Tuesday, March 17, 2020

One big-ass pity party

WARNING: this post contains unprofessional language, irrational annoyance, childish whining, lustful references to celebrities and a TWD spoiler. Proceed at your own risk. 

I’m sitting here contemplating the smoking wreckage of my carefully crafted spring dog show schedule and wondering WTF happened. In the space of two days, it went from multiple trial weekends, matches, a long-anticipated obedience seminar and a national specialty to – POOF – nothing but a bunch of now echoingly empty weekends. I am not good at doing nothing and this concerns me.

Since coronavirus became a household word, “suspended” has become the newest word I love to hate. Events have been suspended. Life as we knew it has been suspended.

I get it. I understand there are more important things at stake than dog shows. I’m willing to do what it takes to keep this virus from overwhelming the healthcare system. Doesn’t mean I have to like it.

While I was a firm believer in social distancing before it became a thing, I preferred to distance on my own terms. That generally meant removing myself from mainstream life and diving into the sub-culture that’s always been my happy place: dog shows, the place I went to forget the real world existed. COVID-19 has effectively eliminated that avenue of escape. I'm stuck in the real world and I can't get out.

In cold, hard reality, the lack of dog shows is the least of my problems. Quite frankly my dear, I’ve got four newspapers to produce each week and I don’t know what the fuck I’m going to put in them. Community newspapers rely heavily on community activities and since virtually all said activities have been cancelled for the foreseeable future, this poses a tiny little problem regarding news content and advertising.

With all of this in mind, I’ve decided to throw myself one big-ass pity party, stomp around, throw things, snarl, bitch, rant and have an old-fashioned conniption fit. I might bite someone if they get in my way. I’m seriously pissed the universe is having such a grand joke at the expense of my plans. Damn it but I was looking forward to a lot of fun stuff this spring and now it's all gone.

And then I’ll let it go. This is beyond my control. I can’t fix it. I can’t change it. Dog shows will come back. Until then, I can always train, which I honestly enjoy more than showing anyway. I’ve had years of practice at training alone so that’s nothing new. Banner and I can go hiking in the timber. Maybe we'll explore some new trails. Spring is almost here. I can garden and read and write and bake. I'm not dependent on social interaction with humans for my existence.

But I feel like someone pulled the rug out from under me. It's one thing to have an event canceled. It's another thing entirely to have my entire calendar wiped clean. I know you're struggling with this, too. No matter what we had planned this spring, we’re all staring dismally at our calendars and thinking, well, hell, THAT ain’t gonna happen. We all enjoyed the happy anticipation of future plans to carry us through the mundane tasks of 9 to 5. 

But now they’re gone and I've got a great big thundercloud hanging over my head.

It’s not just the coronavirus. It’s been one thing after another. In the sneaky way of Ugly Bad Things That Happen When You’re Not Looking, this whole what-the-hell-is-going-to-happen-next train wreck of 2020 started last month when Robert Conrad died. He was 84 so his passing wasn't totally unexpected but everyone has their celebrity crushes and he was one of mine.

Most folks in my generation will remember him as James West, the sharp dressed, resourceful and ever-charming Secret Service agent of 1960s “The Wild Wild West” television fame. (I’m seriously dating myself here. Damn. Now I feel old as well as depressed and mad. I'm still thinking about biting someone.)

I was a few years late to that party and instead, fell head over heels for Conrad in the role of WWII fighter pilot Major Greg Boyington in “Baa Baa Black Sheep” (later “Black Sheep Squadron”). While the show unashamedly Hollywood-ized the exploits of the very real, very heroic Black Sheep Squadron during World War II, it was one of those wonderful late 1970s action/adventure shows that I discovered years after its original run.

Those blue eyes and dimples got a girl interested in World War II in the South Pacific pretty damn fast. The show only lasted two seasons and unfortunately fell victim to abysmal writing in the second one.

Then Clive Cussler died Feb. 24, at age 88. He’s been one of my favorite authors for years, especially his Oregon Files and Fargo Adventure novels. The high tech crew of the battered old tramp freighter The Oregon and millionaire treasure hunters Sam and Remi Fargo accompanied me via audiobooks for thousands of miles to and from dog shows over the decades. They were like old friends who stopped by to pick me up on their way to their latest adventures. Although I would never compare my writing style to Cussler’s, he had a huge impact on how I crafted my original manuscript and all of its subsequent re-writes.

