Friday, February 29, 2008

Many Happy Returns

Nope, this one isn't about the Barbie lady.  Surprise!
I was in the lobby when a gentleman came in with a large box of sporting goods.  I give him the usual cheery greeting (I was particularly cheery that day, too) and dinged the bell.  Before I could ask him if those were returns, he flashed a badge and told me his name.  "I'm with [our town] police department and I'm here to return some stolen merchandise."
I blink, grinning like a fool.  "Really?"
He smiles back at me.  "Yup."
I page our sporting goods super, and then page him again when he doesn't answer right away.  The manager and asst. manager walk by and the Big Guy mentions that the sporting goods super might be tied up with a customer.  "I think this is something you guys may want to get involved in anyway," I tell them.  "The police department is returning some stolen goods."
Handshakes all around and gushing thanks from everyone.  
The sad part of the story--the thief was a former employee of ours.  He not only got caught with the stuff but a local pawn shop reported suspicious transactions so the guy was charged with trafficking in stolen merchandise, a much bigger owie for him (federal) than just taking the stuff and using it for his own purposes.  He pled guilty and handed over everything that he had stashed to help save himself some time.  
The sporting goods super arrived and we got to explain again.  More handshakes, more big
 smiles.  They went through the box item by item.  Deluxe predator call.  Fish finder sonar.  Gun fittings.  All kinds of stuff, all higher priced items, all smaller than a breadbox and in the original packaging.  Anti-climactically, I guess they just get put back on the shelf but what a great boon for the store.  It added up to hundreds of dollars of loss magically (well, not magically, but due to the diligence and hard work of our local police, yay!) reappearing in our inventory.

I had some household happy returns too.  Yesterday our crocuses exploded.  Deer and bunnies had taken quite a few out or trimmed them so that the flowers looked weird, but most of them are in perfect shape and look gorgeous.  The earliest of our daffodils are ready to pop any day now, if the weather holds, which it isn't supposed to but now that we have crocuses I'm happy just to look outside and see some color and sunshine.  I took the pic early in the morning so everything isn't all golden and the flowers are still closed up.  Notice that the pansies are starting to bloom now too.  The ones at the store are loaded with blooms but having the ones from last year come back and start blooming without the benefits of a greenhouse--that's especially wonderful.  It's even more remarkable when I consider that the slugs normally eat them down to little irretrievable nubbins.  I lost most of the ones in the jester garden and those that lived have no buds, but these three plants in my pagan cheese crock were spared. 

We also had a return of the robin who thinks he's a duck.  He did some proper bird bathing too, but mostly he sat with his belly immersed in the water, soaking.  Goofy bird, but so cute! 
I  tried to get a pic after letting him have some peace and quiet for ten minutes, but when I went outside he flew awkwardly away, dripping.  Welcome back, duck robin!  I imagine this is something that robins do in general, but I'd like to think it's the same one.  This robin duck pic is from March 22, 2006.  

My last return salute is to the sun.  As is often the case in February, we had a couple of weeks worth of sun and warm weather (not consecutive but pretty darned close.)  There's a good chance we'll get a hard frost and lose a lot of fruit buds, but so far so good and I'd rather risk that than not have the sun.  It feels so good to put on a tank top, slather on sunscreen (with that yummy sunscreen smell) and work hard in the garden.  I'll miss it when the rains come.  Sometimes the rain stays with us all the way through June.  Can't begrudge that, though.  Without the rain we wouldn't be green, and the mountains wouldn't be white, and in summer the river would get too low and all would be badness.  So come on in, rain, but if you can spare me a few more days of sun, I won't complain.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Sketch Book: Your Key to Sanity

I can quibble about the title of this panel for a wasteful amount of time.  Let's not.

Alexander Adams, John R. Gray III and I met again after our success with the kids drawing panel.  I don't remember the other pros listed for the panel showing, but by this time I'm was pretty groggy and I don't think I would have remembered my head if it wasn't attached to my neck.

I like to draw (heh) a lot of parallels between writing and painting.  Today's no different.  If you can't see the use of turning yourself loose on writing exercises, think revision isn't necessary, and don't believe that practice will improve you then by all means go on without a sketch book too.

The thing about art, like writing, is that you can turn something vivid and alive into something wooden and dead by overworking it.  But your first pass will suck (most likely, anyway.)  In comes the sketch book to the rescue.  Sketch what you want to draw, fast and furious with lots of flow and passion.  Scribble, make fast circles and oblongs, totally go for it.  From this point you can proceed in two ways.  Look at it, think eh, and turn the page.  Or, you can discover that there's something or a lot of things you like.  Then you rub graphite all over the back of the page, smooth it down over the next page and use a pen or sharp pencil to outline your favorite part.  When you turn to the next page your favorite part will be there.  You can also take a very scribbly, messy sketch that has lots of vibrancy and refine it (don't bother erasing your extra lines) until you've got something acceptable within the scribbles.  By the same method you can transfer it onto the next page.

This eliminates tons of erasing on paper and canvas and therefore a lot of heartache as you work on an imperfect drawing and try to beat it into some sort of shape while you paint or draw your final image.  Perfecting the image in a sketch book first is so much easier.

Then there's the image capture thing.  Just like I recommend going away from your office to write, you've got to go away from your usual digs to draw and/or paint.  Working in a sketch book with graphite or on a watercolor pad with two or three colors is much easier than hauling out all your stuff, not to mention it takes away the ridiculous, unnecessary pressure to spend your time painting 'something really good.'  Forget it.  Unless you plan on searching for a subject, marking your spot, sketching it, developing it, etc. all right there (which kinda kills the mood unless this is a painting vacation where you can spend hours or days in a given area) let go of the art thing and doodle around.  If by chance something really exceptional takes hold on the page it's not going to go away just because you were goofing off at the time.  You can work with it right there (if you have the rest of your stuff in the trunk of your car) or later and take it as far as you want to go.

Sketch books are also a low-commitment way to try something new.  If you normally work on one area (people often pick the most difficult area, like a person's face, and then do the rest of the body only if they like the outcome) you can run your pencil all over the page instead, developing as evenly as you can, and see what happens.  Or you can start in a corner and spread out, or draw an eye in the middle of the page and then build a skull with no real animal in mind, and stuff like that.  Recently I wrote a swoopy letter R and then started fiddling with it.  Why R?  Dunno.  Doesn't matter.  If I hadn't an interest in trying new things I'd still be drawing horses and cats and owls in crayon.  I don't try to foresee what I'll like, either, beyond the 'it would be kewl to do something like that' feeling.  I just give it a whirl.  That's how I found watercolor, and yupo, and that's how I'll find the next fun thing to learn about.  All these skills (like tools in writing) can go in a toolbox and inform whatever your main art form may be.  They're seldom a waste of time.

Questions came up about how to deal with various issues in drawing, like difficulties with people.  The answer is always to jump outside your comfort zone.  The easiest way to do that is to be a student, since students are allowed to suck and learn.  Take classes, study, research, practice.  If you can't bring yourself to do that, well, a sketchbook won't help you much anyway.

That concluded the paneling portion of Radcon.  Next time, something completely different.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Boxers or Briefs?

On Saturday at 5pm I had a moment of doubt.  The panel:  Boxers or Briefs?  When is enough information on your character too much information on your character?  The panelists:  John Helfers, Diana Pharaoh Francis, Renee Stern, K.L. Young, Dr. Harry Turtledove (pictured here from opening ceremonies) and, er, me?  I didn't have stage fright.  More like I had this dread that I would start to yammer, or put my foot in my mouth, or otherwise make a complete fool of myself.  I only get stage fright when I don't know what I'm doing.  I get the dreads when I feel like I don't belong.  But I got over it.  (Thanks Renee for the words of encouragement afterward!)

In a lot of ways, despite this being an amazing set of panelists, this turned out to be the least informative of the panels, at least for my own edification.  We talked about toolboxes, how to fill them (read books about writing, attend writing panels at conventions, etc.) and why you need them.

