Why I Don’t Write Novels about Scientists—and Why, If You Knew Them, You Probably Wouldn’t Either

doc-brown

People who know me are sometimes surprised that I don’t write about scientists. “A scientist would make a great character,” they tell me. “People are interested in scientists; they’re colorful; and you know all about them.”

Even without asking, I know the people who say this all really enjoyed the Back to the Future movies.

Heck, I enjoyed them myself; and the character of Dr. Emmett Brown did, in certain key ways, actually resemble some scientists I have known. Just dial Dr. Brown’s eccentricity and flamboyance waaaaaay back, preserve (or enhance) his single-mindedness and drive, increase the Brown family fortune that he spent up doing his research to at least twenty million dollars* (it took him—what? thirty years?—and doing research is very expensive), then load him up with a lot of teaching duties and administrative responsibilities and the fictional inventor of the time-traveling DeLorean would make a perfectly plausible researcher.

But—and this is the critical part—not a very good character in a movie, or book.

While it is true that a lot of scientists are a bit eccentric (some quite charmingly so), to be successful they have a lot of other traits that are the opposite of colorful. Doing research, as I mentioned, is expensive and most real scientists don’t have a family fortune to spend. Therefore, they must secure grants, which requires, not flamboyance, but an organized and linear thinker who can marshal past research successes, the present research status, and a coherent three-to-five-year plan for advancing the field into a forty-page document that will convince a panel of competing researchers and at least one cold-hearted government agency that any large chunks of money they throw his way will be well spent. I’ve known researchers who sported flying hair and flapping lab-coats à la Dr. Emmett Brown, and even ones who, like Einstein, eschewed socks. But believe me, when it comes to getting funding, they are as practical and business-like as any CEO, and just as uptight.

And then, if Dr. Brown is a scientist, then why isn’t Marty McFly more educated about time travel? Hang around scientists for long (five minutes) and what you find is that they can’t stop talking about what they do. They’re used to talking about their research, because that’s a huge part of their job; and since they mostly talk to other researchers who find what they say riveting, they’re used to thinking that everyone wants to hear all about it. Scientists teach everybody, all the time. Even scientists in research institutions who have no classes to teach still have to educate their graduate students and post-doctoral fellows; the public (funding again!); and—through seminars and symposia—their peers. Marty was Dr. Brown’s friend and didn’t know about the flux capacitor???? He’d have heard all about the flux capacitor nine million times!

In my experience your average scientist, far from being a wild-eyed loony, is much too serious, driven, single-minded, analytic, practical, deeply but not widely knowledgeable (there are exceptions), and naturally skeptical for me to want to write about.

Also—and this may be the real reason they don’t come up in my novels—despite all this practicality, etc. etc., an incredible number of them love the Three Stooges. I just don’t think my writing skills are up to making that seem believable.


*Question: Are we supposed to deduce that Dr. Brown burned down the family mansion to get the insurance on it to fund his research? Because this has been suggested to me by several people in a “duh! Of course he did” tone of voice when I totally did not see that at all. Not that don’t believe that there are real scientists—a few—who might do this if all their other funding sources ran out; I just didn’t see it.

Ant-Lands — Free for the Holidays!

banner09a

You’re probably bored by now, right?  Too much holiday cheer; too little time to yourself?  Here’s a thought:  Read a book.  My book.  In honor of the holidays, you can download a free copy of my post-apocalyptic novel, Ant-Lands, from now through January 10, 2017. Go to Smashwords and use this coupon code: ZJ72E

You may enjoy it. Let me know if you do.

Here’s the blurb on on Ant-lands.  Keep in mind that I HATE writing these things: Centuries after civilization was destroyed by genetically engineered workers called Ants, a small girl, victim of an Ant-raid, is rescued by a melancholic soldier; while in a town nearby, a schoolteacher struggles to build a new life. A horrifying revelation uncovers an unexpected bond between the three, which—provided they work together—may at last make it possible to defeat their common enemy.

And here is the first chapter:

on a night of no moon

A woman lay fully dressed on a straw-stuffed pallet on the floor of her hut in a tiny farming settlement and stared into the darkness of its single, dirt-floored room. Beside her, her small daughter was sleeping curled up like a kitten with her doll in her arms, but the mother lay rigidly alert to every soft night-sound. Life in the village of a dozen or so sod huts and barns was generally promising and secure. The early spring weather was pleasant and dry; the crops were greening the fields; and the Ants in the Ant-lands—as the woman reminded herself—were said to be going about their work nearly naked and wholly unshod.

