taking my ball and going back to research

I moved to Australia with $13,000 in savings and the delusion that I could become a commercially successful writer within a year.

That didn’t work out.

For starters, Australia is more expensive than I anticipated. Even though I live in the cheapest place I could find and I hardly ever go out and do anything, I’m still spending well over $1,000 a month. Which means my plan to live here for a year and do nothing but write is not a feasible one. Plus, starting in February I have to make payments on the student loans I took out for graduate school.

As far as the writing itself, I admit that I got sucked in by the Indie hype. The advantage of being an Indie writer is that you can put out as many books as you want as fast as you want. I thought, with a little revision on the stuff I’ve already written, I could put out a new novel every 3-4 weeks. And within six months, I’d be making at least a few hundred dollars per month. Maybe even more.

But that only works if your books are good. Fortunately, I met a group of writers, editors, and book reviewers who were willing to take a look at my stuff. Even more fortunately, they were not afraid to tell me that my “masterpieces” are not ready to be published. Self-published or otherwise.

Writers (and their well-intentioned friends and family) are generally not great judges of when a book is ready to be published. I’m extremely grateful to the people who gave me the honest feedback I needed. Yes, it hurt to hear that my books aren’t good enough (yet), but I would never want to put a book up for sale if it’s not ready for general consumption. That just seems like it would be a huge disservice to readers. And to my career as a writer.

So much for my plan to become an awesomely famous writer in less than 12 months. And so much for my savings, which are almost gone now. And yeah, I could get a part-time job to pay the bills so I could keep my focus on writing. But to be honest, I’d rather not. I need to start paying off my student loans before the interest consumes me like a rabid wildebeest.

When I left China I swore that I was done with research for good. I love science, but I get bogged down by the day-to-day monotony of running calculations and trying to figure out why the fuck things aren’t working. On the other hand, I did spend $60,000 to get a PhD in chemistry. And it’s something I’m good at, so at least there’s that.

I knew from the start it was kind of a long shot, but I applied for a research position at RMIT University here in Melbourne. And somehow, I got the job. I start in January, and my boss seems cool. Plus, the pay is like six times more than I’ve ever made in my life. So that’s nice.

And just in the past few months, my outlook has changed. Maybe it was the Vipassana meditation, or maybe I’m just being more realistic, but the thought of going back to research doesn’t bother me as much as it did before. In fact, I’m looking forward to it.

This doesn’t mean I’m giving up on writing completely though. I’ll still write in the evenings and on the weekends as much as I can, but now I’m not looking for the instant gratification. If it takes me ten years to produce a good novel, that’s fine. I’m in no hurry.

Research actually is pretty cool.

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.

this is it (sort of)

This is it. My last week of work.

Well, sort of.

My boss told me he’s going to go ahead and pay me through May regardless. He said that’s what his postdoc boss did for him, so he figured he’d do the same for me.

And while that’s a pretty damn awesome thing for him to do, there is no way I could take the money without feeling incredibly guilty, so I guess I’ll be working at least part-time through May.

Dammit.

It’s funny though; a thousand dollars isn’t a whole lot compared to my boss’s total budget so I can see why he didn’t feel like it was a big deal, but that’s still a heckova lot of money to me, and I’m definitely pretty appreciative.

Of course, he is getting something for his money. I told him that even after I’m long gone I’ll still always be happy to edit any papers written by him or any of the other research group members. And if this doesn’t seem like a big deal, I’d just like to point out that papers can fail to get published—even if the science is of high quality—if the quality of the English fails to meet the journal’s standards.

I think that’s one of the most important things I’ve learned in my year and a half as a postdoctoral researcher in China; while I’m not actually that great of a researcher, I am a pretty good writer. Specifically, I’m good at taking complicated concepts and explaining them in a simple and straightforward manner.

And if that sounds like bragging, well, yeah it is. But it’s also true. A few months ago, my boss asked me to write a book chapter with him on “How to Benchmark Methods for Virtual Screening”. And if that phrase means absolutely nothing to you, then you know exactly how I felt when he first asked me to write it. Because while technically it’s in my field, it’s way outside my area of expertise (my primary area of expertise mainly consists of video games and porn, but that’s not the point). Regardless, I was able to read all the relevant background material, understand it, and then condense it into a single book chapter that was accepted for publication without the need of subsequent edits.

