NASA chief says it’s not for us to decide what the Earth’s climate should be…

Yep, we have global warming. Yep, it’s largely due to human activity. That’s what the boss of NASA says. For a long time the current administration refuted that the earth was warming up. Then they had to admit it was, but maintained there was no evidence that it was due to human activity. Now they’ve had to accept that. The next step in the Washington stonewalling of any attempt to even contemplate doing something about it: Hey, climates change. It would be arrogant of us to decide what the climate should be.

OK, maybe. But doesn’t that make anything man does to alter his environment for greater comfort or productivity arrogant? By that definition, arrogance is one of the primary characteristics of mankind, one of the things that makes us who we are. Why shouldn’t we decide what the best climate would be? Hell, if warmer is better for for most of humanity, I’m all for global warming. Let’s heat this place up! The problem is that making the climate hotter is more likely to be negative, and has the potential to cause suffering on a scale never before witnessed in history. Not since the black death, anyway. That’s a pretty big potential downside.

No, it’s not arrogant to consider potential disasters in the coming decades, it’s just that the people getting rich off current policies risk having the cash gusher they’re sitting on slow down a bit. Energy policy is, as far as I can tell (I’m no expert), a critical element in mitigating global warming. We will not have a well-considered energy policy while oil men are in charge. We would also not have a well-considered energy policy if windmill people were in charge, but that’s not what we’re facing right now.

If Cape Canaveral is abandoned to the waves, I hope NASA puts up a plaque with this guy’s picture on it.

A Milestone, of sorts…

Well, it’s official, Jer’s Software Hut is a multi-product company. Someone went to the trouble to slide me five bucks for Jer’s Flash Card Viewer.

As I prepared the key file it occurred to me that the whole key system in the viewer hasn’t really been tested that much. In fact, I couldn’t quite remember how it was supposed to work. Had I made it so that double-clicking the key would work, or was it using the old drag-to-the-folder method? I played it safe with the instructions, generated the key, and sent it off.

Thus opens a grand new revenue stream for the Hut. With the dollar continuing to tank it is only worth about three or four beers, but that should cover my bar tab tonight when I go to hear a friend do some sort of musical act.

If I was smart, I’d use my connections in the textbook industry and get one of them to include JersFCV as a supplement to a language textbook. The downside is that it would cost me a chunk of cash and time to even start working on a Windows version. Whoever paid me would have to foot the development cost.

In fact, after writing the above I composed an email to my former boss in the Educational Software Biz. If he wants to sell Jer’s Flash Card Viewer to his clients, I’m sure not going to stop him.

The First Fruits of the Submissions Drive

I got home last night to find a letter waiting for me on the stairs. I really wasn’t expecting to get anything back this quickly, and I assumed that a rapid response was not probably not a good sign.

I opened the envelope and found my cover letter with some notes written on it. That is unusual; most agents have a simple form letter they return. This saves the agent time, but more important it shields them from indignant rebuttals from would-be authors. So that was nice. Normally you have no idea why you’ve been rejected, and therefore you have no idea what to do about it.

I was rejected for two reasons, and both of them may be problematic. The manuscript is too long and i break a Rule. Cut 35% of the text, change it so there is no broken Rule and they would be interested in taking a closer look.

The note went on to say that judging by the opening few paragraphs I should have no trouble finding the words to eliminate. Ironically, those words are there more for the agent than for the story, setting the mood while I demonstrate my style. (Although I have tightened it up a bit since submitting to this agent.) Then it gets right down to the action and never stops. I’ve already gone through the manuscript a few times chopping out any deadwood I could find. (Well, OK, there is one action sequence that does not ultimately change the outcome of the story, but I like it. In a pinch, I have about 5,000 words to give. Only 35,000 more and I’m golden.)

There’s another way I could shorten the thing easily. I could just chop the damn thing in half, hang the reader out to dry when they thought they were buying an entire story only to get to the end and find out that they’ve bought the first of a series. I’ve read some books that make no pretense whatsoever at providing a satisfying ending, and it pisses me off. Some of them may as well break mid-sentence for all the concern they show for their readers. Still, it’s an option…

Then there’s the Rule. I’ll have to review how I present it in the cover letter; the response seemed to think I broke the Rule for humor, which can’t be farther from the truth. Breaking the Rule is intrinsic to the way the story works, and I’m certain that if someone would read the thing they would agree with me that it works pretty dang well.

