Agents! Oh No!

“You hear that, Mr. Anderson? That is the sound of inevitability.”

-Agent Smith

So, I’m watching The Matrix with our boys a while back and realized the near-omniscient “agents” of the virtual world are maybe not all that different from agents in the literary world. They have super strength, deadly aim, can assume the forms of other people, and generally make life hell on anyone who knows too much.

What? They DON’T have all those things?

How about the near-omniscience part? The ability to manipulate their world? Okay, maybe now we’re getting closer to reality.

Anyone who’s managed to write anything beyond the first couple of chapters has probably begun to wonder how they’ll eventually get said work published. Which means at some point, they’ll have discovered the concept of “agents”. The keepers of the keys to the kingdom. The aspiring writer may have even looked into the mysterious process of “querying” said kingdom-key-keeper-ers.

But it’s not until you send your first meticulously crafted query letters to a few selected agents, and experienced the sting of swift rejection, do you get a peek into the misery of a new writer’s life.

If you’re one of those lucky few who struck paydirt on your first query, signed with an agency, and secured a publishing deal…read no further. Congratulations. You suck. And I mean that in the most respectful, affectionate way. But you still suck.

On the other hand, if you’re one of those strong souls who can compartmentalize your emotions and keep the writer-business relationship in coolly detached perspective…you may also read no further. You suck, too.

For the rest of us who invest countless hours of intellectual effort, plumbing our emotional depths, to brazenly serve up the fruits of our labor to the intelligentsia only to have our hopes beaten back with a form rejection (or several dozen of them)…keep reading.

Literary agents fill the role of slush-pile readers that the big publishers used to employ and so are spring-loaded to say “no thanks”. From what I gather, their lives are a lot like “American Idol” judges: wading through a lot of dreck to find the real talent. But they’re your ticket into the world of traditional publishing. If you sign with an agency, they’ll rep your work and hopefully land a deal. It’s in their interest to land you a good deal, because that’s how they make money (generally 15% of your take).

Now, the e-publishing revolution is changing that equation quite a bit. That’ll have to wait for another post. In the meantime, never, ever, pay an agent out of your own pocket. If they charge “reading fees”, they’re not legit.

Myself, I waited until the first draft of Perigee was nearly finished until I started looking into publishing. By reputation, I knew it’d be a tough nut to crack but had no idea how tough.

Timing didn’t help either, coming around the time of the financial meltdown. Publishing houses, already selective enough, were apparently getting a whole lot more selective. Their gate-keepers, the agents, knew this and likewise became more selective. And the spike in joblessness apparently also meant that a lot more budding writers were cranking out manuscripts while collecting their unemployment checks.

It would be easy to blame my lack of success on all of those factors, and it undoubtedly made for a steeper hill to climb. But I finally came to realize that my first query letter was terrible; stank like a flatulent skunk tanked up on PBR and microwave burritos. But it probably made for a few laughs at the unsuspecting agencies it was sent to; if that’s true, you’re welcome. Glad I could brighten your day.

While figuring out what to do about Query 2.0, I started reaching out to some published authors. One is actually a friend from high school who’s been quite successful in the Christian fiction market. The other had published a couple of aviation techno-thrillers, a niche close to my own. Another is a big name in the techno-thriller genre and was kind enough to critique my first three chapters.

I can’t tell you how motivating it was to connect with successful authors who were willing to give their time and advice to an unknown quantity. One of them went so far as to call me at home (not the high school friend, BTW) and share his experiences, which was a huge encouragement.

As with everything else, do your research. You’ll find writers in your own genre who are willing to help out newbies; just drop ’em an e-mail. If you have the resources to go a writer’s conference like Thrillerfest, by all means do it. And let me know what it’s like!

I learned that a successful query has to be punchy, like the inside dust-jacket copy that makes you realize I must buy this book RIGHT NOW. Find a way to describe your novel in five sentences or less (preferably less). After writing nearly 100,000 words, it’s amazing how hard it can be to whittle that down to one paragraph.

Isolate the high points: what makes it cool? Here’s the current pitch:

A revolutionary globe-spanning airliner is stranded in orbit, with no way home before the air runs out.

