Sunday, December 2, 2012

Post Title

That's what I am: completely post title. Like, titles were so three months ago. You know, the last time I posted to my blog. Was that three months ago? That's what it feels like without checking the dates.

But I'm not going to apologize for not posting. It's not like I ever promised to post. It's not like you paid to read this blog. And it's not like you've been sitting there thinking, "I wish Ben would post something. He always has the most helpful, funny, and heartwarming things to say."

Yes, instead of apologizing, I'm going to offer excuses, in no particular order:

1.  I went to Pennsylvania on a business trip for two weeks. I ate in nice restaurants and seedy little holes, and they all had great food. I managed not to gain any weight, so congratulations to me. Lancaster county is a nice place, and I got to pop over to my sister's house in New Jersey and help clean up after the storm. Still, the trip started right after...

2.  My wife cut a tendon in her little finger. I won't embarrass her by mentioning that she did it while carving a jack-o-lantern, which always elicits the suggestion that she use one of those little purpose-made pumpkin saws—which barely cut pumpkins, let alone fingers—and then require the response that we already have some of those and they were sitting within arms reach at the time of the accident.

Anyway, the second joint of your little finger might not seem important, but it is if you play the piano and violin. So she had surgery to fix it the day after I left on my trip and hasn't been able to use her right hand for almost a month.

3.  That means I'm supposed to fix dinner.

4.  But I've been working longer hours than normal since before my trip.

5.  And before that I rode my bike to work a few times.

6.  Okay, so that's all my excuses.

7.  I'm still working on a wonderful, life-changing novel.

(Wow, that may have been a bit of an overstatement.)

8.  And our poor widowed goose was killed and then eaten by a stray dog. At least, I sure hope it was a stray, because if it ever comes back...

Monday, September 24, 2012

You Trust Lucy

You've read Prince Caspian, right? If you haven't, go read it. (Or at least watch the movie.) Then come back and finish.

Ready? Okay.

There's a scene where Lucy sees Aslan, the giant talking lion, and he beckons for her to follow him on a course that doesn't seem to make sense. No one else in the group sees him, and they basically don't trust Lucy enough to do what she says. She's the youngest, etc. etc.

So they go the other way, run into all sorts of trouble, waste all kinds of time, and Lucy sees Aslan again—and no one else does. Even though he's right there! Eventually, they come around and everyone sees him.

You, the reader, never doubt that Lucy actually saw Aslan. You know they should follow him as surely as she does. Are you simply more trusting of young girls who see things you don't? No. You know she saw Aslan, because you saw him too.

A few reasons for this:

The book's in third person, and the narrator never leads you astray. You trust the narrator when he says Lucy saw the lion.

You trust Lucy. You know her character, and that she wouldn't ever make something up or follow a whim. She's not prone to hallucinations, either, even though she's frequently accused of being so.

And finally, Lucy knows what she saw and doesn't doubt it.

So when Lucy sees Aslan, you trust that she's not imagining or making it up, and you trust the narrator to tell it like it is.

In The Freezer, I have a narrator and character who are one and the same. When extraordinary things happen to him, I want the reader to be on board. They have to experience it with him. This example helped me realize a few flaws in the way I'd written a couple of important scenes.

Mostly, I realized that if my hero doubts his own senses, the reader probably will too. This can't be a case of unreliable narrator at all, and that has implications for everything from how he tells his own mistakes to what he's thinking at any moment.

And that leads to choices about where the tension in the scene will actually be—is this really happening, versus what he's going to do about it—but that's another blog post.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

I'm A Recluse and I Like It

Today, I gave a presentation to all my coworkers. The weird thing is that I actually volunteered to do it. We have weekly lunch meetings, and once a quarter or so, an employee gives a presentation on a book they've read or something they've learned that might benefit everyone else.

There were about thirty people listening. I had twenty minutes. The book I read was Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain.

(If I were ambitious or responsible or something, I'd put in footnotes with references to pages in the book. But since no one ever reads footnotes—heck, no one even reads my blog—I'll just put in an asterisk (*) where I use info from the book. If you really want the page number to one of them, just ask and I'll look it up for you.)

This quiz is from Susan Cain's book. (Actually, the one in the book has twenty questions. I typed it up and handed it out for people to look at.) The more questions you answer as true, the more of an introvert you are.

I scored eleven out of twelve.

What does our culture think of introverts?

The Oxford dictionary says an introvert is "a shy, reticent, and typically self-centered person." Or, "PSYCHOLOGY: a person predominantly concerned with their own thoughts and feelings rather than with external things. Compare with extrovert."

Okay, I'll compare with extrovert: "An outgoing, overtly expressive person. PSYCHOLOGY: a person predominantly concerned with external things or objective considerations."

Dang. Can I change my answers? I mean, who wants to be self-centered and mostly concerned with their own thoughts and feelings? There are also studies showing that extroverts are generally happier than introverts.

And then there are the words used to describe introverts: quiet, shy, reserved, reclusive, few friends, aloof, loner. Sound familiar? Like the same words they use to describe the guy who shot up the movie theater in Colorado? Or every other shooter—ever? Reporters paint the same comfortable picture every time: this guy was mysterious. He kept to himself. We never had a clue he would do something like this. (Well, duh. The ones who go blabbing about their plans never get far enough to carry them out.)

We tend to lump serious, real psychological problems with introversion. What if you'd rather stay home and read than go to a party? You're anti-social. You have a hard time making small talk? You're shy or have social anxiety disorder. You don't speak loudly to voice your opinion in meetings? You lack initiative. You burn out or get distracted by a noisy work environment? You're unmotivated or lazy.

Our culture holds extroversion up as the ideal personality type.* Parenting magazines run articles every month about how to cure your kids of their supposed shyness and get them to play with the group. School desks are organized into pods, and kids are expected to work together on everything from math to creative writing. And workplaces are moving the same way. Cubicles? Noooo. We can't isolate our employees in little boxes. That's demeaning. They need to see each other, interact, share ideas and brainstorm!

This is where Mel stops me. (We have an open layout at work, so this was a bit of a jab at the boss, Mel. And no, he didn't stop me.)

It wasn't always this way. Back before the beginning of the twentieth century, self-help books emphasized character instead of personality. Heroes were modest men like Abraham Lincoln, whom Ralph Waldo Emerson said did not "offend by superiority." They encouraged attributes like "citizenship, duty, work, golden deeds, honor, reputation, morals, manners, and integrity."*

But then the industrial revolution hit. People moved en masse from the countryside, where they knew all their neighbors, to cities where they were just another body among the throngs. The ones who stood out, who impressed people, and who best made their way in this new environment were the ones who spoke loud. They were the extroverts.*

The ideal shifted away from being a man of character to one of personality. Self help books changed from having titles like Character: The Grandest Thing in the World to How to Win Friends and Influence People. And the new heroes were great salesman. The new qualities you needed weren't even things you could easily cultivate. They were described by words like "magnetic, fascinating, stunning, attractive, glowing, dominant, forceful, energetic."*

And Madison Avenue rode this wave like masters, painting the wares they pedaled as the only way to achieve the personality necessary for happiness and success.*

And today, what do we have? No one is magnetic enough, strong enough, cool enough, manly enough, thin and pretty enough. And the biggest share of the pharmaceutical market is held by anti-depressants and antacids.

