Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Chickens & Writing--A Love Story

Earlier this year, it occurred to me that my past life as a rare poultry breeder helps me through the business of writing and publishing. I said as much on Twitter, and people demanded a blog, so here we are. Now, I'm a little strange compared to a lot of people. I was self-sufficient once, so I'm frugal and careful. I don't take loans from banks or buy stuff I don't need. I don't make a lot of friends or go out that often. I like to keep my life simple, like The Waltons or Little House on the Prairie. In a way, this is how a chicken breeder thinks. Or, at least, this chicken breeder. It's how I think as a writer, too. Simple.

To start, I don't count my chickens before they hatch.

There are a lot of ways to lose unhatched chicks. If you're incubating artificially, it's as easy as losing electricity or forgetting to add water for the proper moisture content. And that's leaving out the possibility that you candled the eggs incorrectly, and you're trying to hatch unfertilized eggs. (Always a bummer.) If you're using a broody hen to hatch your eggs, she can decide halfway through to stop sitting. She can peck the crap out of them one night in a fit of bored insanity.

In publishing, imprints shut down, options get rejected, books get dropped, tours get canceled and contracts fall through. In writing, ideas fail, deadlines loom, and some days it's just impossible to write or write well. So, the idea selling a book that hasn’t hatched yet seems like a crazy risk to someone like me. And I was never the type to daydream about movie options and red carpets either. I do the work that's on my desk and hope to sell it. It's very simple. And I'm always about to write the next book, so if those eggs don't hatch, there are others incubating. This isn't to say I'm not optimistic. I'm one of the more optimistic people I know. But I've been around long enough to know that shit happens.

Fact: Chickens poop.

Yes, chickens poop. And they can't work a shovel or a wheelbarrow, so you have to clean it up. Sure, once those chicks hatch and dry off a bit, they are cute as all get out. But they start pooping from day one. The first weeks hold risks. You have to keep them out of anything with corners or else they'll be squished to death by their siblings. You have to make sure no predators can attack and you need to put the brooding light nice and low to keep them warm enough. And of course, the basics--food and water and cleaning up the poop.

I doubt I need to point out the obvious parallels here. If you're reading this, I'm guessing you already know that sometimes, there is poop in writing and publishing. I'm not complaining. I love my job. Revision and mucking out the chickens are two of my favorite things to do. Yes, we already knew I was weird. But here's a totally awesome thing.

Chicken poop makes great fertilizer.

I used to make poop tea. Ew! Not to drink! To water my crops with, of course. And those crops fed me. See? Good things can come from poop. In fact, as fertilizer goes, you can't do much better than chicken poop. It's so hardcore you have to dilute it.

When I'm writing a book, the poop also comes from day one. Characters go flat. Premise might go off track. Plot can go in the wrong direction. Best to look at these things as learning experiences. Make some book-poop tea. Turn the flattest character ever into someone readers will never forget. Make a bore into an adventure. Same goes with publishing-world poop. When a door closes, a window opens, even if you can't see it yet. Keep writing, keep working, keep improving. Whatever you do, do not leave the poop in the coop. Ignoring poop never leads anywhere good.

Surely some of you are totally grossed out by this whole thing already. Ew. Poop? Poop tea? I'm aware this isn't a common way of thinking. I'm aware that poop tea is weird. I'm aware that I am weird and I am okay with that.

In birds and books, sometimes weird is good.

After a few years of breeding standard laying hens, I became a rare chicken breeder. For the most part, I bred birds called Blue Orpingtons. The thing about Blue Orpingtons that made them so darn rare was the genetics. Ready for this? If you want white Orpingtons, you breed two white Orpington birds. If you want black Orpingtons, you breed two black Orpington birds. But if you want Blue Orpingtons, you can't just breed two Blue Orpington birds.

Breeding two Blue Orpingtons will yield some black, some white, some black with white speckles mottled, and some white with black mottled. To get an ALL BLUE brood, you have to take a white with black mottled hen and breed her with a blue rooster. That's why they're called rare. And the most money I'd ever get is for the white with black mottled hen. They don't look like they'd be the most valuable. (Actually, they look kinda scruffy.) But they are.

People will drive a long way for rare birds.

People will drive an hour or two for common birds.
They'll drive up to four hours for rare blue birds.
But for a white with black mottled Orpington hen? Uh, chicken people will do crazy things for one of these. It means they can skip that extra step. They are guaranteed fluffy blue treasure.

In publishing, I don't think there are any shortcuts to fluffy blue treasure, even though every writing magazine seems to advertise a hundred of them on every other page. I do think people will go a long way to buy rare birds, though--the birds that broke away from the flock somehow. In writing, no matter what genre, this is what you want to do.

