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

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Work longer hours, but experience LESS fatigue?

The impact of fatigue on aviation safety concerns everyone. The comment period on an FAA Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on duty and rest rules for pilots covering all commercial operations closes Monday, November 15. I can't count how often passengers poke their head in the cockpit to ask us if we're "feeling ok." Unfortunately, despite the acuity of their concern at that time, the lax regulations which validate it don't change when they arrive safely at the other end. The time to enhance your safety isn't as you're walking onto the airplane.

The time is NOW.

If you or anyone you love flies (or lives beneath the sky), this issue affects you. Clicking on the link below will take you to an easily-filled web form that will allow your concerns to be heard by the FAA and your Congressional representatives and will NOT place your name or personal information on any list unless you request it. This rule absolutely must be amended if we are to prevent a further erosion in the margins that have made America's air transportation safety record the envy of the world. Please take a moment to click the link below!

http://capwiz.com/alliedpilots/issues/alert/?alertid=19247511

Some elements of the proposal represent important improvements over current regulations:

1. The concept of duty limits based upon time of day recognizes the physical toll of late night, all night and early morning flying.

2. Providing prospective rest for reserve pilots flying international routes ensures these pilots will finally be as likely to get adequate rest before a trip as their domestic counterparts.

3. Establishing limits on actual flight time, rather than scheduled flight time, will protect against delay-induced fatigue and compel carriers to schedule realistically and responsibly.

4. The concept that rest cannot begin until a crew arrives at the rest location will no longer be an issue for which our unions must fight.

5. Schedule reliability metrics, including those based upon individual segments, will require carriers to develop realistic schedules and discourage deceptive practices.


However, there are some items in the NPRM that fall short of mitigating—and in some cases even threaten to increase—fatigue:

1. The flight time limit would be increased by 25 percent from eight hours to 10 hours. THIS IS NOT TIME ON DUTY. THIS IS TIME SPENT IN ACTUAL OPERATION OF A MOVING AIRCRAFT. Duty time typically exceeds this amount by as much as 150%!

2. Three-pilot crews will be permitted to fly 15 hours, a 25 percent increase over the current maximum of 12. The current regulation is far more realistic in that it mandates three pilots for flights over eight hours, and four pilots (and bona fide rest bunks) for flights over 12 hours.

3. Rest requirements should provide for the scientifically-mandated eight hours of SLEEP. In normal circumstances, 10 hours free from duty would be the minimum to afford eight hours of sleep. For the physiologically demanding conditions of extended and “back side of the clock” operations, 14 hours would be a more appropriate minimum. These minimums ensure an opportunity to achieve restorative sleep, obtain nutrition, and attend to personal hygiene and a minimum of daily personal business.

4. Relying on in-flight rest is never a substitute for obtaining a fresh crew. Thus, as long as an airplane can land, there is absolutely no safety rationale for augmenting domestic crews with additional crew members to facilitate more grueling schedules.

5. Fatigue Risk Management Systems (FRMS) cannot become a blank check for carriers to circumvent their responsibility for safety. An effective FRMS must be structured as a partnership between carriers, their pilots and the FAA.

As a result of numerous incidents and accidents, the National Transportation Safety Board has placed fatigue on its "Most Wanted List" of transportation safety improvements for 30 years. As a professional pilot, I am responsible for the safety and well-being of my passengers while operating massive, high-speed aircraft through congested airspace and in challenging weather, around the world, around  the clock. Based on my experience, I assure you that reducing fatigue is essential to increasing the safety of the traveling public. The regulations that result from this NPRM would go a long way toward reducing fatigue and increasing safety--but only if the items that fall short are addressed.

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…

Friday, June 25, 2010

Twenty turns about a star…

Right about now in 1990, I was sitting on my bed in some nondescript motel in Wichita, surrounded by manuals for the Swearingen (later Fairchild) SA226 Metroliner II and Air Midwest, the company who owned the several dozen I was training to fly, and I was probably trying to find a radio station that wasn't playing M.C. Hammer or C&C Music Factory.



I could - not - believe - I was there.


I had about 800 hours, only about 100 in multi-engine airplanes. I don't think I'd flown ten hours in actual instrument conditions or shot more than a handful of approaches to published minimums, and I had yet to "go missed" or divert to an alternate. Air Midwest's hiring minimums were 1500 total and 300 multi-engine, but they were known to make exceptions for college aviation degree holders. I was the one from my school that year.

I had yet to (legally) buy a beer. Yet I was about to spend six weeks preparing to take joint responsibility for 19 poor souls at a whack who'd discovered Air Midwest's de facto company motto, "It's Us, or the Bus," and found themselves crouching to strap their rear ends to something that looked like a sewer pipe and a cruise missile had taken a shine to each other - one of the few airplanes I know of that's significantly longer than its wingspan.

It had no autopilot. It had no autothrottle. It had no flight director. It was an ergonomic disaster set to the buzzing throb of two engines that idled at 70% of their maximum speed. It would supposedly fly on one engine - after the gear was up, although it often required the extra 200 rabid hamsterpower that water injection afforded it to stagger into the air in the first place. But good God, when it all worked, which it nearly always did, could it ever haul ass. 250 knots is the speed limit below 10,000 feet, and the Metroliner had a killjoy redline on its airspeed indicator at 248, but we all knew it was easily a 330-360 knot airplane - and it was built so brick-outhouse-like, it felt like it could punch a hole right through the middle of a Kansas thunderstorm and come out the other side wearing the same evil grin under its needle-nose, with those damned direct-drive Garretts still shrieking like banshees, seeming to tell the world what it could do if it had some eff-ing problem with airplane noise.

About a quarter of them didn't even have flight instruments on the right side of the cockpit, and we FO's had to look off of the Captain's Jepp charts, but we were still expected to "pull our weight" and fly half of the four to ten (yes, that's one-zero, TEN) legs a day on our schedule, flying cross-panel through the same weather-concentrated slice of troposphere they did. We were always in the goo, in the bumps, in the ice. The only weather we could out-climb was fog. The guys I flew with there were the best I've ever seen, and I owe so much of what I've learned about flying to them.

Soddamn Inssein invaded Kuwait that same summer, and struggling Air Midwest began its long, pitiful slide into extinction by selling its Brasilias, Slaabs, and Junkstreams - and furloughing me. But after a long 80 days, I was back, and later that next year reluctantly kissed my friend the Metro goodbye as our new owner, Mesa, force-fed us Beechcraft 1900C's faster than we could train for them. Apparently, Larry Risley preferred airplanes that cost more, weighed more, used more fuel, and broke down more often, but carried the same number of people (but with their bags - in the same plane!) in marginally better comfort.

I'd have gone back to the Metro before you could say "buzzkill."

