Writing for Cecil: A guest post by Mindy Mejia

By Midge Raymond,

Today’s post and photos are courtesy of Dragon Keeper author Mindy Mejia, whose blog you can find on her website. Enjoy!

Writing for Cecil

A few weeks ago a building near my office was overrun by police cars and media vans. I didn’t know what was going on until someone told me, complete with a meaningful look in one of the spare cubicles, “That’s where the dentist’s office is.”

I didn’t need to be told which dentist, because in the prior three days “dentist” had become the country’s newest dirty word. That’s all we knew about Walter Palmer. He was a dentist who enjoyed traveling the world and killing magnificent animals, that is, until he killed the wrong one.

As a vegetarian I’ve had mixed feelings about the Cecil backlash. Obviously it was a horrific, completely unjustifiable crime committed by a total asshat. Cecil’s death was senseless, cruel, and exacerbated by the likely slaughter of his twenty-four cubs as a new male takes over his pride. On the other hand, I live in the Midwest, where a bird flu epidemic has forced the extermination of forty-eight million chickens in the last several months. Let me say that again. Forty-eight million chickens. That’s the total human population of California, Oregon, and Washington combined, and other than a few brief clips of some poultry barns on the news, who even heard about these deaths, let alone cared? Personally, I can’t wrap my head around a scale that weighs the lives of twenty-five lions as greater than the lives of forty-eight million birds. As a writer, however, that scale—like everything else illogical about our species—fascinates me.

There are insights here for anyone writing about animals, but especially those who are working within an environmental theme. Cecil’s death showed us that people care. They are willing to become invested and even help spur social change if their sympathies are triggered. But what is the trigger? How can a writer tap into that amazing human-animal connection?

First, let me be clear that I’m no expert. I possess no degrees that end in -ology. I’m just a writer who has spent some time examining the relationship between people and the other species who live on this planet. In my opinion, the catalyst for the public reaction to Cecil’s death distills down to three main components: the Rarity factor, the Apex Predator factor, and the Charismatic Mega Vertebrate factor. Let’s break them down, one by one.

Rarity

Rare Suburban Hosta Cat

Rare Suburban Hosta Cat

Why is gold worth more than water? Why do we value a lion’s life more than a chicken’s? After all, most of us directly depend on chickens as part of our food chain while lions have comparatively little impact on our survival. So why care about some lion halfway across the world? The answer is partly psychological—we are drawn to the rare and exotic—but also partly legislative. Cecil’s life was protected within the borders of his refuge and that law was the only thing that made his killing a crime. In the U.S. the Endangered Species Act was enacted in 1973 and it mandated that the lives of threatened animals must be protected. Scarcity has become a kind of virtue; it makes certain animal’s lives more precious. To see this effect in reverse, look at the Obama administration’s decision to remove gray wolves in the Great Lakes region from the list. Almost immediately Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan created hunting seasons to “manage their wolf populations” and fifteen hundred wolves were killed as a result. Less scarcity? Less value.

Of course, it’s easy to highlight an animal’s rarity when writing about an endangered species, but what if you’re not? The principle can still work even if your character is a more common animal, as C.S. Malerich demonstrates in her short story “Meat.” In the story, the protagonist’s father decides to raise an animal for slaughter to provide ethically-minded food for his family. Malerich never reveals the animal’s species and it becomes a guessing game for the reader. Could the animal be a cow? Certain scenes seem to suggest it at first, but as the story progresses, the narrator gives the animal increasingly sophisticated behaviors and counterintuitive physical characteristics. Is it a monkey? An emu? The reader’s imagination races to the exotic, almost in defiance of the undeniably human-like character that is emerging.

“Meat” taps into the rarity factor by refusing to tell us if the animal is rare or not. We are unbalanced by not knowing the societal worth that has already been placed on this life and seek desperately to recover that label so we can apply the pre-determined value and move on. When we realize Meat’s species will not be revealed, the real question emerges: why do we value some animals more than others?

 

Apex Predator

Danger raises the stakes

Danger raises the stakes

 

Aside from his almost-endangered status, Cecil was also the king of the jungle and, let’s be honest, we love our kings. Humans are the ultimate predators on planet Earth, at least for the time being, and our imaginations gravitate toward other apex predators—animals that preside over the top of their food chains. Look at Shark Week. Grizzly Man. Tyrannosaurus Rex. Yes, a predator can be dead for sixty-six million years and we still happily break box office records to watch their re-creations strut and slaughter on the big screen.