And why do we need writing tools?  Because sometimes writing is awkward.  You need to insert X information about your character in order to get people to care about them at the beginning.  What X is varies from character to character.  As you continue writing you add Y information to justify the character's ability to cope with their environment and deepen the readers' knowledge (and hopefully caring) of the character, so that they become like a friend/guide to the universe/champion (or whatever your mix may be.)  Getting that information on the page can be very tricky.  Readers are easily bored by things like lists, exposition, and skill demos that don't involve risk.  I've found that trying to use intuition alone to get me through the information dump portions of a novel is a lot like trying to make lasagna based on how I think it should taste.  Writing tools, recipes, whatever you want to call them, will give you ways to transmit information about your characters without making a mess of things.

To illustrate, how about explaining a lion to someone?  You could give the height, weight, hunting habits, etc. in dialogue, as an expository lump, and so forth.  Or you could describe the lion on the hunt, especially an unsuccessful hunt.  The horns and hooves of his prey flashing in his face, the confusion of black and white stripes.  How he hooks his claws and teeth into his prey and how it screams.  The storm of a stampede, the ground shaking, dust, the musk of panicked zebras.  Adrenaline tunnel vision, his eagerness and maybe even desperation, the depths of instinct and previous experience and how they work both for and against him.  How it feels to go home with the smell and taste of blood on your face but no meat in your belly, and the half-sleep as you rest hungrily for the next hunt.  This set of tools is explanation through action, and it's one of the best tools out there.

Good writers use visual cues, auditory cues, taste, smell, touch, mental and physical balance, and they use stress to trot out their characters' best and worst characteristics.  Each individual sense is also a tool.  So is the use of repetition.  Who likes their martini shaken, not stirred?  So is the use of tag lines.  I really enjoyed getting to know the rat-faced Drasnian, even though I didn't know what a Drasnian was when I started.  The use of language in the tags, the sound of the words and the rhythm, gave me hints into the character.

So how much character information is too much?  Easy, and hard.  Some of it is about context and timing.  When it doesn't matter, it's too much.  In the boxer/brief question, we don't care if Sally wears a thong in the opening scene of your novel because it's not important.  However, if we learn Starbuck, an established character in an established series, wears a thong, or boxers, we've been given a tantalizing glimpse that adds just a little more depth to the character.  The choice of underwear implies a great deal about her only because we know she's a tomboy, that she's tough, unapologetic, etc. and a highly feminine choice like a thong or a masculine choice like military issue boxers gives us a subtle cue about how she sees herself.  We wouldn't get that at all unless we had a lot of context first.  Some of it is about relevance to the story arc.  It will never matter that Sally knows how to fish while she's running around on Io, especially if no one else knows how to fish (no connection to the other characters) and that skill doesn't come into play (although I can see her fishing for a mini-monster or jigging for a part that's fallen out of reach--but that's a stretch.)  Maybe at the end Sally can finally go back home to Earth and go fishing, but that only proves the point--that's relevant to the story arc.  So you want details, but details that enrich the character, the plot, or both.  If it's a throwaway, throw it away.

How much is too little?  Also easy, and hard.  When there isn't enough to set a character apart from all the others, it's too little.  Much as I enjoy J.R.R. Tolkien's work, I have to say that in my estimation his characterization is weak.  The good guys are all about the same as each other, as are almost all the bad guys.  We don't learn many personal details about them.  One of the reasons the hobbits are a little more engaging than the other characters is that we learn a little more about their home life and their longing to return home.  One of the things that makes Aragorn more interesting is his unwillingness to take up his destiny, and Faramir stands out due to his isolation and desire to please his father.  The movie did a much, much better job of bringing out the individuality of the characters and making us care about them.  But the movies were based on the books.  So what happened?

The readers filled in the blanks.  Tolkien trusted his readers a great deal more than most modern authors do.  I think he trusted too much.  A lot of people who are invested in the idea of finishing the Lord of the Rings trilogy can't make themselves get all the way through it.  It's too much to ask if you force your readers to make the characters shine for you.  If you're an unknown and your work isn't considered a classic (chances are very high that you're in this category) you can't count on social pressure and expectation to get your readers through your work.  You need to give readers more than Tolkien did, but not too much too soon.  

Easy.  And hard.

One more panel to go:  The Sketch Book:  Your key to sanity.  Then we'll return to, um, more stuff about writing, and small farms, and gardening--the usual.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Knowing Your Plants

After a brief hiatus, here we are discussing Radcon 5 again.  

Apparently this panel has been extremely well-attended at other conventions.  Well, not at Radcon 5.  I brought an attendee with me (the unstoppable C.S. Cole) and Gayle, Gerald Nordley's delightful wife, decided the panel would be a great place to knit.  She was absolutely right.

Frieda Orsborn, my fellow panelist, had a wealth of herbal knowledge and she brought some magazines for reference.  I paged through one as we waited for others to show up (didn't happen, although two young men arrived, sat for a minute, probably realized we weren't discussing government moles, and left) and when Gayle asked about ephedra I got to laugh and tell her that it was being re-released to the public by the FDA and here's the article, enjoy!  (I do not endorse the use of ephedra, nor any other herbal product with a very few exceptions, and I'll explain why below.)

Despite the fact that the attendees of Radcon 5 weren't interested in the growing with roots plants as opposed to spy-type plants, we had a lot to say about them.  

For example, say that your fantasy has the characters moving from point A to point B or is describing village life and it sounds like every other fantasy.  You can spice it up considerably by flavoring your text with a healthy dose of what it's really like to  live off the land without modern agriculture and distribution/grocery stores.  

Your job as an omnivore is to be able to eat just about anything to sustain yourself.  A plant's job is to reproduce successfully, and there are several clever strategies by which to do this.  Edible fruit with an undigestible pit is a great one, because your seed gets distributed everywhere.  The trick is to not make your leaves and bark very nutritious or as many an orchard owner can lament to you, the deer (who have adapted to eat stuff that will give us the runs like crazy) will eat the whole tree down to a pitiful stub.  Other methods include relying on seeds that blow around, sprouting from the roots or tips that arch down to the ground and forming big thickets, or dropping seeds from toxic berries and letting those slowly spread your kind and being as poisonous as you know how so that hardly anyone wants to evolve how to eat you when there's a perfectly good apple tree sapling right there to nibble down to a stump (darn you, deer, darn you!)  There are strategies in-between, but remember this is developing with evolution and it's tricky to have totally toxic leaves and yummy fruit at the same time.  It's not something you can necessarily plan, as such, anymore than you can plan to have a boy as your first born without getting nasty (or lucky.)  

But I digress.  The point is that when your heroes head out into the wilderness, they need to find stuff out there that's edible to them that hasn't already been eaten.  If they're out there in the winter, especially in late winter, good frickin' luck.  Everything edible out there has been searched for and assaulted full time by the wild critters.  Also, think about hunting for a little bit.  We have an enormous abundance of deer right now (Kami shakes her fist at them helplessly from the house) and yet there's many a hunter with all kinds of equipment, including firearms, and all the time they can get off work, that will take days and days to bring home their deer.  Wild animals are great at running away from things that want to eat them.  So, your adventurers turn to living off the plant life.  They have options--pine nuts, certain leaves and needles that can make tea, some roots--but it takes a lot of time to find and collect enough of these things to get a halfway decent meal.  Yes, you can eat grubs, but finding and digging for them is time consuming and they're not very filling.  (If you want to try this, I suggest cooking them.  You don't have to eat them raw.)  Also, lots of green matter without starch is going to give them a nasty case of the trots.

Having your villagers wish for the first of the harvest in summer while they're picking greens in the spring can add a lot to your setting.  So can a real understanding of the cyclic nature of primitive agriculture and haphazard storage capabilities of a low-tech society.  It can also be great fun contrasting availability of items in a city where they have access to snow/ice year-round vs. a temperate city vs. the tropics where you can usually find something fruiting year-round.

