Monday, December 5, 2016

Writers Tips: Deborah Blum

Deborah Blum Website
Monday Writing Tip from Sierra Writers' Conference:


  Deborah Blum: Author of The Poisoner’s Handbook and Ghost Hunters
  1. here are a few things that i’ve learned or that people have told me along the way. i’ve written five books. the first two (monkey wars, sex on the brain) were issue books. the best advice i got when writing an issue book was to write the first chapter LAST.  this isn’t absolute, but it’s in the research and writing of later chapters that you often figure out what your primary points will be and how best to frame them.
  2. the best advice i got in writing narrative non-fiction was to get my hero in trouble and keep him there. this was with my first narrative book, love at goon park. my editor suggested that as the over all arc — how is harry harlow ever going to persuade the scientific community that love matters? — and within that to have him confront an obstacle in every chapter. i’m a little looser with that now, not an obstacle in EVERY chapter, but it’s still a great way to think about structure. for instance, in poisoner’s handbook, every chapter is a poison, so my heroes must confront arsenic in one chapter and thallium in another…
  3. i usually try to have a single sentence that describes the primary message of the book. this turns out to be really useful when your editor asks you for the one sentence the sales force can use to persuade book sellers to buy your book. but, again, it’s also a useful organizing principle. so with monkey wars, the primary sentence (not brilliant for sales, but still) was “animal research is really about us.” number one species on the planet, can do whatever we want to other species. and i used that to frame every chapter around a decision that a researcher was making in his use of non-human primates, from brain surgeries to testing on endangered species.
  4. i let my first draft suck. kind of the anne lamott advice on “shitty first drafts.” to me my first draft is just an attempt to start unfolding the flow and logic of the story. if i get stuck, i just put xxx in the draft (for figure this out later.) with one of my books (sex on the brain) i did this so often that i had literal nightmares about it, that people were coming up to me and asking me if i had adopted an avant garde writing style.
  5. i’m obsessive about the research. i organize and cross-list and file from the very beginning. i make notes of key points, issues, and themes. the amount of research one does for a proposal is very different from the amount of research one does for a whole book. so i keep track of all these key moments in a way that lets me recognize patterns that i didn’t see earlier. and also so that when i’m later actually writing, i know where to find everything. writers waste a lot of time looking for that study that they filed, well, somewhere.
  6. i recognize that today’s book author isn’t done even after the manuscript is accepted. publishers expect us to be part of the marketing of the book and the sooner that starts the better. i used to tell people that i wanted to be the j.d. salinger of science writing and just stay home and let the royalties wash over me. but that’s mostly in the moments when i’m just overwhelmed. the new public version of a science writer is actually pretty fascinating.

Steve Silberman's collection of writing tips:

Steve Silberman Website
When Steve Silberman started working on his book NeuroTribes, The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, he decided to “tap into the wisdom of the hive mind.” Fortunately he had a great hive to tap and he shared a long article with brief tips on writing a book from 22 authors.
It’s really too much to read all at once so we will be posting each author’s advice separately so that you can savor each tidbit. (You can always click on the link at the end of the previous paragraph to get the whole feast.)

Now, go forth and write!





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