There is a cat out on my roof.
No, I’m not speaking in code or metaphor. Right now there is a cat, outside, on my roof. In the rain.
Among the three cats we board here, we have a Bengal named Cleopatra. She is your typical Queen Kitty. Mistress of the house. And has cat-flavored OCD in the world’s worst way. Closed doors drive her crazy (not that she wants in, or out, but she demands the option!), food must arrive at the specified times, worship will be made precisely at 10 am and 7 pm (other times are acceptable as well, but 10 and 7 are mandated). She enjoys an ordered, perfect world. But, occasionally, she likes to escape out a window and onto the roof where she knows (she has to know!) that things are not going to go her way.
Today, it’s raining. And she’s soaked. Not cat-huddling-miserable-under-the-eaves soaked. She is sitting right out at the edge of the roof being drenched. Cat-fresh-from-swimming-lesson soaked. I can’t tell if she’s commanding the waters to rise back up into her heavens or if she simply refuses to let the rains see that it bothers her. I’ve watched my wife open nearby windows, calling her back in. At best, we get a condescending look over the shoulder. When she (wife) stops trying, she (cat) comes over to the window and meowrls. So another round of invite-the-kitty-back-inside.
Nope, uh-uh. Not happening. Just the look. Maybe she wants company out there. Mostly, I think she just wants an audience. See? Look what I put up with? So my normal demands really aren’t so unreasonable, are they?
I know. Either she has issues, or I do.
So why am I so fascinated by a cat out on the roof this morning? Because while I sit here listening to Heather trying to bribe Cleo back in with food, it’s made me consider once again the general writer attraction to felines versus canines. I know plenty of writers who are dog-people, but I think it runs something like one-for-five…maybe six, if you count the outliers who ditch both for a snake or spider or other non-traditional American pet. And watching Cleopatra enjoying/enduring her shower, it seems a bit of a fable..perhaps even an allegory…to explain many things that we suffer as writers.
As a writer, I know I enjoy my structured, conceited world view. But I habitually dose myself with limited (though often intense) bouts of chaos. Sometimes these chaotic moments are passively inflicted: leaving a deadline to the last possible moment, then writing furiously while metaphysically kicking myself in the ass for letting it slip so long, but hey, look, I did it anyway. Good for me! This is usually followed by a Lesson-Learned moment where I know I will not let this happen again (until next time, for at least a week or so). Other times, I actively seek out such chaos: choosing a subject matter or character or subplot that will force me to confront demons or challenge my own jaded beliefs, sitting in the rain and commanding it to rise (rise!) back into the heavens, and then stoically enduring it when it does not.
The chaos may come through the business and marketing side of my profession, or through the creative element.Still, the window is right there. Open, behind me. If I stray too far toward the edge of the roof, I’ll hear someone calling me back in. Friends or family…doesn’t matter. I’m sure I glance back over my shoulder with that same look of condescension. I’m fine. Why don’t you come out here?
In the end, I’m assuming that it was the promise of a second breakfast that finally swayed Cleopatra from her confrontation with nature. She’s back inside the house. I don’t have to guess, or go check. She’s sitting on the corner of my desk, bedraggled and dripping all over a stack of paper. Looking very pleased with herself, and yet somehow disappointed with me. I once had a girlfriend who could do that.
I guess it’s time for me to go dry off the Bengal, then carry her to the kitchen for treats. Later, I’m certain there will be a fireplace going for her benefit. Even though I had more time blocked out this morning for website maintenance and business, I am forced to recognize and appreciate the kindred soul of another contrary creature. Also, I know it will make life a little easier if I don’t keep the cat waiting.
See? Lesson Learned. Until next time. For at least a week or so.
I don’t do reviews. That’s not what this is.
I won’t tear down other writers on a public forum. I’m not going to add to the talk show blather which sometimes substitutes for honest debate over differing opinions. I do just fine as a writer, and if my peers are setting the bar higher, that’s not a problem for me. I feel I can get over it without sticking a foot into their path.
That said: one of the most common questions I get as Loren-L.-Coleman-the-writer is, “What do you read?”
The answer is, I read a lot. I read somewhere between 2-3 full novels in an average week. This includes re-reading a favorite from time to time (or even binging for a month straight, recently, on a favorite series).
What I recently finished reading was Rising Tides, book five of Anderson’s Destroyermen saga. I am always leery picking up an alternate history (or in this case, alternate world) novel because I’m spoiled by Harry Turtledove. So when I picked up Into the Storm (book one) I steeled myself to be fair, and give Anderson a chance before digging out one of Harry’s Videssos Cycle books or his new Atlantis series.
