Sunday, September 19, 2010


On (Astronomy) Writing

Yeah, I know, this was supposed to be a Hubble Project report. Unk was in the air flying across the U.S. of A. again this week, howsomeever, so you'll have to wait till next Sunday for that. In the meantime...

I get quite a few questions from y’all about writing. Not that I hold myself up as any kind of paragon of the literary art—far from it. But I have had a little experience along those lines, and I’ve had some real good teachers from high school to graduate school who at least tried to show me how to produce decent prose. I don’t have the time and space to teach you the basics of writing this morning, but that’s OK. Most of the questions I get asked aren’t about writing per se, anyhow; it’s more “Where do you get your ideas?” and “How do you get started?” and “How do you sell your writing?” That, we do have time for.

Since I know more about my own writing than anybody else’s I suppose the place to begin is with me. If I’d had good sense, I would have got started as soon as I left the Air Force and returned to Possum Swamp. But I didn’t have good sense. I was a late bloomer and didn’t start writing professionally till the 80s ran out. Like most people interested in the pursuit for any but the basest reasons, I’d actually been writing for a long time before that. How could I not? As somebody, I can’t remember who at the moment, famously said, "A writer is pregnant with words and must seek parturition." If you are destined to put pen to paper, if you have the affliction, you know how true that is.

Foolishly, I let most of the 80s slip away before I got serious. I was way too distracted with getting my engineering career underway and dealing with the explosion of a marriage and the fallout from that. In a way, though, I began at just the right time, when computerized amateur astronomy was taking hold. Not Internet astronomy, since nobody I knew twenty years ago had access to the Internet, but online astronomy nevertheless. We were sharing newsletters across the country via modem to modem communications. Also with the first, shaky computer network for civilians, Fidonet. We chatted on its wonderful Astronomy Forum and arranged to exchange newsletters and newsletter articles there or on our local Bulletin Board Services (BBSes).

Computers and modems meant you no longer had to jump right into the deep end of the pool, sending unsolicited manuscripts to the glossy magazines. You could establish a presence in the field first by having your work read (and criticized) by your fellow amateurs in club newsletters, lots of club newsletters. Soon enough, the Internet opened up to Joe and Jane Amateur Astronomer, and you could “publish” yourself in places like sci.astro.amateur, the Internet’s original amateur astronomy forum. And it got even better with that WWW World Wide Web thing; you could post articles and gear reviews on your website or on the other amateur astronomy websites popping up like dandelions on a spring lawn.

From there, for me, it was a fairly easy jump to getting my work into semi-pro-zines and small press pubs like The Practical Observer and Amateur Astronomy Magazine (where I still have a column to this very day). But I had yet to make a sale, and, frankly, my prose and my work habits needed improvement before anyone would want to give me money for my stuff. That’s where I lucked out. A buddy of mine mentioned me to somebody who shortly gave me a ring, wondering if I’d like to work on astronomy cards.

The card fad seems to have died out, but for a while it was big and advertised heavily on late night TV. Wha? "Cards" were were two to four pages on any subject under the sun printed on card stock, usually arranged as a fold out so four pages could be printed on one sheet. The cards were punched and were meant to be stored in loose-leaf binders purchased by subscribers. While their subjects could range from gardening to military aircraft to everything in between, many of these collections (which could number in the hundreds of cards) were aimed at the young folk, as was The Secrets of the Universe.

I won’t bore y’all with the details, but what it boiled down to was I had to submit 1300 words every Monday morning. The subject of Secrets of the Universe was ostensibly space and astronomy, but to ensure a decent number of cards in the final collection (four fat binders worth), topics could range far afield; I did articles on everything from Dinosaur DNA to balloon-borne telescopes. It was hard work, but paid well, almost insanely well as a matter of fact, and I was proud of what my fellow contributors and I produced, which was essentially a cool science encyclopedia for tweenagers.

Yeah, the pay on SOTU was superfine, but in retrospect I shoulda paid them. I’ve had some excellent writing teachers over the years, but I believe my tenure on Secrets did more to round-off the edges of my prose than anything before or since. Maybe even more important, I gained the discipline required to crank out professional prose week after week; not just when I felt like it. I also learned how to research subjects I knew nothing about, thoroughly and in a hurry, and work what I learned into something understandable and fun for my audience.

