Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Old Things

I still cook with my grandmother's cast iron skillets. I use her long-handled granite ware colander almost daily to wash fruit. In her day, they were just everyday kitchen items. Today, while some might see them as collector's items, I value them for their longevity and continued usability.

I like the solid feel of things in my hand. I value a hand painted pitcher given to my mother as a wedding present, an ornately decorated jar belonging to my great grandmother, an egg scale used by one grandfather, and a bugle from another.

In these days of transitory things, of items from the dollar store, Walmart or Target that decorate your house and then are sold or thrown out with the vagaries of changing taste, I still value solid things from the past. Things made well, that are still useful fifty, seventy-five, one hundreds years later.

And sometimes, when I am filled with self-doubt about why I write, I remember that I really, really, really love books. Real Books, with a front cover and a back cover and bound pages in the middle.

Because writing, like so many things now, is becoming transitory. Blogs and interviews and emails and instant messages - it is all like so much dust in the wind. Pictures, too, are now hosted on online web servers, or kept on memory cards or computers or saved on our social networking sites. Will there be no more boxes of photos with names hastily scribbled on the back, so that future generations can hold them up and wonder who was that boy at the birthday party, and is that really Jimmy when he was five years old?

So for me, as we get ready to ring in a whole New Decade, I'm happy to say that I still like Old Things. Like this book with my grandmother's name written inside.

It has lasted more than 100 years.

And when I struggle for months and years over a novel, trying to get the words just right, I guess it's with the hope that I might be making something of value - something that will last. Maybe even 100 years or so. So that decades from now, someone from a future generation might pull one of my books from a bookshelf, carefully open the pages, and say, "Hey, my grandmother read this book a long, long time ago. Look! She wrote her name inside."

Wouldn't that be cool?

Happy New Year, Everyone, and may you all find things that you value.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Reading List

What do I love about Christmas? I get to shop. And what do I most like to shop for? Designer clothes? Nah. Expensive jewelry? Nope. Tools? Not really.

My most favorite thing to shop for and give is BOOKS.

I love to paw through bookstores, online sites, and even my own bookshelf looking for just the right reading material for everyone on my gift list. Books are easy to wrap, easy to send, they smell delicious, and they can entertain, uplift, inspire and delight.

Want to know what I got for kids on my list this year, ranging from six to sixty something? Hint, if you are reading this before Christmas and you have a package from me - STOP READING NOW so you don't spoil the surprise! With that disclaimer, here goes:

* If You Give a Cat a Cupcake, by Laura Numeroff
* Pony Scouts, Really Riding! (I Can Read Book) by Catherine Hapka
* The Underneath, by Kathi Appelt
* The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins (2 copies)
* Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer
* A Bridge Too Far, by Cornelius Ryan
* Not Your Mother's Weeknight Cooking, by Beth Hensperger
* Enjoying Where You Are On The Way To Where You Are Going, by Joyce Meyer
* The Nightly Book of Positive Quotations, by Steve Deger
* Farm Tractors, by C.H. Wendel
and finally, a book published in 1940 which you must read if you love dogs,
* Lassie Come-Home, by Eric Knight

Merry Christmas Everyone, and Happy Reading To All!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Horses and Long Winters

Last night I was complaining about the long winter, and how the chores of feeding, cleaning, and watering horses continue, day after day even when there are sometimes weeks and months when I don't ride. I miss riding. This fall, I was just getting my old horse, Buddy, back into shape and he was turning into a darn good trail mount. And then two things happened: Hunting Season, which tends to keep my out of the woods, and then Winter.

Our weather here in the Pacific Northwest doesn't look so bad as I watch the news this morning and see a blizzard barreling down on the East Coast. Still, I spent all last week bundling up like the abominable snowman just to go outside and do chores in our single digit weather. (And thank God for electric stock tank heaters).

Today, the temperature in our barn read 44 degrees. Relatively balmy, all things considered. I could almost get the old horse out and ride him, but Christmas is exactly one week away and I have so much yet to do. So instead, I clean the barn, watch old Buddy lick every last morsel from his grain pan, scratch my donkey inside her ears, and give my horse one last hug for the day.

The sun is making a brief appearance through the low clouds. Did you know that birds sometimes sing, even in the winter, if the sun comes out? And I realize that these peaceful moments with my livestock, outside in the fresh (and sometimes brisk) air are what center me in life. They are my moments of peace and of oneness with nature.

So as I gear up for a day of traffic and crowded stores and last minute shopping, and then to my computer and banging out words in my manuscript, these moments with my horse nickering softly to me, of listening to the sounds of birds waking up to their day ahead, are what give me the strength to get through life.

Riding is one of the enjoyments of owning a horse. But oh, there are so many more.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Beatles

The other night I watched Paul McCartney on television, in a replay of a concert last summer at Shea Stadium in New York City. It brought back a lot of memories. The old boy still has the chops.

I use the term "old" loosely, because although he's a few years older than I am, we are basically from the same generation. The Beatles were huge back in their day. Their music has had such a lasting influence on generations to come, and I can't think of anyone who hasn't been impacted by one of their songs. And there seems to be a whole new generation of people who are now Beatles fans, as evidenced from the throngs of all ages of people cheering Paul on at the concert, where he played with the original Beatles 44 years ago.
The Beatles were a true phenomena, not only in music, but on our culture. Right about then was when the term "hippie" first started coming into common use. I remember when they first played on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. "Who are those mop-heads?" everyone asked. "Look at that long hair!" Yet looking at the pictures now, they were relatively clean-cut.

