Story Cartel and the Search for Reviews

cover3bOne of the biggest struggles for an indie author is getting people to review your books on Amazon and other book retailers (I even have trouble getting people I know personally, and who have given my novel extremely positive feedback, to leave reviews). Without reviews (positive, negative, or indifferent), it’s nearly impossible to get strangers interested in your book because it gets lost in an endless sea of unreviewed, self-published books available to the masses.

As indie authors, we take steps to try and remedy this situation: launching giveaway contests, making our books available for free with coupon codes or by reducing the price to zero for a period of time, promoting the books on blogs and social media, and so on. For most unknown authors, I imagine the results are as middling as mine have been, so last month I decided to try something new.

My search for reviews led me to a few sites that offer authors the chance to give their books away for free in exchange for honest reviews. Some of these sites are more expensive than others and, as I was unwilling to risk spending a lot of money on something that was not guaranteed to work, I chose the site with the cheapest rate: Story Cartel.

For $25, you can post your novel on Story Cartel in various formats for three weeks. Anyone can download it during this time for free. As added incentive, those who leave reviews are entered into giveaways for prizes such as Kindle eReaders, Amazon and Barnes & Noble gift cards, and bestselling print books. I figured that for $25 I didn’t have much to lose, and if it helped me get a few reviews, all the better. After all, I’d read articles in which people had claimed to get 50+ reviews out of it.

My results, I’m afraid to say, were not quite so amazing. In fact, I’d have to label the entire experiment a failure, for in the end, I only got one solitary review for my $25. It was a very nice, 5-star review (for a total of two reviews on my novel’s Amazon page), but overall it was not worth it for me. Does that mean it won’t work for you? Perhaps, perhaps not. I think the success rate might be higher for an author with more of an established following than one like myself who is still trying to build one. The reason for this is that the onus is on you to promote the giveaway. I did my best to feature it on both social media and this blog but, again, I believe it comes down to how big (and dedicated) your following is.

As for the publishing process at Story Cartel, the interface was easy enough to use, though I would like to have seen a longer description field, as well as a place for me to enter a list of searchable tags (I feel that being limited to just two genres did not make the book searchable enough). It also might have helped if I could have made the book available for longer than three weeks.

I could have opted for Story Cartel’s more expensive option that features the book more prominently, but there’s no guarantee that would have helped get me more reviews. At least $25 wasn’t a huge amount to spend on a failed experiment–I’m just glad I didn’t try one of the more expensive sites that would have taken more than $100 out of my pocket.

I think the lesson from all this is that there is only so much you can do to drum up sales as an unknown author. A lot of it comes down to luck–you can have a great novel that never gets read by anyone, or a lousy novel that becomes a best seller [cough 50 Shades cough]. Most of us fall somewhere in between. That doesn’t mean I will stop trying (see below), it just means I’m being realistic. I was never under any illusion that I was going to become a best seller and have my novel turned into a movie. I’m just gratified that I was able to get it out in the world and that those who have read it have really enjoyed it.


In other news, you can now download the entire first half of my novel for free from Smashwords, and it’s only 99 cents to read the rest. I believe this 50% sample size may also apply to some of the other booksellers in the Smashwords distribution network, such as Barnes & NobleKobo, Oyster, Scribd, Inktera, Apple, and OverDrive (though not Amazon). I also intend to make more of my novel available for reading on this blog.

And stay tuned for a series of upcoming new releases: free short stories excerpted from my novel, which will be downloadable at booksellers and also posted here. The series of stories will live under the title, The Eyes of Mictlan: Origins. I hope you will enjoy them, and as always, I thank you for your support!

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Remembering Heidi on Her Birthday

I’m re-posting this in honor of what would have been Heidi’s 17th birthday, along with an expanded tribute video incorporating footage that I found since the original post.

We miss you so much, baby girl. Not a day has gone by in the last four months when we haven’t thought of you.

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Dear Heidi,

We fell in love with you from the moment we saw you on that wintry day back in 2000. While all of the other dogs up for adoption were jumping around in their crates and barking, you were just lying there, seemingly in your own world, a beautiful shepherd mix, oblivious to the chaos around you. We knew right away that you were the one who would make our family complete.