In addition to doing a lot for the quality of my prose, the SOTU project did wonders for my self confidence. I discovered I could write on spec—on demand. The fact that I was one of a smaller group of the original Secrets authors chosen to stay on to the very end of the work, led me to believe that, while no threat to Tennessee Williams, my work must not be that bad. Thank god that just when I was beginning to get big-head-itis, I was brought down to earth by a challenge that scared me.

Seemed as Springer – Verlag, a publisher long famous for their textbooks and technical – scientific publications, was starting a new series. A big series, practically a separate imprint, under the aegis of everybody’s favorite amateur astronomer: “Patrick Moore’s Practical Astronomy Series.” A kind friend of mine gave my name to the new Editor of this series when he mentioned they’d like a book on Schmidt Cassegrains in the first go-round of releases. In just weeks, I had signed a contract and was wondering where the hell you start when you have to turn out two or three hundred pages of book, honest-to-god BOOK, and the clock is ticking.

I suppose what kept my rear end out of the fire was the memory of what some good and true teachers had drilled into me. Particularly, Ms. Beverly Strickland of the University of South Alabama. Start with a good outline (I HATE outlines). Tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em. Tell ‘em. Tell ‘em what you’ve told ‘em. That’s all there is to it. That, the help of Miss Dorothy and many friends who read the manuscript of Choosing and Using a Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope, and the kind attention of my understanding Editor at Springer, John Watson, meant the book was not a total disaster. I got it in on time, and some people seemed to like it. I can hardly bear to pick it up now, since my many mistakes glare at me from its pages, but it was a small success in a small amateur astronomy sort of way despite my fumbles.

After Choosing and Using? I took some time off from books, but continued to contribute articles to small-press magazines, and turned my club newsletter, Skywatch, into a little something more, an online semi-magazine of my own read by three – four thousand of my fellow amateurs each issue. I was also initiated into the interesting business that’s a big part of amateur astronomy writers’ lives, speaking at star parties and club meetings. Hell, I was a featured speaker at an Astronomical League Convention one year. Me.

I hardly felt I’d triumphed, though. I had yet to break into the biggest of big leagues: the astronomy magazines. I’d sent a few unsolicited articles off to Sky and Telescope and Astronomy over the years, but they were dreadful and belonged right where they no doubt ended up, on the bottom of an Editor’s slush pile or in a landfill somewhere.

I had a book under my belt, now, though. Maybe, my skills were finally appropriate for those Valhallas of amateur astronomy? Just as I began to screw my courage to the sticking point, another contract intervened. It seemed I was to be given the chance to write the book I’d really wanted to write in the first place, one about a passion of mine, urban deep sky observing. Writing that book is a subject for a separate blog someday, but I was and am pleased with the result, The Urban Astronomer’s Guide, and it is the piece of work that’s still closest to my heart. No, it’s not perfect, but it’s very close to what I wanted, and I am content. I can still pick it up and thumb through it without too much pain.

I finally did achieve my heart’s desire, appearing both in Sky and Telescope and in a pub I think was the best beginners' astronomy magazine anybody’s ever done, Sky Publishing’s Night Sky. The realities of economics, especially given the miniscule audience for magazines about star gazing, meant Night Sky didn’t live long, but I am extremely proud to have been a small part of it. I made some money, too, if, as with Secrets of the Universe, I should probably have paid it back as tuition, given the kind and valuable coaching I received from legendary editor Kelly Beatty.

What’s next? There’s this blog, which I love. I can be as corny and silly as I want and write on anything I like from the plastic space toys of the 1960s to my first look at a comet. Y’all seem to enjoy reading it, so I’ll continue doing it as long as I can. It’s evidently taken the place of good, old Skywatch, since I haven’t felt moved to publish an issue of that in a long time. I’d like to sell more to the magazines, and I will work on that, but I also have some ideas for a new book. Maybe two new books.

That’s my writing career, though, humble as it may be. How about yours? Where do you start? There’s plenty of advice out there, from that given by your fellow writers (if you write, you are a writer, published or not), to the somewhat silly stuff you see in places like Writer’s Digest. The most valuable advice for the beginner I’ve read comes from a man who worked in the genre of fiction closest to our field: science fiction. I am talking about the sainted Robert Heinlein, who proclaimed six “rules” for writers that, if followed scrupulously, will (he believed) inevitably lead to success. Well, maybe. Not all of us have the gifts Heinlein did, but Bob Heinlein’s laws are still a good jumping off place for us:

• You must write.

