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.