Really proud to be a finalist for the Public Voices Fellowship on the Climate Crisis with The OpEd Project at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. They had 445 applications this year and though I didn’t get one of the 20 fellowship slots, as a finalist I will have some incredible opportunities this coming year to sharpen and hone my climate change storytelling. Please join me in congratulating this year’s fellows.
Video games can create billions of new climate activists
1/3 of the global population plays video games. With engaging climate change storylines and content, video games have the potential to create billions of new climate advocates to protect the health of the natural world, and by extension the health of all beings including us. This is the topic of my first two academic papers at University of Cambridge. I got my mark and feedback on my first paper and my graders were very complimentary saying the paper was of professional quality and has a strong literature review and purposeful recommendations for the company to use going forward. They also liked the persuasive case I made for the value of hope and joy in climate activism.
This is the first time I’ve ever written a paper in this style of academic writing. My topic was unusual for them. I brought my heart and personality into the style and structure of the paper. They said that’s also an unusual choice for academic writing but it works. I wrote the paper I was passionate about creating, and I’m proud of it. I learned a lot in this process that I will use throughout the rest of my graduate degree program and in my career going forward.
A huge thank you to my friend, Jennifer Estaris, and the entire team at ustwo games for inviting me to be a part of this gorgeous video game project that brings me so much joy and hope, and has taught me so much. Thanks also to everyone who cheered me on as I spent more hours on this paper than I’ve ever spent on any one academic assignment.
Now I’m drafting the action plan for my next assignment and preparing for my next workshop in Cambridge in March. I can’t wait to be back together with my cohort in that magical place. On to the next tranche of this adventure with a grateful and open heart and mind…
Will writers be replaced by OpenAI, makers of ChatGPT?
This week I’m working with one of my biomimicry clients to explore the use of OpenAI, makers of ChatGPT. It has several models within it, including Davinci which we’ve found has the most detailed, natural sounding results but not necessarily the most accurate information. We are using this technology to ingest a wide variety of scientific papers and produce plain-language text that can be used by designers and engineers who want to explore nature-based solutions and biomimicry inventions and applications.
We tried five tests with different biomimicry topics. I compared the source papers and the two versions of AI-generated text to assess them. Of the five tests, four were decent first drafts that need a human editor to refine them. Most of the scientific data was presented in a plain text way that maintained accuracy and integrity. It missed some key findings that would be valuable for engineers and designers, and the tests need to be edited for clarity. It had some trouble extrapolating the information into potential biomimicry applications and nature-based solutions. In other words, it could create plain-language text based on complicated, jargon-filled text reasonably well as a first draft. It could not creatively interpret the data to imagine many new possibilities. The one failed test completely missed the mark on the main points of the scientific paper.
Overall, it was exciting to see how this innovation could democratize access to information that is concealed in jargon. As with any simplification task, the accuracy has to be evaluated by someone who can reliably translate from language that needs deep expertise to language that’s accessible to those without that expertise. Proliferation of misinterpreted, oversimplified, and inaccurate translations is a risk and a danger. We’re in the early days of this tool and it will undoubtedly improve over time.
Some have expressed concern that writers will no longer be needed and that all writers will be forced into becoming editors. As a writer and an editor, I don’t share that fear. Human creativity, ingenuity, and imagination will never be obsolete. My hope is that tools like AI-generated text will free up our time, energy, and headspace to spend more time on creative projects.
Ending a relationship with a writing client
Today I ended my relationship with a client I’ve worked with since 2015. Over 8 years, 5 editors, and hundreds of interviews, I wrote 50+ pieces for them on education, travel, healthcare, science, and culture. It was a wonderful experience and I’m very grateful for all of the opportunities I had with them. I wish them all the best. Now I’m excited to write for new publications and I’m open to referrals, ideas, and suggestions.
