What’s new with Written in Stone

Written in Stone

I can’t help it – every time I pass a bookstore, I wonder whether they are going to carry my book when it comes out this autumn. November is still a long way away – summer does not even officially begin until next week – but I can’t help but wonder where my book will pop up and how it will be received. It is both exciting and anxiety-inducing.

I try not to speculate too much about what will happen when Written in Stone comes out. It is not even entirely finished yet. Right now the original text and scribbled margin notes from the last copyedited version are being transformed into page proofs for their final check. Once everything is in shape the galley copies will be made – this is the version which will be sent out to reviewers, prospective interviewers, and others.

There is not very much for me to do with Written in Stone at this stage. I worked on the manuscript almost every day between September and March, but now I am in a hurry-up-and-wait cycle of combing over the manuscript and sending it back out again for finishing touches. That doesn’t mean that I can relax. If Written in Stone is going to do well I am going to have to promote it, and doing so involves different challenges.

Over the past year I have been working to get some freelance writing gigs, both to promote my book and to break into science writing on a more professional level. There has been a steep learning curve. My early attempts to pitch articles were not very good – or at least not very well-suited to the kinds of stories which regularly appear in newspapers and magazines – but thanks to some kind editors and fellow freelancers I have begun to meet with a little more success. Among the most difficult aspects of the process involved determining which story should be pitched to which periodical and how it should be presented. In one case I explained my general idea to an editor and they let me run with it, but in other cases I spent hours fine-tuning detailed proposals only to hear that the story didn’t fit, the magazine covered something similar a year or so ago, or that the chief editor did not particularly like stories about creepy crawlies such as bone-boring snotworms. There is no exact formula or method for success. The editorial staff at a given publication is often like a “black box” to me – I never know what kind of story they prefer until I try to submit something.

A major challenge is finding good stories to pitch. As far as I can tell, new fossil discoveries are often covered by staff writers who receive embargoed papers ahead of time. By the time I find out about something new, it is too late. Instead, I spend a lot of time digging into the literature for more obscure – but still interesting – subjects, particularly ongoing debates that require pulling different studies or papers together. The trouble is that the fields which most interest me are paleontology, natural history, and the history of science; subjects which can be hard to sell unless there is something new and exciting going on. (When I pitched a story to SEED about the changing image of dinosaurs in pop culture, for example, I was turned down because the editor said the magazine just didn’t do paleontology unless there was some kind of exceptional, breaking news associated with it.) Perhaps I would have more options if I were better versed in tech, genetics, psychology, or neuroanatomy – the kind of stuff which regularly gets top billing these days – but I have to follow my passions. More often than not, what most excites me are new insights into things which are really old.

It has been difficult to find a balance between all these writing activities. I have two blogs to feed (in addition to this blog, I’ll be writing at Dinosaur Tracking for at least another year), one book to finish, another book (tentatively called Wild New World) just starting up, academic papers to complete, and plenty of articles to write, all of which have to be squeezed in during nights and weekends. I would not be doing all this if I did not love it, but at the same time I sometimes feel overwhelmed as prospective projects continue to pile up. There is never enough time. I am hoping that I will gain enough momentum within the next year or so to start writing full time, but with the high cost of living in New Jersey and a significant amount of student loans in repayment, leaving my day job to become a science writer is not a viable option just yet.

So far, though, this has been a pretty good year. I have already published one story with Smithsonian, will soon have another coming out in the Times science magazine Eureka, will see the publication of my first two academic papers later this year, and have my first book debut in November. That is certainly more than I did last year, but I am not satisfied with what I have done just yet. At the moment I have a few pitches sitting on my hard drive – articles on a variety of topics from the debate over sauropod posture to the social intelligence of hyenas to the evolution of “whalefall” communities – so I guess I should get back to pitching!

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