A couple of long years later, that's just what I did. My old Metroliner ground school instructor, Ben Crawford, had long since gone to work for SkyWest, so I tracked him down and got an interview there. The pilots interviewing me seemed suspicious and asked me point-blank why I wanted to make a "lateral" career move. I couldn't help but laugh.

A few weeks later, SkyWest's Camielle Ence called to offer me a class date of February 9, 1994, which, of course, I didn't yet know was about ten months before my "camping trip" in Martinez Canyon which would give me the idea for my "Christmas in Kydex" post.

Camielle apologetically told me the class would be for their Metroliner III, but that a Brasilia slot would probably open to me within a year. Would I be ok with that?

"That's just fine, Camielle," I managed to choke out with my heart in my throat.

"I love Metros."

Friday, June 18, 2010

One in a Million


A tweet prompted me to toss my hat in the ring at Book of Odds' corporate blog's "One in a Million" contest page, and now, with profound gratitude, I'm thrilled to announce that my story of surviving a plane crash and recovering from a spinal cord injury was chosen as the winner. "The prize," you ask? A $50 iTunes gift card. But wait...there's more.

Ten years of bachelorhood set me up with a music collection of which I'm already quite proud. Rather than finally capturing and preserving for my progeny fifty more songs that beg for a volume knob that "goes to eleven," I thought I might try to help someone add a few more bricks to their own wall and give what I can to some people who are still missing, yet so richly deserve, what I was mercifully given back after my crash.

So, with Book of Odds' blessing, I'm running a contest of my own - a hybrid, actually. "The prize?" you ask? Well, ironically, that same $50 iTunes gift card. How can you win it? Comment to this post. Your comment must contain the word "miracle" in at least one sentence and a bid for the iTunes card, with 100% of the bid going to Paralyzed Veterans of America. Comments/bids will close at MIDNIGHT on July 1, 2010. The iTunes card will go to the highest bidder as of 11:59:59 on June 30. In the event of a tie (not that people wouldn't gladly pay more than face value of the card, knowing that every penny of their cost was going to what I feel to be one of the most worthy of causes), I will choose a winner from amongst those placing the bids tied for highest, based on the inspirational value of their comment.

We all owe everything we take for granted in this country to veterans like my stepsons, brothers, sister, father, uncles, grandfather, and many other brave relatives, stretching back to the Revolutionary War. And I owe a lot of what I used to take for granted to God and the people of His who together worked a miracle in my life, delivering me from a life separated from my destiny - to be a pilot.

I can't think of any better way to honor all of them, except perhaps by getting a book I'm writing about my experience published someday. Any publishers or literary agents interested in a very different kind of memoir, please contact me for a full proposal.

So, what's your Freedom, the full use of your arms and legs, and a $50 iTunes gift card worth to you?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

My Polaris

We Western guys have made quite a reputation for ourselves over the eons for the things we'll do for the love of a woman. Every age sees us find some new way to make a big, bold, sometimes eminently public statement meaning, and invariably ending with, the same two truly magical words: "marry me." When I was a kid a guy couldn't go wrong with getting a radio DJ to dedicate a song to his girl, or, if he had the money, he might be able to find a pilot to tow a banner overhead or skywrite a message for her. I'd bet my next paycheck no one ever paid for anywhere near 140 characters. Today we have athletic and entertainment venue billboards and, for those of us less well-connected, the internet.

It only seems to happen in the movies, but I suppose there has to have been a few guys over the years who've either lost, or come really close to losing, the love of their lives and done something huge, even if only in the most deeply personal context of their relationship, to get her back. Like, take out the trash without being asked, for example.

But seriously, I think the couples who manage to stay couples never get to that point because they have, or find, ways to keep from taking each other for granted. Enter yet another blessing my flying career provides. Every week, I have to say goodbye to my love, for several days, and return to the singular lifestyle I was never really that hot about for the first twenty-eight years I lived it. I often relish the peace and quiet (it does wonders for my writing), but I always miss my friend.

While trying in vain to sleep on my break high over Paraguay one night in May, I kept returning to an audio program of classic movie themes, some of which took me back, in my semi-lucid state, to the days of my youth when they were popular.

As my friends and family know, I never went through a "wild oats" phase. I've always adored women but I could never pick (on) more than one "favorite" at a time. I jokingly tell people I started looking for a wife about the time I outgrew my Big Wheel, but it's not far from the truth. If you don't' believe me, my first fiancé (from first grade!), now just my dear friend Tisha Brady, will back me up.

Listening to the themes from Arthur, Superman, An Officer and a Gentleman, Ghost, When Harry Met Sally, and Beaches, I remembered like it was yesterday the longing I'd had for one girl after another as those hormones worked their magic. It occurred to me that if I could put any one of those songs on the radio right then, perhaps prefaced by one of Casey Casem's trademark Long Distance Dedications, or, better yet, just click my heels three times and wake up in my living room, then just stop what I was doing, pull my wife to me, and dance with her the way I'd have died to all those years before we met, I would. But I was 4000 miles away—six of them being vertical.

Sadly, the distractions of Life and Parenthood rather effectively keep such moments from happening spontaneously, organically, magically, the way they so easily and frequently did when we were young—even if only in our starry-eyed "Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So" daydreams. So if, as we must, we're going to nourish our relationships with such indulgences, they must be planned, which is, admittedly, a big-time buzzkill.

Enter yet another blessing my so-called writing career provides: it does take two to tango (or just stand there holding each other, shifting our weight from foot to foot and s l o w l y turning circles, like what every generation since the 1960's has called "dancing"), or to successfully dedicate a song that's on the radio for perhaps three minutes, but I can tell the blogosphere how much I love my wife and my life with her all by myself, and, sooner or later, she'll get the message.

To dedicate, or call just one song "ours," would be quite a task for a music lover like me, and even music and lyrics are, at best, still imperfect means of communicating emotion, so I'm not going to bother. Instead, I'm just going to say that my wife and I are having a milestone anniversary this year, albeit a year late.

We met on this date in 1998, married a year later, and have been each other's best friend since the magical week in between when we discovered that there's something between us that makes what we both previously called love seem a sideshow. If, as the song goes, love's a rollercoaster, then I'd have to say what we have's the real estate on which the damned thing's built: solid, level, immovable; hidden in plain sight from all but the very few who know what was there before and what will remain.

We're waking up in Miami on our anniversary this year, but that night I'll finally get to pick her up and take her "into the night." What we'll do in Rio the next couple of days is not yet a memory, but I know a few dances are overdue.

