How I stopped being a literary snob


And how that helped me start writing

For most of my life, I’ve been that annoying writer friend. You know, the one that always says he’s going to be a writer, who talks about how much he loves writing, who tells you all his ideas for all the books he’s going to write. And then never writes a damn thing.

Actually, I would write some damn things from time to time. A scrap of a story here, a bit of dialogue there, a character sketch on a napkin during a coffee break. But never a full story.

Many different obstacles – most located inside my skull – held me back from dedicating myself to my craft. Among the largest of these hurdles was my insistence that straight-up literary fiction was the only genre worthy of a true artist and intellectual like myself.

That stupid idea finally died three years ago, when my wife and I watched the movie version of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. The movie grabbed me in a way few films do, engaging me intellectually, emotionally, and viscerally. The action propelled the plot, the humanity gave the action meaning, and the movie’s confrontation of big ideas kept my brain churning long after we’d shipped the DVD back in its little red envelope.

After watching that movie, I realized that most of my favorite movies were sci-fi, from the Star Wars trilogy up to more recent films like District 9 and Moon. The appeal of these films for me was how they tackled the strangeness of the universe in a way that’s not possible in genres restricted by current reality.

That embrace of the hypothetical and fantastic was the missing propulsion without which none of my attempts at storytelling could ever take flight. My subconscious had always wanted to skirt the boundaries of reality, to suffuse my narratives with the spooky, the mysterious, and the ridiculous. But some voice inside me always rapped my knuckles, telling me those devices weren’t the tools of serious writers. That’s why I’d always gotten too bored with my work to ever finish a story. And it’s partly why I stopped even starting stories.

After Cloud Atlas, I tried my hand at a sci-fi short, Beyond the Pillars. It was the first story that I couldn’t wait to return to writing every day, the first one I found myself daydreaming about away from the keyboard. Most importantly, it was the first one I finished.

Now that I’ve found my natural genre and am writing regularly, I’m no longer the annoying wannabe writer guy. I rarely discuss my work around my friends, and I never talk about stories in progress.

I don’t need to waste my breath convincing myself how much I love writing or showing others how writerly I am. I’m having too much fun actually writing.


The Humans are Winning Again, at Least in Baseball

maddonepsteinEver since the publication of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, baseball has been ruled by computers.

The book revealed how the Oakland Athletics managed to consistently put together one of the best records in baseball with the one of the smallest player-salary budgets. They accomplished this feat by rigorously analyzing reams of data and finding that on-base percentage, which was largely ignored in favor of batting average, was the most valuable metric for predicting success. With this knowledge in hand, the Athletics acquired players who had great on-base percentages but, for some irrational reason, weren’t commanding large salaries.

After Lewis’ book hit the newsstands, the rest of the league quickly adapted. Teams hired spreadsheet jockeys to sift through the statistics and find ever-more advanced metrics for predicting success. For a while, the teams with the better geeks were able to generate better performance for less money than teams with inferior nerd squads.

But now that every baseball team has a stat shop, the incremental returns of this data-driven approach are collapsing toward zero.

So how are baseball teams going to wrest bargains out of the market of players now? By making them happy.

The team using this strategy the best right now is my hometown favorite, the Chicago Cubs.

Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein, who was one of the pioneers of the moneyball strategy as during his time as general manager of the Boston Red Sox, recognized that there was no more advantage to be gained from crunching the data even harder. The only way to gain an edge would be to make the best players want to play for you and to optimize their performance once you’ve got them in the dugout.

So a year and a half ago, he made it a priority to hire the manager that every MLB player wants to play for: Joe Maddon.

In a profession dominated by growly old hard-asses, Maddon is a different species of baseball manager. He sometimes arranges for zoo animals to show up at practices. He hires magicians to entertain the players and loosen them up. He has them wear pajamas on cross-country flights. One week every season, he cancels before-game batting practices so they can rest. When the Cubs players decided last year they wanted to throw a disco-ball dance party after every win – something very few managers would allow – Maddon let it happen.