Your foster mom told us your story, about the hard life you’d had. Although they found you living as a stray, they were sure you had been owned before, and almost definitely abused by some awful human beings. Somehow you escaped, whether by your own choice or theirs, and ventured out on your own. You were eventually rescued from a cave along the river in Trenton in the middle of winter, skinny and pregnant. We liked to joke that you were the Matt Foley of dogs: “I lived in a cave down by the river!”

WP_000021When we first brought you into our home it was not easy. You still had the mentality of a wild animal, complete with coarse fur and an utter distrust of humans, especially men. You were scared of your own shadow, spending the first few years of your life with your tail between your legs. You refused to go on walks; you would just plop yourself down on the ground and not budge. The first night you slept in our bedroom you peed all over the room. The first day we left you alone in the house we shut you in the laundry room only to come home and discover that you’d eaten your way through the louvered door to get out. We found you sitting on the couch in the living room—you had not touched anything else in the house, you had just wanted out of the laundry room.

I’m sure some people would have considered sending you back during those tough first weeks, but we refused to give up on you, and eventually you rewarded our patience with the 15 happiest years of our lives. You finally warmed up to your mommy and became completely attached to her. It would take me a lot longer to earn your love and trust, a couple of years in fact, but when it finally happened it was the most amazing feeling in the world.

03063034You would never be a completely normal dog; your neuroses followed you for the rest of your life. You would run away in fright at the slightest sound, from the ice maker in our fridge to a car door slamming outside (during the last few years of your life you would go mostly deaf and I swear it was the happiest you’d ever been—no more noises to frighten you). You were terrified of spinning things like ceiling fans and bicycle tires. And crowds of people? Forget about it. There were so many occasions when we’d be out for a walk and something would spook you into flight. You became very adept at doing a Harry Houdini out of your collar (thanks to your big shepherd neck and small terrier head) and then running all the way home.

But you got better with each passing month. Eventually your tail began to wag, your coat softened, and you started to hang out with us more often in the house. Watching you blossom from a basket case into a happy, playful, and loving dog was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Your love and trust was all the more special because we had to earn it. You would never trust many other people in your life, but that was okay, you had us and we had you; we were the perfect match. We loved our neurotic nutcase, and we were the only ones who ever understood you.

P1060123Your name was Heidi but we had so many nicknames for you. You probably thought your name was Smushyface because I called you that so often. Then there was Heidarolla, Little Egg, Baby Girl, Smusharella, Potato, Potato Pancake, Sweet Potato, Sugarloaf, Cinnamon Girl, and dozens more. And of course Heidi-Ho—I used to sing that Blood, Sweat & Tears song to you all the time:

mike and heidi2

Hi-de-ho, hi-de-hi
Gonna get me a piece of the sky
Gonna get me some of that old sweet roll
Singin’ hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-ho

We don’t have children but you were our daughter in every sense of the word. We raised you, loved you, and cared for you for more than 15 years. We watched you grow into an amazing individual. We took you on every vacation. Watching you frolic on the beach was among the happiest of all my vacation memories. We truly had a wonderful life together.

Then in your 15th year we began to notice that you were having trouble with stairs, culminating in the nasty spill you took down our home stairs, which forced us to make the heartbreaking decision to put up a gate and confine you to the first floor. Your right rear paw began to knuckle over when you walked and, shortly after your 16th birthday, you were diagnosed with Degenerative Myelopathy, an insidious, ALS-like neurological disease that was slowly paralyzing you and robbing you of your ability to control your bodily functions.

We were devastated, but determined to rally around you. All of our research assured us that you were not in any pain, so we would do our best to care for you and manage the disease. If we had put you to sleep, as some had suggested, we would have missed out on the last six months of your life, and that would have been a sin, because there were still so many happy days ahead. You were not ready to go; you were still the same spunky dog, so full of life. You had always been a fighter and a survivor—you just needed some extra help now. You could still move around the house on your own, but you needed assistance with going to the bathroom to keep you from falling over in the middle of doing your business. Helping you walk outside made me feel even closer to you, and it brought you closer to us, as you instinctively knew that you now needed to depend on us for some more things. We even bought you a doggie wheelchair for longer walks, which I had been hoping to do much more of as the weather warmed.

