Wednesday, September 12, 2012

How Paleontology Prepared Me For Writing Fiction

I didn’t go to school to be an author. Sure, I took some side courses in literature and creative writing, but my focus was on science.

My passion is science. Literature and writing is a secondary love. For people whose primary love is the latter, then majoring in English/Writing, going onto MFAs, etc, is a great path. But it wasn’t mine. And to be honest, I don’t feel like I needed that path to teach me the skills to write fiction. 

To be a fiction author, you must love stories. You must be creative. You must have a basic grasp of sentence structure and grammar. You must learn to take critique and improve your work based on the suggestions of others. You must be okay with the idea that you can’t please everyone.

Let’s look at those one by one to see how the profession of science fits each.

1.       You must love stories. 

Scientists love stories. They devote their life to finding the story behind everything around us. Paleontologists are looking for the story of how life got to be how it is today. They’re looking for the lost stories. The stories of creatures that lived before us. The stories we missed observing.  Being a scientist is having a thirst for a fuller picture. Science is story.

2.       You must be creative.

Scientists base their careers on asking, “What if?” Hypotheses cannot come about without creative thought. Throw a babble of information at a scientist, and they’ll use their creative minds to find how it fits together. Paleontologists must have imagination to do their work, because the creatures they study generally don’t exist anymore! They get a skeleton (or less) to look at, and from that they must piece together the life and death of an animal no one has ever seen before. If that’s not the basis for character development, I don’t know what is.

3.       You must have a basic grasp of sentence structure and grammar.

A huge part of science is communication. Scientists are nothing if they can’t get their ideas across to others. Now, some may argue that scientists are terrible at communicating, because no one understands them. That’s just not true. Scientists may use words people are not accustomed to, but that doesn't mean they're speaking incorrectly. Their grammar is just fine. It has to be, or they’d never get published in any academic journals. Now, as with all writers, some are better writers than others. But the point stands that to be a successful scientist, you must be able to write in a clear, understandable way. (Understandable at least, to your peers who know the lingo.)

Writing up my paleo research definitely honed my skills as a writer. I wanted others to understand all the cool things I was figuring out. I had to discipline myself to double check my grammar, read sentences out loud, and edit continuously. It was a lot of work, but now as a fiction writer I have those great habits already built in.

4.       You must learn to take critique and improve your work based on the suggestions of others. 

This is a doozy. Scientists do not pull punches when it comes to critiquing each other. No one is nice. It’s a cutthroat profession. You pour your soul into a project, and the professors around you destroy it with barely a glance. Sometimes they’re wrong, and you’re right. If that’s the case, you likely did not present your argument clearly enough. Or, the professor is a jerk. That happens, too. Or, you just need to suck it up and change something, because the professor has, in fact, found a legitimate problem with your work. In any case, you must develop a thick, thick skin and handle changing things based on what other people say.

5.       You must be okay with the idea that you can’t please everyone.

Finally, scientists never all agree on one thing. They might be on board with some general ideas (gravity, for example), but they'll nitpick the details to death and argue with each other to death as well. That's what drives science. If everyone just agreed with each other, no idea would ever be challenged and we'd still be convinced that the sun goes around Earth.

Because of this, when you present scientific research you must expect criticism and disagreement. You can try to change minds, but it doesn't always work. There will always be someone who disagrees with you. There will always be a negative review. You just have to learn to accept that.

I hope this clears up some things. I've had a few people question why, as a science nerd, I write fiction rather than non-fiction. Or why I bother writing at all. There seems to be a weird division, a sort of "right brain/left brain" dissonance, in which people put science and literature at opposite ends of a spectrum. It doesn't have to be that way. Really!

People of any profession can write fiction. And those various professions can have useful lessons that can be repurposed for fiction writing. There is no right or wrong path on the road to becoming an author, after all. If you want to write, then write!


  1. What a great post! It's so true that you have to wrap your head around the fact that you can't please everyone in this business. You must also be willing to let go of your ego, and the value of that "what if" can never be underestimated!

    Good luck with the GUTGAA agent round next week!

    1. Thanks! I have one request so far, which made me grin like you wouldn't believe. We'll see how the rest of the week goes!