Thursday, March 25, 2010

Writing a Book: Part 4, Promotion

Ah, sweet joy. Your new book is out in the world. Now, you can sit back, relax, and let the reviews, acclaim, and cash roll in. If only life were so wonderful and you could take some well-deserved rest after book publication, but unless you are Mr. King, Ms. Steele, or Mr. Gladwell, you will still have much work to do, particularly if you want others to read and buy your book.

Promoting Stories in Stone began long before it arrived in book stores. My first attempts at drumming up interest in the book began with social media. I started this blog and set up Facebook and LinkedIn pages. Obviously, I have kept working on the blog, figuring that each posting has the potential to attract someone new who might be interested in the book. I also write the blog because I enjoy it and am still a bit nutty about building stone. Facebook and LinkedIn have required less work, but still I had to seek out people and try to create connections to them. I know that using social media has been very successful for some people, who set up elaborate tours through their contacts.

I was fortunate that my publisher sent Uncorrected Proofs out to a long list of potential reviewers, such as newspapers, magazines, and radio shows. (For those not familiar with this edition, also referred to as a review copy or bound galley, it is basically a cheap paperback edition of the book, and about the last time a writer can make changes in the book.) Sending out the proofs does not guarantee a review as newspaper book review editors often receive dozens and dozens of books every week. These review books usually come several months before the book is published.

I also came up with my own list of specialized places for book reviews, such as science, stone, and architecture magazines. I continue to keep my eyes open for new places for reviews, and then ask my publisher to send hard bound copies of the book. Other outlets for potential promotion and reviews include talk radio, newsletters, blogs, and web sites, all of which require me to find and contact them. I have had some success with this though more often I have gotten no response. (And there are the games you can try to play with, such as asking all of your friends to write reviews.)

I was lucky that I had the time and interest to do this. I have other writer friends who have hired people, generally college students, to be their publicist. This tactic still required the author to do work, such as approve promotional copy.

In addition to sending out the bound galleys, my publisher asked me to come up with a list of names of people that they could send a promotional postcard to. The idea being that if I knew the person, they might be more likely to look at the postcard and buy the book. The list was supposed to have 2,000 names. I was happy I could scrape together 400 or so.

Then there are the book readings. My publisher did some work on this but basically I set up all the readings that took place. I did not travel much for the book, though I tried to set up an east coast tour but it fell through. I had to come up with a list of stores, find contacts, contact them, pick a date, and try to spread the word about the reading. I didn’t and haven’t limited myself to bookstores, which can be hit or miss. (At one book signing, I was tucked into a small chair with a very small sign alerting people to me. The only interested parties were family members. This was also the same store that when I arrived the owner asked me if I had brought copies of the book to sell, which made me think, “Isn’t this a bookstore and isn’t that what you do?”)

In regard to bookstores, I know one author who regularly goes into stores and introduces himself to the staff. He offers to sign the books and if the store doesn’t carry the book, gently lets the staff know about the book. Of course, there is always the tactic of taking your book from its lowly, hidden spot and putting it in a more prominent location.

I have found better success by targeting my talks to groups that have regular meetings, such as geology department seminars, geology groups, and other interested clubs, which leads to a more guaranteed audience. (Another advantage is that I sell my books at the readings, which provides a little additional income.) I generally tailor my talk to such groups. For instance, on April 22 I will be giving a talk at the Rick Steves Travel Classes about building stone in Italy.

As some readers know, I also set up a virtual book tour, where I contacted other bloggers. I asked them to read the book and review it or set up some way for me to connect with their readers through my book. This was a great way to get the word out to others, including to a few blogs that had nothing to do with geology or stone.

Getting the word out on my book has been an on going process. It can be frustrating and challenging but I knew that if I didn’t do it no one would. I realized this the first time I saw a previous book of mine spine out in a bookstore and wondered how would anyone find my little book amid so many other books. I did do the simple thing of pulling my book out so people could see the cover but that was just the beginning. Good luck.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Writing a Book: Part 3, Answering some Questions

I wanted to address some of the points raised in the comments section on Brian’s blog. Stan raises several interesting questions.

How did you solve the balance between themes that you personally found interesting, versus themes that would appeal to a wider audience?

This gets to the heart of writing. I once saw Tony Hillerman give a talk in which he said “Don’t write what the readers won’t read.” Good advice, particularly if you spent hours or days tracking down some random bit of information or some side story; it is very hard to not put that fact or story in the book. One way around this is to use endnotes, which is a sly way of slipping in your research without having it break up the story line. (This change often didn’t come until much later, after I had the time to better consider my cool fact and to realize it probably didn’t need to be in the main body of the book.) I have found that if I have to struggle to put something in that interests me, then it probably shouldn’t go in the story. Another way around this is when you do feel a theme is necessary but perhaps is less interesting to you, then couch it through something that interests you.

