Update for Viddy

“I swear I’ve been writing.”
–Benjamin Hewett (or maybe Patrick Rothfuss)

 

Deathly Cold Office Potter Sword (JPEG)

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:

“Ben!”
“Viddy!”
“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

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*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!

 

Miranda Rights for Parents

Olivia 24-7 Amalgam.jpg

“Anything you read can and will be used against you.”
-Any seasoned parent.

It’s been a while since I had a four-year-old at the house. It’s been a while since I walked into a room and felt the punch-gut fear that comes from seeing your oldest make a speedy get-away, smelling of smoke and clad in nothing but whitie-tighties and a cloak of guilt. It’s been a long time since I’ve pulled a smoking pillow or pink blankie from the top of a halogen lamp.

But I still remember the good old days, when the light was hazardous but the books were not.

Now, my kids are reading things they shouldn’t. The bills and alumni magazines piled on my kitchen counter. The books hidden in my closet. Or—most infamously—the copy of How To Negotiate With Kids left carelessly at the top of the bookshelf.

I suspect they’re skillfully applying these things against me, but since I haven’t read the source material, I can’t be sure. And all this mature content just falls from their hands into a giant, ever-growing pile of slush I’d love to read but can’t.

As a dutiful father, I’ve tried to provide kid-appropriate reading alternatives: Alcatraz versus The Evil Librarians, The Hobbit, and Calvin and Hobbes (sigh). But in spite of my redoubled efforts, they still manage to find the dangerous stuff.  For example, the other day I caught my youngest  reading Safety 24/7.

I’m told that kids like to try out adult stuff sometimes. “Don’t worry about it,” the experts say. “It’s part of growing up.”

Really? Safety primers for heavy industry?

And my nine-year-old daughter didn’t  “get bored and put it down.” Does this make anyone else uneasy? When a fourth grader can read and take pleasure in standard-fare management lit, shouldn’t we worry about the intelligence of the American management community? (Or maybe we just need to add more trendy business words to keep kids confused.)

She was still reading Safety 24/7 the next day. I know because she was walking around the house making annoying safety comments. In other words, I basically got to read Safety 24/7 twice, because I’d already read it for work. And I hate doing work twice.

When I took my kids in for an annual doctor’s check-up, the nine-year-old brought Safety 24/7 along for the waiting room, and she was on page 60.

Me: “I didn’t realize you liked that book so much.”

Daughter: “Daa-aad!”

M: “Seriously.  You haven’t given up yet. You must be learning something.”

D: “I liked how Kurt got the painter on the ladder to be more safe without saying something that would make the painter mad.”

M: “Anything else?”

D: “I liked how he got people to use the word ‘incident’ instead of ‘accident.’ That way they remembered to have responsibility.”

In this moment I realized we could have our own little safety teaching moment. I pointed to her bare—I blame California—feet.

M: “What about you? Do you know the risks of going barefoot into the
doctor’s office?

D, grinning: “There’s  always more risk this way, but I can mitigate some of
that risk by my increased awareness of the problem.”

Her words, not mine. I should probably be a little more careful about what books I leave lying around.

 

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Three Hawk Aerial Combat

Dropped the kids off at their mom’s tonight. Was sitting with her and our daughter in my Toyota Sienna, doing the usual co-parent scheduling, windows open, because it didn’t feel like Houston in June.

And the hawks started screeching.

I stuck my head out the window and looked up to see three hawks wheeling, cursing each other. Down came something fresh, like two golf balls spinning on an axis, a bloody mess of feathers and meat.

Glad it hit the grass and not the pavement. . .

And then this hungry beauty was there, closing one claw around the kill, balancing awkwardly on her other foot. I say “her,” but I don’t actually know.

She spread her wings almost immediately to shield the kill (or steal?) from prying eyes.

“Nothing to see here folks.”

I took a picture anyways, my 11-year-old passing me a phone as quick as you can say “raptor.”

“Dad!”

Hawk

And then it was gone, friends in hot pursuit.

It’s not the first time something like this has happened. About a year ago another bird dropped a one pound mullet (fish) in my lap. The mullet was still alive after falling a hundred feet or more, but the seagulls weren’t as gutsy as this hawk, or maybe they figured we’d cook it up ourselves.

Instead, we put the it back in the water. . . It didn’t float, but it didn’t exactly swim either. Oh well.

It’s a beautiful—and sometimes weird—world we live in.

 

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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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

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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Anecdote: The Pain of Shaving (Your Legs)

“Legolas! What in Durin’s name am I supposed to do with this thing?”
–Gimli

I need a bigger razor finished

I’ve never liked shaving. It’s too close a compatriot to tender skin and bleeding chin. And now I have another reason to dislike it. . .

