Sunday, December 24, 2006

That's "Your Laconic Ladyship" to You!

For Christmas, I gave myself a Peculiar Aristocratic Title. Want one? Click here!

My Peculiar Aristocratic Title is:
Duchess Christine the Laconic of Chalmondley Chumleyton
Get your Peculiar Aristocratic Title

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Can You Find the Pit Bull?

Since the very first day of this blog, I’ve had a link over on the right (scroll down…down…there ya go) called “Can You Find the Pit Bull?” The reason I put up this link is because (1) having worked with pit bulls for many years, I'm a fan of the breed and (2) pit bulls and related breeds have gotten, and continue to get, a tremendously bad rap from the media.

Have pit bulls attacked people? Yes. Have Rottweilers? Yes. Have St. Bernards, English Springer Spaniels, Labradors, Golden Retrievers, Dalmatians, Beagles, and Chihuahuas attacked people?

Yes, to all the above.

However, when a dog attack makes the news, the dog(s) involved are often reported as “pit bulls.” It’s almost as if the media has developed a knee-jerk reflex: “dog attack” = “pit bull.”

Now hold on, you might be saying. Maybe pit bulls end up in the newspaper because, unlike other types of dogs, they put people in the hospital, or even kill them.

But that just ain’t so. When the stories are looked into, often it’s found that the dog involved is not a pit bull or any related breed or even a mix of any of these breeds.

This is yet another reason why I don’t believe in breed bans. Banning pit bulls will not prevent someone from being attacked by a vicious dog of another breed. Instead, you’ll just end up forcing a lot of folks to give up their docile, affectionate pets. But what about any pit bulls who are aggressive? You’ve at least gotten rid of them, right?

Remember, aggressive dogs aren’t created in a vacuum. Take them away, and the people who made them will simply go out and get another dog they think they can mold into a “bad ass.”

Better to focus on the people responsible for dog attacks, and leave the breeds out of it. Before we have to start dressing all our dogs in costumes.
Many thanks to Walter Rowntree, DVM, for sending me the photo of his Doberman, Hana, dressed as a Poodle for Halloween 2006.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving!

So much to be thankful for. Not least of which, for all of you who visit me here. Happy Thanksgiving! I’m spending my holiday writing, answering the call of the deadline. I love to write, so this is no hardship--and anyway, that deadline is one of the biggest things I'm thankful for! (since it means that my new book already has a home...kind of like a puppy who's already been adopted, but is too young to leave mama just yet.)

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Note to Self: Engage Brain Before Writing

Thanks to all who provided wonderful comments on the previous post. First, let me say this will teach me to post hurriedly and late at night. I wrote my first reaction on this study, and I left out my own reservations (not to mention most of my critical faculties). In consequence, I missed the mark I was aiming for by an embarrassingly wide margin. The commenters, on the other hand, hit the bull's-eye in their criticisms.

For the record, over the years I’ve owned a German Shepherd, a pit-bull mix, a Siberian Husky, and a Great Dane—all of which have been named on one list or another as “aggressive.” All of them are/were wonderful dogs. I’m a veterinarian in small animal private practice in an area with a high population of pit bulls, AmStaffs, and other breeds included on these same lists. I love spending time with my patients; they are, almost without exception, sweet-tempered, gentle dogs, and their owners are responsible and caring people.

I'll try to explain my intent more clearly. Simply, I was glad that, finally, someone was looking at irresponsible dog owners as a major contributor to the problem of dog attacks. I have gotten so frustrated with media coverage that focuses exclusively (and often inaccurately—but more on that in a future post) on the breed of dog involved. In my experience, dangerous dogs are created by irresponsible owners. But the media, and knee-jerk legislation like breed bans, ignores owner accountability. I want the current hysterical media focus on dog breeds to stop. I want the focus instead to be held on the owners. I want irresponsible owners to be held accountable--NOT the dogs!

It’s clear that this did not come across in what I wrote.

From the comments: “…one must be very careful NOT to overinterpret the results of the study cited. The "not very nice" people who want aggressive dogs probably can attribute their entire dog-education to the media, which tends to get hysterical about certain breeds… It would behoove those who carry out and publish studies, as well as those who read them, to understand what exactly the data show. In this case, the data show nothing more than the fact that "not very nice people" have bought into the myth of "dangerous breeds."

I agree, and these are issues I failed to address.

“…in an animal that was not TAUGHT to be outwardly aggressive, it will not show aggression unless it feels itself or it's people are being threatened.”

With very rare exceptions (mostly having to do with medical problems) this is absolutely true. We see this often in the veterinary profession. Animals that react aggressively to us are attempting to defend themselves. This is a normal and natural reaction. The animal perceives us as a threat and is acting out of a very rational fear. It then becomes our job to alleviate that patient's fear and minimize its stress. Labelling an animal “bad” for this behavior is ignorant and worsens the situation, instead of resolving it.

Irresponsible owners who want to have a "bad-ass" dog will encourage, train and reward aggressive behavior. This can and does occur regardless of breed, but the point I (so poorly) tried to make is that this kind of person often chooses a breed with a reputation for aggressiveness.

“Would one assume that if a certain brand of cereal was found in a certain percentage of pantries of child abusers that every person whose pantry contained that brand of cereal is an abuser? To draw this conclusion would be erroneous, but it could certainly make a study that would make an interesting article. Let’s use common sense, and stay away from pigeon-holing society with erroneous labels.”

Beautifully expressed and again, I agree. By citing the study in the way that I did, I ended up painting a very wide swath of people with a very damning brush. This was carelessness on my part. It was not my intent.

My intent was to say that dog attacks are a problem of irresponsible ownership—not a problem of breed. If one wants to reduce the number of dog attacks, one must address irresponsible owners. Breed bans don’t do this. Breed bans only promote ignorance.

I am writing a follow-up post with more thoughts on breed bans, but I wanted to respond first to all those who took the time to comment. I apologize for the carelessness with which I threw together the previous post, and for the offense it caused. I appreciate the time you took in your responses, and the clarity and goodwill with which you expressed yourselves. I hope I have expressed myself a little more clearly here.

Thank you.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Like Owner, Like Dog?

