Thursday, August 10, 2017

How Writing a Novel is like Having a Dog @coop

LUCY BURDETTE: Our guest today is our good friend Mike Cooper. He's too modest to come right out and say this, but his forthcoming novel is the winner of the first-ever Mysterious Press Award, and it's coming our way in September. Today, though, he has an interesting post about his writing process....

MIKE COOPER: Writing a novel is not like driving a car at night (sorry, E.L.), at least for me.  Well, unless the car is stalled, there are food wrappers and empty cans scattered about the floor, and the engine just ... won’t ... TURN OVER.  Also it’s cold and snowing and the troopers have already been by, but only to issue a ticket for a broken taillight.  Oh, and the arrival deadline is midnight.

But that’s not today’s metaphor (salient though it might be to the current work-in-process).  No, today we’re going to talk about why writing a novel is like having a dog.
Look, there’s OUR dog!  Isn’t she great?  Her name is Bailey, a black-lab-plus-who-knows-what mix.  Utterly charming, cheerful, energetic, and unfailingly eager to meet new people, Bailey loves the world and everything in it.  (Except a few other dogs, and vegetables, and coming back when called.  I guess she’s not perfect.)

Anyway, she’s been with us for a year and a half, which coincidentally is about how long it takes me to knock off a novel.  And that’s only the beginning.  Here are all the eerie parallels between a dog and an unfinished manuscript.

Both require waaaay more time than you think.

Years earlier we got a cat.  Man, cats are EASY.  Show him the litter box –- done!  Scratch his head now and then, provide a few catnip toys, get some dried fish from H-Mart; ten minutes a day tops.  We can even leave him alone for a weekend no problem.

A dog is not like that.  Sure the kids promised to take care of the walks, but you know how that goes.  First thing upon waking, mid-morning, mid-afternoon and before bedtime –- that’s a couple hours right there.  Plus constant demands for attention inside the house, struggles over bed space at night, various medical emergencies.  It’s a wonder anything else ever gets done around here ... including, you know, writing.

Paper training is just like a first draft.

It takes forever, you’re constantly cleaning up messes, and it’s impossible to escape the frequent question “why exactly am I doing this??”  And just when you think you’re done . . . you’re NOT.

You get yanked around a lot.

A better dog owner would have spent more time training, instilling discipline and obedience, but for better or worse that’s not us.  So walks can be a struggle, with sudden full-power lunges after squirrels and rabbits (and small fluffy dogs led by nice elderly women, a particular peeve of Bailey’s for some unfathomable reason).  Hey, is that a skunk? –- let’s check it out!
Developing a storyline is much like that, at least for me.  The characters are constantly jumping away in unexpected directions, going off script, completely twisting up the leash –- I mean the plot.  First rewrites are always a nightmare, as I try to restore order and bring everyone to heel.

Then there’s the whole business side of writing, which is like the worst dog walk ever.

But it’s not all bad ...

You make new friends.

Oddly for such solitary business, writing has introduced me to all sorts of people, many of whom I quite like.  In the same way, an hour at the dog park every day has introduced us to a group of other regulars, and we really look forward to seeing them.  Their owners are nice too.

In the end, you can’t live without either.

For all the complaining one might do, at the end of the day there’s nothing like a dog curled up by your side, warm and comfy and full of love.  Just like a finished manuscript!

Except for the drool, of course.

Question for writers: Cats famously interfere with the creative process by walking on keyboards.  What has your dog done to help, or hinder, that next novel? For readers: How about some cute dog stories?

Mike Cooper has wanted for years to write a vampire dog detective romance told from the dog’s POV.  His next novel, however, is THE DOWNSIDE, coming in September from Mysterious Press / Open Road.  He lives outside Boston with his family, including one cat and, yes, one dog.  More at


  1. Interesting perspective, Mike. Can you tell us a bit about your new book?

    We’ve always had big dogs in our family, Golden Retrievers, Labradors, and such. The Golden Retrievers were eminently patient with the children when they were babies; ear-pulling and bouncing upon said dogs by the Little Ones were stoically permitted . . . they had their fun by climbing the back yard fence, resulting in dead-of-night dog chases [which my husband always missed since he worked the police department’s night shift].
    Good thing they also loved jumping in the car . . . .

