That Darn Cat

The cat is out of the bag.  The genie is out of the bottle.  The horse is out of the … well, you get my point.

Two years ago this month I attended the Life, the Universe, and Everything Symposium in Provo, Utah.  For the uninitiated, LTUE is an annual conference for science fiction and fantasy writers.  Talk about Nerd City.  You would be unsurprised then to learn I felt right at home.  LTUE was, hands down, the most fun I’ve ever had at a professional conference.  There’s something to be said for sitting through sessions full of people who geek out over things like The Lord of the Rings, the movie Interstellar, and the creative process in general.  The 2018 conference was also a grand excuse to hang out with an old college buddy of mine who is one of the coolest and most talented people I know.

That’s not to say LTUE was all sugar cubes and lollipops.  I showed up a wee bit naïve.  I paid good money to spend fifteen minutes with an editor from a small publishing house who showed exactly zero interest in my latest writing project.  (In fairness, she’s far from the only one.)  My eyes were opened to the harsh reality that in the publishing world marketing acumen is as important, if not more so, than actual writing skill.  (Note:  Some would have you believe if you want agents, editors, and publishers to take you seriously, you sure as heck better have 10,000 Twitter followers.)  Perhaps worst of all, I learned I’m a very small fish in a very big pond of publishing dreams.  I mean, I’ve written exactly three books I’m not completely embarrassed by, which to me is a pretty big deal, but it seemed like most of those Lord of the Rings nerds had written at least twenty.

So, LTUE was a mixed bag for me, but today I want to tell you about the best piece of advice I came away with that week, something I didn’t even take advantage of until over a year later.  Here it is.  Are you ready?:  If you want to learn how to tell stories, read Save the Cat.  That’s it.  Admittedly, I didn’t read the original Save the Cat by Blake Snyder.  Instead, I picked up Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody.  I blasted through it, I took notes, and my mind was absolutely blown.

Sure, I was already sort of aware of the archetypal hero’s journey.  I’d read The Hero With a Thousand Faces.  I’ve just plain read a lot of stories in my day, which is to say I’m sort of intuitively aware of some basic components of a good one, but where Joseph Campbell gives you a lot of Freudian mumbo-jumbo, Save the Cat reveals the nuts and bolts.  I will never read a book, watch a movie, listen to a musical, or write a novel the same way again.

Yes, mind blown.  The best eleven-dollar writing career investment I’ve ever made.  I should’ve read it twenty years ago.  So, for all my little Lord of the Rings nerd-lets out there, you’re on notice.  Save the Cat is where it’s at.

Chris lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, with his wife, Sara, and their six young children.  He enjoys stories by Ray Bradbury, starry night skies, and cherry limeade.  He is also the author of Red: A Football Novel, available on Amazon in paperback and for Kindle.


All Things

All things denote there is a God.  Even watermelon.  I’m serious.  Does anything taste quite so exquisite as a juicy slice of watermelon on a hot summer’s day?  And why should it?  Unless, of course, God loves us and wants us to be happy.

In the Book of Mormon, the thirtieth chapter of Alma, the forty-fourth verse, the Prophet Alma declares, “[A]ll things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.”  Amen to that, I say.  Ditto.  Play it again, Sam.  Those words ring true for me.  Always have.

A while back, I read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.  I’ll admit that most of what I read there probably went blasting straight over my obtuse head.  (And to think Brief History is a dumbed-down physics textbook for us lesser mortals.)  Even though Sir Stephen himself was a famously devout atheist, I felt like he was shouting out God’s love on nearly every page.  Of course God exists.  The universe is too magnificent for it to be otherwise.

Strange as it might be for a man of science to dismiss religion, I’m equally perplexed by religious types getting bent out of shape over science.  So maybe there was a Big Bang.  Hold onto your hats, people.  Our ways are not His ways, and thank goodness for that.  Doesn’t mean God is any less in charge.  All I see is the blooming of a cosmic rose.

Which brings me to my next point.  When I think on God’s goodness, I mostly do think big.  Creation itself is, after all, pretty darn gargantuan.  The night sky gives me goose bumps and elicits exclamations of, “How great Thou art!”  However, as I drove home from work one day last week, it dawned on me that perhaps I can be a little farsighted, and oftentimes the evidence of God’s love is a whole lot closer to home.

What of miracles like humor and curiosity and compassion?  What about music?  And, yes, even watermelon.  Why would any of those things matter if God wasn’t in charge and we weren’t his offspring?  There’s complexity, cohesion, and beneficence all around us.  The burden of proof, I’m convinced, isn’t on God.  It’s the other way around – if only you’re willing to see it.

Chris lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, with his wife, Sara, and their six young children.  Chris enjoys stories by Ray Bradbury, starry night skies, and cherry limeade.  He has also watched every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation more than once.  Chris is the author of Red: A Football Novel.


