Q: Can you tell us a bit about the experience of writing your first book, Dinosaur Wars?
A: A mixed experience. Both pleasure and pain. Novel writing is hard,especially if you want to take the time to get good at it. Even though I already had a Ph.D. in biochemistry when I started writing science fiction,nothing had prepared me for writing stories that had meaning and emotional depth for readers. Real science, written well or poorly, is pretty devoid of emotion and characters. Both of these things get in the way of scientific accuracy — but they are the very heart of good fiction. I had to unlearn some old habits and pick up quite a few new ones.
Q: What was the most challenging aspect of writing the story?
A: Like all authors, I’ve had my share of rejection by the publishing industry. Early on, it was justified I suppose, because I wasn’t that good a fiction writer. More recently, my problems with writing quality have disappeared, but I’ve been annoyed at the number of editors and agents who have basically said, “Dinosaurs — not my preference. Have you got anything else?” With Dinosaur Wars, I have always felt that the readers ought to be the choosers, and that they would like what I have written. But those who control the publishing industry are — well — I believe they are afraid to take a chance on anything that doesn’t fit their accustomed categories.
Q: How much science and how much fiction do you think there should be in SF and what is your relation to science?
A: Everybody has a different preference for more or less science with their fiction. I use my own background in genetic engineering to underlay my stories, but I don’t like to barrage the reader with a lot of technical detail. It’s enough to have hints of how things are done. For instance, the intelligent dinosaurs of Dinosaur Wars are created in glass vessels by cloning techniques — in my story, the dinosaurs cloned themselves,sixty-five million years ago, in contrast to Jurassic Park, where the cloning was left up to us. But other than some references to green liquids and DNA codes on computer chips, I don’t really dwell on it. If I did, the reader might lose track of more important story elements. For instance Gar the Kra,one of the dinosaurian leaders, falls in love with his mate Gana while they are still growing in the cloning tubes.
You can emphasize technology or you can emphasize characters and story. I tend to choose the latter.
Q: How has your background as a writer of scientific articles affected you rwriting style and/or habits?
A: As I suggested before, it was as much a hindrance as a help. Scientists,myself included, tend to write the most stodgy of prose — necessarily so.You can’t throw in a lot of emotion and wild ideas if you want to clearly state a scientific principle. Too much wordiness clouds the issue.
But when one is reading for fun, then those same things help to make the story more enjoyable.
So my style is continuing to evolve. I keep moving away from the highbrow intellectual jargon I used in my scientific articles and patents — by the way, I have several patents on new life forms created in the test tube!
Nowadays I try to use simpler language. This is not a matter of trying to appeal to a “dumber” audience. It’s an effort to state things simply inlanguage that people use in everyday life. I want to capture ideas in the sort of prose that really goes through people’s minds, not the fancy verbiage of an intellectual author.
Q: So many writers with unpublished manuscripts despair of ever getting that first book sale. What’s your advice to aspiring authors?
A: Two things. Keep on trying, and keep on getting better. There is nobody who writes so well that they can’t do better. Keep on training and keep on writing. It’s a skill that develops over time. I have taken some classes at the University of Washington covering fiction writing. They helped me much more than I thought they would when I signed up.
Meanwhile, keep on looking for editors or agents who will consider what you’ve got. Given enough time and persistence, you’ll make a sale.
Q: What plans do you have for the future?
A: I am about halfway through the sequel to Dinosaur Wars. For want of a better title I am calling it Dinosaur Wars II. I hope to come up with something more original soon. There may be as many as ten novels in the series if things work out. I also have on the backburner, another series about a medical researcher who is a modern Sherlock Holmes of the biotechnology industry. He goes around curing deadly disease outbreaks and solving mysterious poisonings, et cetera. It makes use of my background in medical research.
Q: What has the Internet meant for you as an author?
A: We shall see. I am counting on it in a big way. As I have already suggested, I think the traditional publishing industry has a choke-hold on creativity. Dinosaur Wars does not exactly fit their pigeonholes, so they were afraid to publish it. On the internet, it’s a person-to-person environment. Individuals matter more than corporate budgets. Using iUniverseas my publisher meant that I didn’t have to fit a particular editor’s preferences. iUniverse prints books one at a time using computer technology,so the only preference that matters is the reader’s. If one person decides they want to read my book, that one person orders one copy and that one copy is made-to-order and shipped to them.
This leaves the traditional publishing barriers behind. You no longer need to print books in lots of ten-thousand. That’s what gave the industry its control over authors and the books they write in the first place — the need for tens of thousands of dollars to get started. Now, with print-on-demand,it’s almost free to publish your book. Now, instead of an editor deciding who gets published, readers do the choosing, one at a time.
This is all very democratic, and I am a firm believer. Otherwise I never would have entrusted my first novel to the internet. I would have gone begging to the powers that be. They might have said, “Change this” or “Change that, or we won’t publish Dinosaur Wars.” It would have been a very different book then.
As it is, I am proud of the way it turned out. I didn’t have to remake it to relieve the fears of an editor.