The Amazon Iowan

Blog of Author Heidi Cullinan


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The Cat Who Came to Dinner

IMG_2129I haven’t mentioned Sidney lately on the blog, or much on Facebook, though if you follow me on twitter you’ve likely heard more than you ever wanted about my terminal cat in the last few days. Our four hour search for him in our huge house to no avail, his wormhole return to the kitchen, the last trip to the vet where we were told to put him down and my anxiety over whether or not this was the right time, as I didn’t see our usual vet. My attempts to feed him tuna, his treats, anything. My eventual acknowledgment that yes, this is the day to say goodbye.

I’m writing this in advance as a part of mourning, but when this posts, he will be gone, and the Cullinans will be doing another round of cat mourning. This is our fourth passing in three years. I’m hoping I don’t have to write a post like this again for double that time, minimum.

Today, though, I’m going to tell you about Sidney.

Sidney appeared in our life via the back door. We’d just finished an incredibly disastrous experiment inIMG_0099 having a dog, and young Anna was still upset about the return of her furry friend. This is example one of Sidney’s expert eye for opportunity: it was during this time of toddler angst and my weak will that he began showing up on our back deck. It was early spring, and it was cold. He’d huddle under the snow shovel against the side of the house in full view of Anna at the sliding door opposite. When he came too often, I felt for him, and I gave him some kibble.

He thought that was a pretty good deal, and started coming more often. Then one day he’d decided we’d flirted long enough, and when we opened the back door, he came in and went straight for the food dishes.

“We’ll have to call him Sidney,” Dan said, “because he came to dinner.”

“You just named him,” I replied. “You realize now it’s over.”

It was. Sidney had a name, and he was a Cullinan now.

We kept him isolated until we could get him to the vet, which was when we realized he wasn’t IMG_2464neutered, as he peed all over everything in sight to mark it. He was older, not yet a full tom but carrying enough extra hormones to aggravate the living hell out of Blair, the reluctant, neurotic alpha at the time. From that moment until the day Blair passed, Sidney delighted in sending Blair into a rage. He’d lie in wait and pounce on him, though after a few times all he had to do was look threatening, and Blair would lose his shit so fast it was better than cable. It drove us crazy, as this torment only made Blair’s fragile mental health that much more cracked, often inspiring him to pee on things in protest. We took joy, though, in watching the next black cat, Daisy, a third Blair’s size, joyfully turn the tables and drive Sidney into hiding every chance she got.

Sidney was polydactyl, and he used his thumbs to every advantage he could. He could open cupboard doors with almost no effort at all. They were usually the thing that poked at you first when he was annoyed. But Sidney wasn’t often annoyed. He relied on his cute, sweet face to get what he wanted, and he usually got it. He knew just when to appear at the dryer after a cycle so he could jump in, and he knew too I wouldn’t be likely to kick him out, not until the laundry cooled. But when I got to the folding laundry part, he appeared just as quickly, ready to nest on clean socks and underwear or towels or whatever was at hand. In fact, yesterday, when we knew it was our last evening, Anna and I warmed him some towels specifically and let him make one last snug. He didn’t have his usual relish, but he didn’t pass up the offer.IMG_2407

Though he always wanted to eat, Sidney had a deep yearning to see the outside world once again, and he took every opportunity to slip out of a door a foolish human hadn’t fully closed–the thumbs came in very handy here. A few times he was gone overnight, and the smells he brought back with him always drove the other cats crazy. He personally put several huge holes in the porch screens to abet his escape attempts, ones I admit we have yet to fix, have only sealed shut with glass.

Sidney had a fetish. For reasons we’ll never quite know, he loved, loved to be spanked on his butt while he lay sideways on the floor–spanked hard, and when you were done, he’d scoot himself forward on the carpet, then glance on his shoulder to ask for another go. He loved being petted regular too–if I was handing out pets to anyone, he’d be there in a flash, eager and hopeful I still had a spare hand. If I had a blanket on my lap, he was there in a flash, and in the last six months, he slept on my hip more than he slept anywhere else at night. I bought him a fuzzy blue throw when he was first diagnosed, but he quickly threw that over for Anna’s ultra-plush horse blanket we picked up on the way to Cedar Rapids one day. It’s been in his hospice IMG_1870room with him ever since we knew we were heading to this moment.

He was diagnosed with kidney failure, busted thyroid and enlarged heart this spring, and we got a lot more time than we probably had a right to. He’s subsisted on special kidney food and daily fluids ever since that vet visit, and for a while he almost thrived despite his deplorable blood work. His thyroid made him ravenously hungry, but I’d feed him every time he asked, and he asked a lot. I think he took a joy in knowing he could get food whenever he wanted–and no one else could. He always did like being the special boy.

It wasn’t all easy, though, nursing him through his last months. In June he developed a bladder infection and started peeing anywhere but in the litter box. He rallied after antibiotics, but he really never thought clay was better than towels after that. It would have been maddening, especially when he peed on our brand new basement carpet–except at this point his kidney failure was so bad, his urine so dilute, that it was impossible to tell his pee from plain water.

We worried what would happen when we went on our long-scheduled family vacation in early July–we had to board him at the vet, and we worried acutely he’d die while we were gone. He didn’t die, but the stress of being IMG_0855away from home combined with his already significant health crisis snowballed on Tuesday of this week, when he stopped wanting to eat. On Wednesday he started hiding–once we found him, and the second time we searched for hours, everywhere, in the craziest crannies we could find, but to no avail. When he reappeared in the kitchen, we shut him up in rooms he couldn’t escape from, first my office and then Dan’s.  My office opens to Anna’s bedroom, which meant he spent Wednesday night sleeping on her pillow. She wanted to do that again last night, but by that time it was clear he was too sick to haul around, and since we’d forced-fed him, we worried he’d vomit on her during the night…or that he would pass, and she’d find him body only by morning.

