Drawing parallels between writing reports and writing fiction – and why characters are everything.

Last week, I was asked to give a talk to a group of counselling trainees at my local FE college about creative writing and academic writing. The contact came through my local writing group, The Beverley Chapter. I was suggested to the FE college because I once belonged to the world of academia and still do  a lot of technical writing and, as you know, I write fiction.

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Totally irrelevant picture of Stormtroopers carrying chocolate.

The brief I was given was fairly vague and I found myself standing in front of a group of 26 adult students, with an hour to fill. So I started off by outlining who I was – someone who had always wanted to write fiction, but was encouraged to do something more ‘practical’ so that I could get a job when I grew up; Biochemistry degree and microbiology PhD from Oxford; short-lived post-doc career; the move into information science and intellectual property, ending up with my current job of IP officer for a university. In parallel, a second career as a romance novelist. After that, I ran out of steam a bit.

Luckily, they asked questions. Here are a few topics we covered:

 

Parallels between structuring a novel and structuring an academic essay:

Both have a beginning, a middle and an end. In academic writing it is an introduction, an argument (or, in case of science papers, a experimental section) and a conclusion. We discussed how a novel is essentially an illustration of an argument. The argument is the theme. Good will triumph over evil, the end doesn’t (or does) justify the means, love conquers all adversity – these are all themes which are exemplified in stories. You use characters to explore the theme.

 

Why use creative writing in academic writing:

I told a story about how I learned a load of stuff as an undergraduate. I was good at learning stuff and passing exams, so I did it. I even found it interesting from time to time. But I didn’t appreciate why it was important until my fourth year.

I chose to take a module called Genetics and Disease. One of the textbooks contained testimonials. The first one I read was about the CFTR protein and its gene – which is linked to cystic fibrosis. This chapter had a section written by someone whose sister died of cystic fibrosis. The contributor talked about their grief of losing their sister, about how, if she had lived longer, she could have benefited from drugs that could have improved her quality of life, and about how the contributor herself felt about the fact that she was carrying a defective copy of the gene that she could pass on to her children. This testimony moved me to tears. Suddenly, this module which was about genes and proteins and metabolic systems had meaning. It affected real people. This was important.

People are interested in people. Give case studies, where possible. It’s all about human interest. As novelists, we know this. People read to see what happens to the characters. In academic writing, there is less room for characters, but if you can find somewhere, get them in. Give the work a human context.

 

Does passive writing have a place:

Yes, I believe it does. Nothing we write is ever truly objective, but writing in the passive voice forces us to frame things in a more objective way. Most report writing is done in an objective way, but I know that in my own reports, my word choices are affected by how I feel about an invention. The facts remain the same, but at some point my opinion comes into it, sometimes without my noticing. If I describe something as say, ‘eye-catching’ it conveys a different impression to if I described it as ‘flamboyant’.

This lead onto a side discussion about opinions and their place in formal documents. There are times when you are required to give a professional opinion. This can be in the form of a recommendation. It is important that the reader is told that this is an opinion and not a fact. The facts that were used to arrive at the opinion need to be clearly listed in the text before. The introduction – argument- conclusion format lends itself well to this.

 

Saggy middles:

We discussed the flailing around stage in the middle of documents. I talked about the dreaded saggy middle that all novelists face. We talked about the thread of the narrative and how real life has events all over the place – some relevant to the plot, some not – and how, as a novelist, I have to work out which events drive the plot forward. If they’re not relevant to the plot, I have to leave them out.

This lead to a very interesting discussion about the counselling process where you know where you started and  you know where you ended up, but you’re trying to work out the narrative of how you got from one place to the other – which events were relevant, which events were background noise.

 

Towards the end someone asked me why I write romance (because from my background, it would seem I’d choose sci fi). Here’s my answer:

It’s about people falling in love. Why would you not want to write about it? People are endlessly complex. I write about people and how they change. The change happens to involve falling in love.

Besides, that first kiss feeling is wonderful and I live it again and again through my characters.

But, as they rightly pointed out, you’d expect me to read a lot of sci fi. I did when I was younger. Also fantasy and crime. I still do read those, but nowadays I read a lot of more romance and women’s fiction.  I have a theory that this fits better into the way I read post-kids. I no longer have the luxury of diving into a book and staying there for 3 hours until I’m too hungry to carry on. I read in 5 to 10 minute bursts.  I also have a shockingly bad memory (mumnesia, it’s really a thing).  A romance novel is mainly about an emotional arc, which is easier to pick up and put down.

