The Humanity Behind the Beast: Part 3 (What I learned the HARD way so you won’t have it as hard)

Note: It’s late but….

Happy New Year!!

Newcomers, please read PART 1 and PART 2 before continuing on.

Now, at LONG last, today I’ll conclude this three part series on the basics of making your talking animals come alive, and mistakes I made, so you don’t have to, or at least know how to find them, since sometimes that’s half the battle. After all, you can’t fix a problem without knowing what or where the problem is.

As writers, we’ve heard the advice, “Show, Don’t Tell,” more times than we’d like to remember.

But for readers to enjoy our stories, and believe in the unbelievable, we must be mindful that the more we show an experience from the eyes of our characters, and how they see the world, the stronger our stories will be, as opposed to telling the reader how our characters think and feel.

Writers may be storytellers, and there are legit times to tell, but on average, the more you can show things from your main character’s perceptions and viewpoint, the better off you’ll be.

So, in the good practice of “Show, Don’t Tell” I’m going to share some examples from my early and current work to you’ll see just what I mean.

In writing fiction, especially short stories with tight word counts, it’s vital to let your reader know what story they’re getting into. By that I don’t just necessarily mean the genre, but what your particular story is like. How would your animal story differ from those you’ve read and loved, and some you wouldn’t want to be compared with.

Babe, Olivia, Piglet, and Wilbur are all pigs from various stories, and by different writers, but aside from all being pigs of one form or another, the similarities stop there, because their personalties, quirks, stories and art styles couldn’t be anymore different,

Just like avid mystery readers can tell the difference between Sara Paretsky’s V.I. and Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious, from Sue Grafton’s Kinsey.

Who’s the Protagonist? Or in the case of this blog’s theme: What animal is the Protagonist?

I’ll give some short examples in each age group. One will tell too much, and give little or no hints to what the animal protagonist is, the other shows the reader the experience as the character experiences it, and clue the read to what animal the protagonist may be.

What to look for
Who is the Protagonist?
What animal is the Protagonist?
Any hints to clue in the reader what animal the protagonist?
Are we shown the story through his or her eyes?

Don’t worry if you can’t guess, highlight certain parts of this post to reveal the answers, like study guides or pratice tests that put the answers upside down in case you need help with the answer, but hopefully you’ll try to figure a few out yourself, but remember, everyone learns at their own pace, and trust me when I say it took over three years before what I’m talking about sunk in for me. I’ve been at this craft for eight years now, so roughly half that time I was stumbling in the dark like most folks in the beginning. One of my writer’s group comrades often reminds me that everyone must start somewhere, you only fail when you give up, something I’ve had to re-learn in recent weeks, which is partly why I didn’t update the blog for so long,the holiday madness was only a small part, but I’ll talk about that later this month.

Now, onward to the examples below-

PB (Picture Book – Ages 4-8)

Example #1

Mr. Hare hopped around his parlor in a dreadful panic. He leapt into his chair and read the postcard from his mother again. His heart thumped faster. She was definitely coming back today, and would be here for afternoon tea.

(Highlight the area below for the answers!)

Who is the Protagonist?
Mr. Hare
What animal is the Protagonist?
A hare, member of the rabbit family
Any hints to clue in the reader what animal the protagonist is?
Yes, Hopping, but if not for Mr. Hare’s name, we could mistake him for a kangaroo.
Are we shown the story through his or her eyes?
Yes, we stay within Mr. Hare’s POV (Point of View)

MG (Middle Grade – Ages 8 and Up)

Example #2

Sawyer Flattail had what his friends called “A bad rep,” and though he never meant any harm, his ideas of fun were nothing but trouble for others. Of all the adults of Twig Arbor, it was Miss Gristletooth, who he nicknamed “Miss Bossy Bark,” that always knew how to get on his bad side.

His mother sighed and fiddled with her paws. “What’s Sawyer been up to this time?”
(Highlight the area below for the answers!)

Who is the Protagonist?
Sawyer, but it’s hard to tell since we’re not seeing him speak, literally via dialogue, and in the narrative.
What animal is the Protagonist?
Hints at Beaver, but not sure it’s clear enough.
Any hints to clue in the reader what animal the protagonist is?
Bark and trees references, and the characters last name, but a less adept reader may not figure it out.
Are we shown the story through his or her eyes?

Too Vague!

Example #3

Pip was trapped, but still alive since the book was thin and didn’t fall from a great height. But the weight of the book against his body made it impossible for him to escape. What’ll I do? Pip thought.

Suddenly, he heard giant, pounding footsteps looming closer, and heard a hard thump! Once he felt the book lifted off his body, Pip scampered under the bed and hid behind a red sneaker.

The girl bent down and ducked her head under the bed.
“Please come out, I won’t hurt you.”

Unable to escape, Pip squirmed out from under the bed. The girl lied on her tummy, watching him approach her.

“Are you all right? I hope you weren’t hurt when I dropped my diary on you.”