Vicious dog attacks, resulting in serious injury or death of a person, have increased to the point that many people feel “something” must be done. Unfortunately, the “something” too often results in knee-jerk reactions. Ban all pit bulls! Problem solved—right?

Not entirely. Because there’s more to this problem than just the dog.

Are certain breeds at higher risk for aggression? Absolutely. But in the hysterical-media coverage of dog attacks, the question hardly ever asked is: What kind of person owns a dog like this?

Recently, though, a team of researchers did ask that question, and they’ve uncovered some interesting answers. According to a study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence (which, BTW, how sad is it that such a journal even has to exist?), owners of aggressive dogs are often—brace yourselves for a shock—not very nice people.

Specifically, this is what the study found: Of 355 dog owners, every single one who owned a breed at high risk for aggression had been found guilty of breaking the law at least once. Offenses ranged from traffic citations to “serious criminal convictions.”

When the study looked at owners of aggressive dog breeds who also had been cited for failure to license their dog, 30 percent had at least five criminal convictions or traffic citations.

The criminal record rate for owners of licensed, low-risk dogs? One percent.

One of the study’s authors, Jaclyn Barnes, says: "Owners of vicious dogs who have been cited for failing to register a dog (or) failing to keep a dog confined on the premises ... are more than nine times more likely to have been convicted for a crime involving children, three times more likely to have been convicted of domestic violence ... and nearly eight times more likely to be charged with drug (crimes) than owners of low-risk licensed dogs."

This is one reason I’m leery of breed bans. A breed ban doesn’t address the fact that certain people are drawn to owning aggressive dogs. And if you think such people must all be drug dealers, or others of that ilk, think again. One of the worst dogs I ever dealt with was a 125-lb Rottweiler owned by a seemingly nice suburban mom. Plain and simple, this person just liked having a bad-ass dog. The fact that the dog snarled at her own husband was, she believed, proof that the dog loved her—and she encouraged it. Take away all Rottweilers, and I’m convinced she’d immediately select another high-risk dog and train it to be a bad-ass. Unfortunately, she's all too typical of this kind of owner.

For too long, the spotlight has been solely on the dogs behind the dog attacks. This study begins to shine it where it really belongs: on the dog owners. Solve that problem, and breed bans won’t be necessary.
There’s more to the breed ban controversy…but I’ll save that for a future post.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Barbaro: A Champion, Still

Against long odds, the fractures in Barbaro’s right hind leg--sustained during his running of the Preakness Stakes--have healed.

On November 6th, veterinary surgeons removed the cast from Barbaro’s right hind leg. For the first time since May, no replacement cast was put on.

According to Barbaro's head surgeon, Dr. Dean Richardson, a long road still lies ahead. Back in July, Barbaro’s left rear foot developed laminitis, a serious, potentially fatal inflammation. As a consequence, he lost most of his left rear hoof wall. Although the final outcome is still uncertain, the good news is that the hoof is slowly regrowing.

The team of veterinary surgeons, technicians, and support staff at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center deserve kudos and a standing ovation for bringing Barbaro this far. I understand their caution. And yet, I believe this gallant horse will, ultimately, claim victory. On that day, look for a picture of Barbaro here: cast-, splint-, and bandage-free, at liberty, grazing grass in bright Pennysylvania sunshine.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The 21st Century Feline

Seamus O'Leary takes the traditional I'm-going-to-sit-on-top-of-your-papers manuever and gives it a modern twist.

He managed to fall fast asleep in this position, so I felt bad kicking him off. And yet...I did. I'm not a total meanie, though; just as soon as he demonstrates 90 words a minute, the keyboard's all his.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

To the Post Office We Will Go

I went to the post office this morning with an enormous load of parcels to be mailed. I got in line a few moments before about 8 other people, who then proceeded to give me such awful stink-eye, I could practically feel my hair curling. I didn't care. I was on a mission: to send Tallulah Falls to contest winners across the United States.

In September, I ran two contests: one through, a great young adult book site with reviews, author interviews, and--you guessed it--contests. The other ran through AuthorBuzz, which advertises books on (a wonderful site for avid readers) and (an e-mail newsletter for booksellers). The response was amazing; from DearReader subscribers alone, I received 128 entries!

The best part, though, was all of you who took time to visit my website, read the book excerpt, and take the Tallulah Falls photo tour. Not only that, you then sent me wonderful, supportive e-mails. Reading them absolutely made my week.

Thank you to everyone who entered. I appreciate your time and your enthusiasm! And, to the 20 lucky winners, congratulations--Tallulah is on her way!

Monday, September 25, 2006

When in Doubt, Go for the Gusto

St Johns Reading
Originally uploaded by cmflet.
One thing I learned from teaching: never let a little personal dignity get in the way of enthusiasm. I have no idea what I'm talking about here, but I'm pretty sure the audience is laughing. (I could they not be?)

Get Me to the Bookstore On Time

My friend Laura called me a few hours before my first bookstore reading. “You’re strangely calm,” she said. I was, too. I’d planned my entire day, and so far it'd gone off without a hitch: early morning workout, a few errands, then work on the new novel. Then rehearsing, both to get my timing down and get myself used to the sound of my own voice (I know from teaching that if I don’t do this, I sound weird and stupid to myself as soon as I open my mouth in front of a group). Precisely at 5:30 PM, I began making brownies. If organizational skills were an Olympic event, that day I’d have scored a perfect 10.

The whole point, of course, being to get me to the bookstore--prepared and relaxed, with my copy of Tallulah Falls and a tray of warm brownies in hand--no later than 6:40 PM, twenty minutes before the reading was due to start. So explain to me—how did it suddenly become 6:35 with me still in sweatpants, my hair in a ponytail, nothing loaded in the car and a houseful of animals who needed to be fed?

Call it a wardrobe malfunction. No, not the Janet Jackson kind. The kind that makes every item of clothing in my closet seem like it was beamed straight from Planet U-R-Freakazoid. My bedroom looked as though someone had tossed my closet into a giant blender and turned it on without the lid. It was the real-life version of that nightmare, you know, the one where you have to be somewhere in one minute and the gorgeous dress you just put on suddenly morphs into orange overalls with fringe.* If Laura had called me at 6:35 PM, she’d have gotten a whole different take on my emotional state.

