Getting In Cars with Strangers

My mother told me not to, but I do. I get in cars with strangers. More often than you’d think. But first, I board a plane headed someplace I probably haven’t been before.

I’ll add some background. When I was younger, travel was my addiction. I picked cities I wanted to visit and submitted my artwork to galleries there. I vacationed internationally. I made sure to take at least six trips a year. Some trips were quite long. I acted cool but it was a ruse.

Honestly, I would have rather stayed home with a horse. Then one day, when I had most of the money saved for a trip to Belize, I spent it all on a wild six-month-old colt. Finally, I was able to stop wandering around aimlessly, in my own apartment or in foreign cities, and get on with my life.

I don’t mean to imply that travel is for people who have desperate and hollow horse-free lives. At first, I didn’t even notice I wasn’t traveling. When I did notice, I got a horse trailer and problem solved.

One midlife crisis later, I moved to my farm and that’s when travel truly died to me. By the time the ungrateful goats came, it was hard to get me past the mailbox. My little farm was the first place that ever felt like home and I put down roots. I didn’t believe travel could be better than my everyday life.

Years passed. The thankless goats got old and died. A new un-appreciative goat took their place. Along with a toothless barn cat who preferred the house. Rescue dogs that made it impossible to bring dates home. Llamas that line-danced around the house.

I’ve lost count of the numbers of horses who have passed through my barn; some boarded with us and some visited for training. Add the rescue horses who needed a soft landing and evaluation to way to a forever home. Of course, the herd-members-I-hadn’t-met-yet that came and never left. Horses are royalty. It was just so exactly where I wanted to be that grocery shopping felt like trekking to Siberia.

So, like I said, after a long dry spell, I find myself at the airport. Imagine my surprise. Suitcases have wheels on them now. The airport bar has decent beer. I’m told. And after landing, I make my way to the passenger pick-up area where I get into cars with strangers. I do it a couple of times a month. Then the strangers try to kill me with kindness.

THIS WEEK: For new readers, I started this blog three years ago to have a place to talk about writing and publishing. I thought it would be simple; I’d write the horse stuff at annablakeblog.com and the author thoughts here.  Things have stayed in neat piles exactly like they do in my underwear drawer. 

Although I had given up travel, I notice I’ve traveled to eight states and Canada this year, seventeen barns total. I’ve been invited because of my writing. This blog changed everything. No plans to stop. I have a book talk January 20th at Hooked on Books, an indie bookstore in Colorado Springs. Yay for Indies. Please stop by if you’re local.

I’m thrilled to say my next book is progressing well. Going with the tendency of doing the last thing I’d expect, it’s a book of poems from my prairie that I’m calling Horse Prayers. (I’m having a love affair with poems, but it doesn’t threaten my long-term relationship with writing non-fiction. It’s turning into an inky ménage à trois.)

Consider my job as an equine trainer/clinician as a sort of couples therapist for horses and riders. I try to find a positive way to tell riders the problems are all their fault could be helped by better communication skills. I teach that riding is more of a dance than an arm wrestle. It’s what I was doing before I started blogging but the internet allowed my voice to carry kind of like yodeling in the mountains.  Who knew yodeling was still popular? For all that I teach, I’m on an even larger learning curve. It’s irresistible.

It follows that I’ve had to learn to write on the run, in airport bars and hotel rooms and guest houses with other people’s cats. That’s Harvey, part-time literary assistant, in the photo above.

So, add 63 years of passion and commitment to horses, never missing a blog deadline for eight years, publishing three books, and season-after-season spent standing in hot or freezing riding arenas doing couples therapy until my feet ache… and poof: I’m an overnight sensation (to a mostly obscure scattered group of horse people.)

Sometimes they invite me to visit. Next year I’ll travel to some new states here at home, along with New Zealand, Australia, and Scotland, where to my gray mare delight, we’re adding writing workshops. Could it get any better?

Yes. Being an advocate for horses has had a strange side effect. It’s brought me full circle and reintroduced me to a better version of my own species. I might have needed that most.

I’m profoundly grateful for my wild luck. Boisterously grateful to my longtime readers who must be as surprised as I am. And to my new readers, a yapping thank you for joining us and keeping the energy rolling. It’s been the most extraordinary experience. I’m wishing you all a kind winter and an adventurous New Year. I’d love to say hello if I land in your area.

That’s it then, I’ve become a born-again traveler. Sure, it’s challenging to get past my mailbox. I’ve become my herding dogs’ worst nightmare and I always worry for the elders in the barn. But I have luggage with wheels. Life is change.

Besides, I did write myself into this story.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Currently planning summer clinics in Scotland and the UK. 2018 is filling quickly; please contact me here if you would like to host a clinic or attend one. Check out our entire clinic schedule here. 

Poetry for People Who Think They Don’t Like Poetry

 

I had a boyfriend my junior year of high school. That, in itself, is shocking if you knew me. He was a year older and after graduating, he attended a liberal arts college in our town. It was 1972 and dinosaur computers roamed the earth.

The boyfriend did a  freshman project that involved teaching a computer to write poetry. It was all very creative and revolutionary at the time. We added lists of nouns and verbs and adjectives and whatnot. Then the Compudactyl coughed out simple sentence structure with random words filling the blanks. The poetry was pretty nonsensical but it was an era when that almost worked.

The boyfriend wrote his own poems as well; they read like math problems to me. He’d struggle for days, sweating out cleverness in unusual words arranged in shapes on the page. Art was hard work. I was a teenage girl, drowning in angst, self-loathing, and problems at home, so I wrote poetry, too. I’d scribble something on a napkin, show it to him, and well… Not quite supportive. He thought I didn’t suffer enough in the writing process for the words to add up to any value. He was right. The words were easy. It was life that was complicated.

I continued writing poems through my twenties, dismissing them as post-teen-angst drivel, and never showing them to anyone again. I was a young feminist and survivor of doing stupid things; these were not pink poems about hearts and flowers. I wrote them in my own blood and still didn’t take them seriously.

