Yes, he’s my Hero, but does he have to be an A*hole?

New Cowboy Boots–freeimage.com

I confess, I’ve been a little worried about the hero in my debut novel (release date hopefully sometime in August). See, the thing is: he isn’t a jerk.

Now, put that way, it sounds kind of odd, like that might be a good thing. And normally, I’d agree. But we’re talking romance novels here, and tropes exist for a reason. Readers have come to depend on their tropes. They love them and don’t want a story that disappoints them in any way.

I get that. I do. But one of the reasons for the longest time I avoided writing stories featuring women is because I grew up reading stories in which the heroines were defined by the tropes of the time. No sex without marriage and every epilogue had a baby on the way. Or if there was sex, it was only because the heroine was a) forced/seduced against her will by pirates/sheikhs/bosses/rival clan chiefs/marriage of convenience husband or other types of men who had complete domination over her or b) she was a widow. In fact, if a historical romance described the heroine as a widow in the blurb, I knew that as code for ‘there will be sex in this book.”

I didn’t recognize myself in any of these heroines.

Codes and tropes are all very well and good because they help readers identify those stories they want to read. Likewise certain genres have certain kinds of book covers, the better to help the reader spot their particular form of catnip and not waste time wading through tons of material they aren’t interested in reading. That may be even more important today, as readers have so many choices. But those older tropes were largely the ones that made me lose interest in most romances growing up, and it is only recently that I’ve come back to the genre.

I’ve been reading a lot of romances lately, in part because I desperately need that HEA, but also because I want to know what the new tropes are and how to use them. Part of that use means knowing when to turn them on their head or not use them at all. But that’s where the concern for my hero comes in.

Because he’s not a jerk. He’s not an “Alpha” male, which has always been sort of synonymous with ‘asshole’ for me. He’s not a Navy Seal, former Special Ops agent, billionaire playboy, cowboy, or arrogant anybody. Okay, so he’s a panther-shifter (that’s cool, right?) and he’s charged with protecting my heroine against unknown assassins, so he’s not a pushover, but just the same, he’s a pretty nice guy.

And I worry that will doom him with my readers.

I love opposites attract as much as the next person. That’s MY catnip: the witty repartee, the snarky banter. Give me snappy dialog and chemistry between the characters and I’ll forgive you plot holes you could drive a Mac Truck through.

One of the reasons the first couple of seasons of Castle worked so well for me was just that: the snark and banter between the lead characters. And even though practically speaking, opposites attract seldom works out as well in reality as it does in fiction, I love it just the same. I recognize it’s a trope, and it’s one I will read and write anyway.

Still, I worry my hero isn’t heroic enough. That readers will think he’s not not manly enough because he’s not a jerk. He doesn’t berate or belittle her. He is cognizant of her feelings and tries to include her in the decision-making when things get dangerously out of hand. He wants what’s best for the heroine–even if that isn’t what is best for him.

I can almost hear the reviews now:

What a wimp! You call that a hero?

I don’t know what she saw in him.

BOR-ING.

They had absolutely no chemistry together at all.

Because somehow, chemistry means slamming doors and broken whiskey bottles. Apparently it means hiding your attraction to someone by being rude and unpleasant. I recently DNF a romance 4% into the novel because both main characters were so unlikable I had absolutely no desire to see them work their differences out.

But here’s the interesting thing… today I saw someone on Twitter say they were incapable of reading any romances with military heroes at the moment because of the behavior of so many real-life military-types on Twitter. And I noted I couldn’t read billionaire romances because while it’s fun to read Cinderella stories where the billionaire saves the broke heroine from her wretched existence (wouldn’t we all like to be rescued like that?), I can’t help but think about how the billionaire became so rich–and what his politics are like. And I hate to break it to you, but I grew up around a lot of cowboys and wanna-be cowboys, and let me tell you, they are the reason I remained single as long as I did.

Does that mean these tropes are wrong or bad or passe? Not at all. It means that I can’t read certain kinds of stories at the moment. That doesn’t mean you should stop reading them (or writing them for that matter). I love marriages of convenience stories, no matter how unrealistic they are, and coming-home-for-the-holiday stories, and stories where two people who are truly different find common ground. I love Regencies, and space opera, and cozy mysteries where everyone is trapped on an island or at a house party in the snow. Sometimes I want my sex on-page, in-your-face, thrust-up-against-the-wall sex, the kind that makes you fan yourself and press a cold beverage to your forehead. Other times I want my sex implied–a saucy closing of the bedroom door or a gentle fade-to-black. My cup of tea might not be yours. That’s okay because these days, with the advent of self-publishing in particular, there are fewer limitations on storytelling. In part because men in publishing houses aren’t making all the decisions about what women can–and should–read.

If anything, it means there may be room for my kind of hero after all.

 

Leopard silhouette.

 

 

June Recommended Links on Writing

Hah. I need to find a better image for these ‘links’ posts! This is the first of what I hope to be monthly posts where I share useful links to posts on writing, marketing, and any aspect of the business I found useful.

Starting right off the bat, the first article I wanted to share dealt with impostor syndrome. It was written from the viewpoint of a photographer, but everything the author said applied to writing as well. Unfortunately, the link I’d saved no longer works, but I found another one: 5 Tips for When You Feel Inadequate.

If you’re not already following Chuck Wendig’s blog, terribleminds.com, you should be. He has one of the best blogs out there on writing. This post is a gem: Wrestling with Writer’s Block by Maurice Broaddus.

Thinking about creating an audiobook? This post by Isobel Starling walks you through the process on ACX: Indie Authors: Using ACX to Find a Narrator.

One of the terrific things about indie publishing is the ability to make your own rules. Kristen Ashley shares her success story here: The Secret to This Romance Author’s Success? Breaking All the Rules.

Jane Friedman is another author who posts excellent advice on writing. This one here about How to Spot Toxic Feedback is something we all should read and understand.

The Write Practice also had some words to say on How to Give and Take Better Writing Feedback.

I have a confession to make here: despite the fact I’m a romance writer, I sometimes struggle to write kissing scenes! Face it, when you write a lot of such scenes, you have to find new ways of keeping it fresh! Ride the Pen has a nice little post here about How to Write a Kissing Scene.

Molly Wetta posts about the difference between urban fantasy and paranormal romance, which is a handy reference guide, as I write both! Urban Fantasy for Paranormal Romance Readers.

Kristen Lamb is another writer with a fantastic blog on writing, marketing, and social media. I’ve said before, I don’t always agree with everything she says, and this post is an example. Her post: Shame, Shame, We Know Your Name. Or Do We? Shame and Fiction had some interesting things to say about shame as a driving force in all great stories. I quibbled a bit with the argument that all great literature had shame as a central impetus for character behavior, but I was hard-pressed to think of stories that did not… 

And last but not least, Lit Hub posted an essay constructed out of quotes from Jamaica Kincaid on How to Love and How to Write. I wasn’t familiar with the author when I read the post, but I found the quotes to be pithy, amusing, and thought-provoking.

