Walking the Dog is a Good Thing For a Writer To Do

One complaint I frequently hear in writing critique groups is that the writer is “walking the dog.” This describes the writer who leads the reader step by step through a scene sequence, often subjecting the reader to tedious monotony. Many times, this is a fair critique. Beginning writers often struggle with ending scenes and transitioning to new ones, so they drag the reader through a play-by-play of minuscule events to tie scenes together.

While this error can easily be fixed, I find the remedy offered by many critics to be just as harmful. Many people will advise the writer to “get to the action” or to “stop walking the dog.” For example, they might say, “We don’t need to know that Jane got out of bed, got a glass of water, took a shower, dried her hair, painted her toenails, got dressed, and made herself a cup of coffee before jumping in the car and going on her way to uncover a terrorist cell in Boston.”

This laundry list of actions is not effective writing, but I would resist the advice to avoid walking the dog, because walking the dog is so fundamental to composing a good scene. That’s not to say as a writer, you should list everything that happened like a diary entry. Rather, be mindful of the things that happen while walking the dog. What does this particular character see on the walk? What important things do they fail to see? Walking the dog allows the characters to interact with their world in a meaningful way.

Perhaps Jane woke up an hour late, her bedsheets stained with fluorescent ink because she fell asleep with an open highlighter and her notebook on her lap. Perhaps when Jane goes to the bathroom, she sees her husband’s clothes strewn over the floor, a quarter-filled coffee mug balancing on the edge of the bathtub, a pile of books and notepads on the bathroom counter. Perhaps as she paints her toenails, she winces at the sight of her ugly, misaligned pinky-toe that she broke while cliff-diving off the coast of Spain the previous year. In the kitchen, she sees the cereal bowl her husband left on the table, the sugary remnants of the cereal flakes caked onto the ceramic. Frustrated, she puts the bowl in the sink to soak it, but at least her husband has made a pot of coffee. Perhaps when she gets to the car, she realizes her husband has filled the gas tank for her.

By filling in these details, the writer is offering setting and characterization in an efficient, elegant way. We get the sense that Jane is adventurous and that her husband is a slob. But we also see that he’s not purposefully inconsiderate, since he’s filled her car with gas. Of course, this example is paired down to its bare bones, but you can see how the reader can learn a lot about characters and their personalities without the writer having to waste a paragraph telling us that Jane’s husband is a slob or that she likes to seek out adventure.

Write a lot of these scenes, or at least go through them slowly in your head, imagining the world though your character’s eyes. I would argue, the subtle emotional responses a character has in the small scenes are more meaningful than the obvious and predictable emotional responses in the big scenes. We know a character will be angry when they’re betrayed by a friend, or sad when their beloved father dies, or afraid when a menacing stranger pulls a knife on them. Beginning writers often reserve detailed description of emotions for these scenes and fall back on clichés. His blood boiled. Tears welled up in his eyes. Her heart thumped. What has happened, is the writer has failed to build up an emotional cache with the character. However, if the reader is already intimate with the character, in the momentous scenes, they’ll already feel what the character is feeling without the writer having to tell them.

The secret to good writing is to be acutely aware of everything. Go out and walk the dog! Stretch yourself to see the world in a different way and have an empathic response for all of your characters, no matter how good or evil they may be. Get it all down on paper. The redundant details can later be excised from the manuscript, but it’s so important to go through the process. This isn’t just advice for writers of literary or upmarket fiction. This is true for all writers. It’s the basis of great storytelling.

walkingdog

 

Advertisements

The NBA Stymies Democracy

The NBA All Star Game is quickly approaching and the fans submitted their votes for who they’d like to see start in the greatest showcase of basketball. But one player, a player who was the fans’ choice to Make Basketball Great Again, will not be in the starting lineup.

i

Zach Pachulia.

