Making of "The Vector Zoo"

Words by
Xander Balwit
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I am a writer for whom writing is hard. This does not make me unique. Even prolific writers such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge or F. Scott Fitzgerald have bemoaned the effort of getting words on paper. Like many of these struggling yet doggedly diligent writers, I have carried on through psychic torment and creative drought.

The problem is that a given end-product does not necessarily reveal how hard the piece was to write. While bad writing can expose a lazy or ungifted writer, excellent, or even good writing tends to conceal the obstacles and backtracking experienced during the process from which it sprung.

The reason may seem obvious. By the time we encounter a piece of writing in the wild, it has usually been completed and heavily edited. We do not have to be scandalized by bad first drafts, partial outlines, and scrapped fragments of copy. However, this also means that many of us, writers and non-writers alike, don’t have a fully developed sense of what goes into writing. This is unfortunate.

When we assume that writing emerges only from the prolific or from those for whom writing comes easily, we fail to encourage or inspire those for whom writing is hard but worthwhile. But worse still, when we do not have a sense of what goes into writing, we fail to appreciate the value of the process itself.

This is why I wanted to share what went into a recent piece of writing, the “Vector Zoo,” that was just published at Asimov Press, where I am a founding editor and contributing writer. It took me months to write, a time of tears, fist pumps in the air, declarations of quitting, and proclamations of genius. My hope is that, by sharing my process, I can demystify it for others who might be interested. And that, as someone in the business of writing (not to mention a self-professed wordcel and pedant), I can expand your sense of how successful writing can take shape mechanistically.

Birth of an Idea

Generating ideas is onerous, but there are ways to prompt more readily. Once, I dreamt up a piece of fiction about a man who is saved from drowning by a swarm of botflies he hosts in his body because I had a fly bump into my leg repeatedly while running near a flooded field. Another time, I wrote a prize-winning piece of fiction about how biotech can address climate because of a sentence in a book by Elizabeth Kolbert.1

Ideas come from experience and exposure—and, most frequently, other people’s ideas. This is why talking to smart people and reading widely are my two largest pieces of advice for prospective writers. Because even if absorbing and synthesizing information in novel ways is the most challenging part of ideation, it is much more likely if you repeatedly and unrelentingly expose yourself to interesting people.

It follows that the idea for “Vector Zoo” emerged from disparate threads that I wove together with the help of multiple people over multiple months. The story grew from an unremitting interest in the role of zoos, a burgeoning fascination with infectious disease, and a pitch that Asimov Press received about the transmission of leprosy from 9-banded armadillos.

Upon reading the pitch, I thought “How is it that we haven’t eradicated some of these slightly more obscure zoonotic diseases yet?” This was quickly followed by “What would it take to do so?” and finally “What would the world look like if diseases from animals were controlled?”

Somewhere in the slough of questions and curiosities, my idea was born. Now what to do with it?

When I get an idea, the first thing I like to do is tell someone. While I have not systematically measured how much more likely it is that this will get me to follow through with it, it undoubtedly helps. However, this isn’t only about accountability. An even better way to get going on an idea is to put some momentum behind it. Here, the distinction is that I don’t merely share an idea but initiate the steps necessary to actually write it.

In the case of “Vector Zoo,” I recognized that I did not know nearly as much as I would like about vector-borne diseases. In fact, I knew virtually nothing. So I asked. The day I got my idea, I sent the message above to malaria panjandrum and all-around brilliant thinker, Saloni Dattani. Now, it’s great if someone you are asking for help is in your circle of acquaintances, as was the case with Saloni, but this is not strictly necessary. Cold emailing experts and doing independent research are other excellent ways to get going.


Getting going is often a large portion of the writing struggle. However, I have found that research is a good first step. After all, unless you are writing on something in which you have deep domain expertise, you will need to do this anyway.

My research for “Vector Zoo” took many guises. I began by posing questions to Saloni. I also searched my network for people who either had relevant experience or could direct me to others from whom I could extract it. Generally, I prefer to talk to an expert rather than read papers. I find that this puts me closer to a live conversation, wherein I get assumptions more easily checked and can more easily contextualize the content of a paper into an ongoing conversation in a field.

In this case, after sharing my idea widely with my new colleagues while lightly soused at a holiday party, I had one of them connect me with a friend of hers who was an infectious disease specialist at a pediatric hospital. This meeting precipitated another, with a friend of this disease specialist who taught public health and specialized in parasite phylogeny. The lesson here seems to be: once you are tapped into a network, continue your horizontal crawl as long as possible.

