Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Book Review: The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White

I am not (by definition) into grammar textbooks. I am tremendously into the careful use of language, and so far The Elements of Style is the one book on the subject that I have recommended on any and all occasions without reservations!

This thin little book belongs in every writer’s arsenal. Easily accessible, pertinent and succinct, it touches on subjects that matter (elementary rules of usage, principles of composition, matters of form, and commonly misused words and expressions). In short, all those small, daily, irritating trip-ups which too often bring our writing to the dust. And it’s all done in roughly 80 small pages!

The ending chapter, An Approach to Style, is worth the price of the entire book and (in my opinion) if thoroughly studied is all you might ever need on the subject. To quote: 

“Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author. If the writing is solid and good, the mood and temper of the writer will eventually be revealed, and not at the expense of the work. Therefore, the first piece of advice is this: to achieve style, begin by affecting none—that is, place yourself in the background. A careful and honest writer does not need to worry about style. As he becomes proficient in the use of the language, his style will emerge, because he himself will emerge, and when this happens he will find it increasingly easy to break through the barriers that separate him from other minds, other hearts—which is, of course, the purpose of writing, as well as its principal reward. Fortunately, the act of composition, or creation, disciplines the mind; writing is one way to go about thinking, and the practice and habit of writing not only drain the mind but supply it, too.”

Most excellent, is it not?

Heidi Peterson is a lover of wide-spreading land, summer dust, white pounding waterfalls, and mountain tops; also of good dark coffee and rich stories. Most of all she's a lover of the One who is the Word, the Word made flesh. You can visit her additional blog (where she shares more about books, movies, and further marvels of life) at: Along the Brandywine.

Visit and contact at: Sharing the Journey // Along the Brandywine // ladyofanorien(at)gmail(dot)com

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Of Forts (and other important details)

First, if you scroll down my sidebar you'll find I’ve made a new blog button! As part of the process (and for easier reference), I’ve also given an official name to the blog here (which you can see on the adjusted header above). How do you all like it?

In addition, having just finished my current draft for Chapter 5 of On David’s Shoulders I've decided it’s the perfect time to share a few pertinent details and a splendid link. Chapter 5 moves my action from the vicinity of Boston to the the realm of western military forts (specifically in Colorado/Wyoming), so I’ve been studying and reading up on the subject quite a bit over the past few weeks. (Of course, I’ve seen movies and read lots of books, but I needed some heavy specifics.)

Demographics shifted and changed with such rapidity on the western frontier (every five years brought tremendous changes, let alone a decade!) that my search actually had some tricky moments. To begin, I found you can’t always go by name as not all forts were military. For example: not all military posts were stockaded, but a trader could establish an outpost, erect a stockade round it, and (correctly) refer to it as a fort—which name has often carried down on the maps today. I actually started by researching Fort Collins (north of Denver in CO), which was very briefly a fort/encampment. In the 1860’s (a decade too early for my WIP), it was declared unnecessary and dissolved, but the booming town had already taken its name, which is why it’s so big today.

So my search continued and at last I found exactly what I was hoping for (in the territory I really wanted!): Fort Russell just over the WY border (and later I think, by extension, Fort McKinney further up the stage line). Fort Russell was/is located strategically on the Union Pacific, a mile outside the territorial seat, Cheyenne; and I’ve since been able to hunt up all sorts of wonderful material—maps, diagrams, and historical details.

(An 1880's photo from Fort Bayard in NM.)

I first found both via this excellent compilation and since it’s so helpful I decided to share it! It’s not an exhaustive resource (as there were hundreds of forts in the old west), but with about 20 pages—touching on Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming—it makes a helpful starting place. The link is here

(Also, don’t forget to check out my new button!)

Let me know what you think! Do you enjoy western history?

Heidi Peterson is a lover of wide-spreading land, summer dust, white pounding waterfalls, and mountain tops; also of good dark coffee and rich stories. Most of all she's a lover of the One who is the Word, the Word made flesh. You can visit her additional blog (where she shares more about books, movies, and further marvels of life) at: Along the Brandywine.

Visit and contact at: Sharing the Journey // Along the Brandywine // ladyofanorien(at)gmail(dot)com

Thursday, March 12, 2015

An Interview with Rachel Kovaciny

Today I'm happy to interview fellow writer Rachel Kovaciny! 

Rachel Kovaciny has been studying the craft of writing for twenty years, though she's been making up stories for much longer. She has published articles in magazines such as Guideposts and The Lutheran Educator and short stories in various online venues. She has also written dozens of fanfiction stories, most of which are available online. She currently writes articles for the online magazine Femnista. While Rachel has not yet sought publication for any of her novels, she is busily revising the sixth, and she believes it will be worthy of publication one day.

