Friday, August 27, 2010

From "Strange" Dogs to Hedgehogs

by Sharon Vanderlip, DVM

This is my first blog. From what I can tell, blogging is a bit like talking to strangers...something my parents told me I should never do...but they also told me "You're not going to college! Get a good waitress job!" Sometimes you just have to disobey.

My parents also told me to never pet "strange" dogs. One day, when I was ten, I was running errands for my mother when I spotted a dog sitting outside the grocery store. As I reached out to pet it, the dog promptly bit my hand. Oooooooohhhh, there was blood! A concerned crowd quickly gathered. A friendly policeman took me on an exciting ride in the backseat of a cop car to the hospital, where all the doctors and nurses were kind and fussed over me. They gave me a tetanus shot and covered my wound with brightly colored band-aids adorned with stars and assured me I'd be fine. I couldn't wait for show-and-tell at school the next day! But things took a nosedive when my father came home from work. If he was happy I was alive, it didn't show. He had a short fuse and was highly volatile. This wasn't my first offense. Not long ago, another dog had mildly mauled me when I tried to pet it. My father was furious with me for disobeying. He insisted that the doctors were wrong and unless the "strange" dog was found and proven to be vaccinated, I would surely need multiple painful abdominal injections with very large bore needles, 19th century Pasteur-style. Otherwise, I would get rabies, froth at the mouth, have violent seizures, and be grateful to finally drop dead. He let me contemplate these consequences overnight, wide-eyed with pounding heart, until the following morning when my sentence was pronounced. My father's favorite punishment for all of my crimes, large and small, was to make me "write lines". The penalty for petting a "strange" dog? I had to write "I will not pet strange dogs anymore" ten thousand times. It's true. I had thirty days to complete the assignment or my father would double it, so I had to write very fast before the rabies virus finished incubating and I lost all neurological control.

So, what became of me after a childhood of grueling line writing and being a living chew toy for various animals? I became a veterinarian and an author! Proof positive that negative reinforcement doesn't work!

You can be a successful author if you are willing to work hard, be persistent, and tolerate a lot of criticism and rejections. All easier said than done, of course, so here are ten tips that may help you in your endeavors:

1. Write for yourself and for your own enjoyment.

2. Write about the things that you love or that fascinate you.

3. Write every day, even if it's only a little bit.

4. Read lots of books on your favorite topics, written by authors who inspire you.

5. Identify your reading audiences and discover what they want to learn from you.

6. Consider self-publishing your book.

7. Save several copies of your work.

8. Be persistent and don't give up!

9. Be vigilant! Things can go awry during and after your book's publication.

10. Design a great book cover!

Since childhood, I loved to write everything (except "lines"). In my mind, an author was anyone who had a reading audience. My audiences were weary teachers and a room full of bored classmates held hostage and forced to listen until the bell rang. Good enough! I wrote lots of wild stories during grade school. I wrote my first Collie book in eighth grade. I self-published my second Collie book in 1984 and am now working on a new Collie book. I adore Collies. Besides, a Collie would never bite a little girl outside the grocery store.

My awakening occurred while I was working on my bachelor of science degree, majoring in zoology at the University of California, Davis. Loren Eiseley's The Immense Journey was required reading. I was smitten. That small book of lyrical prose ignited my desire to become a true naturalist and a good writer and launched me on a journey of my own. Since that time I have read numerous books about natural history by leading naturalists. My favorite authors are Loren Eiseley, Tim Flannery, and Edward O. Wilson (of ant fame).

After graduating from veterinary school, I served as clinical veterinarian for the University of California San Diego, School of Medicine. My first works were published in scientific journals and included such intriguing topics as congestive heart failure in a striped skunk, ovulation induction in dogs, and health care and biological values for endangered Chinese pangolins (a species of scaly anteaters, sometimes eaten as a delicacy or turned into boots). Writing scientific articles teaches important writing skills: do original research, verify sources, don't reference references, be accurate, and acknowledge others for their work.

When Barron's Educational Series, Inc. asked me if I could write Dwarf Hamsters Pet Manual, I gave the editor a copy of my book, The Collie—A Veterinary Reference for the Professional Breeder, as a sample of my writing. This self-published book served as my stepping stone into a new realm of book writing and publishing. Good thing, too, because I couldn't print and sell more Collie books due to a shipping agent mix-up. Long story, but the Cliffs Notes version is that all of my Collie book materials were inadvertently shipped to a mission in the remote mountains of Peru, where they were never seen again— and I received several pounds of prayer pamphlets (in Spanish, Aymara, and Quechua) that were intended for the mission. My Collie book was lost in the Andes, but at least it helped me earn a place with Barron's. Now I could write books about pet care for the general public. Because my specialty is animal reproduction, I could legitimately add a little bit of animal sex in some chapters, just to spice it up. After all, dwarf hamsters have the shortest reproductive cycle of any placental mammal (16 days!). They can breed immediately after giving birth and can be pregnant and lactate at the same time. Who isn't interested in that?

