Monday, November 6, 2017

Expounding Inspiration

There's quite a story behind the creation of a newly published children's book series on being a veterinarian and I recently talked with the author, Dr. Rebekah Hartfield, to get the scoop. Rebekah's ambition and desire to inspire the younger generation to go forth and conquer (and while they're at it, maybe try their hands at rural veterinary practice) is brimming with sage positivity and it's my pleasure to share it with you.

Rebekah's "Doctor Hartfield Veterinary Book Series" is a series of six books pitched for fourth graders and under. "Fourth graders understand it," Rebekah says. "And for pre-K and kindergartners, they just enjoy the story. I've read to pre-K through fourth grade and they all seem to enjoy the book." The first book in the series, Rosie the Pig, was published in August of this year. The book tells the story of how a young girl named Abby and Dr. Hartfield diagnose and treat a pig named Rosie with respiratory disease. It's based on a true story. But, we're getting ahead of things.

"I want to encourage kids to want to learn about all the different species and hopefully inspire them to want to practice in those areas."

Rosie the Pig started when Rebekah was in her fourth year of vet school. "At the time, my younger sister was in graphic design school and she had to do a senior project," says Rebekah. "We had talked about how I wanted to do something more with my platform when I graduated as a veterinarian." Coming from a creative family, Rebekah also paints and is a photographer and was looking for ways to weave creativity into her new profession.
Rebekah Hartfield, DVM
"It just so happened that a couple of things occurred at the same time," Rebekah continues. "A friend had called me up and needed a good book recommendation for her daughter who was 10 and wanted to go to vet school." Rebekah did some research and came up nearly empty handed. "Most of the books were way over a ten-year-old's head," she says. "They were too wordy and not very creative." That got her thinking. Rebekah identified a need in the market for books on being a veterinarian that were pitched for a younger audience. So she brought the idea to her sister. "That's kind of how it started," she says.

But the origin story isn't over yet. That Thanksgiving, Rebekah's niece visited and one of Rebekah's pigs -- named Rosie (you guessed it) -- was sick. "We went to the barn and I showed my niece how to do an exam and what went into diagnosing and treated Rosie. Rosie got better and I called my sister and said: I've got my story."

Pistol the Horse is the second book in the series, with a release date planned for May 2018. Each book in the series will be about an actual case in a different species. Rebekah says the dog story might be about heartworm, since she encounters that disease frequently in her Oklahoma practice. The other books will be about cases in a cat, a cow, and a goat.

One of the unique aspects of Rebekah's book is that in addition to the story, there are interactive puzzles which makes the book visually stimulating on many levels. Rebekah's sister was the illustrator. With pronunciation guides, Rosie the Pig teaches kids about anti-inflammatories and antibiotics, rounding out the spectrum of an entertaining yet highly informative guide to vet med aimed at young kids.

One of the other goals Rebekah hopes to accomplish from her book series is to encourage kids to go into rural veterinary practice. "We just don't have a lot of rural veterinarians," she says. "In Oklahoma there's a pretty big shortage of vets serving these areas. I want to encourage kids to want to learn about all the different species and hopefully inspire them to want to practice in those areas."

Ambitious and busy, Rebekah has many more irons in the fire. She says she has a whole list of goals. "I want to have this children's book series but I really want to create a series of books for each age group leading up to college," she says. "I have a current page on my website about how to prep to be a vet but I'm also working on another page about college, talking about the GRE and the entrance essay." Rebekah mentions when she decided to apply for vet school, she was unaware of all the different requirements. "I had to scramble around and get my credits -- I didn't even know you had to take the GRE." 

"Don't let a "no" stop you from achieving your goals."

"Another part of my platform is about inspiring kids. I want let them know: don't let a "no" stop you from achieving your goals." Rebekah says she encountered a lot of no's in her life as she attempted to get into vet school, and once she got in, it wasn't easy, either. "But I made it through," she emphasizes. "And through all of that, it made me a better veterinarian and it gives me a story to tell other people who are maybe going through the same thing and struggling themselves."

Rebekah's Rosie the Pig is available on her website, which is where you'll also find her blog and other resources.

