Fostering Ellie Mae

The first break was unexpected. Ellie Mae had been securely attached to the harness. She did not go far, and I was easily able to reattach what was left of it to the leash. That was my second mistake. The first was bringing a dog in heat to a playground at the city park.

Ellie Mae and I walked over to the tree. My head was turned away, so I didn’t notice that she was furiously rubbing the harness up against the tree until a second before the harness broke again. It fell to the ground, and Ellie Mae bolted for the trees.

Oh, no.  My foster dog was in heat and loose in the park. Ahhh!

Ellie Mae zigzagged down the gravel walking trail, stopping every few feet to leave her scent. If I got close, she dashed around me. She was the agile running back, and I was the massive linebacker she easily evaded. Only by the grace of God did I manage to catch her that day.

Those of you who have experience with dogs in heat are likely shaking your heads or rolling in laughter at my rookie mistake. Our dogs had all been male, except for Molly (who had been fixed as a puppy). So our foster dog, Ellie Mae, was destined to teach us a few things.

Her talent for escaping was unprecedented.  That day in the park was not the last time.  However, there was a turning point.  One day, several backyard breakouts later, I threw my hands up in the air and begged her not to run again. Ellie Mae paused in the driveway and looked back at me standing inside the fence.   She seemed to understand because, in the next moment, she turned around and walked back into the yard.    To her, we were just playing a game of tag.

This little dog taught me something about faith.  It is easy to get so wrapped up in our own pursuits that we lose sight of how our choices affect others.  This is why it is important to have our eyes on God so he can tell us to stop and pay attention.

When Ellie Mae found her forever home, it was a bittersweet moment.  We had grown to love her, but God had only brought her into our lives for a season.

The experience has stayed with us over the years. Those times are certainly among my fondest memories.  And if you are up for the challenge, I recommend it.

Here are a few things we learned about fostering an animal.

  • The organization you are fostering for will handle the adoption process for the animal and pay for a general vet checkup and the spay/neuter procedure.   Often they will also pay for medical treatments (like worm and parasite medication).   However, it is not feasible for most organizations to pay for more expensive medical necessities, like prosthetics or treatment for heartworms or cancer. If a more expensive treatment is necessary, then the organization may turn to fundraising and sponsorship.
  • Purchasing food, bedding, and other care items will be considered your responsibility as the foster.
  • It is important to be committed and know your limitations.  Some animals have medical needs and/or situations that would require them to live in a foster’s home for an extended period of time.

Feel free to share your thoughts or experiences in the comments below.

UPDATE: Visit BestFriends.org to learn more about fostering animals or to search for a partner organization near you in need of fosters.

Patterns and Prose

The other day, I stumbled upon a thought-provoking article by Alexander Nazaryan titled Why Writers Should Learn Math.  It was a persuasive article discussing the abstract and imaginative thinking needed for higher level mathematics and how that style of thinking benefits an author’s writing.  Before you throw the book at me, let me start by saying mathematics is so much more than numbers.  It goes far beyond what is taught in high school.  I am not going to recap the article.  It is linked above so you can read and interpret it for yourself.  However, I would like to add a few points to the discussion.

All stories have structure and repetition.  Beautifully complex stories are interwoven layers of the same structure and repetition applied over and over again.  In fact, that is the approach the Snowflake Method is based upon.  Consider how much more meaningful it is if the theme of your story did not just play out in the overall storyline, but also in the details and characters throughout the story.  (In case you didn’t already know, snowflakes are complex geometric shapes that are formed through the repetition of the same pattern.  They are fractals.)

Another mathematical concept that is useful for structuring a story is symmetry.  Repeating the same sentiment at the beginning and the end of the story creates symmetry.  The added depth is a result of the character’s shift in perception in the end.  The character no longer views the context the same, and that implicitly alters the meaning of the sentiment.

The structure of a story isn’t the only place repetition and symmetry work together to add depth and create interest.  When the protagonist and antagonist both have the same values, personality traits, and even the same goal, it produces a sort of symmetry. The line between the two blurs, mimicking real life.  It makes your characters more relatable.  What sets them apart is the lengths to which they will go and the methods they will employ to obtain their goal.

Whether you love or hate math, there is a benefit to understanding the abstract concepts behind the applications and computations that some students learn to dread.

Making Improvements

There is no mythical point at which it isn’t necessary to invest in learning.  There is always room for improvement and something new to learn or understand at each stage.  Embrace it and love it.

The Beginning

When I began to write my first story, I imagined the result and how it would all come together.  I didn’t think about the process of writing itself.  The concept of learning about how to write seemed like a waste of time, time that was better spent working to achieve the result.  After all, it was only logical that if a person knew how to write, then they didn’t need to learn how to write?  Right?

Wrong. That sort of logic is flawed.  There is a difference between knowing how to write (technical execution) and knowing how to write for effect (execution of artistic expression).

Since that time, I have dedicated myself to learning the craft.  My writing is better for it.  Here are a few things that helped me improve (and continue to improve).

Writing Methods

A writing method is how you write a story.  Some people are plotters. Some are pansters.

Pansters have a basic idea of what they envision, and they work from there.  They spend little time and effort on planning before they write.  If it works for you, that’s great.  I tried it when I first started, but it didn’t work for me.