Misogynasaurus. It’s a testament to the depth of gender bias is in our culture that smart women are often our own worst enemies. Traditionally, we don’t hire us, we don’t vote for us, and we don’t listen to us. I didn’t listen to me… but sometimes it takes us awhile to grow into ourselves.

A few decades later I mentioned to a male friend that I was thinking of posting some poetry. He said something sarcastic, so I turned on my heel and marched away to hide my quivering lip. Truth: He likes my writing. That isn’t what he was sarcastic about. He doesn’t like poetry. He might even be afraid of it.

For crying out loud, I’m afraid of poetry.

Sometimes poetry can seem almost unintelligible. There are big words with obscure meanings and maybe there is a thesis out there written by a graduate student that can explain it to me. But I don’t want to read a thesis to understand a poem. It makes me feel like the one in the room who doesn’t get the joke. I don’t enjoy feeling stupid.

And then some poetry might be so insanely flat and simple that it has no hook for me and then I feel too intelligent, which ends up not being that enjoyable either.

Some poetry is so floral; so pale-apricot and ruffles, so adjective-laden, so very perfectly poetic, that I want to scream with a red pen all over it. Oops. Forgive me. I’m the one who quit Brownies because they were sissies.

Maybe it isn’t about poetry. Or accordion music. Or horror movies. Or Opera. More likely it’s about what appeals to each unique individual. And whether we have an open mind. And how pretentious we are about art in general.

So I did it. I gave up worrying what people thought. Or worse, what I thought. I’ve posted poems once a week, with a photo, for the last year. It’s an act of courage: I write them on Monday mornings and post them fast. I don’t let myself over-think it.

Recently, the same friend talked to me about poetry again. After complimenting a few poems, he said, “I thought I didn’t like poetry but maybe I was wrong.” That puts my poetry in the same category as my other gift to him –Brussel sprouts.

UPDATE: I’m traveling a lot this fall, giving clinics, and loving every minute. In a way, clinics are like book talks with horses included. Hard to beat that. There are several new US locations, as well as Canada. In February, I’ll be working in New Zealand and Australia. I’m planning writing days while I’m away and very excited about everything I’ll learn on this trip. (Contact me if you’d like to know where the clinics are located Down Under.) And this other bit of news: The next book will be poems. I’d like to use a different (more complicated) publishing process with better photo reproduction and shiny paper. Is that too uppity? For all the reasons poetry confounds people? So it goes, “they” told me a memoir was a bad idea, too. 

And thanks to those of you still posting reviews on Amazon. It makes a bigger difference than you imagine, keeping the books alive in the search engines.  I appreciate it.

I’ve thought long and hard about how to get my head around writing poems without feeling a need to apologize. Without the feeling like I’m a pretender to literary élite. I’ve always believed that fighting pretentiousness was my superpower.

But I’m not the first woman on a farm with a pen and there are some personal feelings that want out. I want to praise this beautiful fragile earth. I want to write tiny stories in clean words. And love poems to horses. And most of all, I want to write poetry for people who think they don’t like poetry.

 ….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Dysfunctional Fetching and an Anniversary

It’s been two years since Stable Relation launched with all the Fourth of July fireworks I could imagine. It was the kind of good-and-bad internal fireworks that make you think you probably shouldn’t leave the house. Not quite sick and not quite euphoric.

I did all my homework before the book came out. I listened to the statistics on low sales for first-time authors published by independent small presses. Dismal. The numbers were even worse for self-published books, but I plowed gracelessly ahead anyway. It would be a crazy thing to hope you might be the exception to the rule. I kept my expectations in check.

The book got a kind welcome; I’d been writing about it and I hoped that my friends and blog readers would buy it when it came out. Then, in a month or two, everything would return to normal. After all, I didn’t have that many friends and readers.

Then something happened that I didn’t expect. People took to Facebook sharing photos of their copy of Stable Relation in their homes, on vacation with them, and of course, with their animals. It was spontaneous; we all got to peer into each other’s windows a bit. 

Now it’s two years later, Stable Relation is still selling and two other books have my name on them.  As these photos come up in my FB memories page, it’s a delightful reminder. Please be clear, it’s me that’s your fan. You all shared photos and comments, and beyond expectation, you physically shared the book with your friends. You started something that I could never have accomplished on my own. It’s all about you and I’m even more grateful now.

Stable Relation was a long-term goal, and I’d been squinting at that for such a long time that I hadn’t given one thought what to do after. Besides continuing to write, of course.

(Writing and I are like an old married couple. We depend on each other and don’t take the other for granted. We say please and thank you. Writing and I make each other look good. No experience is complete until I share it with Writing. It’s sappy but we complete each other.)

UPDATE: Clinics have been part of my horse training business for years but recently I updated that page on my website. To tell the silly truth, I wrote out an idea for clinics, hit ‘save draft’, and went to bed. I awoke to enthusiastic clinic requests, more than my usual morning confusion, and after going back to spell check my accidentally published draft, I decided to act like I meant to do that. Long story short: Here’s my clinic schedule. They have been going really well and you all get some of the credit for that, no doubt. Look me up if I’m in your area. Beyond that, we’re working on two more books and loving the Relaxed and Forward Blog more every day.

So there I was, wandering through memories on Facebook, trying to decide what comes next, and because I’m not a linear thinker, I remembered my first cattle dog, Spam. She was a perfect example of her breed, meaning always at my heel and fairly intolerable. Some of us like a good bad-dog.

The first time I threw a ball for Spam, she chased it down, hot and quick, and brought it right back. I was so surprised to see a pup be that sharp that all I could do was watch. What a smart girl.

I tossed it again and she ran for it, picked it up but then stopped short. She looked me in the eye and dropped it.

“Really, is this the whole game? Seems obtuse and repetitive to me.” 

Then Spam surveyed the view from her new vantage point and headed out from there. Probably to look for a baby bunny to kill.

I’m not saying I’m just like that cattle dog. Actually, I’m more like a donkey. But I do take Spam’s point. Don’t live on a loop; life doesn’t work that way. One thing should lead to another and it might be something that you can’t see from you’re standing.

What if this break in the retrieve loop is a kind of sideways grace? The question that I like to ask people of a certain age is this: “Are you doing what you thought you’d be doing at this age?” The answer is always a quick no, followed by a thoughtful pause.