I was never one of the screaming, rabid fan girls adoring the Beatles. And I never saw them live in concert. (Although I was lucky enough to see Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Peter, Paul and Mary, George Strait, and Merle Haggard all live on stage.)

But I did buy and cherish their records, and I was influenced by their music. I remember being at the guitar or the piano trying to figure out the intricate chord changes in "Yesterday." This was long before you could go online and find them - there was no online :-) I remember sitting around with a group of people trying to pick out all the harmony parts to sing on "If I Fell." And smiling whenever I turned on the radio and heard "Here Comes the Sun."

The song writing team of Lennon and McCartney wrote some of the most memorable music of several generations, and it's nice to see that it's still popular. If I had to pick a favorite song, it would be hard to choose between "Yesterday," "Hey Jude," and the haunting "Norwegian Wood."

Yeah, watching Paul McCartney perform brought back a lot of memories.

So here's a question - what's your favorite Beatles song?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Book Giveaway

Don't forget! Many of you have started your Christmas shopping already. Here's a chance to win a copy of Alison Hart's latest horse book -

You have three more days!
Entries close on November 30, 2009
Simply leave a comment, or email me (info on my profile page).
Winner will be picked at random on Dec. 1st, and I'll ship the book to you for free! Easy as that!

Thanks to everyone who entered. Contest is now over and winner has been chosen. Congratulations, Katrina! We will get your book to you soon.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Meet Alison Hart

Alison Hart is the author of over 35 novels, many of them about horses. Her popular mystery Shadow Horse will be re-released in May 2010, along with the sequel, Whirlwind.

Alison - have your books been primarily of a certain genre, or for a certain age group? What draws you to write for that age group?

I like the immediacy and excitement of fiction - early chapter through YA - for young readers. However, in my long career, I have written picture books, nonfiction for educational markets and articles for adults. The variety continually improves my writing.

As a fellow horse and animal lover, I am always on the lookout for new horse books. Tell us about your life with animals, and how it colors your writing.

Having animals all my life has helped me understand and write about the emotional ties that people have with animals, yet keep scenes and situations realistic. I say the realistic part with tongue in cheek because my current early chapter book Bell's Star is written from the point of view of a horse, so realism was obviously stretched. (I've also been a cat detective and an assistance dog!)

How long does it generally take you to finish a novel? Do you find yourself working on more than one project at a time?

The amount of research required often dictates how long a book takes. The Racing to Freedom trilogy (Gabriel's Horses, Gabriel's Journey, and Gabriel's Triumph), which takes place during the Civil War, took two years to research. And even at the revision and last minute editing stages, I was fact-checking. So, yes, I sometimes work on other projects that are shorter and less research-intensive while writing longer novels.

You are a fairly prolific author, Alison, and yet I know that you also have another career - as an adjunct college instructor teaching writing, and earlier as a special education teacher. How do you structure your day to accomplish so much?

I didn't start publishing until I was teaching part time, which helps. I never could have taught full time, raised two kids, managed all the demands of publishing - research, writing, editing, marketing - and kept my sanity. I know some authors who do and I tip my pen to them! Teaching actually helps my writing and keeps me connected with the real world and real issues of literacy.

Any tips for fellow writers?

I just finished critiquing manuscripts for a SCBWI conference. Many of the pages/chapters showed a lack of understanding of not only what makes a good story, but what makes a good story for a middle grade reader, for instance. Make sure you read books for children at all levels and in all genres. Analyze dialogue, complexity of plot, chapter lengths. Then find a story to tell that excites you. Don't try and write the next Twilight unless you are crazy in love with teens and vampires. Write about your passion.

I know that you are interested in promoting literacy in children. Any ideas on how we can get them away from the television/computer/electronic games syndrome and make readers out of them?

Every author and educator needs to read the book Readicide by Kelly Gallagher. He says it all.

Of all the books you've written, do you have a favorite one? And why?

School kids often ask this question, and my answer is "the book I am writing must always be my favorite, so that you, the reader, will be as excited about reading the book as I was writing it." Right now, my favorite book is Emma's River from Peachtree Publishers, which will be out in April 2010. I just finished editing it. It's a suspenseful tale of a plucky girl and her pony surviving a steamboat explosion in 1854 on the Missouri River.

Any new books or projects you'd like to share with us?

I'm thrilled that the sequel to Shadow Horse is coming out in May 2010. Shadow Horse was published in 1999 and was nominated for an Edgar Award in 2000. I always dreamed of a sequel. Ten years later it's finally happening!

To learn more about Alison and her books please visit her website at

Book Giveaway!

Win a copy of Alison's newest book - Bell's Star.

Book Giveaway!!

This fast-paced historical novel, told in the voice of a young Morgan horse, would be a great gift for any young horse lovers on your Christmas list. To enter, leave a comment on this post, or send me an email (check my profile page) by November 30, 2009. I will randomly draw the winner on December 1st. Okay?

Alison, thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts with us!!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Donkeys and the Publishing Business

Okay, I promised you a post on how owning donkeys prepares you for the publishing business. And if you are just a little bit sharp, you might have guessed that both are SLOW AS MOLASSES!
But wait. There's more. Much more. First, a primer on donkeys.