As if that wasn’t enough, now CBS’s “Hawaii 5-O” is ending its 10-year run in a few weeks. What am I going to do with my Friday evenings if I can’t lust after Alex O’Loughlin’s smoking hot scowl and two-day stubble while he tracks down bad guys? Seriously? What’s the world coming to?

On top of everything else, I’ve gotten about 437 rejection letters for my manuscript. Well. Maybe not that many. It just seems like it. Trust me.

I’ve spent hours researching literary agents. They helpfully post things on their websites like, “I’m currently looking for women’s fiction set in the Midwest featuring a protagonist who doesn’t believe in ghosts and moves into a haunted house with her dog and finds herself swept into solving a 100 year old mystery with the help of a ghost, her quirky friends and deliciously annoying neighbor.” 

Ecstatic, I fire off my query letter, synopsis, author bio and first three chapters of my novel, which is - guess what - women’s fiction set in the Midwest, featuring a protagonist who doesn’t believe in ghosts, moves into a haunted house with her dog and finds herself swept into solving a 100 year old mystery with the help of a ghost, her quirky friends and deliciously annoying neighbor.

Six weeks later, I get a polite rejection letter saying, “We’re so sorry, this just isn’t what we’re looking for.” Seriously. This is what it’s like to try to sell a manuscript. You know why they call us struggling authors? It’s because we’re struggling not to kill someone. If you need me, I've probably retreated back into my manuscript where there is no coronavirus for yet another re-write.

Did I mention Banner, my cute little fuzzy-wuzzy cuddle muffin, has taken up raccoon hunting? He doesn't just hunt, he catches. This necessitated a trip to the vet yesterday for a skin infection which may or may not be related to his catch-and-don't-release hunting style. He's on antibiotics for a week and sporting a lime green bandage to keep him from fussing at the spot on his leg. I'd take a picture but he's in about as bad a mood as I am lately so I didn't push my luck.

At least one good thing happened in the last few days (warning: TWD spoiler – if you didn’t see the March 15 episode, you just stop reading right now, you hear me?)

Okay. If you’re still with me, either you saw it or you don’t have any idea what I’m talking about.

Neegan killed Alpha. Didn’t see that coming although I'd been desperately hoping he would do something to prove his redemption. Like Carol said, “It took you long enough.” But we're talking about Neegan here so who knows what ulterior motives might come into play.

Allrighty then. I’m done. I'm still mourning the loss of everything I'd looked forward to this spring but it's time to move on. Thanks for listening.

Take care of yourselves. Wash your hands. Check on your neighbors. Find your happy place. Train your dog. The sun will come up tomorrow.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Downsizing. Or not.

In 1975, I went to my first dog training class. I put a choker (required) on the family beagle, clipped a six-foot leather leash (required) to it, got in the car and my parents drove my  9-year-old self to class.

Cuz that’s how we did things back then. Dog. Collar. Leash. Good to go.

When I entered my first obedience trial in 1977, it was basically the same thing. My father put the lawn chairs in the trunk and my mother put sandwiches in a cooler and off we went.

Cuz that’s how we did things back then.

Flash forward a few years. (Just a few. I’m not doing the math.)

Now the list of gear I haul to a show is nothing less than staggering. Last year I bought a wagon (a freaking WAGON!) to haul it all.

Anyone remember the T-shirt that said “All you need to do obedience is a dog, a leash and a collar” on the front? On the back, it said, “All you need to do dog obedience is a dog, a leash, a collar, crate, lawn chair, cooler, floor mat, toys, treats, dumbbell, scent articles, gloves, backup dumbbell, scent articles and gloves, portable jumps, ring gates, dowels, wires, guides, chutes, targets and a SUV or mini-van.”


If you’re a thoughtful, efficient trainer, you like to have all your gear handy when it’s time to train – no searching all over your house and vehicle to find what you need. The easiest way to do this is put as much as you can in a gear bag.

Left to my own devices, I will go to train and leave the one thing I really need at home if it's not packed in my gear bag. (This condition is called CRS – Can’t Remember Sh*t. It’s chronic but not terminal.) By the end of the last year, my bag had evolved into its own weight-lifting workout. I needed a spotter any time I picked it up. I resolved to downsize in the new year.

Downsizing is not my strong suit.