And until next month, dear reads: happy reading, happy writing, and happy vetting.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Becoming a Writer.... via The Beach Boys

One aspect of writing that people, including writers themselves, often don't realize or appreciate is that the art takes time. Sure, there are writers (and journalists of course) who work to a tight deadline, turning out excellent copy like a riverboat chopping at the Mississippi. But many writers, whether fiction or nonfiction, need weeks, months, years (dare I say decades--Donna Tartt, I'm looking at you) to piece together the bits of a puzzle that inevitably will make the final product. 

To that point, on a much smaller scale, I first read about veterinarian-author Dr. Jim Murphy in an article from Veterinary Practice News late last fall. Jim had just published his first book, Becoming the Beach Boys, 1961 - 1963. It wasn't until late spring of this year that I took the opportunity to talk with Jim about his writing and it wasn't until right now that you're seeing the fruition of our conversation. 

So it goes.

On a much grander scale, it took Jim eight years to write this book, which has been described by the author as " academic look at the band's origin," including over 80 interviews, twelve appendices, and 1,100 foot notes. 

Aren't you curious how and why Jim did this, while still finding time to practice veterinary medicine in DC? I was. So I asked him.

"I was still practicing part-time," Jim says. "On days off I would try to write as much as I could." On work days, he would write at night. "I had charts on my wall, Post-It notes all over the place--where should I start, where did this person or that person enter the story. You know, writing is really about solving problems. I had three dogs while I was writing the book. Sometimes, before writing, I'd take them for a walk in the park. It was so relaxing and I would think about the problems I was having and more often than not the solution would just come to me."

"I loved it because you learn so much when you write a book, especially that first book." 

Jim was candid about how much time the sometimes-tedious research process took. "Writing non-fiction is a lot of research, involving digging into the Library of Congress, making phone calls, finding people, going through old high school year books," he says. "That part is really time consuming, really taxing. You spend hours and hours and hours which is ultimately productive but can be a drain. You've got to really love that sort of detective work. Then doing the interviews and figuring out what part of it can I use, then writing it up, transcribing--all of that. It's really a different type of writing than fiction."
Dr. Jim Murphy
As Jim continued to write, his draft grew. And grew. Then grew some more. At one point, it clocked in at 180,000 words. "It was crazy," he says. "I had all kinds of side stories. I culled a lot of that stuff, saved it and included it on the website for supplemental reading for diehard fans. But I loved it because you learn so much when you write a book, especially that first book. And I looked at it like, OK, this is cool, I'm learning and I'll forgive myself for making these mistakes. And if I write another one, whether it be fiction or non-fiction, I will have learned a tremendous amount about this process and I won't make these same mistakes again." 

"Life is short, time is finite, you never know how much more time you have so there is nothing, in my opinion, that is more important than doing something that brings you joy."

Dear readers, I cannot fathom working on a single project for eight years. Maybe I have a fear of literary commitment. A copy of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest waits, unread, on my bookshelf. And that's just reading. But when Jim explained his reasoning behind keeping his nose to the grindstone, it made sense. "The thing about The Beach Boys book, in everything that's ever been written about them in dozens and dozens of books over the last 55 years, no one had gotten the origin story correct," he says. "And I felt like, I can do this. I think I can find some of these people. That's what kept me going. There were times when the structure was all messed up and I was moving things around, backing up every night, frantic I was going to lose something because the document was so big and the only thing that really kept me going was: I think I can do this. I think I can see the light at the end of the tunnel."

"[Writing is] frustrating, it's difficult, but it's so fulfilling when you get the words right."

At the end of the day, Jim says it comes down to doing what you enjoy. "That's something important in writing," he says. "Life is short, time is finite, you never know how much more time you have so there is nothing, in my opinion that is more important than doing something that brings you joy. When I was writing The Beach Boys book, there was not a day when I could not wait to sit down, turn on the computer, crack my fingers, have a cup of coffee, and tackle it. I was like a kid on Christmas morning. It's frustrating, it's difficult, but it's so fulfilling when you get the words right."

