WHERE I BELONG

Yesterday I drove the white Honda six miles south of Grants Pass to scope out a ranch where I might move Brad, my handsome sorrel equine partner and plot-development guru. I’ve visited Nelson Cutting Horses and Saddle Mountain Cattle Company before. I felt drawn to its state-of-the-art stable, sweeping fields and covered arena. Perfect for keeping a horse clean and slick, and a rider sheltered, during the punishing days of our cold, wet winters and sizzling summers.

Plus there was the prospect of riding a grand 300 acres of irrigated pasture and exploring the tree-lined banks of the Applegate River — a fish-rich tributary of the mighty Rogue. Big skies, picturesque green hills, lush pastures for black Angus cow-calf pairs that roam at will. All this and a clean, well lighted stable, too. What wasn’t to love?

My only sticking points were, as before, the depth of the arena footing (deep, for cutting horses), a community tack-room where one’s saddle, etc. could be “borrowed” at any time by a guest or another boarder, and that there might not be like-minded souls to ride with.

Don’t get me wrong. I have loved keeping The Bradster (Shiny Good Bar) — the semi-retired Western show horse seen on my “Saddle Tramps” book cover – the past two years at Cedar Tree Stables near town. It’s beautiful, too, and features perfect footing in the outdoor (only) arena and grassy arena-trail course. The stable is clean and safe with outdoor pens for every horse. But most times I ride alone, as other owners have other priorities. And I ride outdoors only, even in extreme weather. If the other horses are turned out, Brad has to stay out with no shelter: He freaks at being the only horse in the barn!

All this circled around my mind again as I drove the packed-gravel drive along the river toward Saddle Mountain’s stable and arena. The pastures spread away to a forested ridge to my right. The giant, rolling Rainbird sprinklers were arrayed sparingly. Black cattle dotted the grassland. A red-tailed hawk picked at his ground-squirrel breakfast on a boulder by a watering hole.

An “aaahhh” feeling filled my heart and made me smile. Would this be our new home? Would this be enough to seal my decision to relocate Brad? However, despite the ranch’s beauty, I still had reservations, as  noted. Would I, would he, be happy here?

Then I saw the dozens of pickups and horse trailers parked outside the arena. Riders coming and gong. There was a monthly barrel race set to begin! I parked, walked into the stable and met a darling younger woman, Katie, who boarded there. “I love it,” she beamed, saying she rides her older Paint horse often in the fields and beside the river. I learned the tack-room situation might be improved, and that Brad could be legged-up (conditioned) to stay sound in the arena footing.

Climbing into the small covered grandstand that overlooks the arena, I was surprised to see and chat with a longtime, horsey artisan-friend, Spirit, who’d brought her daughter to the races. The excitement and camaraderie there were electric. Here were my people — all ages, active, outdoorsy, fit and dedicated to The Sport of the Horse!

As I prepared to leave, I spied a quartet of young women sitting their horses outside the arena wall, looking across it at the barrel-racing action. They radiated youthful energy, fearlessness,  can-do attitude. Sixty years ago, I was one of those girls. (Still am, in my opinion.)

That did it. Hey, Nelson Cutting Horses & Saddle Mountain Cattle Company? Brad and I are so THERE. Or we will be in a few weeks. I can hardly wait.

Change and experiment are good. They open minds, spur growth. But nothing compares with the feeling of being where you belong, being among your own — be they riders, readers or writers.

The Duck-feet Goblet

How can odd collectibles inspire? How can freaky yet treasured objects have the power to, well, power us forward? Surely you own some strange little something that’s followed you from place to place, that’s evoked a succession of smiles or head-shakes. You have no idea why you still have it. Why you snatched it from someone, once. Why you haven’t just pitched it out. Yet you know you will keep it forever, and in a place of honor, no less!

It’s that way with my duck-feet goblet. Obviously crafted in the freewheeling 1970s by some slightly deranged artisan, it’s just wrong. An art object that raises objections. Funny, yet not.