Space Jams!

Every good space opera deserves a playlist.  Or so I thought when I conceived my sci-fi action-adventure novel called The Rocket Riders.  (Presently querying agents.  Anyone?  Anyone?)  A space opera.  Yes, I’m still congratulating myself over that clever little play on words.  Well, there was no NaNoWriMo for me this year, but I did spend time last month diving back into the world of The Rocket Riders.  I cranked out revisions to a partially written Rocket Rider sequel (Space Corps Academy: A Rocket Rider Story), but more importantly, I finalized the playlist for Book Two, so here goes:

ACT I:  “Drops of Jupiter” by Train.  A year has passed since we last saw him, and we find J.R. Rider and his new bestie, Steven Bowman, right in the middle of the action.  Fresh off conquering the galactic barrier, J.R. is cocky, confident, and reckless.  Meanwhile, this space-based tune reminds me of one of my own besties, a former college roommate of mine who came home from class one afternoon and said, “Chris, you have to listen to this!”  I must say I politely declined when he invited me to sing along with the “nah-nahs” at the end.

ACT II:  “93 Million Miles” by Jason Mraz.  J.R. heads to the Academy where he’s on his own for the first time in his life.  Space Corps Academy draws on many of my own experiences and feelings from when I left home to go to college and then later when I traveled to the Dominican Republic to serve a two-year church proselyting mission.  Maybe you can’t actually go home again, but home can give you the courage to keep going.

ACT III:  “Friends” by The Pepper Tree Market.  Even the best of friends can hit some rough patches in their relationship.  This fun song by a brother/sister duo who both served church missions in my home state of Nebraska represents a mid-novel falling out between J.R. and Steven.  Naturally, things get worse before they get better.

ACT IV:  “Over My Head (Cable Car)” by The Fray.  Have you ever noticed how most every Star Wars movie ends with the heroes battling the odds on three different fronts at the same time?  I have, and so it is with my new Rocket Rider story.  The clock’s ticking, and J.R., his sister Sally, and his girlfriend, Ka’Leili, each in a separate corner of the galaxy, find themselves in over their heads as they collectively fight for the future.

ACT V:  “A Sky Full of Stars” by Coldplay.  The battle’s won.  (Is that a spoiler?)  In a parting shot, J.R., a changed man, heads back out to the stars with his wingman, Steven.

END CREDITS:  “Live It Well” by Switchfoot.  At its heart, Space Corps Academy is a story about finding yourself and doing the right things for the right reasons.  This song perfectly captures those themes for me.

MORE END CREDITS:  “A Sky Full of Stars” by The Piano Guys.  Once again, The Piano Guys take a great tune and make it even better.

There.  Space Corps Academy.  It’s an opera in space, and I’m dying to finish it.  Now that I have my playlist set, I’m ready to do just that.


NaNoWriMo Blues

Absence really does make the heart grow fonder.  I know because I’m feeling it right now.  National Novel Writing Month is all of nine days old, and I find myself, lamentably, sitting on the sidelines this year.  With a busy career, six kids, and church responsibilities aplenty, it isn’t in the cards for me at the moment, but I can’t quite extinguish the passion.  I feel my word count slipping away with every passing day, and, believe me, it hurts.

National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo as it’s affectionately called by its participants and advocates, first came to my attention almost a decade ago when I read an article in the local newspaper about a movement of writers who each dedicate the month of November to churning out a 50,000-word novel.  Fifty thousand words!  In just thirty days.  How could anyone be that crazy?

Well, I had to find out for myself.  Two years ago, I gave it a shot for the first time.  Going in, I had an outline and a plan.  The plan was to write every day of the month except for Sundays, which meant I’d have to pace myself by getting down approximately 2,700 words each writing day.  I wrote about a teenage girl in search of her father’s killer.  I didn’t have much time to think; I just wrote – two to three hours a night.  To paraphrase lyrics from a popular musical, I wrote like I was running out of time.  That’s precisely because I was.  The experience was grueling and exhilarating and unlike anything I’d ever done before.  I watched a story and characters come to life in the blink of an eye, and before I knew it, the month was over and 50,000 words were staring back at me.  What a rush.

Last year, I was right back at it.  In thirty days, I wrote the first 50,000 words of the sequel to a young adult science fiction novel I’d previously written.  Admittedly, my second NaNoWriMo experience was a bit messier than the first, but it was a thrill nonetheless, and when it was over, I had half a draft cooling on my laptop.  None of it was perfect, but it was beautiful and better than I ever could’ve hoped.