Five years ago, I decided to downsize on breeds, too, cuz everyone knows a 19-inch Aussie would use much smaller equipment than a 24-inch malinois. Don’t ask me how that worked because it didn’t.

Banner is using third-generation Belgian articles and a third-generation Belgian crate. He eats less than the Belgians and is marginally less crazy and that seems to be the only ground I’ve gained in the downsizing department.

I wasn’t sure how successful I’d be at downsizing my training carry-all. I really liked my current gear bag. It had lots of dandy pockets and compartments. It was beautifully constructed and I couldn't fault it except it was huge. Once I loaded up all those pockets and compartments, I could barely lift the thing.

After years of schlepping it from car to training building to car to show site over and over, I developed a permanent list to the right to counterbalance the weight of it hanging off my left shoulder.

So I re-purposed a bag I’d been using as travel bag for humans. It was smaller but still had lots of handy, dandy pockets.  Before you ask, it was made by Duluth Trading Company and no, they don’t make it any more.

I took everything out of my old bag. When the avalanche quit cascading off the counter, it was time for a reckoning. Did I need three leashes, not including a Flexi, to train one dog? There was an assortment of collars: buckle, chain slip, martingale, micro-prong. Two dumbbells – one plastic, one wood – for every trial site bouncy-floor contingency, plus the battered plastic dumbbell that looks like a rabid wolverine went at it. I’ve tried for years to break it (shout out to Max200 – this thing is immortal) and use it for training on surfaces where I don’t want to throw the “good” dumbbells.

Several containers of treats. Toys – tug, ball, flippy, squeaky. Dog essentials – water bowl, towel, poop bags, wet wipes, paw wax, brush. Not to mention essentials for the handler – tissues, lip balm, pens, highlighters, ibuprofen, lip balm, diphenhydramine, mints, scissors, nail clippers, lip balm (apparently I’m concerned about a shortage), band-aids, contact solution and reading glasses. And the stuff no good trainer should be without – a copy of the obedience regs, my training journal and show record book.

I confess - at one point in my showing career, I DID manage to downsize. I just made it a point to crate next to friends who would have whatever I might need beyond the realm of a dog, collar and leash. This only worked as long as my friends went to all the same trials. Besides, I hate being that person who's always saying, "Hey, do you have a (fill in the blank) I can use?" The only time that's legit is when you need a poop bag. Otherwise, pack your own stuff, sister.

When it was all said and done, I didn’t get rid of much cuz leaving something behind is a damn straight guarantee that’s the one thing I’ll need the next time I train. My previous clunky bag had been re-organized into a somewhat streamlined vertical version. What had been spread out horizontally before now resembled an archaeological dig, with gear placed in carefully ascending layers according to need. It weighed about the same.

Downsizing. I’m doing it wrong.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Adventures in adulting

The Gypsy has been remiss in posting. I know they say if you want something done, give it to a busy person but this autumn truly got away from me. Harvest season was a nightmare, work was insane, Banner and I were showing a lot and I launched into a serious manuscript re-write after a thorough and thought-provoking critique of my novel. During all of this, the Gypsy sat around, tapping her toe impatiently and making rude remarks about priorities and writer's discipline while I ignored her blog.

But now she’s back with a rollicking tale of high adventure she cleverly wanted to title “How to Barf on the Shoulder of Interstate 80 and Live to Tell About It.” I made her shorten that.

This happened about a month ago. It’s taken me that long to find any shred of humor in the situation. 

Like so many things in my life – good or bad - it started at a dog show. I doubt it had anything to do with the dog show but I’ll never know. I could have contracted the Horrible Virus of Doom before I ever went to the dog show. I could have picked it up at the motel that weekend, from a restaurant server or off the handle of a gas pump. I’d like to think I’m a tidy hand-washer but one cannot expect to escape all manner of germs and this one got its teeth in me and wouldn't let go.

It had been years since I threw up.


Seriously. As an adult, that’s one of the odd things you remember. The last time you cried. The last time you threw up. The last time you got out of bed in the morning without something hurting for no good reason.

But there I was, in the bathroom at the show site, heaving my guts out and thinking, this club has an excellent cleaning crew. If I had to barf in a toilet that was not in my own house, at least it was a spotless one.