I wish I had time to read all the posts I bookmark for future reference! Ah, some day. In the meantime, I’ll share the ones that resonated with me. And I’ll keep searching for a better link image!!

Wonder Woman: Polarizing Fan Division Mirrors US Politics?

There’s been a lot of talk about the new Wonder Woman movie. We went to see it opening weekend, and I thoroughly enjoyed it for many reasons, not the least of which was watching a superhero movie which featured a female star. You’ll probably find more elegant analyses elsewhere. I wish I’d kept track of some of them because they made me fist pump the air and shout ‘yes!’ when I read them. And there was a truly beautiful piece on Tumblr, which of course, since I didn’t reblog it, I can’t find now, but fans chimed in with the bits that moved them, each building on the other impressions and reactions to the film. I’ll try to keep this as spoiler-free as possible, but it won’t be easy.

My husband asked me as we left the theater if I wanted to run around punching bad guys or go to the gym. I thought about that for a moment.

“Yes.” I nodded. “I feel like I could, at any rate.”

He said he wasn’t surprised. That’s usually how he felt on leaving some testosterone-fueled summer blockbuster. Lord knows, he has a LOT more of those to choose from.

While I enjoyed Wonder Woman very much, will probably see it again at the theater, and have every intention of buying a copy when it comes out on DVD, it wasn’t perfect. It was a superhero movie, which means in places very simplistic, with over-the-top bad guys, and slightly predictable plots. It wasn’t the best movie I’ve ever seen, but thoroughly entertaining, nonetheless. I’d seen Guardians of the Galaxy 2 a few weeks before, and I have to say, I enjoyed Wonder Woman more, even though I’m a huge Marvel fan.

Much has been made of the importance of this movie to women–seeing a female lead in a genre typically given over to men. How many significant female characters are there in most action/superhero movies? If you’re lucky, maybe one, though Marvel did a great job with including more women in GOTG2. Bottom line, women in action movies are usually someone for the hero to rescue, or her death is the motivational trigger for the hero’s journey.

Some people like to point out this isn’t the first time we’ve had female leads in our entertainment. After all, Wonder Woman was a 70s television show.There was the Bionic Woman and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I watch Supergirl now–and (spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the penultimate episode to the season finale) I know some people were taken aback by the fact that Supergirl sent her boyfriend, Mon-el, to safety while staying behind to prevent his mother from successfully invading Earth. And he went. The season finale was remarkable in that all the people in charge and making decisions about the safety of the planet were… women. I didn’t even notice that at first, until my husband mentioned it.

We also had the short-lived Agent Carter, who galvanized nearly every female fan I know with Peggy’s iconic line, “I know my value. Anyone else’s opinion of me really doesn’t matter.” Fans have embraced this line as a personal mantra in the forms of bracelets, T-shirts, necklaces, and even tattoos. The kind of demeaning disregard for her abilities that Peggy Carter dealt with at the end of WW2 is recognizable to many of women in the workplace today as something ongoing, that must be battled daily. As too are the negative lessons we’ve learned throughout life: from our parents, from society, from our peers. Being able to recognize we hold inherent value is hugely freeing for many women, as is the moment when Elsa releases her powers in Frozen.

Science fiction is better in general about depicting diversity and equality among the sexes, which is probably why I have been a die-hard fan my entire life. I was fortunate to have grown up in the 70s and 80s, when women’s rights were improving. Believe me, it was a shock when I discovered that as recent as the late 70s, women still had to have the approval of male family member to open a bank account or rent a car. Think about that for a moment.

So the Wonder Woman movie, with a female lead and a female director, did some great things. Gal Gadot pulled off a nearly impossible feat, depicting a Diana both naive in some respects, but confident in her beliefs, unwilling to back down because something might not be safe, walking into a fight against hopeless odds because it was the right thing to do. She was sexy without being sexualized, for which I give the director, Patty Jenkins, full credit. Drawing on real athletes to depict the Amazons was sheer genius, giving the right amount of realism to their scenes. I think there could have been more women of color, especially in roles other than nursemaid to a young, recalcitrant Diana. (I like to think because Diana was so valued in the community, this job was considered both a high honor and a curse) I don’t think we need even casual storylines where powerful, white woman turn the rearing of their children to women of color. I also believe that with so many women turning out to see a female lead, more were hoping to see something of themselves as well.

There were other aspects of the movie they got right, though. Sameer, wanting to fight but being prevented because of his color. Chief, a Native American displaced by Steve’s ancestors, making ends meet any way he can. Charlie, with his PDST that made him nearly useless as a sharpshooter, but they kept him around anyway. I was surprised–and pleased–that there was no neat bow attached to resolving his condition, as I had expected.

And let me say here it was no mean feat for Chris Pine, a fine actor in his own right, and having carried the weight of the Star Trek franchise on his shoulders when he took on the role of Kirk in the 2009 Star Trek movie, to do what he did in Wonder Woman. He did an amazing job of being exactly what he was–a love interest and supporting actor. Bravo, Mr. Pine. Well-done.

But the thing that makes this movie different from every other venture before it is that it was financially successful. More than successful, it smashed records. THAT is ultimately what determines whether we get more of the same. It belied the notion that people won’t go to see a movie with a female lead (along with Rey in The Force Awakens, and Jyn of Rogue One–but these were more ensemble pieces than WW). It means that Hollywood might finally recognize women will gladly pay to see more than romcoms and that we make up a bigger part of the audience than they realize. And that a movie with a female lead can appeal to both men and women.

I can’t tell you how frustrating it’s been as a die-hard sci-fi fan to hear producers cancel shows because they aren’t capturing that highly prized demographic: young men ages 18-24. Let me tell you, they don’t make up the majority of the crowd at sci-fi conventions. They weren’t the ones buying calendars, mugs, graphic novels, and photo ops with their favorite stars. Many of them don’t have the discretionary income of the older fan, in particular, the middle-aged woman who loves cosplay. Who can afford to travel, or is an obsessive collector, who in other words, does NOT fit the magic demographic but has money to spend.

In many ways, fan reaction to Wonder Woman has been more interesting to me than my own. Only like with The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and the new Star Trek show, Discovery, a certain kind of fanboy is raising a ruckus, complaining of the invasion into his sacred space, railing against the introduction of women and people of color as more franchises follow these leads. If you’re not familiar with GamerGate or the targeting of the Hugo Awards by the Sad Puppies/Rabid Puppies factions, I’ll summarize here: there is a subset of fans who want to see sci-fi and fantasy return to the ‘old school’ they grew up with. White, male heroes, standard ‘spaceship battles’, no POC in key roles, women relegated to love interests or victims only. Perhaps I’m overstating my case, but I think not.

