in a popular genre, telling stories that people want to hear even if they've heard some variations of them before. Were I to choose such a path, it would be a simple matter to create a single character in a single setting and write an entire series of books with the same theme. The most successful authors of our time have followed this formula so consistently that it's almost an expectation.

My life, however, isn't part of a series unless you believe in reincarnation. I've lived a long time and I've done a great many things, but like most other people, I don't have an unlimited number of stories to tell. I am still building new experiences all the time, learning about the lives of other people all the time, but it's only rarely that I'm inspired to write about any of it.

This goes against the grain in contemporary literature, and because of that, I don't expect to make a lot of money or to garner a lot of fans. Most people would rather read spy thrillers, romance (with or without vampires), science fiction, or historical dramas, to name just a few of the more popular genres out there. That's all right with me. I read fiction, too, and most of it is the same stuff lots of other people like. Nevertheless, I never feel like I can do justice to any popular genre when so many others have gone before me and have done so well.

While my life experiences are not altogether different from those of other people, it's a fair bet that no one else has perceived them and felt them in exactly the same way. This is what makes us individuals. When I am inspired to write about something, then, a reader can be assured that it won't be a story they've read before. If they find my writing entertaining, or if it touches them in some way, then I'll have written something successful even if it never becomes a best seller.

Also published on Medium

Thursday, September 12, 2019

привет всем моим друзьям в россии

According to the stats for this blog, I have far more fans in Russia than anywhere else. Спасибо.

Unless, perhaps, you're just looking at everything published on Blogger, trying to find vulnerabilities, like personal information that could lead to identity theft.

Trust me, you don't want my identity.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Witches Of BookBoggin

It's been a while since I wrote any short fiction, save for the new episode for my Spike Bike collection that I published last spring. Back in the days of Usenet, I wrote a lot of it, more than I can remember, much of it now gone to the Great Bit Bucket In The Sky. One thing I do remember well, however, was that even in those early days of what is now the Internet, there were trolls. I knew even then that the best way to deal with them was to ignore them, but once in a while, my temper would get the better of me, and I'd blunder into a hot mess that at the end of the day wouldn't matter to anyone.

My favorite tactic for dealing with the trolls that I did not or could not avoid was to write caricatures of them into my stories. Being able to laugh at them, and myself, always proved to be a tonic for any residual resentment I might have felt–particularly if I could get a chuckle out of my readers.

It is in such a spirit that I have written The Witches Of BookBoggin. Since it's in the tl/dr category for a blog entry, you can read the story on Medium. Should you find yourself paywalled, use the contact form to your right, and I'll send you a link.