Final Friday: Year Out, Year In….

I woke up this morning thinking, “today is December 30th.”  The final Friday of 2022. A weekend to celebrate (good planning, 2022!), and Monday rolls around in a new year.

[disclaimer; the rest of this post will be taking a Northern Hemisphere view of the season.  Apologies to friends in the Southern hemisphere]

For me, the “new year” always feels like it starts in September.  Part of that may be because I’m Jewish, and our lunar new year comes around then, but I think it’s more about school starting again.  New clothes, new schedules, new notebooks and pens… all that amazing, long-stretching possible.

By the time December comes around, though, the routines have become, well routine. The notebooks are scrawled in, the pens lost or dried up, the possible likewise drying into the actual.

Maybe that’s why New Year’s Day is my favorite holiday, because you’re stuck, you’re tired, you’re a little worn out, and then New Year’s Eve comes around, and people start talking about fresh starts, about making resolutions to do it better this time.  It’s a second chance pretending to be a new start. It’s addictive. 

And resolving to do something is easy.  “This year I’m gonna…”

So many things we’re gonna.

Over a decade ago, I  resolved to make no more resolutions, and that’s one I’ve managed to keep.  Mostly.  But I’m no more immune to the lure of a fresh start than I am to the lure of a fresh, new notebook, never mind that I already have more notebooks, half-filled, than even a writer could ever need.  It’s aspirational, I’m gonna DO IT this time.  I’m going to take control of my own story, and rewrite it fresh, and better.

Yep. This year I’m going to stop worrying about Goodreads reviews.  I’m going to stop buying anything from Amazon. I’m going to write every single day, and make every single internal deadline.

C’mon.  No I’m not.  

That’s not to say we can’t change, of course we can. We do. In fact, it’s harder NOT to change, than to change.  It takes serious effort to remain static in the face of life’s constant friction. But personal, internal changes are most effective when done a piece at a time.  There is no deus ex machina to lift us overnight out of our funk.

But if our lives are stories – and they are, a multitude of intermingling stories, crosshatching the globe –  then January 1st doesn’t start the revision of the last 365 days. It’s the first page of the next chapter.

Time to build on what we’ve already written.

What new chapter are you going to write?

 

 

Final Friday: And We’re Away…..

Last month I blogged about the weeks leading up to the launch of my most recent book, Uncanny Times.  But now we’re a ten days post-launch, and it’s time to check in, and do a reality check.

I’d been doing pre-release publicity up to the day or release: blogposts and podcasts and interviews and social media all over the place until even my mom would have been tired of seeing my face.  Does it actually move any books?  God only knows, and They’re not telling. You do what you can to the best of your ability and spoons, and hope something sticks. 

But even with all that, even with the positive reviews the book was getting and the publicity, and the very successful Goodreads giveaway, and everything else we were able to do… come October 18th, it was all in the hands of the bitch-goddess of Retail.

Take a deep breath.  Wait.

Everything up until now has been Possibility and Expectation. Shit’s real now.

Some people like doing a Big Event on the day-of.  I’ve done that before, and, honestly… the stress of planning always overwhelmed any actual benefit, either emotionally or sales-wise.  I think everyone should do it at least once, but after that…. unless your publisher is doing all the work, go with what you, personally, enjoy.  If that’s a big party, great! If it’s staying home on your couch and ignoring everything, also great!a "congrats!" balloon and a copy of UNCANNY TIMES on a wooden bartop.

Since we had events lined up for that weekend, I chose to meet friends for drinks after work, to properly toast Uncanny Times on its way.  (I showed up to find one friend already there, hand-selling the book to her fellow drinkers at the bar.  That’s the kind of friend every writer should have).

While I’d love to say that the next morning I woke up and simply went back to work, focused on the next project, that would be an utter and absolute lie.  I checked the Amazon rankings. And googled my name + title. Promoted the book signings I was going to do that weekend. Rinse and repeat every few hours for the next three days.

