Cue the Puppies


Behold the gatekeepers. The Slice Literary Writers’ Conference I attended in Brooklyn last weekend proved to be an eye opener. It was a privilege honestly, to see and hear first-hand from the real deal in this moving target we call publishing. I refer to them as gatekeepers, not to be churlish, but simply to acknowledge that the agents, editors, publishers and publicists, sitting on panels with their names on poster board table tents in front of them, constituted a respectable and deservedly revered, sliver of a publishing establishment. What that establishment looks like tomorrow is anybody’s guess.

On this weekend however, advice and counsel was offered and eagerly consumed by hungry writers like me, on every literary concern from poetry to platform. Heady stuff with publishing powerhouses like Simon and Schuster, Penguin and Little Brown in the house. Not to mention hot and cold running agents! I could have made an elevator pitch to six different agents in one fell swoop between the 7th floor and the 3rd. I knew better. I exercised rare self-restraint once again, by not cornering an agent whom I really wanted to speak to, on his way to the bathroom after a 90-minute panel discussion in a freezing auditorium with bottled water on the dais. I pity the poor fool he chastised on Twitter for actually pitching him at the urinal. Good thing I’m not a guy.

I came back to St. Louis with all kinds of industry insider info, like what a “tastemaker” mailing is. Not sure if I want to be the topic or just be one of them. “Tastemaker,” now, that’d be cool to add to my bio. Anyway, the whole thing was enthralling, from learning what really pisses off an agent, (like being pitched while taking one) to what goes on behind closed doors at publishing acquisition meetings, that oh, so powerful thumbs up, thumbs down on whether your book gets picked up.

The next night, I’m back home giving a room full of writers at the St. Louis Publishers Association the lowdown on crowdfunding, a somewhat different means to an end. I won’t pretend to be an expert, but I did raise some dough through a Kickstarter campaign. If not for those 73 backers, Off the Leash would never have been written. So, paying it forward I suppose, I brushed up on how the crowdfunding industry has changed in the three years since I did mine. I put together a nice little slide show explaining the process in detail. Showed great photos, even cracked a few jokes that some people actually laughed at (like when I confessed that I slept my way to Kickstarter success, as my largest backer was a former boyfriend, which is really a lesson in not making enemies out of former lovers….) and only one person in the back of the room fell asleep. She woke up for the punch lines. Call it a success.

Most people stayed awake.

Most people stayed awake.


But all these hours of sparkling literary discourse, at both the illustrious New York City conference and my modest Midwest workshop, could have been cancelled and we could have all just closed our laptops and gone to the bar, if just one person, ONE person had said three little words:

Just use dogs.

Want to write a New York Times best seller? Just use dogs.

Want to be buddies with Oprah? Just use dogs.

Want to get your smiling face of the cover of the Rolling Stone? Just use dogs.

Photographer Seth Casteel’s new book, Underwater Puppies came out from Hatchett Book Group today. This is his second hound overboard book. His first one, Underwater Dogs became the bestselling photography book of 2012 and 2013. It was the #1 Bestselling Gift Book for 2012 and was on the NY Times Best Seller list for 11 weeks. So what do you do for an encore? Cue the puppies.

With all of the atrocities in the world right now, (as if war, disease, poverty, inhumanity or injustice ever took a vacation) enter a little puppy relief. And why the hell not? People will lap this up. I can just see the book sales already, rolling like the numbers at the gas pump when you’re filling up a two-ton truck.

Good for Seth. He was on Morning Edition with David Green on Friday and he is delightful. Not only is he a lively and engaging interview, the sneak peek of the puppy pics on the NPR website are, in a word, irresistible. Crazy cute. Seth talks about some of the practical reasons behind his canine aquatics, for example, protecting the pups from drowning in someone’s pool by teaching them how to swim and how to get out of the water. Plus he uses pound puppies as his models, which makes you want to invite him to supper and clear out your guest room on the off chance you might be able to host him as he’s coming through town on his book tour. He comes off as that nice.