He didn’t pass, and today I got to nap with him in Dan’s office, snuggled in the chair under blankets as we’ve done so many times. All day I’ve gone to visit him, second-guessing myself, worrying I should have put him down sooner when he flags, worrying I’m acting too quickly IMG_2067when he has a moment of rally. The fact that last night for the first time ever he didn’t fight his fluids says this is the right call, as is the fact all he’s ingested all week is three bites of tuna and a syringe of watered-down Wellness Core. Even when he’s somewhat lucid, he’s not really there, though. He’s still the cat we know and love, but he’s so clearly not okay. He doesn’t want dinner anymore. He needs to go to bed one last time.

Of course, I still don’t like it. As Anna said, we could have five hundred more years and it wouldn’t be enough. Today is the day everything I see makes me sad–I go into the cramped bathroom where I’ve grumbled about the need for a litter box under the sink, making me step in spilled litter every time I wash my face–now there’s no box, and I weep for what its loss means. As I went to bed last night and no one sat on my hip, I felt empty. As I napped with him this afternoon and could barely feel his starved, ravaged body’s weight on my leg, I wept again.

I feel him a little more acutely than I felt the other cats we’ve lost–it’s not the gut despair of my first cat, Gulliver, whom I lost while pregnant (and who incidentally looks a lot like Sidney), but it’s still a more aching cut than Mia or Blair of Bingley. Bingley I never really mourned as I should–one day six months later I found a wad of his fur and sobbed until I fell to the floor, but that was it. Sometime during all the cat death and my escalating health issues, I walled myself off inside. In therapy last year I remarked how I’ve gotten into a creepy habit of non-reaction–people can tell me sad things, horrible things, and I can sometimes catch myself actively walling off. MyIMG_2582 therapist told me that’s because there’s been way too much going on, and I’m simply coping. That makes sense, but my lack of feeling bothered me. It didn’t feel like living, not like I wanted. That wall broke a bit when my grandfather passed last year, but I quickly put the familiar bricks back in place once the memorial was past. Still too much going on. Still too weary to feel the way I felt I should.

This week, I can say I have definitely felt. Sidney’s death comes at a moment already fraught with heaviness: while I know my upcoming surgery is routine, not even a little life-threatening, it feels like a mountain I am approaching, and the uncertainty of the valley beyond unnerves me. Weirdly, the worst part is that the valley might be wonderful. On my vacation my father in law explained in a way I hadn’t previously been able to wrap my head around how my hysterectomy and removal of endometrial cysts might reverse some if not all of my autoimmune issues, and I am able now, in a way I haven’t dared to in a long time, imagine a world without pain. Truly without it–no more living at 3 or 4, getting so used to it what would send most people home to bed feeling like a pretty good day. Maybe eating a few things I couldn’t again, or not getting sick from a day of cleaning. Maybe taking a long walk without my legs feeling like they’re breaking in half. Maybe feeling as good as I’ve felt on my intermediary drugs–or better–without any medications at all.

Or it might not be much different. Or only sort of different. Or something else I can’t see.

IMG_2330Control, you see, is the issue–the lack of it, both for Sidney and for me. I cannot stop him passing. I was willing to do everything necessary to help him, but his dueling illnesses made it impossible, left me only with palliative care. I could not leave him at home while we were gone–I could not stop the stress that caused him. Even if I’d stayed home, though, eventually this disease would have caught him anyway. In truth, even without this disease, something else would have taken him eventually.

And so this week has been a crazy flurry of dying cat, a pile of work to turn in before my surgery, and prepping for surgery. Of walking around realizing all the things I won’t be able to do for weeks and weeks post-op, of acknowledging how nuts that will make me. Of knowing I’m signing up for some delightful pain and that weird, not nearly as fun as it should be time-gap that is general anesthesia. I always think maybe I’ll get to see gods or at least talk to Randy Jansen in person for a few minutes, but I don’t ever so much as dream. It’s simply one moment me on the bed with the big light, then me under a different light, my body full of pain and wracked by shakes.

This week has been me trying to finish a partial and find the headspace to read the initial notes from betas, including my now former therapist’s. This week has been me sitting quietly with the fact that our notes over Carry the Ocean will be our last exchange, that because she’s retired and because of the ethics of social worker rules, we won’t ever speak again.IMG_2055

I think only a third of the tears I’ve shed over Sidney in the past twenty-four hours have been for him. Oh, I will miss him, terribly, and that hurts, but more than anything, I think his passing and my upcoming procedure and my therapist’s retirement and so many other million things have snarled into a small, hard pellet which has managed to shatter a huge section of that feeling wall. I can’t control a lot right now. I can’t stop the wheels from turning. I can’t stop change. I can’t stay death, not forever. Not even for that sweet face.

I’m grateful, though, for that feeling, and I totally credit Sidney. He wasn’t exactly a wise soul, but he was a good one, and the life lessons he offered were instructive. Play. Love. Snuggle. Seek heat and pleasure and comfort. Be a little naughty. Fly your freak flag. Never miss a meal. Live hard and long as you can, but when the time comes to say goodbye, go gracefully, easily into the next phase.

Thank you, Sidney, for choosing us to stay with for a while. I hope you found the level of treats and laundry acceptable, though I’m not sorry I never let you go back outside. Enjoy the fresh air now as much as you want. I’ll see you on the other side.


