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.


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.


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.


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.


State of the Press: August 2014

By John Yunker,

We send out periodic updates to our authors about what’s new at Ashland Creek Press, and because we have a lot going on this year, I wanted to share some of this news from our State of the Press Address.


First of all, I want to share a few highlights from the past six months:

  • JoeAnn Hart’s novel Float won second prize in the International Rubery Book Award, and first place in fiction.
  • John Colman Wood, whose novel The Names of Things was a Chautauqua award finalist, will be speaking at Chautauqua on August 14.
  • Jean Ryan’s collection Survival Skills was a Lambda Literary Award finalist (general fiction category).
  • Olivia Chadha’s novel Balance of Fragile Things has been adopted as part of the University of California San Diego Muir College Writing Program.

Congratulations to all!

We, along with our authors, continue to promote books long after their publication dates, and these achievements show that book marketing is a marathon, not a sprint, and that it’s never too late for new readers to discover a book, no matter when it was published.

The Publishing Landscape and the ACP Store
It’s hard to be a writer or a reader and not know about the Hachette/Amazon dispute and how it’s affecting publishers large and small. We’ve been keeping a close eye on the situation, as are all publishers.

In order to make our books as accessible as they can possibly be, we now offer direct sales of both print and eBooks from our website (you can order directly from any book page on the site). For print books, we offer free US shipping for orders over $50, and our eBooks are available for immediate download and are free of DRM restrictions. Please feel free to let readers know that they have this option to buy online and to support small presses!

Looking Ahead
We launched the Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Writing this year. There are two months left before the deadline and we’re excited to have Karen Joy Fowler as our final judge. Her novel We are Completely Beside Ourselves won the PEN Faulkner award and has just been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Feel free to share the award information; the deadline is coming up on September 30.


As always, we’re glad to be doing the work we do as a small press in a rapidly changing landscape, where far more doors are opening than closing for today’s authors (and readers). Stay tuned for our next State of the Press Address, in which we’ll announce what’s coming up in early 2015!


An interview with FLOAT author JoeAnn Hart

By Midge Raymond,

An interview with Float author JoeAnn Hart

by Shelby Harris

Q: I love the multiplicity of the title, Float. Can you give a little background on how you developed the title? Did you decided on “float” as a title before, after, or somewhere in the middle of writing the novel?

A: No matter what I write, whether a short story or a novel, it seems the title comes to me before anything else. A few years ago a friend was going through a rough patch, and her therapist told her to imagine herself floating with her problems instead of fighting them so hard, or else she would exhaust herself and sink. Every time she got stressed out, she repeated the word “float” to herself and felt better. It seemed like good advice for anyone, so I created a Float document. For two years I added other meanings, such as to float through life without direction, or to float a loan. As a physical object, a float is used in fishing to keep the nets or line buoyant, and a float is part of a pier. I learned about plastics that float along in the oceans from Flotsametrics and the Floating World, by Curtis Ebbesmeyer and Eric Scigliano, and plastic’s environmental impact on not just sea life, but all life. Then one day I came across the Alan Watts quote —  “To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float” — and I was ready to start the novel.

Q: There were parts of the novel where I couldn’t help but laugh aloud to myself. I really enjoy how you’ve seamlessly woven together comedy and more serious topics such as pollution and environmental sustainability; it makes the novel very accessible. Was this your intention while writing Float, or did the humor naturally develop from the characters?

A: Humor is as fragile as a jellyfish; if you try to dissect it, it dissolves right into the sand. When I write I never think, oh, I’ve got to make this funny, because that would kill it. I just write about characters with contradictory aspects, the way people are in real life. Or at least in my life. The mother in Float obsesses about sailing, yet won’t go out on the water; Slocum is a chef who imagines himself on the cutting edge of cuisine, and can’t cook. As W. Somerset Maugham, a writer I slavishly admire, said, “A sense of humor leads you to take pleasure in the discrepancies of human nature.”

