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The Science Writers’ Handbook (2013)
That’s right, this handbook is just out, and it’s worth getting your hands on. The contributions are written by members of SciLance, an invitation-only group of accomplished science writers who got together several years ago to share information.
The premise is that science writing is “about the world around us—what’s in our bones, how stars are born, and why drought scars the landscape—and how new knowledge fits into our society. When done right, science writing can inform, inspire, and even change the course of history. When done wrong…well, let’s not go there.” The Science Writers’ Handbook is about how to do it right.
“While not all science writers are journalists,” Alison Fromme asserts in the first chapter, “the writers of this book believe that all science writers can and should approach their subjects journalistically, with curiosity, an open mind, a healthy sense of skepticism about the material, and transparency about our methods, biases, and sources.”
This book is divided into three sections: The Skilled Science Writer, The Sane Science Writer, and The Solvent Science Writer. In other words, the book covers how to manage the writing itself, how to manage the writing life, and how to make some money. The whole thing is quite practical and readable
We found the following chapters particularly useful in thinking about key aspects of and options for being a science writer.
Chapter 3: Making the Pitch by Thomas Hayden, with boxes (extra info) by Hayden, Monica Baker, and Douglas Fox
The success of a pitch depends upon the story idea, its relevance, its timeliness, the type of piece, extras like photos, and who the author is. Importantly, “You want to build your queries around good story ideas. But you also want to send another message: that working with you will be a low-risk proposition.” This chapter is packed with advice on how to convey that message to an editor.
Chapter 9: Going Long: How to Sell a Book by Emma Marris
Marris points to Rebecca Skloot and The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks as a great aspiration for which a writer should not hold her breath. “Instead, you should write a book for one or, ideally, both of the following reasons: you are so gripped by a story, person, or topic that you just have to write a book about it; or you have a good idea for a book, would like to try your hand at long-form writing, and would like to take advantage of the platform it will give you as a book author to further your career.” But it took Skloot more than a decade to write her best-seller, so do not go into a book project on a whim. This chapter has advice for writing a proposal and getting an agent, editing and publicity, and even co-authoring and doing compilations.
Chapter 15: An Experimental Guide to Achieving Balance by Virginia Gewin, wiith a box by Liza Gross
Gewin “trained—for five long years—to be a scientist” but, after some unexpected career turns, uncovered her real passion: “writing about the important topics I’d studied.” The switch in careers to freelance writing was really a switch in lifestyles. She discusses the advantages of having an office outside the home, the difficulty of establishing time boundaries, the role of the smart phone, how “turning down work can also send a positive message,” how to clear your head, and the benefits of having kids to impose balance on your life.
Chapter 24: Social Networks and the Reputation Economy by Emily Gertz, with a box by Sarah Webb
While not all the SciLance writers are tweeting, many find that social media is a great way to connect with the very people you’d want to connect with even without social media—sources, writers, editors. Gertz offers really thoughtful advice and encourages science writers to remain science writers on social media and create an appropriate, genuine persona in the digital world. She also suggests what not to share: bad mouthing others, money matters, family squabbles, and details about what you’re writing. Of course, if you’re live-tweeting an event, as she also suggests, you’re sharing details—the tweets are what you’re writing, at least in part. Getz also emphasizes the need to manage your social networking time, suggesting that you make appointments to check in, use the platform to present sorted information to you, look into apps that increase usability, and choose which social networks are best for you.
The Science Writers’ Handbook isn’t the only guide to science writing out there. Next time, we’ll discuss A Field Guide for Science Writers, to which several of last week’s instructors at the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop have contributed.
Tags: Space Shuttle
“Read. Read other people,” Wall Street Journal reporter Robert Lee Hotz advised participants at the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop. “Go read Jane Austen. How did she pull it off? […] Look for techniques.”
Hotz is a long-time journalist whose work includes an amazing six-part series about the Columbia space shuttle accident investigation called “Butterfly on a Bullet.” He’s covered genetic engineering and earthquakes. He’s been to the Arctic and the Antarctic in search of a story. So when he shared his notions of the nuts and bolts of science writing, we were listening attentively.
Before a writer even gets started on a project, whether it be a news story, a magazine feature, or a book, Lee advises that he or she shed preconceptions because those assumptions can make a person deaf to what’s really being said. He insists, too, that writers can’t write what they haven’t reported. In other words, writing is the culmination of a lot of information gathering and sifting.
In Hotz’s view, “Facts are transformative.” He firmly believes that people need information, not assertions, so that they can make more informed decisions about their lives. He calls himself an obsessive researcher and, in the midst of research, knows that he will use just a tiny fraction of what he’s gathered. “But you don’t know in advance which 1%.” Readers may learn a great deal from reading a piece by Hotz, but his goal isn’t teaching science to his readers. He wants to gather, organize, and share facts about the world and universe in which we live so that we can make better decisions for ourselves.
The core of Hotz’s talk focused on the following rules of thumb for doing science writing (or perhaps any kind of research-based nonfiction):
- Look people in the eye. “Get out of your office,” Hotz said. “Talk to people directly.” There’s really not substitute for in-person interviews if you have that time and money.
- Character matters. Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, agrees with this point, and once said at an AWP Conference, “People need stories in order to read the science.” And stories need characters.