When I surfaced, two days later, Mr. Anderson had a new devoted reader.
It’s a good thing B&N isn’t far away, and that I had a weekend in there to catch up on at least a little sleep. I burned through the first four books and was lucky enough to be involved in the series just as book five hit the stands. the only downside to binge reading like this is you have to come down (because you eventually run out of books).
Destroyermen hits a lot of my favorite buttons. It’s military-science fiction–or maybe military-fantasy would be a better sub-genre–with lot sof action-packed scenes. It’s also historical; Mr. Anderson goes to great extremes to get his naval technology and (according to my own research) the historical attitudes correct. In fact, somewhere in the first book I quit looking up facts that were beyond my immediate knowledge of the period because I quickly trusted Mr. Anderson to get it right. That’s a rare gift.
You may have noticed by now that I’m not spending a lot of time talking about the story. And I won’t. I won’t spoil the book for others, and I wrote enough book reports in high school to satisfy any deep-seated love of ancient card catalogs. So I’ll paraphrase some material readily found on the dust jackets, and call it good.
Destroyermen is a parallel universe world where a WWII destroyer (technically, a pre-WWII vessel) passes through a world-shifting vortex re: The Final Countdown. The captain and his fearless crew find themselves steaming along in a new Earth where fantastic new races are at war. Sort of. More like one fantastic new race is about to slaughter another. Championing truth, justice, and the American way (and toting along their beloved Coke machine) the crew of the USS Walker must find their own place in this new world. But their old world hasn’t quite released them, yet. Because through the same storm have come the Japanese enemy, as well.
Yeah, that’s enough of that.
If you like complex and very “real” characters, historical pieces, fantasy worlds, parallel universes, military action, and some good old-fashioned nation-building thrown in for good measure, you’re going to like Destroyermen.
I know that I did. Very much.
A writer said to me a few weeks back: “I don’t bother with television. I prefer to read.”
Not that I feel a deep, ever-present need to proselytize TV (except maybe for Castle, with Nathan Fillion). Or that I would ever look down upon people who read books. But it was the way it was said. The person’s tone was really saying: “Why do you waste your time?” As if passing judgment on my desire to veg in front of my plasma from time to time, and watch something fun, good, exciting, informative, or all of the above (re: Castle).
Now, I read voraciously. I also enjoy the theater experience, music, plays, and…yes…television. I’m addicted to story. Have been from an early age. Stories that get me emotionally invested in the characters. That change my viewpoint of the world, or at least a small piece of it. Stories that use new storytelling devices (which I can hopefully learn), or use old devices in new ways (see previous).
Okay, so not everything translates, from television to print, but a great deal of it does. I’ve studied large casts to figure out how the writer got me to like/dislike a character in such a short amount of time. I re-watch scenes with emotional charge over and over, to figure out how it was done. Sometimes it is the actor (and there is something to be learned there as well) but often it’s just damn good writing.
One of the better pieces of craft I’ve learned as much from movies and TV as I have from reading is dialog. A long-time diet of The West Wing and Buffy the Vampire Slayer have both helped. Seriously. Aaron Sorkin is a master at snappy banter mingled with serious, intellectual expression (without ever being confusing or boring). Joss Whedon is just as good, though his campy, more comedic style taught me different skills. Stronger emotional expression. Masterful self deprecation. Word play that does not come off as contrived. (And sure, it does hurt that Sarah Michelle Geller isn’t hard to look at.)
Comedic timing can also be learned from television, and applied into fiction. Thank you Big Bang Theory, and Two and a Half Men. The procedural Law & Order helped me ingrain some mystery tropes I was having trouble with. And Lie to Me served one of the best change-up pitches I’ve ever seen by taking a character I didn’t like very much for forty minutes and making him not only sympathetic, but instantly pitiable in about 20 seconds at the end of its pilot show. Sure, some of that was the director and some of that was the actor. But a writer put it together first.
And in each of the shows I’ve mentioned (and a dozen more I could easily throw out here as well) it’s character, character, character. Main characters. Supporting characters. Idiosyncratic throw-away characters. Villains and heroes and sidekicks, oh my.
I’m hunting and pecking around in my memory, and examples keep leaping to mind. I don’t want to go off the rails on talking up TV over books, because in a head-to-head contest I’ll take books any day. But I don’t see why it has to be one or the other, when it can be both.
