Wildlife Week: In Which I Encounter Wildlife Where It's Not Supposed to Be Today's Post: You Will Not Believe Your Eyes!

Oh, man, I still can’t believe it. I thought it was a sonic boom. You know, you live in Florida you get used to hearing that twin boom, with the space shuttle landing and all, but I didn’t have time to reason it out before I heard the next one. The huge cypress tree I stood by shook; bushes rattled nearby, and squirrels fell off branches all around me. Boom! Another tremor shot up my legs from the ground.

What the . . .


I screamed but no sound came out. The camera fell from my hands. The dinosaur waded through the river, craning his neck to and fro. I knew what he was after. I knew what he wanted. And I remembered what Church Lady and Christy Lenzi told me. I grabbed my camera and ran into the muck.

“Right here!” I yelled. I twisted my watch and directed a sun beam into his eyes.

He stopped. Without moving his head, he slid his eye and looked straight at me.

“Yeah, that’s right,” I yelled, thumping my chest. “Grade A Beef! Come on!” I flicked my hand like Keanu Reeves. “Come on!” My heart was almost busting through my chest, but I repeated my mantra: I must enter the animal’s space, and he mine. This was the photo op of a lifetime.

He swooped his neck down and faced me. My heart pounded so hard it was breaking my ribs. The dinosaur smelled like an old aquarium. His nostrils were each as big as boulders. This was it—my final moment. I raised the camera. Then, like a wine connoisseur, he sniffed me, almost ripping the hair off my head.

He swung back up and lumbered through the river. About twenty yards down, he stopped and nibbled off some treetops.

Ah, brontosaurus. I nodded to myself. The friendly vegan. I ran through the trees and fired off this shot before he disappeared.

I’ve been to the local university, the veterinarians, and the science museum. They all think my husband Photoshopped the dinosaur into the picture. “But look at the reflection in the water!” I argued. “Look at the scale!” I tried to convince them to bring equipment and look for footprints in the riverbed, but they said words like mental and loony.

No one believed me. One guy even showed me how he Photoshopped himself into a picture with Lindsay Lohan. But the light in the photo reflected differently on him than on Lindsay. His picture’s obviously a fake.

I’ve been back to the river; everything looks the same. There’s no trace of the dinosaur, no proof that he was ever there. Nothing.

Except for this picture.

Wildlife Week: In Which I Encounter Wildlife Where It's Not Supposed To Be Today's Post: Bear!

He looks tiny in this photo, but he was much bigger in real life.

So I'm looking through a barrel on the third hole at a miniature golf place in Tennessee when the people above me shout, "Bear! Bear!"

I'm like yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, really. We'd just hiked the Appalachian Trail and didn't see so much as a squirrel. I bend down to line up my shot; I aim to win. But these people are ruining my concentration with all their shouting. Do they not know the rules of golf? We shake our heads. The only way to shut them up is to check it out. We run up there and OMG! there's a bear! He's hard to see because he's far away, hanging back in the darkness. I can't believe I'm looking at a real, live bear who is not in a cage.

He doesn't do anything exciting, and after a few minutes, everyone returns to putting their colorful balls through mazes and tunnels. I'm still at the third hole when a crowd of people stampede down from above. "That bear! He came down! He's in the golf course!"

I grab B's camera and scramble up to the first hole. There he is. The light spills over him, he's beautiful. Please notice, dear readers--there's nothing between me and the bear except an open walkway! And I'm the only steak human now standing at par one. B's camera is confusing. I don't know how to zoom or focus; somehow I fire off the shot. Then, the bear lifts the trash can with his jaws and slams it down. Awesome. Literally. When I can move, I back out of there.

Eventually, the bear moves on and so do we. Everyone else shouts their score to me; I write the numbers in a daze. I still I can't believe I saw that bear. At par eight, we hear some dogs barking on the other side of the hill. The sound echoes into the night.

Wildlife Week: In Which I Encounter Wildlife Where It's Not Supposed To Be Today's Post: The Crane Family!

Sandhill cranes--they walk around like they own the place. They meander down the street, using the sidewalk at times, looking around while holding their heads aloft. They stand four feet tall.

I'm a little scared of them.

Wildlife Week: In Which I Encounter Wildlife Where It's Not Supposed To Be Today's Post: Masked Robbers at Night!

My husband walked past these baby raccoons on his way to retrieve the hose. "S," I called in a voice I hoped blended into the night. He walked past them again without even seeing them, but they saw him. A third raccoon leaped off the birdfeeder and shot into the woods.

I had the camera by this time, but the birdfeeder was too tall for me to get the straight-on shot I wanted. I handed the camera to S and directed.

