One year ago, I published a couple of blogs outlining (1) How I somehow became a science author and (2) How I wrote my first book: Elemental. I concluded them both by saying that whether my book was a success or not, I was just honored to have the chance at getting one published. It probably seemed like I was covering my ego’s back there, but I was being truthful. Really.
It was actually quite a surprise to feel that way. I assumed that in the run up to release-date I’d be pining for a success, but I actually became very stoic about the whole thing…I was just happy to have my own book. If it flopped then so be it. How many people get such an opportunity in the first place? Obviously, I wanted people to read and enjoy my work, but I was not aiming for glory.
It was released on July 1st 2018 and, after finishing up my day-job as a school teacher, I headed to my local bookshop to do a signing. It has to be said, it’s a very cool feeling to see your book on the shelves amid the works of…y’know…real authors. But it felt more like the end of a journey rather than the beginning of one. The book was complete, the work was over, now I just had to accept whatever happened.
In fact, if I’m being totally honest, I didn’t expect Elemental to be a hit. It’s a biography of the periodic table - something most people famously hated in school. I figured I’d sell a few hundred copies to my gran perhaps, but that would be the end of it. The shock I got when I learned that Elemental has been a success still hasn't sunk in.
“Yeah it’s doing OK thank you”
People are so supportive when you do something like this and I get asked all the time how the book is doing. It’s really nice that people take such an interest, but I tend to respond in the same way every time I'm quizzed about it. I sort of shuffle my feet and mumble bashfully that it’s doing fine thanks.
I have no clue why I act like this! I respond to people asking about my book the same way I would respond if they were asking about an inflamed gall bladder - like I’m ashamed of the success or something? It’s flattering that people actually want to hear about it, but I guess it's because I don’t know what the etiquette is for an author whose book is doing well. Do people want sales figures? Do they want to know how much money I’ve made? Do they want to know what the critics have been saying?
I tend to be fairly coy about the whole thing and people have to dig it out of me, but I’ve been informed by enough people that being a tad boastful about my achievement would be acceptable, even healthy.
I dunno, it feels a bit weird to acknowledge it, but I will say that Elemental did a lot better than I or my publishers anticipated. It sold out on Amazon within a few weeks and they had to print a second run. Bookshops had to order double the typical amount and it was stocked in at least eight countries I’m aware of, being translated into three other languages. I got featured in Science magazines, did interviews for BBC radio and The Daily Mail listed it as one of the top books of 2018. Even The New York Post arranged an interview with me for the US release - although sadly that never made it to print (I’m not quite that famous yet!)
However, the most gratifying thing about the whole experience, more exciting than the prestige of telling people I’m an author, is the messages and reviews I get from people telling me how much they enjoyed and learned from it.
I’ve received e-mails from people I’ve never met in countries I’ve never visited whose language I don’t even speak, telling me they enjoyed Elemental. I’ve had people e-mail me saying the book has persuaded them to study chemistry at University and I’ve even had people tell me they’re reading it to their kids as a kind of bizarre bedtime story.
The positive response has been worth all the stress and gave the publishers confidence in me as a writer. That was the main reason I wanted to do well…so they’d give me a chance to write more! And, thanks to the response of my loyal readership, two weeks after the release of Elemental my publishers at Little, Brown offered me a deal for a sequel.
They liked the format of Elemental, being a humorous and informal guide to Chemistry, so they asked what other topics I could do it with. This was quite different to last time. When my agent and I first approached publishers we were trying to persuade them to take a chance on me, but now I had proven myself they wanted to see if I had more tricks up my sleeve. I did. There wasn’t even a moment’s hesitation. It had to be quantum mechanics...
When people ask what my favourite area of Science is, I usually respond with the same joke: “Oh I don’t have a favourite, I love all of it. Also, quantum mechanics.”
When I was a teenager my science teacher, Mr Evans, gave me a textbook on the subject and, putting it simply, I fell in love. That sounds mawkish but honestly the feeling wasn’t all that different. I became obsessed with it to the point of adoration and could think of nothing else. Studying it made me happy and I wanted other people to see its beauty.
The basic premise of quantum mechanics is that there are two Universes around us. There’s the universe of everyday “big” things, where laws of logic and common sense hold and then beneath the surface, at the scale of atoms, there’s a different world entirely; a world where the normal laws of physics no longer work and you have to let go of common sense for it to make sense. Quantum mechanics is full of parallel universes, teleportation and time travel as well as approaching profound questions of spirituality and consciousness.
