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From the Canadian Science Writers' Association

The Art of Bringing Science to Fiction

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 just disappeared.

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 so far.

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 or issues.

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 alexbrett@sympatico.ca 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

For more information about the Canadian Science Writers' Association, please see their listing in this issue of Sources.



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