I think much of the appeal relates to the memories it stirs. Back in my own freewheeling 1970s I kept my horses at Jeanne and Chuck Wolfe’s Bridlewood Stables near Seattle. I wrote fast and furiously for The Seattle Times, enjoying some notoriety, mostly good. We horse-pals gathered at the owners’ home every Christmas for a Barn Party that featured fabulous food and a fast-paced White Elephant gift exchange. We brought wrapped presents — weird or recycled stuff being highly prized — and rolled dice to make our selection. We could choose an unwrapped gift, or take somebody else’s unwrapped one. And take it again until time ran out.

That duck-feet goblet first claimed by Boots Leonard was the coolest thing I had ever laid my peepers on! Purposeful, hand-crafted, funny. Never mind the “ick” factor. I had to have it.

We went around the circle rolling dice, taking gifts, for an hour. We were twenty people. I took the goblet, but Boots kept taking it back. When the clock stopped she had it. I was crestfallen. Then she rose, walked over and handed it to me. I felt grateful and humbled.

Yes, I still smile and shake my head at the goblet, forty years later. Yes, it is an emblem of its time, of the friends, the aesthetic and the hopeful energy of days that still dance and glow in memory. But it is also more. It represents myself — a slightly odd but capable artist going her own way, IN her own way, eliciting her own smiles and followers.

Bonus: The duck-feet goblet, like the artist, stands in its own truth, holds a universe of ideas, is a testament to friendship, and owns its uglier aspects while working for a higher purpose.

Maybe.

Well, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!

WALKING THE DOGS

Or are they walking me? I’m never quite sure. My intent is to give the Three Little Bat-Eared Pig Dogs (AKA Boston Terriors) fresh air, exercise, and sniffing, marking and elimination opps. They are indoor dogs, in case you haven’t guessed. Thin-coated, snub-nosed wusses. Northwest Lesser Knee Sloths.

They have their small outdoor dog-yard for early morning and evening “business” trips. Fenced, bark-covered areas beyond back door and deck. But there’s nothing like the wide open spaces down and beside our wild and winding half-mile private lane.

The dogs are on leash, of course. We’ve spotted coyotes on previous walks. Don’t want my precious pups wandering off to become lunch for the wild ones. But I give the BTs plenty of free rein. Stop where they want, follow them to this shoulder or that bush, occasionally venture into a field or forest — though not too far from our lane

Ahh, the sweet-smelling morning air scented with essence of grasses, wild flowers, oaks, blackberry vines and … Morning! The calls of the towhee and flicker. The feeling of peace and possibility that fills me as my body responds with purpose or repose to the whims of the dogs.

It reminds me of novel-writing. (Face it: Many things remind me of novel writing, as that’s my main occupation these days.) I start fresh and hopeful, open to promise and possibility. Maybe even with a plan or envisioned path. I cruise blithely forward, until …

Yank! A jerk on the leash, and I step into a course change. Thunk! I come to a dead stop. Bam! A steady pull, and I reverse direction as my characters investigate some heretofore unnoticed but fascinating arrangement of bark and leaves — hiding poop under it. Big poop. Maybe not even neighbor-dog poop. Looks like bear, to me.

Has this ever happened to you? To your best-laid plans for a walk, a visit, a writing project? Don’t all raise your hands at once. That’s right. Plans are meant to be changed. Givens, meant to be not-so-much. It’s called L-I-F-E.

And dog-walking. You pick up the leash, take a deep breath, let it out slowly, and follow where the Little Bat-Eared Pig Dogs go. You keep to a general path or guiding plan. They (and your conscious and subconscious) wander at will or whim along that lane.

But you also allow for pit stops, course changes and sweet or not-so-sweet surprises. That’s called serendipity. Alternately, “Going with the Flow.” So to speak.

This approach worked for my New West mystery, “Saddle Tramps.” And it’s worked for my upcoming sequel, “Over the Edge.” So I have to keep at it.

My takeaway? Loosen or tighten the leash, as needed. How the dogs and I get where we’re going is as important at getting there. What we discover along the way may be mundane, but it also may be priceless. At very least, worthy of inspection. It’s what the dogs say. They know more than we think!

WHEN AUDIENCES ATTACK!

