Friday, January 31, 2014

The dogs who walk beside us

Lou 2006-2014
This wasn't how the story was meant to go. It has been a tough month and Lou died peacefully in my arms on Monday at the vet's after an auto-immune disease had progressively weakened him. I know some of you have grown fond of P'tit Lou from meeting him in my blog and will miss him. You know the French high speed train, the TGV? Well, Lou was a CGV, a Chien a Grande Vitesse. He lived at 100kph, his tail and his heart beating at top speed as he made up for time lost in the animal shelter.

To further complicate my life, while Lou became worse, our Pyrenean Mountain Dog, Blanche, told me there was something seriously wrong so I rushed her to the vet's, jumped the queue and saw the twisted stomach on the X-ray. From the moment I read about this condition in the dog book I translated, I've dreaded it, but the emergency operation was a success and the patient recovered well.

Patient is not the right word for Blanche and she recovered too well for the vet's liking; she trashed everything in her cage and ripped out her stitches during the night after the operation. He called me the next morning asking me to come in and give her tablets, food and a short walk. So I rushed to the vet's again, armed with cooked chicken breast. It was hard to leave her there another day, for me as well as for the vet, who would have loved me to take her away, but that's when complications can kick in so she did her time. I was told, with professional pride, that the vet managed to give the next dose of tablets and she ate the chicken I left.

She's home now. It was a miracle that all of us reacted so quickly; Blanche, me, the vet. The operation took place before the pain had begun and the prognosis for a full recovery is excellent. The stomach has been attached to the abdominal lining so there shouldn't be any recurrence. Dilation is possible but a comparatively simple problem. I know many people in the dog world who've lost their dogs to a twisted stomach; it's how Blanche's father died. I'm the only person I know with a survivor. Usually a twisted stomach comes on fast and kills quickly.

So here I am with my 8 year old, being lucky, and crying over Lou. Blanche needs to be watched as she treats her Elizabethan collar with total disdain. It's up to the collar to adapt to her ways not vice versa, so if it gets smashed to pieces on the porch door (one collar down and two spares to go) that's hardly her fault. But we've reached Day 6 so we should make it now. And I have time to think about the friend we've lost.

If Lou had known there were only 8 months left for him I am sure that he would have chosen to spend those months exactly as he did. But he never looked where he was going; he ran full tilt at life and looked back to see we were keeping up. Several times I had to warn him and he'd swerve last minute to avoid smacking into a door or a post, like a cartoon character. I still have no idea  how he put a hole in his face but I was there when the emergency vet picked up a stapler and gunned Lou under the eye. Lou hardly flinched, unmuzzled, but when the vet said, 'That didn't go in straight. Hold him while I do it again,' I thought I'd pass out. The vet did it again. Straight. And Lou took it. Straight.

A friend's favourite Lou story is what she calls 'the curious incident of the hose in the daytime'. Two rubber snake-monsters attacked Lou in the outer garden and I witnessed Superdog defending himself single-pawed, biting their heads off and refusing to let go, despite the torrents of water drenching him. Unfortunately, I found out about a second such attack at the moment a mudbath with paws arrived in our living room and shook itself. John reckons Lou was a reincarnation of Riki-Tiki-Tavi.

Lou was a lesson in living well. He knew how to have fun. He won his Princess from polite beginnings to no-holds-barred play. He found it entertaining to take all the dog blankets off the veranda onto the lawn and he trained us to retrieve them. He thought he'd won if he had Blanche's blanket, even if his head was in her mouth at the time. And even when he was ill, especially when he was ill, she'd come in from guard duty and lie near him, facing him, so they could look at each other.

Lou, the Matador, with little white bull

That tickles


Time Out

When someone dies, our reaction is based so much on the human perception of time. A life is often perceived as 'cut short', a death is 'untimely' and 'unfair', all based on life 'expectancy', which is of course an average. Yet we all expect to reach average, even though we know this is statistically stupid. When we lose our dog, there is a clash between two different time-scales that worsens this sense of unfairness. With Lou, eight months as a proportion of my life is so small. 'Unfair' seems even more unfair with a rescue dog who 'deserves' compensation for the bad times. And if, like me, you go through this heartache with several dogs, you find it hard to accept that it is impersonal. The laws of probability mean a penny can come up heads 99 times and the odds of heads for the 100th time are still 50:50.

When we live with animals we must live with different time scales and it is hard to deal with all the deaths that must come our way when dogs walk beside us throughout our averagely long lives. There is not just a clash of scale but of world view. In his powerful and intelligent book 'The Philosopher and the Wolf', Mark Rowlands explores the experience of time for a wolf, as opposed to conventions of time for us humans, and shows what we can learn. I think he is right. My grief remains but I am already losing the sense of unfairness. If 'quality of life'  (lack of) is the touchstone for choosing euthanasia, then surely quality of life is equally the touchstone for living. Not some construct we call time. Not some linear notion. Lou was not chasing the future. He was running because it was wonderful to run. And for a while, we ran together. And it was so good.

Lou - how it began
Lou - Part 2
Lou - Part 3
Lou- part 4

It is in our lives and not, fundamentally, in our conscious experiences that we find the memories of those who are gone. Our consciousness is fickle and not worthy of the task of remembering. The most important way of remembering someone is by being the person they made us – at least in part – and living the life they have helped shape. Sometimes they are not worth remembering. In that case, our most important existential task is to expunge them from the narrative of our lives. But when they are worth remembering, then being someone they have helped fashion and living a life they have helped forge are not only how we remember them; they are how we honour them.