Thank God for the simple black blazer, that’s all I can say.

After the ordeal of getting myself dressed, the reading itself went down smooth as pumpkin pie. The bookstore, St. Johns Booksellers, was cozy and bright; so many people showed up that Nena and Liz, the store owners, had to put out all their chairs; and this lovely, lovely audience laughed in all the right places and afterward bought copies of the book. They’re going straight to heaven, every single one of them.

Even the brownies were a hit.**

Not all readings will be so charmed, I know. But this one was. Thanks to everyone who came, thanks to all who couldn’t come but sent their best wishes, and thanks especially to Liz and Nena of St. Johns Booksellers—you gals rock!

*I'm not the only one who has that nightmare, am I?

**Full disclosure: They were made from a box. But hey, I had to set the oven. And I stir batter really, really well.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

What's Even Better Than a New Hairstyle? Why, A New MySpace!

I can draw, but I've always done my best work in black and white. When it comes to color, I quickly become bemused and befuddled. (Just ask my friend Laura, whom I had to bring in for emergency consultation when picking a color for our house. This was after I'd run through 11--count them, 11--paint samples, without coming close to the green I had in mind. My sweetie is partially color-blind, yet even he has a better sense of color coordination than I do. Believe me, I'm not proud).

So, when I signed up for MySpace, a few months ago, my original page was the default: white background, black text. Other MySpacians (MySpacites?) have fantastical layouts with graphics and sound and sparkly things and animation and anything else they can import code for. Most of these pages are lovely. Some--let us be frank--are disasters. I wasn't about to try my own hand at it. I could just feel disaster lurking. This is the girl, after all, who dresses in grays and blacks and denim and olive greens. Safe. Uncomplicated. When I feel like pushing my own personal fashion right to the edge, I'll toss on a dark red hoodie. Whoa, stand back!

Enter my wonderful, wonderful website designer. Begone, dull white...hello, COLOR! Drop on by the new digs, and check out the drapes!

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Tallulah's a 10!

TeenBookReviewer has posted a marvelous review of Tallulah Falls-- click here to read!

Monday, September 04, 2006

Goodbye, Students

It’s Labor Day—the last summer hurrah before school starts. And, for the first time in 10 years, I’m not getting ready to teach.

Up until this summer, I taught in a veterinary technology* program at a local community college. Teaching wasn’t a planned career move; I sort of fell into it. After seven years of full-time veterinary practice, I’d begun work on the novel that was to become Tallulah Falls. It quickly became clear, though, that there wasn’t enough time or energy in my days for both a full-time job and writing.

And oh, I wanted to finish that novel.

Changing the focus of my career involved a fair bit of scrambling, a good dose of serendipity, and what felt—at the time—like a jump off a precipice. The serendipity came in the fact that, while there is only one veterinary technology program in my state, it happens to be in the city where I live. And the program happened to need a part-time instructor, at the exact time I began looking around for other, more writer-friendly ways to use my veterinary degree.

Long story short—I loved teaching. I loved that look of sudden comprehension—the “aha!” moment, when a student got it. I loved the story-telling, those “from the trenches” anecdotes that grab the class’s attention and clothe abstract concepts in fur and blood and bone. Best of all, though, I loved how much I learned from my students.

They say if you really want to learn something, teach it. There’s nothing like sparring (nicely) with a skeptical student to make you strive to be certain of your facts and your logic. Our students come to us with all kinds of experiences and backgrounds, and not a term went by that I didn’t pick up a new fact, idea, or perspective to add to my own store of knowledge. For that, and for the privilege of standing up in front of a classroom and sharing what I know, I am deeply and forever grateful.

Publishing has changed my life, not least in this way: I had too many irons in the fire, and one had to come out. I have a deadline to meet for my 2nd novel, and I can’t—I won’t—leave veterinary practice entirely. And so the teaching I fell into, ten years ago, is now fallen away.

I will miss it. I miss my students: energetic, enthusiastic, questioning, stressed-out, sharp, compassionate veterinary technician students. You guys made teaching a blast—thank you. Good luck, and I’ll see you out in the crucible of practice—where I’ll get to see how much you really know (and, no doubt, learn a few things myself).

*Veterinary technicians are the nurses of the veterinary profession. To become a licensed veterinary technician, students must complete an accredited 2-year college program and pass national and state licensing exams. Veterinary technicians provide nursing care, take radiographs, administer anesthesia, perform laboratory testing, and counsel clients, along with a thousand and one other duties. Veterinary technicians are smart and capable people, who would be successful in any number of careers with fewer hours, much less stress (not to mention poop), and way more pay. They do this work because they love it. I work with some of the best, most dedicated technicians in the field. I can’t do what I do without them. The fact that I've had the honor of teaching some of them makes me just ridiculously proud.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Dog Love

Hop on over to GalleyCat to see a great photo of our wonderdog Ginny, and read about why she’s the cutest dog ever. (Hint: An underbite helps). While you’re there, browse the other posts on this excellent book and publishing blog, and you’ll be the first on your block to learn that Norman Mailer is coming out with his first novel in ten years.

Thanks to Ron Hogan and Sarah Weinman of GalleyCat for posting Ginny’s pic!

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Bella Stander Poetry Contest

If you’re in the mood to read some REALLY bad poetry (and come on, who isn’t?) then head on over to Miss Snark’s blog. Miss Snark is a literary agent whose prolific, funny, and yes, snarky blog normally deals with publishing questions. This week, however, she held a poetry contest. Why? To make Bella Stander laugh.

Who’s Bella Stander? And why do we care if she laughs? She’s a writer and book reviewer, an organizer for the Virginia Festival of the Book, and founder of Book Promotion 101, a workshop that teaches newbie authors like me how to launch our babies into the cold cruel world. I took Bella’s workshop last year and found it excellent. Afterward, I had the pleasure of chatting with her for a couple of hours over Chinese food, and that was even better. She’s a fount of book world wisdom, and funny as hell to boot.

This past May, Bella took a very nasty spill off a horse. On Tuesday she went in for yet another surgery, this time on her fractured (and poorly healing) humerus. Not one to pass up fun with homonyms (humerus/humorous—the possibilities practically boggle the mind!) and with the goal of rallying Bella’s spirits, Miss Snark announced the contest and threw open the blog doors.