Ultimately though, these tidbits of research need to migrate over into the right medium. This is where transcribing interviews comes in handy, but also where reading papers and pulling quotes can be useful. I used to find that it worked best for me to have a separate “Notes” document, but now I typically outline and take notes on the same page. This allows me to place the research in the spots where I think it will likely end up. For “Vector Zoo,” I did both, having one middle-stage draft end up as the dumping ground for excess fragments, and keeping a separate page (although this mostly ended up being a place for excerpts from David Quammen’s book, Spillover.)

Regardless of where and how you keep notes and fragments of research though, it will make writing easier. It gives you the language of your subject, the content of its contours, and mostly, just makes you confront the written word: “Here is writing, now all you have to do is make it yours and come up with the connective tissue.

The Process

There is no pain quite like drafting. In this phase, my internal pragmatist battles my internal perfectionist. Realistically, I know that drafts are necessary and good. However, what they imply—that the first instantiations of something you are writing will be insufficient—is a painful thing to contend with. This is why, even after reading about the value of shitty first drafts, and seeing my work routinely improve through them, they remain a challenge.

Here is my first outline and my first full draft.

  • For my first draft, I wanted the reader to follow some kids around the museum. Alongside them, we would learn about zoonotic and vector-borne diseases as they asked questions and experienced the exhibits. However, the draft felt slow and expositional. Explanation, rather than plot, was driving the movements. Still, it had some details about diseases that I enjoyed and some lines I was proud of.

Here is one from the middle.

  • This is when my colleague Niko, an indomitable editing force, suggested a structural change that would lead to my final version. He advised me to read Robin Sloan’s essay, “The Conspiracy Museum,” and emulate the format. I was completely taken with it and thought that a fully oratorical style would allow me to embrace the grandiosity I was envisioning while not feeling so guilty about the exposition. I am no Robin Sloan, nor can I make claims to originality here, but the resulting structure was a joy to write.

Also, in the middle of this process, I got stuck. To push through, Niko encouraged me to revisit why I was interested in exploring zoos in the first place. Why that setting? What did I really want to tell people? To address these questions, I wrote a short non-fiction preface that I even considered appending to the fiction as a way to frame it. While I didn’t end up going in this direction, it was an enormously valuable exercise.

And here is my final draft.

  • The biggest changes I made to get here were to reinfuse some in-scene moments into the narrative, to trim down a lengthy section about malaria, and to more explicitly make linkages to why various parts of vaccine development would be challenging. It was the stage where I streamlined language, cut unnecessary sentences, and labored longer over word choice.

All told, there were around six versions with two more substantive revisions and lots of refining. It took me about 30 hours of research (the length of time spent reading books and articles, listening to podcasts, interviewing experts, and corresponding with people over email) and about 16 hours of focused writing. This, I prefer to do in longer bursts, as I find nothing more conducive to getting in the zone than uninterrupted time.

A Note on Psychic Noise

Another reason that writing is hard for me is that the truly good stuff feels like it requires a perfectly lucid and incandescent mind. This is a hard state to come by. My energy and circumstances fluctuate. At the onset of writing this piece, I found myself navigating a move to a new city, emotional upheaval from a relationship, and the usual fits and starts on the hedonic treadmill. This laid waste to my clarity and creativity.

For me, writing is inexorably linked to mood. And some moods are clearly not conducive to productivity. However, others influence writing in ways that make it, if not better, at least more interesting or reflective. When I first envisioned the piece, it was utopian—a world free of zoonotic and vector-borne diseases. Then, it darkened: Somewhere between the notes and the first full draft, the children protagonists were locked into the museum and unable to leave, implicated as humans are in the spread of zoonotic diseases.

In Nachdenken über Christa T., Christa Wulf writes that “writing makes things large.” I couldn't agree more. To this, I would add that it not only magnifies ideas, but affective experiences. Writing is an attempt at permanence. Some of these efforts do not work, and that is okay. The value and impact of other attempts are less clear, but all feel vulnerable and large.


Xander Balwit is a writer and founding editor at Asimov Press. On the rare occasions she isn’t reading, writing, or talking someone’s ear off, Xander can be found dancing or tracking down tropical fruit. If you want to get in touch to discuss writing, you can reach her at


  1. This was from the book “Under a White Sky,” which largely focused on climate interventions. While discussing large-scale tree-planting efforts, Kolbert writes: “Trees are dark, so if, say, tundra were converted to forest, it would increase the amount of energy being absorbed by the earth, thus contributing to global warming and defeating the purpose. One way around the problem might be to genetically engineer lighter-colored trees, using CRISPR. So far as I know, no one has proposed this, but it seems only a matter of time.” It was this last idea that I explored in my fiction.
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