Thursday, December 18, 2014

How Writing Gave Me the Confidence to Try Anything

I'm very comforted by routine. Comfort zones are (were) my thing. Seriously. It used to take a lot to shake me out of my rut, and I was a huge proponent of "write what you know".

Except... then I wasn't.

About the time I started pursuing writing as an all-consuming passion seriously, I got an idea for a book that was impossible for me to write. The main character was male, first of all. And black. I am neither of those things.

For a long time, I lamented that I would never get to read the book I couldn't write, because no one else would ever write it. And then I decided, oh, what the heck. I'll just write a chapter. Maybe two. Thirty pages. 100.

Oh crap. I wrote a whole, impossible book.

Writing that book, whether it ever sees the light of day or not, was literally a life-changing event. It gave me the confidence to go from "no, I don't do that" or "no, I CAN'T do that," to "okay, I'll give it a shot."

And my life hasn't been the same since.

I love art; whether it's writing or building things or learning calligraphy or cross-stitching or music or .... so on and so forth. But I never considered myself an artist. After all, I couldn't draw, or paint, or sculpt worth a darn, so I was just a poser. An art poser.

Except-- the more I try these impossible things, the easier they become. The more I do, the more I can do. I'm not saying I'm great at everything, but I don't suck as much as I thought I did at everything, either. Last year, I started painting. I just finished my first-ever sculpture and while it's not great, I'm still really, really proud of it. I still haven't taken up drawing, but calligraphy is like drawing with letters, and while I still have a lot to learn, I'm pleasantly surprised with how it's gone so far.

Every book I've written since that pivotal manuscript has been impossible somehow. Some challenge present in the structure or the plot or the characters or the writing itself, something that I would have said before was "not me".

But then I realized that I am still trying to figure out exactly who I am, and I probably will continue to do so my entire life.

And I am so excited for all the things I thought I couldn't do before that, it turns out, I can.

And so can you. Don't let the impossible things stop you, because if you give them a try, you just might surprise yourself with what you're really capable of.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Support We Need Diverse Books, and How Books Help Heal

You'd have to be living in a bubble (literally) to not know anyone who is diverse.

Diversity is a wide umbrella. Obviously, most people aren't white, straight, fully-abled, mentally healthy males. And yet, this is the flavor of person most of our media portrays. 

Books are a little bit better, in that especially with the rise of YA, many protagonists are now female. But racial, physical, sexual, and mental diversity are all still underrepresented.

Right now, there's an indiegogo campaign to raise funds for the non-profit organization We Need Diverse Books, which raises awareness about the lack of diverse characters in fiction and encourages publishers and readers to supply and purchase books by diverse authors and featuring diverse characters. 

This is a cause that should be important to us all, because everyone deserves to find someone like themselves in the pages of a book. As of this blog post, the campaign is less than $4,000 from its $100,000 goal. If you want to support the cause, please donate at the campaign here

Yesterday, I was talking to one of my friends at the ranch. Her wife is bipolar and recently had a severe manic episode involving a hospital stay and heavy medication. Her recall ability was severely affected by the episode and my friend has been working diligently to help rehabilitate her. We got to talking about books, and she told me that one of the ways her psychologist suggested helping her wife's recall was to read books. 

Well, the problem with that was that it's still very difficult for her wife to read. But she can listen to books on tape! And they have been. My friend says they'll listen to a book for a couple hours, then she'll wait a day or two and discuss what they listened to with her partner. Her wife's recall has improved dramatically just from this simple exercise that many people use for recreation anyway. 

This story really touched me. It's so easy to get caught up in the idea of Being Published. Yes, ultimately, most people who want to be published do so because they want their books to be out there and for other people to read them. But so rarely do we really stop and think about how our books will affect and possibly even change people's lives. What we put out in the world could have a profound effect on someone else. 

So think about it. What worlds could you be opening up to someone by including diverse characters in your books? Take the opportunity to do whatever you can to make the world in your books more like the world we live in. You never know who you'll touch with your books. 

(Note: please don't actually physically touch people with your books, unless you know them.)

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Seals vs. Sea Lions

I hear this one all the time. It's a perfectly understandable confusion; these two animals are very similar in a lot of ways. If you're not a marine scientist or even an aficionado, there's not a whole lot of reason or opportunity to learn what the differences are between a seal and a sea lion.

This post would be more accurately titled "True seals vs. Eared seals" (more on this later). The family of pinnipedia is divided into three main categories: walruses, the eared seals (sea lions and fur seals) and the true seals (like the harbor and elephant seals). Within the eared seals, there are several types of fur seal, which have a thicker undercoat than sea lions. But aside from typical nit-picky species differences, fur seals and sea lions look pretty much alike. Therefore, since it's the only good image I've taken recently, the photo I'm using to illustrate the eared seals is a northern fur seal.

There are lots of similarities between true seals and eared seals. They're both mammals. They both belong to the family of animals called pinnipeds (meaning "wing-foot"). They have five digits on each flipper. And they both have sensitive whiskers for the detecting, pursuing, and capturing of prey.

But once you actually see them side by side, the differences become a lot clearer. 

This is a an eared seal (and a human, if you want to be pedantic about it):

My photo, and you're about to see it a lot.

This is a true seal. A harbor seal, to be exact:

From Wikipedia
You'll notice several differences immediately, but the biggest one is their general body type. The eared seal is definitely more of an athlete, with a svelte, lean, muscular body. The harbor seal is, er, well, more of a fast food and binge-watching TV sort of animal. Rounder. More to love, and all that. 

Both animals are very differently equipped. The eared seal has a rotating pelvis-- it can pull its rear flippers under its body and "walk" on all fours. Please excuse my terrible MS Paint illustrations of this:


In Rotation


Here's that standing eared seal photo again, with the rear flippers highlighted:

With true seals, their locomotion is primarily reliant on the amount of blubber they contain. Basically, it goes like this:

A true seal's flippers are much smaller, partly to stay out of the way when they go bouncing along.

Both animals are graceful in the water (though eared seals can move a bit more quickly), but eared seals got the upper hand out of the water, too. 

You can also look at color. Eared seals are pretty much universally a dark brown. They may have some blondishness from sun bleaching, but for the most part, they're chocolate colored. True seals are usually seen in a wider range of colors (all neutrals, but more varied, for sure). The harbor seal is spotted, for example. 

But if you're on a boat and you look in the water and see both animals looking up at you, there's one fast and easy way you can tell them apart. 

Sea lions and fur seals have external ear flaps (little coverings for their ears), hence the family name "eared seal":

True seals don't:

My photo

So, that's the difference. Wasn't that fun?!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

What's Been Going On With Me Lately, Part 2

Yesterday, I told you about all of this. Today, we continue.

My husband and I were planning to drop Infant off at Grandma's and go see the horse for a quick visit as a practice run for future babysitting. I'd had some heartburn late in my pregnancy, and I was starting to feel something coming on. I took some Mylanta right before we walked out the door. By the time I got into our car, I knew something was terribly wrong.

Later, my husband said the only other time he had ever seen me in so much pain was during labor. I don't much remember the ride to my mom's house, feeling like my stomach was going to burst open inside me, nor do I remember getting there and getting out of the car. I do remember my husband calling 911, and I got my second ambulance ride of the year.

