Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Honest Query Letters: How do you really feel about your novel?

Recently, encouraged by the success of The Martian[1], and the (outrageously optimistic) possibility of a groundswell in hard science fiction, I tried to craft my first query letter[2], pitching my second novel.  

I failed to take the exercise seriously.  

Here are some of my favorite lines:

Katabatic Winds includes 80,000 words, mostly really big science-y words, polysyllabic, Latin-root monstrosities, concatenated with the occasional puzzling verb, like, for example, ‘concatenate.’ 

Katabatic Winds aspired to hard, literary, Science Fiction, but as a coming of age quest story about two brothers in their early twenties, it landed much closer to ‘new adult fiction,’ a genre I didn’t even know existed…and I’m still not sure does.  Yet I somehow wrote ‘new adult fiction’ without appreciable sex, which is as incongruous as an echidna.  And yes, I realize that by writing a ‘new adult’ book, I somehow managed to target the only market less viable than hard science fiction.  By the way, ‘incongruous as an echidna,’ a comparison that requires readers to identify echidnas as monotremes, is the kind of evocative metaphor that litters the pages of this novel.  

Katabatic Winds capitalizes on the market The Martian uncovered for long descriptions of physical processes and the contemporary reader’s apparent appetite for math.  Did you love The Martian, but thought ‘this would be perfect with 38% more math?’ You’re in luck.  ‘Do the math,’ is the new ‘Show don’t tell.’  It’s not ‘telling’ if you use numbers. 

Do you love intestinal metaphors for glacial processes?  What about complicated plot structures based on Macarthurian island biogeography?  Are you hungry for love stories which overcome actual genetic isolation? Does co-authoring journal papers make your imagination bubble with sexual tension?  Have you ever wondered how Mark Twain’s Mississippi reflections might have read during a glacial maximum?  Then you are going to love Katabatic Winds.

I realize you probably don’t receive many letters like this.  Your mail is probably full of requests for love potions and Balrog banishments.  But I decided to send this to you instead of a literary agent because it will take a literal wizard to sell this book.

This post was written while listening to the brilliant new mewithoutYou Pale Horses

[1] Which I read…and loved.  Hard Science Fiction needs a snarky, light hearted protagonist to balance the math and science.  That’s why The Martian worked.  The characters were lovable nerds.   The math and engineering and geology were natural extensions of their likable personas.  Still, here’s how marketable HSF is…no one published The Martian.  Andy Weir couldn’t find an agent and self published it…until it blew up on amazon.
[2] I’ve never crafted a query letter because I always assumed at least my first three novels would be un-readable…and I’ve written two.  But The Martian represents the first commercial success for the sort of stuff I write since…well…ever.  I figure that ‘trend’ is ephemeral as a California clouds, and entertained the idea of floating my manuscripts during the four month window that agents think HSF matters.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Cotton Candy Elephant Redemption: Bing Bong and the Gospel

Spoiler Alert: I built this post on a plot twist in the great new Pixar/Disney film Inside out, which, though predictable, is moving and deserves a spoiler alert.  Also, I didn’t do much plot summary, so this might not make a ton of sense without seeing the film.

I knew it was coming. 

From the moment our Pixar guides introduced the valley of forgetting,[1] where memories pass into oblivion, moments lost, buried forever beneath the tyranny of the present, I knew Bing Bong[2] would end up there. 

Call it Chekhov's pit of cognitive purge. 

You don’t foreshadow the violence of forgetting unless someone's gettin’ forgot.[3]

But seeing it coming didn’t change the weight of it.  When Bing Bong’s face changed, resigned courage rising in his twinkling pachadolphin eyes, just before he lets go, falling into the pit of unbeing, sacrificing himself so that Riley could literally get Joy back, the theater gasped.  

I gasped with them. 

But no one over 12 gasped for the surprise of it.  We gasped under the weight of it.[4]

A beloved companion, unkindly cast aside, offers the one last thing he has to give to save his beloved friend, himself.

Now, I get that Christological types are tired[5]..and this one is decidedly imperfect[6]…but three days later, [7] I realized I’d heard this story before.

A beloved companion, guide, and source of wonder from years of innocence, steadfast in his love, finds himself cast aside and marginalized.  He finds his beloved in trouble, battered by her world and loss of wonder, and instead of bitter “I told you so’s”, he casts himself into oblivion, whatever lays at the other side of forgetting, trading his life – and in a mysterious way, his very ontology – to vouchsafe joy.  He trades himself for his beloved’s joy to rebuild her crumbling identity and moral lostness.

