Category: For authors


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.

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.

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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.

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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.

 

Writing Conferences: A guest post by Jennifer Caloyeras

By Midge Raymond,

This guest post is courtesy of Strays author Jennifer Caloyeras, whose blog you can follow on her website. Enjoy!

What’s in it for you at a writing conference?

Each time I peruse the latest edition of Poets & Writers magazine, I see the endless amount of writing conferences offered across the globe, which got me thinking: Why should writers attend writing conferences?

I’ve attended a handful of these conferences (later this week, I’ll be at the SCBWI – Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators – annual conference in Los Angeles), and I’ve compiled a list of benefits these conferences have to offer both seasoned writers as well as those just starting out.

What you can gain by attending a writing conference:

1. Networking: Conferences boast hundreds to thousands of attendees, depending on the type. Either way, you meet tons of people. You’ll find writers working in a similar genre, in a similar city, or perhaps you’ll meet your next writing group member!

2. Access: Most writing conferences have established speakers who are active members in the publishing world. Writers, agents, and publishers are all in attendance. Inevitably, one of the questions that is always asked by someone in the audience is, “Can I send you my query?” And I have to say, many agents and publishers will give you something specific to write in the subject line of an email to gain direct access to them so that you can forward them a query letter and they’ll connect it to your attendance at a specific conference.

3. Exposure: Most conferences have a designated time when writers can sell their work to the other conference attendees. If you’re a published writer, this is a great time to practice your sales pitch as well as answer questions about the writing process. And if you’re just starting out, you can walk around and speak with scores of other writers and ask them questions about their publishing experience and their books.

4. They’re valuable: The speakers at conferences have all prepared something very specific to talk to you about, such as character development, how to land an agent, how Excel can be used to track your submissions, and how to book gigs at your local library. There is always more to learn, and there are always new ways to reach out to readers. I keep all my notes from these various conferences and reference them often.

5. They’re fun! There’s plenty of time to socialize with other writers, and lots of conferences will have an evening out where you can leave the notebooks at home and just have a night of fun!

So, how do you pick a writing conference that’s right for you?

Check out the back pages of Poets & Writers magazine.

Go to New Pages for a list of upcoming conferences by state.

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Lizards in Love: 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!

Lizards in Love

Many creatures mate for life. People, who often bungle this commitment, are shamed by such devotion in the wild. Watching a pair of swans glide across the surface of a still pond, we are stirred to admiration, even reverence, knowing how far they surpass us in manner and form.

Swans are inarguably beautiful, as are various other animals that lead devoted lives: turtle doves, wolves, French angelfish, golden eagles. For these glorious beasts, the discipline of monogamy seems a fitting attribute, a sort of noblesse oblige.

But what of the shingleback skink? Tiliqua rugose: a bob-tailed, slow moving, blue-tongued lizard. Found only in Australia, this lowly beast is one of earth’s most faithful inhabitants. Every autumn, for up to twenty years, it will seek out the same mate, the male inevitably finding the female by her scent trail. During their initial courtship and upon their annual reunion, the male will lick and softly prod the female. For two months they stay together, the male closely following the female as she makes her way across the outback. If one is killed, the other will stay with the body for several days, giving it a gentle nudge now and then as if to encourage animation.

Tiliqua rugose goes by several common names: Stump-tailed lizard, Sleepy lizard, Pinecone lizard, Two-Headed lizard (because the fat truncated tail mimics the head, minus the eyes and mouth). The skin of this reptile is dark brown, sometimes with yellow spots, and the protruding scales resemble armor. The eye are small and reddish-brown; the tongue is a brilliant blue. Reaching eighteen inches in length, the shingleback skink weighs in at a whopping two pounds. During the day it travels across open country foraging for flowers, berries and succulent leaves, as well as the occasional snail and beetle, which it handily crushes with its powerful jaws. At night it sleeps in leaf litter or under logs or rocks.

Six months after the male locates his mate, the female gives birth to two or three young. This process takes much out of her as the progeny can exceed eight inches in length and weigh nearly half a pound—compare a woman giving birth to a three-year-old child. As soon as they emerge, the young skinks dispatch the placenta, then promptly head out, en route to their own chosen life mates.

