How I wrote a book whilst working full-time

Five tips I learned when writing about the physics of animal life

At the end of January my popular science book Furry Logic: The Physics of Animal Life, co-written with Matin Durrani, came out with Bloomsbury in the US; it hit shelves in the UK in October. For the two and a half years before that, Matin and I crafted the book’s stories in the evenings and at weekends, whilst working full time in our day jobs as science writers. Here are the tips I learned for managing that extra project without losing the plot.

1. Get up three hours early to write before work. OK, I stole this idea from Anthony Trollope. I’m sure it’s an excellent approach but I never tried it. I’m from the “get home from the office and start writing before you eat anything in case you’re so sleepy once you eat that your brain doesn’t work” school. Then cook something extremely quickly at about 9 pm. And don’t go on Facebook — if you’re supposed to be doing something else, a half hour of pressing the like button can whizz by in the blink of an eye. Or take Matin’s approach and don’t have a Facebook account. Don’t watch the TV either. Or go to the cinema. Both these can make it tricky to join in conversations but you can pick up enough from news headlines to ask the right questions. And when you finish the book and have time for movies again it feels amazing. Especially if the second film you see is Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

2. Write about something that fascinates you. The classic advice for budding novelists is write about something you know, but for non-fiction, unless you’re already an expert, you’re unlikely to know enough for a whole book. So it’s crucial that you enjoy finding out more. For Furry Logic the animal physics researchers were incredibly generous in sharing their time and expertise, and also genuinely enthusiastic about their work. And enthusiasm is infectious, which is handy, because if you came home from work to spend the evening writing about something that didn’t interest you, it would be tough. Probably tougher than I am.

3. Have a hobby that requires no organization on your part whatsoever. The amount of time we were spending on the book gradually increased towards the deadline — the last three months of editing were intense and meant almost no spare time for anything other than eating, sleeping, working and buying food. But before that it was handy to have a hobby where I could just turn up if there was time but didn’t need to say in advance whether I was going to be there. At the same time, it gave me a complete break from writing, some exercise and a chance to catch up with friends.

4. If you have a co-author, make sure you get on well with them. Fortunately Matin and I were like one of those old-fashioned Alpine-style weather houses, where the man comes out of the door if it’s going to rain and the woman emerges if it will be sunny. If one of us was feeling demoralised, the other one generally wasn’t and was able to offer a pep talk. It’s also useful to know that there is at least one person who you can talk to about the book for as long as you like, whether you’re chatting about turtles, peacocks, bees, Komodo dragons, giant squid, cats, death-defying mosquitoes or any of the other animal physicists.

5. Have a spreadsheet. Of ideas for content, and of progress and deadlines for completion of mini-sections of chapters. Useful if that’s how your brain works, although probably best not to fall into the “exam revision plan” trap of spending days colour-coding your spreadsheet and writing macros rather than doing any research or writing. When it comes to spreadsheets (and revision plans), messy and done is better than beautifully logical but uncompleted. Adults don’t generally need to show their workings.

Thanks for making it almost to the end. If you enjoyed the article but haven’t yet taken up the “no Facebook” tip, please recommend and share on social media. If you’d like to find out more about Furry Logic: The Physics of Animal Life, you can read a free sample at furrylogicbook.com, or follow me at @LizKalaugher for animal physics-related tweets, and Matin at @MatinDurrani. And best of luck with your writing/working/browsing Medium endeavours.