The pain subsided a bit by the time the ambulance got to the ER, but the docs ran all the tests they could anyway, and told me I had gallstones. On top of that, my liver enzymes were elevated, which they wanted me to keep an eye on. They sent me home without much fanfare except a recommendation to see a surgeon about having my gallbladder taken out. I assumed life would continue on as normal, and prepared accordingly.

I rescheduled with my mom to try again the next evening. Just before we left the house, I started to get a migraine.

You might see where this is going. Sadly, you're right.

About an hour after we got there, I began vomiting every 5-10 minutes. I'm still not certain if it was from the headache, or the gallbladder, but back to the ER we went (by car this time). There, they gave me the most awful drugs for the migraine. They made my headache feel better, and they stopped the vomiting, but they made me so agitated that if I could have crawled out of my own skin I would have. If I hadn't been chained to an IV I likely would have gotten up and walked out.

However, when the doctor came back with my blood test results, the news was bad. He said my liver enzymes were even more elevated, and I didn't have a choice: they were admitting me to the hospital.

I spent three days away from my four-week-old son, strapped to IV antibiotics and fluids. The agitation didn't go away, likely because no new mother wants to be away from her baby. The first day, I didn't get to eat at all. The second day, they let me have a liquid diet. My going-home test on the third day was eating solid food. I passed, thank goodness, because I would have torn my hair out if I'd had to stay any longer.

My roommate was this poor woman who had already had her gallbladder out and came in with uncontrollable vomiting. They thought she had some stones still forming, and I promptly wished I hadn't heard that. I didn't want to know that I could go through the surgery and STILL have terrible pain.

My husband brought my baby to visit each evening, but the time between those visits was spent crying and trying to keep myself together (and obviously failing) in my hospital room. On top of that, my IV kept failing, and each time they redid it came with at least three botched attempts at placing a new one. This, on top of other issues, meant that by the end of that three days, I was completely done with the hospital.

This time when they let me go, it was with the caveat that surgery was no longer optional. I had an appointment with a surgeon a few days later, and surgery scheduled for a couple weeks out. All was going well, except I had to stick to a low fat diet.

Apparently, even that wasn't good enough, because five days before my surgery, I had another attack and went back to the ER. They gave me pain meds and told me that I had two choices: I could keep my scheduled surgery date and go home to wait, or I could be re-admitted to the hospital and take the next available surgery, which likely still would be a few days away. I opted to go home.

The day of my surgery arrived. I nervously said goodbye to my animals, baby, and husband, and went with my mom to the hospital. The nurses still had to try three times to get an IV in, but thankfully they managed. The anesthesiologist was a very literal man who told me, when I informed him I'd had some episodes of low blood pressure and thought I'd woken up the last time I'd been put under to have my tooth extracted, that those factors "increased the possibility of interoperative recall", and I quote. Charming, lovely man.

They had me walk into the OR and sit on the operating table after making it as physically uncomfortable as they possibly could. I had also told the anesthesiologist that I might panic when they tried to put me under, which probably explains why he didn't tell me when he was putting me under. Charming, lovely man. But he kept me alive, so I'm grateful.

The surgery went "well", according to the nurse who was there when I woke up. She said I'd been in my recovery room for two hours. All I remembered was her asking if I was in pain, me saying yes, her pumping more drugs into my IV, me still being in pain, repeat ad nauseum. Finally she gave me some oral drugs and took me out to see my husband.

I was still in incredible pain, but somehow we managed to get home. Everything should have been fine, except, well, it's me. Cue another ER trip the day after my surgery and an urgent care appointment a few days following. Sigh.

The short end of the story?

I'm mostly okay now. Definitely still healing. Still in pain, but I only spent a few days on the narcotic meds. I'm sad that my husband has basically raised my baby by himself for the last month, but so, so glad to have a partner in life who is willing to do so, without complaint.

I'm grateful to my family for their support.

I'm pissed at my body for its apparent rebellion, and frankly, as a recently-pregnant woman, I'm pissed at how little I can eat.

I'm scared I might come out of this with yet another painful, chronic condition.

I'm so happy to see my baby's face every day, even if I can't pick him up yet.

I'm excited to see what the future holds, and it's coming up on fall, my favorite season.

Fingers crossed.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

What's Been Going On With Me Lately Part 1

I've been pretty quiet recently.

Aside from signing with my agent in June, there hasn't been a whole lot to share here this year.

Well, there has-- but it's pretty personal. Still, I figured it's time to explain what's going on in my personal life. I've been somewhat cryptic on twitter, though most of this isn't exactly a secret. I haven't been answering emails very quickly. I've been pretty MIA in general here and on twitter.

Last year was rough professionally and emotionally. This year has been rough physically.

I have essentially been sitting on my couch since March.

My pregnancy was fairly easy from a baby standpoint. Infant was happy, content, and not too hard on me. But I, already a fairly disaster prone person, became a walking target for physical misfortune during the last half of my pregnancy. In early March, I fell in an erosion ditch and sprained my ankle. Baby was fine, but oh hey-- turns out they can't give pregnant women painkillers or anti-inflammatories! Basically all I had to control said sprained ankle was advice to stay off it (yeah right, my job is standing all day), ice it, and maybe try physical therapy.

After a couple weeks of trying to push through it, I was placed on light duty at work which basically involved sitting down. Normally this would have been fine, but I didn't realize how long it would take for my ankle to heal. In case you're wondering, it took eight weeks. Eight. Weeks.

Obviously I was a little too excited when I got released from light duty and put back to work, because the universe decided it needed to take me down another notch. Literally the day after I was released by the doctor, I had a freak accident with my horse. She jumped into me and sent me flying, landing on my side. Thankfully I had the sense to tuck and protect my belly, but I still left the ranch by ambulance and spent the night in the hospital to make sure the baby was okay (extra double thankfully, he was). But I didn't get off scot-free. I had some incredible (painful) bruising on my right hip, sore ribs, and a pretty banged up knee. Not to mention the terror of the potential harm to Infant.

I didn't mention this earlier because I still feel incredibly guilty about what happened. It wasn't Pony's fault, it wasn't mine. Neither of us could have seen it coming, and it's a fact of life working with animals, especially large ones, that things can happen. It was just completely terrible timing for an incident to occur. I couldn't just abandon my horse, and all efforts to find someone to help me with her care had failed, including hiring someone. The only positive to come out of the accident, aside from Infant and I being okay, was that people actually took me seriously afterward when I said I needed help with her. I finally found a couple people willing to assist me.

I very, very slowly healed from my bruises and was mostly okay by the time Infant arrived (though still pretty immobile due to being extremely pregnant!) There then followed the period every new parent goes through of doing nothing but trying to figure out how to take care of a baby. Things were just starting to look up about a month after he was born, and then IT happened.

Tomorrow: Part 2

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Zoo Rant Week Follow-up: Let's talk about poaching

Find my Zoo Rant Week series here (this post links to the previous four).

There are currently five species of rhinos left in the world: northern white rhinos, southern white rhinos, black rhinos, Sumatran and Javan. One of those species, the northern white, has only four surviving members left on the entire planet.

The remaining four are under 24-hour armed guard in Africa, but are either not interested in breeding or are too old or too young. We are watching the extinction of a species, and they're far from alone in their predicament.

