The Belated Father’s Day Post

Not belated because I forgot, or anything stupid like that. Belated because I don’t normally post on Sundays. Okay, so maybe it is a stupid reason. But sticking to a schedule helps me avoid slacking off. For the same reason, I work on novels in the afternoon–so I can start at the same time every day, even when I’m working on blog posts in the morning.

Bad night’s sleep? Doesn’t matter. Gotta write a blog post. Distracted by something shiny (or ragged and cat-eating)? Tough. Go write some words of fiction.

Dad was mildly amused by my schedule adherence, but he understood. “Do what works for you,” is a bit of writing advice that made perfect sense to him. Much as he loved word processing, he absolutely couldn’t edit on a computer. He printed every draft, edited it with a pencil, and then typed his changes in. Which mildly amused me, but again, it worked for him.

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Last week, I linked a story in the Sedalia Democrat about the Smith-Cotton High School String Orchestra appearing at the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival, and promised more words about their appearance. These are those words.

The short version, for anyone who finds the Democrat’s website annoyingly hard to use, is that the high school orchestra’s appearance was supported by the Larry Karp Memorial Fund. See, when Dad died, we asked that contributions in his name to be made to the Scott Joplin Ragtime Foundation. We–and the foundation–were amazed and pleased at the number of donations, and we all agreed there was an opportunity to do more than simply add the funds to the foundation’s general budget.

I often say that Dad was a storyteller. It’s no accident that he gravitated to baseball and ragtime: both are fields with enough stories to fill every library in the world. Dad liked teaching in the classic sense, but he outright loved teaching by telling stories. He could, and frequently did, talk ragtime for hours*. One of the reasons he enjoyed research was for the stream of new stories it brought him. When he started looking into Brun Campbell–a storyteller himself–the stream turned into something more like the Columbia River.

* Baseball, too, but there are more storytellers working that beat than spinning ragtime yarns.

Any community needs new blood to live. And Dad worried there might not be enough new ragtimers coming in to keep the music alive. When a new “Ragtime Kid”–a young talent consumed by the need to play ragtime–came along, he was delighted. Using the money donated in his name, not for immediate needs, but to teach the next generation of ragtimers was an easy call.

What that’s going to look like is still up in the air. We’ve got some immediate plans, and some ideas for the medium- and long-term, all aimed at getting a new generation interested in ragtime and its stories. But no project succeeds if it never gets started. We threw a whole lot of ideas around for where to start. Bringing the Smith-Cotton students to the festival this year was where we wound up. We got a couple of dozen students and their families to the festival. That’s a win no matter how you look at it. If only one of those dozens sticks with ragtime, whether as a performer, researcher, or listener, then it’s a major victory.

Now that we’ve started, we need to keep going. And that means we need to keep the fund healthy. (You knew there was a commercial message coming, right?)

I mentioned last week that the festival was somewhat smaller this year than in the past. Money’s tight all over, but especially so for art programs. We’d love some help.

If you’re willing to lend a hand, please drop a note to sjfsedalia@gmail.com.

Thanks from Dad, from the whole family, and from the entire ragtime community.

“We”

Yesterday was Dad’s birthday. “Was,” damn it. Not “would have been”. Because, as I’ve said elsewhere, he still had stories to tell, and I’m sure he’s gonna hang around until he finds a way to tell them.

Granted, not in a corporeal sense, because that would just be creepy (and I say that as someone who writes fantasy). But here.

And then there are those other ways he’s still around…

I was making a note for the next draft of the novel-in-progress and realized I had started it with the phrase “We need to find a way to justify…” Even though it’s been six months since I last worked on Mo’less and even though every word of this book is one I wrote, yes, I’m still making notes in the first person plural.

But Dad critiqued multiple drafts of Splat Squad and Lord Peter’s Eyes. He always had good suggestions, even when I showed him individual scenes where he didn’t know who was who or what was going on. I didn’t always agree with his suggestions, but when I didn’t, figuring out why I didn’t like them usually gave me an idea to make the book better.