Well, me neither. I’m not sure what I thought I would be doing at this age but nothing could ever be as surprising as real life has been, says this memoirist.

I used to fight the curve ball, not that it did any good. I play the game differently now. When life throws something out in front of me, I chase out a good distance but once I get there, I expect to veer off course and then try to act like it was my idea all along. Call it grace. Sometimes losing direction is just taking an alternate route.

Maybe Spam was right and fetch was always meant to be a game for bad-dogs and contrarians to expand their horizons.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Composing a Writer #12. What True Self-Publishing Means

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been told I was destroying my life. It started in high school where every choice carried potential doom; if you don’t go to college, if you don’t go to the right college, if you sleep with your boyfriend, if you try drugs. I’m sure there are still people waiting for my unplanned pregnancy forty-five years later. Meanwhile, I did have an adolescent crush all right. On Shakespeare.

Choosing to self-publish started the doom threats again. Some literary folks believe not finding a publisher will destroy any credibility you or your book could ever have. That there’s a vain glory in waiting ten or twenty years, suffering for art like an unrequited lover. Balanced against that the fact that the average number of sales for a self-published work is a measly 250 over the lifetime of the book.

Publishing can feel hopeless but perhaps the way you can tell you’re ready is that you’ve completed the millionth edit of your book and you’re at a place where it’s harder to not publish than it is to go forward. Confidence has slipped in with the editors, beta readers, and re-writing. You got stronger through the process, you think you can survive the leap.

[Reminder: This is a series about writing; a map of the paths and stopovers that I made in my book process. I’m no literary expert but as a way of saying thank you, I’m sharing my attempts to navigate all the usual roadblocks.]

Self-publishing starts innocently. Someone asks if you know that Amazon will publish an ebook for almost no money. It’s true and it takes less than twenty minutes to become a published author. There are no quality checks –part of the reason eBooks get a bad name. You can publish without so much as a spell check. If you think your family and a handful of friends will be your only readers, it might be good enough.

Here’s the catch. Amazon is working on a plan for world domination. They have nearly put Barnes and Noble out of business and Barnes and Noble were the biggest booksellers in history, having already threatened to put indie bookstores out of business. It’s that big fish eats little fish model of capitalism. So, it makes sense that indie bookstores don’t buy CreateSpace (Amazon’s publishing branch) books. Better to not use their ISBN number as it catalogs your book forever as Amazon’s and you don’t get to support your local bookstore. It seems like a quick publish but is it worth the limitations and politics and ongoing royalties involved?

Then you research self-publishing on the web and find a range of options. Some are vanity presses that print for money. (Think bottom feeders.) They accept all books and then sell you services like editing and cover design for various amounts of money. You might even recognize their brand names. Some authors don’t want involvement in publishing “details” and are happy to pay for the convenience. Be aware that it’s generally over-priced with a large up-front investment from the author. Editing is included and there will be a required investment of a few thousand dollars. In the end, you get a percentage of the sale but so do they –forever. Do you really want to pay them a percentage going forward for work that you’ve already paid for?

Here’s the tricky part, where the sharks live. Vanity presses frequently call themselves self-publishers.  Those are two different things but it’s very hard to figure that out doing the research. It’s an industry secret of sorts. There are varying sales pitches with lots of gray areas. Some of those vanity press books are beautiful. Not to mention, they’re great at selling themselves to authors. It can sound reasonable because traditionally published authors get a few cents a book. If you sell like Stephen King, it adds up but for small fish, not so much. A true self-publish should mean that you get all the money.

Here’s where I say again, be aware. First-time authors are like fat trout in the stream, easy picking because we’re inexperienced and tend to wear our hearts on our sleeves. There is an industry of businesses who prey on our naiveté and passion and they work right beside professionals with ethics and knowledge to help us. It’s hard to tell the difference in the beginning.

Most confusing for me was a hybrid press that asked for submissions just like an indie press would. I got the thrill of being accepted, along with a flattering phone call, only to find out that it would cost almost $10,000 to get my book to press. Sure, they offered a bit more than the cheaper vanity presses but that was an impossible amount of money. They tried to make me feel guilty or uncommitted but the money wasn’t possible. Once I verbalized that, their enthusiastic interest in my book evaporated.

A big deciding factor for me with Stable Relation was that I’d paid for three professional edits in the process of writing. It was a wonderful and educational investment. The quality of my manuscript was a direct result of that but why pay for it again, as most so-called self-publishers or vanity presses required?

The family story goes that my first sentence was, “I’ll do it myself.” As a kid, I quit the Brownies after a month because I thought they were sissies, gluing macaroni on paper when there were horses to ride.

I guess it’s no surprise that in the end I’d self-publish but at least I’d taken the time to become well-informed about the process. I could write a book about publishing, but instead, here are the Cliff’s Notes:

I searched for a cover artist whose work I liked and found Jane in England. I chose the cover from a group of designs that I had input on. She has a great eye and got all the details in place. She was knowledgeable and made the process of cover and interior design quick and easy. The cover needed a bold visual and with my art background, I was picky. I wanted my true self-publish to stand proudly on shelves next traditionally published books. Hiring a professional achieved that.

Jane returned the finished covers and interiors, both paperback and ebook, in digital file format, along with bookmarks and PR images, and a bill for a few hundred dollars instead of a few thousand. The rest was easy:

  • I filed a business name for my publishing company. Prairie Moon Press was born for a few dollars.
  • I bought my ISBN numbers from Bowker in the name of Prairie Moon Press.  I bought a group of them; each book and eBook need its own identification number.
  • I set up an account with Ingram Spark. They are the largest international distributor of books; the place that Barnes and Noble and all other independent bookstores buy from. Uploading my book’s files was as easy as posting on Facebook and within a week, a proof of Stable Relation came in the mail. The cost for set-up is $49.
  • I set up free eBook distribution on Smashwords for international availability.
  • After that, I opened an account on Amazon CreateSpace, because I knew the vast majority of my sales would be there. They can buy the books from IngramSpark but they charge me more and availability is spotty. Meaning Amazon likes to do business with themselves best. I uploaded both paperback and eBook there, and again, a proof arrived in a week. No charge to set up with your finished files.
  • The books become available when the proofs are accepted. The whole process is fairly simple and although IngramSpark and Createspace take a small percentage for distribution, your royalty is much higher than you’d think. You are now an author and a publisher.
  • Finally, it’s time to promote your book. During this part, to beat a dead metaphor, you gasp for air like a prehistoric catfish landed in the Sahara. And you have only begun!