This reassured her. Men who had nothing, having nothing to lose, might be driven by desperation to acts of aggression. But Ants judged that the time was right to make war on their neighbors when the harvests had been sufficient to feed workers to ret flax and weave linen for clothes, and cattle were plentiful enough that there were hides available to make shoes. A bare, hungry Ant worked passively all day in his colony’s fields, and Men in their own countries had nothing to fear from him.

The Ants were not insects, of course, despite their name. In fact, it was said that very long ago they had been man’s own creation, made to labor for him. Physically, they resembled man; though the Ancients had by some means no longer understood made every Ant entirely like every other one, so that all were identically short-statured, blue-eyed, and fair. But in that past age something had somehow gone desperately wrong; and man’s creation (made in his image), was now man’s feared enemy.

It was because the night was one of no moon that the woman was afraid. The watch in the watch-tower had been doubled, of course; but if one pair of eyes could make out nothing in the blackness, twice nothing was no improvement. In another hour or two, perhaps (she had no clock to tell her how many), the sun would rise and all would be well again. But while the dark persisted the mother lay without sleeping, and almost without breathing. She knew that the villagers were so few that their only hope in the event of an Ant-raid lay in the Ants finding them wide awake and forearmed.

A sound outside the shuttered window: A footstep. An early-rising neighbor? The woman sat up, and willed her heart to beat more softly so that she could hear. No second step followed the first, and she had lain down again and drawn a breath of relief when the unmistakable metallic whisper of a knife being drawn from a sheath brought her bolt upright again. More footsteps, a grunt, and the jostle of one body against another; and then a sound like heavy raindrops pelting to earth. When a head is struck from a body the heart does not immediately know to stop pumping, and blood spurts from the severed neck in a gory fountain. The sound was that of great gouts of a watchman’s blood falling from the watch-tower where the Ants had surprised him onto the ground below.

“Anne,” the woman whispered urgently, shaking the little girl awake. “Up, up.”

The child stumbled sleepily from the pallet. She knew instinctively not to speak.

Dragging the rough mattress aside, the woman felt for the hole dug in the earth beneath it.

Into her daughter’s ear she breathed softly, pushing her down into the cavity, “Here. Lie here: That’s right. Make yourself as small as you can.”

The child still clutched her doll. “Mama…” she whispered—just that one word.

Dawn was breaking at last—too late!—and mother and child could just see by it the gleam of one another’s eyes.

“Stay here, stay covered. No matter what happens, no matter what you hear, don’t move. All right? Not until you’re sure it’s safe.” But how would such a little one know? “I’ll come for you, if I can,” the woman whispered.

Another glint than her mother’s tear-bright eyes caught the little girl’s attention—that of the knife, a big one, in her mother’s hand.

The noises outside were growing louder and more frenzied. Gods! A child’s cry!

“Stay here, stay still; all right, Anne?”

The little girl nodded soberly.

A scrape at the door—

With a mother’s hungry eyes she devoured her child’s face one last time. “You must live,” she murmured, touching small Anne’s cheek. “You must try to live.”

The pallet in place again, the woman ran to the door and listened. She was waiting for the Ant who had tried it to move aside. She had already decided that she must not be taken inside the hut. She must get out somehow, clear of the door, and then run and run as hard as she could; and at last, when she was caught—she knew she would be caught—she must fight. Every step she ran led the Ants further from her child; every Ant that she tired by running was an Ant who would search the hut less carefully. And any Ant that she killed was an Ant who wouldn’t kill Anne.

In one swift movement, the woman threw aside the bar to the door and burst out.

She made it as far as the clearing surrounding the watch-tower, twenty steps or so from where her daughter lay shivering with fear, huddled in a hole in the ground with her doll in her arms. Eyes closed, the child kissed the doll’s face repeatedly, seeing in her mind as she did so her mother’s loved one—but she made not a sound. She was trying to live.

As she lay hugging her rag-baby, an Ant whose feet were bare and who wore only the ragged remains of what had once been a roughly-sewn shirt caught her mother by her long hair and flung her to the ground, and her mother, making good on her promise to herself, sprang up again slashing wildly with her knife.

She was not, in the end, able absolutely to kill the Ant. His own comrades performed that service for her later when the injuries she had inflicted festered, and he could no longer keep up with the common pace back to the Ant-lands. She fought him until another Ant, coming behind her, struck off her head with his great iron sword.

As soon as he had done so, both Ants immediately lost all interest in the woman. A dead Man was neither a threat nor plunder. As her body fell, Anne’s mother’s head rolled a little way, to the feet of another Ant. He kicked it casually aside.