You certainly don't have to include this stuff in your writing.  After all, folks read to escape the realities of starvation, feast/famine, and the joys of diarrhea.  But like I said, it can set you apart from everyone else and add some tension if you like.  

What about medicinal uses, Kami?  I want my herb wife to be able to heal my character who just got hurt.  I don't want to deal with infections and stuff like that.

You can do that.  But again, let's have some fun with this.  There's a lot of material out there with borderline or outright magical people who can heal heroes from the brink of death with a chocolate-coated magic pill.  The way to make things interesting is to take into account the guesswork involved in this sort of thing.  One of the reasons there are fewer herbs on the market than really ought to be has to do with how our bodies are only partially adapted to eating things that don't want to be eaten.  The gov tries to bring things down to the lowest common denominator, and therefore things get taken off the market or are never approved because an unacceptably large proportion of people are allergic or sensitive to what's otherwise a really good product.  When you use the whole herb rather than a refined extract, the chances that you're sensitive to one aspect or a combinations of an herb's profile of components is that much higher.  The combination/complexity can also provide more benefit than a refined version, or the components can cancel out the overall benefit.  Some systems, most notably the Chinese system of herbal medicine, maintain that medicines have to be crafted for each individual and can't be mass-produced for any real effect.  

Suddenly you can have a lot more fun with your herb wife as she hits and misses with your character's individual chemical tolerances and her local herbal availabilities.  Also, side-effects can be fun to play with.  Your character doesn't get an infection, but now he's nauseated, or groggy, or both and trying to fight the bad guy.

If you know your plants, you can also have a lot  more fun inventing poisons that don't exist.  They sound and act more nasty if you have reality to draw from.

We had a great time, the four of us, discussing plants and how to apply them to fiction (and real life too.)  We got a little bit into lore and how it develops (multi-use or very important core plants can become the center of an entire culture, even naming the people who use it) and chatted a bit about gardening.  (Why the heck is basil so hard for me to grow when everyone else can grow massive pots of it??!!) But mostly we talked at the edges of a really big topic, because an hour is not even close to being enough time to go deep with this stuff.

BTW, I'm always available to answer your plant questions.  I don't know everything, by any means, and I'll let you know if I have to research it because you may be better off researching it yourself.  But if your rhododendron is ailing or you want to know how hard it is to grow a camellia sinensis for tea, etc. I'm here for ya.  Know your plants.  Love 'em.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Me Me Me, or, Them Pesky Ants

According to the program this panel had Patty Briggs (congrats Patty on your NYT best seller status!) Ted Butler, Bobbie Hull, Charity Heller Hogge and me.  BTW, Charity posted a great quote on her blog:

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” ~Mark Twain

Yes, yes, yes.

I don't know if I'm right, but I still feel that if your background characters are rushing to the forefront, it's not a bad idea to make them more major characters.  If this happens with every single minor character and your whole work is littered with people more fascinating than your main character, find out what makes them so much more compelling than your mc and fold some of their traits into the mc.  A flaccid mc is a serious problem and beefing them up may solve the whole problem.

If not, maybe you're dodging the hard parts.  Sometimes it's so much nicer to go off on a tangent than to deal with the immediate problem.  I think Patty was saying at one point that she goes ahead and writes all that stuff, and then later cuts it out.  She finds that sometimes it's easier to use that tangent to transition yourself mentally to what happens next than to try to get from point A to point B without the assistance of a minor character momentarily taking over.  Eventually, though, you do have to write that hard part.  The hard parts are what deepen novels, so it's worth the effort.

At some point we got carried away in a discussion about plotting and discussed outlining vs. not outlining, the Snowflake method, and how plot supports the mc.  It still relates.  If your mc doesn't have enough motivation and enough going on in their lives then of course everyone else is going to be offering their life story to help fill in the dead spaces.

Another Patty suggestion is that if you have a really good minor character that won't shut up and that you love, promise them a book of their very own.  That often satisfies them.

Bad guys are often more compelling than good guys and the minor characters cropping up to take over the scenes is a symptom of this.  Again, I think it's a good idea to consider changing main characters if necessary.  Often we pick the wrong pov character and it's really hard to let go of that, especially when you've written 60,000 words or more of wrong pov.  It's a little easier to let go if you're a prolific writer, but even if you're not, give it a try in a separate file and see what happens.  If you grab the right pov character it's possible that you'll forget all about those hard-earned words in the other version and fly past your original word count.

Minor characters taking over can also be a sign of overwriting.  Minor characters shouldn't be elaborately described.  If you become acquainted with archetypal constructs then you can whip up a minor character in two sentences, have them do their part, and shuffle them off their literary coil without making them a person the reader comes to care about and misses when they disappear.  Patty mentioned that she has more trouble with female minor characters.  It makes sense.  In the genre we see lots of male characters, and quite a few female protagonists (though not as many as men) but there isn't a deep well from which to draw female characters.  For this we may have to turn to chick lit.  Chick lit features all depths and heights of women.  It's not that we have to learn about them.  We know the stereotypes.  But we need to be reminded of them.  An example is the innkeeper.  Everyone has an innkeeper in their mind.  As a writer, all you have to do is use the word innkeeper and dress him up with a few differences to make him pop (don't be lazy and just keep him generic) and you're golden.  Once you're reminded of female characters that aren't the bossy bitch or the the mighty warrior or the fainting princess, you're on your way to building minor characters without writing a three page essay on them and making the readers care enough to want to follow them around.

We had a great discussion on purpose.  Your main character really needs a purpose, even if it's to hide from their troubles and do as little as possible.  

Which reminds me, we talked about that in the character conflict panel too--that believable characters will often do the bare minimum and fight like heck to stay inside their comfort zone.  What they do outside their comfort zone is the fun part, and one of the considerations an author makes when they design conflicts for their work.  Watching a character fight to get back inside their comfort zone is often a missing or belittled dimension in writing, so think about that the next time your character is battling the throb monster and see what happens.  I also missed great commentary on internal conflict being as interesting as external conflict on the conflict panel.  Gah!  My brain is mush.  I'll just quickly add here that internal conflict can be very compelling, but you have to learn to discriminate internal conflict from naval gazing.  Also, it's more interesting and real to watch a teenager angst than it is to watch an adult angst.  Even a teen can become tedious, though, so be careful with that stuff.  

Now back to the purpose thing.  If your main character's only purpose in speculative fiction is solely to:
1. Foil the antagonist, or
2. Get married and have kids, or
3. Get laid, or just about any other one-dimensional purpose
then you'd better make that purpose more interesting than it appears at face value.  For example, if you have a really great antagonist who may also be a good guy and they've been playing hunt and hunted for a long time because of something in their history that has twists and dark spots and will have a fresh reveal that doesn't cause the audience to roll their eyes right out of their heads, you may have something.  Same with getting married and having kids.  Much harder to do when you're the last person on Earth, or there's a fertility issue, etc.  The purpose has to count, and it has to be something the readers want to read about to the exclusion of those pesky minor characters.  This is so important, I suggest that you think about your favorite main characters of all time and list their purposes.  Each will probably have more than one, so go to town.  Write it down.  Do some rereading.  Once you get going on this, the minor characters will be what they're supposed to be--a fascinating part of the setting.

Last but not least, a suppose:  Patty wondered if writers who outline have more trouble with the sense that their characters are out of their control than writers who write without an outline.  It makes sense to me.  If you outline, then characters will sometimes not cooperate and 'not do what they're supposed to do.'  If you don't outline, there's no 'supposed to.'  There's only what it is that they do.  ?

Challenging Your Characters

See the Barbie Lady post for some changes, not that it fixes anything.  

Onward, or rather backward, to Radcon 5.