This is the last post of this series, and probably the least interesting –being more technical that creative. Please understand that I take this task seriously. There’s always business required for art to succeed and I respect that. I’ll continue to write about writing and I’ll tag to this series. I’ll toss out writing challenges from time to time. Thank you to everyone who’s played a part here. I want to end sharing the words we started with –a call to your craft:

“Writing is the art of molding our voices to say just the exact thing we mean, with honesty, vulnerability, and hopefully a little humor. Take your writing seriously. Whether the world ever reads us or not, it’s past time that we give our own words the respect they deserve.”

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

Composing a Writer #11. Submission and Rejection

I’m not proud of what I did. In my defense, I was in my early twenties; old enough to know disappointment, even violence, at the hands of men. I knew I wasn’t at my best. It had been a stressful, lonely couple of years. He was wearing a tie and he seemed sincere, quiet-spoken, and maybe an inch shorter than me. They say you fall for men who remind you of your father. Not me; this man was his polar opposite.

Still, there’s no excuse and I’ve carried the shame for decades. I can’t even quite admit the details now. I only said hello to be polite but then we were talking, haltingly at first. Before I knew it, one thing led to another and, it’s embarrassing to say this, he was kind to me. He told me that I was pretty. That’s when it happened. I crumpled and bought the vacuüm cleaner. I’m not sure if this makes it better or worse but I think he was at least seventy.

[Reminder: This is a series about writing; a map of the paths and stopovers that I made in my book process. I’m no literary expert but as a way of saying thank you, I’m sharing my attempts to navigate all the usual roadblocks.]

This is just to say that there’s a special mix of exhaustion and numb hysteria when a writer makes a choice…

I decided to submit my manuscript to small publishing houses. I did another few hundred hours of online research and found about twenty-five possibles who accepted memoir. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say I spent as much time researching publishing as I had to edit the whole manuscript.

Each publisher had slightly different submission requirements. They all want a cover letter, bio, resume, and first chapter. Some ask for a comparison statement and most want to know that you have a following who will purchase your book, and what you’re willing to do to promote the book. The resume has an obvious challenge for first-time authors.

Some publishers want a 50-word description, some want 250 or 500. Then maybe 2,500 words. After spending an eternity writing the manuscript, now you must hack it down to an enticing tidbit. Then, you need that tidbit to come in assorted sizes. It’s harder than it sounds. In the end, there’s a file on your computer filled with a few versions of each bit of required paperwork.

Then publisher by publisher, each submission got cobbled together; the same bits but in various orders. Finally, with a precious feeling of elation and dread, that last part… the submit click. Consider this the part of the roller coaster ride where there is a long incline before the big vertical drop.

I think I’m supposed to say something about patience about now. Here goes. When working with animals, patience is the place where all good things come together. Other trainers tell me that I redefine patience. However, when working with “the way of the world,” I consider patience another word for procrastination. Sorry. I probably redefine relentless, too.

The research never stops, but now is the time to do all the other things you should have done already. Make an author website and an author page on Facebook. I had a hard time even calling myself an author, without a book, so I opted to share my quest for a publisher in the first posts on my author blog. It felt sticky and vulnerable, but I was lucky that so many of my horse/life blog readers signed up for the new blog. Their comments on my older blog kept me going while writing Stable Relation, but now their comments on my new author blog, kept me lifted there, too. Bless those early readers. They carried me from the first word.

Steep yourself in publishing information. Check out Goodreads and the back side of Amazon. Continue following writer’s blogs. You’ll find that the industry is changing fast and no one knows what’s going to happen. It’s been that way for years but it’s good to be reminded. In the middle, one thing becomes abundantly clear. It isn’t if your manuscript will be published, the only question is how you’re willing to let it happen.

Within the first two weeks, I’d heard back from the first wave of publishers. They told me that they didn’t accept memoir after all. I choked back my why say so then? remarks and thanked them. Then Feminist Press in New York asked for the full manuscript. Finally, someone wanted the whole book. I sent it within minutes.

More rejections came back, but always with a compliment about my writing. Two publishers initiated personal emails with suggestions because, although their press didn’t publish memoir, they had ideas for me. Somehow, I had no publisher but wasn’t rejected either. Feminist Press sent the kindest note –a kind of apology rejection.

A blog reader asked if I wanted to talk with one of her friends who was a retired publisher and that conversation was invaluable. I emailed a publicist who required a reading before taking an author on, but she responded with an in-depth book assessment that was nothing short of glowing.

Stable Relation had come a long way and the process gave me confidence. My writing was acknowledged as my genre was rejected. On the advice of a handful of publishers, I decided to self-publish. Not because my manuscript wasn’t good enough for a real publisher, but because the publishing world was complicated and Stable Relation wasn’t easy to categorize. They thought my book deserved a chance and I believed they meant it.

This Week: With one blog left in this series, this week is about your process. Please take a moment and tell me how your writing is going. Are you writing differently? How do you cross the line from wanting to write and writing –and even writing for publishing? Have your writing or publishing goals changed? Tell me about your research and add the link to your author website. It’s your turn to tell me a story about your writing –please and thank you.

Even the word submission is touchy for me, as a horse trainer and a woman. My reaction has evolved through my life and my memoir, Stable Relation, is that exact story.  The irony was not lost when publishing brought me snout to snout with another opportunity to submit. I held my head up, listened to varied advice, and made a choice.

