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

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."

An aviation love story...

Twilight landing at LAX

Martinez Canyon Rescue