Closet Secrets.

Closet Schlock.jpg

My son found them in my closet, stashed  behind my least favorite dress shirts.

I knew, because I caught him trying to sneak them out.

“Those are mine,” I said.
“I just want to read them.”
“I know. That’s why I hid them in my closet.”

This is the kid who—as a six-year-old—singlehandedly  loved my entire Calvin and Hobbes collection into oblivion. There’s a reason six-year-olds aren’t supposed to be good readers.  The parts of the books that  eventually made it back to the bookshelf were only spared the rubbish pile because I couldn’t afford to replace them, and because a house without a Calvin and Hobbes book (or scrap pile, as case may be) is a house not worth living in.

So it was normal for me to hide my newly-purchased Schlock Mercenary books in the master closet. A guy should be able to read a book at least once before the cover falls off. And my plan would have worked if the meddling kid hadn’t noticed the mailer-receipt I’d carelessly abandoned on the kitchen counter. After the hunt began,  no room was sacred.

I’m not a big connoisseur of comics, but this one has stuck with me.  I’ve followed the online iteration for several years now. Schlock Mercenary delivers a sci-fi punch line in every strip, and it’s written and drawn by one of the smartest people I know.  And I work at NASA.

Incidentally, I got to sit with Howard Tayler  and his chief of staff Sandra for an hour at LTUE in February and plug them about the do’s and don’ts of quitting your day job. They gave me some good advice, signed the previously-mentioned closet copies, and told me random stories about bog butter and what it takes to maintain the creative genius under duress.

Interviewing Howard and Sandra Tayler was definitely in my top three for the LTUE conference. (Getting there  in a Dodge Mkmsdmmhgmmhmr  ranks fourth.)

So there’s the setup.  I have a box of funny books in my closet from a funny cartoonist. I also now have a funny thirteen-year-old in my closet reading through the 700+ page collection because I told him the books don’t leave my closet until I’ve read them all. And while I still have a full-time job, he only leaves the closet to forage for Cheez-Its.

If you like medium-hard  (yes, I made that up) science fiction / space opera humor, check out Schlock Mercenary. The early cartoon drawings are “rudimentary,” Howard insists, but that makes them even funnier in my opinion, because I’m super mature.

I’m also super glad Howard quit his day job.

–Ben

Howard and Sandra Tayler1

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Closet Secrets.

Anecdote: Sports Car

Hemi Ben.JPG

Enterprise Car Rental
Salt Lake City
9:37 PM

Oh. You.” her eyes say as she looks me over carelessly.  “Go stand over there.”

For a moment, I wonder if she’s going to do me like airport security, who didn’t actually frisk me, but made me feel naked just the same. Makes a guy want  another layer of protection for his next flight , like maybe some stretchy pants.

And the stretchy would double-up for warmth.  It’s like -40 degrees in SLC,  and I’m layered to the gills and still freezing.

My body’s gone soft, because there’s no such thing as winter in Houston, and now I’m in the middle of the Rocky Mountains with an improvised winter ensemble.

Dang it! Where is the Enterprise Attendant? She’s been gone for two minutes, and the people standing in the line behind me are all getting in their cars and driving away. They probably pulled  me from the line because I rented  the cheapest compact car available, and because I also fantasized about renting from Alamo.  And because I’m attending a writing conference instead of writing my next book.

And then she’s appears out of nowhere like some parking  garage opera phantom, scaring the imaginary stretchy pants off me and waving a pair of key fobs in my face. “Would you like a Dodge Mkmsdmmhgmmhmr?”

“Pardon?”

“ I got you a free upgrade.”

I still don’t know what she’s talking about, but I like the sound of an upgrade, especially one that’s free.”

“That sounds great! Thanks”

And then she’s gone again, gesturing vaguely into the  parking garage. “It’s just over there . . .”

It takes five minutes to figure out what a Dodge Mkmsdmmhgmmhmr is, because some idiot keeps pressing the unlock button on a black sports car three cars up and to my left, which distracts me from finding my own car. I don’t have time for this. I’ve got another hour to drive, an 8:00 am lecture to deliver to a class of graduate students, and a full day of writing panels to attend and interviews to conduct. I’m tired and I’m cold. In desperation I pop the trunk to my invisible vehicle, since the fob beeper system doesn’t seem to work.

The black V8 Hemi nods at me. “Maybe, ‘upgrade’ wasn’t the right word,” I think to my phantom fairy godmother.

And I can’t stop the wicked grin from spreading all over my face, across my neck, and into my hands and chest and feet. It’s going to be a great weekend.

Hemi 1.JPG

Anecdote: Sports Car

Book Reviews: Multiple

five-book-summer-no-back

It’s 1:00 am and the road is lonely. Steady white lines play out into the endless blackness ahead and behind. The siren song of humming pavement promises cool sheets and a ceiling fan, if only I’ll close my eyes and forget the steering wheel.