To be true to ourselves, sometimes we have to move on from where we’ve been. It’s not easy to let go of clients or to turn down work, especially when the work is comfortable and easy. But in this new chapter of my life, I’ve committed to only doing work I can do with my whole heart. That means that I have to make tough choices, but I know they’re the right choices for me. I’m excited to see how this space I’ve created in my client book will take shape.
How writers using multi-sensory storytelling will save the planet
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” ~ Antoine de Saint Exupéry, author of The Little Prince (among many others)
Today I want to talk to you about how storytelling has a vital role to play in saving the planet. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been consumed with getting ready to start my new graduate program in Sustainability Leadership at University of Cambridge. I’ve completed my first set of assignments and the first (very long!) reading list. I’ve read well over a thousand pages of documents, reports, data collections, and science journal articles. I have 10 new books on my to-be-read list, many relating to the connections between the economy, nature, and societal structure. It will come as no surprise that much of it is bleak, and there is some hope sprinkled in here and there.
Here’s what I didn’t find on a single page I read: what will our world look, feel, sound, smell, and taste like when humans learn how to live on this planet in a sustainable way?
The science matters. We have to have the reporting and data to show what’s happening in real-time right now, and explain what can happen if we don’t turn things around and fast. We need the urgency provided by the dire warnings. The doomsday scenarios are true possibilities and we’re on a collision course with them.
We also have to give people hope by explaining all we stand to gain if we change our ways, systems, governments, businesses, cities, economies, and — here’s the kicker — our values.
For decades we’ve been obsessed with efficiency and convenience, and in the process have caused a massive number of extinctions and destroyed priceless ecosystems that we’ll never see again. We stand to lose much more if we don’t realize we must value nature because nature underpins every aspect of our lives and livelihoods.
We have no future without nature and we need to wake up to that reality.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what it would take to give people an experience of what a truly sustainable world will be like. How can we make it an experience that sticks with people long after the experience is over, motivates them to make changes in their lives, and causes them to demand change from the businesses they patronize and the governments of which they’re citizens?
How can we, in the words of Antoine de Saint Exupéry, make them long for the healthy, thriving, clean sea, literally and figuratively?
I’ve been immensely inspired by the immersive exhibits that are all the rage right now — Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience and Imagine Picasso are two examples of the tech-centric, projection-based exhibits that are everywhere. In February, The New Yorker wrote a long, exceptional piece on this trend. For many years, I’ve been a fan of immersive theater like the wildly popular Sleep No More that’s a bit like Clue meets haunted house meets Eyes Wide Shut, complete with masks for all guests so you feel like you’re at a costume party. Since I was a child, I’ve loved choose-your-own-adventure stories. And let’s be honest; I still love choose-your-own-adventure stories.
So here’s my proposal — what if we take the:
- technology of immersive art exhibits
- participatory storytelling of immersive theater
- user-guided choice of choose-your-own-adventure stories
- science of climate change
to not tell, not show, but allow people to experience how climate change will look, sound, smell, taste, and feel if we continue on our current trajectory and if we make the needed, massive changes to save the planet, save ourselves, and save all the species who call Earth home? There would then we an online component that would connect people to one another and provide support for making the changes we need and charting collective and individual progress because as we know, what gets measured gets done.
Would that be a way to use multi-sensory storytelling as a tool to motivate people, open their hearts and minds, and give us a fighting chance at building a sustainable society together? If executed flawlessly and meaningfully with heart, I think this might be part of the solution we need that doesn’t yet exist. What do you think?
How (and Why) to Write Your First Draft Fast
Writing a book can feel like such a daunting task that you may feel paralyzed before you even begin. Once you talk yourself down off the ledge and actually start writing, the grind can feel slow and painful. It might be such a huge lift that you abandon the project when you hit a rough patch or reach the inevitable messy middle. You run out of steam before you get a first full draft.
This can leave you feeling inadequate and frustrated, as if you’re a failure for not finishing what you started. Then that tiny voice of doubt in your mind becomes a nonstop scream fest. It can become so loud that getting back to writing can feel too difficult.