Whenever I talk to readers about The Dragon Keeper, my novel about a Komodo dragon’s virgin birth, their questions usually always cycle around to the species’ rumored poisonous bite. Sure, dragons can spontaneously reproduce, but they can really kill you, right? As writers we want to explore the animal behind the diet, but don’t ignore your animal’s predatory instincts; they’ll do wonders to heighten suspense. In every scene I wrote with Jata, the book’s Komodo, I knew she had the power to wreak havoc. She could have bitten her zookeeper’s hand off during feeding scenes or ambushed her in the exhibit. I used real-life accounts of Komodo attacks from the headlines to add tension to the friendship that developed between the woman and the dragon, to remind the reader that, at any moment, their delicate relationship could shatter.

Even if you’re writing about a herbivore, you can utilize the predator principle for drawing reader interest and raising the stakes in a story. Every animal can become formidable in the right situation. Look at the deer who charged a jogger in Germany in 2011. Or the gaze of raccoons that attacked a Washington jogger in 2012. Or the repeated barred owl attacks on runners earlier this year in Oregon. Hmm. The secret to raising the stakes might be a track suit…

 

Charismatic Mega Vertebrate

Big personality = Big appeal

Big personality = Big appeal

Perhaps the biggest reason Cecil’s death caused such an outcry was because he was Cecil, not some random lion unacquainted with the human world. He had a name, a radio collar, and an unofficial fan club, and he’d attracted this human following because he was a charismatic mega vertebrate.

This is the term used by zoos to describe their poster exhibits. Lions, tigers, and bears, yes, but don’t forget gorillas, elephants, and dolphins. These species, through their larger-than-life personalities, human-like characteristics, or sheer vitality, are why visitors pay the price of admission. Simply put, they keep their zoo’s lights on. Knut the polar bear was responsible for a thirty percent increase in attendance the year he was born at the Berlin zoo. On the flip side, the Copenhagen zoo caused a worldwide controversy when they killed Marius the giraffe. The lesson? Charisma counts.

The good news here is that a writer can employ these characterization techniques to turn any vertebrate into a charismatic one. (Sorry, nonvertebrates. I’ll need to see a really compelling jellyfish or worm story before I can be convinced this strategy works for you.) An animal should be approached just like any other character in your book. Build their backstory, their mannerisms, their quirks, and then give their actions weight in the narrative. Make them integral to and capable of changing the world you’ve created. Don’t be afraid of anthropomorphizing. We naturally humanize animals in order to feel closer to them, so let your human characters forge those connections and your readers will follow suit. To learn characterization from masters on both ends of the spectrum, grab a copy of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and Charlotte’s Web. These books are courses onto themselves.

Lastly, give your animal a great name, a name that endears and endures, that shines a spotlight on this individual character and lets them climb, trot, or swim into their rightful place in your readers’ hearts.* It won’t help Cecil—or those forty-eight million chickens—but the more readers your book reaches, the greater the odds that a future animal’s life could be safeguarded as something worth preserving.

*Note that Wilbur and Fern are already taken. For alternative popular names from the year 1912, try Albert, Mildred, or Frances.

Consider the Sloth: A guest post by Jean Ryan

By Midge Raymond,

Today’s post is courtesy of Survival Skills author Jean Ryan, whose blog you can find on her website. Enjoy!

Consider the Sloth

Do animals think? Countless experiments have been undertaken to answer this question and the consensus is: Yes, they do.

I guess I’ve always considered this answer fairly obvious. How would creatures survive if they couldn’t evaluate situations and make appropriate decisions? Lionesses form collective hunts. Crows drop their walnuts into the path of vehicles. Beavers adjust the logs in their dams to control water levels. Plovers fake a broken wing to lure predators away from their nests. God knows what chimps and parrots are capable of.

Just looking at my cat this morning I saw proof of thought. He was on the deck, waiting to come inside. Knowing I was in the kitchen and could not see him at the sliding glass door, he jumped up on the deck railing and into my view. He also has a robust dream life. Like most animals, he twitches in his sleep, and sometimes he wakes himself with a soft, surprised cry. I smile when I see his paws move. I wonder where he has traveled to and whether he’s having a good time.

