Carol Kaufmann

Writer, Editor, Etc.

Tigers Out, Safari In September 2, 2011

Filed under: Tiger Book — carolkaufmann @ 5:24 pm
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What happened to your book  Tigers, you ask? When will it be published?

Excuse us, coming though.

Ah, what an excellent question. How I wish I knew the answer. How I also wish I would get paid. Somehow, given that the publisher from Dakini Media seems to have disappeared, I doubt either will happen. (Yes, I hear you, all my lawyer friends. I’m looking into it).

It’s heartbreaking, actually. Not only am I in love with the subject–a tiger mother and her cubs in a difficult environment–but I reached out to world-renowned biologists who helped me get the behavior of tigers just right. I don’t want to go back to them and say that their time was all for nothing. I know there’s a good lesson for writers here, but honestly, I’m not sure what it is yet. Perhaps it’s don’t hand in any text until you see at least half the fee–that way the publisher knows you’re serious? And why is that only obvious to me now?
* * *
Because that’s what real publishers do, apparently! As soon as I signed a contract for my second book, SAFARI, Workman Press sent me an advance. Within a week. Within a few more weeks, I was on my way to Kenya to have a mind-bending experience. Three months later, the text is safely in the hands of my editor. Knowing Workman’s reputation–and seeing the amazing job they did with my friend Jenny’s book–I’m excited to see “Safari,” which was a crunch, time-wise, but a true pleasure to write. I actually believe this one will reside on Amazon some day.

 

Closure? Writing the Book, #5 October 14, 2010

Filed under: Tiger Book — carolkaufmann @ 11:15 am

 

This is how I feel.

 

There comes a point in the life of any project when it must end. Declare is done. Finis. Sayonara.

I’m not very good at goodbyes.

In fact, I can’t seem to let my tigers go. One problem: I don’t have a hard-and-fast deadline. That’s a death sentence for any journalist. We revolve around definitive ends when our words will make their way from our brain/fingertips to the etherworld. So, I tinker.

But I also have a good reason. The end is hell.

A conclusion to a body of work is a tough thing to craft. Lynne, my esteemed editor and friend, says that you have to draw conclusions for the reader that they should come to naturally given the information you have provided. Make them feel smart. Seems obvious, yes? Oh, but so tough to actually do. Especially in this particular case. I’ve written about the lives of a tiger family–their habits, instincts, biological characteristics and the relationships to their environment and all that live in it. In other words, I describe, or try to, everything about these living creatures. It seems only natural to broaden the perspective and discuss the future not only of this family, but of tigers in general.

And this is where a 1,000 word essay goes off the rails.

Discussing the plight of tigers raises so many conservation, economic and cultural issues, I could write a whole other book. Hm. (Maybe I shall.) But I have an obligation to discuss the precarious nature of their (the global tigers) lives. And be suscinct and effective.

ARARARARARRGHGHGHGHGHGHGHGH!!!!

So, I tinker.

 

Enter the Editor September 4, 2010

Filed under: Tiger Book — carolkaufmann @ 12:42 pm

Writing the Book, #4

Thanks to much time and many espressos in my local WiFi coffee shop, appropriately called Buzz, my first draft is finished. Begin phase II of the writing process.  Allow me to explain. The first part of any writing project begins with the blank page. Some fear a space of all white; others love it. Some love the freedom and opportunity a blank page offers—the challenge of creating something from nothing.  Others have the ability to read a collection of words, know what’s good, bad and ugly about them, and with a deft hand, reassemble them to create an engaging tale.

I’m a blank-page lover. And though I edit others from 9-5, I definitely need an editor when it come to my own work. Every writer, no matter how good, needs an editor. A creative soul—or anyone really—cannot be truly objective about their own product. If I’ve birthed it, I’m possessive and irrational about it—children and stories alike

Any writer, is nothing without a good editor.

When Lucky Dissanayake, Dakini owner and publisher, told me I could pick an editor to work with on the tiger book, I knew exactly who I wanted. A former colleague, boss, mentor, and friend, Lynne Warren who used to head the writing division at National Geographic. A beautiful writer in her own right, she’s a phenomenal editor. She glances at copy and, in seconds it seems, knows where you have a logic problem, an issue with the flow, if your words are trite or pedestrian or staid, if the story just isn’t coming alive—and why.

Lynne and I met for five productive and highly entertaining hours one day and went over my draft. During bites of tzatiki, and souvlaki and tomato caprese, we worked out spots that were bugging me. She pointed out repetitive places, one of my huge concerns, and places where inaccuracies may have crept in (I’ve read so much about cats, I feared my past knowledge of say, cheetahs, was creeping into my tiger text). She suggested often small, sometimes large, changes in wording that better conveyed what I meant.

