Marianne J. Dyson

Marianne Jakmides Dyson during STS-4, July 1982
FAO Marianne during STS-4, July 1982

WriteSpace Newsletters

by Marianne Dyson

I wrote three issues of WriteSpace in 2002. Topics include: What is the space station crew size? What is work-for-hire? Have your books been based on your experiences? Bald Cats and Writing (writing workshop experience); How Long it Takes to Write a Book (having series cancelled); Giving and Receiving the “but-ended” Compliment (critique groups). For other issues, please see links in the right column.


WriteSpace, November 2002

Quotable Quote:  "There must be hope in every children's book." Ron Jobe, Newberry and Caldecott judge speaking at the Houston SCBWI conference, 11-2-02.

In this issue:

*Question of the Month: Space Station Crew Size

* Appearances: Speaking at TLA 2003

*Writing Adventures: Bald Cats and Writing

*** Question of the Month ***

“Why are there only three astronauts on the space station?” question by a student at Cedar Creek Elementary in Austin, Texas.


International Space Station crews are limited to three astronauts or cosmonauts because the Soyuz escape ship can only hold three people. One of these ships is docked (parked) at the space station at all times. If there is ever an emergency such as an impact with space junk or one of the crewmembers being injured, the crew can hop into the Soyuz and be back on Earth in a few hours. The only times when the total number of people aboard exceeds three is during space shuttle or Soyuz visits.

The Soyuz capsules are replaced every six months because, like a helium balloon leaking its gas and sinking to the floor over time, the fuel tanks slowly lose pressure to the vacuum of space. The “taxi” flights to the space station bring up a fresh ship. The taxi crew return to Earth in the older one. These flights only require 2 cosmonauts so that the third seat can be filled by a scientist or tourist. If you’re interested in a ticket, the price is $20 million dollars!

The original plans for space station call for a crew size of seven. To meet this goal, NASA was developing a new lifeboat, called the X-38, that could return seven crewmembers. However, because of budget problems, the X-38 program was cancelled earlier this year. Many people were upset about this cancellation. It takes the services of two crewmembers to keep the station running, leaving only one to work on experiments. A larger crew is needed to do the science for which the space station was intended. Therefore, it is likely that the X-38 program will be restored. Unfortunately, unless the US Congress votes to increase NASA’s budget, some other research program will be cancelled or cut back to pay for this. A likely target is the research program to develop a replacement for the aging space shuttle. This will have the effect of keeping human access to space too expensive for any but the ultra rich to afford. The X-38 is predicted to be ready for service by around 2010.

In the meantime, there is an option to double up on the number of Soyuz’s docked to the station. This would allow the crew size to grow to six. However, there are currently not enough docking ports to support this option. Also the Russians are not likely to have the funds to build and launch more of these vehicles. Another option is to upgrade the space shuttle so it can remain docked for longer periods. This option is also expensive because the shuttle uses batteries, not solar power, and would have to have another way to generate power while in space. The US Congress is not likely to increase NASA’s budget at a time when the economy is in a slump and extra funds are needed for homeland security.

Therefore, it is likely that the space station crew size will remain at three for many years to come.

*** Appearances ***

I am now booking appearances for 2003, and am happy to announce that I was chosen to be a speaker at the Texas Library Association convention in Houston, Texas this April. I’ll be speaking on Tuesday, April 1 from 3-4 PM on the topic of, “Creative Nonfiction as a Springboard to Kids’ Science and Reading.” I’ll also be signing copies of my new book, HOME ON THE MOON in the Exhibit Hall at the George R. Brown Convention Center where the conference is being held. Ask your favorite Texas librarian to look for me!

Please check for other appearances and photos from my recent visits at http://www.mariannedyson/authorschedule.html.

*** Writing Adventures ***

Bald Cats and Writing

An elementary school I visited recently came up with a novel fundraiser: they sold raffle tickets to their 3rd-5th graders with the prize being a 90-minute writing workshop with me. I admitted to the parent organizer that I had never done one of these workshops with such young children – with the only exception being a group of 4th grade gifted kids at a magnet school for literature. However, I was certainly willing to give it a try.