When they are not trying to acquire food or protect their young or get attention, what do animals think about? When a lion has finished his dinner and is gazing out on the African plain, what is going on in his feline mind?

The sloth. Now there’s an animal with plenty of time to mull things over. Looking at a photo of a sloth—the big eyes, the gently smiling mouth—I am certain that something astonishing is going on in that short, flat head.

Sloths spend their lives hanging upside down from tree branches. In this pose, they eat, sleep, mate, bear young and die; even after death a sloth may hang from a branch for days, as if the divide between death and its sedentary life does not much matter. The world’s slowest mammal—an average clip is six feet a minute— sloths move only when necessary so as not to tax their minimal musculature. On the ground they are awkward and vulnerable, long polished claws serving as their only defense. For this reason, they stay in the trees, descending just once a week to urinate and defecate, digging a hole and covering it up afterward. While slowness might be considered a detriment to survival, this trait is actually an advantage for the sloth, whose lack of motion draws no attention. Another advantage of a slow pace is the chance it gives other life forms to take hold: algae blooms freely on sloths, serving as perfect jungle camouflage, as well as a handy food source.

Nocturnal creatures, sloths forage on their trees from dusk to dawn, methodically eating the fruit, leaves and bark. This roughage is then effortlessly digested, albeit slowly, with the help of multi-compartmentalized stomachs that comprise two-thirds of the animals’ body-weight.

Once a year the female lets out a few loud shrieks, which the male dutifully answers, and after great time and effort, they manage to arrive on the same branch. The mating itself occurs over a period of several minutes, and in what seems to be a tender fashion—sloths are the only mammals other than humans that mate face-to-face. The baby sloth appears six months later and spends much of its first year clinging its mother.

Research shows that sloths spend about ten hours a day sleeping. In the hours the animal is awake but inactive, it hangs from its limb and regards the jungle canopy, moving its flexible neck in increments, blinking now and then. Hidden among the leaves, making no sound or movement, these mute little beasts seem to want just one thing: to be undiscovered.

The two main emotions in life are love and fear, and certainly there is ample evidence that animals feel both. I imagine that when the shadow of a raptor passes overhead, a sloth cringes in fear. What about the lesser emotions, the ones that don’t serve us—like worry? Does a sloth, with all that time he has, worry about eagles and jaguars? Or does he have more productive thoughts, which part of the tree he’ll dine on that night? Or is he, is some deep animal way, simply enjoying himself, his mind a movie screen of pleasant images: leaves, sky, dappled light. When thoughts are not needed, maybe animals are not burdened with them.

It is estimated that people have 60,000 thoughts a day, a figure not as impressive as it sounds. These 60,000 thoughts are the same ones we had yesterday and the same ones we’ll have tomorrow. In our day to day lives, we are not much good at thinking out of the box. A sloth hangs in one tree all its life and, other than single visit from a single mate, has no company. With this scant stimulation, I wonder how many separate daily thoughts a sloth has. A hundred? Twenty? I would trade my 60,000 for a glimpse of them.

jean_ryan_200

Indulge the Dog: A guest post by Jacki Skole

By Midge Raymond,

Today’s post and photos are courtesy of Dogland author Jacki Skole, whose blog you can find on her website. Enjoy!

Indulge the Dog

One Sunday morning, my dog threw her version of a hissy fit.

It was about seven o’clock, and my husband, Kevin, wanted to take Galen for a walk, but she didn’t want to go. She stood in the driveway, immobile. Kevin yanked her leash; she stood her ground. He came inside, grabbed a slice of American cheese, and bribe in hand, returned outside. I was sitting at our kitchen island reading the newspaper. I looked out the window expecting to see Kevin and Galen round the corner of our driveway and start down the street. I saw nothing.

Moments later, my attention turned to the backyard. There was Galen, darting after her purple ball, pouncing on it, shaking it, romping with it, exuding pure joy. She’d gotten her way: She was playing ball with her daddy.

Galen and purple ball

Studies show that dogs have the mental acumen of a two-year-old. Both know about 165 words, understand numbers up to four or five, and can show basic emotions like happiness and anger. I would add (anecdotally) that both can be stubborn, especially when demanding their way.