- History matters. The past provides a context for understanding subjects, facts, events, and issues. Hidden connections may reside in this sort of research, and it’s story is part of the word history.
- Find a guide. In other words, Hotz said, “Look for a person who can blaze a path for you into the thicket.” Hotz had a guide crucial for his research into the Columbia investigation who never appeared in the published story.
- Organize as you go. At Lofty Ambitions, we’re familiar with being in the midst of events or research and not having time to stop to organize everything we’re accumulating. Drafting our book proposal forced us to organize our thoughts and writing, but it might have been easier if we’d had a system going into the project (which we might have developed if we’d realized from the get-go that it was a big project). Hotz recommends yellow legal pads and DevonThink (software that author Steven Johnson also recommend when we saw him read a couple of years ago).
- Piece it together. Outline. Build the outline with information. Use footnotes to indicate where you got the information so that you don’t accidentally plagiarize later and can provide the footnotes to a fact-checker later.
- Begin in the middle. Hotz recognizes that other writers get stuck perfecting the first sentence before going on. He advises, “Don’t begin, just start.” Writing chunks and scenes without worrying about order can help a writer build a draft more quickly. Or write in chronological order, even though you know the information will need to be reordered later. “I personally believe there’s no such thing as writer’s block,” Hotz asserted. “It’s a writing and thinking problem.”
- Structure matters. Referring to his Columbia story, Hotz said, “Structure mattered to the space shuttle itself, and it mattered to the piece I was writing.” He emphasized that how we know something—who said it, how we found it, how it fits into the story—can matter as much as what we know.
Ta-dah, you have a story—an article or a book.
And then it goes to an editor. Hotz has great respect for his editors and reminded us that, ultimately, the editors are right even if you disagree. The important thing to remember is that when an editor suggests a change, something stopped that reader. The editor may have a good fix, or the writer may need to figure out how to rework the story so that readers aren’t tripped up or distracted.
As a result of our individual conversation with Lee Hotz, we’re already in the midst of figuring out how to rework our story. The process is both daunting and exciting, and that’s why we do it.
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We’re having a great time at the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop this week. The days are jam-packed with talks about writing, lectures from academics about their research, meetings with our workshop groups, and socializing over meals.
David Corcoran, the editor of the Science Times section of The New York Times, has given two talks. We mentioned the importance of editing—of being edited—in our most recent post about Good Prose, a book by author Tracy Kidder and his editor Richard Todd. Corcoran showed us the story behind the story—the story of the editing process—for this week’s lead story in Tuesday’s Science Times.
A story idea can come from a staff writer, a regular contributor (who sometimes looks like a staff writer to readers), a freelancer who has a history with the newspaper, or a new freelancer. In the case of “In Pursuit of an Underwater Menagerie,” the writer is a scientist and curator at Cornell University who had contributed to NYT’s Scientist at Work blog.
The editors at the newspaper liked her writing. Corcoran and our peers at the Santa Fe workshop found her sentences full of intimacy, specificity, and sensory detail. In particular, Corcoran surmised that she’s comfortable with language like a person who reads a lot. “It’s a gift to be able to write that beautifully,” he said. The editors at NYT also liked her project: her quest with a filmmaker to find and film the real-life sea creatures represented in a nineteenth-century glass collection.
Corcoran initially discussed the possibility for this story with the author, C. Drew Harvell, three or four months ago. It’s timely because she’s doing the project right now, but it wasn’t a news story that had to be written quickly. He asked for 1400 words. For more timely stories, the writing happens as few as the day before the Monday deadline for Tuesday’s Science Times section.
Every writer in the Science Times section gets close editing. Corcoran is first-line editor for all the stories that appear in that section. He weaves streaks and chunks of red and blue text into the tracked-changes version of article drafts. In particular, he wants a strong nut graph—the in-a-nutshell paragraph early on that conveys the gist of the story, why the author is writing it, and why a reader needs to read it now. In the end, editor and writer are collaborators of sorts.
Though Harvell’s story was requested, Corcoran is the person a freelancer contacts with a pitch. If he’s interested, he’ll discuss with the writer the timeframe and length and possibilities for add-ons, like the 360-degree photographs that accompany Harvell’s story and were shot by a NYT photographer using a contraption involving a hamster wheel.
Freelancers shouldn’t get too excited, though, about their pitches to NYT. Over the past six months, staff writers and regular contributors wrote 86% of the articles that appear in the Science Times section. That makes sense; these folks are paid to fill those pages. Established freelancers contribute another 10% of the articles. That leaves only 4% of stories by new freelancers. Corcoran added that new freelancers usually have significant experience writing for other venues.
The New York Times is a tough market to crack. But it is open to new ideas and new writers. And other venues can help a freelancer build clips while forming the amazingly cool story idea for Science Times.
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To read the first part of our “Writing in General, and Science Writing in Particular” series, click HERE. That post discusses Elie Wiesel’s wisdom about words and writing. This week, we are immersed in the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop and continue our series with a discussion of a new book about writing.