Zach Pachulia represents change. Many NBA fans are tired of the status quo for what defines basketball greatness. They don’t want to see players who can simply launch the ball into the hoop from 35 feet away or who display dazzling athleticism in averaging nearly a triple-double. They demanded a departure from rigid definitions of greatness in basketball that value athleticism and skill over facial stubble and Russian toughness. They demanded Zach Pachulia. They demanded a player like Pachulia who makes the most out of his 18 minutes a game and who stands above the so-called stars.

They demanded a player from the Soviet bloc who shares the traditional Slavic values that we cherish.

putin-on-horse

Pachulia received the second most votes from the fans to start for the Western Conference, yet now there’s a good chance he may be watching the game from his neighborhood Chili’s.

This is because the NBA does not trust democracy. In 2016, Pachulia almost got his chance to be an All Star starter while playing for the Dallas Mavericks. Thanks to a grass roots effort, he finished 3rd place in All Star Voting for frontcourt players in the Western Conference, barely losing his spot to Kawhi Leonard. With a new team, this year he overtook The Claw in fan voting, but the NBA changed the voting rules. This year, starters were determined by a weighted system that uses player votes and media votes in a way that undermines the democratic process. Pachulia finished second in fan voting, but the elitist members of the media and the NBA had him way down on their ballots.

The NBA isn’t the first to wield its tyrannical saber at the voting process. In 2007, on American Idol, Sanjaya displayed his artistic vocal stylings in an effort to Make Music Great Again by reverting back to a day before notes and key signatures mattered. The fans loved him and voted him onward. The judges, however, did not like that. They held it against Sanjaya that he didn’t sing in a way that conformed to their view of what makes a great singer, to wit: singing on pitch. In subsequent years, they too created a weighted system that allowed the judges’ votes to potentially override the popular vote.

sanjaya_at_seattle_center

This is terrifying for democracy. The people obviously know best. The people wanted Zach Pachulia to Make Basketball Great Again. Thank goodness, at least in Government, the United States hasn’t limited the people’s right to decide whom they want to represent their values.

Deport the Robots

The United States economy has lost millions of jobs. Parking lot attendants have been replaced by automated systems. Movie theater ticket agents have been replaced by ticketing machines, grocery store cashiers replaced by self-service checkout, tens of thousands of packing jobs replaced by Amazon’s sleek automated system, airplane navigators replaced by computers, songwriters replaced by technology guided by algorithms to create music we will like. Soon, we may even see taxi drivers replaced by self-driving cars. Illegal immigrants, who are now too expensive for farmers to employ, are being replaced by picking machines. More importantly, despite manufacturing being one of the largest sectors of our economy, we’ve seen manufacturing jobs decline steadily since the 1980s thanks to robotics. There is one solution to save American jobs.

We must deport the robots. It may not be easy to find them all. Some are so inconspicuous we forget they’re there. In the name of efficiency and lower prices for all, we’ve seen our jobs sucked dry by these machines. Many of these machines are foreign born, assembled in places like China or the Philippines. Even if they were built here, they may have been assembled by robots assembled in other countries.

deported-robot-2

These robots do not know national pride. They know no religion. They do not salute our flag. It’s possible ISIS might use them to inflict terror on us. They are often rude, failing to respond to our simplest requests. They often come between personal relationships. Just the other day my wife asked me for directions. While I stopped to think about all the possible routes, she blew me off and said, “Never mind, I’ll just ask Siri.” Furthermore, these robots aren’t necessarily the best of the best. Some of them may carry infectious viruses.

Our Founding Fathers did not intend for robots to take our jobs or put a man on the moon. It’s time to go back to what made America great. It is time to save our jobs and send these advanced machines to the third world countries where they were built. Let’s see how well they do with cutting edge technology while we restore greatness to our country.