A writer hates when audiences at her author readings begin to fidget. She worries when — right before she “gets to the good part” — one or two listeners begin to murmur mutinous words. But she really begins to eyeball the nearest exit or fortify herself against hurled brickbats (whatever those are) when listeners’ heads begin to loll. That’s a sure tipoff that revolt is imminent. She’d better kick up her game or the audience will kill with spoiled fruit, uncomprehending stares and glass-shattering snores.

This experience is not unique to writers. Anyone who throws themselves and their work out there in front of God and everybody, is vulnerable. Speech makers, athletes, even drum soloists. Make a wrong move or inflection, and a previously indulgent crowd turns ugly.

Unless you are a natural-born performer, doing book readings is a learning process. One with a stupidly steep curve, and no escape. Once underway in a scheduled event, you grin and bear up, changing course as you go. You attend those golden moments when listeners’ eyes are open and bright, when coughing is suspended.

I remember one bookstore event where, after I briefly explained the book’s plot and to-be-read scene, I noticed I had chosen a passage that was fun for ME to read. It followed that if it were fun for me to share and re-experience, it was fun for the audience. They keyed not merely on the words or how they were stitched together. But they also took their cue from my reaction to the words. If I were enjoying, so would they!

Of course my enjoyment had to be real, not faked. They knew if I were “acting.” So I always pick passages that make ME laugh, cry, learn something, or figuratively be in the setting — whether to linger or to escape.

In another reading, this time for a book club, I used what I learned about picking and enjoying scenes. I also began to edit out words or re-cast phrases as I went. Rewriting on the fly. Your book is never polished enough!

A third reading, this time at a large bookstore, showed clearly that a reader’s time is money. You don’t do it right, you won’t make money. There were a lot of people, I was sharing the hour with several other writers, and I had to make a big impact in a short time. So. I chose to keep short the sections I read aloud, and chose only the best — with action, humor and bits of fascinating intel. Did what TV and radio people call “sound bites.” Not as short as in electronic media. But definitely interesting, stand-alone mini-thoughts and mini-scenes. Even if it meant deleting words, changing phrases or deleting some things altogether.

Above all I saw that I must also prime my audience for pleasure. Encourage listeners to care for me as a person, and about my book as an experience they might undergo. I share a bit about my background and motivation — only a bit. About my struggle to be published, my newspaper background,  about how my love of animals informs my work. Then I tell how the book’s setting and characters are real, relatable. If my action unfolds in Oregon’s Rogue Valley, I help my listeners see and feel it. Because my character uses wit, perseverance and daring to address difficulty, I spend a moment on that.

The cardinal rule of author readings: ABHOR TO BORE! You’re not only providing info on a book. You are also building a relationship with readers. It’s been said before, but it is worth repeating: You only have one chance to make a good first impression.

Or to avoid death by rotten tomato.

GET GONE, GIRL

Let’s face facts. Titles can make or break an author — at least in terms of attention, reads and sales. Regard the recent phenomenon of bestselling books with “girl” in the title. “Gone, Girl,” “The Girl on the Train,” are examples. “The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo,” thank you, comedian Amy Poehler!

Nowadays, EVERYONE wants to toss a girl into the title. Even me. Titles like “Saddle Girls” and “Naked Came the Girl” flare like a firework in my mind when I start contemplating titles for my books. So far, mercifully, I’ve managed to resist the girl-title urge.

Some trace the trend’s origins “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” The late Stieg Larsson’s first book in his “Girl” trilogy set the literary world on fire. Girl doplingers sprang up like mushrooms after a rain. Girls appeared everywhere and in every guise. Authors of thrillers, young adult, romance, mystery and women’s fiction, by the droves seized the “girl” title’s coat tails, and bought that new Mercedes while they awaited a spike in sales of their own books.

Let’s see if adding the word, “girl,” would enhance other titles, and make the books seem more contemporary or compelling:

“The Portrait of Dorian Gray as a Girl”

“Girl Gone with the Wind”

“The Girl Godfather”

“Jaws Girl”

You can make up, some amusing titles of your own. Such as “How To Win Friends and Influence Girls.” That’s one of my own favorite pastimes when I want to have some fun, procrastinate at writing, or both.