How much and how often did you involve friends and family in the process, especially before getting an agent and editor?

I do get friends involved. As I wrote earlier, I often bounce ideas off them to get their reactions. I did have friends read various chapters, not for editing purposes, but to see if they thought the chapter flowed and if they thought it was interesting. I did get good advice from friends but also recognized that they would not be completely honest if they didn’t like it.

How did you balance time between research and writing? I find there is *always* one more book or article to read, and have to force myself to sit down and just write.

Yes, there is always more research to do, particularly if you are looking to procrastinate on the writing process. One way to stop researching is to have a deadline. I gave myself two months to research and write my chapters, which definitely forced me to close the books and start writing. And, ultimately, I figured there was no way I could get every fact and figure in so I might as well move on.

Some people have suggested going with a NaNoWriMo-style approach of "write first, edit later." How carefully did you proceed when first writing, and how much editing did you do afterwards?

I write. I edit. I write. I edit. I edit a lot when I write and am not very good at letting go and simply putting stuff on the page. I do, however, write lots of material that never goes forward. I have found that doing so does allow me to get things out of my brain and allows me to move the process along.

In regard to editing, I have a couple of things I like to do. I do edit on the computer as I go but for more serious editing I print out the document. I also will read it aloud, which helps with structure and flow. And, finally, I let the material sit overnight or even longer. I want to get the writing out of my system and try to approach it with fresh eyes.

Practical tips: What software did you use along the way? (I'm trying DevonThink and Scivener. Bookmarks in Delicious.)

And what was your daily writing practice? (Always at certain time of day? Always in certain cafe? Warm up exercises? Write on paper, then transcribe into computer? Did you print out drafts along the way for editing?)

I am not sure exactly what you mean by this. I write on an iMac and use MSWord.

I don’t really have a daily writing practice except to consider it a job. I am usually on the computer by 7am and off it by 5-6pm. I don’t work well at night. I usually take a nap in the afternoon. Some days I write. Some days I do research. Most days it was a combo. I write on the computer though when I am really bogged down I will write on paper. And, yes, I killed trees on a regular basis printing out drafts for editing.

Thanks for all of the questions.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Writing a Book: Part 2, the Writing

Earlier this week, I wrote a bit about the early process of writing a science book, focusing on converting an idea into a proposal. Michael and Brian did the same and then addressed the writing itself. As Michael observed, each writer takes a different approach, and mine was unlike his or Brian’s.

Building stone was a subject that had long interested me. I wrote my first article on it for Harvard’s alumni magazine in 1997. Over the next half dozen years I wrote another 8 or 9 stories so when I began to think about my book, I had a lot of good background material. Still, I needed more stories and more stone to focus on. I knew that I wanted each chapter to focus on a different type of stone, which led me to the GeoRef database. If you’re not familiar with GeoRef, it’s THE database of geology with over 3 million references stretching back to the 1600s.

Through this research, plus some searching of the web, I ended up with 10 chapter ideas. Several principles guided my choice of stones. I knew I wanted the book to reintroduce general readers to the three types of rock—igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary—as well as to fundamental geological concepts, such as plate tectonics, geologic time, and fossil formation, that most people probably haven’t thought much about since their high school science class. Furthermore, in discussing the geological phenomena and how the earth’s changes affect the look, feel, strength, and distribution of particular rocks, I wanted to provide the background necessary for understanding the long relationship between people and stone, on levels emotional, philosophical, and prosaic.

And finally, from a practical standpoint, I chose building stones that are widely and commonly used, so that a reader who is interested in looking at a particular rock firsthand can probably find it on his or her next visit to a major city. Some were rocks I knew well, such as brownstone, Quincy granite, Salem Limestone, east coast slate, and Italian travertine. Others were new to me (or at least the specific rock units were new), including petrified wood from Colorado, coquina from Florida, and marble from Italy. And one, the granite in Robinson Jeffers’ house, I chose simply because I loved the house and wanted to learn more about it and Jeffers.

Now that I had the subjects, I dove into the research. I wrote people who studied the rocks. I tracked down obscure documents. I looked for history accounts. I tried to figure out how the different rocks connected to each other and how to order them in the book. Should they be geologically chronological, chronologically based on when the buildings were built, or geographically organized.