• Finish what you start.

• You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.

• You must put your story on the market.

• You must keep it on the market until it has sold.

Rule One: You Must Write

This seems self-evident. You are a writer, you write. As the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz liked to say, though, “Not so fast, not so fast.” This rule does not read “You Must Write When You Feel Like It,” which is the way some folks smitten with the desire to see themselves in print interpret it. It means you sit down and write every day. Somebody, sometime—maybe Dashiell Hammett, maybe Mary Heaton Vorce, maybe Kingsley Amis—once said, “The art of writing is applying seat of pants to seat of chair.” This quote is no doubt attributed to many people because it is so true.

Look at it this way… How many times have I referred to Sir William Herschel’s opinion that observing is like playing a musical instrument? That you’ll never be any good at either unless you practice a lot? Well, it’s also—maybe even moreso—true for writing. Even a person with virtuoso talents will never reach their full potential without practice and one hell of  lot of it. The very idea that you sit down and write only when you are "inspired" is ludicrous.

You sit down and write every day, about something. What? It doesn’t much matter . If you don’t have a current project, keep a journal. Blogs are another good way to keep your writing muscles toned. In fact, I think the idea of a blog, at least in addition to if not instead of a journal, is a good one. The knowledge that at least a few people are gonna read what you have written tends to keep you on your toes. As silly and informal as this blog can be, I believe it has gone a long way toward sharpening my skills. I do know one thing: some of my ideas come out of the blue, but most come out of daily writing sessions.

So, you write every day. You try to, anyway. I miss a day once in a while, though not too often. I don’t beat myself up if I do, I just keep on truckin’. I rarely suffer from anything even approaching the much feared WRITER’S BLOCK. I can always get some words out. Even if, sometimes, I don’t feel too much like it. That’s when I apply a rule, not from Bob Heinlein, but from Dorothy Mollise, something she calls "The Ten Minute Rule." When you don’t feel like applying seat of pants to seat of chair, just tell yourself you’re only going to have to write for TEN MINUTES. Do that, and, when you come up for air, you’ll usually find an hour or two has elapsed.

So, you’re gonna write every day. When? That depends on you. My buddy Phil (Harrington), an author of no small repute, tells me he prefers to write early in the morning. That’s a good thing for many folks. In the morning it’s quiet; there are few things to distract. Me? I can write anywhere, anytime. Nothing much bothers me, so I tend to work in the afternoon after I get home from the day job. With the TV blaring. With the Allman Brothers Band cranking on the stereo.

Rule Two: Finish What Your Start

Another important one for any writer in any field. Failure to obey this rule has been the ruin of more than one person I thought was destined for fame and fortune. You know the sort I mean. The person down to the club who is working on an article about the wonderful new telescope design they’ve discovered. Or the friend at work who’s gonna hit it big with a breakthrough novel. They are going to send it off to Sky and Telescope (or Scribners) just as soon as it's finished. Which turns out to be never. The subject of the article or novel changes once in a while, but the “just as soon as it’s finished” never does.

This is avoidance behavior. If you don’t have a finished piece, you don’t have to send it off and suffer rejection. Not having the guts to send baby out into the world is bad enough, but what’s worse is these people never learn how to finish their work. Make a pact with yourself: even if you know you will not submit your article or book anywhere, if you know it is absolute odiferous crap and there is no hope for it, you will finish it anyway.

Rule Three: You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order

Obviously, Heinlein was a huge success in almost everything he did. But not everything. Some of his later novels could have stood a bit or rewriting if'n you don’t mind me saying so. I don’t agree with his Rule Number Three, and I don’t think most writers and writing teachers do either. There is no doubt any piece can be worked over until it’s completely bloodless and no longer says what you wanted it to say. But to suggest, if that’s what Heinlein was doing, that you never revise and rewrite is just plain silly.

I am pretty good at getting words on paper, but I would never DREAM of submitting a first draft of anything. It’s not my style, anyhow. I write fast, turn the pages out, and don’t worry too much about mistakes and wrong turns. I fix that on the second and third and fourth passes. Even if I were maniacally careful with my first draft, I know good and well there would be problems in it, plenty of ‘em. I rarely detect anything but the most egregious foul-ups till I come back to the work the next morning.