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Long or Short, Goodbyes Suck. Always.

I hate that I’m doing this again. I really, really hate it.

Had to get that off my chest. Now, for your context: This is yet another post where I have to tell you about how one of my cats is dying, and it’s going to be long and gruesome. Again.

A whole host of you, bless you all, are going oh no, because you remember the last hellacious Cat Death Cycle of 2011-2, where we put down one cat for vaccine-site sarcoma, one for multiple myoloma (I’m spelling shit wrong, typing without glasses because onions in the room, font blown up to ten thousand, apologies in advance) a few months later, and then out of nowhere another for lung cancer just a few months after that. This isn’t new, this game of Cullinan cat death. I just,  you know, thought I’d get more than two years off.

This time it’s Sidney. This special little fella.

Sidney

 

He’s our polydactyl cat, who can open cupboards with a single thumb. He terrorized Blair, the first cat to succumb to the last round of die-off, and then was terrorized by the new black kitten, Daisy, as karmic payback. He’s our “BDSM kitty” who loves to be spanked. He loves my lap and a good heat vent.

He has hypo(er?)thyroid, a heart murmur, and kidney failure.

If he had just ONE of those, or just the thyroid/heart  or the kidney, we could do it. We could give fluids and meds for the kidney or do this radio blasting thing for the thyroid. The radiation is expensive, and while we thought it was just that I had this whole scheme cooked up where I’d write a gay romance cat novella, give it away, and collect donations, and whatever was bonus I’d give to local shelters or some fantastic cat thing. I was all ready to go. I’d be ready for ANY of it, because I’m all about never say die, let’s do this.

But the thyroid treatments/meds can’t be done with kidney failure, so that will get worse, and the kidney thing is manageable but not when you have the heart murmur ready to kick out a clot which will kill him quickly and painfully. We’re going to do treatment, but we’re looking at anywhere from tomorrow he’s gone until a year or so. It’s just a matter of when and what gets him.

So he’s hungry–starving, and he can’t get enough to eat because of the thyroid, and I can’t fix it. His kidneys are failing, and we can help that, but not stop it. We can make him comfortable, pull some tricks. But basically once again we’re looking at a long goodbye. Or maybe a short one. It’s the roulette wheel of death for us here. Just a matter of when we hit black.

That’s it, really. I’m shamelessly using my blog to say this sucks and I’m sad. I bought a bunch of comfort food from the grocery store and all I want to do is drink the cider I bought. And I’m in here being sad because it’s an easy way to tell a whole bunch of people at once and to cry in my office instead of in front of my kid. Who has gotten really good at saying goodbye to cats too, much better than she should.

I’m going to say this one part out loud because it’s dumb but part of me will still believe it anyway. I have this superstition that my cats keep dying on me because they’re leeching off my weird health nonsense in some mystical-Bast energetic way, and that’s why they get sick and die. I have nothing to back this up except an overactive imagination and the fact that they always hang out on me or near me. So I feel like it’s my fault, which is even more dumb, but there it is. Nope, saying it out loud doesn’t make me believe it any less. I totally believe they would pull that shit.

Worst, though, worse even than that is that Sidney in my secret heart has always been my replacement Gulliver. My first cat, my pal through post-college nightmare, my first apartment, through dating Dan–to Gulliver’s death he was annoyed with Dan and kept waiting for him to leave–Gulliver died unexpected at seven of the same death Sidney’s likely to have, a throboembelism. (Can’t spell that either, still no glasses, not trying.) He looks just like him, and he kind of…well, feels like him. Different but similar. I always felt like Gulliver came back to me in Sidney. And wouldn’t the irony have it, but Sidney is either seven or eight, depending on how old he was when he came to us.

So now I get to feed him whenever he wants to be fed, but it won’t be enough. I get to hold him and turn up the heat too high so he has all the heat vent he wants, but it won’t be enough. We get to give him fluids and phosphorous binders and drugs, but we’re buying time. When we leave town, he’ll have to be boarded, and every time we leave the house, we might come home to him dying of a thrown clot.

I hate it. I hate that I was all ready to do whatever it takes to save him, and I can’t. I hate that I have to watch him be hungry and sick. That I have to do this again. That it’s this cat, this way. I hate all of it. I can’t even be elegant. So I’m going to sit here and cry a minute, and then go put on a good show for my kid, until I get to go to bed and he’ll curl up beside me, and I can sob until my nose and eyes swell shut, and then just get ready to do this again. A-fucking-gain.

Except I’ll just get another cat, again and again, until one (or four) of them outlive me. Because I’m married with kid, but I’m still a crazy cat lady.

And now I’ve made you all sad too. I’m sorry.

Really fucking sorry.


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Cats Gone Wild

I’m going to start this blog with some photos, because I’m also linking this to the YouTube post, and I want people to be able to see that my cats are not quite as fat as they look in the video. It’s upsetting my daughter and husband (they’re not used to negative Internet comments–I’ve been reviewed on Goodreads. I’m totally set here.) and I wanted to maybe calm people down that my cats are not beyond the beyond. For my regular readers, you get the full story after the photos.

Walter, the black and white cat, is twelve. He’s had two near-death runs, and he has almost no teeth. We had three cats die of cancer in 2010-11 (we had five then, we have four now) and he and another cat are the only survivors. He’s a friends and family favorite, but because of the teeth we have to supplement with soft food. We use Wellness, but yes, we’ve noticed the weight even coming back on him (which is actually a relief, as he was very thin in 2011) so we’re going to talk to the vet about the best low-cal option for him. We have an appointment Tuesday in fact. On Walter a lot of what you see is loose skin. He has an “udder” as we call it: he’s old, he’s been up and down, and apparently he wants to complete the cow look.