As is so often the case, I felt marvelous afterward. Simply fantastic. Wondrous. I blamed a bad breakfast biscuit for the digestive derailment and was willing to let bygones be bygones. My poor tormented stomach had found peace and all was good with the world.

Until it wasn’t.

After loading up for the 1 ½ hour drive home, I made it exactly 15 minutes before That Feeling started to creep up on me again. You know That Feeling. It’s accompanied by frantic denial. I am not going to barf. I am NOT going to barf. Oh, sweet mother of God, I’m going to barf.

I was still within the city limits and wheeled into a gas station with bathrooms conveniently located close enough to the door I didn’t have to run the length of the store with my hand clamped over my mouth. Thank God the women’s was not in use although at that point, I would have commandeered the men’s room without hesitation.

Again, a few minutes of intense upheaval brought up the remaining dregs of everything I’d eaten that day, which after the breakfast biscuit, had been nothing. Surely, this would remedy the problem. There was nothing left in my gut to escape.

Oh, the dearly deluded . . .

I hopped in my car, got on Interstate 80 and made it about 30 minutes before That Feeling returned. There was no convenience store in sight. There was no exit in sight. A sign cheerfully promised me the next exit was in two miles. I wasn’t going to make it two miles. I wasn’t going to make it a hundred yards.

There is nothing like the feeling of volcanic doom rising in your stomach to make you capable of things you never imagined. I went from 75 mph to 0, all while managing to signal my intent to exit the traveled portion of the roadway, watch my mirrors, hit my emergency flashers and calculate my trajectory if something went horribly wrong and I ended up in the ditch. I was doing all this single handedly because my other hand was over my mouth because. Oh. Dear. God. I was NOT going to barf in my car.

It was Sunday afternoon - did I mention there was a shit ton of traffic? For a horrible moment I thought I was going to have to crawl across the console and tumble out of the passenger door. A break in traffic allowed me to bolt out the driver's door and around the front of my car, where I clung to the fender and barfed. And barfed. And barfed.

Miraculously, my stomach found yet more food to reject. While contemplating this phenomenon, I was intensely grateful for Iowa’s “pull over” law, which requires motorists to pull into the left lane if any motor vehicle is on the shoulder. Since it was Sunday afternoon and everyone in the United States was traveling on Interstate 80, that wasn’t always possible. Did you know how hard a Chevy Traverse rocks when an 18-wheeler flies by six feet away at interstate speed? I threw up again, just for good measure.

After a calculated race to get back into my car, I headed down the road again, foolishly thinking what’s done was done and it would be smooth sailing the rest of the way home.

It was.

Between stops to vomit.

My sincere and heartfelt apologies to anyone at the truck stop at an exit in Poweshiek County who may have looked out the window to see me hugging the trash can by the door. By then I was heaving up stuff I’d eaten three days ago. I genuinely intended to make it into the restroom inside but that was not to be. I’m glad I didn’t try because when I went inside to wash my hands and rinse my mouth, the women’s restroom was so cleverly concealed, if I’d tried to find it earlier, there would have been an unfortunate incident in the aisle by the jumper cables and motor oil.

The Horrible Virus of Doom wasn’t done with me yet. I stopped again at a rest area, whipped into the first available parking spot and repeated a scenario I was becoming all too familiar with. Dear God in Heaven, when was this going to stop?

Apparently not any time soon.

I managed to drive the entire length of the rest area parking lot before having to stop again. This was truly the highlight of what turned into a two-hour trip home. I was pretty sure I was throwing up my toenails by that point.

It took one more demonstration of 75 mph to 0 in six seconds driving skills on I-80 before I got home. By then, death was looking like a viable and practical option.

I parked the car, took Banner inside and the rest of the evening is a blur. I spent most of it in the bathroom.

I’m not sure how many calories you burn while dry-heaving into the toilet and praying for Jesus to take you home but apparently it’s a lot. I lost five pounds in three days and before you tell me it was just water weight, it wasn’t. It stayed off.

The second day of the Horrible Virus of Doom, I advanced to drinking water in tiny sips in spite of a raging thirst. The Farmer told me “You’ll feel better if you eat something.” I appreciated his concern but was not convinced. He was insistent. I ate a cracker. Singular. One cracker. I did not feel one bit better. I was cold. I ached like I had indeed, been hit by a truck.

The third day, I advanced to 7-Up, the universal cure-all for all things gastric. I ate three crackers.  Death receded into the background.