Last year, over a thousand rhinos were poached for their horns in South Africa alone. In some cultures, rhino horn is seen as a medicine, or a health supplement, or a rare ceremonial decoration. But a rhino's horn is made of keratin, the same protein that makes up our fingernails and hair. It grows back, just like our nails and hair do. There's nothing magical or medicinal about rhino horn. It would be the same as trying to cure a cold by eating your hair.

But rhino horn is a lucrative business for shady people. And the message that it's a medicine is so ingrained in the cultures that believe it that it would be like telling Americans that Vitamin C doesn't help prevent colds. (Spoiler: it doesn't. But I bet you know someone who thinks so). We can get into the placebo effect later; the important thing is that rhino horn contains nothing special.

In the regions where rhinos are found, there is a war going on every single day between poachers and those who wish to protect the rhinos. Every time the anti-poaching strategists come up with something new, like poisoning the horns (harmless to the rhinos, and marked with a bright pink dye) or removing the horns regularly (since they grow back), the poachers either find a way around it or kill the rhinos anyway out of spite.

And the situation doesn't stop with rhinos. Also popular animals to poach: tigers, cheetahs, leopards (most big cats, really). Gorillas. Sea Turtles. Elephants. Well, here. See a bigger list for yourself.

All of these animals are in danger due to poaching. The three at biggest threat currently are rhinos, elephants, and tigers. As mentioned during my zoo rant week, there are more tigers in backyards in the US than there are left in the wild. Without zoos making serious efforts to breed them responsibly (i.e., with an eye for ample genetic diversity and health), we could also expect tigers to go extinct during our lifetime. This may happen even despite our efforts.

Long story short: if you're looking for someone to hate when it comes to wild animals, hate poachers. Be verbal about the fact that these things aren't medicine, or pretty-- they're far prettier on the animals they come from. Pass legislation against poaching (yes, it even happens here in America). And above all, when you travel, don't buy animal parts as trinkets. No matter how small, or where the person selling them says they came from. Ever.

But don't hate zoos. We're really not the bad guys. We're doing the best we can in an uphill battle against climate change, poaching, and public opinion.

As usual, thanks for reading.

PS-- The New York Times just today published an excellent article about the widespread effects climate change can and will and is already having on the planet, the plants, and the animals. There's a lot in here that directly affects you and I. I suggest taking a look!

Friday, September 19, 2014

Zoo Rant Week: What the future holds for zoos, and a few closing thoughts

Read part one here.
Read part two here.
Read part three here.
Read part four here.

We've been on a journey this week. If you're reading this far, thanks for putting up with my rant.

I want to make it very clear that I don't have all the answers. I am constantly learning, and I'm the type of person who will always, always take in new information, consider it, and add it to my opinions on things. That said, I don't really see a near future where we won't need zoos for the reasons I've described. When it comes down to it, zoos may be the only places we can get to see some animals in the future. They already are, for a select unfortunate few species.

If we continue down our current path, zoos may be the only place we see wildlife in the future.

That's not a world I want to live in, or leave to my children. But the frustration is that we live in a very polarized political climate. On the one hand, I get it-- yes, it's scary. Sometimes it's easier to live in denial than accept a truth that doesn't sound changeable. But on the other hand, even if you don't believe in climate change, why would you not want to do anything in your power to make this planet a better place to live?

And then there are the folks who think all zoos are bad. There are certainly some zoos out there that aren't great, or may even be downright bad. But as I mentioned at the start of the week, there are a few easy ways you can find good zoos to support. And a 1.5 hour "documentary"* is not a good place to go looking for zoos to avoid.

So what is the future of zoos? Well, assuming this slippery path of legislature against certain animals in zoos doesn't hold up, I think the future of zoos is bright. I know this, because the people who work in zoos are driven by passion, compassion, and a drive to change the world. We work with these animals not just because of some pipe dream leftover from when we were children (though that certainly sparked many of us to head in this direction), but because it's hard not to care once you learn what's really facing these animals.

I go to work every day and I have the chance to save species and change lives and maybe even better the world. That's a pretty heavy responsibility, for someone who spends most of their day picking up some form of poo. One of my extracurricular goals each day at work is to look at my animals, my exhibits, and myself, and ask what I can be doing better. What can I do more of, what can I add to my routine, what can I suggest to my bosses? And then I implement it, and I do this every single day.

Zoos will never be static. We will always be striving to do more, because we know and recognize that the system isn't perfect (no system is!), and we've come such a long way in the last forty years alone that we can only dream of what's ahead. But if we're not given the chance to improve, to keep working toward a better and brighter zoo, the only thing that can replace us is worldwide change.

Which is why it makes even less sense to me that SeaWorld has recognized that people want to see change, come up with and implemented a plan, and it's making people angrier at them.

So that's it. Those are my thoughts. Like I said, they may not be the right answers, but this is what I've been wanting to say for a long time. This is the most political I'll ever get on my blog. I hope someone out there got something positive from this and thanks, again, no matter how you feel, for reading.

*I use the word documentary regarding BLACKFISH loosely, because on its original release, the film's own website referred to it as a psychological thriller.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Zoo Rant Week: Why ocean animals are tricky to talk about

Read part one here.
Read part two here.
Read part three here.

This whole rant is thanks to BLACKFISH, and most of my examples so far have been land animals. So it's time to talk about the ocean, the animals that live there, and why there's no easy answer to any argument about them.

It boils down to this, and it's pretty common sense:

The ocean is huge.

There are tens of millions of species that live in the ocean.

We haven't even scraped a corner of a piece of a smidge off the everything there is to know about the ocean.

The Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the ocean, was visited once in 1960 by a manned submersible, and only three other times by robotic subs. We've been to the moon more times than the deepest part of our own planet.

But, somehow, we're still making it a miserable place for animals to live.

Did you know there's a giant floating island of garbage in the middle of the Pacific?

Did you know there are international sanctions and agreements against whaling, but several countries openly ignore those sanctions and do it anyway? For whatever reason, it's not considered poaching, because it's the ocean.

Did you know that if we don't find a way to reverse or even just stop climate change, we can expect rising sea levels and changes in the makeup of our oceans that could cause mass extinctions of many different species, not only in the water, but on land?

SeaWorld is one of only two facilities in the world that have successfully bred emperor penguins outside of Antarctica. These birds require extremely specialized care and conditions to successfully breed, and their habitat is threatened every day by the loss of Antarctic sea ice, rising sea levels, and warmer summer extremes in the Antarctic.

Having said all that, the biggest challenge that faces us in the debate about zoos keeping whales and dolphins is that we simply don't know everything about sea animals. It's impossible to study them thoroughly in the wild. All the speculation about the lifespans of whales is just that: speculation. We haven't been recording the same animals for long enough to know for sure how long they live. But they certainly face more challenges in the wild than they do in a zoo, and their average lifespans are certainly not the oft-spouted high numbers. My great-grandmother lived to be 106, but that doesn't mean I will. Nor will most people.

Sea animals present us with a number of challenges because we simply can't say anything for certain about their lifestyles and habits. We can guess, but we can't know. At least not yet.

In the meantime, we do everything we can to keep our animals healthy, mentally and physically.

