Putting the finishing touches on Written in Stone

Just under three weeks. That is all the time I have left to finish my first book, Written in Stone. Although I must admit that I have had my share of “Oh crap, that paper is due today?” moments during my academic career, I am happy to say that I am fully prepared to meet my deadline for the book. The text of Written in Stone has been essentially complete for a few weeks now. It still needs some work, some rough patches need to be buffed out and some holes need to be spackled over, but all of the major parts are in place.

But this is not to say that I am devoid of anxiety. I have written a few articles and essays before but Written in Stone will be my debut as as book writer, and I hope to make it a good one. How the book will be received, I haven’t a clue, but I can honestly say that I have given it my best effort. It would hardly be worth doing if I did not give it my all.

As I mentioned in my last post about Written in Stone I had something of a difficult time finding a publisher. There was a lot of interest in my writing, but not in this particular book. (It was a tough crowd during a year when everyone was anticipating Richard Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth.) In one case, in fact, a particular publisher wanted me to throw out my original conception of what the book should be and instead produce something akin to Your Inner Fish, or in other words toss the history of science stuff and focus on the latest discoveries.

I couldn’t do it. If I agreed then not only would I have to throw out half the book, but it would lose what I felt made it most unique. A large part of my motivation for writing Written in Stone came from wanting to embed current discoveries and debates within a historical context. Tossing the historical narrative was not an option. I was willing to tweak my writing to meet editorial standards, certainly, but in this case the publisher wanted an entirely different book. I knew the story I wanted to tell and I stuck to it.

Thankfully Written in Stone found a comfortable home elsewhere, and even though I have almost finished writing the book there is still much left to do. Finding illustrations is one of the challenges I am now grappling with. I do not have room for, nor can I afford, all the illustrations that I might like to use. Instead I have to pick and choose from what is freely available to me through copyright-expired works, open access journals, and other sources. So far I am pretty satisfied with what I have been able to collect, but a remaining challenge is providing up-to-date evolutionary trees for each of the vertebrate groups considered in the book (early tetrapods, maniraptorans, early synapsids, whales, proboscideans, equids, and hominins). The way in which evolution generates diversity and disparity is a major theme in the book, and this pattern is best represented visually. I might have to draw my own phylogenetic trees from scratch, and if I must do so I want to make sure that they are crisp and clear. Drawing them up in Microsoft Paint will not suffice.

Once the raw form of the book is all bundled up it will go into production. That will take about nine months, and with any luck the book will be ready for an autumn 2010 release (just in time for Christmas, wink, wink, nudge, nudge). During the nine months before its release early versions of the book will be sent out to knowledgeable and well-known authorities for jacket blurbs. These are important, especially since (outside the science blogohedron) almost no one knows who I am. A good endorsement from a recognized authority could make the difference between someone picking up my book and putting it back on the shelf. I feel that what I have written will stand for itself, but I also recognize that I will need some help if Written in Stone is to be a commercial success.

And, in a way, I will spend much of 2010 working on two books simultaneously. Not only will I be involved with producing and promoting Written in Stone, but I will be (hopefully) hammering away at my second book. It is going to be quite different from Written in Stone, and in some ways more personal, but it will be a fitting complement to the first book. If things go as planned I intend for it to be part two of a trilogy of books about how our species interprets its place in nature. The third book will probably generate the most popular interest, but rather than lead with it I thought it might be wise to establish myself with the other two titles and then build off that foundation. If all goes well I will be very busy between 2010 and 2012 (and beyond). I have many, many ideas of future titles, and I hope that I will get to a good number of them in time.

Wrapping up the writing on Written in Stone leaves me with an odd feeling. It is a project that I have been working up to for the past four years, yet I am still a little shocked that the book is actually going to be published. It almost doesn’t seem real. I still find it odd that the collection of words and images I have been putting together will be bound up and presented for public consumption. What becomes of it, I can only imagine, but I hope that it is only the beginning of my contributions to popular science.

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