Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Dark Cloud

During lunch with a former student this week, the conversation turned to depression. She shared some personal stuff and then apologized for going into such depth about her life, her family, and that Dark Cloud that's so good at creeping in to block the sun.

In a rare moment of candor I told her that I knew the Dark Cloud well. 

Everyone thinks I have the perfect life, I explained, and I do. I have a great marriage, two amazing sons, we live in a slice of heaven, I have over thirty books in print, two have been turned into movies, strangers tell me how much my work has helped them in their life, and I'm healthy.  

And compared to the way my life used to be? Wow. I know I've got it good.

So what could I possibly get depressed about?

But that's just it. Depression can defy logic. And trying to reason it away is usually futile.

Also, it's not the same for everyone who suffers from it (or bouts of it), so the remedy - or battle plan - to defeat it is going to be different for different people. The chemistry of the brain is way too complex to prescribe universal solutions.

I try to shake my Dark Cloud by running away. Literally. I know exercise is good for health and fitness, but my real motivation is mood elevation. Can I just say this? I don't love running. I love the result of running. I love the way it calms me down, lifts me up, makes me ready to tackle the things I have been putting off. 

It's all about the endorphins.

I also escape in my writing. 30 novels (8 chapter books) in less than 20 years is the output of a woman possessed; one preferring to create worlds where good can triumph than face off with her own demons. When I'm absorbed in the production of pages, the Dark Cloud stays a safe distance away.

Also of benefit is the simple act of "ditch digging" - the chores of life. If I can get myself up and moving when the Dark Cloud is hovering, I can bat it away. But getting yourself up and  moving when it's upon you is hard. Why bother with chores? I don't feel like going for a run. No, I don't want to answer the phone, the front door, my email. Nothing seems worth doing, and the less I do, the less I feel like doing. It is hard to break that cycle. 

I never, ever talk about this except with Mark, who helps me get up and get going on the things that will chase the Cloud away. I dodge and weave my way through life, and pretty much manage to keep the darkness at bay. And I don't want to acknowledge the Cloud to others because...well, everyone has things they're dealing with, and I have, you know, everything.

But there you have it:  Like many people, I struggle with a powerful and persistent Dark Cloud. And the reason I'm sharing this with you now is because that former student gaped at me when I shared it with her and said, "You have no idea how much better that makes me feel."

She seemed so...relieved. She laughed out loud. She shook her head. She smiled a warm, radiant smile. 

Her reaction made me realize how much we can help each other, just by admitting it. Twenty minutes in the weight room may not work for you the way it works for me, but maybe a hike through the woods will. Or maybe you've tried sweating it away, or writing it away, or scrubbing it away, and it's still there, dark and foreboding, and you just can't shake it. Maybe it's time to seek professional help.

I am not a doctor, and I don't claim to understand the intricacies of brain chemistry, depression, or even mood swings. 

I just want you to know that you're not alone. 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Just a Hater

There will be haters. And with the anonymity of the internet serving as barracks, they will shoot freely with their negativity, aiming to hurt you, but willing to settle for knowing they got to you. 

This week I saw that there was a 1-star rating on Goodreads for my upcoming YA novel, Wild Bird. Goodreads reviews can be tough. The majority of people there take their reading very seriously. They are stingy with their 5s. 4-stars is a compliment. 3-stars is really good. But a 1-star? Those are much rarer than 5-stars.

You can get a 1-star on Amazon if someone's book wasn't delivered on time (like that's the author's fault?). Not the case on Goodreads. Most reviewers are there for a legitimate love of literature and have more class than to give a 1-star rating unless they have real issues with a book....and then they'll usually voice those in a review.

There was no accompanying review on Goodreads for the 1-star rating of Wild Bird. And since this is a book that's really only available to reviewers and select educators at this point (because it won't be out until September 5th), I was puzzled.

And then I realized that this same "reviewer" had given all my books--and pretty much only my books--1-star ratings. And that they'd all been rated on the same day.