Eighty-five entries in 48 hours. Twelve hours for blog readers to cast their votes, and—ta da! Results are in. The poem written by yours truly (#44) landed in a 3-way tie for third. (Yeah, I see you back there, I know what you’re thinking. No, I didn’t vote for myself. Not even once. Scout's honor).

So Bella, I hope we made you laugh and that your humerus is on the mend, and do you have any idea how hard it is NOT to make bad puns on the word humerus? (Must refrain…mustrefrain…)

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Library Love

I'm a lifelong devotee of libraries, and now, the love quotient has just skyrocketed: Tallulah Falls has been selected as an August 2006 Great Reads book (category: "Real Teens, Real Lives") by the Columbus Metropolitan Library.

Thank you, CML!

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Bookseller Love

I'm having the most amazing time meeting booksellers.

Now, I’m a shy person. Always have been. I have a particular phobia about calling people on the phone; I just assume they won’t want to talk to me. It’s like my fear of spiders, which my sweetheart (see previous post) keeps trying to talk me out of. Yes, I know I’m much bigger than they are. Yes, I know they’re probably more scared of me than I am of them. What my sweetheart doesn’t get is that’s why it’s called a phobia—because it’s not rational.

Which means it’s taken a bit of time to get my nerve up to call local booksellers, asking if I can stop in for a drive-by signing. The purpose of a drive-by signing is to meet the booksellers and sign whatever copies of my book they have on hand. Easy, yes?

For me? So. Not. Easy. I’m the girl who will wander through a store for half an hour, rather than ask a clerk for assistance. My boyfriend will ask for directions before I will—that’s how bad it is.

However. Armed with advice on Approaching Booksellers for the Shy and Retiring from Bookseller Chick, the anonymous blogging maven of all things book retail, I called the first store on my list. As soon as I said my name, the person on the other end of the phone cried, “Oh, hi! We’ve been trying to get a hold of you! One of our customers told us about you and we want to set up an event with you!”


I have to say, after that, it got easier. At that particular bookstore—St. Johns Booksellers, right in my own neighborhood—I spent close to an hour dishing with the owners, Liz and Nina, two lovely women who are so passionate about books I left inspired to write the best novel ever, just so they would like it.

At Broadway Books, owner Roberta was just as welcoming. And at A Children’s Place, Portland’s wonderful children’s bookstore, Kira and I got to yakking about the amazing Shannon Hale (who also publishes with Bloomsbury—hi, Shannon!) Kira led me to Shannon’s newest novels, Enna Burning and Princess Academy, and also introduced me to Edith Pattou’s East, which I’m in the process of devouring. Thanks, Kira!

This week I’m going to continue my rounds. I can’t wait to see whom I meet next!

Oh, and that event I mentioned earlier? I’ll be reading from Tallulah Falls at St. Johns Booksellers, 8622 N. Lombard, Portland, Oregon, at 7 PM on September 20th, 2006. See you there!

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Behind Every Successful Writer...

Tess Gerritsen is an award-winning writer of thrillers. She also writes an insightful blog about writing and publishing. Her latest post, “Only Another Writer Would Understand,” is a beautifully written essay on the difficulties of being married to a writer.

I understand what she’s talking about. I could write the companion piece: “Only Another Veterinarian Would Understand.”

Fortunately, my significant other is a veterinarian, too. We both understand fourteen-hour days and the lack of weekends. We consult each other on the hard cases and commiserate over the heartbreaking ones. We accept the near-absolute certainty that we’ll arrive late (or miss entirely) any event for which we buy tickets. And still, sometimes, we get frustrated with the demands of each other’s careers. For spouses who don’t belong to the same profession, those frustrations must get enormous—even when they are entirely supportive of their loved one’s vocation.

How much worse it is, then, when the spouse is not supportive.

Years before I had the great good fortune to find my sweetie (and long before I started writing), I experienced exactly that. The attitude ranged from comments like, “Why would anyone spend money on a cat?” to a silent, condescending indifference toward anything veterinary-related…because after all, “it’s just not important.”

Bye-bye. Better to be alone, than with someone who thinks my work—my passion—is trivial.

Writers with unsupportive spouses hear a lot of the same kind of thing: The writing is a “hobby.” It’s "not important." It’s a "waste of time." And when the rejections arrive (as they always do): “I told you so.”

I changed career mid-stream. I took a pay cut to pursue writing. I spend countless hours in my office tapping at the keyboard, and countless more musing about characters and plot points and story problems. My sweetie sure didn’t sign up for that. He thought he was getting a veterinarian who liked to read. Without warning, he ended up with a writer, complete with angst, negligible odds for success, and an anemic cash flow. And throughout it all (Quitting my job! Haywire schedule! Rejection after rejection!) he has been my champion. Because it makes me happy. Because he thought I should go for it. And because he’s the most excellent man on earth. To say I’m blessed is the understatement of a lifetime.

To those struggling with this issue, I can only say: Don’t ever, ever settle for less.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Life and Art...or, Who is Tallulah, Really?

The most common questions people ask me after reading Tallulah Falls are, “Are the characters based on real people?” and “Did any of those things happen to you?”

Which has gotten me pondering how thin—or thick—the line is between life and art.

Writers steal. Plain and simple. We steal physical traits, turns of phrase, and oddities of manner. How someone folds their arms and rears his head back while listening. How someone else can’t tell a joke without giggling her way through it. We are, first and foremost, observers; any writer who doesn’t pay close attention to the people around him probably isn’t much of a writer.

However, most fiction writers (myself included) don’t base an entire character on one real-life person. First of all—eww. Writing a fully-rounded, memorable character means living with that character in your head for months or years: thinking in his thoughts, speaking in her voice, digging to the depths of his motivations, prejudices, ambitions, loves, and hates. Most of us barely know ourselves that well, let alone anyone else. Which means I’d have to start making stuff up, and making stuff up—intimate, soul-baring kind of stuff—about a person I actually know, and then living with that day after day for months…ewwww.

Not to mention that very few people actually want a character in a novel based on them. Characters in novels are flawed creatures. They have to be, or why else would they be interesting enough to read about? Plucking people from one’s real life and plopping them, intact and recognizable, warts and all, into the pages of a book is a nifty way to antagonize one’s circle of friends and relations. Besides, see #1, above.

