Friday, December 28, 2007

The Friday Challenge

It's an occupational hazard. We're at a holiday dinner party. The Mrs. has excused herself and wandered off somewhere else for the moment, and that's when the stranger-lady on my other side sees her opportunity to pounce. "So," she says, "I understand that you're an author."

Yeah, I guess I am. I've had a few books published.

"What a coincidence. I'm writing a novel, too."

Oh, really? What's it about?

She answers. At length. All would-be writers love to talk (and talk, and talk!) about the book they're going to write. I won't tell you about her idea; it's her idea, and her claim to work and either prove out or fail trying. But pretty soon she has to pause for breath, and that's when I ask The Cruel Question.

So, how far along are you?

"Oh, I'm still working on the polishing the first chapter. You know, the opening needs to be perfect."

You've been working on this book for three years, and you've only written one chapter?

"I've been developing the outline for the rest. And I've written first drafts of some key scenes. But as everyone in every writing group I've ever been in says, if the first page and the first chapter aren't perfect, you may as well throw the rest away, because no editor will read further."

No editor...

That stuck in my craw. I can understand the reason for the standard editorial myopia. When you're stuck with the Augean job of wading through the slushpile, you look for any excuse to reduce the size of the heap, and most editors eventually wind up judging unsolicited manuscripts based on a quick glance at the first page. Then, later on, when you've advanced far enough in your career to be dealing with known authors and solicited submissions, you tend to judge submissions based on the first chapter and an outline, because in most cases that's all the author has written.

But thinking now as a reader...

Y'know, I think this is another of those cases where what "everyone" knows is absolutely wrong, and the received wisdom passed along in thousands of writing groups does more harm than good. As a reader, I never decide which book to buy based on the first sentence, the first page, or the first chapter. I decide which book to buy based on the reviews, the jacket copy, and the author's reputation. Then, once I've got the book in hand and am actually reading it, what matters most to me is the ending, because if the ending craps out, this engenders in me a powerful lack of interest in the author's next book.

I have never once finished a book and said, "Wow! What a great beginning! I wonder what else this author has written?"

And thus we come to this week's Friday Challenge.

Methane hydrate (more properly, Methane clathrate) is fascinating stuff. Long believed to be found only in the form of methane ice on the various moons and such in the outer solar system, we now know that there are sizable deposits of it right here on Earth, buried in the polar continental sedimentary rocks and the bitterly cold deep ocean sediments. In fact, a major deposit has been discovered in the Nankai Trough, about 30 miles off the coast of Honshu, and scientists estimate there is enough frozen methane in this one place to supply all of Japan's natural gas demands for 14 years, provided a safe way can be found to drill for, thaw, and tap it.

Which is precisely what JOGMEC — the government-run Japan Oil, Gas, and Metals National Corp. — proposes to do.

The environmental alarmists are alarmed and opposed to this project, of course. According to some theories it was a vast, uncontrolled release of methane gas that caused the Permian-Triassic Extinction (which wiped out the trilobites and eurypterids and all that), and a similar but smaller-scale eruption which caused the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (which wiped out — oh, a bunch of other weird critters that nobody misses).

Now, never mind how this story starts. Let's just assume that it does start, and that JOGMEC goes ahead with the drilling as planned, and that then, in accordance with the official rules for dramatic action, Something Goes Terribly Wrong. What that something is, I don't know, and don't much care. Maybe they awaken Godzilla. Maybe it turns out that Methane hydrate is the perfect fuel except that it smells like highly concentrated 250-million-year-old trilobite flatulence. Maybe it turns out that the Earth is hollow, and once punctured it goes skittering around the solar system like a giant deflating balloon. Take your wildest guess and run with it.

As for the Challenge, what I want you to do is imagine a rough sketch of whatever story you think should have proceeded from that moment when Something Terrible Happened, and then write a few paragraphs that comprise the final ending of your story, and post them in the comments for this blog item.

As always, the contest will be judged by the somewhat relaxed Friday Challenge rules, with a winner or winners to be announced next Friday and a prize or prizes to be awarded as per the principles enshrined behind Door #2. Whether you're entering or not, I encourage you to comment on and vote for the other entries, and if you're feeling really ambitious there is no limit on the number of entries you may post.

Any questions? Then, ready? Go!