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Archive for October, 2013

My editor asked if I wanted to read one of Pen-L Publishing’s recent releases, Winter of Beauty. Sure, I told him, figuring that I can always fit one more thing in among the papers I’m grading, the books that I’m editing, and the books that I’m writing.

As someone who is in love with language, I read a lot. Much of the time, that’s a pleasure, even when it’s for work. But the rare book comes along at unexpected times that sticks in my soul. Winter of Beauty is that kind of book. It is, without exaggeration, one of the finest pieces of writing that I have read.

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The author, Amy Hale Auker, has distilled the essence of the American southwest into this tale of the year in the life of a ranch, called The Tinaja. The name is from the depression formed by a waterfall that sculpts a basin in the rock at its bottom. Above this rises The Bride, a mountain whose presence is the personification of Nature itself, the maiden, mother, and crone who gives fertility and beauty to the world.

As the mountain is the geographical center of The Tinaja, Sunshine Angel Lewis, known as Shiney, is its guiding force. Shiney inherits the ranch when her father dies, and though she is ready to take over that responsibility, she is only just ready. But as people who live in harsh lands discover, the choice is to grow with the land or leave, and Shiney cannot imagine a life anywhere else.

The environment presents all the characters with choices both tough and simple. It has no patience for people who care more about glamorous clothes and soft hands than about hard work. Those who will drive the muscle and bone of their own bodies and of the animals that are the economic value of the ranch will be rewarded with a tomorrow to do the same labor.

This book is certainly not some glib telling of the value of bucolic living. A boy deals with the legacy of a father he never knew. A family with more mouths to feed than they can afford has another child on the way. A husband and wife drift apart, the man drawn by the ranch, the woman by the call of the city. At the center, Shiney carries the weight of the whole like The Bride that unites the land.

The descriptive passages use only the right words to paint scenes of beauty that call to mind memories that we were born with, and the characters speak in the laconic language of those who know that words are signposts for those who understand and distractions for everyone else. But what ties this book together, the threads woven into an ensorcelling web, is the uncovering for the characters and the reader what we all know and too often forget. It is the work that we do together and the connections that we make with each other that give life its meaning. As with the stark land, a hard life makes what is important stand out all the clearer.

Greg Camp has taught good writing and good reading for fifteen years and is the author of A Draft of Moonlight and the soon to be released The Willing Spirit, the first novel in the Dowland Saga.

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The recent kerfuffle regarding the name of the Washington Redskins brings to mind once again America’s obsession with race.

Yes, the word, redskin, has been used as a term of disparagement by some in our history. But then, so has every other name for a group of people. In addition, what is to say that using that word as a team’s name is not an honor to the people referred to? Football teams don’t typically name themselves after weak, corrupt, or undesirable characters. (Well, there have been teams both football and baseball named the Senators, but nobody’s perfect.) I have little sympathy for football–the sport so named in America, that is–and have no dog in this hunt, but I presume that the team chose the name, Redskins, for its associations with skilled warriors. I fail to see how that puts anyone down–other than the opposing team.

There is more, though. Where is the demand that the Minnesota Vikings change their name? After all, Norse culture was vibrant and varied. Nordic people were farmers, merchants, explorers, and metalsmiths, among much else. They had trading networks in the Middle Ages that spanned the globe. For example, statues of the Buddha have been discovered in Inuit sites in northern Canada. The term, viking, meant an expedition, and did indeed include piracy. But it also involved trade and colonization. Today’s nation of Russia was founded by Norse traders, known as the Rus from a Swedish word for rowing, who set up outposts on the navigable rivers of that land. And then there’s the fact that the horns on the helmet image comes from Wagner, not from the actual Norse people.

But I hear no hue and cry for the Minnesota team to change its name. If we really are concerned with fairness, and if one name derived from a group of people is disparaging, then all such names must be changed. Or better yet, we could recognize that taking on such names honors the group that the name represents and ask people to get over themselves.

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As a teacher of college composition and literature, a writer, and an editor–and as a person–I care a great deal about this wonderful English language. That being the case, when I find a word used in a wrong way, that grates on my nerves. Yesterday, for example, I ran across an article on The Huffington Post on the subject of the scientific meaning of the word, theory. In common usage, the word is treated as a synonym for guess or conjecture, but in science, it means an explanation of data that has been confirmed by observation or experiment.

But some of the readers who commented on the article insisted that because their dictionaries tell them that theory also means guess, there’s nothing wrong with using it in that sloppy manner. This reveals a fundamental problem with how people understand what their dictionaries do. Dictionaries can be prescriptive or descriptive.

1. Prescriptive

This is the kind of dictionary that tells us what a word is supposed to mean. It aims at teaching best practice in language. Noah Webster used his to reshape American English into something different from that found in British writing. This is why Americans typically write honor and color, rather than honour and colour.

