Writing Science… progress report

Field trip to Bandelier National Monument.
Field trip to Bandelier National Monument outside of Santa Fe.

My last post was written in Santa Fe on the eve of attending the Santa Fe Science Writer’s workshop. I shared “I have a great passion to help people not only understand but to be a part of the scientific process, to share in the discovery of new places or celebrate the innovative spirit of scientists trying to understand the world we live in.”

My brain is fatigued and I have typer’s cramp. A week of the workshop attending lectures at 6500 ft above sea level, dealing with dry sinuses and constant dry throat, revising a story about four times, when I thought it was”done” before I went to Santa Fe, left me questioning my life’s passion.  Moving paragraphs around or deleting one or two sentences that just didn’t fit, felt like I was juggling elephants with one arm…  Why is it so hard to mold a piece of writing into something – tangible, understandable, logical and interesting?

I persevered. Writing is hard. If it wasn’t then everyone would be doing it. So forward I went. With each rewrite the story sounded better and better.

Today – the story is finally posted on the website of my employer. I have a second story in the hopper that I hope will be posted by next week.

The more I write, the less intimidating the process, the more fun it is to see the results. Revisions are becoming my friends. Now when I begin a piece I yearn for the moment I get to revise it because I know it will always be better than the first draft.


Writing on the Santa Fe trail

Writing is hard.

Map of Santa Fe trail. Credit: wikipedia

Riding a horse on a dusty trail for hundreds of miles, in oven hot temperatures, with dust devils threatening you, as they did on the Santa Fe trail almost two hundred years ago, is hard too.

Writing story, whether it be about fictitious werewolves on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State or translating cool scientific research projects or findings, has to be made interesting.

How one does that is through learning the craft of writing. Few people are born with the gift of excellent writing skills. For most of us, we take our basic writing skills (learned in high school or college) and build upon them through attending workshops, seminars, classes or retreats. Some of us are hobbyists who have project ideas in mind – such as a book or magazine article – but have little time to work on them, then there are others who want to learn as much as possible about the different writing genres (e.g., young adult, mystery, creative non-fiction, screenwriting, etc.) where schooling never ends and then there are those of us who want to write as a career.

There is a glamor associated to being a writer. One envisions journalists covering stories in exotic places, of lone writers sitting at their desk in front of a colossal window looking upon an inspiring landscape outside their oceanfront villa or NYC apartment, both composing the next Pulitzer Prize winning article or National Book Award.

Far from this vision is the reality of hands cramping, brain fatigue, constructive critique, and editing, like toothpicks under fingernails, leading to the neural cell crushing rewrite. We only see the sigh of relief, of being set free from the prison of the writing process, when the project has become the final product.

Today I set sail on an adventure to learn how best to translate science for the everyday reader. This is for my “real job” as well as for my “hobby.” I have a great passion to help people not only understand but to be a part of the scientific process, to share in the discovery of new places or celebrate the innovative spirit of scientists trying to understand the world we live in.

I look forward to the lessons I will learn. I am open to receive the wisdom of the science journalists from the NY times, WA post, Nat Geo, who will be our instructors. I am ready for the hard work.

This blogpost from one of  the instructors, Joel Achenbach, sums it up best. He ends his post with these words of wisdom: “A writer is just someone who writes. You don’t need a credential or a fancy resume. You don’t need a lot of special training. You don’t need connections. Just put your hands on the keyboard and start typing. And don’t stop.”

When my head is about to burst while I translate knowledge into story, and when my fingers cramp on the keyboard, I will remember those lonesome riders traversing the Santa Fe trail from Missouri to Nuevo Mexico and remember… there is payoff at the end.


What happens to you when you get overwhelmed?

Do you shut people out? Do you procrastinate? Do you get angry for no reason? Do you want to run away?

Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

My mental outlook on life has been derailed momentarily. Yes momentarily, because when we get overwhelmed it is only temporary. We have the power to push ourselves back on track, but I am struggling at the moment.

For weeks (perhaps months) I have been trying to get prepared for the PNWA writers conference where I would have the opportunity to pitch my book idea to literary agents and editors. I put my half baked book aside and started preparing my pitch. A 60 second, make or break opportunity, to sell my book idea. No pressure, no problem. After all I watched a webinar by Janna Cawrse Esarey and I felt prepared. All I needed to do is to describe my genre, my title, the book’s setup, the conflict and the resolution in 3-4 sentences that equal 60 seconds or less of time.  I was positively giddy with excitement. No problem, I thought to myself.

Then I started to write it, then I read it aloud to my cats, they sneered, I rewrote it, they still sneered, I rewrote it again, they walked away. What was I going to do? My cats weren’t even interested in my pitch, so why would an agent or editor. I wrote and rewrote, I wrote in third person, in first person (see my blog post), I had a version with some dialogue in it and then I went back to third person. I left it alone for a week, along with all of my other writing. My book was floundering. I was so overwhelmed by figuring out my pitch that I couldn’t write.

Mona the cat
Uninterested cat pose.

My final pitch was going to be bullet points. This is my story, I should know what it is about without memorizing a well scripted pitch. Day one of the conference and I was still adamant about only doing talking points. Then I attended the agent’s panel and the editor’s panel, where they said “Practice, practice, practice.,” your pitch. Basically saying don’t waste our time, but really saying we want to help you if we can.  While I attended a seminar by Janna, that was just like the webinar, I began working on yet another version of my pitch. Version quadrillion, no really. My friend, Alex, said “You nailed it” as we carpooled home that evening.

At home I shut the door to my office and rewrote and recited my pitch until I had a version that made my hairs tingle, my skin sing with joy, I got it, I finally got it. I had been hoping for a pitch that made me emotional, because I knew if I was emotional, then anyone who heard it would be emotional. I memorized it. I don’t remember the last time I had to memorize something… I was so excited. I found my cats and I looked them in the eyes as I recited my pitch and I had them mesmerized, they were so taken by my act, that they just sat there, speechless, then one of them yawned. “Bed time mom.”

pitch session
Waiting in line to pitch.

My nerves were a wreck the next morning. Thunder and lightening and pouring rain, it never does this in Seattle, seemed to heighten my nervousness as I drove back to the conference for another day of seminars and today the Power Pitch Block. For 90 minutes, beginning at 2pm that day, I would have the opportunity to pitch my story to as many agents and editors as I could, for 3 minutes each. Trouble is there were about a hundred other people there, wanting to do the same thing. I was amazed by the civility of the event. No pushing or shoving, no hair pulling, no screaming. We all sat in line and awaited our turn. When the bell rang, like when a horse race begins, you sat in front of your agent or editor of choice and you began your pitch. Intimidating? Only the first one.

After the 90 minutes was over, I had pitched to 3 agents and 2 editors and they were all interested in my story. YIKES, I thought to myself as I left. I have to go home and finish my book. It had to wait until after the conference, because there was one more full day of conference seminars that I wanted to attend.

It is day two post conference and I am writing in my blog… mainly to get this experience out of my head and to hopefully get less whelmed. At least I’m writing right? I looked at my chapters today and said, “you suck” to them, I looked in the mirror and told myself “you suck” as if I am not a good writer. Then I went to my FB page and said, “you’re hot” as I looked at my new head shots that I envision on my books back cover. I am reminded that to achieve my dream, it will take hard work, I will have peaks and I will have valleys. I will be overwhelmed and underwhelmed – can someone tell me what a whelm is please – but in the end I have to remember the goal. It is the goal that will pull me out of my funk. Phew!