Robert: The man Robert A. Sloan – short, crooked, cat-loving, disabled, opinionated and weird. The writer – copious and imaginative. I’m one of those world champions at sitting still and daydreaming. Add decades of practice and now I write whopping big SFF novels. My first finished novel, Raven Dance, came out huge, fast-paced and complex.
Recently I’ve been branching out into other directions with a pure nature novel set in the North American Pleistocene. No human characters, no dialogue as such, it was a technical challenge that came off well. It’s still in rewrite but most of what it needs is tweaking.
I wrote it for my beloved cat Ari, who watched “Big Cat Diaries” with me dozens of times while researching it. He loves documentaries and films with cats in them, they always get his attention.
Robert: Ray Bradbury. There are others but Ray Bradbury is always in the list and usually heads the list. I’m not an Arthur C. Clarke giving ideas to engineers, don’t have all the degrees of an Isaac Asimov or the life experience of Robert Heinlein. What moved me most consistently was Ray Bradbury’s heart and imagination. He wasn’t normal. In his books and stories it was all right to not be normal whether that was black, winged, gifted or disabled. Unlike most fiction, I could imagine his characters as my friends when I was a kid, not turning away in horror and disgust. I could live in his worlds.
Robert: Absolutely. Science Fiction for me included fantasy and some types of horror. I never wanted to do anything else. I didn’t want to write about the normal things in life. I’ve never had a normal life or cared about the normal things like Getting Ahead or how much money anyone’s got. In science fiction, so many times characters faced survival problems instead of social infighting. I didn’t like romance at all, don’t get into mystery unless it’s got a good cat in it and occasionally like to read historical novels. But historical novels take too much research and you have to check your facts. I’m more with Dave Barry – I’d like to do impressionistic fact-free fiction, something to take your mind off everyday things to let you get a good night’s sleep.
With the exception of my latest novel of course. Sabertooth has facts in it, plenty of them. I did more research on that one book than any other I’ve written, it was a technical challenge. A fun one because I enjoy prehistoric beasties and will probably do something like it again with dinosaurs or other periods of ancient life. Those are stories I’d like to read that no one else has written.
I define them as Science Fiction because paleontology is a science. My prehistoric animals novel is just as likely to become obsolete by a discovery next week as any hard science fiction writer’s spaceship. It won’t matter if it’s a good story though, just the same way Charles R. Knight’s murals are still beautiful paintings even with all that we now know about dinosaurs.
Robert: That’s the easy part. I get an idea for the opening conflict, the premise. Sometimes it’s an event, sometimes it’s the setting. I knew starting Sabertooth that I was going to write the story of the cat with the broken back – an older female Smilodon who lived for six months in a crippled state, fed and cared for by her pride. Her bones show that she was loved.
The book surprised me from the point of the first line. It didn’t start with Elder, it started with a young male Smilodon coming of age and showing unusually gentle, sociable character. He becomes her pride-male along with the cousin who follows him, which was absolutely necessary to ensure that Elder’s pride were the sort of cats who would support and take care of a crippled elderly family member instead of just abandoning her.
If they were a human family I’d have to show the family was that supportive too. Elder’s personality had a lot to do with it, but she could not make a bad choice for a mate or it wouldn’t have happened. The fossil told me that she did get taken care of by her pride.
Robert: Pantser. My unconscious mind is a far better writer than I am consciously. I tried outlining once, just to see if I could do it. I managed it, the process was a lot less fun and did not come out any better in the rough draft for having been plotted carefully before I wrote it.
As a kid I used to write my school essays first and derive the outline from the essays when teachers demanded outlines. It was easier that way than thinking in terms of outlines.
Robert: Hardly my first NaNoWriMo! I love NaNoWriMo. It’s turned the world’s loneliest art form into something like the Boston Marathon. I meet other writers at NaNoWriMo. I’m not a freak for wanting to write novels instead of going bowling or doing a marathon.