  2. Dogs, and novels, have minds of their own. I have border collies, a breed that is extremely smart, but also completely capable of operating independently of their owner. My dogs make their own assessment of any situation we find ourselves in, and their solution may not always be my solution. Similarly I've had characters who make up their own minds about how they want to handle a plot point, and refuse to listen to my suggestions or commands. It's easier to rethink the plot than to reel the character back in to go in the direction I want to go.

    Now here is a true story about living with border collies. I have four dogs in my house right now, including a foster dog from the rescue group I volunteer for, but my primary dogs are Zoe and Chess. The other day Zoe wanted some one on one time with me, away from the other dogs, so I took her for a ride. Chess, who keeps track of the time I spend with Zoe, was an utter brat until I promised to take him for a ride too. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to make a clean getaway with Chess. Zoe caught me ever so silently picking up his leash as I left the house, and wanted to go too.

    So I lied to my dog. I told Zoe I was taking Chess to the vet. Zoe does not believe a trip to the vet equals a fun outing, so she let me go with no further fuss. (Please note that I absolutely believe my dogs understand words like "ride" and "vet.") Chess and I actually did go to the vet, but only to pick up some prescriptions. We had a lovely ride down there and back, with treats from the vet techs in the middle, but Zoe had to sniff us both over very thoroughly when we got back, to make sure we hadn't cheated and gone somewhere fun without her.

    In the end, Zoe got her ride and Chess got his ride, so Chess was satisfied that they were even, and Zoe was satisfied that she'd gotten the better ride and I hadn't really lied to her. Then I went and screwed it up the next day by taking Zoe along to help me evaluate a family that had applied to adopt a rescue border collie. Zoe worked hard on that evaluation visit, but now Chess thinks I owe him a ride.

    1. You're making me howl Gigi, and so early! Tonka is thrilled to be an only dog and horribly jealous of the cat. He slinks away if I rub said cat or talk babytalk, and then tries to knock him down when he's getting on the bed. We definitely couldn't handle any more--but I love that you're fostering!

    2. The fostering is like dating a lot of new dogs, while being happily married to the three that I keep. We won't get into the cats, who are supremely tolerant of dog nonsense.

    3. Gigi, you always make me giggle. Tuesday we took Toby to the vet, as he has something untoward on his tongue. He was delighted to RITC (ride in the car), but Penny was pissed although she hates rides. The pimple on tongue needs biopsy, so this morning it was RITC time again for Toby. He flatly refused, well trained dog that he is, took off and Julie couldn't catch him. He ran back upstairs and go in bed with me. I corralled him and applied the car harness. In the meantime Penny was smothering me with kisses, wanting to put on her harness and go too. How, pray tell me, did Toby know that this RITC was going to involve being left at the vets and coming home with a sore mouth? Dogs are all empaths. Period.

    4. My stepmother had border collies, on a Missouri farm (quite some years ago now). Smartest dogs I've every met -- you're right, they have a working vocabulary greater than that of some grade-schoolers!

      Of course, the smarter the dog, the more high-maintenance they can be. I used to say that the best family dog characteristics are dumb and placid :)

    5. Cool about your stepmother's dog. My mom had the first border collie in the family--there have been seven since--when I was a kid up in Missouri. They weren't a very common breed back then. I think Mom depended on her dog to keep track of us kids. Not sure dumb and placid would have made the cut. What part of Missouri was your stepmother in? We were in Rolla.

    6. Outside Ashland. I grew up in Columbia -- back when it was about half the size it's apparently grown to today. We used to drive through Rolla on the way to the Ozarks for camping. It's been years since I've been back to that part of the country though!

  3. And this is why we currently have cats but no dog--between music/classes/work/friends, doggy training/walks/feeding/etc., falls to me. Unfortunately, we have two cats who apparently think they are dogs. They bring their toys and drop them at my feet for games of fetch and bite the string. Sneak up on me from behind and tap my shoulder for games of chase. Stretch out across the keyboard--makes for some very interesting copyedits....

    But I have to say, Bailey would be irresistible-- I swear my oldest nephew has her littermate--a sweet girl named Dobbie who loves to snuggle under the blankets! I'll be looking out for The Downfall!

  4. Welcome, Mike and congrats on the new book. I'm looking forward to reading it, as well as the that vampire dog detective romance!

