My surprise date with Amber Benson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Pat Rothfuss, and Terry Brooks

My surprise date with Amber Benson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Pat Rothfuss, and Terry Brooks

So yesterday afternoon I got a phone call. It was from the Madison, WI area and I was like: I don’t know anyone in Madison. So I let it go to voicemail.

A few minutes later, I get a private message on FaceBook…

Cool surprise number 1: It was Pat Rothfuss. He’s like: give me a buzz. So I do (realizing that the missed phone call was probably from him). Pat answers and says there’s been a bit of a mix-up and he’s sorry for the short notice, but would I like to be on his new Geek & Sundry show, The Story Board.

What follows is a dramatic presentation of the two seconds that followed that question:

Me to anyone watching at that moment: O.o

Me in my head: Hell yeah, I’ll be on your show.

Me on the phone: I’d be delighted.

So we exchange all the details. I knew about his new show. A few weeks ago, I’d watched part of Episode 1 with urban fantasists Diana Rowland, Emma Bull, and Jim Butcher. And back then, I was all like: man it’d be cool to be on a show like that.

Little did I know…

Problem number 1: Tiny problem. I hadn’t yet work-tried G+ Hangouts, which is how the show is “taped.” So I rushed to test it out. Jennifer Brozek was kind enough to test it with me. Things were working great. Problem solved.

Cool surprise number 2: After a few emails with Pat’s great assistants, we set up a test call among the participants and I find out I’ll be hanging with Amber Benson and Mary Robinette Kowal. Mary I’ve known for years. We met at Orson Scott Card’s Literary Bootcamp back in 2005. We get along wonderfully, so I was glad to have someone I was familiar with on the show.

Amber, however, I hadn’t met before. But I’d listened to her on Anton Strout’s The Once and Future Podcast, and I’d seen her performing a reading with Pat at a romance convention last year. She was reading a rather saucy excerpt from her novel, and was embarrassed to read it in front of so many people, so Pat stepped in to read the manly parts, while Amber read the narrative and the female bits. It was pretty funny.

Problem number 2: How do I put this? Amber’s a bit … famous. She’s been on Buffy. She’s directed films. She’s got more than a few books out. And she’s got tons of geeky charm. I was getting a bit nervous I wouldn’t be able to hold up my end of the show. But… Amber was delightful. She was funny and easy to talk to, and that put me at ease. Problem solved.

So we chatted for a while, checked mic levels, traded tips, and got to know one another a bit before we hop on the show later that night. And Mary’s light balance is like way yellow. She looked like she was swimming in Mountain Dew. And that made me look at the background in my office…

Problem number 3: Which looked like a blank white page. Amber had this cool bicycle thing in the background. Mary had some nice bookshelves and her freaking Hugo award on top of it behind her. And what did I have? A white wall behind me and glaring overhead fluorescent lights that made me look like Christian Bale in The Machinist.

So after the test call, I start rearranging things. I prop the laptop higher and make sure it catches the framed cover of my first book in the background. I pull in an incandescent lamp and turn off some the fluorescents to soften the lighting. I play with the framing by adjusting my distance from the camera’s laptop. And I finally get something I like (or at least that I can live with). Problem solved. (Though Amber’s bicycle still rocked.)

And then was the lead-up to the show. Pat let us know ahead of time that we’d be talking about character. So I jotted down some ideas as I was putting my son down to sleep. I prepped. Honestly, this was the easiest part of this whole thing for me. I love talking about writing. I do it several times a year at various cons. I give seminars on specific topics as well as talk on panels about a range of writing-related things. So I wasn’t worried about not having things to say.

Problem number 4: What I was worried about, however, was my freaking sinus infection. I’d caught something from WorldCon this past weekend. Con crud. Or perhaps I picked up the tail end of strep from my wife while I was home between a writing workshop I ran, Wellspring, and WorldCon. Whatever. I was sick. But I didn’t want to sound sick. So I drugged myself up. Joanne set me up with some ThroatCoat tea and honey. I downed that and shot both nostrils with nasal spray. I set a box of Kleenex next to my laptop with a bit of water and I was ready. I hoped. I just didn’t want to sneeze or have to blow my nose during the show. Luckily, that didn’t end up being a problem.

We hopped on early to make sure all the tech was working, to ask any last minute questions, and so on. And then Pat hops on, a bit flummoxed. Pat blamed himself for being a tiny bit late; but he’s been traveling like a madman this summer, and he’d just gone straight from WorldCon to Seattle. And beyond travel,the guy has a rather full plate (to put it very, very mildly), so I didn’t blame him a bit.