When I arrived at the school, I discovered that the winners were all boys. I grew up with brothers and am the mother of two boys, so I figured I could handle it. I started the workshop the same way I do with adults – addressing the question most frequently asked of writers: where do you get your ideas? I had the boys fill out a survey to uncover how they spend their time. This is usually a good indication of what they are interested in, and therefore, what topics they could mine for story ideas.

I then explained how publishers group topics into categories such as sports and nature. I had them circle the categories that matched their interests. Then I showed them sample copies of magazines for different ages. A story for preschool would have very few words and include a lot of pictures, whereas a story for 14-year-olds would be written at an adult reading level and have maybe one picture.

An amateur writer writes a story and then looks for a market. A professional writer chooses a market, and then writes the story. This way the professional keeps the story to the right length and reading level and slants the story to the special needs of the publication. For example, Child Life magazine focuses on health issues, so an astronaut interview for them needed to include a few questions about exercise in space. If I’d written the article before choosing a market, I might not have asked a question about exercise.

After this basic introduction to the process of writing, I had them follow the standard plot to write a story. The standard plot involves one character with a problem. The character tries two things to solve the problem that do not work, and usually make the problem worse. The third thing works. Then there is a conclusion that explains the consequences of solving the problem.

The boys chose a cat for their character. They named it Fluffy. Its problem was that it didn’t have any fur. The first thing it tried (a very creative idea I thought!) was to roll in mud with grass seed and grow grass on itself. However, the cat got mowed. It also got fleas. So the cat took a bath. This made the grass fall off. The water was so hot it scalded the cat. At this point, the boys were all yelling at once, each trying to outdo the others with a more bizarre thing to happen to the cat. We were out of time, and I needed them to bring this story to a conclusion. I asked them what they would do if they were the cat. Taking the character’s point of view is very important. This moved them away from the “torture” ideas towards a solution: the cat would put on a fur coat. This solved the problem. Now they needed a conclusion – what were the consequences of this solution?

I told them that the consequences (the ending) could be happy or sad. They insisted that happy endings are BORING, and so came up with a sad one: Fluffy was so excited about his new coat that he ran outside to show everyone and was run over by a truck!


Obviously, this is not a prize-winning story. However, it does have a beginning, middle, and end. It has a character and a plot. I think the boys know where to find ideas and how to put those ideas into a story format. That’s a lot more than many adults know about writing!

I was thinking about this fact and decided that perhaps I could teach a class for adults on writing for children. I sent a proposal to my local community college, and am happy to announce that I will be teaching a six-week class Monday nights June 2 through July 7, 2003. Here is the course description:

An award-winning children’s author will guide you through the process of successfully writing and publishing fiction and nonfiction for children. Learn how to research topics, choose markets, prepare manuscripts, negotiate contracts, deal with editors and agents, and reap the rewards of professional publication. A manuscript critique is provided for each student.

Registration information is available at the San Jacinto College website:

I hope some of you in the Houston area will sign up. But please, no stories about bald cats getting run over by trucks!

Marianne Dyson, November 2002


WriteSpace, June 2002

Quotable Quote: “Our paper, proving time had a beginning, won the second prize in the competition sponsored by the Gravity Research Foundation in 1968, and Roger [Penrose] and I shared the princely sum of $300. I don’t think the other prize essays that year have shown much enduring value.” Stephen Hawking, The Universe in a Nutshell, p. 41.

In this issue:

*Question of the Month: Work-for-hire

* Appearances

*Writing Adventures: How Long it Takes to Write a Book

*** Question of the Month ***

"What is work-for-hire, and should I accept this kind of deal?” Question from a new writer.


A work-for-hire contract is one in which the author has no copyright. Work-for-hire is the term used in the contract itself. This kind of contract is widely used for “formula” and “series” books that share a common format, set of characters, or general field of study. The author may or may not get a byline. In the end, the book belongs to the publisher. They can choose to publish it or not, to market it or not, to rewrite it or not. It is totally, 100% theirs. The author is paid a one-time fee. This is why these deals are sometimes also called “flat fee” contracts. However, with magazines at least, it is possible to work for a flat, or fixed fee, and still retain some rights (such as another fee if the work is reprinted). Work-for-hire contracts generally cannot be negotiated, though it never hurts to ask for a higher fee.

