How to Write Fast

I wrote my new article on the dangers of indoor air in ten days, because I had to.

Last June 13, Meg Merrick, editor-in-chief of Metroscape, sent me a frantic email:


I don’t know how quickly you can turn your article around but we have run into a crisis with our lead article and need to come up with a new article for our upcoming issue. Would you be willing to do the article you pitched now instead of later? Unfortunately, we will need a quick turnaround.

Let me know.



By “quick turnaround,” she meant “in about ten days.” Normally I would budget six to eight weeks to research, construct, and polish a major feature article, the kind I had been expecting to produce for Meg’s Winter issue.

Ten days? That’s crazy. Could I do it? Continue reading How to Write Fast

I’m back

Hi, I’m back.

I apologize to my reader(s) for being absent so long. I thought I knew why I gave up this blog last fall – because I felt demeaned by the way a certain magazine changed a story of mine without asking.

But as I got over it, and sat down to restart this blog last weekend, a deep, paralyzing sadness came over me. What the hell? I thought.

So I dove into the emotional laboratory of my journal to place this feeling. And hey, it’s my old frenemy, helplessness, powerlessness, to help or save or protect something. I can’t protect my stories from careless or uncaring editors.

Well, so what? As a writer I should have thick skin. Why is this feeling paralyzing?

Oh, wait, right. I couldn’t protect Mama from herself. (I went into medicine to learn how to fool people like her into saving themselves. But I couldn’t save her.) I couldn’t keep her from crushing Daddy.

There was the patient I couldn’t save in med school because t I couldn’t make my residents listen. It’s still a heart-twisting memory. That failure to save someone who desperately needed help set off a crisis for me. It resolved in my med school senior thesis (a play I called “The Moment of Death: Or, How Your Doctor Got That Way.”)

Helplessness and I go way back.

Should I stop taking risks I can’t control the outcome of? No way.

Maybe I should send my stories out and trust them to take care of themselves. But they’re not just stories. I have a debt to the people who trusted me to tell their truth with actual facts. If the copy is wrong, I’ve betrayed them, by not being able to control the editorial process.

I can’t resolve this dilemma. But recognizing it helps. Here I am.

Science to the Rescue!

Part 4 of Constructing a Pitch – Dramatic Structure

How do science-as-protagonist stories work?

‘X is a problem. Now scientists can fix it.’ Science comes to the rescue. Science is the hero, that rescues a sympathetic victim from some abstract oppressor, the villain.

Let’s take my previous failed pitches for the Indoor Air story and change the protagonist.

Z suspected her home made her sick. She was right.

Many people suspect their homes make them sick.

Now science can do something about it.

Okay, graceless, but those are the building blocks.

The objective of the hero-character Science is the health of the victims of unhealthy houses, which are the Villain.

My original pitch offered cost-efficiency as the hero’s objective. My god, how unheroic! Back to the drawing board.

Science to the rescue!

Building a Pitch for Building Science

Part 3 of Constructing a Pitch – Dramatic Structure

So my protagonist has to be one or several building scientists. Protagonists come equipped, by definition, with objectives, obstacles to those objectives, and strategies to overcome those obstacles.

(I learned this articulated approach to story structure from Pauline Peotter, in her year-long course “Playwright’s Boot Camp” at Portland State. She refuses credit for inventing the method, but I’ve never seen it anywhere else.)

Who among my building-science sources has these attributes? Continue reading Building a Pitch for Building Science

Play Doctoring

Part 2 of Constructing a Pitch – Dramatic Structure

Here we have on the operating ta— I mean, stage — four characters to build a play with.

Cast of characters –

  • Sick people. They live in sickening houses. Most don’t know their home is making them sick, though some suspect.
  • Health care payers. Sick care, not health care, really. They pay to make sick people better.
  • Contractors. Home fixers. Sometimes healers, if the home they fix was making people sick.
  • Building scientists.  They find ways to make homes healthy, and figure out why houses often make their occupants sick.

Next step – Pick one of those four to be the protagonist. Continue reading Play Doctoring

Looking for the Hook, Dramatically

Part 1 of Constructing a Pitch – Dramatic Structure

What’s the problem with the “Indoor Air is Bad For You” story? I’ve pitched it several places, with no takers. The angle with which I’ve shot it over the transoms is

The emerging discovery that it’s cheaper to treat asthma by fixing people’s homes than by prescribing them asthma drugs.

Let’s take the story apart, as a dramaturg would take apart a play, to see how it works. Or, in this case, how it fails to work. Continue reading Looking for the Hook, Dramatically

Coming Soon: December Portland Monthly

The December issue of Portland Monthly is always the History issue. The theme of this year’s History issue is Heroes.

I will have an article in it about Dr. Esther Pohl, who led the successful campaign to prevent San Francisco’s 1907 bubonic plague epidemic from reaching Portland. No other city on the West Coast managed it.

Esther Pohl pulled it off by yoking science and politics. By politics, I mean leadership, not back room deals.

The science that made it possible was the recent discovery that the plague bacillus was carried not by rats, but by fleas riding on rats. Until that connection was made, no city in all of human history had a chance against plague. Continue reading Coming Soon: December Portland Monthly

Hey! Got a gig!

Yesterday, an editor I’ve worked with before emailed me. He wants me to write a story we talked about months ago. I’d almost forgotten it.

Details later. It will appear in December in a local magazine, and it’s another aspect of the rat story.

How did this happen? The usual way: keeping in touch with my network.
A writer’s network includes every editor she’s worked with and wants to work with again.
That’s even more important now that there are fewer venues to choose from.

Science Writing Sinking: It’s Not Just Me

Aha! Or rather, uh-oh. I’ve been writing about how hard it is being unable to write, but I just learned it’s not that I can’t write. The problem is that I can’t find anyone who’s listening. The problem is the writing economy. Especially the science-writing economy. I’m not alone in isolation, but that’s no consolation.

At The Open Notebook: The story behind the best science stories, freelance science writer Kendall Powell writes

[T]he collapse of print advertising, declining magazine subscriptions, the enormous availability of free content online … has writers of all kinds talking and writing about their job security fears and inability to make a living wage in journalism.

Continue reading Science Writing Sinking: It’s Not Just Me