First Class

If you ever wanted empirical proof that money can’t buy happiness, spend a little time in first class. One leg should be sufficient–no need to burden yourself with the experience more than that. 

There are exceptions to every generalization, of course, but I hardly expect there is a more concentrated collection of wealthy and comfortable, yet perennially dissatisfied and entitled people than you will find in the first class section of any given flight.

I know because I regularly fly first class. I’m a lawyer by day and I suppose that this is one of the perks to having to travel all of the time–we get miles and miles get you “upgraded” into first. It has its advantages for sure, and I’ll sum them up thusly: 1A: more room, 1B: more accessible bathroom, and 1C: the warm nuts. The warm nuts are only good in the context of air travel. They aren’t anything you’d buy from a newsstand or a restaurant. They are nut-like in taste, with a strong cardboard finish.

I’ve also flown a bazillion miles in coach. So my sample size for both cabins is good enough to give my overall analysis statistical significance (P value ≤.05). Lulz. I would wager I hear 10-fold the amount of bitching and complaining from the babies in first than I do from the folks in back, and I’m just beside myself in confusion over this.

I often wonder, on a metaphysical level, if it is the availability of upgraded services like first class, that assists in the evolution of people into whiney assholes. Perhaps it is simply the case that higher level services merely exacerbate man’s predisposition to assholery. My own decade and a half survey tends toward the conclusion that first class doesn’t actually turn people into frowning prunes of discontent–it’s just a gathering spot for them. A watering hole for the similarly afflicted. A place where your brethren share with you an empathetic grimace and disappointed little head shake when the flight attendant explains that the wine list is only two (2) wines long. Nevertheless, you still ask the flight attendant to run down the wines on every flight, just so you can hear it again, in wonderment at the shear incredulity of such a thing. I’ve heard this on several occasions.

“What wines do you have?”

“A chardonnay and a merlot.”

“And?”

“That’s it.”

“Wow, uh, okay. I’ll have a double jack and coke. Make it a triple.”

The sense of entitlement is so strong that for some I’m convinced it has taken root in the parasympathetic nervous system. Take for instance my last neighbor, a perfect sphere of a man, for whom his sense of entitlement, combined with a lack of self-awareness, led him to simply steal and eat my little bowl of warm nuts. He’d already eaten his, and when they’d taken his bowl, he reached for mine–an amoeba swallowing a food particle–pulled it tightly against his rotund oblique, and proceeded to feed himself until those nuts too, were gone.

First class strikes me as an imperfect, but accurate microcosm of our greater society. The discontent felt and expressed by the rich seems to increase as bank accounts swell. Ever more dour as the market goes up. Shouldn’t it be the reverse? Shouldn’t people be more content, more satisfied and happy as they gain wealth? It seems the clichés and fables about money being a source of problems rather than a solution persist for the reason that they are true.

In a short 200 days, our country has quickly taken an aristocratic (and kakistocratic [government run by the least qualified and stupid]) turn. And when the rich are given tax cuts, subsidies, and every other advantage under the sun, I look to see their happy faces. I want them to be happy, because for all they have (and take), it should bring someone happiness, right? But I don’t see happy faces. I see the most powerful in this country with a list of grievances for the middle and lower classes that never seems to get any shorter. Anger that somebody other than the top 1% has anything. That’s what it feels like.

Was the man-sphere next to me happy he got warm nuts? You wouldn’t know it. So he ate mine. Was he happy then? Don’t know. He fell asleep.

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An Epoch Alone

I don’t remember becoming
But at some point I must have
At first I was ecstatic
To be, to exist
Though I know not why.

Immediately I saw the rest of you
Shining out the same joy
And I know you saw me
You see me now
Though I know not your names.

Do I have a name?
Have you named me?
You must have, for out in the quiet
I have named you
Though I know we will never speak.

I pirouette and wobble
Become fat with dust
Some of you do the same
We do it together
Though ever farther apart.

How long have I been?
To what clock are we beholden?
For now I know about time
By the lights that I watch blink out
Though I know not when mine will cease.

Many of you fade to a wisp beyond nothing
While others expire with violence
The anger of an epoch alone
At my end I am not yet
Though your changes I see in myself.