Dwarf Hamsters Pet Manual was such a smash that Barron's invited me to write several more rodent reality books, but these didn't go as smoothly. All but my Guinea Pig Handbook were fraught with problems. The cover of my Chinchilla Handbook was initially misspelled. Don't ask. The cover of my Mice Pet Manual still depicts the wrong species, an Egyptian spiny mouse. I received nasty letters from some prairie dog aficionados because the cover of my Prairie Dogs Pet Manual (a photo selected by Barron's after I specifically rejected it) portrayed an obese prairie dog eating a corn chip. Obesity is the number one cause of mortality in pet prairie dogs, so the book cover did little to convince readers that I knew my stuff. But it got worse. Shortly after the release of Prairie Dogs Pet Manual, a government ban on prairie dog ownership went into effect. My book languished on the store shelves, so Barron's took it out of print and returned the copyright to me. The prairie dog ban was enforced because the Center for Disease Control thought prairie dogs might be spreading small pox. When the CDC confirmed that this wasn't the case and that the culprits were a Gambian rat and monkey pox virus, the ban was lifted...years later...and so was my work. I keep finding websites where people are copying and selling my prairie dog book without my permission. Oh-oh. Time to talk to a copyright attorney.

I have also written several dog breed books for Barron's and this year my Hedgehogs Pet Manual was released. These little spiny animals are one of the most primitive creatures alive on our planet today. Admit it, you are wondering how they mate and give birth with all those quills, right?

We all take different paths to become published authors. Whatever route you take, plan on it being bumpy.

Good luck and hang on! You'll get there!

Sharon Vanderlip, DVM is the author of more than 20 books and numerous articles on animal care. For more information please visit her website

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Power of Travel and Travel Writing

By Divina Infusino

When Globe Pequot Press asked me to write a travel guide book about Southern California, I recoiled at first. A guide book? Scenes from “The Accidental Tourist” flashed to mind, specifically the one where the travel writer checks the hotel’s toilets to see if they flush properly.

I love travel writing because I have always found travel one of the most instantly expansive, perspective-changing acts a human can do. But the one thing I know about myself is that the more I feel a subject, the better I write. I could not imagine getting excited about a book loaded with directions, historical facts and figures, and bedroom counts, practical as that may be.

When I voiced my concerns to the editor, she said: “Oh no, no, no. We encourage creativity. We want your point of view. We have set categories –what to do, where to stay, where to shop and where to eat, but what you do with them is up to you.”

I sighed in relief. Ok, I can do this. So I embarked on writing Day Trips from Orange County, CA: Getaway Ideas for the Local Traveler and putting down 75,000 words in what for me was record time. In the process, however, I had a great fun because I realized, once again, that travel writing, no matter what the form, is as much about the person writing as the place visited.

Living Out the Near Death Writing Experience

The book’s mandate was to create day trips within two hours of John Wayne Airport. So I encompassed all of San Diego County, Los Angeles County and Orange County --places where I had lived and/or worked. I also included Palm Springs and Catalina where I had visited multiple times. While pulling each section together, I felt I was undergoing some sort of near-death-event, one of those times when your life flashes before you and you realize all you have done, felt and encountered.

As I wrote, I relived past and recent experiences, like rubbing shoulders with the pampered and prosperous in Beverly Hills, moving among West Hollywood and Hollywood’s decadence, drinking in La Jolla’s beauty and gentility and reveling in San Diego North County's spiritual vibe, Palm Spring’s desert nightlife and Orange County’s coastal charms, sumptuous spas, splashy shopping destinations and, of course, Disneyland.

Because Southern California is one of the most populated places on the planet, the hardest part was deciding what to leave out. The best part was discovering new areas –specifically the precarious cliffs, deep waters and hiking trails of Rancho Palos Verdes. Who knew that such relatively untouched terrain existed in Los Angeles County?

Writing Day Trips from Orange County, CA drove home the realization that the thrill, power and elevating nature of travel is all about the kiss that occurs between the place visited and the person visiting. In that moment of touch, you change. To write about it for publication can be plenty of hard work, but also a joy.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Advice for Novelists: Forget About Thick Skin

by Jennifer Coburn

When I decided to write a novel, well-meaning friends and family advised me to grow a “thick skin.” What they meant, of course, was that writers need to prepare themselves for the inevitable onslaught of rejection that comes with any creative endeavor. The thicker the proverbial skin, the less the rejection stings.

Ten years, four novels, and four anthology contributions later, I firmly believe that growing a thick skin is the last thing a novelist should try to do.

