If you were the new test cover for RINGS, Book 2: The Paladin’s Thief, which would you be?
If you were the new test cover for RINGS, Book 2: The Paladin’s Thief, which would you be?
May 3rd, 2017
I was at the dentist, fantasizing about my ant problem, also possibly on a stronger-than-usual anesthetic, when I finally came up with a solution for the pavement ant infestation. The kids and I had been talking about Eragon or one of the other books in the Inheritance Cycle by my good pal Christopher Paolini, and realized he could probably help me. So I called him:
Me: “Hello . . .Chris?”
“This is Ben.”
Me: “Your friend, Ben Hewett. Soon-to-be-famous author.”
CP: “Uh . . . how did you get this number?”
Me: “Your agent. Listen, I just need a little help. Shouldn’t take long.”
CP: “Er. . . okay. Anything to give a fellow author a boost, I guess.”
Me: “Actually, the writing’s going fine, thanks. I just need help killing ants.”
CP: “Wait. . .Who is this?”
Me: “Ben Hewett. And it’s not unrelated. It’s hard to write when the ants go marching across your fingertips. While you’re typing.”
CP: “Listen man, you’re a writer. Write a letter to your HOA. They’re responsible for animals that enter your home from the exterior.
Me: “Um. Yeah. How’d that HOA letter thingy work for Thorin Oakenshield?”
CP: “More like, ‘How did it work for Smaug…’ ”
Me: “Of course you’d side with Smaug.”
[Even more awkward silence.]
Me: “Listen, Chris. What I really need—besides your endorsement on my next book—is for you to send Eragon over to my house real quick. He can just sort of… you know… do that thing he did in Eldest. It seemed like a pretty weak plot device at the time, but this idea of sucking the life-force straight outta the entire ant colony has really grown on me in the last few weeks.
CP: “Eragon isn’t like that anymore. He carefully considers the impact of each action and . . .”
Me: “This is sort of important. The pavement ants are recolonizing faster than my neighbors and I can poison them. Faster than Galbatorix learning new, obscure languages, actually. Your guy wouldn’t even have to kill that many. Just like. . . eight ant queens. And anyways, My neighborhood would be more grateful to him than the whole continent of Alagaësia. Remember how much crap he got just for blessing that poor purple girl? Come to think of it, pest control’s a great fallback position for him. It’s safe, fun, and he could definitely minimize the environmental impacts of pesticides like Termidore and Anthrax.”
Me: “Um, hello? Chris?”
See what I mean?
Nobody wants to help.
January 1st, 2017
The rattle and crack of Russian-grade fireworks in the backyard wakes me up.
It takes me a minute to realize the kids are traveling with their mother, and that the detonations are in my neighbor’s yard, not mine.
Ahhh. Good. Not my problem.
I put a pillow over my head.
But it is my problem, because the new neighbors are West Coasters still acclimatizing to the dictates of Central Standard Time. The detonations continue.
At 2 AM when wake up yet again, I realize that it isn’t just about New Year’s. This is payback. Both to the HOA, and the pavement ants that the HOA has refused to deal with. I say a few hurrahs and stack another pillow on my head. Can’t think of a better use for fireworks.
To understand this attitude, you have to understand pavement ants. They don’t bite, but they’re into everything: crawling across the kitchen counter, drinking from the toilet bowl upstairs, and tripping through my leg hairs while I write this post.
According to the Pest Control guy, our townhomes are parked right on top of a “super colony,” a quarter-mile, underground ant complex complete with multi-lane traffic signals and 8 different queens, who all argue about whose day it is to wear the pANTs. (Juvenile, I know.)
The Pest Control guy says I’ll need some ANThrax to kill them, but I’m pretty sure that’s illegal, even in Texas. Termidore is a close second-choice, but Termidore costs more than Anthrax, says the HOA, so they’re not going to spring for it, and their level of engagement only declines from there:
ME: Please? There are, like, a billion ants inside my house.
HOA: “It’s a town home, not an apartment, sucker. Everything inside is your responsibility.”
ME: “Um… but the ants are coming in from the outside.”
HOA: “That’s what you think.”
ME: “No! I’m serious! Here are three videos of them peeking through the windows before they work the latches. It’s really creepy.”
HOA: “Mr. Hewett, please stop trying to give us evidence. We’ve already hired expensive attorneys to help us avoid this responsibility.”
Now you understand why my neighbors have resorted to ant-bombing under the cover of New Year’s.