At 10:00am on Saturday, after a great breakfast provided for the pros by Radcon (thank you!) I met with Bruce Taylor, Steve Libbey, Deborah Fredericks, Kay Kenyon and a roomful of participants to discuss battering characters and then sending them to Charybis and the Scylla.  BTW, if better links than the ones I provided exist, let me know!  

Some highlights:

The conflicts you throw at your character should arise organically.  It's much less interesting to throw rocks at your character.  I learned that throwing rocks is a common plot-flaw term, similar to plot ninjas from Nano.  It's all fun and games when you're trying to get through that first draft, but ultimately it's more interesting if the plot develops as a natural result of the character interactions with each other and the environment.

Which brings us to a related subject--there's a back and forth that often develops between the protagonist and antagonist.  Both need to have their say in the argument.  It's no fun if the hero picks on a villain that has an insupportable position, and it's equally no fun if the villain always gets the last word and makes everyone else look stupid.  Readers like a good horse race.  If it's obvious who will win and they do, or worse, obvious who should win but the hand of Gawd comes down and either squishes the obvious winner or helps along the loser, you'll end up with a lot of unhappy customers.

Victory should carry a price.  If it doesn't cost anything, it isn't worth anything.  On the other hand if everyone dies (and there were many audience comments about how they hated it if a character dies very early in the book, especially the first pov character, or if helpless beings like animals and children suffer and/or die unless you are very careful not to make it horrible or play it all out on screen--remember, this is supposed to be entertaining) the reader reaction is often 'why did I bother reading this?'  Great authors can pull it off.  As a first time author, I'm holding off on that sort of thing.  I may never go there, unless the idea demands it, and maybe not even then.

Most writers know that there has to be enough challenge and risk to make things interesting, but it's possible to go too far.  The result is a battered character who either is unable to act or save themselves anymore, which requires a rescue, or they become unrealistic, boring or laughable as they shrug off calamities that would drive a hurricane gawd to its knees.  

I believe it was Deby Fredericks who made the stair-climbing motions that helped illustrate the next point.  The action should build (organically, as previously mentioned) so that the stakes become higher and character reactions to each others' maneuvers become more desperate and/or more heavy-handed as they try to solve their problems.  At the climax, someone is going to fall down the stairs.  The higher you build them, the bigger the ouch at the bottom.

There was at least one more point but it's not springing to mind.  Hopefully you'll feel inspired to hop in and make additions in the comments.  It was a great panel.  I learned a lot, and had a lot of fun.  It doesn't get better than that.  Well, okay, chocolate might have made it better.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Drawing Workshop for Munchkins

Alexander Adams, John R. Gray III and I are met by three bright-eyed munchkins under the age of six.  Where to start?  Why, with the things that our parents taught us and we taught ourselves when the whole drawing thing was just for fun.  Well, it's still just for fun, but now I have to talk to myself and to my drawing to keep myself loose or I'll hold my breath in order to try to force it to come out the way I want.  I'm pretty sure holding my breath doesn't help, but a lot of people do it.  Weird.

Anyway, Alex drew a poodle (fabulous, btw) and that got us launched into ladybugs.  I talked about bug anatomy, using an ant as an illustration, which helped us with butterflies.  The boys, though, wanted to draw spiders.  So John did a spider on the white board while we roamed and helped.  Alex got into the pirate theme and drew a scary skull-bodied spider with bone legs, which made me want to draw a skull-headed spider with a bandana.  Alex helpfully drew a can of Raid behind it, since it looked like it was running and besides, it was too creepy to live.  

More kids came in, just in time for butterflies.  I got to return to bug anatomy, but the boys had lost interest because one of the new comers had hot wheels.  It was classic.  Three girls diligently working on art projects while the boys vroomed on the chairs in a corner.  

One of the startling things about a child's drawing is the apparent lack of awareness (or perhaps just a lack of interest, or both) in proportion.  Spiders often have huge bodies and short, stubby legs.  The other thing is the persistence of anthropomorphosis onto very alien things, maybe to make them seem friendly.  Though I drew an accurate ladybug on the board, which I should add is much easier than what the kids translated that to, they drew faces complete with two eyes, a nose and a mouth onto their ladybugs.  Direct help doesn't change anything, either.  I didn't want to be the spoilsport bossy woman so I just asked things like 'what about if you made the legs longer?  It's okay if they disappear off the page,' the response was simply to draw a spider that filled the whole page with even smaller legs.  To which the correct response is always, 'that's great!'  And the faces on the creatures we drew were fun.  

I don't miss the days of innocent scribblings, though.  It was more mimicry of myself than what I experience as art today, a kind of self-motivated practice that I have little explanation for except that I found the repetition comforting.  It was great for my eye/hand/brain connections, and I recommend that people who think that they can't draw choose a single subject and do as a child does--repeat it over and over and over every day, every chance you get.  Trace it, doodle it, read about it, modify what you don't like, draw it, cartoon it, turn it into a single-line logo and put it on the back of every business card you hand out, make it yours.  There's nothing lost and everything to be gained by becoming expert at horses.  Er, I mean, one subject.  (I also drew cats and owls, enough to wallpaper the whole apartment with fresh every year.)  It's creative in the strictest sense--creating something from nothing--but it's really just a way to hone your drawing skills so that you can learn to draw things outside your comfort zone based on the experience of drawing your one thing.

The kids got to draw a treasure map after our class, which looked like a lot more fun, honestly, or at least I guessed it would be for them.  Drawing the unfamiliar is work, even if that work has been simplified for you.  Drawing a meandering line and using stickers--now that's what I call playing.  I hope they got a lot out of the drawing, though.  It wouldn't surprise me if spiders, ladybugs, praying mantids and poodles started appearing on homework over the next several weeks.  Or months.  Or years and years and years--pardon me, I think I should go draw a horse.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Barbie Lady Strikes Back

I was in the lobby minding my own business when I heard a dismayed cry.  "My goodness that added up fast!"  I turned around to investigate the familiar voice and hubbub to see, yes, the Barbie Lady.  An additional checker bagged a cartoonish number of Barbies while the Barbie Lady herself handed over her credit card to the main checker.  Our assistant manager also stood by, a dismayed look on his face.

We all knew it was only a matter of time.

The Barbie Lady would be back, and she will come again, returning most of her purchases.

Why does she do this to herself?  Why does she do this to us?

At least she doesn't collect cats or dogs or something else that can suffer in her care.  C.S. imagined that her house must be tiny alleyways between four foot tall stacks of Barbies.  Right now, I can see that all too clearly.

I'm explaining here because my beloved husband told me about an alternate interpretation after I wondered about the comments on this post.  I wrote:

Does anyone know a ward for Barbie Ladies?  Maybe we can hang GI Joe dolls over the door or something.

I meant the above as a pagan and didn't think about the other way 'ward,' as in a place where mental patients are held, is known.  It's actually the more common usage rather than mine, which is an object that repels something (like garlic to a vampire.)  It was supposed to be funny but on sober reconsideration it wasn't really that humorous even in its original intent.  Now, all is clear and I feel like a jerk for defending myself, even if I was defending something I hadn't meant.  Sorry!

Radcon 5 Blast

When we arrived at the hotel we asked about the Dragon Dronet dinner presentation.  Good thing, because I would have hated to miss it.  I can't talk about most of what we saw (shh, it's a secret) but Fight Club is a done deal, so I think (hope!) it's okay to show this pic of C.S. "I'll never wash this hand again" Cole with Dragon and one of his props.  He talked about the necessity of plastics science to provide the movie industry with things like super-light bricks that look like the real thing and don't bounce.  His son, btw, helped test the bricks at one point by throwing one at a friend's windshield as he pulled up into the driveway.  Apparently that was a chase to remember.

Without plastics, he said, there would be no movie props industry.  I doubt that's an exaggeration.  There's only so much that latex and silicone can do.