Ah. A hater.

What did I do to deserve this hate?

I have no idea, and it doesn't matter--I was immediately over it.

Creative people are usually sensitive people, and it's easy to get to us. Especially when our creations are from the heart. It takes me two, maybe three, years of of research, writing, and revising to finish a YA novel. Yet with the split-second tap of a touch pad, someone can give your book one-star and feel that they are in a position of power. Or equal footing. Or that they are somehow a player.

My creative friends: these people are not players. They are not in your court, on your field, or swimming in your pool. They are benched. Their lives don't work to a point that they resort to this to make themselves feel better. How sad is that? How pathetic is that?

So don't give them that power. Don't let them infiltrate your thoughts. Don't even bother to ask who or why. The who is easy: a coward. And the why will never make sense coming from the thoughts of an illogical or hateful mind. Don't waste your time.  

Also, you will lose if you engage. Maybe you can get their profile removed, but they'll just come back as a different fake user, with a different fake profile, and a different fake photo. 

So don't give them your energy. Go back to the creative work you do. Keep driving toward your mission. You have a purpose, a direction, a contribution to make. They have hate, cowardice, and, almost certainly, little to show in the way of actual accomplishments.

Turn your back, walk away, and pity them. 

Hate is a terrible way to live.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

An Interview with Tara Sands, Voice Artist Extraordinaire

I’m so excited to share this week’s post. It features Tara Sands, the voice artist for the Sammy Keyes books, done through Live Oak Media (“where great children’s books play nicely”). 

For the record, Tara is awesome. Kind, generous, excitable, and funny. She also adores her rockin’ grandma, which, come on, says a lot.

The Sammy Keyes books came out before the audio recordings did. My kids were too young for Sammy, but I tried reading them aloud to them anyway. Let's just say they didn't have the enthusiasm I'd hoped for.  

But when the audio books came out, I let Tara do the talking and it suddenly became fun. For them and for me! They wanted to hear more. And then when my sons discovered that Tara voiced for Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh, well, they were over the moon excited to listen. They looked at me differently. “You know Tara Sands?

The cool thing for me was, the audios hooked the boys on Sammy. When the new books came out, they wanted to know what was happening in Sammy World now. And since the audio books weren't out yet, they broke down and started reading them. That’s right. I have Tara Sands to thank for getting my own kids into Sammy Keyes.

So, if you haven't already gotten to know Tara, let me give her an official introduction:

Tara can be heard as over 50 characters on the original “Pokemon” series, including Bulbasaur, Richie, Jasmine, Oddish, and Tori. Other favorite roles include Mokuba Kaiba in "Yugioh",  Circe in “Generator Rex,” Summer in "Barbie: Life In The Dream House," Kari in "Digimon Adventure Tri," Karla in "Gundam Thunderbolt," Kombu Infinity in "One Punch Man," Cynthia in "Pokemon Generations," Anna in "Shaman King" and lots more.

Tara has narrated over 150 audiobooks (including the Sammy Keyes series) and for over 100 episodes, Tara was the on-camera host of the Cartoon Network show “Fridays.” There, Tara interviewed dozens of celebrities and had more on-camera food fights than she cares to remember! She has received numerous Earphones awards from Audiofile Magazine and has been nominated for Audie awards as well.

And now, on to the interview!

Welcome to the blog, Tara! We have a lot of Sammy Keyes fans here so we appreciate your taking time to chat with us about what it’s like to voice the audio books for the series.

WV: Walk us through the audition process for a voice artist. How did Live Oak Media select you to be the voice of Sammy Keyes?

TS: It was a long time ago, so I am a bit fuzzy on the details! I remember Paula Parker, the amazing director of all the books, asked me to audition. I am pretty sure I just read a few pages into a tape recorder!! And then I was lucky enough to get the job!!

WV: How did you prepare to record the first book – Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief – where all the characters were brand new?