But this isn’t over.
In December 2005, I was teaching 4th grade in Coppell, Texas.
It was a challenging job, and the pay was . . . typical, but I’d made it to my third year, and was really starting to feel the rhythm of the classroom. I remember watching their eyes widen as they grasp concepts for the first time or their tongues stick out as they navigated increasingly complex math problems.
As a teacher, I still had a lot to learn (e.g. the proper execution of a class party), but I always did my best. It was meaningful work. I had autonomy. And I enjoyed the teacher carpool and our discussions on life and the proper way to motivate tricksy ten-year-olds.
One day we were doing some basic geometry in class and the kids were looking a bit sluggish. So I added facial hair and angry eyebrows to one of the triangles as a reward to the more attentive, fully planning to leave it at that.
Somebody giggled, and suddenly every student was on high alert. Equilaterals are fine and good, but no kid wants to miss a joke.
To build on that success, I adopted a grumpy, sarcastic voice for the rest of the lesson and let Harry the Triangle teach. He was not gentle with the remaining geometries.
I’m not condoning insulting behavior here—insults hurt, whether hurled at a perfectly drawn sphere, or a tall and tan Norwegian isosceles. Instead, I made it abundantly clear that Harry the Triangle was neither role model nor paragon of kindly virtues, and the kids were falling out of their chairs. Laughter crying. Demanding that every math class be taught by Harry.
Math had never been so fun. For me or them. For the rest of the year, they did Harry the Triangle fan-fiction in their notebooks and perked up when math class drew nigh. They even played back that scratchy, sarcastic voice at random, inopportune moments.
Ahhh. The halcyon days of explaining the chorus of scratchy, 10-year-old voices to the school principal. If only my parties had been comparable.
I must have been a special case, because I always had multiple room parents. Shortly before Christmas break, they managed to cut me from my herd.
RPs: “Mr. Hewett, what’s the plan for the holiday party?”
Me: “Uh. . .”
RPs: “Nevermind. You just teach. We’ll handle the details.”
That was the best party my 4th graders ever had. The details are a bit hazy, but there was an abundance of adult supervision, spilled soda cups, and pizza, which was which was still a huge success back then, but you had to wait about 4 hours for it to be hand-molded and delivered on an old Italian bicycle.
And there were teacher-gifts.
Teacher gifts are the second-best thing about being a teacher. Kids are often generous with their favorite teachers, but this year was even more epic. Every kid wanted to thank me for making math less boring. I got beautiful Christmas cards (defaced with hand-drawn images of Harry the Triangle), books for the classroom library, more drawings of Harry the Triangle, gift cards, and chocolate.
And a shaving bag.
Really? Like, for travel?
Like, for carefully gathering and arranging toiletries so you knew you were perfectly packed before going on an actual airplane trip? The kind that helped you ensure your toothbrush, paste, razor, floss, chapstick, deodorant, nail clippers, soap and shampoo were all packed and ready for that big, important business meeting in Detroit? I mean, I knew what it was intellectually, but I didn’t travel. I was a teacher with small kids at home and a single income.
I smiled graciously at the student though. I made sure she knew how much I appreciated her gesture. When her shy smile came out, I relaxed just a hair, glad to see that my bemusement hadn’t shown through. What if you were the only kid to give your teacher something different. . . like a shaving bag . . . and then he didn’t like it?
As a teacher, it is important to be diplomatic.
When I woke up this morning, and grabbed my gear to get ready for a day of panels and networking, I stopped and laughed at my younger self. There it was. The 15-year-old Adidas shaving bag from my outside-the-box thinker.
The shaving bag I thought I didn’t need.
The one I take on every trip.
-February 15, 2020
“The paper is just [the] manuscript. It’s not the story. The story in your head is beautiful. . . You can take a lot of comfort in knowing that all they’re doing is reacting to the manuscript. It’s not [you]. It’s not even [your] story.” –Peter Orullian
Nobody likes to get told that they stink. (Try it sometime. If you get throat-punched, then maybe you get my point.)
And yet, we like improving. We like forward progress. We like being better today than we were yesterday.
And sometimes the thing we need to improve is a thing we don’t want to hear.
I have a friend at pick-up soccer who is always dispensing research-backed wisdom about this: “Don’t tell people what they did bad! It’s scientifically proven to trigger a defense mechanism.”
It’s funny, because he seems oblivious to the immediate walls that go up between him and the people he would educate about the dangers of negative feedback. Nobody seems to care that it’s “research-backed.”
