I’ll admit it, I’m mostly a scientist. But if you find your life missing kooky, nerdy female protagonists who like men and science, check out my books. They contain romance but focus on the protagonist and her society which makes them technically, not romances. Romances focus on the tension between two lovers and although this might be a sub-plot, it is not the whole plot for what I write. I write about society–past or future.
Click the link above and comment for a chance to win a Darwin bobblehead, Alice In Wonderland socks, a naked mole rat toy, and numerous buffalo themed items. This goes from now until Saturday night.
Sunday I’ll be at an author fair. Sometimes these are great and you meet new readers and other authors and sometimes you sit there awakwardly. But I’ll be there signing books–I hope. Fates willing, people will be interested. When I find the key to being a successful author, I’ll let you know. In the mean time, my day job is pretty fantastic. And thanks for visitng my blog!
Many readers are eagerly awaiting the release of the movie version of A Wrinkle in Time this coming March. When the novel was first released in 1963, the story of awkward Meg Murry who traverses time and space to rescue her scientist father wasn’t expected to be a big seller. It was in author Madeleine L’Engle’s words “peculiar” with its female protagonist in a dark science fiction novel for children. In the 1950s and early 1960s it wasn’t common for books for children to deal with things such as death and social conformity. Yet A Wrinkle in Time has sold continuously since its publication and won The Newberry Award despite mixed reviews when it was released. Madeleine L’Engle struggled to make a living writing and garnered thirty rejections for A Wrinkle in Time before it was published. She offers many tips for aspiring writers in her book Reflections on a Writer’s Life. Here are my sixteen favorites:
Be disciplined. “The writer cannot write just when he feels like it or he won’t have anything to write with. Like the violin, he has to be constantly tuned and practiced.”
On the other hand, when inspiration strikes, you must drop everything. “I not only burn dinner when I dash to the typewriter to set down just one more sentence. I’m also given excitement and enthusiasms far beyond the dignity of my position of somebody who’s past the half-century mark.”
Expand your vocabulary. “The more limited our language is, the more limited we are…The more our vocabulary is controlled, the less we will be able to think for ourselves…the fewer words we know, the more restricted our thoughts. As our vocabulary expands, so does our power to think.”
Study theater to learn about human nature. L’Engle’s husband was actor Hugh Franklin. (L’Engle was her mother’s maiden name.)
Food is a great way to add sense detail to your fiction. In A Wrinkle in Time this takes the form of a liverwurst sandwich—one of her favorites.
Don’t fall into the temptation of doing housework when you are alone. Write. Your family members can help you with the housework. They can’t write your fiction for you. Also, keep in mind that “the time our children are at home is a very short part of our lives” so plan for the long haul—you can write more when they and you are older.
Don’t quit your day job. “For most writers it takes many manuscripts before enough royalties are coming in to pay for a roof over the head and bread on the table.” She said that she wrote at best at night and when she got up in the morning.
We write best when we are in pain. “It is interesting to note how many artists have had physical problems to overcome, deformities, lameness, terrible loneliness…Those who have no physical flaw…seldom become artists.” (One of her legs was shorter than the other due to a childhood illness.) To writers she warns “if you feel you are called, then I can promise you great joy as well as conflict and pain.”
You’ll be let down when you finish a novel. She compared the time after writing a book to post partum depression. “The great art of creativity is always followed by a sadness.”
On the danger of being an artist: “The first people that a dictator puts in jail are the writers and the teachers because these are the people who have vocabulary, who can see injustice and can express what they feel about it.”
On rejection: “Every rejection slip—and you could paper the walls with my rejection slips—was like the rejection of me, myself, and certainly of my amour-propre.” “I started writing A Wrinkle in Time at the end of a decade of nothing but rejections.” Writing opens yourself to criticism. If you write a book that says something, you will be criticized. Yet a book with nothing to say is meaningless. “If you write a book that pleases everybody, you’ve failed.”
Your protagonist must have a choice to make. “A protagonist must not simply be acted upon, he must act, by making a choice, a decision to do this rather than that.”
L’Engle warns that too much description of the protagonist will alienate the reader. In order to allow the reader to see the protagonist as an icon, don’t create a photographic reproduction in words.
Stories must be believable. This doesn’t mean writing what exactly happened but by putting down “the truth I see.” Truth is more than a list of facts. Truth reflects the “human endeavor.” A good story helps answer the question “Who am I?”
Keep a journal. Not only can you organize your thoughts this way, you can return to it to see how you felt at a certain age and in particular situations.
Writing is not all about you. Writing is a “participatory event” between the author and the reader. “The one who reads…is equally creator with the person who sets down the words.”