Wildlife Week: In Which I Encounter Wildlife Where It's Not Supposed To Be Today's Post: Rattlesnake!

Q: Why did the rattlesnake cross the road?
A: To get to the other side.

I'm outside enjoying the breezy 90 degree weather when I see something shimmy on the road. Snake! He's slithered out of S's yard and he's undulating to mine.

"Get back! Get back!" I shout to the seven or eight kids in my driveway; this only brings them closer. "GET BACK!"

I dash into the house, grab my camera, and run past the kids, who are now crouching at the end of the driveway watching the snake serpentine toward them.

"GET BACK!" I shriek as I move closer to the snake. "GET BACK! DON'T MOVE!" Even the snake obeys. I try to play it safe, using distance and telephoto, but then I realize the photo will be blurry should I later zoom in and crop. If I want a close up, I actually have to be close up.

I move in. I'm about five feet away, maybe three, I don't know--it's a rattlesnake, measuring units are not relevant to me at the moment. I snap off about five pictures, whooping and screaming the whole time because as I raise the camera, I lose him in the frame and I think he's moved closer to me, but he hasn't. He's still there, holding his pose--head up, rattle up. I believe my shrieking has convinced him I am a predator.

I take one more shot, then I'm out of there. The snake doesn't move. Neither of us believes we are safe. I make all the kids go into my garage and later, I escort each one home. No one's getting bit on my watch.

This is a pygmy rattlesnake.

I Met Brian Regan Last Night!

Brian Regan is my favorite comedian. Look him up on YouTube, click here for my favorite new bit, or visit my sidebar--this guy is hilarious! We saw him in Tampa last night and after the show, I asked an usher how I could meet Brian.

Usher: Go out this door; take a left. When you get to the street, take another left, and when you get to the next street, take a left again. He'll come out under the canopy--that's the stage door.

Me: Okay, so just--

Usher: Basically, just go around the building until you see the stage door.

Me: So that's where he goes to meet his fans?

Usher: Well, it's the stage door. He's got to come out sometime.

Talk about feeling like a stalker. And yet . . . here I am with Brian!

Brian! Brian! You're my comedy-hero! You're so funny! I've watched all your specials and Letterman appearances and I search YouTube for you and you make me laugh all the time and WOW! you're so great, thank you, thank you for making me laugh at the end of my day, you don't even know me, but you contribute to my life by bringing me the gift of humor. Please never stop and please take care of yourself so you can keep sharing this gift and please come back to Florida because I missed you in June.

Okay, I didn't really say all that, but I wanted to.

Yay Brian!

I Used to Have a Clean House, But Now I Am a Writer

My house used to be very clean; I needed it that way for some reason. Now only my office is clean. Stacks of papers and folders are geometrically arranged on my desk. My pen lies just so. Webster's and Roget's are within reach but not in the way.

The rest of the house is falling apart.

I feel it takes a person of great talent and discipline to let the house get to the point I now find mine in. I could beat anyone at Jenga--one look at my laundry pile will prove that. The hamper sits against the wall. I know just how to add to it without making it tumble. I try to keep up my husband's laundry since he actually has to face people. But I don't iron. If that de-wrinkling spray doesn't do it, oh well.

At times, my house is very dusty. I once used my husband's black socks to dust; the results were quite revealing. I think a black sock test would be more effective than a white glove test. Note: Dust is mostly human skin cells and dessicated corpses of dust mites. That's gross!

Trash cans, see laundry above.

My house will never be as clean as my mother's house was, back when I was a kid and was forced to clean baseboards every Saturday. But I have two completed novels and more than a few short stories to show for my household neglect. That's a pretty good trade-off. And I'm willing to eat from paper plates if it will allow me to tweak one more chapter. There's always a household shortcut; there are no shortcuts to good writing.

The Carpal Tunnel Club: Are You a Member?

Writers corner the market on carpal tunnel syndrome--or so we think.

My membership is in good standing. My forearm (especially the right side) hurts from the elbow to the wrist. The splint and elbow band help, but even in my sleep my arm aches. I've tried different keyboards, mouse positions, etc., but I still haven't found what I'm looking for. (Hey! That sounds familiar.)

While surfing the net last night (thus ensuring my membership in The Carpal Tunnel Club), I discovered that people in other vocations suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome. According to this Wikipedia entry, U2 drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. has experienced pain throughout most of his career--he even uses specially designed drumsticks.

Cake decorators suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome. So do pizza makers, waterskiers, and hairstylists.