Glinda. Yes, Glinda is a chunky monkey. She’s not quite as bad as it looks in the video, but she’s decidedly round. The thing is, we can’t figure out why. We don’t put out that much food, and we never see her eat. I’ve actually worried there might be something else going on with her, which is again why the vet visit. So it’s okay to call our cats fat, and I’m working on Dan and Anna to not be so sensitive about it, but trust me. The Cullinan cats live like kings and queens.

As promised, though, here are some photos of Glinda and Walter that hopefully show they aren’t quite as grotesque as their Internet rumors.

Walter is unmoved by Internet fame

Walter is unmoved by Internet fame

Glinda the cat relaxes

Glinda the cat relaxes

Walter and Glinda consider getting a cat toy

Walter and Glinda consider getting a cat toy

Walter, Glinda, and Sidney don't want the sheets to be washed.

Walter, Glinda, and Sidney don’t want the sheets to be washed.

Daisy and Sidney, who are too bored to stare each other down.

Daisy and Sidney, who are too bored to stare each other down.

So those are our cats. They’re really okay, I promise.  And I told the vet if she could help me figure out how to keep Daisy from being a rail and still get Glinda down to fun sized, I’m game.

For regular readers, here is the story of why I had to post the above.

Yesterday my daughter was gone to her grandparents, and I had the whole day to work.  I knew I needed it, because I was plenty stuck. I looked forward to the long expanse of silence to wrestle with the muses and finally get my agent the synopsis she’s been wanting. I did not wrestle with the muses, because of this.

Monday night before going to bed, I sat with my husband in his office, when suddenly we realized Glinda and Walter were having a staring contest. We laughed. We took pictures. Sensing A Moment, I started the video on my phone. We cracked up, and I thought, I’m sharing this with friends and family.

Except I am a lazy person, and when I clicked the “share” button on my video, it gave no Facebook option, only YouTube. I thought, okay, sure. I’ll post it to YouTube and share the link. Maybe a couple people will get something out of it. I posted it to YouTube, then to Facebook. I shared it to Twitter. I went to a real computer, added some tags, and shared it with my fan page on FB too. Dan put it on Reddit. We went to bed.

I woke in the morning to a message from Storyful wanting to manage our video. I forget how many views it had at that time–maybe 800? It was a nice note, but my first thought was unease. This is the YouTube channel where I have my book trailers. What would this agreement do to them? So I had to email my agent and say, “Um, so there’s this cat video…”

While Sary looked this stuff up, I received more media requests. And more. And more. I began to feel stressed, because now it was noon and I hadn’t written A WORD or had my nice silence to think about anything, plus there was GRL stuff to decide, and meantime the cat video hits kept climbing. Eventually we sorted out it was clear, and I signed with Storyful, though as I told them mostly it was so people would stop sending me media requests.  That and my husband and daughter wanted the ad money, because I said they could have it for their Breyer/vinyl fetishes. I have absolutely no idea how much if any money a YouTube viral cat video can make. All I know even at $10 it would be the most I’ve made in 20 seconds in my life.

Because as of my writing this post, the video has 52,000 hits. I woke to my Facebook full of people telling me it was on CNN. It was on the Huffington Post yesterday afternoon. Break.com tried to buy it but because of the Storyful agreement they couldn’t.  It’s already been scraped, though the Storyful people assure me any views still go to us. It’s crazy. It makes me laugh my fool head off, because here I have been killing myself to raise the profile on my books, and the cats steal the show. Typical, actually.

The most fun part for me has been our friends and family on Facebook, but above all my child. Monday night everyone was LOLing and shaking their heads because they’ve seen these two in person, but last night our friends were having a contact high because THEIR friends kept sending them links to the video, and they were able to say, “I know, they’re our friends!” Or, “That’s my daughter-in-law!”

My daughter, however. She, as I have said, is a budding YouTuber herself, and she is in fact off right now building barns and trying to make her filming environment more authentic as to draw more viewers to her Breyer videos. I keep texting her to let her know where it’s at (She could look herself, but I think she likes the thrill of the text) and she always responds with OMG!!! Or when I told her Good Morning America was interested: OMFG!!!!!!!!! I”m sure now she’s actually excited to go back to school next week and tell her friends her cats are Internet sensations.

For me, it’s been fun but a little weird. I’ve been parsing attention or “fame” for some time now on a much, much milder scale, and the fact that this all began with me having to have business discussions with how to make sure I didn’t screw anything up inadvertently with the ad rights definitely put a different spin on things. It’s also been interesting to see how my family reacts to very, very public exposure. I saw the negative comments and thought, “Oh yes, there it is,” because it’s not real art until someone hates it, I always say. But for my husband and daughter, that was someone being mean to our cats. I tried to explain, but I also realized that’s just a hat I’ve been comfortable wearing. Yep, when you’re playing in a public pool, shit happens. 

The great irony of course is that in no way will even a million hits on that video translate to books sales. Maybe a handful, but no. Most people won’t click through to anything at all, and even if they do, they’re still not necessarily going to buy a book. Even if they actually click on the link about the cats and read this blog post. This is just a moment about our two silly cats. And that’s fine, especially if Dan and Anna get a bit of mad money out of it.

Walter and Glinda? They’re so over this shit. Because this is them right now.

Walter and Glinda are tired.