Then as if on cue, other ideas for other books start to enter your mind, and they start to look like a much better use of your time. Before you know it, you have files of half-started books and not a single finished manuscript.
We’ve all been there. Truly. Every writer has half-finished work sitting on their laptop and in notebooks to get to “someday”. And that’s frustrating for all of us.
Maybe you’re like me and truly dislike first drafts. I can’t stand them. I want to get them done as fast as possible so I can get to editing, refining, adding in details, and making that first awful draft (yes, all first drafts by all writers, even the greatest luminaries, are awful) shine brighter and brighter with every turn.
Now that I’m writing my third book in the Emerson Page series, I’ve finally figured out how to get first drafts done quickly so I can get on with the editing and re-writing I love: I dumped the idea of getting to any specific word count on any day, for any scene, and for the book as a whole.
What? How can I possibly forget about word count when I’m writing a book?
Here’s how—the first draft is about one thing and one thing only: getting from the start of my story to the end, and getting to the end as fast as possible.
Here’s my process for getting a first draft done fast:
First, I’m a cartographer:
Outlines are like roadmaps. They tell me where to go next to reach my final destination. They’re functional, not aesthetically pleasing. I write mine first on index cards—one scene per card—and then move them around to create the order of my story. This is my map for my journey.
Second, I’m a painter:
Then when I’m happy with the flow on my index cards, I put all of the scenes into Scrivener (the software I use to write my first draft) with some additional details I’ve found in my research. I make notes about who’s in each scene, what the action is, why the scene matters to the story, and what the reader will learn by the end of the chapter that will make them want to turn the page.
A painter starts by sketching on a blank canvas. That’s what I’m doing as a writer when I create this more detailed outline.
Third, I’m a mason:
Now I’m ready to write. Once I have the detailed outline sketched out, I start to lay down the foundation of the story, scene by scene, brick by brick. I make tons of notes along the way, highlighted in my manuscript, of more details I eventually want to add.
But those details aren’t my concern right now. I’m just trying to get the most basic text down so I can get to the end of the first draft. I make a note of the details I want to add and then I keep going.
My first draft doesn’t look like much to celebrate except it absolutely is. I turned my outline and notes into prose. I got from the beginning of my story to the end. I got some dialogue down. I wrote the action sequences. Now I have something to work with. Huzzah—time to party!
Now I take a break
What? Take a break? Shouldn’t I crank away day after day until my book is a masterpiece? No.
I write the first draft and put it away until I forget what I wrote. For me, that’s about a month. This way I come back to it with fresh eyes, ready to edit, rewrite, and get to the detail work I love. In that time, I may work on another project. Or I might take a break from writing altogether.
Now, I’m a sculptor
With that first draft, now I’m ready to add in all those details I love. I’m ready to make that dialogue sing and make it believable. Now is the time for poetry. Now I’m really getting into my craft, and all because I’ve got something functional to work with. The edit and the rewrite (many times over in my case) is where I fix everything and make it better.
I spend the vast majority of my writing time re-writing, and that’s exactly how I like it. I love to take something from awful to something I’m proud of. I love the detail. I love the refinement. I love incorporating all the research I’ve done, and I do plenty more research in the edit. It’s my happy place. But I can’t do any of that if I don’t have a first draft to work with so my goal is to go from idea to draft a fast as I possibly can. Let it be the stinkiest, ugliest, messiest thing I’ve ever created. I don’t care. It just has to exist.
No one has ever read a first draft of my work. And no one ever will. The first draft is for me and only me. And there’s a freedom in that. It took me years to really get this and act on it. It’s really only now, with this third Emerson book, that I’m embracing the hideous first draft and reveling in its creation.
And all those partially finished first drafts I have? Well, after this third Emerson book is done, I’m going to pick up each partially written first draft and get it over the line. They’ll all be the worst thing I’ve ever written, at first, and I couldn’t be happier about it.