In chickens, most buyers want $5-a-head laying pullets. They really aren't concerned with breed, usually. They just want fresh free-range eggs to eat. But there is a particular type of person who will buy rare birds. I call them crazy chicken people. I was one, so I mean no offense. Crazy chicken people are all about rare or weird birds. They probably have a peacock perched on their fence who spits at you when you walk by. Their back yards have usually been transformed into what looks like a mini-zoo of coops and runs. They take their job very seriously. And their boots always have chicken poop on them.

Publishers need laying pullets and broiler cockerels, and a good, hearty rooster that will do its job. They need the brand names you know, that you see in the refrigerated section of most supermarkets and have poppers in them to tell you when they're ready. If you are a writer, you want to be this for your publishing house. You want to be John Grisham, Nora Roberts or Judy Blume. However, not all writers will end up the popular Perdue roaster with a popper, and that's okay too. Usually, becoming an overnight success takes a few decades of hard, focused work. Finding the voice that makes you a rare blue Orpington will probably take a few tries.

I think most fiction editors compare to crazy chicken people. They are always on the lookout for a rare bird that broke away from the flock. They will certainly spot a scruffy-seeming white with black mottled hen and know well what they've found. They know that there is more than one type of chicken out there, their boots are very messy, and they know what to do with a shovel.

While I'm on the subject.

I should mention there tons of different types of rare birds. Some are hearty, some aren't. Some are huge, some are tiny. Some breed easily and lay a lot of eggs. Some lay few eggs that are harder to hatch. I bred Modern Game Bantams for a while. They were the coolest birds ever. But they were so hard to hatch. Really hard. So, for me, they were even rarer than my other rare stock, because I'd be lucky to get five fertilized eggs from them before I'd hatch. And then only three would hatch right. And then, maybe only two would survive.

Sometimes, that's what happens to my books, too.

In relation to books and chickens, here are some interesting random thoughts:

Different chickens need different types of houses.
All chickens roost. But some chickens roost higher than others.
Some chickens can fly high enough to escape the coop.
Some chickens grow up to be slow chickens who peck at themselves.
Some chickens have chronic health problems.
Some chickens get eaten by foxes.
Some chickens just die without any warning.

This brings me back to the first point about counting chickens before they hatch. Because any of these things can happen before the bird is 21 weeks old and ready to sell. Anything can happen to your book, too. But at least with breeding poultry, it happens within a reasonable time frame.

Chicken breeding, like publishing, requires patience.
(Only chicken breeding goes so much faster.

So so so so so so so much faster.

If you lose patience, you are prone to desperation.

In desperation, really sick chickens can seem healthy. I know this because before I knew better, I drove three hours to buy a breeding pair of Sussex chickens. I bought them, brought them home, and within days, realized just how sick they were. I had to quarantine them far away from my other birds. By the second week, the hen became eggbound. You do not want to know what has to be done with an eggbound bird. I will only tell you that it involves Vaseline.

Desperation causes human beings to lose all sense.
(It leads to Vaseline, people.)

In publishing, desperation is something you want to avoid. Yes, I know you've written two/four/seven/fifteen books and have been collecting rejection letters for years. I know your family members are starting to avoid eye contact. I know this frustration very very well. But look around. Do you think those magazines would be full of all those shortcut advertisements if they didn't know that we're desperate? If they didn't know we are weak? Oh they know. They know the same as the weird lady who sold me those sick birds knew that I had driven three hours, and there was no freaking way I was going to drive back home with no birds.

But now, after the Vaseline, and knowing the events that unfolded over the next two weeks which were disappointing, hard to watch, and ended in burying $70 worth of birds, I can see very clearly that a three hour drive home with no birds would have been far better. I'd gone temporarily crazy and turned into a collector who just wanted more. I'd become greedy and entitled and forgot that chickens were supposed to be fun.

And that's the trick--to keep it fun.

Sure, in the end, books are products to publishers just like chickens are products to chicken breeders. But to writers, books are more than just something someone will buy. And to me, chickens were more than just birds I would eventually sell or eat. Hatching chicks was great fun. Some birds became more like pets than eventual dinners. Edna, one of my first laying hens, loved to visit us in the house and perch on the half door to sunbathe. Virgil, the duck with the gammy foot, was like a son to us during his short time on Earth.

And of course, books are more than things we buy. They're part of our lives and our deeper experiences. Writing books, for most writers I know, is an exciting experience akin to sailing around the world. Yes, there is all that work involved, and cabin fever, scurvy, bad storms and rocky seas, but there is amazement and enlightenment around every bend, and when the story of the journey is told years later, it sounds like fun. I'm always surprised when my tales of self-sufficient living and breeding chickens make people say WOW! But looking back, while it was a lot of work, mostly, it was fun.

