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Blogs, Interviews and Reviews

Blog: Seven Things I’ve Learned So Far (About Being a Scientist-Writer)

Originally appeared on Writersdigest.com on August 11, 2015

The most frequent question I’m asked (besides “Where do you find the time?”) is “How does a scientist become a writer? And why?” I realize that’s two questions, but they almost always go together. I’m not sure I have the definitive answers, but here are seven things I’ve learned along the way of this slightly less common journey.

1. Your day job enables your night job. For the purposes of this blog, my “day” job is that of a scientist, and my “night” job is being a writer. The best thing about having a dual career is that your day job relieves the pressure on your writing career. You have a day job that enables you to provide for yourself and/or family. The time you set aside for writing is just that- it’s not to make the next mortgage payment, or pay the electric bill, or anything else. Having no one depending on your writing’s financial success is a tremendous gift I’ve only recently appreciated. I once asked a poet whom I greatly admired whether I should conduct coursework towards a graduate degree in science or writing. She wasted no time in telling me to become a scientist. As she put it… you can always be a scientist and write poetry on the side, but not vice versa. I took her advice and never regretted it.

2. Your day job informs your night job. This may not be the case for everyone, but it’s the case for me, and probably the majority of other writers. Just ask Patricia Cornwell, or Brad Parks, or Michael Connelly or Scott Turow…just four writers that instantly pop into mind. Almost every writer living today had a day job at some point that informed their writing. For me, being a molecular biologist has kept me at the forefront of genetic research…which has in turn fed plot lines for my novels, including The Ripper Gene and future stories as well.

3. Your day job provides a “platform” for your night job. Having a social presence related to your day job gives you a baseline audience for your writing career. As a scientist, my most powerful social media circle was not Facebook, Twitter, or Goodreads. It was Linked In, where I had well over 1,000 scientific connections. That doesn’t sound like much in these days of the Twitterverse and viral Youtube videos… but it’s a solid baseline that enables you to immediately inform all of those colleagues and friends about your writing pursuits. I can’t count how many scientific colleagues from years ago have reached out, telling me that they’ve pre-ordered a copy of The Ripper Gene… just because I’d mentioned it a few times on Linked In.

4. Your day job establishes a network for your night job. This is similar to # 3 but is less about social media and more about bonafide, living, breathing connectivity with other human beings. I recall stepping away from a laboratory tour in Singapore earlier this year, once the tour began delving into technical details around a procedure…and how three of us- a genetic engineer from Singapore, a bioinformatics expert from Japan, and a biomedical researcher from the U.S.- discovered to our collective delight that we were all artists “on the side”: a painter, a photographer, and a novelist. Halfway around the world, there we sat, enjoying for a few minutes the fact that we had something in common beyond…the day job.

5. Your day job can severely cut into your night job. I hope readers weren’t expecting all the truths to be favorable? Because of number one above, when push comes to shove, you have to prioritize your day job if its the one providing the income and security. While deadlines, “firestorms” and urgent business requirements can all dowse your creative energy on their own, they also take you away from your writing desk. The ultimate reality is that when things go awry at the day job, there are repercussions on your writing. The key, therefore, is not avoiding them (impossible), but rather learning how to minimize their adverse impact.

6. Your day job colleagues will fall into one of two camps about you. The most interesting thing I’ve learned is that there are only two types of scientists in the world. There is the first type who, upon learning that you are a writer, think it’s the coolest thing they’ve ever heard, and are effusively supportive. Then there is the second type— the scientists whose eyes literally glaze over when you tell them, or worse, whose eyes narrow as they take a step back, distrusting you forever from that moment forward. It is actually amazing how many scientists are distrustful of other scientists who do anything else outside science. All in all, it’s a bit of a crapshoot when you decide to tell colleagues about your ‘night job”… so Writers Beware.

7. Your day job won’t become vestigial immediately after you publish your debut novel. This is a bit facetious, but I was recently chatting with a best selling author who has taken me under her wing. Given the woeful chances that a debut novel “breaks out” any given year, her advice was to not focus on breaking free from the fetters of the day job, but rather on establishing yourself as a writer whose work merits further publication and an ever-increasing readership. She said it wasn’t about how fast you start the race, but rather how far you ultimately go - the old tortoise and hare analogy. She then relayed to me the story of a friend (another NYT best-selling author) who was making > $1M per advance by his fifth book… and still didn’t quit his day job until his 13th book came out.

So there you have it. And here’s to hoping we new writers all have the same predicament after our 5th and 13th, books, respectively!

Column by Michael Ransom, author, poet, editor, professor, scientist, fly-fisherman, inventor, husband, and father. A recognized expert in the fields of toxicogenomics and pharmacogenetics, he is widely published in scientific journals and has edited multiple textbooks to date. He is currently a pharmaceutical researcher and an adjunct professor in the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Part of the author’s real-life research involves scanning the 3.2 billion nucleotides of human DNA to identify tiny alterations that influence individuals’ susceptibility to disease.

In The Ripper Gene, he uses his knowledge of cutting-edge genomics to lay the foundation for the character of Dr. Lucas Madden, a neuroscientist-turned-FBI agent who applies a controversial genetic approach to behavioral profiling as he pursues an unconventional serial killer across the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

For more about his debut novel The Ripper Gene, visit https://us.macmillan.com/therippergene/michaelransom and check out his author website at https://www.MichaelRansomBooks.com. Connect with him on Twitter or Facebook.

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