Sunday, February 19, 2017

What Can Dogs Teach Novelists?

Most of us love dogs for attributes equally delightful in fiction writers. It’s easy to love someone who only wants to please, who would do most anything for most anyone. Novelist Nora Roberts claims that “Everything I know, I learned from dogs.” Perhaps not, but here are some canine secrets, anyway:

~ Tenderness

Charles Baxter was 100 % correct when he observed that “Hell is story friendly.” Kindness to readers involves unkindness to characters—often and viciously. This doesn’t mean that writers are cruel-hearted. If you want readers to bleed emotionally over these beings you’ve sent into their lives, the creator of those characters must bleed emotionally as well. 

This discomfort comes in two flavors. It’s painful to watch your good guys in trouble, yet also painful to sorrow over the pain your villains bring on themselves. Whenever this seems unendurable, contemplate the stoicism of dogs.
~ Loyalty

Even if punished, banished, struck repeatedly with a rolled up newspaper, they never give up on those they love. Don’t give up on your characters, however confusing, exhausting, or mortifying Don’t give up on making your novel everything it could be, either—no matter how many years that takes.

~ Passion

Consider how canines greet other canines, not to mention live or dead anything-in-motion, and definitely not food. Food!!! Everything, then, is delicious, captivating, magnetizing, and always new. What a terrific way to move through the world. What an even more terrific way to write about the world. Invite passion, whether about storms, ice hockey, or the bulging contours of a ripe tomato. There’s no better antidote for dismissing boredom, in your readers or yourself.
~ Shamelessness

Yes, naughty dogs droop their necks so they can look abjectly at you through half-raised eyes. It’s mostly show, however. Reach your hand down for a forgiving pat, and all’s forgotten. The next hamburger at the edge of the table will meet the same fate as those preceding it. You left it there. Do you truly expect the dog to ignore it?

“Dogs act exactly the way we would act if we had no shame,” Cynthia Heimel believes, and shame has no place in the novelist’s toolkit. Dogs teach us that having sex with strangers in broad daylight is no cause for chagrin. Neither is sniffing the foulest leavings that came from the foulest places. Don’t disrobe in public or play in the cat box. Please. Do probe humanity’s darkest places. That includes your own history, your own heart.

Tip: Dogs can be role models for the treatment of characters—and readers. 

Here’s Charles M. Schulz about being too hard on yourself: “All his life he tried to be a good person. Many times, however, he failed. For after all, he was only human. He wasn't a dog.”

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