I first joined NaNoWriMo in 2000 – the second year there was one. I wrote 90,000 words that year in a loony NaNoWriMo-inspired romp. All three of my characters – middle-aged SF writer, his wife trying to write one herself for the first time and their adopted son – were trying to complete NaNoWriMo in a haunted cabin in the woods, complete with a bear breaking in to wreak havoc and reptilian little people prodding them with spears. The old pro writer got haunted by a dead character who appeared like a ghost from his golden years and said one magic word to him in front of his computer – “Prequel.”
I have yet to decide if that’s too silly and self referential to write or if it’d be just the sort of romp that would get a lot of readers.
Robert: Everything I do affects everything else I do. I’m taking a master class in landscape composition right now and it’s given me a new way to view plot pacing – an understanding of why my plots work when I do them by the seat of my pants. I once created a main character who was an artist and that became integral to why he was in the bad situation he was. I might do that again because I’m familiar with the lifestyle.
Artists are observant, as much so as detectives. Maybe more so. To draw realistically you have to pay attention to reality rather than the symbols that are our mental map of reality. Drawing not only improved my descriptions but it improved my ability to observe everything. I look past ideas to try to see how things really are – in the case of my stories, how they really would be.
Robert: The one I’m working on now, Sabertooth. Of short stories, the first horror story I ever sold was wonderful. It had a fun title – “Crossthought on the Hatestream.” Unfortunately I lost it about eight hard drives ago, otherwise I would be submitting it for reprint to every anthology that takes horror. If I ever find a copy, I will.
Robert: I found one completely by accident – nonfiction. Specifically, art instruction. That started with a few how to draw articles for eHow.com and Hubpages, then grew when I startedhttp://www.explore-oil-pastels-with-robert-sloan.com. My one writing interest aside from speculative fiction is the nuts and bolts of painting and drawing. For some reason I had a blind spot about that all my life. When people suggested “Write some nonfiction to get a better income and support your fiction writing” their examples were usually cookbooks, travelogues, journalism, celebrity novels, all the sorts of things that I can’t do well or can’t do at all.
Not one friend who said “Try doing nonfiction” ever suggested “You could do an article on how to draw dragons.” That’s a nonfiction topic too, it’s not all cookbooks and hiking guides.” I think the reason was that I was living in complete denial of my physical disabilities.
I avoided anything I couldn’t do and thought of that as personal taste. I had no idea most of the things I couldn’t stand, like sports or cooking, were the things I can’t do. I thought I just didn’t like them. My family did not believe I had physical disabilities and they snowed everyone including me into thinking it was all in my head. It sounds stupid, but it’s true – I got conditioned to ignore the limp and think of my chronic pain as depression. Hint – if taking an aspirin relieves it, that’s not emotional pain.
Some of it wasn’t even discovered back then though. Most cases of fibromyalgia and other autoimmune diseases got blown off as hypochondria or depression. I had skeletal problems too but if a kid’s labeled as a malingerer who fakes illness, they believe the adults who labeled the kid. Too many gym teachers shouted “Quit clowning around and faking that limp.”
People don’t live in reality. They live in what people tell them reality is. That includes me. I got raised to believe everyone else in the world had to push that hard to get up in the morning or stay awake in class, walk down the hall or endure constant pain and injury in gym. I just thought they were better at covering the pain than I was.
That’s some of why I like setting my stories in completely imaginary far distant worlds. Fewer people will take them for real in anything but an introspective sense. They are all innerscape, all in the storyland of the mind instead of a particular view of politics or society as it is right now. Reality is usually a lot better than people will tell you it is. Even at its roughest, facing what the trouble actually is can give you a better way to handle it.
If I wrote about President Obama as recently as 1990, people would think it was unbelievable. Yet there he is in the White House and I helped vote him in. Sometimes the good things in science fiction come true. My laptop and the President are two of them.
Robert: Sabertooth. Can’t get my mind off it. I’m at the editing and polishing stage. I spend a lot of time thinking about it, maybe a hundred times before actually opening the file and doing something. Then when I buckle down to do the copy editing, it sings and the bigger changes I thought of in standing back from it flow as easily as when I was first creating it.
I do need to trust my unconscious though, it’s still a better writer than I am.
Robert: Did you know a cat will not sleep on a bad manuscript? It’s true. Your cat knows your writing is worth something. Ari helps me with all of my fiction.
