Now, back to work

It's been a looong time since I last wrote and I just wanted to say hello and update you on the last few months.

Back in November, when we were last in touch, I'd turned in the first draft of my book. Huzzah! And then I waited, sometimes impatiently, for my editor to get a chance to read it. A few things happened during that period. I finished my first year as an assistant professor at the University of Mary Washington, an experience that has been more rewarding than I can say. After a year living on campus as a faculty-in-residence in Fredericksburg, Va., I found a new, more permanent home up north, in Arlington and spent way too many hours on Apartment Therapy for decor ideas. I mostly finished planning my wedding, which is happening in June. Oh, and I trained for and ran a 10-mile race, my first foray into distance running.

In terms of my writing life, there are two big highlights. Rebecca Skloot, a hero to me and just about every other science writer, came to lecture at my university and I got to chat with her. I also attended The Power of Narrative Conference in Boston (you might have heard about it because of these unfortunate Gay Talese comments), where I went total fangirl on Mary Roach. Both writers were just as warm and inviting in person as they seemed on the page. 

With Mary Roach at Boston University

With Mary Roach at Boston University

With Rebecca Skloot at the University of Mary Washington

With Rebecca Skloot at the University of Mary Washington

Now, it appears my wait will soon be over. My editor tells me she's liking what she's read and that she'll have some comments to me within days. As I get ready to return to my book, I've been thinking about the advice of author of "Sin and Syntax," Constance Hale, whom I heard speak at the narrative conference. She said that for writers, the first draft is about getting ideas down in the right order. The second is about refining actual words. While I've been hearing the same old writing advice for decades, "show don't tell" and "use compelling verbs," Hale had a few new ones that I plan on putting to use. I'll give you my favorite three pointers from her talk.

1) To write visually, try drawing. Diane Ackerman is a poet who writes a lot about the natural world. In a description of a golden tailed monkey, she wrote that it had a "guitar pick-shaped tongue." That's a lovely description that I can really picture. She came up with it, Hale explained, by, you guessed it, drawing the tongue. Seeing the monkey in person, all Ackerman saw was a tongue. It was the sketch that made her see it as a guitar pick.

2) Use dynamic, not static verbs. We've heard of passive and active verb tenses. But Hale says that perhaps it's more useful to think of verbs as either static or dynamic. To be, to seem, to taste versus to whistle, to waffle, to wonder. The first three verbs set themselves up to be followed by a word that refers back to the subject. The sugar tastes sweet. Sweet is referring right back to sugar. The sentence is static. In the case of dynamic verbs, there's an action being taken to something else, creating a forward motion. She wonders about seaweed. Wonders sets up a situation in which the word following is separate from the subject. Make sense? There are plenty of other examples in this quick blog post on the concept. 

3) Consult a dictionary or thesaurus. Okay, this isn't a new one, but Hale reminded me to actually look at the physical book and not the online version. I've become a fan of Roget's again. So many more words! Hale also introduced me to a number of other types of reference books. Have you heard of a visual dictionary? Mine just arrived, and it's so cool. What about a visual thesaurus?

I hope these suggestions are useful for your own writing.

And enjoy the spring weather!

Sushma Subramanian