We only have to walk around the neighborhood, watch TV commercials, or open our e-mail inbox to see that animals continue to fascinate people. Writing about animals can be as fun as playing with them. Here are some things to keep in mind when telling animal stories.
1. Respect what animals mean to your audience.
The love people feel for animal friends can grip their hearts for decades. Many years ago, I volunteered to help clean up after a flood. A psychologist leading a grief session began by asking flood victims to describe a painful loss they remembered. Almost everyone in the room tearfully recalled a pet they'd lost, even if the animal had died fifty years before. Often, we can love animals in a pure way, free of the complications human relationships pose. When we write about animals, we might want to take off our shoes because we're on sacred ground.
2. Present your animal with pride.
In literary circles, some might condescend to the animal writer. Oh well.
At a multi-author signing, I was autographing a novel about a teen who sent his dog to the army during the Vietnam war. The author next to me asked, “Do animals in your book talk?” I said my book was for young adults, so when animals spoke they used profanity. Okay, that was snide, but the writer made an irritating assumption—that a book with animal characters would be aimed at small children.
The evidence points to something else. Because money impresses us, consider this. Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen, about a boy who befriends a circus elephant, became a movie, and Gruen was offered $5 million for her next two books. Marley and Me topped bestseller lists month after month and was made into a movie. Shreve Stockton turned her experience of raising an orphan coyote in Wyoming into a successful blog and later a book, The Daily Coyote.
At a writer's conference a couple of years ago, I stood within spitting distance of an author who had snagged a half-million-dollar advance for his next dog book. I curbed my envy and did not spit at him.
Speaking of money makers, since 1940, Lassie Come Home has been printed in 172 editions.
3. Make animal characters real.
In a group session at a writer's conference, I listened skeptically as a participant read pages about a blind dog who acted relentlessly chipper. When the woman finished reading, the editor in charge asked, “Have you ever had a dog?” The woman said, “No, but I visited this very dog at an animal shelter.”
How different it is to observe a dog than to live with one day-after-day. My border collie, Duncan, the subject of A Dog for All Seasons, had wonderful manners, an incredible vocabulary, and many human admirers because he readily empathized with people. Yet, when he felt sick, he would walk past the concrete-floored utility room, past the bathroom, and throw up on a new, expensive carpet.
4. Use animal characters to develop human characters.
Watching people interact with animals, in fiction or nonfiction, tells us worlds about their character. Is the person insecure and flash-tempered, or compassionate and patient? In Saddled, bestselling author Susan Richards tells how love for a horse, Georgia, helped her find sobriety because she wanted to provide a good home for the mare. In the enduringly popular kid's book, Where the Red Fern Grows, readers admire the protagonist's determination. Ten-year-old Billy braves hardship and danger to get the pair of hunting dogs he wants. And in Marley and Me, John Grogan narrates the ups and downs of a new marriage and starting a family, and Marley's place in all that.
5. Edit out the schmaltz.
Recalling Rule 3, comb the manuscript before sending it, looking for places where the animal wears a halo. We harm the credibility of a piece when we make an animal flawless. Like us, animals in a single day can be loyal and sulky, generous and manipulative, intelligent or wholly instinctive. Dogs, horses, goats, owls, elephants, badgers, and honeybees have behaviors and abilities we can applaud, but to keep our stories truthful we must not portray animals as spiritual masters who habitually act outside of self-interest.
In our high-tech culture, people long to plug into nature. Providing readers with a good animal story gives them that opportunity.