At hypersonic speed, Polaris AeroSpace has become the premium choice for rapid travel across the world. When a veteran crew is marooned by a series of baffling malfunctions, the upstart spaceline must race against time to mount a rescue.  Amidst a spreading web of industrial espionage, one man realizes their deliverance may require a terrible sacrifice.

There are a lot of great resources on the web. If you want to see other people’s rookie mistakes, check out Janet Reid, the Query Shark. Submit your own, if you dare.

And I highly recommend Noah Lukeman’s book, “The First Five Pages”. He also offers a great e-book on query letters, FOR FREE. Did I mention IT’S FREE?

After finally being satisfied with Q2.0, I discovered another great web resource, Query Tracker. This site enables you to research agents in your genre (but always cross-check their agency websites) and track the status of your queries. It beat the snot out of the Excel spreadsheet I’d set up.

I felt really confident about Q2.0, and that confidence was not misplaced. The rejections still came (as they always will), but so did something else: requests for more! Real, live literary agents were asking to see my manuscript. Woo-hoo!

Unfortunately, that’s how I ultimately figured out that Perigee wasn’t quite ready for prime time. But hey, at least my wife loved it…

NEXT: Editorial Critiques

The Writer’s Life (With a Day Job)

PERIGEE [per-i-jee]: noun, Astronomy: The point in the orbit of a heavenly body or an artificial satellite at which it is nearest to the earth.

Like so many writers, I started a novel because it was something I wanted to read. Something that no one else was writing.

Perigee began almost seven years ago as a budding desire to write began to overcome me. Lots of disjointed ideas had been competing for space inside my head, but nothing would sit still long enough to take root.

Around this time, SpaceShip One became the first privately-owned vehicle to fly a man into space. To a geek like me, this was cool beyond words. It also came at a time when I had rediscovered my childhood interest in spaceflight and was steeping myself in both its history and technicalities.

Not long after that, Richard Branson founded Virgin Galactic, the world’s first “spaceline”. I was around-the-bend excited at the prospect.

Why? It’s not like I can afford a ticket.

True enough. But recall that I work in aviation and have a fair amount of expertise in some of the skill sets he’ll eventually (hopefully) need in larger numbers. When Branson described his long-term business goals, I was even more psyched. That is, he’d eventually like to start suborbital city-to-city service: imagine Sydney to LA in two hours at Mach 6, above the atmosphere.

Sounds nutty, until you remember that enough people were willing to pony up $200,000 per ticket for a 15-minute hop into space. Enough for Branson to contract for a whole fleet of SpaceShip Two’s. I’d wager his customers would be willing to pay at least that much for a longer ride that actually, you know, took them somewhere. I’d further be willing to bet that if it could be made routine enough, my own employer would be interested. Maybe not this decade, but certainly in my lifetime.

So, as an operations guy, I got to thinking…what would that kind of service look like? It’d have to run pretty much like an airline. Much better service, mind you – we’re not talking Southwest peanuts here – but still. And for the same reasons, I naturally started to wonder what kinds of things could go wrong up there (we do that a lot in this business).

Quite a bit, as it turns out. And that’s when a couple of ideas finally took root. Pretty soon, they coalesced into a storyline and began to flow.

Namely, what happens if something that wasn’t designed to go into orbit…goes into orbit? That would make for a bad day for a lot of people. Could you rescue them? Could the bird survive re-entry at those speeds (because being “in space” and “in orbit” can mean vastly different things). It would also provide lots of opportunities for dramatic interaction between the people stranded up there.

Now, I’m a fan of authors like Tom Clancy because he gets the tech right and builds interesting stories around it. Michael Crichton’s just-on-the-edge-of-possible stories were especially intriguing for the same reasons, and that’s the limited range of sci-fi that I prefer. While I enjoy watching Star Trek, I’d rather not read about how the Enterprise was saved from disaster at the last minute because, once again, Geordi reversed the polarity of the warp core. That’s too easy. Hell, you’d think by now he’d have installed an “emergency polarity-reversal” switch.