My research stopped there; my hand was hurting. But I discovered the club was not as exclusive as I had originally thought. And if Larry can do it, so can I! Buck up, writers! We're all suffering for our art!

Using Artifacts in a Scene: 3:10 to Yuma as an Example

I recently saw 3:10 to Yuma, the new western starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. Excellent film. Without going on about the good-looking leads, I'll get right to the literary point. (Spoiler alert.)

Conversation drives a scene. But it's really the foreground of a picture. To make the picture full, we must sketch in the white space. An easy way to do this is to describe facial expressions and character movement, but a subtle way of doing it is to use the artifacts in the scene in a meaningful way.

I'm using a movie to demonstrate this point, but the same technique can be used in writing. Russell Crowe's character, Ben Wade, sketches all the time (one of those character devices used to flesh out the villain). Dan Evans (Christian Bale) is a rancher whose last chance at saving his land is by delivering Wade alive to the 3:10 prison train to Yuma and collecting the reward. Dan Evans is established early on as passive. His barn is burned and he doesn't retaliate, even though he saw the men who burned it. His son is full of disrespect for the father he sees as spineless.

There is a point in the movie in which Wade and Evans sit alone in a hotel room, waiting for the train. The other bounty hunters have dropped out or been killed. Wade offers Evans $1000 to let him escape; given what we've seen Wade do to the other bounty hunters, this is a generous offer.

Time creeps toward the crisis: Will Evans take the easy way out? After all, the money is actually all he needs. And we've seen him take the easy way out before. Or will Evans strike a new path for himself? We've seen glimpses of the man he could be.

As they sit in tense silence, Wade sketches. Revealed later, the sketch is of Dan Evans as he kept vigil from the hotel window. But here's the important part: Wade drew the sketch on the only paper available--a title page in the Bible. When we see the sketch, we also see the words New Testament. This is a great example of using an artifact in the scene to further character/plot development. The sketch appearing on the New Testament points to the moment when Dan Evans becomes a new man--he will not sit back, he will not remain passive, he will not take the easy way out. He leaves the old Dan behind and rises up, bold and committed. This is his new testament.

I'd like to point out that the book Wade held was far too thick to be just a New Testament, unless they produced large print Bibles back then. Using the New Testament was a deliberate choice made by the film makers.

We can make this kind of choice in our writing. Our characters are surrounded by artifacts. Use those artifacts to reflect the story--it's a deft touch and delivers great impact.

A Million Little Pieces: My Weekend

Word choice is so important. This post is not choppy--it's stream of consciousness. Here are the bits and pieces of my weekend:

I didn't feel like making an appointment at the salon, so I hacked my own hair. When I picked up my sister for church, she said, "Wow! Your hair looks really good today."

The new TV season starts soon! Parts of it have already started. I liked it better when I was a kid and all the new seasons started the exact same week. TV Guide would have a special edition introducing the new shows and making recommendations. It was exciting. Today's new season is so staggered, you really have no idea when you favorite show is going to start again.

Shows my HDR is set to record: Saturday Night Live (new episodes and old reruns), Desperate Housewives, and an open record for anything involving Bono and U2.

An alligator lives in a pond I pass every day. I know because I've seen him. But I did not see him today.

That's all folks. I start my new WIP this week.

Nerd, Dorks, Dr. Seuss, and I got an A+

Did you know that Dr. Seuss is credited with inventing the word nerd? I didn't know this; I discovered it last night while perusing my dictionary, something I like to do. (I think it was Steven Wright who said he reads the dictionary because he figures all the books he wants to read are in there.) Standard advice for writers is to avoid using slang because it becomes dated; remember when everyone was saying, "She's a Betty, she's a Veronica"? Then there's that really dated stuff like groovy, outta sight, and far out (or "farm out," as my friend K. likes to say). Watch The Brady Bunch and you'll hear all of these.

Some words resist the sands of time. I feel safe using the word "cool," which has been in use since at least the 1930s. Other words with staying power: dork (1967), uptight (1934), jock (1963), and nerd (1951).

Nerds have excellent characteristics, according to all the dictionaries I read this morning. They are intellectual, possess above-average IQs, and are single-minded and accomplished at technical and scientific pursuits--who wouldn't want to be a nerd? How did this word come to mean an awkward person, a socially inept dork--a loser? I picture a guy with thick black glasses; you probably see the same guy, he's such a stereotype.

In any case, when I read the etymology of nerd, I mistakenly thought it referred to my favorite book from the Cat in the Hat line, Put Me In the Zoo. I loved this book when I was a kid. In second grade, I wrote a passionate book report lauding the pathos and conflict in the story. I even illustrated my report:

Now I know what you're all thinking: How can I get Danette to illustrate all my books? Well, my friends, I hung up my drawing sticks after a serious mishap involving off-brand crayons. (You know what I'm talking about--when your mom thinks you won't notice the difference and she buys those store brand crayons and it's like drawing with candles--all wax, no color.)