In fact, if I happen across a really striking, unique characteristic—physical or behavioral—in someone I personally know, then I’m actually quite irritated, because I feel I can’t use it. (Other writers aren’t this squeamish—they believe that all is grist for the mill, and they won’t pass up the opportunity to incorporate a dazzling detail into their characters, no matter how recognizable it is or who it comes from. Every writer makes up his or her own mind on such things).

It’s been interesting, hearing people’s theories on which Tallulah Falls character is based on which real-life person. So far, nobody’s right…and nobody will be right, because the dozens and dozens of characteristics I lifted from real people are all mixed together in my characters. You’ve probably heard the phrase Heinz-57 to describe a dog descended from many different breeds. Well, those are my characters—Heinz-57’s all, with a lot of each of them made-up, to boot. (Remember, this is fiction!) But for all you who know me, speculate away. After all, I finally realized, it’s part of the fun of knowing the writer. As for me, I’ll just sit back, and listen to the theories, and smile.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Happy 4th of July!

I’ve been spending almost all my free time writing the 2nd novel, so the blog has been neglected a bit. Sorry, folks. But I thought I’d post a couple of quick updates today.

First, Barbaro’s cast (see here for original post) was changed for the 2nd time yesterday. He’s still in the ICU of the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center, but so far he’s making a marvelous recovery. He’s got his own official photo gallery now—click here to see current pics of him.

Second, if you found the agent information here interesting, and you’d like more—from an actual agent, no less!—then hop over to Agent Kristin’s blog. She’s doing an Agenting 101 series, beginning with this post, that you won’t want to miss. And then bookmark her site in your browser, because she's a gem--if you read her blog regularly, you'll learn tons.

I’ll be back soon. In the meantime, happy 4th of July, everyone!

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Kitten Season

One of the more irritating things about being a veterinarian is that some people think you do nothing but play with puppies and kittens. Then again, one of the best things about being a veterinarian get to play with puppies and kittens.

Not all day, of course. But sometimes, even during the most hectic, demanding, awful day—let’s get real, especially on a hectic, demanding, awful day!—taking half a minute to snuggle up to one of the littlest patients is like taking a big old Sanity Pill.

It’s mid-June, which means we’re smack-dab in kitten season. (1) When I lived in rural areas, this was the time of year you’d see little kids in front of the grocery store, with a litter of kittens in a laundry basket and a sign saying, “Free!!!” (2) Litters are abandoned by their owners, some of them literally on our doorstep. Other kittens are brought in by Good Samaritans, who find them in parking lots, hayfields, woodpiles, sheds, inside walls, underneath cars, on the side of the road, in the middle of the road...

And then there was the kitten who fell off a garage roof onto a client’s head. She was teeny-tiny, less than a week old, her eyes not even open. We figured momma cat must have carried her up there, then somehow lost her. It was a hell of a surprise to the client, who was not accustomed to kittens dropping on him out of the clear blue sky. Lucky for the kitten, though—if he hadn’t been standing there at that exact moment, she would have died from falling onto the concrete.

The kitty pictured above is one of the this season's many foundlings. He’s thin, and pretty scruffy, but once he gets some regular meals and TLC, he’ll grow up to be a big handsome cat. He knows it, too—he’s trying to walk across me to get to my lunch (tuna, yum).

Kitten season, we say, and sigh. The shelters are full, the foster homes are bursting, the rescue societies are strained to the limit. So many babies, not enough homes. And yet, despite all this, the kitten-mad among us cuddle each and every squirmy furry little monster, exclaiming, Isn't he cute?

Adorableness. The saving grace of kitten season.

(1) Kitten season starts in mid-spring, and, depending on where you live, ends in mid- to late-fall. That’s because female cats start coming into heat in late February, when the days start getting long. Then they cycle in and out of heat every 3 weeks until fall, when the days get short. They don’t come into heat at all during the winter. (Cats who spend all their lives inside, under artificial lights, are sometimes an exception). The kitty gestation period is about 9 weeks, so that means no winter babies!

(2) If you’re a parent, and you’re considering letting your female cat (or dog) give birth so that your kids can see “the miracle of life”…please, please, please DON’T. I’ll save that rant for another day, and tell you all my reasons why. Just, for now, please believe me when I say it is NOT a good idea.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

This Reading Experience Brought To You By...

Courtesy of the New York Times comes this article about product placement in a young adult novel.

Yep, that’s right: product placement.

You know product placement. It’s what made Reese’s Pieces a household name after E.T.; it’s why sitcom characters always hold the soda can with the name displayed toward the camera. Companies pay for the privilege of having their products onscreen. Nobody cares; after all, the hero has to swig something, and whether it’s a Coke or a Pepsi won’t make any difference to the story or to the viewer. If a company wants to cough up enough cash to ensure that their athletic shoes adorn the heroine’s feet, be my guest.

This seems to be the line that the publisher, authors, and Cover Girl are taking about the product placement in Cathy’s Book, a young adult novel due out in September 2007 from Running Press. Cover Girl isn’t paying the authors directly; instead, the company will help promote the book. In exchange, according the NYT article: “Some of the changes that the authors and illustrators…have made since the partnership was struck include altering a drawing entitled "Artgirl Detective" to "Artist! Detective! UnderCover Girl" and changing a generic reference to "gunmetal grey eyeliner" to "eyecolor in 'Midnight Metal.'”

So what? Does this hurt anyone? Probably not. But it makes me uneasy, if for no other reason than novels are one of the last ad-free bastions left in our world. Here in Portland, our city ballpark is named after a utility company. The Triple Crown races are now the Visa Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby brought to you by Yum! Brands. Everything, it seems, now comes with a tag attached. Even--if you can believe this--a kid’s bus ride to school.

If this works out well for Cover Girl, then certainly we’ll see more of it. How soon before a company offers to pay? How many authors could resist the kind of money and promotional opportunities a big company can offer? (Let me pop a balloon right here—nobody, aside from Steven King and John Grisham and a few others, makes a living writing novels. Even Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates have day jobs). Would we tell ourselves, as the writers in this article did, that it's not a big deal, it's not changing the story?

