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Essay

Combining fiction and science

My hot ticket to publication (not)

James Aach 18 February 2006

www.lablit.com/article/83

B-list: novels containing science face an uphill battle

You may be the Shakespeare of peer-reviewed journals, but that’s no guarantee of success in the fiction game

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

I’d been in the American nuclear power industry for a few years, and like everyone else involved with that beloved energy sector, I was acutely aware that its portrayal in books, films, TV and magazines wasn’t close to reality. This discrepancy held true regardless of whether I was watching an atomic death movie or reading an article on nuclear energy. Since the public clearly had a strong interest in the topic, and I had a strong interest in writing – why not offer up an insider’s view of our fascinating atomic machines? It would be glorious.

For reasons of politics and public reaction, it was clear to me from the beginning I would need to go the fiction route if I really wanted to give a clear picture of how the energy from fissioning atoms end up as electricity on the power grid. Fiction would also allow me to describe an accident in more vivid detail than through a dry "what if?" discussion combined with a series of illuminating bar charts. At the time I was cooking up this brilliant plan, techno-thrillers were all the rage in the book world as a way to both entertain and to teach about science and technology (remember The Hunt for Red October and Jurassic Park?).

Over the course of a few years I wrote a novel and christened it Rad Decision. Unfortunately, my work didn’t then burst onto the national scene – in fact, there was a distinct lack of enthusiasm towards the project within the publishing industry. Even with some prominent scientists, successful novelists and non-fiction writers allowing me to note their interest and support, my query letters seemed to bounce back like handballs.

So now, in the best tradition of scientific inquiry, I ask "Why?"

Here, dear readers, with all the discomfort, indifference and additional discomfort, is the story of my publication adventures with the novel Rad Decision, the first insider techno-thriller novel of American nuclear power. Along the way, I’ll relate my thoughts on publishing science-related fiction, and some painful lessons I have learned that may benefit those seeking to combine science/technology and fiction. Finally, I’ll present my own theories on why Rad Decision remains only a pile of magnetic flux in a hard drive and not a leather-bound first edition (although it’s available for all to read online – see below for more details).

A few years after my first burst of inspiration, I had a completed novel but still no agent or publisher. I’d had multiple rejections and had gone through a lot of soul-searching. What had I learned?

Let’s look first at a few simple, generic lessons regarding publishing fiction about science and technology.

MY GENERIC LESSONS FOR NEW WRITERS OF FICTION FEATURING SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY:

1. Fiction writing is a whole different world from non-fiction writing. You may be the Shakespeare of peer-reviewed journals, but that’s no guarantee of success in the fiction game. From my own experience, I’d say fiction is a lot harder to begin with – because the audience has a much greater expectation of being entertained and moved by a novel than they do by a report on the molluscs of Cape Cod. You not only have to line up the facts straight, you then have to smother them in delicious cocktail sauce.

2. Fiction is about characters – usually human beings. There’s just no way around that. (I looked.) A work of fiction can have useful science thrown in, but if the reader doesn’t care about the characters in some way, you’ll lose them quickly. (Yes, you can have a robot or a lab mouse as a central character – as long as it has feelings.)

3. Dialogue is hard. It’s a real art form – and a real chance for any writer to look very, very bad.

4. People interested in writing are already better than the average person at producing fiction. That’s the good news. But "publishable" means far, far better than that. That’s the bad news. The best of one’s writing has to be mighty impressive and interesting very quickly, or the reader will go somewhere else. (There are always exceptions, but ignore them. They are exceptions.)

For me personally, I’d say the first two painfully constructed drafts of Rad Decision that I eagerly sent off to agents/publishers were worthy of a sound rejection. I hadn’t produced a good telling of a compelling story. Then it came to me, like mould to a Petri dish: seeking improvement is the mark of a true craftsman (or woman). And fiction writing is a craft. So I attended classes and got critiqued by people who knew writing. I hired a good, high-priced freelance editor to read the whole novel and figuratively beat me about the head and shoulders (several times) until I learned to comfortably deal with dialogue and character development. (Note: the price for actually beating me about the head and shoulders was even higher.)

To summarise these initial lessons – fiction writing is hard (and harder than most believe) but a writer can get much better at it if they work on the craft.

So that’s the early period of frustration that I’m sure I share with almost every writer (except the over-night successes, who are, of course, undeserving of their fame).

Let’s jump ahead a few years. I now feel like I’m on the far side of the fiction writing learning curve, though you never get to the end of it. I believe I’ve got a good product on a topic of public interest, in a popular format: a techno-thriller of the American nuclear power industry, viewed from the inside. I’ve also lined up some notable backers. Yet, my new pile of rejection letters look remarkably like the last batch. Why can’t I get this novel published?