Another example of the protest against diversity was the howl of outrage that went up when The Force Awakens didn’t have a white male lead. When Rogue One followed suit, demands for a fan boycott of Star Wars went out. (That went well, by the way. TFA  was the fastest movie to gross one billion–only 12 days. RO did the same in 39 days…)

More recently, some Star Trek fans are wailing about the trailer for the new series, in which the leads appear to be women of color. They called it no less than “white genocide in space.” Their anger over the casting–in particular, the failure to have a white male captain–and subsequent complaints over the ‘terrible direction’ the franchise was going led original cast member George Takei to take them to task over it.

I was both surprised and saddened over this kind of fan reaction. C’mon guys, have you seen Star Trek? It’s like the most diverse show ever! A black woman, an Asian men, and a Russian (during the time of the Cold War)–all bridge officers on a show taking place in the late 60s. Spock was of mixed race. Heck, the Vulcan philosophy was ‘Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.’ It was the first show to depict an interracial kiss (even if it was only because the Aliens Made Them Do It), and they tackled weighty issues such as racism, ageism, and more. Yes, the original series was in some ways as sexist as hell, but it was written at a time when WOMEN COULD NOT RENT A CAR OR OPEN A BANK ACCOUNT WITHOUT MALE PERMISSION. To even have women bridge officers was amazing. To have a black woman in a role as someone other than a maid or cook even more so.

So when the same kind of trolls began complaining about the ‘women only’ screening of Wonder Woman in Austin, TX, I wasn’t surprised. I was surprised some New York lawyer would file a complaint against the theater, however. It’s not like the theater was ONLY going to have women-only showings. There were more opportunities for men to attend than that one (or two) women-only showings. But a guy in New York didn’t like the theater’s ‘uppity’ attitude about it on Facebook, nor the mayor of Austin’s support for the idea, so yeah, complaint filed.

That’s when it occurred to me that this rift in sci-fi and fantasy fandoms is so much more than the old-timers protesting against the new guard. It’s more than some disgruntled geeks saying you can’t possibly be a Marvel fan unless your playpen was lined with old Spiderman comics and you teethed on the entire catalog of the Fantastic Four. It’s more than a protest against girls in the boys-only clubhouse.

It’s our current political climate in microcosm.

It’s a bunch of fans who are angry at having to share with people that aren’t like them. It’s fanboys who’d rather trash the playground than to let ‘the other’ in. When you have privilege, it’s hard to see that letting others be equal doesn’t diminish your privilege in any way. Frankly, I don’t see any difference between those that call themselves ‘real fans’ versus those that call themselves ‘real Americans’. It’s the same sort of destructive mentality that denies the very foundation of the thing they profess to love.

Hey, I get that your fandoms are important–even lifesaving–to you. They’re important to me too. There are days when seeing something fandom related online or knowing I have a show or movie to look forward to seeing is the only thing that gets me through a crappy day. I have scores of fandom friends who share stories, artwork, and squee over our favorite characters and shows. It’s what makes life more than just going to work so you can try to pay the bills.

But women, POC, people with different sexual orientations or of different religions–we’re not the bad guys here. It seems to me that a sci-fi fan would understand that better than almost anyone else, so it hurts when I see fans get up in arms about diversity and equality. It hurts, but it makes me angry, too. We’re all in fandom because we need something from it. We need the strength of our heroes. We need the courage of their convictions, to do the right thing when it may cost us more than we can bear. We’re all pre-serum Steve, before he becomes Captain America, and Peter Parker, before the radioactive spider bite.

We’re that tech guy in the Triskelion who has to decide what to do when ordered to push the button that will launch the Insight codes. The good guy refuses to do it, even though he knows he will probably get killed for refusing to implement it. He’s literally shaking with fear, but he refuses because Captain America told him to stand up for the right thing.

Be the good guy.

I read somewhere once that every villain sees himself as the hero of his own story. These days, I’m seeing far too many people who think they are Captain America, when they are really Red Skull. Who insist they are Diana Prince, when in reality, they are Dr. Poison.

There is an ugliness to political discourse in this country I don’t think we can ignore. It would be nice to sit here writing my lightweight romance stories and never think twice about politics again. But we’re being forced to fight for our rights and, in some cases, our lives. Even the planet.

I’m not leaving fandom. I’m going to continue to read, write, and play there. I’m also going to vote my conscience, and protest against what I see as being wrong and unfair, and to stand up for anyone I see needing help to the best of my ability.

And yes, dear husband, I’m also going to the gym.

 

The Death of Net Neutrality: The Impact on You as an Author or Artist

With everything else that is going on these days in US, it may seem like the battle for Net Neutrality is not such a great priority. After all, the sitting President is facing impeachment and his entire administration, as well as the elite of the GOP, are looking at charges of knowingly working with the Russian government to influence the outcome of the last presidential election. Then there are the charges of money-laundering, as well as corruption and collusion on such a grand scale it is breathtaking.

While nearly every day the Trump administration commits yet another unthinkable act, at the same time, alarming legislation is being forced through Congress: bills that strip Americans of their health insurance, or defund women’s organizations and public schools. Bills that suppress the right of some people to vote because they might not vote for the GOP, bills that set back civil rights fifty, sixty, seventy years. Bills that protect our environment and public safety are being overturned. Regulations put in place to protect us as investors or when buying a home are being overturned. Irreplaceable national parks and natural resources are being targeted for development. Unpopular bills are being called to a vote in the middle of the night in order to avoid full participation by members of Congress and in the hopes of eluding the attention of the press.

When it comes to all the things wrong with the current administration, as well as everything we need to be fighting to protect each and every day, I’m barely scratching the surface. The problem is there’s a fresh scandal relating to the Trump administration popping up almost every day, and nearly every day there are fresh calls to contact your members of Congress and share with them how angry and upset you are about their policy-making of the moment. It’s enough to make one give up out of sheer fatigue.

Believe me, they’re counting on that. So stay salty, my friends.

We all have to pick our battles. I only have so much time, money, and energy to devote to an outraged resistance. There are some bills and regulations I care more about than others, and I’m sure your list doesn’t look the same as mine. That’s perfect. This way we cover all the bases. But there are some things that we shouldn’t let slip by us out of outrage fatigue or because we don’t think it’s that big a deal.

This is one of those times.

So why is Net Neutrality a priority for me? What is it, and why should you care about it?