I have experienced a great deal of rejection and failure as a writer. A lot, a lot. Thick skin wouldn’t have helped in the least.

My story

When I decided to write a book of essays about motherhood, I sent a few samples to an agent in New York, who called me immediately and said she liked my style. She said my lack of treacle sentimentality about motherhood was refreshing, but quickly added that no one was interested in my essays. After all, who’d ever heard of me? She suggested I write a novel instead.

The agent asked me to give her an exclusive first look at the finished manuscript. In other words, I could not show my work to another agent until she decided whether or not she wanted to represent me. A pretty shitty deal, which I, naturally, agreed to immediately.

Fast forward ten months. My novel, Tales From the Crib, was complete. After the agent took her sweet time to decide she did not want to represent me, another 16 agents told me the same. Two agents then called on the same day and told me they could sell my novel.

They were wrong. That book never sold. My agent eventually sold my second novel The Wife of Reilly. My editor asked me to rewrite Tales From the Crib as my third novel. (To be clear, by “rewrite” I mean that six pages and the title survived.)

When I speak to writing groups, I am introduced as “successful novelist,” and I often look behind me to see who they could possibly be talking about. Yes, I have four novels published, one of which is in development for film. But I also have two novels and three screenplays sitting in a file marked “Someday.”

My point is that one cannot enjoy any measure of success without also enduring rejection and failure as well. A few writers will tell you their path was easy, but they are either extremely lucky or extremely full of shit. Most of us struggle. Most of us have had more than a few dark nights of the soul, wondering why we ever thought writing a book was a good idea.

Tips for Novelists

If you are a writer working on your first – or fourth – novel, here’s my advice: Do not grow a thick skin. What makes us good storytellers is the ability to access our emotions easily. If you cry at cheesy cell phone commercials, or if you yell Italian curses at the New Jersey Housewives – good for you! It means you’re able to connect with a broad range of feelings. If you’ve got thick skin, you can’t feel much, and that is death to a novelist.

That said, we can’t wallow in the misery of every rejection so long that we wind up with our heads in the oven. So, how do we deal with rejection and failure, and still pick ourselves up and try again?

1) Give yourself a set time to really feel the pain of rejection. When my book rejections came in, I set a stopwatch for 15 minutes and told myself I had to fit in every bit of self-pity and self-flagellation in that tight time frame. I really got into it. I put a tennis ball into a tube sock and tossed my makeshift whip over my shoulder like it was Ashura. For effect, I cried, “Oh Lord, why me?! Why, why me?” (Hey, you gotta’ cram in the drama if you’re on a schedule.)

2) Play WWXD? What Would Character X Do? The characters in your novel may never experience rejection or failure, but in order to know them better, ask yourself what they would do in this situation? You may even want to play their character so you can really feel it. Would Character X tear up the rejection letter and crumble to the ground in tears? Or would she silently, stoically sit at the kitchen table and light a cigarette? Use it.

3) Have a feel-good plan. After my 15 minutes of mourning were up, I’d wipe away the tears, drive to the Hotel Del Coronado, order an overpriced cup of tea in an exquisite cup, and look at the ocean. It’s kind of tough to feel anything but fabulous while sitting in a velvet burgundy chair while a waiter in a tuxedo and white gloves asks if “Madam would like anything more.”

4) Keep hope alive. Have a stack of new queries ready to mail on days you receive a rejection letter. When you receive two rejections, pop two letters in the mail. This way, you always have 10 queries out,

Finally, know that if you are a good writer who keeps working and rewriting, you will succeed in getting published. The quality of writing matters, but the main difference between a writer who gets published and one who does not is perseverance. If you write well and refuse to give up, success is there for you.

And who’d want thick skin getting in the way of really feeling that victory?

Friday, August 6, 2010

Creative Firsts from Army Men to Animals

By Georgeanne Irvine

This is my first blog—ever—and only the fourth on our San Diego Writing Women blog site! Whoopee! I can write whatever I want—as long as it has something to do with writing, of course. Since I will be contributing to this blog regularly, I’d like to start out by sharing a little background about how I began my writing career. And, by the way, I’m a firm believer that dreams really do come true!

I’ve always been a storyteller since before I could read. In my pre-kindergarten days, I staged major productions with my toy soldiers and cowboys. I created scenes and made up dialogue as I played. There were gunfights, cowboys saving beautiful ladies in burning buildings, horses getting stuck in quicksand, bad guys rustling cattle, and major battles between the Yankees and Confederates. Once in a great while I played with dolls but their tales were never as exciting as the stories I concocted about my miniature army men!

In school, I was one of those odd kids who actually liked writing things: geography papers, essays, book reports, poems, even quirky plays. I remember a contest in grade school where we were supposed to create a poster about why we were proud to be an American. There was an “other” category, too, so I wrote a poem, won a blue ribbon, and my mom stuck it in my baby book alongside photos of me wearing my bright red cowboy hat and matching Keds.