During Opening Ceremonies we were treated to John "No Middle Name" Dalmas singing hit songs from the 1920's, 30's, and 40's.  He's a fine singer and an even better showman.  I wish I could have taken better pictures but it was difficult to get my flash to reach without making a nuisance of myself.  As it stands I fear that Alexander Adams was about ready to pummel me for flashing through his head during most of the ceremony, a ceremony which included belly dancers and a Pirates of the Caribbean-inspired skit.
Fast forward to the most fun I've had at a con party in a long time.  The small press party packed the suite and it looked like everyone was having a good time.  Here's Deborah Layne of Wheatland Press with C.S. Cole.  I bought both of the two books I got at the con from Wheatland--Polyphony 5 and David Levine's Space Magic.  I often dread reading because it's hard for me to turn my editor's brain off, especially when I'm deep in a novel project (when am I not in one, lately?) but I'm looking forward to these.

Speaking of David, I get to see Hugo Award winning author David Levine (in purple) at the infamous Lucky Labs meetings, but we don't often get to actually talk, so it was great to have dinner and drinks with him.

Behind him, up-and-comer Mary Hobson chats it up with another guest.  
Jim Fiscus looks dashing in his blue coat.  He and I had some of my favorite wine and talked politics and photography at the party.  The night didn't lack for interest, and all I can say about a certain incident is that the hotel staff doesn't get paid nearly enough to deal with some of the idiots who need no excuse to drink too much.  The cherry pie was good, but the fool who didn't know when to call it a night spoiled an otherwise perfect evening.

Anyway, I also got to chat a tiny bit with the amazing Lizzy Shannon (she made this dress herself--wow!)  I really wish she was still doing the agent thing, but I can understand the desire to escape from a field that you don't enjoy when there are so many other things calling your name.  Although she didn't want to talk up Willamette Writers because she's on the board, she encouraged me to go to events where I can pitch directly to agents.  This brought up my still-pathetic skills at the whole pitch thing.  I haven't summed up Masks into a few clear sentences that I've memorized, and that's a bad thing.  I'm not sure that a face-to-face pitch would give Masks that much of a better chance (though it would be out of the slush pile in the strictest sense when I sent it in,) but in some ways going to an event where there will be agents and publishers may be a sensible thing to do, despite the considerable cost of said events.  Because they're so expensive, I'd want to be more than prepared.  I don't know if writers can develop the Eye of the Tiger, but I'll give it my best shot.
 I'll sum up some of the panels in later posts, but for now I'll just mention that I had a wonderful time watching panels and paneling with Harold Gross and Patty Briggs (pictured here,) Alexander Adams, Dr. Harry Turtledove, Renee Stern, Bruce Taylor and many, many others.  I want to mention everyone right now, but my brain is too small and this post is getting too big, I'm afraid.  I'll be sure to mention them in the posts on the panels themselves.  
I beg forgiveness of those that I pestered, express my gratitude to those who encouraged me, and overall, I have to say that of all conventions I've attended so far, Radcon was the most hospitable.  I feel like a traitor to my own beloved OryCon for saying that, but then there are things that OryCon is better at, and I refuse to give in to the 'who's the favorite child' thing.  They're all my favorites, and they all employ their unique talents to throw a convention that's all their own.  Thanks for a great time, Radcon.  I'll hopefully see you next year, maybe as a published author this time.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Back from Radcon

I'm alive, I'm home.  Radcon was a fabulous success.  I sold "What is a Garden" and connected with lots of writers, artists, a couple of editors, small press folks, etc.  Some of the fun with conventions is that you can get a chance to talk to people you know but never have time to connect with, like David Levine, Jim Fiscus, Sara Mueller, Renee Stern and Jay Lake, and meeting for the first time with writers and artists that you feel like you've known all your life.  

I'll link-y dink to them later but right now I have ten thousand emails trying to storm across the border.  Well, that might be a slight exaggeration.  I realized that I had to say that only because some people really do get that kind of volume.  That could have been a Radcon panel.  When hyperbole isn't.

I also took some photos and I'll share the ones which I think I can get away with posting without being threatened with something unpleasant.  

Thanks to Radcon Bob and all the folks who made my stay at Radcon so wonderful.  You guys are the best.  Special applause goes to our housekeeper Debbie, who always had a smile and a warm greeting for us and kept our room positively immaculate and stylish, and Monica the extremely patient and witty server at the restaurant.  They worked you hard and long hours and I suspect you didn't get tipped nearly enough.  You put up with dumb kids who drank too much, surly, tired people who snapped at you, people who tipped too little or not at all, and a workload that would make Hercules weep.  I had a great time, and much of that is in thanks to you.  I'm going to go fall down now.  Next time, the promised pics, and the Barbie Lady Strikes Back.  

Saturday, February 16, 2008

RadCon is Rad

Carole and I have having too much fun, especially Carole who got honorable mention for her submission to Writers of the Future!!! I was going to resist the exclamation point thing but I lost it at the end. Anyway, lots of good people, great panels, incredible hospitality. More later.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

License to Yammer

Soon I get to sit in front of some folks and talk about things and stuff.  I noticed on my schedule that some of us have a y in front of our names, and others have a yy.  Dr. Harry Turtledove doesn't have a y in front of his name.  Maybe they do that to newbies to make them nervous.  Or maybe we're slated to wear dunce caps.  Anyway:

The Sketch Book:  Your key to sanity:  This panel is totally misnamed.  It should be, The Sketch Book, evidence that you're not all there.  I have no idea what the other artists are going to say, which makes me almost want to sit in the audience, except given my druthers (big confession here) I'd probably go to a panel on writing instead.  Be that as it may, IMHO, sketch books are for Freedom and Practice.  They also make great sources of transfer art.  Not so big secret of many an artist--doodle around in your sketch pad until you see something that you like.  Cover the back of the art you like with soft graphite (#6 soft works well.)  Place page on archival paper.  Trace what you like in pen.  The graphite will transfer onto the archival paper.  Added hint--you can do this with watercolor pencil for watercolors and when you go to paint, the line can be made to disappear with water and a little bit of mushing about.

Boxers or Briefs?  When is enough information on your character too much information on your character?:  In the beginning, (and I'm as guilty of this as anyone) you gotta have only enough to make the reader care.  My gawd, people, get on with the story!  If you want to slip in info on the fact that Starbuck wears boxers (of course!) then it better be important to reveal something about the character while we're in motion.  On book twenty, halfway through, you may have the luxury of providing unimportant details about your characters because by then you can be pretty sure that the readers are probably interested in your series and would like a little trivia now and then.

Knowing Your Plants:  What are the basics of plant lore that you should know for your story.:  Where to begin?  I wonder if the other person on this panel is a garden geek like me.  I'd say, it depends on the story.  If your character is a plant expert, you gotta know (though not necessarily include it in the story unless it honestly adds something) that plant experts know the latin names of plants and that this allows them to actually bust across language barriers.  A plant expert in China can have a decent discussion with a plant expert in Iraq using latin names and appropriate gestures.  Then there's the deciduous vs. evergreen, fruiting bodies, sexual vs. asexual reproduction, seasonal patterns of growth, yada yada yada ... If you don't know the basics when your characters are out in the wild or they're in a garden, you'll make the silly mistake of having roses in December or edible berries in spring.  Most readers won't notice but those that do will definitely roll their eyes.

Me Me Me:  What to do with those minor characters who just won't shut up.  They whine they bitch, and the want to be in charge.  So what's a poor writer to do?:  Well, I'd make them a primary character.  Either that, or if it happens over and over I'd figure out why the heck your pov character keeps getting steamrolled.  Is your primary character a wuss?  Have you run out of things to say with that person?  Believe me, if your main characters are under stress and have a time crunch, when minor characters start acting up they'll be bitch slapped right off the page.  If that doesn't happen, your pov character isn't compelling enough.  Sorry, brutal but true.

