from fiction to memoir–how and why The Peace Corpse was written

Before I left for Africa, I had already made up my mind that I would write a story about my experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer. My writing began during the first two months of my stay in Korogwe, Tanzania. It helped me to cope with the transition and helped put things into perspective.

My original plan was to write a fictionalized version of my adventures. As my time in Africa progressed, the things that happened to me became stranger and more unbelievable. I eventually switched to nonfiction because I felt that the actual events were at risk of being perceived as poor, overdone plotting by an amateur writer.

That’s how my memoir, THE PEACE CORPSE, came to be.

Returning to America in December of 2004, I figured I’d finish writing as quickly as possible. But life got in the way. I finally completed the book in March. Of 2011. On the plus side, I finished the book on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Peace Corps as an organization, and that was kind of cool. It even had exactly 50 chapters, which was…a complete coincidence.

Once my friends and relatives help me fix all the typos, I started submitting it to literary agents. The responses I got were less than inspiring. They all said that there’s just no market for a Peace Corps memoir written by someone who isn’t famous. No matter how awesome or funny it is. And who doesn’t think feeding lizards to unsuspecting houseguests is awesomely funny, right?

The failure to get agented led me to the self-publishing route. I knew a little about it, and I’d read that some self-published authors were pretty successful. After all the trouble of writing it, I figured that I might as well put it out there and give people a chance to read it.

Interestingly enough, the actual process of self-publishing was fairly simple. I basically got all the useful information from various blogs, and after a couple of weeks, I had it properly formatted and uploaded to various bookselling sites. And people did read it. About 15 people per month.

So…the literary agents were right. There’s not a big market for my book. Plus, I realized that almost every volunteer had the same idea–if the multitude of existing Peace Corps books are any indication.

But mine’s the funniest. Trust me. Well, I bet it’s in the top five, anyway.

Of course, the cover might have something to do with the sales. Mine pretty much sucks. I designed it myself, and it really shows. Now, would I do it differently if I had to do it all over again?

Yes.

For starters, I’d keep it as fiction. Still using the first-person POV and with the same humor, but I’d have more freedom to explore plots and subplots without being constrained by events that actually happened. Also, I could write about things I was afraid to write about in a nonfiction book for fear of embarrassing anyone. All I have to do is disguise the characters sufficiently.

Secondly, I’m not knocking self-publishing, but I wouldn’t do it that way again. To me, the keys to success seem to be (besides it being a great book) frequency and nature of promotion, number of books published, and reader perception. When it comes to promotion, self-promotion has its limit. And just as agents don’t want to work with a one-trick pony, readers don’t want to invest themselves in an unknown and untested author of a single book. Most importantly, a book from an established publisher shows that it does meet some minimum threshold of quality.

Plus, at least with a traditionally published book you’re guaranteed to get decent cover art and an editor.

self-publishing vs traditional publishing

It used to be that self-publishing was the realm of vain, delusional losers who paid large sums of money to have their books printed, only to find that no one wanted to buy a crappy book written by “some guy” or “some girl” that had never passed through the hands of an editor.

But times have changed. Now self-publishing is, well, exactly the same as it was before except these days the author no longer has to pay any of their own money up front. And that is simultaneously a good thing and a bad thing.

Because with self-publishing, you get to have complete creative control over your work. You get to make the decision about the cover, the layout, the format, and most importantly, the content. And you get to control when, where, and how your book gets published. Plus, you get to keep a greater percentage of the profits.

And that’s pretty awesome.

On the down side, quite a lot of people out there simply have zero interest in buying a self-published book. And for good reason. Because when you see a publisher’s logo on a book that’s come out recently, it signifies that the book has gone through an agent, a contact person at a publishing house, and a full-time editor employed by said publishing house. Whereas a self-published book has probably at most gone through the hands of a few of the author’s friends who were too kind or too embarrassed to tell the author that their book sucks. And the few truly exceptional self-published books that are written run the great risk of being drowned beneath the towering waves of all the crappy ones.

My book sucks. I’m fully aware of this. It’s sold a grand total of nine copies so far, and I’m almost positive that every one of those was to someone who knows me personally. But I’m ok with that. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, and my Peace Corps memoir has exactly 50 chapters. It was a personal goal of mine to have the book published this year, and as it was rejected by every agent I sent it to the only way that was going to happen was if I self-published. So I self-published it. If nothing else, the only way for me to find out what people actually think about it is to put it out there, so I put it out there.

The thing is, it’s exactly the way I want it to be. Typos and all. Because I actually wrote at least half of it while I was still in Africa, and while it could doubtless benefit from the skill and expertise of a professional editor, I can’t help but feel that something valuable would be lost. The rawness, intensity, honesty, and laughable naivety that I put into that first draft as I sat in front of my laptop in Korogwe, Tanzania may not perfectly translate into quality reading, but it reflects a pure, unfiltered distillation of the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa. And that’s what I was going for.

I’ve already started a new novel. I’ve got the first draft of the prologue, chapter 1, and chapter 2 written so far. And in terms of quality it’s light years ahead of my first book. And I’m going to do everything I can to get it published by a traditional publisher.

Because I always want to be improving myself and my writing. And while I would love to say that I know better than any literary agents or publishers, the amount of books that they’ve sold versus the amount of books I’ve sold pretty much says it all.

In a lot of ways it’s analogous to the movie industry. Blockbuster films are often familiar and formulaic and have big names attached to them because movie producers have a good idea of what’s most likely to sell tickets and want to maximize the chances of a profitable return on their investments. But at the same, they’re reluctant to take any really big risks. Independent films on the other hand are more willing to take chances, and while they do sometimes end up getting it right and produce something truly moving, brilliant, groundbreaking, and awe-inspiring, more often than not they simply suck ass.

