Big questions from a first book

XKCD questions
Sadly not the questions in our book

Between December and May this year, my spare time has been spent working furiously on a book. The Big Questions in Science: the quest to solve the great unknowns is a popular science coffee-table book looking at, well, exactly what it says. You can read more about it in this feature we wrote for The Observer.

The book is a joint effort between myself and two friends and fellow science writers, Hayley Birch and Colin Stuart, and it’s now available to buy in hardback to decorate your fine shelves, prop up your wonky tables and, of course, entertain and enlighten you with our fine prose.

Shit just got real.

The book came about after the three of us pitched similar ideas through our agent and our publisher, Carlton Books, were interested enough to take a punt. The subject matter is inherently fascinating, giving an excuse to delve deep into questions we ourselves would like to know the answers to. And given how I spend much of my day job editing or in meetings, it was GREAT to exercise my writing muscles, particularly at a decent length and for such interesting topics.

Looking back, it’s been one heck of an experience and I’ve certainly learned a lot about the process of book publishing, my writing and myself. Here are a few of my lessons learned:

  • Publishing deadlines can be a bit mad. We had to write 20 chapters in 3 months with 2-3 chapters due every month, plus picture suggestions and edits in between – with Christmas squeezing everything up. It was just about do-able, but not easy when you’re fitting in research and writing for multiple chapters with a very demanding day job that has plenty of spillover. In the hard times (read: when everyone else was partying at Xmas) I bemoaned my lack of a life, but it was totally worth it for the euphoria of satisfaction/relief!
  • Pressure makes everything clear. I like to think I’m decent at prioritising. But one of the issues in life is that a lot of things are just of the same vague priority level, so it’s hard to pick one over the other. When you have a hard deadline like this, however, everything becomes clear. There’s just no time to do anything else and you cancel events, postpone plans and block out whole swathes of your calendar with a new sense of urgency. Although it feels like shackles at times, in many ways, this sense of purpose is incredibly liberating. I should have known this having run another big ‘side’ project just a couple of years before.
  • Pressure can bring the best out of you and everything works out in the end. I always wonder about people that say they “perform best under pressure”. Usually, I prefer to have the time to be thorough, or at least feel like you have been. You worry that under pressure you aren’t able to produce your best work. But there’s no doubt that sharpness of thinking that comes with a deadline can produce gold. Even in the low-times when I struggled to make sense of abstract philosophical concepts, I persevered. As my friend, and author of the Rough Guide to the Brain, Barry J Gibb says, “it’s like running – just keep putting one foot in front of the other and eventually you make your distance. Keep going and things do seem to work out.”
  • …though more time would be nice. There were only so many people I could speak to and so much research I could read in the limited time I had for each chapter – I would liked to have delved deeper into some of these questions, been more thorough, got more of a variety of expert opinions. But on the other hand you have to draw the line somewhere and there’s only so much you can fit into your word count. This is of course no different for any writing job – news, feature, op-ed. And I’ve no idea if you get more time for most projects in the book industry. I’ve heard of editors waiting years for books from big name authors, but for most I imagine the deadlines are always pretty tight. And even 6-12 months must disappear quickly if you’re writing 20 chapters by yourself. 
  • Having no hyperlinks or multimedia is strange for an Online Editor. I’ve spent most of my professional life writing for digital publications, so print materials are a lesser known quantity for me. It’s not that I can’t do them, I just find it a bit weird when I want to show the reader a video, link to more information (like a paper) or offer an interesting tangent – and I can’t! 
  • A good relationship with you Editor is crucial. This was a little unusual for us in that our ‘Editor’ as such was really our publishing representative. We also had a Sub-editor we only ever communicated with through the publishing rep. It’s important to have someone on board who really gets the project, believes in it, and is really ready to live and breathe it with you. I suppose the emphasis is a little less crucial for a book like this, but for one’s own passion project with a personal narrative strand running through the whole thing, I’d definitely want someone with me every step of the way for guidance and support. I’m making the transition to editing more longform features in my day job, so for me this project has been a useful insight into what such an Editor can provide for a writer writing bigger.  
  • A good relationship with your co-authors is vital. In a group effort, you have to all be on the same page, know who has to do what and feel like you can really rely on each other. As mentioned, they can also make the process fun and provide a good support network. Because…
  • Writing a book is really really hard. You have to knuckle down and just immerse yourself in it for long periods of time. Without any kind of support from people who really get it, that can be even tougher. I was lucky to have two friends as my co-authors who shared the same experience and our encouragement of each other really helped us power through. It’s been a pleasure working with my coauthors, enjoying some fun brainstorms, delirious Skype calls and plenty of camaraderie to keep us going when the deadlines were looming. 

This is my first book and part of me hopes it’s a bit like buying property: once you have a foot on the ladder it’s easier to get on the next rung. Whether it is or not depends on my next ideas, but when the opportunity arises to see your name on 200 pages of dead tree you don’t pass it up.

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