I wrote 1,524 words yesterday. (It was probably closer to 2,000 words, but there was this familiar voice in the back of my head saying things like “Are you sure you want to say it like that?” and “That doesn’t sound like her. What about…?” So it was 1,524 net words.) Most of them were for a scene that could easily be dismissed as filler. It’s not wildly exciting–but then, I’m not writing an action movie, so every scene doesn’t have to end with an explosion. It’s not critical to the plot*–except that most stories need a reminder that everyday life is going on even while the characters are dealing with The Most Important Thing That Ever Happened. (There’s a scene in The RagTime Traveler–one of my favorite scenes, in fact–where some of our main characters opt out of the ongoing investigation so they can do a load of laundry.)

* Or at least I don’t think it is. For all I know, the most exciting scene in the book couldn’t happen without the events I just wrote. One of the joyous hazards of not being an outliner.

But one of the important lessons I learned from Dad is to let your characters do what they want*. Nothing good will come from forcing them to do what you want.

* Another, arguably more important, lesson is that a mid-afternoon craving for a cookie shouldn’t be neglected. So I had a Florentine concoction of almonds and chocolate in his honor.

And so, when [redacted] wanted to visit [purged] and take him to task for discriminating against [censored], I let him.

At the moment it seems like a good idea, but if it turns out the scene doesn’t add anything to the book, I’ll make another note: “We should junk this.”

And we will.

A Small Silver Lining In an Enormous Black Cloud

About that mid-October posting hiatus…

To put it briefly, my father passed away on October 11.

We all knew it could happen at any time, but none of us expected it when it happened. I’ll skip the details; you don’t want to hear them and I don’t want to relive them. He had been dealing with cancer for a long time; let’s leave it at that.

I said “dealing with” rather than “fighting” or “battling” very deliberately. Dad disliked the phrase “battling cancer”. His opinion was that thinking about it as a battle gives the disease too much of your time and energy. Far better, he believed, to acknowledge the effects cancer had on your life, make the necessary accommodations, and spend your real effort on doing what you love.

And yes, those accommodations include seeing a reputable physician who can explain the treatment options, their possible side effects, and all of their possible outcomes. (Side note–and this applies to any area of medicine, not just cancer treatment: if someone tells you there’s only one possible treatment, that a treatment is guaranteed to work, or that there are cures that are being suppressed by the medical establishment to preserve their profits, that person is not a reputable physician. They’re either sincere but deluded or, more likely, a scam artist. Either way, do not entrust your life to them. End of sermon.)

In Dad’s case, doing what he loved meant, in no particular order, spending time with the family (and especially with his grandson), cheering for the Mariners, and writing. He did plenty of the first two, but that’s not what I want to talk about.

He began writing his biography of Brun Campbell after he started chemotherapy. Forgetfulness and fatigue are common side effects, and Dad had them both. In the spirit of accommodation, he worked around them. He’d always been a note-taker, so he took more–and more detailed–notes. He took rest breaks when he needed them.

And, much as he hated to let anyone see his work before it was finished, he allowed a few people he trusted to read early drafts of the biography. I was pleased and honored to be one of those people, and as it turned out, we enjoyed working together more than either of us had expected we would.

Let me take a step back in time here. Even thought Dad spent twenty-five years as a specialist in high-risk obstetrics, and did it very well, he never considered it his true calling. In 1995, he retired from medicine and devoted himself to his real career: storytelling. Not “writing”: putting words on a page was just the mechanism for telling his stories. With that background, you can see why he was pleased, flattered, and more than a little amused when I stepped away from the tech industry to devote myself to telling my own stories.

Dad was delighted when I asked him to be one of my beta readers, and he always had excellent suggestions for improving my novels. He had a great ear for characters’ voices. Whenever he told me “I don’t think he’d say that,” he was invariably correct.

In addition to teaching me to listen to my characters, he was always there to remind me that rejection is inevitable in this field, and that the proper response to a setback is a push forward.

That was his attitude to more than writing. He handled disappointing medical news–an elevated PSA, an uncomfortable or awkward side effect, a new shadow on an X-Ray–the same way: “Onward!” If he was very tired or achy, he might drop the exclamation point, but that was as far as he would compromise.

