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Monthly Archives: October 2010
I had dinner with a dear, dear friend of mine last night. We haven’t seen each other since July, and we talked for hours. Life updates, puppy updates, and book updates — both mine and hers. She has an agent, has her first book out on submission, and is in final edits (hopefully) of her second book.
And then there’s my book. Sitting there. Untouched.
“You’ve been crazy busy,” she said.
“I *was* crazy busy,” I admitted. “But not now. Now I have time. Lots of time. But I’m not working on it. I can’t even open it. I’m doing anything I can think of except writing.” I proceeded to tell her all about the “Billy the Exterminator” marathon I watched all day on A&E.
She sat forward. “I know what it is. I went through the same thing. It’s fear.”
“Fear of what?”
She shrugged. “You’ve got people waiting on it. They’ve read the first part and declared it good. Now you have to make sure the rest of the book lives up to that. What I learned,” she continued, “is that it’s okay if what you’re working on is crap, because you can fix it during edits. The important thing is to work through it. Get the words on the screen.”
I sighed. “So I have to actualy sit down and write.”
I haven’t had much time to work on my novel in the past couple of months, but I make a point of reading industry blogs and reading some writing-related forums. On writing forums it’s becoming more and more common to hear people discussing the impossibility of getting an agent and the wonders of self-publishing. The other day one such person complained about querying “billions of agents” over “several years,” proving that getting an agent is just luck.
Writing a novel is a huge accomplishment… but that doesn’t mean the novel is of publishable quality. Writing well is a craft that is learned, practiced, honed. Putting words on a page — even lots of pages — doesn’t necessarily mean the writer is improving as a writer. Without additional study, *intentional* study, the person may just be repeating the same mistakes over and over.
There are lots of ways to improve craft:
- Take writing classes. I’ve taken two classes on structure this year. I don’t think either was over $50. Classes can be found on all sorts of topics in a range of prices.
- Study — active practice the exercises — at least one writing book each year. I have a library of writing books. I find maybe one in six is worth delving into deeply. My favorites are Story, by Robert McKee and The Fire in Fiction, by Donald Maas.
- Attend writing conferences. I attend one local conference each year, minimum. Staying local keeps the cost low.
- Join and participate in critique groups. I belong to Backspace and Critique Circle online. I have friends “in the real world” who give great feedback. Be cognizant of the skill level of your critiquers, though. Not everyone’s opinion is equally valid.
- Enter contests. I entered three this year. Won one — The Sandy. Great way to get feedback, often from industry professionals.
- Read industry blogs. I have about 20 industry blogs in my Google Reader. Yes, it can be a time suck, but it’s a great way to get the inside story on what and how to query.
- Take advantage of any auctions or contests where agents offer critiques and feedback on your work. This can be expensive, but seriously, it’s worth every penny — and the money often goes to charity. It’s worth saving for. This is feedback from inside the industry — the people who will ultimately be buying or representing your work. Listen to them!
- Write, rewrite, and test your query. Keep stats. If you don’t get a request for a full or a partial on a minimum of 10% of the queries you send out, revise before sending the next wave. I’m not actively querying yet, but I worked on my pitch for this novel for over a YEAR before I got the “WOW” reaction I wanted.
When I presented this list to the person who had submitted queries to billion of agents, he pooh-poohed it. What he doesn’t realize is that I’m not the only person doing these things. When you submit to agents, you’re competing against lots of people who are doing all of these things. And chances are, if you’re not doing these things — not actively trying to *improve* your craft — they’re getting requests and you’re not.
Of course, that’s probably just luck. Hey, have you considered self publishing?
The world fundamentally changes the first time you hear a pack of hunting coyotes in full voice. At least that was River’s experience last night.
I took River (and Pflouff) out to pee at 1:45 this morning. The coyotes were across the street at our neighbors’ place, raising holy hell. Our neighbors raise alpacas, and although an adult alpaca (especially one in a paddock with her buddies) isn’t likely to be on the menu for coyotes, a baby cria could be. Our neighbors are intelligent people, though, and their entire property is surrounded by 5-wire New Zealand fence — very hot electric wire nicknamed “coyote fence” for a reason. So the coyotes surrounded the pastures they couldn’t reach and made a nuisance of themselves.
No lights at the neighbors’ house, so they might have slept through the whole thing. Not River. When he went outside, his whole body went on hyper-alert. Pflouff ran to the front, ready to confront the intruders if they dared to come near her fence. River ran back inside. I had to carry him back out and shut the door to get him to pee. When we went back to bed, he couldn’t settle. He sat up, alert and listening, for an hour and a half until the coyotes left.
I don’t blame him. The first time I heard them, I thought we were being attacked by banshees. The sound a pack of coyotes makes is eerie, otherworldly. When dogs bark, they bark at the same time, but they bark their own individual pattern:
Dog #1: Bark bark growl snarl bark!
Dog #2: Growl bark whine bark bark!
Dog #3: Woof growl bark woof growl!
Coyotes are different. It’s as though each one barks the same pattern, but each starts the pattern a fraction of a second later than another:
Coyote #1: Yip yip bark growl yip bark
Coyote #2: Yip yip bark growl yip bark
Coyote #3: Yip yip bark growl yip bark
Coyote #4: Yip yip bark growl yip bark
It gives a terrifying, echo-like quality to the singing that adds to the impression they’re all around you.