So what's on Jim's to-do list now? Fiction. He's working on a novel. "It's animal related," he says. "It's inspired by the [veterinary] profession. And it's so different. I don't have to interview anybody, and I'm free to create whatever I want to create. What I'm finding now, I kind of like this [fiction writing] because you can be as creative as you want. It's an open world. It's liberating. You can go anywhere with it."

Dear readers, I hope you're going where you want to go in your own reading and writing. Until next time, happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting.  

Monday, September 4, 2017

Write What You Will, Write What You Want

Let's start a debate. Many of you are probably familiar with the adage "write what you know." To an extent, I get it. If you're not a veterinary orthopedic surgeon, you probably shouldn't write an article on the latest hardware for TPLO surgery for the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. But when we're talking fiction, things change. As far as I'm concerned, this rule goes out the window. I mean, it doesn't apply to writers within the fantasy or speculative fiction genres. Who has experience with dragons? Talking toasters? Self-aware pirate ships? Orcs? If I want to write a novel about kraken, I shouldn't be discouraged simply because I don't have a doctorate in krakenology. Likewise, it's fun to research and learn about something new in order to write about it. Everyone knows that.

My bottom line is this: don't ever think that just because you're not already an expert in something that you can't or shouldn't write about it, at least in a fictitious sense.

Ahem. Excuse me. Let me step off my soapbox.

Now then. Let me introduce you all to this month's VetWrite feature. Trust me, this ties in with my mini-diatribe. Back in late spring of this year, I had the opportunity to talk with author Michael Kula whose first novel, titled The Good Doctor, came out this year. A piece of historical fiction, The Good Doctor is about Dr. David Roberts, a veterinarian in Wisconsin at the turn of the 20th century. We chatted about the book, the writing process, and the challenge of writing about a veterinarian while not being a veterinarian.

An associate professor in the Writing Studies program at the University of Washington-Tacoma, Michael's story line started somewhat fortuitously when he stumbled upon a sensational love scandal involving a veterinarian at the turn of the century in small town Wisconsin. As he dug deeper into historical records, the story grew into what Michael describes as quite "sensational stuff" given the time period.

After further research, Michael reached out to a local historian. "I was guarded about my idea," he says. As it happens, however, the historian of this small Wisconsin town had his own personal historical museum in his basement. [In another universe, this would totally be the setup for a horror story.]
Courtesy Michael Kula
At first, Michael describes the basement as filled with standard collector's paraphernalia from resort hotels circa early 1900s. "Then," says Michael, "I turned the corner. There was a big shelf display that said 'Dr. Roberts'. It was floor-to-ceiling full of this man's commercial goods and I said: this is want I want to write about."

Michael calls Dr. Roberts the "Martha Stewart of the veterinary profession"; a man who made and sold his own veterinary products. "He really did brand himself," he says. "He had a huge line of products under his name: Dr. Roberts' Veterinary Company."

"He was the Martha Stewart of the veterinary profession."

But it got even better: in this basement museum, the historian pulled out a copy of Dr. Roberts' memoir. "At the time," says Michael, "I didn't know this guy had written a memoir late in his life."

It turns out ol' Dr. Roberts had a reputation of being a womanizer. "After his first wife died, he was married three more times," explains Michael. "In 1955, when he was about 80 years old, he was married to a 24 year old who was working for him at the time. He had written his memoir with this young woman. Local legend has it that when he passed away, apparently he had a room full of these books that he had published but didn't distribute. When he died, the young woman burned them all. Apparently, there are only four copies of this thing in existence."

One of the copies was owned by our now beloved hero, the local historian.
Courtesy Michael Kula
Suffice it to say, Michael had stumbled upon the holy grail of writer's research. Now it was time to craft the story between the lines recorded by history.

"The story is based on historical facts," he says, "but it's not factual. It was a journey of trying to humanize this guy. While he was kind of a scoundrel, he was, by all accounts, incredibly caring and generous. There was a good guy in there somewhere and I hoped to capture that in the book."

"How would you put down a cow in 1917?"