Actually the use of “girl” in titles is not new. Only its gonzo proliferation. For time-tested blasts from the past, see, “Girl of the Limberlost,” “Girl of the Golden West,” and “An Old-Fashioned Girl” — the last by Louisa May Alcott. And a bunch of others.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing the matter with using “girl” in your title. But isn’t it about time for another fresh, catchy word to rocket to the top of the title heap? How about “horse”?

I can see it all now … Bestseller lists fairly bursting at the seams with titles using the “H” word:

“Horse with the Pearl Earring”

“Moby Horse”

“The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Horses”

No? Think I should stop having fun and return to editing and revising my new mystery, “Over the Edge?” The sequel to “Saddle Tramps.”

Maybe I should retitle it, “Horse Girl Over the Edge” …

Klutzdom Can Kill (But Doesn’t Have To)

Have you ever dumped an entire roast turkey — drippings, stuffing and all — on the floor as you slid the pan from the oven? Knocked over a store display with a shopping cart? Slammed the car door on your raincoat hem, and then fallen hobbled to the pavement? In front of God and everybody?

Story of my life. Or, at least, of random moments in it. Moments that suddenly, dangerously, and often in horrifying slow-motion, spin out of control while I watch. Moments that turn whatever I was capably accomplishing moments before, UPSIDE DOWN.

I feel at such times like Lucille Ball of the old TV comedy “I Love Lucy.” As if someone switched the Life Switch to warp speed, making my tasks come at me too fast to handle. I stand at the candy-factory conveyor belt methodically tucking chocolates into wrappers and boxes, when said candies inexplicably stampede past me. Then I must make like a windmill-on-meth to properly do my job, even tossing candies over my shoulder and stuffing extras in my bra.

Never happened to you? Would you feel confident enough of that to take this lie-detector test?

The “little mishap” is bad enough. Oh, the horror, oh, the insanity. I stare at the mess and freeze in the moment, staring in disbelief. Then I lunge into action. So no one will know. Please let me clean this up and get out of it as if it never happened, with no one the wiser. Yes yes YES, I promise to buy that Florida swampland you so graciously offer.

Hurry, hurry, for Lucy’s sake, HURRY. It must appear as if nothing happened. So the day or evening will unfold as it should — slowly, calmly, predictably. No muss, no fuss. No harm to anyone or anything.

There. Last dripping wiped, floor sanitized, fabulously browned fowl reposing, innocent and inviting, on our best heirloom platter. Guests smiling and toting adult beverages as they drift into the kitchen to encourage the cook and ask what they can do to help? (How about making restaurant reservations? Glad they didn’t wander in a minute earlier.)

This scenario is exactly how I feel, what I fear, approaching the self-imposed deadline of May 1 for my next mystery novel, “Over the Edge.” Things are progressing slowly or swiftly, by turns. But they ARE progressing. Everything will be fine. Even if I pass that deadline a little. The reading feast will be served in good time, and it will be good. Promise.

And if it does sabotage all my dreams and best-laid plans, and slide and dump? Hey. I’ve learned from the turkey: Don’t panic. Get ‘er done. Clean up the mess, plate the feast and serve it up with a smile. Breathe, breathe. Then move on.

Hello? No one’s died yet. Except in my novels.

RIDER IN THE STORM

It’s a given. If you live on the wet side of the Pacific Northwest, and it’s not summer, you’re going to have rain. It may be fairy-fingers rain that tickles your face, whispers in your hair. A downpour that turns gardens into bogs and potholes into sinkholes. Or sideways-raging rain that flips your umbrella inside out, and power washes discarded fast-food wrappers to Nebraska and back.

Don’t get me wrong. Rain is more than welcome now, after three years of drought. But it wears on you, waking up day after day to a tattoo of drops on the windows and skylights. Waiting for this fingernails-on-blackboard sound to lessen or stop. Hunkering long, dark hours indoors to write, read or indulge in other indoor sports.

At some point you huff and say, “Flake it! I need daylight, fresh air and outdoor exercise. What’s a little rain?!” So you slip into your jacket, rain topper and garden clogs, and venture out to scoop puppy poo. Clean up the side yard. A chore you’ve let slide since the deluge began. Productive exercise which will make you feel better, and also encourage those welfare “companion animals” aka “dogs,” to go do their biz despite the downpour.

