Category: The writing life

Cat Editors: Two ACP authors and their feline muses

By Midge Raymond,

Last year, I began a blog series called Cat Editors, after noticing that I am not the only writer with a feline companion who is always in the middle of the writing action. (Below is my editor and our General Manager, Theo.)


Several of our beloved Ashland Creek Press authors also have cat editors — among them Mindy Mejia, author of The Dragon Keeper and the mystery novel EVERYTHING YOU WANT ME TO BE, forthcoming this November from Emily Bestler Books; and Jean Ryan, author of the story collection Survival Skills.

Click here to learn more about Mindy and and her hardworking editor Dusty:


And click here to learn more about Jean and her devoted editor Tango:


And, if you’re a writer with a cat editor in your life and you’d like to share the joy, feel free to send me a note!

How to get published

By Midge Raymond,

That’s a nice, attention-grabbing headline, but if course it’s nearly impossible to write a post that will fulfill this promise. That’s because every agent and every editor has his or her own interests, tastes, and moods — and a writer can never in a million years predict what those might be. As published writers know, what may be rejected by one editor is another’s dream novel, and vice versa.

I have noticed, however, over the years I’ve been an editor, that there are several reasons writers get rejected that have nothing to do with the writer or the writing, and these haven’t changed in the almost two decades I’ve been in publishing. I often find that among the best ways to learn about how to get published is to learn what not to do.

So here’s a handy list of what to avoid when you’re ready to seek an agent or publisher.

1. Inappropriate submissions. This may seem all too obvious, but it happens all the time. The number-one reason writers get rejected, whether by literary magazines or literary agents, is that they submit inappropriate material, such as sending fiction to a poetry magazine or a children’s book to an agent who doesn’t represent children’s books. Always do your research — it takes time, but in the end, it saves time. Even a quick visit to the Ashland Creek Press website reveals we seek work on the themes of the environment, ecology, and wildlife. Yet we still receive submissions that have nothing to do with our niche — including children’s books and poetry, which we specifically note we don’t publish. What this means is that a writer has spent a lot of time sending us something that will never get read — and this is time much better spent researching and sending work to someone who is actually able to consider it. (For some great advice from a literary agent’s POV, check out this interview with agent Lucy Carson.)

2. Not following guidelines. As writers ourselves, we know that guidelines can be extremely frustrating…it seems that every editor wants a different format (name on the first page only, name omitted from manuscript, numbers in the upper right corner, numbers on the lower left, and on and on). But guidelines exist for a reason, not just to drive writers insane. For example, our guidelines for the Among Animals short fiction anthology are pretty simple — we ask for stories within a specific theme and word count, and we aren’t fussy about the font or where your page numbers appear — and these guidelines aren’t random. We ask for short stories featuring animal-human interactions because that’s what the anthology is about. We ask for a certain word count because that fulfills our vision of the book. Still, we get emails from writers asking if they can submit nonfiction instead (to which we must say no — not to be difficult but because it’s an anthology of fiction), or if stories can be longer or shorter than our guidelines (to which we say yes — we’re glad to read your very short story or your very long one, but we will warn you that it may not be the right fit, given what our vision is).

3. Being unprofessional. Don’t, for example, address an editor with “Yo” (yes, this has actually happened to us). We’re actually pretty easily amused, so stuff like this doesn’t bother us much — but I’m guessing this would cause a great many busy editors and agents to hit the delete button automatically (and who can blame them?). Take the extra thirty seconds to find an editor’s or agent’s name, and use it rather than “Dear Editor” or “Yo.” It shows us that you’ve taken the time to figure out who we are, and this makes us want to spend the time getting to know who you are.

4. Sloppy work. The best submissions are a writer’s best work — and this is something that’s always obvious right off the bat. It’s easy to tell when a writer has submitted a first draft; it reads like one. So be sure that your project is not only complete but edited, polished, and represents the very best you have to offer. Many editors and agents are happy to read another draft, if they’re intrigued enough by what you submit, but often you only have one chance to make a good impression, so take your time.

5. Impatience. Again, as writers ourselves, we submit to journals, agents, and editors — and then we wait. And wait. And often wait some more. It’s what writers do. Please try to understand that editors and agents often receive thousands of submissions every week, and imagine trying to stay on top of that amount of email (or regular mail). It’s overwhelming. As a very small press, we are always overwhelmed, which is why we warn writers that submissions often several months to review. So when you submit, always check to see if editors or agents indicate response times in their guidelines, and then be patient. Don’t send follow-up emails unless you’ve waited well past the normal response time, and if you do follow up, be kind and polite and understanding when you inquire about the status of your work. Publishing is, in so many ways, a business based on relationships, and as a writer you’ll want to be known as someone who’s not only professional but personable.

There are so many other factors that go in to getting published — among them great writing, the right market, a good platform, and pure luck — and writers only have control of some of these things. But one thing we all have the power to do is to respect the time of those who are reading our work … and this can take you a good part of the way.

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.


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.

strays cover