I will always remember my wolf brother.

Rowlands, Mark (2010-04-01). The Philosopher and the Wolf (p. 46). Granta. Kindle Edition.

Monday, January 6, 2014

What's in a name?

If it's a book title, the name is crucial! 

Choosing a book
What if Fifty Shades of Grey had been called Disempowered two-dimensional woman gets sexually abused by equally two-dimensional rich, sadistic man ? ** Disclaimer ** I haven't read Fifty Shades.. and am creating a phony title, based on random negative reviews of a bestseller, to make my point. Please don't sue. My point being that I think Fifty Shades of Grey is a great title. It is short, memorable, thought-provoking, rich in double meanings, metaphorical, indicates genre and is original (as far as I know).

A book title has two jobs; to attract readers and to accurately represent the content. It is married to the book jacket and if they're heading for a divorce, the reader will be put off spending time in their company. If Fifty Shades of Grey had a cover image of a happy two-parent family, with a cute dog, on the jacket, the potential reader would be confused, especially after reading the blurb (the small print in the implicit contract between writer and reader). If title and jacket do a brilliant job of attracting the reader but the book is then nothing like expected, the reaction will be disappointment and negative comments about the writer. You can't please everyone, or cater for all subjective reactions, but you can at least try to find the right readers for the book you've written, by using current 'first impression' conventions.

If you don't care whether readers enjoy your book, or come back to read another one by you, as long as they buy this one, none of these principles apply to you. Most of us writers, however, get our kicks from the readers who love our books - and that means finding readers, yes, but also finding a good match between readers and books.

Finding a title you're happy with is difficult and whether it's a 'good' title is for other people to judge. When I'm planning a book, I have a working title that might change many times before publication. I always look up my title on amazon to see whether it's been used already. If so, I think again, unless the title is out of print or in a niche that doesn't clash with my book. If there are similar titles, I consider their genres - if they are all in a very different genre to my book, I am on the wrong track for reader expectations.

I do test the title (and jacket) out on other people, and consider their feedback, but once the book is written, I work on gut instinct to recognize the title that fits. That's how it feels to me; not like creating a title but like finding it. I feel the same about naming dogs; you can come up with beautiful names in advance but when you actually see the living creature, you know he's called Spud, and that's just how it is.

Working as I do is terrible for advance marketing - how can you work up reader enthusiasm for a book with no title? As with many aspects of writing, there is a clash between what suits me as a writer and what is best marketing practice. If I'm not sure about the title, I would rather wait till I know it for sure than regret the choice forever. If I'd gone with the first working title,

Snake on Saturdays would have been Twisted Yarn. The heroine runs a hand-knit business and I liked the double meaning. One of my failings is to laugh at my own jokes but I now think Twisted Yarn is a truly awful title for a novel.

Someone to look up to would have been Sirius, after the main character, a dog. Not so bad as a title but 'someone to look up to' is such an important concept in the book, that I didn't understand until I was writing, and that was a revelation for me as well as for Sirius. I love this title.

Bedtime story

Gentle Dog Training, my translation of Dressage Tendresse was not just a book title but a method of dog training and I had to fight my corner to avoid Tenderness Training (a great alternative to Fifty Shades of Grey), or Train Me Tender and all kinds of ambiguity.

On the Other Hand would have been Sinister because the word 'sinister' originally just meant 'left-handed' and left-handedness is a theme in this YA book, which mixes fact and fiction. The Romans thought left-handed people were untrustworthy because they could shake hands with their right hand while stabbing you with the left, hence the more sinister meaning of ... sinister.

Here are the more recent ebook jacket and the original print jacket for On the other hand My publisher told me that we'd made one mistake - On the other hand starts with three words that get ignored in searches so the title doesn't show up unless you add my author name. You live and learn! Avoid using more than two high frequency words at the start of a title.
amazon link

Sometimes, the title just works, right from the start. My bestseller How Blue is my Valley took its title from the Welsh classic How Green was my Valley  and the 'blue' from the lavender of my current home in Provence. It just seems right for a book about someone moving from Wales to Provence and comparing the two. Alluding to a phrase or title with which readers are already familiar can work but it can also backfire as readers sometimes react against what they see as an attempt to cash in on fifty shades of copying.

I wish it was always so easy to find a title that suits! I have about twenty potential titles for the third novel in my 12th century series about Estela and Dragonetz but am not sure yet. The working title is Eaglesong but that's probably too suggestive of fantasy rather than historical novel and I don't know what eagles have to do with anything, apart from the castle and (probably) main setting being on high rocks. As it follows Song at Dawn and Bladesong, I thought Song somewhere in the title would link the series. I'm hoping all will become clear to me as I write.

Thanks to advice from fellow authors, I am also a big fan of the subtitle or tag as this can clearly indicate genre and add extra keywords to show up in online searches. I am sure that adding the real Provence in small print below How Blue is my Valley has helped find readers. For the Troubadours series, I've used date and place so I now have another headache as 1150 in Provence was used on Song at Dawn and now my characters are back there,  I don't really want 1152 in Provence... decisions, decisions, which I will have to make before the book jacket goes live.

Perhaps I should work the other way round; take a great title and write the book that it deserves. Helpful friends often suggest, 'You should write a book on..' and occasionally I'm even given titles. Drug Mule to Merthyr really ought to be written by someone but Going Home to Dai is more my style.

aggressive marketing