Herding Your Cats in Writing

Prose is architecture, not interior decoration. ~Ernest Hemingway~ Click To Tweet


By Dawn Field

03.16.2018

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.

Clever Cats

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.

Emergent Property

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

Spot on humor: A genius example all writers can learn from two drops of ink dawn field

BIO:

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:

1) Spot on humor: A genius example all writers can learn from

2) 50 Ways to Ensure no Editor Ever Reads Your Book


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15 comments

  1. Dawn, I loved your creative analogy between herding cats and writing! Neither of which is easy to do. I personally am a dog lover and owner, as they don’t generally require much herding. I do like cats, but have never owned any, so I suppose the next step is to gather a few and learn how to herd them!?? However, I must say, my dog wanted you to know he vehemently objects to the advice you give to “kick the dogs out!” Lol!

  2. Excellent, Dawn, thank you! You’ve got me wondering if one or two of my cats are really dogs …

    • Often the dogs can be the most ebullient and sparkling of the herd…they just should have their own pack in which to shine. That makes them harder to move out, but the story will come together tighter when there are only meows left…Thanks for commenting!

  3. I am definitely a dog person…cats are not easily tamed, which is why your analogy works so well! Ideas and writing are not tamable either. 🙂 Thanks for this fun piece.

  4. […] https://twodropsofink.com/2018/03/16/herding-your-cats-in-writing/ “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.” Enjoyed this tale of how writing a story is like herding cats. I can just imagine that. I have four of my own, each with their own personality. All like to climb on my desk and walk on my keyboard occasionally. […]

  5. Great article, Dawn. This is why we have a dog. Seriously, I did have some cats to deal with in writing my memoir. My family has a large cast of characters. Many of them could have easily taken over the story. But I didn’t let them.

  6. Hi, Dawn. Scott and I laughed when he told me your title. I must use the expression a minimum of 5 times per week in describing my job. I work with 55 men in a residential recovery home and each man/cat has their own agenda.

    As writers, we can blame our tangential minds for some of the cat moments. Shiny? Distraction? New Interest? Off we go, laboring over getting every thought and word down.

    Then we’re faced with what you perfectly described: “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.”

    I have a darling file – all those passages that don’t make up a herd. After reading your post, I’m inclined to rename it the “Cat file.”

  7. Dawn, I love the analogy to creating the book. As the servant of two cats I know well how obstinate they can get. They can do anything they put their mind to – unless they wish to sleep. Our cat, Mystic, can bend a football like David Beckham. The point of this is that cats, like the sections of a book, take on their own mystique. A special character that seems to wish to take the story over. Thank you.

    • Most authors have so many ideas they can run off in almost any direction given an even slightly interesting cat…trick is to stick with one many idea and build the herd around it. Thanks for commenting!

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