I wrote Homework Help on the Internet under a work-for-hire contract. I am not sorry I wrote that book. I am also not ashamed to admit that I wrote that book mostly for the money. It was a fair amount of money for the work. However, I never intend to sign another work-for-hire contract. Why not?

The main reason I don’t want to do work-for-hire is that I need to believe in myself as a writer. How can I ever grow as a writer – find my unique voice – if I am forced into the straightjacket of a formula book? I was fortunate that the editors for Homework Help on the Internet worked with me to develop the format. However, under a work-for-hire contract, they were under no obligation to ask my opinion. I have heard horror stories of other writers having their work chopped and distorted by inexperienced editors who introduced factual errors because they didn’t ask the authors for input. A book like that can be a real embarrassment to an author. I would not want to take the risk that the final product would reflect badly on my reputation.

Some writers jump at the chance to be published regardless of the contract terms. Are all writing credits the same? I don't think so. I was told (by several editors) that experience in work-for-hire type books was a real negative if you are trying to break in at a trade house. They assume that all you can do is what you're told because work-for-hire books do not require the author to have vision or style or develop a voice. The "voice" is the product of the editors. However, I admit that I learned things by writing Homework Help. I certainly know my way around the Internet better as a result!

Then there is the business of sticking up for writers in general to be better paid and better treated. The publisher calculates the fee using the most conservative estimate of copies sold. They assume the worst, and then if the book bombs, they are covered. If the book does well, or even just average, they make a good profit. Make no mistake, they are in the business to make money even if you aren't.

One way for the author to estimate what a book will actually earn is to find out the print run and sales price. A typical print run is 5,000 copies. Say that sales price is $15/book. The first printing, if it sells out, will make $75,000. How much should the author get? Royalty rates vary, but generally are 8-10% of the retail price. Under a royalty, then, the author would get $6,000 to $7,500. A typical work-for-hire fee is $3,000 to $5,000.

Advances are paid against royalties. Authors generally are paid about half of what the book is expected to make if all the first printing sells. So, in the above example, the author would get an advance of $3,000 to $3,750, most likely paid in installments: part when the contract is signed, and another when the manuscript is delivered, and possibly a third when the manuscript is approved.

In work-for-hire, the author is paid also in installments or as a lump sum when the manuscript is approved.

So, prior to publication, the publisher pays about $3,000 to the author in either case.

The difference comes when the book does well. If there is a second printing, the royalty author gets more money. This is an incentive for the author to promote the book. The publisher gets more as well. However, the work-for-hire publisher keeps 100% of all the money made beyond the payment to the author. The author gets nothing from a second printing or any sale of other rights. The author also gets no sales data from the publisher to track the effects of appearances or marketing to niche markets.

Work-for-hire books do not win awards. They do not make writers either famous or rich. At best, they can provide some spending money and serve as a “day” job. At worst, they can be a total embarrassment and take time away from a book that the writer really ought to be writing. Still, I do not fault any writer for accepting paid work of any kind. If you feel you must accept one of these contracts, at least know what you are getting into. Ask for a fee that would match with what you think the book would earn under a royalty agreement. If your book does really well, don’t beat yourself up too badly. Be content that you wrote something popular. And promise yourself that the next book will be under a royalty contract!

The bottom line is that if you want to make money as a writer, you need royalty contracts, and if you want to write YOUR books instead of what someone else wants you to write, you also need royalty contracts.

So, I plan to never again accept a work-for-hire contract, with one exception: if the one-time fee is a roundtrip to the Moon!

*** Appearances ***

I appeared on the Reading Is Fundamental (RIF) television show on February 6 in Washington, DC. Our topic was Nonfiction. The show has been rebroadcast at least once, and is available on tape to RIF coordinators. To find out more about RIF, please check their website:

Please check my author schedule page at http://www.mariannedyson/authorschedule.html for updates to my schedule.

*** Writing Adventures ***

How Long it Takes to Write a Book

I thought I knew the answer to this question when I agreed to write five books for Enslow in the spring of 2001. I had until June 2002 to get them finished. The books were each 48 pages, all in my area of expertise: space and astronomy. Sure, I was in the midst of writing a trade book for National Geographic – but I expected to be done with that by August. I’d have 10 months to write those books. Two months each. I enthusiastically said I could do the job.