So, naturally, my first impulse was to write the very sort of rebuttal that makes agents afraid to give me helpful information. The thing is, even once I get an agent, that person is going to have to turn around and defend the length and Rule-breaking to a publisher. These aren’t arbitrary biases on the part of the agent, they are things that will make selling the manuscript to a publisher more difficult.

Hm… chop it in half, then sell the second part first. No Rule-breaking there. I can just pick up mid-sentence and carry on!


Here’s a freebie…

I had an idea for an interesting story setup just now. It’s not a story setting I’m likely to use in the near future, but it was fun to think about.

If the world were substantially hotter, it would only be habitable at the poles. It leads to some cool scenarios when people are finally able to get to the other pole. Naturally, it would be more interesting if there were people there already, but how did those people get there? Are there entirely separate evolutionary branches going on, and if so, how do the results compare?

I’m not sure whether a habitable planet that is that much hotter would need more of its surface covered with water or less. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

Other questions arise, like:

Cosmology: would cultures that develop in polar regions have the same misconceptions that Earth civilizations did? Would seeing the sun go around in circles rather than rising and setting alter the perception of the solar system?

Cosmology 2: What shape would such people imagine the Earth to be? Perhaps an inverted bowl, which continues to bulge outward until you reach the edge? Maybe the bowl is spinning on some sort of flat surface beneath, which would explain the seasonal motion of the sun.

Mythology: The sun is important, but too much sun is deadly. Would a culture whose boundaries are defined by the strength of the sun imagine that evil lurks in the shadows they way we do, or are the shadows where the good guys take refuge from the evil that inhabits the sunny regions?

Navigation: It doesn’t seem to me that anyone will be inventing a compass in those parts. When travelers venture far to the south, what troubles are they going to encounter when trying to find their way around?

Weather: I bet there would be days when the huge storms come from the south (for the north pole dwellers) fed by the extra energy from the sun.

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Beer Flies

I was in the Little Café Near Home, sipping tea, enjoying the midafternoon quiet. Eventually I finished what I was working on and decided to give myself a little pat on the back, pivo-style. I ordered the beer and turned to another project. Almost instantly there were tiny little flies buzzing around my drink, threatening to go swimming. Beer flies.

Edited to add: Hey, kids! Learn why in the comments!

Working on the @#$&! Synopsis (again)

I’ve been concentrating the last few days on sales and marketing, trying to connect my words with people who may actually want to pay me for them. Short stories are (relatively) simple — a potential publisher (or overworked minion) reads the story and decides if it’s worthwhile. So, for that effort I need only a simple cover letter with a one or two sentence blurb about the story, a bit of biographical data, and the story does the rest, living or dying on its own merits.

A novel is a more difficult sell. Nobody has time to read all the crappy writing that comes over the threshold every day, so the evaluation process has been streamlined. This makes things more difficult for the deserving writer, but it makes things possible for the agents and editors (and their minions) who have better things to do than read bad fiction. (Better things like, for instance, reading my fiction.)

The chaff is separated from the wheat based on a few criteria; the initial submission to an agent is the minimum amount of material required to prove that the writing is not so badly flawed that it’s not worth any further consideration. The reader has a giant ‘NO’ stamp hovering over the page during the entire evaluation. An agent wants to know a few key facts: 1) Can this guy write? Does he have command of the language, with coherent paragraphs and facile use of imagery? 2) Can he put together a coherent narrative — an actual story with a beginning, a middle, and an end? 3) Are there interesting people who grow or change? 4) (bonus) Is the writer a pro who will be reasonable to work with?

Question 1 is answered with a sample of of the actual work. This is often (but not always) the first three chapters of the story. The bonus question 4 is answered with a polite, informative, and coherent cover letter. That leaves two questions which much be answered by a separate piece of writing, a marketing piece drafted solely for this purpose, called the ‘brief synopsis’. I have been wrestling with this beast off an on for more than a year, now. It is not a simple exercise. How do you distill a whole damn novel into a few paragraphs, give some idea of characters and events, and somehow retain the drama you just used tens of thousands of words to build?

I had a synopsis I was satisfied with, but increasingly I discovered that the definition of ‘brief’ that my first effort was based on was by no means typical. Back in I went with the text machete, but when I chopped out a bunch, the remainder wasn’t compelling. I started from scratch. Somewhere back in time on this blog you can read about my pleasure with the result. I managed to maintain this happy feeling for quite some time by avoiding rereading it. Now I’m pretty sure that although it sucks less than the first attempt, it still sucks.