Donkeys have a bad rap for being stubborn. Slow, stubborn, and some people even say ornery. But as someone who has owned and raised lots of donkeys, I feel compelled to say that donkeys are not mean, and neither are they stubborn.

Donkeys are some of the sweetest animals on earth. If you treat them right, using patience and kindness, they will do almost anything for you. (Hopefully like agents and editors).

Donkeys come by the reputation for stubbornness in comparison to their equine cousin, the horse. Horses and donkeys are similar in many ways, but their response to an unknown or uncomfortable situation is different. Horses often have a nervous, skittery flight reaction when they see something new. Donkeys, on the other hand, have a freeze reaction to new things. They stop, think, and process everything before deciding which way to go. Basically, the donkey takes its time and thinks things through. So I ask you, which is smarter, the horse or the donkey? Trust me, it's the latter.

Okay, back to the publication business. How many of you have waited eons for a response, running to the mailbox or frantically checking your email after sending off your manuscript/query/1st three chapters/ proposal to some editor/agent/publishing house? Are you driving your mail person nuts? Have you developed carpal tunnel from pressing the send/receive button every 5 seconds? Here's some advice. Go spend time around some donkeys, and learn to develop PATIENCE.
Yes, dear reader, Patience is the magical trait needed for success in the publishing business. (Well, a modicum of talent and luck help also).

It may take months for your query to be answered, months for a decision to be made by a publishing house, and then if you are lucky enough to finally get something accepted, more months of polishing, waiting on editors, waiting on cover art, waiting on . . . well you get the idea.

And pushing things is just not the answer.

PATIENCE is a good trait to have in life anyway. From standing in line at the grocery store (or waiting to get your swine flu shot) to the behemoth slowness of the publishing industry, it is best not to let it get you down. Breathe. Write something new. Be like a donkey. Realize that everything happens in it's own sweet time.

If you want to know more about donkeys, here are some GREAT donkey sites:

And stay tuned, right here, for a guest blog by author Alison Hart, featuring a giveaway of her latest book - a horse story!

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Amazing Internet

Yes, the Internet is an amazing place, isn't it? And I, who always considered myself Ms. Natural and was never one for techie stuff, now thoroughly enjoy it.

It is my first choice for immediate information: I don't like watching news on television in the morning because it's noisy and it takes up too much time. I turn on my computer and get all the headlines right on one page, in about 10 seconds. If I want to find out exercises for sciatica or treatments for laminitis or the weather in Waikoloa, Hawaii, I can find it online. If I read a great book and want to check out the author and find what else they've written, if I can't remember the words to that song that keeps floating through mind, then it's google time.
I got my agent online. I found her on a site that lists agents accepting new clients I emailed her my query letter and she emailed back asking for three chapters and a synopsis. Then she phoned and emailed me again, requesting the full manuscript. With just a few clicks of a mouse, my novel flew all the way across the country and right onto her computer screen. (Hint - don't try this unless she requests your ms. She's good with the delete button ;-0)

Because of the Internet, I found the best dog in the world (shelter dogs rule)
and adopted a sweet young cat who had spent half his life in a cage.

I know - who could resist this face?

With social networking, I have met new writing friends and new animal-loving buddies, as well as reestablished connections with old friends with whom I've been out of touch. I have found critique partners online, found the perfect new home for a donkey and made dear friends with people who I might never have rubbed shoulders with if it wasn't for the open walls of the Internet.

And since writers are always on the look-out for new words (especially verbs) who would have known several years ago that we'd all be using "googled, friended, blogged, and facebooked" as verbs? You know, as in, "hey, I'll facebook you?"

Pretty neat, indeed. Yep, I'll admit it. This self-proclaimed nature girl is now an Internet junkie. But now I've got to quit blogging and actually get something done.

So you tell me, what cool things have happened to you on the Internet??

Sunday, November 1, 2009


Today is the first day of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). For those of you who have no clue what I'm talking about - it's a loose organization of crazy people egging each other on to write a 50,000 word novel in one month's time. You'd think they'd have picked a month with 31 days, wouldn't you? You know, like January, March, or May. But no, instead, they up the ante, trying this silly stunt in a period from November 1-30, with a major holiday (Thanksgiving) thrown in right towards the end.

Actually I am so, so jealous of the people who attempt this (including several writing friends and critique buddies - LOL). The idea is to keep your internal editor at bay, and just write lots and lot and lots of words which can later be cut, edited, re-arranged and improved, and maybe even turned into something of value. I only wish I was so motivated.

Instead, I have set my own goal for November. I have a new middle-grade manuscript which I love. It was coming fast and furiously to me last summer, and I hashed out 20,000 words so quickly I almost felt like a real, bona-fide writer. But then I got bogged down in STUFF and stopped writing. Oh. Horrors. Will it lay unfinished on my desk, so that we never find out what happens to David, Olive, and the yellow dog? (Not to mention the peacock and the boys on the raft).

No, I say. No. I will finish this novel (which is good, by the way :-)) I will hash out and complete the dreaded middle third of this novel by November 30, come Hell or High Water. (Trust me, around this neck of the woods, it could definitely be High Water.)

Okay, so here I go. By November 30, I should be past the middle, and ready to write the big, climactic last third of the novel (which is loosely formulated in my mind.) Unless of course, my characters decide to veer off in some unknown direction - which is always a risk. Try and stay with the program, will you, characters?

Okay, wish me luck! Ready, set, write . . .

