One Dog at a Time


Zoe (standing) and Zephyr (lounging).

I got my first dog, Zoe, in 2012 at a time when I was trying to finish a draft of my novel in order to apply to the Incubator program. Zoe was a good dog and a very easy puppy. She got lots of attention from me as I relearned the fine art of walking. We’d covered miles of Cambridge streets together. She’d stop to sniff a blade of grass, and I’d think about my novel. Through observing her, I learned a great deal about the writing process – on focusing, learning something new, and watching the world around us. When the Incubator started, Zoe was a year old, trained well enough, and super fast. The only thing she wanted to do was run. I’d take her to the dog park, where she’d lure any dog there into a game of chase, but the game always ended quickly when the other dog realized there was no way in hell he or she could keep up. We were told whippets were better in multiples, and since Zoe needed another dog to run with, we decided to get another whippet. Her breeder was planning on puppies ready for joining new homes in spring 2014. Perfect timing! The Incubator would be over, and I’d have plenty of time for the new puppy.

As life goes, the next planned litter came into being several months sooner than expected with another litter not happening until 2015. Zoe needed a running buddy now. Besides, how hard could a second dog be? We did it once. We had Zoe to help out. We took the plunge and got whippet #2, Zephyr, six months into the Incubator program. Given my schedule, I let Zoe do most of the playing with him. I trained them together. Walks were done jointly. Basic commands were given when both were in the room. Neither got any individual attention. I rushed and took short cuts. I soon learned that with two dogs, you get three sets of problems – his, hers, and theirs.

At the same time we got Zephyr, many new characters started popping up in my novel. I had rewritten so much of my novel over six months that characters just materialized without any thought or prompting. I threw them together with my original characters to see what would happen. They lived together, worked together, and played together, and much like with my dogs, it kind of worked but mostly didn’t.

When the Incubator ended, I was eager to start my next draft. I wanted to get right in there and start on page one with my new concept for where my novel should start, but I knew it wasn’t a good idea to jump in again without some planning and some individual attention to certain characters. I barely knew some of my freshly minted characters’ last names let alone their story arcs. I knew that in order to make this next draft really count, I’d have to take a step back and do some foundation work with the characters, one at a time, much like how I should have trained my dogs. If I figured out individually my characters’ wants, how they relate to the protagonist, what they do for the story, and yes, their last names, my next rewrite would be stronger.

I got out my notes and started with lecture #1: Characterization. I listed my characters and dutifully labeled them as primary, secondary, alpha secondary, and tertiary. I set up a Scapple sheet for each of them, brainstorming their backgrounds and their physical descriptions. I did character worksheets in Scrivener for not just my protagonists, but also my primary and even secondary characters. I needed to figure out each character’s point to the greater story or they had to be killed. I have weeks of work to do before I actually start any sort of rewrite, but in the long run, I will save time. I know this now. And like Zoe used to teach me things about writing a novel, my novel writing is now going to teach me something about dog training – taking short cuts and rushing through even the tiniest of steps only makes things worse and forces you to back up to the basics, the foundation of the story, the individuality of the characters, and how the pieces – once built up – fit together into the whole.

I’m two months post-Incubator, and I haven’t written a word for my next draft. I’ve done work, but have not actually strung words together to form sentences and paragraphs. I’m dealing with one character at a time. It’s the same for the whippets. We are going back to basic training, one dog at a time.

Zoe and I now have girl time on Wednesday mornings at an agility class, which has been a big help. She is a different dog in class, focused, seemingly well trained, and quite obedient, which has translated somewhat into being better mannered at home. Zephyr will soon get his one-on-one time. I’ve scheduled individual training times for each of them, ignoring the other while he or she cries in his or her crate at the indignity of having to wait for a turn. It’s painful at times to listen to their cries, but eventually things will get better. They’ll figure out that crate time means training time (and cookies!) and things will be better for everyone in the long term. I’m also spending more alone time with each of my characters, and they, too, are crying (begging for a role in my novel, not to be killed before they’ve had their chance) but becoming better mannered. They are taking shape and becoming their own individuals.

I’ve now witnessed what lacking a foundation can do. Having not taken the time to build each of my dog’s basic training skills, I am now forced to go backwards, to start all over essentially. It is the same with my novel. If I don’t take the time now to build the base, the whole thing will collapse. It may take a year or ten, but down it will come. After already putting years into this project that is my novel, the last thing I want is to see it tumble and crash around me. It’s the summer of laying groundwork for my novel, for my dogs, and for who knows what else is in store for me in the next few months.


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