A good editor knows how to say what you mean better than you do. But to get to this level of skill, the editor’s heart has to be in the right place. Lynne knows this so deeply. I told her I was writing about our process and she offered her own perspective (which, to prove my point, better conveys what I mean):

“I think the heart of the writer-editor connection is shared trust and respect. You have to feel really sure that I’m already convinced of your abilities to be comfortable showing me work very much in progress. You have to know that you’re going to be aided, not graded; and that my goal is to help you achieve your goal. And you have to believe that I have the ability and knowledge to help you tailor and refine your text without substituting my voice for  yours.” I have to know that your work is worth my time and attention; and while you don’t have to embrace every suggestion I offer, I have to be confident that you’ll consider my recommendations with an open mind and a solid regard for my skills and experience.

Oh, yeah, really liking each other helps, too.”

And we respect, and really like, each other. A few years back, we spent three weeks aboard a Woods Hole research ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean for a story on hydrothermal sea vents. She encouraged me to descend in Alvin, a deep-sea, three-person submersible for an eight-hour stint on the bottom of the ocean floor, and was there to help deluge me with cold water when I returned (a rite of passage for Alvin newbies). On the ship, we shared bunk beds in a room the size of a walk-in closet and stayed up way too late hashing out everything from literature to Eagle’s hits to latest loves and crushes. We later taught a photography workshop (clarification: taught photographers how to write to their photographs) at the Mountain Workshops in a small Kentucky town. Again, we shared a room. Again, we stayed up way to late, this time eating lots of fried food and sampling the local bourbon.

Imagine doing all that with someone you didn’t like? Imagine trusting your creation, your baby, to someone you didn’t like?

In these often frenetic days of writing a tiger text, it’s good to know someone has your back.

 

Writing the Book, #3 The Sources August 5, 2010

Filed under: Tiger Book — carolkaufmann @ 2:31 pm

WRITING THE BOOK, Post #3

Now, we’re really cookin’.

I can write all I want about tigers, but without the input from serious and credible sources, my text will never ring true. Nor, perhaps, BE true. But in the past few weeks my A-list sources have appeared.

I was getting a little antsy because I hadn’t heard back from John Seidensticker, who’s one of the foremost big cat experts in the world AND who lives in Washington, D.C. AND who writes great books on cats— tigers in particular. He’s the Curator of Mammals at the Smithsonians’s National Zoological Park (the Zoo, where I sometimes go to write. It helps to look at animals.). He also spent years studying tigers in Nepal, which resulted in a ground-breaking report on tiger behavior.  I had written Dr. Seidensticker asking for the most up-to-date sources on tiger behavior, conservation and research. He’d been out of the country and apologized for not being more prompt.

Apologized? I was honored. And now he’s given me some serious reading to do. This is in addition to all the books and web materials I’ve amassed on my own. The pile is getting pretty high. But that’s not all.

THEN he agreed to be on our board of advisers. And the good news kept on flowing.

Belinda Wright, the Executive Director of the Wildlife Protection Society of India in New Delhi also agreed to be one of the advisers on the book! A former photographer and filmmaker, she transformed her passion for  conservation into this nonprofit that tackles India’s wildlife crisis.  She reminded me (because apparently she keeps immaculate records) that we had a couple conversations in the past about small cat-related pieces I worked on at National Geographic. Extremely knowledgeable as well as pleasant and engaging, I’m thrilled to have her input. She also is good friends with Dr. Ullas Karanth, whose The Way Of the Tiger, is sitting beside me as I write. He’s one of India’s top tiger experts and I’m thrilled to have a connection to him. To write about tigers in India, I need to talk to people in India!

AND by some lucky stroke of fate, Fahreen at Dakini found a high school friend through Facebook who has worked with Ullas Karanth, has been studying tigers for the past 18 years, who knows Pench, my tiger reserve, and will help me understand what its like to walk through that jungle!!!

I’ve been peppering these folks with questions ranging from “How much does a tiger weigh at 10 months?” to “Describe the sounds they make when their eating.” Belinda wrote a beautiful description of the sounds you hear in the jungle when a tiger is present–and what you hear when all is calm.

Why ask such things? I learn so much from books and academic papers, but to engage readers and make them feel as if they are standing right beside the tiger, I need to appeal to their senses. I need to find out what this particular jungle smells like, what it sounds like, what the air feels like. When you walk through one of the jungle paths, what sound does your feet make? Describe a tiger alert. Describe a tiger’s smell. With such a tight deadline there’s no way I can make it to Pench–besides, it’s rainy season–but I can learn from people who’ve taken the walks I’d like to someday.

The fact is no books, magazine articles or websites on any natural history subject would ever reach the public if not for the generous nature of biologists like these folks to share their expertise with writers like me.  I’ve dealt with many scientists in my career and if I had my choice, I’d work with biologists for the rest of my life. By far, they are my favorite group. Perhaps it’s because they study life.

 

How do you get someone to care about tigers? July 20, 2010

Filed under: Tiger Book — carolkaufmann @ 8:29 pm

One of those adorable faces at the Wild Animal Sanctuary, Keenesburg, Colorado. But don't get too close!

Writing the Book, Post #2

As I write each paragraph of the story of the Indian Tigress and her cubs, thoughts like this go though my head.

Sure, there are cat lovers, people who are going to oooo and ahhhhh over the adorable photos (see right). There are environmentally minded folk concerned about preserving the earth. Biologists, naturally, care about preserving their species of interest.

