NOTICE: Posting schedule is irregular. I hope to get back to a regular schedule as the day-job allows.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Why I write... [Full link to blog for email clients.][FT:C44]

[This post starts some interim special content for the blog while I am off preparing several grant funding applications.  The next 5 posts will be an original serialized short story "Blood Science" - a tongue-in-cheek look at a scientist trying to write Science Fiction and Fantasy from a logical perspective.  See the "Coming Soon" tab above for more on the upcoming schedule, including the return to The Lab Rats Guide to the Brain.]

I am a scientist. In a very real way I write for a living. My Curriculum Vitae lists over 75 papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals, over 10 chapters in books, and hundreds of meeting abstracts and presentations. I have written more than 30 research grant applications – about half have been funded, requiring annual or even quarterly progress reports. Each journal article runs to about 15,000 words, book chapters to 20-25,000, grant applications and progress reports are only between 5,000-10,000 words each. If all of these were converted to short stories or novels, I would have "sold" around 15-20 books-worth of material and been ranked among the more prolific fiction writers by this point in my career, and spent more time "on stage" than most movie stars (or TV, maybe, but it doesn't approach theater and stage appearance).

Scientific writing takes a lot of time. The fiction writers I know spend a lot of time either researching or "ideating" to get the story right in their head, then sit down and pound out 10-15,000 words in a long weekend. Granted, they usually have a target of 120,000 words for a novel and typically cannot keep up that pace until completion; six months for a good draft seems typical. For me to perform the work necessary for a 15,000 word journal article takes *at least* 6 months. First the experiments are run – mostly by my technical staff, but I am involved in all of the planning and analysis – then the data is analyzed, charted and graphed, statistics calculated, and I can start to write. I can get 15,000 words written in a week if I have no other duties, but the work of a professor usually doesn't allow that. I have to do most of my writing late at night, when the house is quiet and I am the only one awake. Then comes the editing and re-writing as I pass the manuscript over to a colleague who will approach it from a different perspective. Meanwhile I remake figures, and run new analyses since I usually realize that the results are incomplete, but I didn't realize it until I tried to write them. Meanwhile I am also reading recent papers by scientists in related fields so that I can cite the appropriate comparisons to existing scientific literature when I finish writing the discussion of the paper. So, six months is optimistic; the more appropriate comparison is 6 months to perform experiments, 2 months to analyze, 4 months to write and edit the manuscript. *If* it is accepted to a scientific journal without the need for extensive changes, I will not see it in print for a year or more!

Yes, this is very much like the life of a fiction writer, and it's my day job. SO, why is it that I find myself wanting to write Science Fiction?

Well, part of it is because I *read* Science Fiction, and quite often despair over the misuse of science in books, TV and movies. Dr. Travis Taylor says he started writing because he complained loudly about books and TV that were poorly written, and claimed that he could write better. His wife told him to "put up or shut up." Five solo novels and six collaborations later, "Doc Travis" is a respected SF writer.

Do I think I could do that? Well, no, frankly, for all I know, Doc doesn't sleep. I do not have that much time in my day; and as I have written elsewhere, my mind can either write science, or fiction. I find myself unable to alternate my writing between professional and recreational topics. Once I get an idea for what *I* think would be a good story, I have to clear time to put aside my professional writing and finish the story. Otherwise, I have to stop the story in mid-thought, so to speak, and will have trouble picking it up later.
Don't get me wrong, I *do* have story ideas. I have 5 novel-length stories blocked and outlined, I have even written about 20,000 words each in two of them. I have 5 short stories and 2 novelettes written and ready for submission, five more in various states of completion, and a nonfiction book nearing completion. It's just that I understand that I may never complete the long-form fiction before I retire from the day job. I read the words of advice of authors – I know not to give up the day job for the insecurity of a fiction writing career. I know that for my own purposes, I need a secure base and plenty of time before I can devote the effort that I know it will take to be able to write at the professional SF/F level – let alone be able to *sell* any of these pieces.

But I *am* a writer. I am published. My record is pretty good even within my field. So why do I feel a need to write? Perhaps it is because I am a teacher. I have taught preschool age kids in Sunday school, elementary through high-school as a substitute teacher, college undergraduate & graduate laboratory as a graduate student, and medical and graduate students as a professor. I don't teach much now, but I enjoy it – not always, I had to *learn* how to teach – but I enjoy it when I can. As the first in my family to earn a degree in a medical field, I have been called on as "interpreter" to explain what the doctor said to all members of my extended family. I am asked questions by writers to explain some aspect of science and/or medicine in a way that makes it easy to fit into a story. Then there's that little bit about despairing that writers and Hollywood will ever get brain science right. My compromise between the science-writing and fiction-writing halves of my brain is a blog, and eventual book, which explains brain science in layman's terms.

And again – why write SF? Perhaps the best, the most important reason, is that I tell stories. When I teach, I tell a story that seeks to lead young minds to understanding and knowledge. When I write science, I tell a story of mystery, detective work, and discovery. When my children were very young, my wife and I read and sang to them every night. When their grandparents visited, they also joined the routine. My mother-in-law sang children's songs, my father-in-law had a wonderful style of recitation for classic poetry, my mother snuggled and sang and read – but my father told *stories*! Not experience or personal events – no, my father made up stories on the spot, and the kids were riveted. My Dad could make *any* simple topic into a fantastic adventure. *He* is a storyteller, and I guess I inherited that from him.

So I write stories, and tell stories. It seems to be a common feature, that humans are natural storytellers – some get up on stage, others write it down, and some stories never make it out of the imagination. In ancient times, people made up stories about the constellations and patterns in the sky. Cave drawings tell a story, as does oral history. Science is a story, a story of how things work and in some cases, how we *want* them to work. Writing stories means I have to give up a few things to do so: a bit of family time, a bit of sleep, even reading more SF.

Do I think I can do it better? Not necessarily – but to quote Sinatra - I know I can do it "My Way."

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