I took the compliment without buying the vacuum cleaner.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

Composing a Writer #10. A Manuscript is Not a Book

Let’s say pigs fly. You’ve written the thing you always wanted to write. It’s a miracle. It’s been in your mind since reading that first book that stole you away. It means you’ve sat by yourself for untold hours and managed to commit the words to the page. You’ve edited it to perfection with an obsessive-compulsive love disorder that includes nurturing the idea like a baby bird, watching it grow feather by feather, only to hack it to bits with a meat cleaver so it can rise from the flames …a phoenix. Ta-da. You have a completed manuscript.

I don’t know how this would feel to a fresh young mind, but I do know how it feels in the second half-century of life. Fist-pumping elation and a happy dance complete with the backside shimmy that’s best left undescribed. This is where the story ends in the movie version. The End scrolling over my… um, end.

Meanwhile back in real life, I notice that I don’t actually have a book. I have a file in my computer. It feels marginally better than having a stack of paper that my prairie wind would surely find a way to plaster along the south fence line.

I’m feeling a strange combination of gosh-it’s-no-big-thing humility and I-did-it-I-did-it! pride for a thing stuck inside my computer, when a stranger saunters into my thoughts. Someone with a swagger and she might be wearing a push-up bra. At first I guessed her name was Kills Kittens for Fun but no, it was Ambition. I could tell because the word was lettered in cursive across the chest of her sweater… a sweater that might have fit her back when she was a high school cheerleader. And worse, a couple of inches of her midriff was showing. She set down her suitcase, drained her can of beer, and burped. Just kill me.

[Reminder: This is a series about writing; a map of the paths and stopovers that I made in my book process. I’m no literary expert but as a way of saying thank you, I’m sharing my attempts to navigate all the usual roadblocks.]


This Week: We’re ten weeks in and writing is vying for equal time as your primary language. Words flow like a conversation with an old friend. You have as many words to write as you have to speak; you have paragraphs and chapters, you have a book, a trilogy, a tetralogy, a pentalogy and even a hexalogy. You are filthy stinky rich in nouns and verbs and adjectives.

Assignment: Write about the day after an accomplishment or graduation or the birth or death of something. Write about the thing after the thing. Write your feelings about ambition; how does it fit you? What do you think of ambitious women? Men? Is it okay to make money from your art? Or write the hardest thing of all –write something intentionally funny. You can tell it’s working if you chuckle while you type. Then share whatever you like on our Writing Herd Facebook page. Or comment on what others have written. Or, just know we are your herd, no excuses necessary. Wait and jump in when it’s right for you.


It was my last chance to slide the manuscript in a drawer, or bury it in my tax return file on the computer. But instead, I had an overwhelming need. Nothing prepared me for how much I wanted my manuscript published. I thought writing it would be enough but each step in the writing process edited me as a would-be author. I changed as much as the manuscript did but I’d been so busy writing and studying the publishing world, that I hadn’t noticed. But now I was overtaken with an uncomfortable ambition to get the story out in the world and I’d worked on it so completely that I thought Stable Relation was worthy of that. It was like waking up with a weird kind of amnesia: I knew exactly who I was but I had no history to prove it.

There is so much attitude in the writing world about the publishing question. Some will say submitting to traditional publishers are the only way to get that genuine stamp of acceptance. Publishers are the gatekeepers to a literary career. That any less means your writing has no value because self-published books are trash. So, you worship the rich history of suffering, related by examples of famous authors whose work got rejected time and again before they became famous. Because we all know the very best artists wear suffering like war medals on their chests. It’s the Big Five Publishers or die!

But the Big Five Publishers are more distant and élite than ever before. Some say they are all going down because they aren’t keeping up with changes in their industry. But to get a manuscript to the big boys, they say you must be someone famous or know someone famous. You’ll need an agent because the very idea of traditional publishing is running the other direction. So, you attend conferences and try to network. And worry that you’ll always be a groupie for famous authors while paying off your travel debt and remaining unpublished yourself.

Small presses are a possibility. Genre publishing is booming and it’s a door open to authors of romance or Christian or children’s books. Opportunities drop off fast if you aren’t in one of those genres. And Stable Relation was every publisher’s ugly stepchild –a memoir. Even with a popular genre, small presses won’t invest in an author unless she can prove she has readers waiting. If you manage to hook a small press, they will promote your book for sixty days but it takes them twice that time to let you know if they will even read your manuscript.

Or do you self-publish? Because technology has changed the publishing world. Because everyone knows a self-published book that broke the glass ceiling like Still Alice did. Because some published authors are now self-publishing after being dropped by publishers who won’t publish new books. Or do you find the statistic that says that only 10% of self-published books sell more than a hundred copies?

There’s no answer, so you spend a few thousand hours more, researching publishing and self-publishing online, and see that there is no more agreement than there was a month ago. You think no one wants your book. You think self-publishing could be a swamp filled with alligators, and one with particularly gnarly teeth could have yarns from a certain cheerleader sweater dangling like bloody floss.

(TBC)

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

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Composing a Writer #9. Beta Readers, Secrets, and Dead Darlings

Most families have an odd relative. It’s an uncle with hairy ears who drinks too much on holidays or a cousin who converted to a strange religion. We are a species of odd ducks and eventually we quack it out.

Do I sound dismissive? It isn’t that I don’t have empathy for awkward turkey dinners. Problems are relative. My family kept a filthy secret that some of us barely survived.

[Reminder: This is a series about writing; a map of the paths and stopovers that I made in my book process. I’m no literary expert but as a way of saying thank you, I’m sharing my attempts to navigate all the usual roadblocks.]

I was almost half-done with the manuscript for Stable Relation when I shared it with my first beta reader. He was complimentary. The first chapter was good, he said, but the biggest thing was missing. He was an old friend; he knew the family secret and without revealing it, he thought nothing else made sense.

I fumed about it. I was having a good time writing funny stories about moving to the country but he was right. It was as if there was a decomposing skeleton in the room and I was arranging flowers to brighten the place up. I started over, dreading the truth that needed telling and not at all confident that I could find the words, even all those years later.

I had to work up to telling the secret, so I laid a trail of breadcrumbs, intermingling painful scenes from my childhood farm and setting the stage, while practicing writing about the emotions that changed my life’s course. When the time came to write about the final incident, my first draft was only two paragraphs long. It took a month to bleed out the other three thousand words. The chapter title came last: The Worst Thing. That chapter took on a blinding importance to editors and beta readers, even if it was hard to talk about. Just like a family secret.

