Monday, July 21, 2014

Look, Ma, I'm doin stuff!

Ah, summer is HERE. Or, has been here for a while now. Things are BUSY and HUMID and there's just not enough time in a day to read and write and go fishing and running and flying kites and eating pizza and drinking fun summertime alcoholic fancy-pants drinks and traveling and applying bug spray and also working.
Moi kite flying at Assateague National Seashore last weekend

I'd like to share a few things I've been up to in the writer-ly realm because they are out of my comfort zone and this gives me a chance to say LOOK MA, I'M DOING IT! I'M REALLY DOING IT! And by IT I mean participating in the write-ly community, but not really doing anything productive, like, starting a novel. So.

About a month ago, I attended a three hour workshop on a Saturday morning called How To Write a Lot put on by The Writer's Center in Bethesda, MD and orchestrated by the lovely local DC writer Willona Sloan. In the class we talked about our schedules, how to find time to write, and how to write no matter where you are.  We did a few writing exercises to prove that yes, you actually CAN get a decent amount of words to paper in 20 minutes. Attendees were loosely held to a pact that we would write for one hour six days a week for four weeks.

And of course here's the thing. The following weekend was July 4 and I drove to Connecticut to visit family and eat ice cream cake. Then the next weekend was something else. And I had a Humane Society thing after that. And, so.
Pops' ice cream birthday cake. So good.

Another thing I've done, and actually continue to do, is join a local writer's group. It meets every other Monday at 730 pm at the local coffee shop. Sometimes we critique people's stories and novel chapters, sometimes we do writing exercises, sometimes a combo of both. I haven't submitted anything yet for a critique, but I plan to within the next month.

There is a danger here of the old self-help book routine: a sad sack spends all her time buying self-help books and yet doesn't actually do any of the self-helping. Someone with a writer-ly lean could easily spend time taking classes and attending writing groups but then never actually PRODUCE anything. The horror. I see this fine line and I'm trying not to walk it.

As the summer continues to unfold, I have aspirations. Let's get a short story off. Let's submit more things to McSweeney's. (Those bastards have to accept something of mine at some point--I think there's a law of physics that says a magazine/agent/website/publisher must, at some point, accept a pitch when the number of pitches approaches infinity. Something about maintaining balance in the universe.)  
56th Law of Thermodynamics: if a publisher doesn't accept your millionth query, a giant space cat gives a raspberry to the universe.

I'll end with a quote from Charles Bukowski: "Don't ever write a novel unless it hurts like a hot turd coming out." That's my favorite writing quote of all time. So I guess we could say: let's make like a hot turd and write. Or maybe don't say that in polite company. Or maybe do, and then you'll have something to write about. Whatever. Let's just write.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Holes in Our Art

We can't know everything. Everyone knows that. Even within our own profession and niche of expertise, there are crevices overlooked, notes unread, and signs missed.

For the most part, ignorance is bliss. We are perfectly capable of going about our day to day jobs in a competent manner. Every once in a while, we trip in a hole in our knowledge. Sometimes it's just a mis-step, other times it's a sprained ankle.

Of course, as we begin our careers, there are many holes and they are filled in gradually. When I first started practicing veterinary medicine, I didn't know how to surgically repair umbilical hernias. I encountered them occasionally in a show goat kid or foal. I was never taught this surgical method--not sure why--and it was a hole I had to fill.

Moving to writing, it's been said many times that the best way to learn to write is to read. Read anything, read everything. Of course, try to fit in some of the greats: Hemingway, Dickens, Chekhov, Shakespeare, Faulkner, etc. etc. Many of us receive doses of these greats in high school or college. Many more of us take them on independently as adults.

I often come along reading lists (100 BOOKS YOU MUST READ BEFORE YOU DIE, 13 GREAT BOOKS OF 2013, TOP 25 SCI-FI BOOKS EVER WRITTEN). These serve as a wake up call: I have literary holes big enough to drive a truck through.

These literary holes are more embarrassing than my ineptitude at surgically correcting an umbilical hernia. Can you believe I've never read anything by James Joyce? Virginia Woolf? Anton Chekhov? Jack Kerouac? That's just the tip of the iceberg. I didn't even know who Susan Sontag was until a few months ago. I mean, really? Pathetic.

Sometimes I get a little overwhelmed at this ineptitude and dismay that the thought that there's no way I'll ever get caught up in this reading. But I have to keep one thing in mind: we shouldn't read as though we're just checking items off a list. We should read to learn and to enjoy and it shouldn't become a burden, something we have to slog through.

