Still, Again, and Always

I was always destined to be a cat person.  My mom is a cat person.  My grandmother was a cat person.  My dad has always claimed not to be a cat person, but was have definitely turned him into at least half of one.

I could say I don’t remember a time before having cats in the house, but that isn’t strictly true.  I have a very clear recollection of being a shy little five-year-old, taking a trip to the North Shore Animal League to adopt my lovely boy Solomon, who instantly adopted me back as his Person.

Long before I became a cliché thirty-something utterly lacking in the ability to form romantic attachments, I was whispering my little secrets into flicking, fuzzy ears over the sound of soft purring, confident in the knowledge that my adolescent heartaches would be safe and secure and somehow completely understood.

Cats governed pretty much everything I did as a child.  My sister and I didn’t play house: we played pretend pet grooming shop.  When we didn’t want to do our chores, “I can’t; the cat is sitting on me” became our automatic (if unsuccessful) excuse.

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When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I invariably said a veterinarian…at least until about 7th grade when I realized how much math and science was actually involved.

If I stomped upstairs and slammed my bedroom door in anger, which happened more often than I care to remember during my terrible teenage years, Solomon would paw at the latch until I let him inside to sit next to me.

He would stare at me with his big golden eyes (maybe judging me slightly for being overly dramatic – but hey, he wasn’t wrong), and stay on my lap or curled up between my shoulder blades as I read a book until he was sure everything was all right again.

He was sweet and cuddly, curious and occasionally a little too adventurous, as he was wont to bolt from the front door or bust out of our screened-in deck to eat grass on the lawn and scare the living daylights out of me.

Once when I was still in grade school, he went MIA for several days – sort of a big deal for a cat who had been declawed – and all I remember about his return was that it was the happiest day of my young life.

I still have stress-dreams about losing him.  Even though we sold our house some time ago, I still occasionally get anxious that someone didn’t lock the screen room door.

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We collected several other cats when I was growing up, whom I loved dearly as well, but I was always Solomon’s and he was always mine.

Leaving him to go to college when I was 16 was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.  I knew he was getting older; that I couldn’t check that the doors were locked from my dorm room in Massachusetts; that I would miss having to squirm into the corner of my bed because he had decided to sprawl across as much of the mattress as he could manage.

I felt a little like I was betraying his steadfast friendship, and that I had somehow wasted our time together by being too young to understand how rare and precious it is to find anyone or anything so capable of unconditional love.

I was nervous, of course, about leaving home for the first time.  I was terrified about failing to succeed in my new environment, especially since I was veering sharply away from the traditional educational path by going to college earlier than my peers.  And I was still reeling from my parents’ unexpected divorce the year prior, which had redefined my world in ways I am still working to understand.

So naturally I projected my anxiety a little bit into the one thing that had always been constant in my life: the unflinching, immutable love of a cat who thought I was the best thing since sliced tuna and always would be.

He died at the ripe old age of about 19, after a long and slow decline that I was too selfish to end mercifully.  I couldn’t let him go – I couldn’t acknowledge the end of all the things I had turned the poor dear thing into.  We had spent three-quarters of my life together, and I couldn’t really understand what it would mean not to have him around for the rest of it.

At the time, I was in the midst of a soul-crushing, demeaning, and nightmarish job that had left me isolated and purposeless. I was living in the middle of nowhere and so far from home, with no friends within a three-hour drive, and no outlet for the despair that was building to the bursting point inside of me.

His passing, though peaceful at the end, was one of several catalysts for eighteen months of profound depression that saw me (thankfully) lose my job, get into therapy, and start a significant reconstruction of who I was and who I wanted to be.

Four years later, I adopted Oliver.

I saw his picture on a pet-finding website sometime before Christmas, and knew instantly that I had to make him part of the new life I was building for myself.  Three months later, I had moved to an apartment that allowed cats and brought him home.

He has been nothing but joy to me ever since.

Yes, he scratched my furniture, and woke me up early on the weekends for his breakfast. There were occasions when he would pounce on my feet as I turned a corner, and I may have a faint scar or two from his habit of affectionately wrestling my arm into submission with all 18 pounds of his fur and muscle.

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Of course he shed like crazy but never let me brush him – woe unto me if I tried to snip a bit of tangled fur from his back end – and if I accidentally approached him in a certain manner, intentionally or not, he would meowl and swat at me, afraid I was trying to hurt him.

Former street cats can be like that sometimes, of course.  They have hidden traumas and bad memories that they can’t share.

Oliver was adopted from a small rescue operation (i.e. the basement of a very nice woman with eight cats too many). While he had very good manners and clean habits, which means he must have been raised in a home at some point, the nicks in his ears and the bottom of one eyelid told plenty about what must have been a troubled youth.

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The worst relic of his transient period was feline immunodeficiency virus, or FIV.  Similar to the human version, it can be acquired through fluids or passed on at birth.  There’s no way to tell.

A positive screening usually makes a cat unadoptable.  Their compromised immune systems make them susceptible to gum disease, respiratory infections, and digestive problems – not to mention any other stray bacteria or viruses that happen to wander in.