One last lame cliche. I don't put all my eggs in one basket.

I guess for me, the trick to keeping it fun--both writing and breeding chickens--was to make sure neither thing was the key to feeding my family. Back then, I was lucky to get paid for teaching literacy, the same as I'm lucky now to get paid for running a business. So, really, unless you're Frank Purdue or JK Rowling, a plan B is always a good idea. I think that's probably true in any business that involves as much risk as ours does. Plus, if we concentrate too much on the money--the publishing, the supermarket, the royalty statement-- we can apply too much pressure and lose sight of why we do this, and all the great things we're learning by doing it, and our work is poorer for it.

In the end, there are as many types of books as there are birds, and a lot of fun to be had with both. I think the most important thing to remember is--if you want to make money off of either, you have to keep producing.
Be reasonable. Be careful. Avoid anything that leads to Vaseline.
Bok Bok. Get typing.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Let's Hear it for Good News!

I've got great news this week!

First, I heard that The Dust of 100 Dogs had its fourth printing! Woot! Thank you all for spreading the word and for all your awesome support!
Then, I saw my new deal was announced in Publishers Marketplace, so I can now share it with you!

4/21/2010 Deals:
The Dust of 100 Dogs author A.S. King's EVERYBODY SEES THE ANTS, about a teenage boy who, as he struggles to cope with a relentless bully, mysteriously communicates with his long-lost POW grandfather still missing in action in Vietnam, to Andrea Spooner at Little, Brown Children's, for publication in Fall 2011, by Michael Bourret at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management (World English).

We're very excited here at Camp King. So many things going on! Thanks for all your congratulations of Facebook & Twitter! You kind people ROCK.


Monday, April 12, 2010

Two Things

Okay, three things.

First--a HUGE thank you to the V-Day supporters who came out this weekend to see our show! We packed the place both days and earned money for a great cause! THANK YOU! Keep your eyes open for local V-Girls events in the future.If nothing else, you HAVE TO go here and watch this really short movie. FREE BARBIE!

Second--Have you heard about the PAYA Auctions?
From their site: 
PAYA is a coalition of Pennsylvania’s young adult authors, bloggers, librarians, readers, and other book-lovers. Our mission is two-fold:
  1. To share the love we have for young adult literature with others in our state
  2. To raise money to support Pennsylvania’s libraries, with a focus on helping build Young Adult library collections and Young Adult services.
 As a library trustee and an author this is all sorts of fantastic for me. :) I'll link you again next week when I have something up for auction. For now, check out some of the great things up for grabs this week! I DARE you to bid me up on those origami stars. I DARE YOU.

And Third--I wanted to show you this awesome cover for Jackie Morse Kessler's book, HUNGER, which is due out the same month as PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ.

Isn't it pretty?

But better than the pretty cover, the book is awesome. I got a lucky read of it a few months back and loved it. So clever was this idea! HUNGER is about an anorexic girl who becomes the new Famine, of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Sounds interesting, doesn't it? I assure you, it is amazing.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Helping Girls Survive

Today, I am reposting something from last March for several reasons.
  1. It says what I want to say, so rewriting it to say it again seems dumb.
  2. I don't get political very often (like never) but once a year, I speak up about this because it's really important and someone has to.
  3. It's been a year since I wrote this and I still continue to hear more [complaints] about the violence against a dog in The Dust of 100 Dogs than the violence against humans. Recently, I was speaking to an audience about this. I asked them, "Can you imagine if our society accepted widespread violence against animals the way we accept widespread violence against humans?"
  4. It's V-DAY time again. And this year, teens are playing an even bigger part thanks to V-Girls and Eve Ensler's new book, I am an Emotional Creature: The Secret Life of Girls Around the World.

Shop Indie Bookstores
From March 2009, slightly altered for 2010: 
Random Brain Meanderings

I wrote a book (The Dust of 100 Dogs) that includes genocide, violence against women & children, sexual slavery, neglect and a guy who beats his dog. So far, many readers seem to care a lot about the dog. I think this says a lot. First off, I want you to know that if you are someone who's mentioned your concern for Rusty, or about the small part in the book about dog fighting, then I think YOU ROCK. I care about these things, too. I'm a dog lover, and a non-violent person, so of COURSE I care about dogs. And I know people are capable of caring about both violence against women & children and violence against dogs at the same time, so I'm not saying this to be judgmental. I'm saying it because I find it really interesting, in a scientific way, (spot the Vulcan) that readers get vocal about the dog violence more often. (Read to the end. I do it too.)