Tomorrow: What the future holds for zoos

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Zoo Rant Week: Why education and conservation matter

In case you missed it, I'm talking about zoos and BLACKFISH this week. Yesterday was all about why zoos are important for the environment. Today, I'm narrowing that down even further.

I mentioned in my inaugural post that you should look for a zoo that does work with education and conservation if you're looking for a responsible zoo to support.

Public education is one of the best things a zoo can do for itself and the animals in its care. At my zoo, we offer guided tours, interpretive staff, and education programs for school children. We have camps and overnight programs, as well as daily keeper talks and animal presentations. We have signage on all our exhibits and offer online resources through our website. On top of that, each animal area is staffed with knowledgeable employees who are experts on our animals and facility. It's literally as easy as asking to learn. And that is crucial in the fight against extinction.

By fostering public knowledge, we can combat misinformation, including things like the fact that rhino horn isn't medicine (it's actually made up entirely of keratin, the same protein as our fingernails and hair). Or that climate change is really doing a number on animal populations. Or that you can really, truly make a huge difference to local wildlife by following all the rules you learned as a kid: turn off the lights when you leave a room. Recycle. Don't litter. And so forth.

My goal every time I open my mouth and talk to a guest at my zoo is to send them away either having learned something new or caring a little bit more than they did before they spoke to me. Why? Well, aside from wanting to do my job well, I know that the more people care about things, the more likely they are to take action. Whether it's doing any of the little things above, or voting pro-environment in the next election, I want them to hear how they can make a difference. It's so easy to see all of this as someone else's problem. But it's all of ours. It's up to all of us to fix it.

Now, the reason conservation work is important should be glaringly obvious, but you may not realize the extent your local zoo goes to in doing so. Many zoos around the world collaborate with each other to study different habitats and animals. Many zoos even have their own research institutions attached. Including SeaWorld, actually. The goal of these research institutions is to identify why animals and habitats are endangered and find ways to help them.

These facilities, as I mentioned yesterday, are crucial to saving animal species.

The controversial thing I want to say today is this:

That caring that I mentioned earlier? It doesn't happen if people don't have the chance to see these animals. It's really easy to think of the coatimundi, for example, as a South American problem, because most people in the US don't live with coatimundis in their backyards. If you've never heard of these animals, why should you care what happens to them? If you've never seen one in person, it's too simple to say that they don't matter.

Zoo animals do not (if they are living in a responsible zoo) have a bad life. People have this romantic vision of the wild and the "freedom" these animals are missing, but the wild is shrinking every day, and the freedoms out there are more and more often certain death at the hands of humans. Life in a zoo isn't bad. They're treated with the best care we're capable of giving them. It's actually my job to take the best care of my animals that I can. I spend 8 hours a day ensuring their comfort and well-being. In my free time, I educate people.

We need animals in zoos because most people are not going to travel to South America in their lifetime. If they do, they likely won't see or hear of a coatimundi. Same goes for polar bears, and snow leopards, and so on and so forth a hundred thousand times over. The best way we can get people to care about these animals and their plights is to show them why they should care.

Tomorrow: Why ocean animals are a sticky subject

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Zoo Rant Week: Why zoos are important for the environment

This week we're talking about all the things I wish people understood about zoos and the role they play in our world.

One of the things that's driving me crazy about BLACKFISH's influence are the folks whose response to the film is to "set the whales free" or even pass legislation to keep them (or any other animal) from being kept in a zoo.

Well, that is about the single worst thing you could do for any animal on this planet.

I won't get into the politics here. Climate change is happening, and we are at fault. Regardless of how you feel about that subject, you should at least accept that humans are extremely damaging to our planet. We litter. We sprawl. We poach. We fight wars. We build. We mow down habitats. Wild animals simply aren't safe. They are, in fact, safer in zoos, in the case of many species.

I've had the opportunity to work with some animals that are extirpated, or, extinct in the wild. They wouldn't exist anymore if it weren't for zoos.

While not extirpated (yet), it recently came to light that there are currently more tigers in private ownership in the United States than there are in the wild.

And there are creatures like the Pere David's deer. The Arabian oryx. The northern white rhino. All extinct in the wild. Their only hope of survival is zoos.

Finally, if you need some proof of what climate change will do to the rest of the planet, there's the plight of the polar bear.

The single biggest followup I hear zoo detractors make to this point is:

Why should I care if a few species go extinct?

Well, this is one of those questions that is almost impossible to answer. I can't tell you why you should care from an emotional standpoint (though you should), because we still live in a world where most people see animals as fourth-class citizens.

If the emotional side of things doesn't appeal to you, the biological imperative behind them might.

Every habitat on the planet has an ecosystem. This ecosystem is like a well-oiled machine: all the parts are there, it works flawlessly, you never have to think about it. But if you take out a single piece, or weaken it, suddenly the machine doesn't work so well anymore. And by the time you notice it's not functioning properly, it might be too late to fix it.

I'm beating you over the head with this analogy. I'm sure you've worked it out for yourself. (Hint: the animals [and plants, and insects, etc.] are the parts of the machine). So what happens when you take out one of these pieces? What's happening to the ecosystems that have lost so many tigers, or oryx, or deer?

Let me tell you a story that hits a little close to home (literally) for most of us here in the US.

The black-tailed prairie dog, a small rodent from the plains of middle America, is seen as a pest by most farmers. Like many rodents, they can be a bit destructive. Farmers dislike them because they pick on their crops. But when efforts to eradicate prairie dogs succeeded, something unintended started happening, too. Other animals began to die off, like the black-footed ferret, who used old prairie dog tunnels for their own homes. Animals that were responsible for killing other small pests like mice and rats. Which in turn made the crops suffer more. It turns out that the black-tailed prairie dog is what's known as a keystone species: it holds up the ecosystem.

In areas where we've driven away wolves and shoot coyotes and other predators on sight to protect livestock, there tends to be an overabundance of deer and other herbivores, who overeat plants and therefore destroy food and habitat for other species. When their native food source is gone, they spill over into human territory, causing car accidents and ruining-- you guessed it, more crops, and people's gardens.

This holds true in every ecosystem. No matter where you are in the world, removing a piece of the puzzle ruins the whole image. One species lost damages everything else, including us.

Obviously the world has lost species before and continues right on. But we are damaging things at a greater scale than we were even fifty years ago. And it's only going to get worse. Where will it stop?

We don't know. We can't predict how far it will go, how long it will take before we can all agree to do something about it and actually get it done. What we can do, though, is start preparing for the worst, and doing our best to ensure if that does happen, these animals won't be gone forever. We will have them around, thanks to zoos.

Tomorrow: Why education and conservation matter

Monday, September 15, 2014

Zoo Rant Week: Introduction

I considered writing these posts for a long time, but I think now's my chance.

There was a documentary released in 2013 called BLACKFISH. I've touched on it briefly here on the blog, and chances are you've either seen it or heard of it by now. Since the release of BLACKFISH, there has been a new wave of mainstream activism that is anti-zoo in general, and anti-SeaWorld in particular.

This is extremely troubling to me. Zoos can be a sensitive subject for many people, and even for me, admittedly. As a child, I wasn't quite able to rationalize them. But having worked for many reputable facilities in my career (including SeaWorld), I can now say with complete confidence that the world very much needs zoos. Responsible zoos, at least. And yes, that includes SeaWorld. I am not necessarily pro- or anti- SeaWorld specifically, but I am incredibly pro-responsible zoo. Responsible zoos need all the help they can get.