How my life and career prepared me to work on climate change
When people ask me, “what do you do?” my response is always, “have you got a minute?” If they say yes, I say, “I’m a digital product developer / business leader / journalist / author / biomimicry scientist / public historian / tour guide, and I kicked cancer’s ass during a pandemic. Now I’m bundling up all of that experience together to fight climate change and protect the planet. Do you have any questions?”
Some of the most important research on climate change has yet to be done: What happens in a worst-case scenario? This week, an international team of scientists led by the University of Cambridge (where I will start my graduate studies in Sustainability Leadership in September) published a paper about the urgent need to do this work. As I read the piece and considered my experience, I realized my life and career have primed me to be a part of this endeavor.
Cancer during COVID-19
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic I was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer. You think taking precautions to protect yourself and others from COVID is inconvenient? You think changing your lifestyle so we curb climate change in inconvenient? Trying getting cancer. Now that’s inconvenient.
Cancer upends every facet of life to battle it. And even if you do everything right, there’s no guarantee you’ll be cancer-free. Having to face that demon and my own mortality (several times thanks to a life-threatening chemo allergy I had and never knew about) changed me. Then to find out that my cancer had a strong environmental component added insult to injury. It also lit a fire under me to change my life and dedicate my career to healing this injured planet.
Nothing teaches you how to live like having your life on the line. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Since I had to go through it, and have emerged on the other side cancer-free, I’m determined to use what I learned to help make this world a better place for all beings.
Hope for the best; expect the worst
I’ve lived my entire life by this philosophy. At times, it’s exhausting but the tremendous upside is that I’m often prepared and rarely surprised. This thinking gave me a stiff upper lip as I’m not someone who runs from conflict or difficulty. I’m incapable of deluding myself or anyone else with any kind of pollyanna scenarios. Just give me the facts. Tell me what I could be up against and I’ll take it from there. I’ve mastered pro-con list making and I love a good SWOT analysis. Difficulty doesn’t depress me. I can sit with suffering and not be consumed by it. I’m not afraid of the future; I’m here to shape it.
All product development, regardless of the product, service, or system being built is anchored in two principles: what problem are you trying to solve and who are you trying to solve it for? I don’t fall in love with anything I build or any idea I have. A long time ago, I fell in love with serving others and making the world a better place. My ego and my fear of rejection hover near zero. Being a product developer requires me to be measured and methodical, to care about the grand vision and every tiny detail. Strategy and tactics are two sides of the same coin and they serve each other. I like both of them equally.
Business and leadership
I’d love to tell you that well-meaning governments, NGOs, and nonprofits are going to save the planet and humankind from destruction. They aren’t because they aren’t the problem. Business, and how we conduct business, is the problem. Because business is the problem it’s also the solution.
Business is responsible for climate change because of the way it operates. Change the operations and you see progress toward solving the challenge. It’s not easy work. There are a lot of stakeholders with conflicting interests and priorities. Then you add the whammy of many people in the world being down on business and capitalism, and rightly so. Given all that, it’s easy to see why some businesses toss up their hands with a “I can’t do anything right so I’m just going to soldier on as I always have.”
Except they can’t. Business and businesses will have to change and evolve. It’s not a choice anymore. Destroy the planet and every business, every person perishes. So business colleagues: buck up, roll up those sleeves, humble yourself, and get to work to make your business sustainable. I’ll be in the trenches with you and I’ll help you.
Scientific studies in biomimicry and sustainability
Biomimicry begins and ends with the mindset of looking at a problem and asking, “how would nature solve this?” It’s a fascinating, hopeful, and wonderful way to live and work. I feel fortunate to be a biomimicry scientist. I’m excited to begin my studies at Cambridge to extend my work in biomimicry and business through sustainability leadership and bring them together to build a better world.
I’m often asked, “do you make your whole living in biomimicry?” No. I don’t. I have an MBA from the Darden School at the University of Virginia and I’ve worked for years to become a storyteller in a variety of mediums. I make the majority of my income working as a product developer for a media company and from my writing. I also produce and host a podcast about joy called JoyProject, used to manage Broadway shows and national theater tours, and hope to get back to producing and hosting storytelling shows, in-person and on screens large and small.