I am also reminded of one of my favorite adages: how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. So, in between my devouring of current popular fiction, magazines, candy wrappers, Sunday newspapers (mostly the comics section), and other miscellany that makes it into my grubby hands, I'll be more conscientious about picking up a "great" once in a while. Because, as a writer, I have a lot to learn.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a copy of The Grapes of Wrath waiting for me. 

Saturday, May 10, 2014

It's All in the Details OR Spin Class Secrets Revealed!

Now is the time, my dear readers, to indulge you with the secrets behind my weekly spin class. A myriad of fictional (and semi-fictional) characters, motives, sub-plots, and perhaps even whole plots could come from what I've seen and heard and spun to over the past two years. My spin class is, in other words, a writer's delight.

Let it be known that I do not merely attend just any spin class. No. This is Dave the Pirate Spin Instructor's Spin Class. There is a disco ball. There is yelling. There are orders given. There are insults thrown. There are expletives in the form of "MORE TENSION!" and "PUSH!" and "ARRRRHHHHHGGGG!" fired toward the group like cannon balls. This spin class is not for the faint of heart. No. It is for only the strong willed. And hard of hearing.

The instructor's name is Dave. A man on the verge of retirement from his day job, whatever that might be, he appears quiet and polite when off the bike. But once the music starts ("We warm up on a little hill") a transformation occurs not unlike Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde. Gone is the polite older gentleman. Welcome now a spin maniac.

Although the participants change regularly, there is a set cast of characters you can always count on to be present. Firstly, Dave's wife sits in the back row. They work as a team: him shouting from the head of the room, her stirring up enthusiasm from the rear. When tension on the spin bikes is lessened she yells "Thank you, Dave!" and when tension is set high she complains loudly with a "Hey!!!!!" Others are encouraged to follow suit. I refer to Dave's wife as Mama Bear since she helps keep the group together.

Then there is The Commander, a tough-looking no-nonense woman with short blonde hair and some sort of military background. She attacks the hills mercilessly. Her husband frequently attends as well, sitting behind her quietly in the corner. He got a knee replacement over Christmas. I think his name is Malcolm but Dave calls him Rocky. This needs to be investigated further.

Dr. Elevator is another frequent spinner, although only on Friday nights. Her background is incredibly dubious and I piece together what I can, although the results are shaky at best and not to be trusted. I can conclude that perhaps she and Dave at one point in time were on a softball team together and for some reason I think she might be an anesthesiologist. Dave berates her constantly but she dishes it right back.

Pete and Jane were a retired couple that always sat in the front row. They have since left the class to go on a cross-country bike tour of the US. Just to show I'm not making this up, you can track their progress on their blog.

Although there are a handful of others that collectively make up "the gang" that sit along the back row of bikes and basically serve as the peanut gallery, I believe I've named the most memorable. Occasionally someone new will pop in for a few rides and have some characteristic that sticks out, but these people fade soon enough. I guess the dedication just isn't there. This is was happened to Gums (a guy with a beard that road like a bat out of hell and chewed gum like his life depended on it) and Migraine Woman (who demanded Dave turn off his disco ball since the flashing lights gave her headaches. Thank god she didn't stick around.)

I was inspired to write about this spin class mostly because we will be moving in a few weeks (nothing major, just to a neighboring town) and therefore will go to a different gym, leaving the realm of Dave the Pirate Spin Instructor forever. It is bitter sweet and ironic since I've attended this class for over two years and just last week did Dave finally learn my name. I've breached the Inner Circle just in time to leave it.

But does one ever truly leave Dave's Spin Class? Perhaps not. If nothing else, it will be memorialized in miniature in this blog for internet eternity. You're welcome, Dave. ARGGGGGGGGGGGGGG!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Book Club Update

Hi folks! If you're in the northern hemisphere like me, I hope you are enjoying the lovely spring weather we've been having lately (better late than never, right?). All the farm critters are busy being born into this world this time of year and things are busy, so let's all take a moment to admire this cria, which is the term for a baby llama or alpaca:
In my professional veterinary opinion, I think they look like Muppets. Cute Muppets for sure, but Muppets nonetheless.

Some of you faithful readers may remember that I started a book club at work a little less than a year ago. I'd like to take a moment and give you an update.

The book club update is: ARG! My subversive means of controlling the reading material is not going well. In fact, I'm falling out of control at a very fast rate. My reading minions are not attune to my literary whims. This is not good.

The past two meetings have only been me with one other person (a different person each time). The first time this happened, I blamed the weather, since the meeting was during one of those late winter snows. The most recent meeting, however, had no such excuse. Hmrph.

OK, so dismal attendance is a problem. This might be due to the "new" having worn off and people's incompatible schedules. But it might also be due to my book choices.