Yesterday’s Future

future-kitchen03

After attempting a few books (well, first chapters of books, actually) about non-human races and societies, I’ve decided that genre’s not for me. I love writing for the chance it gives me to throw off the constraints of reality and flat-out make stuff up; but, as turns out, there are limits to just how unconstrained I want to be. After just a few pages of having to make everything up—the psychologies of the individual beings; the sociological parameters of their culture; the biology of my non-human creatures, and whether they had mommies and hearts and fingers and if they did, how many of each; and, most of all, whether any of it actually needed to be in the book—I was exhausted.

So I decided to go back to writing about humans again—not my very favorite species, but one with which I am at least somewhat familiar—and mess around with my projected book’s temporal setting instead. I decided I’d send my characters to live in one of those predicted futures that somehow never came, and see what they would do.

There are hundreds of these “futures” to choose from, of course. The one of my young years was mostly a post-nuclear moonscape in which the mutated remnants of humanity fought each other for scraps, but that would be depressing to write about. I decided instead to appropriate the “world of tomorrow” that giant corporations like GE and Ford were selling to the American public in the two decades after World War II. It’s consistent and well-documented; and it’s also the vision of the future that probably most influenced the generation just before mine; a generation whose values and beliefs—as I was recently sharply reminded—I have never understood.

—Also I picked Giant American Corporation Future because I thought it would be easy to research. All I’d have to do was watch a few of the many, many short films Corporate America produced to promote merchandise they did not yet manufacture* (!) and I’d be ready to go. I remember watching these films on rainy days at school in the 1960s, when my teachers, at least, thought the “tomorrow” they depicted, though delayed, might still on the way.

I think my personal favorite was the one in which, after making herself comfy in bed, a modestly night-gowned young lady pushed a button (everything was done by pushing a button) and the head of her bed slid through a suddenly-appearing portal in the wall, half-way out into the— The what? The back-yard? The alley the garbage-truck was going to trundle down early next morning? A void in the air twenty floors above Manhattan? The idea was that you could sleep breathing God’s fresh air; but did the engineers who conceived this marvel never hear of smog; stray cats; sleepwalkers? Despite unanswered questions like this one, I enjoyed the first half-dozen flickers (all except Wink Martindale as an astrophysicist, which I found highly unconvincing); and then I began to feel very sad. It wasn’t appliances these little movies were selling, it was a bill of goods.

The Future of these films was very, very clean; and all the wives (no women but wives appeared) were submissive and content. When not pushing buttons, they entertained the bridge club. Children were scrubbed and happy; all men were gainfully employed and played golf. Culture was entirely homogeneous—core values; music; fashion; everything. By the 1960s, a few African Americans had begun to appear in them, but any implied threat was neutralized by carefully pairing every black male with a black female. There were no Asians. Presumably they all lived in Asia. Hispanics lived in—Mexico City. Where there were nice golf-courses. Everything was peaceful (no nuclear moonscapes here, folks!); uniform; and, from my point of view, very boring.

And all this cultural homogeneity was made possible through the miracle of technology! According to the films, technology was going to solve everything. Every need was met, every disease cured by the push of a button. An automatic dishwasher would cure Mother’s restless striving to have something meaningful in her life; and technological Plenty meant that there would be enough of everything even for “Those People” (you know the ones); who would, under the influence of this Plenty, become happy, non-threatening replicas of “Us”. All of Middle America’s worst fears, in fact, would (according to the films produced by Corporate America) be met and conquered by technology. All without a shot being fired; and all, the films implied, by the year 1999.

My own generation was too despairing about the future (moonscape!), which was bad—but at least it means that we have been happily surprised all through our lives to find ourselves not only still not bombed to radioactive atoms, but living to grow old. In contrast, those members of the generation before mine who believed in Corporate America’s vision of the future have suffered disappointment after disappointment as knotty social problems were not, in fact, solved with better household appliances.

And if they passed their exaggerated hopes and outsized disappointments along to their children—and one assumes many did—it might explain a few things about recent history.


*(Whirlpool is still trying to predict the “Kitchen of the Future“, by the way.)

Welcome to My World That I Just Made Up

crowd-woman

I made up a new maxim. It is, “Those who don’t learn from the mistakes they make in picking what kind of book to write are condemned to keep writing the same kind of book.” It’s not very catchy, it’s grammatically a little obscure, and it probably won’t catch on generally; but I hope that pinning it up over my desk and looking at it every day will stop me from making another literary foray into applied sociology.

Like most writers, I think, one of the reasons I started writing stories in the first place is because I’m interested in human psychology. I try to figure out the answers to my questions about how people’s minds work by making up characters and moving them through the various life situations that constitute my plot. But outside of people, my greatest love is history, and I keep seeking insights into history by creating whole societies, and moving them through the various historical situations that constitute my plot. For me at least, this is really tough.

