What happens when you bring your new canine companion home from the pound and take him on his first walk?
That furry little bastard gets the scent of nature in his nostrils and goes wild, that’s what. He feels the breeze of the great outdoors across his fur and he bolts. He tugs you this way and that. Darts into flower beds. Takes off after squirrels and rabbits (man, my neighborhood is lousy with rabbits right now — it’s like Watership Down in suburbia). Scrambles into the weeds to poop. Runs off into more weeds to sniff at some other dog’s poop.
You’re trying to have a nice, leisurely stroll with your own personal man’s best friend, but you’ve got a hellhound yanking your arm this way and that, tangling your legs in the leash, and, depending on the size of the animal, threatening to pull your shoulder right out of its socket. And suddenly, your nice, relaxing walk is nothing like nice and a rough shot away from relaxing.
The only way to reclaim your walk — to get the critter under control and take back the calm you set out for — is to break out the short leash. You take all the slack out of the rope and keep him locked in step right there at your heel. He tries to get ahead of you by a step? You tug him back. He veers off course? Yank. He so much as lifts his head to sniff after a squirrel? Doublebig yank.
The point is not to be cruel, the point is to demonstrate to the animal — which is only operating on the same basic evolutionary programming that’s served its species well for eons (chase, hunt, kill, survive) — that there’s a new game in town. That there is a new master. No longer does he answer the beckoning call of nature, now he answers to the man on the other end of the rope. It is only by the grace of “I” that he’s even outside to begin with.
And slowly, slowly, with the patience of the glacier, the dog begins to learn. The instincts, the darting this way and that, the bolting — they curb and decline. Then you can let the slack out a bit. Allow him to sniff at the root of that tree. Let him lock in on that bunny scampering across the neighbor’s yard. Only now, he’s not just doing it — he’s checking with you first. He knows where his food comes from. He knows that the walk through nature is conducted on your terms.
You break him on the short leash so you can break out the long leash again later.
That guy (or gal!) who wrote the first draft of your novel? He’s the rescue dog that’s never breathed the free air. Writing the draft was his fly-the-coop moment: he got into the neighbor’s rose bushes with his deviation into needless character development. He chased squirrels into trees with those bizarre plot turns. He went shoving his nose up another dog’s butt with that trope he borrowed from that wicked sci-fi novel he was reading at the time. He shat on the sidewalk when he just stopped writing that one character two-thirds of the way into the story.
Editing time is time to break out the short leash. Correct those errors your drafting self makes the moment he starts to make them. Can’t let these things fester, or they’ll keep pulling your arm out of the socket. Nip it in the bud now and he’ll get the message quicker.
Of course, we can’t cut out all of that bad behavior — after all, it’s when the story does unexpected things, when it goes off into the weeds and comes back with a dead rabbit in its jaws, that we enjoy story the most. But our story can’t be one long, unleashed romp through the neighborhood. Much as we love the unbridled id that our authorial selves bring to the table, we also need the structure that only the editorial self can provide.
So by all means, take your inner author out for a walk. But keep that thing leashed up. That way, when you finally do let him loose, he’ll know it matters.
And here’s one more dog meme, just because they’re awesome.
This weekly remotivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every weekend, I use Linda G. Hill’s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results. This week? Maybe not so productive.