January 9th, 2015

Writing Lessons From a Baby Seahorse

Susan Spann

15A05 KirinIn addition to writing novels and practicing law, I have a marine aquarium filled with corals and seahorses. I started reef-keeping years ago, though I’ve loved aquariums (and seahorses, especially) all my life. I knew, from the outset, that seahorses rank very high on the aquarium difficulty scale, and that they require a lot of work.

What I didn’t expect was that my seahorse-keeping would teach me lessons that applied to writing also.

I love sharing pictures of my reef, and my seahorses, on my Facebook and Twitter feeds, but today I thought I’d also share some vital writing lessons I’ve learned from my seahorse reef:

1.  If You Want To Succeed, Do Some Research Before You Start. Seahorses require specific water conditions, environments, and tank mates. If you want to keep them alive, you have to establish a proper reef environment from the start. The more you know about their needs, the better the chances your seahorses will thrive.

Similarly, the more you know about yourself, the publishing industry, and the kind of story you want to write, the better your chances of success as a writer. “Doing the research” means educating yourself about publishing options, genres, and writing skills, and learning as much as you can up front. You don’t have to know everything—and, in fact, most writers will tell you we learn as much “on the job” as we do beforehand, but knowing some things in advance will boost your chances of success from the outset.

IMG_90232. You Have to Feed the Beast Every Day. Unlike many creatures, seahorses lack a true “stomach.” Instead, they have an intestinal tract that moves food through without giving it time to hold and digest. Because of this, they require feeding at least two times a day (four times, when they’re as small as the babies shown here).

A writing career is no different. If you fail to “feed” it regularly—in many cases, daily—it withers and dies. It isn’t absolutely necessary to write two times a day—or even daily—to keep the writing dream alive, but like a seahorse, the more often you feed it the faster it will grow.

3.  Constantly Push Yourself to Learn and Improve. Successful seahorse keepers often start out clueless (or nearly so) and end up highly knowledgeable about seahorses, water chemistry, poop*, and other aspects of aquatic life. We learn which creatures help seahorses thrive, which will harm them, and which ones might-or-might not work, depending on circumstances.

In writing, also, it pays to continue learning every day. Pushing yourself to develop new skills and story structures makes you a better writer, and the more you write (and read!) the more you learn how to use the elements of character, plot, and grammar to your advantage. You learn which plot devices work in your genre, which phrases always turn your prose a lovely (but unprintable) shade of purple, and which elements work in certain stories but not so well in others. The more you push yourself to improve, the more successful you will become in your writing and your career.

* Observing seahorse poop is easiest way to make sure a seahorse is healthy. Four years in, I know far more about seahorse scatalogical habits than I’d like to admit.

IMG_77504.  Sometimes, Tragedies Happen. And You’ll Survive Them. Last September, I lost my female seahorse, Ceti, after a prolonged illness. I tried my hardest to save her with medications, a hospital tank, and even help from seahorse experts (yep, there’s a website for that). In the end, she died—and I was very sad.

It took me ten years and five manuscripts to find an agent and a publishing deal, and I can tell you from experience, that hurt even more than losing a seahorse. Some days, I didn’t think I could take another round of “I didn’t fall in love with it enough to place it in this difficult market.”

I also “lost” more than one manuscript during those years. Each one, I queried to death and then forced myself to write a new one to take its place. None of them reached publication (and their future remains uncertain). Like losing a seahorse, it pained me deeply to “let them go.”

However, if I’d kept mourning Ceti, I wouldn’t have the new babies: Vega and Kirin. If I hadn’t set the older manuscripts aside and written new ones, I wouldn’t have written Claws of the Cat—the novel that launched my career as a published author.

Publishing, like keeping a reef, won’t always go your way. Bad things will happen—but good things happen too, and in the end the success is worth more than all the rough times put together.

IMG_91555.  If You Love it, Never Give Up. Seahorse keeping never gets easy. Writing doesn’t either. Both require massive amounts of work for rewards that sometimes feel short-lived and seldom pay huge dividends. But if you love it…do it anyway.

Every morning, I drag myself out of bed and into the office to feed the seahorses. Usually, they’re already nosing around in the food bowls, reminding me I’m late. By noon, they’re ready to eat again—and I actually had to take a break while writing this post to feed them. My hands are often wet and wrinkled from caring for the reef. I care for my seahorses and my corals deeply; I love them, feed them, mourn them … and wouldn’t have it any other way.

Writing is an equally hungry, messy, tear-stained endeavor. Most people consider writers a little crazy—and we probably are. We pour our heart and soul and hours into putting words on the page, in the hope that someone, somewhere will want to read them. We rejoice when we have a happy day and mourn when the words don’t flow. And yet, we always return our hands to the keys and our minds to the worlds we spin from dreams and passion.

We do it because, at the end of the day, we love it. Creating worlds with words gives us joy and makes our spirits soar. It’s a difficult, heart-wrenching, magical thing—and if you love it as I do, it’s worth every bit of the trouble it causes along the way.

Exactly like a seahorse.