Because Dr. Roberts was a veterinarian, animals and veterinary work factor heavily in this book, which was a challenge as Michael strove to capture these actions accurately. "Some of the veterinary-specific aspects were hard," he says. Michael notes how easily he could interview today's veterinarians, but quickly found they lacked insight into what vet med was like one hundred years ago. The closest thing Michael could grasp in terms of early 20th century medicine was a veterinary instruction manual from 1905. Then he turned to the University of Wisconsin-Madison Veterinary Hospital.
Courtesy Michael Kula
"I talked to a professor at the school and asked him: how would you put down a cow in 1917? We ended up having a really nice conversation about ethics." Herd health also come into play in the novel, as Dr. Roberts was a renowned and frankly innovative dairy expert. "In one scene, the doctor is called out to an overcrowded barn where lots of the animals are sick," Michael says. "I had to figure this scene out in terms of what could cause this--what could wipe out a bunch of animals in an overcrowded barn in a relatively short period of time?" Spoiler alert: Michael aptly decided on coccidiosis. This vet approves.

"I had to figure this scene out: what could wipe out a bunch of animals in an overcrowded barn in a relatively short period of time?"

The book's narrative is driven by three different characters: Dr. Roberts, his wife, and the woman who becomes his mistress. "The love triangle that develops comes in part from the characters' connections with animals," says Michael. Social stratification in the early 1900s also plays an important role. In real life, as in the book, Dr. Roberts comes from rural Wisconsin but Michael explains that he lacked historical evidence regarding the veterinarian's wife's roots. "This is where I took some liberties," he says. "In the book, I had her come from big city money. Part of her character is drawn to her husband because of the sensitivity she saw in him in his occupation. But she had no background or interest in rural life, agriculture, or animals." Enter the woman who eventually becomes Dr. Roberts' mistress who does have a rural background. Do you feel the heat rising, or is it just me?

"Why would anyone read historical fiction? I just didn't get it."

Some of my constant readers may be aware that in the end, I like to know why a writer (or artist or musician, etc.) does the thing they do and how it makes them feel. Michael's answer was satisfactorily revealing. "The funny thing was, when I was in grad school, I wrote very literary, straight fiction. I remember thinking: why would anyone read historical fiction? I just didn't get it. Then I fell into this project. I've since realized I can't imagine doing anything else. It just fits me." What more could you ask for?

Until next month, dear readers, happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Gone Fishin'--an update

Ah, summertime. This is adventure season, folks. Hiking, biking, explicitly NOT running (way too hot for that foolishness right now), roller skating, swimming, grilling, traveling, lightning bugging (I just made that up but it involves sitting on the porch at dusk drinking sangria and enjoying the company of lightning bugs), and reading.
Anna in cat form in summer mode.
And very little writing.
Get in, losers. Road trip.
Catch me in February, all sunshine-deprived and wrapped in blankets in a ball on the couch and you've got your writing weather. Not now. Now is the time for celebrating sunshine.

Hell yeah, summertime!!!
You may deduce this is as the reason why VetWrite slows down come May, into June, and now with this you're-not-fooling-anyone-Anna update in July. You're right. You're so smart.
This is so you.
So here's the deal. I have two fantastic interviews with authors coming up for posting this fall. Keep your beautiful eyeballs peeled for September. Until then, get outside, go kayaking, bird watching, wash your dog. Wait, that's my to-do list. OK. You get the point. I'll catch you when school is back in session.

If you're really jonesing for some reading material, I'm pleased to say that I've had a few fiction pieces published recently (when it rains it pours, but mostly a drought). Scoot on over to my "Fiction" page for the deets. But I'm way more interested in what you are reading and what you are writing. Dish, please, in the comments section.

So, until September, happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting, my friends and dear readers.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Celebrating Life with Style, Soul, and a Wink

The March 15, 2017, cover of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association features a pair of greyhounds. But not just any greyhounds--greyhounds with paisley. This piece is called "Paisley Paws de Deux" by Dr. Ande Hall, a veterinarian who is now a full-time artist in Kansas. Recently we talked about whimsy and not taking yourself too seriously.

"Paisley Paws de Deux" by Ande Hall, DVM
Ande used to live in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a desert city haven for artists. "I had a practice in Santa Fe for many years and I idolized the art," Ande says. "Whenever I went on a gallery walk there was a little voice inside me that said: I'm going to do that."