Science is what I do because I love it and it’s a force for good in the world. With my studies at Cambridge, I’m hoping to work with energy companies to end the production of fossil fuels. You can read more about my career plans here.
Being a journalist and a fantasy and science fiction author
Writers make stuff up and write it down. We love playing out scenarios and asking questions like, “What if…?”, “And then what happened?”, and “How did we end up here?”. We research. We interview people. We observe. We dig through historical documents and archives. We create characters and we put them into impossible situations. This is the kind of thinking and acumen the climate change movement needs.
Public historian and tour guide
Science was my first love. History was my second. I was a history and economics major in college at the University of Pennsylvania. I majored in history because everything has a history. It felt to me like I could do anything if I was a historian. I can happily spend countless hours reading and uncovering history, talking to people about history, showing people history, and imagining what once was, why it impacts what is, and how it will shape what’s yet to be.
I’ve never been a person who easily fit into a box of any kind. I had no interest in that. When I was interviewing for my first job out of business school, a man interviewing me commented that my resume looked like I had done a lot of exploring. He didn’t mean this as a compliment; he was criticizing me because he thought I lacked focus. I didn’t. My focus just happened to be on anything and everything that interested me, and a lot interests me.
I got the job, but that guy who called me an explorer was never approved of me. That’s okay. He just couldn’t see what I knew to be true—the solutions to worldwide problems need worldwide views. They need lots of different types of experience to create something that’s never been done before. Turns out all my exploring gave me exactly everything I needed to make the world a better place, and that’s what I will do.
Start at the ending, in writing and life
“Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start.” Julie Andrews, Do-Re-Mi in The Sound of Music
As writers, sometimes we have to start at the end. In my previous books, I started at the beginning and wrote all the way through to the end. It’s how I outline, too. But with this third Emerson Page book, I have to take a different approach.
I started to write the beginning with my trusty outline in-hand and quickly found myself in murky waters. So murky that I was procrastinating, which I never do. I was afraid to sit down and write, and that fear was getting in the way of delivering my draft manuscript to my publisher under a tight deadline.
I have to find another way in. I stopped writing in my usual progression of beginning to end, and flipped it on its head. Today, I’m writing the last chapter of the book, the end of Emerson’s story arc. I know where it needs to take place and what needs to happen there. With that confidence, I’ll walk backward one step, one chapter, at a time.
To be honest, I don’t like that I have to do this. I’m a creature of habit and I like my writing habits. But this leg of Emerson’s journey is the most complicated of the three books. It has many more twists, turns, and surprises. The stakes are higher, and I have to give readers an ending that’s satisfying and true to Emerson’s spirit. To do that, I have to adjust my process.
Maybe you’re facing something similar, in your writing or in your life. Something isn’t progressing as you hoped. A surprise popped up that has thrown you off-track. You’re stuck, disappointed, frustrated, or maybe you’re all of those things.
Back up and look for a different path. How can you adjust what you’re doing? Is there another way forward, even it requires you to get comfortable with being uncomfortable? Maybe like me, you have to put things in reverse. Start with the goal. Then instead of asking, “and then what happened?”, ask “how did I get here? And here? And here?”
It may turn out that the ending is the very best place to start.
In writing and life, have a sculptor’s mindset
First drafts, of writing and any project in life, can be difficult. The proverbial blank page stares at us and we’re so concerned about getting things exactly as we want them to be in the end that we forget all creative acts are a process of becoming. Nothing springs to anyone fully-formed and perfectly-worded.
I’m in the process of writing the first draft of my third novel. You’d think this would get easier with time. It hasn’t for me. I still approach each first draft, each first attempt of all of my creative projects, with trepidation and anxiety. What if this time I’m a total failure? What if what I’m trying to do doesn’t land and I can’t do anything to make it even decent, much less something I’m proud of?