Now, I propose that maybe introverts aren't the crazy ones after all. Take, for example, these famous extroverts: Richard Simmons, George Bush, Bill Clinton.

Cheerleaders in general.


Scout camp staff. Now that's a funny one, because I just got back from a week of scout camp, and I could tell a good number of those staff members weren't the extroverts they were trying to be. They'd smile and talk and do their embarrassing and sing their silly songs and it was just killing them inside. But how can you survive on scout camp staff if you don't do that stuff? You wouldn't be a team player. You wouldn't be a good leader. It's not enough to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent, which are all things an introvert can be. Indeed, they're mostly things that introverts excel at. It's just that Scouting has slowly bought into the extrovert ideal over the past hundred years, just like everyone else.

And that's backwards. Reading Cain's book was affirming and all, and made me feel like I wasn't really alone in who I am and what I like, but the very fact that someone had to write a book about how it's okay to be an introvert leaves me feeling separated out.

Now, instead of defining what makes an introvert, let's play “you might be an extrovert if...”

You recently convinced a bunch of people to walk on hot coals and give themselves second and third degree burns. (Tony Robbins)

You were one of those people getting burned.

You wiped out $200 billion of stock value buying AOL because it gave you a dopamine buzz. (Ted Turner*)

You destroyed the company you were supposed to be running. (Jeffrey Skilling*, probably many others)

You got so excited about making tons of money from collateralized debt obligations that you brought the banking system and the entire world economy to its knees in 2008. (Numerous bankers*)

Maybe it's not fair to blame the collapse of the world economy on extroverts. But those bankers made a lot of mistakes—stuff that introverts, who tend to be cautious and risk averse, just don't do, even if it will make them more money. Cain cites numerous studies showing these differences, and how when introverts make a mistake, they slow down and analyze what went wrong. Extroverts actually speed up, looking ahead to the next success.*

Yes, if introverts ran the world, it would be a much safer place. We still need extroverts, of course. But we shouldn't all try to be extroverts. We need introverts to keep things sane.

Indeed, there are entire regions of the world where the extrovert ideal doesn't exist. Asia, for example, tends to hold up quiet dignity and profound respect as the ideal behaviors. They don't see speaking as an end unto itself. They actually worry about saying something stupid.*

Take Finland, for example. How do you know if a Finn likes you? He's staring at your shoes instead of his own.*

(Here, I showed the last part of Cain's TED talk, from 15:30 to the end. The entire thing is embedded below.)

(I skipped this part in blue when I gave the presentation. Time was running short.) What's in my suitcase? It probably won't surprise you to learn that it's writing. I love to write. I love it so much that I don't just do it here, I do it at home. This is my fourth complete novel. I'm currently revising it. I have a fifth in the planning stages. The third is in the hands of literary agents whom I hope will want to try and sell it to publishers.

Someday I'll sell a book, and like Susan Cain I'll have to go out and interact more, speak for groups, do book signings. It's not my arena, but if it's to serve something I love—the stories I write—then I can do anything. The key ingredient is passion. Extroverts are naturally outspoken. They can put their energy into almost anything. They have it easier, in a way. Introverts have to be pushed from within by deep caring. Think of people like Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, and Gandhi. Find your niche.

These days I'm happy to be an introvert. And I see much of myself in my own children. I want them to grow up knowing that whatever the world around them might say, it's fine to prefer reading to playing with friends. It's okay to be smart. It's natural to want to work alone.

When I interviewed for this job, I remember Paul asked me if I'd describe myself as more of a jock or a nerd. I didn't have to think twice. I'm a nerd. And I knew that was the right answer even after only a few minutes in that old shed. I like working here. I've stayed here and been happy to because of the culture we have here, the atmosphere. We're all nerds, but that's not all we share. We dislike conflict. We think before we speak. We respect each others' thoughts and listen to each other. We're mellow. We're quiet.

And that's an asset.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Why Not YA?

That's a reference to a post I wrote long, long ago called "Why YA?" At the time, I was working on what I thought was a YA novel. But the words Young Adult infer a range greater than the genre actually encompasses.

Notice I called it a genre instead of a category. This is based in part on the sense I've gotten from reading blogs, reviews, articles and other flotsam on the internet. It's also based on responses I got from an #askagent question on Twitter. (Okay, so I only got three responses from agents, but two of them said genre. One said age group. The non-agent responses were evenly split.)

The expectations for YA fiction have less to do with age group and more to do with the type of story you might expect to find in that corner of the bookstore. If it were strictly an age grouping, it would include a broad range of fully-fledged genres. Instead, it includes sub-genres that resemble their non-YA counterparts, but also have certain hallmarks qualifying them to be YA. What are those hallmarks?

High school is the first one that comes to mind. The characters have to be in high school or at least in some situation vaguely like high school. They must be of high school age.

The protagonist must be in a romantic relationship by the end. Love triangles are common.

The plot and the stakes, however grand or perilous, must not outshine the protagonist's personal life and dilemmas.

The protagonist is usually female. The author is usually female. The readers are usually female.

Probably some others.

There are, of course, exceptions for every one of these. Early on, I was misled by some books I found shelved with YA that seemed quite different. But for each of these, there are ten or twenty that fit the mold perfectly. Also, these books are mostly by well-known authors whose careers began before the rise of YA as a genre. Others were written for adults and changed to YA by the publishers, (who know that it's mostly adults reading YA anyway.)

If you want to write YA, it's not enough to simply write for an audience of young adults. You have to write for the YA audience, which does not include most young adults. (As I've said before, if I were sixteen, I wouldn't be caught dead in the YA section of a bookstore.) There is no age grouping for teenagers and young adults in general.

And maybe that's the way it should be. Good storytelling is good storytelling. There's no good way to divide books into age groups. Some of my favorites are considered middle grade, and I've been an adult for at least a couple years. They have broad appeal. They fit into a genre, (usually fantasy,) but not an age group. And how young is too young to read Ray Bradbury? Nothing he wrote was aimed at juveniles, yet that's usually when we fall in love with his writing. And when we're grown up, we can read it again and see things we missed before. And while I was reading—I mean critiquing—Krista's middle-grade manuscript, I entirely forgot that it was middle grade. It was just good. Anyone of any age could love it.

Books is books. And I don't actually write YA. I just write. Look for my books in the sci-fi/fantasy section. (In a few years.)

p.s. I'm not very widely-read in YA and certainly not an expert. The opinions expressed here are those of myself at the time of writing and not necessarily those of my past, current, or future self. Mileage may vary.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

SF is in My Blood an alien entity.

So, I had a novel idea. (Meaning it was an idea for a novel, not a unique idea. Though it may be that, too. I don't know.)

