Posted tagged ‘Neal Stephenson’

Diary of a Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter) 9.1: Voices in my head, or why Neal Stephenson has to stop talking to me.

June 18, 2009

Just a little story here.  Last post I talked about getting blurbs from busy and very accomplished folks.  One of those was Neal Stephenson, author of some of best novels-of-ideas/racing action reads of recent memory.

The connection between his work and Newton and the Counterfeiter (Amazon, Powells, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound) is pretty obvious, at least if you are (a) familiar with the three volumes of The Baroque Cycle, Neal’s massive fiction on the roots of both the scientific and economc revolutions of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century and/or (b) have gawked at the leaning tower of manuscript that Neal donated to the Science Fiction Museum in Seattle.  (Fun venue tucked in Gehry’s worst building, IMHO.)

Most notable, Neal’s characters include one Isaac Newton, whom we first meet as an awkward, prudish, timorous boy at Trinity College in the 1660s.  I understand that Newton acts throughout the whole multi-stranded epic, but I don’t know.

Why don’t I have at least that one fact down?

As I’ve worked to publicize my book, I have gotten asked more than once some version of these questions — have I read Neal’s telling of the story of science and gold?  Is mine a non-fiction version of the history Neal reimagined?  What did I think of Neal’s Newton?

And my answers are:  no, maybe, and I have no opinion…because though I have read almost everything Neal has put between book covers (I missed The Big U., but I have it on very good authority that I may have dodged a bullet there), I put down Quicksilver after I was about 75 pages in.


Because Neal’s Newton was too loud in my ear.  He was a real character; things happened to him, he felt, responded, changed and spoke.  I could see that Newton in my mind’s eye, and the last thing I wanted — absolutely the worst possible thing for a writer — would be to start hearing Neal’s Newton arguing with mine — and I certainly didn’t want his version colonizing mine.

Even more dangerous — Neal’s books are full of incident. Stuff happens all the time.  These three books centered on precisely the historical moments I was interested in, and for reasons that overlap with mine.  It was hard enough to keep track of my sources anyway.  Did I need the grief of remembering whether it was Enoch Root or John Locke that said something or other?

I did not.

So I didn’t just put vol. 1 down, I got it out of the house, as fast as its little legs could carry it.  I’m reclaiming it from my brother now, and look forward to reading the whole trilogy without peril this summer.

One last note:  I happened to meet Neal when he gave a talk at Harvard a couple of years ago.  He was speaking to the History of Science department there, so the bulk of his talk and reading centered on his rendering of the daily life of the scientific revolution within The Baroque Cycle.  Talking to him afterwards I made my confession that I had had to banish that work to the Boston equivalent of Siberia (Brighton, where my brother lives) — and I did receive my dispensation.

And one more last note:  there is nothing new under the sun.  Some version of everything has been written — and if I or anyone were to worry about that, I, we, would never get anything done.  But still, sometimes, it’s better not to read.

Image:  Frontspiece to Voltaire’s Elémens de la philosophie de Neuton (1738).

Diary of a Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter) 9.0: Blurbs redux

June 17, 2009

So, when we last left this journal, I promised to get to the point on the dark art of blurbing. 

Newton and the Counterfeiter (Amazon, Powells, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound) is by far my  best-blurbed book, boasting enthusiastic and generous praise from a very diverse crew of luminaries — (David Bodanis, Junot Díaz, Timothy FerrisBrian Greene, Walter Isaacson, Sylvia Nasar, and Neal Stephenson).

This follows, as I wrote last time, a much sparser field of those who promoted my three previous books.  How — and why — did I go for this level of long-lead pre-publication encouragement?

The how first:  I began to contact potential blurbers as I was finishing the editor’s revisions to my first-submission mss.  That’s nine months before publication — four or five months earlier than I had in the past, following publishers’ schedules of bound galley production.

Again the reasoning behind this can be found in diary entry 8.0 — basically, if you plan to ask busy people for a favor, best to do so in a time frame that gives them more of a chance to say “yes” than plead the press of prior commitments.

What this choice meant was that I was sending a version of my book that was at least two, and really three passes short of being done.  It wasn’t typeset.  It did not possess the form factor of a book.  All of which meant that I was asking a double favor:  that someone should read my work and that they should do so  in an inconvenient form.*

So, step one was simply to render my mss. as readable as possible.  Book Antiqua font, printed double sided at 1.5 line spacing, a photocopy of the cover design to front it inside a Kinko’s black spiral binding with a clear plastic front  — i.e. a pretty standard “I’m trying here” manuscript package.

Step two was to identify a couple of people who might be willing to read with charity — knowing that what they were seeing was still unfunished.  That means personal friends and/or those who have made it clear that they are supporters of my body of work and this project.

Critically:  the ask has to be open-ended, imho:  you enquire of those already well-disposed to you if they are willing to do you an unusually large favor (large with reference to this favor-space), or whether they would prefer to wait until the galleys come along.  Minimize the chance that they will say no to your first ambition, in other words, in a way that will make it more difficult to come back at a later date for help from someone reasonably inclined to deliver.