A shout out to beta readers; what a lousy job. A beta reader is someone you hope will be more honest than kind. Someone you know who is seriously knowledgeable about books. Someone who will tell you the truth before the general public gets the chance.

Each time I sent a version of the manuscript to an editor, I sent copies to three beta readers as well. There was a list: A childhood friend who was a life-long reader and professional librarian. A riding client who was younger and a writer herself. A friend I’d written a screenplay with who was now a pro writing in L.A. An ex-boyfriend I’d written about in the book –and so on.

As I spent the next year working with editors, I also weighed the opinions of my beta readers. One thought the book should start with the Worst Thing chapter and another thought it should be somewhere in the middle of the book.

One beta reader told me that that Worst Thing chapter totally ruined the book. It was too sad and too ugly. With an ironic smile, I thought, yes. I’d certainly edit it out of my life if I could but for me and millions of women, we’ve had to find a way to survive the unthinkable in our lives. I didn’t know where to put this odd duck of a chapter but the chapter would stay. Sometimes the awkward thing no one wants to talk about is the most important part to share.

I never wanted children; I wasn’t sure a family like mine should procreate but as I wrote the book, I thought about my niece and nephews. After my parents passed, the worst thing secret was told and they learned the reasons for my strange behavior in hindsight. I hoped they understood. I think that’s often how we get to know people, in present time with flashbacks to the past, so that was how I arranged the book.

When Stable Relation came out I was a wreck, feeling naked to the world, while relying on the mixed opinion of my beta readers. In that first year, I lost count of the number of personal letters women sent me, thanking me for voicing their experience. It was humbling …maybe I wrote the worst thing chapter for all of us.


This Week: Your writing gets more comfortable every day. The words are bright and clean and as comfortable as your own skin. What used to feel like getting dressed up for a court date now feels like beach attire. Writing is brilliant sun and a day off, all at once.

Your assignment this week is to write something dark or hurtful or embarrassing. Tell a secret or confess to a crime. Be a witness to heartbreaking destruction. Write about it with dispassionate clarity. Use the best words (think tired, write exhausted) and physical descriptions of locations that evoke a feeling. Show the reader what it was like. Be scary like a campfire ghost story. Think about pacing and suspense. Kill your darlings. Remember that whether you write fiction or nonfiction, writing is still an art. Then share your feelings about writing what’s hard to write on our Writing Herd Facebook page. Most of all, keep on writing.


Last Sunday, I had to stop for groceries on my way home from teaching in the wind for hours. It was the time of day that my post-surgery foot swells to a size larger than its boot. As I shuffled through the produce department, I heard a voice first. It was a woman leaning against the lettuce shelves, telling a story.

As I stepped closer to get some spinach, it sounded like she was doing stand-up comedy but I couldn’t tell who she was talking to. A little boy stood by her side and a man was buzzing around like a hornet, doing a hissing scream-whisper at a little girl backed up against the apple counter.

I swallowed hard and hesitated. She was thin and pale, maybe four-years-old with her little shoulders flinched up around her ears. The man bent low to get in her face and rage-whispered even deeper. I heard her tiny voice barely squeak her answer, “I didn’t have to then…”

The woman glanced to the side, still talking, as the man lifted the little girl by her upper arms and slammed her against his chest as he stalked away.

My jaw tensed as I shot a look at the woman, holding hard eye contact for long seconds. Then I walked toward the checkout, meeting my husband on the way, and keeping my gaze down. I told him that I’d just seen a little girl get grabbed but the voice that came out of my mouth sounded just as tiny as hers.

Writing is just like life; a struggle to find your footing between the darkness and the light.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

Composing a Writer #8. Editing the Editing

I was raised by a woman who chronically rearranged furniture. It was a nervous habit. Coming home late you had to look for a particular end-table that got put in odd places, usually just in front of your shin. Then a week later, in front of your other shin. I had spent my life trying to not-like-my-mother, but there I was shuffling chapters around like a veneer end-table, a green Naugahyde sofa, and an orange and brown zig-zag afghan. How the mighty had fallen.

After a whole year of typing away on my manuscript for Stable Relation in predawn hours, I’d lost perspective. I had 80,000 words but I had no idea if they made any sense. I’d tried so hard to write in a way that did not draw conclusions, that didn’t tell the reader what to think, that I couldn’t tell what I thought.

[Reminder: This is a series about writing; a map of the paths and stopovers that I made in my book process. It isn’t that I’m an expert; there are as many ways to approach to writing as there are authors.]

I had an idea of how I wanted to tell the story when I started. I wanted the first chapters to feel rushed and a bit uncomfortable. Then that feeling would give way to an eventual sense of gratitude and ease. I wanted the writing style to reflect the story line as it progressed. I told the story in an episodic way, more than chronologically because I like stories that circle back on themselves. In hindsight, a more linear approach might have been easier but I wanted the story to unfold like we meet people; who they are gets defined by their experience but we only learn that over time, in bits and pieces.

My developmental edit hadn’t been what I expected …as if I’d written enough books to know. After the best rewrite (rearrange) I could do, I sent the manuscript to a second professional editor for line editing. It cost real money like the first editor, but my reasoning was that if I wasn’t willing to invest, why should a reader? I knew that a publisher would edit the book if they picked it up, but I wanted my version so tight that perhaps they’d let it be. I consulted the Editorial Freelancers Association and found three possible editors, interviewed, decided, and sent the manuscript off again.

My manuscript came back, digital this time, with red ink track changes in the margins. Who knew word tense was such a challenging thing? I made the same grammatical errors repeatedly but correcting them a few dozen times does drill the lesson. There were times the notes in the margin told me I was redundant and other times that I was preaching (no surprise). The edit was impersonal but at the same time, I felt she cared profoundly about my grammar and sentence structure. This edit was a lesson in how to write as well as a keen focus on the lumps and holes in the story. It transformed my ability to write a sentence, in this manuscript and going forward, and I joyously paid her fee. I had no idea if she liked the actual story; she was objective. Then near the last chapter, in a red track change, one word: [crying]. Through the editing, I had come to respect her abilities; I didn’t know until that last moment how much I wanted her to like Stable Relation.