But I couldn’t. I way underestimated the time it would take to write these books. I am embarrassed to admit that the series has now been cancelled, primarily because I did not allow enough time. I am sharing this experience in the hopes that other writers can make more informed decisions.

How much time should you allow to research and write a nonfiction book? The answer depends on how much research is required, how fast you write, how fast your editor and reviewers get back to you with comments, how difficult the photo research is, and what else you have going on in your life.

I knew from writing Homework Help on the Internet that I could do the actual writing of a book in six weeks. However, that topic did not require extensive new research. (I spend hours each day on line!) Even though I am somewhat of an expert on space, writing books on stars, constellations, black holes, galaxies, and the universe required quite a bit of new research. I attended press conferences, read scholarly works and popular books, and compiled extensive notes and quotes. I estimated a month would be sufficient to research each of the five topics.

Homework Help did not require any photos or illustrations. The five Enslow books each required 20 pieces of art. I had initially thought it would take about a week’s time for me to locate appropriate images. After all, I had done extensive photo research for articles and for my space station book. I was familiar with lots of great space photo resources and archives. Then I wrote the Stars book. I discovered that pretty photos of nebulae were not enough. I needed diagrams and graphics to explain tough science such as the proton-proton chain of nuclear fusion. The diagrams I found in textbooks were too complicated for children. I drew my own, and hired a student to help with some of the others. This took several weeks. I ran into a similar problem with the Constellations book.

My inexperience with publishing (I have only two books out so far) caused me to be overly optimistic in assuming that my trade book with National Geographic would be “done” and not interfere with the writing of these five books. I turned in my first draft in August of 2001. I had expected comments from my editor by the end of September and to complete the rewrite in October. That didn’t happen. One of the results of September 11 was that work on that book was delayed until December. Then, I experienced a death in my family that took up the entire month of November. I got the Stars book first draft done in December, already two months behind my original schedule. Stars went out to the technical reviewers. I rushed through the writing of the Constellations book and submitted it in February about the time that the Stars book returned from the reviewers.

I had not allowed time to do the revisions! This added two weeks to what I needed for each book.

Also, I had not planned for the revision of my National Geographic book to fall during the same timeframe. It required extensive cutting, and the photo research was much more time-consuming than I had expected. I rapidly fell behind schedule.

I turned in the revision on Stars, and I asked for an extension to the contract deadline for the third book in the series – one on black holes. My editor at Enslow granted me another month. I thought I had done most of the research for this book already, but NASA announced some exciting new findings throughout the spring. I spent several weeks reviewing the latest research and asking questions of experts. Finally, I began writing the book.

Then my editor called and said that revision of my first book, Stars, was at too high a level for 5th grade reluctant readers. I needed to do a third revision. Also, the Constellations book would require another revision. I needed another two weeks on each of those books.

The final revisions and layout work on my trade book took up two more weeks. I found myself at the beginning of June with the black holes book only half done, the Stars and Constellations books requiring extensive revisions, and the work for the galaxies and universe books not even started!

It was too late in the process to hire another writer to take over the final two books. Also, it seemed that the topics themselves were part of the problem. In trying to squeeze all the information about stars into a 48-page book, I had made it too “dense” with new concepts. I have since heard from other writers that it is not all that unusual for an “expert” to have the kind of difficulty I had in cutting content in order not to overwhelm young readers – especially reluctant readers. Also it seemed the topics were too broad. Instead of the usual educational market tradition of focusing on say, one planet versus the solar system, I had been asked to cover very broad topics – as broad as the universe! My editor and I felt we could have corrected this problem given enough time, but the one thing we didn’t have was time. Enslow decided to cancel the series.

Enslow was very generous and let me keep my advance as well as returning rights to the content to me despite the contracts not requiring them to do this. They accepted some of the blame for not catching the topic focus problem earlier.