Okay, I’m no expert here. There are better sites, posts, and videos that can explain this issue with greater depth, clarity, and precision than I can. The way I understand it is that companies like Verizon and Comcast are carrier services that provide us with Internet access, much like the water company provides us with water for a fee through a system of pipelines they own. As it stands now, the pipes are all the same ‘size’. Information flows freely across the board. It doesn’t matter if I want to look at a small blog or the Huffington Post, because I’ve paid my fee to the company, everything comes down the pipe at the same speed.

Verizon lobbied hard to have this changed back in 2013, to be able to establish big and little pipes, to have the right to slow down or speed up information based on how much the owner of the information was willing to pay. Think about that for a moment. Now the owner of the pipeline wants to decide who gets the water first, as well as how much and how fast. In 2013, Verizon sued the FCC, saying the organization didn’t have the legal authority to insist on Net Neutrality. The FCC blocked this move by re-designating ISPs so they were subject to tighter regulations.

But now Trump, the GOP, and the current people in charge at the FCC want to change this regulation. The newly appointed head of the FCC, Ajit Pai, used to work for Verizon. See where this is going? Do me a favor: from now on, when you read the word ‘regulation’, replace it mentally with the word ‘protection.’ Because that’s what it is. Laws put into place to keep companies from establishing practices that might be unfair or harmful to us, the consumer.

If we lose Net Neutrality, Comcast, which owns Yahoo, could say to you, “If you use our internet carrier, you have to use Yahoo as your search engine and email service. You can use Google if you want to, but you have to pay additional for it.”

Big companies such as Netflix and Hulu would certainly be able to afford to purchase more bandwidth, but what if Verizon started its own entertainment service? They could conceivably slow down the streaming of any competitors unless you paid an additional fee to get it at the same download rate as their preferred site.

Not only that, but without Net Neutrality, your internet provider could determine, much like a television company, what sites and information it would make more readily available. Suppose your child is researching climate change for a class project–but only the sites that deny climate change are loaded first. Anyone with a vested interest in getting out their information ahead of someone else’s (and the money to do it) will influence the reporting. We could see the Internet turn into FOX News.

It could also greatly impact freedom of speech if a provider decides to block unpopular points of view or someone with a lot of money pays to have their views take top tier. Right now, marginalized voices have a platform and the ability to be heard by anyone interested in what they have to say, same as any major outlet. Yes, this has allowed certain right wing organizations to foment and organize their followers, but it has also allowed for hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world to gather and march in support of women’s rights, immigration, and science, among other things.

What does this have to do with you as a writer, artist, photographer, or anyone who creates original content? How does this affect you as the small business-owner? Well, it’s simple. Remember when you had dial-up? Remember how long it took to load a site? How do you think the loss of Net Neutrality will affect you when your website takes over five minutes to load because you aren’t a major publisher with a big budget to pay for more bandwidth?

When I first began publishing my stories, Facebook was a great place to meet other people and share content. If you were an author or artist of any kind, a Facebook presence was (and still is) considered mandatory. After the stocks went public in 2012, Facebook gradually began implementing policies that altered its usefulness as a platform for small artists and publishers. It used to be Facebook was like my old LiveJournal account–I saw everything my friends posted in the order they were written. Now, half the time I don’t see the posts of friends and colleagues unless they’ve paid to promote them or enough of my other friends have commented so that Facebook deems it worthy to show me. If I post something with a link in it now, Facebook hides that post more often than not. At one point, I had an author page with over two thousand followers, yet whenever I posted something to that page, maybe fifteen or twenty people tops saw the post. I could pay to promote the post or buy ads, but the people with the most money who already have recognition get priority when it comes to the visibility of their posts.

And that’s exactly what will happen to our websites if we lose Net Neutrality.

I’m linking to John Oliver’s video on the subject here, not only because he does a great job of explaining the ramifications of losing Net Neutrality while also making the subject funny, but he tells you what you can do about it too. As of May 18, 2017, the FFC has already ruled in favor of doing away with the earlier regulations. As you will see from John Oliver’s video, you can go to the FCC website to register your complaint, but the process is deliberately cumbersome and frustrating. Fortunately, he created a more convenient process! It’s a long video, but it’s definitely worth watching.

 

Here’s an update on the response of Internet to John Oliver’s request. This was filmed prior to May 18, 2017, but the site that takes you to the FFC page in question is back in service again. Now we only have until mid-August to voice our dismay and how this will impact our businesses.

 

Finding Your Creativity in a World That Seems Hopeless

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My creative friends and I are having a hard time being productive these days. I don’t know of a single one who isn’t struggling. Most of my social media timelines have at least one friend noting that trying to write during the current political upheaval in the US is like pretending nothing is going on while the house is burning down. They punctuate this observation with gifs of people seated at a table while bombs explode, shots are fired, and victims run screaming with their coats on fire. You know the ones I mean. You’ve probably posted some yourself.

I feel the same way. I haven’t been nearly as productive as I’d like for longer than I care to admit. First I was devastated by the election results. And yes, they’ve been as bad for our country as I feared. Then I had some personal losses, one after another, so many in such a short period of time that had I put them in a story, readers would have rolled their eyes in disbelief. 

I had a hard time believing that anything I was working on mattered. I was both angry and terrified, while at the same time grieving. I tried to do one of those online meditation things about finding hope in uncertain times but it only pissed me off more. The message was about acceptance–and at the time, it infuriated me. My inner voice kept screaming that there are some things that we should never accept, that should outrage us, that we should resist. I gave up that particular meditation for the time being.

Face it, the insanity of American politics aside, when you read articles like this one, in which Steven Hawking and other scientists believe humans will be extinct in less than 100 years, it’s hard to believe there is any value in writing love stories about paranormal investigators.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the apocalypse. I began reading messages of support and encouragement. They came from my friends at first—reminding me how much pleasure writing gives me, but also how much pleasure my stories give other people. For years now, I’ve said my main goal in telling stories was to make someone’s crappy day a bit better—to provide a few hours entertainment, to let someone lose themselves in another world for a little while—so they could forget the stressful job, or their chronic illness, or the burdens of their daily life. My dear friends reminded me of that, and I deeply thank them for their unwavering support and belief in what we do as creators. What I do as a creator. Now, more than ever, we are going to need relief we get from reading stories that make us happy.

But it’s more than that. A friend of mine, a wonderful writer, penned this statement as a means of encouragement to us all:

“We are the people who create. And I don’t just mean that we’re creative, I mean that in no matter how big or small a way, we bring something good into this world, make it better. We build instead of destroy, make things move forward instead of back. We create friendships and fandom families that stick together. We create positive thoughts and energy that will always spread farther than we think. We create better versions of ourselves, and help others grow that way too. We create stories, crafts, art, discussions, pictures, and so much more, and bring joy to others through what we do. We create love. So many times this place, the fandom, all you people, have saved my day when I have needed it the most. And every time I hear that something I did or created did the same for someone else, I feel a little surprised that I had such power, but also very happy that I could shine some light on a day that might have been anything between mildly grey and near dark.”