So why did Heinlein say this? I think he was using hyperbole. He just means you should not mess with your work till it falls apart. I hope that’s what he means. Or maybe he figured everybody was as famous and hugely talented as he was and had a copy editor who was only too happy and able to fix the faux pas of an early draft.

Rule Four: You Must Put Your Story on the Market

This is also very important. How can you be a writer if no one ever reads your writing? You have to get your finished work to the readers. Which used to be horribly difficult in our field. We are smaller, far smaller, even than the tiny science fiction market. We have two domestic newsstand magazines and a couple in the UK to sell to. Amateur astronomy books take up one or two shelves at the local chain book store.

Magazine sales can be particularly tough. Naturally, anybody who wants to write about amateur astronomy is trying to get into Sky and Telescope and Astronomy. Plenty of highly experienced and talented people are eager to be seen in either. Even if the Editor of one of the glossies decides they need to fill a slot in the magazine with somebody other than one of their staff writers, they will likely go to a freelancer they know and have worked with before, not an unknown.

Why would they do such a thing when your excellent article just came in the mail? Because, for one thing, they know a person who’s written for them before will be easy to work with when it comes to the inevitable changes and revisions that will be required. Believe it or not, I’ve known several unpublished authors who have almost MADE IT, but, when told by their editor that changes would be needed, have balked or not been able to revise their work in a timely manner. Which is, I guess, why these people remain unpublished.

The above said, the editors of the U.S. and UK astro-pubs are more open to using submissions from unknowns by far than the editors of many other types of mags. Trying to get into Popular Mechanics, for example, is a lot harder. If your article is decently written and on a subject the editor needs/is interested in, you might strike gold on your first try. So don't be afraid to try.

How about books? Even publishers with strong astronomy/amateur astronomy lines publish a relatively small—tiny, actually—number of new titles over the course of the year. Even fewer in recession years like the last couple. Consequently, not many book editors are willing to hand out contracts to people they don’t know or aren’t known in the field. If you have a completed book to show, and it is good, you will have a chance, but the competition is pretty fierce.

If some book and magazine editors are not too interested in unknowns, what’s the best way to get known? The two major amateur astronomy websites, Astromart and Cloudy Nights. Both run gear reviews and articles of other types, and both will publish just about any decent material you send them (though you may take a while to appear depending on how many submissions they’ve had). You can even bypass that and “submit” your reviews, your observing reports, or just about anything else as a post in either of these websites’ many forums. Just be aware you’ll need to keep ‘em relatively short and oriented strongly to the topic of the forum you are posting in.

Next step up is semi-pro-zines and non-newsstand astronomy magazines. The two biggies of that sort currently are Amateur Astronomy Magazine and Astronomy Technology Today. The former prints material on anything related to amateur astronomy, and will also accept articles of the “astronomy-fact” persuasion, articles about goings-on in the science of astronomy. Astronomy Technology Today tends to concentrate on equipment reviews and reports. Which is a good thing, since that’s what many newbies in our field want to write about.

No, you probably won’t get paid by these magazines or the others like them, but you will get read, maybe even talked about if you did good--or bad. I can't overemphasize how instructive seeing your work in the context of a magazine and hearing the comments of readers can be. I also can’t overemphasize the ego boost you'll get from finally getting there, being printed.

None of the book editors are interested in your magnum opus, The Remembrance of Telescopes Past? You can consider the modern take on the old “self publishing” thing, which is now called “publish-on-demand” (or "print-on-demand"). Publish-on-demand means no copies of your book will be kept in stock by the publisher, who is really more like a printer. Books will be printed as they are ordered. As far as I know, most of these outfits will accept just about any manuscript submitted to them.

Publish-on-demand has worked for some authors, but it sounds like a hell of a lot of work to me—you will be doing most/all the layout and graphics for the book yourself (and promotion of the finished book, too). I want somebody who knows what they are doing, a real publisher, to take care of that. And I want MONEY in the form of an advance (on royalties), which you can forget about getting from a publish-on-demand house.