Yeah, I’m pretty awesome.

But seriously, as a researcher I kinda suck. I hope to submit a paper based on the actual research I’ve done over the past year and a half to a pretty well-respected journal this week, and I’m seriously worried that it’s going to get rejected. I’m proud of the quality of the writing, but slightly embarrassed by the quality of the research I wrote about.

Hopefully I’m just being paranoid.

Still, if nothing else this merely reinforces my feeling that I’m doing the right thing in leaving the field of research. But that doesn’t mean I’ll be leaving science entirely.

A paper written by a good friend of mine was published recently. He listed me as second author despite the fact that I did none of the actual research. What I actually did was some of the writing, a lot of the editing, and I was the one who actually found an appropriate journal that was willing to publish it, and I was the one who jumped through all the hoops to make it happen.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that while I don’t really enjoy doing research, I do love science, and I particularly enjoy making science accessible to others. What’s more, I’m actually pretty damn good at it. And while I would love to have a lucrative career writing fiction and narrative nonfiction, I suspect I’m far more likely to have a successful career as a writer of scientific articles.

Take this article for example. I actually cringed when I read it. What’s more, I knew for a fact that I could do a lot better job of writing it myself. Because even a great writer can’t explain a scientific concept if they don’t understand the concept in the first place.

As science becomes increasingly complex, I think there’s an ever-increasing need for people with a solid understanding of science and scientific research to explain the work of scientists to everyone else in a clear and comprehensible manner.

And I’m all about satisfying needs, baby.

Or something. Yeah, I should probably go to bed. It’s late and I still have a lot of sciencey stuff I need to do this week…..

reinventing the broken wheel

Just got another rejection email. This time for How I Saved the World by Doing Nothing. And looking back now I can’t believe that I ever thought that even an online literary journal that doesn’t actually pay for stories would want to publish it.

Don’t get me wrong, I still really like the story. I’m just not happy with the way I wrote it. And, obviously, neither were the editors of the journal. I do appreciate the feedback they gave me though.

As aspiring writers themselves, I think they felt it was important to give every submission one positive comment and one negative comment. For me the positive comment was that they liked my narrative voice. The negative comment was that I took it too far, and tried to explain things too much, rather than just letting the narrative flow.

In the literary world, this is pretty much a universal rookie mistake. Basically, I made the fatal error of “telling” instead of “showing”. In good literary fiction, the detail and description should flow spontaneously and organically from the dialogue and narrative. If the author tries to beat the reader over the head with what they consider to be important details, they’re doing it wrong.

This is why I feel like I’m simply reinventing the broken wheel; I’m making the same clichéd mistakes that pretty much all beginning writers make.

Still, there is hope for me, and I’m not about to give up without even really trying. The thing is, there’s a ton of resources available for free on the internet for aspiring writers, and I know exactly what I need to do to fix my problems. Basically, I just have to read a LOT, and write a LOT. Simple as that. Which is why I’m moving to Australia in six months to dedicate a year to nothing but writing.

And yeah, if I wasn’t serious about this I could be content with just posting stuff on this blog and having my Mommy and maybe one or two other people tell me I’m great, but in order to make my writing palatable to a wider audience, I’m definitely going to need to spend a lot of time and a lot of effort working on improving my writing style. But to me it’s worth it.

The funny thing is, just like the last time I got a rejection email, within a day of getting this latest one I received and email from a friend of mine telling me she’d finished reading the rough draft of my novel, and she really liked it. She even said it was so good that while she was at the bar with her friends, she just wanted to go back home so she could finish reading it.

Wow. That is seriously the biggest compliment anyone could give me at this point. And it really meant a lot to me. Hell, even if she was just saying that to make me feel better, it’s still the kind of encouragement that I need right now.

So my big goal this week is to try and find a literary agent. The book is nonfiction, which is good because there’s actually a bigger market for nonfiction than fiction, and with nonfiction you’re allowed to get away with more “telling” instead of always “showing”, so my greatest weakness—lack of descriptive ability—doesn’t hurt me quite so much.

I’d really like to have a career as a writer. I think it would be cool to make a living doing what I love most. Unfortunately playing video games and chasing women doesn’t generally pay that much, so I guess I’ll just give writing a shot. And I may not be a decent writer at the moment, but I think I have the potential to get there if I really work at it.