As I noted in my previous posting, my agent wanted me to provide a reason for the reader to continue reading, in essence a beginning, middle, and end to the book. Despite my efforts, often pained, I couldn’t really figure out a logical way to progress the book. What I ended up with was a somewhat subtle way of connecting the chapters. The first chapter, on brownstone, introduces me and the subject and why I am passionate about stone. I ended the book with travertine because it sums up and exemplifies many of the subjects I covered.

In between these book ends (ha-ha), the chapters are paired. My second chapter focuses on a granite that transformed architecture, transportation, and business across the entire eastern seaboard. In contrast, my second granite chapter illustrates how stone can transform a single man, poet Robinson Jeffers. Set two pairs the most commonly used building stone in the country with a stone used in only one structure. My third set of chapters contrasts the oldest commonly used building stone in the world and one of the youngest building stones. The next pair of stones contrasts practicality with grandiosity.

The first chapter I wrote was about Quincy granite, mostly because I knew it well from my time living in Boston. It has a compelling mix of history and geology. I wrote the remaining chapters in no particular order. For each, I gave myself two months to write, do additional research, interview experts, and visit the quarry and/or building.

None of the chapters came easily. A few had somewhat natural story lines to follow, particularly those concerning a specific building with a long history but for most I simply started to write about what I had learned, not always going in any direction. I found that as I did this the chapter would start to develop a natural rhythm, though this required writing, rewriting, and rewriting again.

I did have a goal of making each chapter have a different structure. In addition, I didn’t want to have a section on geology then one on history; I wanted a balanced approach where the topics intercalated. I don’t know or really want to know how many times I wrote each chapter.

When each chapter was finished I would pass it on to my wife for a first round of edits. Fortunately for her, she is neither a geogeek nor was her head filled with all of the chapter-related trivia I had, so she was ideal to comment on whether the chapter was too technical or if I wrote something and left out key details, which were in my head. After her edits, I worked on the chapter again and when I was finished with it, I would go through and footnote it to make sure I knew where every reference came from. I would then set it aside and start the next chapter.

The manuscript that I turned in was basically the one I proposed. Like Brian, I wondered what my editor would do. After reading the first chapter she had one major observation. There was too much of me personally in the book. As she put it “The reader wants to see what you are seeing, he/she doesn’t want to see you seeing it.” Taking this to heart, which was hard because I thought that the use of I gave my writing a strong voice, I did what she said. And, of course, I now think that she is right.

Similar to what Michael wrote yesterday about humor (or humour), a little bit of me can help the narrative but too much slows the flow and takes away from the story telling. I agree with this. I also removed many of my attempts at humor in the book.

Finally, I turned in round two of my complete manuscript and again had the pleasure of waiting for my editor’s comments. They were smart and helpful and I disagreed with very few of them. And in the one case where she suggested a big change, she was absolutely correct. The entire process from writing the first chapter to final edits of the manuscript was about three years.

Following Michael’s sage lead again, enough for now. Any thoughts would be wonderful.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Writing a Book: The Idea, The Proposal, and Publishing

As I noted the other day, Brian, Michael, and I are starting what we hope to be a conversation about science books, science book writing, and science book publishing. The initial topic is on how to make a technical (and possibly, seemingly obscure) topic accessible, exciting, and of interest to a publisher, as well as to readers. As with Michael’s post, this turned out a bit longer than I expected.

This is an idea that writers constantly wrestle with; most of us recognize that we will be more passionate about a subject than most of our readers, so how do we entice/interest others in our topic. To me a key word is passion. If you can’t convey your passion for the subject, why would anyone else want to follow you.

For Stories in Stone and for the book proposal I am working on right now, I have tried to put this to the test. I talked about my book topic to friends and family and saw what interested them. What aspects of the story did they pick up on? What did they want to know more about? When did their eyes glaze over? Talking about the subject also helped me realize when my eyes were glazing over, when I didn’t fully understand what I hoped to write about, and what just didn’t feel right.

Good research is one means of expressing your passion. Dive into your topic, learn as much as you can, see how others have written about it, find the connections. These can help show a publisher that you are serious about your subject and that you are willing to do the work to tell a good story. Research will also give you the characters to flesh out your story and to pull away from the purely technical or obscure.

Readers like to relate to people. The best science writing doesn’t hit you directly over the head with the science. You will have a better chance of enticing people into the subject if they can connect with the human element. One way to think of this is to think of slipping science in the back door or weaving it into the overall fabric of the story through the people who experienced the science.