Q: There is such a variety in your characters, which is very refreshing to read. While there is no doubt that the characters are entertaining, they also have a complexity to them. For instance, even though Duncan’s mother is hilariously entertaining, I also found her to be wise and resilient. Her quote “you have to look for answers in the problem itself” struck me as very true, even poetic. How did you create such wonderful variety in your characters? Was there a lot of inspiration from people in your own personal life?

A: I’ve been told that I have a high tolerance for odd ducks. I don’t like to think about what that says about my upbringing and my core definition of “normal.” Be that as it may, when I write, I don’t think in terms of real people when creating characters, but real traits. I keep a document called Characters, which may or may not pertain to characters I’m working with, in which I record words and actions I find interesting. For me, characters evolve slowly as I play around with these aspects, but I try never to have identifiable traits or words that can lead back to a single person. I don’t want people to clam up around me because I’m a writer. I need the material! I’m not above stealing traits from fictional characters either. To that end, I like Updike, Cheever, and Flannery O’Connor, who were great students of the human experiment.


Q:  Has the ocean and the environmental issues surrounding it always been a passion for you? 

A: I remember chastising other kids in grade school for throwing candy wrappers in the street. I probably wasn’t very popular. I remember the first Earth Day in 1970, when I was entering high school, how exciting it was that people were finally paying attention. In those days it was still mostly about air and fresh water pollution, and we’ve made strides there, but plastics in the ocean weren’t in the conversation yet. The plastic soda bottle wasn’t even invented until 1977, so we had no idea how insidious it was, how it would never break down into its components but just become smaller and smaller until it was the size of sea plankton and join the food chain. Regardless, I was a stranger to the ocean when I was young. This, in spite of the fact that our planet shouldn’t even be called Earth, it should be called Ocean, because it is more water than land. But I grew up in the Bronx — which in theory is on the coast, but in actuality might as well be in Ohio — and then the northern suburbs, so the only body of water I knew was the municipal pool. Then in 1979 I moved to Gloucester, Massachusetts, which is thoroughly integrated with the sea, in spirit and in trade. When my children were young, I was at the beach by demand, but it wasn’t love at first sight. It was hot, and sand got in their ears and diapers, and I thought waves would snatch their precious bodies from my arms. When they got older, I took up rowing, and that’s when I really learned to love the water. Unfortunately, along with tremendous beauty, to be on the water is to have a world of plastic in your face. Plastic bottles float around the harbor, lost fishing line tangles up in balls and traps seabirds, and giant sheets of ghostly shrink-wrap (used to winterize pleasure boats) bob along on the surface like manta rays, only more deadly. The ocean is so unfamiliar to most people that these problems are invisible, so we need raise awareness. What we need is Ocean Day.

Q: Can you speak a bit about the writing process for Float? How long did the novel take you to complete? Also, how long was Float an idea before you began to write it?

A: I am a disciplined writer and work almost every day, but I have to write in the morning or not at all. My habits came from years of going to school while my three kids were still at home, when I had to guard my writing time like a troll under a bridge. I bargained away everything to avoid doing morning carpool so I could work. Once I leave the house, something is lost for me, a dreaminess, that I can’t get back. Even going to the barn to do morning animal chores can break it, so my husband does them. I don’t take calls when I write, I don’t book appointments, and I tell my family to go away. Novels are such a big undertaking, you really have to be such a mean troll. Float was two years of writing, not including the two years of research that came before it and the months of editing with Ashland Creek that came after.




Q: Eco-fiction is still a relatively new genre. Do you think there will be a rise of eco-fiction the more educated the public becomes about environmental sustainability? 

A: I think there will be a rise in it because environment devastation will become such a predominant force in our lives. I didn’t start out to write eco-fiction, but the first chapter in Float takes place on a beach. My protagonist, Duncan, comes to the water to look at some words in the sand and finds a seagull caught in a plastic six-pack holder. Saving the bird jump-started the plot, then plastics took on a growing role throughout the book, and the next thing I know, every time I sat down to write, I’m thinking: Humans put the plastic there — they are going to have to remove it, or at the least, figure out a way from adding to the problem. For me, writing about the water meant writing about the plastics in it, because that’s the reality.

Q: Do you have any tips for your readers on how they can help keep our oceans (and in turn, ourselves) clean and healthy?