A Wrinkle in Time inspired me to be a scientist-mom like Mrs. Murry and gave me the courage to buck society’s expectations for women. I’ve nevermore been able to accept lifeless female characters. For more thoughts on writing, read Madeleine L’Engle Herself: Reflections on a Writer’s Life. (2001)
Alpha Chi Sigma is a professional society for chemists. One thing that I like about them is that they honor chemistry’s alchemical roots. They even have a cool coat of arms.
Do I consider myself part alchemist? Of course I do! Alchemists developed many of the “wet” chemistry techniques we use today including precipitation, sublimation, and distillation. Yes they added prayers and chants to their formulas but I’m sure many students today do likewise. Possible the chants might include curse words. The truth about chemistry is that it is a discipline that requires some seasoning, some experiences, some sort of unmeasurable history with the techniques. Chemistry honors the ancients. The more time you spend with it, the easier it becomes.
I was recently interviewed for the AXE magazine, The Hexagon. I appreciated the opportunity to share my experiences as a scientist and an author. In fact, I thank everyone who has read my writing, everyone who has encouraged me, and all who have left positive reviews.
Here’s a transcript:
(1) Describe your projects. I have two novels published by small presses. Natural Attraction came out in 2015. It’s a comedy about Clementine, who longs to be a scientist in 1871. She drinks a tonic which helps her partially transform into a man and takes part in a prospecting expedition as a naturalist. Mixed In—a comic dystopia– just came out this month. It features Catrina, a chemist in the agricultural industry, who gets mixed up with a man on the wrong side of the law.
(2) Describe your motivations. Besides wanting to entertain people, I’m responding to a lack of interesting scientific characters in fiction. Must scientists always be anti-social side characters obsessed only with their work? Can’t the female scientist be adventurous, flawed, and get the guy now and then?
(3) Why do you think these topics are important? Science has enriched our lives and yet people have this fear of it and even a disregard of scientists, seeing them as walking brains and not as real people with normal wants and needs. I admit that my characters are quirky and maybe even nerdy at times but they have the same desires and the same problems at work as many people along with loads of passion and curiosity. They even have friends and care about humanity.
(4) What sort of distinctive twist do you bring to the discourse? I don’t shy away from having my protagonists deeply involved in plausible science. I also bring in social issues that scientists and women in particular face as they struggle to balance all of their desires. I must admit that the novels are also a little naughty. They’re not erotic but they are aimed at an adult audience. To add to the mix, I’ve made them comedies because science plus tragedy was done well-enough in 1816 with Frankenstein. Of course things go wrong in my novels but I’m hoping to demystify science, not make it dreadful.
(5) Any connections to your AXE experiences? In Natural Attraction Clementine gets her tonic from and later becomes close friends with chemist Theophrastus. Yes, there is a chemical basis for all that happens with that tonic but maybe a little romantic alchemy was involved as well.
(6) Other reflections on AXE to share. One of the first things I ever published was a monologue called I the Great Paracelsus based on the writings of Paracelsus. It was even performed at a conclave. I am a lot richer as a chemist due to my understanding of chemical history and I still have connections with Alpha Theta. My publishers are small and I’m not on the New York Times best seller list but if any brothers want more information on fiction writing or publishing I’d be happy to offer my advice. They can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or through my blog at catherinehaustein.com.
One of my favorite Halloween characters is Frankenstein’s monster, the guy created by the scientist Victor Frankenstein from assembled body parts and brought to life by a spark of lightning. The careless scientist was hoping to bring his dear mother back to life. You can’t bales a guy for trying but he violated a rule of science–he worked alone and the hapless creature was created in secret. Only alchemists work in secret. The rules of new science are:
Never work alone in lab.
Keep a carefully detailed lab notebook.
Share your results with others.
Thus, to work in secret is to bring about all sorts of trouble. In 1818 when the novel Frankenstein was published, scientists were just beginning to move away from alchemy and to understand electricity. Batteries made from two metals and an electrolyte were a new thing. Imagine the world-changing perspective of a localized source of energy!
Franklin had established that lightning was a huge static charge and that it was attracted to tall pointy objects. No more would people see a lightning strike as being the hand of an angry God. It was Mother Nature.
Scientists got a charge from electric eels. They began to assume that there is an electrical life current flowing through us. (There is, the oxidation reduction reactions in cells but this is far more complicated than those in 1818 could imagine.) The hope was that all it might take to bring a loved one back alive was a jolt. Creepy experiments were done on executed prisoners and severed heads of the dead were made to twitch with a spark from a battery and they grimaced and fluttered their eyelids.
As for the character of Frankenstein’s creature, he turned out to be intelligent and sensitive, only resorting to menacing his creator once he had been firmly rejected and had no companion to turn to. Like all great writing, Frankenstein says something about the human condition. The novel makes a statement on nature and nurture and the cruelty of judging and rejecting someone based on their appearance.