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Snapshots in My Mind

Writers notice things. I often think we'd make good detectives. Whether it's the violet-green swallow colony flocking on a wire before they wing their way south, the exact color a tree glows red just before it drops its leaves in the first wintry blast, or the way a young soldier in the sandwich shop talks bravely about his deployment but won't look anyone directly in the eye. Writers notice things, and make mental snapshots of them, tucked away to use at a later date.

When my uncle found out I'd become a writer he said, "oh yes, that makes sense - you were always the quiet one." Quiet maybe, to the external world, but always watching, always jotting things down for later use in the back of my mind.

Just like photographers enjoy capturing and recording the moment in a photograph, just like artists enjoy portraying colors and feelings in all kinds of various media, writers capture moments, too. We save them in our minds, waiting for a later time when we attempt to describe them in our chosen media - words.

Recently, in the middle of a nice discussion, my mind wandered to a spider crawling on the wall. In a very short period of time the spider crawled up to the ceiling and halfway across. Yuck, some of you might be thinking. Squish him, get that spider out of there! (I almost never squish spiders. Usually I help them crawl onto a towel, walk them quickly to the front door, and then shake them off outside with good wishes for a nice life.)

But I was fascinated by this spider's journey, and my reaction to it, and kept thinking how I could use that in a scene. Perhaps one of my characters is having a nice discussion, a nice moment with someone, when she suddenly gets interested in a spider crawling along the ceiling. Does the person she is with get upset at her for not listening? Do they get in an argument over the importance of the life of a lowly spider? Does one of them stomp off, and everything in their relationship changes from that very moment?

I was not only watching the spider, but making up scenes in my head about it.

My mother bought me a cool sweatshirt that reads: Careful, or you'll end up in my novel. Maybe it should actually read: Careful, creative mind taking notes.
Do you take snapshots in your mind? What kinds of things do you notice?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Spotted Donkey Babies

Because my last post was so long and wordy - here's a short one you will love.

See? I knew you'd like it.

Jasmine and Buttons, donkey babies I raised a few years ago.

Stay tuned for an upcoming post about how owning donkeys prepares you for survival in the publishing business.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

In Praise of Critique Groups

I have been part of a fantastic critique group for several years. I cannot sing its praises high enough. We are an eclectic group, and we write all kinds of stuff - from dark science fiction to fluffy cozies, from middle grade to murder mysteries, from young adult to women's literature, with even the occasional picture book thrown in.

Although our membership has been somewhat elastic over the past several years, we have quite a solid base right now of around six to seven people, and usually we have five or six actively participating in each meeting.

I have been involved in other critique groups in which members read their work aloud. Afterwards, we all go around the circle and make comments. Sometimes the writer would hand copies around for everyone to read and make notes on, and sometimes not. This format works well for, say, picture books, which are meant to be read aloud, but for longer work, this doesn't really suit me. For one thing, I'm not so good composing my thoughts out loud, off the cuff. I like to take my time and think about what I want to say. And secondly, my mind is used to reading words, and processing them in that way, not hearing them.

My present critique group works in a different way, which I have found so helpful to my writing. Each week, if we have a manuscript we've been working on, we submit a chapter or two, with copies for everyone. These we take home, read at our leisure, make notes on, and write a short critique for the submitter, to be discussed at the next meeting. When our brain cells are all firing, and we are all actively submitting, this can be a lot of homework!! And indeed, we have inadvertently chased some people away from joining our group, because it is, indeed, for serious writers. But with written critiques to look back on, I can pick up a manuscript I am working on at a later date, and still have all the notes from my fellow critiquers to help me in my next round of edits.

Our group met for several years without a name. Our writing genres were all over the board. How could we come together and pick a name? But at one productive brainstorming session, we realized that we were all working hard because we had one common goal: To Be Authors. Hence, a name popped up- the TBA group. And this name, and goal, has served us well in describing our group to potential members. If a writer has a completed manuscript, and has been actively seeking publication (or indeed has been published) then they might be a good fit.

What do I get from my critique group? Oh, lots and lots and lots . . .

For starters, it's a time when I don't feel crazy. When I can associate with people as nutty as me, who will stop anywhere, anytime, in the middle of the night or day, to somehow find a pen and jot down those perfect, important, beautiful WORDS that just floated across our brains.

Second - knowing that I have to write critiques keeps me writing. Sometimes, the critiques I write for other members are the Only Intelligent Thing I've written all week. So yeah, that's a good thing.

Third - I love our long-winded, over-the-top, brilliant and sometimes even loud discussions about imaginary characters and events we have invented on paper. We get so carried away we are often afraid a librarian might open the door to our meeting room and shush us. Our characters spring to life off our pages, and we are thoroughly engaged in their struggles .

Fourth - we learn so much from reading each other's writing. All writers, brilliant or not, make grammar mistakes, write horrid sentences, often don't say what they really mean the first time around. Watching (and reading) other people struggle with these things allows us to pick out those same mistakes in our own work. It also allows us to feel validated and not alone (as in, hey, I'm not the only one who writes crappy first drafts, hee hee.)

Fifth - it is so helpful to have a variety of people discuss your work. Some of us point out little nit-picking details that need to be changed. Others point out transitions, or chapter endings, or character descriptions that could be better. And some of us can see the bigger picture - like, what was it you were really trying to say in this piece?