Some of my time is also spent in some “guilty pleasure” viewing, sure. I’m not sure what deep craft I glean from a rerun of Hogan’s Heroes or The Highlander, but they are fun. And I’ve also intentionally watched a bad piece of work, in critical mode, to analyze where it went wrong from a story-telling point of view. I’m not going to jump up and down on what might be someone else’s favorite show, but I maintain that you can learn as much (or sometimes more) from something you don’t like as you can from something you do.
I think this also works in both video and print mediums.
So this is my opinion. Obviously I felt strongly enough that my friend’s dismissive attitude stuck with me for some time, and I finally decided to write about it. Do I feel I’ve wasted time re-watching The West Wing six or seven time through? Maybe occasionally, when I’ve let it get in the way of actual writing time. But for someone who has also written fourteen military science fiction novels with a healthy political subplot…I can promise I’ve ingrained ideas and craft and character traits that have served me well time and again.
And let’s admit it. Castle rocks out loud.
(In the interest of full disclosure, Loren L. Coleman sometimes believes he continues to write because he can’t act, direct, or create professional grade special effects. He does not, however, watch everything on a daily schedule. This is why God invented DVR technology. Over the fits and splurges of a given month however, Loren might watch episodes of Castle, Burn Notice, Lie to Me, Law & Order, Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men, Studio 60, West Wing, Stargate (Any), Star Trek (any), Criminal Minds, Highlander, and/or Twenty-four.
So, ever since deciding to pick up my metaphorical pen again, and return to doing some fiction writing, I’ve been finding myriad ways to avoid the actual writing part. In fact, at this moment. I’m avoiding my fiction writing by writing this post on the subject of avoidance.
Kinda meta, huh?
The hardest thing I ever did in my writing career was give it up for a few years. Not the giving up part, I guess. That part was pretty easy since it just sorta happened and it was months before I even realized it had happened. Then I went through several rounds of trying to keep it going, restarting, and then finally justifying a dozen different ways as to why I no longer had the time. Sure, I had picked up a creative job and it was paying the bills. And alternately my kids were becoming more and more demanding, especially the one with pretty serious aspirations and who made my work ethic (the good one I used to have) look pale and pathetic by comparison to his efforts. Still, I look back and amaze myself at how I not only let it slip away, but gave it a firm boot in the ass on the way out the door.
But it was hard. Hard on my emotional state. My mental state. And as I look at two-plus years of saying I wanted to get back up and running, and my recent stalled efforts, I begin to think about the elephant.
Not an elephant-in-the-room elephant. I’ve got a few of those lumbering around in my past, and my present, too. Those guys aren’t so much of a problem (currently). They can actually be fairly quiet and easy enough to live with most of the time. Elephant-in-the-room elephants never take the last beer and always lower the seat lid afterwards, so all in all they aren’t terrible roommates.
No. This is the need-to-eat type of elephant. A one-bite-at-a-time pachyderm. The trouble with this kind of elephant is that they are kinda dusty dry and tough as leather, and they tend to look at me rather reproachfully as I think about where I want to take that first bite. I’ve often had trouble with parceling out large problems into smaller, workable problems. Give me a Gordian knot and I’m looking for a sharp blade. I solve the Rubik’s Cube by taking the damn thing apart and reassembling it, then left it on my shelf for a year ro so before I threw the obnoxious thing away.
But the elephant won’t go. I love writing. I’ve loved and hated and loved again every novel I’ve ever written (in that order). I enjoy being creative, and entertaining people. I like bringing new characters and worlds to life. And in good Loren-fashion, I’ve been trying to swallow the elephant in one gulp so I don’t have to watch it watching me try to devour it. That just ain’t working. Not even with the world’s best candy coating.
I’ve had friends tell me not to stress so much about it. Some have reminded me of my own advice to writers in the past, that momentum works in both directions. It takes time. It takes effort.
I’m getting there. Step by step. Thought by thought. Word by excruciatingly-slow-word. I’m still tied to a job that sucks down a large part of my week, dealing with family, and all the usual jazz. But I’m finding time. Time to make the effort, even if tonight it is just sitting down to pound out my frustrations on the keyboard, so I can look back on them after I hit “update” and (hopefully) feel that–even if I haven’t started eating with gusto–I’ve at least managed to shrink that gray, floppy-eared bastard into something that will at least fit into my dining room.
Knowing that I’m just maybe starting to develop my appreciation for the taste of elephant again.