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[GUEST POST] Kristi Charish (OWL AND THE JAPANESE CIRCUS) on Science and Writing Speculative Fiction

kristicharishKristi is the author of OWL AND THE JAPANESE CIRCUS (Jan 13th, 2015, Simon and Schuster Canada/Pocket Books), an urban fantasy about a modern-day “Indiana Jane” who reluctantly navigates the hidden supernatural world. She writes what she loves; adventure heavy stories featuring strong, savvy female protagonists, pop culture, and the occasional RPG fantasy game thrown in the mix. The second installment, OWL AND THE CITY OF ANGELS, is scheduled for release Jan 2016. Her second urban fantasy series, KINCAID STRANGE (Random House Canada), about a voodoo practioner living in Seattle, is scheduled for release mid 2016.

Kristi is also a scientist with a BSc and MSc from Simon Fraser University in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry and a PhD in Zoology from the University of British Columbia. Her specialties are genetics, cell biology, and molecular biology, all of which she draws upon in her writing. She is represented by Carolyn Forde at Westwood Creative Artists.

So You Want to Be a Speculative Fiction Author?

by Kristi Charish

You might want to consider taking that Science degree over the English major.

Michael Crichton, John Steinbeck, Diana Gabaldon, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Lewis Carroll. Even if you don’t recognize every name listed, at least one or two should pop out. They’re all famous authors who have something besides writing in common. Their academic background wasn’t literature. It was science. And that’s only naming a handful. A quick look through both new and established speculative fiction authors uncovers many more, and what’s more they’re not necessarily writing science fiction.

Though there is a tradition of scientists writing Sci-Fi, it’s more often than not attributed to interest and aptitude by way of proximity the source material. And there is truth in that assumption- I can speak from experience (I have a PhD in genetics and cell biology so can speak to science training with some expertise and authority). It’s fundamentally easier to write about science topics and create believable worlds complete with logic checks if you work or have a background somewhere in the field.

However, I think there are some other, overlooked aspects of a scientists training that give us advantages over our English and MFA counterparts. Including – but not limited to- intimate knowledge of the scientific method, project management, and dealing with criticism.

The point of this article isn’t to downgrade the value of an English/writing degree. In a lot of ways scientists come into writing at a disadvantage with regards to prose and familiarity with literature at large, but explore reasons outside a general interest in the material that so many Science majors achieve success in speculative fiction.

Trouble Shooting via the Scientific Method

Whenever the word science comes up, I think people associate it with hours spent in useless memorization during chemistry, physics, and biology classes. Detail upon painstaking detail relegated to your short-term memory to pass a test, only to be shunted out the back end as soon as it’s over in preparation for the next test. Which is a shame, because memorizing details is probably the least important aspect of science. Science is about the scientific method, and it isn’t a memorization technique. It’s a process.

The scientific method is best described as a logic problem-solving template in three parts, the question, the hypothesis, and the experiment. The question is where you ask what might happen under a given circumstance. The hypothesis, is what you think might happen given your current knowledge of the situation- very much an educated guess. The experiment is the fun part- a situation of controlled conditions (the more variables you can control the better), where the outcome will prove or disprove your hypothesis. And we have to work with this process on our toes because you never know what the outcome will be.

Not completely unlike creative writing come to think of it, except when writing, testing your hypothesis is boiled down to writing scenes and then finding out if you convinced your audience. Scientists can use their training in the scientific method to work through writing and plotting problems and a lot of us can do it on the fly since that’s what we’ve spent the last 5-10 years training to do. It’s like taking an epic level achievement in the ‘pansting’ writing technique.

Do you need training in the scientific method to write? Of course not but it’s another logic tool writers with science training come packing. And considering we often don’t have the training in literary techniques, we’ll take whatever advantage we can get.

Project Management

Another aspect of the science experience is project management. If you get far enough along in your undergrad you’ll more than likely have the option to run a research project in lieu of taking class. Along with being a riot of hands on fun, you get a crash course in how to manage multiple projects, experiments, and – once you reach the grad school level – other people and their projects. Not only do we learn to juggle time sensitive and often delicate projects with deadlines, we learn how to bank time for all the things that can (and will) go wrong so our deadlines aren’t affected. In fact, we spend years getting this kind of training. Our degrees depend on it.

And does this ever apply to writing. Project management is a huge advantage to a new author who has to juggle social media, writing, editing, business email, and promotion. Not to mention banking time and working around the inevitable change in deadline or bad writing day (they happen to everyone). Is it essential to a writing career? No, but it doesn’t hurt when trying to juggle the business side with the artistic. And speaking of the artistic…

Look to the person on your left, look to the person on your right…

I’m not sure what the experience is for the Arts majors out there on your first day of University/College, but just about every science student I know across the globe was given some incarnation of the following line on their first day of classes.