I read A Game of Thrones recently (only the first one, I’ll get to the next in time). DH and I discussed it later. I went on and on about the relationships and the emotional arcs of the characters. He asked me what I thought of the politics … tumbleweed. I’d been too invested in the character conflicts to really pay attention to the subtleties of the politics. I got the broad brush stuff (you can’t miss it), but the subtle power games… nope.

I love reading thrillers (not horror – I’m squeamish). Again, I will plug into the emotional tension and feel the characters’ fear in my short bursts of reading. Give me something where the character emotions  are secondary to the beautiful descriptions and I’ll probably put it down after two chapters.

This being a counselling group, we also talked about how I wasn’t allowed to read romance novels as a young teen, in case it gave me ‘ideas’. I was supposed to focus on studying. I grew up in Sri Lanka, where this was normal. I negotiated with my mother and read ONE Sweet Dreams romance. One. In the end, I decided to write my own. I still have my old typescripts – they’re badly faded and the edges have almost melted from being handled by hot little hands, but you can still read the notes my school friends scribbled in the margins. Reader feedback. It’s a wonderful thing.

The people in the group were all very lovely and said it was different and interesting talk. I hope it was. It was certainly a very interesting experience for me. The people I usually talk to are writers who are more interested in the how than the why. It was interesting to be made to think about why I write what I write. I still come to the same answer. People are so fascinating. Why wouldn’t you want to explore them more?

Bacteria inspired names and GBBO – a podcast

A few months ago Sarah from Smart Bitches Trashy Books reviewed Please Release Me. She also contacted me and asked if I would do a podcast for her blog. It’s gone live today!

http://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/podcast/212-gin-tonic-bacteria-us-uk-romance-markets-interview-rhoda-baxter/

For those who aren’t followers for the affectionately named ‘Bitchery’, it’s a blog about romance novels written by a group of very smart women who read romance because it’s fun. They also read high brow literary fiction, but, you know, romance is where the heart is.

Anyway. Sarah and I talked about all kinds of things – like how romance is defined in the US vs UK markets, how jacket covers differ in the two countries, the diversity debate that is currently rocking the US romance publishing world (but hasn’t quite reached here yet) and the lack of scientists in romance novels until The Big Bang Theory came along. Because we both like cake, we also discussed gin and tonic cupcakes. It seemed rude not to.

I’m off to jump up and down in an excited manner for a few minutes now. If you listen to the podcast, please leave a comment and let me know what you thought! Especially  if you know any good recipes for cupcakes.

 

 

A weekend of science related fun

Some time ago, I read a piece in the Guardian about the Butlins Science Weekends, went on the internet to look up what it was all about… and ended up booking us in for the weekend; which is how we ended up being in Skegness last weekend. I’d never been to Butlins before. I didn’t think it was the sort of thing I’d enjoy. On the other hand, science themed activities are fun and I thought we might learn something.

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It was brilliant. The kids got to help mix cornflower and water to make ‘custard’ and then they got to run along it. In case you haven’t come across it before, cornflour in water makes a non Newtonian fluid which goes solid (momentarily) on impact. This means that you can run along it, so long as you keep moving. If you stop, you sink. It’s quite tricky to get yourself out again because if you tug, the stuff goes solid around your foot. You have to ease it out very gently. See here for explanation:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/0/22880407

At one point, we went past the tent and there wasn’t a huge queue of kids waiting, so I had a go at running along the custard too. It felt like you were running along a slightly sticky rubber sheet.

We did a few workshops (chosen by DD1 who was itinerary monitor). We had a go at code breaking, in a session run by a chap from Bletchley Park. He let us have a go on real live Enigma machine! The session was fast paced and I managed to let the side down by transcribing a number wrong (in my defence, I was trying to pacify a very cross DD2 at the time and I HAD solved my puzzle correctly).  

Later, we learned how to program a BBC microbit to play rock, paper, scissors (but not lizard or Spock).

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I didn’t get to go to the Sound/Lighting workshop or the Brainiac’s show, but DD tells me they were good. She was especially taken with the Brainiacs… something to do with electric shocks (?!). People from Aardman did a show on the basics of stop frame animation, which was really good fun and had me wondering if I should have a go at making some brick films for book trailers…

The Science Museum had a set of stalls where you could try tabletop science experiments. There were loads of members of staff on hand to explain stuff and they were all very well briefed. I was mildly amused to see that the people wearing lab coats were Butlins staff and the people from the University of Plymouth were in plain clothes.