Agents 3, Chris 0

And that number after “Agents” is certain to climb!

I’m solidly in the game now, having received my first three rejections. One was a nicely written and carefully worded form rejection and the other two were more substantive. One of those was particularly thoughtful and detailed, having come after she’d read the first 50 pages. (So even though the whole endeavor ended with rejection, put a checkmark in the query box–it did its job and got me a pages request).

My great fear all along has been rejections on the order of “hey look, you just can’t write” or “you need to work on your craft” or “you need to hone your wordsmithery.” I’m grateful that so far my rejections have actually been complimentary of my writing, the last one going so far as to say “We think you’re a wonderful writer and that this is a great premise.” So now I’m going to tell everyone I’m a wonderful writer.

More importantly, however, this agent’s stated reasons for passing on the book were detailed and thoughtful. She pointed out a few areas where the main character was arguably out of character or reacted in a way that wasn’t justified by the circumstances. One comment was about a particularly dark paragraph that she said felt too dark for the book. And now that I’m seeing it through someone else’s eyes, its clear that she’s right (though I hate to let it go, I’m in love with the language. But this is what we, as Wonderful Writers®, have to do. Kill our darlings).

I felt a little bit down for maybe 30 minutes as I processed the rejection. After that, I’m resolved to make these little changes where necessary and power through! I’m reminded of what an agent said during a session at the Texas Writers’ League Conference in June: Every rejection is an opportunity.

And I agree, especially when that rejection comes with helpful feedback.

Milestones & Category Wars

I just finished day 2 of the conference put on by the Writers’ League of Texas. This was my first writers’ conference and what an experience. I felt a real connection with all of these people, as is often the case when large groups who share common goals are brought together.

As a rookie, there was a lot to be confused about. We were told there would be “pitch sessions” and the conference was great about providing us with podcasts addressing how pitches are done. It wasn’t until I got there that it actually dawned on me that we would be pitching actual literary agents in a giant cocktail party setting. My sister (who does children’s picture books) was with me. That was a cool experience, being in the shit with her.

So we got to the conference a little early to get the lay of the land and immediately began pitching each other to get our acts down pat. Practice is key because a good pitch gets you page requests from agents.

I pitched all nine agents at the conference that worked in my category (turns out it’s middle grade and not young adult as I had believed). I got 8 requests for either a full manuscript or pages (usually 3-5 chapters worth). One of the requests was from my absolute top-choice agent. This was a great feeling, and its the first of hopefully many milestones.

My one rejection was perhaps my favorite interaction since he stopped me the second the words “science fiction” came out of my mouth and said this:

“Let me stop you right there. I don’t do science fiction. Don’t understand it. I mean, what are they doing? Oh look I’m in space! What’s happening?”

If ever there was a great way to be rejected, that’s it. And it wasn’t really merit based. I just mistakenly thought his bio included sci-fi. It didn’t. lol

So. Eight requests. That’s amazing, wonderful, heart swelling news. The other side of all of this, is that I found a flaw in the story I’m pitching. And I suppose that is **good** news as well, because if you want to get published, better to figure out flaws earlier than later.

The flaw is that I have always thought of my book as YA despite my main character’s age: twelve. The subject matter is adventure sci-fi, but it’s heavy. There are some pretty serious issues addressed and the tone is pretty mature. The main character is ahead of her years in terms of understanding the world and how it works. So as a neophyte, I always thought of this book as “older” than middle grade (ages 9-12).

By the first session of the conference it was clear that my book was middle grade, or at best “upper middle grade,” and not young adult. Period. There were two factors, I learned, that placed my book here. First is the age of the protagonist, which is the most important factor. The second is the perspective from which the book is told: from the perspective of the protagonist as the action is occurring and not as adult protagonist looking back and describing her earlier life.

A category decision isn’t a big problem. I don’t especially care what the category is. The problem comes when you move a book from YA to MG and your manuscript is 98,000 words. That isn’t only outside the typical word count for MG, it’s in the stratosphere for MG which is normally about 55,000 words tops. Yow.

