Dealing with Ghost Dogs: The Fine Art of Revision

31 Mar

by Lynn Heitkamp


My writers’ group has decided that, collectively, we’re done working with animals — dogs, specifically.

This doesn’t mean we don’t love our furry friends.  Most of us in the group are devoted pet owners, and my own labrador retriever usually isn’t very far away from my computer when I’m working.

No, we mean fictional dogs.

You’ve probably heard the old saying that you should never work with children or animals and thought it doesn’t apply to fiction writers.  After all, we do most of our work in our heads, and with pens and keyboards, don’t we?  It’s not like we’re part of a live performance that can get derailed by a temper tantrum or an embarrassing scratch.  We’re the creators of our fictional worlds, and even the kids and the animals inside them are supposed to follow our lead.  Right?



Let’s just say my writer friends and I have had some issues with that.  We’ve discovered that projects that include dogs as characters tend to derail in very odd ways.

Our most egregious case of fictional dog misbehavior came in one of my own novels.  I had been writing and revising the project for nearly two years before I finally decided to print it off and let my family members read it.

The manuscript was riddled with errors, ranging from weird jumps in font types, to repeated chapters, but my family loves me and were willing to overlook them in their eagerness to see what I’d been working on in secret for so long.

And then came the evening when I was sitting across the room from my mother while she read my manuscript.  I was doing my best to ignore what she was doing.  I wanted her to experience the story on the pages, and didn’t think hovering over her shoulder, asking “What do you think?” every five pages would accomplish much.

But then she turned a page, and started laughing.  Out loud.

My heart warmed.  I fancied that there were quite a few amusing incidents in this story, and I was pleased to know that one of them had tickled another human being’s fancy.  I interrupted her to ask, “What part are you on?”

She laughed again and pointed down at what she had just read.  “He just reached down to pet the dog,” she said between chuckles.  “But the dog died in the last chapter!

Indeed.  I had committed one of the sins of cut-and-paste editing.  While rearranging the timeline of the novel, I’d moved an important conversation between my two main characters to a different point in the story, but I hadn’t remembered to account for all the changes that had happened between those two points — the most glaring of which was the tender death scene of said dog.  On my computer screen, scrolling up and down through pages, I’d never noticed the mistake, just as I’d never noticed my font issues or duplicated passages.

It has gone down in writers’ group lore as “the ghost dog incident,” and, though it was mortifying at the time, I did take away from it a valuable lesson.

Technology is great, but the human eye is better, especially when you’re editing.  Sometimes you have to actually have something in your hands to see what you’re doing.  Sometimes a Beta reader can save your story from a mistake that makes you cringe.

And some times, you just have to give up and say you no longer work with dogs.


Lynn Heitkamp is the author of Thorn of the Kingdom, and several other novels on FictionPress.  She signed with Mandy Hubbard of the D4EO Agency in February 2010.  Despite her intentions, her characters still sometimes insist on keeping pets, but she’s learning to live with that.


5 Responses to “Dealing with Ghost Dogs: The Fine Art of Revision”

  1. Lua March 31, 2010 at 5:22 AM #

    I love dogs; I own two dogs but whenever I try and include them in to a story, it just doesn’t work as well as I hope it would. I never tried working with children but after your post, I think dogs & children will be on my “stay away” list for a while. 🙂

    When I’m done with a story, I give it to my best friend to read it before I show it to another human being. I can’t count the times she saved me from making a fool of myself- it’s amazing how many mistakes my eyes can miss when I’m reading my own manuscript.
    Beta Readers = Life Savers 🙂

  2. Savannah J. Foley March 31, 2010 at 9:27 AM #

    Oh, Lynn, I loved this article! I will forever remember The Ghost Dog Incident!

    I haven’t tried to work with kids OR dogs in any of my novels… in fact, I can’t remember a single dog in any of my books, lol! Oh no wait, there was a puppy in one of them…

    Anyway, no (significant) children at least. Now I’m sort of glad; I think my stories would experience a similar derailment.

  3. jennfitzgerald March 31, 2010 at 12:26 PM #

    I hate printing rough drafts out but I always have to because there’s so much I miss on the computer!

    I love the ghost dog story 🙂 the only dogs I’ve had in my works so far have only been referred to as ‘the dogs’ so i don’t have to worry about telling them apart and dealing with pesky individuals

  4. Gabriela da Silva March 31, 2010 at 1:36 PM #

    I had both a kid and a dog in my novel. The dog became a murderer and the kid gave me the sequel I’m working on right now, so I’m fine with both 😉

    As for revision, what worked best for me is printing out everything, taking a colored pencil and having No Mercy. It’s difficult at first, but once you’re done with the book – when you know there’s not going to be any more changes, that the people who died will stay dead and the people that lived will stay alive… then you can create critical distance.

    Which leads to No Mercy on yourself.
    Seeing stuff of paper you can really locate not only mistakes, but also bits that are too long, unnecesary or the ones that need fleshing out, as well as certain sections that need re-wording or changing the structure.

    Some people hate revising. For me, it’s almost as creative as writing itself. In some senses, I can’t wait to finish laying the ground for the new book only so I can finish and start editing, hah!

  5. Biljana March 31, 2010 at 5:09 PM #

    Hahaha what a fun article! I’ve never worked with dogs, but there are a few horses in my story, and I know I’m CONSTANTLY debating over whether or not the people are treating them in ways that are consistent to their character.

    Thanks for the canine warning though :).

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