Their advice? For one thing, don’t start a piece the way we just did. “The habit of compression,” they write, “along with the exigency of a deadline, can lead a reporter to insert information into a sentence randomly, as if tucking in loose shirttails.” We wanted our readers to be impressed by Tracy Kidder even if you haven’t read The Soul of a New Machine or Mountains Beyond Mountains, so we changed the Pulitzer Prize into an adjective to describe Kidder. Likewise, editor, a noun, was used as an adjective so that you’d know Todd plays a different role.
Other advice? Well, don’t do what we just did in the last paragraph. Okay, what Kidder and Todd call “the new vernacular” can work in a blog post because it’s “fun and highly readable. Like its antecedents, the new vernacular represents a democratic impulse, an antidote to vanity and literary airs. It’s friendly, it’s familiar.” All well and good, but the danger is that this style “imitates spontaneity but sounds rehearsed. It has a franchised feel, like the chain restaurant that tells its patrons ‘You’re family’.”
Good Prose isn’t all nitty-gritty advice, though. Kidder and Todd tell stories, offer different perspectives on the same writerly issue, and give a full sense of the writing life. Since we’ve been revising early chapters of our book manuscript, we were drawn to the section called “Being Edited and Editing,” to which each author contributes an essay. Here, we find out about the evolution of the relationship between Kidder and Todd, and we are reminded of the crucial role that revision and editing play for most writers, for most books.
“Editing isn’t just something that happens to you,” Kidder reminds us. “You have to learn how to be edited.” We consider ourselves pretty good at being edited, in part because we edit each other all the time. Kidder adds, “[W]hen someone takes the trouble to read and respond honestly, I ought to feel grateful, even if I don’t.” Suck it up, we tell ourselves, when our writing group questions the length of time we spend on the history of the development of the space shuttle. We really were grateful when our agent suggested our original two book chapters be jettisoned completely before she submitted the proposal to editors, which, of course, meant that we needed to polish up new chapters to include.
More recently, these past couple of months, we’ve been revamping again, not jettisoning whole chapters, but deleting the equivalent of a quarter or a third of a chapter, then rebuilding with greater focus. Kidder distinguishes between tinkering, which “is the kind of rewriting that the advent of word processing encouraged, by making it so easy,” and “figuring out the essential thing you’re trying to do and looking for ways to tell your story.” And we make that distinction too. Both kinds of revision become crucial, but, as Elie Wiesel said a few weeks ago, we must resist falling in love with our own words.
In fact, Kidder echoes Wiesel in several ways. They both overwrite early drafts and consider revising—sculpting, in Wiesel’s word—a writer’s privilege. They look for what’s essential. They want to tell a good story.
Todd offers other ways of looking at editing. He asserts that the writer and editor need not be of a similar temperament or share confidences in order to create a strong, long-term working relationship that makes for good literature. What quality must the writer have in order to make the relationship work? “A ‘thick skin’ doesn’t begin to describe the necessary virtue. It is essentially an act of generosity [to be edited].” And what quality must the editor possess? “The editor needs only some tact and the willingness to read things repeatedly.” The relationship between writer and editor is, ideally, one steeped in reciprocal generosity.
Writers—we among them—might keep in mind the changing role of editors in the publishing realm, with increased emphasis on acquisition and marketing and less reward for working extensively with writers to shape the book. Todd points to two pleasures for editors: “One is acquisition, the collector’s pleasure. The other is working with writers. […] As a writer, of course, what you really want is someone strong on both accounts.” Ultimately, though, he sees the resistance to editing far more likely to reside in the writer than the editor.
That said, he also draws a line. “Editors, in any medium, should avoid rewriting, and if they do try to rewrite, then the writer is justified in resisting.” It’s not that the editor couldn’t rewrite—and a part of us wishes that our agent had produced a few new pages for us to claim—but revision will almost certainly work better if the writer does the work so that the style feels seamless.
Here’s a passage from Good Prose that captures our sentiments, that suggests why we remain grateful for our discussions with our writing group and with our agent:
All good writing ultimately is a contest with the inexpressible. Every good passage leaves some thing unsaid. So it ought to be hard. But you don’t want to make it harder than necessary. The best thing and editor can do is to help the writer to think, and this is the most satisfying part of an editor’s work, collaborating at the level of structure and idea.
Next week, we’ll be participants in the weeklong Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop. It’s a chance to step back from our material and think consciously about how we write. As we gear up for the intensive workshop, we’re using this opportunity to think about writing in general and to remind ourselves of the craft and methods we’re honing every time we revise a chapter in the book manuscript or draft a blog post here.
For this reason, we found the chance to hear Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel at Chapman University during his annual visit as a Presidential Fellow especially well timed. Many of the week’s events and conversations focused on writers, writing, and literature. We soaked up as much as we could and share some of Wiesel’s wisdom here.
In an on-stage conversation with our colleague Tom Zoellner, who has written about uranium for Lofty Ambitions, Wiesel talked about his days working as a reporter as well as the fiction and nonfiction writing he’s done. Wiesel asserted, “Had I not written Night, I would not have written any other book.” He might have remained a journalist, but that first novel opened a new way of life and writing for him.
“Silence is good for a novel,” Wiesel said, “but not for journalism.” Nonfiction reveals. Nonfiction gives voice. In another conversation with librarians, he put it a different way: “[Silence is] fraught with meaning. […] Silence is good for literature, but not life.”
