Science Online Advice: Writing Books

Last Friday, when I didn’t have any time to blog, Zen Faulkes wrote an interesting wrap-up post on Science Online 2013 in which he declared he won’t be back. Not because it was a bad time, but because other people would benefit from it more, and his not going frees up a spot for somebody else.

I recognize a lot of his reaction, though there were a couple of things that I got out of it that I think made it worthwhile, beyond just the socialization. On the whole, though, it wasn’t really a transformative experience for me. I like to think, though, that I was able to provide a few things that were of use to other people (I could be kidding myself, but whatever…). That’s why I wrote up last week’s three post series, and that’s the reason for this final wrap-up post.

One of the last sessions I went to was the How do you actually get a book written? session, and somebody I mentioned it to expressed surprise: “You already know how to do that!” But the point of going to that wasn’t to glean tips for my own use, but to provide what advice I could for the benefit of people approaching the book thing for the first time. There’s a degree of futility to this, of course– as I’m fond of telling people, not long after I signed my first book contract, I heard Walter Mosley say that the worst people to ask about publishing are writers, because they all got into the business via some improbable path that would never work if you tried it deliberately. Every book is its own thing, and every writer is a little different, so what seems like foolproof advice to me might seem the height of folly to somebody else. But, you know, it’s worth the attempt.

So, here, a week and a bit after the fact, is what I can remember of the book-writing tips I offered:

– I quoted Jim Macdonald, who pointed out that the key to writing is BIC: Butt In Chair time. You need to block out some time when all you’re doing is working on the book. The exact means by which you manage this may vary– a lot of people talked about using programs to cut off their Internet access for some amount of time, and that sort of thing, which makes a lot of sense. Personally, I tend to keep GMail and Twitter open in the background, because it’s a little bit of stress relief, but if I’m working I’ll let dozens or even hundreds of tweets go by basically unread.

The key thing is to establish that during some period of time, you are working on your book, and sticking to that. You won’t make any progress without some time during which you park your butt in the chair and write.

– At the same time, it’s also important to recognize that you don’t need whole days of time in which to write. Somebody asked about how you can write a book while working a full-time job, and the answer is, basically, by breaking it into smaller chunks that you can tackle in odd moments here and there. I tend to write drafts a chapter at a time, treating each as a self-contained unit, and that gives me something that looks more manageable than trying to contemplate the whole 80,000 word book.

There’s also a lot of benefit in revising as you go– if I’ve got a reasonably complete draft of a chapter, I’ll print it out and mark it up at night before bed, or during lunch, or something like that. Editing and revising are often less time-consuming than writing new words, but they still constitute progress. And making edits on the previous draft of one chapter can be a really good way to get back into the flow of the project after a few days away.

This is a really hard problem though, one that’s gotten harder and harder with each book for me. When I wrote How to Teach Physics to Your Dog, I was on sabbatical for a lot of that time, so I didn’t have to teach, and SteelyKid wasn’t born until a week after I turned in the first complete draft. With How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog, SteelyKid was a toddler, and I was teaching a full load, so writing time was a lot more scarce. For the book-in-progress, I’ve got two kids, and I’m a department chair. So I’m reduced to about one day a week of uninterrupted writing time– I don’t teach on Tuesdays, so I hole up in a coffee shop and write. the rest of the week… not much gets done. Progress is slooow, but it’s coming alone.

– Another critical thing to realize is that it’s okay to write crap. I said on Twitter once that the key to success as a blogger is getting to where your first drafts are good enough to post, while the key to success as a book author is accepting that your first drafts always suck. I think the smallest number of drafts a chapter has gone through for one of my books is around five. That’s before they go to my editor, mind. It’s usually three drafts before I ask Kate to read it and point out all my mangled syntax.

