Training Your Writing to Behave

Training Your Writing to Behave

Two and a half years ago I brought home a dog from the Austin Animal Center, where I was volunteering, with whom I’d fallen rather quickly in love. From the moment we met he was calm and kept all four feet on the ground when I went into his kennel, staying gently focused on me—traits I always look for in a new dog. He was responsive and sweetly affectionate.

“Are you my mommy?!”

I brought him home as a foster—the shelter was overcrowded and they were desperate to place animals—but I think we both knew from the get-go that that was a fiction.

First ride home from the shelter! Best behavior…

As was his calm, modulated demeanor, I quickly discovered.

I knew, of course, that animals could act differently in the high-stress, unfamiliar environment of a shelter, but I expected it to be the other way around—that their behavior might be more excitable and unpredictable in that environment. Gavin, though, was apparently holding it all in till he felt more secure and settled…when he decided it was safe to let it all out.

He’d evinced housetrained behaviors at the shelter—but at our house he started peeing inside, always in one certain spot. He’d been marked as a “green-dot” dog at AAC, meaning he’d been assessed as fairly docile and without problem behaviors, so any visitors to the shelter could go right into his kennel without needing assistance from staff or volunteers—but once he settled into our home he became wary and defensive with anyone who wasn’t us.

While he’d trotted alongside me when I took him out of his kennel at the shelter, on walks in the neighborhood he nearly yanked my arm off lunging after anything that moved: cars, scooters, bikes, squirrels, leaves. He was a scavenger, nose constantly to the ground like a truffle pig, and I had to watch him constantly because he would eat literally anything he found. A partial list: mulch, dirt, beetles, rocks, trash, roadkill residue, deer poop…a bunny (we shall not speak of that dark day).

This happened…

He was…not quite the dog I assessed him to be in the shelter. And he was not like our other rescue dogs, who’d come to us pretty WYSIWYG and low-maintenance.

But he was our dog now.

So we took him to trainers—several of them. We finally found the right one (shout-out to the gifted Tara Stermer of K9 Workingmind!) and I started working with Gavin every single day, not just on the specific program she laid out for us, but in nearly every activity we did: walks, backyard playtime, games, feeding, and even relaxation time all became opportunities to shape his behavior.

We saw improvement from our very first session with Tara—and ongoingly—but periodically we got frustrated. Why wasn’t he consistently calm and nonreactive like our other dog? Why did he always push every little boundary if we weren’t vigilant? Why did he sometimes have sudden setbacks and revert to his old ways?

Gavin, we decided, was Gavin, and he could be a handful.

Except…slowly I started seeing how much progress he was making. His marking behavior inside the house is a thing of the past. He’s much more comfortable with strangers. Once a relentless beggar who’d nearly topple us while we cooked, lunging for any tiny crumb that fell on the floor, now he plants his butt on his rug in the kitchen and just looks at me if something drops off the cutting board, until I give him permission to take it.

On walks, if a kid buzzes by on a skateboard or a passing dog barks and pulls toward him, rather than lunging Gavin looks up at me for praise or a treat. If he goes barking after someone on the sidewalk passing by our backyard, he turns immediately around and comes trotting back to me the moment I say, “Stop—come back.” He knows a panoply of commands and loves nothing better than eagerly executing them and always learning more.

Don’t get me wrong—he can still be a real pain in the ass, and he hears it so often the poor dog probably thinks “Dammit, Gavin!” is his name. Gavin gonna Gavin, and his training is a work in progress.

But little by little, without my entirely realizing it, he’s actually turned into a damn good dog.

Dogs Are Like Writing

Some stories come on like Gavin, presenting themselves so perfectly you imagine you’ll just need to transcribe the idea flowering in your head and poof! Bestseller.

And then come unexpected problem behaviors: Dead ends and roadblocks. Meaningless detours. Stalled momentum. Wrong turns. No matter how much you revise and rework, it just won’t come together.

You get discouraged. Maybe you think about giving up. Your last story wasn’t this hard, right?

But as with dog training, the steady, consistent work of honing, developing, polishing, working toward shaping a manuscript into the story an author hopes it will become can take time—and results aren’t always obvious at first. It’s an incremental, cumulative process.

The steady, consistent work of honing, developing, polishing, working toward shaping a manuscript can take time.

There’s a reason I refer to this process as Revision Mountain: When you’re looking up from the foothills, the summit can seem impossibly distant. Even as you take step after step after step toward the top, it can still seem so far away.

But if you turn around and glance back to where you started, you may be surprised to see how far you’ve come. And if you just keep your head on the step in front of you…and the next…and the next…you’ll get ever closer to your goal.