I get territorial about my computer. I get panic attacks if someone else has to touch the keyboard, even if it’s someone helping me with a problem. It’s hard to calm down until the problem’s solved. I feel much more secure if I have a working backup machine that I can return to or hand off as a loaner if some family member or friend is in dire need.
I used to think that I’d get a typewriter and hang onto that machine for life the way so many authors did when I was a kid. I didn’t count on science fiction coming true. I fell in love with PCs from the day I got a word processor, then when I got a real computer the world opened up for me. In the 1980s I desperately hoped someday they’d invent a real computer about the size of a three-ring binder, with the keyboard on one flap and a flip-up screen on the other side.
Right now I’m working on a 17” screen refurbished gaming laptop and it’s a joy. The faster the computer, the more I can relax and enjoy it. I keep a game open to ruminate on during pauses – has to be a very familiar game that takes no thought, like Solitaire, since I’m constantly putting it down again after just a few seconds of pause. I like to keep a browser open for research and socializing in breaks.
I wouldn’t call them superstitions so much as set writing habits, a routine that I’ve established. I have music playing, that’s the prompt to write. I have the file open. I have the novel in progress on desktop rather than in Documents, it has to be a visible folder on the desktop. That’s the door into the page for me.
But I’ve also written the first ten chapters of a novel on copier paper with borrowed pens when I was stuck in a hospital without anything else to use. I like having my cat and my computer and I function better as a human being with them, but I would write no matter where I was or what I was doing it with.
Robert: I belong to a high-powered critique group that I love and I’ve had several weeks of sick time, so I’m slacking. I need to go back and post Leave of Absence again since I missed last month due to health issues. I love them but it’s hard to keep up when I have to work around fibromyalgia. My memory is a steel trap – it mangles anything that gets into it.
Except things actually in the specific novel I’m working on and its world. Somehow the writing process gets going and I will remember where the water hole is near Ambush Rock when I can’t find my wallet.
Robert: Characters create the story with their decisions. This is a big part of why I’m a pantser. I have no idea what will happen in the book. I set up a situation and then see what happens. They go live within the first few sentences and make their own decisions.
I did not consciously know that young Musky was going to be one of the world’s most lovable, family oriented cats. Musky decided that. I thought I was writing about his “Get out of my house!” fight with his dad. Male lions and male house cats do that, it’s the females that stay home. Instead, he did something different – he faced the social situation in a new way and instead of fighting his dad, made up with him. Then left after one last play session establishing the close relationship.
It all made sense later. He has a strong personality. As an individual, Musky is more social and family oriented than the average cat. Way after writing the book, I knew he had to be. But when I was on the spot writing, it was much more like the film crews of Big Cat Diary just watching cats to see what they’ll do next.
At the beginning of my books everything is chance. I throw in anything and the kitchen sink, every idea that crosses my mind gets tossed at the characters. Midway, that shifts to half and half fate and chance. Fate is the consequences of their decisions, chance the things I toss in just to see what’ll happen. By the end of the book that narrows till the story rests on what the characters do at a critical peak moment. By that time, they’re who they are and will do what they do whether it’s tragic or heroic or both.
Robert: It’s always the protagonist of the book I’m working on. Right now that’s Elder’s pride. Overall though, I think that I have spent more time with Malcolm Evans than any other character I created. He’s the vampire hero of Raven Dance, a Victorian vampire that survived through into a thousands of years off future on another world. He started out in a fragmentary story when I was ten or so, roaming around in a purple hearse throwing tailgate parties with assorted hippie weirdos and other supernatural creatures.
He had a werewolf friend too. A little like Dark Shadows but far less doomed than Barnabas, he didn’t kill his dates so he wasn’t guilty about being himself and just enjoyed it. He also dressed a bit like Dr. Who before I ever saw the series, he was always into colorful, creative clothing.
Robert: Hard to pick favorites. Might be Gandalf, he moved me so much for so many years. Ender, from Ender’s Game. Harry Potter. Jim Nightshade from “Something Wicked This Way Comes” by Ray Bradbury. There’s a bit of a pattern – characters who are children who think and behave as human beings rather than Proper Children. I’m not sure I could ever write a children’s book, not one that a parent would buy anyway.
