I have been working diligently on the sequel to Almost Human.
Finally, I’m close to finishing More Than Human. Over the last six months, personal matters side-tracked my progress—well sort of. So, I’ve set a goal of a thousand words a day no matter what. I’m pleased to say it is working. I am several weeks into this endeavor.
Concerning the training of wild animals, I often speak on the importance of being smarter than the animal you’re training. When asked to elaborate on this concept, I immediately think of Congo, an elephant I worked many years ago.
While all elephants are smart, Congo was a genius. He was a big African male that stood almost twice as tall as my six feet. At the time I met him, he lived at an animal safari park in California. I first met him when I was asked to work him for a photo shoot promoting the book, Animal People by Gail Cooper. I was featured in one of the chapters and Gail Cooper wanted a dramatic photograph. Continue reading “On Being Smarter”
There are certain events in our lives that, at the time, we may or may not realize how important or how defining they are. One such event happened with my first meeting with a chimpanzee named Dar.
I was being interviewed as the linguistic research assistant on a very special project that was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and located at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR). This project was known as the Washoe Project and focused on teaching American Sign Language (ASL) to chimpanzees to determine if they were intelligent enough to possess language. I have to say, that on the flight up to interview, I was skeptical but as I was in need a position, I was willing to give it a chance.
Upon arrival, the interview began as expected but only at the beginning. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I was met at the airport and taken to the research compound south of town. The facility was a converted 1950 style dude ranch. It consisted of usual the array of research scientists, graduate students and student assistants scurrying around with clipboards in hand. But that was where the normalcy ended. I was ushered into a large, converted barn where researchers were exercising several chimpanzees of very ages and sizes. I say exercising but it looked more like wrestling and playing. The chimps were having a grand time swinging from ropes and tumbling in piles of hay. The place echoed with hoots and laughter.
After a while, I was escorted to large two-story ranch house that had been remodeled into the headquarters of the project. In a large reception area, I met the senior researchers, Drs. Alan and Beatrix Gardner. The interview went well and I was offered the job. I asked for a little time to decide which they understood and were agreeable to extend. This position would require me to relocate, leave my university to use my sociolinguistic skills in a very different and unusual context. I was encouraged to tour the compound on my own while I was deciding. In other words, they gave me free reign of the place.
I took a walk towards an apple orchard behind the main buildings. It was getting late as the interview had taken most of the day. There was a Fall chill in the air and all was quiet which was a marked contrast to all the bustling activity of the day.
As I made my way down a graveled lane between two buildings, the silence was broken by a series of hoots above me. To my surprise, I looked up to a chimp ambling down the roof towards me. The chimp swung effortlessly off the eves and dropped next to me. Startled, I stared into two deep, chestnut eyes. There was an intelligence in those eyes that was mesmerizing. Dar was a young adolescent with a broad white face accentuating two big floppy ears.
Before I could say or do anything, he signed, “Who You?”
Shocked, I gave my ASL name sign and asked, “Name?”
The chimp hooted and replied touching one of his big floppy ears. I later learned that was his name sign for “Dar”.
Dar panted and bounce up and down hardly containing himself and signed, “You, me, play, hide-n-seek?”
I looked around unsure that this was really happening. I was actually communicating with a species other than my own. I did what any researcher would have done and signed, “Who, it?”
Dar loudly hooted making a classic chimp, open play-face, and answered, “You, chase—me hide.” He bounded back on the roof and disappeared over the ridge.
This interchange only lasted a few seconds but it defined the direction of my life to this very day. I was, for the next several years, to spend every waking hour in the company of chimpanzees. In my novel, Almost Human, I have attempted to capture what that world looks like.
The vehicle of American Sign Language, allowed me to perceive the world through the wise eyes of a different species and I grew to be a better person as a result.
I honestly don’t have a clue of what you do at one of these things. My agent was not much help as she suggested I “just be myself and sell books.”
I have to say that all the marketing part of the publishing business is a real mystery to me. I didn’t realize how much time I would be pulled away from writing my sequel, More than Human, to fulfill obligations that were in the “small print.” While it will be exciting to meet people in person who have read my book, Almost Human, I am really nervous about doing this as I am completely out of my element. It borders on embarassing to me.
I plan to give the backstory of what inspired me to write the novel and some of what is behind the characters. Maybe talk about the craft of writing and answer questions if there are any.
I would love advice and suggestions. My reading is at 3pm tomorrow. HELP!
I was in Baja last week and met a reader who told me he was writing a book. He paused and continued by lamenting that he had been writing it for many years and it was not anywhere near completion. I’ve met many writers who are in this same predicament. They’re writing or “gathering” but not any closer to finishing their book–their dream. Believe me I sympathize, I was in the same situation from many years.
Here’s a few strategies I’ve learned from writing Almost Human. First, and foremost, write the ending. I had been writing this book for years and my novel just kept growing. My editor and teacher, Kathryn Lynn Davis, after reading several chapters asked me, “How does the novel end?” When I couldn’t tell her, she gave me the single most important piece of advice that helped me finish my book! “Don’t send me another chapter until you’ve written the ending.” It took me several chapters to accomplish this but once I did, I had a road map to line up my plot development and character arcs. So, after many years of writing on and off, I finished the novel in the next six months! While this may not work for every novelist, it worked for me.
I set myself a goal to write three pages a day no matter what. Very often, on a particularly productive day, those three pages flowed and grew to twenty or more. But most importantly, I wrote every day because that’s what we do, writers-write!
Also, I did very little editing as I wrote. I didn’t try to get my narrative perfect at the expense of the flow. I wrote and filled it out later. Sometimes as a warm up before my three pages.
I was fortunate to be invited to join a writers’ group that included several published authors led by a creative and insightful leader/author. The feedback and advice on how to to improve as a writer and navigate the publishing world was priceless. Just make sure it is a good group that truely critiques your work–no matter how painful. The goal is to become a better writer not participate in a mutal admiration support group. These writers were honest and skilled. I am very grateful.
And finally, I work hard at trying to live a life worth writing about. This can be referred to as “gathering” or “research,” I call it just having fun living life’s adventure. I feel drawing from our experiences makes our work ring true and gives it credibility.
I know while this worked for me and certainly is not exhaustive, it may not work for every writer. I wrote this because of how often I’m asked by readers how I managed to finish my novel.
Oh, it helps to have a worldclass, New York Times Bestselling author as your editor. Thank you Kathryn Lynn Davis!
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For information on book readings, signings and sparkling discussions go the my Amazon Author Page.
Several readers have asked me how Almost Human was “born.” I was working as the technical adviser and chimp trainer on a movie that starred Karen Allen and Armand Assante. One evening we were out relaxing after a long day of filming on location in Albuquerque, New Mexico. After a few drinks Armand commented on how human-like my chimp, Mike seemed. I put on my university professor hat and began pontificating on all the traits we humans shared with chimps including my work as a linguistic research assistant on a project in Reno that had successfully taught chimps to communicate using American Sign Language (ASL) as used by the deaf.
That evening after the bar closed I went home and wrote the second chapter where Dr. Turner is lecturing about the similarities and differences of chimpanzees in a University lecture hall at the University of Nevada, Reno. I had worked there on the signing chimp project. I wrote that chapter in about 1984 or so on an old Royal typewriter. Just before dawn, as I finished writing, Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” played on the radio. I put another paper in and wrote the first chapter before going to work.