When Dad finished Brun’s story–and it was at least as much a story as a history; Brun lived his life wrapped in fiction, much of it of his own creation–he needed a new writing project. Dad wasn’t going to stop telling stories, but he was concerned about his stamina, unsure if he could still write an entire novel. He had been kicking around some ideas for a time travel story for several years, and he knew I had recently shelved a time-travel novel that wasn’t working out. (That’s one of those coincidences you can’t put in a novel, because your audience will just laugh at the unreality. Fiction is limited, but reality has more flexibility.) We had worked well together on the Brun book and he thought we could expand on that.

When he asked if I would be interested in collaborating on a novel, I jumped at the opportunity and put my current project aside. We discussed some ideas about the story, and on August 18, 2015, he starting writing the first draft of Chapter One of what eventually became The RagTime Traveler. We wrote five drafts over the next ten months–incredibly fast work by both of our standards–and on June 10, 2016, we declared the book complete.

The first draft took five months; the next four averaged less than half that long. Rewriting is always faster than writing. When we took stock at the end of Draft 01, we knew we had something solid. So we did the logical thing: we started making plans for our second collaboration. I wanted to do a baseball book, something set before the modern era, and it took Dad no more than a tenth of a second to agree. He had some story ideas and so did I, so we put them together, roughed out a very high-level overview of where we thought we were going, and then started Draft 02.

When we declared The RagTime Traveler finished, we sent it to Poisoned Pen Press. They had published Dad’s previous mysteries, and we figured they’d like this one. We didn’t wait to hear from them, though. We immediately started working on Mo’less Jones. When PPP requested some changes to TRTT, we put Mo’less aside long enough to do the rewrite, and then dived back into it.

In late September, PPP sent us a contract for The RagTime Traveler. (Side note: Any publisher’s standard contract is going to favor the publisher’s interests over the writer’s–that’s no different than any other field. So if you’re offered a contract, read it, be sure you understand it, and if there are any clauses you don’t like, negotiate. Maybe the publisher will make changes, maybe they won’t, but if you don’t ask, they certainly won’t. End of sermon.)

Dad and I had a few concerns, so we decided which ones were the most important and sent PPP a counter-proposal. While we waited for their response, we agreed what we would do if PPP didn’t agree to our requested changes–and kept working on Mo’less Jones.

PPP’s response was favorable, but Dad died while we were still working through the formal process of revising the contract and confirming the changes were correct before we and PPP signed it.

Dad was excited about seeing TRTT published. He and I had been making plans for publicizing the book right up to the week he died. He won’t get to see it, and many of those plans have gone out the window with his passing, but at least he knew it was going to be published. Small consolation, yes, but it does help.

The RagTime Traveler will be released by Poisoned Pen Press in June 2017. It’s already up for pre-order at some booksellers. Over the next six months, I’ll be posting updates, doing a cover reveal, and generally whipping you all into a buying frenzy. Consider yourselves warned.

Mo’less Jones is on the Disabled List. Dad was wildly enthusiastic about the way the story was developing. So am I, for that matter. But I’m not ready to face that next chapter. For the first draft, we were taking turns writing chapters. I finished Chapter Thirteen* the day before Dad went into the hospital and most mornings I wake up with a little voice in the back of my head saying “Maybe Dad’ll have Chapter Fourteen ready for me to read today.”

* My superstitious side insists there’s some significance in that, and refuses to listen to the rational side when it points out that nothing bad happened after we finished any of our previous Chapter Thirteens.

If you’ve lost a loved one, you know that kind of reaction is typical. So are the grief spasms when I find something interesting online and realize I can’t tell Dad about it, the more-than-usually fragmented attention span, and the days that are just plain unproductive. So I do the best I can in acknowledging the problems, making accommodations, and getting on with doing the things I love.

Until that little voice shuts up, Mo’less Jones is going to ride the pine, but I will tell that story. For now, his position (center field) will be covered by the solo project I set aside when Dad and I started The RagTime Traveler. Progress is slow, but it is progress.

“Onward!”