And the relative ease with which they can pass the virus on to other cats through biting or scratching means they can’t live in a household with unaffected feline companions.

That part wasn’t a problem for me, since my lease stipulates I’m only allowed to have one cat on the premises. Let’s be honest: it’s the only reason I don’t already have two or three.

I was pretty sure that with no other cats, an indoor-only lifestyle, and my familiarity with caring for members of his species, Oliver had a relatively low risk of living a shortened life due to preventable illness.

I may have been right. He made a full recovery from a serious sinus infection during our first year together.  He got regular checkups, vaccines, and lots of exercise.  He ate quality food and gourmet treats, and received personalized drinking service from the bathroom tap every time he pleased.

He had full access to open windows when the weather was nice, and a warm bed next to the radiator when it wasn’t.  Occasionally, he even had the pleasure of a catch-your-own rodent buffet.

Most of the time, I forgot about the FIV all together.  It didn’t seem to matter much to him.  He was just a happy, silly, energetic boy with kittenish behaviors and a penchant for hogging the couch.

I would have spoiled him rotten no matter what was in his bloodstream, and I’m happy to say that’s exactly what I did.  All we can do is give them the best life possible during the time we share, and I am fully confident that I provided a very good home for him.

But not every illness is preventable, and the inevitable caught up with us sooner rather than later.

Kidney trouble is common in all breeds of cats, and renal failure is one of the top causes of mortality.  In FIV cats, the problem often comes in the form of lymphoma.  Most cats last less than a month after diagnosis.  While chemotherapy exists, it is a very expensive and not altogether practical way to gain little more than a few weeks, often with questionable quality of life.

I decided not to go the route that involved biopsies and lab work and half-hour drives to the specialty hospital in Woburn.  Even going a mile up the road to his usual vet was a trauma, and I saw no point in making his last days so stressful when it wouldn’t much improve the outcome or his experience of it.

Instead, we treated him as if he had a bilateral kidney infection, which was also a very real possibility, if a remote one.  A course of antibiotics is neither invasive nor prohibitively costly, and doing something always feels better than sitting back and just waiting.

In the end, it didn’t solve the problem.  But he did have another three weeks of enjoying his favorite things: stalking birds through the window, watching TV with me in the evenings, looking intently at the ceiling even though nothing is there, and following me around to supervise as I went through my morning routine.

He was always a very attentive, human-focused cat. Every time I looked in his direction, he would acknowledge me with a little “prrrrup,” staring straight into my eyes.

When I spoke to him, his tail would start tapping.  When I smiled and blinked at him, or told him I loved him, I thought it would thump its way through the floor.

If I was about to get up from the couch to get a snack or do a chore, he would jump off my lap and wait by the sofa until I came back and he resume his favorite cuddling position again.

If I collapsed into bed after a long day and a longer commute, sad and exhausted, he would do everything he could to get me up again by walking on my sternum, looking plaintive, or calling to me from the living room.

And the funny thing is, I would get up.  Almost immediately.

Unlike during the fallow period following Solomon, where I would sleep for hours after work just to make the day end quicker, I would pull myself together and dry my eyes because I couldn’t bear the thought of disappointing Oliver.

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People who are prone to loneliness or depression need that sort of wholehearted, pure belief that they have a place in the world and a role to fulfill, even if that role is to be a human can opener and living hot water bottle.

Well-treated cats (and dogs, too) don’t doubt that you can do what they need you to do.  They don’t doubt that you will.

Their trust is both humbling and uplifting; a pillar and a pedestal; a lifeline to tether drifting souls to the sense that something, anything matters – and that they have a clear and necessary purpose within it.

Cats are unwavering in their conviction that you will rise to this challenge.  The reward for meeting the terms of this simple contract is an unbreakable, unconditional love that can help carry you through darn near any of the petty frustrations and helpless heartbreaks that comprise human existence.

Say what you want about spinsters collecting cats after giving up on finding love with another person or a place in the world, but I don’t think that’s what happens most of the time.

Cats keep your heart warm.  They help you hold the door open to the future instead of shutting down and locking yourself away.  They compel you practice patience and understanding; to maintain your capacity for love.

They show you the epitome of what that can be: selfless, immutable, and blind to all the little faults of fashion or manner or politics or jealousies that can so often split two people apart.

The love of a pet is a direct connection to the best we can be.  A glimpse into the fundamental definition of joy. That’s something I aspire to achieve with other people, not something intended to replace a life of human friendships or relationships.

To love a cat is a privilege.  To be loved in return is an honor. Even through the pain of missing him fiercely and the grief of never seeing him again, I count myself so, so lucky to have been his Person for as long as I could.

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It’s too quiet in my apartment today, and I feel aimless in a way I haven’t felt for years.  He didn’t come to say good morning.  He didn’t ask for his breakfast.  He isn’t stretched out on the floor, tail tapping, watching me write.  He will never do those things again, which hurts more than I can express.