This week I'll be putting up a few different posts explaining why. This is not an anti-BLACKFISH post-- I will NOT be refuting the film directly, as there are plenty of excellent posts out there doing so, much more eloquently and succinctly than I could ever hope to. (One of the links above is SeaWorld's own list of erroneous BLACKFISH points. I see the conflict of interest there, however, as a former employee who worked closely with the killer whale trainers and was also involved in animal care, I do not see anything in there that I don't believe to be the truth).

Instead, I hope to explain the other side. Plain and simple, if you've bought into the bias that BLACKFISH has to offer, you do not know the whole story. You simply can't watch a 1.5 hour documentary, search the internet for facts that support it, and consider yourself to be an expert. I don't mean this accusingly. I'm hoping if you're reading this that you want to know more. I'm hoping I can still change your mind.

We need zoos. Believe it or not, we need SeaWorld.

I will be turning off comments on these posts because I don't have the time or wherewithal to deal with trolls et al. Individuals who want to know more or have genuine questions can feel free to email me directly.

So. Today, we'll start off with a little zoo history, and a couple points that will be important this week.

The past, the present, and the future

Zoos originally began as the menageries of the wealthy and powerful. Kings and nobles would collect and display exotic or rare animals as a show of their reach (and riches). As the centuries went on, zoos became less private and more public. Those same kings and nobles wanted not only their compatriots but also their subjects to be awed by the collections of animals they maintained. Eventually, someone got the bright idea to charge for admission, and the modern-day independently owned zoo was born.

The thing about zoos is that they are ever-improving. From literal cages with bars to the most naturalistic habitats we are capable of building. From chains, whips, and chairs to positive reinforcement and even hands-off care. The people who work in zoos in our modern world are there because they care about their animals. There's always more we can do to improve, but even in the last forty years, we've come a long, long way.

The future of zookeeping is either grim or hopeful. We stand at a crossroads right now with the public opinion swaying in the breeze. But if zoos fall victim to the hype, we stand to lose so much (more on this later).

What do I mean by a responsible zoo?

Generally speaking, a responsible zoo is one that fosters education and, more importantly, conservation of the animals in its care. Obviously the care they take of their animals is paramount, but as an outsider, it can be hard to tell whether animal care is "good" or not. Much of what goes on daily in a zoo can easily be mistaken for either good or bad care, and unless you're in the field it can be hard to tell the difference. So, the easiest way to tell as an outsider is to look for education AND conservation programs. The zoo should offer some form of both of these.

In the United States, the best way to tell if a zoo is following animal care guidelines is to look for accreditation by the AZA and the USDA. Zoos that carry these accreditations will usually say so on their websites. (Note: this does not apply to very small operations, like exotic animal rescues and nature centers. There, you will have to use your best judgment, but you can look for education and conservation again as a clue).

Okay, so, what is conservation, exactly?

Conservation means the zoo is interested in helping the environment, specifically the animal species in their care. Many zoos participate in the Species Survival Plan (or SSP) for various endangered species. An SSP is basically a studbook for all the zoo-kept animals of a particular species. That way, we can breed them responsibly to ensure the best genetic diversity.

But conservation can also be closer to home. SeaWorld, for example, does local marine mammal rescue, rehabilitation, and release. They also have a facility designed entirely to help with oiled wildlife recovery during catastrophic oil spills. I was fortunate enough in my time there to be trained in the recovery of oiled birds, which is an undertaking that requires tons of manpower and resources, and was done in addition to our regular keeper duties, all behind the scenes.

And what about education?

Okay look. I know you probably know what education is. But at a zoo, the things you should look for are guided tours, signage at exhibits, and public presentations.

Stay tuned this week. Tomorrow: why zoos are so important to the environment.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Five surprising things you'll get from entering an online writing contest

I know this title sounds click-baity, but hey-- the formula is solid! Bear with me and read on. 

I won't claim to be an expert on writing contests. I've never judged one, I've never hosted one. But I have participated in a few, and it was through one that I even got my lovely agent. So I'm comfortable saying that I know a little bit about them, at least on a participant level. And now that I'm no longer entering them, it's time to pass on what I've learned.

Everyone who enters an online writing contest typically goes in with some end goal variant of getting an agent. Or at the very least, getting an agent's attention. But there are a few things you can get from entering even if signing a contract for representation isn't your end result (this time!).

I'm assuming, by the way, that if you're reading this, you know the basic gist of how most online writing contests work. If you don't, feel free to ask in the comments and I'll explain the structures I've run across.

1.) Feedback. This, my friends, is the single most valuable thing I took away from every contest I entered. Many have a structure where everyone who enters must critique X number of other entries. Which meant that I was getting at least a few different opinions on my work, whether I made it to the agent round or not. This was huge, especially when I was new to the online writing world and hadn't made any friends for critiquing yet. It gave me a new, fresh, random insight into my work. Even in contests that don't follow this structure, I usually wound up with some form of feedback because, well-- see below.

2.) Friends. Speaking of friends for critiquing, I met some of my favorite people online when we were co-participants in contests I entered. Most contests have a twitter hashtag. If you hang out on that hashtag and chat with other entrants, friendships will sort of naturally form. Even if you aren't the super social type, it's fairly easy to find at least one other writer you share something in common with-- even if it's just the genre/ category you write in. I've found several awesome critique partners and betas just by entering contests, whether I made it in to the contest itself or not. Plus, there's an awesome sense of camaraderie and community amongst the participants. It's nice to have someone to commiserate with when you're angsting over whether you'll be picked or not.

3.) A future. (Okay, I'm just having too much fun with this list alliteration). One of the things that I liked the most about entering contests was the fact that it pushed me to be better. It wasn't just me anymore, punching away at my keyboard behind the curtain. My writing became a public commodity. I had accountability. I had people looking at my words and telling me what they thought of them, and it wasn't always nice. It's so easy to get sucked into the vacuum of the query void, with feedback from agents themselves becoming rarer and rarer these days (due to the MASSIVE volume of queries they receive now!) Entering contests helped show me that my work was resonating, or not, more accurately than a form rejection.

4.) A face. Every writer needs a brand. It's always been slightly fascinating to me that my two chosen careers-- zookeeping and writing-- are ones that shy or introverted people trend towards because they seem like awesome, reclusive jobs. But both have become so much MORE demanding socially, especially with the advent of the internet and the huge leaps made in zookeeping the last 20 years. It's now my job to connect people with animals, not just take care of them. And as a writer, I don't just get to put words on a page anymore. It's my job, too, to connect people with my books. Querying can seem rather anonymous because email addresses don't go anywhere besides an inbox. But a contest gives you a face. People can see who you are with a few clicks. It's a great way to begin building that brand you'll need someday.

5.) Fortitude (Ha! Made it through all five!). Most of all, what I got from contests was the courage to keep trying. I'm not the type of person who gives up easily anyway, but boy, there were definitely times when I wanted to. Having the encouragement of my mentors and fellow participants made me realize that whether I made it this time or not, I wanted to keep trying. It is SO IMPORTANT to keep trying. When I felt my lowest, when I was sure I was the worst writer out there, these contests kept me going. Because at least I would come out of it with some feedback, a new friend, and a little hope.