“Wow!” You think while you trowel up endless squishy brown blobs to toss in the bucket as water sneaks under your collar and soaks your pant legs. “Who knew three Boston Terriers could be overachievers in the animal-waste department?”

Back indoors for more hours of boredom, punctuated with moments of sheer terror when the wi-fi dies, you consider better ways to amuse yourself outdoors. You ARE outdoorsy, after all.

Maybe a little walk in the rain, no chore required, will lift your spirits. Maybe you should embrace limitations, walk with them, try to turn them into blessings. Whatever.

You suit up once again, hope springing eternal and all that. Out you go. First you slip on the wet step and barely catch yourself. Then you’re blinded suddenly by a raindrop the size of a softball. Wind buffets your body while rain soaks your socks. You head home.

Another day and night indoors. Cabin fever sets in, big time along with depression. This can’t go on. But. Are you going to give up? Let serial squalls and storms keep you down? No! Are you a wimp, or Master of Your Fate?

An hour later, dressed like a flat-hatted, poncho-togged Clint Eastwood in “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” — minus the cheroot — you stand beside your saddled horse. He shoots you a baleful look as you stare through the barn doorway at a wet curtain of Amazon-forest proportions. “REALLY?” he seems to say.

“Let’s do this,” you reply, voice firm with resolve. You swing into the saddle, arrange your riding poncho over it and part of Brad, and firmly ride out. It will be exhilarating, to ride in the storm. Energizing, to laugh at the elements when no one else is riding (except those who must, like cowboys and mounted police). Maybe even kinda fun?

Kaplop, squish, splat, go your hoofbeats around the puddled outdoor arena. Temporary blindness ensues from poncho malfunction. Water dribbles under your seat. Great: wet unmentionables.

Twenty minutes later, looking like drenched rats or Ninja mud-wrestlers, you and Brad are back in the barn. Steam rolls off your backs. Rain courses down your legs to pool at your feet. Cuss words — or in Brad’s case, green slobber — spews from your lips.

Well, you did it. Not pretty, but you did it,. Cowgirled up and rode, dammit, in the rain.

Whoa! Stop the presses. Throw a party. Strike a medal.

Riding in the rain, doing just about anything in the rain, especially endless hard rain with wind, is no picnic. It takes planning. You wouldn’t do it every day.

But you know? Sometimes you just gotta saddle up and do it. Put your head down and go. Take it as it comes. Once dried off, back in your cave and glowing with warrior pride, you see life differently. It looks a little better.

And there’s this: Riding in the storm beats the bejabbers out of boredom.

THE BOOK WHISPERER

Horse whisperers. They are a special breed, aren’t they? Able to move near a wild or fractious equine, make a simple gesture, take a certain pose and say a word or two that transforms the animal into a lap dog. Well, kinda. If it’s a very big lap. But you get my drift. Horse whisperers — and dog whisperers, thank you, Cesar Millan — seem to mysteriously persuade the timid, hesitant mouse or aggressive, fire-breathing dragon into a useful and compliant partner.

But what of the timid or hesitant BOOK that lulls a reader to sleep? Alternately, how to tame the charging word-dragon that roars into a writer’s or other artist’s brain, and threatens with one exhaled breath to immolate your entire project while still a-birthing?

Cue the “Book Whisperer.”

A book whisperer knows how to get the story’s (read: author’s) attention and respect. He or she can persuade a book-in-progress to bend to his/her will and wisdom so that it moves the way it should to share a life-truth through good storytelling, but also to connect positively with readers and make them excited to open that book again.

If you are lucky, you will have such a wizard in your contacts. Or you will be referred to someone with a knack for rooting out the problem with your creation. With the experience to confront it in the right way. And with the grit to fearlessly march in and split an infinitive if it sounds right, or end sentences with a preposition, if that’s what’s called for. Hey, if you don’t rattle a few grammatical cages, how do you put your unique writing brand on the fiction beast?

But, you say, I cannot find, or worse, AFFORD, a book whisperer.