I’ve heard this story before. 

But unlike candy/elephant/dolphins, oblivion could not hold Jesus.  He breaks the monotonic trajectory of forgetting, offering us the same escape from the valley of unknowing that he forged, an ontology that surpasses whatever ephemeral marks we make on human memories.

This post was written while listening to the We Were Romans station on Pandora

[1] This deserves its own post.  The primacy of future memory in our choices is a really interesting idea, highlighted by the great section in Kannaman’s book (TFAS) where he asks, “Would you accept an all expense paid one week vacation anywhere you’d like if you would not remember it when it was over?”  He argues we have two selves, an experience self and a remembering self, and disentangling their motivations helps us understand our always complex, sometimes counter intuitive, and often self destructive choices.  The pit of final forgetting leaves us with the question: Do forgotten things matter?  Are the only relevant actions remembered actions?  The answers to these questions tell us a lot about celebrity culture and our own aspiration.
[2] Bing Bong was Riley’s obsolete imaginary friend, found wandering the halls of her long term memory, defined by his love for her and his recognition that she no longer considered him.
[3] The same night I watched Birdman in a sublime family movie night/reading group movie night* double header – which does the whole “Checkhov’s gun thing’ so heavy handedly that it was surely ironic.
*My friend Kyle doesn’t read fiction, so when he came up in the draft order to select fiction** he picked a film.
**We have changed our reading group format.  Now we have a draft order and whoever is up picks unilaterally from whichever of our three rotating categories (fiction, theological non-fiction, secular non-fiction) is up.  This new format has been wildly successful in my opinion, giving us a wide range of books we wouldn’t otherwise read instead of familiar stuff we can all agree on a priori.
[4] Incidentally, I’m assuming that it was the elephant/dolphin portion of him that made BingBong’s song/weight ratio sub-optimal, because a creature made largely of cotton candy would be pretty light.
[5] And I go there often, incautiously and unrepentant.
[6] Feel free to go ahead and comment about Jesus being an ‘imaginary friend’ if, you know, you’re a troll.
[7] Poetic timing for the reappearance of one who resigned himself to oblivion to redeem joy.

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Apostle Peter as a Joss Whedon Blurter

Joss Whedon once said[1] that regular people are too polite to move a story forward in 46 minutes.  We are socially cautious and take a while to come to public consensus, circling realizations while we wait for them to become obvious.  Story tellers don’t have time for that, Joss says.  But he has a solution:



 And After he shipped Cordelia off to the expansion franchise, he replaced her with Anya.

Anya didn’t do any of the narrative work Cordilia did, and despite paying off her story into a top ten episode (and maybe the most disturbing one), she sometimes felt marginal.  But Joss said he needed her.  He said his ensembles always needed a ‘blurter,’ someone too crass or too obtuse to negotiate the complex human world of social graces, who says what needs to be said even though it is wildly inappropriate...mercifully moving the story forward.

Firefly had a whole ship full of blurters, Jayne, Zoe, Mal himself…and River did some fine blurting…when she was talking.

In the Avengers, the blurter can be Tony Stark, who is too rich to care, or Thor, (who is too hansom to care), who is from another planet or Captain America who is from another time.  Also "Hulk Smash"...

I thought of this narrative device recently as I was reading the gospels.  Much has been made of the Apostle Peter’s total ‘filter lack.’ But it recently occurred to me.  Scrolls were short, and expensive.  Luke didn’t have time or space for the apostles to all be polite.  So God gave him a ‘blurter,’ a character who lives on the edge of propriety who can move the narrative by saying the things that everyone is thinking.

Peter is the Cordelia of the gospels…a Joss Whedon blurter.

This post was written while listening to Brother Sun Sister Moon by mewithoutYou (old school) 

[1] This is crass paraphrase from a ‘director commentary’ on a  Buffy episode (I don’t remember which) that I watched decades ago.  How's that for attribution.  And yes, I realize that if I had a ‘man card’ it would be revoked for not only watching Buffy but listening to the director’s commentary.  Good thing I haven’t been weighed down by one of those for years. Also, I've made not secret of the fact that I think the only job that could tempt me to leave the one I have (and love) would be to join Whedon's writing team.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Guest Post over at the RASBlog

It seems like guest blogging is all the rage.  So I had to give it a shot.  I wrote an invited post for Chris Goodell's river engineering blog, which means two things:

1. It will be my most read post ever, except for maybe the Psalm Plot post - which didn't go viral but got a no-kidding case of internet sniffles....and...