I have an old friend who explored this topic with me while she was reading D100D. She explained that she felt for Rusty, and brought it up specifically, because dogs can't fight back--they are helpless without humans, whereas Emer could fight back. This helped me understand the heightened concern for a dog while human beings all around him in the book were suffering.

Here's Why I'm Bringing This Up.

I'm a big proponent of talking about violence against women and girls, especially sexual violence. I believe we're hiding a culture--an EPIDEMIC of violence against women. (Think of it this way--1 in 4 women in the US has been sexually assaulted. If 1 out of 4 people had the measles or bird flu, we'd call that a measles or bird flu EPIDEMIC, right? And if that happened, we'd NEVER HEAR THE END OF IT--on TV, radio, and at school. People would freak out because the next victim could be someone they know and love.) I'm presently involved in my local production of The Vagina Monologues. I know it's a funny name, and it's a very funny play, too, with really serious parts. The Vagina Monologues is a play that benefits women and girls globally, who are dealing with nightmares you don't even want to think about, through an awesome organization called VDay, started by author Eve Ensler.

VDay is an organized response to violence against women. It's global, yes, but it also benefits the 200,000+ women and girls PER YEAR here in the US who are sexually assaulted, by raising awareness and money to help girls survive. So, even with the funny name (and some VERY HILARIOUS parts) it's for a serious cause. This year, the production is highlighting the horrors of what's happening to women & girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The war in Congo is the deadliest war since World War II. (Don't hear about that on the news much, eh?) Close to SIX MILLION people have been killed, and half a million Congolese women and girls have been systematically raped and tortured. If you want to start thinking about these things, here is the site for VDay and a link to information on the situation in the Congo (DRC). I know this stuff is hard to think about, but if we don't start to actively denounce and deconstruct this SOCIALLY ACCEPTABLE EPIDEMIC, our daughters will continue to become statistics that nobody thinks or talks about.

Ironically, I collected for the Humane Society at every local signing I did, but I didn't collect for any crisis centers or child abuse organizations. People do NOT want to think about things like this when attending a signing to buy a book, you know? (Some people avoided my table completely because there was already one donation jar on it.) So, since I put my money where my mouth is in regard to doggies, I feel I need to do something for my biggest concern. On the weekend of April 10th and 11th 2010, I'll be selling and signing copies of The Dust of 100 Dogs in the lobby before our production of The Vagina Monologues. 100% of profits from those book sales will go to VDay. In 2009, I raised $300 through these book sales. It's not huge, but it's something, and every little bit helps. If you live in the Berks County, PA area, you can find tickets HERE. Shows are Saturday, April 10th at 8pm and Sunday, April 11th at 2pm at Genesius Theater at 10th and Walnut Streets, Reading. (Break a leg to the entire cast and crew! You guys have balls the size of Jupiter!)

Stop the Violence & Stop the Silence! 
V-Day is EVERYWHERE. Find your local production of The Vagina Monologues and support a great cause!

Have a laugh. 

Share the Joy. 

Help a girl survive. 

Support your local V-DAY.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Saturday, April 3, 2010

It Begins!

My ARCs came yesterday!
They are crazy-pretty and I am more in love with the cover every day.
I always get a bit weirded out by how uncorrected uncorrected proofs are, but I guess that's the point of calling them uncorrected proofs. Blog reviewers out there: When you read ARCs do you really care about the printer errors within?

Anyway, it begins. Me? I'm writing a new book and working on selling the last one. The train chugs along.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

International Book Blogger Mentor Program

Lenore, over at Presenting Lenore, has posted the first in a series of posts relating to the International Book Blogger Mentor Program. Today, she introduces us to three new international bloggers.

When Lenore contacted me earlier this year to be part of the International Book Blogger Mentor Program, how could I say no? Book bloggers have been some of the most supportive people in my life in the last year, and outside of saying thank you a million times, I could to little to return that support. Plus, I've lived overseas, and I'm more than familiar with the downside when it comes to getting one's hands on great books published in the US when one's location is not in the US.
And so, I said yes.

Soon after, Lenore hooked me up with Ruby, from Ruby Loves Adventure, who is based in the Philippines, and I sent her a few books. I was thrilled earlier in the week to see that Ruby loved The Dust of 100 Dogs, and I hope she enjoys the other books I sent as well!

International Book Blogger Mentor Program is a great way to give back to a community that dedicates itself to promoting authors and books. I am so happy to be a part of it. If you're an author or a book blogger, take a look and consider joining in the fun.