Don’t get me wrong, I love chemistry and Elemental was a really fun book to write. But this one was going to be a passion project. Something I would be writing from the heart. First though, I had a difficult question to answer.
How the hell do you write about quantum mechanics in plain English?
As soon as the publishers gave me the greenlight, I outlined my chapters, got a library of textbooks by my bedside for research and then…I’m just going to admit this plainly…I was hit by a wave of self-doubt.
The pressure of a second book was enormous. Surely I should be playing it safe and writing about something easy! Why had I picked, of all things, quantum mechanics for my sequel? I kept thinking of when Josh Trank got hired to be the director of the Fantastic 4 movie following the success of his small indie-sci-fi horror Chronicle. Trank was not ready to tackle such a huge project and it resulted in a total mess - one of the worst super hero movies in history. Was I in danger of making the same mistake? What if I was a one-hit wonder whose first book did well only as a fluke?
Elemental worked because chemistry can be described in simple terms, without having to get too bogged down in technicality. Quantum mechanics, on the other hand, is so abstract and counter-intuitive that explaining it in plain English is impossible without covering the deep science. In chemistry, you can go straight to the fun bits without having to lay any conceptual groundwork, but in quantum mechanics it’s the reverse. In order to get to the cool bits you have to do the tricky stuff first.
That’s the reason physicists prefer to communicate about quantum mechanics through equations - describing this stuff in words is difficult, so it’s easier to come up with a bunch of symbols that represent “the weirdness” and not worry about understanding them. But I wanted to write a book about quantum mechanics without a single equation. That’s not impossible - if you can say something in mathematical symbols you can say it in english language symbols - but it’s a major challenge.
Then there was the problem of which bit of quantum mechanics to focus on. Some books focus on the experimental details, some tell the historical story of how we came up with it, some focus on pure explanation and some handle the philosophical implications. I wanted my book to be all of those things. I wanted to write a complete tour of the quantum landscape, but maybe I was in danger of becoming the Victor Frankenstein of Science popularisers - cobbling together things which did not belong and, in my hubris, creating a monster.
Then there was the biggest threat of all...quantum mechanics is a subject close to my heart. It’s always a risk when writers, musicians, filmmakers etc. get to make their passion projects because they can become self-indulgent. I wanted to make sure my second book wasn't just me going on about something I loved, I needed to show other people why I loved it and why they should love it too.
A Sweeping Epic
As soon as the contract was signed I felt I had bitten off more than I could chew. I started to doubt it could be done or whether I was the right person to do it. In fact, for the first few weeks I didn’t even begin typing - I was too afraid of writing something dreadful. But then I was reminded by a friend that this was a book I’d wanted to write since I was a teenager and that I had a lot to say. If I just got to work without second-guessing myself, maybe the book would just flow out of me. I decided to heed this advice and got on with writing the damn thing. Sure enough, once I started, I couldn’t stop.
Initially, one of the things which intimidated me was that the publishers asked for an 80,000 word manuscript. Elemental was half that size. The task of writing something so huge was daunting, but once I began, I found the stories I wanted to tell forming on the page as if it wasn't me writing them. By late August, I was up to 60,000 words with roughly two thirds of the intended material covered. I was going to hit my target…or so I thought.
A week before school term started I headed to publisher HQ in London to discuss my progress. I explained in a meeting, rather proudly, that I was on track with 60,000 words done already. At which point my publisher stared in confusion: “How are you going to cut it down?” he asked.
I think everyone experiences these moments of horror at some point in their lives. It’s the feeling you get when you suddenly know exactly what the bad news is going to be, but you have to ask for it anyway. Turns out there had been a typographical error in the contract. They wanted the book to be 45,000 words max.
God knows how someone accidentally types 80 instead of 45, but I was now seriously over my word limit, with only two thirds of the book done, and the deadline approaching in a few months. And I was about to start back at school (which is a pretty time-consuming job).
The suggestion was made at one point that I split the book into two - one focusing on the history of quantum physics and one focusing on recent developments. I probably would have made a bucket load more money doing that, but I didn’t want to pull a Deathly Hallows on my readers. People don’t like paying twice to get one story. So I decided I would just write the book in full, then trim it down from whatever size it ended up as. The final first draft wighed in at 76,000 words which I had to reduce by 40%. The only way to do this was to be ruthless.
