Playing to Your Strengths


My wife Lisa’s greatest joy — after her husband, of course, and our ungrateful, unappreciative daughter — is her enjoyment of wild birds. We (well, she) has a couple of large, impervious-to-squirrels feeders set up outside of our kitchen window, and Lisa will spend hours photographing the birds that come to take advantage of the seemingly endless supply of seed that is there for the taking. One characteristic of birds, however, is that they are slobs. They drop seed, they leave husks, and…well, you know the rest. We as a result get a nightly show in the form of nocturnal creatures gathering at night beneath the feeders in a heartwarming tableau. The opossums are first to arrive. They get there early to begin eating the seed that has been left on the ground. They eventually, however, are rudely shoved aside by the raccoons, the neighborhood bully boys who push aside the opossums as if they aren’t even there. The collective attitude of the masked bandits changes quickly, however, when the skunks arrive. Their “outta my way, kid” demeanor quickly changes to, “Oh, my, hello, Mr. Skunk! How nice to see you! We’ve been saving this pile of seed just for you.” Skunks are just so gentle and shy and cute as they walk up and begin eating. They don’t take any mess, however. I did see a young raccoon, one who apparently didn’t get the memo, try to nudge a skunk out of its way. The skunk engaged in some non-violent resistance, turning around and putting his tail up, resulting in three raccoons setting new distance and reaction records for standing side jumps. I didn’t know raccoons could jump sideways. They apparently can, if properly motivated.

What do those cute vignettes have to do with writing? Quite a bit, actually. After you’ve been writing for a while, you’re going to get the sense of what works and what doesn’t for you. Write what works for you. If you are good at writing action scenes but poor at writing dialogue, go with the explosions and karate and make you characters strong and silent. If you’re not able to write a convincing love scene without embarrassing yourself, don’t entangle your character in anything other than barb wire. If you can write great sex scenes but drop the thread on complex mysteries, keep the mystery simple and secondary to the amorous scenes in the bedroom or elsewhere. Our friend the opossum’s main strengths are to convincingly play dead (we’ve all run into folks like that, haven’t we, heh heh) and get places early. If you are good at writing action scenes, start with a strong one and jump from one to another. Your story may be best served by letting the plot drive it. As far as the skunk goes, we’re talking cute but dangerous. “Dangerous” isn’t too strong a word; making that midnight run out to a Sam’s Club for several five-gallon cans of tomato juice to erase the scent of skunk spray will make a believer out of you. So…the character is going to drive your story. Cute but dangerous? Think of Jack Reacher as played by, uh, Tom Cruise. If you are blessed with the ability to let plot and characters drive your novel, you’re like a raccoon. You can sense your story’s weaknesses and strengths, and sense when something can play out a bit or, alternatively, when it’s time to wrap it up.
Which animal are you when you write? One of the above? Or another? And why?…oh, and the animal at the top of my humble offering today? To paraphrase Raymond Chandler…”What. The owl? Oh. I forgot about him.” Not really. Owls are skunks’ natural predators. The reason? Owls don’t have olfactory glands.

14 thoughts on “Playing to Your Strengths

  1. Hmm…so if I understand the metaphor, birds would have missing plotlines and hard-to-follow storylines. Possums would start the scene in the wrong place (too early, thus boring the reader). Raccoons would be in-your-face writing. And Skunks would be more literary, beautiful writing that packs a punch. I would love to say I’m a skunk, but I write genre fiction. Can I pull off a literary passage or two? Sure, but I wouldn’t call my books “literary fiction.” That said, I suppose my writing is more like a black bear…you can’t take your eyes off him, even though he may be backing you into a desolate, frightening cave.

    • You got it, Sue! And I love the black bear metaphor…thank you for sharing. I’m looking forward to seeing that literary cave at some point.

  2. Good morning, Joe.

    I love your animal metaphors. I don’t really know what type of writer I am. But if we may blur the writer with the final product, I guess I would like to be that lap cat that is always there when you sit in your favorite chair. It’s in your lap immediately and you can’t set it down until it’s finished (or has a better offer).