We’ll see.

Wikipedia Greatness

Having recently completed my two biggest goals in life–to get a PhD and to have something I’ve written published–I’ve decided that my new long-term goal (aside from living on every continent for a year) is to achieve Wikipedia Greatness.

Wikipedia Greatness is defined (by me) as doing something notable enough that someone else creates a Wikipedia entry about me–and that entry doesn’t subsequently get deleted by the site’s editors. The key point here is the someone else. It’s important to stress that in order to achieve Wikipedia Greatness, other people have to think I’m great.

As opposed to just me thinking I’m great. Or my mom.

Of course, there are different levels of Wikipedia Greatness. The first level is to simply have a stub. Basically, just my name and a brief, almost apologetic explanation of why I have an article in the first place. At the bottom it will say something like, “This article about an Unimportant person is a stub. You can help Wikipedia by expanding it.” But why would you want to? You have better things to do.

It’s beyond this first level (the stub-level) that things really get interesting and Wikipedia Greatness really comes alive. Pictures, detailed biographical information, subsections, controversies, links, references, and so on. The possibilities are virtually endless, and the level of detail is directly proportional to how important other people think I am.

But I don’t care about any of that. I just want a stub. I simply want to plant my feet firmly on that first step of The Wikipedia Ladder of Greatness. Or maybe it’s an escalator. I’m not really sure. Metaphors were never my strong suit.

So what exactly is Greatness anyway, and how can it be achieved? Naturally, Wikipedia has an article on Greatness which goes into some detail, but I’m not going to rehash it all here. What I did find interesting though was at the very bottom of the article, a guy named Bill Dorris did an extensive study of individuals throughout history and came up with a complicated argument for how Greatness is achieved (although ironically he does not yet have a Wikipedia article of his own).

Having just now done an extensive study of glancing at a few pages on Wikipedia, I’ve come up with my own theory for how Greatness is achieved. And while Dorris’s argument has the advantage of sound research and professional-sounding terms, mine has the advantage of being easy to understand and not requiring a whole book to explain.

So according to me, the three keys to Greatness are: talent, opportunity, and hard work. Now I don’t know about the exact proportions, but I think some amount of each of these things is required. And yeah, maybe if you have a lot of talent and a great opportunity you might not have to work so hard, or with a lot of hard work and a decent opportunity you can achieve greatness even if you don’t have a lot of talent, but I think at least some amount of all three is required for Greatness.

If my goal were to simply make enough money to live comfortably, I think I would be just fine with a career in science. But if my goal is Wikipedia Greatness, I’m going to have to do something else. Because while I do have some talent for research, I just don’t know what direction to take in order to discover something Great. Plus, I don’t want to work that hard because I’m just not that passionate about it.

But when it comes to writing, I feel like I can see an opportunity for myself. I think I could achieve a minor level of Greatness as a writer/philosopher. I have a lot of stories in my head–more than 60 at the moment–and I have a way of looking at things that’s slightly different compared to most people. And while I may not have an exceptional amount of talent for writing, I think I do have an adequate amount, and I’m willing to work hard. After all, I’m not looking for a Shakespeare- or Aristotle-sized Wikipedia entry.

I just want a stub.

More on Going for It

One of my friends here in China tells me I’m indecisive. I like to think that I’m simply just really good at clearly seeing both the positives and negatives of each potential choice in any given decision, and therefore I weigh my options carefully before I take any irrevocable action.

But that’s a bunch of crap. I really am just pretty indecisive.

Most of the big decisions I’ve made in my life have been on a whim, or a coin toss, or on the advice of someone else—basically I let them decide for me. But the decision to put my career in science at least temporarily on hold to go to Australia to finish my novel was one I made all on my own.

At first I was going to let Fate decide. I applied for a postdoc which I was reasonably qualified for in Melbourne, and I figured if I got it I’d take it, and if not I’d go to Australia anyway on a “Work and Travel” visa, which lets me stay in Australia for a year, but forbids me to work any one job for more than six months.

But then I got to thinking about what a friend of mine in the Peace Corps told me: “If you want to pursue your dream, you can’t have a plan B; otherwise it will become your plan A.”

