Everything I needed to know about writing I learned from my dogs
Use Your Senses
My dogs love their walk. A move toward their leashes gets much tail wagging and bottom wiggling. But it isn’t the exercise that gets them jumping for the door. It’s the journey, the events that will happen along the way.
A whiff of rabbit by the hedgerow. The cacophony of roofers on the house down the block. The bitter tang of a found stick. All these delights add to the experience of a trip around our neighborhood.
You need multiple sensory descriptions in your work—try to include at least three in each scene. Far from slowing the pace of the action, adding moments of sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, and even memory helps anchor your readers in your story. It helps to make sticky connections to the world you’ve built. And it makes readers extra excited to follow where you lead.
Learn to Wait
About an hour before my son’s bus is due, Scout goes upstairs to begin her vigil. There is no whining. No barking. No growling.
Every morning my son tells her, “I’ll be back.”
And so, she waits.
The writer’s life involves a lot of waiting—for an answer to your query, a request for your full manuscript, an offer of representation, a contract. There are times you’ll even wait for inspiration. It’s part of the process, part of what you chose when you decided to be a writer.
So, don’t bark. Don’t growl. If the agent says she’ll get back to you in six weeks, you wait six weeks. If you don’t hear by week seven? Yeah. You can whine a bit.
Take a Bath
Actually, Scout and Nelson don’t like baths. Of course they don’t. They’re dogs.
So, how did I learn this trick from them? Let’s put it this way. My dogs don’t like “official” baths. But if there is a stream? A pond? A pool? A stinking mud puddle filled with unrecognizable refuse and new sprung algae?
They revel in it.
Slosh, splash, and douse.
You never saw such joy!
They emerge dripping and stinking. They become coated in odd things. They will require “official” baths later on, but in the meantime, they have let go and immersed themselves.
It’s this part of their experience I take away. Baths delight. Baths invigorate. Baths restore.
I have come up with so many story ideas, plot twists, and brilliant solution to structure and plot problems while I’ve been in the tub (shower, ocean, pool) that I found waterproof notebooks! No kidding.
Try Something New
Scout is half terrier by DNA but all terrier by attitude. You know what I mean by terrier, right? They’re that independent thinking, scrappy little breed whose sole purpose in this world is to “go to ground” and make small, furry interlopers wish they’d never found our property. You know. A terrier.
But sometimes Scout takes a break from the routine, from her nature, from her DNA, and enjoys a change of aspect.
It’s a good idea. An idea authors should gamely adopt. We can get too comfortable, too complacent, and start writing to our own personal formula. To settle into predictability is to lose our passion.
I’m not saying you should give up on your series of dystopian, paranormal YAs and start writing picture books. I am saying the exercise of writing a picture book, or dabbling in poetry, or switching from first person to third person omniscient may help you discover something delicious, something new, something fantastical in that novel.
Cut the Fluff
Scout doesn’t have fur, she has hair. What does that mean? It means she needs haircuts. Or a fancy updo. Have you seen the picture of me on my editor page? Fancy updos aren’t really my style. Decorating Scout with ribbons, bows, or tiaras, while interesting, is not very functional when you’re chasing balls at the dog park. That leaves haircuts.
Scenes, dialogue, and characters exist for the advancement of the plot. If they do not advance the plot, cut them out.
Not sure? Ask yourself the following questions:
· Do you really need it?
· Does it propel the story?
· Does it reveal the character?
· Does it entice the reader?
· Are you trying to show off your prose?
It may break your heart to cut it, but I bet your story, and your reader, will be more comfortable without it.
P.S. I give Scout haircuts. She doesn’t seem to mind. Then again, she has been journaling more than usual.
Show ‘Em Your Belly
Puppies are horrible creatures. They chew the couch, pee on the rug, poop in your shoes, and invade our personal orifices with their tongues. They are needy, noisy, flatulent, and they can’t even use stairs properly. Yet we bring them into our homes by the millions and, in many cases, pay good money for the inconvenience. Why?
Because they’re PUPPIES!
They expose their rubbable tummies and steal our hearts.
Villains should be like that. Not two-dimensional nightmares but three-dimensional characters who drop you in the tank of piranhas but don’t stick around to watch. Whether wicked, bullying, malevolent, or simply daft, when antagonists show some vulnerability—or brokenness—they are humanized. Even cherished. Ever heard of Severus Snape?
And what about heroes? Readers aren’t looking for a hero to step in and solve their problems. Readers are looking for a relatable companion who will come alongside, share the struggle, and walk with us toward better days. Even if the hero is the “chosen one,” they must be recognized as one of us first. Every Spiderman walks the streets as Peter Parker.
Instead of hiding a character’s faults, writers must embrace them. We must show the tear in the black cloak, the rust on the invincible armor, the sob behind the maniacal laugh, and the tremor in the out-stretched hand. That means recognizing our own insecurities, our own dark places, and being willing to put it on the page. It means being vulnerable. It means showing our bellies.
If you want to win a reader’s heart, you have to take a chance, reach out, and touch it.