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.