Fast forward to junior high. The most colorful piece I wrote for our English class was a collaborative effort with friends. It was a musical called The Adventures of Pighead and His Merry Hogs. It wasn’t very original because it was a takeoff on Robin Hood. But with characters like Friar Pork and the Sheriff of RottingHam, we got an “A” for being silly and for making the most out of our pig theme.

My real “writing-as-a-career” epiphany occurred in high school. I had dreams of becoming a star of Broadway musicals but I had a few challenges: I couldn’t sing and I couldn’t dance. Just before my junior year began, I tried out for “A cappellas,” a choir that was a big deal at our school. I didn’t make the cut, so I signed up for the journalism/newspaper class instead. After a semester of learning about the inverted pyramid-style writing, I ended up as co-editor of the paper with one of my best friends. Our biggest adventure happened when several of us were driving around town together, selling ads for the paper. When we decided to take a lunch break, the driver, our advertising manager, tried to show off a little by using his dad’s hand controls to stop the car. (His father was unable to drive using the regular foot pedals.) He hit the wrong button and we drove—well, crashed—right through the front door of Shakey’s Pizza Parlor! Although we got back to class really late that day, we did sell an ad to Shakey’s so our teacher wasn’t too angry but our ad manager’s dad was furious.

Even before I began my freshman year at San Diego State University, I knew that I wanted to major in journalism and pursue a career that had something to do with writing and creativity. I also got a notion in my head that I wanted to write children’s books. I was rummaging through some old boxes at home and found some unpublished children’s book manuscripts penned by “Grandma in Glendive,” my mom’s mother from Glendive, Montana, who died when I was only 2 years old. The manuscripts, which were written in the 1940s and 50s, are worth a blog unto themselves but some of the titles included Chubbsy Ubbsy: Adventures of a Prairie Dog, The Perky Little Prairie Dog Escapes from Mr. Coyote, and Jane’s Visit to Fairyland. After reading Grandma’s stories, which, by the way, were well-written and entertaining, I decided I would write children’s books, too. Not that I knew a thing about writing for kids but I thought that in some unearthly way, it might bring me closer to the grandma I never knew.

About 8 months after graduating from college, I landed a dream job at the San Diego Zoo as a public relations assistant. My duties included writing press releases and brochures, working with news media and film crews, taking animals to television shows, AND serving as editor and chief writer of our monthly children’s publication, Koala Club News. My boss, Carole Towne Seaton, who I still consider to be one of my greatest mentors of all time, was incredibly supportive of this unseasoned, somewhat na├»ve 22-year-old with big aspirations. I remember confiding in her that I dreamed of writing a children’s book some day. We never talked about it again until she approached me a couple of years later and asked “Georgeanne, how would you like to write a children’s book? In fact, how would you like to write six children’s books?”

“What the heck? Oh, my gosh! Yes! Yes! Yes!” I replied. “But how? Someone really and truly wants me to write a book? I’m going to be an author? Oh WOW!!!!”

Carole explained that Ideals Publishing Corporation had approached the Zoo and wanted to utilize our photo archives for a series of children’s books for first graders. Each book in the series, to be called Zoo Babies, would feature a tale about a particular animal species. The Zoo’s role in the licensing agreement was to supply the photos, but a writer wasn’t a part of the deal. In her discussions with the Ideals editor, Carole asked who had been hired to write the stories. “We haven’t gotten that far in the process yet,” said the editor. “Well, I have an employee,” said Carole, “who I think would be perfect for the job. She’s the editor and writer of our children’s newsletter, and I’m sure she would be happy to freelance the books.” Then Carole handed the editor some samples of my work and all of a sudden, I was going to be an author!

After Carole reassured me that, indeed, Ideals wanted me to write the books, I vividly remember the thought that raced frantically through my mind, “Holy #&*#! I’ve never written one book in my life, let alone six! Now what do I do?” I procrastinated, worried, researched the animals, selected the photos, procrastinated some more by cleaning out my dresser drawers at home when I was supposed to be writing, and finally created the first draft of my first book, Sydney the Koala. The next day I called my editor to read the manuscript to her over the phone! I now realize that was probably a weird thing to do but at the time, I had to know right away whether I was on the right track. (And, please note that we didn’t even have a FAX machine in those days). “It’s perfect! That’s exactly the type of story we’re looking for,” was my editor’s response. Her approval and enthusiasm boosted my confidence and was all the encouragement I needed to finish the other five stories!

Today, several decades later, even though I’ve written many animal-themed books since the first Zoo Babies series, I still go through some of the same procrastination rituals with each project. In the end, though, the book always gets finished, and my dreams continue to come true!