I’m not worried about River. He was fine this morning, and he’ll learn through experience that the coyotes won’t come near our dog fence. He is small enough right now that he *could* be a coyote dinner, but that won’t be true for long, and it’s not likely he’ll be harassed with me, Pax, and Pflouff around. The coyotes are annoying, but they’re not stupid!
A few weeks ago, I started a puppy class with River in a town north of here. The class met on Friday night… and that just didn’t work. That first class was the ONLY class we made it to.
There’s another school west of us. This class is taught by the owner, Joan Fetty, who also teaches an Intro to Field class. I signed River up for this round of classes before I started the other class. My original intention was to attend both. I’ve obviously dropped out of the first class, so this is River’s only option for group learning right now.
The first week met without dogs. Joan introduces behaviors with treats, and then adds corrections. A lot of the advice she gave is what I call old school. There’s a lot of molding dogs into position and using the leash to ensure compliance. She doesn’t teach the way I do, but THAT’S OKAY. She’s not cruel by any stretch, and it’s easy to see that she’s really fond of dogs. I like her personally too.
I try to work ahead of the class — at least a little — so I won’t feel pressured to use the compulsive techniques. Last night was the first class with dogs. I’ve worked on eye contact, go to your mat, sits, and downs over the past few weeks, so I figured we’d be prepared.
It was a good strategy. This is a fairly large class — 16 dogs. It’s a nice training facility, but 16 dogs is a lot. That means he had to work fairly close to his neighbors. He was distracted initially and wanted to meet the dogs close to him (which is not allowed in this class). I put his mat out and reinforced sits, down, and eye contact. For most of the class, when we weren’t actively working on a behavior, he was lying on the class facing away from me, watching the action. By the end of the class, though, he was completely focused on me, despite the distractions. That was neat!
In addition to discussing issues like puppy mouthing (not a problem here) and teaching the dog to take treats gently (which River already does), the first week we worked on sits in heel position and downs in heel position. She taught each two ways — with a lure and with molding (physically placing the dogs into position).
I prefer to capture these behaviors, but I’m not horribly opposed to luring. I had done sits in heel position before, so it was easy to be successful with that one just by cueing the known behavior. I hadn’t done downs in heel position though, so I mixed the cue (still new to him) and a lure. He did fine! When she had people practice the compulsion method, I stayed in my seat and captured/cued downs.
I’m overweight enough that I’m not comfortable crawling around on the floor, and I’m afraid some of the ways they use the leash could put me off balance. I’m not afraid to use my weight as an excuse if I need to in order to do things differently. I don’t want to draw attention to myself, and I don’t want to insult her! Fortunately, people tend to be focused on their dogs, so they don’t really notice that I’m doing my own thing.
This week I need to work on downs in heel position, and I need to introduce stay. Jay and I also need to do more work on the recall — just need to keep it sharp! — and I have to work on loose leash walking. I have done any true LLW work. Up until now, I’ve had to coax River to walk on a leash. Now he’s getting confident enough to move out in front, so we need to teach him not to put tension in the leash. I *have* been teaching him to walk beside me off leash as I work on sits at heel. Now I need to redouble my effort to teach him that walking next to me is fun!
Friends have raved about this movie since it came out, but Jay and I didn’t get around to seeing it until last night. As probably every other person in the US knows, it’s wonderful. I expected to enjoy it; I didn’t expect to so thoroughly relate to Julie.
Julie is a person who, as she approaches 30, feels unaccomplished. She had planned to be a writer… but instead she works in a government job that emotionally abuses her. When she decides to write a blog about the things she is most passionate about — cooking and Julia Child — she gives herself a deadline because she never finishes the projects she starts.
It’s the lack of follow-through I most relate to. Feelings of guilt and failure made my stomach sink every time someone told her she never finished anything. The point was reiterated over and over by her husband… her friends… her mother. It was like they were saying it right to me: You’re a failure. You waste your time on projects that will never go anywhere.
“I know!” I wanted to scream. “You don’t have to tell me! I’m a loser! I suck.”
In bed that night, Jay said, “I thought of you during the movie. When she never finished anything.”
I sighed and nodded.
“I thought about your dog training book.”
When I wrote Click for Joy, I was so incredibly proud because I had finally finished something. I felt, truly, like I could accomplish anything! I had the same feeling when I finished the two screenplays I’ve written.
“I had forgotten about that,” I admitted.
During the movie, I couldn’t think of anything I’d finished, probably because the thing I most want to finish right now — my novel — seems hopelessly out of reach. After the overwhelmingly positive response at the conference this summer, I was motivated to get the novel finished and out. Unfortunately, my big summer project necessitated putting it on hold — just for a few weeks, I thought.
A few weeks stretched into two and a half months. My exhaustion was compounded by River. I thought the project was wrapping up the week I brought him home. Instead I spent the last five weeks a slave to two masters. In Julie & Julia, she suffered meltdowns when the pressure and problems and doubt got to be too much. I’ve suffered a few of those this month. More than once I wanted to give everything up — River, my job… and my novel. If I can’t get River to pee outside, how on earth can I finish a whole novel? It’s a stupid dream. I’m going to fail at that like I fail at everything.
Except I don’t fail at everything. When Jay sees someone who has trouble finishing things, he thinks of me. And he remembers how I succeeded.
I can do it. I can do anything.