TS: This series is unusual in that the producer and director were very involved in helping me prepare before we got into the studio. We had some phone conversations about what we envisioned for the characters’ voices, and then tweaked them a bit when once we started recording. Back then I would highlight every character’s dialogue in a different color! Now I use an ipad to read off of and I do make some notes, but nothing that intense! I was very new to audiobooks when I started the Sammy Keyes series, so that preparation was really helpful.

WV: You’ve just recorded the sixteenth title – Sammy Keyes and the Showdown in Sin City—how do you prepare to record a Sammy Keyes title now? Do you revisit previous recordings? Do you read the entire book before entering the studio?

TS: It is crazy to think this is Book 16!! Yes, I definitely read the book ahead of time and I make a list of all the characters who appear. Then we cross reference that list with characters from the older titles and listen to sound clips of their voices to get them right. A lot of the kids in the books have really matured or changed over the books, like Casey , so I try to make his voice reflect that change.

WV: I have a newfound appreciation for what you do after voicing the bonus pages for the new Flipped audio. It’s not easy! I wasn’t even doing any characters--it was just me being me—and about twenty pages took me a big chunk of the afternoon. On average, how long does it take you to voice a Sammy Keyes book?

TS: It depends on a few things….if there are a ton of characters it takes a little bit longer. The pacing of the scenes also makes a difference. For the high energy scenes I definitely read faster, and for the more emotional scenes I pace it a little slower. If the voices are hard on my voice (like Officer Borsch) I need to take a lot more breaks to rest my throat! The general rule with audiobooks is that it takes us about 2 hours to record 1 hour of finished audio. So a 7 hour audiobook would take me about 14 hours in the studio. When the writing is good (like yours) I make less mistakes and can go a bit faster.

WV: The cast of Sammy Keyes characters continues to build across the series. Do you have a method, or maybe an ‘audio bible’ that helps you keep the voices straight from book to book?

TS: Well, for many years we didn’t and would have to have stacks of cds and time code lists to go back and listen to each of them. Then last year I took a few hours to make mp3 files of all the major characters and now I have them in a handy dandy folder on my computer.

WV: It seemed that you especially enjoyed voicing Sammy Keyes and the Power of Justice Jack. Was it the character of Jack? Billy Pratt? 

TS: Yes! I love Billy Pratt!!! He is exactly who I would have been friends with. I love how kind he to Sammy and how he is up for anything. His relationship with Marissa was a really interesting story line. I imagine he and Sammy staying friends as adults. They would make a good couple.

WV: What have you most enjoyed about the evolving series storyline?

TS: Honestly, I love the writing. I believe that these are real people and I find them incredibly relatable.  You have given them solid histories and back stories to explain why they are who they are. I haven’t stayed with any other series as long as this one and it has been so much fun. I get excited to see what happens next and I know that you don’t write typical “happy ending” stories which I really appreciate. I also love the Grams/Hudson relationship.

WV: Does character evolution mess with voicing those characters? 

TS: “Mess with” is such a strong way of saying it!!! But yeah, in this last book, I had to figure out how to sound like Heather without being mean. That was tricky. She started sounding like Marissa at times, and Paula would make sure I stayed on top of making them different.

WV: You attend lots of Cons and seem to have a really good time doing it. Which character(s) do you voice that create(s) the most fan fever to meet you?

TS: I’ve been lucky to do a lot of  cartoon voices over the years, but the one fans are most excited about is Bulbasaur from Pokemon. It’s so much fun to watch their faces when they ask me to do that voice in front of them – which is especially funny since all he says is “Bulbasaur”!!!!

WV: You’ve voiced all but the last two books to go in the Sammy Keyes series, and it suddenly occurred to me that you probably don’t know how the story ends…or even that the last one isn’t in the voice of Sammy Keyes! I’m not sure how Live Oak will choose to approach the last book, but regardless, it’s almost over! Any reflections on Sammy and the broader purpose or value of these stories, or the series as a whole?