The main lesson to be learned here is that writing books takes a lot of time. Things will happen outside of your control to delay and complicate the process. Editors and art directors are working on multiple books. Expect it to take months for them to comment and for reviewers to get back to you. Expect that the photo you want will not be available in high resolution format and the rights to that perfect painting will be outside your budget. Assume that there will be at least one and maybe two major family crises during the time you are writing that will require your full attention. Take it for granted that your computer will crash, and you will bruise your hand somehow and find it hard to type.

If you allow for these contingencies, then you will be able to write a book in a reasonable length of time and still enjoy it. Although I am sad those five books will not be published next spring, I am tremendously relieved to be out from under the pressure. I’m taking some time to nurture my muse and maybe write some poetry for a change.

If Enslow ever asks me to write a book for them again, I will allow 6 weeks for research, 8 weeks for writing, 2 weeks for photo research – that means 4 months dedicated to that one book all in a row. Then 6 weeks later, I will allow 2 weeks for revision one, and six weeks after than 2 weeks for a possible revision two and/or final design. If I expect to have any vacations or school visits during those months (very likely), I will add another month.

If another publisher that I have not worked with before asks me to do a book, I will add yet another month to the schedule to allow for misunderstanding directions and learning the new publisher’s requirements. In other words, I need at least 6 months to write a book! I advise all new nonfiction writers to give themselves this much time. If you don’t need it all, then you can work on that fiction novel on the side or spend more time with your family and friends.

It is easy to let your enthusiasm for a project cloud your judgment. But please, do yourself a favor, and allow enough time to write the best book you can, not just the book you can get done. In the long run, everyone will benefit.

Marianne Dyson, June 2002


WriteSpace, January 2002

Quotable Quote: “Never write what you know. Write from research.” 2001 Newberry Award Winner, Richard Peck, 11-3-01.

In this issue:

*Question of the Month: "Have your books been based on your experiences?”

*Writing Adventures: Giving and Receiving the “but-ended” Compliment

*** Question of the Month ***

This month’s question is from sixth grader Zack Henry of Southgate Elementary in Moore, Oklahoma. In a letter, he said, “ A lot of the time authors such as yourself have experienced what they have written their books about. I was wondering have your books been based on your experiences?”


The answer is yes, but not directly. For Space Station Science, my interest in space motivated me to study science in college and pursue a job with NASA as a flight controller. So, I certainly had experience in terms of my knowledge of science and space flight. But I didn’t work on the space station program, and I have not flown in space. I used my background to choose which engineers, scientists and astronauts to interview. So, the book was based on my experience, but also very much on research.

For my second book, Homework Help on the Internet, I visited hundreds of web sites and then selected only the ones I felt were most useful for homework assignments. Because it has been many years since I had to do homework, I went to my local elementary and intermediate school librarians and borrowed their textbooks. I went through the homework questions in all the subjects and tested the web sites to see if they had the information and images needed to answer them.

The cover story I wrote for an anthology called Girls to the Rescue #7 is fiction that is based on true-life experiences. My husband and I own a small plane and once had to do an emergency landing. We’ve also flown through some bad weather and had radios fail. Also, the patient being flown in the plane is based on a true story of a girl who was burned as a result of washing her hair with gasoline and was flown by Angel Flight.

My new books are all on space topics and thus based on my science background and on research. These are Stars, Constellations, Black Holes, Galaxies, and the Universe by Enslow Publishers, and Frontier Moon, by National Geographic. All will be out in 2003.

Thank you for writing to me. I always enjoy hearing from students!

*** Appearances ***

Please check my author schedule page at for updates to my schedule.

*** Writing Adventures ***

Giving and Taking the “but-ended” Compliment

We’ve all had someone say things to us such as, “You did a great job clearing the table, but you used too much water when you wiped it.” This is what I call a “but-ended” compliment. The first part lifts our spirits, and the “but” part slams them down again. I sadly admit that I have given out my share of them over the years. BUT I am making a New Year’s resolution to quit.

Most people don’t even realize the hurtful effect of their “but-ended” compliments. They think they are being helpful by pointing out a flaw you didn’t notice. They may even expect you to be grateful they took the time to notice and offer advice. I know I have felt that way.

