By Brian Kaufman
Writing is a solitary endeavor. That simple truth comes with attending problems. Writing in a vacuum, glued to your story, it’s hard to maintain professional balance. I recommend writing groups, one of which has been instrumental in any publishing success I’ve had.
But the benefits of a critique group don’t extend to your home office or writing cubby. The writing process itself requires some moderation, and the more focused and maniacal you are about your craft, the more likely you’d benefit from the help of a “writing partner.”
Who's A Good Boy?!
Gus is my 14-year-old Dachshund. When I write, he’s there with me, sitting on my right foot. I don’t have to tell him I’m working. He sees me flip open the laptop and gets into position. There’s a comfort in that.
“No one appreciates the very special genius of your conversation as the dog does.” – Christopher Morley
Relaxed, I’m better able to focus. But his contribution goes beyond quiet companionship. I want to tell you what he taught me about writing.
Did you ever search for the right way to say something only to have your sentence hijacked with fluff language or preposition overload? One technique I use is to answer the question, “What am I trying to say here?” in a straight-forward style.
I turn to Gus and make my case with plain words. Having explained myself (or discovered I had no idea what I was trying to say), I rewrite the sentence (or delete it).
“I’ve seen a look in dogs’ eyes, a quickly vanishing look of amazed contempt, and I am convinced that basically dogs think humans are nuts.” – John Steinbeck
Speaking of speaking out loud, I have argued in favor of reading prose out loud during the editing process. Guess who gets to hear my story? Unlike my wife (who has been known to suffer from a glazed look in the eyes when listening to extended passages), Gus is an avid listener. Better still, he’s not judgmental, so I can focus on being my own critic.
The dog needs an occasional break, of course. So does this writer. Rather than force my words with a marathon writing session, I step away from the computer and take Gus for hourly walks.
The writing process doesn’t stop when I’m out on the road. Some of my best lines come while hiking. When I return, my fingers seem fresher, and the work begins to flow again.
We live in the mountains. My nearest neighbor is a fifteen-minute walk away. Gus can explore nature without a leash. Early on, I discovered that he will not be rushed. He wanders, sniffing, and doing his business at his own pace. As a novelist, I appreciate a smell-the-roses approach that pays off in a fully-formed fictional world.
More, I’ve been taken with the things that he notices. A piece of granite with mica flecks. A deer’s hoof print. A wildflower, halfway up the hill. Tiny details that make the walk—or the novel. Our hikes remind me of the virtues of pacing and patience that apply directly to writing long-form.
“They [dogs] never talk about themselves but listen to you while you talk about yourself, and keep up an appearance of being interested in the conversation.” – Jerome K. Jerome
Breaking my writing time into chunks, like breaking a novel into manageable scenes without rushing, is an excellent way to build a novel-length story. The headlong rush of a NaNoWriMo tale is another. Gus and I prefer the less-hurried approach.
My Civil War novel, Dread Tribunal of Last Resort, comes out next July in hardback (Five Star Publishing/Cengage). I began work on the book twenty years ago. Epic historical novels require research, some form of an outline, and above all, patience.
I stopped and started the project a dozen times before settling on an approach that worked—cans of diet soda, an office full of reference books, and a dog on my foot. Thanks, Gus!
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