If I could fly

I'd pick you up

I'd take you into the night

And show you a love like you've never seen

----------------------------------------------------------------------------

Happy Anniversary, baby

Got you on my mind

Monday, May 17, 2010

Professionalism

Unlike most, if not nearly all other professions, flying is one to which its practitioners must either bring their A game every day or face consequences that make getting fired seem like tripping on the sidewalk. There's a saying in aviation, attributed to British Aviation Insurance Group's Captain A. G. Lamplugh, which states, "Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous, but to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity, or neglect." I don't want to seem overly dramatic, but I firmly believe that and ask you to take a moment to fully consider it with me:

Any carelessness, in other words, any failure to fully account for, anticipate, and formulate plans to cope with any aspect of the flight, including any possible failures or emergencies. That's a tall order, especially when one is crossing continents and/or oceans in a 200-ton, 10-p.s.i. scuba tank flying far faster than terminal velocity five miles above terra firma. Think about this: very few planes crash going as fast as they'd so recently been flying normally just moments before, and the cockpit is usually the first part to arrive at the site.

Any incapacity. Incapacity means inability to handle. Pilots simply must, at all times, be capable of getting their plane back to a stop on the ground, somehow, to survive. To remain pilots, or at least gainfully employed pilots, they also better have a darned good explanation if the plane isn't in a fairly reusable condition when it stops. Pilots can't just say, "I don't land in crosswinds," "I hate flying on instruments," or the like. Again, capacity's a tall order when any given point on the globe can be immersed in a blizzard, thunderstorm, sandstorm, ash plume, or fog without notice.

Any neglect. For pilots, the words "I forgot" translate directly to "You may take my license (or worse) now." If we fail to pack something we later need, fail to post an update to a route manual, fail to maintain and apply our perishable knowledge and skills to any given flight, there are no third parties, no suppliers, no schools, no assistants, no supervisors, no government agencies to call upon to fix the problem, or blame, before we land. Air Traffic Control is a lubricant – it's there literally to prevent metal-to-metal contact in the skies. They're not a Fairy that can toss a pair of ruby slippers and instructions for their use up to us to get us back to Kansas, or Kandahar, as the case may be.

With what then, can the "folks in back" comfort themselves, knowing there's so very little to stop a pilot from coming to work sick, tired, stressed, or otherwise not in perfect condition to keep from demonstrating any carelessness, incapacity, or neglect while strapped to the same speck in the sky as they are?

Professionalism.

I don't mean the kind that shows up for a job interview in an immaculately tailored and pressed blue pinstripe suit. I don't mean the kind that stays up till four a.m. the night before the big day making sure no jury could say that due diligence wasn't done. And I don't mean the kind that comes to work on time every day for ten years, sometimes sick as a dog, because they'll win some juvenile attendance "award."

I mean the kind that comes to the interview dressed well, of course, but with real, cogent answers to questions the impeccably-dressed competition hasn't yet considered. The kind that delegates or reprioritizes less important work precluding the need for a mind-numbing all-nighter. The kind that stays home when they're sick, knowing they'll be far more productive in the long run if they give their body the rest it needs to vanquish an illness decisively, rather than battling it for weeks, exposing everyone else in the office in the process.

This breed of professionalism does the right thing even when it seems nobody's looking, because it knows someone always is: the true professional's toughest critic – themselves.

The sad fact is, my profession and fellow professionals have been under a constant three-front assault by the media, the cost-obsessed public it serves, and elitist airline managements bent on knocking the once-proud airline pilot fraternity (I know of no gender-neutral word I can use for it, sorry ladies) down "to size."

The problem this causes is that professionalism can't just be "turned on" when we put our pilot hats on. Professionalism is a garden sowed in our training and then either tended, or neglected, for the remainder of our career. If Professionalism isn't thriving by the time we finish training for the trip on which we'll earn the money to buy that pilot hat, it's not going to make it. Even if lovingly planted by quality training, Professionalism can be choked out by weeds of undervaluation, mistreatment, and disrespect, all of which have been dealt out in copious, increasing amounts for decades now. The weeds are taking over the garden, yet no one who works outside a cockpit seems to have a clue as to what happened, so now the bureaucrats are going to "take a meeting" about it this week, for three days. If they'd listen to some Professional pilots, it wouldn't take three hours.

When an airline pilot retires, custom dictates that the airport fire trucks spray down the plane as it taxies in. Many passengers have seen this happen, but I seriously doubt many understand. The trucks aren't there because the pilot's successfully picked his way through lines of embedded thunderstorms with temperamental radar displays at night, or landed on icy runways in gale-force crosswinds after he's been awake for twenty hours, or gotten a plane that had a lot of little things wrong with it where it needed to go because people were counting on him.

Sadly, the pilots that consistently do those kinds of things rarely live to get hosed down.

The fire trucks are there because that pilot will never again have to lay his career on the line by telling a dispatcher, "We're not going through those storms without a good radar unit. Top off the fuel tanks and take us around the whole area, get me another plane; or get another pilot."

She'll never again have to spend an extra night away from her family at her expense because it just wasn't safe to try to land in a blizzard at her home base, so she missed her commuter flight home.

He'll never again have to spend a day off sitting in a Chief Pilot's office with a union representative defending charges that the pilot "has an agenda" because their discomfort with doing something others might do caused a flight to get canceled.

Those fire trucks are there because the pilot retiring did the right thing far more than he didn't, and everyone around and behind him got, or stayed, where they truly needed to be, every time.


The fire trucks come then, because they very likely never had to before.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Friendship Across the Miles

It goes without saying that pilots get around, right? Well, despite traveling to and from Seattle several times a year for the past eleven years, I never ran into Northwest Airlines, now Delta, First Officer Karlene Petitt until we both arrived separately to TWT (Twitter).

Karlene and I met by having her talk me down from a literary ledge at the writers' conference I attended in February. I was ready to throw in the towel on my whole writing career, such as it is, because I just couldn't find the words to describe my novel, A Silver Ring, succinctly (pitch it) to a literary agent. Karlene talked to me for well over an hour, and really seemed to "get" the uniqueness of what I'd written. She helped me distill its essence down into a pitch I tucked into my hip pocket that got me business cards and invitations to query six list-building agents! "That's gold, Jerry! Gold!"

As if that wasn't enough, Karlene's been mentoring me along all this time, and believes in me strongly enough to have made me the focus of her blog feature, "Fabulous Friday Flyers" today.

I hope everyone seeing this will stop by and take a look at Karlene's brand of friendship in action. It's a humbling thing.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Sounds of Silence

While I was keeping my little cauldron's lid on last week, I read this post about perpetual Nerd-dom by my friend Valerie Demetros, and I went from Nobody to, well, ok, I stayed Nobody, but I became a nobody who had another nobodies’ back, and vice versa. Just like making that pivotal first friend at a new school, it made me just brave enough to relax and let me be myself, consequences be damned. So what if she picks her nose, wears five layers of clothing in June and brings her pet hermit crab to school in her pocket? At least she’s not sneaking up behind me in the halls to toss my books!

NOTE: The author wishes to make it known that he’s never known Mrs. Demetros to pick her nose, wear too many layers, or keep hermit crabs in her pocket. It’s just a device.