I feel confident that I did the right thing last night.  I knew as soon as I saw him that something bad had happened: his spark was gone, his body was failing him, and he was in pain.  He wouldn’t make eye contact.  He was too weary to move.

I won’t go through the details of saying goodbye to him.  Every pet owner knows exactly how heart wrenching that is.

The vet was very kind, my dad was there to drive me since I couldn’t see through my tears, and it was all over so quickly.  I feel as if the real Oliver had been gone hours before he stopped breathing, and I like to think that what I saw in his final moments was a sense of relief.

Taking a pet into your life is signing a contract with sadness, even if the terms of the agreement are more than fair.

It may be brutally bitter when the lease on happiness is up, but that isn’t going to stop me from adopting another cat some day, and another after that, and after that.

Our feline companions come and go throughout our lives, leaving gaping holes when they’ve gone.  But we have a choice of what to do when that abyss opens up underneath our feet.

We can let that grief defeat us, and shy away from future attachments due to fear of what happens when they end.

Or we can take hold of that lifeline, that thread of joy, light, and laughter they each bring with them, and let it stitch up our broken hearts and bind us together.

Still, again, and always I choose to keep myself open to that love. I will try to seek out joy.  I will aspire to stay worthy of a cat’s trust and affection and freely-given tummy rubs, because I can think of no better way to be.

I will never stop missing Solomon.  I will never stop missing Oliver.  I will never stop missing the other cats who have stayed a while in my life, each bringing something irreplaceable to how I experience the world.

I don’t know what the future holds, or where my life will lead.  But I can tell you this for certain: still, again, and always, there will be cats to walk those roads with me.

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If you are considering adopting a pet, hopefully a rescue, please don’t discount the ones who appear to have special needs.  They will give you just as much of their love as any other, if not more so for being so often overlooked. 

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Water Usage Skyrockets as NaNoWriMo Novelists Take Extra-Long “Thinking Showers”

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Public officials brace for peak November demand as participants attempt to meet word counts.

BOSTON — Town and city water departments across the country have been unsuccessful in their quest to stop WriMos from overusing public resources during long, leisurely novel-plotting showers, news outlets reported this week.

With several regions of the United States suffering from drought conditions exacerbated by excess bathing and a marked increase in coffee consumption, officials in New England are even considering instituting mandatory restrictions.

“We would like novelists to limit their shower usage to one plot twist per day,” said the Boston Water Department in a press release.  “If you’re really stuck on how to get your main character out of a deadly situation, running a bath actually uses less water and is likely to produce the same ‘aha moment’ results.”

“But ideally, writers should consider procrastination and thought-generation alternatives like leftover Halloween candy binges, sitting sadly in the corner of a coffee shop staring at a blank screen, or deep-cleaning household items they wouldn’t ordinarily touch with a ten-foot pole.”

WriMos have lashed out at the recommendations, calling them creatively limiting and potentially catastrophic for earning their winner’s badge.

“I do my best thinking in the shower,” complained Harvey Purdue of Allston in a blog post.  Purdue typically grabs a towel and scurries over to his laptop while still dripping wet to sketch out his newest ideas before he forgets them.

“It isn’t fair to expect us to act like normal people during NaNoWriMo,” he said.  “Admittedly, it’s a stretch at any time of the year, but it really is different during November.”

Local businesses, like Wilson’s Bath Shop in Woburn, MA, are also opposed to the proposed reduction in shower-related thought time.  “We always hit our loofah sales quota by the end of the first week of November,” said manager Meghan Boyle.  “It’s really good for our employees.”

“And some of the scented shower gels just fly out the door,” she added.  “Outer Space Breeze, Triple Berry Mango-Dystopia, and Unrequited Love Triangle seem to be the most popular this time of year.  We don’t start selling too much of our Smell of Desperation product line until after Thanksgiving, but the lines wrap around the block when the holiday is over.”

In a statement released by non-profit organization WriMos for a Sustainable Future, spokesperson Cathy Georgio called for compromise.  “Just close your eyes and pretend you’re standing under the hot water,” she suggested.  “Think about it really hard.  You’re a writer, aren’t you?  You should be able to use your imagination.”

At the time of publication, neither Purdue nor Georgio had hit their wordcount goals for the day, prompting observers to question whether they had spent too much time procrastinating by drafting statements in response to a non-existent issue for marginally humorous effect.

Characters of Chaos: Crafting Responses to a Crumbling World

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Late last month, right before I took my trip to Las Vegas, I hit a milestone in my life.  I turned 30 years old.

I’ve never been someone who’s been that obsessed with my age.  People generally think I’m older than I am – the copious amounts of gray hair might have something to do with it – and I’ve always been perfectly happy to let them.

Being young is no fun.  Your opinions are dismissed and your experiences trivialized.  You don’t get any discounts on stuff between the time you forfeit your student ID and the time you join AARP.  Strangers think they can tell you what you should or should not be doing at your age, and give you unsolicited advice about a future that looks absolutely terrifying at the best of times (thanks, Baby Boomers).

