Laelaps

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Blogs, as Carl Zimmer astutely noted at this year’s ScienceOnline conference, are software. Despite all the hand-wringing over whether science bloggers can or should replace science journalists the fact of the matter is that science blogs are the independent expressions of a variety of writers about subjects which they feel passionate about. There is no single science blog archetype that all blogs must fit, and this flexibility allows science writers the freedom to compose and promote their work in an increasingly fragmented media landscape.

Hindsight being what it is, of course, I can look back now and see that I ended up doing the right things for the wrong reasons. I started science blogging in the autumn of 2006, a few months after I was inspired to write what would eventually become Written in Stone, but at that time I was just having fun. I loved writing about science and discussing ideas with other paleo-nerds, and it was not until the beginning of 2008 that I really got serious about my writing.

The event that catalyzed my metamorphosis into aspiring science writer I am now was Jennifer Ouellette’s keynote address at the second annual science blogging conference (now ScienceOnline). She spoke of her own blog as a kind of “writing lab” in which she was free to experiment with different ideas, and she also noted that if a writer wants to be taken seriously they will cut back on the superfluous LOLCat posts a bit. Those were probably the most important lessons that I took home from the conference, and so I made a conscious effort to transform Laelaps into a place where I could present the best of my science writing.

As I have gradually discovered, using Laelaps as a writing lab provided a number of benefits. Perhaps the most important was that it kept me in the habit of writing almost every day. In order to feed this blog I needed to find new stories, figure out how to tell them, and practice at becoming a better writer, all of which helped to keep up my motivation to write my book. In turn, my blog became an archive of my writing, and if I wanted to pick up a thread I let go some time ago I could simply run a search to find what I had already written and start working from there. This proved to be very useful during the book-writing process, especially when I needed to look up quotes or research I had previously mentioned on the blog.

But feedback from readers is also important. My interactions with readers over the past several years have constantly pushed me to improve my writing, and I have even tested out a few snippets from my book on this blog from time to time to see what people thought (though not since I actually signed with a publisher). Additionally, interacting daily with readers allows a writer to accumulate credibility within the science blogohedron and a regular following. As I will explain later in this post, these factors can be very important once a book hits the shelves.

So, while I have not always done so consciously, I have used this blog to improve my writing, test ideas, and build up a small following of interested readers. It has required a lot of work (I probably spend more time per post now than when I started blogging), but I must say that using this blog as a writing lab has been a success. And, when it comes to finding a home for your book, being an experienced blogger can have some important benefits.

The way people find and digest popular science is changing, and no one really knows what is going to happen next. What is apparent, however, is that any science writer who wants to survive is going to have to know how to navigate both the traditional publishing world and the mess of blogs, social networking sites, and other resources on the web. If you are an experienced science blogger then you are already one step ahead of many other writers; you have already established yourself within a community of people who are already interested in what you have to say. If you belong to a well-regarded blog collective or write a blog for a magazine (I also write Dinosaur Tracking for Smithsonian), so much the better, and as I said yesterday, make sure you note your blogging experience in your proposal.

Granted, keeping up a blog can be a bit of a drain during the book-writing process (some days I do not feel very much like blogging even though I know it is important to maintain my presence online), but regularly publishing polished samples of your writing can do a lot to enhance your reputation as a science writer. They may never comment, but editors, agents, and other science writers do read blogs, so if you are working on a book you definitely want to put your best work forward.

Indeed, as you write your blog you will almost certainly come into contact with other writers and people who are already established within science publishing. Many of these people want to see other science writers do well, and in my experience they have been very generous with their time and advice. They can also refer you to people who can help get your work published. I met my agent because I had asked another blogger (who had read my sample chapters) to mention my book to any agents he happened to meet. He said he didn’t know any at that moment, but not too long afterward he bumped into one and bigged up my book. Additionally, the “Ida” fracas last May sent my traffic through the roof, and among the people who surfed in was a literary agent who poked around the blog and saw that I was working on a book. By that time I had already signed with my agent, but it is another example of how blogs can create important opportunities for aspiring book authors. Do not be shy about your work. While I wouldn’t recommend posting the whole thing and saying “Ok, who wants to publish this?” it does pay to let people know what you are working on.