Problem number 5: We’re just getting ready to start, and someone new hops into the hangout. Someone I didn’t recognize, but that Pat apparently knew. Whatever the case, it was clear he wasn’t supposed to be on. We quickly deduce (or should I say, Pat quickly deduces) that Pat accidentally broadcast the URL to the hangout and not the URL for the live feed, i.e. if anyone used that link, they could hop on too. At any time during our taping. Clearly, something had to be done. Luckily, this is the Internet age. We merely had to drop that hangout, create a new one, and send it out. Which is exactly what we did. Problem solved.

Finally, we get started. Pat opens up the show. We introduce ourselves. And we start talking about character. One of the difficult things about doing a show in this format is that, however low the lag is in G+ Hangouts, there is still lag. It’s not like a panel where everyone’s in the same room and you can safely time your next comment as someone is winding down. You can’t read people quite as easily and you can’t quite predict when to jump in. That’s something that comes with practice, I suppose, and knowing the people you’re talking with; but I was very conscious of not stepping on people’s thoughts. I did try to speak up so I wasn’t silent throughout the show, too. It’s a tough balance, and hopefully it came across OK on my end.

I think it did, and I think all in all it was a great conversation between the four of us, Pat asking questions but also chiming in with his own thoughts, and the rest of us batting ideas back and forth. I love doing that kind of stuff. It makes my heart happy.

Cool surprise number 3: The show continues, but after about half the show, roughly thirty minutes, Pat takes off his headphones and switches to just the speakers on the laptop and the built-in mic. And I was like: Pat, what are you doing? Put those back on! Little did I know that Pat had a surprise in store. I don’t know if it was serendipity and our new guest happened to be in the same place (for a signing, maybe?) or if Pat invited him there specifically for the show, but in walks Terry Brooks.

What follows is a dramatic presentation of the two seconds that followed:

Me in my head: o.o    O.o   O.O   Holy crap, it’s Terry Brooks!

Me on screen: Smiles.

In fact, here’s me in that exact moment:

That was just surreal, having Terry Brooks sit down and start talking shop. I’m not sure what it was, exactly. I’ve been on plenty of panels with a ton of famous authors; but there was something about all of us chatting like that, a bit informally, that made it feel like we were all just writers sitting around a fire, a circle of people with a love for the same thing: the craft of writing. Except one of them was a living legend. It’s impossible to put the feeling into words. It’s awe. It’s respect. It’s joy. It’s satisfaction. It’s so many things roiling around inside. It’s something I’m going to remember for a long, long time.

While I’m at conventions, I often talk about some of my personal beliefs with respect to how I approach writing. Not the craft, per se, but how I keep the drive. How I keep myself motivated and optimistic. That sort of thing. And my favorite bit of advice is this: as you work your way through the apprentice and journeyman phases of your writing career (and really this applies to anything you do in life), you should stop to appreciate the small victories. Your first completed story? A victory. Your first rejection? Absolutely a victory. Your first personalized rejection? You’re getting closer; clearly a victory. And so on…

This is a lonely occupation. Yes, there are cons. Yes, there are workshops. Yes, we can chat on social networks. But at its core, this is a solitary thing. And it’s also difficult to mark progress. It’s difficult to feel like you’re getting anywhere, because sometimes we’re too fixated on the destination and not the journey. And you must pay attention to the road as you’re making your way along it. I pity those who reach the end of their careers (however long and successful they may be) and find that they hadn’t enjoyed the ride.

So I try to enjoy the little things. And also the bigger things. This was one of the bigger things, clearly, but oddly enough it merely serves to remind me of  those small victories along the way. Mary and I had been to OSC’s bootcamp. We’d joined the Codex writers group around the same time. We helped each other along the way. I met Pat at GenCon right when The Name of the Wind was coming out. I still have the signed copy (1st ed, 1st printing) sitting by my computer. I was on various panels with Pat and a ton of other wonderful authors along the way. And all those things led (indirectly, true) to getting together and hanging out on Pat’s new show, where I met Amber Benson and Terry Freaking Brooks.

Wow. That was a wonderful time last night, one I hope to repeat in the future, either on Pat’s show or someone else’s.

Sometimes I’m amazed at how much I love writing. Last night was definitely one of those times.

Click here to head on over to YouTube to view the entire episode.

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John ONeill


Wow! What a great article. Unlike you, I was not in-the-know on Patrick’s Geek & Sundry show The Story Board. But I am now! Thanks for keeping me hip.

Also, ahem. I was NOT aware Amber Benson the actress and Amber Benson the novelist were the same Amber Benson. Man, it takes a lot of work to keep me hip, but I’m glad you’re up for it.

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