The good news is twofold: 1. I came right out and explained my newly discovered issue as I was pitching the last three agents I spoke with. Each one of them was very straightforward that my word count is ultra long for MG. Accepting this, I said I would plan to do some cutting and go from there, but all three basically said, “No, no, go ahead and send it as-is.” Why would they do that?

Here’s what I think, and hopefully my work backs me up. I think that I had a very strong pitch. Almost every agent I spoke with interrupted me mid-pitch to say as much. I believe that the level of refinement in the pitch suggested that the novel is probably well written and very polished (we’ll see if the expectations meet with the reality). So my guess is they didn’t want me hacking away at something that might actually be good. Haha.

So my plan is to send the requested pages to two of these agents that said don’t change it. If they like it great. If they say revise and resend, great. If they say pass because it’s too long, great. I’ll revise and send the materials to the others.

If I had any advice to give to others looking to get their foot in the door with an agent it would be this: have an ultra polished piece that you can distill into a compelling pitch. And then practice the shit out of that pitch. It will get you page requests.

Confession of a Non-Reader

I was raised catholic so the idea of confession is an easy one to call up. Haven’t been to an actual confession booth in about twenty years. If I cared to go again, I’d probably have to book a block of time to fit in a cataloguing of all my transgressions.

Alas, my confession is not religious in nature (I’m not religious in nature either).

The genesis of my novel was truly a spark of inspiration rather than a desire to craft a certain type of story based upon those tales I’d already loved to read. From all of my forum surfing, comment perusing and blog stalking, I’ve gleaned that this is the usual path for most writers. They’re readers first.

I wasn’t. (Is that bad?)

Not that I didn’t read. I’ve always been a casual reader, usually at bedtime or on vacation or airplanes while traveling for work. But my reading material was 95% non-fiction and covered topics from the history of the American west (I love reading about the Indians of the high plains- Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides and The Heart of Everything that Is by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin) to astronomy to anything by Sebastian Junger or Jon Krakauer. Scientific American is my favorite magazine, and I understand a solid ~46% of any given issue.

But I ended up writing a young adult science fiction (and arguably some fantasy) novel. Was I reading in my category? Certainly not.

I can’t name one single science fiction book I read before writing this book. How insulting that must sound to those who came before, to those who do write in the category and are masters of it! And how presumptuous of me to simply dive in to their world without surveying it first! But this is the order things happened for me. The idea struck when it did.

What about fantasy, Chris? Certainly you read in that category before you undertook noveling, right? Eh. Not really. And noveling isn’t even a word.

My list of fantasy reads was anemic, paltry, pathetic, sad. In my entire life, I read The Hobbit (as a kid), all of A Song of Ice and Fire, A Wrinkle in Time (as a kid), the first book and a half of Chaos Walking (still working on that), the first part of In the Name of the Wind where Kvothe is still a fucking minstrel. I mean, does he stay a minstrel for the whole series? I once caressed Wheel of Time at a Half-Price Books.

And then there’s Harry Potter. I read that, at least, right?

Nope.**

So there I was, January of 2015. I’d just seen the movie Interstellar. Loved it. Loved it. Inspired by it. Couldn’t stop thinking about the beauty, the science of it. Was plagued by the time travel paradox that stands as the movie’s single flaw. I read The Science of Interstellar by Kip Thorne, director Christopher Nolan’s science consultant and Cal-Tech astrophysicist. I was obsessed with space and stars and dimensions and I thought to myself that the magnitude in terms of size, beauty, mystery, etc., of the universe was too much to keep inside and that’s when the premise for my story literally popped into my head.

It’s fun to look back and consider that premise. In retrospect it is idiotic and not very interesting. But the story that evolved from that tiny seed is something I’m immensely proud of, published or not.

Getting back to the point–once I had the meat of the story on paper, I knew I’d need to read in my category/ies. Just to make sure I wasn’t reinventing the wheel but also to check the calibration of my story against these others. I waited until I had the first book almost written and the series completely mapped so I wouldn’t be unduly influenced by my reading. Naturally, I started with The Sorcerer’s Stone (I am getting through The Chamber of Secrets), then on to Ready Player One, the entire His Dark Materials series, and have now undertaken the Dune series (the sci-fi bible, if you will).