And then there is the matter of promotion. Even though the release of Written in Stone is still months away I plan on using this blog to organize events both online and offline. Much like David Williams did for Stories in Stone, I intend on running a blog book tour comprised of coordinated interviews and book reviews, and like Rebecca Skloot I am hoping to use this blog (as well as my Facebook and Twitter accounts) to organize events at museums, universities, and other venues. I will probably not do a true “book tour” (I just don’t have the money to take a month or two off to travel the country in the hopes that a handful of people will buy my book), but I will use this blog to connect with people who are interested in having me come speak and do my best to work out a way to get there. Obviously Michael and David can say more about blogs and book promotion than I can, though, so I hope they chime in with their own experiences.

Science blogging is what made Written in Stone possible. Had I not started science blogging I probably would have never gotten beyond page 10 of my manuscript before tossing the project aside. From simply getting myself into the habit of writing to connecting with experienced science writers, writing on the web has been an overwhelmingly positive experience, and for anyone else who is thinking about writing a pop-sci book I would say that it is never too early to start blogging.

[See Part 1 of this series here.]

Comments

  1. #1 Sean Craven
    March 16, 2010

    Brian, it’s fascinating for me to read this post and realize that I watched all of that happen right in front of me. Got so say, seeing your advance has been a source of inspiration.

    (Not to mention the inadvertent effects you’ve had on my on-line career — I began corresponding with Glendon Mellow through your comments section, and that led to my involvement in Art Evolved, etc.)

    And to take it a step further, when I found out you were gathering blog posts into a book, I took a look at my own site and realized that scattered through it were a number of short autobiographical essays and anecdotes. I’ve compiled them into a file, and behold. Book-length. Of course, they’re written in my slovenly online style, but that’s what the revision process was made for.

    In other words, dude — I may not be a science blogger, but as a writer? Glad to have your example.

    Keep it up, man. Keep it up.

  2. #2 Michael
    March 17, 2010

    My book-blog sequence was, of course, entirely the reverse. I was encouraged by the publishers to set up a blog to support the book and as a means of writing all the stuff that ended up on the cutting room floor. Now it’s taken on a life of its own and very enjoyably added a new dimension to my life and network (and there’s still stuff from the cutting room floor to pick up).

    After a year and a half, I look at the material that’s on the blog and think “wow, I’ve written another book.” Certainly in terms of number of words, I have, but I’m not sure that a blog converts easily into a book. There are certainly sub-themes that could be developed and reconstructed, but substantial creative weaving would be required.

    As for promotion, I am no expert – as I have commented in my first piece, the book has been adequately, but not aggressively, marketed by both publishers (I spent a long time brainstorming the forms they sent for the author’s recommendations on where the book should go to for review and promotion). It has shown up in some interesting places, resulting in radio opportunities and some talks (and, of course, the Burroughs Award was a bolt from the blue); the blog has certainly helped, but I’m not much of a marketing expert or salesman, and so not of much help here.

    And a word on the mysteries of Amazon rankings. Tracking the numbers can be compulsive, but I have no idea what they mean – and neither does anybody else. It is, I think, a good idea to set up the author’s page on Amazon.com, and, if friends write you nice things about the book, suggest that they might like to put up a review on Amazon – I believe that they really do help.

  3. #3 Davor
    March 18, 2010

    It’s funny, I realized recently that I write more now, since starting my dinosaur blog, than I did in the years immediately following my bachelor’s degree in creative writing. I certainly don’t go nearly as deep on mine as you do on your two fine blogs, but the daily writing, even if it’s just to praise some odd dinosaur artifact found in an antique shop, is keeping my writing tools sharp.

    Focused blogging, more than personal “journal” blogging, has been pushing me in ways I never have been before. Whereas I think much of my fiction writing was purposeless and less than rewarding to the reader, writing about science has been a great way to hone my skills. I don’t know if I’ll ever write a proper book, but if I ever get the fire to write fiction again, I hope it will be improved for what I’ve learned writing about science.

    I love “blogohedren” so much more than “blogosphere.” did you coin it?