As I said, I never thought of Butlins as a holiday destination and I wouldn’t have gone if it hadn’t been for the science theme. I was pleasantly surprised by the whole experience and I might even consider going there without the sciencey stuff – although, I don’t think I’d last for much longer than a weekend.

So, am I glad I took a chance on the Butlins Science Weekend? Definitely.

Would I do it again? I rather think I might.

A lovely review for Doctor January and a bit about domineering boyfriends

I recently had a lovely review for Doctor January from Fresh Fiction, whose reviewer said Doctor January should be read by every woman!

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http://freshfiction.com/review.php?id=50132

The thing that really touched me about this review (and the related review on Goodreads) is that the reviewer picked up on how girls see controlling behaviour in boyfriends as normal these days. One of the inspirations for Doctor January was Twilight. As a mother of two daughters, it worries me that my girls would think that Edward’s bossy treatment of Bella was okay (I hope I’ll bring my girls up to be a bit more cynical than that, but you never know!). That’s what led me to research emotionally abusive relationships in the first place.

I like to think that Doctor January contains both sides of Edward Cullen – but separated out into two men. The devoted and caring side (in Hibs) and the creepy, controlling side (in Gordon).

So, thank you, reviewer from Fresh Fiction. I really, really appreciate your review. It makes me feel like I’ve achieved what I set out to do.

(I’m going to go hide under the table now, until my critique partner stops throwing things at me at telling me I don’t understand Twilight at all).

It’s here! It’s here! Doctor January is out in paperback!

I’m ridiculously excited that my first ever print book is out now!

Doctor January by Rhoda Baxter
It looks like this, but in 3D

It’s published by the fabulous Choc Lit. You can buy it on Amazon and other ebook retailers. Also you can buy it from proper real life bookshops. To test this theory (’cause I’m not sure I totally, 100% believed it was possible), I asked the Waterstones at the Uni where I work if they’ll stock it. They said yes. I shall be going by tomorrow to check!

I’m planning on eating lots of celebratory chocolate and having many cups of tea today – I know how to party on a school night.

So, here’s the link to Amazon. 

Please tell your friends, and your relatives and total strangers!

If you read it, please, please review it. We writers are constantly plagued with doubt and it’s very reassuring to know that people like what you’ve written (and if they’ve not liked it, why they didn’t, so that we know what we need to work on).

I’m off now to go jiggle about and cuddle my book. There may be cake. Byeeee!

 

MILEVA MARIC, the Other Einstein

Alana Cash dropped me an email to say she enjoyed Doctor January (even though she wasn’t expecting to!). We got talking about women working in science and the reasons they often leave. It turned out that Alana knows a lot about the unsung heroines of science. She very kindly agreed to write  guest post on the subject. 

In researching the lives of Mileva Maric and her husband, Albert Einstein, for a documentary, I became very disappointed as I found that the kindly humanitarian Albert Einstein, the Albert Einstein of scientific brilliance-beyond-all-compare did not exist.  Einstein’s behavior in many ways was markedly self-interested and his character traits suppressed from the public in order to maintain a portrait of him that is skewed – most notably his treatment of Maric and their children as well as the fact that he consistently needed collaboration on his papers.

Mileva Maric, a Serbian, attended ETH in Zurich with Einstein.  With a history of brilliant accomplishments, meeting Einstein was to Maric’s detriment and her grades slipped.  She became pregnant shortly after her final year at ETH, and Einstein refused to marry her with the excuse that he didn’t have a job.  Einstein’s arrogance had alienated him from his professors, none of whom would give him a recommendation.  He had the exhibited the same arrogant behavior in high school and was expelled [he got a note from a doctor declaring Einstein’s first nervous breakdown and left school before the expulsion could be formalized].

Maric and Einstein

Maric’s father offered him employment, but Einstein avowed he couldn’t master the Serbian language.  Einstein also declared that he didn’t have his parents’ permission to marry.  He was 21 and of age to marry without permission.  Maric, of course, had no options for employment because of the child and faced a lifetime of being supported by her family.

They continued to correspond and some of Einstein’s letters to Maric were published ironically as The Love Letters edited by Jürgen Renn.  Einstein wrote how glad he would be when they were together again to work on “our theories” and more on their scientific collaborations.