On the fourth day, my missing appetite came raging back with gusto. My mid-section felt like I’d done about 5,000 sit-ups. Consultation with the Medical School of Google and a number of on-line friends confirmed I had a raging case of norovirus.

The damn stuff is highly contagious and after my recovery, I spent the next 72 hours in a state of sheer terror, hoping The Farmer didn’t contract this dread disease. By some stroke of luck, he didn’t.

May your holidays be merry and bright and remember, wash your hands, bleach your bathrooms and to all, a good night.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Wonky fur: the struggle is real

The joy of working from home is that I can, within reason, say to hell with it and go do something else from time to time during the day. I still have to return to the workload that accumulates regardless of whether I'm at my desk from 9 to 5 or not. It's not like anyone else is going to do it for me. That would imply I have co-workers. Ha-ha. I remember having them . . . years ago . . .

Anyway, today's to hell with it moment happened when I checked the weather forecast and realized the next 36 hours may be positively liquified, followed by seasonal (i.e., chilly) weather to follow. While I'm delighted at the prospect of October feeling like October, not August, this is a Bad Thing on several levels, one of them being it interferes with my need to bathe Banner for a weekend show.

Folks who show Dobermans or Boxers or any other sleekit (yes, that's a word, look it up) breeds don't have to survey the calendar, consult the weather forecast, check the stage of the moon and invoke the Goddess when it's time to bathe their dogs. They don't have to deal with Wonky Fur.

People with furry breeds are nodding their heads sagely. All you Aussie and Sheltie and Terv folks, can I get an amen? Wonky Fur is real.

Remember that time you washed your hair and went to bed with it wet? Remember how you looked the next morning? Like half of your skull had been detached and reattached backward?

I'm talking about the canine equivalent. Once shampooed, rinsed and blown dry, dog fur is no less susceptible to bizarre flights of fancy. It does things that will not put the dog wearing it at any advantage in the show ring, be it breed or obedience.

Banner's post-bath fur sticks up in tufts and whorls. He looks a bit like a hungover possum for the first 24 hours after his bath. He also gets the Dreaded Back Part which creates an optical illusion that will have every obedience judge on the planet squinting and twisting their head while they try to decide if the front is actually straight in spite of the crooked line zig-zagging down his back. I do not want to make the judge think. Ever. About anything.

I suppose if I approached the blow-drying portion of his grooming with a bit more finesse, this could possibly be avoided right off the bat. But I don't. I tend to dry his hair with the same approach I use on my own.

Turn the dryer on.

Blast the hair until it's dry.

Turn the dryer off.

This yields better results on the human head. And probably explains a lot if you've seen my hair lately.

After 24 hours and some astute attention with a spray bottle and slicker, his Dreaded Back Part will be vanquished and all will be well.

If you're into dogs, you know an entire industry has sprung up around defeating Wonky Fur. There are coats and creams and sprays and grooming tools, all designed to flatten the fluff. Well, not flatten it totally, just tame it into acceptable lines. I'm fortunate a bit of time is all Banner needs to get his fur behaving.

But for my entire life with fluffy dogs, standard operating procedure has dictated no dog bathing the night before a show unless there's been an unfortunate digestive incident or an encounter involving a skunk. Don't laugh unless you've been there. You're all laughing. You've all been there. I knew it. Amen, sister.

So this afternoon I hung the hypothetical "Back Later" sign on my office door and gave Bann a bath.

Damn dog is waterproof.

Do you know how much spraying it takes just to get him wet to the skin? The degree of water repellancy (that's a word, too, even though this program refuses to like it no matter how I spell it) is fascinating. And annoying. I spend more time trying to get him soaked, then rinsed, that actually shampooing him.

He's the most wonderfully tolerant beast when it comes to baths. I wouldn't say he likes it but I think he's willing to trade in-the-tub cooperation for being allowed to get the post-bath bat-shit crazy zoomies.

Canine nuttery after being toweled off is nothing new but Banner takes it to new heights. He face plants on the bathroom rug, sticks his butt in the air and gyrates like a stripper five minutes before closing time.

I've discovered this is his go-to behavior, regardless of what part of him has been bathed. If I wash his paws? Face plant and butt wiggle. If I wash his butt and undercarriage? Face plant and butt wiggle.

That degree of cuteness is probably illegal in 17 states.