P1070511I won’t deny that it was sometimes difficult, especially for your mommy, who, as the first one awake in the morning, bore the brunt of cleaning up your accidents and washing you off, but you were more than worth it. You were our baby girl and we would have done anything for you.

We had begun to steel ourselves for the end, especially as it became harder to keep weight on you. We had envisioned a final day of fun where we would take you to the park and feed you all of your favorite foods, burgers galore and cream cheese for dessert. But we weren’t there yet, and neither were you. You still had so much zest for life–how could we ever have lived with ourselves if we had extinguished that light?

We thought you would tell us when you were ready to go, that we would see it in your eyes or your demeanor. Then we would know that it was time to plan your happy final day. But we never got the chance because on May 3rd, 2015, four months shy of your 17th birthday, a sudden attack of bloat stole you from us in an instant. In the end it was not your DM or your heart murmur that took you, but damned bloat—and damn that bloat to hell for making your final day of life so painful. We rushed you to the hospital and they gave you pain meds and made you comfortable. The doctor said they could operate but with your age and all of your medical issues, we knew it was time. We were not going to put you through a surgery that you might not even survive, so we made the gut-wrenching decision to say goodbye.

They brought you into the room so we could spend our final moments together as a family. I don’t know how much you were actually there because of the meds you were on, but I choose to believe that you knew we were with you, your pack mates, petting you and kissing you, holding you until it was over.

Staying with you while the doctor ended your suffering was unbelievably traumatic, and it will haunt me for the rest of my life, but I would do it again. There was no way I was going to leave you in the hospital to die with strangers. And I’m so thankful that you did not die alone while we were at work, that you were able to spend your final moments on Earth surrounded by your loved ones.

P1070456We were in shock. We had expected a gradual decline and had hoped for a more peaceful end. We were not prepared to lose you so quickly and so violently. Three days later we’re still in shock. Every time I walk around the house I expect you to be there. I see you out of the corner of my eye, your nose peeking around the corner, your ear popping up from behind the couch. I hear the tags of your collar jingling in the next room. My mind goes on autopilot, one moment thinking I have to put this plate of food up high so Heidi doesn’t get it, another moment walking downstairs to say goodnight, but you’re not there.

I don’t know how this is supposed to work without you. The house is so empty. You moved into our home right after we did. We’ve never really lived here without you. Everywhere I turn there are signs of your presence, from the scratched-up front doorjamb to the gouged-out windowsills in the guest room; from the torn-up area of carpet on the upstairs landing to the nose prints all over the back French doors—and everywhere in between. You made an indelible mark on our lives.

DSC_0958We were so lucky to have you for 15 of your 16 1/2 years on this planet, and incredibly lucky that you lived so far beyond the average lifespan for a dog of your type, but I still feel cheated. I wasn’t ready to let you go, not like that. I miss you so much. I miss your flippy-floppy ears, the way one ear stood up straight while the other went halfway up and then out to the side at a right angle. I miss your nose, petting the bridge as you started to fall asleep. I’ll miss finding that special spot on your neck that gave you so much pleasure. I’ll miss rubbing your belly, rubbing your paws, holding your silky ears in my hands, that white area of your chest. I’ll miss running around the house with you as you pounced on me like a wild animal stalking its prey. I’ll miss how frisky you would get as I left the house in the morning, nipping at me as if to say, “Where the hell do you think you’re going?”

P1060128And god how I’ll miss the way you’d sometimes rest your head on my lap while I petted you, or when you’d burrow under our legs and stick your head up on the couch cushion, demanding that we pet you. I’ll miss watching you take lawn dives and roll around in the snow. I’ll miss throwing the ball with you and fighting to get it out of your mouth. I’ll miss how excited you got over your nightly cheesy treats, the way you jumped around when I asked you if you wanted to go “bye byes” in the car, how you hid under the bed during thunderstorms. I’ll miss feeding you out of my hand, having you hang out back with me while I grilled, and watching you take almost an entire flight of stairs in a single bound. I’ll miss watching you sleep, all curled up and pretty, or running in your dreams. And I’ll really miss all of your neurotic issues because they made you uniquely you. There will never be another dog like you; they truly broke the mold.