Some of the books we've read over the past few months have been animal-related books. We've recently read Temple Grandin's Animals Make Us Human (which I enjoyed) and Ted Kerasote's Merle's Door (which I did not enjoy).

Turns out, I do not particularly like most animal books. I've posted before about how I'm probably the only animal lover on the planet who doesn't like James Herriot books and I loathed Marley and Me. I suspect this book club is being pulled toward animal books because our jobs are veterinary-related and I'm trying to resist forcing this club into that button hole. But am I losing members because of this? What's more important: having members and reading crap (OK, a little harsh, but stay with me here) or losing members and reading good books?

Ah, but wait. I'm falling into a trap that I suspect many book clubs fall into: who gets to decide what a "good book" is?

I've had a member request not once, but twice for the club to read Dewey the Library Cat. No. No. No. I refuse. Don't make me shut this thing down.

I really need to read this
And so here we are. At the last meeting, we read (we being two of us) The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman. Then I sent out an email asking folks for recommendations on future books. I received a small, odd assortment of suggestions that didn't make choosing any easier. Suggestions ranged from Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman to, you guessed it, Dewey.

For next month I settled on The Goldfinch, the recent Pulitzer prize winner. Someone actually did suggest this one, it wasn't just me wielding my iron book club fist. We'll see how many people show up. In the mean time I think I need to re-think my book club strategy and maybe scout other blogs to see if anyone's complaining about a certain book club leader who is totally against Dewey that Damn Library Cat.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The ups and downs of writing (or: Are all writers bipolar or is it just me?)

Been working on some more articles for various animal magazines lately, so that's cool. What I've noticed, however, is the writing process for such an article (or more likely any freelance article) is for me an emotional roller coaster. As with many things, perhaps the best way to explain is through a visual aid. In this case, I've created a graphical representation titled: Anna's Emotional Writing Roller Coaster.

Anna's Emotional Writing Roller Coaster
Allow me to narrate this visual nugget of extreme wisdom.

On the X axis, you have Anna's 7 stages of non-fiction writing, which I will detail momentarily. On the Y axis, you have Anna's 7 writing moods. Blue represents positive and red represents negative. The more extreme the height or depth of the bar, the more extreme the mood.

Anna's 7 stages of non-fiction writing are as follows:

A: Idea/query   
This is, in my opinion, the happiest, most fun place for writing. You are not so much really writing at this phase, just daydreaming and coming up with ideas like, hey, wouldn't it be cool to write about how the decline in kraken sightings has led to the development of the Save the Kraken movement and how this has influenced the sale of eye patches? Once your half-baked idea becomes a little more solidified (like, OK, the correlation between Save the Kraken and eye patches is a little weak but there's still something worth writing about in the movement itself) you crank out a query or a pitch to an editor and off it goes. You're not only swimming deep in imaginative juices, but you are also able to check something off your to-do list, hence creative euphoria.

B: Go ahead/plan
OK, so now you've got the thumb's up from an editor; perhaps you're writing a piece on spec, maybe you've signed a contract. Either way, it's go time and you have to turn your theoretical story into something coherent on paper. Although feelings are still positive (Yay! An editor is interested in seeing what you can do!), you're focused now and you feel a little pressure because you have a deadline. The euphoria is gone but it's all good. You're workin' it, girl.

C: Finding sources
Now things start to fall apart. You know those three interviews you were sure you could get? Well, your one kraken expert is on sabbatical in Fiji, the president of the Save the Kraken movement won't return your emails or calls, and the grassroots member's interview was a disaster for a multitude of reasons, one of which was due to the fact that she was barely discernible through her drunken slur. Panic sets in because deadlines are looming and you have crap interviews, crap ideas, crap stories, and basically you are crap. You have stumbled into gloom.
D: Interviews
OK, so it appears all that panic over interviews was a little premature. Turns out the kraken expert is back in the US from Fiji earlier than expected and was more than happy to go over the intricacies of the dicey history of kraken sightings with you. Additionally, the vice president of the Save the Kraken movement got in contact with you and gave lots of quotable material. You suddenly find yourself more in love with your subject than you were previously because now other people are involved who are just as excited about it as you. Enter glee.

E: Fleshing out
You've got your interviews now, great. Most if not all of your research is done. Now you have a word limit to adhere to. All the fun parts are now over. The science of putting coherent paragraphs together that actually flow (and bonus points for being witty) is now your aim. But look: your favorite TV show is on. And you have to finish reading that library book since it is due in two days. And you have so many other ideas for other articles! The high from your awesome interviews is over. Gloom again sets in.

