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.
Presented at Life, the Universe, & Everything 37 (LTUE 37).
Planned and drafted my first middle grade novel.
Highlights from Life, The Universe, & Everything 37:
Driving my niece to school in the traditional rental car. (We’ll spare her the selfie for anonymity reasons, but let’s just say February 14th and me get along when it comes to car rentals.)
Hanging with Laura Palmer and juggling with Howard Tayler at LTUE’s mass book signing. Unfortunately, we forgot our cameras. All photographs are event-posthumous. (There’s probably a better way to describe that . . . )
Learning from Allison Hymas that “acquisitioners” might be called “retrieval specialists” in the modern middle school.
Being assigned panels with some very talented writers.
Receiving an epic 1-on-1 historic weapon tutorial with Gordon Frye and his wife.
Talking with Kelly Barnhill about space camp, Launch Pad, and fortuitous meetings.
Scoring a heely goal in a late-night, post-conference futsal game at SportCityUtah.
Seeing the opening scene from Shadowcloaks repeated on the Wasatch front.
Spreading grins and good cheer with Coco, the Emotional Support Queen Palm among the passengers of Delta Flights 3922. I have more seedlings in my back yard if you need one. . .
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.
“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.
“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. She was already on page 60.
Me: “I didn’t realize you liked that book so much.”
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
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.