I’ve always wanted to be a grown-up. I’ve always wanted to do grown-up things like buy small home appliances and have a reason to hand out business cards.  My teenage years were tough, and my 20s were even tougher – I’m not that sorry to leave them behind.

One of the (many) reasons why I struggled with my youth was my absolute faith in institutions.  I was raised to respect authority, which is a good thing, but I also read way, way too many Victorian-era novels that also made me afraid of it.

Pro tip: don’t let your seven-year-olds read abridged versions of Dickens unless you want them to grow up with an unshakable fear of getting caned for speaking out of turn.

Teachers and professors, doctors, bosses, older colleagues or peers, rules and regulations – they were all infallible.  They all said and did things for a reason.  A good reason.  A reason that must have been thought about and examined and tested and passed down as the wisdom of the ages.  And I, young and naïve and painfully sheltered, must be the one who was getting it wrong.

The world had a lot to teach me, but not in the way that I first thought.  The more I learned about institutions and authorities and experts, the more I realized that the people in charge were winging it almost as much as I was.

Not all rules exist for a reason.  Saying something with confidence doesn’t make it correct.  Even if you read it on the internet, it may not actually be true.

That can be a pretty big shock to someone who used to plan out her birthday party schedules down to the minute and is still deeply uncomfortable with the idea that anyone would call a college professor by her first name.

I like order, and I like feeling as if things make sense.  I like institutions, and evidence-based decision making, and I like data.  I don’t like that the world is, fundamentally, an unstoppable whirlwind of pain, loneliness, confusion, and chaos.  I’d rather believe that someone out there knows what they’re doing, and that there’s a possibility that I might be able to do the same thing.

The notion that things happen for a reason – or happen according to reason – is a comforting one.  It gives us a sense of belonging and purpose, and cushions our shortcomings when something goes awry.  A black and white existence is a simple one.  Simple can be good.

And that’s where you start a fantasy novel.  In a world that makes sense.

Whether it’s on the family homestead with your adolescent hero or in the halls of a king presiding over a golden age of peace, most stories start at the breaking point, when the good king dies and leaves his country without an heir, the princess realizes that her intended is a traitor, or the Sherriff’s men destroy the village and leave shattered innocence in their wake.

The beginning of a good story rips away those false foundations of false surety and throws the main character into an unfamiliar and dangerous world.

A good character is built on how he or she responds to that.  And that is, fundamentally, what all stories boil down to.  What do people do when faced with bad things?

I think we’ve all seen the charts that divide characters by the influence that they exert on the world.  Chaotic neutral, lawful good, true neutral, lawful evil: this is a great way to codify how they impact the plot.

But it doesn’t specifically show why they act that way.  What makes them believe that there is good in the world?  That people are fundamentally bad?  That there is a god(s), or that there isn’t?  To do that, we have to move beyond the basics and take a deeper look at their response to the realization (or lack thereof) that the universe is a big, scary, chaotic, anarchic place.

So here are a few character archetypes I’ve come up with based on their response to chaos.

The justifiers

The ingénues

“Ignorance is bliss” would be the motto of these characters, if they even knew they were being ignorant.  Children too young to form rational thoughts and spoiled pets are the only ones who can really fit into this category.  Someone who has never experienced any sort of unpleasantness, conflict, or misfortune is rare, and usually unbelievable.  Most characters who seem this innocent are either hiding something or willfully ignoring something, which tends to put them in one or both of the next two categories.

The faith-driven

Faith is a powerful force for a whole lot of people.  Entire societies are built on it.  Entire eras have revolved around it, and it’s one of those basic tenets of pre-modern societies that play a major role in the fantasy world.

Faith-driven people believe that there is a greater force watching over them, guiding them, and laying out the rules.  They may believe that there is chaos in the world, but it is often the work of a single great adversary (the devil or other dark spirit).  Everything happens for a reason, but that reason is usually unknowable.

While this can be frustrating to those who think differently, it can be a great source of comfort to the faith-driven, who may look beyond the suffering of the mortal worlds towards the promises of a glorious afterlife.

Faith-driven people can often have a lot of experience with pain, poverty, grief, stunted freedom, and/or helplessness.  Their choice to believe that there is a greater purpose – that happiness is achievable and the chaos can be conquered by their deity – is how they cope with that.

The law-driven

Law-driven characters also turn to an external concept to find comfort and make sense of their world.  They may also have strong faith in a deity, but their primary god is duty and honor.  They may be strongly attached to a monarch or other figure of authority, or they may make the abstract concept of “the law” or “the right thing to do” into their primary motivator.

They may believe in adhering to this code of ethics no matter what the consequences, and might think that they will be rewarded for loyalty and honor in the long run, even if it’s in the afterlife.  On the flip side, they could be cowardly and blindly obedient, unable to reason for themselves.

They can be stubbornly rigid in their view of how things should be, which can make them unpopular, or they can be genuinely eager to make the world a better place.  They believe in solutions of one kind or another, and they want to fix things according to their own notions of right and wrong.

A subset of the justifier archetype is the love-driven character.  They may include elements of both the law-driven and faith-driven person, but their object of orientation is a romantic relationship.