As far as that goes, I do believe them (and for the record, let me say that the premise of Cathy’s Book sounds absolutely delicious). But if a company pays for product placement in a novel, you can bet that at some point, pressure will come to bear on the author or publisher.

More importantly, does it change the reader's experience? To me, there's a big difference between "gunmetal grey eyeliner" and "eyecolor in 'Midnight Metal.'" The first is good, detailed writing that does what good, detailed writing is supposed to do: evoke a visual image. I read that phrase and I can see the color. In contrast, “eyecolor in ‘Midnight Metal’” pulls me out of the story, wondering what Midnight Metal might look like. Instead of a clear visual image, it mall.

It's the same difference between the Civic Stadium and PGE Park. One belonged to the city residents. The other is bought and paid for, and you'd better not forget it.

It could be hard to lose yourself in a novel with that kind of message.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

A ShoutOut, A Poem, and A Thank You

If you love books, but you haven't yet stopped by Bookseller Chick, get thee hence at once! In this particular entry, she writes about Tequila Mockingbird (hilarious--you just have to read it), and then rounds up a bunch of cool links. First up: Chicks Up Front, a poetry slam performance by Sarah Holbrook. Fantastic all on its own. Made even better by Bookseller Chick's comment that the poem reminds her of Ruth, the been-there-honey-and-you-don't-know-the-half-of-it receptionist in Tallulah Falls.

Thanks to Bookseller Chick for the mention, and to Milady Insanity for making sure I saw it!

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Literary Agent Redux

You’ve written a book, and you want to find a literary agent to represent you and your work. How do you find this person, and how do you make sure you don’t get scammed?

(Do you need an agent? That depends. If you’re going to self-publish, no. If you’re aiming for the small, independent publishing houses—not necessarily. But if you’ve got your sights set on the big guns—Random House, say, or Simon and Schuster—then you probably do. Check out this article, or the resources listed below, for more info).

The first step is to make a list of agents who are looking for manuscripts like yours. There’s lots of ways to do this, and I recommend a combination of approaches (hey, it worked for me). First, look for published books that are similar to yours in genre or theme. Often, the author will include his or her agent in the acknowledgements. (If not, a Web search can often turn up the agent who represented the novel; or, as a last resort, you can call the publisher and ask who the agent of record is for that book). Once you’ve discovered the agent's name, you can then search the resources mentioned below to see what other books he or she has represented, to see if the agent might be a good fit for you.

A couple of nice bonuses to this approach is that 1) You’ll get a good feel for what’s already out there on the shelves. Agents appreciate writers who are knowledgeable about what’s happening in their genre. And 2) If an author thanks his or her agent with particular enthusiasm, that’s practically a personal recommendation!

At the same time, do some digging to turn up more agent names. Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents is an great place to start. A new edition comes out every year; since agent information can change rapidly, be sure you’re using the current one. Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents is another good reference, also updated annually. On the Internet, two very helpful resources are Agent Research and Evaluation and AgentQuery.

When searching these references, remember you’re not going to contact every agent listed; that’s a waste of your time and theirs. Instead, you’re looking for those agents who represent books like yours. Using these strategies, you should be able to generate a list of twenty to fifty literary agents, and possibly more, depending on your genre.

How do you avoid scams? Pretty easily, actually, if you remember two principles.

First: Only query reputable agents. Reputable agents make their money by selling manuscripts to publishers. This means they'll have an established track record, which you'll be able to find. Most are also members of the Association of Author’s Representatives, and so are bound to the AAR Canon of Ethics. (Note that membership in AAR is not mandatory, and some very excellent agents are not members. Still, they voluntarily abide by the same ethical code). If you use the agent-hunting strategies described above, chances are good that your list will only include reputable agents.

Second: In the agent-author relationship, money flows toward the author, NOT the other way around. In other words, before the manuscript has been sold to a publisher, you never, ever pay an agent. For anything. Ever. As I emphasized above, agents earn their money by selling manuscripts. Once this sale is made, then the agent takes his or her commission (15% is standard) out of the advance paid to the author by the publisher. At this point, the agent may also ask to be reimbursed for any ordinary office expenses (postage, copying, etc) incurred in the sale. These expenses should be clearly explained to the author beforehand, and/or spelled out in the agent-author contract.

In contrast to the above, a scam agent usually has no verifiable record of sales to publishers. He or she will not be a member of AAR. Most importantly, a scam agent will ask for some kind of upfront payment from the author. This payment may be disguised as “reading fees”, “editing fees”, or reimbursement for office expenses (remember, any such reimbursement should only be made after the manuscript is sold). These people make their money from the authors they’ve scammed, NOT from selling manuscripts to publishers.

If you harbor any doubt about the agents on your list, do yourself a massive favor and check them out before you send them your manuscript. (Two excellent resources to help you: Preditors and Editors and Writer Beware). As I noted in last week's post, many authors spend little or no time researching agents. Before they know it, they’ve signed with a scam artist—and only come to realize it when, some months down the road, the manuscripts they've labored over for years remain unsold, and their bank accounts are smaller by hundreds—sometimes thousands—of dollars.

Be smarter than that. Next to writing a fabulous book, finding a good agent can be the most important step you take toward publication. You owe it to yourself—and to your writing career—to do it right.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Agents 101

Fireworks arrived early this year, in the world of writing and publishing blogs. The website Absolute Write, which has been a wellspring of information on writing and publishing for several years, was shut down last week after a threatening phone call from a “literary agent” whose name appeared on AW’s list of 20 Worst Agencies (the AW site is back up, but I can't find their version of the list; so here it is on Writer Beware). This hasty plug-pulling of a respected, educational writers’ website caused a furious backlash among a number of writers and publishing professionals, including the anonymous NYC literary agent, Miss Snark, who issued a take-no-prisoners, bring-it-on shout out to the “agent” who started this whole brouhaha.

So what? You’re writing away in your cubbyhole, deaf to the distractions of the blogosphere. (In which case, what are you doing here?) You say to yourself: Tempest in a teapot, and why should I care, anyway?

If your goal is publication, you should care plenty.