TS: Wow!!! I didn’t know that! I purposely haven’t read ahead! But now I need to!! When I heard you had written a final book, I was so sad. But then I remembered how much I loved re-reading my favorite stories as a kid and I know that’s what people do with these books. It’s especially fun re-reading a series because you know where it’s going and you see all the smart little hints the author planted along the way. So, while I would love it to go on forever, I do love a great ending! I feel really lucky to have been involved since the beginning and hopefully I’ll be at least somewhat involved in the final book.

WV: Thank you so much for your contribution to this body of work. I know you have some ardent fans inside the Sammy Keyes community. Maybe someday we’ll have a Sammy Con! You game?


Isn’t she awesome? If you’ve read through the entire Sammy Keyes series and have been missing our girl, try listening to the audio books. It's a whole new (and really fun) experience. You can get the physical CDs through Live Oak Media here, and they're also available as downloads on Overdrive and Audible.

And finally, if you do the social media thing, you can follow Tara here on Twitter and Instagram at TaraSandsLA, and on Facebook at TaraSandsTaraSands. 

Her website is:

As always, thanks for checking in. See you in the comments!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Puppy Love

Ko-Hii-Ko and me
I am a dog person. I absolutely love them. They haven't come...or gone easy, though.

When my siblings and I were young, it took a lot of nagging to get a dog. Mom had three, then four children, with absolutely no need for more to do.

She bought us goldfish instead. 

After she got tired of netting up dead goldfish, she thought a lizard would be a more practical pet. She converted the aquarium into a terrarium and it was our responsibility to capture live flies for the beastie. This is not as easy as it might sound. Plus, apparently a lizard needs more buzzy things than we were able (or inspired) to catch, because before too long the lizard was dead, too.

Then came the guinea pigs. First Scooter, then Scamper, then hordes of babies in a pen in the back corner of the yard squeaking away. We kids didn't want (or particularly like) the guinea pigs. We wanted a dog. 

This is all chronicled (in a barely fictionalized setting) in my first book, How I Survived Being a Girl, where narrator Carolyn relates how her older brother Jack finally has a little fit about the pet thing.

From Chapter 9 "Rodents and Reptiles": So just when I was thinking we'd never get a dog, Jack got real mad and told Mom he didn't want fish or lizards or guinea pigs--or rabbits or snakes or goats for that matter. He wanted a dog. A dog's what a boy's supposed to have, and no other animal would make up for not having a dog. Except maybe a monkey, if she wanted to give him that.

Me and Tushka
And that's pretty much how, in the real world, we got Ko-Hii-Ko. (If you know anything about my mom, you'll know right off she's the one who did the naming.) Mom insisted that Ko-Hii-Ko be an "outside dog," and we kids didn't argue, or ask for any other kind of pet, ever again. 

When we moved to a new town and Ko-Hii-Ko was hit by a car and died, we were all heartbroken. My mom was the one who said we should adopt a German shepherd puppy from neighbors who had a litter of them. We picked out a cute little shy girl from the back of the pack, mom named her Atushka, and she immediately allowed her into the house.  

Atushka (or Tushka, or Tuki) was a wonderful pet. She adopted our pack, slept on our beds, and wanted to be with us wherever we went. Her favorite activity was wrestling with a running hose. She would bite it, shake it, pounce on it like it was an enormous writhing snake that she was determined to take down. She was also my running buddy. I would take her on long runs up the grade or along the trails on the outskirts of our neighborhood. She was an awesome friend and companion to all of us and lived a long life. So even though she was old and far beyond enjoying life any more, it was still absolutely heartbreaking to have to put her down.

Mark's family had always had dogs, too, and usually in pairs. So when we were ready to get a dog of our own, I said I wanted to get a Siberian husky. I'd seen the most beautiful female husky at a dog show, and that was the dog for me!

