Running With the Red Queen


Things have been a little slow around here this week, but for good reason.

As you might expect I have been hard at work on my first book, Written in Stone. It is a challenge, but the process has its own little rewards, and I am putting the majority of my effort into making it the best book that I possibly can. This leaves time for little else.

In fact, my experience thus far as a freelance science writer differs substantially from the "Life of a Freelance Writer" as described by writer Caroline Hagood. Hagood's routine involves many cups of coffee, shuffling around the apartment in pajamas, and rewarding herself with savory bits of meat and cheese for some work well done (or at least done, anyway). My own pattern is not as relaxed.

During the week I wake up early, before the sun comes up these days, and drag my sorry carcass to the grey cubicle where I work. The earlier I get in, the earlier I can leave. The harsh glare of the fluorescent lights invariably gives me a headache, and by the time that I can go home I have spent so much time indoors that sunlight stings my eyes as I walk across the parking lot to my old rustbox of a car.

When I get home I just want to rest, but it is usually better to keep what little momentum I have going to scoop the litterboxes, take out the trash, start the laundry, and take care of whatever else that needs doing. With basic upkeep out of the way it's time to grab a cold drink and watch last night's Daily Show and Colbert Report with Tracey. The trick is not letting myself get too relaxed; there is still much work to do.

We usually eat dinner early to leave the majority of the evening open for whatever projects we are working on. After I finish scrubbing the dishes it's time to get down to business. There are only a few hours left to work. I walk past the stack of review copies on the coffee table, murmuring "I'll get to you tomorrow, I promise" as I go, and set myself up in the office for the night's work.

It usually takes me a minute or two to get focused. I sit in the cat-ravaged office chair, chewing ice cubes left over from whatever I drank with dinner, and collect my thoughts. Did I post anything to Laelaps today? If not it's time to whip up something to keep myself in practice. Blogging can be a good way to warm up, and admittedly I do feel a little guilty if I do not make any attempt to write something new on a weekday. If there is a good dinosaur story I will write up something for Dinosaur Tracking, too, although most days I feed that blog when I have only just crawled out of bed.

The cats are usually just waking up from their afternoon snooze when I finish all the basic blogging upkeep for the day. One of our current fosters, Lori, will clamber onto my shoulders to purr in my ear, and sometimes our fat black cat Charlotte will leap onto the desk, refusing to move from in front of the monitor until her need for affection is sated. Chase is a little more low key, brushing against my legs under the chair, but I know that sooner or later Teddy will come bounding into the room and make a flying leap onto the top of the chair, just behind my head.

The cats come and go as I work, and what I am working on changes from day to day. If I am starting something new for the book the work goes fast. I don't sweat the details. Forming the narrative is the most important part. Without a story the chapter is just a mushy clump of factoids that will probably bore even those already interested in the topic.


Charlotte says "No reading for fun until you finish your book. Or you give me treats..."

Once the skeleton of the chapter is sorted it comes time to start fleshing things out. Some parts I have committed to memory, others require more research. Sooner or later, though, I hit a phase where I start working down a list of relevant technical papers. As I read each I fill out the corresponding parts of the story. This is a bit messy. Some parts of the body become overdeveloped while others are threadbare. I do not fret over this. The bumps will soon be smoothed out.

After I have slotted all the technical bits into their proper place I start to edit. Sometimes this feels like beating a particular bit of information until it fits with the rest and other times the story can be threaded right through the examples with ease. If I have done things right, the shape I am aiming for is clear in my mind and I can sculpt each part to support the whole structure.

No matter what I am doing, though, I am always faced by the same dilemma at the end of the night. Once the clock strikes 8:00 I know it is time to wrap things up so that I can spend some time with my wife. Some nights I am ready right on the dot and on others calls of "I will be right with you, honey!" are shouted out of the office until 8:30 or so. Thankfully, Tracey wants to see this book finished as much as I do and doesn't tease me too much on the later nights.

Once I emerge from the office we usually unwind in front of the television for a little while. She asks me what I wrote today, and I think about all the papers, articles, and other projects I wish I had the time to compose. Maybe tomorrow; probably the weekend. Before I know it, it is time to turn in, and I read a Terry Pratchett novel aloud to Tracey until she falls asleep (as is our nightly custom). Morning always comes too soon.