For the first time in recent memory, Pip was speechless. Not only had he never been this close to a human before, but one is speaking to him, as opposed to screaming in terror like his mother had told him.

“Are you lost?” asked the girl.

Pip stood up, and then shook his head. “No–I was exploring.”

The girl let out a gasp. “You can talk?”

Pip slapped a paw on the side of his snout. “Yep, but I shouldn’t have.”

“Why? Is it because you’ll get in trouble?”

“You don’t know the half of it,” said Pip. “I’m not even supposed to be seen by humans, let alone talking to one.”

“Well, I’m glad you did,” said the girl . “I just moved here, and I’ve had no one to talk to for hours.”

“That’s a shame,” Pip said. “But you can talk to me if you want.”

“I thought you said you’d be in trouble for talking to me?”

“I know, but I won’t tell, if you don’t.”

“All right,” said the girl. “My name’s Enid Andelman. Do you have a name?”

“Of course I have a name, and it’s Phillip Bitterswiss, but I’d rather you call me Pip.
(Highlight the area below for the answers!)
Who is the Protagonist?
Pip, since we see things play out via his perspective.
What animal is the Protagonist?
It’s not clear from the snippet given here, but obviously a small creature to be immobilized by a book. (Pip’s a mouse!)

Any hints to clue in the reader what animal the protagonist?

Are we shown the story through Pip’s eyes?
Yes, but it’s quite vague.

Example #4
Aurel Finnwhistle was in a fix, the worse kind possible, he was trapped in a cage, with a cast iron lock. It was so dark he couldn’t see the nose in front of his face. “Stragglefur, are you out there?” But all he heard were the chickens squawking. “Kill and skin him! Kill and skin him!” they chanted.

Aurel sighed. What a sorry predicament for a weasel to be in. I never should’ve trusted that fox…
(Highlight the area below for the answers!)
Who is the Protagonist?
Aurel Finnwhistle,
What animal is the Protagonist?
A Weasel
Any hints to clue in the reader what animal the protagonist is?
Yes, his internal thoughts, and being trapped in a cage after failing to kill a chicken for a meal, and swipe any eggs the chicken laid.

Are we shown the story through his eyes?

Yes, we see, hear, and smell what Aurel does.

YA (Young Adult/Teen Ages 13 and Up)

Example #5

September 3rd was a happy day in Warbler’s Hollow. Well, happy for all the parents in America, anyway, because it’s the day when students returned to school. Why did summer vacation have to end?

Normally, it didn’t matter to me. I never got to go anywhere cool, and I didn’t have any friends to spend the summer with, or any other season for that matter. This summer was different. I met Jet Robinson. His family moved here, from New York City of all places, he lived next door to me.

His real name was Jacob, but everyone in our comic book club, The Hidden Pages, called him Jet, because he loved collecting toy jet planes almost as much as comics.

“So, can you come over to the club after school?” Jet asked me on our way to school.

“Yeah, but I have to take Ruka to her fencing lesson first.”

Jet looked at me with a raised eyebrow. “Fencing?”

Almost everyone does this when they first learn about my little sister’s after-school pastime. How she came to it is a story best told by Ruka herself, but to put it simply, she read The Three Musketeers in seventh grade and was determined to be as strong and cool as they were.

Before I could say that to Jet, the sound of a bell turned our attention to Sadie Hutchison, who rode up to us on her bike.
(Highlight the area below for the answers!)

Who is the Protagonist?
Not yet named, but we know he’s male and a high school student.
What animal is the Protagonist?
He’s human, tricked ya!
Any hints to clue in the reader what animal the protagonist?
See answer above
Are we shown the story through his or her eyes?

It’s told in first person from the protagonist’s point of view. We only know what he knows, what he tells us via past tense narration, and his inner thoughts.

Example #6

Vlad awoke to find he was in front of a roaring fire; the wound on his back had been bandaged, he the noticed a human boy who looked right at him. “Good you’re awake, I thought for a moment you might not make it.”

“Where am I?” asked Vlad.

The boy smiled. “So you talk, cool. You’re in my backyard. What happened to you?”

“I was fighting this panther demon and the last thing I remember after that was trying to reach the Plummer house.”

“Well, this is the Plummer house, I’m Chad, it’s great to meet you.” Chad then held out his hand.

Vlad took his hand. “So you’re Chad, I’m Vlad Waldgrave.”

“Wow, your hand’s really hairy; you must be a werewolf, unless you’re a guy in a suit. A lot of folks get their Halloween kicks in early, Show me your teeth.”

“What? My teeth?

“Yeah, if you wouldn’t mind.” Chad said.

“All right,” Vlad said and opened his mouth wide.

Chad carefully went over to Vlad and touched one of his teeth. “Wow, these fangs are real!
(Highlight the area below for the answers!)
Who is the Protagonist?
A bit unclear. Seems to be Vlad.