Challenging Your Characters:  Do your characters need challenges?  Of course, but when is enough enough?:  When there are so many challenges that it becomes boring.  When it's the same challenge (think James Bond and the elaborate traps the bad guys set for him) over and over again with only slightly different permutations.  When your character is so messed up s/he just can't go on, or when the problem is so big and insoluble that someone else has to come in and save the day (or deus ex machina, or it turns out the big deal wasn't big after all.)  When in order to solve the problem your character has to heal extra fast or shrug off something fatal, or has to be a Mary Sue to pull it off.  It's a pure judgment call, but one that's particularly difficult for genre writers because they have so much latitude with character capabilities.  With the right set up, they can have their characters come back from the dead, so ...  

Drawing Workshop for Munchkins:  If actual munchkins show up for this, I will be quite surprised.  I can deal with children and even non-standard-sized humans but actual munchkins in full regalia might freak me out.  It's supposed to be a magic(al, sic) experience in drawing and art.  I'm not sure I can pull off magical, but we'll definitely have some projects to play with.  The really interesting part of this panel is whether the artists will be able to coordinate our plans.  

There's also an unscheduled panel on Critique Groups:  A 'How To.'  My real goal will be to find out what David Levine's middle initial R stands for.  I'm sad that they didn't use my middle initial, Z.  It makes a potential icebreaker.  Anyway, As Everyone Knows, Clarion or modified Clarion is the rule rather than the exception because it's handier than a handyman, but there are other options and mixes and matches.  Brain storming.  Individual readers used for different kinds of feedback without getting 'polluted' by a group opinion.  Self-editing--fraught with peril but it has advantages, provided that you're honest and experienced enough.  Timing is everything, too.  Although you can get snap reads on rough drafts (how about this for an opening/premise/character intro) by and large if you get critiques too soon your writing will be fearful and restricted.  Get a critique too late (final polish anyone?) and your work will be so refined and interdependent (if you did it right) that if you yank an element that doesn't work the rest might fall apart like a 3D puzzle with the key removed.  Critique groups--form them, use them, love them, but be careful out there, kids, because they do have their problems.

More on this stuff and more, later, on Jestablog.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Fifty

I had a good chuckle when I logged in this morning.  Can you see why?

The latest from Blogger Buzz

Updates and Bug Fixes for Feburary 12th

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If you fix a bug, spell check the announcement.  It makes the users less nervous.  Don't worry, I won't mock this too much.  It's sufficiently embarrassing all by itself.

Speaking of embarrassing, or actually more like nerve-wracking, yesterday I found a $50 bill mixed in with my twenties.  This is, to a cashier, the equivalent of an unarmed transport discovering a Klingon uncloaking off the port bow.  Gah!  So what, you think?  Well, there are two instincts that a checker operates under while on 'automatic.'  We fly on autopilot with money in order to deliver good customer service--asking about your dog, checking up on things that you couldn't find in the store, stuff that requires actual thinking.  Instinct one--look at money, sort from highest to lowest denomination, count, enter cash amount, drawer in order.  Instinct two--look at money, sort from highest to lowest denomination, count, enter cash amount, drawer with amounts over $20 denominations getting stuffed under the drawer and others being drawered in order.  Very, very occasionally, especially if there's an additional distraction (like another customer wanting to know what aisle toothpaste is on,) a cashier will think they've been handed a twenty (the most common bill we get handed) when in fact we've gotten a ten or a fifty or a one hundred dollar bill.  I always, always, say "your total is X, out of (insert denomination I think I have in my hand)" and if the customer is paying attention (big if) they'll say "wait, I gave you X."  At which point I'll look at my hand and see X, and apologize.  This doesn't happen very often at all, I'd say once in two thousand transactions.  (Unfortunately I don't have a pulling number out of a$$ icon.)  If I have made a mistake about what denomination I have in my hand, and the customer didn't catch it, chances are high that I'll catch it on the count back.  I always count back when the purchase is made in cash and it's for more than $50.  Just my personal policy.  

The problem was that I remember having flubbed a count back earlier that day, and the customer dismissed it and left rather than me recounting it.  (I compared the change shown on the computer to the amount in my hand instead of recounting it.  This assumes that the number on the computer is correct--which it won't be when I've entered the wrong amount.  Word to the wise.)  And now I was staring at a $50 in my twenties.  I may have, in haste, put it there instead of under the drawer where it belongs.  There were some other wrong bills at about the same height (cashier archeology) so maybe I had gone to the default where I just sorted highest to lowest denomination and skipped putting the fifty under the drawer.  Or, bad, very bad, I may have thought I had a twenty in my hands, entered it as that, and the other misplaced bills were a result of my brain reacting to the fifty in that section and I sorted them consecutively.

So I told my supervisor right away.  And sweated.  And waited.  At six thirty, moment of truth.  Will Kami be $30 over?

Kami was 27¢ over.  Kami had either taken a quarter and a couple of pennies from someone, or the coin rolls she opened were miscounted (a frequent and usual issue, mostly from bank counted and wrapped rolls than the paper ones that regular folks turn in for paper cash.)  

Time to go back to work.  I gotta tell the money not to scare me like that.  I'm getting old and it's not good for my heart!

Monday, February 11, 2008

Chihuahua Boy

I haven't done a boy conversation in a while.

Boy:  "Hello."  Smiles at me.  
Me:  Look over my shoulder, smile back at him.  "Good morning."
Boy:  Stands there, arms crossed high on his chest.
Me:  Notices he's got goosebumps and he's trembling.  "Are you shivering like a chihuahua?"
Boy: Still smiling.  "Yeah."
Me:  "Put on a sweater."  I turn in my chair to face him.
Boy:  "Why?"
Me:  I have to pause to consider how to put this in terms he'll understand.  "Because you're cold."
Boy:  He thinks about this.  "What if I put on a hat?"
Me:  Maybe repetition will help.  "Or you could put on a sweater."

This morning he must be in an odd mood because he thought about it some more and then went to his room, presumably to put on a sweater.  Or I guess  he might have put on a hat, which would also work, but it would take a little longer.

Update:  He went to his room to read a comic book.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

I got another rejection in the mail(form) and tomorrow is my deadline for getting another query out.  My pile of things to do is starting to look like a pig pile.  Here comes Radcon, and he's six foot seven and 350 pounds.  Aaaaaaaaaaaaaahhh!

The good news with Radcon is that I've been playing with my art mats (which were poorly cut thanks to my primitive mat cutter) and I developed a technique that bevels the edges, looks sharp, and gives me lots of opportunity for expression.  If you're wondering, since I've been working at my day job too, when I get a chance to write the answer is oh, between 11pm and 2:30am when I'm not spending that same window on art.  On mornings when I have to get up with the kids at a wee tad before 6am, this doesn't allow for much sleep (she said, yawning.)  Thank the status quo that I could sleep in this morning.  I still have to work, but I got about six hours of sleep--feels like heaven--and I work a short shift so I can work out at 24 Hr Fitness (maybe soak in the hot tub too,) get home in time to fix a semblance of dinner, finish messing with my last matting projects, and then write.  Oh, and see if I can put together a query.  If I can't, well, I'd rather pay INK a dollar for missing my deadline than turn out another package that will only earn me another rejection.  From the pattern I've seen so far, query letter and synopsis, sharp, opening is torpedoing me.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Masks opening

After receiving a rejection from the wonderful Nelson Literary Agency, I've decided that it would be a good idea to solicit some opinions about my opening.  Anyone dropping by is of course very welcome to comment.  I'm especially hoping to see some opinions from folks who haven't read further into the novel, although comments from INKers and anyone else who's read Masks would be great as always, because I have no perspective left.  Readers who haven't read anything prior of Masks are particularly valuable to me right now because they're in the same emotional space (or pretty close) as agents and editors who are looking at my partials.  

The contest had us submit the first 500 words, but I think I have less time than that to capture someone's imagination.  I decided to go with the cleanest break near 250 words and ended up with about 280.