Cape May Point Beach (September 2014)I take comfort in the knowledge that we gave you a great life. I know in my heart that we were meant to be together. I’m not sure what would have happened to you if we hadn’t decided to go to Pet Smart that day, whether you would have clicked with anyone else or whether they would have been willing to put in the work it took to bring you out of your shell. But you rescued us as much as we rescued you, and I want to thank you for that. Thank you for bringing more joy into our lives than you can possibly imagine. We learned so much from you. You made us not only better dog parents, but better people. I wouldn’t trade a minute of it. You were the best thing that ever happened to us, the best part of us.

I love you, Heidi Girl, and I will never, ever forget you. Rest easy now, my baby.

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My First Novel: The Long Road to Publication

cover3bI’m pleased to announce that my debut novel The Eyes of Mictlan is now available for purchase at Amazon in both Kindle (eBook) and paperback formats. The Kindle version is $2.99. If you do not own a Kindle, Amazon has free Kindle reading software for almost any computer or mobile device, as well as a free online reader. The eBook is also available for free to Amazon Prime members (via the lending library) and Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

For those of you who prefer the tactile feel of a book in your hands, the paperback version is $9.99. If you would like both versions, you can buy the Kindle version for 99 cents after purchasing the paperback. You can also order either version by clicking on the cover image to the left.

Well, that takes care of the promo portion of this post. The rest, should you choose to keep reading, is the story of my journey from concept to publication.

To quote the infamous theme song from Star Trek: Enterprise: “It’s been a long road, getting from there to here.” I first put pen to paper (yes, pen and paper) back in 1997 when I wrote the first chapter and outlined the rest of the novel. The idea for the novel originally sprung from a text-based online role-playing game I was considering playing on AOL back in the days of dial-up modems (kids, ask your parents). As part of creating a character for the game, you were supposed to come up with a back story for your character. I never ended up playing the game, but I liked the character I created, so I decided to turn his story into a novel.

My original intention was to write it as an experimental serial novel, in which I would post a new chapter at regular intervals. In fact, the first chapter has been available online in one form or another since 1998.

An early online version of my novel, circa 2006.
An early online version of my novel under its original title, circa 2006.

However, when I realized that there was enough material for a full-blown novel, I altered my plans. It took many years to complete—as any aspiring writer will tell you, one of the biggest obstacles to completing a novel is finding the time between your job, housework, and various other adult responsibilities—but eventually (and with the help of a period of unemployment) I finished the first draft in early 2009. Subsequent drafts followed and I finally had a draft that I deemed worthy of submission in the winter of 2012.

I tried the traditional publishing route first, submitting queries to agents, but then I began to notice that more and more people were self-publishing and that the self-publishing industry was growing at an astronomical rate, with even established authors beginning to self-publish. I like the idea of maintaining full control over my property and earning higher royalties on each sale, not that I’m expecting to earn much (you don’t really make any money on a book unless it becomes a best-seller). It’s more about the work itself, getting it out there into the world, and self-publishing seemed like the best way for me to accomplish that. The traditional querying process did have its benefits, though—it helped me to hone the marketing of my book, specifically the synopsis I eventually used for the back cover—but I am happy with my decision to go the indie route.

Self-publishing is a lot of work, especially if you choose to do everything yourself as I did. I broke a couple of self-publishing rules of thumb: don’t be your own editor and don’t design your own cover. Handling everything myself was like having a second job. My wife, who has an editorial background, was a big help in proofing an early draft, but I performed all subsequent editorial passes of the manuscript myself. The big danger in editing your own manuscript, even if you have an editorial background as I do, is that you are too close to the material to make the cuts that are necessary—and there is a lot of truth to that—but I revisited the manuscript a couple of years later when I made the decision to self-publish, and by then I was far enough removed from the material that I was able to make some ruthless cuts that I had resisted making in earlier drafts.

One major thing you need to keep an eye on when self-publishing is whether you are using any material that might be subject to copyright (such as song lyrics) because you will not have a publisher to handle obtaining the necessary permissions. You could try to obtain the rights yourself, but in my case I found it easier to go back through the entire manuscript and remove any such references either through deletion or by altering the prose to make the references non-explicit. I don’t think these edits had any negative impact on the story anyway—in fact they forced me to be a bit more inventive—so I’d say it’s best for self-publishing authors to just avoid copyrightable references altogether.