In moments like this that make it difficult for me to even begin, I remind myself that I’m a sculptor. This blank page, this new project idea, is a block of marble. And like the sculptor, I’m taking away tiny bits here and there. It will take many rounds of refining to bring the sculpture to life from this block. It will not happen overnight. It will not happen quickly. My only job is to begin, a tiny tap here, a tiny tap there. Over and over again with intention, curiosity, and openness. I don’t need to be brilliant. I don’t need to be perfect. I just need to show up. What I don’t get right in this round, I can attempt in the next. And on and on it goes.
We consume and admire the work of others at its end stage. All we see and experience in the finished product, not the many long and arduous hours, wrong turns, edits, messiness, doubt, and about-face maneuvers it took to get to that ending when it’s ready for the public. So we compare our work-in-progress to work that has already progressed.
The sculptor’s mindset is the one we need as we begin. Pick up the hammer and chisel and chip away at the smallest task of your grand dream. It’s how all great work starts, and how all great work makes its way, slowly and surely, into the world.
For writers: FREE resources on query letters, nonfiction book proposals, finding an agent, and social media from Eric Smith
Hello, lovely writers. Do you know Eric Smith, author and agent extraordinaire? If not, please get to know him because he’s a ray of light in the writing community. As both a successful author and agent, he understands both points-of-view and helps demystify a lot of things in the writing and publishing world that many other people don’t.
It’s incredible how much wonderful advice he puts out into the world for authors for FREE! There are a lot of organizations out there who want to charge you a lot of money for this advice—I’ve paid some of them for it and I can promise you I should have just read Eric’s website because the advice I paid for was exactly the same as what Eric offers.
Here’s a summary of what he has on his website:
The good ol’ query letter is what we put together when looking for an agent or publisher who accepts unagented queries. You can read the query letter that helped me find my publisher for my Emerson Page young adult adventure trilogy here. Eric offers up 17 successful query letters from authors he’s worked with and he also explains why their pitches worked so well. In my pitch to my publisher, I did so many things that conventional wisdom said not to do. If you’d like to read my article on that, it’s here: A Publisher Bought My YA Novel Trilogy — Here’s Everything I Did Wrong.
Crafting nonfiction book proposals
I’ve been working on a nonfiction book proposal for about 6 months and Eric’s advice has helped me tremendously. He provides several successful nonfiction book proposals from authors he’s worked with and again offers his explanation of why they worked for those authors. There are definitely paid services out there that could be valuable for you to use but I recommend you try following his advice to create your proposal first, send it out, and see how it lands with agents and publishers.
Author and editors whom you can work with
If you’ve decided you’re at the point where you need an author or editor to look at your work and offer specific advice on your manuscript, proposal, or query, Eric has a long list of recommendations of people he trusts. He’s used the services of these people himself, as an author and as an agent.
Looking up literary agents
Eric’s blog, which he updates regularly, is chock full of other advice for writers. One question I always get is, “How do I find an agent?” If you’re in the market for an agent, it takes legwork and research to find them. Eric offers advice on looking up agents and reaching out to them in this blog post.
Social media for authors
Ah, social media for authors. Do you love it? Do you hate it? It matters, and it doesn’t have to take over your life. Eric offers all kinds of advice on what to share on social media, platforms to use, and how it’s helped him as a writer and as a person.
Building a platform
“You have to have a platform.” I have heard this for years and I still hear it all day every day to this day. Platform matters. It can also be fun to build one. There is so much to learn. There are so many people in the world doing really interesting work. While building your platform, you’ll meet and befriend so many terrific people you may not meet otherwise. That’s certainly been my experience and it’s brought me a lot of joy over the years. Eric offers up advice on building a platform as well.
If you’re in need of writing and publishing advice (and who among us isn’t?!), hop over to Eric’s website and use his free resources for writers to the max. Happy writing and I can’t wait to read your stories!