When my now-thirteen-year-old daughter was two, she threw a tantrum because she didn’t like an outfit I selected for her. She was intent on choosing her own clothing, which would have been fine if what she chose matched. But it didn’t. So I yelled, she screamed, and we got nowhere. In that moment, I believed that what she wore reflected my competency as a mother, not to mention my sense of style. Kevin stepped into the room and said, “Pick your battles.” I swallowed my pride and empowered my daughter, and from that day forward her clothing clashed – until one day it didn’t. (Of course, by then our younger daughter was either mismatching clothes or leaving the house in full princess regalia.)

As many parents learn, not every battle is worth fighting. But I’ve begun to see that when it comes to Galen, we pick fewer fights. She demands to eat her meals outside. Fine. She refuses to go for a walk. Fine. She sleeps on our bed. Fine – we half-heartedly fought this battle, but caved to her crying. We are suckers for our dog. We are far stricter with our daughters.

Perhaps that’s how it should be. Galen will always live under our roof, a toddler for all time; our girls will grow up, move out, live life on their own. The battles we pick — and choose not to pick — will shape the adults they become. So we indulge our dog, but we battle our daughters. Because we are madly in love with them both.

Thighs Can’t Be Uncertain: A guest post by Mindy Mejia

By Midge Raymond,

Today’s post and photos are courtesy of Dragon Keeper author Mindy Mejia, whose blog you can find on her website. Enjoy!

Thighs Can’t Be Uncertain

Ah, summertime. The endless daylight, the mojito menus, the garden salads picked straight from the garden, and—as frosting on the star-spangled cake this year—I received my editorial letter from the wonderful Emily Bestler and have been revising for the last two months.

Okay, I know not everyone gets as excited as I do about revision and critique. I didn’t always love it and can still remember those undergrad workshop experiences when I spouted any number of defenses against good, honest criticism.

Their opinions were obviously wrong.

They weren’t my target audience.

Or the old standby…

They just didn’t “get” my story.

It’s easy and lazy to reject critique, and guess what? Lazy writers don’t get better. Luckily, I’ve grown enough over the last few decades to understand the transformative power of this process, and here’s the secret: The only difference between an amateur and a professional writer is revision.

IMG_3160

Getting critique is an amazing gift. It means someone likes your book. They like it so much, in fact, they’ve devoted hours of their invaluable time to helping you make the book even better. They’ve spotted the problems you can no longer see because, unfortunately, proximity breeds blindness.

In my case, after spending several years with the murder mystery, my perspective on the book was dreamlike at best. I had old drafts rumbling around in my head, the accumulation of every character’s scenes smothering me whenever I re-read one of their lines, and evolving timelines I couldn’t keep straight without a spreadsheet. Is this the reveal? Have we learned this already? I’d better read the last hundred pages to make sure.

 So you can imagine the relief of receiving Emily’s letter, like a window had been thrown open in a stale room. The voice of reason had arrived. She examined everything from the larger plot lines and time setting down to the smallest descriptions.

Thighs can’t be uncertain, she said after reading a scene in which I’d described a nervous character.

And instead of being embarrassed about my blunder or trying to defend the ridiculous adjective, all I thought was, Yes! Hallelujah! Thighs, good and solid thighs, you just exist. You simply are.

So in the spirit of absolute thighs, here’s a peek at some of my revision practices.

After finishing the first draft, I sit back and think about where I’ve arrived. The book’s conclusion should bring me to a place that gives the journey meaning. I ponder theme and subtext in relation to that journey. (Yes, I ponder.) The most important question I have to answer is—disregarding plot and characters—what is this story really about? Once I know that, I grab a red pen and take a deep breath. Ready?

It’s time to murder my darlings.

Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s advice is the first commandment of revision and the hardest for any writer to adopt. My first draft may have taken months or even years to write, and I’ve poured my soul into it. How can I start hacking away at it like diseased shrubbery? But hack I must.

In this particular book I’m married to a total of eighteen sentences. Eighteen sentences that I will defend to the point of a Kung Fu death match if anyone threatens their existence. The other 99,500 words are completely negotiable. Having said that, I’ll give you a taste of my negotiation process.

