As I get my hands on the first copies of my new book Not Just for the Boys: Why we need more women in science (publication date May 11th), and prepare for my first talk specifically about the book on April 22nd at the Cambridge Literary Festival, I’ve been reflecting on what it took to get here. Obviously, a lot of time for the actual writing, but also years thinking about the subject, reading about the subject and – not infrequently – blogging here about the subject. Years that built up long before the book itself formed itself in my mind. Even when I’d reached the idea of a book, it didn’t shape up to be the book it is for quite a while.
Last term the College hosted an event, consisting of myself and my OUP editor Latha Menon facilitated by the College’s Director of the Archives, Allen Packwood, discussing the experience of producing a book from our different perspectives. No doubt every author tackles the actual writing in their own way: for me it required significant chunks of time for me to be productive. I found the summers of 2020 and 2021 excellent for this, when College business was quieter and travel, indeed any kind of activity outside the house, severely limited (certainly in 2020). Not for me the style of a friend of mine who manages to sit down and churn out 1000 words in the most unlikely places (I spotted him doing it in New Orleans airport once, as we returned from a conference). Or how Vaclav Smil approvingly described Ernest Hemingway’s way: ‘You get up and the first thing in the morning, do your 500 words. Do it every day and you’ve got a book in eight or nine months.’
But the actual writing is obviously only part of the challenge. There is all the earlier spadework, the thought that goes into the book’s construction and shape before the text starts to flow (or doesn’t, when writer’s block hits). There’s the endless chasing of facts, quotes and data that you remember reading somewhere, but all the power of Google won’t produce the requisite material if you can’t remember it well enough to come up with a sensible set of key words to search. This was often a deeply frustrating experience. Then there’s the inevitable rewriting once the editor gets their hands on it. Latha, thank you for all you did, but there is no doubt you took strong exception to some of the original material, a deeply depressing experience at the time, however much it improved the book. I should put all this into context with one of the stark facts Latha brought up at the College event: that 99% of all book proposals are turned down. I’m not sure if this is her personal hit rate or an average over the trade. Even whether it’s a very precise number or just a general sense. Whatever, it is a somewhat terrifying statistic and one I’m glad I didn’t know before I started on this enterprise.
One of the final tedious tasks I had no appreciation of beforehand, was that of producing an index. As we all know, a good index is invaluable in any serious book, but how such were ever created before the invention of a search engine I cannot imagine. Even with one, it was something of a soul-destroying, time-consuming activity, but one that had to be done at speed. I tried to make things easier for myself by producing all the keywords/phrases while I waited for the arrival of the final proofs, so as to make the task speedy – as it needed to be – when the actual proofs arrived. It was still utterly tedious and, of course, subsequently the index too needed to be proof read. This activity was all part of the learning experience, demonstrating one is never too old to learn new tricks whatever the adage says, but it was not an experience I enjoyed.
One of Latha’s frequent comments to me was that the book read too much like a blog. Perhaps that no doubt valid criticism has had some impact on the frequency with which I’ve managed to write on this blog over the recent past, as undoubtedly those words made me think harder about how I write. I am hoping that that infrequency may change now the book has sped its way into the public market (or will in a matter of days). However, what I am most conscious of now, is the lull before people get to read the book. As I have written about many times before in the nearly 13 years I’ve been writing this blog, doing things for the first time is always scary. When it comes to a book hitting the bookshelves, though, all I’ve read about authors suggests that even at the nth time this moment is at least as scary. And so, I will admit to a fair degree of trepidation right now. I have learned that my blog has hit the mark for some readers, some posts more than others. But a book – as Latha pointed out – is a very different beast. What works well in 1000 words may work much less well in 100,000. I will have to wait and see, with fingers and toes crossed as I do so.
I am pleased to say that I have a variety of book and festival appearances already lined up, and I will try to keep a list about these appearances (in print or person) up to date on the blog ‘Pages’ (always visible at the top of the blog and here). There are also already 5 podcasts you can catch up with on the web. These respectively look at the whole book in outline; a chat with Lisa Jardine-Wright, fellow at Churchill but also Vice President for Education and Skills at the Institute of Physics, to talk about the impact of early years on the choices children make; the Guardian’s science correspondent Hannah Devlin and I discussed the representation of science in the media; Paul Walton, professor and former head of department in York’s Chemistry Department and I explored what he did in his department that led to it being the first department in the country receiving an Athena Swan Gold award; and finally, economist Diane Coyle (also a fellow at Churchill) and I discussed what parallels there are between our subjects, given both have a distinct lack of women at the top.
So, here I sit anxiously waiting for May 11 and what happens thereafter…..One is never too old to be apprehensive.