SciOnline'10 Follow-Up: Transitioning from blogger to book-writer

The wonderful thing about this past Saturday's ScienceOnline session on going "from blog to book" is that my co-panelists and I were able to highlight the ways in which the web is becoming increasingly important for authors. The only drawback was that there was so much to talk about that we could not have answered all the questions even if we stayed in session for the rest of the day! Fortunately audience members continued to ask me questions and make comments throughout the rest of the conference, and I wanted to specifically address one comment brought up by the wonderful blogger Stephanie Zvan.

Most of the blog-to-book session focused on using blogs and other web resources to experiment with writing and then promote that writing. As Stephanie pointed out, however, we did not cover the bare mechanics of making the transition between being a blog writer and a book writer. Anthologies aside, you cannot simply string a series of self-contained blog posts together and expect a book to emerge out of the collection. How, then, do you make the jump?

The first thing to do is to make sure that you have a good idea for a book. I will not labor over this point long. The basic points of generating a book project can be found in this interview with my agent, Peter Tallack, and I think it is pretty sound advice. The short version is that you need an original idea that is specific enough to be interesting but not so specific that it will be impossible to write a book about it.

I learned this the hard way. Several years ago, right about the time I started blogging, I had decided to write "a book about evolution." I did not have a specific story in mind. I just thought it was a really interesting subject that more people should know about. I had read plenty of books that presented the evidence for evolution to popular audiences, so why couldn't I do the same?

As you might imagine, this approach to writing a book was not very successful (and that is putting it mildly). I collected notes, wrote explanations of experiments, and (on good days) wrote expositions of what I thought were important concepts. Yet none of it was connected to a core argument or idea. What I was doing was the equivalent of trying to build a house by working on the plumbing one day, the architectural framework another, the electrical plans on yet another, all without bothering to set a solid foundation.

During this time I experimented with science writing through my blog, but even though I think I greatly benefited from the practice it did not get me much closer to writing a book. Sure, I could write a blog post a few thousand words long, but such posts were self-contained essays that were not burdened with having to carry a bigger story. I did not have to think about whether or not they moved a story forward or developed characters/ideas that were central to a larger project. I did not have to discriminate between interesting tidbits of information and arguments that supported a long-running narrative.

It all comes down to storytelling. An author's ability to draw the reader in with a compelling narrative makes the difference between a dry, academic reference text and a good pop sci book. Storytelling is not about making things up or throwing accuracy out the window, but knowing where the story you are trying to tell should start, how it unfolds, and where it concludes. As I explained to another ScienceOnline attendee later during the conference, it is important to establish a narrative that will bring out the science you want to describe. You need a story that will carry the reader through the 80,000 or so words that will comprise the book.

Admittedly it was a bit difficult to apply these ideas to Written in Stone. It is a book about "missing links" in the history of life and how our understanding of them has changed over the past 200 years. There are plenty of smaller stories within the book, from Charles Darwin's fossil-hunting exploits in Patagonia to the fracas that erupted over Ida in May 2009, but they are all embedded inside a more encompassing narrative that treats ideas, rather than people, as characters.

My treatment of the book as a story, rather than a compendium of disparate scientific scraps, truly began when I wrote the proposal. Though it was certainly hard work, the proposal forced me to outline my book in detail, and it quickly became apparent that I desperately needed a good story to tell. It did not matter that I had not yet written most of the book. Without a narrative that parts I had already written were just isolated essays that were not plugged into anything that would keep readers turning the pages. Writing the proposal was the first major test of the ideas I had for my book, and after they failed I was forced to rethink the way I was approaching the project.

To return to the original comment that inspired this post, though, how easily a blogger might transition into book writing depends on their style. A blogger who fires off missives composed in a stream-of-consciousness manner (as I originally did) may have a more difficult time of it than a blogger who thinks of posts as small stories. Even then, though, composing a 2,000 word post/essay is not the same as coming up with something that will require 40 times as many words to explain properly. Even those who have the ability to write a book might have a difficult time coming up with an idea that will put their talents to good use.

Obviously going from blogger to book writer is not an easy thing, but it certainly can be done. And, as covered at the conference, being an established member of the science blogging community can provide some advantages that authors coming at the blog-book transition from the other side do not have. I am sure that I have not answered everyone's questions on this topic, though, so please speak up in the comments if you want to keep the discussion going!

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I'm so glad I actually got a chance to talk to you both this year. :)

The practice value of blogging would be very hard to overstate, particularly for the storytelling aspect. Thank you for bringing that up and putting it in the science context. It's one of those things that people tend to think they're good at because everybody does it to one degree or another, but it's more complex than a lot of people might think.

For me, writing fiction, I found the key to scaling up from short stories to a book was to do a very bare-bones outline that identified the smaller stories (individual incidents and ongoing character conflicts) that made up the big one. It kept the project broken up into pieces of a size I was used to dealing with, that every section of the book had something going on that would reward a reader on its own, and that while I focused on each section separately, I already knew what it needed to do in the bigger picture.

I have often considered trying to write a book, but yes, the idea for a comprehensive story is key even in non-fiction. Blogging has helped me develop a voice, but not a coherent enough picture of the subjects I am interested from which to create an interesting and salable book.

And, listen to Stephanie. Always.