Advice for Astronauts and Artists

Window to the World (NASA, International Space Station Science, 02/10)

Window to the World (NASA, International Space Station Science, 02/10)

NASA is currently accepting applications for a new class of astronauts at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX. Giving a glimpse into the NASA life, current astronaut Stan Love shares some advice for applicants.

Most surprising for me? How much of Love’s advice could be applied to writers.

I know. Usually when we talk about STEM (science/technology/engineering/math) careers, they’re at the opposite end of careers in the arts. STEM careers are stable, money-makers. Arts careers are an unstable crapshoot.

But Love’s description of life as an astronaut suggests that the two career paths are way more common than you’d suspect. He talks about the ups and downs of having one of the coolest jobs ever:

“It’s hands down the coolest job on or off the planet…The cherry on top is actually strapping into a rocket and blasting off to orbit around Earth (or, starting in a few years with Exploration Mission-2, the moon). You’ll float peacefully in weightlessness and gaze out the window as our amazing planet rolls by underneath you at 25 times the speed of sound.

Unfortunately, most of an astronaut’s time isn’t spent in space. It’s spent working at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas…At my house, an astronaut takes the trash out to the curb every Tuesday morning.”

I don’t know much about being an astronaut, but that totally reminds me of being a writer. Writing is awesome–nothing beats being totally immersed in a story, understanding the characters and their motivation and riding along with the plot.

Center of the Milky Way Galaxy (NASA, Chandra, 11/10/09)

Center of the Milky Way Galaxy (NASA, Chandra, 11/10/09)

But that’s not most of writing. Sometimes it’s you, staring at your computer, writing a sentence and deleting it, or deciding that the last chapter isn’t going to work. It’s finishing a draft and going back to revise it for the fifth time. It’s querying and going on sub and getting rejected and getting bad reviews. It’s balancing your writing with your family and friends and other jobs and that laundry that somehow hasn’t learned to do itself.

Come on, you think. Anyone with a STEM background automatically gets a great job! What does someone at NASA know about rejection? Um, a lot, it turns out:

“In our last selection in 2013, we had more than 6,000 serious applicants. We hired eight of them. That’s just slightly better than one-in-a-thousand odds…I started sending in applications – and updating them regularly – in 1991. I did that seven times in all. I got an interview (an exciting milestone, since it means you’ve made the short list) in 1994. I interviewed three times before finally getting hired in 1998. I like to joke that I didn’t so much impress the Astronaut Selection Board as wear them down.”

Kind of like the querying/submission process, right? One rejection doesn’t mean you’re not a worthwhile candidate or that your career is over. It means maybe not right now. It means keep trying.

Love also talks about managing expectations with regard to the application process, rejection, and not framing your life around trying to game the system:

I met some folks who had dedicated their whole lives to becoming astronauts. They learned to fly, not because they love airplanes, but because they heard that the Astronaut Selection Board likes pilots. They learned to scuba dive, not because they love the sea, but because they heard that the board likes scuba divers. I observed folks doing these things, and then not getting selected (the likeliest outcome), and then becoming very, very bitter and disappointed people.

I didn’t want to follow their example, and I recommend that you don’t either. Instead, just do what you love doing.

I was drawing pictures of airplanes and spaceships in first grade, so when I had the chance to earn a pilot’s license, or take elective courses in aerospace engineering…or take a job as an engineer working on spacecraft optical instruments at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, I jumped on it. And I had a blast.

Now, all of those things were also good for applying to be an astronaut, so I went ahead and included them on my applications. But because I was doing what I loved, I would have been perfectly happy where I was—even if I hadn’t been picked as an astronaut.


Space weather forecast from @ISS: Moonless with a chance of #Perseid meteors! – photo by Astronaut Scott Kelly

There’s no way to know what a publisher will like, what kind of book is going to be the next major bestseller, or what kind of book will be in print for the next fifty years. You can try to write a book that you think has all the elements of being a bestseller (vampire dystopian quirky romance!), but there’s no way it’s going to resonate with anyone if you don’t write it out of pure love. Sometimes the story you love is also the story that’ll sell a gajillion copies and get you a castle next to JK Rowling’s. If that’s the case, awesome. But you get there because you’re writing the story of your heart, not because you’re writing the story you think will sell.