That being said, it is critical to keep the science in the book. Don’t dumb it down or omit it just because it is challenging. If we don’t put in the science, who will? Think of it as a conversation. Sure you can drop in the big words, but do so sparingly. Challenge your readers and maybe have some fun with them by using humor.

Ultimately, what is going to make a complicated or obscure subject appeal to publishers and readers is the story you have to tell. As my agent puts it, give the reader a reward for following along. Don’t just list all the cool things about your subject but write so that the reader wants to get to the end, to see how the story plays out. If the reader can learn something or have a new way of viewing or relating to the subject, that is even better.

The reason that Michael’s book has been so well received is that everyone has seen sand and can relate it, and after reading Sand, every reader will look at sand with new eyes and a new appreciation. Furthermore, it is clear that Michael is a bit nutty about sand and that he has done the research to tell his story. As I read the book, I could easily imagine wanting to be out the field with him and hearing him tell me about sand.

Part 2 - The proposal.

The basics of the proposal are somewhat formulaic: what is the book about, who you are, or why you are the person to write the book; marketing; inspiration and competition. My proposal for Stories in Stone ran to around 60 to 65 pages. It started with a broad opening to the subject, followed by a short section on how I would approach the subject. I also included a brief outline, detailed descriptions (600-900 words) of each chapter, and one full chapter. The chapter isn’t always necessary but for an unknown author it is. You have to show that you can write. The marketing, about the author, and inspiration and competition sections took up just four pages of my proposal.

A few thoughts on agents. You must have an agent to work with a national publisher. For my previous books, The Street-Smart Naturalist and A Naturalist’s Guide to Canyon Country, both of which were published by regional presses, I did not have an agent. I just sent the standard proposal in to the publishers. I was rejected numerous times for each.

In regard to my agent, I was fairly lucky finding one. A fellow author and friend had recommended me to his agent, who was open to me sending in a proposal to her. I submitted a very short proposal (about three pages) and after she agreed to represent me, we spent the next six months fashioning the one she sent out to publishers. My agent was critical in helping me put together this proposal. It wasn’t always fun as I was reduced to tears at times trying to come up with a compelling way to show that my technical/obscure subject would be interesting to more than just a few geo-geeks.


Regional and university presses: As noted earlier, you can usually submit a proposal without an agent to these presses. The down side is that such publishers usually offer a smaller advance, have a smaller marketing budget and perhaps less editing. And, at least in the case of my book, The Street-Smart Naturalist, the company could go bankrupt. The advantages can be the reputation of the press, particularly for a university press and that you are a bigger fish in the sea so you may get more energy devoted to promotion.

Self-publishing: This has certainly gotten easier in the past few years but still has some pitfalls. Newspapers might not review self-published books, not that newspapers are the only reviewers. There may be some skepticism about “Oh, you couldn’t get someone else to publish it so you had to do it yourself.” Also, you have to pay for things like editing, design, and indexing. You have to handle all publicity and marketing and store the books. That being said, my one experience, which is maybe not reflective of the industry as whole has been good. In the early 1990s I produced a guide book to a very popular mountain bike/4wd trail, which has sold upwards of 10,000 books. We have had dumb luck in that no one else has produced another guide and the area we wrote about became highly regulated so that all who go on the trail have to pass through a national park visitor center, which carries the book.

Again, any thoughts on my comments or Michael’s (Through the Sandglass) and Brian’s (Laelaps) would be great.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Writing a Popular Science Book: How-To Next Week

Starting next week, I will be teaming up with my fellow bloggers and book authors, Brian Switek (Written in Stone, to be published in November 2010) and Michael Welland (Sand: The Never Ending Story) to discuss the process of writing our books. Each of us will write about our work and Brian will then collect the links. Our goal is to generate a conversation about science books and science writing. This seems quite apropros considering that a science book, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes, just won the National Book Critics award.

Our initial discussion will focus on the process of taking an idea and making it appeal to a publisher without sacrificing the science and accuracy. We will also consider what goes into a book proposal. Please feel free to send in questions.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Mariner Tower Update

Several weeks ago I posted a short piece about the use of Morton Gneiss in Art Deco buildings. One building I mentioned was the Mariner Tower in Milwaukee. I have found out a bit more information about that building plus I have obtained a few fine photos of the stone. The building's original name reflects the name of its builder, John W. Mariner, a Milwaukee businessman. The scion (isn't that a great word?) of a pioneer family, Mariner graduated from Harvard in 1891, where he was the member of the Hasty Pudding club. (I only mention this to be able to write that funny two word club name.)
Mariner's father bought the original building property site for $100. Work began in 1929 with the building opening in 1930, not long after John Mariner died of a heart attack in June. The Morton Gneiss only clads the base. Long called the Mariner Tower, it has been known as the Wisconsin Tower for many years.