So there you have it. It's not just about getting in, and getting read, and getting an agent. Sometimes, what happens around those things is more important.

And whatever you do, keep going back to #5. Stick it out. Keep trying. When the time is right, when you are ready, when your book is ready, it will happen. And it will be amazing.

Monday, June 16, 2014

A post I've been wanting to write for a long time: HOW I GOT MY AGENT!!!

Lovelies. This post is a bit long, but I hope you'll forgive that, since I have a lot to say.

If you've been round these parts much, you have probably read all about how 2013 was the year I felt like a sham. You may have even read this post about what to do with yourself after a writing contest is over.

So it gives me a huge sense of satisfaction to say that perseverance really does pay off.

Last year, I wrote one (new) manuscript. It was an idea that came to me somewhat gradually, then nagged at me for months until I finally gave in and wrote it down. But even after it was done, after I edited it a bit, I hesitated to let myself get excited about it.

I let it sit for a month, and when I came back and re-read it, I remember telling my husband that it was the best thing I'd written yet. But even after editing some more, I still waited.

Not because I didn't think it was ready. If anything, after all the heaviness in my life, I think *I* wasn't ready. I just needed a break from putting myself out there. I needed some time to build my thick skin back up, especially for this brand new story that I was deeply in love with. In the meantime, I worked on some revisions on another, older manuscript, one that I had plenty of thick skin for.

By April of this year, I was as ready as I was going to get. I was about to start querying when I saw that the same contest I'd entered last spring, The Writer's Voice, was going to be held again in May. I'd had such a good time the year before that I decided to hold off on querying and enter the contest again. In my mind, it would be sort of a personal kick-off to the querying process that would at the very least hopefully net me some useful query feedback.

So when May rolled around and the contest opened, I put my entry up on my blog and held my breath. I was ready.

When Elizabeth Briggs picked me to be on her team, with Krista Van Dolzer as her "celebrity judge," I was elated, but cautious. Their feedback was so helpful and they were both so kind. I owe them a HUGE thanks for all the behind-the-scenes encouragement and assistance they gave me. Plus, bonus Cool Fact: Krista was the other mentor that had picked me in last year's contest, when I'd worked with Monica Bustamante Wagner. I was super excited to work with Liz and glad to have the chance to finally work with Krista.

Still, I remained cautious, keeping my carefully-metered hope tied up in a little box. Even after the feedback was taken into account and the edits made to my query and first page. Even after the entries went live on Elizabeth's blog. Even after 13 agents voted to see my manuscript. Even after I sent my manuscript out to all 13. Even after an email appeared in my inbox on a quiet Monday morning five days after I sent the manuscript.

I was in my mom's car. My visiting sister and her two daughters were in the backseat. My mom was driving us to the beach, one last California hurrah for my sister and nieces before they flew back home to Michigan. I just happened to check my phone, and there was an email there from none other than Sara Megibow, a powerhouse agent whose awesome reputation I knew very well.

I steeled myself as I read the first line, scanning automatically for the word "unfortunately".

Instead I saw the words "offer you representation," and I'm not sure Sara knows this part, but I immediately burst into tears. I could blame it on pregnancy hormones, but I'm pretty sure I was just in complete shock.

I somehow managed to recover my coolness, but before I could email her back, or call my husband to freak out, or do anything, I promptly lost all cell service on my phone. I spent the next hour or so agitating internally while we did our beach visit. My sister asked me as we were getting back into the car how I was being so calm-- apparently I was doing a great job of hiding it!

I did finally speak with Sara that evening. I've heard other writers say when they spoke with their future agents that they just GOT their book. This is 100% true. Everything Sara had to say about my book was absolutely the way I felt too. I could feel her excitement through the phone and it was an awesome feeling to hear someone say such nice, enthusiastic things about my work. I still had 12 other fulls out though, so in order to be fair I told her I'd get back to her in ten days.

That was the longest ten days I've had in a while.

On the morning of the tenth day, I emailed Sara to let her know I wanted to accept her offer. I am now represented by Sara Megibow of the Nelson Literary Agency!

I feel like I need to say something motivational here, so I will. And here it is:

Don't. Give. Up.

Keep writing. Keep learning your craft. Keep trying new things. Amazingness can happen.

Stick with it.

Friday, May 2, 2014


Okay. So. First of all, welcome to my blog! Welcome again, if you've been here before. I usually like to hand out snacks, so please help yourself to the candy dish and don't hesitate to ask for a beverage.

Ah, The Writer's Voice! If you're here for that, please continue below to read my query and first 250 words. If you're not here for that, well-- the candy's on the house, the writing is free of charge, and you don't have to pay for my rants and rambles, either.

Without further ado:


The town of Lonesome Falls has lost its legend, and seventeen-year-old Lyddie Belle Jones is determined to get him back.

Thirty years ago, Boone Tucker showed up out of the desert, an orphaned seven-year-old boy with more than the usual amount of human abilities. He dug up the mountain that shaded Lonesome Falls, planted the forest that fed it, and sprung the river that watered it. He even drove Solomon Slade and his band of outlaws out of town—and then disappeared.

It’s been twenty years since anyone’s seen Boone Tucker. But all the good he did is beginning to unravel. The people of Lonesome Falls grow desperate as the river dries up, the forest dies, and the mountain starts to rumble. To make things even worse, Solomon Slade has found his way back.

When Lyddie's father goes missing while on a quest to save the town, she decides to find their lost legend, bring him back, and make him fix it all. But the biggest flaw in her plan, one that might destroy her town—and her heart—is something she’d never considered: Boone Tucker wants nothing to do with Lonesome Falls.

THE LEGEND OF LONESOME FALLS is a 75,000-word young adult western fantasy told in the vein of the great American tall tale. 

First 250 Words:

A Confession

They said it was seven breaths from the top of Lonesome Falls to the tumble of boulders at the bottom. I figured most people who went this way only used one.

The wind up here was fierce. My skirts whipped around my legs, plastering them together. I leaned into it just to stay upright, though I kind of wished it would blow me away altogether. What waited at my back wasn’t any better than what waited in front.

"Go on,” Slade said, waving his pistol at me.

I teetered closer to the edge. Just behind me and to the left, the Lonesome River used to spring from a thick cut in the rock that ran deep into the heart of the mountain. It was dry now, but I couldn’t help wondering if I would have had a chance. If the water would have broken my fall.
I was about six feet from the edge. The symbolism wasn’t lost on me. Mrs. Haversham would have had a conniption if this were one of the novels we were studying in school. But this was very, very real. As real as the rock beneath my bare feet, the wind biting at my face, the roar of the empty space where the water used to flow behind, next to, and before me.
Three steps, six feet, seven breaths.
You’ll have to forgive a girl for getting a tad philosophical in a situation like this.
I glanced at Slade. He stayed put, under the shelter of the cliff wall adjacent to the old spring. 

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A few hundred words about diversity in fiction, and writing diverse characters without being one

A couple days ago, I read a blog post by Malinda Lo on Diversity in YA that really struck a ... something with me, about whether or not a white person could write from the perspective of a POC (person of color).