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2. Descriptive

By contrast, the descriptive approach seeks to compile the way a word is used or has been used. One famous example of this is the Oxford English Dictionay.

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The O.E.D. asks readers to send in examples of words that they find in published material, and the editors compile these into a sampling of those words’ history. J.R.R. Tolkien spent a couple of years after the First World War working on the entries for W, something that surprises no one who knows much about his interests. (That sentence brought to you by the letter W.)

But just because many people use a word in a particular way doesn’t mean that this is the best usage. Consider some examples. Many think that the word, issue, is a synonym for problem. But issue must always involve something being sent out. When I hear that a person has issues, I have to wonder what the person’s sores are giving to the world. As a figure of speech, issue is acceptable as a word to describe a topic of debate, such as the issue of gun control, since that topic is being sent back and forth between sides of the argument. Or take impact. Today, we hear it used in place of effect all too often. Impact means a blow, which makes talking about the impact of healthcare reform a disturbing subject of discussion–an issue, perhaps? Then there’s nauseous. How often has someone said to you, “I feel nauseous”? The word means a quality that causes illness, thus such a person is claiming to make others sick.

Now if your characters are speaking, feel free to make them misuse words in whatever way is appropriate to who they are. But in your own expression, you ought to be better than errors such as what I illustrated above. I know, I know, people at this point will say that Shakespeare or Chaucer or Milton or so on and so forth and such like used words in the way that today’s lazy person wishes to use them. Fine. If you’re Shakespeare or the like, feel free to do as you choose. But if you’re still working on getting to that exalted state, pay attention to best usage.

Crossposted on Oghma Creative Media.

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Lots of people call out “Amen!” in church when they agree with what the minister has said. Amen is from Hebrew and means, it is so. But my whole life, I’ve wondered what is the word to shout when a person disagrees? It’s instructive to note that this question rarely comes up.

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I discussed mechanical safeties in the last article in this series. Today, I offer my take on the Four Rules of Gun Safety, as taught to us by Jeff Cooper, retired Marine Lt. Colonel, firearms instructor, and essayist:

1. Treat all guns as loaded.

Now we sometimes have to look down the barrel to check the rifling or the results of cleaning, and we know for dang sure that we unloaded the thing, but as long as the piece is a gun–in other words, as long as the action is closed and the dingus is assembled–I’m treating it as loaded.

2. Never let the muzzle cover anything that you’re not willing to destroy.

Remember how all guns are treated as loaded? Don’t point guns at people in jest. Don’t aim at the cat and pretend to fire. Don’t sweep the gun across a room full of people at a gun show, and don’t aim at your neighbor’s wall. There are times when this rule is difficult to apply fully, since we have to point the muzzle somewhere, but always choose the least bad option if no good one is available.

3. Keep your finger off the trigger and out of the trigger guard until your sights are on the target.

Even Hollywood is getting this one right lately. Look at characters who keep their index fingers straight along the gun’s frame while moving around. The point here is that barring mechanical failure or something else getting hung up in the trigger guard, that gun cannot fire unless the trigger is squeezed. If your finger doesn’t touch the trigger, nothing will happen.

4. Identify your target, what’s around it, and what’s behind it.

Sometimes, we miss. Sometimes, a bullet goes through the target and on to what’s on the other side, particularly the full-metal jacket or the high-speed varieties. Don’t shoot at a shadow or a sound.

Various organizations have ten commandments, and any gun safety manual will offer you pages of text, much of it in red, on this subject, but really, those four rules cover just about any possible situation in which a person with a firearm could muck things up. Follow those four, and you’re highly unlikely ever to discharge a firearm unintentionally or to cause excessive harm by doing so.

But since these articles are aimed at writers, now let’s discuss the implications of these rules for your characters. When a novice picks up a gun, the person often immediately waves the thing around, finger on the trigger, and sometimes squeezes without thinking. A trained person, by contrast, takes care with this object of power. Many readers won’t notice anything of significance in how you describe your character manipulating a firearm, but those in the know will pick up on it, and if the description of handling doesn’t match the way you’ve portrayed your character in other regards, that will make us irritated. It’s not good to irritate readers in the know.

Of course, also remember that these Four Rules were formulated in the seventies and arose out of Cooper’s teaching in the couple of decades before that. A character in a western will operate under a different standard. Many of them will be drunk or grouchy, and the consequences of killing someone without meaning it weren’t always the same as today. If you’re writing about someone in the Second World War, find a copy of the firearms training manual or similar

to learn the rules as they were given then. A rebellious character may ignore even those, naturally.

The point here is that how your character handles a firearm tells your readers about that person and about you as a researcher.

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