I reworked the book with those edits but it was more like moving knick-knacks instead of entire sofas. Word by word, my confidence meandered back. I sharpened my points and got all my ideas on the same page; irony and humor returned. I said more with less and in the right tense. When the time was right, I sent the manuscript to a third editor for a final proofreading edit.

A few weeks later the manuscript came back, this time with fewer red track changes than ever, mostly grammatical, some capital letter mistakes with job titles. (The humans in my book had job titles; only the animals had names.) There were a few more word mistakes, like using one instead of on, one every other page or so, that my eyes had missed. In the process of making changes from the last edit, I had written new prose in a few places with imperfect skill. Editors are magnificent.

This Week: You’re a writer. You write. Words are your minions. They await your bidding with energy and a good ground covering gait. Miles of words pass through your fingers. After all the emotional and technical challenges of writing, you remember how much you love to tell a story.

Your assignment this week is to consider an old Akira Kurosawa movie called Rashomon. Tell the same scene from more than one perspective. Or write a story that tells something important in hindsight. Alter your voice in prose: Use sentence structure to help define the emotional aspects of your scene. Have a written plan for an essay and then stick to it; think fascinating introduction, the arc of the story with plot twists, and really stretch for an unexpected ending. Or for the fun of it, write a bit of nonsense with wrong words spelled correctly, in that one and on sort of way. Pick one of these ideas, or make one up that interests you, and just start.

And then let us know on our Writing Herd Facebook page. It doesn’t matter where you are in these assignments. Some new members have joined; say hello! If you are a founding member but have not shared your thoughts yet, chime in, whether it’s sharing a piece you’ve written or your thoughts about writing in general. We’d love to hear from you. Let us know how it’s going; let’s use each other for encouragement and talk about how we write and well as what we write. Most of all, Write on!

That final editor called me just before returning my digital manuscript. It was a Saturday morning and I was giving a riding lesson. I usually don’t answer my phone while teaching, but I will check caller ID to check if it’s a client. Seeing my editor’s name, I apologized to my rider and took the call. I listened as my editor said it was the best book she’d every edited. Then she said some other things. I forget what happened the rest of that day.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Composing a Writer #7. Criticism Wanted

I was fifty-nine years old and someone had scribbled “Why should I care?” in thick red ink on my hard-fought 300-page manuscript. Not just once but every few pages. Wait, it gets better. I sold a saddle to pay for this!

It started on Christmas Eve, my second least-favorite day of the year. I packed up the dogs, my laptop, and some snacks, and headed to a rented cabin in the mountains. Just finished with a thirty-day sprint of writing 1500 words a day, I was ready to begin writing my memoir.

For the following twelve months, I got up at 3:30 every morning and poured words into my Scrivener writing software; building, rearranging, editing, and editing some more. Every evening, I poured over the internet for information about professional editing, submitting manuscripts to publishers, self-publishing, and any other detail I could think of. I joined a few writer’s groups, attended a writer’s conference, and performed my elevator pitch to the horses while I mucked. I had a sentimental reason for starting this but at some point, the project overtook me.

So you could say this fury of red ink was my own fault. I hired three professional editors for Stable Relation, and the first was a developmental editor. His job was to go over the story for weakness including characters, plot lines, and writing style. In short, the whole book. He wanted it in hard copy, so I sent off the manuscript the old-fashioned way.

Three weeks later, the manuscript returned looking black and white and red all over. The editor didn’t like the first chapter. He didn’t like the title. Some of the chapters were flat or obscure. “Why should I care?” he wrote in my blood. Parts were long-winded and others poorly explained. He particularly didn’t like a chapter about ducks.  “Why should I care?” he wrote in duck blood. My writing was good, he said, but the storyline didn’t flow. My word tense was out of control. Some chapters were repetitive. He suggested I write a different book from a chapter he did like. He suggested I put my manuscript in a drawer for a year and gave me a list of memoirs to read.

Ouch! I’d wanted the truth; I didn’t hire him to coddle me. But I also wasn’t putting it in a drawer.

Breathe. First, I had been a self-employed artist for decades and used to people judging my work. Second, I’d shown horses. Surviving embarrassment and humiliation is part of the ride. You get back up.

The trick is to not take it personally. That manuscript was a stack of paper, even as intimate as it was. It was not me. Not that I’m some insipid PollyAnna; his red ink cut deep. But if I hadn’t found a way to keep my heart safe, I would have never survived childhood. I’d invested a year of writing and I wasn’t about to get bucked off now. Besides, I sold a saddle to pay for this and I’m a frugal person. I had to get my money’s worth out of his red ink.

I set my jaw and went to work; I cut chapters out, re-wrote other chapters, and changed the order of chapters. Each time I saw red ink, I took it to heart and wrote better reasons to care. Even about ducks.

[Reminder: This is a series about writing; a map of the paths and stopovers that I made in my book process. It isn’t that I’m an expert; there are as many ways to approach to writing as there are authors.]

This week: You still write. High and wide, you write. When you aren’t writing, you’re thinking of how you’ll write. And then you write. Syllable by syllable, the words are starting to see it your way.

And you have discovered that the word “edit” has as many meanings as there are stray commas. During a first edit, I run my work through several word processors. I like WordPress, but I also use my Word program, and then sometimes I run it through Scriveners or Google Docs, too. Besides that, I use the free Grammarly app. None of them catch everything. You don’t have to hire a pro, but eventually, someone has to edit your work and there will be corrections. Try to find a way to embrace it.

For the Writing Herd: It remains your choice where the line between safety and challenge rests for you in this group. If it’s your choice to journal privately, push on. If you’re sharing your writing with the group, please continue. If you would like constructive criticism on shared work, please note that when you share the link on our page. (To be clear, if you want criticism, post “criticism welcome.” Otherwise, comment as before.) In riding lessons, I ask that each rider/judge say three good things and one thing to consider working on. It might be a good start here, too.