My Only Advice
I don’t feel like I have much advice to give on the topic of writing. I’m new to it as a professional, but the one thing I would say to anyone wanting to become a writer is: pick your test audience well and listen to what they say. Chances are your first draft isn’t going to be a masterpiece and by the time you’ve finished it and put all that work in, you’re too close to know which bits work and which bits don’t. You need to get outsider opinions, you need to trust that they’ll be honest, and you need to act on their feedback.
As with my first book, I recruited a group of people to read the book from different perspectives and be cuttingly honest. I got friends who knew nothing about quantum mechanics, friends who were enthusiastic about it but not necessarily experts, friends who had degrees in the subject and friends who had no interest whatsoever…and asked them all to tear it to pieces as best they could.
Your ego has to take a hike here, because you’re not writing the book for yourself anymore, you’re writing for your readers. The early drafts are where you selfishly write the book as you think it should be…then you have to make it worthy of others. You can’t just sit there feeling smug; you have to expose it to criticism and actually accept it. Don’t argue with the people who review your early drafts, otherwise what’s the point in getting them to read it?
There were jokes which didn’t work and had to be removed. There were sections that made no sense or contradicted what I’d said earlier. There was even a bit where the legal team had to intervene because I spent a whole chapter making fun of a scientist I had forgotten was still alive and liable to sue. But, over the course of several stressful but productive months, we battered the book into shape and by the end of January 2019 it was ready. 45,000 words and a week left on my deadline
Ready for Round Two
The title for my second book had been something I’d joked about since before Elemental. Because Elemental was all about the elements, a book about the fundamental laws of particle physics should be called Fundamental. Presumably my future books will have to be about the brain (Mental), climate change (Environmental) and teeth (Dental).
Discussions then began about what the front cover would look like. As I explained in my previous blogs, the cover is of great importance because that is often the only advertising a book gets. We decided to model the design on a similar theme to Elemental - a simplistic image that would communicate a straightforward approach, as well as looking vaguely friendly and non-intimidating.
At least a dozen e-mails were exchanged about capitalization of words in the subtitle and which letters should be upper and lower case (really) as well as font sizes and styles. This attention to detail still surprises me, but it really is a testament to how seriously publishers and graphic designers take their craft. They absolutely want to hone the design to a point of perfection, so that everything about the cover says “give this book a go”.
Then came the audiobook. With Elemental, the audio was recorded by voiceover artist Roger Davies but for this one we decided it would work best coming from my own throat. I headed down to ID Audio Studios in London and spent two days sitting in a studio where such luminaries as Olivia Coleman, Bill Nighy, Roger Moore and Richard E Grant have recorded books, and then I talked for two days into a microphone as a producer directed me (mostly telling me to slow down because I have a tendency to talk fast when I get enthusiastic).
And now, Fundamental is ready. It will be published in the UK and a few other European countries on August 1st 2019 in paperback, e-book and audiobook. You can pre-order it now on Amazon if you want (which may seem pointless from a consumer perspective, but it helps me as an author by encouraging bookshops to stock it), and now I am ready for round two.
I’ve been here before of course, but this time I’m far more nervous. With my first book, I was just thrilled to have gone on the adventure. But as I write this, with publication a few weeks away, I’m feeling very different. It’s not that this book is a more ambitious project, nor is it the fact that there’s more money involved. When I really think about it, my anxiety comes down to something very simple: I don’t want to disappoint my readers.
With Elemental I didn’t have a fanbase so to speak. I mean the website gets hits and I have followers on Instagram and YouTube, but my debut book was published all over the world to people who had never heard of me. This time I have fans to satisfy. A group of people who enjoyed and learned from my first book and I want them to feel I’ve done them a service with the sequel.
I once heard an author, the name of whom I’ve forgotten, saying “I hope my readers enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it”. I see where they’re coming from but actually I want my readers to enjoy it more. Readers give writers their purpose and if you’re not concerned with keeping them happy, you’re just obnoxiously writing for yourself!
Fundamental was a fun book to write, but the only thing that matters is that other people read it, enjoy it, and learn from it. So, to all my fans out there, thank you for the overwhelming support you’ve shown for Elemental. I’ve put a huge amount of myself into Fundamental but I’ve written it for you. I hope you enjoy what I’ve created!
You can pre-order it here if you want to support the writing: Fundamental: How Quantum and Particle Physics explain absolutely everything (except gravity)
I love science, let me tell you why.