When Maric and Einstein did finally marry in Bern, Switzerland in January 1903 [six months after he got his patent office job], their daughter was two years old and left behind in Serbia with Maric’s parents to prevent scandal for the newlyweds.  Eventually, the child was sent to live with distant relatives.  Einstein never attempted to meet her.  Maric and Einstein had two children after the marriage.  Hans Albert born in 1904 and Eduard born in 1910.

During the period 1900-1902, when Einstein was basically unemployed, his publishing career amounted to two flawed scientific papers.  With his marriage to Maric, his writings became more accurate, more important, and more frequent.  Two years after the marriage, in 1905, Annalen der Physik published the four papers that would make Einstein an icon.  The last important paper Einstein published was in 1913, the same year he separated from Maric.  After that, his papers were explanations of relativity.  He also put his name on other people’s papers.

After publication of the 1905 papers, hailed as a genius, Einstein began to get job offers.  Against Maric’s wishes, he accepted employment at the German University in Prague [1911] and the family moved there.  Einstein visited Berlin during that time and began an affair with his first cousin Elsa [and possibly with her daughter as well].  A year later, the Einstein/Maric family moved to Zurich where he taught at ETH and remained in touch with Elsa and her daughter.

This was the period of development of the paper on the general theory of relativity, and Maric argued with Einstein over the fact that he was collaborating with Marcel Grossman.  Maric was striving to be involved in the work, but the marriage was deteriorating rapidly. [When married to Elsa, Einstein would declare that he was glad Elsa knew nothing about science because, “my first wife did.”]

When Einstein was offered a position at Berlin University, he accepted.  Again the family moved, but not for long.  Just before WWI broke out, Einstein demoralized Maric with a note demanding that she not talk to him at home, no longer expect to have sexual relations with him, he barred her from involvement in his work – she was to do his laundry and make his meals.  Basically Maric was to be his domestic servant.  [Einstein gave that same note to Elsa after they married]. Maric left Einstein in Berlin and returned to Zurich.  Einstein had a breakdown.

During the WWI, Einstein made very little effort to support Maric and his children with the excuse that the mail was disrupted.  Maric relied on her family to send money from Serbia and the mail system seemed to work for them.  At the end of the war when Einstein sought a divorce, Maric had a heart attack and complete physical breakdown.  She had given up her daughter for a man who was now going to marry his cousin.

As part of the divorce settlement, Einstein agreed to give Maric all monies he received from the Nobel Prize which he expected to win because he had been nominated five times by that point.  One has to ask why would Maric receive all of the Nobel Prize money?  Why not simply a portion?  Why any at all?  This is a man who didn’t support his children financially.  Why would that man give his loathed ex-wife all the money for work that was supposedly completely his own?  And why are the Einstein-Maric divorce papers sealed?

When Maric & Einstein’s youngest son, Eduard, began having schizophrenic episodes in 1930, Einstein blamed the unstable nature of the Maric family.  He pointed the finger at Maric’s breakdown during the time of their divorce, neglecting to acknowledge his own several nervous breakdowns.  He pointed to Maric’s sister, Zosia, as further evidence of the Maric family instability.  Zosia was an alcoholic, but Einstein knew that she had been gang-raped as a teenager by Croatian soldiers.

Einstein left Europe for Princeton in 1933 and never saw Eduard again.  They did correspond, and during one of his stays at Burgholzli Clinic, Eduard sent his father a poem he had written.  Einstein critiqued the poem and returned it to his Eduard.

Maric paid for Eduard’s treatment at Burgholzli Clinic.  She had bought two houses with the Nobel Prize money, one to live in and one to rent.  Eventually, she sold the rental house to help with the medical expenses.  After electro-shock treatment Eduard was unable to recover.  Ultimately, Mileva needed to sell her own home in order to survive financially.  She made an agreement for Einstein to buy her house in Zurich and allow her to live in it for the rest of her life [she was 73].  Einstein bought the house, then immediately served Maric with an eviction notice.  She died of a stroke shortly thereafter.

Albert Einstein’s papers were sealed for 25 years after his death in 1955, while his intellectual and saintly reputation was not only protected, but expanded and solidified so that he is quoted by everyone from self-help gurus to plumbers.  Now that a portion of his papers have been released and his life has been scrutinized, his sainthood has been deeply tarnished and it is clear that Mileva Maric made unrecognized contributions to the theories that made her husband famous.

