I’ve recently completed a manuscript and proposal for a middle-grade fiction cat memoir. The working title is Laddie: A Story about Landing on Your Feet. Dorette graciously asked if I’d like to pass along some thoughts and experience about the writer’s craft. I am honored that she asked and surprised I accepted, since I have an aversion to getting up in front of people. Here are some upshots I’ve learned along the way so far. Happy reading and writing!
Hi! Welcome back to the writer’s craft. And you didn’t even need your code word!
So prior to completing the kids’ novel, I had done some writing for my church, had a couple of recipes and essays published in the local papers. I wrote for a dog magazine. None of it’s been paid writing, but good experience and exposure. I hope some money comes at some point. It may not. I’ll know when to keep plugging or let go. Regardless, I am not going to quit my day job.
Boy, the Cat. Boy, The Muse, Showing a Little Leg
Upshot #4 - Don’t quit your day job.
There’s a pretty wacky reason why I now have a complete manuscript and proposal: My best friend was crazy about my cat. He was a big, gorgeous male tabby that my husband and I had adopted as an adult cat from one of his clients. My friend spent a lot of time around the cat, me, and my daughter. Little by little, this cat started to take on a persona and history all his own – completely fabricated, of course, by me and my friend. But that’s one of the fun things about fiction-writing. You get to make things up! And no one’s going to judge you.
Our kitty became a lazy, handsome, inquisitive British viscount (Hugh Grant meets Curious George) who had been abandoned by his opera singing mother, Catarina Caterwaul. (I never could warm up to opera.) Hard to blame her since he was an adult cat who was still hanging around the estate. Here’s my elevator pitch: uppity British noble cat gets adopted by ordinary middle-class American family and discovers those things money and a title can never buy: love, family, and hope.
I then started to think more about the hope thing, about the language of pet adoption and how similar it is to the language of the gospel. Words and phrases like adopt, rescue, save, forever home, new name, new life began to pop into my brain. Wow, I thought, this is like our relationship with God. What if I could write something that would point kids to a healthy relationship with God, not based on fear or performance, but unconditional love? What if I could try to make it funny, make the cat sort of rude, entitled, good-looking, self-obsessed but rescued and loved, anyway. What if I could make him human, give him human abilities (like memoir-writing) and traits? That’s what we do with our pets anyway, so why not use that proclivity we all have to point kids to loving truth about how God feels about them? “He has drawn us with loving-kindness…He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness.”
Upshot #5 – Write about what you know.
We entertained ourselves so royally (pun, pun) at my cat’s expense, we decided to meet weekly at Starbucks to pen his memoir. Then my friend, having better things to do, like work a paid job as a banking executive and take care of her elderly mom, sort of bowed out. But I kept writing with her encouragement.
In fact, had she not kept on expecting me – with a straight face – to continue with the project that had started as our little lark, I would not have finished the manuscript and proposal. I laughed at her when she said the book was a viable, good story. People like us don’t publish books, Lu Ann, I declared. She did not laugh back. So I quit laughing and put my head down and butt up. (I was raised on a farm, so that’s agri-speak for manual labor like weeding a garden.) Before she bailed on me though, we found a great professional editor who told us everything that was wrong about the book and a few key things that were right.
Upshot #6 – Cultivate friends who believe in you, even if they have to bail on you. And don’t be ashamed to buy good advice. That’s an editor.
Finally, writing is manual labor plus learned skill. Yes, you use your brain and your heart, but it’s just work. Trust me. Once you have your idea and notes, you’ve got to start. Don’t turn it into this grand, I-know-I- can-be-the-next-Faulkner thing. Stop that.
And if you wait for the muse to strike (whoever, whatever he or she is), you will find that, at best, he is a fickle friend. Think of the one who habitually cancels at the last minute. He will no longer be your friend after a while, will he? At worst, he will try to talk you into thinking your value is tied up with how much and how well he inspires you. So shut him up. The best way to do that is to write. Write well some days. Write nothing some days. Write lousy on others. Just write. And take notes on what pops into your head at odd moments, like when you’re swiffering the floor or taking a walk or when, say, a disagreement with a loved one becomes fodder for good dialogue.
Upshot #7 - Remind yourself often that writing is, like bowling, a learned skill. It’s something you do and maybe even get better at, the more you do it. You may never be a professional bowler or a best-selling author. Writing is not something that defines who you are. It is one component of the marvelous whole. And while you will inevitably do so more on some days than on others, enjoy it!
Zabaglione, Ready For It's Close-Up
Allison Snyder was raised on a dairy farm in western New York where her fascination with reading, writing, and cats began in earnest and never left. She loves to write about pies and cakes, too. Her food and pet essays have appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer, The Triangle Dog, and The News of Orange County. She is also an assistant chef and team-building coach at C’est Si Bon Cooking School in Chapel Hill, NC. A French major at North Carolina State University, Allison studied fiction writing there under the late Tim McLaurin. She makes her home in Orange County, North Carolina, with her husband and daughter.