The observers

The jaded

This is where a lot of modern heroes and heroines live, I think, since moral ambiguity is all the rage these days.

The jaded are those who might see the chaos, recognize it exists, but just try to do their best to get on with their lives.  They are neither strongly faith-driven nor overly concerned with adhering to the precepts of another person.  They are not actively evil, but they are generally not spotlessly good, either. They might believe in right and wrong, but they can fall on either side of the line – or ignore the line all together.

They might rely strongly on luck, happenstance, or good fortune to explain why they haven’t been totally annihilated just yet.

Whether they’re soldiers of fortune, fallen angels, wandering samurai, or disgraced civil servants, these are people who have probably tried to follow the herd, but have failed to find fulfilment or success in a normal life.

They can be interesting characters, and they may claim that they hold no allegiance to anyone other than themselves, but at the end of the day, they have to make a choice or a sacrifice that sticks them on one side of the good/evil divide, and could determine the outcome of the story.

The opt-out

Those who don’t make the choice – or made the wrong one and want to lament about it for a few pages so your main character will learn from the mistake – might fall into this category.  These are your hermits, your mad monks, your wandering wise women, and your myopic scientists.  They might care about the chaos, but only because it’s statically significant.

Honestly, these characters aren’t really that interesting on their own.  They may serve to give help, information, exposition, or insight to the main character, and they make great plot points but people who don’t make choices don’t have much of a reason to be a sustained player in the story.  If you rely too heavily on these people to drive your plot or provide a running commentary, it’s going to end up pretty weak.

The manipulators

The puppeteers

Now we get to the fun part.  The bad guys.  These are the people who know the world is going to hell in a handbasket and love every minute of it.

The puppeteers are primarily concerned with manipulating the chaos for their own selfish advantage.  The scheming courtier; the traitorous servant; the lieutenant who will stop at nothing to drive the hero to madness.  The one with the evil plan that may or may not get away from him.  The second-in-command to the really big boss who hopes his nefarious activities will net him some coveted reward.

These are great supporting characters, but when it comes down to it, the puppeteers usually find that their own strings are being held by someone even worse than they are…

The masters of darkness

…like the pure evil of the master of darkness.  Now you’ve got your dark wizards, your warlords, your Queens of the Underworld, and your dastardly masterminds.  These are people to beat.  They don’t just accept that there is misery and evil in the world – they want to set it free to consume all that is good and holy just because they like to watch things burn.

Adding nuance to these characters can sometimes seem difficult, especially since they often only exist just to give your hero something to do with his life.  But if you think about them in terms of input in addition to output, you can create a backstory that is a little more elegant than just saying, “Well, someone has to be the bad guy.”

The agents of entropy

On the far end of the scale is the agent of entropy.  These are not evil characters, exactly.  They just exist to mess things up.  The meddling mother-in-law, the trickster god, the unlucky peasant pushed out of the way of the prince’s runaway horse by the hapless heroine.

Sometimes these are quick encounters that serve only to move the plot forward.  But other times they are a force to be reckoned with.  A best friend with a penchant for getting in trouble after a night out isn’t just a one-and-done plot device.  The whole story could be about the main character wrestling with the boundaries of friendship, or getting deeper into some kind of mess when trying to fix whatever their friend broke.

Entropy is required to drive the story forward to its crisis point, and these characters often cut across other archetypes as they move the plot along.  I think these can actually be really interesting, especially as someone who doesn’t really understand people who love chaos for chaos’ sake.

As far as my own character type goes, I’d call myself a jaded but law-driven observer.  I want things to make sense and to obey the rules; I want to try to make the world better, and I want everyone to be wonderful all the time, but I don’t necessarily think there is any surefire strategy people can use to ensure that they will get their happily ever after.

In any case, I hope that looking through this particular lens can help you view your characters in a different way.  If you think I’ve left anyone out, or you just want to share what type of person you think you are, leave a comment!

Doctor Who and the Sin of Sloppy Storytelling

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Warning to Whovians: This post contains spoilers for the most recent season, including this week’s episode.

Warning to everyone else: You’re probably not going to care much about the particulars of this post, so feel free to wander on by.

Storytelling.  No matter what medium you choose – movies, TV, novels, flash fiction, or comic books – there’s nothing more important.  Storytelling is the overarching competency with which you build your world, develop your characters, and follow the actual series of events that constitute your plot.  There’s nothing more important because there’s nothing else you’re trying to achieve, really.

Storytelling is everything – and Doctor Who is really bad at it.

For the purposes of full disclosure, I’ll start off by saying that I’m not a die-hard fan, by the most stringent definition.  I’ve only picked through a couple of the classic episodes just to get my bearings, and I started watching the new series a mere three years ago, so I’m late to the game.

But I really enjoy it, and I think it’s done some excellent things over its (gasp) nearly ten-year-long run.  I think Peter Capaldi is a fantastic actor, and I love the passion and wryness that he’s bringing to the role.