Of his writing process for his books, he said that he overwrites, producing long, inclusive drafts for his novels. “Sculpture is what you take off,” he said, indicating that his novels are formed by deciding what is not essential. Perhaps, he was also suggesting that erasing or deleting creates the silences that he finds crucial for literary works. In the conversation with librarians, he talked more specifically about this sculpting, saying, “A 500-page manuscript can become two hundred pages very quickly. […] Only the bones remain. No flesh.” With Zoellner, he joked, “You sometimes have more books in the wastebasket.” Most importantly, he intimated, the writer must return to the desk. “You write,” he insisted, “even though you know maybe you will fail.”
And how does he manage to delete passages that are beautifully written but not essential? “I’ve never fallen in love with my words.” He asks himself what his words want to do and what they want to be. His words have goals and responsibilities; his books are something in addition to conveying something.
Morality is a responsibility Wiesel feels as a writer. About the role of morality in literature and the responsibility of the writer to compose a moral book, he said, “I cannot speak for all writers. I can barely speak for myself. It is a choice.” In another conversation, he added, “The main thing is the respect for the other.” He also pointed out, “We cannot intervene only with words. […] Only words can produce change.” This statement applies generally, of course, but the Holocaust survivor speaks from personal experiences as well. Ultimately, though, as he told Zoellner, “The role of the writer is to tell a good story.”
In the conversation with the university’s librarians, Wiesel expanded on his sense of his own writing process, saying, “I know when it’s finished. I almost know from the beginning.” While he may know when a book is finished, that process takes a long time. Wiesel doesn’t use a computer, yet he asserted, “I rewrite everything three times.” We grew up and started writing before computers were widely available, and we didn’t have a simple word processor until the end of our college years, yet the thought of rewriting a book-length manuscript by hand now sounds daunting.
As we take time to step back from our writing to think consciously about craft for a few weeks, we also remind ourselves that writers learn by reading. Wiesel pointed to different books he appreciated for different reasons, Albert Camus’ The Plague for its philosophy more than for its literary accomplishment and The Stranger for the absurdity. “The library is sacred,” he said. “The greatest moment is before I begin reading. […] I invite myself into the book.”
What better sentiment right now? Off to Santa Fe for a week and on the verge of summer, we look forward to inviting ourselves into the next book. We relish this long moment of anticipation.
Read our next post “Writing in General, and Science Writing in Particular: Good Prose HERE.
Yuri & Young April 10, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Space Exploration, Writing.
Tags: Movies & TV, Space Shuttle
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On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin, at the age of 27, became the first person to travel to space. His single orbit, from launch to landing, took roughly 108 minutes. Gagarin had been told that he was the choice only three days before the Vostok 1 mission. He returned a Soviet hero and worldwide celebrity. He died in the crash of a training flight on March 27, 1968, at the age of 34 and before the world saw human beings reach the Moon.
On April 12, 1981, only and exactly twenty years after Gagarin’s flight, the first space shuttle mission launched. That the United States had developed a reusable space plane within two decades of the first human spaceflight is a testament to our ingenuity and commitment to space exploration. That NASA chose the same date for the first shuttle launch as the Soviets had chosen for Gagarin’s first-ever spaceflight reminds us that the Cold War lingered and still fueled one-upsmanship.
Though networks covered the STS-1 launch live and gave it the same sort of Cold War fanfare that Apollo had received, we didn’t see the first shuttle launch in real time. The bigger news story that spring, the one for which teachers at Anna’s high school had stopped class to pray, had been the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan less than two weeks earlier. Reagan watched the launch on television as he recuperated at the White House. Vice President George H.W. Bush was the one to call the crew during their mission.
We caught replays of the launch, complete with the word videotape at the top of the screen. Doug remembers himself in front of a television that Sunday afternoon in the most American of venues, the shopping mall after church. Wide-eyed, mouth agape, he watched the liftoff over and over in the J.C. Penney electronics area as if it were that J.C. Penney parking lot across the water from Kennedy Space Center.
Just after launch, CBS newscaster Dan Rather explained the accomplishment in halting syntax: “We’ve been saying all week long and as the time for the launch built Friday morning and again this morning built, everybody a little bit nervous, the tension a little heavier than even usual […] because this spacecraft had not been tested at a launch in unmanned fashion as all others had, spacecraft designed to carry men. […] It’s done now, done successfully.” Leo Krupp, a Rockwell test pilot in the booth with Rather for the “Wings in Space” special report that day, gushed, “That launch was the most spectacular thing I’ve ever seen.” Rather composed himself and went on to describe what had just happened: “The ground literally shook, as the spacecraft Columbia started its own sun below itself, caused that great thunder, and lifted off the pad, headed toward that orbit.” After the commercial break, Rather read a more detailed and technical description, noting that the shuttle had cleared the launch tower within five seconds and exceeded the speed of sound within thirty. (See that broadcast HERE.)
Astronauts John Young, a veteran of the Gemini and Apollo programs, and Bob Crippen, a veteran test pilot but a rookie astronaut, circled the Earth 37 times at an altitude of 191 miles, making a complete circuit roughly every ninety minutes and inaugurating the first of the shuttle program’s eventual 135 missions.