The rest of the Harry Potter books and Neal Stephenson’s Seven Eves are on my nightstand along with numerous others.

I’m reliving so much of what so many other writers certainly have. It’s amazing how you can invent a story, character, concept, plot point, magic, world-build, etc. and then find out the exact thing has already been done. Did you know I invented Buggers (not by name, but the creatures)? Yeah, and my wife suggested I look at a little book called Enders Game. So I had to change that.

I read the first forty pages of the Golden Compass a little over three years ago when my wife suggested we name our as-of-yet unborn daughter Lyra. I couldn’t really get into it. It sat unread until February of 2017 when I picked it up again with a different perspective, having now written and polished a novel with a precocious young heroine at the helm. I blasted through the entire series. Cried at parts, wished for it to never end. And when that ending inevitably came, I sat in my bed humbled. I felt a profoundness to the story and the way it unfolded that will stick with me forever. I was genuinely moved by a work of fiction for the first time in my life. And I realized what others were getting that I’d been missing.

I won’t go into all the obvious advantages of actually reading books and how they improve your writing. I get all of that and have experienced it. But forcing myself to read for the sake of my writing made me a fan of the category for the sake of my reading.

**I’m a bad person.

Writers’ Conference & A Second Editor

“Am I overdoing this?” Chris asked as he typed a new entry into his readerless blog.

What am I talking about here? Well, I know I’m close to querying. I’ve said that for over a year now. But it’s really true this time. Nevertheless, there are a few more things I’m going to do before this manuscript is launched into the void.

I’m going to the Texas Writers’ League Conference in Austin this June. Never thought I’d go to one of those, but it’s nearby and it can’t hurt, right? I’m looking forward to it because it will be a live bullets type of situation. Explain your story in one sentence. Now I’ll really have to do that. One of my top agent choices will be there as well and I might even get a meeting with her (we ranked our choices ahead of time, so we’ll see if I get lucky).

I’m also sending the book to a second (SECOND) professional editor for a manuscript review. Hopefully that will help identify any issues the story has and also add some polish. Unless my book is a turd, in which case polish won’t do any good.

You can’t polish a turd.

Amid giant raindrops

We have two dogs. They’re like most other dogs: their breeds are roughly discernible, they love people and food and bathing their nether regions. There’s Samson, the border collie/Australian shepherd/teenage dirtbag and there’s Gretel, the lovable asshole goat/mutt hybrid. They are actually kind of smart but their typical idiot dog baseline regularly overrides any intelligence they might have accidentally been born with. Which brings me to yesterday, when they caught a squirrel.

Now these two have been chasing squirrels together for years with no luck, but for one time in the dark of night about five years back when Samson managed to pin one on the ground and hold it there until I pulled him away so the thing wouldn’t give him rabies or ebola or whatever else squirrels carry. I remember his face clearly. He had felt heartbroken and betrayed by my decision to free the animal after all of his considerable work in capturing it. I didn’t feel so bad. I asked him what exactly he’d planned to do with the thing now that he had it and as usual he had no answer.

It’s not like I’m completely sympathetic to the squirrels. They know the dogs are idiots and I swear the squirrels get pleasure by taunting them. I’ve seen them do it. They stop six feet from the highest point the dogs can reach and literally *bark* at Samson and Gretel. When the dogs are otherwise distracted, the squirrels dash to a neighboring tree in sort of a daredevil/extreme sports mode, usually arriving long before the dogs realize what has occurred.

But Sunday, probably by accident, Gretel and Samson got one in a giant bush. I was far across the yard at the time trying to enjoy my morning coffee and the one quiet moment I get each day. I heard a scuffle and saw Samson emerge from the foliage holding a squirrel by the hindquarters in his jaws.

I have lots of friends that take house pet squirrel hunting in stride. Squirrel stalking and killing is but a natural consequence of a dog or cat’s nature coupled with the omnipresence of the tree bound varmints. Let nature take its course, they say.