So that’s what I did, with three folks on my short list.  First up was David Bodanis, author of E=MC2, and much else besides.  David and I met about five years ago at an Aspen Institute event celebrating the Einstein miracle year centennial, and it was one of those instant friendships.  He’s a great, funny, incredibly smart-and-quick guy, and we share a lot of the same interests and personlity tics (for good and ill…but that’s a different story).

He and I are serendipitously-met are personal as well as professional friends, in other words, and that made it possible just to call him and ask him both to read the mss. as a fellow writer, providing a reality check, and, assuming it wasn’t in his eyes a disaster, to give me a very early blurb.

A call from my then-editor Rebecca Saletan made the timing more important than I had first expected.  Despite the usual wait-for-it counsel I had already received on blurbs, when I told her in early September, 2008, that David had liked the mss. she immediately asked for his blurb so that she could use it in her presentation to the sales conference for HMH’s spring list.

And that gets to one of the “whys” of blurbing


Friday (Isaac) Newton blogging (Thursday edition): “The Coffee House” meeting

January 24, 2008

I don’t think I’ve got this precise to the day, but I can’t let the month pass without tipping my hat to Sir Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke, and the incomparable Edmund Halley. It was in January, 1684 that three men met for refreshment and conversation after one of the Royal Society’s weekly meetings.

They may have done so to put a little rigor into an evening that could have been truly scattered. Neal Stephenson caught the flavor of early Royal Society meetings perfectly in the first volume of his Baroque Cycle. His account is taken from life: if you look at the early volume’s of the Society’s pleadings (JSTOR has ’em all online, if you have access to that resource) you’ll find articles like “An Accompt of the improvement of Optick Glasses” and Robert Hooke’s own telescopic observation “A Spot in one of the Belts of Jupiter” jostling for space with “An Account of a very odd Monstrous Calf” or “Of an Hungarian Bolus of the same Effect with the Bolus Armenus.” (All of these from meetings in 1665.)

So it may well have been either boredom with yet more deformed animals, or exhilaration at some deep observational challenge that got three of the real intellects in the Society going that January night.Wren asked the question that got the fireworks going. How, he asked, did the force of gravity vary as the distance between objects changed? Could it be an inverse square relationship, as he and others had speculated, but failed to demonstrate? (I.e. — did the force of gravitational attraction between two bodies vary inversely with the square of the distance between them?)

This was, of course, the fundamental cosmological problem of the day. The geometry of the solar system was basically understood — laid out by Johannes Kepler and his three descriptive laws of the planets’ orbital motion. But how the planets held to the paths they traced — that no one knew, though Wren and his listeners recognized that the ill-understood phenomenon of gravity must have something to do with problem.

Wren himself and Halley too both confessed they could not demonstrate that an inverse square law actually held in the real world, but Hooke claimed that he had already completed a proof of the idea. Pressed to reveal it, he declined, declaring he would hold it back for a time so that “others triing and failing, might know how to value it.”

To coax out the truth, Wren offered a prize — a book worth 40 shillings (a week’s stipend for Newton at that moment, as it happened) — to Hooke (or anyone else) if he could actually do what he claimed he could within two months. Nothing came.

Then, in August, Edmund Halley made his way to Cambridge for his famous chat with Isaac Newton. In the middle of the conversation, seemingly as an aside, he asked Newton, “what he thought the Curve would be that would be described by the Planets supposing the force of attraction towards the Sun to be reciprocal to the square of their distance from it?”

An ellipse, Newton answered, without pause for thought.

How did he know?

“I have calculated it.”

Newton probably had, unlike the similarly confident Hooke, though he didn’t produce the calculation on the spot. In November, though, he sent Halley a more in depth analysis of the problem, a nine page manuscript “on the motion of bodies in orbit.” Halley immediately recognized that this wasn’t merely the resolution of a bet, but the outline of a whole new science. He urged — almost demanded — that Newton fill out the account…

…and hence, with considerable labor yet to come and a great debt owed to Halley as the project’s midwife, was born Newton’s Principia — and with it, much of what we think of as modern science.

I do not usually toast with coffee, preferring stronger stuff. But it is time to titrate some caffeine into my system, so, in remembrance of that argument in the coffee house, I will shortly lift my mug of Peet’s brew — not to Isaac Newton, this time, deserving of his honors as he certainly is — but to those other three men, who at the crucial moment asked the crucial question, which ultimately found its way to the right man.

So, in this three hundred and twenty first fourth January since Sir Christopher Wren offered his prize, here’s to Wren, Robert Hooke, and above all, to Edmund Halley.

PS: in case anyone was wondering, the name of this blog is indeed an homage to Newton, the subject of my forthcoming book. (Jan-Feb, 2009, at last count.)

Update: arithmetical error corrected above, proving that I shouldn’t do mental arithmetic while in a state of mild caffeine withdrawal. Dependency is an ugly thing.

Image: Robert Hooke’s microscope from Micrographia, 1665. Source: Wikipedia Commons.