Wednesday, June 3, 2015

It's OK To Be Squirrely


They say the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. Ok, I’ll admit it. I admire squirrels.

Now don’t get me wrong. I get mad when they outwit my cunning defenses and snarf down ten bucks worth of sunflower seed (intended for the birds my wife and I love to watch) in one boisterously gluttonous feast. But deep down, I have to admit that the fact I was outwitted by a small furry rodent inspires a certain sense of awe. Squirrels may be greedy, feisty and ornery. But they’re also adaptable, tenacious, clever, and daring. It rather surprises me that squirrels don’t—dare I say it—Rule The World!

So what does this have to do with the writing life? Well, I’ve always thought that if our kids had the same drive and stick-to-it-tiveness that squirrels did, the world would be a lot better place. And it hit me recently that the same tenet applies to us writers. How, you may ask. Allow me to illustrate. Take a few lessons from the squirrels.

Lesson One: Be Adaptable.
            Squirrels are incredible adaptable. If they can’t get that darned feeder by shinnying up a branch and scampering down the chain, they’ll figure out another way. Sneak in off another adjacent branch. Leap off the tree trunk, land at least one paw somewhere on the feeder, and scramble to the feast.
            Writers need to be adaptable as well. To realize if a story-line or a query letter just isn’t working, there comes a time when you need to take that leap off the tree trunk and hope to latch on to something new and exciting. And sometimes, like the squirrels, you take a header. But sometimes you end up with a yummy banquet—a shiny new subplot, or a killer query that gets you Requests. Which leads right into Lesson Two.

Lesson Two: Be Tenacious.
            Squirrels never give up. Never. It’s not in their nature, or their vocabulary. That furry daredevil that leaps off the tree to a feeder eight feed away, and misses? Yeah, he crashes ignominiously to the ground. (Note to self—do squirrels, like cats, always land on their feet? Need to research this). Does he cuss and slink off, hoping no one saw his spectacular disaster? Nope. He dusts himself off, scampers back up the tree, and has another go. And another. And yet another. Until he nails it. It’s almost like watching an Olympic skater tackle that triple quad salchow toe loop axel thingy. Over and over, until they get it right.
            Be the Squirrel. Don’t give up. Ever. Keep plugging away, working the story, spicing up the query, making those changes your critique partners suggested, (see Lesson One: Be Adaptable), and having faith that one of these days, with the right combination of gumption and luck and skill, the Gods will indeed smile on your efforts.   
            Which leads, as night leads to day, to Lesson Three.

Lesson Three: Be Clever.
            Squirrels are indeed clever. They’ll run up a branch, eye distances and angles, figure trajectories. And then, they’ll dart up a second, and a third, branch to do the same thing all over again. Squirrels aren’t squirrelly. They’re actually quite smart—they make plans, they learn from their mistakes, and they can interpolate data and make decisions.
            Be the Squirrel. Make plans. You don’t have to have an outline of your entire novel before you start. But you do need a plan for what you’re going to do with that completed novel once it’s finished. Learn from your mistakes. Understand what didn’t work, and why, so that you can do it better the next time around. And make decisions based on the data you’ve accumulated—self pub vs traditional, plotting vs pantsing, etc. Decide what works for you, and go with it. And finally, this leads us to Lesson Four.

Lesson Four: Be Daring.
            A squirrel is fun to watch. Those mighty leaps into space, knowing the only thing that’s going to save him is a last-second grab by one toenail, so that he ends up hanging upside down and must carefully pull himself upright and much down his well-earned ration of black oil sunflower seed, is a lesson in daring that might have been pulled from the files of the Impossible Missions Force. A leap of faith, indeed.
            Again, Be the Squirrel. Take that leap of faith. Don’t stick to the ordinary, or try to write to (or anticipate) the trend. Grab your idea and turn it on its head. Be crazy and creative and, yes, daring. Will it always pay off? Probably not. Like our example, Mr. BushyTail, you may take a tumble or two. But once in a while, if you’re tenacious and adaptable and clever, you’ll make that amazing leap into blissful inspiration that is so unique and bold that it’ll have agents and editors knocking at your tree (uh, door) with offers of coffers.


Repeat after me. Be the Squirrel. 

5 comments:

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Good advice no matter where it is applied.

Olga Godim said...

Keith, I like squirrels too. In fact, a squirrel is one of the protagonists in my urban fantasy short story collection Squirrel of Magic. I'm contemplating a new edition of the book and I'd like to include a quote from your post, maybe on the cover. I couldn't have said it better myself.

Keith Willis said...

Olga, I would be honored! :)

Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Adding to my previous comment. I like real squirrels, too. We had an upper deck in Cleveland in the 70's. I ran a duplicate bridge game in that underfurnished 24' X 24' bedroom. The squirrels came at our lunch break and begged for tidbits. I gave them almonds, but one lady had a cup of soup and tried to give them her garlic croutons. They hate garlic! That's why squirrels don't have bad breath.

Keith Willis said...

Ah, I've got this figured out. They were actually Vampire Squirrels (thus no garlic).

Hmmm. Wonder if there's a story in this?