It was about a kid who pretends to be possessed by an alien intelligence as a way of overcoming the deficiencies in his own personality. It was going to be a good, straight book with no actual aliens or possessions, only nice normal things like middle school and social pressure and how hard it is to be an introvert. You know, what they've taken to calling contemporary because everything has to have some sort of genre label.


Did you notice I said was? That's because no matter how I tried to put together a plot, I couldn't get excited about it. I mean, it's a great premise. A premise with promise, you might say. (But probably wouldn't.)

Also, I actually did pretend be an alien when I was a kid. I have a journal entry to prove it. It only lasted a day, but you might say I have some personal experience with this crazy notion.

Thing is, this novel was based on a short story that I based on my personal experience, but in that story, the kid actually did switch places with an alien.

I wasn't going to go there again. But honestly, I don't think I'm capable of writing a book about normal old middle school. I write for fun, dang it, and I just can't write something that doesn't grip me and drag me in. I can't write something I'm not passionate about.

Still, it seems silly to be passionate about aliens, doesn't it?

But when I think about the other books I've written, the passion doesn't lie in the plots. It lies in what the characters face: dreams and doubts, suicide and love. They're things faced by ordinary people living ordinary lives, and there are plenty of writers writing books about those lives. They do a good job. But that's not how I tell stories. And those aren't the kind of stories I fall in love with.

It's nice to see people in extraordinary circumstances facing the same things I face. It's kind of fun to watch people with superpowers or magic or warp drive struggling with the same weaknesses I struggle with. And I love turning the mundane into the amazing and vice versa.

Why? It's in my blood, I guess. I've always gravitated to speculative fiction. I love those what if questions.

What if you invented an imaginary persona to help you through difficult situations?

What if that persona became a voice in your head?

What if that voice was part of a plan to take over the world?

What if you didn't even mind being used because all the girls suddenly liked you?

And what if the voice in your head was being hunted by an enigmatic and dangerous stranger?

So now my novel idea really is novel. It's Cyrano De Bergerac meets Dr. Who, where Cyrano exists only in Christian's head.

Oh, and Cyrano's the bad guy.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Death and Hope

So, my favorite author died.

I don't know when Ray Bradbury became my favorite. Fittingly, it was the public library that introduced me to his writing. There was Bradbury and Asimov, shelved next to each other, and their writing was so different and yet so wonderful.

Isaac Asimov defined science fiction for me. I devoured the robot stories and novels, the Foundation series, and almost died with delight when he tied it all together into one cohesive timeline of awesome. Asimov wrote so clearly. He took mind-blowing concepts like psychohistory and gathered them into tidy conclusions. He made telepathy and seeing the future plausible. I reveled in the depth and breadth of his stories.

Ray Bradbury was almost the opposite. He excelled at short stories. Even some of his novels are merely collections of short stories connected by setting and characters, or sometimes just setting. What he wrote wasn't really science fiction. (I think it still defies categorization. There should be a separate section of bookstores called simply "Bradbury.") He could take a setting and paint it across my mind in a single paragraph, sometimes a single sentence. His focus tended to detail, though, zooming in and drilling down into characters, moments, the quality of the air on a particular day. He slowed time, stretching out seconds into hours; sometimes he wrapped entire scenes into a few choice words.

I loved them both, and still do. But what stands out in my mind is the first time I finished Fahrenheit 451. It wasn't my first taste of Bradbury. I have no idea when I read it, either. It feels like I could have been every age at once and none at all, a moment out of time.

I got to the end. "This," I thought. "THIS! This is what I've been looking for my whole life."

Now that I think about it, maybe Fahrenheit 451 was forced reading in my AP English class, right after 1984. I don't know if Mrs. Allred was trying to highlight the contrast between the two, but it certainly hit me. And in my mind, F451 is nowhere near the other forced reads. I made it mine. I took it in and loved it.

I was in the early skirmishes of a long war with depression during that year. I liked the dark books, actually. I enjoyed 1984 and Lord of the Flies, and Heart of Darkness. But having gone through them, I had no desire to repeat the experience. I still don't. They dragged me through the depths of human experience and did a brilliant job of it. And then they left me there, in the depths. They closed with a sense of dark finality that felt unfinished. To me, that wasn't literary brilliance.

Brilliance came only at the end of Bradbury's opus, when something else appeared. Fahrenheit 451 is a dark tale, just like my life felt at the time, just as the world looked from my eyes. It was dark, and difficult, and nearly hopeless. But when it came down to the end and everything fell apart, burned, and died, there was something else to take its place, something a little brighter. Right at the end it became clear that this story wasn't really over, that it would go on past the last page of the novel. In that unwritten trajectory, Bradbury imparted a feeling that to me stood out like a beacon among the books I'd read. He gave me hope.

In the years of my personal war that followed and through my own miraculous victory, I've learned that the story Bradbury told is the true one. There is always hope. There is always a weapon against the darkness, allies in the fight, and a path forward, even if they don't appear when we think they should. This thread winds its way through all of Bradbury's novels and stories.

To me, that's the truth of the world, and it's far too often absent from the literary canon and popular philosophy. Bradbury showed me writing with depth, beauty, and ingrained optimism. That's what I aspire to in my own writing.

"We're going to meet a lot of lonely people in the next week and the next month and the next year. And when they ask us what we're doing, you can say, We're remembering. That's where we'll win out in the long run."

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Death and Despair--Again

It's time for another cheerful post about suicide, kids!

Seriously, I hope my kids never find this blog. It's not like they don't know what Drivers is about. They're too curious not to ask, especially the oldest. And I've certainly discussed the topic with my wife in front of them plenty of times.

But you know what I think? This is just off the top of my head, but suicide as a conversational topic is kind of like lice. (Ha!) If you've had lice, no one wants to hear about it. They don't want to know how you got rid of them or where you got them. They'd just as soon not have to think about tiny blood-sucking bugs laying eggs on hairs. Heck, just writing this makes my scalp itch!

People are usually more open to discussing the topic if they've had lice, treated lice, OR if they're not old enough to be aware of the social stigma.

Case in point, my oldest daughter caught lice at school a few years ago. We saw it pretty quickly, treated it, and the next day I called the (elementary) school to make them aware of the situation. (None of the rest of us got 'em, thank goodness.)

Kids are really good at sharing when it comes to lice. They hang their coats on top of each other, trade hats, rub their cute little heads together. If the school didn't do something about it fast, they'd have a major epidemic.

I was thinking they'd take the kids out one at a time, check for lice, call their parents, and send them home at the end of the day so no one would know who had lice and who didn't.

Instead, they sent the nurse to the classroom to inspect all the kids right there in their seats. The ones with lice were sent home right then, and everyone knew who they were. My daughter told the nurse that she'd just been treated for lice, so everyone knew she'd had them.

I was a little surprised. I thought the other kids would make fun of my girl, etc. etc. But it was no big deal. It was like having a cold as far as the kids, the teachers, and the school nurse were concerned.

But there was at least one other kid who confessed to having known they had lice, and their parents never called the school.

My point, in case you're missing it, is that suicide is also an unpleasant subject, but stigmatizing it and not talking about it doesn't make it go away. In fact, it can even make it worse.