    Thanks for the interesting approach to using our strengths. And as to that unappreciative daughter, maybe a little less food in the bird feeder would remind her from whence cometh the bread.

    • Thank you, Steve, and good morning! I absolutely LOVE your bird feeder metaphor, though I would guess that the bird lover in the house would regard your solution as cruel and unusual punishment.

      As far as the cat goes…the cat is in my favorite chair before I get to sit down. That of course means that I must either 1) find another or 2) lure him out with the promise of a treat. My domain sounds like Ground Zero for spoiling, doesn’t it? Anyway, thanks as always for stopping by.

  3. Joe, I love your description of the wildlife tableau! I put out a bird feeder, but it seemed to attract, um…RATS. I got so freaked out, I removed the feeder and started tossing seeds whenever I spotted a songbird visitor. (Consequently, We now have a crew of songbirds that are sitting on the telephone wire every morning, waiting for coffee and seed time!). Then I had the opposite problem–raccoons were turning our newly stocked koi pond into an Automat Raccoon Buffet. After losing several fish, I gradually escalated to Defcon 2 status–heron statues, faux predator lights that come on at night, and finally, floating nets. Haven’t lost another fish since then! I love raccoons, but don’t want them turning our back yard into McKoinald’s! (p.s. Animal-wise, I am the quintessential Magpie. Intelligent but flighty, having a short attention span to the point of ADD, and all too easily distracted by bright shiny objects! Magpie IFNWK: The magpie is the only nonmammal that is able to recognize herself in the mirror, an ability that is not always a blessing). (IFNWK, pronounced IF-en-wick, for “Interesting Fact Not Worth Knowing”). I got a million of ’em. 🐦

    • Kathryn, I think what happened is that the raccoons saw one of those wildlife billboards, along the lines of “3 Mi. Exit 60 ***CHENG’S KOI POND*** Dinner Specials Nightly!” I hope that resolves your problem on a permanent basis. I didn’t mention that a couple of the raccoons decided that they liked the bird feeders so much that they came to regard our attic and chimney as a de facto AirB&B. I discovered that they did NOT like the sound of my dual purpose 8 cell flashlight/stun gun and after a few nights of noise and lights (it reminds them of fire) they decided to go elsewhere. Hope you don’t have that problem. Thanks again for all that you do.

  4. I LOVE the wildlife description of the animal party around the bird feeder. 😎

    As to which animal, I’m afraid I’m a hybrid at this point. I can be a bit messy and all over the place like a bird, I’ve been known to arrive early in my story like a opossum until I get it revised right. When I hit my stride I write like the raccoon and can be skunky in pockets.

    All’s to say I better keep chipping away at that “10,000 hours” writing investment to get good at it. 😎

  5. BK, I’m glad you enjoyed my humble take on what occurs around case del Hartlaub late at night. We’re starting to get coyotes and foxes in the area as well, so I might circle back at some point and revisit the topic.

    Good luck with that 10,000 hour investment. Writers who succeed write. And keep writing. And writing. You’re on your way, and we look forward to seeing the results. Thanks!

    • Well…Catfriend…if that’s true, you wouldn’t have responded! 🙂

      I, on the other hand, am a squirrel…since I am attracted to nuts…

  6. Good afternoon, Joe.

    Right now I feel like that dog on UP when anyone says the word “SQUIRREL!” Too many distractions.

    As for the kicked out seed mess. You might try sunflower chips. Birds scratch & kick out seeds they don’t like. Many bags of seed are more filler but sunflower chips are already hulled. No empty shells and birds love these chips and will eat all of it, even if it’s on the ground. Plus with the seeds chopped into chips, the seeds won’t germinate in the soil. Win win.

    You have a lot of critters at your feeders. It’s amazing what comes to a feeder.

    • Good afternoon, Jordan. Thanks for the suggestion. The only type of seed we use in the back is black oil sunflower, which seems to be pretty uniform. We actually enjoy the nighttime shows. Usually. And Lisa loves the germination we get, when we get it. It differs from year to year. Sometimes we get a whole garden full of sunflowers, other times not so much. I just try to avoid it the area with the lawn mower. Anyway, thanks for stopping by and sharing your knowledge!

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