Sixth - the other nice thing about having several different people read your work is you realize how subjective this business is. For every scene or description or dialogue passage one of us does or doesn't like, we often have someone else pipe up and say "oh, I loved that part!!" This is such an important lesson to learn, and gives us heart and hope to keep writing in our own voice. Of course, if your entire critique group agrees that something needs to be changed, than perhaps you'd better give it a harder look :-)

Last - but certainly not least (I could think of many more reasons I love my critique group, but this post would be too long) is TRUST. It is not often you can sit down with a group of people you only see twice a month, and trust them with something so personal and precious as a FIRST DRAFT!! Here (you think to yourself, as you hand them the first couple of chapters), here are hours and hours of time spent in front of that blasted computer screen, time trying to compose my thoughts, time pouring words out into the universe, hoping they will mean what I say and say what I mean, hoping these words will somehow, somewhere touch someone, make them laugh, or cry, make them think, or possibly UNDERSTAND. Here, you say, is my precious FIRST DRAFT. Treat it like you would a newborn anywhere, gently and honestly and with great compassion. And you know what? As I let go of those pages and pass them around the table, I TRUST my critique group to do just that.

I wish all of you luck in finding a critique group that meets your needs.

I don't know what I would do without mine.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Update on Buddy, The Old Horse

Many of you were touched by my post, A Hole in My Heart, where I talked about bringing home an old, thin horse. So I thought I'd post an update, to tell you how he's coming along. Buddy was given to me, for free, as a rehabilitation horse: a horse that needed a barn for the winter and lots of groceries. Tomorrow, October 1st, I will have owned Buddy for exactly six weeks. Here is what has transpired in that time.

The first thing I did was fill his manger with grass hay. Buddy ate at the manger for awhile, then grazed on the pasture, then took a long drink of water, then ate at the manger, well, you get the picture. The old horse was hungry!!

And that very first night, I called my farrier. Buddy walked very gingerly, and I could not tell if it was arthritis, other lameness issues, or sore feet. To alleviate the tenderness from being barefoot, I decided to have him shod. My horseshoer luckily had a cancellation, and came out the very next day and put shoes on the old horse, who stood there like a trooper while new shoes were nailed on. Buddy immediately began moving better, and I started him on a program of hand walking - first short walks around our property, and then longer walks through the woods. Eventually I took him up and down a few hills, to build up his muscle tone and strength. This horse was so thin I felt too sorry to ride him. Besides, with the little information I had on him, it sounded like he had basically been standing around for years, with very little riding. So I worked on building up his wind, and making him stronger.

What did Buddy eat in the six weeks that I've owned him? Well, everything he could get him teeth around. In almost all the pictures I have of him, he has his head down eating. I kept grass hay in the manger free choice, which meant he could basically eat as much as he wanted. I went sparingly on the alfalfa, which is very rich, and I wasn't sure he could digest it. Instead, I invested in some bags of Purina Equine Senior, a product specifically designed for older horses. This set me back (with tax) about twenty bucks a bag, but it has produced amazing results. (Thank you, Purina, and if you want to send me some coupons, you can!) In six weeks, we have gone through three bags of Equine Senior. I also started Buddy on a product called Legacy pellets, which has all kinds of good stuff like glucosomine, chondroitin, and other good things for his old arthritic joints.

I noticed a difference in Buddy's condition in just a couple of weeks. When I first got him, I could count eight ribs showing along his side. Besides that, his butt, his back, and his neck were wasting away with lack of flesh. Although not the skinniest horse I had ever seen, he was pretty pitiful. I put a weight tape around his barrel shortly after I got him, and he weighed in at 1050 lbs. This is more than I would have guessed, but he is a big boned horse, and lanky, and that probably accounted for the weight.

I began to measure his success by the ribs showing. After not too long I could only count six ribs, and then five. He was making progress. One month after I got him, I put the weight tape on him to make sure my eyes were not deceiving me. He weighed 1130 lbs. Yes!! He WAS gaining weight. But the best thing is that he was putting weight on his back, his topline, his neck, and his butt. After a few weeks, I felt he was strong enough to ride again. I began saddling him, and he stood there perfectly calmly.

So imagine my surprise when I climbed on him (I think it was the second time) and he bucked! Yes, bucked! I did not know whether to laugh or cry. Apparently he felt better, but I had wanted an old, calm horse with no training issues. Now that this horse felt better, was he showing his true colors? But I kept working with Buddy, giving him an opportunity to show his kind side. He bucked once more with me, but it seemed to be a bluff - perhaps something he used in his past life to buffalo a novice rider or a young girl when he didn't want to be ridden.When it didn't work, he seemed to give up, and decided that it was okay to just walk out quietly and behave.

Here's where we are today - Buddy is proving to be a kind, sweet horse that gets along with everyone. He has progressed to carrying me on calm rides through the woods behind our house. I still hand walk him occasionally, because he needs the exercise and so do I. He is pretty stiff going down very steep hills, but does great uphill and on the flat. Today, he weighs 1190 lbs. I am going to cut back on the Equine Senior just a tad until he reaches what I think his ideal weight should be - about 1250 lbs. When I first brought him home, he looked like a quarter horse/thoroughbred cross, or even part standardbred. Now, with more weight on him, he looks pretty much all quarter horse. Compare two pictures of him at the top of this post with the two at the bottom. Barely looks like the same horse, does it?

I am thrilled that he has gained this much weight before winter. Our rainy season has only just begun, and our pasture has started to grow. Buddy is eating less grass hay now, and eats pasture about 20 hours a day. (This is about what horses in the wild do). I will continue to supplement his feeding as he needs it, but I have high hopes that he will thrive on our lush pasture, with grass hay, Equine Senior, and Legacy pellets as added nutrients.