Yet when I’ve been on the receiving end, even if the “but” is justified, I feel a need to explain and defend the choices I made. I used extra water because there was a sticky glob that wouldn’t come off otherwise. Besides, it’s only water – it will dry! What’s important is that I did the job. Why can’t this person see that?

This kind of reaction has sometimes led to arguments and caused me to lose all pride in my work and enthusiasm for doing it the next time. This is especially true as applied to writing. But-ended compliments can destroy a writer’s confidence. The logic seems to be that if I can’t do even this one simple thing right, I can’t possibly do the larger job of writing a story good enough to sell.

For example, suppose you’ve written a scene that includes a formal dinner. A “friend” reads your description of the table arrangements and says, “You did a great job describing the setting, BUT you have the knife in the wrong place.”

The compliment about the description is instantly lost in your reaction to the “but” part of the comment. You might want to shout, “I did my research, and for your information, the knife IS in the right place!”

However, if you blast your well-meaning friend with your superior knowledge, she may be insulted. A nasty argument about who is the more expert expert may result. Writers who react this way on a regular basis quickly earn the reputation of being thin-skinned know-it-alls. Editors don’t want to work with them, even if they ARE right.

Instead of getting defensive, consider a different way to react. Could your knowledge be incomplete? As Richard Peck said, “Never write what you know. Write from research.” Have you perhaps assumed you knew the answer and so didn’t check to be sure? Even if you checked a good reference, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some other text that calls for the knife to be elsewhere. Even in math, there is sometimes more than one right answer.

Keeping this in mind, try responding to a “but-ended” compliment by giving a genuine compliment to the person making the remark. Ask yourself what their comment tells you about them, and then work that into your reply. You might say to the friend, “Only a sophisticated person would notice such details about a table setting! You must have lots of experience at fancy dinners.”

Turning “buts” into compliments is a good habit to get into – and can be a fun game to play with your family and friends. It’s amazing how your positive reaction can lighten the person’s mood – and your own in the process.

Note that there is no need to apologize for what you’ve written, even if you DID get something wrong. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard writers needlessly calling themselves stupid because they accepted the but-ended compliment as a personal judgment on their skills rather than a comment on that specific work. People who make mistakes are not stupid! They are learners. Even award-winning authors such as Richard Peck cannot write a story perfectly the first time! At a conference in November he said that he writes each novel six times because he can’t get it right the first five times. Does this make him stupid? Of course not, and neither are we.

However, writers are easily discouraged. It is part of our nature. If our friends aren’t wildly enthusiastic about our work, we figure it is worthless. So, if you are asked to give an opinion on someone’s work, instead of giving but-ended compliments, try making positive statements and asking questions. Don’t assume that the writer made an error. For example, if you are the friend noticing the knife, you might say, “You did a great job describing the setting. Is the knife in that spot for a reason?” You may find that the writer simply forgot to check the facts, but you may find the character has set the table this way on purpose. In the next chapter, her fussy mother will notice and send her to her room where she will resolve never to treat her children that way!

I urge you all to join me in making a New Year’s resolution to replace but-ended compliments with questions and react in a positive way when we receive them in writing or daily situations. It should be an easy one to keep. By the way, thank you for noticing my new jeans. I thought I’d try wearing them a little tighter so I’d look more like you! <g>

Happy New Year!

Marianne Dyson, January 2002

More Information

My publications are available on Amazon. Please use the link below to find a complete listing:

Books By Marianne Dyson on AMAZON

2002 WriteSpace topics: What is the space station crew size? What is work-for-hire? Have your books been based on your experiences? Bald Cats and Writing (writing workshop experience); How Long it Takes to Write a Book (having series cancelled); Giving and Receiving the “but-ended” Compliment (critique groups). Read 2002 back issues.

2001 WriteSpace topics: Could you give me some tips on what to write about? What do I put in a cover letter? Do you have any information about space camps, especially for hearing-impaired children? Why don't they use magnets to dock the shuttle to the space station?; When were you (astronauts) first interested in space? Will NASA build space stations on planets? The End (writing an obituary); Outlining the Universe; The Making of a Moon Rock (creating an activity); Noting STS-1 (recording history); Stars in my Pocket (technical reviewing); Marianne becomes an Enslow author (signing up for a series). Read 2001 back issues.

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