A: It is easy to feel overwhelmed and give up altogether. But I still pick up the plastic on the beach, and I try to restrict my use of plastic in the first place. That’s almost impossible these days. The computer I’m writing on right now is plastic, and I couldn’t get along without it. So I eliminate plastics for disposable products, like grocery bags, while tolerating it in durables, like my manure cart and garden hose, more items I can’t live without. I won’t buy coffee at places that use Styrofoam cups, and I buy milk in cardboard. That’s just palliative. The cure will be in finding natural plastic substitutes. We have to encourage private and public funding of these projects. We must learn to love science. In Float, the promise is in jellyfish, but in real life, scientists all over the world are working to develop natural polymers using all sorts of unlikely things, such as beetle shells, algae, and yes, even jellyfish, that can be broken down with enzymes and used again. Human creativity can save humanity, but the impetus and funding has got to be there.


Shelby Harris is a student at Southern Oregon University. She plans to graduate in the spring of 2013 with a B.S. in professional writing and a minor in business administration. After her undergraduate studies are complete, she hopes to attend graduate school in Oregon to further her knowledge of professional writing. With all her schooling complete, she eventually aspires to own and operate a publishing company that specializes in helping publish young authors. 

Dispatches from Portland’s Wordstock Festival

By Midge Raymond,

Now that Ashland Creek Press is over a year old, we’re starting to get out and about to show off our books — and we were happy to have made an appearance at the Wordstock Festival in Portland this year. We enjoyed meeting new readers as well as talking with fellow authors and publishing colleagues…it’s always a joy to be surrounded by people who simply adore books.

Among the most entertaining parts of hanging out in our booth was seeing children glimpse our old Underwood portable, which we’d brought along to keep our typewriter notecards company. The very young children (under six years old) and even a few older kids (eight to ten) looked at this typewriter as if they were gazing upon a T. rex. Most of them had no idea what it was or what it did, and we and/or their parents had to explain that this used to be how people wrote books, and also letters (the quaint idea of letters, of course, requiring a whole other explanation…). They looked at the typewriter in wonder and disbelief…which was fun but also made us feel pretty old.

I especially enjoyed being at Wordstock to see a few friends and to attend their wonderful readings: Maria Semple read from her new book Where’d You Go, Bernadette, and Donna Miscolta (below, with Kim Faye) read both fiction and nonfiction: excerpts from an amazing essay about her multicultural family and a passage from her novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced. (For more notes on the weekend of Wordstock — and other great writerly things — visit Donna’s blog.)

I also enjoyed sitting in on a couple of panels, including The Art of the Ending with Natalie Serber, Brian Doyle, and Jon Raymond, moderated by Lee Montgomery. I always love hearing how authors come to the endings of their works, and Lee Montgomery got things going by asking panelists to talk about how they approach endings as well as to read a favorite example or two.  Natalie Serber, author of the short story collection, Shout Her Lovely Name, said she is most interested in “the sloppiness of life” when it comes to endings — “endings that honor mysteries and mess.” She read the ending of James Baldwin’s story “Sonny’s Blues” one of her favorite endings.

Brian Doyle, editor of the University of Portland’s Portland Magazine and author of the novel Mink River, cautions that often its the penultimate paragraph rather than the last one that is the true ending (this, I find when I’m writing nonfiction, is almost always true for me). “Sometimes you end by stepping sideways,” he said, meaning taking a step to the side and leaving the ending open, leaving a “sonic absence” at the end of a piece. He shared a few Chekhov endings as among his favorites.

Screenwriter and novelist Jon Raymond mentioned the importance of getting the story as a whole to come together as something that’s as vital to a good ending; he agreed with Natalie about art reflecting the messiness of life but said he also likes endings that are “shaped the way life often isn’t shaped.” He shared endings from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

In all, it was a great weekend — especially getting the chance to visit with Jasmin Singer and Mariann Sullivan of the wonderful organization Our Hen House, at Blossoming Lotus. (Note to anyone looking for great food/wine/beer/cocktails in Portland: Blossoming Lotus is now among my restaurants ever, in no small part because it has an excellent happy hour.)