2. It probably will not overlap with the interests of anyone who reads this blog...despite the silly breadth of topics I play with here.

Never the less....just like a real live it is:

Sunday, February 15, 2015

A Two Front Strategy: Aspiration and Contentment in Love and Vocation

I recently gave two talks on work.   

The first argued that our culture underrates vocation, the second argued that canonical clich├ęs put too much hope in our careers and dreams.

So what’s true?  Is work too important or not important enough?

Well, yes.[1] 

Some days we vest our work with too much meaning, giving it power over us. Other days we despair at the basic meaninglessness or bureaucratic frustrations that surround it.

Life happens in the tension of aspiration and contentment. 

Overrating aspiration[2] creates disappointment and bitterness.

Overrating contentment creates regret and…well…bitterness.[3]

Thesis: Aspiration and contentment aren’t competitive entities.  They aren’t zero-sum enemies.  They are both necessary components of spiritual and psychological sustainability in our world and economy. 

Here’s how I think it works in Love and Vocation (spoiler alert, they are parallel):


Love starts easy, requiring neither the hard work of aspiration nor the hard work of contentment. 

The magnitude of the lover’s passion and the loveliness of the loved fills the gap between them.  Passion of the lover meets the perceived worthiness of the loved.  In other words, between the lover and the loved (and visa versa) there is enough passion and attraction to fill the gap between them and everything is awesome:

 But, of course, it’s also an unsustainable lie.  None of us are as lovely as we appear at first.  We do not withstand scrutiny well.  And as everyone knows, after about 18 months, a crack begins to form between the sufficiency of passion and attraction, as both begin to wane a bit.  Then the full disclosure of marriage sets in, and the lovers find that the sum of passion and attraction are not sufficient to carry the day.  

Both sides require discipline.  In a real live partnership, a 100%/100% shared covenant, both respond with action.

The loved responds with aspiration, trying to become easier to love and the lover responds with contentment, learning to love the actual person they chose, not some romanticize projection of themselves they imagined in the sexually surcharged early days of their relationship. 

Those who stick to it, find real, live, sustainable, no-kidding, LOVE, as aspiration, turns into growth, new things to generate attraction and contentment manifests as grace, enoughness, extending love without condition.  And the sum of these, fill the gap.

And of course, an exactly symmetrical process mirrors this in healthy relationships.


I had a professor once who said “Freud was wrong about almost everything, but he was wrong in really interesting ways.”  I think one of the things he was actually right about was the centrality of love and work to our overall well being.   

And the longer I do both, the more I find the skills required to thrive in them complementary.

When we start to explore a particular niche in the economy and world of mutual service, our future work seemed exciting.  It seemed to bubble with potential, and it is easy to generate passion about how work can affect our world.  Uncluttered by the boring details or soul deadening bureaucracies, it seemed that some combination of our passion and our job’s interestingness should carry the day. 

But you don’t have to work very long to get disillusioned with this.  Soon a gap of dissatisfaction opens between your passion for the work and the work’s worthiness.

This requires the same, two-front strategy as love. 

You aspire.  Aspiration can go to work on the ‘interestingness’ of your job, tooling up with new skills, qualifying yourself for new projects, earning trust in small tasks to open the door to bigger, more interesting tasks, and (in the biggest difference between love and work) getting a new job.  

But Contentment fills the gap, active disciplines of enoughness fills the gap between you and your job with joy and gratitude and the privilege to work, to bring order out of chaos, to participate in the image of God as a co-maker, as a collaborating artist. 

This post was written while listening to the Beautiful Eulogy[4] Pandora Station.

[1] This is the biggest challenge of preaching. (Or blogging, which I’ve decided is essentially the new preaching…except for TED talks, which are actually preaching without trying to pretend they are something else.) Most theology and reality is in tension, and our traumas come from over-emphasizing one side of the tension or the other.  But in any given room, or sub culture, or ‘readership,’ there are some who need to move one way and some who have to move the other.  And for most of us, we inflict both traumas on ourselves at various times.  So you can almost never say, “the problem is.”  It is usually “the problem is cross pressured by these two contrasting distortions."
[2] This was the basic motivation of my second talk.  Overrating aspiration is one of the reasons young adults find the 20s so depressing. 
[3] There are two kinds of bitter old people, those who gave it everything, and came up short, and those who wish they’d tried harder.
[4] More on this later…but while I was busy dismissing it as an indistinc prong of the CCM industry for the last decade or so, Christian rap got shockingly good.  Christian rap isn’t just a sub-genre of Christian music…it’s something totally different.