Walter and Glinda are over this shit.

(The notes on the board are testament that I got a LITTLE muse-wrestling in yesterday.)

I think the cats are the best object lesson. This was just another fight for them. Just another day in paradise. They don’t care, at all, about being on CNN or Huffington Post. This is a human convention: a fleeting, odd moment of whatever. I’m still writing, Dan still has to work tomorrow, and Anna has school next week.

We have to put cat food in the dish tonight too, fat cats or no. Because trust me. We’ll hear all about it if we don’t.

But this is the story of how instead of writing I sold twenty seconds of cat footage. I hope you enjoy the cat stare down. We certainly do.


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The Definition of Success

success kid publishingYesterday on my Twitter stream, someone posted what appeared to be an auto-reported update from an app describing how many follows and unfollows that account had received in the last twenty-four hours. The poster was a book blogger, one who takes her charge very seriously, and I’m certain she’ll find the app a useful tool for measuring the success of her venture, or that if she doesn’t she’ll discard it as a nice idea that didn’t pan out. She’s a smart, savvy cookie, that blogger, and I’m sure she didn’t lose a minute of sleep last night over finding out a few people who had been following her no longer do.

Having said that, I feel fairly confident in saying that most authors who tried to use that app would find it to be a gateway to the deepest circle of hell.

I’ve been an active part of professional author communities since 1999, and in those fourteen years I’ve only deepened my conviction that by and large authors are the most beautiful hot mess of ego and self-consciousness that has ever walked the planet. As a friend of mine once pointed out—we slave (alone) for months and years over a work, crafting and honing and sweating and weeping, and then we not only share it with the entire human race but ask to be paid for it. There’s no escaping the ego, no matter how humble we are. Yet at the same time, to be able to successfully access the stories of the human condition, we must be humble, we must put ourselves aside and reach into truths where ego must be stripped away.

Maybe it’s a bias, but from where I sit writing romance is even more of a schizophrenic split. It is and likely always will be the best-selling sub-genre of fiction, the Big Kahuna of publishing, and yet it isn’t just the story of the human condition but a chronicling of humans at their most vulnerable: falling in love. Even if we try to shut out the world, we know our potential audience is huge, and as we strip ourselves away to write emotionally vulnerable stories, we find ourselves that story’s biggest champion, wanting it to become the biggest story ever, not for our ego but for its own sake. To give it that boost we often must gird ourselves and send the introverted writer out into the void, to be the shill and the advocate and the ringmaster for our book’s success.

Nothing, nothing feels more horrible than rising out of that selfless pit of story, putting on ego we didn’t want—and finding the story not only missing the goal posts but sometimes failing to even get out of the sidelines. Did we do something wrong? Did we not promote enough? Too much? Did we burp in public at a conference and that killed the book forever? Did we make a stupid comment on a blog post or social media and now our stories must suffer for our foolishness? Did we not give it a strong enough editorial pass? Did we edit too much and stripped away the soul? Why, how, did this work we slaved over become passed over? How did we see such a beautiful gem and fail it so completely?

Put a few books under an author’s belt, and this kind of nail-biting ego soup/self-consciousness spirals to wild and crazy heights of hysteria, and usually it isn’t allowed to bleed out until something random makes us spill our carefully guarded jar of crazy. It might be a review. It might be a reader’s random comment on Twitter. It might be the failure of a book to hit a bestseller list. It might be a disappointing paycheck. It might be a failure to be mentioned in a magazine citing several of our genre peers—but not us.

It might be hearing that a conference will extend pre-invitations to a small number of high-profile, reader-requested and bestselling authors—and we must now get a bigger crock for our crazy juice, because now someone will make a judgement, a call, our peers will make a call, and we if we don’t make that list, it will cut us, it will send us so deep into that hysteria that we may not write again, because we’ve been wondering this whole time if maybe we really suck, if those lower sales numbers and meh reviews are tea leaves, if this is the final Tarot card that says, “Jesus, you fool, give it up already and go back to the accounting job.”

Don’t. Don’t you ever, ever let anyone, anything, any list or invitation or blog or review site or magazine article define you that way. Don’t let any outside force, anything of any kind tell you who you are, what your stories mean, what potential your career has. Don’t, not even for a minute let anyone but you define what success means for your career. Continue reading


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BTL Diaries: Sometimes You Gotta Walk Away

Note: You may have noticed the header and theme of this blog is different. I’m playing with a new logo. This is the prooving ground. Let me know what you think.

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Since last we spoke, I’ve worked on Better Than Love for one whole day. I tried for a second, then a third, and on the fourth day my muses stood up as angry mountains of angry and said WE ARE NOT DOING THIS.

I didn’t blog it for a lot of reasons, the chief being that was an awfully personal moment and very frustrating. It’s been a hard year for projects (for everyone I know) to start with, but then there was the whole gamble of blogging progress, plus the fact that I’ve been trying to write this sucker since 2010. I’ve done the walk away before, so I wasn’t buying the whole “oh, maybe not right now” thing. I sat long and hard, then said, well, if it doesn’t start working in a few more days, I’ll shelve it indefinitely, maybe permanently.

The muses stood up in their mountain-ness and said, “You’ll do that right fucking now.”

So I did. It made me sad, because I love Chenco, but the truth is, sometimes there are the stories we only tell ourselves. Sometimes the time is never right or the window is small and you’re busy brushing your teeth or something when it happens. All I knew is that every time I tried to work on BTL my brain dredged up A Model Man which has been stuck on Stuckety Fucking Stuck since April or worse, and that in fact is what I’ve been working on lately. So far so good, but I’m still fussing in the pre-stuck part, so we’ll see. That sucker feels like Special Delivery and the way it fucked me around for two years.