And then I made myself stop.  Not entirely – I’m only human, after all.  But the every hour nonsense, yeah.  I should note here that I do not take Amazon “bestseller” status with any particular seriousness. I watch how the ratings fluctuate, and note dips or peaks rather than any particular number.  And, of course, I anxiously read the early reader reviews. But my focus shifted from “what will critics say/how can I get the word out?” to “how can I expand my reach?”

Because, and this is a truth it took me a few books to learn, Launch Day is a day to celebrate, to enjoy, to stand on a chair and shout out to the world THIS IS MY BOOK ! IT’S HERE! But it’s also just one day in a long march of days, and the weeks after launch matter just as much as the days before.

And then, sooner than you think, but honestly also not soon enough, you have to let the book do what it will do, and go back to work on the next.

I’m looking forward to that.

 

and remember….

image of one person handing another a book, with the text: If you love a book...tell one friend!

Final Friday: Ready (or not) to Launch

In the three years we’ve not only dealt with a global pandemic, but I came brick-wall-to-face with my mortality in the shape of a nasty little tumor. You’d think something like a new book coming out wouldn’t even register on my stress-o-meter.

And yet.  If you thought that, you’d be wrong.

As I write this, we’re in the countdown to my new book – UNCANNY TIMES launches on October 18th.

Countdown.  Launch.  They’re apt terms – because like any launch, the seconds, minutes, hours – and in a book’s case, weeks – ticking down are fraught with tension. Anticipation, yes, but also hyper-aware of every. single. way. things can go wrong.

The emotional swing goes something like this: you’re proud of what you’ve done and also wondering if anyone is going to like your offering. You’re clinging to the positive early reviews, while trying not to take the bad ones to heart.  You’re hoping that you are doing the right things in terms of promotion, while trying not to stress over the things you can’t do, trying not to notice what other people are doing that look better than what you’re doing.  And through all this, while acknowledging that the odds are always against you, you’re nurturing that tiny nugget of a seed of hope that this will be the breakout book – while also not letting your expectations set you up for disappointment.  

It’s a therapist’s playground in our heads, really.  I mean, all the time, but particularly now.

The first few launches, most writers try to cover the board,  push every button, flip every switch, touch everything on the off chance that one of those things will be The Secret to success.  And then time and experience lay the heavy truth on you: we can’t control any of this. We can only do what we can do, time/energy/finances allowable, and let the rest happen as it will. 

And often, it won’t.

I’m looking back over what I’ve written and my god, that all sounds depressing as hell, doesn’t it?  Send chocolate and CBD (where legal by state law).  And yet. 

And yet.

For all the fraught-ness of the countdown, for all the ways that launch can and probably will fail, I’ve found that the countdown is also that magical phase of absolute possibilities, when the work is been done and what you have left is hope.  For a brief shining moment, all the success in the world is waiting for you.  It’s a gift.  Wallow in it.

And then, when you can’t stand it any more, there’s one more thing. Work.  Because in the midst of the countdown, there’s another countdown going on as well: your deadline for the next book.

And the chance to begin the countdown to launch all over again next year.

DogBlog: Today I am Two

In the chaos of deadlines and New Book Planning, I’ve forgotten many things.  But this, I did not forget. Today is Max’s second birthday.

While her “present” will be a long hike this weekend, tonight a small gathering will be raising a glass (and handing out a new Hedgie) to celebrate. Over on Twitter, I asked if I should get her a pupcake, or if that was gilding the already-spoiled puppy.

The overwhelming response was “yes, get her a pupcake!”

For those of you unfamiliar with this trend, a pupcake is…exactly what it sounds like.  A dog-tummy-safe cupcake, made with things like bananas, pumpkin, and peanut butter flour. You can make them at home (there are mixes!) or you can go to a hoity-toity pet shop or specialty baker. Yes, there are actual dog-treat bakeries.