A good writing friend or critique group can whisper, even shout, if necessary. Monday Mayhem, my own band of published-souls in Southern Oregon, has played this role often in my ten years in the fiction trenches. “Here, you solve your heroine’s problem much too quickly and conveniently. Coincidence overload.” Or, “There, your sentences are too long, too complicated, with too many commas.” And, “I fell asleep. Cut this by half or delete it altogether. It adds nothing to your plot or characters.”

I am happy to say I also play “whisperer” for those in my critique group.

However sometimes in the process of writing and editing — between critique sessions or just for the hell of it — the plot balks. It sinks into a sulk. It will NOT move forward nicely, or crashes into the fence when I urge it forward.

At such times I have no choice. I must take a calming breath, pull on my big-cowgirl boots and become my own book whisperer.

First, I size up the problem. Then I break it into doable chunks. Zero in on the point of where it all went rogue, often in a simple bit of dialog or a thought. If I massage it, change a word or sentence, point it in another direction, will this section work? If I just cut the offending parts, maybe the rest will relax and behave as it should. I fiddle, I tweak, or I crack the whip. The doing, the trying this or that in escalating increments, does the trick. Fretting, overthinking, doesn’t.

Sometimes we need shouting or other extreme measures to affect change. It gets attention. It occasionally works. But many times, not so much. Neat to know.

Eureka! This found or re-found incremental approach, backed up by knowledge and assurance, works for writing. Better, it can be applied to other challenging life situations. Like, say, cake-baking, child-rearing and nation-shaping — not to draw too many parallels between these. I wouldn’t want to get trampled here.

Best, strong whispering encourages that which is being being whispered to — whether a horse, a book or a fractious person — to actually listen, take their reactions down a tick and maybe learn to whisper some on their own. Everyone wins. Awesome,

GOING MY WAY?

“MAIN CHARACTERS: YOU DO EVERYTHING YOU CAN TO RAISE THEM RIGHT, AND AS SOON AS THEY HIT THE PAGE THEY DO ANY DAMN THING THEY PLEASE.”

They’ll do it almost every doggone time. You grab a cup of coffee, fire up the PC, make sure the dogs are curled comfortably under your desk, and start finger-dancing on your ergonomically correct keyboard. Reading and editing back a chapter or so. Finally picking up where you left your hero or heroine the day before.

If you’re lucky, and “the moon is in the seventh house,” your characters walk or run here and there with purpose. They look this way and that, including inward. They have engaging adventures and interactions, They move your outlined plot along. Until they don’t.

Suddenly they veer off course, drawn by the gloomy or glittering horizon, or plunged into a calamity, conversation or contemplation you hadn’t planned. Things were getting a little dull in the writing anyway. You needed something to break it up, shake it up. What the heck, you think. Let’s embark on this side road and see where it takes us. And you give your character a green light. Maybe even a sturdy shove.

It goes well for a half-dozen pages. You see sides of the heroine you never expected, SHE  never expected, but that add enormous complexity and appeal.

What serendipity, you think. I’m a better writer than I thought. This book is gonna be killer.

Alternately, it’s gonna kill YOU. Or die trying.

“Pull up! Pull up,” shouts that small, not-so-still voice. “Get out, before it’s too late!” You know you’re about to crash and burn if you keep going off course, out of gas. But you are slow to realize it and take corrective action. It was all going so well …

I’ll give you an example from a near-death experience I had in a work-in-progress, the sequel to my “Saddle Tramps” mystery featuring ex-reporter Pepper Kane.

One minor character, my heroine’s adult daughter, Chili, about two-thirds through the book, with several other pressing dramas unfolding, calls to tell her mom she is pregnant — unwed, older, unemployed and bedding a MidEast immigrant who’s dumped her before.

I wrote on, digging myself deeper. Pepper with yet another problem. This was getting really good. I thought.

Lucky for me, the writer’s guardian angel wrote to the rescue before it was too late. She whispered in my ear after only two pages of this Chili silliness. I am not always that lucky!

The angel put this thought in my fevered brain: “Hold on, Chili! You have an interesting challenge. But not in THIS book. This is not Women’s Fiction, but a New West cozy mystery. Your mom has a horse to show, love issues of her own, and several bigger mysteries to solve. Later, Gator!”

Chili sank into a pout, but finally sucked it up and behaved. I told her that her condition was a false alarm, anyway, so why mention it?