Here it is:

Mark stared at the robin egg blue ceiling while lying in Lord Argenwain's bed.  He checked the ancient clock that tocked at the far wall in the golden master bedroom.  Almost three in the afternoon.  He had to be at his history lesson soon.  His tongue felt furry and an unpleasant pressure thickened around his mouth and eyes.  Thirst tightened his throat.  He didn’t want to be here, but he didn’t want to leave either.  Bainswell might be bored, or in a mood, or waiting.

The old man stopped snoring.  His fish-like mouth with its stained, long teeth gaped open.  Mark caressed Argenwain's papery skin, concerned.  Still warm.  He held his hand near the old man’s mouth.  Warm, moist breath.  Relief eased through him and he sat up.  Mark worked his hands through his hair.

If the old man died he’d grieve, but it would be a complicated sort of grief.  He didn’t want to think about that, or anything complicated at the moment.

Mark forced himself out from under the covers and padded across the fur carpet into the cobalt tile bathroom, his feet curling from the chill.  Wheat-colored lengths of hair curtained his face as he bent to wash his face in tepid, jasmine-scented water in a marble sink.  He settled his bare bottom on a mahogany chair, grabbed a comb from the vanity, and combed his hair out with his head bowed.  Tension burned in his belly while resignation bowed his spine.  Maybe it just seemed like he’d had one bad day after another because he was exhausted, but a superstitious part of him wondered if a morbai watched from the spirit world, waiting to satisfy its malice.  

As an aside, I hopped over to LitLotRS and found that my good friend had posted a great poem.  Check it out.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Lots Ahead

I've done a lot of critiquing over the past few days.  First pages, Lucky Lab manuscripts, cowriting.  I've also done some polishing on Masks, but not nearly as much as I'd like to.  It's wild, but the dreary kind of wild like when you've been camping for ages with no one else around and all you really want is a home-cooked meal, a hot shower and your own bed.  I'm slowly crawling out from under my backlog, keeping up on the new stuff coming in, and I hope by the time Wednesday rolls around (my guesstimate for when I'll be done with all this) I can sit down and write uninterrupted.

I missed a critique meeting on Saturday.  It started to snow, and snow, and snow.  It was one of those snow storms that dumps several inches in a few hours.  If it had snowed steadily all day and night at that rate we might have seen accumulation that could be measured in feet rather than inches.  As it stood it was very off and on and had mostly stopped by 8pm.  Just a few minutes ago it started raining, which will take our three inches of slush and melt it all away in short order.  I'm surprised that we still have snow--it's about 40 degrees F out there.  The ground is really cold, though.  

Anyway, I'd already missed one Lucky Labs meeting because of work and I was really looking forward to making a meeting for once.  I find critiques so valuable, not just for the feedback but the inspiration.  I try to change locations when I write periodically.  When I write in my office I tend to write writing-in-my-office prose.  The prose freshens immensely when I hand write at work, or tap away on a laptop somewhere, etc.  I haven't had a chance to jostle myself out of this physical comfort zone for quite a while, so it makes critique groups even more valuable.  When I come back from one I feel as if I've been run through a wash and dry cycle.  My mind has had all the dingy grime washed away and the tangles have been brushed out.

Coming up, Radcon.  I've had a chance to pitch informally to coworkers (though I doubt they knew that was what I was doing) and although I'm still not very good at it, I'm starting to find my feet.  I don't think I'll be pitching Masks at Radcon, but you never know.  If an opportunity presents itself I think I'll go for it.  Chances are high that Masks will come back with a 'thanks for your sub but this doesn't fit our needs' note.  It's out of the slush pile, which is really fabulous, but now it's competing with nothing but promising novel concepts.  It feels wonderful to have gotten this far.  I have to be careful, though, not to let my subconscious settle me into a 'far enough' mode.  I'm outside my comfort zone and I'm sure all kinds of little status-quo demons will be busy at work trying to either stuff the worms back into the can or at least building a new, bigger can to keep the worms in.  Heh.  Out of the can and into the compost bin?  

There's lots ahead of me right now.  My life has turned into a page-turner.  I can't wait to see what's going to happen in the next chapter.

Gah!  Weather update.  It looks like this right now (4:36pm):
I was just getting ready to head out to the Olive Garden for a birthday party, too.  Denied!!  The temp was 40 degrees only a half hour ago, and it was raining, like I mentioned earlier in this post.  Now it's at 36 degrees and dropping.  I shouldn't have said anything about the snow melting away.  I have only myself to blame.

Friday, February 01, 2008

My Dog Lick Dog World

I got a question about what kind of dogs I have from someone thinking about getting dogs.  The images here are clickable if you want to see them full sized.  I kept them small for sanity's sake.

The thing about dogs is that they're the most wonderful animals in the world if you get the right one.  So far all my dogs have been the right one, sort of.  Bear in mind that I base the
 following stuff on my experiences.  There are others with far, far more experience and education than me and I may be dead wrong on some points.  Also dogs are individuals and breeding doesn't define everything about who they are.

We have two Great Pyrenees crosses.  Finn is more lab-like, and Brian is more golden retriever-like.  Since they're brothers, it's likely that mom was a Great Pyr and had an interesting night out around the fields, though the story given to the shelter was that she'd been with a golden retriever.    These dogs are my favorite dogs, but Great Pyrs tend to roam and if they get out they could be gone for hours or even days.  They're bred to be very independent.  They make their own decisions and can decide, if given a command, to not obey if they think it's in the best interest of whomever they've bonded with.  They're livestock guardians and are born to roam with herds of sheep over thousands of acres.  They'll stay with and defend wounded livestock (or you) and are very courageous.  They're gentle and nurturing, but if they're disciplined physically they will learn that physical punishment is okay when warranted and will of course then decide that they can physically punish someone or something else for transgressions.  Great Pyrs are best handled by experienced dog people.  Our cross breeds are not as aloof and independent as a full blood and are somewhat more obedient, especially if there's food involved.  They've run off before, which is terrifying.  But they are probably the most loving, beautiful dogs I've ever owned.  They need lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of space to run.  We have a large run for them and it's not big enough in their minds.  In their minds, about a five mile radius is a good run size.  They also are better outside than inside dogs.  There isn't a house big enough in the world for them and they will play in the house until the house falls down around them.  They also overheat easily.  A full blooded Pyr likes temps around 20 degrees F.  Our part bloods are happiest around 30-40 degrees F and wilt in summer.  Living in a year-round hot climate wouldn't be good for them.

We also have an airedale terrier mix named Beast.  This is another
 hard-headed stubborn dog (why am I attracted to the stubborn ones?)  He's a rough-and-tumble, sturdy guy who will forget that anything in the universe exists if he catches wind of a deer.  Since we're in deer country, when he gets out he'll run for miles.  Once when our dogs escaped, Brian came home, probably thanks to his love of comfort and his more people-loving golden bloodline.  Finn and Beast, on the other hand, were gone for five days.  Finn might have come home sooner, but I suspect that Beast either fell in the ravine or he got so caught up chasing the deer that he couldn't quite remember his way back and Finn of course would never, ever leave a friend stranded.  (I suspect that Brian will abandon a friend if the friend is being stupid, hence Brian being missing only until it started getting dark.)  Finn led the way home when they came back.  He probably knew the way all along but Beast probably didn't figure out that he should follow him until, well, five days had gone by.  If Finn hadn't been with Beast, I'm not sure Beast would have found his way back by himself.  Airedales are born to run and I think they are more beautiful to watch than a greyhound when they're on the chase.  They're extremely intelligent and will learn obedience and tricks quickly--and not just tricks you teach them.  Beast learned to lift the gate latch on his own just by watching us.  They will generally listen to you (unless they smell something good) but they'll think about it and take their time getting around to sitting or coming or whatever it is you ask them.  They need lots of space and are a terror in the house when you first let them in because they want to explore everything all the time.  Once they're settled they're fine, until they decide it's time to explore yet again just on the off chance that a deer or rabbit has found its way inside since the last time.