For artists and for astronauts, you have to deal with a lot of rejection. Maybe someday you’ll see your book on a shelf or see the Earth from orbit. Maybe not. But the work you do should be what propels you forward–even when it’s not fun and when it really feels like work. Because when you put yourself and your passion in your work, that comes through to editors and to the Astronaut Selection Board.

I get super motion sick, so I won’t be applying to the astronaut class anytime soon. But I’m glad to take a little astronaut advice into my writing life as we all explore new worlds.

The Soul of Wit

A fun look at how stylometry helps prove that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’s plays.

I’m always a little baffled when people try to make a big conspiracy theory around Shakespeare. (See also Truman Capote writing To Kill a Mockingbird instead of Harper Lee.) Let the dude have his work!

Also, this is good proof that a writer’s voice is a real thing. Even though Shakespeare wrote sonnets, historical dramas, fantastical comedies, and more, all his works have his particular tone and style.

Maybe you’re not Shakespeare, but you have your own writerly voice. Someone else can be writing about spooky ghosts or family dramas or adventures in space, but your voice is all your own, and that’s part of what makes everything you write unique.

Gif-fiction with the Hanging Garden

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of gifs. So when Natalie Parker and Julie Murphy approached me about The Hanging Garden, a project in which 2014 debut YA authors write fiction inspired by gifs, my reaction was something along the lines of:

Our first challenge: write a short story inspired by one of two gifs. Every Monday, a different author shares their work. When I read the stories posted so far:

Then I realized I’d have to follow up these amazing writers:

My writing process:

But eventually I put together my very first gif-inspired short story and now it’s live on the Hanging Garden. Woohoo!

In grad school I mostly wrote short stories, but since then I’ve mostly worked on longer projects. It’s been really fun to dive back into a shorter form and write down ideas that can exist in their own little world. Looking forward to lots more gif-fiction challenges with the Hanging Garden team!

Land of 1000 Blog Posts–and a New Facebook Page!

Sometimes I hear writers talk about blogging (and social media in general) like it’s a big chore, and how overwhelming it is, and how it’s a giant time suck. I feel really fortunate in that I genuinely enjoy blogging. I look at it as a fun and easy way to share cool things I find online with lots of people who may find them cool, too. And apparently I’ve come across a lot of cool things to share, because this is my 1000th post. Thank you to all my followers and readers for helping me get to this point. I know at least some of you aren’t spam-bots, and I’ve really appreciated your likes and comments. You guys are the best!

To celebrate reaching 1000 posts, I’m launching my brand-new author Facebook page. Because one good social media turn deserves another! Follow along for more fun links, photos, live Q&As, and (hopefully) hilarity. Right now I have up a few new author photos–that’s right, I am a human being and not just one profile picture!

Thanks again to my wonderful readers and followers. You keep me going, and I’m psyched to share another 1000 posts with you.

Same Annie, New Look

This weekend I finally got around to updating my site, and I’m really digging it so far. A few changes:

  • An updated About section, including links to interviews and more general info about me. (Do I like nail polish? Secrets revealed!)
  • A Books page, aka your one stop-shop for info on The Chance You Won’t Return.
  • The Blog is its own page now, which I think makes things a little cleaner.

Hope you enjoy all the new content! Let me know if things look weird or if links aren’t working. And don’t worry–even though the site has a shiny new look, you can still expect all the same fun bookish content you know and (hopefully) enjoy.

Links Galore

Lots of good links for today:

Countless Stars: Why I Don’t Rate Books

Sorry, stars.

These days, it’s easy to review and find reviews about pretty much anything. Need to find a local Thai restaurant? Don’t worry–there are three in your area and one of them has been rated four-and-a-half stars. It’s a helpful way to find coffee shops/shoes/apps/etc. that you’ll most likely enjoy.