Which is why it’s so disappointing to see him fall victim to really terrible plotting and some cringe-worthy, elementary storytelling mistakes.  This season has been especially dismal, as the showrunners try to jazz things up and make everything cool and dark and edgy.  It’s been nothing but failure after failure, and there are lessons for storytellers of all kinds in those rudimentary errors.

Here are four of the biggest pitfalls that the Doctor has failed to avoid in recent weeks.

Detail doesn’t always equal world building

Little things can make a big difference when it comes to fashioning a realistic society.  A mention of a past cataclysmic event, the unique wording of a minced oath or a prayer, and the way a woman dresses or a man greets his friends can add life and color to an otherwise flat environment.

But knowing where to put in details – and where to leave them out – is what distinguishes a rich world from a cobbled-together mess of cultural clichés.  Let’s take the Indo-Japanese set-up in Sleep No More, for example.  You may remember that each of the soldiers talking over their communication device would say something like, “Come in, Ando.  May the gods look favorably upon you.  Are you dead yet?”

Now, I’m sure the writers intended that phrase to bring a bit of Neo Asian spice to the rather haphazard and poorly-presented 38th century cultural landscape, but here’s the rub.

Number one, I guarantee half of you misremembered the phrase as the one from The Hunger Games, so that was poorly planned.  Number two, there was nothing about gods in the rest of the plot, so who cares if they’re looking favorably at anyone?  Everyone dies anyway, so clearly it doesn’t work as a benediction.

Number three, extraneous words like that have no place in military communications, where they could be garbled and confused, and they certainly waste time and effort when speaking on a two-way radio.

So what did that detail bring to the party, other than confusion?  Did it make you feel more connected to a world you never even really got to see?

Suspension of disbelief?  Rubbish.

In the same episode, the Doctor commits the cardinal sin of storytelling: he gets roped into telling, not showing.

“Well, of course the vicious sand men are the sleep from the corner of your eye,” he says based on no evidence whatsoever.  “You’re just going to accept that dead skin and mucous can become sentient and kill people, aren’t you?  I’ve never encountered this before, and I’m not even going to bother making up some silly technical jargon to explain how they came to life, but let’s just take this as a given because we have to get to the pointless ‘twist’ at the end pretty soon.”

He did the same thing with the quantum shade in Face the Raven this week.  What is it?  Why does Me have it?  Why can she only control it to the exact degree required to manipulate the rest of the plot into shape?  Why should we just accept that Clara is destined to die, when the Doctor is so good at getting out of all these other “inevitable” situations?

Now, the episode will be continued next week, so I guess we can’t discount the possibility of an explanation.  But with the way things are going, I wouldn’t bet my hat on it.

This is especially frustrating because you can look back at an episode like Mummy on the Orient Express, where the Doctor spends a lot of time trying to figure out what the hell the monster is.  Because we already know the Doctor hasn’t come across every single type of lifeform in the universe.  And when you see something new, you have to figure out what it is before you can kill it.

He actually solved a mystery, instead of stating that a) there is no mystery because the Doctor knows things he really has no way of knowing, or b) the mystery is simply unsolvable or irrelevant, so you’ve just got to accept it because they said so.

You can’t just say things that are outrageous or unfamiliar to an audience and expect them to go with it.  You have to at least throw them a little bit of a bone.  Even if you’re just going to reverse the polarity of the neutron flow, you must have some sort of justification for why things happen the way they do.  “Trust me, I’m the Doctor” only works in some situations, not all of them.

The Doctor has (nearly) infinite time, but we don’t

Cut to the chase.  Really.  I mean, can we talk about Odin in The Girl Who Died?  What was the point of that?  Unless it was some kind of subtle homage to Monty Python, I haven’t seen anything so ridiculous since the low-budget days of the 1970s.

Tell me I'm not the only one who saw this.

Tell me I’m not the only one who saw this.

Also, think about it.  If a big alien guy is going to come to a Viking village, eat all its warriors, and then immediately leave, why does it have to cloak itself in a form familiar to the culture?  Any big scary monster is going to make the warriors come out to fight.  It doesn’t have to insinuate itself into the mindset of its enemies.  It wasn’t planning to stay until Aschildr antagonized him.  Why waste our valuable time pretending that it matters?

The whole episode was a bit of a stretch, with the montage of preparing for the battle with the Mire and whatnot.  It definitely felt like they had enough material for one-and-a-half episodes with Maisie Williams, but they had to stretch it out into two.

The thing is, they really didn’t.  Doesn’t the Doctor have enough to say about immortality (or something like it)?  Couldn’t they have done some better foreshadowing if they knew Me was going to come back and kill Clara a few episodes later?  After all, they’ve made such a big deal about Clara’s drawn-out leaving saga that they could have spent more than five minutes on the fact that she was actually, finally going to die.

TV episodes have 42 minutes to make us care.  Doctor Who tries to make a brand new big, complex world fit into that tiny block of time each and every week.  There isn’t room for meandering and filler.  There isn’t room for loose writing and pointless detail.  Tighten up on the reins and give us the punch in the gut we know you can.

