Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Of Dogs and Tricks

When our departed and much-beloved German shepherd, Cassie was well into her middle age, she did something “old dogs” are reputedly unable to do: she learned a new trick. We discovered this trick on a Thanksgiving Day. After the meal, we all staggered away from the table to comfortable parts of the house to collapse into your turkey-and-wine induced comas. As was our custom, we left all the food on the table, because at some point, people would get hungry again and Thanksgiving evening is when we begin working on Thanksgiving leftovers. It didn’t make sense to put them away because nothing would go bad in a few short hours and that’s what we’d be eating, anyway. The Health Department might not approve, but I’ve been doing this my whole life and I’m not dead yet.

A few short hours later I wandered into the dining room to start picking. I looked at the turkey on the platter in the middle of the table. And I looked again at the turkey on the platter. Something was different. Something was off.

Wings.

When we carved the turkey, we removed both wings and placed them on the side of the platter, the better to slice at the breast meat. No one in my family eats the wings. They go from platter to fridge, and from fridge to the pot when we boil the remnants. But someone had eaten the wings. I was going to conduct a poll of the family to find out who when I looked again at the table and found the answer. On the table were several claw marks, grooved into the finish by one enterprising German shepherd who had taken advantage of the trust she had built up over 10 years or so of not scarfing food off the table. We are lucky she didn’t take down the whole platter, and she is lucky she didn’t end up in the doggie hospital, because she ate everything. Skin, meat, tendon, bone—there was no sign of those wings anywhere, not even a greasy spot on the floor. Cassie had learned a new trick, and we learned, too: if food is left on the dining room table (especially turkey; dogs love turkey), the dining room doors are closed if no one else is in there.

Do I look like I would steal food off the table?

Like Cassie, I’m a wingman at heart, at least as far as writing goes. As I have stated ad infinitum on this blog over the years, my preferred method is to sit and write. Sometimes I’m writing out a scene that I’ve “seen” in my head the day before or earlier in the day. Sometimes, I’m starting off with nothing more than where I finished last time, and things just flow from there. It’s a method that’s not for everyone, but it (mostly) works for me, has somehow produced four full-length manuscripts, one of which is now a real, actual novel! It’s also a fun way to do it, at least for me, and I don’t really see myself changing. I’m an old dog, after all.

Yet just as Cassie learned a new trick in her old age (table surfing was not the only thing; she some surprising skill at manipulating her human companions in her golden years that caught us by surprise), I may be learning something new, too. I think I’ve stated a few times here that the current project has been a struggle. This weekend I crossed the 80,000 word mark, which is not unimpressive, but I’ve been working on it since mid-April, which means my average daily word count is between 500 and 600 words. This is some very fudgy math to get to that number, but close enough. I’m not a super-fast writer. It takes me almost two years to get something ready for showing the world. But I can usually first draft fairly quickly, and this ain’t quick. Yes, it’s been a busy summer. I had that week-long teacher training to do, we’re in the process of tearing apart parts of our house, and, oh, yeah, I LAUNCHED A FREAKIN’ BOOK! But even when I’ve sat down to write, this has been a struggle. Days of 12-1500 words are few and far between.

Maybe this is natural. After all, the WiP is the first ‘new’ writing I’ve done in four plus years. If you shut off the water to a sink for a couple of hours, you expect the faucet to splutter and spit rusty water for a minute or two when you turn it back on. This could just be a case of me purging the crap from my unused pipes, after all. But one of the concerns I do have is that I’m still not seeing the ending; if I’m writing to my usual first draft length I should have maybe 25-30,000 words to go. In other words, it’s time to wrap it up.

To that end, on at least two occasions in the last month or so I’ve found myself concluding my writing sessions by sitting down and asking myself questions. What happens next? What does this character do? What are the consequences of this scene? And I’ve also found myself writing out short sentences, almost bullet points. Things like “CHARACTER X rushes from the office in panic. Goes home, starts packing her bags” and “ALTERNATE: CHARACTER X runs from office in panic. Calls CHARACTER Y. They decide to confront CHARACTER Z”. Stuff like that. Suggestions of dialogue. Suggestions of action. It’s almost as if I were creating—dare I say it? I dare, I dare!—an outline.

We suspect Cassie learned her new trick of table sharking because she’d decided she was old enough to say, “Fuck the rules,” or because ten years of staring at Thanksgiving dinner was enough, that her desire for turkey finally overcame the social contract that existed in our house. Either one is a powerful reason to try something new. For me, it’s about needing to finish what I start, to produce something that is good, and maybe even publishable. I’m not ready to turn my back on my wingman ways, but I am ready to try that new trick, just to see if it works.

Fellow writers, have you ever tried any “new tricks”? What were they, and how did they work?

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