That’s not just because I get a little obsessive about things, though. It’s because it’s much, much easier to fix bad text than to fill a blank page with good text. There are lots and lots of times where I fully realize that what I’m writing is crap, but I push ahead to the end of the chapter anyway. That’s because I know that once I read over the crap that I’m writing, I’ll see how to fix it, where most of the reason I’m writing crap is that I don’t have the big-picture sense of where it needs to go.

So, in summary: park your butt in the chair, write whenever you can, and feel free to have your first draft suck.

– The other question that came up that I thought was really interesting was “How do you know when you have a good topic, and how careful do you have to be to keep from being scooped?” this is one where I have an odd perspective– a lot of the other published authors who were contributing come from the more journalistic side of things, where they’re used to pitching stories to editors and that sort of thing. They talked about going through lots of possible topics, and learning to see what was really a book vs. a long magazine article.

I come at this from a completely different angle– my first book basically dropped into my lap: I wrote a silly blog post that hit Boing Boing, and an agent contacted me to suggest I turn it into a book. It wasn’t the product of a long process of testing and rejecting ideas. Quite the opposite– I had a harder time convincing myself it could work than convincing an agent that it was viable.

With that said, my answer to both parts of that question is basically that the right topic is one that you can’t see anyone else writing– that’s personal enough to you that you have to be the one to write it. That fixes a lot of problems– if you’re the only author who can do that particular take on a subject, you’re obviously not going to get scooped, and if you’re personally invested in the project, you will find a way to get it written.

Of course, the talking-physics-to-the-dog thing is an easy solution to this problem– there aren’t a lot of other physicists known for having conversations with their pets, so I wasn’t too worried about having anybody else steal that gimmick out from under me. But even the current work-in-progress, a more general book about scientific thinking, is much more my thing than anybody else’s– I get a little rant-y about the central idea at times here on the blog. And while I got a lot of “Oh, that’s a great idea” comments from people I described the idea to, I’m not exactly worried that anyone else will steal the idea. And even if they tried, they wouldn’t write the same book I will.

Now, that’s easier said than done, but I think I’d stand by that bit of advice: when you’re trying to pick a topic, make sure it’s something that you’re invested in, and that you will do in a different– and, needless to say, better– way than anyone else who might approach the same topic. If you’ve got an idea like that, you’ve probably got a book you can sell to somebody. And if you’re invested in it strongly enough, you might find that you’ll write it even if nobody’s paying you for it up front.

– The final bit of advice was not at all unique to me, but can’t be repeated often enough: GET A GOOD AGENT. An agent will know the market, and know where to pitch the book in a way that will be more effective than just shotgun blasting it in the general direction of every publishing house in the world. A good agent will help you shape a proposal in a way that will make the book as a whole more effective. And a good agent will get you a better deal in dozens of little ways that you wouldn’t even realize you could negotiate about.

How do you find a good agent? One way is to contact friends and colleagues who have agents, and ask them if they can hook you up. You can also send (short!) queries to established agencies to ask if they’d be interested in looking at your proposal.

Two things to keep in mind when trying to decide on an agent: they or their agency should have a list of clients including people whose names you recognize, and who work in the same basic area that you do. If you’re writing non-fiction about science, you don’t want to sign up with somebody who only represents romance novelists. They won’t have the market knowledge you really need. If you don’t recognize any of the names on the client list, Google them, or ask friends and acquaintances.

Even more important, though, is this: THEY WILL NOT CHARGE YOU MONEY. A good agent makes his or her money on the commission from the books they sell. They’ll get paid when you get paid, in the form of a cut of the money the publisher pays you for the rights to the book (usually something like 15%). If a prospective agent asks you to pay a consulting fee up front, you run, do not walk, right the hell out the door. To quote Jim Macdonald again, the only place an author signs checks is on the back, when cashing them at the bank. If an agent or publisher asks you to fork over money up front, they’re cheating you.

I’m probably forgetting a few other points, but that was the really important stuff. I hope it proves helpful to somebody else, and if you think of anything I forgot, feel free to ask in the comments. I might take a while to respond, because of the no free time thing mentioned above, but I’ll get there.