I have not written a book with that archetype. That’s an interesting gap, I may have to think about why not and consider writing one for adults about a kid who handles a bad situation too well. There are too many real kids like that, going home to alcoholic homes, born in war zones or ghettos, enduring hardships no one should have to deal with and then treated as helpless objects even by the people who try to help them.
Robert: Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, J. K. Rowling, Harlan Ellison and Stephen King. Heck with the dinner party though, I’d love to be cooped up in a haunted hotel with all five of them scaring each other with cool stories and drifting off to rattle keys when any of us got the urge.
I considered inviting my art mentors but I’m not sure they’d mix well with the writers. No, they’d get along famously. It’s more that I’d go nuts trying to flip between “writing mode” and “art mode.”
If I were to make it a painting vacation, plain air weekend in the Mediterranean or something great like that, then it’d be Charlotte Herczfeld, Johannes Vloothuis, Maggie Price, Susan Sarback and Richard McKinley. Though that would also require a massive truckload of pastels and oil paints for everyone to play with.
The writers’ get together all we’d need would be laptops and words.
Robert: Gandalf, Professor Dumbledore, Lazarus Long, Mr. Fezziwig and Granny Weatherwax. Yes, that’s a lot of old people and none of them like the same food, but they all have a wit and a sense of humor. I probably wouldn’t get a word in edgewise. It’d be fun. Besides, I’d feel like a kid in that crowd.
Robert: Leave the house, go directly to San Francisco and start writing for money. Don’t worry about whether it’s any good, just do it for eight hours a day, forty hours a week to start and once the dam breaks it’ll get better. Don’t bother with college, you don’t need it, you learn more from reading and meeting interesting people than you ever did from classes, you’re an autodidact. Don’t bother working other jobs. Draw a few dragons to keep yourself in smokes and cash till the writing pays. Write nonfiction too, anything that actually interests you can sell somewhere because you’re not the only one who likes it.
When I think of what San Francisco was like in 1972, what publishers paid for new novels and how many soft markets existed then, it’s pathetic how blocked I was. I went from a family that sabotaged and discouraged my writing into a long co-dependent relationship with someone who sabotaged and discouraged my writing. I was a mess – and that kick in the pants might even have given me the wake up call I needed about my physical disabilities.
The only job I ever wanted is the only job that’s remotely practical for me to do with my physical limitations. I may love doing plain air painting but I can only do it a few days out of a year. No one can live on a week’s work. I am a better writer than artist no matter how good an artist I am, because I can do the writing job on bad days when I could not lift a brush. I can be a writer year round, that’s a big difference in itself.
But I love writing about art and that’s my nonfiction niche. It crept up on me. Art instruction is my Other Genre, the only thing I want to do when I think about writing in the real world. Focus on the good things in it, the beauty of landscapes and how to paint them, the fun of new toys and colors and how to get the most from them.
Robert: Don’t forget that you love it. Don’t think of it as a job like typesetting or any other grind. Don’t ever forget why you do it is to write something you want to read next. It is not all about the money, it’s about doing it and the money is something that pays for you to go on doing that thing you love. If you need a vacation, just take one for as long as it takes to recharge and do some painting.
Robert: I want my books to stay in print, to be timeless. I don’t know which ones will be or not. I have no idea whether one novel I loved and thought was my best falls flat into obscurity and something I tossed off for the heck of it turns out to be meaningful literature that gets taught in schoolrooms centuries after I’m gone. I’m not sure I care which one, if I do this thing well and do a lot of it, some of them will be.
All of them are about standing up to trouble and not surrendering to it, not being who the world tells you that you are but being who you are. Living in reality is not as bad as it’s made out to be in the social fiction. Most people have a lot more freedom than they think they do. It’s not a bad thing to want to be happy or to surround yourself with friends or do something you love that comes from the heart. When you do things like that it slops over into other people’s lives in an honest way.
Robert: Robert A. Sloan
This is the cover of Robert’s book. You can purchase it at: http://www.iuniverse.com/Bookstore/BookDetail.aspx?BookId=SKU-000008564
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