Dog people, we need a reality check.  Dogs eat dirt.  They eat raw carcasses they find by the side of the trail. They will eat shit, some of them. They are not impressed by a fancy pupcakes with dog-safe frosting and a candle.  Admit it, you’re doing it for the insta.

(Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

But this is a milestone birthday. We did it, we got through her puppyhood and her adolescence mostly intact, if a lot poorer (most recent expense: $80 for meds to get her through another bout of Giardia, ouch).  She’s reached her adult size and weight, and her personality is, if not set, then firmly established.  85% sugar, 10% vinegar, and 5% hellion.  I love her to bits, and I wouldn’t trade her for anything.  Although I might downsize her just a bit.

Are there things I’d do differently over the past two years, given the chance?  Absolutely. “No dogs on the bed” would have been a hard rule from the start, for one.  Getting her better-socialized with under-ten humans. Figured out her particular quirks and needs faster than I did.  It’s probably impossible to raise any living creature and not have regrets along the way. 

There are some things I just have to accept were always going to be, raising a pandemic puppy.  But I think we did okay. 

People tell me she will start to settle down, energy-wise, around three.  Or four.  Or maybe five.

Please god, by five.  Momma’s tired, and the cat needs a break.

And this brings us to the end of my regular dogblogging.  I hope you enjoyed growing up with us.

Then,

and now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

…and did I get her a pupcake?  You’ll have to check my instagram to find out.

DogBlog: Terrible Idea Update

When last we left our intrepid heroine and her faithful, hopeful human, we had unboxed the FluentPet kit, and read all the instructions, ready to teach Max How To Speak – or at least, use buttons to tell me what she wanted what she really really wanted.

The first part of Operation Button Speak went according to plan. I chose two words to start with – “toy” and “out.”  Max knows both in context, so the trick would be teaching her that she could create the context (ask for the thing).  Basically, this was going to involve a lot of association, repetition, and rewarding.

It went well.

The next step was to introduce Max to the buttons.

Um.  Yeah.

Me holding the button, pressing it to hear the recording of the word, and then associating an act with the action?  No problem.  Max knew exactly what was going on.

Max pressing the button?

*record scratch*

Houston, we have a problem.  Max Does Not Like The Clicky Thing.

And I don’t mean, “she was suspicious of it” or “it scared her a little” and she’ll get over it the same way she did puppy gates and garbage trucks.  I mean, she would see it on the floor, and detour the long way around the apartment to avoid it. Immediate, unequivocal Do. Not. Like. Not with her paw, not with her nose – and this is a dog who will happily “touch” anything I point her at, while we’re on walks.  Not even her beloved trainer, S., could get her to go near the button except under mild duress. And we worked too long and hard to ease her stress reactivity, to intentionally add any to her life.

Okay, Max.  Okay.

I’m not giving up, though.  The buttons remain on the floor.  We’re ignoring them for now.  Maybe, eventually, she will decide they’re harmless.  Or maybe she will never trust them enough to use, and we’ll pass them along to someone else.  Am I disappointed?  Yeah, a little.  But the thing about dogs, as with all living things we let into our lives, is that you need to love them for who they are, not who you wanted them to be.  And Max?  Is not a button-pusher.

But she’s definitely a word-learner. She may not “say” them, but her comprehension library is growing – and she’s understanding complex commands.  I’ve already learned more about her than I knew before, how she thinks and reacts, so in that sense this was a successful experiment.  So we’re going to lean into her strengths, and see where it goes.  Updates as they happen, I guess.

Meanwhile, it was suggested that I try the buttons with Castiel. Um, er, no.  My cat already speaks his mind  He doesn’t need any help.

 

 

Dogblog: This Is A Terrible Idea

Back with Max was a pup, I got a doorbell (actually a strand of fabric with several bells on it) with the idea that when Max wanted to go out, she would go and ring the bell. In theory, it’s an excellent plan. And it even worked… For a while. Then Max realized that she could get my attention anytime she wanted it by ringing the bell, and did so. Repeatedly. All the time.