I don’t know if that’s true in all cases, but it was certainly true for me once before. When I left Africa in 2004 I wanted to be a writer, but I decided that getting a PhD in chemistry would be my plan B. Well, six years later I have a PhD, but I still haven’t finished my novel. I think that pretty much says it all.

So I made a decision. I decided that I was going to stop putting in a half-assed effort, and finally commit my whole ass to something. I decided to intentionally and willfully give up on the postdoc, and just focus completely on writing. That decision made, I went ahead and applied for the “Work and Travel” visa.

My mommy helped me pay for it.

The thing is, once I made that decision, everything in my life seemed to snap into place. I was granted the visa in less than a week, and didn’t even have to show them any supporting documentation. My friend mentioned the book she was writing, and I agreed to edit it—and in doing so, my own writing and even my perception of writing has improved. I feel energized and inspired; I feel like I have some direction in my life, and I’m finally doing what I’m really supposed to be doing. I am, unfortunately, a rather tense, anxious person, but lately I’ve been feeling a lot more relaxed and happy. And while I can’t say for sure, I like to think that I’m feeling better now because I finally made a decision to do what’s best for me to do.

Yeah, I finally made a decision for myself. Go me. Seriously, my mom picked my college for me, a friend suggested I go to Hawaii, I let the Peace Corps choose Tanzania, I went to England for a girl, I came to China to get as far away from—nevermind. The point is, I’ve always let Fate or other people make my choices for me because I’m indecisive, but this time I’m actually making a decision for myself. And it feels pretty good.

Oh yeah, and I got an email last week saying I was turned down for the postdoc anyway, so I guess that settles it.

Go forit

One thing I can certainly say for myself is that I’ll never wonder what would’ve happened if I had just gone for it. From traveling to different continents, to getting a PhD, to chasing random girls, I’ve never let the fear of possible consequences stop me from pursuing my dreams.

Of course, this isn’t always a good thing. Especially the chasing girls part.

Yeah, pretty much every romance I’ve ever pursued has ended up going horribly, horribly wrong. But while it wasn’t always funny at the time, it was always interesting. And it definitely all seems funny to me now, so I guess maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing.

For the past fifteen years I’ve talked about wanting to be a writer, but I’ve never really done anything about it. I’ve never submitted a short story to a magazine, or tried to get a novel published. I’ve always felt like the thought of being a writer was just a stupid fantasy, and I should focus on something tangible and obtainable, like a career in science. The only trouble is, I just don’t have a passion for science.

A close friend of mine recently finished the rough draft of a novel, and I offered to help her edit it. Editing a full-length novel of a novice writer can be extremely tedious, but she’s a very good friend, and I know how much I would appreciate it if someone would do the same for me if I were in her place. Plus, the story is good, and with a little help and practice she’s going to be a damn fine writer.

The funny thing is, I actually found the editing process pretty enjoyable—much more enjoyable than doing my research. In my attempt to make her work as publishable as possible I was forced to look up things like how to use semicolons and dashes correctly, the difference between “lay” and “lie”, and whether the comma should come before or after quotation marks in certain circumstances (it depends). And in learning these things, as well as other guidelines for structure, narrative and description, I realized I could easily apply them to my own work as well.

But leaning isn’t always easy. Some of it was like a slap in the face. I’d always imagined that I could be the next Stephen King or J.K. Rowling because I have these really great story ideas, but the fact is, there are thousands—if not millions—of other people who think the exact same thing. And most of them have ideas that are just as good as, or better than, mine. And even if the story is good, most published writers can expect to get around $5,000 or less for their first book. Making a living as a writer is not easy.

That was kind of a reality check. But at the same time, I found inspiration as well. As Holly Lisle (a published writer and font of useful information) writes on her website, there’s no secret to becoming a writer of publishable quality; all you have to do is learn basic punctuation and grammar, and then just write a lot. Some of the most successful writers today aren’t especially gifted, or have something intangible that the rest of the public lacks; they’re merely the ones with good stories to tell who went for it, kept at it, and didn’t give up.

As I write this, I can’t help thinking about an episode of Saturday Night Live, a Celebrity Jeopardy parody, where the Alex Trebeck character is checking the Tom Cruise character’s final answer. Then Trebeck says, his voice dripping with utter disdain, “Your answer? ‘Go.’ And your wager? ‘For it.’ Go…for it. You certainly have.”

Then the Tom Cruise character giggles obliviously.