In my experience, it’s relatively easy to write an original—and yet believable—character, because individual personalities vary so much. Any being with opposable thumbs is plausibly human. Ever known a Heathcliff or a Cathy? Me neither—but I’m perfectly able to believe they might exist. And to write an original society is pretty easy, too—but not to make it convincingly stable, or lasting.

This is because societies are like dogs. Breeders can work hard and create animals as different as Great Danes and Chihuahuas; but let them relax their vigilance and in a few generations they find themselves with a bunch of very similar medium-sized, flop-eared, saber-tailed mutts. (–Nothing against mutts, by the way. Mutts are my favorite breed.)

Similarly, put a bunch of humans together, and however they initially conceive their society, eventually they evolve one that has similar rules; norms; authority groups; social, familial and religious structures and institutions; and exhibit the same degrees of cooperation and conflict as every other human society.

I won’t say that I’m a contrarian, but the fact that this homogenization is so general annoys me. So I keep writing fantasies in which the characters are human, but the societies they have evolved are different. Then I spend the whole book trying to figure out why, and how to keep them that way.

It’s hard work. I’m crazy to do it. One of the societies in Ant-lands was a bit on the utopian side, and what with all the extra research I had to do on how utopias are created (and why they never last long), the damn book took me at least an extra year to write. And now I’m writing about the first encounters between different societies, and researching how long, in general, it takes people to realize how superficial their differences, and how deep and innate their similarities are. Do you realize how many books have been written on this topic? And I have to read a bunch of them.

Hence the un-catchy little aphorism pinned up over my desk. If I read it daily and take it to heart, my next protagonist will be a loner, an outcast from all societies. –And not the kind of loner who goes around making friends with the little woodland creatures, either. It wouldn’t be an improvement for me to have to research woodland creatures.

I’m Casting My Vote for Better Characters

startrek01

I know I’m not the first to observe that the current campaign for president is the most polarizing and divisive in memory; but I may be the first to find a good use for the fact that it is. I’ve decided that it will make me a better writer if I keep reminding myself that supporters of the candidate I don’t plan to vote for (and never mind which one that is) live in the same country I do, eat the same food, watch the same television, speak the same language, and are presumably cognizant of the same facts as I am, and yet hold completely different opinions and support completely different policies from me. Completely different. In fact, this election cycle has made me realize the degree to which I previously underestimated how much people can have in common and still end up in some ways totally unalike.

Sometimes when I write, I forget this. I put in characters who are “different” from the ones with which I personally identify, but I make them villains, or damaged in some way—even crazy. Or I don’t put characters like that in at all. I write exclusively about people who are like me. This election cycle, stressful though it has been, has at least been useful for reminding me that I personally do not define what is rightly human, and should include other kinds of people among my characters.

Otherwise, I’ll just end up writing another Looking Backward.

…And speaking of Looking Backward—which I’d rather do, because it’s a much more fun topic than the election—did anyone else have the same reaction to it as I did, that it was meant as a post-apocalyptic thriller?

No one warned me ahead of time that the book’s utopian future (the year 2000;  Looking Backward was written in 1888) was intended to be taken seriously. I kept waiting for the protagonist, the time-traveling Julian West, to realize that the citizens of the future he’d stumbled into were just waaaaaaay too content with their creepily bland and uniform culture. I waited for him to react with mounting horror to the growing realization that it was unnatural for everyone in this brave new world to be perfectly satisfied with a life spent doing nothing more exciting than listening to music (albeit right in their own houses, on their “telephonic devices”—Bellamy was a much better futurist than novelist); and never minding that the music they listened to was always someone else’s choice; or bragging to a stranger that they could eat all their meals “in any public kitchen they chose,” without ever wishing that they could select their own menu. Were all the citizens really so peacefully inclined that no one ever even wanted to watch a prize-fight, WrestleMania, or a hockey game?

And what was with the eerie degree of satisfaction the women—who were supposed to enjoy equal opportunities with men, by the way—derived from being able to buy any kind of fabric they wanted at one store? I’ve shopped for fabric. Even with a great selection, it’s not that fun. And furthermore, why were they shopping for fabric at all when Bellamy eventually reveals that in actual fact, clothing in this paradise is made of sturdy paper, to be discarded when soiled?

—Okay, the part about the paper clothes was actually in Equality, the sequel to Looking Backward—but that’s all right, because my point is that all the characters in both books were all identical to each other in outlook and attitudes*, and I mustn’t do that when I write. The guy on my street, the one with the sign for that other candidate for president, is a pretty nice fellow, really; and in a non-election year, I actually like him. I must try to remember to put people like him—not insane, and not evil—in my next book.

