Consider A Spherical Cow

When I was in my twenties, I took a Ninja Taijutsu martial-arts class on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Adrian, the class’ sempai (senior student), was a physics doctoral candidate by day. At night, he donned his gi, tied on his black belt, and assisted the instructor in pounding us new recruits into fighting form.  One night, he approached me with a forward roll, leapt up into a defensive stance, and said, “Consider a spherical cow!” While I was considering, his opening move in our undeclared sparring match sent me sprawling. My surprised laugh turned into an even more surprised “oof!” as I struck the mat.

Adrian’s message? Always expect the unexpected and never get caught off guard. It’s hilarious to picture a cow as a beach ball. Just don’t get so absorbed in your Holstein hyper-sphere that you end up airborne when the real world crashes into that amusing picture in your head and sends you flying.

Later, he shared the joke that had produced that punch line. In condensed form: a beef farmer consults with three professionals about how to make his feedlot operation more efficient. The first two consultants are an agronomist and a business coach, and they furnish the expected advice, complete with charts and stats. The third consultant, a physicist, begins with, “Assume the cow is a sphere…”

So what do spherical cows have to do with a writer’s journey toward publication?

The journey to publication features similar waypoints and rules of the road for all travelers. You’ve encountered these before: why it’s essential to get an agent, how to attract the agent, why you need to revise, revise, and revise again, how a writer’s critique group can provide useful feedback, why it helps to share your manuscript with editing professionals (developmental editors for plot and style problems, line or copy editors for making the grammar and syntax road-worthy)…and all the rest.

If anything, publishing professionals would seem to discourage the spherical-cow approach. A winning hook is one thing; getting noticed for some wacky gimmick is another. In other words, don’t send a manuscript printed on cow-patterned paper. (For that matter, many agents don’t want a printed manuscript at all, and for Bossy’s sake, don’t send it unsolicited.) With a first novel, I’ve read time and time again, don’t submit anything too “out there” for the agent to sell.

On the other hand, spherical cows do sell. Who wouldn’t jump on the chance to publish a bovine ball’s autobiography? A topic or take that’s truly original, a striking voice to die for…the unexpected, not just a joy to ponder, but the kind of originality that knocks you over (with a mat to soften the blow, I hope) while you’re immersed in its provocative questions.

What we remember about any journey are the unexpected, quirky, possibly frustrating but always exciting parts: the bird who landed on your head while you took that selfie atop the Great Wall, the friendly stranger on the bus who ended up hiring you for a fulfilling new job, the gorgeous view from the train that inspired you to move halfway across the country to your dream home. And, of course, your first glimpse of a cow rolling across a field at dawn.

cattle-19th-century-grangerWhatever point you’ve reached on your own writing journey, I invite you to join me—and to prepare for the unexpected.

19th-century cow image courtesy of http://paintingandframe.com/prints/others_cattle_19th_century-23612.html. 

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