Some of you know I like soccer. I play on an Over 30 indoor team and play pick-up on Saturday mornings when I get the chance.  Or perhaps I should say “I played.”

Here’s a bad formula: Uneven Soccer Field +  Trash-talking 36-year-old + Changing Directions = Knee Surgery

One minute you’re an all-star and the next minute you’re flat on your back staring up into the concerned faces of 20 friends, wondering when you got old and what you’ll write about this painful experience. You worry that now you won’t be able to finish your novel by the deadline, and all sorts of other irrelevant things.

Everybody’s milling about, telling you to stay down. The doctor in the group has you by the ankle and calf—you don’t remember him picking your leg up—and is checking to see if everything lines back up. The hot Texas sun is pounding on your face and the St. Augustine grass is stabbing into your bare arms. And there’s the white hot pain of knowing you screwed up.

They help you get to your feet and tell you you’re done for the day, even if you think you can play a little more. After a few steps you realize you’ll at least be able to make it to the car.

It’s hard to know right away just how bad it’s going to be, but after the swelling and the denial wear off and the doctor orders an MRI, things come into focus pretty quick: lateral meniscus, medial meniscus, and anterior cruciate ligament, all blown.

I don’t do things halfway.

Now for the humor. Plenty of things to manage during this whole process: recovery time,  family obligations, writing schedules, and telling my indoor team the bad news. But I didn’t expect hair growth to be one of them. On the morning of the surgery, I’m lying in the hospital bed and a nice girl comes in and wants to see a little leg. The hospital smock isn’t exactly modest, but I pull it up past the knee anyway. Best not to argue with them, not when they’re holding power tools and you’re in a drafty smock and getting an intravenous drip.)

The nice girl shaves my knee bald-baby in less than a minute. She wipes the area down to sterilize. Because my knee feels cold and and naked, she lets me cover it back up. Then the sleepy drugs kick in. I dream about getting wheeled to out to the car and pretending to eat some food.

I wake up a few weeks later in physical therapy doing an excruciating knee bend.

ME: “Where am I?”
DEVIL: “The place where bad little children go.”
ME: “Really? Why?”
DEVIL: “You missed your shot in that soccer game.”
ME: “Ah. Makes perfect sense.”

During that first hour of therapy I re-notice the hair: my right leg is perfectly normal, but there’s a swath of deforestation, ending mid calf where the surgery prepper left off with her power tools. The transition from bare leg to hair is so abrupt that every time I look down I forget about the pain of rehab and wonder what might come crawling out of that jungle and onto the empty plain. It’s seriously distracting. I keep waiting for the therapists to say something, but they never do. They see weird stuff every day, I guess. One more half-shaved leg isn’t going to throw them.

But the naked knee and the Black Forest on half my calf is a problem, even if the physical therapists don’t say anything about it. People in Houston are still wearing shorts in December, and I want to fit in. Every time I go out in public, I know people are staring that that transition line and wondering why I didn’t just shave the whole thing. “Doesn’t he know how bad it looks?”

Don’t laugh.

Eventually, the stares get inside my head. This is not the sort of thing I want attention for. People shave their legs, right? I decide I can make two-equally naked legs and grow it all back the same length. Problem solved.

Smart men consult the internet before taking on a job like that. Smart men start with the hair clippers and then use a razor, if they must. Other men (men like me) just watch their wives surreptitiously and then go for it. It can’t be that hard, right?

Well, first off, twenty years of not shaving your legs can make the first outing a bit rocky. Where did all this hair come from? I can’t even grow a full beard, but one little swipe on my leg is enough to put my Gillette Mach 3 out of action.  I sit in the shower for an hour, wiping the excess off my razor, cursing myself for another dumb idea.

I’ve got golf-ball-sized bare spots all up and down my leg and now the shower is running out of hot water, and everything looks just as hairy as before. I can’t let the hair go down the drain because I’m the one who handles the clogs, and I may have teased my wife a bit about her bathroom sink, so if I clog this one . . .

Then I start to notice how cold the bathroom really is. It may feel like summer outside, but a Texas bathroom always knows it’s winter. The tile is cold. The air is cold. The shower curtain is slimy and cold. The lukewarm water only makes the goose bumps worse.

There’s a writing lesson in this, but I’m going to save it for next week. The important thing? It took me three days to finish. I went as high as men’s 1970s basketball shorts and called it quits.

This is why I will never tear my ACL again.

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