"Whenever I went on a gallery walk there was a little voice inside me that said: I'm going to do that."

After moving from Santa Fe to Kansas, Ande took ceramics at the local community college. In Pratt, Kansas, she had her first solo ceramics exhibit and began teaching classes in the medium. Ande says there were several reasons why she started with ceramics. "It was very tactile, I really enjoyed it," she says. "It's art but it's also craftsmanship." She says ceramics had a similar feel in the way you use your hands as surgery does, which was her favorite thing to do in practice.

"Power" by Ande Hall, DVM
"When I first got into ceramics, it felt like a safe art form," she says. "The pressure to produce something astounding was not there. It's an earthy art form and it usually doesn't take itself too seriously. Anything that you made that was a cup or plate or saucer had a function so even if it failed aesthetically, it always had a use. There was a utilitarian function to it."

In 2012 she and her family moved to a different town in Kansas. Not wanting to make the considerable investment of buying her own ceramics supplies and kiln, Ande turned to painting. She now works primarily in oil pastels and acrylic. Looking through her oeuvre on her website, her slogan appears at the bottom of the page: "Lively and eclectic contemporary paintings that celebrate life with style, soul, and a wink."

"I think that as a veterinarian there are perfectionist tendencies. In the long term, that can be wearing."

Ande says her slogan comes from the struggle to not take herself too seriously in anything that she does. "I think that as a veterinarian there are perfectionist tendencies. In the long term, that can be wearing. I try to make art that doesn't take itself too seriously. I like making things that have grace and dignity but also some humor."

"Jest, I surely do!" by Ande Hall, DVM
Grace is a predominant feature in a series of Ande's called "Winged Megafauna." These are large mixed media pieces featuring big pachyderms like elephants and rhinos. "I once saw a documentary on rhino poaching," she says. "It makes me so sad to think that these animals are more valued for their body parts than alive. I wanted to do paintings that juxtaposed their grandeur and size with their fragility and vulnerability. I was trying to think of a way to highlight their plight."

"More Precious than Gold" by Ande Hall, DVM
A large part of the whimsy that Ande breathes into her work comes from the fabric she chooses for her mixed media pieces. "These are a specific project I've been focused on for the past year," she says of her fabric pieces. "My mission is to explore ways to use pattern that are both expected and unexpected. I started with things that were really easy to see, like the paisley patterns to create brindle greyhounds. But then using cabbage rose for a Jersey cow--that was more whimsical."

"Rosy the Jersey" by Ande Hall, DVM
A central concept that has surfaced in other conversations I've had with veterinary artists is that a deep, hands-on knowledge of anatomy helps when conveying an animal's body onto the page. Animals have a central theme in many of Ande's pieces--she also paints flowers--but Ande has a different perspective. "It's not that simple," she says of the anatomy/art link. "Sculpting is easier to apply your familiarity with anatomy. It's a three-dimensional art form and you have a three-dimensional memory of the structures you're depicting whereas painting is two-dimensional. It's quite different."

"Johann" by Ande Hall, DVM
When asked where Ande finds inspiration for her work, she doesn't hesitate to state point-blank: "Everywhere." She admires historic art which sometimes surfaces in her own work, like her piece "Johann." She also takes pleasure in the research of her subjects. One painting might lead to another, she says. Or she'll re-visit a piece she's done in the past. Ande's outlook and practicality make one feel as though the possibilities are endless.

Until next month, happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting!

Monday, March 6, 2017

Write What You Want to Read

Sometimes, if you can't find what you want, you just have to roll up your sleeves and make it yourself. And I'm not talking chocolate chip cookies here. A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of talking with Dr. Lydia Staggs, senior veterinarian at Gulf World, the largest marine rehabilitation center in the panhandle of Florida. Besides from a kick-ass day job, Lydia has recently made a splash (gimme a break, I couldn't help myself) in the fiction world with the recent release of her second novel, Rea, in her urban paranormal series, Shamar.

As always, I bugged Lydia about the how's and why's and what's and when's of her inspiration,  perspiration, and exhilaration at being a published novelist. She indulged me mightily. What came from our conversation was twofold:

1. The amount of fun Lydia has writing is almost palpable.
2. When you can't find what you want, you just gotta make it yourself. No excuses.

