Writing Thursday: The Dog Did It

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A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about our family adopting a dog named Vera, or more accurately, how Vera adopted our family. My family and I didn’t enter into this with blinders on. We knew there would be adjustments on both sides, and we hoped for a good fit. Vera’s been a joy (most of the time), but I didn’t expect for her to hammer home some important writing skills. So, without further ado, here’s what my new dog has taught me about writing.

Show, don’t tell. The three favorite words of the beginning writer. Believe it or not, Vera’s taught me a thing or two about showing rather than telling. When you first bring a dog into your home, you don’t know much about the dog. You have to observe the dog and read her signals to get to know her or him.

For example, I could tell you that Vera doesn’t like vets.

Or I could write a story to show you.

At the pet store during the adoption event, Vera ran over to our family and rolled on her back. She didn’t wander away as four kids descended on her and gave her tummy rubs and told her what a good dog she was. She stood up, gave them huge doggie kisses before rolling over again for another belly rub.

When we arrived home, she wouldn’t stay still as she showed us her best behavior and darted to each of us, waiting for a small sign of affection. It didn’t matter whether it was a tummy rub or a scratch behind the ears. She wanted to know she was being accepted into our family.

At night, she’ll jump into a chair with one of us, her long body stretched across the person. None of us have the will to tell her she’s not a lap dog. She’ll wait a couple of second for us to pet her and if we don’t, she starts whooping to let us know she’s next to us waiting for attention. Like we didn’t notice the thirty-eight pound dog on our lap.

In the morning, she’ll come up to each of us as we wake up and sit in front of us and roll over, waiting for more affection.

One day, I took Vera to the vet for a checkup and to purchase heartworm medication. When they showed us into the examination room, she burrowed her nose between the sliding door and the frame, trying to open the door to escape. The vet arrived and examined her ears. My sweet girl growled at the doctor who, with my permission, put a temporary muzzle on her to examine her ears, one of which had a raging ear infection.

Even without benefit of editing and with some point of view and verb usage errors, which did you prefer reading to find out Vera doesn’t like vets: the first sentence which told you that or the paragraphs that showed her previous behavior around us to establish her sweet disposition contrasted by her dislike of the vet?

Backstory. We adopted Vera from a rescue organization. I’m a big believer in supporting animal shelters and animal rescues. Her foster family had information about her past four months she had spent with them. They also conveyed that “a change of lifestyle” was the reason her former family surrendered her to the humane society. Other than that, we don’t know about her first eight years and Vera doesn’t know about my first (well, more than eight) years. She knows what I tell her, but it’s not like I go around thinking about everything that has happened in my life up until the moment we brought her into my home.

The same is true for characters. The reader doesn’t know the characters’ backstory. But just as I haven’t told Vera everything about my life before her, so too does the reader not need to know everything about the main character in the first ten pages of the book.

There have been a couple of times I’ve called Vera “Leia.” When that’s happened, I’ve told Vera about our previous pet, a corgi mix named Leia whom I love/d very much. I’m sprinkling in information about my past life, but I’m not spending hours/pages elaborating on every detail about Leia.

At the same time, every morning, Vera tries to snatch the socks out of my hand (in a sweet and funny way) when I attempt to put them on the feet of my preschoolers. While I know dogs can’t talk, it still has shown me that in the course of the story, it’s not always necessary to know why a certain behavior happens. Chunk (one of my five-year-old twins) thinks it’s a great game and that’s enough for me.

Read, read, read. So far, one of my favorite times with Vera has been a quiet half hour. I had my book in one hand and with my other hand, I petted her in the comfort of my big chair-and-a-half. I loved spending that time with her and losing myself in my book. Judging from how still she was, I’d say she was pretty happy as well. That short time together helped us bond a little bit more.

One craft tip writers often share with other writers is to read. Read about your craft, read your genre, and read outside your genre. It’s important to see how other writers use words to convey their stories and sometimes it’s relaxing to lose yourself in a book. No matter why, the important thing is to read.

In a little over three weeks, Vera’s helped me understand some of those writing hints I’ve heard so much about. She’s becoming part of our family, and her family includes a writer.

Have any of your pets ever helped bring home a craft tip about writing or helped your career in some other way? Let me know.

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