I’ve also been doing Other Things. I’ve had many many days that are just emails and promo posts and shuttling things for RRW and other biz stuffs, travel for something I’m not sure I’m supposed to announce yet, but I will when I get full permission. I’ve also been walking a friend through the valley of hell of a book, something I know well and hate, and it feels good to help. It’s also still early in the school year for Anna, plus I’m never out of things to learn about Heidi’s New Cooking Adventures. I even had a birthday party for myself, which was fun and rather me, even if they did keep dragging me out of the kitchen to be social. I think people thought it was odd that on my birthday I wanted to spend three days cooking tamales for my close friends and family. I did, though. That’s kind of how I roll.

Anyway, all this happened, and the whole time BTL sat shelved. As in, I had no intention of picking it up, possibly ever. I was ready to apologize to fans, to encourage them to go write fan fiction or use the Sam/Mitch/Randy/Ethan die-casts to write their own stories, even just in their own heads. It was all set that the SD series would simply be finished.

I forgot about Chenco, though, and how badly he wanted to be story.

In the end I think it was a good technique, because instead of me killing myself trying to make the muses function, Chenco is doing the heavy lifting, sorting out the things that keep snarling (“Hey, maybe I’m not Mitch’s brother, just some guy he adopts like a brother!”), keeping things interesting and tantalizing. The muses are not buying it, but they’re watching out of the corner of their eyes. I think if I keep saying, “We’re not doing this” and let Chenco dance, it might all work out.

I’m aware that I get a lot of readers, both of my books and my blog, who write, and what I’m saying next is to you. Sometimes you have to walk away. Sometimes the characters don’t stand back up and dance for your muses. Sometimes you work a long time on story and it’s nothing more than a hard, frustrating lesson. Sometimes you write story and it never sees the light of day, by your hand or by the publishing gods. I’m here to tell you, that’s a good thing, and you should never feel ashamed for putting something down. Oh, fans, yes, they’ll be disappointed. But you know what would disappoint them more? You never writing again, or writing but being always bitter and angry and frustrated and letting it show.

There’s no way to measure how many authors I’ve talked out of trees this year. I think all the transits of the stars and what not have made things hard, and the social pulse on the ground isn’t helping either. The zeitgeist isn’t friendly just now, nor is it accessible, not like it used to be. It’s been a hard year to make up story for a living for whatever reason, at least for a lot of people I know, and I’m one of them. This happens. This happens a lot. Sometimes it’s the way the wind blows, sometimes it’s personal, sometimes it’s inexplicable, but it happens.

I could slam through BTL and pump out something. I could override my muses and make the story work whether it or I want to work or not. It would suck, by the way, and at best it would be like a bad date, something that was maybe fun if you didn’t think too hard but mostly left you back home on your doorstep feeling empty and confused. And upset, because I’d have taken your money for that date, and you’d remember that. Story isn’t something you push, not when it’s saying slow down. If you’re a slow writer? Then you’re a slow writer. If your muses like to meander? Then that’s what they’re going to do, and yelling at them, I promise you, won’t help. Neither will making them go when they don’t want to.

Creating story is such a fragile, miraculous effort, and we need to acknowledge that. We spin whole worlds out of gossamer threads, worlds great and strong enough for millions to walk through and feel they are at home. Unlike the movies and TV, we do this all by ourselves–polish and such comes from editing, yes, but the bricklaying, or rather that thread-spinning that becomes bricks and trees and earth and city sidewalks and shopping malls and everywhere our characters go–that’s all us. We’re the directors and actors and writers and by and large the producers too. We do most of the editing. We add special effects. We create the worlds as lonely gods, and yeah. It’s hard.

So I’m not writing BTL right now, but I’m no longer saying absolutely I’m never picking it up. I’m back to, when people ask when SD3 will be out, saying, “Not sure, still working.” I’m back to knowing fans are disappointed, wanting their next foray into a friendly world. But I”m making other worlds, ones my muses are ready to do, and I’m sticking to the truths I know, that if I write a book when it’s not ready, it’s going to be bad. Yes, other people can write sequels faster. Yes, other people don’t have as hard a time. That’s okay. Other people aren’t me, and I’m not them, and allergies and extra pounds and all, I like–no, love–who I am.

As for Better Than Love? Randy is a betting man, and he hasn’t laid anything down yet, but he’s got his eye on Chenco, and he keeps smiling and touching his lip thoughtfully. I have a feeling before long he’ll be in there helping Chenco woo the muses. So no promises, but–well, you know how Randy gets. I doubt you’ll wait forever.


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Why I Have an Agent

One of the most common questions I get from other digtial-first authors is why do I have an agent. Sometimes the question is asked curiously, but mostly there’s an implied hell in the query, as in, “Why the hell do you have an agent?”

I understand where the implication that being agented in my business is unnecessary, and for many authors I can see how an agent would be superfluous. However, I think more of my brethren should consider following my lead. Here’s why.

Agents are for professional-minded authors. While I understand most authors believe they are professional-minded, it’s not a bad idea to do some naval-gazing on this one. Individual definitions on professional-minded may vary, but here’s something to start with.

