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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CRAFT FAIR DOOM

“Good marketing makes the company look smart. Great marketing makes the customer feel smart.”
—Joe Chernov

IMG_6760 (2)

I woke up to my predicament, palms sweating,  at 9:30am when the customers and crafting ladies started rolling in. My book table was half-buried in the forest of more conventional booths: crocheted “Minion” hats,  fleece blankets with tied fringes, hand-carved wooden crosses, and an assortment of other craft fair products. The vendor to my right was selling custom herbal tea blends and the vendor to my left, homemade jewelry.  I could almost hear my fifth grade teacher humming, “One of these things is not like the other…”

That’s what I get for having bright ideas.

The itch started a few weeks ago. I must have been looking for a break from the daily slog of work, parenting, and grinding out edits on Plague Runners , because I actually read the craft fair email advertisement before deleting it:  “JSC Annual Holiday Bazaar,”  it said.

Hmm… I’m not really the crafty sort. Delete.

Sometime in the next 24 hours, the itch got worse. I like to write, but I like to meet and talk to people as well, and cloistering myself to get another writing project done was killing me. So what if the only escape nearby was a certified craft fair? I could go as a vendor. Surely there would be some poor fellow there looking for an oasis of fantasy in that ocean of knick-knacks and Scentsy candles?

So I did the essential research:

Buy-In Cost: $55
Estimated potential customers: 200-300
Demographic: Middle-age craft fair enthusiasts, family members, and assorted NASA employees
Competing Products: ~70 booths, only two selling books, none selling fantasy / sword-and-sorcery
Reference Case:  If you ask nicely. . .
Likelihood of Breaking Even: ???

I contacted the reference case to get  perspective on whether or not the buy-in price made sense for the type of sales I could expect. The reference case vendor was very encouraging once he heard about my books. “You should give this venue a shot.” (I didn’t realize at the time that he was a fantasy enthusiast as well, and would end up buying both my books. . .)

I mulled it over.  It would be a low risk opportunity to get real-time sales experience. Even better, the mix of vendors didn’t threaten to crowd out an up-and-coming fantasy/sci-fi author. And, sheesh, if I couldn’t sell a few books to whichever coworkers happened to wander past, then I’d never amount to anything, anyways.

I bought in, excited at the prospect of sharing DARTS and RINGS with potential new fans and publicizing the upcoming release of SWORDS.

Still, I’m not a fan of cold calls. I dislike being approached by salespeople, and consequently feel very self-conscious about doing the same. And what if my work friends thought my book was silly? What if nobody showed up? What if the people who came to the craft fair actually did only want to buy crafts?

I’d be out $55 and a fair bit of self-respect, that’s what. The thought didn’t thrill me. Why was I going to a craft fair?  What else could I do to help cover the costs of the table, some diversification more relevant to a NASA holiday craft fair?

Multicolored Snowflake Collage (Compressed)

Well?  I like making snowflakes. And I’m pretty good at it, too. Eight-points. Six-points. Spider-web. Eagle Feather.  Something for everyone.  So I made a few at home. My wife suggested that they were elegant, but looked a bit plain for the likes of a craft fair, so I took a few out back and spray-painted them. Then I made a more snowflakes from the black butcher paper used to catch paint. (The “shadow-flake” has overlapping patterns of paint and darkness, and is quite striking.) Even if I didn’t sell any books, I ‘d be able to sell enough of these beauties to offset the cost of the booth.

Wrong again. Sitting at my booth, it quickly obvious that most people don’t consider snowflakes a worthy investment. But I watched their hungry eyes and slowing steps of the ladies as they passed, trying to puzzle out how these beautiful snowflakes came into existence without incurring this particular booth’s sales job.

Ahh.  So crafting people aren’t so different than me? Who wants to be sold to? So I pivoted.

Me: “Would you like to know how to do it?” [With no hint of ulterior motive.]
Craft Lady: “Actually, yes.”

I spent the  whole day helping people make their own. I’d planned to do a mini-course (mostly for friends, family, and bkhewett.com enthusiasts), but everyone else seemed interested in the hands-on too.

Pretty soon I had a swarm of people around my booth, including the other vendors. Lucky thing I brought an extra pair of scissors and some paper. We laughed and joked. They smiled and expressed their own creativity, and occasionally appreciated mine. More people came to see what the commotion was about and started making snowflakes of their own. And once my new friends finished making snowflakes, many of them friends wanted signed books. Others offered one-dollar tips for the holiday craft lesson and promised to look my books up once they got home.

It was fun. It broke the ice. I provided people with an opportunity to express themselves  creatively.  I didn’t have to awkwardly pressure anyone into buying a book they didn’t want. They could see the books on the table and ask questions in their own time-frame. The hardest part of the whole day was making sure I gave each person in the crowd proper attention.

I didn’t go out thinking about how I was going to stop traffic at my booth, teach a new skill, engage the creative brain, and then sell books.  I started with the question of how I could cover the cost of the booth if my books didn’t sell. That idea morphed through the day into something that made the venue more enjoyable for others and made the sales experience more enjoyable. What’s more, selling books and meeting new fans put fire back into my cloister efforts, and I’ve been twice as productive over the last two weeks.

What’s my main point here?  Be flexible. Pivot. Run with that crazy idea for a bit. It may be the first step in an even better idea.

