The Humanity Behind the Beast: Part 2 (Common Mistakes and Misconceptions)

Newcomers, please read PART 1 before continuing on.

Welcome to the second in my three part series of learning the bare basics of working with talking animals into your stories. Today we’ll cover some of the common issues that occur.

There are many serious misconceptions going around about stories with talking animals. Ranging from “These stories are only read by or interesting to preschoolers” to the equally annoying “They’re so EASY to do.”

Many children’s writers who’ve been at this craft for a year or more, realize, or soon will realize, that writing a good story, and making a GREAT story, takes time and effort. It can be just as hard to write a folktale about a leopard finding his missing tail, as it is to write a book about a (Human) boy searching for his missing dog during a blizzard in 1933.

A general misconception some people have about writing children’s books, especially picture books, easy readers, and chapter books is thinking they’re easy to write because their shorter than novels. Writers like me, and in my writer’s group, who together probably have a good 20 years combined experience, all know this isn’t true.

Yes, picture books, easy readers, and chapter books are shorter than novels for middle grade or Young Adult readers, but they have a unique set of requirements and challenges that make them a REAL challenge, especially for writers like me, who for better or worse, are just not concise writers by nature.

Doesn’t mean we don’t think about our words, or try hard to only be as long or short as we need to be, and we definitely do NOT get lazy and don’t put in the effort we know we should.

We’re just not naturally economical writers, which is something that takes us longer to learn, but we are WORKING HARD to learn it. These misconceptions further are intensify when talking animals are involved. Or worse, some writers make the mistake of using them as a gimmick and not really writing them from the heart, which like with any genre of writing, is just setting yourself up for disaster, and many long hard months or years of revision, if the writer sees or is shown via outside intervention where they went wrong.

I can honestly say that while many of my early attempts at writing the stories I loved reading and seeing in the movies or on television, had some of the issues mentioned above, what sets me and others of my ilk apart from the true posers and wannabes is that I always respected and valued these kinds of stories. I wouldn’t try to write them if I didn’t love reading them myself, and was willing to learn how to improve.

Just like mystery writers and romance writers read in the genre and learn from it, I too have read and watched many stories of this type, and know what’s done to death, what’s more or less popular, and what I like, no matter the trends that pop up now and again.

Sometimes this is hard, because the only true danger in reading in the genre your trying to write in is consciously and subconsciously falling into the trap of trying borrow too much from the writers and books you love. (Note: I’m not talking about outright plagiarizing which will get you in trouble, both with the law, and your conscience, if you still listen to it)

I mean overusing certain techniques of crafting your prose, characters and dialogue, that work in your favorite books, but don’t always help yours.

For example, one of my favorite writers is Tor Seidler, and his animal tales have been a great inspiration to me as a writer, and as a reader, give me much entertainment. That said, it gets me into trouble sometimes when I try to use a literary technique or way of structuring my sentences to be like his, only to learn later, either on my own, or through my writer’s group that it doesn’t work in my story, even though in his it makes sense.

So much of learning your craft as a writer is know what tips and techniques can help your writing in general, and what works for a particular kind of story or book. Often this comes from knowing when to trust your instincts, which I’ll discuss in-depth in the near future, and from picking the right person or group of people, to be your first readers, once you’ve done some revision on your own. Again, something I’ll talk about in-depth at a later date.

At the risk of making certain readers annoyed with me, take the vampire trend that’s finally starting to die down a bit. First off, let me just say I’m not, nor have ever been anti-vampire, this is merely to prove an important point. The most popular books about or featuring vampires are Laurel K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, for adults, but I’m sure many teens braver than I was read them, Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga,(Still haven’t finished the first one, but read enough to know it’s NOT badly written as some folks make it out to be) and Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark Hunter series, again published in the adult market, but there are certainly a good number of folks well under 21 or 18 that have flocked to the new book in the series year after year.

I just recently jumped on board the bandwagon myself, after years of hemming and hawing. Partly from just not being sure I was ready to dive in as a reader, and as a writer, yes a bit jealous that the stories I spend many a sleepless night to make the best they can be weren’t getting out-shined by the general paranormal explosion. Then again, it took 9+ years to sell the Dark Hunter Series, so why should I pack it in after 7 years with my stuff. Soon to be 8.

Of course, there’s Charlene Harris with her Sookie Stackhouse series, now with a hit HBO series, but it mostly goes without saying how well those do, still I didn’t know about her or Stephanie Meyer or that matter until way back in 2007, before the Twilight movies came out, before the last book in the saga came out, and back when True Blood was still a pipe dream, what a difference a few years makes, right?

My point, finally, is there’s one thing all these series, and their respective authors have in common, other than they’re women, (To think there was a time men outnumbered women in this business, not meant as a jab, really, just a casual observation) is that they all took the conventions of what people had done with vampires, and the paranormal story in general, and either turned on its ear, flipped it upside down, or just threw out the traditional rules and trappings and made it all their own. Or using little known or tapped history and lore to weave a new way of looking at the immortal bloodsuckers, or in the case of Twilight, vampires who forego the blood thing.

The same is true with talking animals. The best books and/or series come about when the writer does something to make their book or story stand out, to shake up the conventions of how these stories normally go.

One of the best known conventions are stories that pit animals against people, either as an entire race, or a certain group person or group of people, being the bad guys with little or no depth or perspective to them. Now certainly there are many examples where this works well. One of the catalysts of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web was Wilbur escaping the fate of most farm livestock, being killed and eaten, by omnivorous humans. That’s why the famous first line of that book has so much weight.

Even kids who before reading that book have never been to a farm, or know a whole lot about where food comes from, can put the pieces together, nothing good usually comes from your father carrying an axe in his hand, at least not for the ones who’s getting the axe, no pun intended.

When I started writing my own stories, I knew I wanted to flip or outright overturn certain conventions to do something new or different. In the middle grade novel I’m querying now, my animal protagonist befriends a human, which naturally doesn’t go over well with his fellow creatures who only see humans as a nuisance, and in many cases, the bane of their existence.

But my protagonist can see through befriending this human, that an entire species should not be condemned as evil for the actions of those who probably do deserve the frustration and anger these creatures have for them. It’s in many ways about seeing people or animals on an individual basis, since there are many creatures in this book who can be just as scary or dangerous as the humans they fear and despise. That’s the main external conflict

The great inner conflict is doing right by your friends, even when it’s not easy, friends learning to be honest and forgiving, and that it’s NEVER too late to make things right, as long everyone’s committed to meeting each other halfway. Tomorrow, I’ll wrap this up by sharing some personal examples of where I went wrong, and how I got my writing back on track, and the books that helped me to learn and better appreciate the stories work hard to write, and write well.

Also, I’ll do my weekly book reviews, and one of the books touches perfectly on the points I’ve made thus far.

Until then,
This Rat has left the cheese shop.

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  • Cat

    This is a great post, Taurean. You really have a knack for saying exactly what needs to be said.

    Isn’t it irritating when people say how EASY it is to write? :P Ugh, huh?