Rule Five: You Must Keep it on the Market until it has Sold

This is a corollary of the previous rule. Course, in our little world it doesn’t take long to exhaust the places where your work can be published. What if nobody likes it and it doesn’t get published? Not even online? If you’ve done what you oughta do before submitting, that likely won’t happen. Somebody will take it, though they may not give you any money for it. If nobody wants your work, that means there is something wrong, seriously wrong, with it that needs fixing.

“But Uncle Rod, I know it’s good; I revised it a hundred times.” That in itself can be the problem, but usually the problem is that when we read our own work we read what we want to read. I don’t just mean you miss spelling, punctuation, and grammar errors, but that what seems clear to you ain’t necessarily clear to Joe Schmoe when he reads your article or chapter. That’s why it is terribly important to have someone look at your work when you are done.

That doesn’t have to be someone who’s a writer or even knows pea-turkey about writing. It is helpful if the reader knows something about your topic—Aunt Lulu might not be a good judge of your article about CCD image processing (or she might). The important thing is to have another set of eyes look at it. Even today, I would not dream of sending out a professional for-pay assignment without having the talented Miss D. give it the once-over.

Rule Six: Start Working on Something Else

Heinlein, great as he was, didn’t have all the answers or even all the questions. So, I've decided to throw in a couple more rules of my own. What I am saying with thisun is, “fun is fun, but done is done.” Once you’ve given it your best and have submitted the copy (or hid it under the bed), you do not continue to agonize over your work. You move on to something else. You are done and you do the seat of pants to seat of chair thing. That’s how you get better and how you develop a body of work.

Rule Seven: Get Help if You Need It

Something I hear once in a while is, “Unk, how do I learn to write?” If you are interested in writing anything, you probably stayed awake at least part of the time in the English/creative writing classes you took in high school and college. You know the basics; you just need to work and practice. Unless you don’t know the basics, of course.

Which is possible. I’ve known people who slept through their English classes, and then, years later, were bitten hard by the writing bug. They don’t know a fracking apostrophe from a dependent clause, and, if they are lucky, they know they don’t. The first thing an editor is going to expect, what an editor is going to, in fact, assume, is that you are able to turn out professional, readable prose on demand. If it’s obvious your work, even if it is interesting and a good idea for a book or magazine article, will require extensive corrections and revisions, your poor little pages will go right back into the slush pile—or into the round file.

How do you get help? There are numerous books, starting with Strunk’s famous Elements of Style. If you are just a little rusty, that may be all the help you need. Perhaps aided and abetted by something to refresh you on English grammar/mechanics. I still favor The Little Brown Handbook; not just for its advice and tutelage on grammar, but for its sensible guidelines on clear expository writing (which is what astronomy writers do). If you think your case is a little more serious, investigate the night/non-credit courses in writing and English your local university/community college no doubt offers. In fact, that’s usually the best idea, since you will get not just pointers, but critical eyes on your work.

“Damn, just damn, Rod. You make it sound so hard.” That’s because it is hard. It’s hard to learn to write. Even when you’ve learned, it is still hard, and will remain hard work forever. Nobody would want to do it if it weren’t for the payoff at the end of that long and lonely road. That comes when you’ve had your first professional assignment published, when you are in print in a magazine or when your name is on an honest-to-god book. Miss Dorothy still laughs about the day I got my author’s copies of my first book. How I couldn’t stop hopping up and down, squealing, “DOROTHY! I’M AN ISBN NUMBER! I’M AN ISBN NUMBER!” What better reward is there, and what better dream, muchachos? Keep after it.

Next time: "Hello again, Willie and Lina!"

I will gladly through myself in what's probably the majority bucket of folks that enjoy reading this blog and any of your other works. Why do I like it? There are several reasons but the one that rises to the top is: Your prose is easy to read, easy to understand, and creates interest in the topic. I have found if you are missing any of these three essentials, you will lose a significant portion, if not all, of your audience. Lucky for us, you are not saddled with that affliction.
I enjoy the folksy prose in this blog as it adds personality to your writings that you are not permitted to do in your books.

Astronomy newsletter editors are usually starving for articles from the members, as most people are just not interested in writing. So they end up putting in space fillers....

However, I have had the good fortune of working with a great editor who was the science correspondent of a local newspaper. Writing as a guest blogger, it forced me to strive for perfection as it was reaching a large audience, most of who were outside of the astronomy community.
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