So I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’ve written my “Indie” book, and now I’m going to see if I can write a “blockbuster”.

Wish me luck.

Oh, and if you’re interested on reading something more insightful on the topic by someone who actually knows what they’re talking about, check out this post by Stephen Leather.

scientific opinion

Ideally, there should be no such thing as “scientific opinion”. Because science by definition is a process of gaining knowledge through observation and experimentation, and relies entirely on empirical evidence. No opinions needed. But because scientists are human (at least as far as we know) and humans are inherently irrational creatures, opinions, politics, and emotions inevitably get thrown into the mix.

Take Global Warming for example. The consensus among scientists is that Global Warming (now known as Global Climate Change, since not every place will necessarily get warmer) is real, and it’s caused by humans. But that’s just, like, their opinion, man. I mean, who cares what a bunch of nerds who spend all their time in labs and in front of computers and have no idea what the real world is like think, right? I mean, just look at England right now. They’re having like the coldest winter in years. That tells you everything you need to know, right?

Well, no. The fact is, there are mountains of data indicating that Global Climate Change is real, and it’s caused by humans. But that doesn’t mean that Global Climate Change itself is a fact. It’s simply the theory that best describes the available evidence.

And that’s how science works. Science doesn’t really provide “facts” in the strictest sense, but what it does is attempt to explain natural phenomena using repeatable experiments and verifiable evidence. Unfortunately, human beings in general aren’t really wired to accept this. The most scientifically honest statement would be, “The theory that Global Climate Change is real—and caused by humans—is the theory that best explains the available evidence.” But that’s not good enough for a lot of people. The most common response to this type of statement is, “Yeah, but that’s just a theory.” Unfortunately, that’s all science really has. In an ideal world, it would be enough. In this world, it isn’t.

The biggest failure as far as “scientific opinion” is concerned is the ability to get the message out in a way that people can understand and accept. After all, why should we care about the opinions of a bunch of stupid scientists? I don’t, and I am a scientist. I have a PhD in Complicated Blargamawhatsis (Computational Biochemistry), but that doesn’t mean that people should automatically trust my opinion about things. Anyone who’s met me personally or read any other post on this blog can attest to that. But seriously, scientific consensus is essentially meaningless. Either the evidence is there, or it isn’t. And if it isn’t, the opinion of some random guy shouldn’t carry more weight just because he has a PhD in HeylookatmeI’mascientistorsomething.

But that’s just my opinion.

Still, it is pretty interesting to look at things from the perspective of a scientist. For one thing, it’s funny sometimes to see journalists try and explain scientific topics to non-scientist readers. Often they do a pretty good job, but there are some subtleties that I think people should be aware of.

For example, when you read about some new scientific breakthrough, and the journalist mentions that the work was recently published (or soon will be published) in Science or Nature or even PLoS, it’s usually a good sign that the work is legitimate. However, if the journalist mentions that the research is unpublished, you should be a bit skeptical.

Because when a paper is published in a reputable scientific journal, it has to go through the process of Peer Review. Peer Review is not the same as scientific opinion, because with Peer Review a fellow scientist who is an expert in the field checks the work and makes sure that the evidence is sound, and the conclusions are reasonable based on the evidence presented.

At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. Unfortunately, human emotions and opinions and irrationalities do come into play.

Recently a friend and colleague of mine found a paper in a scientific journal that is clearly and demonstrably wrong. I won’t bore you with the details (you’re welcome), but basically the authors made a fundamental mistake. I’m not exactly sure how this paper managed to make it past Peer Review, but it may be because the primary author is a Big Guy in the field, and unfortunately the work from Big Guys often doesn’t get as rigorously scrutinized as it should. So yeah, sometimes bad science does make it through Peer Review. It’s unfortunate, but it does happen.

Fortunately, there is a remedy. My friend (a fellow postdoc in my research group) wrote a comment paper pointing out the mistakes in the original paper. This is a generally accepted practice, because despite the danger of Big Guys getting their feelings hurt, most scientists will acknowledge that it’s really not very helpful to have incorrect science published as reputable science without anyone challenging it.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there. My friend asked me to be coauthor on the paper. Partly, I assume, because English is my first language, but I think it’s also partly because he believes having a Western name on the paper will help it carry more weight. And it really shouldn’t be that way—the arguments should speak for themselves—but that’s the way it is. And if that’s not bad enough, our boss doesn’t want his name on the paper because it could hurt him in the future if he wants to publish a paper and this Big Guy happens to be one of the reviewers. Again, it really shouldn’t work this way, but that’s how it is.

Fortunately, I really don’t care about my future in science.

The funny thing is, I’ve sort of been on the opposite side of this. I just finished writing a chapter for a computational chemistry textbook. The publisher, an American company, asked my boss to write it because he’s an expert (a Big Guy) in this particular field, and my boss asked me to write it because, well, English is my first language. And yeah, my boss is an expert on this topic, but I didn’t even know the topic existed before I started writing the chapter. But still, I figured it would be ok since it would be going through Peer Review, and some other expert will be catching any mistakes I made.

Or not. Yeah, apparently the publishers decided that since my boss is such a big expert, the chapter didn’t need to go through Peer Review. It’s already been accepted for publication. So basically, any mistakes I made are going to be taken by others as fact, and dutifully followed as such.

Whoops.

And yeah, in case you hadn’t guessed, this entire blog post was my way of saying, “Hey, look at me, I wrote a book chapter for a chemistry textbook and it got published!”