By Dawn Field
If you haven’t seen this herding cats video, it’s a belly laugh. Especially if you own cats and love their loner, “I don’t need you,” tendencies. Or if you love cats so much you wish you had a whole house full.
From Westerns, we all know how tough, dirty, and dangerous the lives of cowboys can be. In this hilarious video, somber, seasoned ‘cat cowboys’ sit astride their horses and describe just why the job is so hard. Spliced into the interview scenes is footage of cats, not cows, running amuck in the landscape, scooting off in every possible direction as cats are wont to do.
Often crafting a story from start to explosive climax might feel like herding cats. Instead of placid, obedient cows that move as a single unit, we have an artificial grouping of ‘animals’ that are not made to herd. Instead of an occasional cow going missing, perhaps a calf in a storm, every single animal wants to be as far from the next as it can. Oh, and each cat is clever, having its own mind, four very fast legs on paws with sharp claws. And unending curiosity. Oh, and nine lives.
If your writing situation is like herding cats, two outcomes are likely. The latter is far more favorable in all cases.
First, you will fail time and time again to create a herd. Your ‘cats’ are story elements that just don’t want to play nice together. You’ll have floods of ideas, but complete stories elude you. Second, you’ll beat all odds to band together your cats to create one huge and unusual ‘impression’ – a ‘herd.’ This is as difficult as herding proverbial cats. Congratulate yourself again and again while you bandage your wounds, recover from saddle fatigue, and rest your tired bones.
Every book is a herd of details and yet it’s the herd that people remember. “Ah, it was a great romance, a super thriller, and memoir.” Or is it the details that are most memorable? “I love this character quote, or how strong the heroine was, or that action scene where the hero…”
The answer is, of course, the herds and the cats matter. The herd is the ‘emergent property’ of the cats: without enough cats working together, there would be no herd. The herd is what we ‘see’ from a distance and not any one individual cat. But without the cats there is no such thing as a herd to see.
Both the Small and the Big, or cats and the ability to herd them, are key to completing a book. You can start with the idea for the herd and populate it with cats, or keep adding cats until you form the ‘herd’. Either way, it’s both that are needed. Like two sides of a piece of paper, we can look at each individually, but they can’t be separated.
Forming your herd
If your book is ‘the herd,’ how do you find, round up and maneuver all your individual cats? All authors have different methods. We all know that feeling of stories wanting to run in their own directions and escape. This happens, that happens…but how to pull it all together and get it done?
All these ideas, thoughts, character sketches, scenes, dialogues, and settings need to be unified. How do you join up so many independent thoughts in a memorable way? What are your priorities? How to whittle down your choices?
If your herd splits and you lose half, you won’t have a book. If you let your herd escape over the horizon, you won’t have anything to show readers. If your herd is spread out to the four corners, you’ll never finish. How do you round up missing cats?
This is about how to get that cat herd under control.
Kick out the dogs
One of the biggest problems in ‘herding cats,’ is getting rogue animals in there. Dogs cause a huge mess, for example. It’s not that uncommon to have one or more dogs in a cat herd – and it makes for rough going. Kick the dogs out as soon as possible. They need their own pack. Perhaps your second book.One of the biggest problems in ‘herding cats’, is getting rogue animals in there. It’s not that uncommon to have dogs in a cat herd. Kick the dogs out as soon as possible. They need their own pack. Perhaps your second book. Click To Tweet
Decide where your herd is going
Where do you want your herd to go and why? Knowing is a huge part of the game. If you let them decide you are in deep trouble. Imagine if each cat picks its own path. You’ll get a spatial explosion of cats. One trick is to have something on the horizon that all the cats want. Say a heap of catnip.
A good book structure means every cat is in place and you have enough cats. Pulling it all together from tiniest detail to the big picture is about engineering every word in every scene to lead up to your climax. Your climax is the ultimate piece of structure. Yes, it’s that simple.
Enforce the Rules
Sound structure helps organize the herd, but there is another essential force determining what your herd does. Every story world has its own set of rules. They can be the rules of reality, or any rule set you devise but then you have to stick to them or explain why it is possible that they are broken. You can have ‘normal physics’ or your own physics, for example, like in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” where the count can climb up and down the walls of his castle like a fly. The true beauty of establishing the rules of your fictional world is that at some point the ‘herd’ starts to behave. Characters act ‘as they should’. The plot unfolds in ‘the way it should’.
Make sure the herder is up to the challenge
You are the one who herds your own cats, the sparks of your imagination, and you must want to do so. This takes discipline. Many people jump from idea to idea and this is great as long as you are having fun. If you want to finish a book, you have to stick with one idea to the end – one herd and it has to be cohesive and manageable. As a herder, you can have one or two cats, but that’s not much of a herd. Imagine if each word in your book is a cat – you need a herd of 70k to get in range of a smallish novel. So, are you a real ‘word’ herder – what will your next ‘herd’ look like?
Dawn Field is a scientist now writing her second book for Oxford University Press. She has published over 50 articles on writing because she is fascinated by what makes great writing, the writing process, learning how writers create, and how fiction impacts society. She loves reading book drafts at any stage of completion, brainstorming writing projects, and hearing about the diversity of writing experiences. Connect with her to collaborate, or converse, at UnityinWriting.com.
Published posts on Two Drops of Ink:
Two Drops of Ink: The Literary Home for Collaborative Writing
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