From the bathroom, it's outdoors to the grooming table. After the requisite blasting with the dryer, it's time for paw scissoring. In addition to being waterproof, Banner's second super power is growing paw hair. We haven't shown for three weeks and apparently he spent the whole time growing foot fur Sasquatch would be proud of. Either that or he knows something about the coming winter that I don't.

My guideline for trimming paws and ears is basic: showing this weekend? Start grooming last weekend.

That allows for errant scissor marks to grow out, which I am assured is a much bigger deal in the breed ring than on the obedience mats. Still, I've had my share of WTF scissoring moments when I realize my professional trim job looks instead like I'd perpetrated it in the dark with a pair of garden shears.

So, it's now late Tuesday afternoon. My clean, dry, wildly fluffy, precisely scissored (yeah, I'm going with that) dog is curled up on the chair in my office, napping, while I watch radar and wonder how I'm going to keep him anything resembing clean for the next three days.

Get a dog with white paws, they said. It'll be fun, they said.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Of ink and ribbons

I went to a writers’ conference last weekend and wouldn’t you know, you can draw a lot of parallels between training a dog and writing a book.

Several of the speakers noted the first book you write may be the easiest because at that point, you don’t have any idea what you’re doing. You’re doing it for fun and have no idea what to expect.

Once you’ve managed to publish, every successive book becomes more difficult to write because you understand not only the demands of your audience but also the expectations of the people who are going to help you build those second, third, etc. books into a success.

Compare and contrast that with dog training.

I wouldn’t say I didn’t know what I was doing when I earned my first OTCh. but I’d never earned one before and hadn’t even set out with that goal in mind. Connor (industrial-sized sheltie) was fun to train and show and that’s what we did. I can honestly say Conn had all his wins and probably more than half his points before I realized, holy crap, I think I can make this happen. (One of the most vivid memories of the day he finished was plunking quarters into a pay phone on the show grounds to call home and share the news. Yeah. It was THAT long ago.)

Since then, the following OTChs. have been incrementally more difficult. Jamie wasn’t the smooth sailing I expected. Phoenix, who brought everything to the table in terms of physical ability and mental drives, was the hardest dog I’ve ever trained. Banner’s career, to date, has been a slow and careful exploration of things I think I know and things I still need to learn. It’s a fluid experience.

And so it is with writing, the conference presenters confirmed. It’s not just writing. It’s any craft. Dog training. Equestrian sports. You name it and the people who have risen to the highest echelons of success will tell you, the better you get at something, the more you realize how little you know about it and how much you need to improve.

A presenter at an obedience seminar years ago mentioned the stages trainers go through. I believe they were as follows:

The Unconscious Incompetent: is awful but doesn’t know it.

 The Conscious Incompetent: is awful and knows it.

The Conscious Competent: has achieved mastery but has to think about her actions constantly in order to maintain competency.

The Unconscious Competent: has achieved mastery and no longer has to think about what she’s doing because the skill has become automatic and natural.

Occasionally I find myself in the latter category, usually when a student asks, “How do you get your dog to do that?” and I struggle to explain because it’s just something we DO without any conscious thought process on my behalf. It's a heady feeling to realize I understand a concept to the extent it has become ingrained in my psyche.

More often, however, I vacillate between the second and third levels. This applies to both dog training and writing, with frequent descents into the first level and - much less frequent - rises to the fourth.

Another parallel between dogs and writing is time. Both take an inordinately stupid amount of time to produce a finished product of merit. 

When I announced I was starting to shop my completed manuscript to agents, someone jokingly asked if it would be available by Christmas. (At least I think she was joking.) Yes. Yes it will. But not this Christmas. And possibly not next Christmas, either. 

Speed and the book publishing industry do not go hand it hand, skipping through the daisies. When compared to the world of newspapers, where news cycles peak and vanish in a manner of days, it’s like stepping off a roller coaster and onto a covered wagon. We’ll get there when we get there.

I’ve decided publishing a book is like bringing your young dog out in Novice and someone asking how soon he’ll have his OTCh. This engenders many WTF looks and acceptance of many hours of work ahead.

Writing and training are labors of love. Much of the work is done alone. The initial attempts may blunder and falter but progress is achieved over time. Get professional help as needed. Don’t be afraid to start over. Listen to people who’ve done what you’re trying to do. Hang on to your vision.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Of ghosts and literary agents

Earlier this month, I took a huge step toward the realization of a long-sought dream.