In her spare time, Rachel homeschools her three children, bakes, crochets, cooks, and makes enormous messes in the process. She also blogs about books at The Edge of the Precipice and about movies, writing, and life in general at Hamlette's Soliloquy

~ ~ ~

1. (Heidi) Some differences and similarities you see between the three major forms of storytelling—literature, music, and film? 
(Rachel) All three of them can convey the important story elements of emotion and experience, but they do so in different ways. Literature helps me get inside characters, to understand their thoughts and emotions. Film shows me how actions can convey those things and helps me recognize them in the real world. And music can make me feel emotions myself in ways that neither literature nor film quite can.

I approach literature and film in very similar ways. What interests me in both are the characters and what happens to them. I want to get to know characters and find out what their lives are like, see what they do in different situations. I seek to understand people who are different than myself, and both movies and books help me with that.

2. How have you seen those three mesh together in your own creative process?
When I write, I have a movie version of my story unspooling in my head. I hear the characters speaking, watch what they're doing, and I can look around at their surroundings to see what and who might be around them. I see scenes from specific angles, and sometimes it can be tricky to shift my camera angle, as it were, if I need to see things from a different direction. When I write a scene, I replay it over and over in my head until I'm satisfied with what I've captured in words.

Music plays a part in my creative process as well, because I almost always have music playing while I write. Often one or two albums will end up fitting the mood of a particular story or novel, and I'll listen to them over and over while writing. Other times, I'll need a specific emotion for a scene, so I'll hunt up some music that makes me feel that emotion. 

3. When and how did you first begin writing?
I can't really remember a time when I didn't make up stories, but I know I started writing them down when I was about six. Actually, I didn't write them, I typed them on my mom's old manual (not electric) typewriter. They tended to be a few paragraphs long and usually retold a favorite story with different character names. 

But when I was fourteen, I decided I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. My mom then bequeathed an electric typewriter to me, on which I pounded out a whole slew of short stories. Most of them were set in either WWII or the Old West, and those are still my favorite time periods to write about. That's what I view as the beginning of my quest to become a good writer.

4. What are you currently working on?
I'm revising a western YA novel I call Fickle Creek. It's my first attempt at a YA novel, and also my first western in almost a decade. While I was writing the first draft, I realized that I love writing westerns, and I'm planning to stick with them for the foreseeable future. I think my writing style is well suited to YA, as I tend to write in a pretty stream-lined, fast-paced fashion. 

I'm also working on an untitled western short story, and I hope to have the first draft finished in a few days.

5. Particular author/s who have influenced you?
Raymond Chandler, for his delightfully skewed and unexpected descriptions. Ernest Hemingway, for his lean prose and incisive depictions of human nature. F. Scott Fitzgerald, for reminding me of how beautiful words can be. Laurie R. King, for creating a strong, independent, intelligent female character who isn't the least bit annoying.

6. Is there a “non-writing” activity that shapes your writing? 
Other than watching movies and reading books, you mean? Well, I tend to work through story glitches while I'm in the shower or folding laundry. Those are two rote, meditative tasks that let my imagination roam while my hands are busy doing something useful. Also, I'm often granted a few minutes of peace while doing them, and that gives me the mental space I need to think through scenes that aren't working or figure out plot conundrums. Or talk to my characters in my head and let my subconscious fix those problems through them.

7. Your opinion on the advantages and disadvantages of digital books?
I think the advantage is that it's very easy to publish your own work as an ebook. For me as a writer, this is tremendously attractive -- just figure out how to do it, and then bam! Your books! For sale! But I feel like the problem with this is that it IS so easy. Anyone really can do it. There's no selection process, no editor saying, "This story is good, this story could be good if it's reworked, this story is terrible." Readers have to do that themselves, and for me as a reader, that can be daunting.

8. Do you ever do graphic design to help with your writing? 
A little bit. I often cast actors and actresses in various roles in my original stories -- in fact, many of my stories are born of me saying, "Hey, what if I put so-and-so in a story with so-and-so?" For my fanfiction, many stories are born of me wishing some actor, past or present, had guest-starred on Combat!, and I end up creating a story around a character they could play. So sometimes I will make little collages of pictures I've found with actors looking the way I envision characters for some story or other. This is a great way to procrastinate when you know you should be writing, but don't feel like it.

I also sometimes draw simple maps, either in Paint or on actual paper with an actual pen, just so I can keep locations clear in my head. This is especially helpful when writing out a gunfight or battle, so I can remember where everyone is and how their movements affect others. I do floor plans for houses too, so as I mention things in a book, I can mark that on a map and then not make silly mistakes like switching which side of the kitchen the sink is on.

9. Do you outline? If so, in a general way or very detailed?
No. Before I start writing, I figure out what the beginning and ending of my story are, and I work from one to the other. I tried outlining once. I plotted out what chapters different things happened in for a whole novella. And then I lost the desire to write it because I knew everything that would happen in the story. I need that element of discovery for a first draft, the freedom to let characters go their own way and not try to steer them all the time.