Space shuttle Columbia (OV-102), the heaviest orbiter built, landed at Edwards Air Force Base on April 14, 1981. The STS-1 CAPCOM, the person, usually an astronaut, who communicates from the ground directly to the shuttle, announced the orbiter’s safe return, saying, “Welcome home, Columbia. Beautiful, beautiful.” The reusable space plane had succeeded.
Commander Young quipped, “Do I have to take it up to the hangar, Joe?” The CAPCOM replied, “We’re going to dust it off first.” Young added, “This is the world’s greatest flying machine, I’ll tell you that.” The space shuttle era had begun.
Now, of course, the space shuttle era is over. Last week, film critic Roger Ebert died at the age of 70. At the conclusion of his review of Apollo 13, he wrote, “This is a powerful story, one of the year’s best films, told with great clarity and remarkable technical detail, and acted without pumped-up histrionics. It’s about men trained to do a job, and doing a better one than anyone could have imagined. The buried message is: When we dialed down the space program, we lost something crucial to our vision.”
Science Writing at AWP 2013 (Part 2) March 27, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Writing.
Tags: Art & Science, Biology, Cognitive Science, Einstein, Serendipity
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Also see Part 1 of “Science Writing at AWP 2013.”
We like to keep busy at Lofty Ambitions, but attending an AWP panel that is comprised of Pireeni Sundaralingam, Alan Lightman, C. Dale Young, and Sandra Alcosser tends to make one pause, get a little introspective, and ask, “Could I be working just a tad bit harder?”
Three of the four panelists are writers who happen to moonlight as accomplished scientists (Sundaralingam and Lightman) and a physician (Young). The fourth panelist (Alcosser) is a poet who has collaborated deeply with scientists, particularly in the area of the environment. When we originally saw the panel “Engaging with Science: Poetry and Fiction” in the program, we were hoping for a craft panel. Our initial disappointment at finding out that the event was a reading was short-lived, disappearing completely once the artists began sharing their work.
The first reading was from poet Sandra Alcosser. Alcosser is the author of seven books including Except by Nature, Sleeping Inside the Glacier (for which she collaborated with the artist Michele Burgess), and A Fish to Feed All Hunger and is co-director of the MFA program at San Diego State University. She was also Montana’s first poet laureate and has called Big Sky Country her home for more than thirty years. Alcosser began her reading by defining a word that was new to the Lofty Duo: Zugunruhe. Alcosser told us that scientists had appropriated the word from German—its literal meaning is “move” + “restlessness”—in their attempts to explain the human desire for travel. And travel she did. Drawn from her newest book, Alcosser read a sequence of poems that ranged over human experience: Serbian myth in The Winged Hussars, a widowed cellist’s musical elegy for his dead wife in The Blue Vein, and a scientist’s work on a blood ranch—raising lambs whose blood would be used to feed a zoo’s vampire bats—in Lamb of God. Alcosser also mentioned her recent tenure as a poet-in-residence at the Brookfield Zoo. This work was a part of a larger project, The Language of Conservation, sponsored by Poets House. A pdf of the book that resulted can be found here.
The panel was heavy on poets and poetry. This happy occurrence dovetailed neatly with Robert Fredericks’ comment in the previous science writing panel; he said something to the effect that scientists are the second heaviest user of metaphors after poets.
The second panelist to read was poet C. Dale Young. Young balances his writing career with a career as a physician. As a part of his writing life, Young is the poetry editor for New England Review and teaches at Warren Wilson College. Interestingly, Young’s MFA preceded his MD, which is contrary to the way we often think of artists whom are also scientists. Each of the poems in Young’s reading–”Influence,” “Sigma,” “The Ether Dome,” and “Sepsis”–were directly concerned with medicine and science. Young preceded his reading of “Sigma” with a touch of irony by relating how he loathed mathematics, particularly statistics, as an undergrad. Naturally, in his career as a physician, he wound up in the one field in medicine that makes use of math on a daily basis, radiation oncology.
This particular comment resonated deeply with Doug. Once, as an undergrad, Doug swore that the last thing he would do with his life was to write software. This, of course, is a perversely un-prescient act by someone who would go on to spend much of his career in IT and writing software. Observing events like this in his life and the lives of others has led us to occasionally posit to friends that, perhaps, irony is the most powerful force in the universe. This semester Doug is teaching programming to a classroom largely comprised of Creative Writing majors. Oh, the circular irony of it all.
The Lofty duo have been fans of the next panelist since we encountered Einstein’s Dreams. Alan Lightman was the first person at MIT to hold appointments in both the humanities and the sciences. Lightman’s books Einstein’s Dreams and Good Benito have been praised for their seamless blend of spare, lyrical prose and physics, specifically general relativity. For the panel, he read from his novel Reunion. Lightman’s reading elicited enormous laughter as he shared the second chapter from the novel. The chapter relates the curious fictional story of German astronomer/lothario Carl Schmeken. Schmeken is fond of naming the asteroids that he discovers for his lovers: Asteroid Catrina 1894, Asteroid Eva 1894, Asteroid Ilsa 1895, and Asteroid Winifried 1895. The chapter takes a humorous turn when Schmeken meets the woman he surely hopes will result in the discovery and naming of Asteroid Lena 1898. Instead, after being rebuffed by the young Lena Hammans, Schmeken falls apart, and 1898 is the end of the astronomer’s career. As longtime readers of Lofty Ambitions know, we never pass up a chance to mention serendipity. Here’s a sentence that describes Lena’s realization after observing Schmeken’s reaction to being rebuffed by her: “She was shocked that a man of science could act in such a way, until she understood sometime later that sex is the most powerful force in the universe.” While we appreciate Lightman’s use of his character to proffer an alternative theory, until we see more evidence, we’re sticking with irony and serendipity as the most powerful forces in the universe.
