Tuesday, December 14, 2010

From Start to Finish

My wife Alison and I are in the final moments with our book, Invincible Microbe (a wide-ranging history of tuberculosis). You know, that time when the revision has been completed and sent to your editor and a sense of anxiety and panic begins to set in. Is the material as up-to-date as possible? Where exactly can we add a brief mention of those specially trained rats that can sniff out tuberculosis in sputum seven times faster but with the same success rate as conventional testing? Did we spell Leptomeningitis tuberculosa correctly and does it really have to be mentioned in the text?
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In other word, time is running out to get it all right!
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Naturally, we're also finishing up other the last elements of the project. Alison is gathering the images for the book, a complicated, time-consuming, and expensive process. Just a few days ago a huge and beautiful picture of the inside of a 500,000 year old skull filled her computer screen. A stylus was pointing to lesions of said Leptomeningitis tuberculosa, the oldest physical evidence of the disease yet discovered. Will it look this good in the book, she asked. I had my doubts; some of the best looking images often reproduce in a disappointing way. If it's reproduced big enough, I answered. And we immediately scribbled a note to suggest this to the designer.
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Meanwhile, I was revising our 39 pages of quote attributions, sources, and notes, a chore (note the word) that always leaves me with a headache at the end of the day. I'm impatient to be writing the next project, not pouring over such familiar details (details we've lived with for years now) of this last one! But I know it's important, so I refocus and enter the information as carefully as possible.
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And as always happens when I do back matter, I ask myself who this is really for. I've noticed in recent years that some writers take a very formal approach to this information, as if they are trying to establish their scholarly street creds for reviewers and award committees. Personally, I think most young readers (and their parents) are scared off by such a heavy-handed, academic approach.
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I remind myself that most of our readers will probably not know very much about the subject. Oh, they'll have an aquaintance with aspects of it, but for most that knowledge won't run very deep. This is why our book is really a mini-course on the subject matter, a page by page layering of information and antedote that builds up the reader's knowledge and leads her to ask questions, make comparisons to other subjects, to think and -- hopefully -- want to know more. Which, of course, is why the back matter matters!
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But we also want this information to be accessible and, well, as non-threatening, useful, and fun as possible. Instead of a straight, dry bibliography, we briefly describe what each title is about, pointing out its areas of strength. We explain where our information comes from, breaking it down into convenient bits (a reader can research and do a paper on, say, ancient medical practices in Egypt, if that is what interests her). And we'll add odd, interesting details that haven't made it into the main text (how Selman Waksman grabbed the credit for the discovery of streptomycin and with it the Noble Prize and was later sued by his hard working and aggrieved assistant, Albert Schatz). It's not that we're inventing anything here. But we are working to present it in a way (and with a voice) that our readers will find welcoming.
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In the end, we're guides for our readers, leading them on a journey of discovery and surprise. Our job is to find the simpliest, most direct route, start to finish (which means ignoring the headache and finishing up the task at hand). Because for some readers, the back matter won't mark the end of a journey; it might just be the beginning of a long and satisfying adventure.
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Happy Holidays Everyone!

3 comments:

Deborah Heiligman said...

Jim--I, for one, am thrilled that you are going to have extensive back matter in this book. As a writer, I use back matter as part of my own research--each citation is a possible treasure trove of information for me. I agree that our younger readers probably don't use it much, but I think librarians and teachers really take notice. And there are younger readers who do follow a citation or a quote source and find treasures of their own. And I am thrilled that you and Alison wrote this book at all. My dad was a TB doctor and I often think of writing about him--probably as historical fiction. You better believe that your book will be a number one source. Thank you!

Melissa Stewart said...

I'm really excited to read your book, Jim. My grandfather had TB as a boy and, though he survived, he eventually died of lung problems that could be traced back to damage caused by the disease. What is the scheduled pub date?

Jim Murphy said...

Deborah and Melissa -- thanks for reading my post and commenting. I certainly hope that the back matter is used by teachers and librarians and it would be interesting to actually get some feedback on who uses it and how (which might help us (me) craft this information in a better, more useful way.