  4. #4 Ruth Seeley
    March 20, 2010

    Brian, I wanted to say in less fleeting form (i.e. not merely in a tweet), how much I’m enjoying this series of yours on ‘from blog to book.’

    The truly wonderful thing I learned about writing in my 40s was that it’s a skill that continues to improve the more you work at it, the more you do of it (that’s assuming you have some talent at it to begin with, of course, and that you continue to feed that talent by continuing to not only write, but read others who write better, worse and differently from you).

    Secretly I think the true value of blogs in particular (and I’d include photo sharing sites like flickr as a blog platform for the purpose of my argument) and social media in general is at least threefold: first there is the ease of self publishing and the ease with which one can get one’s thoughts down in searchable and retrievable form (I’m sure I’m not the only one who can barely read their own handwriting anymore – writing a series of 12 post-dated cheques also gives me hand cramp now, so little do I actually write by hand any more). Second, as you do more writing and start to build an audience of some sort – no matter how small, it really doesn’t matter whether it’s half a dozen people or 600 or 6000, you do start to get feedback and encouragement and a sense of being less alone not in the world, but in your ambition to write something that matters, something that I think has been so neglected in our culture in the years between the end of WWII and the start of the 21stCentury. Fewer people have been reading books during this period, and you can certainly blame the novelty of television for that. Meeting other aspiring fiction writers from all over Canada in the 1980s at creative writing workshops, I got the sense that if it weren’t for CBC Radio and its amazing coverage of literature, there would be a lot more people declared mentally ill for wanting to do something that had real value to them although not (in terms of annual income they could expect if they ever did get a book published) to anyone else in the society in which they lived. This is the one the things the internet and the ability to both self publish and to connect easily with like-interested individuals globally has changed. The third dynamic that comes into play after you develop an audience is that you start to feel an obligation to provide more content – and both the futility of writing in a vacuum and the horrible phenomenon of writer’s block starts to fade as you feel a self-imposed but perceived as externally imposed pressure to blog because you haven’t in a while, or to post another photo to flickr because people you’ve connected with notice that you haven’t done so in a while.

    Ok – so that was a blog post in and of itself – sorry for commandeering your stream here. :)

  5. #5 müşteri yorumları
    April 4, 2011

    The truly wonderful thing I learned about writing in my 40s was that it’s a skill that continues to improve the more you work at it, the more you do of it (that’s assuming you have some talent at it to begin with, of course, and that you continue to feed that talent by continuing to not only write, but read others who write better, worse and differently from you).

  6. #6 altın çilek
    April 4, 2011

    The truly wonderful thing I learned about writing in my 40s was that it’s a skill that continues to improve the more you work at it, the more you do of it (that’s assuming you have some talent at it to begin with, of course, and that you continue to feed that talent by continuing to not only write, but read others who write better, worse and differently from you).

  7. #7 canlı maç izle
    April 5, 2011

    I agree “The truly wonderful thing I learned about writing in my 40s was that it’s a skill that continues to improve the more you work at it, the more you do of it (that’s assuming you have some talent at it to begin with, of course, and that you continue to feed that talent by continuing to not only write, but read others who write better, worse and differently from you).”

  8. #8 kullanıcı yorumları
    April 6, 2011

    ..Brian, it’s fascinating for me to read this post and realize that I watched all of that happen right in front of me. Got so say, seeing your advance has been a source of inspiration.

  9. #9 Pembe Maske Yorumları
    June 11, 2011

    The truly wonderful thing I learned about writing in my 40s was that it’s a skill that continues to improve the more you work at it, the more you do of it (that’s assuming you have some talent at it to begin with, of course, and that you continue to feed that talent by continuing to not only write, but read others who write better, worse and differently from you)…

  10. “”but in your ambition to write something that matters, something that I think has been so neglected in our culture in the years between the end of WWII and the start of the 21stCentury. Fewer people have been reading books during this period, and you can certainly blame the novelty of television for that. Meeting other aspiring fiction writers from all over

  11. I agree “The truly wonderful thing I learned about writing in my 40s was that it’s a skill that continues to improve the more you work at it, the more you do of it (that’s assuming you have some talent at it to begin with, of course, and that you continue to feed that talent by continuing to not only write, but read others who write better, worse and differently from you)

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