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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

Coke Addict Monkey Thieves

I had gone to Misahualli, Ecuador with a water engineer to bushwhack through the nearby jungle to find the source of a clean stream of water. Turns out the water wasn’t that clean.

DSCF0700So we spent some time in Misahualli. In the village square squirrel monkeys bounded about on balconies, roofs, and trees with no fear of the cars and people of the town. Every new visitor intrigued them, but the monkeys’ curiosity was not harmless.

cgYou see, the monkeys of Misahualli are heartless criminals. They steal. They’re interested in visitors because they’re scouting an easy mark.

The best thieves work in teams. One is the actual perpetrator and the other keeps watch. DSCF0772Or not…

Occasionally, the partner serves like a magician’s assistant by being a distraction. I was the sad victim of one of these clever plots even after I’d been warned.

“Watch your things closely here,” my friend told me. “They’ll take anything: hats, bags, food, or whatever they can get their hands on.” He seemed disinterested in the farcical performance going on around us, but he added, “And a little warning: if they do take something, you’re better off letting them have it. If you try to take it back from them, all of them will jump on you. Watch your things. They’re thieves. You laugh, but I’m serious. I was throwing a football with my son when a monkey intercepted a pass and scurried up the tree with it.” He laughed as he recalled what happened next. “It pealed open the football like a fruit. It didn’t like what it found inside and tossed it back.”

After a quick snack, I headed alone to the town square. I saw one monkey sprint down the plaza carrying high above his head a small bag of Doritos he had just swiped from the local market. He approached a bench, leaped several feet into the air, reared back and slammed the bag down with a loud pop. The chips spilled out and he and his friends gobbled up the nacho cheese goodness. These corrupted primates don’t subsist on bananas but on chips, candy, and soda.

I had a bottle of Coke and my camera to snap photos of the monkeys. I was tentative at first, keeping a safe distance. Slowly I moved across the plaza until a little devil raced by my feet and under a nearby bench. I took a video as it moved a rock from the ground to the bench.

What the hell is he doing? I thought. He was putting on a show for my benefit. Suddenly, his partner sprinted behind me and attempted to snatch my Coke out of my other hand. The bottle fell between me and the monkey. We stared each other down. I knew I could take the little critter, maybe scare him away, but I remembered what my friend had said. I didn’t want to end up under a heap of monkeys, scratching and clawing at me. Finally, it snatched the Coke and ran off. Then the fight ensued.

They understood the concept of a twist off, but couldn’t quite get it. Finally, they found a local sitting in the park. The monkey ran up to the guy, jumped on the bench next to him and placed the Coke between him and the man. The man looked at the monkey and shook his head like a parent disappointed in the antics of a child. Nevertheless, the man opened the Coke and gave it back.

coke addict monkey

The Time I Met Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut had been invited to speak at my university and my English professor arranged a little meet-and-greet with Vonnegut after his speech. This little private reception ended up being a line of students, each of us waiting our turn to shake this literary legend’s hand and ask him a question. What was I supposed to ask Kurt Vonnegut? I had read Slaughterhouse-Five and Galapagos, but what about those books was worth a question? Would I look stupid if I asked about something that should have been plainly obvious to any half-witted reader?

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I had come unprepared for this. In my mind, the reception was going to be Vonnegut sipping a glass of wine amidst of a circle of students, talking about writing and maybe answering the questions a few of the braver students might have the courage to ask. I was hoping to be a bystander, a silent witness soaking it all in so that one day I could tell people about the time I met Kurt Vonnegut. I didn’t think I’d have to shake his hand and  come up with a smart question.

My anxiety grew as my turn neared. It was too late to drop out of the line without drawing attention to myself. At the last moment, it came to me. A decent, safe question.

“What was it like seeing your book made into a movie?” I asked as he steadied my trembling hand with a handshake.

He then gave me this look I’ll never forget, a look that said, “That was the stupidest, most inane question anyone has ever asked me.” It was a look of bewilderment mixed with disdain.

I had brought with me my copy of Slaughterhouse-Five that I wanted him to sign, but after this, there was no way I could come up with the courage to ask for that favor. I held the book to my chest as a shield (Vonnegut protecting me from Vonnegut) not knowing what to do next. He didn’t answer the question. The awkward moment lingered, and he finally shook his head in disappointment as if to say, “you have one question and this is the question you ask me?” He looked to the next person in line, and I meekly shuffled out of the way. I retreated to the back of the room, further disheartened by the enlightened conversation between Vonnegut and the next student in line.

Years later, I would come to see my experience as a wasted opportunity. It was as if I had traveled all the way to the Oracle of Delphi and asked, “What do you think about this rotten weather we’ve been having?” If I were to go back to that reception with Vonnegut and do it again, this is the question I might ask: How does a writer allay the self-doubt and fear of rejection that constantly gnaws away at the ego? But then again, maybe there’s no answer to this question either.

Dreaming at Exactly 3 a.m.

I found the following gambling story of Monte Carlo in an 1882 issue (Volume XXXVIII) of Baily’s Magazine of Sports and Pastimes. The factual basis of the story is about as dubious as a fairy tale, but the writer of this piece found no need to question its authenticity.

Monte Carlo from aboveThe hero in this story is a man who had come to Monte Carlo not for the gambling but to watch the pigeon shooting. Because Monte Carlo never overtly advertised the casino but instead showcased its abundance of gentlemanly activities, there were a lot of men who were in Monte Carlo to pursue purer interests other than gambling. The modern day equivalents are the people who claim they go to Las Vegas for the shows.

Monaco et Monte-Carlo - Monte-Carlo et le Tir aux Pigeons - RJD10332.jpgAnyway, after watching a fair amount of birds blown from the sky from the platform located behind the casino, our hero wandered through the casino as a spectator, had a nice meal, smoked a pipe, and went to bed at 11:40 p.m. (I love how precise details are scattered throughout the story to make it more believable).

At 3:00 a.m. his dream began. (I, too, keep accurate logs of the precise hour when my dreams begin)

“Listen,” said a voice that seemed to address him; “listen to the hour, it is striking three; there the last stroke has been struck, now look at that procession, it will begin to-morrow exactly at three;” and there passed before him twelve priests, each bearing a banner on which was inscribed a number alternately in black and red ink; following the priests came two little girls, bearing a waving sheet of some fabric, on which was printed: “You have seen your fortune; go and seek it!”

When the man awoke the next morning he had the wherewithal to immediately write down all the numbers and the corresponding colors in his notebook: 19, 17, 36, 13, 29, etc. He must have known these would be important.

MonteCarloCasinoInterior After having breakfast he decided to wander back to the casino to spectate a little more. He waited until the clocks read 3:00 before he approached a roulette table. It was just then he had the sudden realization the priests of his dream were relaying a message to gamble their numbers. He placed two Napoleons on 19. The ball spun round and round, and lo and behold, he won!

The next time he doubled his stake, and when 17 hit, he won again! He bet on 36 then 13 then 29 and came up a winner each time. He continued this for all twelve numbers but never had the courage to bet more than 5 Napoleons. The writer of the article concluded with the following assessment:

I only wish that I could have such a chance, I should go the whole maximum and no mistake. Being the narrative of a dream, I dare say many persons will think the foregoing story a pure invention, but I have every reason to believe it true.

If it were me, after the 11th consecutive win, I’d have been sweating bullets that I was just about to be simultaneously struck by lightning and consumed by a tornado while being attacked by a thousand stinging bees.

Five Amazing Stories of Monte Carlo