Fortunately, I’m wide awake.  I’m not just driving home from Memphis. I’m doing research.

Audiobooks are the best caffeine.

Chronicles of the Black Company
Grimdark before there was grimdark. Read this if you like fantasy protagonists who are decent fellows but happen to be working for the bad guy. And know it. And rationalize it. There isn’t a lot of moralizing here, but it was an interesting approach to the fantasy genre. Black Company is not as violent and bloody as contemporary grimdark.

Snow Crash
Big ideas. Big characters. A fascinating read about a virus that can infect both computers and humans, especially those who have internalized the binary language of machines into the deep structures of their brain (i.e programmers and hackers).  There’s a fair bit of violence and profanity, and some sex, so buyer beware. The story felt jerky and jumped around a little, but that may just be a feature of Neal Stephenson’s approach to telling the story. Listening to this one was definitely a plus.

Off to be the WizardSpell or HighwaterUnwelcome Quest
Nerd fantasy. Reality is just a big computer program, and we’re all a bunch of subroutines. Of course nobody knows this except the lucky few who stumble across the program’s Rosetta stone, an innocuous text file stored on random corporate mainframes across the globe.  And by modifying this text file, the lucky can modify reality. Need some money? No problem!  Want to live in 11th Century England? Allons-Y! Want to change your Pontiac Fiero’s coefficient of entropy and take it back with you?

These books are fun and irreverent, and put the jocks of sci-fi and fantasy in the driver seat.  Fun read. Even funnier if you’ve ever been a 13-year old boy, but aren’t anymore.

Consider the Fork
 This is not science fiction or fantasy. It’s Bee Wilson’s treatise on the evolution of the kitchen technology we take for granted. Cleverly written, it almost always kept my interest, except around mile three of a four mile jog. . . I especially liked the tips about judging the “doneness” of a steak and the discussion of how eastern cultures  (not western) invented disposable chopsticks because a piece of someone’s essence stays with the used utensils even after it’s been washed. (Ingesting a piece of someone else’s soul isn’t sanitary.)

His Majesty’s Dragon
My favorite book this last quarter is His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik, hands down. I am not a regency era expert (see my comparison of Jane Austen and J. R. R. Tolkien), but the banter  between characters, the careful phrasing, the pacing, and the social intrigue all felt very much like an Austen novel.  Then add intelligent dragons and the Napoleonic wars.  As with Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan and the general steampunk genre, I was dubious about this book. At first glance, mixing dragons and Jane seems like a stretch.

Or perhaps a pulled muscle.

But Novik’s style reduces the sensationalism without killing the magic. The characters have some depth, the dialogue is tasteful, and the action scenes are laden with layered meaning. The story sails by in a blink, and I didn’t bat an eye when my kids asked to listen in. Only the ending felt rushed, as if the regency muse stepped out for a tea break while Novik was penning the last few pages.

It’s 10:00 pm and small-gauge gravel sticks between the grooves in my running shoes, pressing into the pads of my feet.  Sweat drips down my face, my arms, and my everywhere. It pools between palm and mobile device. It coats the earphone cord I have to hold out of the way as I jog. Only an idiot runs this far in Houston.

But I have research to do, and a torn ACL to rehab. And miles to go before I sleep.

What books keep you awake at night?

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Book Reviews: Multiple

UNDIES and EDITS

Underwear

Every year, my family packs their bags and heads to southern California for the in-laws’ family reunion. There is whining about not having enough time to pack, people sneaking video games instead of packing, people wailing about missing undies, blankies, and swimsuits. Sometimes, one off-task child will come galloping through the bedlam, wearing another’s clean underwear like a jaunty French beret, taunting and just out of reach.

I’m not pointing any fingers. I’m just saying it happens. If your drawers aren’t in your drawers, they might be on someone’s head.

This year, though, I needed to be at work. I dropped Cami and the kids at the airport and waved them off. And despite a full plate at NASA, I’ve found myself with a bit of extra time. Here’s what I’ve been doing:

THE PALADIN’S THIEF: SHADOWCLOAKS
Book Four is well underway, with about 45% left to write on the 1st draft.  I’m really excited about the story and motivated to move forward on it every night when I get home from work.

Even more, I’ve noticed that my writing process continues to evolve. I wrote DARTS cold, start-to-finish on a whim and made improvements over the course of three years. I produced RINGS in three months, with a bare idea and a novella’s worth of backstory to start from.  By the time I finished RINGS, I’d also roughed in several important scenes for SWORDS, and had a holey outline (unwritten).

SHADOWCLOAKS has been very different. Its core concept sprouted as I was drafting RINGS and dreaming up SWORDS, and this allowed me to set up clues in advance. Unlike the first few drafts of DARTS, SHADOWCLOAKS naturally contains a novel arc and a series arc, and I’ve had to outline  more as the complexity and depth grow and the story components suggest recommend unexpected plot deviations. Whenever my outlining gets especially thick, descriptive, and prosy, I cut it from the outline and paste it into the main document, making little islands of story until they all start to join together. But more on outlining in another post.