The Back Cover

As for the cover, I am not even close to being an artist, but I have enough Photoshop experience that I was able to make a cover that looks decently professional. I had first tried one of Amazon’s online cover templates, but these were too plain and I didn’t want my cover to look like everyone else’s, so I spent a lot of time getting the look I wanted. The front art includes a real photo of mine that I manipulated via Photoshop to depict a scene from the novel. For the back cover (of the paperback) I chose to use an author photo rather than create another image. A professional designer probably could have created a better cover in half the time it took me, but I am pleased with it overall.

The most work, however, revolved around formatting both the paperback and Kindle versions. The easiest approach would have been to format the paperback version in Word and then convert it to an html file for the eBook version, but I did it backwards because I had not originally intended to do a paperback version. I started with a Word doc and converted it to an HTML file. However, I was not entirely pleased with the conversion, so I put on my Web Designer hat and began editing the HTML file (this would later come back to bite me when I began formatting the Word doc for paperback).

After uploading the HTML file and viewing it on Amazon’s previewer (a nifty feature that shows you how the eBook will display on various mobile devices), I had to make even further edits to account for display issues on certain devices. By this point, I had made so many tweaks to the HTML file directly that when I discovered new edits that needed to be made to the original manuscript during the paperback phase, I had to edit both the Word and HTML versions separately—I couldn’t simply re-convert  from the Word file or I would have lost all of the extra work I had done on the HTML file. My advice: do not do it the way I did. 🙂

Once I finally got the eBook version looking good in all devices, it was time to format the paperback version. The paperback is created through a separate site called CreateSpace, which is owned by Amazon. The nice thing about using this service is that it does not cost you any money upfront—the books are printed on demand and you make a percentage of the profits minus the manufacturing costs. If you already have a Kindle version of your book, Amazon will automatically link it to the paperback version once it goes live.

As with the Kindle version, it took a lot of work to get the paperback looking perfect (fonts, page headers/numbers, gutter/margin settings, etc.), but at least with the paperback version you only have to format it correctly once and then you’re done—no worrying about cross-device compatibility. After completing the paperback version it was then time to create author pages on Amazon and CreateSpace, as well as update my blog to help market the release.

The Paperback
The Paperback

Some of you may have noticed the new title. Life’s Blood had been the title of my novel since I wrote the first chapter all the way back in 1997, but when I began the self-publishing process, I noticed that there are roughly a dozen books on Amazon with either Life’s Blood or Life Blood in the title. I didn’t want my book to get lost in a sea of similar titles, so even though I did not relish the idea of making copy changes, redoing my cover, and editing all references on my blog to Life’s Blood, I decided that I needed to come up with a new title.

After brainstorming a bunch of ideas and scanning my novel for a line or phrase that might make for a good title, I settled on The Eyes of Mictlan. It is certainly unique, as I saw just one other book on Amazon with Mictlan in the title. It is also significant to the plot and has an aura of mystery about it, something that the more generic-sounding previous title did not, so I think it may end up being a blessing in disguise. Sometimes necessity is indeed the mother of invention. Whether it translates to more sales remains to be seen, but at least I’ve given it a fighting chance to stand out.

I decided to join Amazon’s KDP Select program for the Kindle version, which lets you earn up to 70% royalties as opposed to the normal 35% and also makes the book available in the lending library for Amazon Prime members (for which you can earn a small royalty each time it is read). The trade-off is that you must make the eBook exclusive to Amazon for three months and re-commit to additional three month-periods for as long as you remain in the program. Established authors may balk at the exclusivity requirement but overall it seems like a good deal for new authors. I decided to price the eBook at $2.99, which is the minimum price you can set under the rules of KDP Select, though I have the option of making it available for cheaper or free for short periods of time as part of promotions.