As I said, this year it wasn’t meant to be, but I’m still doing what I can.  I’m burning vacation days on Fridays this month to spend time on my manuscript from last year.  I’m honing my words and, hopefully, I can crank out a few new ones.  Even under the crush of life, I have words to write before I sleep.  Lots of them.  And someday soon, I’ll give NaNoWriMo another go.  When that day comes, I hope you’ll join me.  In the meantime, I’ll be pining away for a NaNoWriMo victory even bigger and more glorious than any that came before it.


These Are the Voyages

As a good “friend” once told me, “Chris, it’s not so much that you are a nerd; it’s the fact that you glory in it.”  So, in unabashed nerd style and in honor of the upcoming premiere of the new “Star Trek: Picard” television series, I’m here to count down the Top Ten Best Jean-Luc Picard Episodes of all time.  These are the voyages that captured my adolescent imagination and continue to influence my own storytelling to this day.  If you’re a Trekkie yourself, please feel free to chime in below.  If you’re not a Trekkie, then you should be, and watching these ten episodes featuring the greatest Star Trek captain ever would be a very good place to start.

10.  “The First Duty”:  “The first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth!”  In this episode, the captain confronts a young protégé who has strayed from the straight and narrow.  The episode also marks the introduction of Boothby, the wise old Academy groundskeeper played by “My Favorite Martian” actor Ray Walston.

9.  “Chain of Command, Part II”“Star Trek: The Next Generation” was always at its best when it handed Sir Patrick (yes, the actor was knighted by the queen) a script and got out of his way.  This particular outing is all about putting two marvelous actors (David Warner plays the villain) in a room together and letting them have at it.  The result is mesmerizing television.

8.  “Who Watches the Watchers?”:  TNG didn’t really hit its stride until the third season, and this was perhaps the episode when, as a kid, I noticed there was something palpably different (and better) about the show.  Picard grapples with the fallout from a member of a primitive race catching a glimpse of the Enterprise crew and their advanced technology.

7.  “The Measure of a Man”:  I don’t like courtroom dramas.  They almost always strike me as hokey, but Picard’s spirited defense of the beloved android Data is such a wonderful showcase for both the character and the actor who plays him, I’m forced to admit this list wouldn’t be complete without it.

6.  “Tapestry”:  The captain dies and meets his old nemesis, Q, at the pearly gates.  Q offers Picard the chance to go back and change the greatest mistake of his youth, which he does, only to discover that the lessons learned from that event were what shaped him into the man he would ultimately become.

5.  “Darmok”:  Picard is stranded on a strange world with an alien captain who speaks only in metaphors, and the two of them must learn how to communicate and work together before a mysterious beast kills them both.  This poignant, thought-provoking episode represents the best Trek has to offer.

4.  “Yesterday’s Enterprise”:  OK, so maybe this isn’t a true Picard episode, but I’m including it here because it’s a great time travel story that illustrates more of what makes the captain a hero:  His implicit trust in his crew (in this case, Guinan) and his resolve to do the right thing no matter the cost.

3.  “The Inner Light”:  I might argue this episode is the pinnacle of all things Trek.  Captain Picard gets zapped by a probe from an extinct alien civilization, and in a matter of minutes he lives an entire lifetime on that civilization’s home planet.  He has a wife and children and gets to experience the family life he never enjoyed otherwise.  Why?  So the long-dead alien race can be remembered.  In the final moments, the captain finds himself back on the Enterprise, alone in his quarters, with the only remnant of his experience:  A flute he learned to play in his other life.  He puts the flute to his lips and begins to play in a moment that is as haunting as it is beautiful.

2.  “Family”:  This quiet little episode comes on the heels of one of the most exciting action pieces in franchise history, and so I sometimes think it gets overlooked.  Picard returns home to the family vineyard in France after a traumatizing ordeal at the hands of Starfleet’s most lethal enemy and finds a jealous brother – and a charming young nephew who wants nothing more than to grow up to be a starship captain like his uncle.  There are, understandably, cracks in the captain’s psyche.  For perhaps the first time in the series, Picard is vulnerable, and this is where he begins to heal.

1.  “All Good Things …”:  Patrick Stewart is in every scene of this two-hour series finale.  The episode is a sort of riff on Charles DickensA Christmas Carol (fun fact: Sir Patrick used to perform a one-man version of A Christmas Carol on Broadway) with the mischievous Q whisking Picard across past, present, and future to give him an opportunity to save the universe one last time.  I’m a sucker for great endings, and it’s the final scene of this one that always gets me.   The good captain, finally, after seven years in command of the Enterprise, joins his senior officers for their customary off-duty poker game.  “I should have done this a long time ago,” he says as he looks wistfully about the room and then begins to deal.  It’s as pitch-perfect a television send-off as you’ll ever see:  “So, five-card stud, nothing wild, and the sky’s the limit …”

Can you tell I’m just a wee bit excited to catch up with the captain?  You should be too.  “Star Trek: Picard” premieres January 23, 2020.