What animal is the Protagonist?
A werewolf as inferred through dialogue

Any hints to clue in the reader what animal the protagonist?
Chad points out specific details. Clearly interested in meeting a real werewolf.

Are we shown the story through Vlad’s eyes?
Yes, quite clear from the opening sentence.
(Highlight the area above for the answers!)

Did you get any answers right? If so, great, if not, hopefully it was a learning experience at the very least, as I never want another writer to suffer as I did in figuring this out. Trust me, there are many other issues you’ll face as a writer that test your mettle more than this. Still, the basics are vital to understanding te more subtle and not-so-subtle techniques a writer must employ to achieve the right effect for a story, and those of us who write stories with our animal heroes, villains, and those wayward rascals somewhere in-between, th

For all writing where telling a story’s the driving force, fiction or narrative nonfiction (That doesn’t ALWAYS mean memoir) Show, don’t tell is important, if not always clear how to do it in any given story or book we write.

For writers of talking animals, it’s not just Show, don’t tell, but “Show, don’t tell meets  Who, What, Where, Why, and how.

Who is the animal or group of animals in your story?
What sets your story or concept apart from other stories about the same animal or animals?

When does your story take place? 
History affects animals the same as people, sadly often due to the crazy and cruel things our ancestors were capable of, and sometimes still are, from abuse, to saving endangered creatures from extinction, and how man and nature have a hard time sharing, and how some things are getting at least a little better, or outright improving.

How do humans play a role in the story? 
If the world is only made up of human-like animals, how do the different races work, and how does it differ or work with their real-life counterparts.

Why is your chosen animal the main character? 

You may or may not know the answers to some or even all these questions at first, but it’ll come, so long as your passion and heart come through, the rest can and will follow, even if it feels like it’s taking a mini-eternity to come to the answer. On the bright side, every book is different for the writer as it is for the reader, some things click faster on one book or story versus another.

It may not make the wrting easier, but the more you know the characters at the start, the less likely you are to make as many critical errors, and for me at least, anything I can do to make edits and rewrites less aggravating, and not cut corners on quality, I’m all for.

What do you think? I’d love to hear from you.

This concludes my series, “The Humanity Behind the Beast.”

I hope you’ve found my musings helpful in some way, even if it’s just “Yes! Someone understands my frustrations,” as we start off a new year, it’s important to remember how far you’ve come, as well as where you want to go.

The blog will back to my intended semi-regular schedule on Monday. I’ll be starting my first contest, which I hope you’ll take part in, and tell your friends, I’ll post details on Tuesday.

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.

The Humanity Behind the Beast: Part 1 (How it all began…)

Many have often asked me why I’m so passionate about reading and writing stories about or with talking animals. For a long time I had a straight answer. Now I’ve figured out two key reasons why I love them and why I write them-

1. They connect me to my Inner Child

2. It’s not as easy as it might look, but that just means the end result, when done right, is that much more special!

Before I could read, this love first started with my favorite television shows and movies, many about real everyday people, but many always that element of whimsy, wonder, and enchantment, and often this came in the form of talking animals or magic that made people’s lives that little bit more fun, and help make the hard times in life bearable. These were my earliest memories of playing with my imagination. I didn’t have many friends growing up, and my grandma worked a lot, so I learned to make my own fun, for the most part.

As I got older, I didn’t “Grow out” of some of the things I liked as a little kid, my chatty animal friends were one of those things, since my life at home was complicated and heartbreaking at times, it was something I needed to hold on to, but obviously I kept it more or less a secret from the few friends I had. They wouldn’t have understood.

I came to reading late. When I say that, I don’t mean I was a poor reader, in fact I learned fairly quick from what I remember and what my grandma tells me. But I hadn’t found books I wanted to read, as opposed to what I was forced to read in school, and didn’t get many chances to go to the library or be read to, my grandma was too busy, and most of my immediate family are focused only on their inner circle, not uncaring, but not a close-knit bunch. It wasn’t really until my teen years, especially during my short stint in high school (Story too long to tell here), that I found the books I loved, and have been hooked ever since.

After being inspired by many great books that entertained, and comforted me during the hard times of life, I knew I wanted to write too, and after years of not truly knowing what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d finally found something I clicked with.

When I started writing, I tried to write about real people doing normal things, or unusual situations grounded firmly in reality, but it never felt right. There wasn’t heart or passion in what I was writing, even though I did my best to assure that came through.

When I started writing about these animals, which’ve always been in my imagination, and in my heart, things started to click. It was like finally finding the right pair of shoes when you’ve gone through 100 different pairs that were either too small, too snug, or were just not your style.

That said, as I stated at the outset, it’s not as easy as people think to do this right, just like with anything involved with the craft of writing, I had to learn what I was doing wrong, how to make it right, and sometimes fix what I did right, the WRONG way. Confused? Don’t worry, I’ll elaborate further tomorrow.

Until then, may the fantastical fauna be with you,