The Sounds of Silence

Like lots of other die-hard social networkers, I thought for sure I'd be one of the last holdouts—like I was with smartphones, four-bangers, SUVs, new Country, Brad Pitt (yes, I admit he's not only stupid-good looking, but also a great actor—so shoot me, guys), Miami Vice, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, well, I better stop. But curiosity finally overwhelmed me, and I fell in love with Twitter earlier this year.

When I saw the many fellow pilots, writers, and other enthusiasts of anything you can stick a #hashtag in front of, and how sincerely welcoming, helpful, and nice the overwhelming majority of them were, I was hooked. People started wondering why I wasn't emailing much anymore. Or Facebooking. Or e-mailing. Or calling. Or talking. Or eating...

There’s something I must confess before we go any further. I’m a social moron. People utterly confound me. I like to think I have decent manners and believe in the basic goodness of people, but my skin's as thin as an onion’s in places it shouldn’t be and virtually numb in areas where many others are tender. So, social networking is, for me, a minefield—with more tripwires than safe spots.

Anyway, I became a Tweep - someone who spends more time, and often gets more satisfaction from, interacting with people he's never met via Twitter than with his real friends and family.

Was it the brevity? The 24/7 activity? The ability to be silent without appearing morose or to make any number of sarcastic comments with no way to notice the dreadful, awkward silences that often follow them in person? That's it! At least for me, it was. The peace, the quiet, and the insulation from the God-awful din of those damned crickets lurking in dark corners of every room, just waiting, praying for their chance to let fly with whatever so compels them to chirp about right after I say something I alone found humorous.

I’ve since discovered, however, that crickets not only ’blog, they also Tweet. “Socially-challenged” people like me just can’t hear them from cyberspace. We could really use a “virtual crickets” gadget to sound after we “express ourselves inappropriately.” They have that thingy to speak the anti-spam verification codes required by some web pages, so why not a little “chirpchirp…chirpchirp” action for those of us (or is it just me?) who don’t have social lives, but only “social existences,” which only begin to seem normal in the brief peaceful, hopeful lulls between grand-mal faux-pas?

In those first few Tweeks, which were also some of my first as a semi-regular blogger, I was like the first guy to get tipsy at a party. I was witty. I was smart. I was building a following. People were asking me things. They really, honestly seemed to be happy I was there! It was like Mom and Dad always promised being the new kid in town would be like. I was in demand - a player! And this was only the beginning—the infinitesimally narrow end of that exponential-growth-curve thingy that all the publicists and marketing types show around like it's John 3:16 or something. It was only a matter of time before my stuff went "viral," and I, Nathan Carriker, would become Airborne/Literary Ebola and do for pilots what Stephenie Meyer did for those other evil, flying bloodsuckers everybody’s sick of.

Being an #airline #pilot, I try to help tweeps who are #traveling. I helped a bigwig get her lost luggage back last winter. That was cool—made me think, “Gee, lots of people tweet about #travel. Maybe I could become a go-to guy when the tweeps need some #airline 411. I wouldn't expect anything in return (well, a polite acknowledgment would be nice). I just thought it would be a good way for me to give back a little, make my contribution to the #GreaterGood. But a couple of weeks ago, those crickets told me some of the tweeps I follow, who don’t yet follow me, might think otherwise. No, #normalpeople, I hadn’t considered that even though people who have more followers than Jehovah has Witnesses can call me their tweep, the reverse is, most assuredly, not the case. Or likely to be any time soon. Or later.

But eventually I did figure “It” out, though “It” happened way too many times before I did. I told myself the first few people who didn’t acknowledge my witty tweets or cute comments on their blogs must have just had to go to the bathroom. Maybe their cat started to puke and they had to throw, I mean, carry her over to the linoleum and clean it up. Their mom might have called just then—you know how moms are. But for whatever reason, intentional or accidental, real or imaginary, I finally started to hear those pesky crickets again, like so many six-legged (with two way-fatter than the others) Telltale Hearts. “Chirpchirp. Chirpchirp. Chirpchirp.”

Yes, it only recently dawned on me that some of the uber-tweeps I had gotten too folksy with might think I wanted something from them. At first, I was insulted.

“What, do they think I’m going to try to hard-sell them to fly on my airline (now that’s funny), or get them to read something, all for inflicting less than 140 characters of dubiously helpful info upon them? Could anyone actually think someone like me might try to shame someone like them into flying first class, or on a real airline, next time? Or guilt them into reading something by an unknown, just hoping they’ll love it so much they beg, no, demand to get into the Nathan Carriker business?

“What?” my petulant tirade continued, “Are these people actually worried about being 'stalked' by creepy, unpublished writers/airline pilots? Have they actually begun to sense dark legions of balding, paunchy, middle-aged guys with mortgages and 401(k)'s who change their own oil lying in wait behind Tuesday night’s trashpiles, just waiting for their chance to spring from obscurity and secret a mileage club application, a complimentary micro-bottle of liquor, or, God-help-us, a query package (perhaps even lacking current contact info! cue "bloodcurdling scream") into some Somebody’s Trader Joe’s enviro-tote already overloaded with nobodies' dreams? Must I actually describe how that nightmare ends?"

“Breathe, Nate, breathe,” my friends tell me at such times.

“Write, Nate, write,” I told myself. “Just, please, for the love of everything Holy, sit on it a few days and make sure you can’t stand to tone it down some before you hit that ‘PUBLISH POST’ button. Ok, buddy?”

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Good-Hearted Woman


One of the few little joys of getting old as a parent has to be watching your kids trying to conceal their newfound enjoyment of the music they couldn't stand when they were too young for it to hold any meaning for them: that is, your music.


Music was a pervasive part of my childhood home. A former school band director, Dad could play a little of everything, but the bass guitar was his baby, and he found his way into a few truly good bands over the years. One was the Rocky Ford Ramblers, a five-piece that would consistently pack the Findlay, Ohio Eagles' club (among other "smaller" venues) every Saturday night, covering a lot of 1950's-1970's country and rockabilly.


Dad wasn't the best singer in the band, but what he lacked in range and genuine twang, he made up for in the sheer joy he clearly got out of performing. I couldn't really understand why yet, but for some reason the song that seemed to get him going like no other was Waylon Jennings' Good Hearted Woman. Now I understand, though, and the song will always make me think of his bride.


For those who didn't grow up "under the influence" of Waylon, the lyrics:


A long time forgotten the dreams that just fell by the way
The good life he promised ain't what she's livin' today
But she never complains of the bad times
Or the bad things he's done, lord
She just talks about the good times they've had
And all the good times to come

She's a good hearted woman in love with a good timin' man
She loves him in spite of his ways she don't understand
With teardrops & laughter they pass through this world hand in hand
A good hearted woman, lovin' a good timin' man

He likes the bright lights and night life and good time friends
And when the party's all over she'll welcome him back home again
Lord knows she don't understand him but she does the best that she can
This good hearted woman, lovin' a good timin' man

She's a good hearted woman in love with a good timin' man
She loves him in spite of his ways she don't understand
With teardrops & laughter they pass through this world hand in hand
A good hearted woman, lovin' a good timin' man


Without ever meeting my folks, you'd have a pretty good picture of their relationship if you just knew that song: who would rationalize what became mistakes, and who would support then forgive; who'd take unreasonable risks, and who'd heal the wounds they left; who was almost always the taker, and who the giver.