The Dog and the Bird

Growing up in a small town in Oklahoma, my friend Marc and I used to entertain ourselves by making up stories on the fly and recording them on a tape cassette recorder. We were seven or eight years old. On our less inspired but rambunctious days, the stories were simple and action packed, usually involving some indescribable yet inherently hideous and menacing beast chasing us through the neighborhood or our homes until we finally got away or killed it. We would dive to the floor, crash into the walls, or hurdle over the sofa to simulate our evasive maneuvers. Then, panting from our efforts, we’d whisper into the tape recorder how frightened we were as we pretended to hide. On other days we would attempt more intricate mystery stories—Scooby Doo type adventures—that routinely failed to reach a resolution before one of us was called home to dinner. When we’d meet up again, we never picked up where we left off because listening to the previous day’s recording always revealed some fatal flaw with our plotline. Before Marc moved away sometime around my third-grade year, we had compiled several cassette tapes worth of unfinished stories.

recorder

But the storytelling bug had bitten. For school, we had to write a story. Mine was called The Dog and the Bird. I don’t remember what it was about. It probably featured a dog and a bird working together to achieve some noble outcome. Whatever it was about, I just know I put a whole lot of effort into it and was really proud of the finished product. My teacher gave me some encouraging feedback which immediately inflated my writing aspirations. I asked her about getting it published.

She said, “Ok. But you’re going to have to type it up really nice.”

So I did. I typed it up, checking it multiple times for errors and letting my parents proofread it. I told them I had to get it ready for publication. The Dog and the Bird would be my breakthrough as an author. The story had to be flawless. I took it back to my teacher.

She read through it again and agreed that it was much better typed out. “But you’re going to need to bind it,” she said. “So people can read it like a book.”

amazoncover

That night I three-hole punched it and put the story in a report folder with a clear plastic cover. Now someone could read it like they were flipping the pages of a book. I gave it to my teacher.

Again she was impressed. “Now, you just need some cover art. Every book has a cover.”

I was stumped. I was an author, not an artist. I was also growing impatient. I wanted to be done with it. I knew drawing with crayons or pencils would look amateurish, so using the computer technology available before the days of clip art and the internet, I drew a rudimentary picture of a four-legged animal that might have resembled a dog, at least to the type of person gifted at locating constellations and finding images of animals in clouds. Next to my dog, I drew a faceless, two-stroke picture of a bird—essentially a ‘V’ with curved tips. I centered the title in big bold letters above the drawing and printed it out on my dot matrix printer which made the big letters and the drawing of the dog look hideously pixelated. It didn’t matter. I had completed a book. My book. The next day I presented it to my teacher who promised that she’d share it with all her future classes. I promised I’d work more on the artwork. I never did. But I was satisfied. I was as published as I needed to be. The project had taken all my energy for two weeks, and I needed a rest.

dogandbird

I owe so much to that teacher who recognized and cultivated that creative spark in me. She didn’t give me a cold dose of reality by informing me of the cruel world of publishing, or by telling me to expect a pile of rejections, or that being a published author is extremely difficult. This would have been the truth, of course, but at that age, if faced with these mountains of obstacles, I would have given up before even starting.

I think we forget sometimes that one of the primary goals of teaching is showing someone how to set a goal and complete a task. Everybody wants to achieve something. Guiding a student to find their true bliss is part of the process.

We should never forget this function of teaching. Performing well on a standardized test is an admirable goal for a school but falls way short of being inspirational for the student. If we simply grade teachers by how well they show someone where to place a comma or how to turn the remainder of a long division problem into a decimal, then we are truly selling ourselves short.

Because of my teacher, I experienced a wonderful sense of accomplishment. It was my first completed story. I’ve continued to write stories. Some have been published but most of them shared only amongst a small group of friends and fellow writers. I would have forgotten about The Dog and the Bird except that recently I was sifting through an old box of schoolwork and came across the cover art that had been hidden beneath the rubble of my life like a lost puzzle piece. I hadn’t thought of it in years. I honestly don’t recall which teacher was responsible for encouraging me to continue on the story; otherwise, I would gladly give her credit here. Until now, I didn’t recognize the value of that lesson in publishing.