We got rid of the bells.

Flash forward the year, and I’ve been watching my friend Mary Robinette Kowal document how she is teaching her cat how to use “speaking” buttons to communicate. And I think to myself, that might actually be fun to try with Max. And then I remembered the bells incident, and I thought, maybe not.

But with Max’s board and train in the rearview mirror, I’m aware of the fact that S., Max’s trainer, is right: I have a very smart dog. And smart dogs need things to occupy their brains, otherwise they find things to occupy their brains. And those things are never pleasing to the human in the household. So I said the hell with it, and ordered their basic button kit. If it doesn’t work out, I figure I can hand it on to somebody else who wants to give it a try.

The kit is two buttons, which I can record a word or phrase on, and foam placemats to set the buttons in, to make them easier to use. So the first decision I had to make was, what two words were they going to use? It wasn’t a question of what I said to Max, but what I wanted her to say to me. After a few days of thinking, I settled on “toy,” and “out.” Toy, because  I will tell her to “get the toy,“ or “fetch the toy,“ and she knows what I mean. So I’m hoping that she will associate the word toy with a desire to play. “Out” is kind of self-explanatory.

The plan is to start with these two, and eventually work her (our) way up to more abstract but useful concepts like “hungry,” “sleepy,” “mad” and “scared.”  Part of me is thinking like a dog owner – being able to know more specifically what’s going on in her doggy brain will help us interact better.  But part of me is also thinking like a writer, fascinated to see how an “alien” brain learns, using human tools and concepts…

Is this gonna work? Or is Max going to decide it’s a stupid game and she doesn’t want to play? I have no idea.

I guess we’ll find out next month.

Train the Dog, but Also Train the Owner…

Last month, I discussed my mixed feelings about sending Max off to Puppy Boot Camp, also known as “board and train.” 

When the day came, I packed her into the car and drive about half an hour north, to S., the trainer’s home. S. met us outside, and we talked for a bit – and I admitted that I was about 3 seconds away from grabbing my dog and going home.  Apparently this is entirely normal drop-off emotion?  Parents of kindergartners may relate.

Eventually, when I couldn’t stall any longer,  I handed Max’s leash over to S.

Max wanted nothing to do with that, going flat on the ground like a toddler about to have a tantrum.  And I had to take a step back and let someone else – a relative stranger I’d only met once before –  handle it.

S. was calm but firm, and eventually Max went into the house with them, and I got back in the car and went home, thinking, “what the fuck have I just done?”

(written a very large check, is what I’d done.)

The first week, I was at Rainforest Writers’ Retreat, and Max would have been in boarding anyway, so it wasn’t too hard.  Max was decompressing, so not much happened those first few days for her, either.

The second week, it was…kinda nice?  I missed her, but I was also remembering how much time and energy she was eating.  I was getting regular updates, meanwhile – photos of her looking energetic and pleased, and video of her working on her skills, focused and happy. So… it was okay. We were all doing okay.  The cat, in fact, was doing GREAT.  He started sleeping on my pillow again, now that he didn’t have to worry about Max trying to stick her nose in his bidness.

Oh no.  This is bad.  Am I a bad person for enjoying my dog-free life?

(Parents of summer camp-age children are laughing sympathetically right now, possibly)

The third week… was hard.  Even the cat started to look around like, “hey, wait, isn’t someone else supposed to be coming back already?”  S. and I had a Zoom meeting to go over the progress Max had made, and… Max was in the background, resting on her cot, not even lifting an ear when she heard my voice.

Shit.  My girl had transferred her loyalties.  She didn’t miss me!

Then S. pointed out that every time I spoke, Max’s tail thumped. She totally knew it was me, she was excited to hear me – but she had been told to “place” on her cot, and that’s what she was doing.