Her words came into my darkness like a shining beacon.

Chuck Wendig, an author who posts kick-ass blogs about being a writer, posted a list of constructive things we as creators can do, titled Mourn, Then Get Mad, Then Get Busy. I found this post heartening as well. In particular because it acknowledged my fear and despair, and then gave me practical things I could do about it.

My husband sent me this link, which also inspired me. It’s from the comic, Oatmeal, entitled It’s Going To Be Okay. I confess, I didn’t want to read it at first because I didn’t want someone trying to persuade me things aren’t going to be as bad as I fear, but I was very glad I did. You should read it too.

Last night, long after I should have been asleep, I came across this tweet from George Takei:

The Ministry has fallen. Death Eaters are about. But, my wizards, together we can defeat the dark tides of bigotry and intolerance. #WandsUp

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It made me smile in a painful sort of way, but it also reminded me the power of the written word. The magic of stories that makes us not only see similarities between world events and books we grew up loving, but it makes us want to be better people. We want the Ring to get to Mordor. We want to see Voldemort vanquished, the Empire defeated and Palpatine destroyed. We want to believe that one day, ignorance, hatred, and intolerance will give way to the kind of society that creates Starfleet, and that people of all races, genders, nationalities, and species can serve together—as a team—on the greatest starship of all time. Because otherwise, we’ll all be living in Panem and the Hunger Games will begin soon.

I won’t kid you. I’m terrified for the future of my planet, for society as a whole, for my personal health and safety. And I’ve been wondering what one exhausted, frightened, middle-aged woman can do. The answer is, I can continue to write. My stories might not change the world. I probably won’t create the next Harry Potter series, or write something that catches fire like the Hunger Games. I write romances, and heck, I probably won’t even write the next 50 Shades of Gray. But what I can do, in my own quiet way, is tell stories where diversity and acceptance aren’t dirty words, and where love wins in the end.

If I make someone fall in love with a character who is not like them—if I humanize that person for them and make that reader want what is best for them—then I’ve taken steps that might make them stop viewing ‘different’ as ‘other’. And if the only thing I achieve is that I make one other exhausted, frightened person feel a little bit better, a little bit calmer, even for a few hours, then I’ve done a good thing. If I can make one person say, “Whoa, that isn’t right, and we need to change that,” then I have done a great thing.

Let’s all go out there and do great things.

 

 

Just Wear It…

Last week I discovered a perfume I truly adore, something unusual for me. Most perfume just doesn’t smell as good on me as it does in the bottle, but this one was fabulous.

I don’t wear perfume often, nor makeup for that matter. I don’t go out much and my work demands sturdy clothing over sexy. I indulge my girly side with nail polish in outrageous shades, but even then, I stick to the more conservative colors on my hands and save the more unconventional shades for my toes.

For the most part, the only makeup I wear is mascara. Occasionally some eyeliner. Rarely do I put on lipstick. I never wear foundation. And yet, just like perfume, I like these things. I’m just saving them for a special occasion.

So when I fell in love with this perfume, my first thought was, “Wow, I love this so much, I could wear it every day!” Until I saw the price tag, that is. Then I instantly relegated it to “Only on very special occasions.”

Then it dawned on me. I have an awful lot of perfume that fits into this category. 

Do you know what happens to perfume that sits in a bottle too long and doesn’t get used? The scent degrades. The chemistry within changes. Before you know it, the magic is gone. The product you thought too precious to waste on everyday life has been completely wasted by not being used at all. 

I think a lot of us spend too much time waiting for special occasions to bring out the things we love. Life is too short. We need to stop ‘saving’ ourselves for potential-but-not-guaranteed events. This doesn’t just apply to perfume, or that favorite pair of shoes, but to ourselves as well. How many of us have chosen not to go to the beach or put on the cosplay outfit because we weren’t happy with our appearance? We don’t ask for that raise because we’re afraid we don’t deserve it. We don’t follow our dreams because we’re afraid of being crushed. And somehow, we think at some future date, when all the stars align and we look exactly how we want, that we’ll get the other things we want as well.

In the meantime, we tell ourselves the perfume is too expensive to wear just around the house.

Put on the perfume. If smelling that delicate scent on your wrist makes you smile, wear it, by God. Even if you’re only going down to the barn. 

Don’t put it on for someone else. That applies to the makeup and the favorite clothes, too. Put them on because you like the way they make you feel. So what if you’re only going to work? As long as you can get the job done (and you’re not violating any dress code), wear what makes you happy today instead of saving it for some future date. If someone tells you you’re too old to wear graphic t-shirts, or that you really should stop wearing x-y-z when you love how you look in them, tell that person to stuff it. The ONLY thing women of a certain age should stop wearing is the unsolicited opinions of people on the Internet.

Stop putting your life on hold for some mythical time when you are prettier, thinner, smarter, richer, or what every yardstick measurement you’ve been holding yourself up to. Live. Love. Smile. Today is yours.

Wear the perfume. Don’t let it go bad in the bottle because it was too precious to ‘waste’. Life is too precious to waste. Every day that we get is a special occasion.

 

The Perils of Decision Fatigue

It occurred to me this weekend that I am beginning to suffer from a kind of global decision fatigue.

I only recently ran across this term. Someone used it in conjunction with sticking to a diet plan, and how many of us can do so up to a certain point in the day, when decision fatigue sets in. The article went on to list ways in which you could fatigue-proof your diet plans so you didn’t fall victim to bad food choices late in the day or when you were under stress. I thought it a useful term and made note of the points in the article.

I think it’s similar in some ways to compassion fatigue, in which caregivers or people in the health professions, such as doctors or nurses, burn out on the emotional demands of their jobs.

And I’ve got another one for you that I made up just now: fear fatigue. It goes hand-in-hand with its partner in crime, outrage fatigue. Because at some point I have to look at the headlines that say we’re all going to die from a) an imminent pandemic (it’s just a matter of time) b) catastrophic climate change (also a matter of time) c) global war (which will probably get us first, given the current administration), so I don’t have to worry about losing my Social Security or Medicare or health insurance because I’ll already be dead. That’s what clicking on the news does for me these days. Paired with the sickening and terrifying changes in policy within this country, I’m glad on some level I still can be outraged and afraid.

But the fatigue is setting in.

All of it is coming to a head with the decision fatigue. I’ve had to make a lot of difficult decisions lately, the kind that make a great Lifetime movie but suck when it happens to you in real life.