What other reasons might there be for my book to be absent from the retail shelves? I’ll now try to peer through the bitterness to make some educated guesses. Of course, the obvious answer is that it’s no good or unmarketable. But my online readers seem to like it, so let’s pretend it meets some reasonable standard of quality.

While I have many form letters I will always cherish, my actual contacts with human beings on the other side of the publishing divide is rather limited. For obvious reasons, publishers and agents don’t care to waste their time with authors they’ve already rejected. I have been fortunate enough to have had a few exchanges with agents, and a few other contacts with published writers have also helped throw some light on my failure. I’ve also been a keen observer of the book market these past few years. So I’ve got some ideas why I’m stuck in not-published mode – but no solid proof. (Of course, had the perfect agent called me at the beginning of this process, I wouldn’t be writing this now. I’m expecting them to call tomorrow. Please.)

Below are my best guesses as to why Rad Decision, the insider techno-thriller of nuclear power, has not been published. But before diving into the trough of my deep experience, here’s some real basics to get out of the way:

OBVIOUS WAYS TO GET A NOVEL PUBLISHED (that I avoided):

1. Be famous. For anything.

2. If you can’t manage being remarkably famous, at least be well-known, even if you’re not mobbed at restaurants.

3. If you can’t do the first two, at least have some kind of published track record in fiction, for example in the short-story genre.

Of course, if you meet any of the above criteria, you aren’t reading this anyway. (And if you are by mistake, please invite me to one of your fancy cocktail parties.) So let’s move on to the stuff more applicable to the struggle of seeking to publish fiction about science and technology.

MY BEST GUESSES AS TO WHY REALISTIC SCIENTIFIC AND TECHNOLOGICAL FICTION IS NOT ALL THAT POPULAR IN THE PUBLISHING WORLD

First, publishing is a business. Agents and book producers in general are not independently wealthy souls out to do public good, but instead human beings trying to scrounge up a living and live out their sordid little lives like the rest of us. Fiction is mostly about entertainment, and the book people have a keen sense of this (and perhaps a better idea of what sells than I do).

Next, understand that fiction and non-fiction publishing are two entirely different worlds in the publishing game. Comic books and textbooks are no farther apart, really. Agents and publishers often work in fiction or non-fiction exclusively. So the agent/publisher of a great popular science book is unlikely to even consider fiction, no matter what it is. This includes academic publishers, who do lots of science, but have fiction departments that generally concentrate on regional story-telling or obscure translated works.

Now for some specifics about why you don’t find much science and technology in fiction:

1. Agents and publishers are looking for general market fiction works, not something that will only give the other lab workers a chuckle – it’s volume, volume, volume in the publishing game. While a non-fiction work selling a few thousand copies might be acceptable, for fiction, it’s best to add another zero onto that number when assessing potential sales figures for novels. (Many in print, of course, will still not reach that level.)

2. Science ain’t fun or interesting for most of the reading public. It’s like school – and most people hate school. There is an immediate public resistance to anything but cartoonish science portrayals in fiction. The masses liked the playground and they didn’t like science class. The market is probably getting worse in this regard too. The book industry knows all this. Even the "science fiction" realm, with its insightful glimpses into the future, has mostly been shoved aside by fantasy and dragons.

3. While the writer’s knowledge of the subject may be at the PhD level, it’s wise to assume the fiction audience is at the primary school level, and the best the author can do is raise them to the next year. That’s it. The rest of the writing must be about visceral excitement or touchy-feely things. You know, all that "human condition" stuff. Try to do more science, and the story will bog down fast. This can all prove very difficult if your audience starts with a blank slate, or even some strong misconceptions, as mine does for nuclear power.

4. Fiction agents and publishers tend to come out of the liberal arts tradition, so science has never been a strong interest for them. This is even more true as you get away from the human-based areas of medicine and social science and into the hard sciences. I had one e-mail from a prospective agent who said he got bored with my book right away because it had technology as a central feature (along with riveting characters, of course). On the other hand, my readers on the web don’t seem to have been bothered at all by a little science mixed in with all the human drama – they appear to be choosing the book because of its subject, or because they’ve enjoyed other techno-thrillers.

5. Based on the items above, and from my own reading, I would say that if a work of fiction has more than ten facts in it about science and technology that are new to the reader, it’s unlikely to be published. Medical stories might get up to twenty because people are more familiar with the general concepts. If you do happen to read a fiction book that has a higher number of new facts than that, I’d bet it’s by an established author – I’ll put a plug here for Greg Bear and Joe Buff on that point. And please note that I’m not talking about history or religion (The DaVinci Code, etc.).