Oh.  Okay.  I guess?  But then I got handed my own homework: to think about the past two weeks, and what I’d want to do differently when Max came back, if there would be a change in the House Rules.

The main change I decided to make was that Max would sleep in her kennel all the time, not the bed.  I know a lot of people are okay with sharing bed space, but Max is ~45 pounds of long, lean canine, and also, she kicks.   Other than that… it was going to be a lot of wait-and-see.  Her behavior was hopefully going to be different, so I’d work off that.

And then the day came… S. brought Max home.  And… she didn’t seem glad to see me?

But the thing was, I’d been used to judging her happiness by her jumping up to greet me.  She’s been told not to do that.  So I had to look closer.  She went straight to her new cot when told to, and settled down… but she was wiggling.  And whining.  She wanted so badly to get up and greet me with wild abandon, but she was being a Good Girl and staying put. 

Even when the cat came in the room.  Max perked up and watched the cat intently, but when reminded, she sank back down on her cot and did not do her usual up-in-the-cat’s-bidness greeting. 

Holy shit.  My Slightly Wild Child had embraced discipline.

And then I was introduced to the discipline I’d have to embrace, for the next few weeks. 

Max did her part.  And it’s a lot. Ten (10) pages of typewritten instruction, lot.  Most of which I already knew, but it’s laid out in black and white now: this is my job.  And I’m not saying that as a metaphor; it’s a job.

The next month or so is 100% on me, to maintain her training, to dial up the structure, and dial down the affection, be firm with the rules and consistent with both praise and rebuke, until she accepts that yes, this is how life is, even when her trainer isn’t around  It’s been 24 hours as I type this, and I’m already seeing a steady stream of micro-challenges from her as I test what she knows, and she tests what I know.  

But we’ll be fine.  We got this.  a dog and a woman sitting next to each other, holding up a graduation certificate.

 

Separation Anxiety (Human, not Dog’s)

It’s been a stressful week (month), even by the standards of the 2020’s. And in four days, I’m going to do something I swore I never would.  I am going to hand my dog over to a trainer, and walk away.  For three weeks.

Three. Weeks.

They call it “board and train.”  We’ve been referring to it as “puppy boot camp.”

I’m stressing out about it, hard.

I know that I’ve taken Max a long way in 20 months.  She’s a sweet, loving, playful girl with excellent leash manners, she knows all her commands (even if she still has trouble with her recall), she’s a great car-ride companion, and is A+ at letting me know when she has to go out (and holding it, if I can’t get to her right that second).  And she hasn’t destroyed a single thing other than her own toys since she finished teething. She’s practically perfect, and the not-perfect….well, that’s just a matter of fine-tuning.

But she still reacts with fear-aggression under certain circumstances, and while I can handle it, that’s beyond my current paygrade to fix.

Part of me feels like I’ve failed, that I wasn’t “good enough” or attentive enough to be and do everything Max needs.  That somehow it’s my fault she has that particular quirk.

It’s not.  I’ve had trainers reassure me on that fact: dog brains are mysterious things, same as human brains, and sometimes they just… get wired a certain way.

Part of me believes if I’d put in a little more time, studied a little more, done more exercises, I could have done the rewiring myself.

And maybe I could have.  Probably I could have.  I know the basics, it would just require, well, a lot of time.  Constant, dedicated time. And I have a job (several, in fact) and a real need for sleep.

I’m reminding myself that just as writers need editors and copyeditors, sometimes puppies need a little extra help, too. Nobody’s good at everything, and we don’t have to be.

And Max isn’t going to love me any less for it.

So she will go to Puppy Boot Camp, spending three weeks with S., who will give her the 24-hour professional care and training needed to erase old habits and build new ones.  And when we are reunited, S. will teach me how to maintain and build on those.

It’s a good thing. It’s also a bloody expensive thing, but it’s a good thing.