10. Do you work on multiple projects at once?
Usually I have something I'm revising, something that's between drafts, and something that's being actively written. Right now I'm in kind of an unusual phase where I've only got two of those -- I have nothing between drafts. But I do have that short story almost finished, and then while I let it sit and stew for a bit I might just start writing my next novel. It's been percolating for over a year, and I feel like I'm about ready to start it. 

11. Do you edit as you write?
Only a little. I might change a word here and there, or smooth a rough patch. But unless something in the story changes drastically as I write, I don't go back and fiddle around much with what I've already written. I save that for the rewrites. Most stories go through at least three drafts, and some take a lot more than that.

12. Certain themes you see surfacing and resurfacing in your work?
Siblings are a big thing with me. How the sibling relationship can be great, and how it can be terrible. Families in general fascinate me. And they don't have to be blood-related families or siblings. I'm also fascinated by close friendships and "found families," people who may have been strangers or only acquaintances before, but are thrown together in such a way that they form a family group. 

13. A particular aspect of writing you struggle with or a challenge you’ve overcome?
I like to joke that I write in precisely the wrongest genres possible, because I write mostly westerns and WWII stories, but I moan and groan over writing action scenes. I get frustrated by having to write out, step-by-step, what happens during any kind of fight, whether it involves fists or guns, whatever. I want to film fights, just sit back and let the camera catch the action, not describe it in detail. This is partly because of how my stories unspool in my head like movies, and to write out a big fight scene, I have to rewind that story over and over to catch the details and make it clear to readers who is doing what, etc. For some reason, that is much harder for me than writing dialog, which is kind of like taking dictation -- I just write down what the characters say while they say it. Very little rewinding necessary!

But I do love writing stories in those sorts of settings, and they do often require action scenes, so I grit my teeth and write them.

14. How do you deal with feedback—particularly negative feedback?
It depends on who's giving the feedback. At this stage in my writing life, I almost never get feedback of any sort from strangers on my fiction, which is actually kind of tough. It's easier for me to let negative comments from a stranger roll off my back because I don't know them, so I don't have an emotional investment in what they think.

Sometimes, constructive criticism doesn't bug me at all, and I can go from, "But, but, but!" to "Yeah, that makes sense, let me see how to deal with that" almost instantly. Sometimes, it makes me push my whole story away until I've had a few days to process what someone has said and come to terms with what changes it might mean I need to make. And sometimes, a writing friend will show me a problem so gaping that I don't think I can fix it, and I shelve the story. That hurts the most at the time, but in the end, I'm grateful.

15. One thing you’ve learned from other writers?
How to give helpful, constructive feedback. There's an art to giving a good mixture of encouragement and suggestions, and I have a fanfic-writing friend called Bayonet to thank for showing me how blending the good with the bad makes a critique so much more helpful. Thanks, Bayo!

16. A helpful nonfiction book or website?
I think the most helpful writing-related thing I've ever encountered is Holly Lisle's online course "How to Think Sideways." It's not cheap, but my writing process has been revolutionized by her insights into how to get your creative juices flowing and how to craft a solid story from the get-go. Even though I started that course in 2011, I haven't finished it yet, though I'm slowly working my way through it. I also bought Holly Lisle's "How to Rewrite Your Novel" course, which is what I'm using to revise the novel I've been talking about here. Lisle also offers a lot of shorter courses on things like dialog, plot outlines, characterization, and more, and sometimes she offers mini-courses and workshops for free. This is starting to sound like an infomercial, but truly, do yourself a favor and check out and see what she offers. 

I have another writing friend to thank for everything I've learned from Holly Lisle -- Deborah Koren, that was the best birthday/Christmas present ever!

I also love James N. Frey's series of how-to books. (This is NOT the guy who wrote A Million Little Pieces.) My favorite is The Key: Writing Damn Good Fiction Using the Power of Myth, but How to Write a Damn Good Mystery and How to Write a Damn Good Novel are also super helpful. Frey takes you step-by-step from inspiration to a completed story, writing a mini book as an example to show you what he means. The Key is my favorite of his because I am attracted to mythic story structures and use them a lot myself, and that book has helped me understand how those work. 

17. What do you consider one of the single most important things to remember (i.e. an attitude or technique)?
If it's not working, try something else. Don't bang your head on a brick wall, find the door.

18. A word of encouragement for fellow writers?
Don't stop learning! Read books, study them, try to figure out how authors get things to work, and also figure out what makes things not work. And then write.

~ ~ ~

Note from Heidi: Thanks so much for sharing, Rachel!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Quote of the Month ~ March 2015

(click to enlarge)

For more great Quotes of the Month click here.

Heidi Peterson is a lover of wide-spreading land, summer dust, white pounding waterfalls, and mountain tops; also of good dark coffee and rich stories. Most of all she's a lover of the One who is the Word, the Word made flesh. You can visit her additional blog (where she shares more about books, movies, and further marvels of life) at: Along the Brandywine.

Visit and contact at: Sharing the Journey // Along the Brandywine // ladyofanorien(at)gmail(dot)com
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