And now that his weight is in a respectable range, I will continue his saddle training, and see how much he really knows (or remembers). It is hard for me to look at the photos I took six weeks ago - to see how skinny he was when I got him. But he looks great today. I'm guessing the old horse is between 20 and 25 years old, and with a little more riding, will turn into the kindly old gentleman that I've been looking for to carry me around the woods from time to time. At any rate, it makes my heart glad to see how handsome he has become. I hope you think so, too.

As winter looms, there are more and more free horses advertised in the newspaper and on the internet. And horse adoption centers are filled to the brim with horses needing homes. If you have the space or the pasture or the room in your heart, please consider taking in an unwanted animal and giving it a home. You will be amply rewarded.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Rhythm of Writing

I am contemplative lately. Busy, hurried, worried, and feeling slightly guilty about not getting much writing done. But only slightly guilty. Between the end of summer chores, weddings, anniversaries, and small and large crises with human and animal loved ones and other important things happening lately, I have not worked on my new manuscript in more than a month. But where I once might have beaten myself up about this, heaped more guilt on my overburdened psyche, I now take a deep breath and say "this, too, shall pass." For me, it is learning the rhythm of writing.

If we take all the advice about writing to heart, we should set aside time each day to write, even if it means getting up earlier or staying up later to do it. We should keep ourselves in the regular habit of writing, we should work on writing exercises, we should make ourselves write. Should, should, should. That word itself is guilt inducing, and I try to ban it from my vocabulary. I sometimes give myself permission to not write.

As time passes, I've learned more about myself and the writing process. I've learned that manuscripts are not necessarily linear things. With more power to those folks gearing up for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), I have put aside manuscripts for months, only to come back to them fresh, with a new way of looking at the world - perhaps the right person met, the right circumstance - lending another plot line, or a way around a nagging problem. Confident of this unusual way of finishing a manuscript, I now see a pattern that works for me.

I love being outside, and as summer turns to fall, and we have only a handful of nice days left to enjoy being outside, I relish them while I can. I know there will be many stormy, raining, cold and yucky weather days to come. Days when I will linger for hours over the keyboard with my third (or fourth or seventh) cup of coffee, trying to get my words to convey exactly what I want to say - looking for that magical phrase or brilliant sentence. Knowing those days are coming, I give myself permission to take a short break from my manuscript now - to linger, instead, in the warm rays of the sun, to wear shorts and run barefoot while I still can, to pull that last weed or walk the dog or ride my horse through the changing colors of the autumn leaves. Although an unseasonable ninety degrees is predicted for today, the first day of fall, there is a nip in the evening air, and winter will be hard on its heels, bringing with it plenty of time to write.

So I've learned that this time away from my manuscript (down time, so to speak) is never a total waste. For a creative person, time 'not writing' is time spent contemplating, percolating, mashing things around in the unknown recesses of the brain until they sometimes miraculously appear as sentences and plot lines that weave and mesh themselves almost seamlessly from fingers to keyboard at some later date.

So if I'm contemplative on one of these last warm days, I know my manuscript is still there, not too far away, lingering in the back of my mind. It's being worked on, even if not in a conscious manner.

And hopefully, when the temperature dips into the 30's, when the first big storm blows in from the Pacific, I will happily pour myself a steaming hot mug of coffee, snuggle into my desk chair, open my document, and find brilliant words and plot lines, waiting to be set down on paper. Wish me luck.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Into The Beautiful North

It's not often I fall deeply in love with a book. I read many books - lots of new middle grade and YA fiction, lots of non-fiction on topics of interest, and adult fiction that intrigues me. And I'm not necessarily faithful to each book. I'll admit that. Some - I don't read through till the end. But with all the reading I do, the last time I had an actual love affair with a book was the summer of 2008, when I read Kathi Appelt's THE UNDERNEATH. I came into my critique group exhorting its virtues. "You have to read this book," I said. "It's destined to become a classic." And I was right - it became both a Newbery Honor winner and a National Book Award finalist. I knew I was truly in love with THE UNDERNEATH when I began to read more slowly towards the end, savoring each word, not wanting it to end. The language, the mythology, the intense feelings it drew from me - this lovely book touched me, and stayed with me for many days afterwards.

In contrast, with my newest book love affair: INTO THE BEAUTIFUL NORTH, by Luis Alberto Urrea, I did not read with deliberation, but instead raced and galloped through it, enjoying every heady moment. This book captured my heart in the first few pages, and I was head over heels in love by page 18. From the fascinating premise: (a feisty young woman from a remote Mexican village, along with several naive and crazy pals, head north to the United States to bring back men to the village, before their town is overrun by banditos), to the cast of colorful characters, to the adventures and discoveries they encounter along the way - both good and evil - it all had me on the edge of my seat.
Growing up in California, I am acquainted with a smattering (un poquito) of only slightly correct Spanish - (Donde los banos?) Reading INTO THE BEAUTIFUL NORTH, I found I truly loved deciphering the Spanish phrases, slang and mixed-up Spanglish uttered by the large cast of thoroughly engaging characters. I LOVED this book! Did I say that already?