That goes for books as well. At sites like Goodreads, you can rate and review pretty much any book you’ve ever read. For example, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has currently been rated 4.35 stars by 1,840,709 people. If you’ve been living under a rock for the last fifteen years or so and have no idea what this novel’s about, it can be helpful to see that so many people rated it highly. “Hmm,” you say, “maybe I should check this out!” Conversely, if you find a book that has a really bad rating, you might be more inclined to skip it. I know I’m at least a little swayed by star ratings.


I don’t like to rate books.

When I first joined Goodreads, I jumped on the star rating train. Four stars over here! Five stars over there! But sometimes I’d run into the problem of wanting to give a half-star and Goodreads isn’t really structured that way. I’d round up, wanting to be nice, but that felt disingenuous when compared to all the other full star reviews. Also, sometimes I’d finish a book and, coming off that good post-read vibe, rate it really highly. But then a few weeks would go by and I’d wonder if the book really deserved a five-star rating. Should I go back and change it? Or rate based on that initial reaction? And what did these stars even mean, anyway? Were five stars for books that I had all around positive feelings about, or should they be reserved for my all-time favorites? How bad does a book have to be for it to get one star?

For me, it’s hard to quantify the reading experience. When I try to rank books by stars, I end up feeling like J. Evans Pritchard in Understanding Poetry*:

A few things I find problematic. First, books aren’t necessarily like a dinner out or a futon–they stay with you and change you, and they have the potential to keep changing you over time. When I was in fourth grade, the American Girl books would have been at the top of my list. (Samantha’s in particular–Victorian era for the win.) If I were to give them a star rating now, should I take into account how I loved them in fourth grade and how they developed my interest in early 1900s history? Giving Samantha Learns a Lesson a two-star rating feels cold, even if I’m not necessarily picking up the book these days.

Second, it’s hard to compare books based on numbers. Maybe you loved one aspect of a book but found others less compelling, while another book was just kind of solid. Does that mean they both deserve three-star reviews? Ideally you could explain these reasons in a review, but that review doesn’t go into a book’s quantifiable average star rating. Can you give a literary classic like Ulysses a five-star rating and give the exact same rating to a hilarious and touching picture book like Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day? They’re very different but both beloved and praised in their own way. But how can a rating system differentiate between the two?

Third, even though ratings are ostensibly to make reviews clearer, they can vary dramatically from person to person. One reader might give three stars to books they enjoyed and save five stars for their very favorites. Another might see three stars as a rating for books that had some major flaws (you are missing two whole stars, after all) and give four or five stars to books they enjoyed. So if the system isn’t standardized, what’s the point?

I couldn’t get over these issues so, a few months ago, I removed all my ratings. Granted, I didn’t have more than a hundred or so books rated anyway, but it gave me a sense of relief. Now I use Goodreads more as a tool to keep track of what books I’ve read (especially helpful for Friday Fifteen reviews).

I know that rating can be a hugely helpful tool and I don’t think anyone should stop rating books if they find it helpful. But for me it doesn’t work, and I feel better now that I’ve stopped trying to make it work.

*Anything for a Dead Poets Society reference, right?

(image: Clarissa de Wet)

Gif vs. Jif: Keep Your Peanut Butter Out of My Moving Images

Apparently, the creator of the gif says that the term is pronounced like the peanut butter brand, Jif. I can’t see how this can be true because, as Salvador Rodriguez points out in his article: “But why “jif” and not “gif?” I mean, its a “graphical” interface format, not a “jraphical” one, right?”

My question: can you create a word and get its pronunciation wrong?

Yes. Because I’m on team gif. When I hear someone pronounce it jif, this is me:

Sorry, Wilhite. I will always appreciate what you did for the internet and how I express my emotions, but I can’t stand with you on this one.

PS–I’m going to pretend this post is related to writing because it’s about language. That counts, right? Whatever, more gifs!

DFTBA, America

Worlds collide when John Green was invited to appear in President Obama’s Google+ Hangout. See the results below:

Smooth move, Obama. I also love how this brings together the world of YA and the world of politics. When I was a teen, I wasn’t that involved in politics. I didn’t see it as something I could have any part in and, frankly, found it kind of boring. (Totally untrue on both counts, but there you have it.) But videos like this could make teens feel like politics is a approachable, which could lead them to finding ways to get involved and get their voices heard.

Also, I’m voting for Eleanor.