For the record, I'm about as un-diverse as it gets. In fact, the only way I could be less diverse is if I were male. A straight, white, physically-able female American with northern European heritage. If I were to stretch myself I could admit that a few years ago, I really struggled with an anxiety disorder (OCD, to be precise), and knowing the nature of the disease, I likely will deal with it again during my lifetime. But right now, it's mostly under control and I can't even claim mental illness as a struggle in my daily life.

I was, however, gifted with: empathy, a strong moral compass, and a VERY vivid imagination.

I have never experienced blatant prejudice directed at me. At least, not that I can recall. It's never ruined a day in my life. There's no lack of characters in books and movies that are like me. There aren't laws preventing me from living my life, being who I want to be, loving the one I love. I realize I'm lucky this is the case. But I also appreciate how unfair it would be to live in that world. How frustrating, how maddening, how scary. How defeating. I have seen it affect friends and strangers, and been infuriated by news articles of beatings/ murders, and the passing of discriminatory laws.

As a result of that empathy, even lacking personal experience, I have very strong opinions on diversity and the importance that there be more of it in the media we consume. My hope is that someday we won't HAVE to have strong opinions, because it won't be an issue. People are people are people, and the sooner we all realize that and get on board, the better.

Prejudice comes, I think, from the fear of the unknown. Therefore, the best way to combat it is to take away the mystery. Exposure makes things less scary. The more people see/ hear/ read about/ LEARN about diversity, the less fear there will be.

So even though I'm a straight white girl, I write books with diverse characters. I hate that it feels a little like I shouldn't, like I can't possibly understand. Because it's true-- I will never 100% get it. For all I know, my characters are way off the mark. But if I don't try-- if I'm too afraid to try-- I will never grow, never learn more than I know, never be part of the solution, just part of the problem.

I stand by my characters in the hope that someday, someone will learn something, be a little less afraid because of me.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Review! HONOR AMONG ORCS by Amalia Dillin!

Soooo my amazing friend Amalia Dillin is releasing another book today! APRIL FOOLS!! (No but really... she really is...)

This one is a bit different from her Forged By Fate series. HONOR AMONG ORCS is a fantasy in the classic Tolkien vein featuring some very well-known and much beloved fantasy creatures, but in ways that turns their tropes on their heads.

The thing that I love about Amalia's writing is how lyrical her prose is. She writes beautifully, but not in a way that feels heavy-handed or overdone. Her writing and characters are still accessible and compelling. And boy, does HONOR AMONG ORCS compel.

HONOR AMONG ORCS is the story of Bolthorn, an orc king/ village chief, and the daughter of a human king, Arianna. The human race thinks orcs and elves and dragons are myth, but it turns out they've just sealed themselves away from humanity to avoid war and exploitation. When Bolthorn comes as an emissary to Arianna's father, instead of dealing with him, the king locks Bolthorn away. Arianna, oppressed by her cruel dad, finds something appealing about the orc trapped in a mirror, and together they forge their way not only out of her father's grasp but all the way to the land where the elves and orcs live. Except it turns out their biggest enemy has yet to be faced, and it will surprise them all who it is.

This book sounds impossible from the outside: a story where the orcs are the good guys, and a human falls in love with one-- but much like the pan-theistic world of her Forged By Fate series, Amalia manages to craft not only an amazing, believable, and interesting story, but characters that will make you root and laugh and cry and want to punch the bad guys for them.

I also love that the skeleton of the book feels familiar-- it is orcs, elves, and humans after all-- but the plot is super twisty and keeps you guessing until the very last page! And! It's going to be a series!

Go pick it up at Amazon today! And, as always, if you enjoy a book, the best way to help the author (besides buying it) is to leave a review of your own.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Saying Things I Shouldn't: Why good-old, dependable sameness is hurting readers

Disclaimer: I am currently gestating a small human. So my usual levels of Snarkiness and General Low Tolerance are even more amped up than normal. I'll try to be nice but my apologies in advance if anything outright offensive creeps in here.

Second disclaimer: I am but one reader, but others I have spoken to recently are feeling the same way.

Third disclaimer/ request: Hey, comment on this post and tell me how you feel? I'm genuinely curious

The other day, I was visiting Barnes and Noble's significant YA section when I had a terribly sad realization.

There wasn't anything on the shelves that I wanted to take home with me and read. The same was true of many other areas of the store. Everything I picked up felt very been there, done that.

Now, I'm not going to make any sweeping statements about how "YA/ publishing is dead" or, "everything out there sucks", because, though I've heard them elsewhere, neither of those are true. But I do think there is a fundamental problem in the industry, and I don't know if there's a fix for it.

See, as much as industry folk say not to chase trends, we are ALL guilty of this. Writers, agents, editors, pub house sales teams, the people who buy books to put on the shelves at bookstores... we ALL do it. A few years ago, the shelves were full of paranormal romance (still are, frankly), and sometime roughly after TWILIGHT I grew sick of it. I still bought a few books here and there, but when I came across something Fresh And New, it was like seeing the light after being stuck in a cave for ten years. It was like finding an oasis in the desert. It was like a cookie after months on a diet. (Okay, I said I was pregnant... food is a big deal to me right now). Books like THE SCORPIO RACES and ANNA DRESSED IN BLOOD and ACROSS THE UNIVERSE opened whole new worlds to me (killer ponies, light horror, and sci-fi, specifically).

Then came THE HUNGER GAMES, and I, like much of the rest of the book-world, fell in love with that place and time. But the problem I started to realize was that I didn't want to read any other dystopian. After finishing the HUNGER GAMES series, I was good and pretty much done with it.

And yet, when I walk into B&N, the shelves that aren't filled with paranormal romance are now filled with dystopian books.

This gives me, as a reader, that overwhelming sense of disappointment as I stare at the shelves, looking for that new, special tale to take me away. Because when everything is the same, nothing stands out. And for me to spend ~$20 on one book these days, it better be good.

My tolerance for trying new writers is also pretty low now unless I already know them from online or their cover grabs me and won't let me go (see: THE SELECTION, a semi-dystopian I likely wouldn't have picked up if it weren't for that gorgeous cover). This is because the writers that I already follow have new books coming out in their series, or new series altogether, and at least with them I can get excited about those books, those new worlds for me to explore.

And of course, there's where this leaves me as a writer. I've always tried to pursue the elusive Originality in my own work, writing the books I felt were missing from the shelves. But how fresh is too fresh? And am I taking it too far? I admittedly have trouble narrowing down genres on my own books. My latest, if I could get away with it, is a YA western fantasy romance. But there aren't any shelves out there that have that label, so I've got to narrow it down.

It also makes me feel like the odds are simply unsurmountable. I'm swimming against a current of dystopian and contemporary romance and still perfectly comfortable in my little pod of fantasy and timeless love, but if I can't find the kinds of books I want to read on the shelves, is there any room there for the kinds of books I want to write?

There's already so much working against us writers. So many people I know and admire have overcome at least the Agent Hurdle recently, and some even the Book Deal Hurdle, and here I still sit, five years after finishing my first MS, feeling like I never did anything at all. Wondering if my writing is too weird for the industry. If I just don't have the spark.

That, I think, is why (aside from growing life), I just haven't had much energy to write lately. I'm having an existential creative crisis.