Here's Lydia's story:

"In 2014, I was home with my son," she says. "My husband was overseas and my child was four at the time and in bed by 7:30 every evening so I was sitting in the house, bored out of my skull. One weekend, I went to the bookstore and couldn't find anything I wanted to read. I talked to the personnel about what I like--fantasy, adventure, series--and they were like: 'We have 50 Shades of Gray. You're a woman, you would like that.' And I was like, no."

Lydia experienced the same situation at a second bookstore across the street. Understandably, she was miffed.

"They couldn't help me and I got really frustrated," she continues. "I complained about this at work and my intern said to me: why don't you write something? I said I'm not a writer. I mean, I write peer-reviewed stuff, which is really dry." But Lydia's staff convinced her to try her hand at fiction.

Lydia Staggs DVM and friend
"I wrote the first three chapters of Shamar and handed it back to my intern," she says. "I told her to read it and if she thought it was crap, I wouldn't go any further. And if she liked it, I would finish it."

End result? I think you can guess. "She said it was fabulous. So I said OK." Since then, Lydia hasn't looked back. With a complex plot bridging urban legend with dark family secrets, the Shamar series now consists of two books and Lydia is finishing a third.

"It started off as a single book," she says. "But it morphed into something else. I kept coming up with more ideas and thought, wait a minute. I could turn this into a series." Lydia anticipates her Shamar series will end with four books but with a caveat: "I don't know if that's really going to happen, but that's the goal. The story between the two main characters will probably end at four," she contends. "But other characters... there might be a sort of spin-off with them. Another series."

What Lydia has done, really, is what all fiction authors should aspire to: write what you want to read. That's how it started for Lydia: by not finding what she wanted in her local bookstores, she created her own universe.

Other authors have commented on this concept. Toni Morrison said: "If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it." And Carol Shields: "Write the book you want to read, the one you cannot find."

Having fulfilled that initial goal of creating the book she couldn't find at the bookstore, Lydia says her writing has now since turned into a therapeutic outlet. "If I've had a bad day, I can sit here and write. When I have a really bad day, I tend to kill half my characters so then I have to go back and save them! It helps me deal with things like compassion fatigue, stress at work, and the challenges of being a mom."

Lydia has identified some of the challenges we face on a day to day basis in veterinary medicine and addressed these issues in her books. Her main female protagonist, Juliet Greene, is a veterinarian. "I wanted to show vet med in its own light," she says. "I wanted to portray the profession correctly and show the challenges vet med has." Her novels shed light on topics such as euthanasia, the challenge of non-talking patients, and the salary disparity between physicians and veterinarians.

"[Writing] seemed so Herculean at the beginning but then I thought, wait a second. Tackle little bits at a time. Remember: you did not become a veterinarian overnight, either."

As such, the old standby of write what you know easily applies to Lydia's fiction in part. However, she acknowledges this concept somewhat tangentially, connecting the physical act of writing in vet med with the act of writing in fiction. "Because I write so frequently in medical records, that pattern of writing helped with my novel," she says. "It didn't feel arduous. It wasn't intimidating because I already write so much every day." 

Lydia makes novel writing sound like a blast. Her enthusiasm and love of her craft shined through our conversation the entire time. "This has been a fun experience," she says but openly acknowledges that the hardest part of the entire process was getting the damn thing published, which to many writers nodding with a wry smile while reading this, is not a surprise. But the writing itself? "I didn't realize until I got started how less of a challenge it really was. It seemed so Herculean at the beginning but then I thought: wait a second. Tackle little bits at a time. Remember: you did not become a veterinarian overnight, either."

You heard her. Let's roll up our sleeves and get to work. Until next month, happy reading, happy writing, and happy vetting.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Medical Writing: The Cool, Smart Practicality of It All

OK, folks. Let me bend your ear (eyes?) a little bit. There are many facets to writing. We all know this, but sometimes forget it as we get sucked into our own projects and read our comfort books on our favorite topics. But I'm not talking genre differences--literary versus sci-fi versus romance (oh, but watch me try my hand at some sci-fi this year! Scary in an out-of-my-element sort of way but SO MUCH FUN!). I'm talking fiction versus non-fiction and then traveling one level deeper to break non-fiction into creative non-fiction, technical writing, medical writing... Wait. Did I say medical writing?