F: Deadline creep
Oh crap. Oh crap. Oh crap. Where did the muse go? Why is writing a single sentence torture? How did you suddenly forget to speak English? Why did you ever query this stupid idea in the first place? How is it suddenly 2 am? How much is too much coffee? Should you Google that? Oh look, a youtube video on how coffee is made. Congratulations, you've hit despair.
But what about the fifth draft???
G: Finish and submit
OK, you made it. It's finished. Actually, it's not half bad. You're sort of proud of it. There are a few good arguments in there. It will likely appeal to most readers interested in learning more about the Save the Kraken movement and you've certainly learned more about it yourself. Hit send and off it goes. You're relieved and hope that it will be well-received and who knows? Maybe it will lead to more opportunities. You're ending cautiously optimistic.

Anna's Emotional Writing Roller Coaster
Referring back to the chart, it's plain to see the highs and lows of this process. I can't be the only one who gets mentally wrung out--and all for only 1,200 word articles! I can't begin to imagine what special mental acrobatics are induced during the commitment of a novel. Maybe that's why all "classic" novelists were alcoholics...

Monday, March 10, 2014

My kingdom for a horse

Oh dear me, it's been a while, hasn't it? For shame. Apologies, apologies. Quick updates:
  • Running: ran an awesome half marathon in Phoenix at the end of January. Weather was perfect: I'll take dry desert air over the snow we've been getting any day.
Fell in love with Saguaros when out west. AMAZING plants. This baby was well over 100 years old.
  • Writing: wrote a guest blog for my vet friend Dr. Elliott Garber on how to make extra moolah from freelance writing. Thanks for the opportunity, Elliott!
  • Reading: completely immersed in Stephen King's 11/22/63 right now. I haven't read any of his stuff for a while but I remember now why I like him. I just can't put this book down.
  • Vetting: a really cool report from The Horse came out about fossil evidence that prehistoric horses suffered from laminitis. I just found this fascinating. 
Also, as spring is just around the corner, I set my sights yet again on a perennially elusive target: a horse. It seems impossible around the DC area to find a reasonable horse, a reasonable barn, or a reasonable person who knows a reasonable horse or a reasonable barn. I am left much like Richard III at the end of the play, screaming: A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!

Seriously, I actually saw Richard III at the Folger Theater in DC two weeks ago. I can't decide if this or King Lear is my favorite Shakespeare play.  I haven't read Richard III in quite a while but I was easily reminded during the performance of the incredible language old Bill uses. 
Grumpy Cat quoting Shakespeare??? For more animals go here
Woe to all reptiles and amphibians in ye olde days of yore, since insults were flying fast and furious invoking "snake" and "toad" most commonly. Of course, look no further than the witches over the cauldron scene in Macbeth and you'll have an exotic animal//zoo vet's worst nightmare: newt, bat, dog, lizard, wolf, and even baboon enter (or at least their body parts do). Oh yes, and spiders.

If you want to get really heavy into the Bard's animal imagery, well, go someplace else. I love me some Shakespeare, don't get me wrong, but when the discussion turns to the symbolism of "light versus dark" in Othello, for example, I'm gone.

But I will point out one interesting fact that you have my permission to use at your next cocktail party. Shakespeare uses the word "animal" only eight times in all his works. Much more commonly, the words "beast" and "creature" are used instead. According to the Old English Dictionary, the word "animal" really only comes into common vernacular at the end of the 1500s. If you want a further breakdown on this, look here. If you're over Shakespeare since the days of reading it aloud your sophomore year in high school, look here. (Don't worry--it's just pictures of kittens. Kittens NOT reading Shakespeare, that is. Although that would be cute too, don't you think?)

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Whispers from the Past or Goodies in Used Books

I just found out the other day that I get to attend the Western Veterinary Conference in Las Vegas in February! Having survived this whole polar vortex thing, a few days in the sun with palm trees and desert all around me just sounds too good to be true. Ahem. Pardon my bragging, but this actually does segue into my topic today.

I have been obsessed with Las Vegas since my first visit (which was also at a WVC conference) back in 2010. I'm not much of a drinker, not much of a gambler, and am ambivalent toward strippers and prostitutes, so, you may wonder, why does this boring individual love Vegas? The history, baby. (And the people-watching, too, naturally.)
Today's post is really just an excuse to post awesome retro Vegas pics
I love learning about the old casinos, love looking at retro photographs of 1950s and 60s Vegas, love that style. This is why, when I was visiting my favorite used book shop, The Book Barn, when I was in Connecticut over the holidays, I grabbed a copy of the book: Las Vegas Then and Now, by Su Kim Chung.