In 2004, the building was sold and converted into 73 condominium units. As has happened in many real estate markets, condo sales have not gone as well as some would hope. Perhaps if the owners had better emphasized a curious rumor about their building, more units would have sold. According to an 2006 article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, by Jim Stingl, the sales pitch for the new condominiums in the 22-story building stated: "Ask to see the infamous dirigible landing on the rooftop tower." After visiting the 40-foot steel structure atop the tower, Stingl tried to track down any truth to the story and found none. Apparently the story is another urban legend. Any additional information on the building or on its dirigible landing zone would be appreciated.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Morton Liquor Update

Flash! A quick update for those following the perturbations of my favorite liquor store. (By the way, I just want to clarify that having a favorite liquor store does not mean that I keep a list of favored liquor stores or that I have, say, a life list of liquor stores; it's merely that I really like the building in Morton.) Jonathan Moore, who sent me the photos of Morton Gneiss at the Redwood Falls McDonald's, has sent me some new photos of the Morton Liquor Store. Now there is even more reason to visit the building. The new owners have updated the place, dubbing it the Morton Pub and Eatery, and started serving a broader variety of food. Also, please note the historic photo, which shows the building before it was clad with the 3.5-billion-year old gneiss. The building was originally a mercantile built by JH McGowan and RB Hinton in the 1890s.

Upper photo courtesy of Jonathan Moore. Lower photo from Renville County Historical Society.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Roxbury Puddingtone: Boston's Church Stone

Over at Mountain Beltway, Callan’s post about the Leesburg Conglomerate reminded me of one of my favorite building stones in Boston. It also happens to be the most common surface rock with good outcrops in Brookline, Roxbury and Jamaica Plain. That rock is the Roxbury Conglomerate, designated in 1983 as the State Rock of Massachusetts.
Roxbury Presbyterian Church

Also known as puddingstone, the Roxbury consist of varicolored pebbles, cobbles, and boulders suspended in a fine grained matrix. In the field, the rock ranges in color between light blue-gray and dark gray. Water often stains the iron in many of the blocks to a red-orange color. This rock might be more properly called 'church stone'; over 35 churches were built in the Boston area with Roxbury Conglomerate in the 19th century. These include Christ Church in Brookline, First Church on Elm in Jamaica Plain, and St. James Episcopal Church in Roxbury.

Close up of the puddingstone

The Roxbury is to geologists what the dropped 'R' is to linguists, a sign that you are in Boston, for the puddingstone only occurs in and around the Hub. And like this linguistic trait, no one knows exactly where these rocks originated. It shares some affinities with rocks in west Africa. But it also shows traits of South American rocks. About the only thing that geologists agree on is that the Roxbury was deposited between 570 and 600 million years ago.

Like most sedimentary rocks, the Roxbury Conglomerate is the product of the breakdown of other rocks. Recent analysis indicates that it may have originated in a landscape that looked like modern-day Japan, with a range of volcanoes separated from the sea by a flat plain. Like all mountains, they were involved in a battle between uplift and erosion. And like all mountains, erosion won. Streams washed these eroded bits and pieces into a chaotic mix of sediments at the base of the mountains. In some places, gray to green lava flows abut the puddingstone, indicating that some of the volcanoes were active with molten rock flowing off their slopes.

The Roxbury sits in the middle of a suite of rocks that includes granite found in Dedham and muddy slates that occur in Braintree. These rocks formed between 650 and 505 million years ago on, under, and in oceans bordering the drifting land mass known as Avalon. In its slow movement toward North America, Avalon may also have picked up a hitchhiker or two, which further complicates its history. Ongoing research, especially finding precise dates for all these rocks, continues to clarify details of the Avalonian picture.

Others though do not even agree with these theories. In The Dorchester Giant, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote:

They flung it over the Roxbury hills,
They flung it over the plain,
And all over Milton and Dorchester, too
Great lumps of pudding the giants threw:
They tumbled on thick as rain.

Giant and mammoth have passed away,
For ages have floated by;
The suet is hard as a marrowbone,
And every plum is turned to a stone,
But there the puddings lie.

No matter what you want to call the stone, it is a nice looking rock and apparently a better stone to work with than the Leesburg Conglomerate.