The design of the paperback is trade rather than mass market, so it has a good size to it, similar to a small hardcover. However, it is expensive to produce, so $9.99 was basically as cheap as I could make it while still earning a small profit (I will actually earn twice as much on sales of the eBook, despite it being $7 cheaper). In order to make the paperback $9.99, I had to decline the expanded distribution option, which would have made it available to libraries, book stores, and similar entities. The production costs would have skyrocketed under this option and I would have needed to set the price around $14 to make even a tiny profit. I just didn’t think that was worth it—who’s going to spend $14 on a paperback from a first-time author? I’m not concerned about missing out on extra distribution channels at this point since I don’t expect to sell many paperbacks anyway; I imagine most people will opt for the less-expensive Kindle version.

So anyway, that’s the story of my story. If nothing else ever happens with the novel, at least I finished it and it’s out there in the world. If you decide to read it, I hope you enjoy it. If you like it, please spread the word . . . and if you don’t like it—well, maybe don’t spread the word. 😉

Dear Heidi

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We fell in love with you from the moment we saw you on that wintry day back in 2000. While all of the other dogs up for adoption were jumping around in their crates and barking, you were just lying there, seemingly in your own world, a beautiful shepherd mix, oblivious to the chaos around you. We knew right away that you were the one who would make our family complete.

Your foster mom told us your story, about the hard life you’d had. Although they found you living as a stray, they were sure you had been owned before, and almost definitely abused by some awful human beings. Somehow you escaped, whether by your own choice or theirs, and ventured out on your own. You were eventually rescued from a cave along the river in Trenton in the middle of winter, skinny and pregnant. We liked to joke that you were the Matt Foley of dogs: “I lived in a cave down by the river!”

WP_000021When we first brought you into our home it was not easy. You still had the mentality of a wild animal, complete with coarse fur and an utter distrust of humans, especially men. You were scared of your own shadow, spending the first few years of your life with your tail between your legs. You refused to go on walks; you would just plop yourself down on the ground and not budge. The first night you slept in our bedroom you peed all over the room. The first day we left you alone in the house we shut you in the laundry room only to come home and discover that you’d eaten your way through the louvered door to get out. We found you sitting on the couch in the living room—you had not touched anything else in the house, you had just wanted out of the laundry room.

I’m sure some people would have considered sending you back during those tough first weeks, but we refused to give up on you, and eventually you rewarded our patience with the 15 happiest years of our lives. You finally warmed up to your mommy and became completely attached to her. It would take me a lot longer to earn your love and trust, a couple of years in fact, but when it finally happened it was the most amazing feeling in the world.

03063034You would never be a completely normal dog; your neuroses followed you for the rest of your life. You would run away in fright at the slightest sound, from the ice maker in our fridge to a car door slamming outside (during the last few years of your life you would go mostly deaf and I swear it was the happiest you’d ever been—no more noises to frighten you). You were terrified of spinning things like ceiling fans and bicycle tires. And crowds of people? Forget about it. There were so many occasions when we’d be out for a walk and something would spook you into flight. You became very adept at doing a Harry Houdini out of your collar (thanks to your big shepherd neck and small terrier head) and then running all the way home.

But you got better with each passing month. Eventually your tail began to wag, your coat softened, and you started to hang out with us more often in the house. Watching you blossom from a basket case into a happy, playful, and loving dog was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Your love and trust was all the more special because we had to earn it. You would never trust many other people in your life, but that was okay, you had us and we had you; we were the perfect match. We loved our neurotic nutcase, and we were the only ones who ever understood you.

P1060123Your name was Heidi but we had so many nicknames for you. You probably thought your name was Smushyface because I called you that so often. Then there was Heidarolla, Little Egg, Baby Girl, Smusharella, Potato, Potato Pancake, Sweet Potato, Sugarloaf, Cinnamon Girl, and dozens more. And of course Heidi-Ho—I used to sing that Blood, Sweat & Tears song to you all the time:

mike and heidi2

Hi-de-ho, hi-de-hi
Gonna get me a piece of the sky
Gonna get me some of that old sweet roll
Singin’ hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-ho

We don’t have children but you were our daughter in every sense of the word. We raised you, loved you, and cared for you for more than 15 years. We watched you grow into an amazing individual. We took you on every vacation. Watching you frolic on the beach was among the happiest of all my vacation memories. We truly had a wonderful life together.

