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:
“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.
“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.
In August, I took an unexpected trip to Germany and the Nordic countries. I hadn’t planned on going, but the stars suddenly aligned, and I found myself wrapping up projects and packing my bags for Hamburg.
I’ll save the details for another post, but spending time with professional writers got me thinking about some of the good books I’ve read recently, and want to emulate. I generally don’t review books I don’t like, so if you see it here, there was something special about it.
Mary Robinette Kowal
It’s World War I and the Allied Powers are taking intelligence reports from the ghosts of dying soldiers. Pretty solid strategy until the Central Powers find out, and the cloak and dagger starts. This collision of ordinary and supernatural put a new spin on the themes of love and war. The entire story is enjoyable, but I particularly liked watching the deceased soldiers make their final report. The pathos of these moments—as the soldiers realize they have died and this is their last communion with the physical world—created a weighty texture for me, and begged the question, “What message would I send?”
THREE PARTS DEAD
Feels like science fiction, but is fantasy. Magical power is traded in contracts, and even the poorest villages rely on that power. When the biggest brokers fall, wielders “Craft” are called on to patch things up before nations tumble. But sometimes the contracts are complicated, and riddled with Craft-sucking parasites that don’t go quietly. Oh, and the biggest brokers of power are the gods.
The stakes are high, the characters well-drawn, and the plot is intricate and almost unpredictable. Gladstone borrows nothing from the fantasy tropes of yesteryear, except maybe the concept of “mostly dead.”
I especially liked the cigarette, though I don’t smoke.
Post-apocalyptic gene thriller for young adults. Partials is about surviving in a world where young adults aren’t the dominant life form anymore, about a disease that kills every newborn, and about the genetic experiment that doesn’t quite bring humanity back from the brink. There is an angsty teenager and the beginnings of a triangle, but even if YA isn’t your cup of tea, the story is pretty awesome. I’d recommend the beginning of the book for young adult readers, and the rest of the book for everybody.
LAMENTATIONS: PSALMS OF ISAAK
Reads like fantasy, but is science fiction… I think. Lamentations starts with the city of Windwir burning to the ground. Of its splendor and glory, only the mecho-serviteurs remain, caught between warring factions who arrive late on the scene to apportion blame and profit from the apocalyptic disaster. Magicked scouts (drugged men) move with such great speed and silence that skirmishes and battles are fought in the anticipated rush of wind and unseen tactical guesswork. I enjoyed the character arcs for each POV, and the audio version’s multiple narrators. (I don’t usually enjoy multiple narrators. There’s something about that bass voice, though.)
HOUSES OF COMMON
Derick William Dalton
Houses of Commons felt like coming home. Ranyk works for an optimistic, government-run space agency hampered by red-tape and political interference. Ranyk just wants to do his job–terraform worlds for political refugees—but unfortunately, his entire team is caught in the cross-fire of conflicting conspiracies. And Ranyk’s crusty exoskeleton and sarcastic wit haven’t exactly improved the situation.
Some Amazon reviewers say Houses of Commons is “too smart,” but I really liked it. Not only was the humor right up my alley—“You named your helmet? And its name is Helmut?”—but the science is plausible and the characters well-developed. I’d recommend Houses of Common to smart people, smart-mouthed people, and people who like NASA, xenobiology, and political intrigue. My one hang-up was the cliff-hanger ending. I’ve never been a fan of cliff hangers , but the brilliant sarcasm outweighs the discomfort of having to order the sequel.
MOTE IN GOD’S EYE
Jerry Pournelle & Larry Niven
Landmark Science Fiction. Commander Roderick Blaine and the staff of INSS MacArthur are tasked with first contact to an older and more intelligent alien civilization. Inexplicably, these “Moties” have been stuck in their own star system for several millennia, despite the existence of faster than light travel (Alderson drives) and shields (Langston fields). During diplomatic exchanges, the MacArthur is destroyed, leaving Blaine and his crew on a political tightrope with no “good” solutions.
I loved reading The Mote in God’s Eye. Both humans and Moties demonstrate valid and persuasive competing interests. I liked both parties so much I found myself looking for a loopholes allowing each to succeed in spite of mutually exclusive competing interests. Many of the characters were equally complex, with several demonstrating both villainous and heroic agendas. I would recommend this story to everyone, but especially to those interested in landmark science fiction, efficient storytelling, and deep conflict.
Evidently I’ve been pushing myself too hard these last few weeks. A few late nights ago I was trying to put down lines of dialogue (argument) between two characters in an upcoming Paladin’s Thief book.
I could feel myself slipping, my brain lying to me that I could close my eyes and type this last brilliant line without looking at anything. Or it might have been the medication talking. The Doc put me on antibiotics, heavy duty cough syrup, and some kind of prescription steroid meant to knock down the strep throat, the feverish sleep, and the general sense of temporal inadequacy.
“One more line? Of course I can do that. . .” I thought sluggishly. “No need to lose this last important thought over a few droopy eyelids.”
The morning after my first thought was to get off the drugs. Nobody wants to read this crap:
“@hq5 ir 5hq5 loyql5y 3s53ne3e 5o 3veryone in this big world?”
With a few minutes of soul-searching, I realized this is the exact phrase you get when you misplace your left hand exactly one row too high on the keyboard and type the following phrase.
“What if that loyalty extended to everyone in this big world?”
Moral of the story. Don’t do drugs, kids. Or maybe just quit while you’re ahead. Bonus points if you can guess whose line this will be, assuming it doesn’t get cut.
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.