Dear Tradpub: Thanks for staying with me as I continue to sketch out this book proposal. Think of these blog posts not as a formal outline or proposal, but as me talking to you over a long lunch. I don’t have the benefit of a smart agent or editor (yet!) to reflect back to me and help me improve and shape these ideas, so all I can do is keep coming back and rewriting these blog entries as I think of things to add…
I’m 53 years old, just over the “cap” I set for viral immunity. Oh crap, you say. How are you ever going to write a book from a millennial POV? Well, how do people write historical fiction? How do people write from the POV of a citizen of another country, another gender? We’re writers. This shit is what we do. In fact, I think it’s a better hook to have a “traitor to his class” write the story. Nobody can says it’s just a book by a resentful kid who wants to kill his elders if it’s written by someone in the high risk demographic who can see the value of bumping off quite a few of his contemporaries.
It’s funny how ideas come to you, how they get sifted and sorted, picked up and discarded. I’ve been drawn for the last year or so to “smart dystopias,” novels about post-Collapse society that focus on how humans would (will?) redraw their worlds and world views after It All Goes To Hell. These aren’t the standard “survivalist” novels, full of Tom Clancyesque heros, doomsday preppers defending a form of civilization (white, patriarchal, rural, Christian) that’s pretty much on its way out now – that, really, will need a Collapse of the world outside to keep their bubbles intact.
And these novels I’m reading are all by women, go figure. Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, and Eden Lepucki’s California are all finely drawn pictures of how Collapse is survived by its female protagonists. (And a friend I told about this project recommended Gold Citrus Fame, by Claire Vaye Watkins, so that’s on the to do list.)
They’re women who never would have dreamed of turning to violence, who find themselves forced into it to protect themselves and their own, who have to make choices about whether or not to fight for a whole new world (Sower) or surrender to that medieval “walled patriarchy” model to survive (California). Most Collapse books by men focus on the killin’, replete with zombies or vampires or whatever, but they’re just not as interesting, let’s face it, as these character-driven stories. I read Justin Cronin’s Passage books, but I didn’t connect with them the way I did with the women writers’ books. (And, shoot me in the head with an arrow, I find The Walking Dead incredibly boring, five minutes of killin’ and 55 of mopin’.) I want to read Y: The Last Man but my aversion to graphic novels has always been economic – $15 for an hour’s reading, x 5 or more installments, is a hefty investment.
My goal for Genetic Comet is to pair up the two approaches. I want to have the spirit of that female POV, building a believable post-Collapse world and taking modern, comfortable, civilized, intelligent people and setting them loose in it to see what they do, and I also want that big sprawling approach, the model in Cronin/King/Ayn Rand (I know, but she wasn’t a terrible story teller; the train crash section of Atlas Shrugged, stripped of its tub-thumping, is pretty good). And I want male characters “on the ground” who are following the path these women writers have laid out for their women characters – making choices about family and morality, forced to triage their ideals to survive.
California sucked the air out of the germ of my original idea for Genetic Comet (a working title BTW that will surely be replaced by something better), which is a good thing. Originally I was going to have the Virus, the Cure (or in this case the Temporary Cure), the Charismatic Compound/Militia/Rebel Leader, the Moral Man who has to fight him in the service of the idea of civilization, and that’s it. Minus the virus thing, Lepucki wrote my book for me, which forced me to rethink it.
What I came up with was a different sort of dystopia. I really don’t believe that we’ll be plunged back in to the Dark Ages by your ordinary plague. The Black Death took off 1/3 of Europe’s population, but… Well, historians disagree as to whether or not this “made room” for the Renaissance, but it didn’t hurt. I don’t think civilization will completely collapse, leaving us all wandering foragers in search of the The Last Can Of Beans. I do think it’ll shudder, and crack, and the earthquake will kill a hell of a lot of people. But not civilization itself. Especially if, per the main premise, it leaves the younger generations alive and kills off the Fox News Generation.
I’ve got three mains (so far), two under 40 and one over 50. It’s characters and their actions that drive the story, but what sells the story is the generational conflict that underlies it. We see nations where tribes or races or religions live in grudging harmony until something cracks, and the whole underlying pool of resentment and rage spills out. I don’t think that the generational divide in America contains as much suppressed violence as any Balkan state or arbitrarily-drawn Arab nation, but that’s because there is no issue to crack it down the middle the way a pandemic would. A virus that spares the young and kills the old (unless they can marshal enough political and military power to seize the medication to arrest it)? That thrusts the Baby Boomers and above into a minority position in the culture? That tips the balance even further away from white majority rule? The possibilities are dazzling.
Another of those funny “synchronicity” things that’s going on now is that I started reading Cadillac Desert just as I ginned up my query letter. It’s a book about how the American West defied common sense (only populate areas where the water supply already exists) and created unnatural places like Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles, etc. I only got it because I’d finished Adam Hochschild’s back catalog – the man is the master of narrative history, and I wanted another great nonfiction book, and there was Cadillac Desert in the alsobots.
It made me realize that I needed to focus on a particular piece of infrastructure to make my wider point. I couldn’t be dashing from POV to POV, electric grid to water supply to food chain. (Though of course, more synchronicity, I heard about this book, The Grid, on NPR yesterday and had to force myself not to buy it, to stop spending money on books that will be a loss if All This Comes To Nothing.)
And how perfect is water as the linchpin? If the power goes out, well, we revert to the 19th century, sunlight and candles and firewood. If the food delivery chain collapses, well, back to the land, and though it’ll kill a lot of people whose primary manual skill is PowerPointing, there will be survivors. But take away the water? No drinking, cooking, sewage removal water? You Are Fucked.
So yeah. Big sigh. My primary rage at tradpub is the amount of time everything takes. I could be firing off query letters today and sit and spin for six months before anything happens. During which time I have to be writing other things that pay money now, so I couldn’t make much progress on this other than the thinking and plotting that are already pretty much happening despite myself.
On The Bright Side. In the ten plus years since I wrote my last query letter, the web has made life easier. There are sites like Manuscript Wish List where you can find agents who are looking for what you’ve got, there’s Query Tracker where you can manage your submissions, and of course QueryShark, whose potential feedback I await even as I try and keep perspective and remind myself that This All May Come To Nothing…