Writing has become a kind of refuge for me. When I am sitting in my little grey cube during the day I keep thinking about what I am going to write next. I just never seem to have enough time. Then again, a little bit of pressure is a good thing. If I had all day to write I might very well waste most of the hours afforded to me. Right now my writing time comes at a premium and I know that I cannot waste it.

So if the normal ebb and flow of blog posts changes here from time to time, trust me that there are things beneath the surface that will shamble up out of the shallows for full inspection at a later date. Some days I just don't have the time to do justice to all the ideas that are bubbling in the back of my mind. Frustrating as this is, it is not discouraging. I am spending my few free hours doing what I love. I may only live the freelancer's life for a few hours each day, but those are hours I truly cherish.

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What Terry Pratchett novels have you read? I'm currently expecting a copy of Unseen Academicals any day now... I've covered all the Discworld series up to that one as well as Good Omens and Nation.

I liked Good Omens quite a bit, actually, although not as good as the book by Gaiman alone, "American Gods."

Jared; I have read almost all the Discworld novels as well as Good Omens. I keep forgetting to pick up a copy of Nation, but I hear it is good. Unseen Academicals should be arriving any day now, but in the meantime I just started reading Tracey The Fifth Elephant last night.

Thank you for sharing this. I have recently started writing for my own enjoyment, but I lack the discipline at the moment to get much past the "I'll get to you tomorrow". I'm also fighting my way through my master's degree, so I find myself always pushing off writing in exchange for understanding what I'm doing.

This inspires me to do what I need to do so that I may be able to do what I want to do. It also lets me know that I've got a lot of hard work ahead of me.

Again, thanks.

I had that one on audiobook, I don't think I've laughed so hard as I have for that one... I won't give you any spoilers, but I thought it as pretty awesome.

I just read your post on what your book will be about. I'll definitely buy a copy. It'll be useful for teaching, and also useful because I have many ties with young earth creationists (family, friends). When they say there are no transitional fossils I'd like a reference book where I can review the transitional fossils (I keep forgetting details and have to go look things up online all over again).

I imagine at some point you'll have to "ignore" further finds and evidence. Otherwise you'll never complete the book. Heh, in fact, imagine if your book was coming out this fall and just before you send it off to your agent/publisher, the Ardi find is announced. Or maybe'd just sent it off and then Ardi was announced. :-)

Happy writing, Brian. I'm looking forward to your book.

By Daniel J. Andrews (not verified) on 15 Oct 2009 #permalink

Daniel; Thank you. I am glad to know that you are looking forward to it.

Yes, my book will inevitably be a little bit outdated by the time it is printed, but I am doing my best to use solid examples that will be consistent with future finds. I am glad "Ardi" appeared while I still have time to write, but I also used some available studies to talk about some hypotheses that are consistent with what is seen in "Ardi." I want to include as much new information as I can, but so long as there is not a discovery that "changes everything" the book should still be the most up-to-date and detailed popular treatment of the groups I am covering.

I am an computational biologist who works as independent consultant who is slowly (!) developing a science writing / editing sideline. The main trouble I find is to make sure I start on the main day job first, or I get side-tracked into writing for longer than I should! Time management...

I've just finished reading The Fifth Elephant and am now onto Guards! Guards!, which is a bit of shock. I've only gotten a few pages in but thus far Vimes is a piss-head and the Watch is virtually non-existent and seems rotten to the core. The writing is quite different too. I'll read quite a few of the others, but all out of order.

Good luck on your book. One of these days I'll probably fool myself into writing one of my own...

I cannot wait for the day when you can kiss that little gray cubicle goodbye! It's a selfish desire, I'm afraid: you're an excellent writer, and I wants more of your writing. Therefore, when your book is released, I shall be pestering everyone I know until they buy it.

Well, there's the sympathy of a fellow writer-stuck-at-a-day-job, too. It does rather concentrate the writing time, but take it from one who took a year off from ye olde day job to write, you'll find that you don't waste as much time as you think. There's still not enough time for writing, even when you're devoting 8-12 hours to it.