Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Many authors have considered sharing the adventures of their beloved pet, or thought about what amazing characters they are in their own right. Some leave it at that, but many authors take the next step and commit to writing about their pets – whether by including them in a fictional story, mentioning them in non-fiction, or even basing an entire work around them.
Despite inspiring such affection, pets are often maligned as subject matter, with many readers turning their nose up at anything that centers on a real-life animal. It’s a practice that has some justification behind it – there’s been a lot of poor pet-related literature – but that’s still a long way from being justified in every case. There are a lot of great pieces of writing based on pets, and in this article I’ll be exploring what writers can do to emulate them and steer clear of the most common problems that seem to dog pet-focused writing (that was the only pun I’ll be doing, don’t worry).
As ever, the ‘rules’ below are more strong suggestions – feel free to deviate from the advice, but be sure to consider it before doing so. Many great pieces of writing are great because they eschew the rules, but very, very few were written by writers who didn’t know the rules in the first place.
Rule #1 – Avoid ‘that’ argument
What argument could I possibly mean? Well, while the definition of ‘pet’ doesn’t start and end with ‘cat’ and ‘dog’, the perceived rivalry between these common house pets frequently takes center stage in pet writing.
The argument as to whether cats or dogs are better is a long running quarrel, but it’s one that seldom leads to commendable writing. While the differences in the animals’ behavior – and, more importantly, our perception of those differences – can make enjoyable reading, few readers are going to be genuinely engaged by a sincere argument against one type of domestic pet.
This is especially the case when a person has picked up a book because it’s about their favored species. A person who wants to read about dogs isn’t doing so because of their hatred of cats – it’s an even chance that they just like animals in general, and even if they do hate felines, it’s not why they picked up the book.
This may sound like an unnecessary warning, but you’d be surprised by how many dog and cat owners can’t help but rail against their ‘opponents’ on the other side. It stems from our preference for binary thinking, and the concept that dogs and cats are somehow opposites – expressing love for one can easily segue into expressing disdain for the other.
Give in to this urge and you risk offending a large segment of your readership while offering very little to those who stay. You also end up tying your affection for one animal to your dislike of another, tainting the positive with the implied negative. Finally, it’s easy to get off point and accidentally say a lot more than you intend to.
H.P. Lovecraft’s Cats and Dogs is an example without compare – Lovecraft’s screed against dogs and everything he believes they stand for includes classist and racist asides that poison the piece for many readers.
Dogs, then, are peasants and the pets of peasants; cats are gentlemen and the pets of gentlemen. The dog is for him who places crude feeling and outgrown ethics and humanocentricity above austere and disinterested beauty; who just loves ‘folks and folksiness’ and doesn’t mind sloppy clumsiness if only something will truly care for him… that’s the sort of go-getter that had ought to go in for dogs.
– H.P. Lovecraft, Cats and Dogs
This venom makes the text far less accessible to cat lovers – a genuine shame, since the passages celebrating Lovecraft’s favored animal are otherwise eloquent and enjoyable.
[The cat is for the] dilettante—the connoisseur—the decadent, if you will, though in a healthier age than this there were things for such men to do, so that they were the planners and leaders of those glorious pagan times. The cat is for him who does things not for empty duty but for power, pleasure, splendour, romance, and glamour—for the harpist who sings alone in the night of old battles, or the warrior who goes out to fight such battles for beauty, glory, fame… For the man who knows that play, not work, and leisure, not bustle, are the great things of life; and that the round of striving merely in order to strive some more is a bitter irony of which the civilised soul accepts as little as it can.
– H.P. Lovecraft, Cats and Dogs
The other problem with this particular argument is that it simplifies the very element that most recommends writing about pets – the individuality of the animal, the owner, and their relationship.
Rule #2 – Make the reader care about your pet
Perhaps the biggest problem when writing about pets is the potential for authors to assume that the reader will automatically care about the animal in question. This is no-one’s fault – it’s one of the chief virtues of love that, when we possess it, we can’t imagine feeling any other way – but it’s a hurdle you’ll have to clear if you want to write something good about your pet.
The problem here is almost exactly the same as that I raised in Should Authors Use Familiar Places As Story Settings? Choose a subject in which you’re already emotionally invested – whether it’s a pet, a forest, or a hobby – and you risk the trap of assuming the reader’s interest rather than creating it.[bctt tweet=”Assume the reader’s interest in a topic and you risk forgetting to create it. #writingtip” username=”standoutbooks”]
Even if you can achieve the necessary mental distance to pick specific reasons the reader should love your pet, you still need to ensure that those reasons are experienced rather than told. Informing the reader that a pet is quirky, kind, or ill-tempered isn’t enough – they have to witness this fact, and they have to find it as charming as you do. This is something Caitlin Moran handles fantastically when writing about her childhood pet.
The stupid new dog is under my bed. She has got pregnant by the small dog, Oscar, who lives over the road. None of us can quite work out how this has happened, as Oscar is one of those small, yappy types of dogs, only slightly bigger than a family-sized tin of baked beans, and the stupid new dog is a fully grown German Shepherd… I look into the dog’s eyes. She is as stupid as a barrel of toes. Galaxies of nothing are going on in her eyes.
I get up.
‘I’m going to talk to Mum,’ I explain. The dog remains under my bed, looking, as always, deeply nervous about being a dog.