The panel’s final reading came from the moderator, Pireeni Sundaralingam. Sundaralingam was the third poet on the panel, and she is also trained as a cognitive scientist. In fact, she has managed to make the intersection of art and science the focus of her scientific work. Her dissertation was on metaphor and the brain, and she is currently writing a book about poetry, the brain, and perception. Sundaralingam’s selection of poems intimately stitched together art and science. In particular, her poem “Vermont, 1885″ rendered the story of W. A. Bentley, the first person to photograph a snowflake, into compelling verse.
We founded Lofty Ambitions together, a poet and a computer scientist, as a way for the two of us to combine some of our lifelong interests by writing about aviation and science. And we like to keep busy at Lofty Ambitions. We emerged from the two science writing panels that we attended at this year’s AWP invigorated and focused in a way that we know will allow us to continuing doing this thing that we call Lofty Ambitions.
Science Writing at AWP 2013 March 20, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Writing.
Tags: Art & Science, Biology, Books, Serendipity
We’ve written about our fondness for attending science-oriented panels at the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference on a number of occasions (see HERE and HERE and the links in these posts). This year—earlier this month—we were able to attend two science-writing panels at AWP, “Science Writing for All” and “Engaging with Science: Poetry and Fiction.”
The moderator for “Science Writing for All,” science journalist Robert Frederick, opened the panel with a nerdy science—GPS—quip: “According to something in space, it’s 1:30p.m.” That set the tone for the panel and for trying to live up to the panel’s title, namely that science and science writing is everywhere and for everyone.
A constant reference point for the panel was the forthcoming book Science Writer’s Handbook, edited by Thomas Hayden and Michelle Nijhuis. Each panel member was a contributor to this text, and each made at least one reference to it. Though we haven’t seen a copy of it yet, Doug will be ordering one for the university’s library. The panelists made it seem like a lively collection chock-full of practical, pragmatic advice for the aspiring science writer.
Frederick used the book as a launching point for his presentation. “Is this science writing?” Frederick asked while waving a hand towards a slide displaying an image of the gang from The Big Bang Theory. We’re huge fans of TBBT—though we watch it on DVD, several episodes in an evening, as opposed to in real time, so, please, no Season Six spoilers (we’re looking at you Brigid Leahy)—and when it became apparent that Frederick wasn’t just posing a rhetorical question for the panel to contemplate, Doug happily shouted, “Absolutely.” Other voices in the crowded conference room piped up in agreement. One image at a time, Frederick’s slides added NCIS, Sherlock, and Grey’s Anatomy to the conversation. Each time, he re-invoked his question and received affirmation from the rest of us. The audience hesitated only at the last image rendered, a Downton Abbey still. Frederick indicated that Downton Abbey, a favorite among writerly and literary types we know, probably wasn’t science writing, but, as a good scientist, he considered the series an unfinished experiment and was going to continue to collect data until he was certain one way or the other.
Frederick continued his effort to paint a portrait of the everywhereness of science and science writing by asserting that humans are always experimenting. While we are not all scientists, we are all experimenters. Even as children we try things out. Frederick experimented with playing in the dirt and with swimming, noting that the former was done in isolation but the latter encouraged others’ participation. He extended the experiment by combining dirt and water, leading to a clear response from his mother; she shrieked.
This panel covered a lot of ground, touching upon the role of craft for any science writer and the importance of metaphor and how scientists and science writers use language. Green houses, for instance, are good things, whereas greenhouse gas is insidious. Or the term genetic blueprint implies a designer; it works as a metaphor. While science writing can be about big ideas, the details—the words chosen—matter a great deal.
The other three panelists were Jill U. Adams, Jenny Cutraro, and Douglas Starr, which allowed the session to cover even more ground.
Adams is a scientist who runs a science fair for kids and who has written a lot of articles. One of her pieces in the Los Angeles Times examined the controversy of more than a year ago about whether schools could count pizza as a vegetable in the lunches they provide students. Who knew that tomato paste got special treatment that other purees don’t get? Who knew that tomato paste may actually earn its special treatment with more of vitamins A and C than green beans and more calcium and iron than applesauce? The point, for Adams, is that, in science writing, science is about people and policy.
Most of Cutraro’s recent work is science writing for kids and teachers, but she also brought up her previous job as a science writer at Purdue University, where she summarized—and thereby translated—science that was being done there. She pointed out how many places science writing happens, from hospitals to museums to television shows like NOVA to publications like National Geographic to The Learning Network website.