Unlike lice, suicide is a very big deal. Schools have protocols to deal with suicides, because even though it's a psychological illness, it's sort of contagious. It's easy to unintentionally glorify suicide. *cough*thirteenreasonswhy*/cough* You don't dwell on methods or successes. But you don't pretend it doesn't exist, either. It's a hard thing for normal kids to confront. They need to talk about it, learn what causes it, know that thinking about or attempting suicide doesn't figuratively end a person's life.

This is totally not the post I intended to write. I was going to write about a book I just finished reading. It's Crash Into Me by Albert Borris, and it's the first book I've read that portrays suicidal teens in a realistic and potentially helpful way. Four suicidal teens meet online and decide to go on a road trip together. (This could happen. There are internet forums devoted to suicide.) They'll visit the graves of famous people who committed suicide and end the trip in Death Valley with their own deaths.

As far as plot goes, it's pretty slow. The only conflict is the uncertainty of what will really happen at the end of the trip. And the characters are all pretty flawed, so maybe you'll want them dead by the end. There are times when you think they might kill each other.

But I liked them. They act like kids. They drink and smoke and make asses of themselves, but we all make mistakes, don't we? The really good thing about this book is its directness. It doesn't beat around the bush, sugar coat, gloss over, or any other cliched idioms.

Life is hard, it says. Sometimes it sucks. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes you want it to end. But it doesn't stay like that forever, and you never know what—or who—will happen to change it completely.

Don't ask me if it's a good book. If I'd written Crash Into Me it would have been completely different. Did I like it? Yes. Would I recommend it? That depends. It's not a book with broad appeal.

I would be far more likely to recommend it to a teenager who has thought about suicide than I would be to recommend any other novel I've read about the subject. It shows characters flawed enough to be relatable dealing with their problems in a way that's far enough from ideal to seem attainable, yet still positive.

I might even recommend it to relatives of someone who has committed suicide. It covers that as well, but not until the very end.

Crash Into Me gets a thumbs up for being realistic and not glorifying suicide. It also gets a high five for de-stigmatizing suicide. And if you're a high school English teacher and absolutely must make your kids read about suicide, shun Thirteen Reasons Why. Pick this one instead.

(Anyone read It's Kind of a Funny Story? It looks like it might be good.)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

We won!

Go Team Krista!

I was a pawn participant ;) in a competition (The Writer's Voice) between four writers to see who could pick and coach the most other writers into successfully grabbing a literary agent's attention. Except it was more organized than I just made it sound. See here for a complete explanation.

Anyway, Krista Van Dolzer picked me to be on her team, and we won! She did a great job helping me improve my query and did the same for the other ten on the team as well. It was a huge time investment for all the coaches. Thank you, ladies!

And what else did I get? Votes from two agents, which translates to a request for more material. I also got a whole lot of nice comments from other people in the contest. Take a look at my original entry here (if you haven't already) on my blog, and then read the new and improved version here on Krista's blog. Full results are here.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Historical Violence

I listened to an audio version A Tale of Two Cities. It was awesome. Let me tell you, if the only thing you've read by Charles Dickens is A Christmas Carol, you don't know how good a writer he was.

(Confession:  Until this audiobook, I was in that boat. I tried reading Two Cities when I was eighteen, but didn't get very far. It was too slow to start. Now, after having read a few of Jane Austen's books, I think I'd do better. But listening to a good voice actor is a treat.)

So:  This book is about a Dr. Manette who was imprisoned by French aristocrats for eighteen years in the infamous Bastille. On his release, he meets his grown daughter Lucie who wasn't even born when he was locked up, and who was raised in London after the death of his wife. She marries another French ex-pat, Charles Darnay, an aristocrat who gave up his inheritance to be a good guy instead of an oppressor.

Meanwhile, the book also follows some very bad stuff happening in Paris, mostly related to the former servant of Dr. Manette. It paints a vivid picture of the oppression of the French people by their ruling class, and does it with magnificent language.

It's an epic book, spanning over eighteen years in the narrative and twice that time in total. The French Revolution breaks out, and the oppressed and oppressors swap roles. Madame Guillotine becomes a central character.

The construction of the story is superb, if long. Every event and scene, though seemingly unrelated, comes together at the end. The story preoccupied my thoughts, and since I listened to it in the car on the way to and from work, I found myself looking forward to going to work. (And coming back home, but that's normal.) The end was moving and satisfying.

"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."

That's the last line. (Captain Kirk quotes it at the end of The Wrath of Khan. I think that movie was partly inspired by this book, which makes an appearance at the beginning and end.)

Anyway, this is getting long and I'm not just reviewing a book that only needs endorsement. I want to talk about the violence. A Tale of Two Cities is fiction, but the violence in Paris really happened.

The worst period is called The Reign of Terror. More than 16,000 people were executed by beheading in about one year. Do the math, and that works out to--a lot, every day. These were public executions. As portrayed in the book, the condemned were hauled through the streets in carts and run through the guillotine one after another in front of crowds of people. Good citizens went out to watch the fun. It was the popular entertainment to watch heads roll.

But eventually, (and this isn't in the book,) people stopped going to see the executions. After that many thousands, it gets old.

I imagine the first time you see someone's head chopped off is quite a thrill. One second, there's a living, breathing, undoubtedly distressed prisoner, and the next, a body and a round object that was once a head, now a curiosity, perhaps held up by the hair or raised on a pike for all to see. There'd be blood. A lot of blood.

That happened dozens of times a day, for all kinds of crimes and non-crimes. Thousands, hundreds of thousands maybe, witnessed the spectacle.

How could so many people let it all happen? I don't know. The new government saw a need to keep people in line just as the old monarchy had, and they created a monster. It was actually a more humane form of execution than the monarchy had used.

One thing I do see is that an entire society--any society, I believe--can get so used to violence that it will tolerate anything and in any amount. The human heart can only witness so much without growing hard. Does it matter if the violence we consume as entertainment is actual or fictional? Probably. But when that violence ceases to make us cringe, we ought to be concerned. About ourselves, about our future.

It's history, and you know what they say about history.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Writer's Voice

This is part of a blogfest that's part of a contest and it's all explained here. It's run by four popular writer-bloggers and I was lucky to secure slot 149 out of 175. It's a writer-eat-writer world out there. Rawr.

Anyway, Drivers:

Ash arrives in a foreign country to begin an exciting, high-stakes job. He’s young and inexperienced, but his new employer sought out and recruited him because of one important qualification—Ash is suicidal.

He’ll be inside an armed robotic vehicle that’s supposed to be unmanned and autonomous. Ash will ride until the artificial intelligence reaches its limits, and then because his boss oversold the robots’ abilities, he’ll be given control to drive and fire the weapons.

It’s meant to be Ash’s last suicide attempt, but he just isn’t any good at dying. He survives the first mission.

One other driver also makes it back, a girl named Zephyr. As Ash gets to know her, his perspective changes. There were so many reasons to die, but one reason to live might overrule them all.

