Don't Shake the Flask

Because you don't know if it'll explode

A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 10

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9.

The panel “Pitching Your Project” was presented by James Glass, J.A. Pitts, and Eldon Thompson. (AQ is an audience question.)

JG: Are there different kinds of pitches?

JAP: I first met my editor in a bar. And we didn’t talk about books. It was only later that I sent an e-mail and asked what she wanted. My editor said, “Send whatever you’ve got.”

ET: I can’t understate the personal connection. Go to film festivals. Make a connection so they will remember you. So if you have a chance to talk to an editor or agent, don’t just jump into your project. For an elevator pitch, the harder you do your work, the easier it is. And unless you’re a proven writer, when you pitch, your work should already be done. It should be ten to fifteen words. A teaser pitch is about one sentence. A two page synopsis is longer. Be able to pitch in different formats. An expanded pitch would be like a jacket blurb. Take time to craft a pitch at each length.

JAP: You don’t know when you’re going to pitch. So be prepared. Practice.

JG: My elevator story is over three floors. It was at WesterCon for the novel Brain Gate. I was in the elevator and Tom Doherty got on. He asked, “Jim, what’s new?” So I had ten to twelve seconds to tell him about my novel in two sentences. Then he said, “It sounds interesting. Talk to David Hartwell.” It can happen unexpectedly so you need to be prepared.

JAP: But don’t do the bathroom pitch. I heard about the story of a Penguin editor who had to go to the bathroom in order to get away from some woman. But while she was in the bathroom stall, the manuscript was slipped under the door. Once I was in the elevator with the editor and asked her how she was doing. She said her dog died. So all I could do was say my condolences. Don’t be a jerk or they’ll remember it.

JG: For a short story, you can just send that in. The story will go to either the slush stack or A stack. Here, the editors want you to succeed. But novels are a different ball game. A good place to pitch is a convention like a big regional one. NorwesCon or WesterCon. WorldCon can get hairy since there are so many people.

JAP: You can also meet editors and agents in a bar but don’t be a stalker.

ET: In Hollywood, you mostly pitch in person. In books, you usually do a query letter. In Hollywood, you set up a ten to fifteen minute meeting. Agents are notorious for doing something else while you’re trying to pitch. Producers are better because they’re more invested in the project. If the producers like your sample, then they want you to write their stuff as a “hired gun.” If you love your work, go the book route and worry about Hollywood later. In Hollywood, scripts are written by committee. You can make a good living at it, but unless you’re a writer-director, you have no say.

JG: George R.R. Martin mentioned that things are also written by the director.

ET: Sometimes the director shows up without the script and starts changing things. For scripts, it possible you will have nothing to show after six to nine months of work. Whereas if you write a book, you do have something to show.

JG: But there’s the money.

JAP: I work at Boeing so I make enough in the day job to write in the cracks.

ET: Do what you love. Because otherwise, how do you deal with the BS? You need to deal with it.

JG: What about written pitches? You can do a short pitch at a party. You need to play it by ear. Are they receptive? As a new writer without an agent, you want to break in. But many publishing companies don’t want unsolicited work. However, some pubs, like Baen or Ace, will see unsolicited manuscripts. You need to learn the difference between partials, query letters, and a synopsis.

JAP: The most important thing is to have the best possible novel to be written. Because that’s the final pitch. My editor might take two years to get back to you. So be ready for it.

JG: Say you want to send your work to a big house that doesn’t want unsolicited work. Do you send a query letter?

JAP: We mentioned it in the query panel. You don’t want to waste their time so do an elevator pitch. The editor will remember if you’re nice and kind. When you’re ready, send it in.

JG: Do you go in cold?

ET: More commonly, target the recipient. Do your homework. Pitch the story in one sentence. You need a core idea. Who’s the character and what’s at stake? There are lots of resources out there about writing a synopsis. If three-fourths of your synopsis is the set up and the rest of the stuff is tacked at the end, you give a false sense of how the story goes. You need to pace the query at the rate as the story. You need a teaser or hook. Examples are Titanic, Kissing Jessica Stein, and Billy Elliot.