And I’ve thought a lot about this. How do I invite positive change into my life as a writer, father, and friend?
If you’re bored, or tired of getting throat-punched for your “feedback,” check out this panel on constructive feedback for writers. Some of it might be useful.
The karate kid made my day.
He comes by, eyes wide, head swiveling, brain probably in sensory overload from the hanging air plants, flashing jewelry, and old-school fantasy books. He’s got a white uniform on with a yellow belt.
“Would you like to learn to juggle?” I say. I don’t bother selling him books any more than the ladies in the near-by booths would try foisting on him perfume and knitted cozies. This kid is looking for action!
He nods once, silent and confident. He’s young enough to still have that “I can do anything!” audacity that comes with wearing a karate uniform, and thinks it’s funny when I tell him that the first trick to juggling is learning to drop the ball properly.
Of course he nails it. And the next 5 steps in the juggling process. We get him up to double-throws and catches before karate beckons. It all takes less than 5 minutes, and his form is good.
He’s not the only one. Every kid in the place wants to see me juggle, even without the swords and torches that I’ve stopped bringing because they make the adjacent booths (and the fire marshal) nervous.
A couple more kids are brave enough to give it a shot themselves. I sell some books. I talk with their parents about literary tradition, and what they’re reading now. And I realize again why I like doing shows.
I thought I’d hate shows. The idea of being that guy who lurks at the mall kiosk and preys on unsuspecting passers-by makes my feet itch.
But I’ve realized, that I can do things my way. I can sit back and pass out free smiles. I can eat my sandwich, even with salami. I can teach kids to juggle and grannies to make snowflakes. Or, I can mix things up and teach the grannies to juggle and the kids to snowflake.
I’ve realized I can pretend to sell books as an excuse to talk to people about literature. And if, by chance, someone says they like Tolkien, or Pratchett, or Dragonlance, I can hand them one of my books and say, this one’s for you.
I like the quiet moments too. I like that lull around lunchtime where the morning crowd is drab-dribbling away and the afternoon crowd is still eating barbecue and wiping their fingers. I like talking shop with Laura who drove all the way from San Antonio to sell books and, well, talk shop.
Most of all, I like the people. These conversations wake the inner child and chase away the aches and pains of not being able to run a 5:20 mile anymore.
Thanks to those of you who stopped for conversations, lessons, and/or books. You made my day.
“…what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil…”
– William Shakespeare
Sometimes writing good books isn’t about word count. Sometimes it’s just about living through a difficult week so that maybe, someday, you’ll be healthy enough to put words on a page.
2016 was that year for me: newly divorced, single dad, struggling at work, and feeling like a failure in nearly every aspect of my life. It wasn’t true, of course, but I felt it was.
Some nights I went to bed exhausted yet didn’t sleep.
One of the best decisions I made that year was to start attending writing conferences. I went to the World Fantasy conference in Columbus, Ohio. I crashed at my friend Josh’s place. In exchange, I cooked his family dinner. Calzones, I think. It was a soft landing. There was laughter and kindness. Nobody expected too much of me. He let me guest star in his monthly D&D campaign. At the conference, Marco Palmieri gave me some writing advice and asked me for a partial manuscript. I made friends with some really cool writers. It woke me up a bit, reminded me that I had a lot going for me.
I also attended Life, the Universe, and Everything, or LTUE. I stayed with my sister. I ate delicious meals with her family. Enterprise gave me a free upgrade. I did an interview with Howard Tayler, although my interviewing skills were a bit . . . rusty. Still, the interview turned into a low-intensity, multi-day conversation.
I didn’t do much writing, but I connected with a community that I love, and that gave me something special to look forward to amid the day-to-day. It gave me hope. I made friends.
Last February I got to do a panel with Howard. I’d been writing more, thriving, and finally felt like I had something to add to the conversation. This particular panel was “self-care.”
I arrived five minutes late and deeply embarrassed.
Howard smiled at me. He’d saved me the panelist seat next to him. “Where have you been?” he asked.
“You know. Taking care of myself,” I said. “This is the self-care panel, right?”
Howard grinned. Everyone else laughed. Good friends are like that. They set you up for the home run.
Be a friend. Set someone up for the home run. Bring out the best in the people around you.
Activity Report: February 2019
Highlights from Life, The Universe, & Everything 37:
It’s been a busy month. Thanks for your support.