Unfortunately, their employer won’t let either of them quit. They know too much. He’d rather see them die than lose a contract. And inside each vehicle is a self-destruct to destroy all evidence of the human drivers if anything goes wrong.

One reason to live is all Ash needs. Actually escaping is a lot more complicated.

And the first page (or so):

I don’t exist anymore. Not as a real person, anyway. I’m more like cargo. Expensive cargo, with my own guard and a corporate jet. The steps down to the tarmac are steep but sturdy. The sky arches overhead, splashed with clouds. A city squats nearby, skyscrapers reaching. And the air smells foreign.

I’m not a prisoner, exactly. I’m an employee. My first day on the job has been everything they promised—exciting, new, well-paying. My last day on the job is less than a week away, though they’re not certain exactly when. That’s too bad, because I’d really like to know when I’m going to die. Mostly, I just want to get through the days until then.

My guard hands a passport to another man who must be airport security. 

“Ash Palmer,” he mutters, glancing up at me. I guess it’s my passport. This ain’t normal airport security. There’s no metal detector, no customs, not even a desk. Just the one guy who writes something in a book and doesn’t bother stamping passports.

There were three others like me on the plane, each with his—or her—own guard. Mine looks like Yul Brynner: bald, sharp jaw line, intense manner. He collects the passports of the two recruits who went through security first, drops them into a small vinyl pouch with mine, and waits for the girl behind me.

She’s the only girl. The guards, security guy, and the other recruits are all men. I suppose that applies to me as well, though I’m still more comfortable with “boy.” And she looks about my age—college dropout age. Old enough to die for her country, but too young to be taken seriously.

She doesn’t look suicidal.

“Zephyr Petralia,” the security guy says. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

I dream

"The seller of lightning rods arrived just ahead of the storm. He came along the street of Green Town, Illinois, in the late cloudy October day, sneaking glances over his shoulder. Somewhere not so far back, vast lightnings stomped the earth. Somewhere, a storm like a great beast with terrible teeth could not be denied."

Guess who my favorite author is.

C'mon. Guess! Guess! Giveup? It's Ray Bradbury.

A college professor asked us who our favorite authors were. Then he asked us why. And then he observed that writers usually prefer people who write with a similar style to their own.

No, I said. I don't write like Ray Bradbury. I couldn't write like Ray Bradbury.

Except now, years later, maybe I could—sort of.

I don't reread books very often, but I recently read Something Wicked This Way Comes for the third time.

Ray does tend to go over the top and drown you in metaphor. I don't aspire to write exactly like him. (I prefer an area somewhere in between him and Isaac Asimov.) But I get such a kick out of Bradbury's use of words. And lately, after having my writing pruned to a nub in 2010 by a zealous critique group, I'm letting it grow back into something less wild and dense, but still thick and leafy the way I like it.

And maybe, if I do say so myself, it's a little more like Ray Bradbury than I ever dreamed.

Is that good or is it bad? I don't know go ask your dad. (I'm influenced by Dr. Suess as well.)

It's certainly not everyone's cup of tea. But who am I trying to please, here? Only myself. By imitating Ray Bradbury? No. Just letting all that reading I did in middle school come through.

The quote at the top is the first paragraph of the first chapter of Something Wicked This Way Comes, published in 1962. (And if you've seen the movie version of Something Wicked but never read the book—well, don't think they're the same thing. I don't think it's possible to translate writing like this into a movie without losing most of the substance.) Here's a little bit more:

So the salesman jangled and clanged his huge leather kit in which oversized puzzles of ironmongery lay unseen but which his tongue conjured from door to door until he came at last to a lawn which was cut all wrong. 
No, not the grass. The salesman lifted his gaze. But two boys, far up the gentle slope, lying on the grass. Of a like size and general shape, the boys sat carving twig whistles, talking of olden or future times, content with having left their fingerprints on every movable object in Green Town during summer past and their footprints on every open path between here and the lake and there and the river since school began. 
“Howdy boys!” called the man all dressed in storm-colored clothes. “Folks home?” 
The boys shook their heads. 
“Got any money yourselves?” 
The boys shook their heads. 
“Well—” The salesman walked about three feet, stopped and hunched his shoulders. Suddenly he seemed aware of house windows or the cold sky staring at his neck. He turned slowly, sniffing the air. Wind rattled the empty trees. Sunlight, breaking through a small rift in the clouds, minted a last few oak leaves gold. But the sun vanished, the coins were spent, the air blew gray; the salesman shook himself from the spell.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

LDS Writer Blogfest: And a Little Child Shall Lead Them


This is part of the LDS Writer Blogfest, which means I’m going to talk about my religion again. (I’m Ben. I’m a writer. And I’m a Mormon.)

But first, and since this is an LDS Writer Blogfest, let me tell you about the book I recently finished drafting. (Don’t worry. It’s not about religion, nor am I totally hijacking the fest.)

The Freezer is set in a hypothetical near-future Earth that’s about to be destroyed by a collision with a rogue planet. There are sub-light-speed interstellar ships and fusion engines, but aside from that, it’s a lot like the world we live in. (Also, that about-to-be-destroyed thing tends to affect the way people think.)

I wrote the final chapter the Saturday before last, mere hours before sitting down to watch the annual LDS General Conference on TV. (I missed the first few minutes because I was putting out a fire. Literally.)

I joined my wife and three kids, who were already watching, right as Boyd K. Packer started to speak. I knew immediately that it was the address I had to talk about here, because it made me teary-eyed, and…

Well, let me get back to The Freezer.

At the beginning of the book, Thane Ryder has a dilemma caused entirely by the fact that he and his wife Dawn had decided to have a baby six years before the end of the world. I mean, it’s the end of the world. Why bother having kids who aren’t going to grow up?

But Dawn was a space-ferry pilot, world famous for saving her ferry from an imminent crash. When the Evacuation Authority needed pilots to land its untested interstellar ships at their destination, she was at the top of the list.

That meant she’d survive. When Earth was destroyed, she’d be safely on her way to a new home.

Dawn, of course, only agreed to go if she could bring her husband and their daughter Mandy. But they wanted Dawn to land the very first ship, which was carrying infrastructure and skilled technical workers. No room for passengers, especially not children.

The Authority offered Thane and Mandy seats on a later flight. The Ryders agreed to the arrangement. Dawn left her little girl in her husband’s care.

And Thane’s dilemma? Two years later when it was time for him to leave, the Evacuation Authority didn’t keep its word. It disqualified Mandy from evacuation. Thane would have to leave her behind. 

A government agency in charge of selecting one person to live from every 120,000 only has to be really good at one thing—saying no. Getting it to reverse the decision, even to keep a promise to a renowned pilot, was impossible.

Thane has to decide between dying with his daughter or following his wife.

It was about the worst position I could put Thane into. And then, being a writer, which means I’m a sado-masochist, (and I mean that in the best possible sense,) I proceeded to make Thane’s life even more difficult.

Should he have even had a child in the first place?

Couldn’t he always have more once he was reunited with his wife?

What about leaving Mandy in the care of someone else so he could leave?