Yes. Yes, I did.

Medical writing is a thing. A hidden-in-plain-sight sort of thing I was only aware of at the very fringes. Medical writing to me used to be like a shadow that catches at the corner of your eye--you're not really sure what it is but you're vaguely aware of it.
Recently I talked to Laurie Anne Walden, DVM. Laurie Anne just so happens to be both a veterinarian and a medical writer and she enlightened me on this fascinating writing niche, which I'm thrilled to share with you all now. Ready? Let's meet Laurie Anne.

First things first. Laurie Anne opened her medical writing business, Walden Medical Writing, LLC, in 2014. Her journey to her present professional place has not been the typical path medical writers follow. But, as each of our own lives leads a tortuous path and one never knows where she is going to pop out of the woods, Laurie Anne is taking it all in stride. She went from vet school to internship to private practice for more than ten years before she made the gradual shift to writing.

Here's how she explains her beginnings: "I blame it all on the kids." (I suspected I was going to like Laurie Anne before I talked to her and this confirmed it.)

Seriously, Laurie Anne was a full time small animal vet until deciding to go part time when she had her first child. She continued part time after having her second child, but as the kids got older and went to elementary school, Laurie Anne started thinking. "I enjoyed being in charge of my own schedule," she says. "I wondered what I could do at home as a vet."

"I love editing. It's not about being critical. It's about helping people be clearer with their writing."

Some exploration online and contact with a colleague piqued Laurie Anne's interest along the lines of technical writing. "I had always liked writing and reading," she says. "So, the more I looked, I found out that medical writing was actually a thing."

Laurie Anne got her start editing research articles written by non-native English speakers. She says this experience was interesting and positive, though not a sole way to make a living. "I had so much fun doing that," she says.

With the pay for that sort of editing being quite low, Laurie Anne considered it as sort of her "internship" into medical writing. "It was a way of starting to get home-based employment in the field," she says. She spent a little more than a year editing in this way and loved it. "To me, I love editing," she says. "It's so much fun. It's not about being critical. It's about helping people be clearer with their writing. It's like being a hairdresser to their writing. Especially when their first language isn't even English. I think the fact that they're even trying is great."

After dipping her toes in the self-employed editing world, Laurie Anne got serious. She joined the American Medical Writers Association and then passed a certification exam. She's now on the Board of Editors of Life Sciences. "You don't have to have any qualification to say you're an editor," she cautions. "Just go online and announce you're an editor and there you go. I decided a certification would be at least something I could show people." After earning her editing certification and a writing certification from the AMWA, Laurie Anne says she feels better about her editing credentials.

Currently, Laurie Anne has shifted to writing more copy. While she still does editing (because she loves it so!), she primarily is now a medical writer. Laurie Anne is an interesting example of a freelance medical writer who--important point here--still practices part time. "Most people who do medical writing either work for drug companies or for medical publication firms," she says. "So starting as a freelancer is not the way I'd recommend doing it. I never wanted to quit practice so working full time at a company was not an option for me."

"Actually, veterinary training prepares you really well for being a medical writer. You understand the language of medicine."

Opportunities for freelance medical writers can vary widely. Currently, Laurie Anne has a bulk of work writing articles that summarize recent research in the scientific literature. "I'm summarizing what's relevant in these articles and what will make veterinarians' lives easier," she explains. She says this work has been interesting and challenging. "Some of the research articles I have to summarize are not in the areas I have any expertise in, so it's great that I have this opportunity to learn about new stuff," she says. And then Laurie Anne taps into one of every clinician's fears: hard core radiology. "I have had to edit some radiology documents that were basically all physics," she says. "Oh god." I feel your pain, Laurie Anne. I feel your pain.
Radiation physics??? NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!
She's also recently written various client education articles, which she enjoys, as it's a marriage of her clinical and writing skills. "Actually, veterinary training prepares you really well for being a medical writer because you understand the language of medicine and understand where it all comes from," she says.