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ESSENTIALS FOR RUNNING A BOOTH
Merchandise (including an accurate book count)
Cashbox (with change, and a starting till count)
Posters
Patch Kit (Scissors, Tape, Pens and Pencils)
Mailing List Sign-Up
Back-Order Sheet
Business Cards or Book Marks
Candy Bowl
iPhone Credit Card reader (if you’re that kind of person…)
An event-appropriate talent/activity to share with potential customers

 

PROBLEM SOLVING SUMMARY

  • Identify Need: Change of scenery. Inventory collecting dust.
  • Identify Solution: Holiday Craft Fair
  • Calculate Benefits: New Fans, Change of Scenery, Professional Contacts, Potential Profit
  • Postulate Risks: I might look silly selling books at a craft fair, waste my writing time, and not cover costs.
  • Identify Mitigations: Take a secondary product such as snowflakes.
  • Flex and Pivot: Use the snowflakes as a conversation starter and bonus for book purchases.

First Paycheck

I got my first paycheck for writing this week:

Amazon CheckAnyone want to go out for a burrito?

Amazon calls it a “remittance advice,” and it’s for the print copies of DARTS
sold during the month of March. I haven’t yet received one of these nifty notices for the digital copies yet. There’s a minimum dollar value for digital ($100) and I’m still a wee bit shy. No complaints though: published AND paid, baby!  (Just don’t expect me to buy your extra guacamole.)

Technically, I got paid for some blog-work I did for my brother back in 2006, and I also won a significant cash award in 2007 for a short story. But this feels different. (Being paid by a dispassionate robot like Amazon always does.)

DR:                 HERE IS YOUR REMITTANCE ADVICE. BY MY CALCULATIONS, YOU MAY                                  NOW AFFORD 1.237 BURRITOS. HAVE A NICE DAY.

BKH:               I’m rich!

So this week feels like Christmas, like winning the lottery.

And here’s the thunder: today I received a $50 check for an anecdote published in the spring 2015 issue of BYU Magazine. I wonder how many burritos I could get for that?

BYU Check (rev1)

Needless to say, I probably need to rethink my pricing structure. While I’m doing that, feel free to subscribe, follow, or look at books.

Report out on My Trip to New York

The tile in the small hotel room is always warm when my feet shuffle in, tired from a day of hiking in the city, or still sleepy from staying up too late working on my pitch for Immuno. This is the thing I love most about my hotel room. The ground is warm and it reminds me of Texas sun on winter carpet.

The glass shower partition makes it hard to reach the shower controls without climbing all the way in (clothes on), and that first cold blast of water is hungry to surprise me. It doesn’t give me much time to duck back behind the glass wall, but thirty-five is still young . . . As long as I don’t slip. When the water steams,  I close my tired eyes and crawl in to wake up, or warm up, depending if I’m coming or going.

At lunch, I tell my new friend Matt that he’ll sleep better if he wears earplugs at night, and he laughs over his tacos. We’re eating right next to Penn Station, taking in the March snow and the crazy crowds.

I love walking through the city and hearing all the voices, throats from another world, raucous and loud, quiet and timid, rolling out on the near-frozen air in ways that I’m not accustomed to.

Of course I’m going to a show. I’ll do conference homework ‘til three in the morning if I need to, but I’m establishing tradition now: Broadway Musical or die. . . Somehow I find myself buried in a crowd of  Japanese adolescents, old enough to be out on their own, but not old enough to have given up the flock of familiar peers, laughing, looking, and waiting while the best English speaker in their group tries to negotiate for twenty tickets to the Lion King, which has already been sold out.

Japanese Teenager:       “Twenny Leeon Keeng?”

Grumpy Ticket Lady:       “I’m sorry. There are no more tickets for Lion King.”

JT:                                    “Ten Leeon Keeng?”

GTL: waving arms.          “No Tickets! Zero! Nothing! Not Five! Not one! when it’s already sold out. “

Bummer.  That’s the show I wanted to see. My own English skills, though far from flawless, allow me to make peace with the Gods of the Inevitable and accept my fate. I don’t blame anyone, not even myself. Tonight might have found me dining with the other pitch conference attendees—which I still managed to do—or working on my next book. Whichever.

I love the voices and personalities: Ralph. Rachel.  Jason. Nina. Clarissa. Erik. Jessica. Sami. And the strangers. English. Irish. Mexican. French.  Japanese. American. I talk with them all, sometimes with just my eyes.

I love the warmth of people traveling, their bright eyes and free spirits saying things like, “Can you believe it?  I’m from Yokohama and you’re from Houston and we’re here at the Phantom of the Opera together.”

Actually, it sounds more like this: “You want come Japan? You stay. My email.” Hidenobu gestures for a pen.

It’s amazing what you can discover about a person during a 30-minute wait for the show to start, what moments you can share.

The French voices are easier to understand than the Japanese, Russian, and Italian ones, but it’s a stretch say something at first. What if my French is bad? (I know for a fact that it’s worse than my English.) But Mathieu and Julien are amazed that someone in the United States can carry a conversation, which might have lasted longer, but I have  to go to bed and actually sleep.  I do have time to warn them about being at the booth in Times Square two days in advance for Lion King tickets. They’re surprised to hear this.

I’m not surprised. They’re guys, and they think like me apparently, and will eventually wind up smashed between a pile of Japanese adolescents that are too old for parental. . . Oh wait. I already said that.

This is my humor.  The cold air makes me cough, and the snow stings my throat. There is slush on the asphalt  and clouds of hot breath and cooking smoke in the air.  Roasted cashews.  Can you smell them?

The TV lights in Times Square flash bright enough to make daylight and I can still hear the Irish lady in the adjacent seat singing the Phantom of the Opera even though I’m on my way home.

My earplugs are waiting on the bed stand, plotting to sleep me through my alarm tomorrow so I set three, just in case, and crawl into the bed. Or the shower.

Sleep.

And yes. New York wants the manuscript!

Madison Towers