I wasn’t brought up that way. If you can save an animal, you do it. I’m not preaching here, this is just how I’m wired. Yes, I eat meat. Yes, I know you have to kill animals in order to do that. This blog post isn’t about that so let’s postpone the discussion on that for another day. Bottom line, I wanted to save the squirrel as well as protect my dogs from bites and resultant vet bills.

So I run over as best I can in flip flops through the tall, wet grass. It so happens we have a section of yard that we don’t mow at the beginning of spring because we fancy the weeds that grow but that we pass off as “wildflowers.”

I holler at Samson and he finally drops the squirrel. I shoo Gretel off, who was pissed because she’d apparently been waiting her turn to rag doll the poor thing.

It’s clear this squirrel is in awful shape. There’s no blood but my rudimentary knowledge of how squirrel bodies are supposed to look tells me its back is broken. It was wincing horribly and I knew I would have to euthanize it.

So I bring the dogs inside and head to the garage. Other than previous dogs we’ve had, who we of course paid the vet to actually administer the required drugs, I’ve never personally euthanized anything bigger than a hurt bug. Yes. I’ve euthanized bugs because they were suffering.

As for tools, I have a choice: blunt force or beheading. I want it to be quick and humane. I had a variety of shovel choices as well as different hammers, but I didn’t want to overkill and smash the guy. I also have a machete and an axe–too bloody. At the end, I selected a simple drain spade–you know, one of those long, slender shovels. I figured I’d just whack him upside the head in one shot. If I did it from the side, like a golf swing, well then it probably wouldn’t crush him in some gruesome way, but should certainly do the job.

It was raining harder as I left the garage and I could smell the billions of tiny lavender blooms on our wild Chinaberry tree cutting the air from fifty feet away. The squirrel hadn’t moved but a few inches. He’d tried to pull forward with his front feet and was still wincing in pain. He needed to die. His eyes. His eyes were so black and wet and alive. Hunters and others will scoff at my sentimentality, I’m sure. But the crossover from life to death for any living thing is a profound one, especially when up close, and especially when you are the swordsman. You’re the one taking the life.

I have this passage in my book about this moment, although it deals with a person and not squirrels. Nevertheless it is poignant for me:

Dusty often pondered Charlie’s death—not because she wanted to, but because that was how her brain worked—always calling up morbid realities in moments of joy. Perhaps she got that from her mother. But when the thoughts came, she embraced them as a matter of practice, so maybe when the day arrived she’d be ready for it. That stark shift experienced by survivors of the dead, unfathomable when only moments before there had been life. She dreaded her inability to seize life as it ebbed. To hold onto it just a few seconds longer. The scenario often crept into her mind without warning, shortening her breath as if someone had pulled the plug on her heart.

So yeah, I have this idea in my head as I’m considering the poor squirrel. Anyway, I know I have a job to do and I stand behind the squirrel so he doesn’t really expect it. I suppose it’s fortunate that I golf once a year, because I was confident the shovel tip would find home–it had to. You can’t screw it up.

I set the shovel out to the right of him and slowly brought the spade back, anxious about the task but calm about the execution. And with a steady but powerful arc, I swung through as hard as I could.

The squirrel flew about eight or nine feet, but when it landed there was no doubt it had died. There was no noise, no final breaths. No twitching. He was killed instantly. And while I was sad that this had happened to the squirrel, I truly felt as if I’d done something good.

I’m not religious and while I’m willing to consider anything if there’s evidence of it, I don’t really believe in spirits. But I do believe in nature. And even though we walked out from the forests and prairies and into homes with HVAC and television, we came from the place where the birds and the animals still reside. I felt something the moment I killed that squirrel. An overwhelming warmth and calm. A communion. An embrace. A knowing. Knowledge that I had done something nature wanted me to do. Why did I kill this squirrel out of mercy? Because it was in my nature. Our nature.

Amid giant raindrops, I buried the guy deep in the ground between two decades-old red oaks covered in the bright green of new growth.

This is over-sentimental isn’t it? In the scheme of all we know and all we do, to anyone else, this was a nothing gesture for a nothing creature on an unextraordinary and otherwise forgettable day. Maybe. But there was something sad and beautiful about it.