  • Focused on long-term over short-term
  • Focused on building a career, not indulging a hobby
  • Concerned about careful wording of contracts and the implications these wordings have for future works
  • Concerned about getting competitive publishing contracts

The list goes on, no question, but these are some points worth emphasizing. I can’t tell you how many authors I know who don’t read their contracts, who simply sign them because they assume since the publisher wanted their book or was so friendly that of course they wouldn’t ever screw them over. Anyone who has been screwed over in publishing knows the meanest sharks usually smile before they bite off your head. Trust the law and nothing else. The law comes in your contract, and it is the only thing that will save you.

Contracts can include nasty little clauses, like moral rights or rights-of-refusal which, if too limited, can mean you’re locked into bad terms on a series forever. Let’s say you start out at a less-awesome-than-most house with 30% or less royalties. Really, these days anything less than 40% is dismal, but  let’s say you have to go for 30% or, God help you, 25%, which is what I started at. Sometimes we have to do what we have to do.

Let’s say, though, that you have a series contracted for 25% and the series does well. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can end up signing a contract that means you will get 25% for every book in that series, even the ones you haven’t sold yet. In general first right of refusal means you show them first, but contracts are tricky bitches.

I was recently shown a contract from a publisher I wasn’t familiar with which declared no negotiations on any points. I have to say, I was floored. Jaw-hanging floored. Really? Nothing is negotiable? Not even those clauses giving said publisher all kinds of wiggle on release, the ones that say the author has to keep track of when the book is up for regeneration (which apparently wouldn’t happen) or risk automatic renewal? The much lower than I’m used to now rate? With no word on why I should settle for that? And a firm no-agent policy? Really?

Really?

For some authors it’s less of an issue. The best deal and the best money is not their focus: they want their story told, and they want it told in a particular way. Perhaps they truly want a specific cover artist or editing experience. Perhaps their greater concern is the timing of releases. Or perhaps this isn’t even a real career for them but more of something fun on the side. None of these focuses are wrong, and in the case of these here, no, an agent isn’t necessary. And as I said, number of authors are able to be professional-minded without an agent.

If thinking about contracts makes you sweat? If keeping up with what’s competitive and what isn’t makes your head hurt just thinking about it? If you aren’t already somewhere you are very happy with and want to keep your options open or focus your career?

Get. An. Agent.

My agent is Saritza Hernandez. She bills herself as “The Epub Agent” because she was doing this when no other agent would touch it. I lose track of when she is and isn’t open to new clients, but obviously I recommend looking her up. Another agent I know interested in digital-first works is Eric Ruben. He’s closed to submissions, but if you meet him at a conference or on the streets of New York, say hello, and you never know what might happen. More agents are considering us every day. Watch for them at cons and read their bios and watch Publisher’s Weekly. The smart ones know we are where the future is at. And some of them will probably be doing more contract counseling for one-time fees, since this may be a better fit for both them and the authors. Maybe you could even ask them if they’d be open to such a thing.

The problem with people asking me why I have an agent is that most of the best things she does for me, I can’t discuss in detail. I’ve had many instances where I would ask for something and get told no or get silence, but Sary asks and I get everything I wanted and stuff I didn’t know to ask for. I’ve had awkward, delicate moments where I would have pancaked and hard handled with serious grace. I’ve had her fight for what I knew was right, and when I haven’t won, I got better and clearer answers of why than I’d have had without her. And there have been times, many of them, when she has stopped me from stupidity. I’ve lost my temper with a situation and she basically told me–smiling and soothingly–that this was the best that could be had at the moment, so I needed to figure out how to navigate.

The truth of the matter is that even the nicest, truly benevolent publishers have their best interests at heart, and your interests are there only to serve them. An agent gets paid only when you do, and she is there for you and you alone. She wants you to get the most money and the best deal. It’s her job, and if she doesn’t do it, she doesn’t get paid. An agent looks at your contract from your point of view and makes sure it’s the best possible for you, or she knows when to walk away. An agent can also hold delicate conversations with the publisher more gracefully, like a yenta. Because essentially that’s what she is.

An agent is not for everyone, and yes, they’re hard to find. I looked for fifteen years for one, and no one ever fit. It was harder to find my agent than my husband. It may seem easier to simply go with the flow, to suck up the bad contract or confusing wording. It might work out.

Or it might not.

I am a neurotic control freak who loses her head when she tries to predict what direction to take in this volatile business, which is why I have an agent. This year twice now she has said, when I began whirling like a dervish, “Do this now. Now do this.” She’s given me insight on which publishers to try and which not to. She’s RIGHT on top of the money all the time, and rights and distributions and who looks well-seated to last and who is not looking so rosy. She has saved my ass and my face more times than I can count and under circumstances I can’t share. She has secrets I can’t tell, some of which she doesn’t even tell me. In short, she has everything I don’t have and everything I need.

She shares it with me for 15% of every book she sells for me. Honestly? Most days it seems like the biggest bargain in the world.

And that is why I have an agent.


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Blog Hop and Writing Updates for the Curious (Hint: I talk about The Special Delivery Thing)

This week’s blog hop is here at Blaine Arden’s place. We’re getting close to the end, and someone is about to win $200 worth of book shopping. It could be you if you go to all the stops and leave comments….

About once a month (sometimes more) someone finds me somewhere in social media and gives me a version of the following: Are you going to write more of the Special Delivery  series? The answer is yes. One more book for sure, two probably. The follow up question of “when?” however is a lot more complicated.

There are a lot of issues, the simplest of which is time. I frequently get compliments on the length of my novels and the complexities of my plots and characters: the downside of this is that those sorts of things take more time. Believe me, I’ve often longed to whip out some quick novellas, but as a reader, I don’t like them, and in my experience the shorter my work, the less it seems to satisfy anyone, starting with me. Unfortunately story ideas come way too fast and furious for me, and part of seeing what will work and what won’t is writing them down and seeing if they take off. If something gets to 30k, I’ll finish it eventually for sure. I have a huge folder of 10-20k starts that cannot all possibly see the light of day before I die, especially if others keep leaping in front of me as I go.

