Science and Fiction

I’m a scientist by training, and perhaps even by inclination.  I’ve always liked reading true-life stories, stories about things that actually happened.  Growing up, I read some fiction, but most of my reading–outside of the required reading of fiction in high school–was non-fiction, especially about science.  Sure, I read David Copperfield in high school, (who didn’t?), but it was books like Willy Ley’s Rockets, Missiles, and Spaceships and Wernher von Braun’s series (with other authors and the magnificent paintings of Chesley Bonnestell) of books about trips to the moon and Mars that I really devoured.  I followed the US space program long before the first Mercury astronaut ever set foot inside that tiny spaceship, and when I read fiction, it was more along the lines of Lassie and Black Beauty.  Then, when I went to college and graduate school, I got interested in microbiology, especially viruses and their ilk, and I spent over 40 years studying them and trying to understand why they did what they did.  I wrote scientific papers about them, and gave talks to innumerable groups about them.  All fabulously interesting and compelling, though not particularly lucrative.

Then, suddenly, out of a clear blue August sky, I got the idea for a novel.  Science fiction to be sure, but a novel nonetheless.  I’d never written a novel, and it’d been a long time since I read one.  So, I sat down at the computer and began to hack it out, and that’s when I found out I didn’t know the first thing about writing a novel.

Novel writing is almost diametrically opposite to that of writing scientific papers.  Scientific papers are notoriously boring, except to the few who are interested in what they have to say.  (Out of the hundreds of thousands of scientific papers published each month, I would be willing to bet that each one is read in a substantial way only by a few people.  Depending on the paper, maybe twenty or thirty, possibly a few more.)  Back when I first started reading them, the most prominent characteristic of a scientific paper was the use of the passive voice.  Instead of saying, “We treated the virus this way…” most authors wrote, “The virus was treated in the following manner.”   That’s changed nowadays, and scientific authors are using active voice more often.  I even did a few times.

Scientific papers do have one aspect in common with fiction: the author has to tell a story.  In scientific papers, you’re telling what you did, how you did it, why, and what it meant.  Each paper is a story in itself and it has to be complete in its own way.  Same for fiction, but the telling of the story is so much different.  Fiction is concerned with emotion, which is totally lacking in a scientific paper.  That meant I had to learn to write fiction from the very basic fundamentals, and it took a good ten years to do it.  I had to throw out the passive voice, and learn to put more emotion in my writing.  That didn’t come easily; I still slip into passive every now and then, and have to watch to make sure I’m giving the reader every opportunity to dwell within the mind of the point-of-view character.  Now that I’m retired, I devote full-time to writing fiction, and I’ve completed two novels and have a third one in the oven.  A few short stories round out my output so far (sorry, I can’t help reverting to science) but I think I’ve begun to master the art of fiction.  We’ll see.

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