the Canadian Science Writers' Association
The Art of Bringing Science to
A Science Writer's Ramblings
By Alex Brett
I spent the morning on the top of Mauna Kea in Hawaii, traipsing
around a God-forsaken observatory with my buddy Morgan O'Brien,
an investigator specialized in research fraud. It was no tropical
vacation. The wind ripped across the summit, the dome was Arctic
cold, and the first symptoms of altitude sickness -- nausea and
a brutal headache -- had just set in. To compound our problems,
no one in the observatory would talk to us despite the fact that
one astronomer was dead -- possibly murdered -- and another had
So what's a nice science writer like me doing in a place like this?
Or more precisely, what's a nice science writer like me doing writing
stuff like this, since the above scene happened entirely in my head.
In May of 2003, the Dundurn Group in Toronto published my first
Morgan O'Brien mystery, Dead Water Creek. After a life of
working in labs or writing about them, the novel was my first serious
attempt at fiction, and the road from science writer to fiction
writer was not a Sunday drive. I did, though, learn several things
along the way, so for all of you science writers secretly percolating
a novel in the recesses of your minds, this is what I've discovered
1) Science makes good fiction.
Science is abundant in the essential elements of fiction. It is
competitive, both for funding and publication. It attracts independent,
intelligent, idiosyncratic people, and then teaches them that what
they do holds the key to 'truth'. This gives you, as a writer, powerful
characters driven by powerful motives. Add to this that science
is almost completely self-regulating, so open to abuse. That's a
heady mixture to work with, and one that few writers without some
background in science are willing to explore.
2) Fiction is about people; not plots, technology, information
When I started the Morgan O'Brien series I had issues I wanted to
tackle, statements I wanted to make, but I ran into a problem. The
characters refused to behave. They had their own agenda, driven
by who they were and what they wanted, and I had no choice but to
let them play it their way. Yes, I could have forced them to spew
statements, to take noble action on various issues, but I would
have produced a boring book, and readers would have responded appropriately
by throwing it in the trash.
3) Fiction is bloody difficult to write.
Many of your skills as a science writer can be transferred directly
to fiction: the ability to structure information, present it creatively,
and use concise and effective language. But there is one crucial
difference. In science writing we begin with fact -- concrete and
immutable -- to construct a compelling story. In fiction, we fabricate
fact. So rather than building on a solid foundation, we begin with
something that is essentially plastic, and has an annoying habit
of changing, even crumbling, in the middle of a story, particularly
if some of the other pieces you fabricated didn't quite fit. For
someone used to a solid foundation it can be very disconcerting.
4) Not everyone shares my enthusiasm for science.
Most of the people in literary publishing -- editors, agents, and
publishers -- come from a background in the arts. Many worked hard
at university to avoid taking even a single course in science. This
doesn't bode well for our future. There are, however, exceptions,
and you have to find them. Once you do, they have an immediate attraction
to your work simply because of the science content. It's a foot
in the door. The trick is finding the door.
5) Persistence pays (although not in cash).
Dead Water Creek was written over a period of about two years,
interspersed with freelance projects. It then took two years to
find an agent, and another two years to find a publisher. Patience
is a virtue in the world of fiction. A vow of poverty also helps.
Writers of mystery series tell me that you can't hope to get out
of the red until you have 5 or more books on the shelf. Of course,
science writing is only marginally better.
6) Rejection is my middle name.
As a science freelancer, I was well suited to deal with rejection,
but I found that rejection wasn't the primary problem. In fiction
publishing in Canada, your biggest 'challenge' will be to get the
manuscript read (see #4). A first novel in a science setting? Well
that sounds unsaleable! When the manuscript is finally read, you
can count on numerous rejections, sometimes after tantalizing waits
of six months, ten months, two years. So how do you deal with rejection?
I celebrated each one with a bottle of cheap champagne. It was hard
on the liver but good for the morale.
7) Publishing is a crapshoot.
Rejection is a fundamental part of the publishing process. Writers
often say that it hones your talent. I don't agree. I rarely got
any useful rejections, other than 'No' scrawled across a post-it
note and slapped on the query. What I did learn, though, was that
publishing is a game of chance. Rejection doesn't mean you've written
tripe. It doesn't mean you're a sub-species of writer. It means
that that particular editor doesn't like science, is allergic to
fish (Dead Water Creek is about salmon), or just slotted
a science mystery into their schedule the day before your manuscript
arrived. It's not all about you. Unlike dice, though, the probabilities
in this game are not independent. The more you send out the query,
the greater your chance of it landing in the hands of that elusive
agent/editor who really loves science. Remember, you're not looking
for an editor or agent, you're looking for the right
editor or agent.
8) Find others like yourself, then go forth and multiply.
Writing is a lonely business. As science writers we're used to that.
In fiction writing, though, timelines are long and rejections are
capricious. The only way to stay sane is to laugh your head off
at the whole darn mess, and the best way to do this is with others
like you. The fact that you belong to CSWA is a good sign. For fiction
there are numerous national and community groups specializing in
different genres and styles. Seek them out, make contact, attend
meetings, then whine. It's the only way to make it through.
9) The reward is in the journey, not the destination.
Somewhere into year six I hit the wall. Dead Water Creek,
I decided, would never be published. Worse still, I faced the reality
that I might never publish a word of fiction. I moped around the
house for a week. Should I file my experience under 'F' for failure?
Hang up Morgan O'Brien and simply walk away? Then I had a revelation.
(Champagne may have been involved.) It didn't matter if my fiction
never saw the light beyond family and friends. I had to do it whether
I wanted to or not. It was just too much fun to consider giving
up. Two months later Dundurn made me an offer.
10) Try this at home, kids.
So for those of you with the fiction addiction, by all means try
this at home. If you want to write fiction more than anything else
in life then clear the decks, make no more excuses, and get the
thing done. But a word of warning. Writing fiction in Canada is
a long and perilous road with an uncertain destination. If there's
anything else you want more in life (for example a new car, stable
relationships, a pension plan or a steady income) then hang on to
that day job.
Now you'll have to excuse me. Mauna Kea awaits.
Alex Brett can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or through
her Web site at www.alexbrett.com . She would be happy to talk to
fellow CSWA members afflicted with the fiction addiction.
© 2003 Alexandra Brett
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