And if you think Dad got the royal treatment, you should have been this woman's kid. Really—you should have. I don't care who you are or what you do, you'd have been better off, I guarantee it. Actually, considering how many of us she had, chances are fairly good you're one of us. Just kidding, Mom.


One thing my mom doesn't do much is read. Somehow, in the midst of being Dad's wife (a job entailing nearly-constant housework not quite offset by the "opportunity" to pack up and move every two to five years) and raising five kids between 1958 and 1986 (none of whom have yet been in rehab, prison, or a Girls Gone Wild DVD), she just never got into the groove of curling up with a good book on a quiet night.


So it's not a surprise or disappointment to me that she hasn't yet read my Incredible Shrinking Novel, A Silver Ring. But it is a little sad—especially considering I'm cutting it nearly in half in hopes of making it more attractive to publishers. Anything that doesn't advance the plot, create tension, or illustrate a critical nuance of my characters, few of whom are total fabrications, must go—including an embarrassing number of long stretches of superfluous background narrative successful writers deride as "info dumps."


One such piece of fat thrown to the butcher's dogs just this week is a little scene I channeled from one of my darkest childhood nightmares to show how soul-wrenchingly conflicted a certain airline-pilot-to-be named Paul Hutchinson felt the day he heard his parents were going to divorce. It's not important to my novel, but it's an integral part of me, which I know makes it precious to Mom.


I'm not going to make her read the whole book until it has some big New York publisher's ISBN number on the back, but since this almost certainly won't be part of it if and when it does, I want her, and you, to read it.


I never really had to choose who I'd live with, thank God. And thank Mom. A "Gooder-Hearted Woman" my Dad, my siblings, and I will never know.


The divorce presented an agonizing dilemma to young Paul, who loved both his parents dearly and took great comfort from Gloria's abiding presence through all the upheaval over the years. He couldn't ignore that he had much more in common with his father, just as many boys do, but there was much more between them than the usual father/son stuff. The two were inseparable whenever and wherever the subject of flying was about, which their obsession guaranteed to be virtually all the time. Paul had been so enamored with his father's flying expertise that his influence was galvanized by association in many other arenas, ranging from tinkering with the family cars and household projects, to sports, fishing, camping, and the like, to the primeval urge to sit around a fire and talk, or not, as men have done together for eons.


Paul, now a sophomore at Marion's Harding High School, had finally made some good friends, despite yet another of many rocky starts as "the new kid" in junior high, and for the first time in his turbulent little life felt like a real part of the school landscape. He had even secretly developed an agonizingly intense crush on a girl in his class. He wanted nothing more than to stay in Marion and graduate from that high school, but he wanted nearly as much to stay with his father, where his love for flying would be welcome. When his parents told him of the divorce, they offered him the choice of with whom he would stay, and the stress of the decision, added to all the other adolescent turmoil, made the intense boy nearly suicidal.


In the end, his mother saw the incredible tizzy he had worked himself into and took pity on him, saying as she tucked him into bed one night, "I know you're having a hard time with this, Paul, and I think I know why. You and your dad have a relationship that any boy would envy, and you do love your airplanes, don't you?"


Looking up at his mom from his pillow, his eyes instantly glassed full, and huge tears cascaded from them as he pursed his lips tightly and nodded his head, sniffing a little.


"Oh, honey, it's okay, it really is. I wish I had something like that that just took me into another place whenever I thought about it, but I don't. You're very lucky."


"Yeah, right. Great. Now what?"


"Listen. Look at me." He brought his eyes up from the P-51 Mustang model sitting on the dresser by the foot of his bed to the face of the woman who had brought him into the world, in whose eyes he could see nothing but vulnerable, invincible, selfless love.


"If you want to stay with him, I understand. You two are peas in a pod, and as angry as I am with him, I love what he does for you, and you don't do him anything but favors, either. I'm not going to be mad at you or feel like you abandoned me or anything if you go with him."


Paul's flushed face broke into a hurt, angry look as he said, "Oh, ok, that's nice. Been nice knowing you. Bye!"


"Paul Prator you know good and well that's not what I'm saying," Gloria was crying now, and reached her arms around her son to pull him up to her.


"I just know your father's never happier than when he's flying those damned planes, and you're just like him, maybe even worse, and I don't want you feeling guilty for my sake if you go with him. I know you love me, and I hope you know how much I love you, and none of that's ever going to change no matter who lives where or with whom, ok?"


The two of them sat there in his bed holding each other and crying for a few minutes, until Paul had cried enough to compose himself again.


"Mom, it's not just that. I don't want to change schools again. I'm so sick of being the new kid, and now I'm finally not. I go to school and people actually go out of their way to talk to me. I pass notes with people between classes, I sit with the same people at lunch every day. It's like I'm one of the gang for once. I can't stand thinking about losing all that again - it takes two years to get my bearings every time we move, and that's all I've got left in school now!"


"I know, Paul, I know. The moving's been hard on all of us, and that's why I just can't do it any more, as much as I love your dad, I just can't. So, I know what you're saying, believe me."


"If I stayed with you, would you, like, get mad every time I talk about flying, or would you try to keep me from doing it? You know how I couldn't wait to be old enough to solo and everything, and now I'm doing it."


He was staring at the tail of the shirt he wore on his first solo flight the month before, bearing the inscription "1st SOLO MARCH 12, 1980 N9572Y RUNWAY 22" and a bad cartoon of a pilot in a Cessna reaching his hand down below the plane, feeling uncertainly for the ground, which was tacked up prominently on the back of his bedroom door, where he could easily see it. It had been, by far, the best day of his life, but was less than a week before the day his dad identified himself as an alcoholic and was fired.


"As much as I hate what your father's love for flying did to our marriage and our lives, I can't tell you that I'm not proud of what you're doing with it. You've got what he never had - you know what you want to do with your life before it even starts. If that's what makes you happy, I say go for it, and I'm behind you all the way."


He hugged her hard, and asked how she thought he could tell Justin. She said nothing at first, and then, when his raised eyebrows and sad eyes made his question unavoidable, said "I don't know" as she looked through him.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Lifestyle Commuted

Not to be outdone by my friend Karlene Petitt (well, ok, not to be outdone without doing something about it), and at the urging of numerous followers (1and 0 are numbers), I'm delving back into the subject of aviation this week, but, as always, with my goal to debunk, demystify, and elucidate for the curious but uninitiated.