There are those who would argue against Maric’s involvement, wanting to represent that Einstein arrived in a scientific vacuum to publish the equation e=mc2. Einstein donated his brain to science because he was sure it was ordinary, but given that Einstein’s IQ has been estimated anywhere from 175 to 220, one has to ask why Einstein never took the Binet-Simon IQ test developed in 1905 to prove it?  Or maybe he did and the results were suppressed because the results weren’t as stellar as expected.  And why no more important papers after separating from Maric?

When a reporter once asked him the speed of sound, Einstein couldn’t give the answer, claiming he didn’t like to clutter up his mind with facts he could look up in a book.  In France, Paul Langevin came up with the algebraic equation e=mc2 at the very same time it was published under Einstein’s name, and since Langevin developed sonar radar, he also knew the speed of sound.

Why didn’t Maric insist on credit for the theories?  First of all, when one considers that she couldn’t even insist on Einstein marrying her when she was pregnant, insisting would have been futile.  But she did insist on the monies from the Nobel Prize and got it.  How that happened is sealed in the divorce papers.  More to the point, considering the turmoil Maric went through just getting into the marriage with Einstein, given her naturally shy nature and the secret of Liserl’s birth, Maric would have avoided the fame that her husband sought.

Thank you for that fascinating article, Alana. I’m off to look up Maric now.

Alana’s book, Saints In The Shadows is available now (and so is mine, obviously). You can find out more about her books and short films on her website  or on IMDB

Doctor January is released in e-Format!

Doctor Janaury book cover
Doctor January Lab-Lit Romance

 

I’ve ever so excited today. First there was the news that Doctor January was released as an ebook today – a whole month and a bit before the paperback comes out.

And then the post arrived:

A box of author copies of Doctor January in paperback.
The BEST parcel ever!

 

Now I feel like a real grown-up author! Woohoo!

I would LOVE it if you could share my good news. Any shares, tweets, G+s, telling your friends etc would be very much appreciated. Thank you in advance!

Right. Now I need to go celebrate with an ice cream sundae.

 

Doctor January- a book trailer in Lego

I’m having an exciting day. Not because it’s valentine’s day. We don’t really ‘do’ valentine’s day in our house. The first (and last) valentine’s day meal DH and I went to was a disaster, now recounted with much hilarity. It was so awful, we decided never to bother again. Every 13th of February, he does a little panicky check “we’re still not doing valentine’s day, right?” and that’s about it. Just as well, really, because I’d forget. I have a terrible memory for dates.

So, if it’s not that, what’s so exciting? The LEGO movie, that’s what! I love Lego. Sadly, my children don’t. I’ve tried my best to get them into it so that I have an excuse to buy more Lego, but no. They are stubbornly ambivalent. However, my six year old loves playing with the camera on my smart phone. So we combined the two interests and made a Lego trailer for my 2014 book Doctor January. In fact, we made two. Here they are:

My daughter’s favourite:

Dr Jan book trailer

My favourite:

Doctor January by Rhoda Baxter.

What do you think? Which do you prefer?

Engineering – Not just for boys

Someone at work showed me this ad today. I think it’s fantastic! The toys (Goldi blox) aren’t available in the UK at the moment, but I’m sure they’ll get across here soon. When they do, I intend to buy my daughter some of these. When she gets tired of them, I can play with them!

I’m not overly bothered about pink, but I do object to things been classified as ‘for girls’ or ‘for boys’. I played with dolls (Sindy – nice, Barbies – always the baddie and Jem – just awesome). I also played with He-Man toys, Lego and Meccano I used to LOVE Meccano. I don’t think there’s any right or wrong toys. Just so long as you don’t tell your kids they can’t play with one sort or another.

My friend’s son wanted a pram for his 3rd birthday. When told it was a ‘girl’s toy’, he said, “But Why? Daddy pushes one”. Quite right too.

I’m a big fan of Terry Pratchett, so imagine my annoyance when he said “I’ve always thought that my fans were all geeks and scientists, but when I went to my book signings, there were a lot of attractive young ladies there.”

It didn’t seem to have occurred to him that there might be an overlap between the two groups.  This is the man who wrote Equal Rites. I wouldn’t call him particularly sexist. It was a comment that came out naturally. Which tells you something about how pervasive these views are.

So go on girls. Build stuff, knock stuff down. Take things apart. It’s fun. (Please tidy up when you’ve done though, or mummy gets very annoyed and goes all shouty).

Okay. I’m off to have a sneaky play with my daughter’s Hex bug nano set while she’s asleep. Shhh…