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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Guest Blogger: Kathi Macias | Writing Methodds

“Herding Cattle” by Kathi Macias

Herding cattle, another obviously relevant title for writers and authors.
Well, okay, maybe not. But let me explain. Better yet, let me illustrate.

•    “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.” —The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

•    “On February 8, 1956, in a little chapel in Loretto, Pennsylvania, I was ambushed by Jesus of Nazareth.” —Abba’s Child by Brennan Manning

•    “There once was a boy by the name of Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” —The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis

•    “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” —A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

•    “Elmer Gantry was drunk.” —Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis

•    “I had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me, or to any other….” —Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs

•    “The cracking sound of gunfire exploded behind them, continuing for several seconds before Melissa and Carrie, en route to the auditorium with dozens of other students, realized there was a problem.” —The Price by Kathi Mills-Macias

These are all the opening lines of books, written in such a way as to get the reader’s immediate attention. Did it work? Did they intrigue you, grab you, suck you into the story and make you want to read on? If so, then you’ve just been snagged by a cow catcher.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not inferring that you’re some sort of bovine creature. What I am saying is that you’ve just been hooked by writers who know how to capture their readers. Or, to put it another way, you’ve been “herded” in the direction the author wanted you to go.

    If you remember last month’s article, we talked about “eating the elephant” one bite at a time, rather than trying to ingest the entire pachyderm at one sitting. In other words, our topic was finding and keeping our focus, whether writing an article, a short story, a report, or a full-length book manuscript. In essence, we were “laying the track” for our train-of-thought writing. If we get off-track at any point during the process of our writing, we have lost the focus of our piece—and may lose our readers as well.

    Properly herding cattle is every bit as important as correctly eating an elephant. If we don’t grab our readers in the very first lines of our manuscript, we will lose them before we ever get them moving along on our word journey. And though snagging the reader as quickly as possible has always been a crucial component of good writing, it is even more important today when we find ourselves living in a culture of “sound bites,” populated by scores of people with short attention spans who require sensational visuals to attract and maintain their interest.

Let’s face it. We now live, for the most part, in a high tech world where movies, television, and video games are quickly replacing reading as a favorite pastime. In fact, I remember hearing not long ago that the average American reads at a fourth-to-sixth grade level, and fewer and fewer people are reading at all, except for required business or related studies. Though I personally find that very sad, I can’t change it. All I can do is work that much harder at fine-tuning and honing my own writing in an attempt to attract and hold as many readers as possible, knowing that I’m competing for their valuable time with star-studded, action-packed, multi-million dollar visuals and bleeping, flashing, virtual-reality cyber games.

And so we come back to the cow catcher, a term that is so outdated in today’s culture that there are few people left who have even the remotest idea of what I’m talking about. So for those of you who, unlike me, aren’t yet quite as old as dirt, let me explain.

Years ago, long before trains were streamlined, the old steam engines were built with a sort of metal grating in front, down near the tracks, in order to “scoop up” a cow—or any other unwelcome varmint, for that matter—that might be loitering on the track, and then carry it along until the train was able to come safely to a stop. The cow might or might not survive the scooping, but it certainly had a better chance than if the train had just plowed right into it—not to mention the damage the cow could do to the train itself, including any passengers who might be on board. Cow catchers were also known as snowplows because the metal device could be used in a similar way to scoop up large piles or drifts of snow from the track so the train’s progress wouldn’t be impeded. But for our purposes, we’re just going to stick with calling these necessary and highly functional front-of-the-engine devices cow catchers.

Now to be fair, I will admit there are times that you simply need more than one sentence to build an effective cow catcher for your train—two or three, possibly, maybe even four, but certainly no more than a very brief paragraph. Let’s take a look at another cow catcher, this one requiring more than one sentence to get the train moving.

•    You know how it is there early in the morning in Havana with the bums still asleep against the walls of the buildings; before even the ice wagons come by with ice for the bars? Well, we came across the square from the dock to the Pearl of San Francisco Café to get coffee and there was only one beggar awake in the square and he was getting a drink out of the fountain. But when we got inside the café and sat down, there were the three of them waiting for us. —To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway

Do you see how the author not only gave us the geographical setting for the story (Havana) and the time of day (early morning), but he also painted a vivid image of the street scene itself, replete with colorful characters (the bums asleep against the walls of the buildings and the beggar getting a drink from the fountain) and a feeling of anticipation that something important is about to happen (three of “them” were waiting for the main characters to come into the café). The setting raises all sorts of questions, all of which beg to be answered: What is about to happen? Something good? Something bad? Who are “them” and who are “us”? In one paragraph we know the where and when of the opening scene, and we care about the characters and what is going to happen to them. That is brilliant writing. Quite obviously Mr. Hemingway knew a thing or two about herding cattle.

But designing an effective cow catcher is something any writer can learn to do. All it takes it a little creativity and a lot of determination—and a very strong desire to see your readers “herded” in the
right direction. So work on your own cow catchers this month, and next month we’ll attach them to some powerful locomotives.

*Adapted from THE TRAIN-OF-THOUGHT WRITING METHOD: Practical, User-Friendly Help for Beginning Writers by Kathi Macias and available at


  1. Great topic! Thanks for the pointers. This should work equally well for non-fiction writers as well as fiction writers.
    ~ Bethany L.

  2. I have more great posts coming from Kathi, she is a wonderful author!