Since the cause of Colgan Air flight 3407's crash in Buffalo, NY (grievous pilot error) became news, a great deal of media coverage has been devoted to the subject of pilots and, to a lesser degree flight attendants, commuting to work, often long distances, by air. For nearly twelve years now, I've been one of them, for myriad reasons, all of which together just barely outweigh the downsides. For now, with the housing market down, the decision to continue or not is out of our hands.

So every week, or every several days, to be more accurate, I'm expected to appear at my crew base at least an hour before departure for my flight. Contrary to overwhelmingly popular belief, how I make myself appear is my problem, not my airline's. I have travel privileges, yes, but these afford me only the ability to place my name on a list of people wishing to occupy a seat my airline couldn't manage to sell by the time Agent Cranky has to close the flight ten minutes prior to departure time. Airline pilot i.d. also allows me (and every other pilot) to list to occupy a seat-like contraption in the cockpit, and, provided the rare FAA or company check pilot doesn't need it for their regulatory oversight, that jumpseat can go to the senior listed pilot - if the flight's Captain has no issues with it.

In other words, I have no say whatsoever in the matter of whether I get to work using Plan A, B, or C, or whether I have to make the phone call every commuter dreads, to my Chief Pilot, to inform him or her that my contingency planning has fallen short and a reserve pilot has to be called on short notice; my pay will be docked, and I have a lot of 'splaining to do. I would hope it's obvious by now that this isn't something that happens repeatedly. Failing to show up with any significant frequency can get one relieved of the obligation to show up at all. And no, nowhere on my Union card do the words "Get out of jail free" appear.

Responsibility demands that I leave myself plenty of options. Options demand time - time not at home. If I have to sign in before 7 p.m., I usually have to take the first stage out of Dodge. If I have more time, I'll occasionally roll the dice and let an airplane or two take off without me if they're not full that day, but that's a rare treat. Much more often than not, the alarm is set for a very dark hour, indeed, and it's up to me to see that my mandatory early-riserness doesn't lead to early-onset narcolepsy.

This week was as easy as they get. Loads were light, weather was great, and my sign-in time for my all-night red-eye flight was well after dinner, so I got to have breakfast with my family before gettin' my Odyssey on. Twenty people-minutes (that's five GTO-driver minutes) to the airport, fifteen to go through the same security process as any other passenger, and a few more to bite my nails wondering whether my flight's crew and airplane are airworthy, and I'm on my way to Chicago. An hour or so later, I bite remaining nails for the same reasons as before, this time to get to base. We push back late, waiting for connecting revenue passengers (such as never happens for non-revenue people, I heartily assure you!), and I know I won't get the usual opportunity to take a nap in the crew lounge before my trip. So I force my eyes closed with the landing gear doors, and I awake feeling like the fifteenth coming of Rocky Balboa just before we start down. I still sign in early, never having seen any component of Plan B.

Since our flight was scheduled to exceed eight hours, we were required to have a relief pilot aboard, affording me another two hour nap somewhere high over the Amazon. Prior to our takeoff, I'd been sound asleep for nine of the past twenty-one hours, and by the time we landed, I'd been holding the Sandman's hand for eleven of the past twenty-seven. I hadn't fought sleep for one second and only drank one cup of coffee, around 4 a.m., just to make sure my landing wouldn't wake anyone up.

I'm not going to try to convince anyone that it's always like this, that every last pilot out there is always so conscientious. I'll just point out that it's as easy for a "local" pilot to have a long day, or a short or particularly long night, before his thirty-minute drive to the airport as it is for a commuting pilot to do everything right and come to work ready for action, and vice versa.

Just like driving cars, firing guns, opening mail, and millions of other things we can do to hurt ourselves, there are smart ways and stupid ways to manage fitness for duty as a pilot, and commuting is absolutely not, by any definition, one less smart than living close to base.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Reality Check, The End*

*or could it be The Beginning?

That's what I wanted to know more than when, if ever, I'll make Captain - and I was about to find out.

Conference organizer/MC (Master of Critiquing) Michael Neff and Ken Atchity hated my idea, or more accurately, hated my long-winded, disjointed, proudly genre-bending summary of it. But
Karlene had helped me cook that vat of confusion down into a full-bodied, perhaps even potent elixir. I hadn't been pitching my coming-of-age saga about four generations of a family of pilots, a concept which inherently promises dramatic action. I was pitching a(nother) terrorism thriller (about which even I myself couldn't get excited) with too much back story.

I was using pictures of Europe to sell a trip to Rio because I wanted the appeal of the tried and true. But what I really needed to do was just show folks the rich, refreshing South America I know and love, and let her seduce her own suitors.

The smallish conference room had been adequate and comfortable as a classroom the previous days, but now, with six tables set around its perimeter, nine agents seated on the outside, five-dozen wanna-be authors standing in line for nine chairs before them on the inside, despite everyone's best intentions and a few fellow writers' attempts to micro-organize it--I can't sugar-coat it--it was a mob scene.

Sixty eager writers convinced they just might get cut short of pitching "The One," divided amongst nine potential Obscurity Egress Coordinators equals a pretty good test for one's pet philosophy about the inherent goodness or evil of Man. I myself easily fell back on my union background, and tried to just savor the hopeful, positive energy in the room. I had a few new friends there who had projects I firmly believed were salable, and I wanted success for them almost as much as for myself. More than anything, I just wanted "the system," of which I wasn't under any illusion of yet being truly worthy to be considered a part, to work for someone--anyone--whose talent and work I respected.

Trying to size up the lines was like trying to trace a single strand of spaghetti in a bowl full, but like a hastily formed jam session, we all found a method and settled into a rhythm to find the ends of the lines for the agents we wanted to pitch. To my knowledge there were no melees, but I couldn't see through the crowd in some directions...

Flashing back to my single years, availability became a large part of my overall interest level, and since I couldn't recall having yet pitched
A Silver Ring to (or thus researched, in any detail) any of the agents in attendance, there was no better way to decide which end of the pool to jump into.

I can honestly say that every agent I pitched that day - six out of the nine, in all - was the absolute epitome of professional courtesy: interested, engaged, and helpful. Could it have been just that my pitch was so much better than it had been for Ken Atchity two days prior? I can't say for sure, but I can say that, with each business card I was handed, each brow that went up and not down as my idea waddled across the No Man's Land of aural communication, I became more convinced that I do indeed have a viable "high concept" story that's unique and original but with near-universal themes and meaning.

Because they were all so great to me, I'm not going to waste space detailing my impressions of each. Five of the six requested I query them when I finish editing, which I realize is nothing even close to a promise of representation or even to read a full or partial manuscript, but it was not, in any way, shape or form, the deadpan, wholesale rejection I'd been getting, and expecting, before
Karlene so obviously "got it" and took the time to help me divine what my novel's really
about. The sixth even gave it a "soft" rejection, stating that she didn't handle this kind of thing, but that, if I contacted one of her colleagues at the same agency, I could use her name as a referral.

