(2001-02-12)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 Ialready had a Ph.D. in biochemistry when I started writing science fiction,nothing had prepared me for writing stories that had meaning and emotionaldepth for readers. Real science, written well or poorly, is pretty devoid ofemotion and characters. Both of these things get in the way of scientificaccuracy -- but they are the very heart of good fiction. I had to unlearnsome 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 publishingindustry. Early on, it was justified I suppose, because I wasn't that good afiction writer. More recently, my problems with writing quality havedisappeared, but I've been annoyed at the number of editors and agents whohave basically said, "Dinosaurs -- not my preference. Have you got anythingelse?" With Dinosaur Wars, I have always felt that the readers ought to bethe choosers, and that they would like what I have written. But those whocontrol the publishing industry are -- well -- I believe they are afraid totake 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 SFand what is your relation to science?
A: Everybody has a different preference for more or less science with theirfiction. I use my own background in genetic engineering to underlay mystories, but I don't like to barrage the reader with a lot of technicaldetail. It's enough to have hints of how things are done. For instance, theintelligent dinosaurs of Dinosaur Wars are created in glass vessels bycloning techniques -- in my story, the dinosaurs cloned themselves,sixty-five million years ago, in contrast to Jurassic Park, where the cloningwas left up to us. But other than some references to green liquids and DNAcodes on computer chips, I don't really dwell on it. If I did, the readermight 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 theyare still growing in the cloning tubes.
You can emphasize technology or you can emphasize characters and story. Itend to choose the latter.
Q: How has your background as a writer of scientific articles affected yourwriting 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 clearlystate a scientific principle. Too much wordiness clouds the issue.
But when one is reading for fun, then those same things help to make thestory more enjoyable.
So my style is continuing to evolve. I keep moving away from the highbrowintellectual jargon I used in my scientific articles and patents -- by theway, 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 toappeal 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 thesort of prose that really goes through people's minds, not the fancy verbiageof an intellectual author.
Q: So many writers with unpublished manuscripts despair of ever getting thatfirst book sale. What's your advice to aspiring authors?
A: Two things. Keep on trying, and keep on getting better. There is nobodywho writes so well that they can't do better. Keep on training and keep onwriting. It's a skill that develops over time. I have taken some classes atthe University of Washington covering fiction writing. They helped me muchmore than I thought they would when I signed up.
Meanwhile, keep on looking for editors or agents who will consider whatyou'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 abetter title I am calling it Dinosaur Wars II. I hope to come up withsomething more original soon. There may be as many as ten novels in theseries if things work out. I also have on the backburner, another seriesabout a medical researcher who is a modern Sherlock Holmes of thebiotechnology industry. He goes around curing deadly disease outbreaks andsolving mysterious poisonings, et cetera. It makes use of my background inmedical 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 alreadysuggested, I think the traditional publishing industry has a choke-hold oncreativity. Dinosaur Wars does not exactly fit their pigeonholes, so theywere 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'spreferences. iUniverse prints books one at a time using computer technology,so the only preference that matters is the reader's. If one person decidesthey want to read my book, that one person orders one copy and that one copyis made-to-order and shipped to them.
This leaves the traditional publishing barriers behind. You no longer needto print books in lots of ten-thousand. That's what gave the industry itscontrol over authors and the books they write in the first place -- the needfor 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 whogets published, readers do the choosing, one at a time.
This is all very democratic, and I am a firm believer. Otherwise I neverwould have entrusted my first novel to the internet. I would have gonebegging to the powers that be. They might have said, "Change this" or "Changethat, or we won't publish Dinosaur Wars." It would have been a very differentbook then.
As it is, I am proud of the way it turned out. I didn't have to remake itto relieve the fears of an editor.