Maddon’s approach yields two advantages. One is that all of those quirks produce a team that has fun and surpasses its potential on the field. The other is that players want so badly to play for Maddon that this offseason the Cubs signed three high-profile players – Jason Heyward, Dexter Fowler, and Ben Zobrist – for less money than they were offered elsewhere.

I’ve been negative about humans so far on this blog, first by lamenting how weak we are and then moaning about the various scenarios in which we’re all going to die.

But I’m also reminded that humans have a unique set of soft skills that can’t be quantified and that won’t easily be duplicated by robots, even if they’re beating us at everything else.

In baseball at least, the power is shifting from the machines to the men.

Which Apocalypse Would Be The Most Fun?


The dinosaurs had it easy.

One day, about 66 million years ago, the Triceratops were munching on leaves, and the Tyrannosauruses were munching on Triceratops, when there was a big boom. What happens next is the matter of some debate, (one that scientists are going to be studying this month), but suffice it to say that the dinosaur-dominated world ended abruptly.

By contrast, the Neanderthals watched their world crumble over tens of thousands of years as the climate shifted and those prissy Homo sapiens moved in and wrecked their neighborhood.

These two types of apocalypses – the cataclysm and the gradual deterioration – are both popular in science fiction, and for good reason.

Cataclysms allow writers to create a world from a blank slate. They can rebuild society from the bottom up, an appealing proposition that allows for some interesting premises. Or they can throw modern humans back into a primitive, survival-only state, ala Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and show us what they think we’re really made of.

The deterioration scenario allows writers to exaggerate aspects of the contemporary world and hypothesize on what happens if these trends keep running amok. A great example of this, while not quite an apocalypse, is the rampant consumerism and government fragmentation satirized in Snow Crash.

 So how’s it going to end for us?

Even though our fingers are no longer twitching above the launch buttons, we still have enough nuclear weapons to incinerate the Earth’s surface faster than you can fry an egg. And we continue to fuel a consumer avarice that’s melting the polar ice caps and has already plunged us into a massive species die-off that’s being called the Sixth Extinction.

Sure, some billionaires like Elon Musk are working to make humans an interplanetary species. As I’ve written before, I’m not terribly optimistic about those efforts working anytime soon.

So until we have backup copy of humanity running on Mars – or until we all die – we writers will have plenty of material to work from.

What’s your favorite apocalypse scenario for writing? And which do you think is most likely?

Fun question to mull over on a Friday, huh?

Scott Kelly Reminds Me How Weak Humans Are

Expedition 46 Landing

Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

With all the well-deserved attention that NASA astronaut Scott Kelly’s safe return to Earth is receiving this week, I can’t help but think about how fragile humans are.

Sure, he appears to have emerged from 340 days in zero gravity in good health. And he always seemed remarkably upbeat despite spending nearly a year enclosed within the same curving walls, far from his loved ones, breathing recycled air. At first glance, it’s hard to look at this unfailingly resilient man, probably one of the best members of our species, and feel anything but admiration and optimism for our future.

Then I remember that it may take humans two years – double the length of Kelly’s trip – to get to Mars and back. They’ll face double the isolation, double the physical challenges, spend twice as long eating vacuum-sealed food. They’ll also lose sight of Earth, its blue oceans and swirling clouds. Also, none of them will likely be Scott Kelly.

And yet we’ve already dropped two robots onto the Red Planet to take a look around and tidy up before we arrive. No sweat.

It’s not getting to Mars that’s hard, it’s getting humans to Mars that’s a pain.

Mary Roach probably said it best in Packing for Mars:

“To the rocket scientist, you are a problem. You are the most irritating piece of machinery he or she will ever have to deal with. You and your fluctuating metabolism, your puny memory, your frame that comes in a million different configurations. You are unpredictable. You’re inconstant. You take weeks to fix.”

As a science fan and science-fiction writer, it’s easy to get caught up in pondering all the technological advances that will be required for humans to push out into the stars. But even when we’ve got the propulsion, communications, and landing problems solved, we’re still going to be sending fallible, fragile humans on excruciatingly long journeys. Other than Scott Kelly, how many of us are equipped for that challenge?