Tugging on the wrong heartstrings

Speaking of which.  Am I the only one who had absolutely no recollection of Rigsy?  I was not given any indication that I had to remember him when his primary episode ended, so I spent the whole time trying to recall where he was from.

And that meant that I didn’t particularly care that he was accused of a crime he didn’t commit.  Yes, the wife and baby at home gave it a gloss of tragedy, but let’s imagine something else for a minute.

Imagine if the episode started with Clara in her bathroom.  Wait – first imagine that you’re not totally sick and tired of Clara.  Then imagine her in the bathroom looking at the back of her neck.  She picks up the phone, her hand shaking slightly.  “Doctor, I seem to have a tattoo…and it’s counting down.”

You’re immediately invested, because you know Clara and you care about her.  You’re intrigued if she blanks out for a whole day, because you know she’s smart enough and experienced enough to be aware of alien things that might happen to her.  So why can’t she remember?  Bam, instant tension and mystery.

Bam, the Doctor has an immediate and pressing motive to figure out what happened.  He has to fret about losing Clara for the whole episode, not just the last two minutes.  They both have to face the inevitability of mortality, and they get to do it together.  Clara can do more than throw away a single line about courting death this whole time.  She can explore who the Doctor has turned her into, and she can either forgive him or blame him for it as she stares down her final moments.

The Doctor has to face the fact that he can’t save everyone – not because Clara made a stupid and clumsy mistake just to further a plot point, but because sometimes there are evil forces in the world greater than he is.  The Doctor doesn’t always win – and we could have had 42 minutes to explore his pain at that notion.

But we didn’t.  We had five minutes, and it felt like a total waste of time.  Because the writers missed this golden opportunity for some serious drama.  They misjudged the audience, and they misjudged their own capabilities to craft an absorbing farewell for a long-running character.

The problem is that they’re trying too hard and they don’t have enough of a critical eye to make it work.  Everyone needs to be a little brutal with the red pen before anything gets finalized, and I don’t think they have an editor that can ask the tough questions and make the right calls.

It’s very disappointing that this season has struck such a sour tone.  It isn’t all bad – I liked the underwater ghost episodes, and I enjoyed Peter Capaldi yelling at the Zygons about peace in our time.  But there are so many amateur mistakes in the construction of these episodes that there’s so little incentive for me to keep watching as faithfully as I have.

So please, showrunners.  Get it together.  Trim the nonsense, find a way to get under our skin, and skip the silly meandering around what really matters.  You’ve done it before.  I’m sure you can do it again.  And if you want me to fly over there and set you all straight, I’ll start booking my tickets.

Ready? Set? Wait for it…

nano

If you’re reading this two and a half days from now, feel free to yell “GO” whenever the clock strikes twelve in your particular time zone.

Yes, we’re only a few short hours from the annual literary marathon known as NaNoWriMo, and I have to tell you, I wasn’t even sure I’d be running this year.

I had some grand ideas earlier in the month, which promptly crumbled in front of me when I sat down to sketch out my opening scenes.

Normally my novels start out a bit on the slow side, with background and introduction instead of bang-boom-crazy action.  I’m generally okay with this (after all, I’m the one who’s writing it like that), but every time I send a manuscript off to an agent, they tell me the story didn’t grab them the way they wanted it to.

So this time, I tried making something explode in the first sentence.  That’ll do it, right?  Well…it turns out it’s hard to establish the right tone for your sensible, intelligent, domestically-focused character when you blow up her house without giving her a chance to say anything about it.

The subsequent confusion, blood, and urgency may be flashy, but it left Abigale Calloway with nothing to do but scream and be shocked and get rescued in her very first scene, since she didn’t know what the hell was going on and would not have the training or experience to do anything except panic in such a situation.

I have enough trouble writing female main characters (a subject for another post, maybe) without turning them into damsels in distress on page one, so I scrapped those thousand words.  Then I wrote another scene, where someone else’s house exploded instead, but that didn’t work either.  The logistics were all wrong, and Abigale would have had to run into a village under attack to do some things that would be entirely out of character for her anyway.

So I scrapped that one, too.  Twice.  I changed Abigale’s history; I changed the setup of her world; I changed the potential outcome of the story in an effort to get myself excited about writing it, but it all seemed dreary, dull, lame, and lackluster.  And this is all a fortnight before NaNoWriMo was even going to begin.

Those of you who follow me on Facebook will have seen my angsty post about potentially throwing the whole notion out the window (where it would promptly explode in a dissatisfactory manner, no doubt), but as soon as I published something about my conundrum, I realized what I was doing wrong.

Wishful thinking?

Wishful thinking?

You know, sometimes in archery, I will start off the hour doing very well, and then something will shift without my notice, and I’ll end up with six or seven rounds of off-target garbage.  I’ll get mad at myself for sucking, and try to fix one thing or another, and nothing will work.

Five minutes before I get so frustrated that I’m about to give up, I’ll realize that it all comes back to the one fundamental thing I lose sight of sometimes: my grip on the bow.  I’m so busy worrying about the dynamics of pulling the string back and aiming each time that I forget how important it is to have a solid start.  When I reposition my fingers and relax my arm, suddenly everything comes back into alignment and hitting the gold is easy again.