    I like the comparison between first drafts and dogs, but my cocker spaniel hasn't done much to hinder my first draft (I do fine with that on my own). He's the mellowest dog I've ever had and rarely even barks. He loves his walks, but he's getting older, so he can't go very far and is okay with missing a day or two.

    My favorite dog story? We have family friends who always had German shepherds. At the time this happened, they for some reason had a little keeshond, but the shepherd kennel contacted them and asked them to take a puppy for a year for socialization. The puppy, "Nightstick", was bound for police work after that. Well, they took the "puppy" who quickly grew into something that resembled a big, black wolf. He was the sweetest dog, though, and bonded very strongly with our friends' teenage son, J. When Night went back to the kennel, both the boy and the dog were miserable, and the kennel was having trouble getting the dog to respond to training. One night, the dog tried to escape and get to J by jumping over the barbed wire fence. He landed on the fence and was rushed to the vet for emergency surgery. They didn't think he'd make it, but he did and as soon as he was able, he was returned to our friends permanently. Whenever J was home, he followed him around like a huge black version of Mary's little lamb, and when J got his license, Nightstick would happily ride around town in J's little AMC hornet.

  5. My two standard poodles are having a rumble under my feet. They've already tried the "let's knock her coffee off the table" and "nose under forearm" and "paws on keyboard." During our daily walks, which I use to plot storm and practice dialogue, we encounter small yappy dogs who charge their electric fence lines, snapping and growling. A combined 90 pounds of poodle goes into a frenzy. Joggers, people riding bikes, roadkill...and squirrels, which require five minutes of leash tugging to get them to move on. Deer puzzle them, because they want to much the salad bar in my yard instead of playing.

    Looking forward to reading your book!

  6. Welcome Mike, congratulations on the new book, and metaphors be with you.

    My kids were raised with a GSD, Maggie, and a number of cats, back in the day when both ran free and spay/neuter wasn't often done. Both the GSD and Mama Cat were with child at the same time, delivering kittens first and then puppies a week later. Unfortunately Mama Cat disappeared, and we never found her, so sad. And we had three kittens, just a few days old. I tossed them in with the puppies and they hissed and clawed their way to the table, settled in, and three puppies had to wait for their dinner. Maggie raised both litters, but the kittens made her crazy, apt as they were to climb out of the box and up a tree within a short time.

    Forever after, long after she was spayed and out of the puppy business, she made a habit of searching the neighborhood for baby anythings, kittens, squirrels, whatever was unattended. She would bring them home and bather them thoroughly, then put them to nurse.

    Now we have two dogs, both Pomapoos, and an elegant cat, with six toes on each foot, named Eliot. Eliot and Penny Lane are both the same age, four. They are best buddies, play/fight daily, and keep each other spotlessly groomed. Toby, our elder statesman, watches benignly.

    I call them my puppycats.

    1. That's an amazing story!

      Baily also searches the neighborhood for baby kittens, squirrels and other animals ... but she has something different in mind.

  7. Great post, Mike. I certainly lived through the cat on the keyboard but the big thing about dogs is that they look at you adoringly and say "you're doing great! This is going to be the best book ever!"

  8. Congrats on the Mysterious Press Award, Mike! What an honor! I would love to hear more about your book. I'm not a pet owner and haven't been since I was little. Unfortunately, my most recent dog experience was when one sunk her teeth into my calf!

    And excuse my brief PSA...Ann Mason, Denise Ann, and Keenan are winners of the Linda Fairstein giveaway! Please email me your address at

  9. Love winning! Thank you Ingrid and Linda

  10. From Mike Cooper:

    MaryC's comment about a huge wolf-like dog that's a kitten at heart rings true. The nicest, sweetest, most inoffensive regular at the dog park is a massive, one-eyed boxer who looks like she fought her way out of a pit somewhere.

    Thanks for asking about the book! Here's the squib:

    In an age of cybercrime, Finn is the last hardhat.

    As THE DOWNSIDE opens, he’s fresh out of prison, flat broke, and lining up his biggest job ever. Cracking the most heavily guarded private vault in North America? -- no problem. Hauling $50 million of precious metal out past guards, two police departments and an armored SWAT battalion? -- easy money.

    But navigating the betrayals of double-crossing partners, the machinations of a hedge-fund billionaire gone bad, and the ambiguous proposals of a woman with her own agenda ...

    Finn has only begun to figure out the downside.

