Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Of writing past ...

When I was a wee lad I wanted to be a writer. I started writing an epic novel of spaces battles and galactic conquest which ran to about eleven pages before I gave it up.

At high school my worst subject was English. I enjoyed writing, spent a lot of my spare time writing in one form or another -- particularly once I'd discovered Dungeons and Dragons, a game that encourages the creations of entire universes -- but when it came to being graded my writing only ever got me C and B's. Maths and Science got me A's. So it was bye-bye to English.

I went to university, got a degree in Physics, was unemployed for a while, worked with computers for a few years, and then got a job in a comic book store. One day I asked my boss at the store: "How do you write a comic book script?" He didn't know. It was the days before the internet, so there was no quick and easy answer.

In the 90s some of my scripts made it into various local New Zealand comics. We all started to think we could maybe even make a living in comics. We didn't quite make it.

I went back to university and did something fun. History. Oddly enough the combination of Physics and History got me writing work. I started writing for textbooks and other educational publications on the history of science. I was still a student, but was getting so much writing work something had to give, so I packed in university halfway through a Master's degree and became a full-time writer. The picture above is the cover of one of the many over-priced books I contributed to.

The deadlines were often very tight. Just a few days to research several topics, write them up, and send them off to join the hundreds of other poorly researched articles that would be published alongside.

I became disillusioned at how inaccurate most of it was ... for example, I rang up a university in the UK for information about a deceased professor and ended up talking to him on the phone. II had just read an encyclopedia entry that had listed his date of death. He told me much of my draft article on his work was incorrect, even pointing out in detail the publications that had first got the facts wrong, and how those 'facts' had then been copied into book after book by writers just like me.

The other nagging problem for me was the assumption that since I was a science writer I therefore could be given assignments on any branch of science. Medicine, biology, geology, computer science, chemistry, environmentalism ... it didn't matter that my background was in physics and seventeenth century history, I was given articles to write on nuclear waste, artificial hips, obscure computer terms, and host of other things I had no right to write about.

I wasn't that sad when the textbook work dried up.

So I've tried writing before. Even made money off it. But this time around I get to focus on the kind of writing I want to do. Thanks to my very supportive wife I have a period of grace to churn out as much writing as I can with no pressure to make anything of it. Let's hope her trust in me pays off. She deserves it.

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