I saved the last 100 pages to read on an hour and 1/2 long airplane ride. It was just the right amount of time. The plane was only about 1/3 full, and so I had two seats to myself, and thankfully did not have to talk to anyone in the seat next to me. I gave myself over to my new love, the book, and I finished the last chapter with ten minutes left of air time, the small Horizon jet gliding smoothly towards the runway. The man in the seat in front of me stole glances backward, as I fished a hankie from my purse and wiped tears from eyes.

I did not want this book to end because I loved it. I loved the feeling of shared humanity it left me with -how all of us are alike in our wants and desires. I loved the quest the characters were on, I loved each of the thoroughly believable and crazy characters and I truly cared about what happened to them.
Okay, enough enthusing. Go get this book and read it. It's really, really good!! Did I say already that I loved it? INTO THE BEAUTIFUL NORTH, by Luis Alberto Urrea.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Horse Jar

It's here! It's here! My long awaited second middle grade novel, THE HORSE JAR, was just released by Mondo Publishing in New York. Mondo is an educational publisher, selling primarily to schools and libraries.

I'd like to share the long story leading up to publication of THE HORSE JAR, especially for those of you who are about to give up, or who have a first novel shoved in a drawer (or under the bed) for good. Please keep reading.

I wrote and completed THE HORSE JAR (well, of course, the first draft of it) in a six month period beginning in the late fall of 2001. I was, like many of us, deeply affected by the events of 9/11/2001. My words seemed frozen after that date, and other than a long treatise about my feelings on life and religion, I couldn't seem to jump into any of the writing projects I had on the table. I did not know what to write.

But I decided, finally, that I wanted to write for children, because they, the next generation, needed to feel hope. So I began a story about horses (write what you know). And about a dog. And about wanting something really, really bad. And about choices. So began my career as a children's author.

I was quite proud of myself for finishing the manuscript so quickly, and after giving it to some adults and a few children that I knew to read, and getting mostly rave reviews, I decided (naively) that is was ready for prime time. I printed up many copies, and began to ship it off to publishers. How did I decide which ones? Well, I still hadn't learned to write a query letter (or a synopsis) and didn't want to take the time to learn (quit laughing) so I simply made a list of all those publishers that accepted entire manuscripts and sent away. Sound familiar? I spent a lot of money supporting the USPS, at any rate.

Cut to several years (yes, years) later. I had now learned patience (waiting for rejection slips from publishers) and that nothing happens quickly in the publishing business. I had also learned to write a query letter, been to several children's writers conferences, joined a critique group, and revised (and re-named) THE HORSE JAR several times. The manuscript got better and better, and I actually got a few handwritten notes and suggestions on my rejections slips. What a world of hope that gave me!! But still no takers.

Meanwhile, my second manuscript, FINDING CHANCE, was chosen for publication by Mondo, and I had the thrill of working with an editor and seeing my first book published. Did I give up on THE HORSE JAR? Well, every so often I pulled it out and reread it. And you know what? I still loved the story, and the ending still gave me goosebumps. That made me dream of good things, maybe someday, for it. But I began working on other projects, other manuscripts, and finished two more novels in the interim. By this time I had sent THE HORSE JAR (or at least a query for it) to almost 50 publishers (including Mondo) with no results. I did not put the manuscript under the bed, exactly, but it sat in a box under a lot of other boxes with more recent things. Gone, but not forgotten.

So imagine my surprise when I received a letter from Mondo (on Christmas Day, believe it not, delivered to the wrong address and brought to me by a kind neighbor) asking if I had any more manuscripts. (Did they not remember I queried them about this one earlier?) Timing is everything, however, in this business, and so I immediately e-mailed the entire manuscript of THE HORSE JAR to them. And early in January of 2008, I received wonderful news. They LOVED it!! And they WANTED it!!! Oh Happy Day!

So as you read about Annie and her big dream of getting a horse of her own, remember this about dreams. Do. Not. Give. Up. Keep working for want you want. Make it better. Push. Try again.

And if you drag that first manuscript (the one you have given up on) out from under the bed every six months or so and reread it - if it still gives you goosebumps - then revise it one more time and send that thing back out. Because "it seemed to Annie that whenever things looked really bad, there was always something around the corner, sometimes surprising things, that made everything better." Yup.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Writing about Animals

Okay. Time to weigh in on animals. I write about animals a lot. They are a large part of my life. I wake up to a small calico cat sitting on my shoulder. My daily rhythms revolve around feeding, watering, and caring for animals. I am very aware of the comfort and company they provide to humans. That's probably why animals tend to creep, crawl, jump, or gallop into my books, whether I intend for it to happen or not.

Here's a list of my favorite animals in order, and why:
1) Cats - they're soft.
2) Horses - they're magnificent.
3) Dogs - they're loyal.
4) Donkeys - those wonderful, long ears.
Now I admit - some people might be upset at this list. Some of you are dog people. You let your dogs sleep in the house, and your cats sleep outside. I'm just the opposite. My cats sleep in the house (so they don't get eaten by coyotes) and my dogs sleep in a warm doghouse outside (unless it's below 25 degrees). Actually, I'd like to let my horse sleep in the house, too, but he's too big. But the fact is, I love all animals (although I'm not too keen on snakes) but the easiest ones to write about are dogs and horses.

Why is this? I can think of lots of great dog books right off the top of my head: Shiloh, Old Yeller, Because of Winn-Dixie, The Call of the Wild. I can also name tons of horse books: The Black Stallion series, Misty of Chincoteague, Black Beauty, as well as lots of more recent ones. But I can't quickly bring to mind any great cat books, except for The Cat in the Hat, but that is a picture book. I'm thinking more of middle grade and young adult fiction.