“Take a moment to streamline your prose,” I told my Short Story Writing students.
To do this
Use simple tenses. They dined rather than they were dining.
Avoid stock gestures. No shrugging or shaking heads or raising eyebrows.
Use simple dialogue tags. “I love beer,” she laughed. No. Not that way. “I love beer,” she said.
Toss out these junk and filler words–Just, Then, Very. Noticed. Wondered. Few, But. Really.
Another thing, keep “stage directions” to a minimum. Don’t do this for example, “She noticed the bottle of beer. She wondered who owned it. She really wanted it. Then she went over and opened it.” No. Not that way. Your reader will appreciate something simpler. Try this: “She opened the Peace Tree Red Rambler.” You know she noticed it, wanted it, and went over to it, right? So why belabor the point?
I grew up learning that Hemingway was a great writer. His prose was so simple and unadorned–just like a punch in the gut. There were characters barely described and given names like “the woman.” He was in a word, efficient. Believe it or not, this whole notion came from science and technology.
In the 1900s the idea of efficiency, a near worship of it, pervaded society. This idea came from studies of brewing and of machines. An efficient process lost less heat and did more work. This idea began in England with James Joule, the son of a wealthy brewer, who studied thermodynamics but it really lurched to life in the juggernaut that was American culture. Everyone had to work and be useful. The idle rich were a problem. Inefficiency in buildings was a problem. And inefficient prose was a problem as well. Take a look at some of these photos and advertisements.
Hemingway came about his efficient prose in an honest way. He was a war journalist and telegraphed his stories back to the U.S.. The telegraph coded letters as dots and dashes and each one cost money. And with the advent of photography, people didn’t need or want the long descriptions of scenery that punctuated older fiction. They only needed enough to set the mood and ground the fiction.
Today, the century old efficiency movement is still with us. We are told to want stories that are sleek, like an Apple product.Some publishers even remove the Oxford comma. Professor Cecili Tichi called this new prose “machines made of words.”
I like machines. Nobody likes rambling or babbling. But sometimes, I want something more delicious. I want the rush of pleasure from abundant words and the keen insights of metaphors and turns of phrase, the dappled light of a brilliant day as was today.
What about you? Who do you read? What’s your style? Sleek? Efficient? Or old school?
They say you can’t go home again. There are all sorts of stories about people going back to a place that held a happy memory only to see broken sidewalks and smashed relationships. I don’t have that when I go back to Iowa City. Each time it looks better in my older and wiser eyes. The same can be said for my return last week to the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. I took the class Novel: The Next Draft lead by Sands Hall.
This workshop focused on scene building. Novels are a combination of scene and summary. Summary moves the story along and scene adds the depth and details. The elements of a scene are
rationale ( my word–the why of the scene) What does it accomplish?
A scene should have “metaphorical implications,” in other words, larger meaning. It should reveal something, move the story line forward, and include senses and emotion. Details are important but only if they add to the forward action. If they are mentioned they should bring something valuable to the story and not in Sands’s words be yellow Volkswagens that the reader must haul up a cliff only to find they have no meaning. Each scene should have a Setting, Activity, and Object. In this way, fiction writing is like science–you must sift through all sorts of observations and select those that have significance. A scientific report needs to have materials, methods, and data sections with the data arranged in a lovely manner.
Plot is moved forward by character. Characters should be unique and detailed. For more, here’s her book.
This workshop focused on scene building and not the entire piece (although we had a synopsis of each novel.) I’m going to try scene building in my Short Story Writing course too. Focusing on a scene helps push the whole piece forward and keeps workshop comments directed on the writing. We had word limits for each piece presented to help move each class along efficiently. This was good training in selecting meaningful details.
Other ideas I garnered for my Short Story Writing course are:
1. Have students memorize a scene from a short story. This helps develop an understanding of scene and an appreciation for language.
2. To give them plenty of prompts.
3. To have a few rules such as not ending the story with a death, not ending the story with “it was just a dream,”and no solving problems with guns. We as a culture have gotten to a point where guns are the beginning, climax, and resolution of every story and not only is it depressing, it is boringly uncreative.
For my own writing, Sands encouraged me to try the omniscient point of view. She even knew why I avoid it–because it’s the voice of the Empire, some dude looking over the whole word and declaring what he knows about it to be absolute truth. Since most of my novels are turning out to be about Empire, it would be a twist to use this point of view.
Everyone in my workshop had a novel that had depth and purpose. This workshop was fun, helpful and unique in its focus on the writing craft. I highly recommend the Iowa Summer Writing Festival for all who truly love to write.