So, since then, and still, I've been editing. I've taken the original draft, which started out as a whopping 165,000-word sequenced compilation of what I'd written as components of a trilogy, and pared it down to just over 100,000 words. I don't believe I've lost anything too important yet, and I'm actually hopeful that the book will be much more appealing and easier to read for its smaller size when I'm done.

Then it'll finally be time to send out those six queries that have the best chance of success yet for my having attended
Algonkian's San Francisco Write and Pitch Conference. And if they come back empty-handed, well, I guess I'll have another thing or two to blog about before I go to another one.

But, first, I'll try to take a few deep, cleansing breaths, and maybe see if
Karlene's got a minute, or sixty. By then, her own Work in Progress, Flight for Control, could be under contract, and we have a deal - first one into print buys the champagne...now that's what I call a win/win.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Reality Check, Part 2

Then again, it might not have been my "thriftiness" and elegantly efficient travel schedule that woke me up that second day's morning. It might have been the heat. My God, the heat.

My friends know I have reincarnation fantasies, and in one of my possible previous lives, I was a lizard. I absolutely despise being cold. So the previous night, when I found my room in Corte Madera cold enough to hang meat in, I mumbled a few choice words as I noticed the dated room had only a single gas heater (no fan) built into its central wall. (This wasn't the hotel chosen for the conference, by the way, but a generic substitute nearby. Did I mention my occasional bouts of "thriftiness"?) I nearly tore the thermostat off the wall, clockwise, and forgot about it. It had taken all of the 30 hours or so since to bring my room up to the prescribed 95 degrees, but it did it.

That next morning, after grumbling more vague curses about the Bay area's weather, I returned the thermostat to a sub-Venusian setting and looked down at my laptop next to the heater, which was now furiously tick-ticking its way into the first break it'd had since "Lizard Man" arrived.

A familiar, creeping sense of doom was enveloping me.

I didn't mean the post I'd made the night before to sound as childish and bitter as it no doubt did, but then again, if I had a dime for every time I've said or written something that's been taken more harshly than I intended, I'd be writing this from my yacht's mooring in Polynesia instead of from seat 10B (yes, that's a middle, btw) on flight 903 to Miami.

I'd done similar things far too many times and lived to regret them all. I had to take it down.

After doing so, I used Tweetdeck to send a Direct Message to one of my tweeps who'd replied to my Tweet about the post. Fortunately, she hadn't read it yet. Then, I noticed that some chick in Seattle named Karlene Petitt was tweeting about her own forthcoming airline thriller. "Well, how nice," I pretended to gush. "Should I tell her to save herself the time, or would I prefer some company in my misery?" I said hello and figured I'd just let the conversation go its own way. After a few DMs, Karlene sensed my frustration, nee despair, and being the kind of person she is, she offered to call me right then. Since my self-induced night sweats had me up an hour early, I was happy to accept.

Karlene told me she'd just been to a smaller conference herself, and I told her that I'd been told my/our concept was "DOA" and that I'd made a total ass of myself with Ken Atchity. She said she'd had contact with Ken, too, and he'd seemed genuinely interested in her story, for whatever that was worth, and several other agents she'd pitched were also looking forward to her submission. She didn't understand how I could be so disheartened so early in the going.

I explained to her that my conference director had said that terrorism, especially the airborne variety, was a saturated market three years ago, and that any such plotline was guaranteed rejection. That my story was too big, at 165,000 words, and I was going to edit it but hadn't yet begun in earnest. That I wasn't able to convince my would-be mentor that my story was much more than just a terrorism plot, but a frame story (which he'd never heard of), a family saga that just used a terrorism plot to resolve a 70-years-long conflict.

Karlene, unlike anyone else I've yet told about my opus, listened; I mean she listened like her own life depended on it, and not just that of this strange fellow airline pilot sitting in his underwear in a 90-degree hotel room 500 miles away. She asked questions. She asked more. She clarified. She made sure she had it right, that she wasn't missing anything. I could hear, but couldn't understand, her concern.

And then she said something that still echoes in my head every time I start to think maybe I'll never get a chance to show the world my story. Something that's had me force myself to stop editing and get some sleep already while I still have some time left in my layover: she said, "Wow. You've really got something there. You've got so many layers and so much going on, I bet it's a hell of a great read. You can't quit this thing."

"But it's too much, Karlene. I can't get anyone to listen to me long enough for me to tell them everything. I start off great, but I end up off in the weeds so far I can't find my way back!"

"You can do this, Nate. I'm going to help you. Let's do it right now, before you go back in there."

So we did. We worked on it for at least half an hour, after we'd already been on the phone at least that long. I mean, Jeffrey Dahmer had shorter sessions with his therapist, and Karlene was doing this for me, a total stranger, for nothing. Humbled isn't the word for how I felt. I don't even know that a fitting word exists, to be perfectly blunt about it.

I got off the phone with only forty-five minutes to shower, get breakfast, and get back into the game.


We spent a good portion of that second day of the conference discussing the "craft" of writing good fiction. I've never been a good note-taker, so I can't give a blow-by-blow description, but it was largely similar in nature to some of the great information from credible sources we find out here in the blogosphere, particularly agents' blogs.

We talked about the demand for original stories versus tiny twists on the tired and true. The need to create sympathy for our protagonist, and how this doesn't necessitate his being someone you'd let your daughter date. We discussed character arc, how our protagonist must be a different person at the end of the book than she was at the beginning, for having somehow lived through what happens in the middle. How there must be a mini-climax of some kind in the early going that commits our protagonist to the course of action he knows just might prove to be his undoing, and how we need to make the stakes clear, and daunting.

I sat there listening and thought of the changes I'd need to make as I edit A Silver Ring, but mostly I thought of how relatively few and small the changes really would be. It had taken me six years to write the damned thing, but I'd either intuitively known to include or later incorporated nearly every key component to a page-turner. I'd done a pretty decent job of writing it, considering my lack of training and other handicaps. My beta readers thus far aren't credentialed, but they've been people who read and whom I trust gave me their honest, forthright opinions, and I'd either fixed or planned to fix all the problems they'd identified, which were all minor.

I just had to get it down to size, and learn how to pitch it. Karlene had helped me immeasurably in distilling the story down to its essence, but it was all up to me to practice how I'd get that across the table to the agents at the pitchfest Sunday morning.

We were told the 'fest would begin at ten, but we were invited to come early and get in line to have Michael help us hone our pitches further, if desired. But I'd had all the help I needed already, from someone who understood my WIP on a far deeper level for having taken the ridiculous amount of time made necessary by my own inability to distill my story's essence.

It was clear to me there'd be no convincing Michael that my "airline terrorism" story was salable, and since I'd already "wasted" someone else's chance to pitch Ken Atchity the first day, I didn't want to be seen as senselessly consuming any more of the group's resources with my white elephant.