About Susan
SusanSpann_WITSSusan Spann writes the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month. The second Shinobi Mystery, BLADE OF THE SAMURAI, released on July 15, 2014. Susan is also a transactional attorney whose practice focuses on publishing law and business. When not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium. You can find her online at her website, http://www.SusanSpann.com, on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/SusanSpannAuthor) and on Twitter (@SusanSpann), where she created and curates the #PubLaw hashtag.

38 comments to Writing Lessons From a Baby Seahorse

  • Susan,
    Thank you for sharing your photos with us.
    Your analogy of feeding your reef and its inhabitants to feeding our writing Muses daily hit home with me.
    Totally beyond cool that you keep seahorses!!
    Paula

  • Entertaining and incredibly inspirational metaphor for writing. Loved your pictures! By the way, regular land versions of horses are not much easier to care for 🙂

    • Orly Konig-Lopez

      Very true on the land horses. 🙂

    • Thank you! I love land horses too – I’ve ridden a lot and wanted one for years, but never had one because I know they’re even more work than my little aquatic ones. (It’s easier to saddle the land variety, though…)

  • What a unique way to impart great advice to us. Loved learning about your dual passions – the photos are lovely!

  • Susan, you have such a wonderful writing voice! Loved the way you explain how to approach writing, or any passion. Thanks for sharing!

  • I love seeing your seahorses in my FB feed, Susan! And we all mourned right along with you, when you lost Ceti.

    They are such beautiful and gentle creatures…thanks for being such a good mom – and sharing your wisdom.

    • Thanks Laura – it’s been so much fun sharing them in my feed that I jumped at the chance to share them (and a few of the things they teach me) here as well.

  • Several years ago while on vacation on Kona, I visited a seahorse farm and got to hold one 🙂 They are fascinating! I really enjoyed the analogies.

  • Holly Robinson

    Susan, this is a fabulous post. Love the photos (I have a soft spot for seahorses as well, as I think we all do, because they seem like such impossibly fantastical creatures to actually exist on this planet). I also love what you say about writing being a “hungry, messy, tear-stained endeavor.” So, so true! Congratulations on your novel. Can’t wait to read it.

    • They do seem unusually magical, I think. And for me, writing has always been a messy endeavor, so the analogy seemed to fit like a glove. I’m so glad you liked it, too.

  • Your seahorses and your devotion to them are inspiring. I will track down your books today–the characters intrigue me.

  • Orly Konig-Lopez

    Susan, I love so many things about this post!!! And I have to confess that I have one of the baby seahorse pictures as my wallpaper on my laptop right now. 🙂

  • carrienichols

    Wonderfully inspirational post! I loved your seahorse pictures and am sorry you lost your beloved Ceti. Thanks for sharing your writing wisdom and seahorses with us.

    • Thank you so much. I’m glad you liked it! And thank you – it was hard losing Ceti, but they’re not long-lived creatures and at least I know she had the best possible life!

  • We absolutely did mourn Ceti, right along with you. I was with Piper that day and told her and she stopped in her tracks and said, “Oh, NO. We have to call Susan and see if she’s all right!”

    One of the brightest highlights of my time as a SCUBA diver was swimming through the reef in Cozumel and seeing a little alcove inside with two seahorses – a yellow and a red. It was amazing, and so is this post. 🙂

    • I remember that! Her death was hard, but it’s the price we pay for loving creatures with short little lives but amazing things to show us.

      I would love to see seahorses on a reef in the wild. They lived wild under my great-grandmother’s pier on Balboa Island when I was growing up, many years ago, but it’s been decades since I saw them alive in the wild.

  • I love your seahorse pictures on FB, Susan. Some great analogies here!

  • Brianna Soloski

    Beautiful photos, Susan, and excellent analogies.

  • Your seahorses are beautiful! I didn’t even know they could live in an aquarium. They sound as magical as writing! Thanks for a lovely post, Susan.

  • This is beautiful and, for me, very well timed. I’m sorry about your loss and I’m grateful for your insight.

  • Lovely post, Susan an wonderful pictures! I can’t imagine taking care of sea horses they way you do. Getting attached and losing them fast? Well, not for me. At least with pups, if we’re lucky we get to keep them a really long time before going through that gut searing agony of loss. Great analogy to writing. Thanks for sharing. I will.

  • Fae Rowen

    I love writing lessons from real life, Susan. Thank you.

    Your seahorses are beautiful. Have you ever been to the seahorse farm on the Big Island (Hawaii)? It’s near the airport. They started the farm because wild caught seahorses have such a low survival rate in aquariums. Worth the visit!

  • nicki

    I’d have to whole heartily agree with everything you said…
    Except feeding it everyday. This, I suspect is different for everyone, but for me, I HAVE to make a schedule so I can take care of my responsibilities. It’s taken several years, but I’ve finally found a system so that I can take care of my home and my family and also be able to sooth the writing beast inside me.
    Although I do THINK about my story daily, jot down potential ideas if they come, I don’t sit behind my computer everyday, because, if I did, the rest of my life would fall apart. So I do believe that part of advice can be altered depending on the person.
    But I do love that you encourage people to research and devote themselves to the art for I believe that those two things make the strongest writers.