Anybody can make up scientific-sounding flapdoodle with no grounding in reality. I wanted my work to be believable. Doable. No “Easy Buttons”. So there would be much to learn. In the meantime, I started the book anyway because it didn’t make sense to wait for every question to be answered. I had a clear idea of how it would begin and how the action would be set up; learning how to solve Tsiolkovsky’s rocket equation would have to wait.

By now, you’re asking  “where does that day job come in?” As luck would have it, I ended up in an engineering-related job which was exactly where I wanted to be. The company sent me away to school for a few weeks at a time, and paid for me to take Calculus in between. It was awesome, the high point of my non-writing career so far. But it also left me with little time and even less motivation to write.

If you’re really happy with your day job, it can be harder to devote several hours a week to the keyboard. Especially if you have a family with small children. Writing is fun, but it’s also work that takes time. I can bang out a nonfiction magazine article in 45-minute chunks over a week or two. A novel doesn’t work like that: for it to be any good at all, you have to immerse yourself into an alternate reality of your own creation. But fortunately, I’d at least been keeping a notebook and wrote down every random thought about Perigee. And there were lots of ’em. They started waking me up at night, in fact. That’s when you know it’s time to do something, when either God or your own head just won’t leave you alone. You decide which is which.

About that time, a blessing in disguise came along: our computer died, taking 80-some pages of my manuscript with it. I was thinking the book needed a re-boot anyway, and ended up with what I think is a really kick-@$$ first chapter. And that gave me the momentum to dive back in and finish the dadgum thing.

What an experience, to finally jump head-first into a world I’d created. Every writer has to find his own groove, and when you do, magic happens. Characters began speaking in their own voices, plot threads worked themselves out…a tremendous amount of work, but remarkably easy, if that makes sense. Once it got going, I was just along for the ride. After about a year of dedicated effort, my first novel was finally complete.

Good for you, Hemingway. Now what?

NEXT: Agents!!! (and not “The Matrix” kind, either)

Guns Don’t Kill People…

BB guns do. Unimaginably tragic.

If you’re considering BB guns for your kids, keep in mind that some of the models you’re likely to find at Wally World are capable of muzzle velocities that are close to a .22 long. They’re easy to find: they’re the really cool rifles your kids are likely to want the most.

Hat tip: The Truth About Guns, a great site for firearms fans who don’t care for the NRA’s Koolaid.

The Jet Set

So, El Presidente has decided it’s time to pile on those vile corporate jet owners.

Yawn. Not like it’s the first time or something.

I have a personal interest in this, being a well-heeled corporate jet owner middle-class slob who happens to work in the airplane business.

So what if a few millionaires don’t get a tax deduction for their fancy private jets? It’s just another loophole they shouldn’t have anyway. Big fat hairy deal, right?


First of all, it’s not really a loophole any more than your mortgage interest deduction is a loophole. All it does is let bizjet buyers deduct the airplane’s loss in value sooner rather than later. It takes a bit of the sting out of laying down that kind of money. And believe me, bizjets have been depreciating at quite a clip lately.

Secondly, the revenue would amount to next to nothing. Chicken feed. Square-root of a donut hole. There are probably rounding errors in this year’s budget that amount to more money.

But it does allow El Presidente to paint all rich people as Scrooge McDuck or the Monopoly guy. Which is what he really wants — facts don’t matter when it’s so much easier to argue from emotion. And he’s counting on that working for most people. Hey, it got him elected so why not?

Color me unimpressed. If you’re interested in truth, here are some nuggets for your noggin:

Mr. Monopoly Guy decides he wants and/or needs a corporate jet for his business and/or personal use. Call it 50/50 (though most really are used for business…and if they’re not, so what? It’s not your money).

Obviously, somebody has to build the jet. That means jobs in Wichita, Savannah, or any number of other places. These are engineers, machinists, aircraft mechanics…highly skilled people in generally good-paying jobs.

He’s also got to hire at least a couple of pilots to fly the thing. That’s two more jobs.

Oh, and these things usually don’t come out of the factory ready to fly. Paint and interior often involves hiring another vendor. More jobs.

Even a brand-new jet requires maintenance, including annual inspections which can get quite expensive. That means he’s either got to hire his own staff or farm it out to yet another vendor. Either way, somebody’s getting paid to work that bird on a regular basis.

