Maybe it’s the relaxed day. Maybe it’s the teenage son voluntarily listening to jazz and doing dishes in the kitchen. Maybe it’s the knowledge that “Mr. Spazz,”—the squirrel haunting our attic—has finally gone to a better place. (Easy there, PETA. “Better place” in this vernacular means “wildlife preserve on the opposite side of a major waterway.”)
Whatever the reason, here I am, reading an actual book. Or I was, until I decided to post about reading an actual book. And it may not count as an actual book, since it’s actually the Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) of a book that’s already been released and was probably modified from the version I have. But let’s not quibble. The first page impressed me. It was good enough that I had to put the book down and talk about it.
In one-half page and 208 words, the author (1) bricks out a solid, sympathetic protagonist, (2) throws down a red herring or two, and (3) establishes three different sources of conflict.
Hoping the rest of the book delivers. . .
Activity Report: September 2018
- Finished Draft 3 of Shadowcloaks. Sent manuscript to alpha readers. Continued art direction.
- Attended the Writing Excuses Retreat as both vacation and professional development: seven days of writing, networking, and not doing dishes.
- Worked on PlagueRunners, subconsciously. 😉
- Did important parenting and day-job stuff.
Highlights from the Writing Excuses Retreat:
- Reconnecting with old friends and making new ones.
- Eating dinner with Dongwon Song of Howard Morhaim Literary Agency. Learning about what it means to “publish well.”
- Talking system design with Clark Rowenson.
- Making a joke at Howard Tayler’s humor lecture and watching him laugh and then effortlessly demonstrate what it means to “double-down.”
- Discussing the benefits of foreign travel with Michael Underwood and the twists and turns of life and writing with Krista Jensen.
- Watching Cooper Barham and Dan Wells argue about whose habitat gets Bobo the gorilla. (Fiasco is my new favorite game.)
- Seeing my son write 3,168 words in a single day.
It’s been a busy month. Thanks for your support. Bonus points for anyone who can guess which class circled below I didn’t attend:
“I swear I’ve been writing.”
–Benjamin Hewett (or maybe Patrick Rothfuss)
For a long time now I’ve been secretly plotting to culture my kids. It’s a sinister job, but one that parents are obliged to do. Imagine me sitting in a dark, cold basement, dry-washing my hands while scheming up ways to trick them into liking opera music before the age of 40.
Okay, so Houston doesn’t have basements.
Or cold places.*
But I was scheming.
And while I was scheming in my office after normal work hours, I came across a promising flyer from the Houston Symphony: “HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN™ IN CONCERT.”
They’ll never know this is culture, I thought.
I prepared carefully. I introduced the topic of attending the symphony nonchalantly at dinner. When they groaned, I mentioned it was a “Harry Potter 3” concert. Groans dissipated to mild disinterest. As we talked about appropriate symphony dress and behavior, they gave appropriately irritated responses, but said nothing truly alarming.
So I purchased “affordable” tickets. We arrived Friday night, dressed to kill, black ties and button ups, or black skirts and high-heels, as appropriate. And the first thing we see getting out of the car? Professor McGonagall. Not making this up. Seems like everyone at the Houston Symphony is in full fantasy getup, except us. My son turns to me and says something like, “Wait, why are we all dressed up, again?”
I’m not complaining. They enjoyed the program and only teased me a little about having left the Draco, Hermione, and Luna costumes at home. We’re getting up to leave, snapping some shots in our overdressed state, and I hear a voice behind me:
“When’s the next book coming out?”
Just like that. Almost no preamble.
Besides hanging out with my kids, that was the highlight of my evening. When a friend I haven’t seen in ages asks me to account for my writing activities and then posts my response on Facebook to all his friends, that lights a fire.
This post is for you Viddy. I swear I’ve been writing:
Activity Report Spring/Summer 2018
- Traveled to France for work. Did off-hours research for Shadowcloaks.
- Joined a writing group.
- Retro-outlined Plaguerunners per writing group’s recommendation.
- Began cutting and restructuring Plaguerunners based on consistent advice from two very talented agents.
- Finished drafting Shadowcloaks.
- Finished second draft of Shadowcloaks. (Almost.)
- Wrote statement of work and bid out cover and concept art.
- Visited family and friends in Seattle and Utah. Worked more on Shadowcloaks.
- All this time, I’ve been getting better. I think you’re going to like the results. #December2018
*My office in Houston is cold. Deathly cold. Deathly Hallows cold. (Remember that part where Harry’s trapped under the ice in nothing but his boxer shorts?) That cold. In fact, to celebrate the similarities, I’ll ship my personal copy of RINGS–complete with marginal notations and edits–to the person who posts the best caption for the photo above in the comments. There may also be consolation prizes. Let the contest begin!
“It is unfortunate you can’t separate your useful observations from your insults.”
— Judge from Houses of Common
Back in April of 2015, one of my author friends offered to put me in touch with her agent. She’d read the first two chapters of Plaguerunners and said it reminded her a little bit of Houses of Common.
Hmm. This Derick William Dalton guy sounds pretty cool. Maybe I ought to look him up.
Cut to February 2017. I’m in Utah for Life, The Universe, and Everything and I keep running into this guy on panels and in the halls. Funny, NASA-smart, and on the “multi-career” track, just like me. When we finally sat down to talk, I realized it was Derick. After our talk, he caught me in the hall and handed me a copy of Houses of Common, which I probably would have bought anyway. “Hope you like it!”
I did. And I had questions. Let’s start with that “multi-career” track.