Going back to the book report, here's what the teacher wrote:

Second grade, people! (And did you notice my really good cursive?) I have a single-minded pursuit--writing. I love it. I am a nerd. And I am not ashamed.

September 11th: We Have Not Forgotten

We will never forget those who perished on this day, nor will we forget the soldiers who've given the ultimate sacrifice in the name of this country. This YouTube video is not for young children.

In this world you will have trouble. But take heart--I have overcome the world. ....Jesus Christ John 16:33, NIV

Interview With a Middle-Grade Audience: Three Sixth-Grade Girls Talk Books

I'm very happy to welcome today’s guests, three sixth-grade girls who’ve agreed to talk with me about books. This trio includes A/B students, honor roll recipients and gifted students. One of them read more than a hundred books over the summer just because she wanted to. To keep things safe, and because it’s fun, the girls have picked nom de plumes for this interview.

Want to know more about your middle-grade audience? Let’s get started!

DH: Good morning, girls! Thanks so much for letting me interview you. I know you have a lot to say, so we’ll dive right in. Summer’s over [girls groan], and you’re back in school. Has your reading teacher assigned any books to read?

VMKgirl: Touching Spirit Bear.

Nancy Drew: Yeah, all the sixth graders have to read it.

DH: What do you think of it so far? [Spoiler alert]

VMKgirl: It seems good, but it’s kind of gross. Cole smashed Peter’s head on the sidewalk. But it made me want to find out what would happen to him, if he’s all right.

Nymphadora Tonks: It makes me feel bad; it’s like, disturbing. I had a nightmare about it—way too detailed.

Nancy Drew: [Nods.] Disgusting! All his bones are broken and they left him on this island and he’s hungry so he eats a live mouse. [Shudders.] And drinks mud.

DH: Touching Spirit Bear was assigned to you; would you have picked this book up on your own?

VMKgirl: NO! The boy does bad things—he steals, hurts people [shakes head]—it’s just bad.

Nymphadora Tonks: If I had a choice, I’d put this book down right now.

Nancy Drew: No, I wouldn’t pick it out.

DH: Schools assign credits for state reading lists and AR lists. When you go to the library, do you look for only books you can get credit for?

VMKgirl: I look for my favorite books and I get one from the list—that way I’m getting a little of both.

Nymphadora Tonks: I pick out anything I want, just depends on my mood. It doesn’t have to be on the list or not.

Nancy Drew: I usually pick out ten or eleven books and read them in a week. But if I see a Sunshine State book and if it looks good, I’ll check it out.

Nymphadora Tonks: Yes, if I see one, I’ll pick it up because I can always put it down later! [Laughs.]

DH: How do you hear about a good book?

VMKgirl: Friends. Like if the teacher asks if anyone has read any good books.

Nymphadora Tonks: [Eyes brighten.] All the Harry Potter books are good!

Nancy Drew: Friends, like I see what other people are reading, or you hear about it from your mother.

DH: When you go to the library, what makes you pull a book off the shelf?

To read this interview in its entirety, click here.

Funny, Weird, or Scary Signs

And on the same property:

Queries, and The Artist Formerly Known as Danette Haworth

I've drafted the perfect query letter. Strong hook, interesting characters, good synopsis. The query is professional, and I believe I can hear the voice and tone of the novel coming out in the letter. Several rounds of critiques have chiseled the letter to perfection. I'm pleased with it.

I print the letter and inspect it—any ink smudges? Any of those black dots that are really dead bugs from when the paper was being pressed? Strands of hair? Dust? Particles of any kind? Did the letter print at a straight angle on the paper? I exhale. Everything has come through perfectly.

I whip out my pen and sign my name. Oh no! My letters are too skinny! The editor or agent will think I'm narrow-minded, closed-up, filled with inhibitions. I print a new letter and sign with a flourish. Too fancy—who do I think I am? I hit print and sign again, taking my time. This one's no good either; it's a schoolgirl signature—too loopy. I'm getting hot, now. Literally. I feel moist all over and my face is full of heat. It must be SSS—signature stress syndrome. I print one more letter and try for a signature somewhere between skinny and schoolgirl; I hope my signature says I'm serious and intelligent but kicky and fun, too.

Recently, I discovered something that could potentially take care of the whole SSS business for me. Here's my name in Japanese:

I'm thinking about signing all my queries with it.