Petting Zoo

Anyone who takes a walk in cold weather knows how much people love their dogs. Why else would the owners stand around freezing while the pooch sniffs a streetlight pole? The same love extends to cats, as can be witnessed in entire mystery series that have been based on those cuddly furballs. Their application in fiction goes beyond being popular with readers, though. It can also provide a fledgling author with a means of probing inside the heads of their lead characters.

One very useful trait of pets is their inability to talk. Beyond the obvious signals, such as the insistent staring to be fed, the owner must project feelings onto the pet. A dog is regarded as happy when it is smiling. A cat is regarded as content when it kneads its claws in the owner’s lap. For those authors who can only write physical descriptions—viewing their characters from the outside—such casual projections can be a boon.

Have you ever been around a pet? You probably could write down 10 characteristics of them off the top of your head. Little dogs like Jack Russell terriers bark incessantly. Persian cats are fussy eaters, among other charming traits. So you naturally assign them qualities, such as annoying and snippy. You do that because the animal can’t speak aloud and break the spell of your imaginings.

When you think about it, aren’t your characters like that? They don’t speak unless you assign a line to them. So to start, why don’t you give a character a pet and then assign qualities based on that relationship? We all know that pets’ personalities are shaped by their masters. If you have a vicious reprobate as a villain, what kind of dog does he own, and how does the dog react to other dogs? To humans? You know all this stuff. You’ve remarked on it a hundred times to a neighbor or friend. If you walk into a home and are greeted by fat monster cats who hiss at you, you know you’d better be nice to your hostess.

Then take the projection a step further. When your character stares, for instance, what is behind that? Stupefaction? A desire to intimidate? A desire to move past the idiotic thing the other character just said? Write that down as an aside in a conversation. Maybe write a few sentences explaining why the character tends to stare in those situations. It’s just like a dog: you’re giving it a human dimension, one the reader can connect with.

Exercise: Go to a dog park in your area and watch the owners interact with their pets and with other owners. Write down what you imagine is going through their minds. What do the dogs bring out in their masters? When you have filled up a few pages, take them home and read the list with your story in mind. Would any of those descriptions fit your characters?

“An animal's eyes have the power to speak a great language.”
—Martin Buber

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


The Mechanical Rewrite

As an editor, I often ask authors to write new material for their manuscript. I may suggest, for example, that a character needs a few extra scenes to remain vital later on. The quality of the responses varies tremendously. Some writers write freely to achieve the proposed aim. Others, though, write only limited material, as though a teacher had assigned a lesson and they are doing the minimum required to discharge an onerous burden.

Whenever an editor, or a colleague in a writing group, makes a suggestion, that doesn’t change one salient fact. It is still your book. You want all parts of the book to be equal in quality. If the new material isn’t as good as your original draft, the book is going to sag in those sections. It is true that writing inserts can feel less creative than the first blush of enthusiasm. So how do you overcome the feeling of writing by rote? You need to make the suggestion your own.

Let’s say the developmental note asks for a background story for Howard: one incident of his father’s verbal belittling. The example serves as the rule. You may have an example that jumps to mind right away. You know a perfect story, very possibly because you yourself were belittled as a child. Yet other times the response is not so immediate. The suggestion hits you in a vulnerable spot: yes, you did make up the verbal abuse because it seemed to fit Howard, but your own father was always supportive of your efforts. So you write a quarter page of an incident that lacks good details or emotions—because you really don’t know what to do.

Okay, so let’s stop right there. Remind yourself: whose book is this, anyway? The editor’s/writing friend’s or yours? If you think it’s a good idea, you need to show it. First off, do a global search for all other material related to the father. Read over what you’ve already written. Now think about Howard: what qualities of his show his lack of confidence? Think through these issues, then jot down a few points.

What you’re doing is synthesizing the suggestion so that when you come up with a creative response, it is your own, stemming from what you already know about your characters. You’ve set yourself a new puzzle, the same way you set yourself all those other puzzles while you were writing the first draft. And you knew how to solve them—according to your own feelings.

Exercise: When you stop worrying so much about how to respond to a suggestion, you can relax and let your mind drift. You may find, for instance, that you remember a story a friend told you a long time ago about her father’s constant comments. Maybe that is related to the night she finally erupted at him. There it is, a nice half-page back story, and it fits Howard very well.

“Thought is only a flash between two long nights, but this flash is everything.”
—Henri PoincarĂ©

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine


Filthy Lucre

What motivates authors to write can vary greatly. An Iowa MFA grad has their sights set on no less than the stars in the literary firmament. A grifter seeks to make money from a profession in which no skills are required. While the former needs no goad to spur them to hours of agonized labor, the latter strike me as coming at the enterprise all wrong. And not for the reasons you might think.

No matter what the outcome, the process remains the same. Many hours spent alone in front of a white wall. The commercially minded author seeks to lower that input of time to the minimum possible, because that maximizes the return. The results of such lightning-fast writing are not hard to guess. Lots of dialogue, lots of action, lots of typos. You can almost draw a cartoon balloon containing the author’s dreams of the future movie made for TV.

Such a glib attempt at writing is doomed to failure. It is caused by a woeful misunderstanding of how gifted and hardworking supposed hack bestselling writers are. Even given the time spent touring and other marketing demands for their books, these authors turn out a book every year. They retain their readers year after year. Now, how many of us can say that?

While the strengths of such writers vary, what doesn’t change is the sheer immersion a reader feels after opening such a book. Like all good writers, commercial writers are weird. They live their lives through characters they weave out of thin air. Even as an editor I know what that’s like. I have spent my life involved in dramas that leave me woefully unprepared for cocktail party repartee.

What does it take to create such a fictional world? Lots of psychological insight, lots of details, lots of perfectly fine scenes cast into oblivion. Writing is the hardest thing you will ever do, so why would anyone think it is an easy road to riches? Plus, I haven’t discussed yet what lies at the end of all those lonely hours. Skeptical literary agents and editors in New York who have seen everything under the sun. How much does it take to impress them? Probably not fodder scribbled on a plane tray.

To be the best, as in any profession, you have to serve an apprenticeship. You have to learn what doesn’t work just to get to the level of writing something people might find interesting. And you have to keep on doing that for 300-400 pages. It’s a labor of love, no matter how you splice it.

“People are lazy, and they want their fast food via the television.”
—Dean Winters

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.