Friday, October 5, 2012

Finding Snoopy's voice

I'm currently on schedule to complete the rough draft of Snoopy's memoir by the first of November. When I began writing it, Snoopy's voice was like an equine Forrest Gump, a chap who knows he's stupid and it's okay with him. I also began with his accident, then alternated chapters between post-accident and pre-accident.

A couple of things made me re-think all that.

The big thing was that I sent a couple of chapters to a beta reader who was supremely helpful in pointing out where things didn't work. There were two big problems, as she saw it. When she explained them, I agreed.

First, it was not a good idea to start off with the accident. Readers have not gotten to know him yet, so it is hard for them to feel badly about what happened. They need to have an idea of who he is and why this leg break, as scary and sad as it is, does not ravage his spirit.

I rearranged the book so that it tells a linear story. We know Snoopy from his birth, just like David Copperfield.

Secondly, Forrest Gump aside, it's a difficult task to carry the reader along a simpleton's journey. It's a huge undertaking for the author to keep the voice authentically stupid, and it can be just plain exhausting for the reader trying to trudge through it without screaming, "Stop being such an idiot."

This meant I had to take another look at Snoopy, who he is, and what his voice is like. Here's what I know about him:

1. He is never mean or out of sorts.
2. He is rarely frightened of anything.
3. He touches everything with his mouth (unless we don't let him).
4. He mostly does what you ask him to do when you are in the saddle.
5. When he doesn't do what you ask, he acts like he doesn't feel your leg. When you get after him, he behaves.
6. Over poles, he is very careful with his feet. Everywhere else, he is not.
7. He is very trusting.

I then read some books that have been written in first-person from the animal's point of view. I read Black Beauty (again), War Horse, and the first three chapters of The Art of Racing in the Rain. Amazingly, the one that sounded most like an animal to me was Black Beauty. It is probably the standard, being such a classic, and while it is the story of a horse who must endure hardships until he finally finds his home, it is also a lesson in animal welfare and the need to treat everyone with kindness and respect.

I do not aspire to the heights of that classic, but I think Sewell got the voice very correct. He is an English country squire in his attitude, but the voice sounds very horse-like. As much as he understands people, he also has conversations with the other horses. We learn everyone's stories, and each one has something to say.

Here is a passage where Beauty was being trained:

"Next came the saddle, but that was not half so bad. My master put it on my back very gently, while old Daniel held my head. He then made the girths fast under my body, patting and talking to me all the time. Then I had a few oats, then a little leading about. This he did every day, till I began to look for the oats and the saddle."

Apart from a horse knowing the words saddle and girth, this sounds like a horse thinks, in my most humble opinion. He speaks in a straightforward way. He describes the feeling of being handled gently; this is important, as are the oats.

When I contrast that with War Horse, it sounds like a old man in a horse suit talking. Don't misunderstand - I liked the story. Even cried in a couple of places. But it's not a horse talking. At least, I cannot believe it is a horse's perspective on the world.

"As we approached the flagpole in the center of the green where the Union Jack hung limp in the sun against the white pole, an officer pushed through the crowd toward us. He was tall and elegant in his jodhpurs and military belt, with a silver sword at his side."

What horse knows what the Union Jack is? Or human fashion? Or cares?

I will, at some point, finish The Art of Racing in the Rain, but I am skeptical of the first person dog. He has an extensive vocabulary, which I am fine with, as well as his rich inner life. My one sticking point? He watches TV. I've never owned a dog who watched TV. Duffy listens to TV and gets very excited when there are dogs barking on it. But only my cats watch TV, mostly sports. They like to lay on top of the set and swat at the hurtling bodies and balls.

So Snoopy's voice will be that of a curious, naive horse, one who does not realize his own depth, or even his own strength, as he recovers from what could have been a life-ending injury. He will be plain spoken, and will have to be taught what things are.

Here's my new beginning:

"I don’t know very much, but I know what I am. I am a horse. Some people say we aren’t very smart. They may be right. They train us, though. It’s not exactly our fault if they teach us to be stupid.

And I don’t understand why they say we aren’t smart. I understand what people are saying. I even understand what they are thinking. Why can’t they understand my language?

I don’t even know how people understand each other. Their thought voices and loud voices happen at the same time, and most of the time, they’re not saying the same thing. Sometimes they’re saying completely opposite things."

Of course, this is just the rough draft.

Hee Hee Haw.

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