As I was flipping through this book the other day, I came upon a bookmark that was stuck between the pages. It was an ad for a store called The Reading Room in Mandalay Place, which I knew was the mall area that connects the Luxor with Mandalay Bay, two giant casino-resorts on the south end of the Vegas strip. In my various trips to Vegas, I do not ever recall seeing a bookshop. Anywhere. So, as one does when one seeks information, I turned to Google. 

As it turns out, sadly, The Reading Room no longer exists, as reported by the Las Vegas Review-Journal in February 2008. Still, it was fun to read about and even more fun to hypothesize why such a bookmark ended up in a book that I bought in Connecticut. Possibly the original owner bought it in Vegas, at The Reading Room? Or did the individual happen to have the bookmark from a previous trip and placed it in a book on Vegas because they are creepily organized?
Sorry, last one.
For many of you, I'm sure this hypothesizing is boring. And yes, my leads stopped with the 2008 news article. But this brings me to a larger topic of that neat thrill you get when you pick up a used book and discover a name, a bookmark, or notes in the margins from a previous owner. I delight in such findings. For me, this makes the book come more alive. I'm no longer someone in a vacuum reading a book. I'm someone who's reading a book someone else touched, read, and maybe even enjoyed. It makes the book, the book in the physical sense I mean, not the story inside, come alive.
THEY ARE ALIVE!!!!!!!!!!!
I grew up reading used books, so I've noticed many that at the least have names written in the front cover. Sometimes, if you're lucky, you'll get a date with the name, and occasionally, I've found a telephone number, or city and state. I can also recall coming across a few shopping lists stuck haphazardly between pages. These are like little special gems to me, indicating these books have been read at least once before. It makes me feel the book as had a rich life. Is this weird? Maybe you shouldn't answer that - it does border on anthropomorphizing. At least I don't name my books like I do my houseplants (Archie the avocado tree, I'm looking at you.....)

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Problem with Plot

I hope everyone had a good holiday season. As always, I'm attempting to start the shiny new year with renewed vigor. Although I don't have many specific resolutions, unlike the farm animals I've heard, the new year always gives me a reason to re-boot my intentions and take a fresh look at the things I've done and the things I would like to do.

Enter writing.

I was crafty enough with my 2013 resolutions to avoid anything as bold as "write a bestseller" or "win the Pulitzer." Instead, I merely wrote: "make progress in fiction writing." Oh, Anna, you're so smart. "Make progress?" Why, that could be defined simply as having sharpened all my pencils. That would be progress.

Although I woefully slacked in writing anything close to a draft of a novel last year, I worked on some short stories, which is still new territory for me and counts, I think, in my fiction writing progress.

Over the last month, however, I had an idea for a story (scary, I know). The idea came from a delightful book I was reading, The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs, by Alexander McCall Smith. Second in McCall Smith's series on Portuguese Irregular Verbs, this lighthearted book follows a wonderfully sympathetic, academically traditional, and mildly irrational German language professor, Prof. Dr. Mortiz-Maria von Igelfeld, in various escapades, one of which involved a case of mistaken identity. In this story, von Igelfeld is mistakenly thought to be a veterinarian. Not wanting to be rude and cause undue attention to this faux paus, he masquerades as a DVM and expert in sausage dogs. Please, if you are a vet, a dog lover, and/or any other sort of human being, read this story. It is hilarious.

My own idea for a story also involves mistaken identity. And yet, when one works with such a plot device, one also needs a resolution. This is where I'm running into trouble. I don't yet know how the main character reveals her true identity.

Frantically finishing McCall Smith's book in hope of answers on his plot resolution, I was let down. The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs is really a collection of vignettes, with von Igelfeld flitting from one scenario to the other. Don't get me wrong, this still makes for a very enjoyable read. But if you're looking for tips on how to resolve a crisis such as mistaken identity, you won't find it in this book.

Desperate for some other examples, I thought to look at the father of all mistaken identity stories, the great Bard himself. Shakespeare employed this plot device in numerous plays, frequently in comedies. Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night are just two examples of such plots, but as I reviewed these with a closer eye, I noticed many cases involve twins.

My story doesn't have twins.

And so I'm stuck with an unsolved plot. This got me wondering how other writers solve such problems. Have you ever been gung ho on a story and then came to a screeching halt when you couldn't figure how to work something out? Or, worse, have you been halfway through writing a story and realized you were stuck for a solution? How many story ideas have you scrapped for lack of conclusion?

Not that I'm letting this little issue keep me up at night. Well, it kept me up for two nights. But that's it. One of the many dilemmas for a writer: letting your character's life problems keep you up!