Part of my process is also that things have to sit and gel. I ran into real trouble this past year when I agreed to a contract where I’d write book three of a complex series within a year, and it killed my muse so hard I’m still trying to coax it back into play. Hurrying does not help me at all. Right now I’m working on a book that if I told you about it, you’d probably start squeezing, but I’m not because right now it’s hard enough to sit down and crank out a thousand words for the day. I can’t even promise they’re good words right now. The victory is that I’m writing at all.


The bigger issue is also that my books often want to cure like wickedly good cheese or wine. I’ll be rolling and then all of a sudden STOP, slam, and they won’t talk to me possibly for years. A Model Man is doing that to me now. It took me forward like a roller coaster, and now it’s so mum I just let it sit on the side. The one I’m working on right now is in the snarly middle part where I really have no idea what it’s doing anymore and am starting to suspect it might be utter crap. Except I also know that this is very much what the middle is like for me, so I’m less upset than I’ve been in the past. Plus, see the above about just trying to get words on the page.

But there is a particular problem with Special Delivery 3, and it’s that you all like those books way too much.

When I wrote Special Delivery, I was unpublished. It took me three years, and in the end I basically wrote it because my husband wouldn’t stop bothering me. I tossed in our California trip because I didn’t know what else to do. The more I wrote the more confused and tangled I felt, but I just kept writing because Dan was unmoved by my wailing that it was a horrible hot mess and please just let me quit. Once I got done I felt somewhat better about it, and I was in love with Randy and in that nervous stage before my first book was out (Hero) so I wrote Double Blind for NaNoWriMo. I was doing the edits for it while Special Delivery was just beginning to get attention.

This is to say, I wrote them both happy and ignorant in the dark. I of course had the usual dreams that they’d do well, but no real plans that they would and no practical experience of what that would do to my muses.

Add to this that it’s during that summer that my health took a hard slide into Not Good, and the idea of writing more of Everyone’s Favorite became so heavy I could barely lift it. I tried to do recreate the NaNo magic, but all I got was a snarly hot mess.I have something like 100k of material, but it’s disjointed and plotless and more importantly endless, and every time I’ve tried to fix it I’ve been dragged away by other things. Part of the problem is that.

But the largest issue is that everyone is watching, or at least it feels like it, and it’s very distracting. It’s hard to get Zen enough to not care, to push that out and just work, especially as I’m schlocking other books, taking myself back into sales and marketing mindset. Add to this all the other stuff plus my insane insistence that I keep developing already paired characters, that it’s not just a new romance with recurring roles, and the urge to smoke and drink my way into a coma becomes acute. This book has taken three years because it’s hard.

Every time a psychic gets a hold of me they fell compelled to tell me how vital it is that I meditate, that allegedly there is some great message from beyond waiting for me if I do so. Usually I am only annoyed by this, but lately I’ve been thinking more pragmatically. I’m thinking of meditating but coming with a clipboard. I’ll hear the great cosmic message, but only if part of it is or along with it comes mental clarity so I can get all the writing done I want to do, plus still hang with my husband and kid. I’m not sure it’s kosher to negotiate with one’s Spiritual Guides, but I plan on doing it anyway. I don’t really care what the universe has in store for me. I want to write a lot of stories, as many as possible. Since I’m the one ambulating and putting up with the sugar nonsense, I think this earns me enough voting shares to control the meeting.

I’ll let you know how this goes. Or, you know, if I just crank up the iTunes and muddle on.


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BYWB Blog Tour Post and Reluctant Zen

First things first. Go here to read about authors’ Valentines Day stories, including how my husband and I gave each other the same card on our first V-Day together. Also enter the contest again.

Meanwhile, back in my brain…

I don’t know what switch I flipped, but I done flipped it, and I cannot stand to be on the Internet at the moment. I’m way behind on email and things I need to do and have to force myself to do the bare minimum of all social networking/etc contact every day. Writing is actually coming okay. About 11k into a project I am not discussing because lately when I discuss things I can’t finish them, so here’s hoping keeping mum works some magic. God knows I need something.

What I am pretty sure I need, actually, is to meditate in some kind of fashion. I’ve been getting all kinds of messages from the universe lately, everything but a neon sign telling me to OHM NOW OR ELSE, and yet it’s amazing the lengths I will go to in order to not sit still and be one with the universe for even ten minutes. I either wander off in mental noodles or pass out asleep. It’s weird, because a part of me truly, truly wants to relax and unplug, and I can almost taste the good things it would give me, like, you know, sanity. And yet how I run.

I mentioned this to my therapist yesterday, who is a Buddhist and as you might assume does more than a fair amount of meditation, and she had an interesting tidbit that really helped me feel less frustrated with the whole meditation thing: apparently we all suck at it because we’re wired to hate it. The reason we feel allergic to it is that it goes against all the ways we’re programmed to be, and the very act of sitting still and observing, pulling back, makes our brain work actively to get the fuck out. I had no idea, but now that I know that, I don’t feel quite so bad. Weirdly, it makes me want to go sit and meditate.

Of course, I don’t actually do it. I just think I might actually want to try. I’m not sure if that’s progress or moving the dust around.

And at this point my brain is screaming from too much internet once again. I feel another episode of Medium calling. Catch you all later.

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