I am required to make many important and difficult decisions at work on a constant basis. I am having to make tough decisions at home as well. I am tired of feeling unwell much of the time, and have added trying to change my diet into the mix–something several friends have suggested I hold off doing right now. I see their point, but I also desperately want to feel better. Changing my eating habits does seem to make a difference in that, despite bringing its own stresses to the mix. But it’s more decision-making.

This past weekend, another one of my elderly animals has begun showing disquieting symptoms. I found myself literally paralyzed in determining what was best to do for him. Do I put him through extensive diagnostics when he is nearing the end of his natural lifespan in the hopes of finding something treatable? Knowing the stress of such tests could kill him? This is a spooky little cat who hates being handled and definitely freaks going to the vet. I know in my heart the likelihood of finding something treatable is pretty slim, so I’ve been going round and round, making and unmaking my decisions, certain one minute I will take one course of action, only to change my mind a few hours later.

Deep breath.

Because that’s what you have to do when decision fatigue sets in. You have to take a step back. Take a deep breath. Look at your decision logically. Take the emotional component out of the picture for a moment.

For years, I’ve had a firm policy: no important decisions without a fully belly and good night’s sleep. Most decisions don’t have to be made on the spur of the moment, so if you have the time, take it. Don’t leap into action without making sure you’re in the best frame of mind to make a good choice. This addresses the fatigue portion of the problem. Don’t discount that. We make our worst decisions when we are emotionally and physically wiped out. If at all possible, sleep on your decision-making. Many times your subconscious will show you the way overnight and you’ll wake up with the realization of what you should do.

For many people, this is what prayer does for them. If you are of a religious persuasion, pray about your decision. The acting of praying about something is another means of putting some distance between you and the problem and giving yourself time to sort it out. Just remember, if you ‘turn something over to God’, you’re not supposed to snatch it back and worry over it. That sort of looks like you don’t trust God to handle it. 🙂

Talk with your friends and family. Get their opinions. It’s not likely they will all agree, but it is likely that the people who care about you will give you some indication as to whether you’re on the right track or not. Moreover, you may find overwhelming support for one decision over another and make your choice easier.

Forgive yourself for not being perfect. This is a biggie with decision fatigue, I find. Part of the inability to make a decision stems from the paralyzing fear it will be the wrong one. Yes, you make make the wrong choice. The consequences could be greater than just slipping off your diet plan. But you’re making the best decision you can with the information you have at hand. You’re not setting out to deliberately make an unwise choice. Let your fear go.

Remember many decisions are not irreversible. If you discover you didn’t make the right choice, chances are you can change direction and modify your course. It’s highly unlikely you’ll wind up in an oubliette like Sarah in Labyrinth.

 

But even if you do, remember, Sarah got out in the end.

Rookie Author Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

The other day I stumbled across a great Facebook thread in which a new author asked for advice: she wanted to know what kinds of newbie mistakes to avoid as a first-time author.

True to form, the writing community, including myself, chimed in with a number of excellent points. Afterward, it dawned on me this would make an awesome blog post, and here we are.

So here’s my ‘I wish someone had told me’ advice.

In no particular order:

1.Google your pen name before you start using it. I had this awesome pen name in mind, but when I Googled it, I found out it belonged to a Hungarian stripper. What are the odds, right? I was tempted to use it anyway, only I just knew every time someone did a search for my books, the stripper’s website would come up. Seriously. Google your pen name. You really don’t want the same pen name as a serial killer. Also, be careful of having a ‘unique’ spelling. If people can’t remember how to spell your name, they aren’t likely to find you on a web search. It’s easy. It takes less than thirty seconds, for Pete’s sake. Just do it. You won’t regret it.

Whether or not you need a pen name is another discussion altogether. I personally think if you write in wildly divergent genres, such as ‘sweet’ romances and dinosaur porn, you’d better have two pen names. But that’s just me.

Do yourself a favor: if you have a pen name, use a different browser for your author activities and keep everything separate from your real name. It will make life MUCH simpler when doing business as your author persona and save time and energy by eliminating the need to log in and out of different accounts.

2.Platform and promotion. Yes, you have to have it. No, no one likes promoting themselves, but it is a necessary evil.

In order for promotion to work, you already have to have a platform and internet presence in place. A website (more on that later), Facebook page, and Twitter account are probably considered the bare minimums, but most writers have pages on Pinterest, Tumblr, Goodreads, Amazon, Instagram, G+… well, you name it. Many writers have pages on sites geared toward their genre, too. It’s a lot to keep up with. My rules for platform and social media: pick the two or three sites where you are the most comfortable and spend time there. If a site makes you unhappy, you won’t be your best there. Learn how to cross post from your main sites to other sites. I rarely spend time on Goodreads or Tumblr–they just aren’t my kind of places, but other people hang out there, so when I post a blog entry like this, I make sure it automatically cross posts to those other media platforms.

Worry less about your ‘brand’ when starting out. Be friendly. Share other people’s announcements. Interact with people in a manner that does not always center around your books or writing. For heaven’s sake DO NOT auto-post tweets or private message people with BUY MY BOOK spiels within seconds of them friending or following you.

There are some great books on social media out there. I happen to like Kristen Lamb’s We Are Not Alone:The Writer’s Guide to Social Media. I might not agree with everything Ms. Lamb says (she is very much against pen names, for example) but she has some good points to make. One of which is that your name should be easy to find–it should be part of your website, your Twitter name, etc. Having a cute Twitter handle might be fun, but what if no one remembers that @AwesomeWombat is really McKenna Dean? Don’t make it hard for your readers to find you.

3.Websites: Your website is your home base. It is going to be the main way readers find you. Make it easy for them! You have roughly two seconds to make a good first impression when people land on your page. If your site is too hard to navigate, too difficult to read, has too many moving gifs or images that roll by too rapidly to read, you’ve lost a perspective reader right there. They will move on to the next site, to look for some other author whose home page doesn’t make their eyes bleed. Whether you have a static home page or not is up to you. But the most important thing is that your site is crisp, clear, and easy to navigate. Your social media links should all be in one place. Your backlist and buy links should be easy to find. You should update your blog on a regular basis. If you have a newsletter or a way for readers to follow your blog, it should be easy to find and sign up. Two seconds. Otherwise, your viewer will click away.

4.Reviews: if I had put these in any kind of order, reviews probably should have gone at the top. EVERYONE had a lot to say about reviews. For the most part, I tend not to read my reviews unless I’ve been sent the link from a trusted review site or a friend has discovered a glowing review and they want to share it with me.

Everyone gets bad reviews.

Don’t believe me? Look up your all-time favorite book. I guarantee that you will find someone who utterly loathed it and flamed it royally in their review. Any time I stumble upon a review I wish I hadn’t seen, I perform this very task and it is amazing how therapeutic it is. Because if someone can hate the book you adore, then it puts things in perspective for you. Over and over again, authors gave DON’T ENGAGE A NEGATIVE REVIEW as their number one advice. Just. Don’t. The author *always* comes out looking like the bad guy here, and nothing will alienate fans faster.