Nikita is our german shepherd.  She is the most amazing dog in the world.  They're one of the most popular breeds in the world, and for good reason.  In my opinion it is unnecessary and even dangerous to train a german shepherd to be a watch dog, and irresponsible to train them as an attack dog.  Believe me, they will watch and attack without any training whatsoever.  If you're nervous, they're nervous.  They're very responsive to their owners and it's easy to bond with a german shepherd.  They're also naturally territorial and usually will not roam and will fiercely defend the fenceline or threshold.  The challenge is to teach them to trust strangers and to wait for you to decide if a situation is dangerous or not.  They need lots of love, and they need to feel safe.  Once they're there, you will have an excellent companion for life.  These dogs can adapt to most living conditions but if they're in an apartment, especially when they're young, they need lots of exercise.  If they don't get it, they (and you) will pay for it in health problems later.  As they age they'll slow down like our Nikita and will sleep for long hours in a semi-alert state.  Until they go deaf they'll wake at any disturbance and bark until the problem is gone for several minutes or until you tell them it's okay.  For this reason some people have problems with their german shepherd, especially if the dogs are left alone, because they will bark non-stop for hours and hours if there are constant disturbances or simply because they don't know where you are and they're calling to try to get you to come to them.  BTW disturbances include neighbors working in the yard, cars driving by, people talking on the phone next door, etc. so this is not an animal you can leave alone unless you live on large acreage and even then only if you have forgiving neighbors.

Last but not least we have our wonderful Dakota who we fondly refer to as a miniature Irish wolfhound, meaning she's only 83 pounds thanks to the labrador retriever in her blood.
  Although they were bred to run down large game (and destroy wolves) unlike the terriers wolfhounds will not by choice run after other animals to the ends of the earth.  You can successfully call them off the chase without having to override their biological programming.  They're great house animals, despite their size, and become very inactive, even lazy when confined to an apartment.  They should be taken out for long walks to keep them from turning into complete slugs.  If they're left outside they adapt to outside life well, but they are one of the most human-needy animals I've ever owned and want to always be near their people.  If they're not, they easily become depressed and lonely.  Dakota is a very quiet dog.  She seldom barks, and her warning bark is one lone, sharp bark that is seldom followed by a second bark.  She prefers to watch rather than listen for problems, which probably explains why she likes to stay close.  She wants to keep an eye on things.  If she can't see it, usually it means it's not her problem, so she doesn't bark at cars or trucks, nor does she concern herself with other animals.  If she hears people making undue noise or pain sounds she immediately investigates and makes certain there's no hanky panky.  Rory has really been restricted to how much he can tickle or tease me now that we have Dakota.  She tells him when she thinks I've had enough with a long, level stare and we've decided we don't want to make her feel like she has to overcome her loyalty to Rory and intervene more stridently--that would be terribly stressful for her.  

My advice to anyone planning to adopt a dog:
Think long and hard before you get a purebred, especially a rare purebred.  Purebred dogs are often (not always) afflicted by problems that mutts usually don't have.  Depending on the breed they can have problems with hip displasia, skin allergies, food allergies, problems with hearing and eyesight, heart problems, digestive system problems like intestinal torsions, etc.  Some are more prone to attract fleas or are allergic to flea bites.  Some get worms readily.  Some have coats that require a professional groomer.  Dogs with very floppy ears combined with floppy skin are more prone to yeast infections and ear mites, and so on.  Most of all, I firmly believe that every family pet should be spayed or neutered, and if you own a quality rare breed animal you're essentially taking it out of the gene pool and if that gene pool is very small your adoption may endanger the breed further.  If you decide to keep the dog intact, you end up with all the problems and responsibility of a viable animal including heat, roaming, marking, territoriality, etc. and you get the added bonus of, when breeding, having additional vet bills and dealing with strangers and their animals.  If you do get a pure bred animal, become educated before investing in the breed.  Often there are wonderful purebred societies you can contact for information, and animals that were born outside standard requirements that make terrific pets.  Usually the breeder will have them spayed or neutered before selling them, and you'll get more info than you ever wanted about health risks and probably get a recommendation for a good local vet.  Educate yourself about puppy mills and try to avoid them.

When getting a dog, whether it's a mixed or pure bred, I hope folks will consider going to their local shelter or contacting a rescue society before going to folks who are gaining financially from breeding puppies in their house or worse, letting their animals roam and then getting away with their irresponsibility by foisting off their puppies on people who may or may not take very good care of them.  Many of these puppies end up in the shelter after new owners decided that they couldn't handle them anyway, so you'll be adopting the same animal you'd get in a newspaper ad.  It's important to talk to the shelter staff about your living circumstances and to allow them to guide you to an animal that they think would be a good fit for your household.  Shelter employees get to know their animals very well.  They know which ones are quiet, which ones are great with kids, which ones get along with other animals, and which ones might suit your personality.  Then spend at least an hour with your animal, whether it's at the shelter, at a breeder's location or in a private home.  It's very easy to get attached to the 'cute' one or to all of them, but try to be objective.  You may love that the little darling is chewing on your fingers, but remember that a chewy dog may chew long after teething is done.  The playful one that barks at you may be a very barky dog.  The shy one may be quiet and sweet, or it may have health problems.  

In general, look for a dog that is attentive toward you.  If the dog wants to please you, it will be much, much easier to train.  Look for a healthy, active animal that isn't frantic or wild.  Try to avoid fearful animals.  Nikita was a very fearful puppy who hid from us when we first met her.  Although I love her I know she's a biting risk due to her paranoia, so I'm very careful with her around strangers. 
 Although I adore puppies (like everyone else) consider adopting an older puppy or young dog.  The advantages are huge.  Often you don't have to house train the dog.  You'll have a better idea of the dog's disposition.  You'll have a much better idea of the dog's adult size.  Brian and Finn were both just under seven pounds when we adopted them.  (They were extremely malnourished and sickly.)  They're now just under 90 pounds, and no, they didn't have big paws until they were older (they're only a year old so they'll probably put on more weight and chest.)  Best of all, older dogs are past the teething stage so you can tell quickly if you're going to end up with a chewer that will slowly eat your couch down to a toothpick while you sleep.  Our latest adoptee, Dakota, we took in when she was 11 years old and it feels like she's always been here.  I don't miss raising her from a puppy at all.  

Also, when adopting a dog, if you know the house is going to be empty ten hours a day five days a week, consider getting two.  Dogs are pack animals, and a single dog at home alone is a stressed dog.  Not only will the dog be lonely, but there's a higher chance that it will develop behavioral problems due to stress.  Two aren't necessarily double the trouble, and two dogs definitely give more than twice the love.

I was going to try to keep this post short-ish, but here we are pages and pages later.  I hope folks found this information helpful.  For more information, take a snoop around the web.  There are even places that help you profile your lifestyle to help you choose a breed that's right for you.  Happy hounding!

Dogs in order of appearance:  Finn (facing the camera) and Brian age 1 year, Beast age 5 years, Nikita age 15 years, Dakota age 11 years, Sadie Sue (Kristi's gorgeous purebred miniature aussie shepherd) age 3 (?) Frey age 8 (and proof that having a mixed breed doesn't spare you from health issues--he was a very healthy puppy that developed food and skin allergies, early arthritis and died young) and Finn and Brian age 9 weeks.  Another aside--when you look at Finn and Brian's puppy pics they look healthy, right?  You have to touch the puppy you buy.  They weighed about half of what they should have at that size, less than our smallest cat, and felt like loose skin over dry bone.  Don't adopt a weak and underweight puppy unless you plan to give it full time care, access to puppy formula and/or high nutritional value puppy food, close vet supervision, and are willing to put up with lots of accidents, diarrhea, and sleepless nights worrying about your precious babies.  Thanks for reading!