Then in your 15th year we began to notice that you were having trouble with stairs, culminating in the nasty spill you took down our home stairs, which forced us to make the heartbreaking decision to put up a gate and confine you to the first floor. Your right rear paw began to knuckle over when you walked and, shortly after your 16th birthday, you were diagnosed with Degenerative Myelopathy, an insidious, ALS-like neurological disease that was slowly paralyzing you and robbing you of your ability to control your bodily functions.

We were devastated, but determined to rally around you. All of our research assured us that you were not in any pain, so we would do our best to care for you and manage the disease. If we had put you to sleep, as some had suggested, we would have missed out on the last six months of your life, and that would have been a sin, because there were still so many happy days ahead. You were not ready to go; you were still the same spunky dog, so full of life. You had always been a fighter and a survivor—you just needed some extra help now. You could still move around the house on your own, but you needed assistance with going to the bathroom to keep you from falling over in the middle of doing your business. Helping you walk outside made me feel even closer to you, and it brought you closer to us, as you instinctively knew that you now needed to depend on us for some more things. We even bought you a doggie wheelchair for longer walks, which I had been hoping to do much more of as the weather warmed.

P1070511I won’t deny that it was sometimes difficult, especially for your mommy, who, as the first one awake in the morning, bore the brunt of cleaning up your accidents and washing you off, but you were more than worth it. You were our baby girl and we would have done anything for you.

We had begun to steel ourselves for the end, especially as it became harder to keep weight on you. We had envisioned a final day of fun where we would take you to the park and feed you all of your favorite foods, burgers galore and cream cheese for dessert. But we weren’t there yet, and neither were you. You still had so much zest for life–how could we ever have lived with ourselves if we had extinguished that light?

We thought you would tell us when you were ready to go, that we would see it in your eyes or your demeanor. Then we would know that it was time to plan your happy final day. But we never got the chance because on May 3rd, 2015, four months shy of your 17th birthday, a sudden attack of bloat stole you from us in an instant. In the end it was not your DM or your heart murmur that took you, but damned bloat—and damn that bloat to hell for making your final day of life so painful. We rushed you to the hospital and they gave you pain meds and made you comfortable. The doctor said they could operate but with your age and all of your medical issues, we knew it was time. We were not going to put you through a surgery that you might not even survive, so we made the gut-wrenching decision to say goodbye.

They brought you into the room so we could spend our final moments together as a family. I don’t know how much you were actually there because of the meds you were on, but I choose to believe that you knew we were with you, your pack mates, petting you and kissing you, holding you until it was over.

Staying with you while the doctor ended your suffering was unbelievably traumatic, and it will haunt me for the rest of my life, but I would do it again. There was no way I was going to leave you in the hospital to die with strangers. And I’m so thankful that you did not die alone while we were at work, that you were able to spend your final moments on Earth surrounded by your loved ones.

P1070456We were in shock. We had expected a gradual decline and had hoped for a more peaceful end. We were not prepared to lose you so quickly and so violently. Three days later we’re still in shock. Every time I walk around the house I expect you to be there. I see you out of the corner of my eye, your nose peeking around the corner, your ear popping up from behind the couch. I hear the tags of your collar jingling in the next room. My mind goes on autopilot, one moment thinking I have to put this plate of food up high so Heidi doesn’t get it, another moment walking downstairs to say goodnight, but you’re not there.

I don’t know how this is supposed to work without you. The house is so empty. You moved into our home right after we did. We’ve never really lived here without you. Everywhere I turn there are signs of your presence, from the scratched-up front doorjamb to the gouged-out windowsills in the guest room; from the torn-up area of carpet on the upstairs landing to the nose prints all over the back French doors—and everywhere in between. You made an indelible mark on our lives.

DSC_0958We were so lucky to have you for 15 of your 16 1/2 years on this planet, and incredibly lucky that you lived so far beyond the average lifespan for a dog of your type, but I still feel cheated. I wasn’t ready to let you go, not like that. I miss you so much. I miss your flippy-floppy ears, the way one ear stood up straight while the other went halfway up and then out to the side at a right angle. I miss your nose, petting the bridge as you started to fall asleep. I’ll miss finding that special spot on your neck that gave you so much pleasure. I’ll miss rubbing your belly, rubbing your paws, holding your silky ears in my hands, that white area of your chest. I’ll miss running around the house with you as you pounced on me like a wild animal stalking its prey. I’ll miss how frisky you would get as I left the house in the morning, nipping at me as if to say, “Where the hell do you think you’re going?”