‘Look to the person on your left, look to the person on your right. Only one of you will be here by the end of this year.’

And true to the spirit of science, they’re not exaggerating. And they’re more than happy to show the supporting data in carefully designed charts up on the big screen. Enrollment data, drop out rates, the chances of attaining the grades necessary to continue on with studies…

From day one as a Science major I had a very sobering and realistic picture of what my odds were of not only completing my degree but also of finishing the year with the rest of the hopeful herd. Scientists and mathematicians like facts and the data to back them up. Nowhere does coddling the student fit into the equation. We know damn well we are competing with everyone else in the room for the chance to continue on. There are only so many slots available for upper division courses and not all of us will fit. Shape up, or ship out is the message us scientists hear across the globe. Either you make the cut or you don’t.

Harsh? Damn straight. I was a bundle of nerves my first two years. But it was also realistic. If you couldn’t cut the highly controlled competition in a classroom setting you weren’t going to make it in grad school. Or med school (The term cutthroat med student isn’t a misnomer. Those guys are ruthless. They have to be). In short, if you complete a science degree you can handle the odds stacked against you. You’ve been trained to be.

And speaking about grad school…

So you’ve made it through your undergrad with your sanity and dignity (well, more or less…) intact. A prestigious lab has accepted you into their Masters/PhD program. Congrats, you are in the top 0.1% of educated people on the planet. Pat yourself on the back. You’re not only talented, you’re smart! Accolades from here on in, right?

Yeah, if you believe that I’ve got an awesome bridge to sell you. You can stick a little tollbooth on it and everything. Yes, you’ve made it to the top of one dog pile, but, much like professional writing, all you’ve done is make it to the next pile.

That’s all right; you’ve already beaten the odds and climbed a few piles to get here. What’s one more?

Dealing with Criticism

‘What’s that? You don’t like my work? Please, tell me more.’

This goes along with having a realistic picture of the odds against you and it’s a skill that both scientists and writers need.

No one is perfect. Chances are good you will not be able to anticipate all the questions and possible outcomes of an experiment or project. You need help. And that’s where criticism comes in.

Part of a scientist’s training is presenting their work in the early stages to other researcher including committee members, lab mates, supervisors, post docs, lecture halls full of other researchers…

And this isn’t something that happens at the end of your degree when all the loose ends are tied up. You’re expected to present your data throughout, kinks, setbacks, FUBARed experiments and all. You don’t get to polish things up. The point is to present your work at the early stages so experts can criticize and offer advice…

Advice and criticism on the experiment you’ve spent the last three weeks coddling until 3am every night because your experimental critters have issues with the concept of living…all so you’d have a god damn figure, just the one, to present at this meeting and now they’re telling you that you did it all wrong…

Your job as a scientist is to learn how to take in all the suggestions and criticism with an open ear and determine whether it applies to your experiments or not. Much like taking feedback for a manuscript.

And not all scientists are nice or tactful when delivering criticism. Some of them are right out jerks. Suck it up, buttercup. They might be right. A scientist learns to take criticism and make it constructive and they don’t let us graduate until we can take it.

Research

Us science-trained writers are coming in with a disadvantage in the literature department. We often don’t have the exposure and training in literary techniques and are unfamiliar with the references and writing terms that classically trained writers and Arts majors take for granted.

But we know how to research and study. We know the ins and outs of tracking down references and then cross-referencing the data (someone at some point has made us track down a reference from an obscure paper written in a language we have no hope of understanding or translating on our own).

Does research make up for an MFA or English major? Probably not but it helps fill the knowledge gap and when paired with our other advantages means we can get by. Once you’ve had a supervisor or instructor make you track down an obscure piece of data that you should realistically have had no hope of finding you come out confident you can find just about anything. There’s a real power in that kind of confidence in your ability to find out things you don’t know.

Final Note

The point of this article wasn’t to downgrade the value of Arts training. It’s to illustrate that there are a lot of transferable skills us scientists bring to the game of writing and not just in the Sci-Fi realm. And the next time you have the option to take that elective science class, maybe this time don’t pass it up. At worst you’ll probably get some great material for your next Sci-Fi and maybe even pick up some tricks to add to the writing toolbox.

4 Comments on [GUEST POST] Kristi Charish (OWL AND THE JAPANESE CIRCUS) on Science and Writing Speculative Fiction

  1. Wonderful post, Kristi! I was nodding and applauding throughout. Will have to look up your work. (Abashed look–I didn’t know of you. Egad!)

    Julie

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