It felt like stepping off a cliff into nothingness. No safety net. No surety of anything but the fact I'd finally done it.

I started sending queries to literary agents to find representation for my completed manuscript.

In other words, I’m looking for a professional who can sell The Book.

That’s what I’ve been calling it. Definitely upper case. The Book is an entity that practically occupies a seat at the table at our house. The Farmer calls it That Book. As in, "Aren't you done writing That Book yet?" or "When are you going to publish That Book?"

Many questions. Few answers.

The Book has occupied more of my waking (and sleeping) thoughts for the last few years than is probably healthy.

The Book is the paper and ink equivalent of a living, breathing dream.

I’ve always been a story teller. I was the weird kid in elementary school who wrote stories and read them to the class. My teachers humored me. They probably wondered what was wrong with me. I grew up and kept writing stories, only now they're called weekly newspaper columns. There's still probably something wrong with me.

We didn’t have a television at our house until I was in junior high. My parents weren’t against television – they just never bothered to get one.

So I read. I read a lot. I read anything I could get my hands on. And I dreamed that maybe someday I would write a book that others could read and find as much enjoyment as I did when I discovered a new title by a favorite author.

There were a lot of false starts, timid forays and retreats when confronted with too much white space and a defiantly blinking cursor on the screen. About five years ago (which oddly coincided with Banner’s arrival in my life, although I don’t think there’s a connection) I decided it was time to get serious about writing The Book. This was the same time the wheels started to fall off the newspaper industry. The bolts had been loose before but now the wheels were careening off with regularity. I had some vague notion of writing a best seller to escape from the drudgery of watching co-workers being eliminated, then having their workload land on my desk. I've achieved this, to a degree. Like fishing and catching, there's a great deal of difference between writing and publishing.

It was rough going at first.

It’s one thing to have a twisty plot, fascinatingly developed characters, edgy dialogue and heart-stopping action scenes in your head.

But open up a blank Word document, poise your fingers over the keys and what comes out sounds something like, “The ghost said boo.”

I kept at it. I had no idea what it took to write a novel. The best thing about being a newbie wannabe author is that since I had no idea if I was doing things wrong or right, I just charged ahead with little concern for literary convention.

I explored some other writing venues. I stumbled by pure accident into a group of wonderful writers who shared a common interest (obsession would be a better word) and I started writing and sharing with them. The subject had nothing to do with my dreams for The Book. It was pure escapism entertainment and I discovered I really liked writing that wasn’t school board stories or features about women who knitted scarves for trees. Writing became recreational, a hobby of sorts, which unlike my other hobbies, cost absolutely nothing except mental frustration.

I’d love to say the more I wrote, the better I got, but I’m not sure that’s true. I juggled multiple writing projects at once. I shared some with an online community of like-minded writers. I tried out a couple of different genres.

I developed a lot of writing habits, some good, some just plain odd. I wrote almost every day. Maybe for twenty minutes. Maybe for two hours. I carried a notebook with me everywhere because there was no telling when inspiration would appear. I occasionally got out of bed in the middle of the night to write down a bit of clever dialogue or plot twist when I woke with it running through my mind. There was no guarantee my scribbles would make sense in the morning but even cryptic notes are better than nothing.

I wrote the kind of book I want to read. The main genre is mystery. The sub-genre is a paranormal mystery. Yes, there is a ghost. No, it does not say boo. It does say a few other things. There’s a protagonist who feels like the universe is having a grand joke at her expense when her house blows up on the same day her divorce is finalized. She has a dog. Yes, it’s a Belgian Malinois. No, it’s not Phoenix. Although Phoenix was certainly a source of inspiration. There's a wonderful old farmstead, an assortment of eccentric friends, a tall, dark and intriguing neighbor and The Evil Villain. 

It’s set in Iowa. It's the first of a series. Yes, I know I haven't sold the first book yet. It never hurts to dream. And the second book is written, in any case.

Are you in it? Do you know me? Well, then there’s a substantial possibility that there is a character in The Book that might have been crafted to reflect just the tiniest bit of you. Don't lose sleep over it. Ha-ha.

So when can you read it?

Don’t rush to Barnes and Noble yet.