– Caitlin Moran, How to be a Woman
In the extract above, Moran uses personification and humor to endear her dog to the reader – the phrase ‘stupid as a barrel of toes’ delivers a core idea of the dog’s nature while making the reader laugh. It’s the kind of description that sticks because the reader enjoyed taking it on board.
When writing about a pet, make sure to communicate an underlying personality rather than just actions. The reader can infer the animal’s personality from what it does, but they’ll get far more enjoyment from seeing a personality they already understand be expressed through action. This is a general rule of writing characters, especially funny characters, so make sure you dedicate some time and space to getting it right. Terry Pratchett does this skillfully in The Unadulterated Cat, where he amalgamates past pets into a loving portrait of cats in general.
Cats don’t hunt seals. They would if they knew what they were and where to find them. But they don’t, so that’s all right.
– Terry Pratchett, The Unadulterated Cat
This short aside does a great deal to define the type of cat about which Pratchett is writing. Not only does this encourage the reader to develop their own affection for the cats in question, but later, when the attributes suggested in the quote are demonstrated, the reader feels their own sense of recognition and ownership.
It’s through this type of writing that the pet stops being a subject (a source of events in a piece of writing) and becomes a character in their own right. This is essential to great pet writing, because it allows you to develop a decent story.
Rule #3 – Tell a story
The third and final rule comes back to the immense love writers have for their pets. When you adore your dog, cat, bird, horse, parakeet, or Tamagotchi, their day-to-day lives are incredibly interesting. Every new trick learned is worth a chapter, and every setback becomes a dramatic plot twist in their lives.
To strangers, however, the life of a pet is unlikely to hold the same intense interest. Likewise how you came to own a pet, even when they’re a rescue with a dark past. Online bookstores are crammed with works by authors who wanted to celebrate their pet but didn’t pay enough mind to their readers. To avoid ending up with the same deficit of interest, authors need to stay aware that for their work to be enjoyable for other people, it has to have a story.
So what kind of story can you tell? Well, for fiction authors, the answers pretty simple: any story you like. For others, there are fewer, but equally successful, options. The most popular of these is to use a pet’s story to complement semi-autobiographical writing.
Many authors write about their pets as a way of writing about a set period in their lives, or of reflecting on their experiences. This is the case in Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog, where author John Grogan uses the pet’s lifespan to examine his own mindset at different points over the years. Anecdotes about the dog and his own life interweave, and a narrative of personal growth emerges.[bctt tweet=”Struggling to write your #memoir? Focusing on a pet may be the answer. #writingtip #forauthors” username=”standoutbooks”]
Boo! The Underdog with a Heart of Gold is a great example of story in pet writing. Boo is presented as a ‘trouble dog’, difficult to train and the runt of the litter, and author Lisa Edwards uses his apparent failings to reflect on her own life story, growing up with dyslexia and a difficult home life. Later in the book, Boo becomes a therapy animal, allowing Edwards to expand the scope of the story and explore how he has helped others who are struggling with the issues she and Boo have encountered earlier. Themes are raised and repeated, with Edwards, then Boo, then those he helps going through the same cycle of disadvantage and healing.
I was in tears much of the time, blaming myself for bringing this confused little puppy into a home where he was not fully wanted, where I struggled to get him to learn faster. It broke my heart to think of losing Boo, and I was starting to resent Lawrence for not wanting him.
I couldn’t make Lawrence love Boo. Only Boo could make Lawrence love Boo. But to get Boo to the place where he could do that, he needed confidence and to learn how to live in a world outlined by the social mores of humans. It had taken me years to develop confidence and a rudimentary understanding of life skills. Boo didn’t have years.
– Lisa Edwards, Boo! The Underdog with a Heart of Gold
Though true, it’s a real narrative with multiple characters, obstacles, and a progression of ideas and events. This is what authors should strive for when writing about pets – a journey for the reader, for which the pet in question happens to be the ideal focus.
This type of writing can lead to amazing success, as it has for James Bowen, author of A Street Cat Named Bob. Bowen’s own story of homelessness and addiction found a perfect metaphor in the injured cat, Bob, and the writer’s detailing of their story went on to capture international attention.
I had known that A Street Cat Named Bob, the book I wrote about my life-changing friendship with a ginger tomcat I met eight years ago, has been a huge bestseller in Germany, spending more than a year in the bestseller list and selling more than 1.5 million copies. But I had no idea of the impact the story had made there… Crowds of up to 900 people turned up at signings in Cologne, Berlin and Brunswick. Many had queued for five or more hours just to say hello, get an autographed copy of one of our books and, of course, get a glimpse and a hurried smartphone snap of Bob. It was a wonderful experience, one that I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams. To know that so many people have been touched by our story was truly humbling.
– James Bowen, The Big Issue
It’s evident that writing centered on a pet can be a huge success – people really do love animals, and are prepared to connect with them in a way that few other subjects can manage so easily – just so long as the author takes the time to explore the characters and construct a fully-fledged story.[bctt tweet=”There’s a huge market for pet lit, just as long as it’s GOOD pet lit. #forauthors #bookmarketing” username=”standoutbooks”]
What genre suits your story?
One final consideration for authors wanting to write about pets is which genre of writing will suit their story best. I’ve already touched on how mixing a pet’s story with memoir can be effective, however writers should also consider the essay as an unlikely home for great pet writing. Those who want to know more should check out So You Think You Know Your Short Prose? for a rundown of some interesting options.
Have you ever written about your pet, or are you struggling to find the right form of their story? Let me know in the comments.