JG: It’s analogous to the summaries in TV guides.

ET: They’re log lines.

JG: You need a short paragraph which includes that your novel is complete, something about the novel, and something about you related to the novel. And then a short inquiry about what they might like to see like a partial or the first three chapters. But the time until you receive a reply to see the partial can be long. So just wait. And write a thank you letter.

JAP: And while you’re waiting, write something else.

JG: Baen bought one author’s book and while he waited, he wrote books two and three. Which Baen subsequently bought.

AQ: There’s the Query Shark.

ET: You need to lead with your strongest point. Don’t reference any weakness.

JAP: Don’t tell them it’s been rejected elsewhere.

JG: Print out a new copy to send in to other editors because they will know others have read it. The partial should contain a synopsis.

JAP: Learning to write a synopsis is critical. Don’t hide stuff. Give out the important relevant details. Tell them the ending.

JG: How long should the synopsis be?

JAP: It depends. My publishing house wants ten pages or less. Try to keep it short. Two to three pages is better.

ET: In Hollywood, don’t send in ten pages.

JG: So it’s whatever that works for the editor.

ET: Find out the guidelines. A two page synopsis for a 250,000 word novel.

AQ: Is it 250 words per page?

Panel (all): Yes, double spaced.

JAP: Keep it within 500 characters.

ET: Or less, like Twitter.

JG: It should also be entertaining. Don’t be dry. Think of it as an expanded jacket blurb. You could leave some mystery, but you need the ending. Take the synopsis seriously because it’s a selling tool.

ET: Whoever you’re pitching to, they want the same thing–something that’s proven–but also something new and fresh. For example, take a new tack on proven stories. But they won’t take you if it’s too similar or too different.

JG: In pitches, do you compare it to the media? For example, you say your story is “Darth Vader in New York City.”

ET: Do something appropriate. Be true to your material. Don’t compare it to Hunger Games if it’s not like it.

JAP: Run it by other people. Some pitches are insulting such as “Like Good Fellas but with characters.”

AQ: In a Hollywood pitch, should you have a line up for many things?

ET: Yes, they want to know you have more stuff. Think of your career. You want a breadth of material.

AQ: Does anyone still write plays?

Panel (all): Yes.

AQ: What about slush readers? How do I get into doing that?

JG: Graduate from Brown, I suppose.

JAP: You should meet editors at cons, read Locus, blogs, and magazines. E-mail the editor. They’ll contact others if they don’t have an opening. They won’t pay you, but you will learn a lot about what not to do in writing. Check Ralan and Duotrope. Query places.

JG: Nowadays there are less slush readers but the editors read more slush.

AQ: How much do you value your publishing company? Some publishers don’t read their books unless they sell 5,000 copies or more.

ET: Editors do less editing now due to volume. The more you can do, the more likely they will hire you.

JAP: More books are published in one month now than the entire year of 1952.

JG: At Tor, there’s only four people who do it all. The more work you do, the better.

ET: But I don’t want to do my own marketing. So the publishing house is valuable for that.

JG: They send stuff out for you. But publicity, not so much although places like Tor and Ace are better about that. They’ll send your stuff to Publisher’s Weekly to get reviewed. But some houses don’t do that.

AQ: Is there a difference between large and small publishing houses? What about electronic and traditional publishing?

JG: It’s the same deal. You need to check with the individual houses.

JAP: But you pitch the same to all those places.

JG: But don’t neglect the small press. It’s a start. And you can build a career from there.

* * *

Stay tuned for Part 11 which will include a panel on gender roles.

A Peek into MisCon 26, Part 9

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Previous posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8

Since I’ve been planning to do a sci-fi story for June’s Camp Nanowrimo, I thought the next panel would be particularly informative. “Psychological Issues in Deep Space” was presented by Joyce Reynolds-Ward and James Glass. (AQ is an audience question.)


(Joyce Reynolds-Ward [left] and James Glass [right])

JG: I had worked in the space industry but mostly on ion engines and the physical end. But what happens on longer space missions? It would take at least a year to get to Mars. You have to consider weightlessness, muscle deterioration, and being in close quarters with other guys.