There are some people who’d suggest not responding to any review on Goodreads, as it is a site primarily for readers, not authors. I know many authors who interact with their fans quite happily on Goodreads, but I confess, it feels like an abandoned mine field to me. One false step and BOOM. But that’s just me.

The point is, don’t let one bad review negate the twenty good ones you’ve received. Don’t let a ‘meh’ review derail you from your planned story arc, or shut down your writing mojo.

When I first began sharing my stories, feedback was the crack that kept me writing. It was addictive, getting the kind of praise that made you giddy with delight. When I made the jump from fanfiction to original fiction, feedback was much harder to come by and not nearly as inclined to be kind. A negative review had the power to negate fifty glowing ones. I’ve let past reviews shake my confidence and alter my proposed projects. There is only one time that I think you should pay attention to negative reviews, and that’s when the same thing keeps being said over and over by different people. That usually means you either failed to make your point clearly or you failed to understand what your audience wants.

The longer I’ve been at this, the less impact reviews have on me. Don’t get me wrong—I adore an awesome review! And excellent reviews—especially in large numbers—will definitely drive sales. But I no longer let bad reviews upset me.

Look at it this way: those really nasty reviews? The ones that go beyond ‘this is why this book didn’t work for me’ and seem to intend deliberate wounding?

Yeah, there are only two reasons someone writes a review like that. The first is because they have a following, and people read their reviews for the flaming zingers. You can’t take something like that personally. It’s not about your book as much as it is about entertaining a cadre of like-minded readers who enjoy the burn.

The second is because this unknown reader really does want to burn you. They want you to hurt so badly over their comments that you seriously consider never typing another word. You know what? SCREW THAT. They don’t get to decide that.

Don’t write for reviews. It will only make you bitterly unhappy. Ditto if you’re hoping that your next story will somehow launch you into J.K. Rowling fame. Write because you can’t imagine not writing any more than you can imagine not breathing.

5.Beta readers versus Editors (and what they bring to the table): first of all, these people are invaluable to you as a writer. As authors, particularly new authors, we have to be willing to accept the input of others, especially if we keep getting similar feedback from multiple sources: that’s your biggest indication something is wrong with your story or your writing style and it needs fixing. At the same time, it can be difficult not to let a strong-minded person take on more credit for the shaping of your story than they really deserve–or should have. Beta readers are not editors, either. Yes, they will catch typos, but their primary function is to tell you if the story is working or not.

Different people catch different things, so I think it is very important to have more than one beta reader. But my main reason for having multiple readers is two-fold: not only do you not want to overwhelm a single person if you are a prolific writer, but it is much harder for someone to claim a larger share of the credit when there is more than one person involved. A beta reader who claims to ‘make or break’ you is like someone who helped you set the table expecting credit for cooking the banquet. A good beta reader is worth their weight in gold. They will help you produce the cleanest copy possible for submission to a publisher or an editor, if you self-publish. They are cheerleaders and problem-spotters. But once the story moves on to editing, their role is usually done. Beta-readers are often friends, which can make it very painful to sever the relationship if it is no longer working for you. But if your beta-reader is acting like a gatekeeper between you and publishing, it is definitely time to end the relationship.

Editors will clean up and tighten your prose, point out that you have used the same phrase thirty-seven times, correct your somewhat loose interpretation of the Chicago Manual of Style, and identify where things need to be explained in greater detail or a weak plot point that needs fixing. But they should not be altering your style to match their own. It is your story. They are polishing the finish on the sports car, not re-building the engine.

Editors can (and should) point out major plot holes and weaknesses of presentation. If you are writing in a specific genre and your story isn’t meeting genre expectations, a good editor will let you know. If the car breaks down halfway around the track, it doesn’t matter how shiny it is. But they aren’t there to re-write the story for you.

You know what they say about people who act as their own lawyers during a trial? “You have a fool for a client.” Well, that applies to attempting to edit your own work as well. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but the chances are very good you’re going to overlook something important by sheer proximity to the work.

6. Don’t game the system. There’s a big difference between recognizing and taking advantage of market trends (something I’m not very good at, but I know people who are) and writing simply to make a buck. Face it, if you want to make money, there are far easier ways of doing so. By gaming the system, I mean deciding you’re going to write serials, or short cliffhangers, or dinosaur porn, filling Kindle Unlimited with them because you can churn those babies out to match the current best deal Amazon offers, and the instant the algorithm changes, so does your storytelling. Look, I have nothing against dino porn, but if you want to write it, do so because you enjoy it, okay? And no sockpuppets singing your praises or slinging mud at the competition. No buying reviews. I really shouldn’t have to say this, right? Pricing your story so that it sells well, or making the first book in a series free? That’s not gaming the system. Buying your way onto the bestseller lists is.

The best way to make writing pay for you? Write. Write a lot. Be working on your next story while you are launching your previous one. Be thinking about the next one, too. Readers are like stray cats. If you feed them, they will come.

Most of us go through a post-story blues, where it is hard to move on to the next project. Get over yourself. I once figured out that it took me nearly a year from the time I conceived of a story idea, to writing it, to submitting it, to having it published before I saw royalties trickle in. Which means that for writing to pay the bills, I have to have a new story coming out at minimum every quarter. It’s one of the reasons self-publishing has become more popular as writers realize they can shorten this time. Which brings me to the next point…

7. Don’t quit your day job. Seriously. Writing a runaway bestseller like 50 Shades of Grey is like winning the lottery. It rarely happens, and certainly not to you and me. The rest of us have to slog out a minimum of something on the order of 60-80K words every 2-3 months in order to even hope of quitting the day job. I don’t know about you, but putting that kind of pressure on myself really puts a damper on my writing mojo. Writing is something I do that makes me happy in order to make other people happy.  But I don’t ever want to look back on my life twenty years from now and wish I’d spent more time walking the dogs or doing things with the family. And I don’t want to take something I love and turn it into something I hate because I can’t turn out a completed product I can take pride in.

But hey, maybe you can be incredibly prolific while still working a full-time job. Or maybe you’re currently jobless, and now is the sink or swim moment. It is possible to make a living as a writer. Just expect to work hard, write a lot, make a lot of personal sacrifices regarding how you spend your time, and don’t expect Hollywood to come knocking at your door with a movie deal in hand. It means writing when you don’t feel like it. It means there is no such thing as ‘your muse’, only the need to put words to paper because that’s your job.

You’re going to hear a lot about how to be a successful author. But by trying to please everyone, you’ll wind up pleasing no one. You don’t really need a ton of fans, anyway. You need a thousand die-hard fans that will buy everything you write and tell all their friends about you too.