Cutraro had some specific pointers for those of us interested in writing for a young audience: use direct leads, define terms early on, limit each sentence to one scientific concept, use analogies that make sense to the audience, and don’t assume prior knowledge. These suggestions, of course, can be adapted for an adult, lay readership as well.
After hearing about all these places to publish science writing and tips for getting one’s work published, Starr gave sobering news: it’s difficult to make a living as a science writer. His suggestion—and his books Blood and The Killer of Little Shepherds bear this out—is to find areas where science overlaps with some other aspect of the world, such as science and the legal system or, as with Adams’ article, science and the school system. He also pointed out that, while the internet has undercut the importance of newspapers, the shift has opened a channel through which institutions directly connect with their constituencies or readers.
So, do you need a graduate program to teach you how to be a science writer? Starr says no but talked about what Boston University’s Center for Science and Medical Journalism teaches: how to think, how to dig into a story, how to interview, and how to structure a story. He recommend reading John McPhee’s recent article in The New Yorker called “Structure.” He also recommend Jeanne Fahnestock’s book Rhetorical Figures in Science.
We’ll end this week’s post with that little snippet of serendipity, for Fahnestock was one of the faculty who trained and supervised graduate teaching assistants in English at the University of Maryland when Anna earned her MFA there. But return next week to read more about science writing at AWP.
Lofty Ambitions at AWP 2013 February 27, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Science, Writing.
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Next week, we head to Boston for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference. We’re excited because we’ve never been to Boston and because the conference is brimming panels, readings, and events. When exactly will we sneak away to see the Freedom 7 space capsule currently on display at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum?
Last year, before we headed to AWP in Chicago, we ran a series of guest posts by writers who were presenting at that conference, as well as posts about our own presentations. You can check out last year’s AWP run-up post, including links to guest posts by Kristen Iversen, Jeff Porter, M. G. Lord, and Tom Zoellner by clicking HERE.
Even before this year’s conference begins, Anna will participate in the Festival of Language, a marathon reading event at Dillon’s on Wednesday, March 6, at 5:30-10:30 p.m. Anna is slated for the last 90-minute session. What should she read?
Anna has been nominated to run for a position on the AWP Board. She’s running unopposed, it turns out, so she’s not agonizing too much over the results. That said, if you’re an individual member or if you teach at a member program, we encourage you to take time to vote at AWP’s elections webpage or on paper at the conference. AWP voting is especially important this year because the organization needs a quorum to change its governance procedures to comply with Virginia law.
What does becoming an AWP Board member mean? An official dinner, an all-day board meeting, another official dinner, and a national program directors meeting, then a regional program directors meeting—all before the conference really gets going at full tilt. Who knows what the next four years of her board term might entail?
Since Anna isn’t yet on the board, she’s presenting at a panel called “Creative Writing Under Siege,” which is scheduled for Saturday, March 9, at noon. She’s drafted her comments and discovered that she contradicts herself. It could be a panel with fireworks.
Doug is overseeing the Tabula Poetica table at the conference bookfair. Stop by H2 to talk with one of us or a Chapman University MFA student. We’ll have the first print issue of TAB: The Journal of Poetry & Poetics available, and donations, of course, will be welcomed. TAB also just launched its monthly electronic issues, all of which will be archived HERE. Read work by Hadara Bar-Nadav, Robin Behn, Evie Shockley, and Marjorie Perloff in Issue #2, and check for Issue #3 in mid-March.
Here’s the AWP book signing schedule at the Tabula Poetica table (H2):
Thursday at 1:30pm: Kate Greenstreet
Friday at Noon: Allison Benis White
Friday at 1:00pm: Stephanie Brown
Saturday at 9:30am: Lynne Thompson
Saturday at 10:00am: Kate Gale
We’re still perusing the conference schedule, trying to pick and choose, divide and conquer. The early morning spot on Thursday offers a panel called “Knowledge and Manifestation: Science in Contemporary Poetry,” but we’re wondering whether we can manage to get to anything at 9:00 a.m. after our jam-packed Wednesday. That afternoon, “Science Writing for All” is on our list of things to do.
And then there’s Friday and Saturday—oh my!
The Next Big Thing (blog hop) January 28, 2013Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Space Exploration, Writing.
Tags: Books, Space Shuttle
Poet Kristin LaTour tagged us for The Next Big Thing that’s going around the blogosphere. Here, we take on the ten questions that series poses.
What is your working title of your book?
We were born into the Apollo era, and Doug’s earliest memory is of watching the Moon landing. We came of age in the shadow of the space shuttle. As we followed the end of the shuttle program over the last couple of years, we realized that there’s a big swath—those born between the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 and the first shuttle launch in 1981—that is Generation Space. When Neil Armstrong died last year, this space generation became the adults of this world.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
We started writing together in 2004, when we presented a paper about how aviation museums represented World War II. We sent in an abstract because we wanted to visit Amsterdam together, but after the conference, we published an essay version of our paper in an edited collection and kept writing together.
In 2008, we moved to Southern California for new jobs. As we packed our belongings, we started talking about how this move might be an opportunity for us because this area has a long tradition in aviation. We started Lofty Ambitions blog in 2010, in part to write about the aviation and spaceflight history that surrounded us. Generation Space is a natural outcome of our years together.
What genre does your book fall under?