6. Statistically, at least, nobody cares about any particular scientific or technological field – the exception at the moment might be avian flu or similar threats. It doesn’t matter that a scientific area is on the cusp of a huge breakthrough – like a new energy source. It doesn’t matter if the author happens to know more about thermophilic bacteria than anyone alive. The general public as a whole has no interest. (If you wish to confirm this, walk around a popular discount store like Walmart and observe the customers. Perhaps even ask a few questions. Or go to a book store – the numbers there might be a little better, but not much. For fiction, these are your potential readers.) Because of the low public interest in science, fiction publishers insist on books with strong characters and human interest stories – that is what grabs the reading hordes by the frontal lobe. (We’ll skip what sex scenes do.)

So there you have it. I believe that in general, novels about science and technology that are being published follow the above rules. (It’s okay to cry now – that’s a natural reaction.)

MY PERSONAL REJECTION REASONS LIST:

Given below are some additional, more specific reasons I’ve postulated for why my book Rad Decision, the first inside techno-thriller look at the American nuclear power industry (have I mentioned that yet?), is not a published work at this time. For the sake of argument, we’ll again assume my book is reasonably well written. I think its also fair to assume that a book which can provide the public with insight into energy issues has some value (if not interest).

Let me say first that when seeking publication I followed all the rules. I did my research and then contacted the appropriate agents and publishers with the introductory material they wanted to see. Within my brief query letter, both a National Medal of Science recipient and non-fiction Pulitzer Prize Winner Richard Rhodes (author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb) allowed me to cite their interest in my work. In a few cases, other established writers also recommended me directly to their agents. I tried both the commercial and academic routes. I’m sure I missed some great outfits, or caught others at a bad time, but it’s the final result that counts. Along the way I’ve also experienced some of the standard horror stories any writer can offer about agents and publishers. I’ll skip those.

So, why isn’t my novel Rad Decision in every bookstore in the English-speaking world? I believe one reason is something I’ve touched on above. As "science fiction" has faded away, so has the true techno-thriller. This type of book showed a lot of promise in the 1970’s and 1980’s as a way to entertain and talk about science and technology. Now, however, it seems to have devolved into a genre of "shoot-em ups" heavy on violence and/or sex, with a few facts thrown in. Rad Decision does not fit this model. It is a science-based thriller novel with roughly thirty new facts in it, breaking my rule of ten from above. I would note that online readers have commented that the story has a good pace and the technology is not overwhelming by any means. And there is even some violence (a writer has to have fun sometimes).

Another item which may have been a factor in non-publication of Rad Decision is that I dared to tread in the waters of the techno-thriller in the first place. One agent told me this genre is known as the "Land of Giants" and is particularly hard to break into. I also wrote a techno-thriller that was not about the military or medicine. There are only a few examples of techno-thrillers outside of these two areas, mostly by established writers.

Finally, I have some evidence indicating my daring proposition that there may be something positive about nuclear power doesn’t play well among those in the fiction publishing field, perhaps due to their aforementioned non-science background. I got a brief lecture over the phone from one agent on the horrors of Chernobyl (which are fully described in my book). While I don’t think this is a major reason behind my not being on the bookshelves, I suspect it is a factor.

So there you have it. As I’ve noted, the publishing industry is, of course, a money-making game, and Rad Decision has thus far been judged unworthy of the risk of publication. It’s their money on the line, not mine.

I would have dropped this novel a long time ago if it weren’t on a topic of such importance, and if I didn’t see reminders that this sort of entertaining, general knowledge book on energy supplies is very much needed. Plus – I’ve already got my back cover photo ready: I’m in an old Army field jacket looking out at the pounding surf. The hideous mutations I’ve picked up since starting work at the atomic plant are only slightly visible. And my tux for the awards banquets is on back order.

My final advice: Try to have fun writing fiction about science and technology. That’s probably all you’ll take away from it. Anything else will be a bonus.

Related information and links

You can access James Aach’s Rad Decision online here. The novel is available in either episodic form (15 minutes reading time per episode) or as a downloadable PDF file. There is no cost to readers. More information is provided at the website about the author’s background and the book itself, including numerous reader reviews. Aach welcomes comments, and if you like the book, please pass the word along. (Potential agents and publishers are encouraged, of course, to e-mail him with promises of vast riches.)

"I’d like to see Rad Decision widely read." – Stewart Brand, noted futurist, tech icon, and founder of The Whole Earth Catalog; author of Environmental Heresies in the May 2005 MIT Technology Review, which called for another look at nuclear power.