Why? Because in your quest for publication, most likely you’ll be seeking representation by a literary agent. A GOOD lit agent can and will do all these things:
  • Help you polish your work, so that it is in best possible shape prior to submission to editors;
  • Formulate and carry out a submission strategy to these editors, using her extensive contacts and the relationships she’s built in the publishing world;
  • Negotiate the best possible publishing deal for you and your work (this goes beyond the bare question of advance money; this also includes which rights and subrights the publisher gets, the royalties you will receive, and a host of other details—most of which you’ve never heard of, but which can make a huge difference in your publishing experience);
  • Mediate any problems which arise between you and your publisher, from bad cover art to book promotion snafus;
  • Give you oodles of advice and encouragement, to help you shape your long-term writing career.

So what’s the problem? There are no degree certificates for literary agents, no government regulation, no exams to pass, no licenses to acquire. I could slap together a webpage today, order some business cards saying “Dog-Eat-Dog Literary Agency”, and voila! I’m a literary agent. (Perish the thought—I would be terrible). Many writers, many of whom have invested years in their novels, don’t bother to take the time to learn what separates the good agents from the bad. Bad agents know this. Operating under the time-honored truism that there’s one born every minute, these scam artists go a-hunting. And they catch plenty, with the result that the agent ends up richer, yet another writer ends up poorer (and bitter, to boot), and the book is no nearer publication than it was before.

Over the next week or three, I’ll post some more about agents: how to recognize the bad ones, how to find the good ones, and how to get the agent of your dreams.

Sunday, May 21, 2006


Two weeks ago, at the Kentucky Derby, a big bay colt blasted past the other horses as if he possessed a top gear unknown to the rest of the field. But more than that, what caught my eye is how relaxed he seemed. His ears flicked from side to front to side, as if he had all the time in the world, there at the finish, to listen to everything around him. With those ears, in that instant, Barbaro had my heart.

I’ve been a horse junkie all my life (the fact that I grew up a city kid, with nary a fiery steed for at least ten miles in any direction, seemed like a particularly sarcastic joke on the part of the universe), and I’ve followed the Triple Crown races almost that long.

The Kentucky Derby. The Preakness Stakes. The Belmont Stakes. Three races in 5 weeks. Anything can happen, and so goes the old saying: That's why they call it horse racing.

As a kid I watched Seattle Slew, the little horse everyone laughed at, romp off with the Crown. Then, the very next year, Affirmed and Alydar slugging it out from Kentucky to New York, Affirm’s margin of victory growing narrower with every race, until that immortal Belmont Stakes: Affirmed and Alydar battling head to head down the homestretch, me jumping up and down in front of the family TV yelling, and at the end…Affirmed again, literally by a nose. The second Triple Crown winner in two years, the third in 5 years. All the "experts" proclaimed that the mighty Crown, the benchmark of equine greatness since 1875, was a benchmark no more. With snide condescension in their voices, they said, Modern horses are just too good. From now on, we’ll probably have a Triple Crown winner every two or three years.

That was 28 years ago. No horse has claimed the Crown since. But this year, as I watched Barbaro blow away the field at the Kentucky Derby, I thought with a thrill of excitement: This is it. This guy could do it.

Anything can happen. A jostle down the backstretch. A thrown shoe. A horse not up to his best. Sure. That’s why they call it horse racing.

We don’t like to think injury. Of course it happens; injury is a risk in any sport, with any athlete performing to the utmost. All it takes is one bad step. But these are horses. We love them. Injury is too terrible to think of.

Yesterday, barely 100 yards into the Preakness Stakes, Barbaro took a bad step. From wishing for a Triple Crown, now we pray only that he survives.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Enchanted Evening

Like most writers (and most veterinarians, for that matter), I’m an introvert. I take my socializing the way I take wasabi—small doses for flavor, carefully calibrated not to overwhelm.

Not only that, I’ve succeeded in avoiding most of the party-giving occasions of life. Given that my boyfriend is as introverted as I am, birthday parties—surprise or otherwise—are highly unlikely. (I should point out that avoiding parties is not one of the reasons I’m unmarried. I mean, I may be a reclusive geek, but I’m not so far gone that the thought of having a shower given in my honor sends me screaming for the hills).

Which made it all the sweeter when my writing group threw me a party to celebrate the publication of Tallulah Falls.

What a lovely, magical, amazing experience.

We thought perhaps 20 or 30 people might come; it was a Sunday, after all, and raining to boot. Instead, something like 75 people crowded into my friend Connie’s living room, mingling, chatting, and nibbling on adorable tiny homemade cheesecakes. And me? The party organizers sat me down at the head of the table and for over 3 hours, I signed books, chatted with guests (some of whom I hadn’t seen for years), and laughed, laughed, laughed. Ton of fun? You have no idea. In a fit of optimism, I’d ordered 45 books from a local bookstore, figuring we’d have some left over. We not only sold out—the next day I had to order more, for all those who’d paid for a copy but didn’t get one at the party.

Perhaps the most surreal aspect, though, was that for the first time, all my worlds collided.

People who knew me as a veterinarian met those who knew me as a writer, who met still others who knew me as a college instructor. The consensus I heard from everyone afterward: “You know so many nice, interesting people!”

Yes, I do. To everyone who came, thank you—I’m overwhelmed that so many of you took time out of your hectic weekend to come buy a book and share a laugh with me. Thank you also to Broadway Books, a wonderful independent bookstore, for ordering in the books for me—twice. And to my wonderful writing group, the Writers of Renown, and our fearless leader, Karen Karbo—novelist, memoirist, and indefatigable teacher—I am still floating on air. Thank you, compadres! The next party, in honor of the next one of us to get published, will be at my house. I can only hope to match what you’ve done for me—no way can I top it.

Champagne, anyone?

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Happy Mother's Day

Mother’s Day used to be a day of phone calls, cards and flower-sending.

Now it’s a day of remembrance.

Today I found myself remembering the girly-girl things my mother taught me. Mom loved style, she loved clothes and make-up and shoes, and she had a particular romance with purses. I was her only daughter, and I am not a girly-girl. I used to think it’s because I grew up with older brothers, but I’ve met lots of women who did and who are passionate about girl stuff, so it must be something else: renegade DNA, a woogie bit of brain chemistry.

