Let's be scientific about this

24th July 1998 at 01:00
What is the key to writing good non-fiction? Understanding your subject, and caring about it.It might sound obvious, but it took me 10 years as a modestly successful writer of scientific non-fiction to come to this conclusion.

At that point in my career I had made just enough money to be able to write a book without selling the idea to a publisher first. I wrote the book which I had always wished somebody else had written for me to read, about quantum reality and the people who had been involved in the quantum revolution in the first half of the 20th century.The book, In Search of Schrodinger's Cat, was turned down by eight publishers, who could see no general interest in a book about quantum physics. The ninth published it, in 1984, and it has been reprinted at least once in every year but one since then. None of my earlier books is still in print.

I had already done an enormous amount of background research, because I had been fascinated by the subject since I was 17. It isn't very helpful to suggest that the best way to write a book is to spend 10 years in higher education, culminating in a PhD, then another 10 reading around the subject, before committing yourself to print, but it certainly helped in this case. If what you know and care about is steam trains or azaleas, write about steam trains or azaleas (at least as a first book). Don't try to be clever and copy whatever trends happen to be in the bestseller lists this week. (But don't write a book about the sun; I wrote two, and nobody bought them. I've no idea why - people just don't buy books about the sun.)

While writing Schrodinger's Cat, I found myself increasingly intrigued by the personal lives of the scientists involved in the quantum revolution,

and putting in more and more about them, while worrying that I was cluttering up the story. But readers liked it. They said they enjoyed learning about, say, Heisenberg's hay fever, and discovering that the names they saw attached

to laws and principles in the textbooks had belonged to real people. It's another obvious lesson: people like reading about people. So personal details have had a prominent place in all my subsequent books, a clutch of scientific biographies among them.

The boost all this gave to my career in the mid-Eighties allowed me to indulge a childhood dream of writing science fiction. Seven of my novels were published, but it was a waste of time financially, as my agent never tired of reminding me. There was a curious side-effect: my non-fiction books got better.

It was partly practice, of course, but also I had started writing non-fiction using a structure more commonly found in fiction: developing themes; laying false leads and wandering off into sub-plots; producing unexpected twists and a grand climax. And all with believable characters who would interest the reader. I was happy to be able to point out to my agent that all the time "wasted" on writing sci-fi had been directly responsible for the improvement in my writing ability that had moved me up into the bread and jam league.

If you're planning to write a non-fiction book, remember that you are telling a story, which has to grip the reader in the beginning, maintain their interest in the middle, and leave them satisfied at the end. Even if you don't write fiction, read some of the good stuff and learn how stories work; don't read non-fiction, which rarely has any literary merit (although there are exceptions, such as the books of Richard Feynman, a master storyteller ).

It works both ways, of course. The collaborator on one of my novels, The Sixth Winter, was Douglas Orgill, a fine writer who had no knowledge of science. Early in the development of the story, Douglas called me with a problem. He had got our scientist-hero into a sticky situation, and wanted to know how he would react. I asked Douglas how he would react himself. He told me. "Then that's the way he would act," I said. "Scientists are people."

Collaborators can make a difference with non-fiction as well. They give you instant expertise in some new and fascinating area of science, which is how I became perceived to be an expert in evolutionar y biology. (As Isaac Asimov once said: "I'm really an expert at only one thing - sounding like an expert.")

It is also a good idea to come up with a sexy title. But not too sexy; when In Search of the Big Bang was published, Penthouse requested a review copy.

I have also been told the success of In Search of Schrodinger's Cat is partly due to the public fascination with furry animals, and the cute picture on the cover.

My problem is that the outlet for my fiction has dried up, with the demise of the publishing company that had signed up novel number eight. My agent is delighted, as all my creative abilities (such as they are) are focused once again on the stuff that pays the mortgage.

Desperate for a hobby, I've been forced back into part-time scientific research - which is just like writing science fiction. In both cases, people have wild ideas, wondering "what if" the universe did this or that. In one line of work, the person with the idea rushes off and writes a novel; in the other line, they try to find out if the universe really is like that. I recently measured the age of the universe (13 billion years, if you're interested). There'll probably be a book in it, one day. But I'd much rather be writing fiction.

Dr John Gribbin is a visiting fellow in astronomy at the University of Sussex. He is the author (or co-author) of 80 non-fiction books, seven published science fiction novels, and two rather good unpublished ones which he would be glad to show to any interested publisher

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