Was a few extra months of comfort for one girl worth his life?

Why not simply end her life a little earlier? (He doesn’t actually consider this. It’s proposed to him as a solution.)

And then things get complicated, opening up even more questions.

Does Mandy really hear what she claims?

Should he trust his little girl or all the grown-ups?

Do you give a girl what she thinks she needs, or what you are pretty sure she needs?

Trust your instincts or do what everyone else thinks you should do?

Is it okay to lie to your child to protect her?

I put my characters through my greatest fears and darkest thoughts. I use them to explore my past as well as my current challenges and fears. And as I’ve written each successive novel, I’ve worked my way through my teen years and my early twenties.

Now here I am, the father of a six-year-old, (and nine- and three-year olds,) in a world not fit for such spirits.

I make Thane answer the questions I don’t want to face, make the mistakes I hope I’ll never make. These are my questions.

And the answers?

That title alone could lead Thane right to the answer he spends the whole book looking for. And as for the others, here are a few of the answers President Packer offers:

"I was stationed in Osaka, Japan, when World War II closed. The city was rubble, and the streets were littered with blocks, debris, and bomb craters. Although most of the trees had been blasted away, some few of them still stood with shattered limbs and trunks and had the courage to send forth a few twigs with leaves. 
A tiny girl dressed in a ragged, colored kimono was busily gathering yellow sycamore leaves into a bouquet. The little child seemed unaware of the devastation that surrounded her as she scrambled over the rubble to add new leaves to her collection. She had found the one beauty left in her world. Perhaps I should say she was the beautiful part of her world. Somehow, to think of her increases my faith. Embodied in the child was hope."

"Long ago a woman tearfully told me that as a college student she had made a serious mistake with her boyfriend. He had arranged for an abortion. In due time they graduated and were married and had several other children. She told me how tormented she now was to look at her family, her beautiful children, and see in her mind the place, empty now, where that one child was missing."

"Husbands and wives should understand that their first calling—from which they will never be released—is to one another and then to their children."

"Twice in our marriage, at the time of the births of two of our little boys, we have had a doctor say, “I do not think you are going to keep this one.” 
Both times this brought the response from us that we would give our lives if our tiny son could keep his. In the course of that offer, it dawned on us that this same devotion is akin to what Heavenly Father feels about each of us."

And the last thing, the one thing that I have to learn over and over again because it seems in direct opposition to all the learning and wisdom of the world:

One of the great discoveries of parenthood is that we learn far more about what really matters from our children than we ever did from our parents. We come to recognize the truth in Isaiah’s prophecy that “a little child shall lead them.” 
In Jerusalem, “Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, 
“And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. 
“Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

It’s so easy to see my children’s faults. When they won’t go to sleep, won’t eat their dinner, won’t pick up their toys, and cry and whine and fight—it’s all so obvious. 

What I need to learn—something that I taught Thane but have yet to master myself—is the ability to see what they have, or see, or are that I don’t, can’t, or am not.

And then to learn that good from them. Because that’s the real purpose of parenthood. It’s not to pass on our meager wisdom. It’s to become more like Christ.

Others in the blogfest:

Amanda Sowards
Angie Lofthouse
Britanny Larsen
Cami Checketts
Charity Bradford
Danyelle Ferguson
Giselle Abreu
Julia Keanini
Julie Coulter Bellon
Kasey Tross
Kayeleen Hamblin
Kelly Bryson
Krista Van Dolzer
Laura Johnston
Melanie Stanford
Rachelle Christensen
Rebecca Belliston
Sierra Gardner
Stephanie Worlton

Friday, April 6, 2012

Addicted, Deserts, and Comics. No relation.


On Monday, I finished the rough draft of my current project, The Freezer. Hooray!

On Tuesday, I decided to take some time off from writing, perhaps three weeks or so, but mostly some time off from getting up at five in the morning.

This morning, I decided that taking time off from writing so I could sleep in was like taking time off from breathing so I wouldn't have to smell the cows across the road.

When I'm not writing, I feel demotivated from doing anything. I feel blah. Directionless. Since I started writing seriously—what was it?—three years ago, every aspect of my life has grown brighter and more defined, like turning up the saturation and contrast on an old TV. I can't even begin to understand why. I feel like writing is what I do, what I must do, what I was—forgive me—born to do. I can't go back, now. I'm too addicted to whatever it does for me.

But I want to give myself a little space from my manuscript before diving into revisions. I am therefore working on a new project based on an old idea. Not writing, mind you. Merely brainstorming and plotting. Thinking. Daydreaming. I must schedule some time to daydream. At five in the morning. That's worth getting up for, even if it stinks sometimes. (Metaphorically speaking.)


As in just deserts. (And yes, that's how you spell it. I checked.) And this is good deserts for someone who's helped me and countless other writers. Krista Van Dolzer recently signed with Kate Schafer Testerman of kt literary. (Which I guess is also spelled that way. I checked.) Ever since she let me beta read her last manuscript, I've been waiting for this. (Because if it didn't get picked up, it was hopeless for me.)

But there's hope for the rest of us! (I guess. There's no way to check.)


Some of you may remember my very first author interview. No, wait. That was me. You may remember the second interview. That was my brother, Caleb. (Everyone just called him Spendlove all through high school despite his being the sixth Spendlove in the family to go to that school and no one ever calling any of the rest of us by our last name.)

Anyway, he's been writing (and drawing and coloring) a web comic called Bender for a couple of months now. It's a sci-fi adventure, published thrice a week, and it's pretty good. It's always amusing, sometimes really funny, and the artwork's not bad. (Better than Howard Tayler's early work.)

Check it out. (Yes, that's an order—ensign!) Start at the beginning if you like. (He was still figuring out how to scan and color back then.) Here's one of my favorites from recently. Makes me laugh.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Why I Won't Be Seeing...

The Hunger Games movie.

Part of me thinks I shouldn't even dignify it with an entire blog post, especially considering I've already mentioned the series in, like, three posts already. But I got nothin' else at the moment. Here are my reasons, in no particular order unless my subconscious mind has other plans.

1. I'm a book snob. So why would I want to spend three hours going to a theater to watch a movie when I could stay home (or anywhere else I happen to be) and finish reading Emma? (Title-dropping is what we book snobs do. Between you and me, Emma's a very, very long book.)

2. It's way too popular. And I tend to shy away from whatever everyone else is doing. Or seeing.

3. Hollywood betrayed me. When I was newlywed, I convinced my beautiful, tender bride to make an exception to her long-standing personal rule against seeing PG-13 or worse movies, and took her to see The Fellowship of the Ring. I literally finished rereading the book in the lobby of the theater right before we went in, so I had it all fresh in my mind. It was a great book, and everything I knew promised that the movie would be great, too.

And then I had to sit through about four hours of darkness and violence, thinking the entire time that it was exactly what my poor wife hadn't wanted to see. I never got into the movie, and didn't enjoy it one bit. All I could think was how right my wife was and how wrong I was. Also, the book wasn't like that.