So, clearly the ticket to runaway book sales is just use dogs.

Wait. I did that. My first book Off the Leash, came out just two weeks before Seth’s first book did. On my book cover is a photograph of a perfectly lovely rescue dog next to the water. Doesn’t next count? I devote paragraphs and pages of silky words to my golden muse, co-conspirator, confidant and confessor Libby. I talk about getting down on my knees, tears dripping on the parquet floors of my friend’s condo as I reassure my darling mutt that I would never, ever leave her. Hell, there’s almost an entire chapter devoted to her cunning little Chow-Chow bastard brother Lou! But alas, no NY Times bestseller.

Blessed be the strivers.

That’s what we are, my friends, we remain the strivers. I don’t mean this in the pejorative sense, as strivers are suffering a bad rep of late, looked upon disdainfully as bratty, elbow-throwing, over-achievers who secretly you kind of admire, but who make you feel ashamed of your slackiness, so you wouldn’t invite them out for a drink on a bet, when chances are they wouldn’t go anyway because they’d be at the library. I’m not talking about that kind of strivers. Here I simply mean anyone who is pursuing a dream, listening to their inner voice, striving to accomplish those things that they believe will help raise them to their own definition of greatness. That is what is so energizing and inspiring at writer’s conferences like the one I went to last weekend. It’s what makes me willing to share what little grains of experience I may have with other strivers, who, when I look out into the audience I recognize their ambition as mine. It’s kind of like church; a convening of like-minded folks, all swimming for that golden shore of arrival.

But let me throw out little sanity preserver. Don’t forget what you’ve already done. Take a breath. Take stock. Stop and bask.

In August of 2011 on the road trip I did to write Off the Leash, I rode with my son and daughter-in-law to Huntington Beach. It was a day or so after I arrived in Los Angeles. Huntington Beach is one of the most popular dog beaches in the world and I was making good on a promise to my mutt. I was a bit preoccupied on the hour-long drive, thinking about what would come after L.A., namely heading up the coast to locate my never-seen brother and whether I could even find him. I was also beginning to worry about my re-entry into normal life, in what condition I’d find my house, what I’d do for money and how in the hell to turn a mind-blowing  journey into some kind of cohesive story.

I’m walking along, my mind clouded temporarily by all these incessant distractions. Then, I stopped. I stopped and watched my dog. Not only was I moved to tears by her joy, her bravery, her absolute fascination with the ocean she had never seen, and all manner of dogs whom she’d never run with, but it was also the first time I  had acknowledged that I had driven, alone,  from New York to California. Never mind that I’d started in the Midwest to begin with!

Libby at Huntington Dog Beach

“They didn’t even try to stop me!” Libby and Friend, Huntington Beach, CA

That moment almost passed me by, because I was already on to the next. On to the next, how many of us do that? To be strivers is a damn fine thing. It keeps us purposeful and generally speaking, out of bars. It is good. It’s healthy to be working toward a goal. But, like some kind of mean-spirited joke you’d play on a kid trying to run a mile where you keep moving the finish line, how many of us do that to ourselves? Pushing the finish line farther and farther away, when holy shit, we’ve run miles already!

I’m telling you like I’m telling myself: stop and bask. Maybe look at some underwater puppies while you’re at it, Seth needs the money to pay off his camera debt.

About Jean Ellen Whatley

Writer. Dreamer. Sometimes schemer. Journalist/memoirist/observer and sometimes constructive irritant. Prisoner of demon muses. Mother to four humans and two dogs. In my spare time, I delete phone numbers of former boyfriends.

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  1. Hmmmm, I have two dogs staring at me from the living room. Perhaps I have missed what they have been trying to say, “Use us, Mom!”

  2. connie dunavin says:

    Brilliant, Aa-gain! What a great reminder to all of us to stop, and BE in the moment.
    Welcome back, we missed you while you were in NY.
    Your friend,