  1. I recognize the scene/chapter/paragraph needs work.
  2. I break up the existing content, delete a few lines and guard at least half of it from oblivion, then I add new transitions, themes, content, whatever it was that I decided had been lacking.
  3. I read through the new section with its Frankenstein makeover and think it’s…okay.
  4. I go to sleep.
  5. I wake up the next morning and delete the entire steaming pile of crap and write a cohesive scene that accomplishes what I need for that section.

IMG_2997

It’s not the most efficient method, but that’s how I work, especially when I don’t have any immediate insight on how to fix the problem. Essentially, I make the wound worse to force a surgery.

I also tend to save prior drafts so if I ever decide a deleted description of the Egyptian sunset has become absolutely necessary to the trajectory of the story, I can grab it from an earlier version. Although now that we’ve all witnessed the Go Set a Watchman controversy, I’m rethinking my policy on draft retention.

Once I’ve done all I can possibly think of to wrangle the book into shape, I’m ready for some first readers. Obviously I don’t want a prospective agent or editor to be the first person to read the book. (See blindness, above.) I’m selective about who I ask. An early reader should be that perfect balance of enthusiasm, insight, and honesty. I sent the murder mystery to two trusted friends, one a writer with flawless taste, and the other a lifelong mystery reader who knows more about the genre than I ever will. Then I forgot about it for a while. I took nature hikes with the kids. Binge-watched Daredevil on Netflix. Ran a half marathon for St. Jude and limped around for the next week and a half. By the time I’d heard back from my readers I’d regained enough perspective to take their comments to heart and dove back in for another bloodbath.

Does revision fix everything? No, of course not. My work still contains plenty of flaws, but every draft brings me one step closer to the ideal. And even if I only correct one thing, at least that’s one less thing I’ll be shaking my head about when I finally crack the cover of the published book.

So let’s keep walking, thighs. There’s no uncertainty here.

 

Dining well at Native Foods

By Midge Raymond,

While in Southern California, we had the opportunity to visit Native Foods Cafe, a small, plant-based restaurant chain with locations in Southern California, Oregon, and Colorado, among others (including Palm Springs, where it was founded), and we hope it becomes a nationwide phenomenon as soon as possible. Because it’s delicious, and so good for both people and the planet.

native foods

The Native Foods goal is “bringing into harmony our passion for fresh food and compassion for animals and the environment.” The dining style is “fast-casual,” meaning you order at the counter, and in addition to its “made-from-scratch, chef-crafted cuisine,” made fresh daily, the cafes also have beer and wine and a fantastic dessert menu.

Despite the healthy sounding aspect of plant based foods, there’s plenty of comfort food on this menu. We skipped over the entree salads and “earth bowls” (though they all looked great) and went straight for the foods it can be a challenge to find vegan versions of…starting with Native Nachos.

nachos

The nachos arrived on a gigantic, overflowing plate, with light, crispy tortilla chips; black beans; a creamy chipotle sauce; two mounds of cashew cheese; and salsa fresca, sprinkled with roasted corn, green onions, cilantro and jalapeño peppers. In a word: fantastic.

The decadent Oklahoma Bacon Cheeseburger consists of sliced seitan, melted cheddar, caramelized onions, and tofu bacon, along with barbecue sauce and ranch dressing, and is topped with carrots, tomato, and romaine.
bacon cheeseburger

Our favorite was the Chicken, Bacon & Avo Club.

chicken bacon avo

This sandwich, on a multi-grain ciabatta, features crispy, herb-crusted vegan “chicken”; tofu bacon; and avocado; along with romaine, tomato, and carrots slathered with the creamy chipotle sauce. It’s everything a good veg burger should be…rich and filling and delicious, with just enough healthy ingredients to allow you to feel somewhat virtuous. (Choosing a side salad instead of fries would’ve left us feeling far more virtuous…but that was not about to happen.)

We didn’t leave room for dessert, but with offerings like Chocolate Ganache Cupcake, Peanut Butter Parfait, and Oatmeal Creme Pie, we might have to start with dessert next time.

Check out Native Foods’ locations to find the nearest one to you. Even better than its sustainable, cruelty-free, delicious menu, the company also gives back, both nationally and in the communities where the cafes are located; click here to learn more.