JR: What are the psychological effects when suddenly you find yourself floating and there’s no one to catch you? What about generational ships? Educating the young? How will the kids’ minds change? And if they’ve lived their whole lives on those ships, what do they take for granted? There’s research that says that maintaining a healthy mind requires access to natural settings. There were studies in which subjects looked at scenes through either a window or a camera. Subjects looking through windows were more relaxed. Would being in space without these natural settings change the human organism or can we replicate these settings indoors?

JG: I can get natural light from a lamp even when it’s gloomy outside. So what’s the lighting in the ship? Lighting can have an effect. On a generational ship, maybe the kids are used to the artificial lighting.

JR: To what degree is this a hardwired need or a psychological need?

JG: Before you’re born on earth, for nine months you live in an environment that has no gravity. And then, when you come out, you’re suddenly in gravity and bombarded by light. So when does the hard-wiring start? Is it learned? If you disrupt a cycle, there are psychological issues. There will be issues if you transplant people to a planet with seven hours in a day from one with twenty-four hours. Even when people go to Alaska from the south, people can’t get used to the change in daylight.

AQ: Does anyone do research on psychology on different geological locations?

JG: People have done studies on psychology at the south pole, especially on sleep deprivation. Apparently at the south pole, people can’t go to sleep.

AQ: There have been experiments done underground on circadian rhythms. People underground adjust to their own cycle and turn on their lights whenever they want.

JG: It would be the same in an undersea colony.

JR: The environment is cut off.

JG: Space is also a zero-g environment. Artificial gravity may also come with problems. Like the Coriolis effect.

JR: What kind of personality is recruited to go to space? In skiing, people practice falling.

JG: It’s the rush.

JR: You might need to recruit that same personality.

JG: Similar to recruiting for submarines.

AQ: Project Mercury called for extreme sports people.

JG: Or test pilots. But in space, there is no ejection seat.

AQ: They say that you need a slightly aberrant personality–unstable, loner, antisocial, wild, not gregarious.

JG: But in a cabin with other sweaty guys?

JR: You need someone with boundaries.

AQ: In 2001: A Space Odyssey, David Bowman was very calm and unflappable. He was flat, like a dead fish. Clarke and Kubrick thought that this was the sort of personality needed for space.

JG: On the other hand, you have Chuck Yeager. He was quick in extreme senses. But he was also a party animal and hot shot.

JR: Like extreme sports kids. How athletes prepare and analyze sports is like how astronauts prepare for their missions.

JG: You have to know where you’re going to the foot because you don’t want to go off the cliff.

JR: They’re wired for sound.

JG: You need to distinguish the psychological issues between a normal person and an adventurous person. Those guys are unflappable, fearless, well prepared, and love risk.

JR: But there’s also a lot of inaction on a trip to Mars.

JG: You’re sitting for a year without doing anything because the ship is on automatic.

JR: They might need to play World of Warcraft or some kind of deep immersion training for physical and mental preparation.

JG: There’s boredom.

JR: Adventurous people have little tolerance for boredom.

JG: You should stick to the psychology of people who are being recruited to these missions.

AQ: What about cryogenics?

JG: That’s not looking good. We don’t have the chemicals for that like insects. We have to do it artificially. Best is the quick freeze because otherwise the cells would rupture. But the problem is the thawing. Freezing is not done well except in insects and some small animals.

AQ: Could you bring plants and animals with you?

JR: But how can you get the payload up? You could do cloning, but right now it’s only for breeding purposes. And there are some problems. Cloned sheep age more than cloned horses. And there are issues with pigs.

JG: We don’t know the long term effects on the brain from weightlessness, even with exercise. There are no studies on the long term. But there is forgetfulness from being up in space. The brain needs a certain amount of stimulation. And in space, it’s a static environment.

JR: The psychological and the physical are intertwined.

JG: You can eliminate muscle deterioration with exercise. But you can’t prevent bone loss because that needs weight. You can’t with zero-g.