Plotters use a method of planning and outlining before they write.  This approach was the main reason that I was able to go from poems and short stories to a full-length novel.  Before, I found myself struggling to get past the midpoint in a story.  Sometimes, I had the beginning, the midpoint, and the ending but I found it difficult to form the moments that linked the three.   Writer’s block found me at every turn.  And if it wasn’t writer’s block, my story seemed flat in some areas.  All my struggles didn’t disappear because I started planning beforehand.  However, using methods that required me to plan first minimized the problems I had experienced.  It also taught me how to overcome similar obstacles as I encounter them.

I use a combination of the Snowflake method and the approach outlined in The 90-Day Novel by Alan Watt.  Both are character-centric approaches.  There are other methods out there.  I recommend finding the one that works for you.

Prose, not Poetry

Writing a story is not like writing poetry.  When you write a poem, adverbs and adjectives seem to be your best friends.  When you write a story, avoid the little devils.  I am not saying you shouldn’t ever use an adverb or adjective again, they will find their way into your writing, and sometimes they need to be there.  But I am saying to avoid them.  Instead, learn to write so that the reader feels their own emotions in the scene.  Show the reader what is happening.  Recreate how the mind deals with emotional situations.  Don’t tell them what to feel.  When you are experiencing an emotional moment in life, are your thoughts describing your emotions to you or is your mind fixating on the situation and the world around you?

Read a Lot

Read stories you enjoy, whether or not they are in the genre you write.  Books that are well received make great case studies for learning how to master the art of storytelling.  If they are well written, it will help increase your vocabulary (a must) and improve your writing skills.

Read about writing.  There is more than one way to approach writing a story, and everyone seems to do it differently.  The best way to find what works for you is to keep learning.  Even if you read half a dozen books or articles on the same subject, you might learn from one what you didn’t learn from another.  I have found this especially true when reading articles and blogs.

One Last Thing to Consider

If you are writing for fame and fortune, don’t.  Few writers ever gain fame and fortune and there are easier ways to achieve it.  If you can even get paid for your writing, it will likely not be much compared to the amount of time you have to put into it.

I spend several hours a day writing, reading about writing, thinking about writing, and working to hone my craft.  I am an unpaid pencil jockey under the control of fictional characters in a world where labor laws don’t exist.  And my boss is a collection of merciless taskmasters I created who emotionally drain me.  But quitting is not an option and fail is a word that doesn’t exist.  Because I love it.

To continue to improve, we must continue to learn.

Writing That First Novel

Don’t Hold Tightly to Your Expectations

When I started writing my first novel, I imagined that it would be a linear process.  I would get a notebook and a pen, write a few short character sketches and a synopsis, and then write the story from start to finish.  Hahahaha… What grand delusions.  If only fiction writing was that simple and straight forward.

Looking back at the journey to complete my first novel, the road is a winding mass of moving forward and circling back over and over again.  It is littered with abandoned ideas, unfinished characters, and mountains of research.  There are words everywhere.  Forgotten, passed over, or left behind because they were attached to partial drafts that got pushed to the side (because you should never throw any of your ideas away).

Writing a fiction novel is not pretty, and it is not for the faint of heart.

Learn From Others

Before you go out and buy books and software to start you on your path, go to Google.  There are online writing communities and blogs that you can access for free.  It is important to keep in mind that the benefits of writing communities and blogs complement each other.  A writing community can be your greatest asset, so choose wisely.  It connects you to other writers for feedback and support, but you will only get out of it what you put into it.  Before you join, look around and make sure you pick one that works best for you. I like Wattpad, but there are many others like FictionPress and FanFiction.

Blogs are great resources for digging deep into the craft of writing.  A few of my favorites are Alicia RasleyWriter’s Digest, and Ink and Quills. There are links at the top of Alicia Rasley’s site that will take you a couple of posts on writing, including the current Article of the Month.  The posts are filled with solid advice but don’t overlook the archive for Article of the Month.  It will be linked further down the page in the left-hand navigation.  It takes a little effort, but it is worth it.

Also, don’t overlook your local library.  The place is filled with books you can check out for free.  Many libraries even offer a way to access ebooks and audiobooks from home.

Don’t Give Up

In fiction writing, does the protagonist give up on what they want when it seems there is no hope?  No.  That would be a terrible story.  They assess their reality, reframe their perspective, and move forward with fresh insight and renewed determination.  They don’t give up and neither should you.  Learn what you write.

Be open.  Be fearless.  Be persistent.

Writers of the Future Honorable Mention

Update: The Warehouse Tour will be available as an Amazon Kindle short read on October 7, 2017.  Release announcement >>

Growing up, I wrote poetry and later, as a young adult, I ventured into writing technical publications as part of my career in the tech industry.  The experience spurred my interest to transition into longer works of creative fiction.  Several novel ideas, false starts, and partially baked manuscripts behind me, I completed my first short story in the summer of 2016.

At the end of June, I entered it into the Writers of the Future contest for the third quarter of 2016.   And then privately obsessed: how would my story stack up on the international science fiction contest stage?

In September, I received an email notification that my short story, The Warehouse Tour, had been awarded Honorable Mentions!  God is good!

Third Quarter Writers of the Future Winners

About Writers of the Future
writersofthefuture.com

Excerpt from their website:
“The Writers of the Future Program, established in the finest tradition of the professional giving a helping hand to the novice, has become the largest, the most well-known and the best established discovery vehicle in the field. To date, winners have gone on to publish over 700 novels and 3,000 short stories, and have appeared on international bestseller lists, even reaching the #1 slot on the New York Times and London Sunday Times.”  Read more about the contest’s history