My husband and I joke that our dog is “All Gavin! All the time!” And it’s true—moderating his more…shall we say overenthusiastic traits and eliciting the behavior we want requires consistency and vigilance from us. Some dogs are like that.

So are some stories. I wrote my third book, Heart Conditions (under my pen name, Phoebe Fox) in about three months. I started my upcoming release, The Way We Weren’t, nearly fifteen years ago. The former book came out in draft very close to the final published version; the latter has been through countless revisions and overhauls. Every story is different, and takes what it takes.

I say this so often it’s practically my tagline: The most important trait an author can have, both in her writing and in her career as a writer, is persistence.

This is a demanding craft and a tough business. There are rarely shortcuts. Success—whether that’s turning out the most effective and compelling version of the story you set out to tell, or getting an agent or a publishing contract, or becoming a bestseller, or whatever metric you measure by—requires concerted, consistent, steady work. And like Gavin, it may never turn out quite the way you planned.

But I couldn’t that love dog more. As challenging as he can be, every single day he makes me laugh, he looks at me like I invented everything good in the world, and I adore watching him go at life full-frontal, with his big goofy grin. He’s worth every bit of work and attention and care we put into him—in fact all of that is what our relationship and life with our pets (and loved ones) is.

It’s the same with your creativity, friends. The process isn’t a means to an end—it’s the point of it, the journey itself, the experiences you have and what they build, how they let you grow. The truth is there’s never really a finish line (except for the ultimate one).

Write the story. Enjoy the process. Write another one, if it calls to you.

Don’t forget to notice how far you’ve come.

10 Comments. Leave new

  • I can’t tell you how much I loved this post. I am definitely in those foothills at the moment and I’m ashamed to say I’ve made absolutely no progress in the first quarter of the year. It’s all felt a bit overwhelming. But I found your words very encouraging and motivating. I will tackle it one step at a time, day after day. Onwards! And really well done with Gavin, he is lucky to have found you. I’ve gone back to basics a bit with my dog lately. He’s four, but his behaviour has been sliding a bit. I love how you used every opportunity to train, it’s a really good tip. Thanks again for this brilliant post.cq

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      March 25, 2021 12:48 pm

      Our trainer told us that dogs (like teenagers…) will periodically test the boundaries–we’ve learned to watch for signs of that and step up our own boundaries at those times till he remembers he’s not the boss of us. 🙂 Your pup may be stretching his wings now and then too to see what he can get away with. They’re the best, though, aren’t they? They remind me to take every day as it comes and be more aware in the present moment.

      Please don’t be ashamed about not making progress this year. It’s been a hellish little while in the world, and that alone can dampen creativity. But often the fallow time is just as important as the writing time for creative efforts. I’m not one who thinks you MUST WRITE EVERY DAY! Sometimes you have to step away and fill the well, no judgment. And writing, even when it’s hard, should be a joy in my “book,” not a whip to flog ourselves with. I have a lot of posts about this categorized under “writing life” or “inspiration,” if they’re useful. Thanks for your comment!

      • Tiffany, thanks for this, it means a lot, and I’ll definitely check out your writing life and inspiration posts, thank you. Ironically, I happen to have some teenagers testing the boundaries along with the dog. Never a dull moment. But as you say, dogs really are the best, I don’t know what I do without my daily walks.

        • Tiffany Yates Martin
          March 25, 2021 3:26 pm

          Another benefit! They do force me to exercise daily, whether I want to or not. 🙂

  • Fliss Zakaszewska
    March 25, 2021 10:36 am

    I took on an eighteen-month Rottweiller a long time back – I feel your pain, sister. Ten and a half years I had Denis and I saw him turn from the Gavin you describe at the start to a wonderful, calm, loyal companion who, as you said, looked at me as if I’d invented the world. And yes, my writing’s the same and this blog has just put my writing career into perspective – I’m training Denis. Thank you for this great perspective.

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      March 25, 2021 12:43 pm

      Denis sounds like a delight. I have to say that the process of working so much with Gavin has really created a deep relationship between us (like writing…!). How lucky you were to have had a companion like your rottie. Thanks for the comment!

  • I’ll love Gavin from afar, because I have his feline equivalent – Boomer. Imagine Gavin, only he doesn’t care about pleasing you at all, with a penchant for mouse-heads for dessert (the rest he leaves on the welcome mat). Yeah. But I digress…I LOVE the writing lesson here – too true!

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      March 27, 2021 7:57 pm

      EW. I have to say this is one of several reasons I don’t think I’m a cat person. 😀 Thanks for the comment, Laura!

  • Lovely post as always.


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