Derick: By “multi-career” track, what you mean is “doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up.”
Ben: Well, yes.
Derick: I’ve ruled out biophysics researcher. Twelve hour days analyzing sheep urine in a basement lab through a dark Canadian winter converted my smooth, Baroque circadian rhythm to a syncopated cacophony.
I really miss high school sophomores. Teaching them biology meant spending more time with them than some of their parents. Helping fight scientific illiteracy in America and mentoring teens was the most important job I’ve ever done.
My current day job is an urgent care physician assistant. Mostly I treat sinus infections, but I get to fix a laceration or two every day. If I’m really lucky, I get to remove an ingrown toenail. Those days, the only difference between me and a mob goon doing some enforcing is that I inject a syringe full of lidocaine first. Gross equals awesome.
Ben: Your book assumes the reader knows something about a great many things. It assumes the reader can string together prior knowledge and bits of narrative data. The jokes and culture references come fast and quick. I love it. Are you worried that readers won’t be able to follow the breadcrumbs? I know I missed a few.
Derick: A little bit. But if you’ve ever read a book and felt like the author dumbed it down, you understand why I was fine with overcompensating. Not catching everything the first time? It’s fun. I’ve had to rewatch every episode of BBC’s Sherlock for the same reason, and it made me love them all the more.
Ben: That’s one of the reasons I loved Houses of Common. I felt like a kid again, swimming in the deep end with Clarke and Heinlein.
So. . .there was an a IKEA joke. What possessed you to put an IKEA joke in Houses of Common? Or did you just take guilty pleasure in having a bombed out IKEA in your story. How many husbands do you think have had that same fantasy?
Derick: No clue, as I really don’t hang around many husbands. Not to imply I’m hanging around their wives, mind you…
If I had my way, my house would be a smorgasbord of Swedish design and quality. IKEA’s up there with the bikeshop and bookstore in my world. When I found there is in reality an IKEA right next to the Belfast airport, I knew my Irish terraformer/refugee group had found a home.
Ben: Not judging, but your experiences at IKEA . . . and with husbands and wives in general. . . may be a little different than mine.
But this is my case-in-point: there was something funny and slightly offensive on every page of your book. Is the sarcasm intuitive, or did Ranyk’s character develop over several drafts?
Derick: Meds ran out.
Ben: Aren’t you a Physician Assistant?
You know what, nevermind. The sarcasm worked. I particularly liked how Ranyk puts himself at risk in the courtroom by pointing out the flaws in his own attorney’s arguments. The bit about ratios was especially funny.
Derick: I’m not a fan of court drama. Less a fan of learning enough to write one. So I thought to myself, WWRD? What would Ranyk do? I feel like I plagiarized that scene from my own brain.
Ben: I think we talked about this in February, but I’ve forgotten by now. Which end of the spectrum do you lean towards, discovery or outliner?
Derick: I make a solid outline, lots of diagrams and flowcharts. Some pencil or ink sketches of spaceships and faces, too. But if I get ideas while I write, I see where they go. Captain Gill, for example, had a half-chapter cameo in the original outline. Now he’s some readers’ favorite character with his patched vacsuit, self-maintained spaceship, and oblivion to social cues.
Ben: I loved Gill. Creepy and competent.
What about the focus on parental figures? I haven’t read many stories in the sci-fi or fantasy genre with parents as viewpoint characters. I especially liked the lacrosse practice scene and watching Inig process his son’s performance. Why did you include that in your novel?
Derick: Purely a marketing ploy. Gotta squeeze in every demographic, yeah? I’m also creating a new genre. There’s young adult and new adult fiction, so what about new parent fiction? It’s about children who sleep through the night and don’t tease their siblings and empty the dishwasher without being asked.
Less flippantly, Orson Scott Card’s Homecoming Saga had a scene that stuck in my psyche. In a sequel, previously heroic protagonists were completely shackled from making attempts to right wrongs, because they couldn’t put their children at risk. It was a clever plot device in that story, but I wondered about results if they had tried.
I haven’t seen many great dads in sci-fi either. I enjoyed adding one.
Ben: Ok. My biggest question. Why the cliffhanger? Honestly. I mean, I know Ranyk’s future is looking up, but we still don’t know nearly enough about his political enemies or why the pirates sabatoged his project. I’d hoped for a little more closure!
Derick: Yeah. . . Um, sorry?
You don’t want to hear excuses, neither do all the Amazon reviewers who told me the same thing. But here’s a reason, then you all can forgive me, or not, at your whimsy: A friend put me in touch with an agent, whose first comment was, “Cut it in half.” So I shuffled scenes and reworked plot and finally put together the best ending I could without rewriting the second half of the book. After all that, the agent took a look and made a polite pass.
When I decided to self-publish, I debated whether to stitch the story back together, and left it separated. About a year after I published the second half as the sequel Meaner Sort, I read a fantastic article by David Farland on that very topic:
“Never split a story,” he said.
Ben: So you weren’t just being a jerk author?
Derick: Lesson learned a little late. Maybe I’ll recombine the two when books three and four of the series are done. But right now I’m distracted by my YA sci-fi, which is being considered by an editor. SpaceBoots is in the same universe as Houses of Common and Meaner Sort, but occurs seventy years earlier.
Ben: No harm done. I’m looking forward to reading Meaner Sort. And let us know when SpaceBoots comes out.
Derick: I disagree slightly with that first sentence, I’m glad to hear the second one, and swear I’m not checking my email multiple times a day to see if a certain editor has news about the third.
But yes, yes I will.