4. How often does the movie do the book justice, anyway? Okay, now that I've said that, I can think of a few times: Holes, Hitchhiker's Guide, Contact. (And I actually like the movie version of Carl Sagan's Contact better than the book.) But those are the exceptions, in my experience. Oh, I'd better add the A&E version of Pride and Prejudice to that list, because it's almost exactly like the book. Why is that so rare?

5. If they were really going to do The Hunger Games justice, it wouldn't be PG-13. It would be a lot worse. It would be disturbing, horrifying, and you'd come out of the theater feeling guilty for having gone to watch children kill each other for entertainment. But, things being as they are, even the most atrocious acts can be made wonderfully entertaining. I'm sure that's exactly what the movie will be. And everyone will love it.

6. Everyone loves it. (This might be a duplicate of number two.) Seriously, where's the criticism? I feel obliged to write these posts because no one else is. Admittedly, I haven't tried to find criticism of THG, books or movie. I'm just going by what comes my way. With Twilight it was mostly criticism. Sure, the books are well-written, but they're also...

7. Horrific. And this is what it really comes down to for me. There are a lot of things in that book that I've already seen in my mind, and I have no interest in seeing them on the screen. The consequences of what Katniss lives through and does don't really appear until the end of book three, at which point the story fast forwards through them. The book, the movie, they're both too much like the fictional Hunger Games themselves.

8. I'm self-righteous.

9. My wife won't let me. She's never read the books, but she's been right about this sort of thing before, and who am I gonna trust? (See number three.)

10. The word "star" is nowhere in the title. Neither is the word "trek."

Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Rerun!

Because no one read it the first time! You jerks!

I'm just gonna post a link to the post that I want to rerun. So go back in time and enjoy a boring post that only a nerd could enjoy. If you're a nerd, of course. Actually, it's mostly a video.

It's funny, because when I wrote Drivers I ended up using that interface that you see in the video, (minus the swaths of red that indicate obstacles.) The drivers see a yellow path to mark where they're going. Nice, eh?  But that's only on autopilot, when the computer is driving. When they're driving, there's nothing.

Kind of like life.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Your Worth

Once again, as I sit down to write about a difficult and/or sensitive subject, I don't know where to start. This is usually where I decide not to try and be clever, but simply say what's on my mind. Also, to most of you, indeed to most people in general, this isn't a sensitive or difficult subject at all. I'm not entirely sure why I think it is to anyone. Let's just say that it was to me at one time in the past, and therefore may be to others now.

What are you worth?

The sum of your belongings? The skills you've acquired? Your knowledge? Your wisdom? Is it something more "meaningful" like friends and the love of family? Is it the service you give or the things you create? The mansions you've built on earth or in heaven? Is it goodness and kindness, or ambition and power?

There are "right" answers to these questions that vary with ideology. (No. Sort of. Yes. Definitely. Of course. Yes. No, yes. Yes and no. Respectively.)

The values of our culture are reflected in our use of the word. My first question is generally understood to refer to monetary assets. It could apply to a person or a stock price, as if the two were interchangeable. And try as we might to convince each other that what really matters in life isn't the money one makes and spends, yet our language betrays us. The music we listen to, the news we watch, the ads we consume all speak to the truth that your worth is dependent—on money, talent, beauty, or power.

But what are you really worth?

Let's set aside the external things and look at the better options from my list of questions: service, kindness, goodness, knowledge and wisdom, love and friendship. These are riches available to all. These are the things that make a life truly worthwhile, are they not?

They're like poison to some, more damning and painful precisely because they are free. Think of it this way—you can blame your birth and circumstances for poverty. Who can you blame for your lack of goodness? Your failures in school?

There are those who blame everything on others, I know. There are those who don't seem to care. But then are those who buy heart and soul into the American ideals that with hard work and determination, even the riches of the world can be yours, to say nothing of the friends and family, or at the very least, the simple joy of kindness to other people.

We all know someone who seems overly hard on himself. Every chance he gets, he'll take the blame, usually without a word—only a sigh, a dip of the head. Every passing stranger is an opportunity squandered, every conversation that falters, an abject failure. It doesn't make sense, and it doesn't get better. Maybe it's depression, or maybe it's just a habit. Maybe it's only the bigger things that bother him, the unfulfilled dreams, the missed promotions, the lost relationships. Everyone has these things. Everyone loses, everyone fails, and everyone wants something better.

What does it get you? An empty regret that ebbs and flows. For some it consumes and overcomes, drowning out pleasure and light, crushing even the hope of managing a smile or a selfless act, of being better.

That's how it was for me. And that's what it came down to. I just couldn't do, get, feel, or be better. I was worthless, by my own estimation, in every regard from monetary (which bothered me very little) to personal (which hurt very much).

And why? Because I thought my entire worth was linked to what I did with my time. If I spent it doing good, improving myself, learning and growing, then I was increasing my worth. But by some cruel arrangement of psychology, it was impossible for me to do the things I thought would make me feel better. Such is the nature of depression.

Now maybe this hypothetical friend of yours isn't that bad. I believe what I'm about to say applies equally well to everyone with a tendency to feel worthless:

You can't do anything that will add to or subtract from your true worth.

Maybe you've practiced hard and become the next Michael Jordan. Maybe you're a bestselling author adored by millions. So what? 

Does your mother love you more now than she did before?

That's the non-religious way of looking at it. For me, the question is does God love you more than He did before? The answer is always no, for either.

And why is that? Because your worth isn't dependent on what you do. The people who really love you know this instinctively, and you know it about them.

What if one of my kids has a hard time in school? It might make my heart ache for him, but it won't make me value him less. Of course it won't. It's so easy to see in other people, but sometimes so hard in ourselves.

The next rejection you get, remember this. When you're rich and famous, remember it. Your worth is unmeasurably great to those who love you. Infinity plus or minus anything you can do is still infinity.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Dude, I'm a pantser after all.

And can I just say I hate the term "pantser?" My Mac hates it, too. It keeps trying to change it into panther. That's a much cooler thing to be. So instead of plotters and pantsers, let's call them plodders and panthers and move on from there. :P

Plodders are the people who write detailed outlines of how an entire novel should take shape before they actually start writing it. Panthers are those who simply sit down and write with no idea where they're going, "by the seat of their panths" as it were.

Anyway, I do try to outline a book before I start writing it. The first novel I wrote had no outline and it turned into a train wreck. No, it was too far from any tracks to be a train wreck. It was like if you took a train and dropped it in the middle of a lake.

The second book, well, I tried to write an outline but I got it all completely wrong and doomed the book from the very start.

The third one I thought and thought about for a long time, wrote an outline, and then did what I'm doing on my current project, which is this:

I write a chapter. If it's good, and my wife also thinks it's good, I figure out what I want to have happen next. Then I think about the next scene or chapter for at least twenty-four hours and sometimes several days. I don't usually write anything down, I just figure out where I want to start, what drives the chapter forward, and exactly what I want to have happen.