I like to give characters free rein. But not NO rein.

Other examples of character independence-gone-wrong abound. Pepper had a small string of coincidences that helped her solve a mystery too early in the book. I figure she was just being lazy. Hey. I can relate.

Another time, her lover, Sonny Chief, was going to share in detail about his own adult kids, and about his important role at a Native American protest. I said, “Do it on your own time, Officer Chief. We love you almost as much as Pepper does, but it’s her story, after all!”

This gives you a notion of how writers deal with some of a book’s thornier issues. And maybe it also aligns with some of your own writerly, life-erly challenges.

The quote up top is true not only for writers, but also for just about everyone who tries to create something or make things better — including kids, Boston terriers, even themselves. Here’s to guardian angels. And to making the right calls!

PLEASE FEED THE AUTHOR

Can an author write in a vacuum? No, Silly, not that kind of vacuum, where you and your tablet climb inside this dark, stinky cloth bag, yell for someone to hit the switch, and pound out words while a tornado pounds your bones. Although I like that image of a writer fighting the odds to bring something fresh, clean and elemental to light.

No. The vacuum I have in mind is a metaphorical one, if that’s the word. Rhetorical? A vacuum of space and time where you are literally and physically alone. You write, outline, write, fix and write some more. You spend hours, days and entire years, perhaps, butt in chair, making that story, reading it over, crossing out, refining, and writing some more. Word by word. Draft by draft. Paragraph by plodding paragraph. Alone. Very alone. With no one else evaluating, or offering suggestions, helping you brainstorm through dead spots. No one saying Professor Henry Higgins’ famous words, “By Jove, I think she’s got it!”

By the way — see how easily we wordsmiths are distracted? — those words should be credited not to the egotistical manipulator of English gutter-girl Eliza Dolittle in “My Fair Lady,” but to playwright George Bernard Shaw, whose “Pygmalion” inspired the classic musical.

But back to our vacuum and how a writer fares in one. Some can write in a vacuum. And write quite well, yay for them! I am not one of these. Not yours truly. Not Author Dearest.

Don’t get me wrong. I closet myself, earplugs in place, for crazy short or stupid long stretches at a time. Grind out paragraphs and pages with no company or interruption. Move forward steadily and pridefully in this world I’m making on the keyboard or on paper. Believe, really believe, that what I’ve written is the second-best thing since sliced bread. Or wedding cake.

But sooner or later the party’s over. I begin to feel it, then I know it. Something isn’t working, Or maybe it isn’t working as well as it could. I am at a loss as to how can it be made better. More important, how will a random reader perceive the piece? Because, after all, I write to be … READ. Not only read, mind you, but also enjoyed. Hello?

That’s when I realize I need feedback. Intelligent honest feedback. Can’t live without it. Because all writers, maybe even Steven King, possess glaring blind spots about their own writing. We all have those favorite storylines, scenes, characters we are loathe to cull or discipline, though the project would be better for it.

Another set of eyeballs is invaluable. Maybe several sets. Someone or several ones to speak up when that loose child is screaming or cannonballing through the grocery store. Someone to offer an encouraging, empowering word when it behaves like an angel. So to speak. Someone to say whether what you’ve written actually works, is worth a reader’s time and energy. Maybe even someone to give alternatives and solutions. A way out, a way forward.

I am happy to say I actually have a whole bunch of such someones. They kept me on the strait and narrow, or tried to — I have my own opinions and ideas, after all — in the writing of “Saddle Tramps.” And they are still doing so as I write the sequel book and present parts of it for their unblinking inspection.

So. I hereby rear back and holler a huge shout-out to the friends, lovers and total strangers who read my work and continue to give honest reviews in person, email or (THANK YOU!) on Amazon and Goodreads.

I give a happy hoot to members of my mystery-writing critique group, Monday Mayhem. They include authors Jenn Ashton, Sharon L. Dean, Michael Niemann, Clive Rosengren, Tim Wohlforth, and *blushes* Author Dearest. Because, yes, I can be my toughest critic!

Finally, “Hail and Hello” to you reading this blog post whether you “like” and comment, or not. Just your being here is a kind of feedback. But do feel free to share your thoughts!