I arrived at about 9:45, grabbed a cup of the hotel's free coffee (again, the thrift), and went outside to rehearse my pitch alone. Upstairs in our conference room, nine literary agents were making ready for a part of their job that some love more than others, but as I studied them, even the most sullen seemed at least "content" to be there with us.

Any one of them could, for me, prove to be "The One."

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Reality Check

By mid-February, with less than a week to go before the conference, my pre-conference project evaluation had yet to arrive. It finally came, a few days before I left for San Francisco, but the novel I now planned to whittle out of the tome I’d described in it was so radically different, the lukewarm evaluation it received neither surprised nor hurt me. I was in the perfect frame of mind for the conference: I had a great core concept I just hadn’t yet found the way to articulate.

And actually, “inarticulate” is probably the exact word uber-agent Ken Atchity would have used to describe my pitch at the end of that first day of the conference, if he ever had cause to mention it to anyone, that is. Ken couldn’t come to the pitchfest scheduled at the conclusion of the conference Sunday morning, so he worked his visit in on Friday.

Before Ken’s arrival, we covered the industry, the market, the competition, what our pitches would need to get attention, and what our WIPs would need to live up to those great pitches. Conference coordinator Michael Neff had warned us many times in many ways not to come looking to have sunshine blown up our rears, and he didn’t disappoint. We spent a healthy portion of the day happily “off the agenda,” listening to our fellow writers’ pitches and questions, and Michael’s unabashedly honest critiques and occasionally overconfident answers. I felt that all points on the spectra of originality, salability, execution, and promotion were represented, and, looking around the room, I thought I could almost hear the Learning. It was fantastic.

Since we had 60 eager wannabes and one clearly weary agent, we drew names for who’d get to pitch Mr. Atchity, and I became a “winner.” Two of the writers preceding me gave polished, punchy pitches that seemed to cause the closest thing to a crack in the glazed, wake-me-when-I-can-go stare I’d begun to think might be the man’s permanent expression, but I personally couldn’t incite so much as a quiver in the long flat line. Ken Atchity obviously agreed with Michael that my terrorism-thriller-framing-a-family-saga WIP was “DOA.”

I felt about as far from getting published right then as I ever have. I skipped social hour that night (like everyone else, I later learned) and went back to lick my wounds (again, the prevailing motivation, I heard the next morning.) Sixty undiscovered literary giants had walked in that morning, but, for various reasons, almost sixty once-and-future nobodies sulked out that night.

Of course writers heal by (what else) writing, so I immediately pounded out an emotional, overwrought, perspectiveless sour grapes piece to tell the world off, and impetuously posted it and tweeted about it before I went to sleep that night. I’ve never done well with that whole “breathe” thing.

The only thing that got me out of bed that next morning was the fact that I’d paid a few hundred bucks for the conference, my hotel room was already paid for, and Rolex had nothing on my travel and work schedule for precision. I’d get up and go through the motions, sure, but I was so not going to fool myself any longer about ever really getting anywhere as a writer.

But as they so often have in my life, a friend materialized beside me in my hour of need: Karlene Petitt, or, as we in the Twitterverse know her, @KarlenePetitt, whom you’d be doing yourself a big favor to find at her blog, http://karlenepetitt.blogspot.com

Sunday, March 28, 2010

What got me to my first writers’ conference

I went to my first writers' conference last month. To normal people, that may not sound momentous; after all, anyone serious about making it's going to attend one before they get too far along in this masochistic so-called lifestyle we call Writing.

But I was one of Bob Webb's best 8th grade English students ever. I never got less than a B in the subject and even tested out of college English after only three years of it in high school. I rarely failed at anything I really put my mind to, so I wrote and began pitching my novel using only my obvious gift (for those just joining us, Sarcasm and I go way back) and "common sense" for guidance.

After six years of writing and two years of sending queries I'm now too embarrassed to detail, I'd gone partway down so many paths I thought led to publication, I was hopelessly lost in the woods. It was time to ask for help. So, last fall, I registered for Algonkian's San Francisco Write and Pitch conference.

Unexpectedly, "things" began changing immediately, months before the conference—all of them internal. Registering for it had been my Step One: I'd admitted I had a problem. I was going nowhere.

I'd been reticent to Reading about Writing. I've lived a very blessed life by following my gifts, and had long been convinced that having a gift for something and having that thing come easily were one and the same—that, if someone's really meant for something, their time's always best spent just doing it.

But success is an alloy of Talent, Training, and Trial. Yes, we've already discussed my formidable Talent (ad nauseum), and yes, I exposed myself to all the Training a prodigy like me really needed (the Cliff's Notes on Getting Published for Dummies), so all that seemed to remain was to make the Publishing World aware they could, for a price, tap into my wellspring of Genius.

Like an Ebay auctioneer hawking a Messianic image in a slice of cinnamon toast, I was wildly overestimating either my product's intrinsic value and/or the effectiveness of my marketing strategy, if not both, and nothing was going to change before I did.

So, with months to go before the conference, I cut snippets from my novel, query letter(s) and synopsis to complete the "strongly suggested" evaluation of my project and tried to be patient awaiting the response. I'd submitted my writing to two other such "evaluations" before: one was for acceptance to another Algonkian conference in New York, called the Pitch and Shop, and the other to query service Writers' Relief. Both had accepted me without reservation (which so stroked my paranoid streak that I chickened out each time), so I was expecting a largely "encouraging" response to this deep analysis of my product.

While I waited, I immersed myself in reading blogs, sites, magazines, and books about Writing, or, more accurately, getting Writing published, with particular emphasis on platform construction. I went on Absolute Write daily for months, put up a website and this blog and later began my highly worthwhile experience with Twitter. I began to understand that the greatest writer in the world would remain obscure until and unless he learned how to get his Word out the right way.

My queries weren't queries but trite, amateurish, gimmicky short synopses that weren't even all that short. My project was a "genre-bending, thrilling saga" that I clearly felt deserved its own little corner at Borders (right beside the "New Adult" section, perhaps). Worst of all, I'd written a frightening monster of a novel just this side of Stephen King's It, and mine apparently had a voracious appetite for form rejections.

At some point over "The Winter I Read Instead," I finally made peace with the idea that my 166,000-word novel-that-ate-New York would never be published, even if any of the red herrings I'd dreamt up to "make a name for myself first" with something simpler, something easier, something smaller, something non-fiction, or something self-published, ever bore fruit. It may have even been the day I helped Jane Friedman get her luggage back from England. I think "hearing" her polite shock at my project's size is what snapped me out of it.

I had to cut it down to size if I wanted ever to share it with the world.

I'd start as soon as Algonkian got back to me with my evaluation. I'd be in training for my day job for all of January anyway, and my right brain would be in stasis.

An aviation love story...

Twilight landing at LAX

Martinez Canyon Rescue