It’s the same thing with writing.  When I grip the story wrong, nothing else works.  I had planned to write The Night Heron’s War as a stand-alone novel and market it traditionally while I continue to self-publish the rest of The Paderborn Chronicles, just to see what would happen.

Agents tell me my openings are boring, so I was trying to wrestle my novel into a mold that would sell to them.  I wasn’t writing for myself.  I was gripping way too hard, approaching it from the wrong angle, and wrenching my storytelling out of alignment.

I’m all for listening to feedback and incorporating it appropriately, but this particular piece of advice just doesn’t work for me.  If I don’t block out the world sometimes, I succumb to my inferiority complex and end up floundering around in a sea of self-pity.  Some writers like to be pushed to write a best-seller, because the pressure inspires them.  For me, it just makes me want to cry.

Maybe my stories do start off a little more slowly than commercial publishers like to see, but I feel like I do better work when I can do a bit of world building that puts the action into context first.  Maybe this isn’t what will grab the attention of someone who skims through a hundred queries a day, but it’s what makes a good story, as far as I’m concerned.

So I pushed the explosion back a bit, and let Abigale say some intelligent, character-defining things first before I ruined her life forever.  My excitement about the story is back, and I’m looking forward to writing it in a meaningful way.  The rest comes later.

During November, it’s the journey that matters, and I’m ready to get as far as I can in the next thirty days.  Are you?

The Call of NaNoWriMo: November Approaches

nano

I don’t know about you, but I’m having a little trouble with the fact that it’s already well into October.  My summer has been filled with activity – and inactivity, unfortunately – and it seems like the warm days passed me by before I was even aware.

I think that happens every summer, but I never stop being surprised by it.  One moment it’s all flowers and oceans and walks in the park, and the next I’m tripping over decorative gourds and dodging Christmas tree displays at Kmart.

Autumn isn’t a bad thing.  In fact, it’s one of my favorite things.  Massachusetts is the best place on earth to get your fill of orange leaves and apple orchards, cider and hay bales and cool, misty mornings rolling in over the hills.  There’s something in the air that makes you want to invest in some oversized, locally-spun wool garments and take a hike somewhere.

Whatever it is that makes me hoard sweaters and try to find where I put my Crock Pot also flips the switch in my creative brain that starts the wheels turning again.  It takes a little while to get the gears going, but as soon as the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) site boots up again and the tweets start pouring in from friends brainstorming their next novels, I can’t help but get excited.

I didn’t know if I was going to participate this year, actually, because I’m in the middle of trying to edit and finish the last two books of The Paderborn Chronicles.  Book 3, Dark the Chains of Treason, is in relatively decent shape for the moment, but the last volume, Dark the Wayward Dawn, is suffering from some structural issues (not the mention the fact that I need to write the last 20,000 words).

While I’m not morally opposed to patchwork NaNoWriMo participation, I didn’t want to write the ending to Wayward Dawn and then have to launch into 30,000 make-up words on a new project without a breather.  It’s not really how I work, and I want to do a thorough overhaul and edit of the first part of the book before I sketch out the climax.

So, seeing as how I just released Dark the Dreamer’s Shadow two months ago and almost no one has actually read it, I’ve decided to give myself a short break from the world of Arran Swinn, and take this November to indulge in creating a new fantasy.  I think it’ll freshen me up to come back to the editing process over the winter, and it won’t seriously delay my (tentative) release schedule.

What am I going to be working on, then?  Well, I don’t have all the details fleshed out just yet, but it’s going to be a standalone novel preliminarily titled The Night Heron’s War.

As I mentioned on Facebook a few days ago, I’m thinking about taking elements of the American Revolution (colonies in fractious rebellion; underfunded guerilla combat; a middle/upper class torn in both directions) and approaching them from the viewpoint of an Abigail Adams type character: a smart, shrewd woman who ends up being much more than a good housewife and hostess for a well-connected husband drawn into dangerous circumstances more or less against his will.

First stab at a cover (no pun intended)

First stab at a cover (no pun intended)

She’s one of my favorite historical figures, and while I don’t envision that the story will be an alternate history of the Revolution or anything like that (it’s not set in the real world, for starters), I think she’d make a great fantasy character.  Her relationship with John and her steadying hand had such a huge impact on major events – it’s hard not to wonder what would happen if you throw a little sorcery at someone like that.

So that’s the plan for now.  I’ve done some very basic hands-free plotting (i.e. using my phone to record myself talking in the car on the way to work), and I’ll probably be working on a more solid outline over the next few weeks, before the fun really begins.

As usual, if you’d like to join me on the creative rollercoaster, please feel free to add me as a buddy on the NaNoWriMo website.  If you’re not sure you want to take the plunge, but want to follow along as I gripe and grimace and grin my way through the month of November, consider a Twitter follow instead.  You can have all the cat pictures for free.

Who’s going to be jumping in this year?  What ideas do you have swirling in your heads?  Let me know in the comments!