Show Me the Belly

You know when you find a frightened dog—maybe at a shelter, or maybe on the street—and you spend a long, slow time getting it to trust you? You have to crouch down and speak softly, holding out scraps of food while you pray in your head that it will give you its heart. You don’t pray out loud, of course, because any little thing might scare the poor thing away.

You think maybe there’s something wrong with the dog because it acts kind of strange, but after a while, it lets you pet it, and then it walks along beside you for a little while—but it’s still skittish. Every time you try to take hold of it, it dodges away, but you keep on talking softly, and praying silently, and moving slowly, and it gets a little more confident. Maybe it even scampers around a little, showing a fun side of its personality that surprises you.

Then, finally, you stoop down to pet it and it rolls over and shows you its belly.

Now it’s really your dog. It trusts you, because you’ve taken the time to get to know it. You didn’t force it or tie it up or lead it with a leash. You let it find its own way to its best self, and now it’s truly your friend. It wants you and only you to be its leader, and in return it offers you everything it has. At that moment, you know it’s going to be a very good dog.

For me, stories are the same way. I nurse each one along, listening to the characters, finding a tone that works, coaxing it to cooperate with me. I ask it to follow me, but I also give it the freedom to be itself. And then one day–for me it’s usually halfway through the second draft–the story rolls over and shows me its belly. Tail wagging, tongue lolling, it opens itself up and shows its sweet and vulnerable places, and lets me know who it really is deep down inside.

All of a sudden, I know what it’s about. I’m excited, sensing where it’s  headed and what I need to do next. Best of all, I know it’s not just going to work–it’s going to be a good one.

That’s what just happened today with How to Unwrap a Cowboy, my 2020 Christmas novel. Its due date is looming, but it’s taken a while to give in and become Mine. All the qualities that have been worrying me suddenly make sense, and I see a clear way forward.

That’s good news, of course, but it’s a little mixed, because now that I’ve seen its belly the last third of the manuscript is pretty much useless. Changing even one thing in a story changes everything, and in this case, I need to take the ending in a different direction.

That’s normal for me. My stories always start out like Jack Russell terriers, running harum-scarum all over the place, charming me into a false state of security with their frisky ways. But after a while, they start to misbehave, and I have to search out their underlying natures to find the problem. Maybe this one’s got some border collie in it, so I have to take control and stop letting it herd me into corners, or maybe there’s some poodle going on, and the story needs a little extra grooming.

Whatever I discover in the soul of my belly-up story, it always takes a lot of rewriting to make it behave. And as usual, I don’t have much time. That’s why you haven’t seen me on social media lately. I don’t just have to train this difficult critter to heel and speak and sit on command; I also have to teach it to do tricks, because it has to sit up and beg for attention if your mind wanders for even an instant.

I think it’ll be worth the wait. It’s a good story, with a very nice belly. Finally, after a long struggle where I felt more like an alligator wrestler than a dog trainer, it’s behaving–and it’s being good.