Your assignment is to read critically. Not being mean, but to have discernment about how words are used, as well as what they say. Whether you publicly comment or not, think like an editor this week. See their side and then share that experience.

If you’d like a writing topic this week, write something about criticism or taking things personally. Or write yourself the most caustic review imaginable and get it out-of-the-way. Or ponder the idea of criticism and friendship. Or relate a time you welcomed criticism.

My worst competitive dressage ride was on a brilliant young horse. But at least there was a big crowd watching. My horse and I entered the arena with my friend who would read our test (call out the movements to be ridden.) She and I shared our goals before each show, read for each other’s tests, and afterward, we made a point to say something complimentary on the way out of the arena. It was a tradition.

My horse and I started the test and things came apart quickly. Straight lines became serpentines. He spooked at a letter and whiplashed sideways five meters. There were spontaneous gait changes, along with an unplanned gallop. Eventually, we landed a crooked halt near “X” and saluted the judge, who had to be relieved we finished.

My horse and I turned to leave the arena, and as disappointed as I was, my curiosity teased a smile. What could my friend possibly compliment about this ride? I almost felt sorry for her. What comment could she make that would even have a shred of truth and still be positive? Her mind must be racing! We caught up with her at the out-gate, but she kept her head low. Then she looked up at me with a sly grin. “Nice job of staying on,” she said.

Riding and writing have much in common.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

 

Composing a Writer #6. Writing for Readers

It’s a moment of exquisite anxiety. The kind of anxiety that’s prickly and blunt at the same time, and you can’t see around it. One word at a time, it’s been an act of faith that you’ve come this far. You retreat, change a word here, and alter some punctuation there. You’ve lost count of the number of edits. You’ve edited the edits. To kill some more time, you read it aloud one last time because it’s easier than worrying about what people will think.

Who gave you the right, anyway? In a world of real authors who have valuable things to say, and the schooling and creativity to say them well, why do you even try? Who do you think you are?

Silence. Then you hear a tiny voice that cracks and wobbles. It’s you, saying something that sounds awkward and defensive, even to you. Breathing is shallow as your hand moves to your mouse. You stare as your cursor moves across your computer screen. It pauses, hovers, and goes still. You’ve been here before. It’s hang-time …then a conscious choice. Click. Publish.

In lieu of a fist pump and victory dance, you stare sullenly at the screen, considering another edit.

[Reminder: This is a series about writing; a map of the paths and stopovers that I made in my book process. It isn’t that I’m an expert; there are as many ways to approach to writing as there are authors.]

This is our sixth week writing together. I hope new habits are gaining strength and your writing is pulling you in. Writing isn’t mystical or romantic; it’s a choice. This week let’s check in, and recalculate our position, and ask ourselves if we’re headed where we want to go.

Do you want to write for yourself or for others?

Maybe some of us gave it a chance and discovered writing isn’t what we thought it would be. If you can lay down the dream with no regrets, consider that knowledge a win.

Maybe writing is something you enjoy doing for your own purposes. Does writing clarify your thoughts and tell your story? Keeping a journal is a time-honored art form used for self-discovery and creating a legacy for your loved ones. Maybe journaling is perfect for you. Let it be.

Perhaps your writing isn’t as clear as you’d like, so you’ve been “googling” writer’s blogs and even checking out writer’s conferences. There’s information available to writers –like daily prompts and articles about improving your technical skill and word choice. In the beginning, my ideas out-ran my skill set, pronouns got confused and when I read my writing aloud, even I couldn’t tell what I meant. There’s no spell-check for confusion and run-on sentences. Maybe you’re honest to say you want to linger and improve your writing skills before you move on. Wonderful investment!

While I continued to study the art of writing, listened to authors speak every chance I got, and most of all, let myself be inspired by the writing of others, I still wanted more. It was time to start making friends with readers. In other words, time to get verbally naked in public.

My first published piece started out as a bittersweet joke in 2010. I was pouting about my good horse’s forced retirement. As a dressage competitor, I received the United States Dressage Federation’s monthly magazine, where the back page was devoted to stories from readers. I noticed that there was always a small photo of the author with the byline. I submitted a story that barely mentioned my horse, it was accepted, and when they asked for a photo, I sent one with my gelding lurking over my shoulder. That was the win; his photo in a national dressage magazine.

There was a book lurking over my shoulder as well, but I knew I wasn’t ready so I started a blog. I gave myself deadlines that I never missed –twice a week for the last seven years. I kept a list of possible topics, but beyond that, each post was a writing assignment to describe something hard to describe or to write something humorous or poignant. I took my writing seriously. I practiced.

It took all my courage to ask my friends to follow my blog and for a couple of years there were just a handful of readers. I posted on blog sharing sites, like Barnmice, and finally got brave enough to share it in board daylight on Facebook. I knew no one wanted to read my words because who did I think I was. I shared anyway.

This week: Congratulate yourself on the writing you’ve done. If it’s time to let go, celebrate your discovery and take guiltless flight to your next adventure. If your writing is gifting you with understanding and self-esteem, then journal it out! Let your words lead you on.

If your writing practice has inspired you to want more, consider going public and start making friends with readers. Write an article. Start a public blog with a deadline schedule. Begin an outline for your book. If you’re uncertain about your next step, choose the scary thing. This week make up your own writing assignment.

And then let us know on our Writing Herd Facebook page. Celebrate the dream and tell us how you’ll start cutting it into bite-sized pieces. Write on!

When I talk to writers, lots pooh-pooh blogs as the ugly step-child to real writing. I counter that if readers won’t read your words for free, why would they ever buy a book?

With gratitude, I owe everything to my blog readers. They encouraged me in the beginning while I found my words. As my writing gradually improved more readers discovered me. The blog growth gave me the confidence to start my book, Stable Relation. In turn, when the book writing got sticky, the positive comments on my blog lifted me up. There was a snowball effect; the more I wrote, the more I wrote. It was an unexpected and empowering gratitude cycle …and once that baby starts rolling, anything is possible.

I don’t know if there’s an avalanche of good writing in your future, but I do know this: It’s your choice.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro