About my Homework. . .

By: Mike Jan 9, 2017

There's an fantasy art blog called Muddy Colors that I follow. It's run by a diverse group of super-talented professional artists. In case you haven't heard, it's tough to make a living as an artist. That's a road paved with dashed hopes, broken dreams, and bitter tears. The folks on Muddy Colors are the success stories, the ones who actually make a living in illustration, sculpture or whatever. They are the Navy Seals of fantasy art: veterans of dozens or hundreds of contracts with portfolios that delight and amaze. While my artistic skills are purely imaginary, I love fantasy art, and these guys are my heroes.

A few days ago I read an article that I just have to share. It's written by Lauren Panapinto. Lauren is the creative director for Orbit books. (Orbit, coincidentally, is Patty's U.K publisher, and we are delighted with the excellent quality of their work). Most of the articles on Muddy Colors deal with art or illustration, but she chose to write on one of the difficulties that comes with success: student interview requests.

Before I say anything else, go read her article:
The Dreaded Flood of Student Interviews.
Go on, Scram! Come back when you've read it.

You Have Read It Now, Right?

I think any successful professional, particularly in the creative arts, gets these letters. It's a favorite assignment for teachers: interview a professional in your field. For a young person about to make decisions that will affect their entire future, such an interview can be invaluable. . .

OK, everyone get comfortable, it's story time.

When I was in high school I wanted to be a veterinarian. I'd read the James Harriot books, All Creatures Great and Small etc. etc. and I thought that being a rural country vet would be an idyllic life. Fresh air, the esteem of my peers, a decent paycheck and a life spent helping animals. Perfect, right?

I could have sat down with a school counselor who would have told me about all the years of school involved, median salary, etc. Instead, I got a little first-hand experience.

Somehow (and I honestly don't remember the details) our local country Vet, Dr. Greg, invited me to work with him for a couple of weeks as a short-term intern. Arrangements were made at the school for me to miss the required days, and I showed up all fresh-scrubbed and eager to learn, just like the interns in those James Harriot books.

It may have been coincidence, but my internship was scheduled in February. In Montana. In cattle country. For two weeks we drove icy roads to one farm after another. Virtually every call involved a frustrated farmer with a cow having calving problems. So far, it sounds just like the books, right? It's practically a Norman Rockwell painting, with golden light slanting on a bucolic scene. . .

The reality was different. Picture a field covered with snow turning to slush in early spring, while a wet sleet falls out of a leaden sky. Near the feed-bins, the ground has been churned into an unholy slurry of feces, urine and frozen slush, with a smell that will blister your nose. Smack in the middle of the mess is a thousand-pound cow, covered head to hoof with the same foul mixture, bawling loudly enough to wake the dead. Do you know what happens next?

Someone is going to have to dive face-first in a lake of fecal-flavored slush, and shove his arm up the backside of a cow who would much rather kick him than concentrate on having her baby. That someone is probably going to be the intern. He's going to discover that although this cow is the size of a barn, there's surprisingly little room up there. Also, trying to sort out the tangle of legs that should all go to the same calf and get everything turned around right while Bessie is doing her level best to cut off circulation at your shoulder and kick your legs bloody is nothing like a Norman Rockwell painting. With all due respect, Norman Rockwell was far too smart to leave his snug, comfortable studio to go out on a frozen night and watch some stupid calf getting born.

And, of course, after all the hard work, it doesn't always work out happily ever after. The farmer, instead of being understanding, and praising you for the Herculean efforts expended is far more likely to swear like a sailor, berate your incompetence, and swear he won't pay one red cent to a ham-fisted idiot who can't even see a calf properly born!

After two weeks of that we had one glorious day in which we worked in the nice warm clinic doing spays and neuters. It was warm, the animals were sedated enough not to try to kill us, and I spent the whole day hoping the phone didn't ring.

I learned far more about the life of a country vet in two weeks with Dr. Greg than I would have by visiting with my school counselor. Ultimately, I decided to pursue a different career, but I'm very grateful to the good doctor for teaching me that before I spent eight years in college.

Nice Story. What's the Point?

The point is that we understand why a student would reach out to an artist working in a field they're interested in and ask questions. Patty had published two books before she ever met with another author. She had no idea how the industry worked, or even that there such things are writers groups or writer's conventions. We found another local author, Kathy Tyres, who agreed to meet Patty for lunch. Over the course of that lunch Patty got answers to literally dozens of questions, and found that she'd made several mistakes that could have been easily avoided.

However, you need to be aware that successful artists tend to be incredibly busy people. After all, what success means to most working artists is that there's a demand waiting to be met. There's also a fear (more of a shared paranoia, really) that if the demand is not met quickly, it may dry up completely. Just assume that your artist of choice is already burning the candle at both ends.

We have to burn brightly. We can't burn forever.

When Patty gets a letter from someone who has obviously read her work, her on-line interviews, and the web site, and still can't find the answer they need, we all try to take time to give a thoughtful and accurate response.

On the other extreme are the letters from a bored High School student assigned to write about an author. They've sent a list of fifty cut-and-paste questions beginning with: "What do you write?". Oh, and if you don't mind, they'll need it all filled out by tomorrow morning. Please answer in complete sentences and check your spelling before returning it. Oddly enough, we're likely to be too busy to spend the whole night doing their homework.

After reading this article, however, I am tempted to write a FAQ just for student interviews with answers to all the usual questions. You know. Why do you write books? (I have a degree in history, and writing is easier than flipping burgers.) Where do you get your ideas? (From a wonderful little mail-order company in Schenectady, but good ideas cost extra.) Do you use a computer for writing? (Mostly I just use the keyboard, I only use the whole computer to beat sense into misbehaving characters.) Yeah, that FAQ needs to be written!

EDIT: I actually did write that series of interview questions, and Patty took the time to answer them. Then I decided her answers were boring, so I wrote another set of answers. So, here's a link to the Interview Questions.

Spring Looks a Lot Like Winter

By: Mike Jan 9, 2017

Our little town doesn't always get much of a winter. Being a desert, even when it's cold we don't always get much snow. Quite often the ground is bare for the holidays, and we've always liked a white Christmas.

This year we had a skiff of snow for the holidays, but we've had snow every couple of days for the last couple of weeks. As soon as we get a nice batch of pretty snow, we'll have a day with 50° winds, and it all makes mud. However, for the past few days it's built up until it almost looks like a genuine winter around here!

The weatherman is predicting some nice near-zero weather (with the inevitable winds Benton City is famous for!) so this time the pretty white blanket may be here to stay for a few weeks. The only down side is that half of the people around here have no idea how to drive on snow, and the number of fender-benders, stuck cars, and general mayhem on the roads is astounding. I think we'll stay home!