Not only to fly, but to bring the world's eyes...skyward.

Friday, August 6, 2010

What do I write? Wait - I think I know this one!

Some things in life just come with a script. Campfires entail ghost stories. Weddings mean poignant (ahem!) toasts. When women go to a salon, there will be small talk about family life. And when P.I.L.O.T.S. (People Intensifying Losses On Tainted Spreadsheets) for big airlines fly, at some point before they begin wasting all that money the airline could have made if they just didn't have to take those pesky people somewhere, as they plug in their headsets, test and sanitize their oxygen masks, and lay out their charts, usually before they finish the second cup of coffee they claim they can't stand, they'll ask the same few questions of each other. It's a timeless ritual loaded with nonverbal cues and unspoken messages observed and understood by fewer people than the mating dance of the Lower Congolese Tsetse Fly.

The first question's a 'gimme': “Are you local?” meaning, “Are you actually able to afford to live in the Megalopolis where we're based, or do you spend half your life standing by for a flight to or from Anytown?” That answer births questions two and/or three: “Where do you commute from?” and/or “Really? So where'd you meet this heir(ess), anyway?” or “Well, what do you really do for a living?”

From there, things begin to vary, but marital status (and/or attorney recommendations), children (and/or attorney recommendations), and/or finance (and/or attorney recommendations) will invariably lead the charge into a revealing, yet expected and thus comfortable, conversation that's at least 50% identical to the one with a different pilot last week.

Usually about midway through the seventh minute, “What do you do when regulations keep you from flying (more) overtime?” makes its first appearance. Since I began writing for public consumption in 2002, my answer‟s been “I do a lot of writing,” which begets “Cool. What do you ride?”

Particularly after awkwardly clarifying that my favorite “write” doesn't shatter eardrums or scare old ladies, as an unpublished writer, it's hard to keep my answer from sounding foolish or pretentious. But often I can just squeeze through the narrow crack of daylight between them if I accent just the right syllables in, “I've been working on a novel for a few years now.”

That, of course, leads to, “What's it about?” Now, on a good day, that's about when the first crisis erupts in the cabin, galley, ramp, or jetway, and I'm spared having to answer. But on those days when nothing can seem to go wrong at the right time, I'm forced to respond.

Still dumbfounded by how 'writer' and 'orator' can have even three letters in common, I have yet to answer that question well, or even the same bad way twice.

For the first seven years I put the 'W' into my W.I.P., I didn't know my fellow pilots were looking for what the industry calls an “elevator pitch,” a simple, one- or two-sentence tease to get someone influential interested enough to listen to a simple, one- or two-minute summary of a complex, two- or three-hundred page book. I'd yammer and stammer on for five or ten minutes, digressing into subplots and themes, stopping only after I began to feel like Ted Stryker telling yet another well-meaning, eventually suicidal seatmate his story.

Part of the problem was I was trying to write too big a story for one book. My pet project is a multi-generational saga and, using a horrendous “knee-bone-connected-to-the—thigh-bone” logic that could confuse Rube Goldberg, I insisted that the whole Sistine-Chapelesque thing was exponentially greater than the sum of its workaday Archangelic parts; that it just had to be crammable (all 165,000 words of it), in between two pieces of cardboard.

Oh, and I forgot to mention: it really had to be on shelves by Spring, 2008 at the latest, since part of the final installment's realism depends upon an election going badly for America. Good thing that hasn't happened yet!

After I hastily completed my first draft in 2006, I queried a few dozen of the biggest, hottest, coolest agencies in the country (“Why go ugly early?” went my inner dialogue, which probably wasn't much better than my first-and-final draft's). The two-page, combination query letter/synopsis/morning news-talk show itinerary for my Tom Clancy-and-Nora Roberts-have-a-love-child-with-savant-syndrome novel, oddly garnered nothing but form rejections, some of which nearly beat my own courtesy copies to my tumbleweed-infested 'in box'.

Over the next few years, I learned how ridiculously off-base those initial queries and expectations were, made countless revisions to them and my book, and hatched, pitched, then tabled two non-fiction projects in hopes of getting one or both of them to be stepping stones toward introducing Oprah to my Opus.

My first writers' conference earlier this year made it obvious that I needed to completely overhaul my Mother-of-all-Darlings with a different, that is to say realistic, perspective. I've spent most of 2010 on it, and now I'm almost done with a(nother) final edit of my (not quite new but even-more-improved-than-ever) 66,000-word (no, I didn't forget a digit—or comma) novel: the first of what I plan to make (back) into at least a trilogy.

“What's it about?” my fellow pilots continue to ask.

"It's a family saga with an aviation theme and pervasive reincarnation overtones. Two families estranged by war discover their legacy and the secrets that bind them forever. I call it A Silver Ring, for the family heirloom that's the center of gravity for the whole saga.”

Now, that didn't take too long or hurt a bit, did it?

Well, maybe a little…

Has anyone out there been working this long or longer on something they feel is worthy but has yet to be published? Have you had to put your pet project away but found success with something you love less? Ever been to a Turkish prison? Sorry, just had to throw that in. Looks like I picked a bad week to stop quoting movies…


  1. No experienced advice here to offer, I'm just another unpubbed writer trying to become an author. But I did enjoy your post and thought I'd let you know that.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Madison! Someday we'll look back on our days as obscure unpubbeds with longing, I'm sure. I mean, like, I'm sooo totally sure!


  3. Oh yeah, you're sounding really convincing...try a little harder. I'd like to think that *these are the good times*, but that's a scary thought!

  4. At the end of a very enjoyable holiday with two friends in South Africa, I foolishly promised to write our experiences down as a record of the trip - and publish just four copies - one each and one spare.

    It started well. I wrote the first fifty pages inside three months. Four years later, I published it myself. It was probably the only way to ensure it reached the printed form!

    I can't imagine submitting it to a publisher and awaiting their judgment. It was bad enough with just me and my friends judging it!

    So, persevere. It sounds as though you're doing all the right things. Keep on keeping on. There is an astute publisher and discerning audience just waiting for your tome!


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