Whatever lay between that particular difference between my mother and me, it never stopped her from patiently teaching me the finer points of being female. Like how to do my nails. Mom was expert at manicuring her own, and ever since I was a little girl, I thought she had the most beautiful nails in the world. I still do. She kept them long, with perfectly symmetrical curved tips, the color almost always some gorgeous dark shade of red. I remember the lineup of little bottles—some kind of milky fluid, some kind of clear fluid, the polish itself (no red for me, not at 13; Mom started me off with clear, and later, pale rose). And then there were the tools—orange stick, file, the hangnail scissors in their own special green plastic pouch. I remember the burning-hair smell of nail filings, the sharp odor of acetone. I loved those evenings, Mom’s explanations and demonstrations, the sense of received knowledge, of wisdom passed down. As far as the nails themselves…well, I did learn, and for a while, I practiced. But I never have been disciplined enough to spend time on things that don’t interest me, and sometime during the intervening, nail-clipper years, I’ve forgotten the details of my mother’s technique. To me, that my mother’s nails were the most beautiful in the world somehow seemed enough.

Mom taught me how to put on makeup; how to buy clothes; how to scuff the soles of newly purchased high heels, to keep from slipping on a rain-slick sidewalk. But while I always learned willingly, I never felt passionately enough about these things to make them part of my daily life. Even now, when I see a woman beautifully made-up, right behind my admiration is the thought: There’s fifteen minutes of sleep lost.

I don’t need to be a girly-girl, though, to treasure the lessons my mother taught me. It’s part of her that I keep forever, her legacy to me made in an observation here, an admonition there, a funny story, an explanation, hundreds and thousands of them, over the years I was blessed to have her. I dream and I remember, and I long to have her back. I stand in a fitting room and look at myself in the mirror, and I hear her say, “Cute isn’t enough. What does it do for you?”

To all mothers, in this life and beyond: Happy Mother’s Day.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

And The Bell Rings For Round Two!

Like most unpublished writers, I had one goal in mind: publication.

Didn’t see much beyond that, except, of course, that life would become easier. As if the alchemy that would transform my hundreds of loose manuscript pages into a gorgeous bound book would also transform my working life into a smooth, clean machine. I would be a writer! Gone would be the juggling of schedules, the stress of too many tasks in too little time, the eking out of an hour here, a morning there, to work on my books. No, I would be a writer, and my life would be writing.

If the laughter you hear is a little shrill, well, that’s because nothing has changed—except now, I’m working under a deadline.

It was different for Tallulah Falls. In the normal course of publishing (we’re not talking Kaavya Viswanathan of Opal Mehta fame here—her path to publication was definitely the road less traveled), the only person invested in the completion of a first novel is the writer herself. I realized an important truth about halfway through the first draft: Nobody cared if this thing got finished or not. Except me.

The second book, though—that’s a different story. The second book has all kinds of people invested in it. It’s exciting, it’s life-changing. It’s scary as hell. It ought to be interesting—especially since, in this next year, I’ll also be spending time promoting Tallulah Falls. And of course working hard at my first love, veterinary medicine.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Reptile Love

It’s not every morning you get up and find a dead frozen mouse thawing in the kitchen sink.

Ah, yes. Sunday brunch for Snappy Tom.

Snappy Tom is my boyfriend's snake. A Western hognose snake, to be precise, and a beautiful boy he is, with a pert little upturned nose and intricately patterned brown scales.

I've never understood what makes people afraid of snakes. They’re beautiful. They feel nice to the touch: dry, cool, and smooth. And if you don’t bother them, they have absolutely no interest in bothering you.

Then again, I know the exact same things are true of spiders, and yet I’m deathly afraid of them. Even little ones. If the upcoming summer movie that’s getting great buzz, Snakes on a Plane, was instead called Spiders on a Plane, you’d never get me into the theater. I barely got through the Shelob scenes in Return of the King. Heebie-jeebies galore.

Snakes don’t bother me, but I have to admit that as a pet, ol’ Snappy T. doesn’t do a lot for me. I mean, he’s just not that…interactive. Beautiful, yes, interesting, absolutely. A pal to hang out with? Umm…no. I look at him and make admiring noises, and then I go play with my dogs.

Which brings me to the human-animal bond. People who work with animals talk a lot about the human-animal bond. This is the emotional attachment people have with their animals, that benefits the well-being of both the person and the animal. You’ve probably heard about studies related to the human-animal bond: people who own pets have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, children raised with pets have higher self-esteem and are more likely to be involved in sports and other activities, etc. Most of us naturally assume that the animals in question are the traditional “companion” animals: Dogs. Cats. Horses. Birds. Goats. Cattle and sheep, even. Critters that can tell your mood, who interact with you, who recognize you as an individual apart from all other humans, just as you’d recognize Old Yeller apart from all other dogs.

Can the human-animal bond exist between a person and a snake? A turtle? A tarantula? Do those animals have the ability to recognize a particular human, and if they do, does it make any kind of difference to them? Or is it strictly a one-way street, with humans projecting their wants and needs onto a creature that has no more discernment than a potted plant?

Me, I’m not bonding with any arachnids anytime in this life. What do you think? Possible? Not possible? Or do you think the whole human-animal bond thing is a bunch of hooey, even if the critter involved is Lassie herself?

I’d post a picture of Snappy, but he’s eaten his mouse and has holed up under his driftwood to digest. No matter what the species, this I know for sure: if you pester a boy when his stomach’s full, and all he wants to do is nap, he'll become a very grumpy boy indeed.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

A Question. A Contest. And It's Only The First Day!

OK, this is the thing. I was going to open this blog with a definiton of piccalilli.

Then I realized I could save everyone time and simply post a picture of myself with GEEK stenciled across my forehead. In red.

Which brings us to the question of the day, and possibly the theme for this entire blog: If you realize you’re being a geek, and you stop yourself in time, are you still a geek?

All comments welcome. Some possibly more welcome than others. Most welcome of all are those that reassure me that I am a hip, savvy individual. (I’ll warn the rest of you in advance that these people are either liars or they’ve never met me. At the very least, they’ve never seen the inside of my clothes closet).

If you want to know what piccalilli is, look it up. I will give a FABULOUS PRIZE to the first person who posts the correct definition.

Really? they ask.

Really, I say. I wouldn't lie to you about fabulosity.