And maybe, rather than boot camp, it will turn out to have been Officer Training School.

I’m going to miss her, a lot. But I also suspect the time will be well-spent, reconnecting with (spoiling) Castiel the Kitten of Thursday, and also writing a LOT in the time not spent exercising and training.  Which is good, because  I’m supposed to be writing the follow-up to SOMETHING PERFECT next month….

But until then, Max and I are keeping each other chill.

cream-and-red dog at oceanside during low tide

Something New, Something…Perfect?

I am, at heart, not a particularly patient human being.  Reading romances, especially, as a teen, brought that element of my personality to the fore: “why don’t they just TALK to each other?  Why are they being so STUPID?”

As i got older, I understood that people are often broken in ways that make them stupid.  Especially when it comes to matters of the heart.  If only, I thought, there way a way to see your perfect partner, the one who actually will fit you, will love you, and you’ll love…

But even then I knew it wouldn’t, couldn’t, be that easy.

And when you bring not two but three personalities into play…

It’s going to take more than magic to make things work.  It’s going to take courage, patience… and a writer who’s got your back.  🙂

On Valentine’s Week, I offer you this new bit of feel-good (sweet-AND-spicy) fluff, SOMETHING PERFECT.

Looking Back the Length of a Leash

This past year, I’ve been dogblogging about the things I’ve learned, working with Max.  This week I took a pause and looked back over those twelve months, the process of bringing her from adorable puppy to Almost Adult despite Life During Covid, which has been just as hard on dogs as it has people (cats, mostly, haven’t given a fuck).

I’ll be honest, there were days (weeks) when I wasn’t sure either one of us were going to make it.

Max a good girl, mostly.  Sweet, affectionate. But seemingly overnight she developed a fear reaction (expressed in defensive behavior), and it hit just as she was going into the predictable stage of “I know what that command is, I just don’t think I’m going to listen to it,” around nine months.  Also seemingly overnight, she went from “I can trust her with anyone” to “I can’t trust her with anyone but me.”  And that’s not much of an exaggeration: I knew that her barking and lunging was defensive, but to non-dog-people, it looked scary as hell, and a scared person and a scared dog is a bad combination.

I was convinced I’d screwed her up, that I’d done something wrong, or not done something right,  that I’d taken a perfectly good pupper and given her anxiety.

That was… a rough few months.  Max had to be isolated from strangers, which meant her outings, already limited by Covid, were cut back even more, interfering with her socialization – the very thing she needed to get over her anxiety.  And she – who honestly loves most people – didn’t understand why she didn’t get to go to work with me any more.

We worked with a canine behaviorist, and I talked with other people who had ACD mixes. I did my homework and Max did hers.  And what I kept hearing was, “she’s a good dog. She wants to avoid trouble, not dive into it.  She loves and trusts you, you’ve given her the right training; now you need to trust her to grow into it.”

And that was the hardest part: trusting her.  Letting her stand and observe a situation rather than redirecting her immediately.  Keeping an eye on her body language, letting her decide if this was someone she was comfortable with or not, rather than removing her as a preventative measure.  It seemed entirely counter to everything I’d been taught before.

But slowly, it began to work.

It’s not perfect yet.  It never will be – Max is too smart for her own good (and certainly too smart for my own), and overthinks herself into stress. And there will always be people who frighten or trigger her. But the past twelve months, I’ve learned to accept her for the dog she is, rather than the dog I’d expected, and not let the worry override the love. And she understands now, I think, that she’s allowed to bark when she’s upset, and come to me for reassurance, rather than throw herself into a defensive frenzy.

We’re a work in progress, and she’s probably never going to be good with running kids, or sleds, or people who stick their hands in her face.  But honestly, she doesn’t have to be.

Fact is, we’re all getting out of 2021 with a touch of anxiety.

And I’ve got nothing particularly profound to end on, after that, except….

to be continued.

a cream and red dog, in a field of snow