Quite by accident I stumbled across a description of a synopsis that carried one helpful bit of information that none of the others ever did: Start with a paragraph that describes the structure of your story. The Monster Within takes place in four parts that are defined by the progression of the main character through four stages of personal change. By starting with that simple fact, then by describing the four stages, the synopsis is much more coherent and focuses attention on the character-driven nature of the story.

That synopsis advice runs counter to other help articles I’ve read, but hit me as such an obvious and practical tip that I wonder why I never did that before. Perhaps I even did, but then read too many “how to write a synopsis” pieces that focussed on simply condensing the story. (Actually, I still haven’t gone back to read my current synopsis. Maybe I snuck the structural information in there anyway. I’ll check after I finish the first draft of the new one.)

Once more must I muster all my skill to write a nonfiction article about a work of fiction, that somehow is a faithful representation as well as a compelling read in its own right. This time I’m ignoring the advice of all those helpful ‘how-to’ articles, and just trying to be natural. It’s been going pretty well, although I haven’t checked the length yet. That could come as an ugly surprise.

I should say it was going pretty well, right up until I got to the end. I left out so many plot points through the course of the synopsis that I’m stumped about how to make the ending make sense. Instead, I am sitting here writing about writing about my novel. (I suppose I’ll have to leave a comment about writing this episode.)

It just occurred to me that I could write a completely different ending that works for the synopsis. Once someone bothers to read the whole novel, the mismatch won’t matter… right?

No Man’s Land

I spent the morning at the Glitzy Vodaphone Café (actual name: FUEL, but I won’t be using that name again), drinking too much of the best tea available in Strašnice and working on a project that I’ve been putting off. The story is an account of my adventure on Mt. Etna, with all the facts and figures to make it suitable for consumption by mainstream travel magazines. I’ve been looking forward to tackling this project, since on that climb I learned several things that weren’t in the travel books but really should have been. Here is my chance to be entertaining, published in a major market, and actually useful.

I wrote a draft of it this morning, and it came out all right for a draft, but it has a major flaw. My favorite parts of the article are not about how and why one would climb a volcano, it’s about why I climbed a volcano and my adventures along the way. The other parts of the article, while still in first person, are more devoted to the “useful” voice of travel magazines. At first I thought I had found a balance, giving all the necessary facts within a personal narrative, but on reading now I see that what I have is rather schizophrenic – passages of soaring prose invoking the mysteries of the world and the ancient gods, followed by workmanlike travelogue.

When I first reported on Etna in these pages, a friend told me, (something like) “This story has something that the stories in travel magazines lack.” That’s true, but the pity is that it’s something the travel magazines lack by design. Their stories lack a strong narrator, and for some reason that’s a good thing.

Ultimately, I suspect I’ll have to write two separate versions — the prosaic, useful one to sell to a travel magazine, and the other one. The gonzo one, that starts with beers with fuego the night before and ends twenty-four hours later as the fancy fish restaurant is closing around us and the crushing heat finally relaxes its grip on the city. It’s the version where I can include things I remember clearly, but maybe not what order they occurred in. I wasn’t taking notes. (In Sicily, the word ‘gonzo’ means ‘fool’. That works for me.)

The first of those two stories will be the more difficult to write. It still has to carry my identity with it; after all, travel is all about experience, and there can be no experience without an experiencee. It needs my unique voice or there’s no point in me writing it in the first place, but ultimately the reader has to relate personally to the story, putting themself in my rental hiking boots. In the end, it’s about the reader and the mountain, not me and the mountain. The people who pay for this stuff have made that point very clear.

As I ponder these two incarnations of the same story, it occurrs to me that above I have answered part of my own quandary. I can still sell the gonzo version, just not to travel magazines. I’m not sure right now just where I can sell it, but some of the literary rags still accept stories with narratives, as long as they’re nonfiction.

If I were to start a magazine, it would be a gonzo travel magazine. Not just about places, but people in places. Stories. Experiences. Cultural disconnects and lessons learned. Adventures. Life. Not necessarily the drug-addled craziness that the name’s association with Hunter S. Thompson implies, but journalism from a highly personal point of view. There must be a good supply of those stories, because every travel magazine goes out of their way to say that’s what they don’t want.

You just sit right there until I find out if GonzoTravel.com is taken. No, better yet, someone take that idea and make the magazine I was born to write for.