8. Piracy: it happens. There is no use giving yourself ulcers about it. Don’t try counting up the money in lost revenue it represents, either. It will only make you cry. Some people don’t fight it. Personally, I do. Piracy means the difference between my paying the mortgage some months, or whether I have to wait another year to replace the glasses with the $400 lenses. Piracy is the difference between having to choose between dental work or going to a writer’s convention. Don’t just bitch about it, though. Every couple of weeks, do a search of your name and book titles (I find that Google Alerts tends not to pick up many illegal downloads–it’s better for notifying you of reviews). If you have a publisher, report it to them–they are losing money as well. Draft DMCA and takedown notices to send to pirate sites. Make sure that people know that many of these sites are just phishing to steal credit card information. In my case, my stories frequently show up on torrents (someone seems to keep uploading a bundle of four of my stories–it’s infuriating to see the same bundle appear again and again…). Appealing to the torrent is usually futile, but you can report the link to Google, which will block it in a title search on their browser. Given that almost everyone uses Google, having them block the illegal site in a search is a good thing. Searching the internet and preparing takedown notices is time-consuming and frustrating, but I do it. Sure, I realize that the vast majority of people downloading illegal copies would never buy from me in the first place. That doesn’t mean I have to make it easy for them to pick my pocket.

There are also some new services cropping up like Blasty, which streamlines the reporting process to Google, making it nearly painless.

9. Don’t ever diss another author. That’s just plain stupid. Unless you are among unimpeachable friends that you trust with your whole heart, giving a frank opinion of someone’s work or personality is fraught with the potential to have your words come back and bite you. Keep it to yourself, even if you feel completely justified, or if someone approaches you, encouraging you to vent. Be a professional and keep your mouth shut and your fingers off the keyboard. That applies in general to most internet kerfuffles and dramas. Remember the great proverb: Not my circus, not my monkeys. This is a corollary to not responding to negative reviews. People talk. And if you malign someone’s writing or themselves as a person, the chances are it will get back to them.

On the other hand, sometimes it is impossible not to have someone get angry with you through no fault of your own. Apologize for inadvertently upsetting them, try to correct or prevent the circumstances that led to the misunderstanding, but if they won’t grow up and get over it, let it go. Don’t talk about it, however. Be the bigger person here. Apologize, move on, and never refer to it again. If they keep bringing it up in the face of your silence, they wind up looking petty and small for holding grudges.

10. And last but not least: write what makes you happy. Don’t write to market pressures. If you have no interest in the latest fad, your lack of enthusiasm will show. If you want to write about chefs, or the horse-racing industry, or US Marines, or WW2 flying aces, or dragons, you can. Just make sure you’ve done your homework, or in the case of fantasy, you’ve created a world with believable rules that make sense. Don’t worry about finding an audience. Chances are if you love what you’re writing, others will too. And they are the readers that count the most.

 

Walking with Sampson

My dog Sampson is dying.

He has a mass in his chest the size of a grapefruit, a lesion called hemangiosarcoma, which is common in older Shepherds. It’s a miracle he’s even breathing, let alone eating, playing, and seriously considering chasing that car when it goes past us on our evening walks. Aside from breathing a little hard all the time and slowing down on our walks, you wouldn’t know he was as ill as he is. The last three evenings I’ve taken him down to the local playing fields. Children are drawn to him like a magnet. They come boiling off the baseball diamonds and tennis courts like a swarm of bees, running up to us. “May we pet your dog?”

I make them slow down (because seriously, you don’t run up to a Shepherd waving rackets or baseball bats) but my fears are groundless. Sampson’s ears melt back in happy anticipation of the adoration that is his due, his tail wagging as the kids run their hands all over him. Several times I’ve been tempted to say something. To tell them he has cancer. But I don’t. I don’t because he is so happy and they are so happy, and how can I spoil that moment?

He doesn’t have much time left. We know this.

But the funny thing is, he doesn’t. Or if he does, he doesn’t care.

I firmly believe that dogs come into our lives at various times to teach us lessons when we need them most. I’ve been blessed to have had some amazing dogs in my life. My first Shepherd taught me what it was like to be loved completely and totally for who I was. My second taught me life was more than just getting through the day and set me on a path of life-changing self-discovery I’d never have taken without her. I changed careers because of that dog.

Even though Sampson has an inoperable mass in his chest, I consider us fortunate in that not only do we have time to adjust to the realization we’re going to lose him soon, but he is teaching me much about living for the present. Making the most of each day. How to be a dog.

I spend far too much time these days either living in the past (reacting to events that should no longer be affecting me but still do) or worrying about the future and things I can’t control. Each of us only gets today. Yes, we’re probably overworked and utterly exhausted because that seems to be the American Way, but we have to remember the things that make life worth living. Believe me, it seems like only a couple of years ago, I brought home a fuzzy little moose-puppy. In reality, it was over a decade, and yet it seems like the blink of an eye.

When I go walking with the dogs in the woods, I am reminded of Thoreau: 

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms…”

That is what Sampson is teaching me right now. I’m very much aware I’ve spent a good deal of the last decade griping at him to go lie down. I wish now we’d gone hiking more often. That I’d been more patient with his enthusiastic energy. That I’d told my employers ‘screw it’ and spent that time with those that I love.

I can’t undo that now, but I can be the person my dog thinks I am. I can’t quite manage the bucket list thing, but I am determined to make the time Sampson has left be the best it can be. I know on some level, he’s happy as long as we’re together and he doesn’t have to fight for my attention. That’s not quite enough for me, though. So a few weeks ago, I impulsively rented a dog-friendly cabin at a state park, and the four of us–the husband, Sampson, me, and little Captain– went away for an isolated weekend in the woods.

The weather was perfect. The daytime temps were in the upper thirties and lower forties–brisk but not so cold to make long walks in the woods unpleasant. The nights were brilliantly cold in the manner that took your breath away, as did the stars overhead when you stepped outside the cabin at night. No internet. No television. We sat in front of the fire and read while the dogs napped at our feet, tired from the day’s walks. I didn’t want to come home. Best. Weekend. Ever.

And sometimes, that’s all it takes. A reminder life is more than just getting through the day. You don’t have to go to Mexico or Hawaii to reconnect with those you love. You just have to unplug and look at them.

There will be more walks with Sampson. And when he is gone, there will be more walks with Captain, and whatever new dog I accept into my life. I just hope I can retain these lessons in my heart so the next dog–and everyone else I love–can benefit from them.

The cabin had a little journal where campers could leave messages. The book was nearly full–there was just a tiny amount of space left on the last page. Most of the entries had been written by children, stating how much they’d loved their week of swimming and hiking. I left this post: