Tagged: writing

First Drafts: The Ugly, The Bad and The Good

Writing first drafts sucks.

For the past few months, I’ve been co-writing What’s Your Bio Strategy? with SynBioBeta founder John CumbersWe just completed the first draft. It feels monumental.

The process of writing a first draft is an epic like Sergio Leone’s classic spaghetti Western The Good, The Bad and The Ugly – one of my all-time favorite movies.

The Ugly

In the movie, Eli Wallach plays Tuco. A vicious criminal who will double-cross his partners at the drop of a hat. He’s eager for revenge and enjoys mocking and insulting his adversaries. He represents “The Ugly.”

Tuco made famous the phrase,

“There are two kinds of people in this world.”

And there are two kinds of people in this world: Those who have ideas for books and those who write the books.

Writing that first draft is Ugly.

John and I spent six months outlining What’s Your Bio Strategy? We formulated questions. We drafted lists of people to interview. We discussed and argued over business strategy books, articles, and methods. We got feedback from agents and publishers, friends and colleagues.

Once we started the interviews and the writing, I had a lot of doubts. There’s a little voice that loves to say, “Why are you writing this? It’s not very good.” I can usually avoid this with my business writing by delivering outlines, getting feedback, and keeping my clients involved in the process.

Eventually, I gave that voice to an ex-boss. Every time he appeared, I would say “Shut up. I’m writing the book and you’re not.” 

Also Ugly: I had a very unexpected health issue. I woke up one morning with double vision. I went to the emergency department, spent a night in the hospital. I underwent months of tests. The diagnosis? The auto-immune disease myasthenia gravis. I had to wear an eye patch for two months and am still on medication. 

The Bad 

In the movie, Lee Van Cleef plays “Angel Eyes” a ruthless, cold-blooded, sadistic psychopath. He takes pleasure in carrying out assasinations and “always gets the job done.”

Writing takes up all your time.

For us, the Bad took the form of schedules and travel. John and I were always on the road. In fact, John circled the globe during the writing. He traveled to Borneo, Germany, Denmark, London, San Diego and Singapore. My own travels to Basel, Boston, Los Angeles and Montreal look feeble compared to John’s. Without Skype and GoogleDocs, there would be no first draft.

That travel had an impact on interviews – we couldn’t schedule everyone. It required massive coordination. We couldn’t have done it without SynBioBeta’s Kristin Sorrentino, Claire Besino, and Marianna Limas.

Plus, both us of run our own business. For me that means business development and execution – often writing for clients. John joined the venture fund DCVC and launched a seed fund – that required a significant time commitment.

We both have families. During the writing, my son Alejandro went through the college application process, was accepted to Cornell, and graduated high school. My youngest graduated fifth grade.

I am a disciplined writer but to make word counts and deadlines, I got in the habit of waking at 4:30. Every time one of us missed a deadline, the other would call or send an email or text.

In the end, we got the job done and didn’t have to resort to being cold-blooded, sadistic psychopaths. There were a few times that we both had to be driven and ruthless.

The Good

In the movie, Clint Eastwood plays “Blondie, The Man With No Name.” He had made this character famous in A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More.

He is calm, calculating, merciless, and keeps his eye on the prize – a coffin full of gold.

The time we invested in our outline and the book planning paid off. It made a huge difference. It made it easier to stay focused.

As the first draft started to come together, we made significant changes to the structure and flow. Those made the draft stronger. Without the planning, the book would’ve been a bowl of (western) spaghetti.

The people we interviewed were the Good. Every time we would end an interview, we would call each other to high-five virtually. We now share deeper insights into the field of synthetic biology and are happy to share them with you.

Having a co-writer was excellent. Writing is lonely business. It can be isolating. Having someone to speak with, someone to crack the whip on deadlines, accelerated the writing. Plus, we came up with a novel idea that we think is going to be big – Biology as a Service – and James Hallihan of Cambridge Consultants spoke to us about the concept of the Chief Biology Officer.

Finally, the best of the Good is completing the epic first draft. By time you read this, we’ll probably be on the twelfth or twentieth draft. But there is nothing more satisfying than sharing a drink – even if it’s via Skype – when you finally know the first draft is finished.

Career Advice to a Molecular Biologist Starting to Write

If you want to write, you need to write.

Write and write some more.

Read the science media.

Fill your head with the best writing you can find. Read The New Yorker. Read annual anthologies of the best writing — not just science writing either. Here’s The Best American Essays of 2016.

Practice generating ideas on what to write every day. Especially after you read a science story and some really great writing that isn’t science. Look for ways to combine ideas.

Start a blog to demonstrate your writing skills.

Then guest post on blogs that are in your topic area. Start developing the relationship with those bloggers as soon as you start writing your own content.

Find the publications that you want to write or work for.

Follow the writers and editors on Twitter, Facebook, and Quora.

Develop relationships with them. Be transparent. Tell them you want to write for them. Ask them questions.

After you’ve developed those relationships, start pitching ideas. Pitch them lots of ideas.

Don’t have any expectations.

Remember, like writing, getting a job in writing is a process. The more you work on pitching, the luckier you’ll get. The more you write, the luckier you’ll get.

Remember that if you’re going to make a living as a writer, there are a lot more opportunities writing for companies. You can carve out a very nice niche writing for life sciences companies.

I don’t work in the media but work with and speak to people at publications regularly and I know there aren’t enough science-trained writers.

I wish someone would’ve given me this advice when I was starting out. It took me 10 years to figure it out.

Here’s my original answer.

Karl Schmieder 1981

30 Things I Did Before Turning 30

In anticipation of my 54th birthday, I answered this question on Quora:

What are the 30 things you did before turning 30 in your life?