So how does unstinting loyalty benefit a two-headed lizard? Certainly any healthy female could produce viable young; variation might even strengthen the gene pool. But somehow this lowly lizard was bequeathed with devotion, the urge to seek its private treasure again and again, at any cost. Equally impressive are the researchers who brought us these facts, who braved the harsh Australian outback to study this odd creature day and night, year after year.

Love. Who can account for it?


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Tips for authors: interviews, part II

By Midge Raymond,

To follow up on Interviews, Part I, I’m happy to present a Q&A with Wendy Call, author of No Word for Welcome: The Mexican Village Faces the Global Economy. Wendy is a longtime journalist whose book is based on hundreds of interviews over ten years — and then, as part of her book tour, she ended up on the other side of the mic. She did more than a dozen radio interviews within a month of her book’s release and has a lot to share.

What are the best reasons for authors to do radio interviews?

The primary reason might not be to sell more copies of your book, but to reach a wider public with the idea(s) behind your book. In the month since my book No Word for Welcome was released, I’ve given fifteen radio interviews. Perhaps two times out of three, I notice a bump in my Amazon sales ranking in the hours after the interview airs. When I don’t, it certainly doesn’t mean the interview was a waste. I can think of many, many times I’ve listened to an author interview, and then checked her book out of the library, or discussed the author’s work with a friend. When I buy the author’s book, it’s usually weeks or months after – most often after I’ve read or heard something else about the author.

If you land a radio interview in a city where you’re giving a reading, a radio interview can bring a larger audience to your event. One of the very first readings I did for my book, No Word for Welcome, was in Los Angeles. I have a few friends and acquaintances in the city; a local organization helped me promote the event; and I did two radio interviews in the week prior to the reading. About one-third of the event’s attendees were my friends and colleagues, one-quarter were members of the organization that helped with promotion, a few came because of a mutual friend’s recommendation, and the remaining quarter came because they heard one of the interviews. So, radio interviews help, but they should be only one part of a wider promotion strategy.

What did you do to prepare yourself for being interviewed?

My publicist and I spent quite a bit of time developing a list of “suggested questions” that were sent out to each of the radio hosts being approached, making sure that those questions covered each of the major themes and ideas of my book. I then devoted about six hours to crafting careful answers to each of the questions. Of course, many of the interviewers asked their own questions, but having those well-rehearsed answers has really helped. My publicist and I also did an hour-long “mock interview” over the phone.

I also do whatever is necessary to get enough sleep the night before the interview – it really does make a difference in both clarity of thought and quality of voice.

 

If there is one single thing an author should do before an interview, what should that be?

Relax for several minutes before the appointed time, breathe deeply, and review the three key points you want to make in the interview. (Note: “Readers, buy my book!” is not one of them!)

 

Do you have any tips for writers being interviewed for the first time?

Think in terms of vignette and story.

Listen to author interviews and think carefully about what appeals to you and what doesn’t. While preparing for my interviews, I listened to NPR’s audio archives. I found that the most compelling interviews are those in which the author offers clear, specific, brief vignettes to make her primary points.

Don’t expect the interviewer to read your book.

Radio hosts are extremely busy people; some interview three or four authors each week. I know very few people who read three or four books every week. I’ve had interviewers who had clearly read most or all of my book, and others who hadn’t read past the flap copy. While I’m grateful to those who did read it, I have to say it’s fine either way. To be honest, it’s often easier when the interviewer hasn’t read the book. Those interviewers tend to ask more basic questions, so it’s easier to give answers that will make sense to an audience that knows absolutely nothing about you or your book.

Be grateful.

There are far more books being published than there are radio hosts to interview those books’ authors. Any radio host who chooses to interview you is giving you a real gift.

To hear Wendy putting these tips into practice, you can listen to her interview with KPFK, as well as her interview with WBAI (her segment begins 15 minutes in).

And for more on author interviews, check out Everyday Book Marketing, in which you’ll find more advice from Wendy and many others.