Then I sit down and write that chapter based on thoughts that are fresh in my mind. Sometimes, like happened yesterday, a character will say or do something that's not quite what I intended but seems better anyway. Yesterday, this ended the chapter earlier than I thought, but it was good. And Ammii agreed. So I'm on to the next chapter.

I still have my very bare outline, but it's really more of a road sign than a map. I know where I'm going, but how I'll get there is still very much up in the air. I take it one scene at a time.

And isn't that what it means to be a panther?


(This post could show up in some completely inapplicable Google searches.)

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Dear Agent,

These are the things I wanted to say in my query letter but decided I shouldn't.

I don't know who you are. I've been sending queries to ten agents a week, and I don't have all day to cyber-stalk you properly. I visited your website, if you have one. First, I looked up your bio to make sure you might want my book. Then I checked the submission guidelines. I started a new email, typed in the subject "Query: DRIVERS," wrote Dear [You] at the top, and pasted in my query letter. I may have followed that up with a painful synopsis and/or sample pages from Drivers that I'd previously formatted with spaces between paragraphs. (So it'd look better in email, you know.)

That query is my sixth version, meaning it was at least my sixth try at writing a query from scratch for Drivers, which is the third novel I've written, revised, and edited. I wrote it from my heart, the way everyone says we're supposed to, and I've never been sure anyone else would like it. But I think maybe there's a chance you will. (And yes, that's redundant on purpose.)

It's been through half a dozen beta readers and countless revisions. I've done my best not to edit out my own voice. You won't find many unintentional grammatical or spelling errors. (If I had a dollar for every time my writing's been described as clean...)

I may have described Drivers as a psychological thriller, but feel free to ignore that designation. I didn't set out to write a thriller. I just wanted to tell a certain story, and it evolved over the months between when it occurred to me and the day I wrote the first line. Maybe you know a better genre to put it in.

I'm already a professional writer. I write what I'm told to write. I do research. I meet deadlines. And this is the driest blog post I've written in a long time. My mouth gets dry talking to strangers, especially when I'm worried about making a good impression.

Finally, I want you to know that Drivers isn't the last or even the best book I've got in me. Ask me about The Freezer. It'll blow you away, but I'm still writing the first draft.



Sunday, January 15, 2012


As in mine is seriously bad these days. I'm talking short-term memory, because my long-term memory seems to be fine. I can find my house, usually.

Like, I saw a thing where someone asked who said the following: "If there's anything more important than my ego around here, I want it caught and shot."

And I knew it was from a movie, and I knew I'd just recently seen that movie. It was on the verge of coming to me for like five mind-imploding minutes until I finally just cheated and Googled it. And you know what? I totally should have known who said it, because I had just seen it, and it's from one of my favorite movies, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I'd just watched it with my kids the week before. (They thought it was weird. But you know, they watch the Backyardigans, so who are they to talk?)

But anyway, that's not why I say I have a bad memory. It's because I've thought of three or four things I could write a blog entry about in the last week and every time I have a few minutes to spare, I can't remember a single dang one of 'em!

What's really disconcerting, however, is when I have conversations with people and absolutely no memory of the event a few minutes or hours later.

I suspect this may be a prank that my wife is playing on me, however. "Yes, I told you about it and you said 'Okay!'"

I don't know. Maybe it's all in my head. (Ha!)

You know, I'll bet I can still remember all the lyrics to Memory.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Just a little update

Wow, that was weird. I typed a title and hit enter, and it published this without any content. So now I'm updating my update.

Which is to say, I'm simply saying I've updated my pitch for Drivers, and you can find it here. (The Drivers tab at the top of my blog.)

I've also been working on the manuscript again. Making it better. I just went back and read over the change I made to the first chapter right after Christmas, and I really like it. Love it, in fact. It was one of those, "Wow, I wrote this?" moments.

See, there are two kinds of people in this world. Those who group everyone into two categories, and those who don't. Ha! I'm so funny. Seriously, there are those who can relate to a depressed main character, and those who can't. My wife can't. Or couldn't until I started adding memories of Ash's life and how he ended up suicidal in the first place.

Gah, it's seven in the morning and my brain is already fried. How shall I explain?

Depression isn't an easy thing to understand. It doesn't make any sense from the outside. But everyone knows someone who does or has had it. Showing small slices of Ash's life gives everyone a way to relate to him, either because they've been in his shoes, or because they've been in the shoes of the people around him.

I'm not telling the story of how Ash became suicidal. I'm not telling the story of how he gets better, though he certainly does get better. I'm telling the story of a guy trying to escape from a dead-end job driving armed robotic vehicles.

But I'm also painting a picture, and it's all there in the background. How he got there, what it's like, and where he's going.

Does that make any sense at all?

Sunday, January 1, 2012

A little about me

There are a thousand things I could blog about: Christmas, sushi, Kindles, children, the book I started writing, the book I went back to fix something in, the contest I won, email, fabrication with duct tape and foam core board, desk arrangements, the utter lack of snow on the ground, etc.

But I want to say something that only I can say. There are millions of people expressing opinions and viewpoints out there, offering advice, critiquing, etc. (That's the word of the year, I just decided. Et cetera.) Many of them are very good, insightful, inspiring, etc. (Okay, maybe that's obnoxious.) I want to say things that only I can say. And so, even though there are also a thousand people doing similar things for hundreds of blogfests, I'm going to say a little about myself.

Hi, I'm Ben.

I love cross country skiing. Since I was a little boy, I've gone with my dad and his friends skiing up the mountain behind our old house or one of the canyons. We don't ski flat ground or groomed trails, and we don't use so-called telemark skis and boots like people use at resorts. We're on a never-ending quest for the perfect powder on the perfect slope to make perfect S-curve telemark turns without falling down. I almost always follow my dad down the hill, making my turns exactly opposite his, like sine waves half a wavelength out of sync. That's the goal, anyway.

I love cycling. My dad is also to blame for this. Before I started writing seriously, I identified strongly as a cyclist. I rode over 100 miles a week, usually commuting to and from work. My daughter's mountain bike cost more than most adult's bikes, and it's not because we're rich. It's just our priority. In fact, our recumbent trike would sell for more than the car I drive to work. Nowadays, I usually only do short rides with the family.

I love trying new things, and I also hate trying new things. (I suspect many people are like this.)

I'm a hopeless romantic, but I don't buy my wife flowers. They're expensive and useless, and she'd rather get Star Trek DVDs anyway.

I'm a feminist, I guess, because I see sexism and disrespect for women every time I watch TV. (Part of the reason I don't watch TV very often.)

I'm an environmentalist, but not as much as when I rode my bike to work. Something about bike commuting changes your perspective on conservation.

I'm a liberal, but only by Utah standards. I'm not affiliated with a political party.

I like spicy food.

I'm an introvert. That means I'm happy to talk to you, just not if we're in a large group.

I'm a Mormon. I don't bring that up in casual conversation, but it underlies every aspect of my life.

I like talking about myself. (Haha! Obviously.) I also like talking about my wife, but I'm afraid it would sound like bragging.

Happy new year! And no, I haven't resolved to blog regularly or better in any way, so don't get your hopes up. Sorry.