There ARE a few books I'm excited about coming in the next few months/ year, and I won't miss the chance to get someone else excited, too. (In no particular order, and forgetting a few, I'm sure):

THE ONE, the last book in THE SELECTION series-- it's like the Bachelor, but with a prince instead. Oh, and rebels.

TALKER 25, by one of my earliest online writer friends and former co-Alliterati, Joshua McCune. Dragons, that is all.

NEVER NEVER by Brianna Shrum, a fellow Pitch Wars survivor from 2012. The story of how Peter Pan and Hook became enemies.

WINTER, the final book in the CINDER series, by Marissa Meyer. Sci-fi fairy tales at their finest.

DAUGHTER OF THE GODS, by another of my earliest online writer friends and also former co-Alliterati Stephanie Thornton. Ancient Egypt, Hatshepsut, drama... LOVE.

HONOR AMONG ORCS, by yet another good writer friend Amalia Dillin-- a fantasy with orcs and romance!

You may notice a theme. I know most of these writers, but also their books are pretty original.

What do you think? Are publishers turning you off as a reader by playing it safe? Or do you want more of the same once you find a trend you love?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

What To Do With Yourself After #PitchWars Is Over

Whether you read my last post or not, you're probably here right now because you're participating in #PitchWars (or maybe hoping to get into some other contest) this year.

It's been a year since my own Pitch Wars experience. I've learned a lot since then. I also, I think, made quite a few mistakes. For one thing, I let my lack of success in the contest get in the way of my writing. I'm STILL struggling to get over that.

For another, I stopped working on new things, dragging all my old manuscripts out for another trot around the block. There's nothing inherently wrong with this except that maybe there's a good reason they all were in the drawer in the first place? I guess I thought I could fix them if only I tried. Maybe I can. Maybe someday I will.

But for me, the joy of writing has always been in the Shiny New Idea. Whatever captures me at the moment is the journey I want to be on at the time. I LOVE getting Shiny New Ideas. Except for the last year, I didn't. I had one idea that I really loved. To put that in perspective, usually I get about 4-5 Shiny News in a year and have to pick and choose between them.

But I'm not blaming that on Pitch Wars, or anything else I did last year. I'm blaming that on me.

Anyway. Back to the part about you. Whether you get a lot of requests today or not, or whether you get an agent in the next week/ month/ six months, or not, here's the thing:

This contest (or any other) does not define you. It does not define your writing. It does not mean you will make it, or you won't. I've seen people in contests get 10-15 requests and still not have an agent a year later. I've seen people get 1 request and find the agent of their dreams and a book deal and so on and so forth.

That thing people keep telling you about publishing being subjective? They are not broken records, nor are they just saying that to make you feel better. It's SO TRUE. Nothing can be everyone's cup of tea. I know people who didn't like the Harry Potter series, for crying out loud.

Today they are judging you on your pitch and first page. Not even what you would send in a query letter. That is a very, very small portion of your work to make decisions on.

But, just making it into the contest means there is something special about you. THAT is a success. No matter what happens today and tomorrow, you've done something incredible. Rest on that for now, and try not to let the agony of waiting get to you. (As The World's Most Impatient Person, I am well aware of how that feels).

And, to take another Industry Advice Cliche, perhaps most importantly, keep writing. Why? Because you deserve to do that for yourself.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

2013, or, the Year I Felt Like a Sham

It's really no secret that 2013 wasn't a great year for me.

In fact, I had a hard time hiding how terrible last year was. Lots of professional, personal, and social disappointment made me cranky at best and otherwise morose at worst. I tried to stay away from social media once I realized how whiny I'd become even there, but I also didn't want to be silent, so I still visited now and then.

That could have been a mistake of its own. 

I won't list everything that happened in 2013, even here in this post, because frankly, most of it you don't have any context for, and the rest of it you don't want to know. There are a few highlights I'll mention though, because together they show why, exactly, 2013 was the year that made me feel like I didn't know what I was doing, wasn't worth much, and would never amount to anything.

They also show why, despite all that, I have hope for 2014 and won't ever give up, and why you shouldn't, either.

In January of 2013, the agent round of Pitch Wars happened. (Go check out the blog post tag #PitchWars in the sidebar to understand what I'm talking about). I'd been lucky enough to be picked for the contest in December 2012 by not one but two mentors, and after choosing Cupid-- a truly delightful lady-- we worked hard to get my neolithic Romeo and Juliet manuscript into shape. In my head, I really thought this was it-- my time had come. Two mentors had wanted me so much they hadn't been able to let me go, surely the agents would feel the same way!

Except they didn't. I got a couple of requests from awesome agents, but was mostly ignored. I felt horrible. I'd chosen Cupid, she'd gushed over my work and went above and beyond my expectations to fix it. She'd worked her butt off to help me-- and still did, long after the contest was over, I might add-- and I'd let her down. My lovely, kind mentor.

After Pitch Wars, I entered a different YA manuscript into another contest in April/ May, called The Writer's Voice. I was absolutely stunned when I was once again chosen by more than one mentor and again had to pick. This time I chose Monica Bustamante Wagner. Monica is one of the sweetest people I've had the fortune to work with. She helped me whip my MS and query into shape and once again I headed for the agent round with my head full of stars and my heart full of hope. 

Only to have the Exact. Same. Thing. Happen. Again.

I let Monica down, too. My lovely, kind mentor. 

At this point, I sort of began thinking I was cursed. I mean, come on. But I'm not a terribly superstitious person-- though I do believe in a good story-- so I was a bit frustrated, too. 

I didn't write a lot of new words in 2013 (with one big exception). I spent most of my time re-working and editing my old MSs, mostly because I truly believed in each and every one of those books. Perhaps that was my mistake. 

Perhaps my mistake was deciding I was a bit fed up with waiting and losing patience and breaking the rules by querying more than one MS at a time. Perhaps my mistake was caring so much and not having enough distance from my work to realize that the market was wrong, or the story was wrong, or the voice was wrong, or the category was wrong, or yada yada yada. The feedback I did get varied widely and directly contradicted itself, telling me either everything was wrong with my work or something intangible was wrong with my work.

In my real life profession, I faced many similar situations trying to secure a better position at my zoo. Phone calls, interviews, hope, wonder, joy-- disappointment. Perhaps my mistake was that I could get into the race but not finish it. 

Whatever the deal is/ was, there's no one to flat out tell me what I'm doing wrong. Sometimes, there isn't anything wrong with me or you, per se. Sometimes, there are just better options out there. For all of 2013, I was not the best option. 

But someday I will be. Even if I have to make myself the best option. I have other things I can focus on-- a big change is heading my way this year. I can self-publish and take control of my writing life. I can start my own horse-training business and forget worrying about advancing at the zoo. I have pretty good building blocks in my life already: my husband, my pets, my friends, my family, and most of all, I still have writing. 

I think that needs to stand out: I still have writing. 

At the end of the day, I write for one person. Me. Sure, I'd love to share my work with the world through a large publisher and see my book on the shelves at B&N, but the most joy I get out of writing is just DOING it. I still love all my books because I wrote them because I loved them. 

So no, I won't quit writing even though I feel like a failure. A fake. A sham. Forget that. I'm going to keep writing.

And you should, too.