The jet needs fuel to go anywhere, and Jet-A ain’t cheap. Who’s gonna pump it? A whole network of airplane service stations called FBO’s (Fixed Base Operators), that’s who. And they employ large staffs of people, all over the country, who are there to take care of Mr. Monopoly Guy’s airplane wherever it may end up.

Suppose he wants to take the jet to Europe? Leaving the country is kind of a big deal and requires a lot of prior coordination with multiple agencies, which is typically not left up to the pilots. Like FBO’s, there are specialized companies full of highly-skilled people who do that stuff for a living.

All of these people get paid, in real money, and use it however they see fit. Just like Mr. Monopoly Guy, albeit on a smaller scale. Maybe Joe Mechanic buys a jetski instead of a bizjet. But take away their customers, and that’s a lot of people out of work who could’ve been spending their income on other pursuits. Trickle-down is real, and that’s how it works.

But these guys are loaded, right? They don’t really care if they lose a few hundred grand in tax deductions…maybe. Changing the rules in the middle of the game tends to make people spend cautiously.

This goes beyond just owners of fancy airplanes, it affects just about any other business endeavor where people choose to spend money. That means all of ’em.

Let’s examine El Presidente’s other strawman example, “best-selling authors”. I also take this one personally, only because I aspire to become one.

Unless your name is Clancy or Rowling and you’ve become your own franchise, here’s how writers make money: after months of sweating blood over your Great American Novel, your agent finally sells it to a publisher. That publisher pays an advance, which is payment against expected sales. If they’re confident it’ll sell big, your advance may be well into six figures (not usually the case, but I can dream).

That advance may be the only money the author ever sees (unless he does the indie e-book thing and keeps 70% of the monthly gross – yay Amazon!). If the book ends up selling more than what the advance was worth, only then will the author begin getting royalty payments. That can easily take over a year, so you’d better make that advance last a while.

So “rich” varies. A funny thing about rich people is they often have irregular incomes, so if they’re smart, they’re quite careful in how they allocate it. Actor Biff Studley might make $10 million this year and nothing the next. Same goes for Chas McHarvard, the hedge fund manager. At that level, it’s unpredictable. How else do you think so many celebrities end up flat broke and doing reality shows on VH1?

Nobody was ever offered a job by a poor man. If they were, it probably didn’t last very long.

Some Guys Have ALL the Luck…

Take a walk on the beach, find a 40-year-old chunk of Saturn V, get to climb around inside a Space Shuttle – on the pad, by the way. All in all, I’d say he had a good day or two.

Hopefully the IRS won’t hit him for gift taxes like they did the poor schlub who caught Derek Jeter’s 3000th hit.

UPDATE: Welcome Instapundit and HobbySpace readers! Hope you enjoy the blog, and I welcome any comments on Perigee. I will continue posting chapters from the original draft, but keep in mind that the final version will see major changes.

Call to Action

Related to my last posting…if you have any interest in how NASA manages its affairs, contact your congresscritter.

Besides gutting Commercial Crew Development (CCDev), this would direct the agency to sink even more money down the rathole of Senate Space Launch System, a heavy-lift booster concept from the whiz-kid engineers senators from — ah, never mind. You can guess which states: if it has a NASA center, you’re getting warm. But if they have their way, it will surely end up much like the proverbial horse as designed by committee…and cost about a gazillion times more than whatever BS number they’re throwing out today.

With all the crazy-@$$ spending that DC desperately needs to cut, Commercial Crew is a paltry sum and would help actual businesses in an actual emerging industry. This is much the same concept as government contracts for Air Mail service that kick-started the airline industry in the 1920’s. It’s a safe bet that SpaceX will have human-capable hardware in orbit while Marshall is still trying to figure out how to put five grains of composite propellant into a four grain casing.

Sorry, had to say that for geek cred. Just using “ten pounds of crap into a five pound bag” doesn’t sound steely-eyed-missile-manly enough.

The take-away: ditch SLS, keep CCDev. One will save a lot of money while the other spends far less on something that will return far more. And it’ll get Americans into orbit, on American equipment, much sooner.