P1060128And god how I’ll miss the way you’d sometimes rest your head on my lap while I petted you, or when you’d burrow under our legs and stick your head up on the couch cushion, demanding that we pet you. I’ll miss watching you take lawn dives and roll around in the snow. I’ll miss throwing the ball with you and fighting to get it out of your mouth. I’ll miss how excited you got over your nightly cheesy treats, the way you jumped around when I asked you if you wanted to go “bye byes” in the car, how you hid under the bed during thunderstorms. I’ll miss feeding you out of my hand, having you hang out back with me while I grilled, and watching you take almost an entire flight of stairs in a single bound. I’ll miss watching you sleep, all curled up and pretty, or running in your dreams. And I’ll really miss all of your neurotic issues because they made you uniquely you. There will never be another dog like you; they truly broke the mold.

Cape May Point Beach (September 2014)I take comfort in the knowledge that we gave you a great life. I know in my heart that we were meant to be together. I’m not sure what would have happened to you if we hadn’t decided to go to Pet Smart that day, whether you would have clicked with anyone else or whether they would have been willing to put in the work it took to bring you out of your shell. But you rescued us as much as we rescued you, and I want to thank you for that. Thank you for bringing more joy into our lives than you can possibly imagine. We learned so much from you. You made us not only better dog parents, but better people. I wouldn’t trade a minute of it. You were the best thing that ever happened to us, the best part of us.

I love you, Heidi Girl, and I will never, ever forget you. Rest easy now, my baby.

P1040552

Looking Back

As 2013 winds to a close, I thought it would be a good time to take a look back at the past year, during which this blog has come a long way: on this day last year I had three followers and only posted sporadically. As I began posting with more frequency (concentrating on my travel stories) my audience grew, which in turn inspired me to post even more frequently, and so on . . . it’s the circle of life. 😉

This year has been very rewarding for me as a writer and I want to thank all of you for inspiring me to stick with it. I’ve never been much for resolutions, but if I were to make any, they would be to work harder on getting my novel published and to set aside more time for visiting the blogs of everyone who has visited mine.

In 2014 I will continue writing and sharing the journal from my recent trip to Mexico, and I am considering a trip to London this summer to see the Monty Python reunion (and build a trip of the UK around it). Until then, and in keeping with the tradition of year-end countdowns, here is a countdown of my own (or I should say count-up since I’m starting with #1). The following posts were my most popular of 2013 based on “likes.”

  1.  Photo of the Day: Overlooking Dubrovnik – A happy accident photo.
  2.  The Vintage Reel Award – My acceptance of this award from my fellow blogger at The Vintage Postcard touches on some fond childhood memories.
  3.  The Inca Trail Day 3: Almost There (My Trip to Peru, Part 6) – This was my favorite day of the Inca Trail hike as we passed by numerous remote Inca ruins that the average tourist will never see.
  4.  Dubrovnik: A Tour of King’s Landing (and other locations) – This is my most-viewed post by a wide, wide margin. Perhaps I should start tagging all of my posts with “Game of Thrones.” 🙂
  5.  Eurotrip 2009 Part 2: Munich – Recounting my adventures in Munich, Germany, including stops in Dinkelsburg and Nordlingen.
  6.  The Inca Trail Day 2: Detour Through Hell (My Trip to Peru, Part 5) – Although this was the worst day of my trip to Peru (hiking up a mountain through freezing sleet), it is probably my favorite post because it represents some of the best storytelling of any of my travel writing.
  7.  My Trip to Peru, Part 2: Here and There – My time in Cusco as well as excursions to Maras and the Inca ruins of Moray.
  8.  Photographs and Memories – This poem is a tribute to my grandfather.
  9.  Eurotrip 2009 Part 4: Lucerne – The beautiful city of Lucerne, Switzerland and breathtaking views from the top of Mount Pilatus.
  10.  Hiking the D&R Canal – Photos from my hike along the D&R Canal in Princeton, NJ.

And here are ten of my most-viewed posts:

Well, that’s it for 2013. I wish all of you a Happy New Year. See in the blogosphere!