So here's a question: why are there more books written about horses and dogs, than about cats?
And if cats are my favorite animals, why don't I write about them? Well actually, I do. I have a middle grade manuscript called WALKING THE DOG which features dogs (of course), but a cat figures prominently into the story also. And my newest WIP (work in progress) will probably feature rescuing a cat as part of the plot. (It is a work in progress, however, so anything might happen).

Here are a couple of things to think about:
1) Can you think of any good children's fiction that features cats?
2) Can you list your favorite animals in order, and why?

Friday, August 21, 2009

A Hole in My Heart

I recently made the heart-wrenching decision to sell my gorgeous paint horse. He was the sports car model of the horse world: fast and quick, eye-catching and a lot of fun to ride. He was also full of himself, and needed a lot of riding. After an unforeseen hospital stay last spring, and a desire to commit more time to my writing career, my head persuaded my heart that it was time to let him go, and I found him a great home. But owning a horse means loving a horse, and I cried big time tears when he left.

There were still four-legged critters in the pasture. I had one old donkey, and I wasted no time in finding her another donkey for a companion. This satisfied my equine needs for a couple of weeks, but walking around the barn, opening the tack room to see my unused saddle sitting on its stand, left an empty feeling inside. I wanted, and needed, another horse.

By now it was late summer, and we can have severe winters here in the northwest. My head told me I should at least wait until spring for another horse. My heart caused me to start looking on Craig's List every five minutes for new horse listings. Writers tend to be a little obsessive, especially when on a quest.

This time I wanted an older horse, calm and reliable, that I could ride only occasionally. We had a barn full of hay, lots of pasture, and a nice big stall. What I wasn't prepared for was the amount of horses needing homes. I knew the unwanted horse population was pervasive, but I didn't realize how bad it really was until I started searching.

Good looking, well-trained horses were still selling to people who wanted to enjoy riding during what was left of the summer months. But unwanted horses: horses on their last legs, thin horses, young horses with no training, horses with too much spirit, or horses with a touch of lameness or arthritis, were standing in pastures, straining their owner's pocketbooks, languishing uncared for in people's backyards, with no one to take them in, even for free. When I put the word out about what I was looking for, I was inundated with frantic phone calls from people wanting me to take their horse off their hands.

Between the dire economic times, the overpopulation of horses, the high cost of feeding and caring for a horse, and the waning lack of knowledge about horses as we become a more urban society, many gorgeous, magnificent animals now sit in fields and corrals, neglected and unwanted.

My newest manuscript, THE GIRL WHO REMEMBERED HORSES, is set in a future time when humans have almost entirely forgotten about horses and their connection to humankind. Sounds far-fetched, you say? I think perhaps not.

But in my case, I decided that an older horse might fit my situation well. Not only would I be giving an animal a home, but an older horse should be settled and calm, and might do well with only occasional riding. If only I could find the right one.

After a few days of searching, I answered a rather desperate sounding ad: Wanted - Someone with Barn. The horse I went out to see was an old gelding of indeterminate age and origin. About two hundred pounds underweight, he had spent the last brutal winter outside with a blanket, but no barn. He was long out of the habit of steady riding, but when I threw a saddle on his bony back, he walked out slowly and carefully, without a moment's hesitation. I wavered. Was he sound enough? Could I get his weight back on before winter?

This time my heart took over. I hitched up my trailer and brought him home. He made friends with my donkeys and settled in immediately.

Now, watching him stroll sedately around the pasture, checking out his new surroundings, I feel like I just traded in my sports car for a rusty Oldsmobile. Way past his prime, but with a heart of pure gold, Buddy approaches and lays his head on my shoulder. This old horse has healed a hole in my heart. Horses can touch people, in ways that we can never imagine. Please, let's not forget them.

Friday, August 14, 2009

When Did I Know I Was a Writer?

I've always known that I could write. I was good in school and actually skipped the second grade. I collected excellent grades on English exams, wrote tons of college papers, wrote ad copy for several businesses I've owned, wrote many professional and personal letters, and I could always come up with a mean classified ad. But did I think of myself as a writer? No.

I wrote journals in long-hand, typed out thoughts on the computer, created poetry and songs, short stories and scenes. Did I know I was a writer? No.

Was it when I attended my first writing conference? Got my first critique? Completed my first manuscript, or sent off my first query letter? No. Filled with self-doubt, I thought I wasn't good enough - I did not feel like a writer.

Did I know I was a writer when I got my first real signature on the bottom of a rejection letter, or the first hand-written comment from an editor asking to see more work? No.

When my first book was accepted for publication, when I finished my revisions, when I held the actual book in my hands and saw my name on the cover as author, did I feel like a writer then? Well, maybe a little.

But when I stand in the kitchen fretting, crabby and hard-to-live with, when I'm out-of-sorts and irritable as life happens and I don't have time to write, when I feel life's obligations taking over and I haven't written a thing today, yet I feel this pressing need to get words down, words down, words down, do I feel like a writer then? YES. YES. YES. I know I'm a writer because I feel the NEED TO WRITE.

When I write, words or paragraphs or an entire chapter or two, when I write, I feel fulfilled, the world is a better place, my step is springy, there's a smile on my face, and I'm happy.

The reason I KNOW I'm a WRITER is because I NEED to WRITE :-)