In the meantime, here’s an article on the subject of election-season stress that concludes with the useful recommendation to cope with anxiety by cuddling a puppy. Go visit your local Humane Society. They have puppies who will gladly exchange cuddles for calm with you.


*That is, they’re identical to each other except for a misguided few—briefly alluded to—who persist in committing unspecified “crimes.” Crime in the never-never land of Looking Backward is a “medical disorder,” and treated as such. Don’t eat the food in the public kitchens, Julian West! The public kitchens are obvious delivery-points for whatever substance the citizens are being secretly dosed with to engender all that exaggerated “calm.”

Me & You & Mary Sue

I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that how to write must be one of the most difficult things in the world to learn in a classroom setting.  —At least, I never learned anything about writing that way, and I went to school for many more years than the law actually requires, and took a lot of writing classes.  To their credit, quite a few of my writing teachers admitted this.  “The only way to learn to write is to do it,” they’d say.  And if they’d been more honest, they would have added, “But just in case some really pointed and brutal criticism of your efforts is also helpful, I’m going to give you a lot of that, too.”

This was bad while I was in school, since it amounted to me paying large amounts of money to hear my writing disparaged to my face; but it’s been great since I graduated.  Whereas I not only ceased to learn any more mathematics once I got out of the classroom, but actually forgot everything I ever knew including how to calculate a tip in a restaurant, my writing has gradually, steadily, improved.  In school, I wrote every day, and I have continued to write almost every day since; but I only do math when I have to.

People who generally prefer math—e.g., everybody I live and work with—tell me they want to improve their writing, too, but are stopped by the fact that, unlike with mathematics, there aren’t any books full of problems for them to practice on.  They would write, they tell me, if they only knew what to write about. They seem to view plots as analogous to equations, and want a page of them to solve.

There’s something in that viewpoint, I guess.

I admit that I don’t really understand why they can’t come up with as many plots as they want all by themselves, though.  As far as I’m concerned, plots are the easiest thing in the world.  When all I want is some practice writing, I just rewrite scenes from my life—a short-cut that provides me with not only a plot, but also a protagonist and a setting, all ready-made.  Then I can get straight into the much-harder work of describing them.

At first in retelling a story, I frequently succumbed to the temptation to turn myself into a species of Mary Sue*.  There’s nothing wrong with “improving” on reality a little, I guess; but I got bored with being a hero all the time, and now I actually appreciate how my occasional social ineptitude provides me with many excellent opportunities to portray humiliation (self-inflicted), and regret instead.  (Life supplies plenty of material for scenes of hurt and loss without any help from me.)

And it’s therapeutic, too.  I don’t know for sure, but I doubt I would ever say the same about working a partial differential equation.


*For any who don’t already know it, a Mary Sue (as defined by Wikipedia) is “an idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through unrealistic abilities. Often this character is recognized as an author insert or wish-fulfillment.”  If you have written a novel in which the protagonist is just like you, only better in every way, you have written a Mary Sue.  Enjoy your work—but do not share it.  Especially do not share it with me.

Writing in the First Person

me

I’m deep into writing another book—a sequel to Ant-Lands.  This is by popular request.  “Honey, write a sequel to Ant-Lands,” was a popular request of my husband’s.  I don’t usually read sequels myself, having formed an unfavorable opinion of them when I was six years old and wasted a week of my young life on the insipid Heidi Grows Up; but I feel like I owe my husband something for being my most faithful and supportive reader.  He once compared my work favorably to that of Joseph Conrad, his own preferred author, and though I don’t believe for a moment that he really thinks I’m in Conrad’s class, the memory of his heroic attempt to sound sincere when he said it is something I will always treasure.

Just to make a change from Ant-Lands, which was written in the third person, I’m writing the sequel in the first person.  I admit to feeling a certain hesitance about this—not because I don’t like writing in the first person (witness this blog), but because I’m haunted by a remark from a friend concerning the first-person point of view.

Her name was Julie, and Julie had given up reading a novel written in the first person because, she reported, it confused her.  She said, “The book kept saying, ‘I did this; and then I did that’; and I kept thinking, ‘no I didn’t!’”

Now, I have never had this problem.  In the same circumstances, if my brain says anything, it says, “Yeah, I totally did do that, and lots more!”; but are there many Julies out there?  By writing in the first person, am I taking a chance on limiting my future sales?

Julie and I are eager to hear from anyone who has more information on this important topic.