JR: Maybe you can walk around with shackles to replicate gravity.

JG: Or spin the spacecraft to produce gravity.

AQ: Is it possible to make a spinning space station?

JG: Wernher von Braun had such an idea, but it never came to fruition because of economics.

JR: How far have we got on that technology?

JG: Well, the space program is dead, but there is the private sector. There’s no money for a Mars mission.

JR: Neil Armstrong mentioned that we need to be prepared for a congruence of factors in order to get to Mars: economy, people in the right place, inspiration.

JG: But the space program came out of a fear of the USSR and the atom bomb. When the danger was over, the public lost interest. There have been psychological studies on satellites but no studies on going to Mars where no one will come out to get you. So how do you prepare? Out of fear?

JR: What kind of mentality do you need if there are outside threats?

JG: On a ship, one danger is a solar flare. If one comes up, you only have twelve minutes. The hull is thin. If there isn’t anything else, you will die. A meteor the size of a marble can destroy your ship. So what’s the psychological effect of that?

JR: One analogy is that of the explorers in the 15th and 16th centuries. How many ships and fleets got lost?

JG: You think and dream about all the things that could go wrong. I dreamed about all the possible mishaps when I was going mountain climbing.

AQ: What about the opposite effect? Kids don’t think about the atom bomb or they’d go bonkers.

JG: Maybe that’s true for children. But I remember during the Bay of Pigs, the adults were certainly thinking about it.

JR: I remember in the late 50s, we were thinking about Nixon and Kissinger.

AQ: What’s the minimum crew needed? Is it for a stable social group?

JR: Yes. They’re doing studies on these things now with climbing groups, the Antarctic station, and the space station.

JG: You need four or five people. Three’s a crowd.

JR: You need an odd number.

JG: For a colony, maybe around three hundred?

JR: It’s a one way stop, so plan for genetic drift.

JG: And inbreeding.

JR: Any genetic conditions could cripple a colony.

JG: But one bad apple can screw everything up.

JR: Consciously culturate each generation. Allow for wild cards. And how will they function off the ship?

JG: Gene Wolfe in The Book of the New Sun, theorizes that on a multigenerational ship, eventually there will be no memory of the home world. In Elizabeth Bear’s Jacob’s Ladder trilogy, the AI systems on the ship are considered gods because people can adapt so well within two or three generations.

JR: Soon there’s no one in living memory who’s been off the ship.

AQ: Other examples of authors who have written about it are Harlan Ellison, Poul Anderson, and Heinlein’s Methuselah’s Children.

JG: The psychology moves towards normal when there’s no one who’s been off the ship.

JR: There’s also physiological change.

JG: The type of fear changes. The fear of a meteor going through a ship may become less, like a meteor coming through the atmosphere.

AQ: Some say that as technology becomes more advanced, society will become more tribal.

JG: Yes. Wolfe does that.

AQ: On a colony ship, jobs may become inherited positions.

JR: That can be dangerous. What if a war breaks out between factions? The more time you spend on the ship, you will change in ways that are more congruent to a generational ship. It’s like now how kids get used to new technology.

AQ: So how long will take to get to Mars?

JG: One year to go to Mars. And two years to get back.

AQ: The Russians have an experiment where people are sealed in for 500 days. Seven men only, ground based.

JG: But you need the real test up in space with all the dangers and no gravity.

AQ: on NPR, I heard it was a one way trip.

JG: Some claim you need to find water and make your own fuel, but they’re not taking this seriously. It takes longer to get back because there are orbital problems. You also need to take into account staying on Mars for some time. Because what are you going to do once you get there? And there’s another batch of problems you’ll encounter on Mars, like UV. So in summary, you need to recruit people who are like astronauts or submarine operators. These people have separate psychological problems from normal people. They should have no fears for risk or falling, but they should also be cautious. They might even have less psychological problems. And are these fatal issues? Probably not.

JR: I would be interested in what the generational issues are for people living in space. I would definitely like to explore this.

* * *

Stay tuned for Part 10 which will be about pitching the story.