But then there’s the rest of the world. And it takes more than cat lovers, enviros and scientists to save a species that could easily vanished from the earth’s wild places in less than a decade.

So how do you make someone who doesn’t think much about animals, who’s more concerned with, say, paying the electric bill and what to have for dinner on any given night, care about tigers?

I was thinking such thoughts this morning on my commute to work on Washington, D.C.’s Metro. I love riding the metro because it gives me a solid 20 minutes of reading time. (And believe me, a working mama can get a lot done in 20 minutes.) Today, I was reading Valmik Thapar’s Tiger: The Ultimate Guide. Thapar is a big deal tiger conservationist, mainly associated with a major tiger reserve north of Pench, the one I’m writing about. I like his book because he’s extremely knowledgeable about the species but also because he has so many first-hand encounters with Panthera tigris.

In a section about the family breakup, he writes something that amazed me:

“I often wonder what exactly happens as family groups break up. After watching wild tigers for decades, I remain convinced that you cannot generalize about this or anything else to do with their behavior.”

I don’t know why this should surprise me so. Why should different animal families of the same species reach certain milestones at exactly the same time? The animals certainly have individual traits and personalities, so why shouldn’t their family dynamics be just as diverse?

Before reading this, I thought I was writing a story about a tiger family. Now, I realize I’m writing a story about THIS particular tiger family—and the distinction is important. For example, while my tigress may not associate with the father of her cubs (she doesn’t as far as we can tell), some tigress actually do.  While my tigress leaves the cubs for days in search of a meal or to lure threats away from her young, other tiger mothers make a different calculation. Such divergent actions point to the fact that female tigers think, decide and act upon information in their environment and weigh the effect their choice will have on their offspring.

Very much like a human mother. Hmm.

Once I started thinking about this tigress as an individual, her story looked different to me. Writing a tale of one individual—any individual— in the context of the wide world is far more interesting than writing about a representation for an entire species.

What a difference a commute to work makes.

 

It’s A Deal! June 29, 2010

Filed under: Tiger Book — carolkaufmann @ 9:16 pm

Writing the Book, Post #1

I’ve hit my version of nirvana: I’m going to write a book on one of my favorite subjects.

For money!

A few years, a whole other job and one child ago, a publishing company in London tracked me down. I had written an article for National Geographic magazine about a family of cheetahs that had survived for three generations in Kenya. (Very rare. Despite their speed, those cats are fragile). The company was in the process of securing rights to photographs of a similar tiger family in India that had been captured by a film crew in the process of shooting a BBC documentary. Would I be interested in writing the text?

Does a cat purr?

A bobcat blocks my vision.

I know a fair amount about cats, both the jungle kind and housebroken variety. The obsession started in childhood with a lonely kitten a friend gave me for my birthday when I was about five and has been in full force ever since. Truthfully,  watching any animal in the wild and contemplating its behavior and motivations can fascinate me for hours. But my first love is the cat. It never really leaves you.

Flash forward again. When I worked as a reporter for Reader’s Digest, I traveled to the plains of Colorado to profile a man who had spent decades and every dime he ever made building a 160-acre sanctuary for unwanted and abused wild animals. Along with lions, leopards, grizzly and black bears, mountain lions, bobcats, and a sole emu, he had 75 Bengal tigers on this property. Let me say that again. SEVENTY FIVE Bengal tigers, in all their black and pumpkin-colored glory.

Do you realize you could never EVER see 75 tigers in their natural habitat? Or maybe any where else on earth? These animals had no where else to go. Bred or imported for circuses, roadside attractions or idiots who think they can raise—and feed—a 600-pound wild animal, these cats came to Pat Craig sick, injured, malnourished, fearful and angry. Pat and his crew nourish them back to health, serves them food specifically designed for their needs and, yes, hangs out with them. He can actually pet one.

Two Bengals from the Wildlife Animal Sanctuary. The hand is mine.

Through a massive chain-linked fence, I touched one, too. That gorgeous coat bristles more than you’d think and these cats live in relative luxury, having their nutritional needs met, never hunting their own food. I looked into its golden flecked eyes at close range. I watched the muscles and sinews flex. They are truly awesome.

This story, plus the cheetah tale and various other bits I’d written, got me to thinking about the precarious plight of the big cats.  It’s easy to love them. They’re beautiful, their cubs are freakin’ adorable, their coats look soft and cuddly (a myth, but we’ll chat about that later).  But most of them–cheetahs, tigers, etc.–may not be around on their planet for much longer. I’m no pessimist, but with dwindling habitats where they can thrive, their survival is simply not a guarantee. Why this is so is no real mystery: Man.

My publishing friends in London tell me that India has taken the bold step of reducing tiger tours, a fairly lucrative revenue stream for them no doubt, to allow the big cats some privacy. Maybe this book can help, too. Most of the profits we make will go to big cat non-profits working to save their existence. (Read about Dakini Press’s super-human efforts to get this project off the ground.)

I’ll be blogging about the writing process, learning lots more about the cats and undoubtedly working out some of the kinks in the text as I go. All feedback welcomed. As long as it’s civil.