This agent-querying process is a painstaking, gut-wrenching, soul-baring marathon. Seriously, writing The Book was easier. I spent most of my spare time in July and August writing a query letter (Dear Ms. Literary Agent, here is why you should represent my brilliantly crafted book!) with help from a mentor through the Mystery Writers of America.

I also slogged through a synopsis (possibly the most hateful document in the world of publishing), a writer’s bio (surviving 30-plus years in print journalism hasn’t been for nothing) and a pitch.

I’m feeling a bit spiteful about the pitch. I spent days crafting it, reading it aloud and timing verbal delivery on my phone. Only one of 12 agents even requested it and that one had the audacity to request it in one sentence.

I know why Hemingway drank.

Now I wait.

If you just happen to be besties with a literary agent who represents paranormal mysteries, is looking for new clients and likes coaching first-time authors, please refer me to him/her and I’ll be eternally in your debt.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Tip your steward, we'll be here all weekend

Random thoughts from a day spent stewarding Utility - noticing the good, the bad and the adorable article bags.

What’s the first jump height? 24? Got it. The jumps are set. No. Wait. Someone moved? Now it’s 18? Okay, on it. No. Wait. Someone else moved? We’re back to 24? Fine.

This is a super cute article bag.

I do not need another article bag.

I can’t find the gloves. Oh. They’re hidden away in a top secret pocket.

Next jump height is 18, right? No? Still 24? What happened to the 18 who moved up? Oh. She moved down. 

The ring sheet is starting to look like a road map with lots of squiggly arrows. There are only 15 dogs in the class and it seems like every one of them has a conflict.

This bar jump is a pain in the butt to set.

Hey, another cool article bag. Wonder where she got it?

What is wrong with this bar jump? Seriously, did someone throw it off a truck?

Neat gloves. They’ve have sparkly cuffs and embroidery. Maybe Banner needs bling-y gloves. Phoenix could never have anything this nice. They would have gotten shredded.

Whoa. These are teeny tiny little gloves.

Gloves, gloves, gloves, gloves. My life is gloves.

Give me a hammer and stand back. I'm going to fix this jump for once and for all.

Seriously whoa. These gloves need washed. Like last year. Are they supposed to be stiff?

Other end of the spectrum: some exhibitors are a little OCD about their articles and gloves. I think if they could bring them to the ring in a hermetically sealed bag, they would.

We’ve gone from 24 inches to 20 inches back to 24 inches down to 16 inches and back up to 18 inches. Yeah, how's that jump height order working out?

How many dogs do we have left?

Shouldn’t have asked.

Thank you, Miss PITA Exhibitor, for the condescending lecture on how to take articles out of a bag with tongs. Wow, you sure know how to make a steward feel appreciated.

I probably should have apologized for that WTF look. I didn't.

Another super cute bag made with adorable fabric. Article bags are an art form these days.

Waiting for a dog and handler to set up so I can drop the first glove. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. This is Utility. Why is walking into the ring and setting up so hard? I really want to know - I'm not any better at it.

Some gloves fall with a solid clunk.

Others float to the ground like leaves.

I’m standing here, being the invisible steward after dropping the gloves and it’s been at least a minute since I heard the handler say, “Take it.” Now the exhibitor is laughing. The judge is laughing. The dog is laughing. And the gloves are not at all where I put them.

Gah! Another set of crusty gloves. They have chunks of mud on them! 

OMG, am I becoming one of those OCD handlers who wants everything perfectly clean? Pretty soon I'll be lecturing stewards on how to take articles out of my bag.

No. No, I won't.

This bar jump is a complete pain in the ass. I don’t think this superintendent has bought new obedience jumps since 1978.

Holy cow. These gloves look like welder’s mitts. At least they’re clean.

“Are you ready?” is not supposed to be a rhetorical question.

Oh look! A vintage wooden article box, the kind with the sliding pegboard closure and dumbbell handle on top. You don’t see those any more.

This bag has all kinds of pockets and pouches. I feel like I’m searching someone’s purse to find the gloves.

Put the gloves out. Pick the gloves up. Reset the jump. Put the gloves out. Pick up the gloves up. Reset the jump. Wonder how many steps I’m getting in today?

Sometimes the judge says, “Exercise finished” with more enthusiasm than others.

Always good when exhibitors smile and thank us when they leave the ring. It's a warm fuzzy feeling that's even better than the free lunch.