    In our age of inequality, THE DOWNSIDE is a smart, funny thriller about a gang of blue-collar knuckleheads who decide the one percent owes them a share.

    "Wildly inventive ... Fans of Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder novels will find a lot to like" -- Publishers Weekly (starred)

    "Mike Cooper writes so convincingly about crime I’m amazed there isn’t a warrant out for his arrest" -- Owen Laukkanen

    1. Mike, you did not tell me about the starred review from publishers weekly! Congrats on that!

  11. Mike, I love this. So very, very true.

    Cats are independent - except that when they want your attention, they want it NOW. I have the scratch marks to prove it. =)

    No animals in my house right now. It makes me very sad.


    1. That is sad. But sometimes necessary I guess. We have two senior citizens limping along in our house. Yoda is definitely a keyboard walker, but Tonka is a very good Helper!

  12. Hey, Mike (waving!) - So happy to see you here and looking forward to your book... LOVE the analogy. Never having had a dog I can now imagine what it's like. We did once have a cat who sat on warm keyboards. Not helpful. AKA writers block?

    1. Hi Hallie! Thankfully our cat has no interest in keyboards. My writers block is all my own :)

  13. Really? Never? I can't imagine life without my dogs.

  14. Hi Mike! Excuse my tardiness, but I had an interview for a local NPR program this morning, in my house. The German shepherds provided some nice sound effects in the beginning, but then had to be sent upstairs for some doggy "quiet time" for the rest of the interview.

    I do agree that writing a books is like owning a dog. I only wish I was as disciplined in my schedule as they are in theirs. And their absolutely MUST GO OUT NOW always seems to happen when I've finally figured out my scene or the perfect bit of dialogue!

    We have dogs and cats, so can vouch for the walking on keyboards or lying on the mouse thing. One of them has taken to lying full length right up against the back of my laptop. I wonder if my publisher would take "the cat made my computer explode" as a good excuse for a late manuscript?

    Congrats on the PW review, and I can't wait to read the book!

    1. Good point about the scheduling! Indeed, at 9:30 promptly every day, there's a nose poking in, wondering when the heck we're going to the park. But it's the four-hour nap afterward that I'm really envious of!

  15. Growing up we had rabbits, gerbils and turtles on occasion as pets, but we always seemed to have a dog most of all.

    There was Jeff, who once trapped a cop in our house who had come to check on him while the family was away. (My dad was a cop and had asked a fellow officer to check on the dog).

    There was Barney, a beagle-chihuahua mix. The latter part would bite you while the beagle would immediately apologize. He once put my dad in the hospital because he ran into the house and jumped on my dad who was napping on the couch. The way he landed on my father, my dad tore something that required the hospital visit.

    There was Bethany, a doberman puppy that was a tragic tale and one of the few times I truly felt like I could've committed murder with no remorse. I still hate the person responsible for her death.

    There was J.B. (Jefferson Barnaby) and Haley, He was a Heinz 57 and she was a shepherd-husky. They were awesome.

    There was a shepherd/mix named Riley, who lived the life of. She was my dad's dog like you wouldn't believe.

    After Riley died, we didn't have any dogs until my sister had to board her dogs with us. They were Archie (a lab) and Coco (another Heinz 57). Archie was a big galoot of a dog who was just a spaceshot his entire life. Coco was a little charmer that I resisted for a while but after Archie died, she kind of attached herself to me. I never allowed the dogs in my room but Coco would stay outside the room and poke her head in and look at me with those eyes that said, "PLEASE can I come in and be with you?" Eventually I gave in like a true sap. :D

    When she died, that was the final dog in the run. My mother was getting older and while she wanted another dog, she wouldn't have been able to take care of it and I was frankly just not up to another dog.

    I love dogs, let's not get that fact wrong. But my time as a pet owner is done.

    1. We never even tried to keep Bailey out of the bedrooms or off the furniture ... though it might have reduced the squabbling if we had. "I get the dog tonight." "No, it's MY turn!" "You had her last night!"

      And the kids are even worse :)

  16. Running in late..this is so funny! I love it. No dogs in my adult life, but a previously a cat named Leon who REALLY needed to sleep on the computer keyboard. And would insist on walking--strolling--right between me and the monitor.

    Tell us about the MP award! Congratulations!

  17. "Mike Cooper has wanted for years to write a vampire dog detective romance told from the dog’s POV."

    It's amazing what I learn here at JungleReds!