OFFICE MONSTERS
I like funny things and funny people. Sometimes they like me back.  OFFICE MONSTERS has been distracting me from the stuff I’m good at, but forces me to think about different angles for storytelling, reducing word count, and looking for the humor in everyday situations.

So I’ve written scripts for 10-12 comics, and Marta is drawing and coloring them.

PLAGUE RUNNERS
I got my science fiction manuscript back from a potential agent.  It was his second review, but PlagueRunners didn’t make the cut. That stings a little, but I’ve only submitted it to one agent, and he read it twice and gave specific and useful feedback for improving it.

DARTS
Sometimes when I get home in the evenings, I’m too drained to write, but I’m not too drained to read aloud. Just need to dig out the Shure SM57 Microphones from the jazz combo days. Anyone interested in an audiobook?

SUMMARY
With any luck, I’ll be finished with the first draft of SHADOWCLOAKS before my family gets back from vacation.  And one other thing I’ve learned this summer:  Worrying about who will criticize or hate your project is death. Thinking about how behind schedule you are is death. Looking for underwear cartoons for your blog post is . . . probably not a good idea.

Above all, the best thing that’s happened this week (besides phone calls from California) has been spending afterhours on something I love. Being thankful for that time—productive or not—has made all the difference.

Be thankful.

 

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Healthy Discussion

UNDIES and EDITS

FINISHING THE BOOK: MOTIVATING WITH SMALL MILESTONES

“The days are long but the years are short.” –Gretchen Rubin

Not bragging, but in high school I scored a role as one of the lusty muleteers in The Man of La Mancha. For those of you who know me, this is totally out of character. For those of you who don’t know me . . . er . . . take my word for it. But I was good in auditions. Really good. For every show, I was the guy throwing a kicking-and-screaming Aldonza over his shoulder and hauling her off-stage.  Great fun, discounting make-up and tight pants.

 

Aldonza and Muleteers

(I’m not in this photo.)

 

I have one, not-so-fun memory about that production though. I was supposed to play a song on the lute and sing a solo with it. I had a lute. (Dad.) And a decent voice. (Mom.)

But every time I looked at the sheet music and thought about bar chords, time signatures, and picking, I got intimidated. With two weeks to spare, I confessed to my drama teacher that I wasn’t going to be able to play and sing at the same time. She was mildly disappointed, but shrugged and said we could use the pit orchestra, and that everything would be fine. No big deal.

But that moment stuck with me. It wasn’t talent or time that beat me. It was intimidation. This is a lesson I keep learning—one that keeps coming back for second helpings.

Earlier this year I told a potential agent that I’d have a rewritten novel manuscript to him by mid-March. It’s taken a lot of work to make it this far, and I continue to get positive feedback from other writers and editors, but my confidence went way down every time I looked at the forward work. “I’ll never be able to do all that, let alone before March.” Comparing the few spare hours I have each week for writing with the enormity of project left me emotionally bankrupt. How can I even start on a project that “will never be finished?”

Our brains are wired for quick pay-offs. If you don’t believe it, check out the research by Teresa Amabile of the Harvard Business School, here or here. En bref, the quick reward of finishing something today is more important today than the promised reward of finishing something large and meaningful several weeks down the road. For the less ambitious, Tim Urban does a funny Ted talk about what happens in the mind of a chronic procrastinator.

When I was complaining about my lack of motivation, my wife suggested, “Why don’t you make a paper chain link for every hour’s worth of work you think it will take. Then you can cut off a link every time you do an hour of work and measure your progress?”  I was dubious about the motivational power of paper chains, but with cheap subcontracting (my son), I got a chain suspended in my office in no time. It started at 178 links or 178 hours. A bit of depression sets in when you realize your 10th draft needs more than 40 hours a week for four straight weeks. (Obviously, I’d need more than four weeks to make up the time if I was to keep my regular bread-and-butter job and have a family.) But the kids keep begging to cut links for me, and now I have to scramble to keep up with them.

And the exercise made writing therapeutic again. The project wasn’t Mount McKinley on the horizon anymore. It was 178 day hikes spread out across as many days as needed to do it right. The real value didn’t come from the begging children, as cute as they are. It came from chunking out the work, parsing it into one-hour units. It came from breaking down the problem into constituent, achievable parts and identifying which pieces could be done anywhere with a red pen and a shade tree, and which pieces need two or three quiet hours in front of a computer screen.

Suddenly it was much easier to do a few pages each day, and seeing the redlines materialize on the printed page gave me that small kick of accomplishment I needed to do a little more.

I still haven’t learned to play that Man of La Mancha song on my lute, but I’ve made some serious progress on the manuscript . . .

What are tricks do you use to get motivated on challenging projects?

 

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FINISHING THE BOOK: MOTIVATING WITH SMALL MILESTONES