Kai-tu and Lassen
To make a long story short, we did not wind up with one cute little female. We got a two-for-one, last-of-the-litter special, and they were males. Males who became big dogs, with lots and lots and lots of shedding fur. 

Protective and sweet, they were so funny when they'd start up a howl. They'd eye each other - one revving up, looking to the other to join in - and soon they'd have enough harmonics going to be mistaken for an entire pack.

Kai-tu and Lassen became my running buddies...or really more my extreme-sport coaches. They had to be on leash or they'd instinctively take off after cats, and since they're bred to pull sleds, my runs became as much an upper body workout as one for my legs.

Endless tufts of fur and all, they were inside dogs...until we had a baby and caught them drooling beside our "mewing" infant in the bassinet. We immediately pulled a classic Lady and the Tramp. "Out!"

Running is how I stay tethered to sanity, so the way I continued to incorporate that into my life as a new mom was by pushing a baby jogger while running with Kai-tu and Lassen. We were a wild entourage, full-steam ahead, and yes, people wisely made way. Especially when the second child was in the jogger and the first one was peddling alongside on his (training-wheeled) bicycle. 

Both dogs lived to "old age" where we, again, had to make the heartbreaking decision to put them down when it was cruel to continue to nurse them through each day.

After that, I was done. I swore I never wanted to go through that again. Besides, I had kids now. And too much to do. I did not need dogs!

But then our kids started asking for puppies. Begging for puppies. 

We got them goldfish.

That bought me a few months.

Then came the Summer of Lizards. They caught wild ones and somehow trained them to perch on their shoulders. Great fun. And it bought me a few more months. 

But lizards are not dogs. (See Chapter 9.) And I knew better than to bother with guinea pigs or rabbits or snakes.

But if I was going to agree to this, I had criteria!

Off the bed? You're kidding, right?
#1: NO FUR. Or, at least, not pillow-sized volumes of it. I'd done my time with the huskies.

#2: SMALLER. Mark and I had different days off, and I needed to be able to pick the dog up and take it to the vet. But it also had to be large enough so there was...

#3: NO YIPPING. It had to have a good bark.

And... #4: It had to be big enough to be a running companion.

And, oh yeah, #5: it had to be good with children.

Being the agreeable guy he is, Mark had only one real requirement, but it was a big one: We had to get two dogs so they'd have each other as company during the day when everyone was at work or at school.

The kids also had a requirement: They had to be puppies.

After much research and talking to lots of people, we wound up with whippets - a breed I would never have imagined for myself. But it didn't take long for them to invade my heart. Look at those faces! I didn't want to love them but I couldn't help it. What incredibly sweet animals. 

Our boys and their boys
So for the past fifteen years they have been part of our family. They were definitely inside dogs, sharing the bedrooms with our sons, doing "the changing of the guard" each night at around 2:00 am when they would switch rooms and look after "the other boy." They lived a good, long, spoiled life.

And telling myself all that should balance out the heartache of recently having to say goodbye, but it doesn't. They went within weeks of each other, and I keep looking for them, keep expecting them to be waiting for us when we come home.  

A librarian friend of mine knew I was sad and missing Bongo and Jazz, so she gave me Gary Paulsen's My Life in Dog Years, which I read cover to cover. It's a collection of short stories about each of his most special dogs, and how they saved him (both literally and figuratively). It was actually very comforting to read. Dog people understand that losing your pet is like losing a friend who was, without reservation, always happy to see you.

Real dog people understand that dogs are not accessories.

They're family.

Bongo and Jazz
I know cat people feel the same way about their feline friends and go through the same end-of-life trauma. I've never had a cat, and I'm not planning to start, so keep your adorable kittens away from me, okay?

Our friends assume that we'll be getting new dogs, but I don't know if I can go through this again. For now we'll just enjoy other people's dogs. 

Or maybe we'll get some goldfish. 

You think?