The End of the Beginning

First, a hearty Welcome and Thank You for test-driving my blog. I hope it brings you many hours of enjoyment and thought-provocation. But for now, you’ll have to wade through the obligatory first post self-indulgence…

I’m a space geek, which considering the circumstances was probably unavoidable. My grandfather followed the Gemini and Apollo programs pretty closely, and my uncle lived (still does) not far from Cape Canaveral. I remember all of the moon landing missions, and was lucky enough to see a couple launches of the final Saturn boosters. I collected all of the space-program toys that my grandpa could get from the Gulf Oil stations or that could be pried out of  Tang  jars.

So yeah, I’ve been marinating in this stuff since I was a little kid. And now that the last Space Shuttle is in orbit, it’s high time for me to get off my butt and start blogging.

What the heck does that have to do with anything?

Considering everything I just described, when time came to head off for college, what would’ve been the obvious choice of majors?

Well, English, of course. I like writing.

Okay, you can stop laughing now. Mike Collins, Apollo 11 command module pilot, was once quoted as saying “what the space program needs is more English majors”. So there.

But since nobody else in aerospace apparently feels that way, I embarked on a career in boring old plain-jane aviation. Eventually got qualified as an aircraft performance engineer, something of which I am immensely proud. And I kept on writing.

Again, what does this have to do with anything?

I write about aerospace and other things. And that’s where the Space Shuttle comes in…

NASA has turned into a first-class, grade-A boondoggle. A money pit. A place where great ideas go to die in the bottomless well of bureaucracy. The shuttle essentially became a vehicle with no clear destination, meant to service a space station that didn’t exist. So, we set out to build a space station so the shuttles would have somewhere to go. Can you say “circular logic?” I knew you could.

And then there was Columbia. Out of that tragedy, NASA was presented with a golden opportunity to follow a different path. For the first time, it looked like they would take a competitive approach, like the Pentagon does when they want to buy a new fighter. Let the contractors prototype their own designs, hold a fly-off, and Uncle Sugar will decide which one they want to drop money on. Private industry would have a bigger role in transport to low orbit, and NASA would focus on the higher-risk work of developing technologies that would finally get us beyond Earth orbit again.

Until they decided not to anymore. Until they decided on a do-over of Apollo that ended up being unrealistic, unsustainable, and unaffordable. They set up a slow-motion train wreck that has reached its inevitable outcome: our country no longer has its own access to space.

Hopefully that won’t  be for long.

Human spaceflight is uniquely complex and risky. But it does not have to be mind-bogglingly expensive. Right now, there are private individuals who have invested their own fortunes in new vehicles and hardware that have already driven down the price of access to orbit. And they will continue to drive it down and innovate along the way. In the Sixties, getting people up there was sufficiently new enough, with uncertain benefits, that a government program was the only quick way to do it. But after fifty years, launching to and recovering from orbit is now well-enough understood that it’s time to let private enterprise take over. Let SpaceX or Boeing or Blue Origin get our people and stuff up there, and NASA can get back to doing the research necessary to actually go somewhere again.

We’ve not lost our space program. What we’re doing is unleashing a space industry.

And that brings me back to writing.

I’ve finished a novel, Perigee, which explores the new world of private spaceflight and its tension with the old guard at NASA. The first chapter sets up the end of the Shuttle program, but in a markedly different way than what you might have seen on TV the other day. I’ve posted it here on the blog and offer it up for your enjoyment. Perigee‘s first draft is done, but I’m rewriting some elements. This obviously includes chapter one since, well, there ain’t no shuttles no more. Other chapters will be posted if there’s enough interest, and the full novel will be available at Amazon once I’m satisfied with the final product.

Bottom line: I’m sad to see this era pass only because those things were cool. But let’s face it: all they did was literally fly around in circles. It’s time to go somewhere again. And in the meantime, if I can’t participate in it, I can at least write about it.

This blog will be about a lot of other stuff, too. Very few topics will be off-limits, but this is where my head is today.

In the meantime, Glenn Reynolds summed it up quite nicely in the Atlantic some time ago.

UPDATE: blogger and “recovering aerospace engineer” Rand Simberg is always worth reading on this topic. Here’s his take in Popular Mechanics.