  1. Learned to skateboard ramps and pools. Memorized every ditch and was part of an informal word-of-mouth network that knew when a new ramp appeared in Ventura. Convinced my parents to drive me to skateparks all over Southern California, so I skated a bunch of the first-generation classic parks. My home was Oxnard’s Endless Wave with it’s odd, over-vert double-pool. Favorite trick: Frontside air. Second favorite: Inverts. Pool Skating Will Never Die. Biggest lesson I learned from skateboarding: Always get up after you fall. That applies to pretty much everything in life. Fail. Get up. Try again.
  2. Lived in Lausanne, Switzerland for a year, where I studied French. That would inspire me to improve my German, learn Italian, study other languages. I was also part of a Swiss skateboard team that toured that small country.
  3. Took piano lessons for 13 years. Practiced every day. Played in recitals twice a year. Learned to play the trombone in high school, taught myself saxophone. Played in a free jazz punk band called The Love Shortcut that played high school parties – probably to the dismay of the kids that were there to drink and have under-aged sex. The band turned into several solo performance art pieces and later, to readings at poetry slams. I learned that if you put your mind to it, you can pretty much learn anything.Karl Schmieder 1981
  4. Had crushes Fell in love. Had my heart broken. Finally kissed a girl. Eventually had sex but didn’t have it again for a long, long time.
  5. Learned to do it yourself. Skateboard culture with its emphasis on self-reliance gave way to punk rock and its Do It Yourself aesthetic. I would eventually grow bored with punk music philosophizing but never with self-reliance and DIY. This would inspire the way I approach business. See the Lesson mentioned in #1.
  6. Saw tons of live bands during the hey-day of early West Coast punk. Favorite venue: The Whiskey A Go Go. Favorite show: 45 Grave opening for The Cramps. Kept seeing a steady diet of bands in Boston, Denver, New York, and wherever I happened to be traveling.
  7. Started a lawn care business so I could pay for my skateboard habit. Took jobs as a glazier, a lab assistant, a Spanish-English translator, a transcriber, a temp. Learned that I could get a job in 24 hours if put my mind to it. Also, learned that even if I worked for someone, I eventually was going to be my own boss. Call this early lessons in entrepreneurship.
  8. Read far and wide, learning that I like bold ideas and works of the imagination. Focused on science fiction and science fact which inspired me to study science and become a science writer.
    Over Junipero Serra’s shoulder
  9. Moved from my hometown of Ventura to Riverside for college, to Boston, New Orleans then Boulder and Denver for grad school. I miss Ventura every day.
  10. Spent way too much time putting off the real-world by staying in school. Got a Master of Science in Biochemistry, a Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, took more writing classes. Eventually decided I needed to learn business, took classes on selling and marketing.
  11. While working on that MFA, studied with Keith Abbott, Kathy Acker, Fielding Dawson and Allen Ginsburg.
    Kathy Acker and William S. Burroughs.
  12. Started keeping a journal. I knew I was going to write but it was my father who suggested it might be nice to keep a journal while traveling. I did and continue today, 30 years later. I have boxes of journals in my basement and on my shelves. I rarely look at them, but occasionally look for ideas I had in the past. I figure I will eventually either plunder them for something worthwhile or throw them into a landfill.
  13. Traveled alone across Europe, mostly in German-speaking countries because I wanted to learn German.
  14. Interviewed a bunch of German experimental musicians, published those interviews, along with reviews of live shows and records. That was the beginning of my writing career. But I didn’t get paid for a published piece of magazine writing until my mid-40s.
  15. Made a guest appearance on a surreal experimental record with Frank Dommert and HNAS because I happen to be in the right place at the right time.
  16. Taught myself Italian because I had a friend who lived in Chiasso, I wanted to speak with to Italian girls, and I thought it’d be fun. Did better with the Italian than with the girls.
  17. Saved my money so I could move cross-country. Moved to Boston because I didn’t have the guts to make the leap to New York City even though that’s where I knew I belonged. Justified Beantown by telling myself I’d work at a biotech company, instead waited tables, took odd jobs, and taught myself to write.
  18. Drove cross-country in a 1970 Karmann-Ghia with my ex-girlfriend’s dog. Realized there’s a reason why Americans prefer big cars. If your parents or your girlfriend live on the other side of the state, driving a small car is no fun – you want a land yacht.
  19. Taught myself Brazilian Portuguese while living in Boston. I was inspired by David Byrne’s Brazilian compilations and the professionals that had emigrated from Brazil to work in restaurants. Made some great friends. Again learned that you can learn anything if you put your mind to it. Also, learned that if you don’t practice what you learn (Portuguese in this case), eventually you forget.
  20. Danced a lot. It took me 20 years to realize how much I enjoyed it and how important it is for all of us. Zumba classes occasionally fulfill this now. We don’t dance enough. You need to dance.
  21. Spent a lot of time angry or depressed and lonely. It took me years to realize that bars and dance clubs, drinking and drugs, and spending money are distractions from the real work of writing.
  22. Eventually realized I could write about what I loved and carve out a unique niche. Used that idea to create a network in New York City. I called every health care public relations agency, interviewed at thirty, and was offered jobs by six. Moved to New York.
  23. Shortly after I started working in public relations, realized it wasn’t going to work for me and remembered I would need to become my own boss.
  24. Taught other people how to get a job by networking directly with decision makers.
  25. Spent every night after work writing five novels and ten screenplays. Collected a stack of form rejections, got close to publishing one of the novels, realized I needed more time to figure out what I was going to write. At the same time wrote dozens of short short stories, published a few, and threw away all the rest because they were all terrible.
  26. Accumulated credit card debt that took me way too long to pay off and learned that it’s too easy – way too easy – to get into debt.
  27. Hiked and camped and learned to appreciate nature.
  28. Learned to listen to myself. I didn’t always pay attention but I definitely listened.
  29. Came to appreciate my parents and my sister, realized I was very lucky to have grown up where I did, speaking Spanish at home, with a pair of pretty great people. My father was a meatcutter who taught me how to work hard; my mother was a Spanish-English interpreter who taught me to use my imagination and creativity. We lived modestly but always had what we needed.
  30. Met the girl of my dreams, chased her from Boston to Albuquerque to New York City and married her.
Karl + Kristen. 1995. 2017.

Of course, I did much more than this.