The most profound moments in life are often not recognized until the moment is long gone. Insignificant and untethered memories reappear and unexpectedly reveal their importance upon distant reflection. But this, I’d argue, is where the true substance of living resides. In the end, when we sum up our histories, our purpose or meaning in life will not be perfectly articulated like a corporate mission statement but will instead be buried deep beneath the subtext of a thousand little moments and scattered memories.

Tragic Bike Stories Part II

On my ninth birthday, I got a new bike. A Blue Mongoose. I went from having the worst, shabbiest bike in the neighborhood to having the best. I rode this bike everywhere, fearless of obstacles. I jumped curbs, zipped in and out of dry creek beds, and would sometimes just do laps around the neighborhood as fast as I could fly.

One hot summer day I rode past my friend Mark Carter’s house. With him was Brad Sinclair, my nemesis in all things sports related. Someone, probably Mark, proposed a bike race. It was a spontaneous thing, and the energy of the proposal would have been killed if we had delayed the race to allow Brad to go home and get his bike. So Brad agreed to race in Mark’s sister’s bike, a pink ride with white tires and a rainbow of ribbons on the handles.

It was going to be a short race, about 200 yards from Mark’s house to the end of the street. I was ready to put my Blue Mongoose to the test. We lined up at the imaginary starting line. Mark was to announce “GO!” which I knew would give him a slight advantage despite his assurances that he would delay his own start out of fairness. It didn’t really matter to me. I was going to win.

At Mark’s command, I began pumping my legs, but my start was slow. After twenty yards I was more than a full bike length behind both Mark and Brad. I pedaled harder, squeezed tighter, demanding more out of my Blue Mongoose. After fifty yards, I was even further behind. I couldn’t rationalize how this was happening. Something was clearly wrong with my bike. They had to know this. I gently placed my foot on the tire creating a loud, grating noise from the friction of my rubber sole rubbing against the treads.

“Wha—!” I gasped to draw attention to my clearly malfunctioning bike, which was causing me to lose the race.

Mark and Brad didn’t look back and raced on, fifty yards to go. I pressed harder on the tire to make the grinding noise louder. Suddenly, I was catapulted into the air, performing a front somersault and landing on my back with a giant thud, my bike pinning me to the pavement. It never dawned on me that this might happen. I lay there dazed as Mark and Brad came pedaling back, perhaps after finishing the race.

“Are you okay?” they asked.

“My bike messed up,” I said.

mongoose

Tragic Bike Stories Part I

I remember my first bike, a brown, stiff artifact of the World War II era, salvaged by my resourceful uncle, a NASA scientist, used and abused by my older cousins, before finally being handed down to me. At first I didn’t want to ride it. I was too self-conscious to suffer the embarrassment of pedaling down my quiet Oklahoma street, past the houses of my friends, and past the home of our small town’s biggest celebrity, an Olympic gymnast.

I was a late bloomer when it came to bike riding because I was hopelessly stuck. My parents didn’t want to shell out money for a new bike until I committed to learning to ride, but since I refused to ride the antique my uncle had given to me, I would never learn.

The brown bike collected dust in our shed until I finally sucked it up. I was eight—much too old for any training wheels—so I relied on my dad running alongside me, helping me balance. It didn’t take long before I was free from my dad’s balancing hands and flying down the street. I became addicted to riding, but I still didn’t have a new bike that I could ride without shame. So, I’d ride at twilight after all the other kids in the neighborhood had been called in for dinner, or sometimes right before a storm when no one else was outside.

One night I was pedaling down the street at full speed. On the horizon, clouds mushroomed quickly like only Oklahoma clouds do. I dodged lasers firing at me as I tried to race ahead of Darth Vader who was hot on my tail. The road was ending and the Death Star was in my sight. I took aim and fired my proton torpedoes. At the exact moment I imagined the explosion, a boom of thunder rattled the earth, the timing so perfect yet unexpected that I wobbled and fell over, skinning my elbow and leg on the pavement.

I learned a valuable lesson that day. You can’t relax and let your guard down after blowing up the Death Star…even when the force is with you.