Laurie Anne stressed that her path isn't likely the most usual path for those interested in pursuing a career in medical writing and encourages folks who might be interested in medical writing to do their research first. The American Medical Writers Association is a great place to start and has lots of resources.

Until next month, happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting!

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The fun, the challenging, the personal: daily blogging the vet way

Happy 2017, dear readers! I'm fortunate to start the new year sharing a delightful conversation I had recently with Dr. Shawn Finch, a veterinarian at Gentle Doctor Animal Hospital in Omaha, Nebraska. Shawn's daily blog,, caught my eye some months ago. During our conversation, she shared with me some of the reasons why she writes what she writes and I'd like to share them with you, too.

Shawn Finch, DVM

Shawn started blogging in 2006 and her first blog, Riley and James, was prompted into existence by one of Shawn's brothers, a web designer. "I first wanted to get the word out about preventative veterinary care," explains Shawn.

While Shawn doesn't regularly post to Riley and James anymore, it's still available as a resource. Blogging part deux occurred when Shawn's brother suggested she write shorter posts on a daily basis. "I really liked that idea," says Shawn. "It has more structure and it's been fun to post something every single day. I need external structure to get anything done, so that's been helpful."
One of the many cool things about is its color palette. This was something that struck me immediately about the site and I didn't realize until talking with Shawn that there's meaning behind the look. "When my brother asked me how I wanted the new site to look, I was thinking about how dogs and cats see things differently than we do. For example, we used to think that they can't see three dimensionally and we know that's not true and we once thought they could only see black and white and that's not true, either. So I thought it would be cool if the blog was in the colors dogs and cats can see. I've had fun with that."

Love it. has been live for about 16 months now and Shawn still considers it relatively new. However, she's just now feeling the friendly pressure of daily writing requirements. "When I started, I had a bunch of stories and could fill up my post queue without writing daily," she says. Now, she's running out of her backlogged content and is pushed to writing in real time. "It's a bit scary," she says, "But it also makes me think through my day."
Example of the dog/cat color vision palette on
This act of daily writing and quiet reflection is becoming very important to Shawn, especially as she identifies herself as an introvert. "Sometimes, with the days in the clinic packed, if you're not able to pick your way through the day, you can find yourself depressed and not really be able to put your finger on it," she says. Writing daily on her blog gives Shawn the space and time to look back on a busy day and internalize it. "It also allows you to think of things from a happier perspective," she continues. "You can write whatever you want. Even if you just gave vaccines all day, you can go home and write about how cute the dogs were. I really like it."

"[Writing]... allows you to think of things from a happier perspective."

Shawn says her goal for her blog is to connect to pet owners. "I get a little tunnel vision in the clinic," she says. "I get caught just thinking through: is this dog sick or healthy and how am I going to fix it. I want to relate to the owner and in a twenty minute appointment, you can kind of do that, but not really. I wanted to look at the more fun side of pet ownership. Not that it's all fun--some of it is sad--but leave the technical side out of it. Make it more relatable. I'm such an introvert and in the exam room, I think that I'm coming across as relatable but I'm probably not."

There have been many things written about the benefits of daily writing, as in a journal, and what Shawn is talking about exemplifies this in a fantastic way. "It's a good stress reliever, too," she says.

And her blog really is relatable. She breaks her blog into three categories: fun, challenges, and personal. Some posts are directly related to her daily life as a vet and others aren't. It's a glimpse into a life that is sometimes vet but always (subtly) writer and observer. It's extremely calming.

Shawn writes occasionally for DVM360, too. (Read about how Shawn's clinic uses underwear as a tool for positivity here.) It was surprising to me to find someone who is so engaged in writing and yet Shawn says the art is somewhat new to her. "I didn't really start writing until I started Riley and James in 2006," she says. "I didn't realize how much I would like it. Once I started there, I just started writing a lot. It was never something I did as a kid or thought I would be good at; I had no formal training. But, it's really fun." 

You see that word Shawn keeps using? Fun. Talk about positivity!  

Subscribe to Shawn's blog for a daily dose of wonderfulness (and fun) and visit her on Twitter: @Finch93.

Until next month! Happy reading, happy writing, happy vetting.