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.


Joanne Levy said...

This is, quite honestly, one of the BEST writing blogs I have ever read. It is timely and relevant to me personally, but it's also interesting, insightful and right on the money, er, eggs.

Awesome observations, you clever lady.

Anonymous said...

Great, great post. If I hadn't already known you were a great writer, this would have convinced me to go out and buy your next book.

Robin Brande said...

Wow. WOW. Love this post, and thank you for sharing all these details of your former life! You're amazing!

Cat Connor said...

I love the analogy!

But then I would... I love chickens so much there's a chicken in everyone of my books. :-)

PS. Never bred chickens though I was a crazy Yellow Labrador breeding lady for a while there... let's not talk about poop!

Anonymous said...


jennadol said...

Great post! I learned so much about chickens, struggling to to forget the Vaseline part. Terrific writing advice - so true the nothing good comes of ignoring poop.

Corry said...

This was fantastic. Perfect for a rejection-filled week. And chickens. Wow!

Lynette Eklund said...

I hadn't thought about it that way, but you're right. (I can relate. We raise Orpingtons, Rocks and the oddball Silkie.)

Tiffany Trent said...

I've been waiting for this post! Yay you for doing it. And now I want to go dream of the Silver-laced Wyandottes I'll soon be caring for on the living history farm...;)

Sue said...

Flannery O'Connor once said that "lives spent between the house and the chicken yard do not make exciting copy." Untrue for her and clearly untrue for you.

James Tiptree, Jr., in between being a high-society debutante, a woman in the army during WWII, and a science fiction legend, was also a chicken farmer. If you haven't read the Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon yet, it's pure epistolary awesomeness and ever so much better than Dracula.

For the record, I stumbled onto your blog having read 0% of your books, and now I'm going to go out and buy Everybody Sees the Ants. The blogging! It does something!

A.S. King said...

Sue: Amazing that nearly 2 years later, this blog post surfaced again. It's one of those...shows up from time to time.

I'm only just starting to enjoy blogging these days. I'm glad it got you here and you enjoyed the piece. Hope you enjoy the book/s. Thank you for commenting so kindly!

Sue said...

I just saw the slate of Nebula nominees. CONGRATULATIONS!!!

Shari Green said...

Arriving to this post well after the fact (came via Sara Zarr's blog). Very fun brand of weirdness, lol, and the book-poop tea is definitely an analogy that will stay with me.

Looking forward to listening to your chat with Sara. :)