Generation Space is part science writing, part cultural commentary, part memoir. Some might call it literary journalism.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
When we started following the end of the space shuttle program in the fall of 2010, we didn’t expect to meet actors. But it turns out that a lot of Americans from all walks of life are interested in space exploration. Seth Green of The Family Guy was at a #NASAtweetup for a shuttle launch, and we met Luke Wilson last time we were at Kennedy Space Center (KSC). We sat behind June Lockhart of Lost in Space at the title transfer of Endeavour here in California and saw Nichelle Nichols of Star Trek there too. And we’ve seen celebs of other sorts at KSC, like Anderson Cooper, John Oliver, and Neil deGrasse Tyson.
As for who would play us, that’s hard to imagine. Maybe Stana Katic and Nathan Fillion, who currently star together in Castle. The two characters have different styles but work well together, collaborating on crime solving and, to a certain extent, novel writing. Katic has dark hair and pale skin like Anna, and we have a friend who’s met Katic’s brother. Of course, Fillion knows how to do space from Firefly and Serenity, and we’ve been watching him since Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place. Maybe our book could even be adapted for an episode of Castle, with someone attacked by one of the alligators that lives in the ditch near the launch pad at KSC—only, Richard Castle knows it’s murder.
Mostly, if we somehow get a movie deal for Generation Space, we probably won’t care who plays us, though Doug would veto Michael Chiklis.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Star Trek‘s Enterprise set out on a five-year mission to boldly go where no man has gone before, but NASA has gone boldly for fifty years and counting—Generation Space figures out what that means for us as a spacefaring nation and for our future.
Okay, we used a dash to get two sentences.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
We’re represented by Alice Tasman at Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency. We wrote about landing an agent here at Lofty Ambitions. Since then, with Alice’s suggestions in mind, we’ve revised our book proposal.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
We’ll let you know when we’re finished. We started drafting in earnest about a year ago at a two-week residency at Ragdale, and we have roughly half the book in really good shape and the rest mapped out.
Of course, we researched and wrote blog posts over two years, before we started drafting as a book. While we can’t merely cut and paste blog posts, a blog-to-book project means that we generated a lot of ideas and material that we can now use as we draft chapters. We’ve reorganized our thinking to form a table of contents that makes sense for Generation Space, and we’re distilling and expanding from blog posts to form chapter outlines. We end up re-drafting, then we revise and revise and revise.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
In some ways, our book works like Kristen Iversen’s Full Body Burden. She tackles nuclear weapons manufacturing, so the topic is different. But, like Iverson, we’re covering a blend of science and history and including personal experience. Another book with that sort of balance is Sandra Beasley’s Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl!, which is a personal and scientific investigation of allergies, or Tom Zoellner’s Uranium, which investigates all things—discovery, mining, uses, misuses—uranium. In all these science books, the author becomes part of the story, a vehicle for understanding the topic. And all three of these authors have contributed guest posts to Lofty Ambitions.
In other ways, our book is immersion journalism, a project book like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Alain de Botton’s A Week at the Airport, or Tracy Kidder‘s The Soul of a New Machine. We immerse ourselves in a place we’ve never been before, and we learn—through failure and success—how to be insiders in a particular time and place to understand an aspect of our culture and ourselves. There’s an arc to our story and to the story of U.S. space exploration that we couldn’t convey solely through blog posts.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
The trigger for following the end of the space shuttle and, ultimately, for writing Generation Space was driving out to the desert—to Edwards Air Force Base—on Thanksgiving weekend in 2008 to see Endeavour land.
By that point, the shuttle program as set to end within a few years, so we started wondering what that meant for us as individuals who grew up with American manned spaceflight as a given and for the country. Within two years, we went to KSC to see a launch. And we kept going and going.
Serendipity played a huge role in keeping us focused on this project. Through one colleague, we met Roger Boisjoly, a whistleblower in the Challenger accident (today—January 28—is the anniversary), and his papers are now archived at our university. Through another colleague, we attended an event celebrating the Ilan Ramon Day School; Ramon died in the Columbia accident, and we saw his wife speak and met astronaut Garrett Reisman, who is now at SpaceX. During our residency at Ragdale, we discovered that Lovell’s Restaurant—as in Apollo astronaut Jim Lovell—was nearby so we ate a delicious meal in the midst of space artifacts. Our friend Leslie Pietrzyk recently sent Albert Goldbarth’s poetry chapbook The End of Space to Anna. Hardly a week goes by when we don’t stumble across something connected to Generation Space. Serendipity is ongoing inspiration.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Most books about the space shuttle are really technical and demand a lot of the lay reader or are heavily photographic, without much information or narrative into which you can sink your reading teeth. We’re writing for for strollers as well as for studiers. A reader will learn a lot but find the story accessible. We have a story to tell.
Also, we’re writing in the voice that we developed for Lofty Ambitions. We write as a couple, though it’s clear when a particular experience is Anna’s or something happened specifically to Doug. We don’t know of any other book co-written by a poet and a science librarian; we have fun writing together, and the collaborative voice comes naturally to us now.
So that’s our take on The Next Big Thing. Keep reading—we’ve tagged the following writers for next week’s round of The Next Big Thing. Click on each name to continue reading The Next Big Thing next week!