Decisions, decisions…

Books have always been dear to me. As a child/young adult, I skipped directly to adult books and was known to read 7-8 different books in parallel (now 3-4 is my limit + audiobooks for the car, and the new PLAYAWAY audio books for my treadmilling and exercise). My immersion in a good novel became so complete that my parents could shout at me in front of my face and I wouldn’t notice. Now my kids shout at me when I’m reading and damage incurred from the military prevents me from hearing (and it’s heading south–no offense intended for those of you in NZ).

In fact, in boot camp, I used to shove torn pages from books that I was reading in my pockets so I’d have an escape when endlessly waiting in the hot sun. I can even remember lighting a candle in a 2-man pup tent in the field, with 2 hours to sleep, in order to read and stay sane.

At some point, I began to fancy myself as a potential author. I wrote and published a few short stories online, but always dreamed of writing novels. And then it hit me. In the middle of my Ph.D. 200 pages or so gushed out of me in a week when I was sick with a horrid flu and couldn’t get out of bed. I had to do something.

Flash forward. 13 years an agent and a bazillion submissions later and I gave up on finding a publisher. Not that I tried very hard after the first two years, although we had just moved to the US and the opportunities were greater than faraway Jerusalem. But I was a tad busy with my post-doc and other minor issues.

Luckily, I had saved a paper draft, and even (very fortunately) moved from Dinosaur-WORD to semi-modern WORD, and from floppy disc to CD. Last year I decided that it was time to publish “Matter Over Mind,” because when I wrote it as a 30 y old graduate student, the protagonist was a 37 y old PI fighting for tenure. When I finally self-published “Matter Over Mind” I was a 45 year old tenured associate professor. Prophetic?

I don’t regret the self-publishing route at all. For one, I’ve learned a huge amount about writing novels. It’s been 11 months and I’ve sold somewhere in the range of 450 books (paperback + Kindle)–mostly by being a pain in the ass and including a slide about the book at seminars, handing out “Matter Over Mind bookmarks”  at scientific meetings and reviews and being generally aggressive in personalized marketing. An example is the recent “trailer” I put together, inspired by Dr. Amy Roger’s eye-catching trailer on her new science thriller “Petroplague” and by our own Stephen Curry’s dramatic and enthralling trailer “Coming Soon.”

More amateurish, but entirely homemade:

The best thing all about Matter Over Mind and self-publishing, though, was the opportunity to meet and connect with so many great people, here on OT and at Lablit.

So by now, all three of you (see, I have 50% more readers than Henry) are thoroughly confused. What is Steve ranting on about. This is old news-what’s published is published.

Ahhh, yes. But in this past year, I’ve been avidly writing novel #2: “Welcome Home, Sir” (WHS). WHS is also a lablit novel, and I am including a brief summary for any of the three of you who might show interest (because I do not have a fancy trailer or anything else to show):

Welcome Home, Sir—Summary

Dr. Ethan Meyer is a professor of biochemistry who conducts scientific research and teaches at an American academic institution. Outwardly, he is a poster-child for success; he runs his laboratory with efficiency and care, projects an air of confidence, and is highly respected. Inwardly, Ethan feels as though he is coming apart at the seams, as the post-traumatic stress disorder he incurred in the Israeli army spirals into a cycle of tortuous hypochondria and threatens to unravel his personal life.

As Ethan battles his symptoms and struggles with his dual American-Israeli identity, seeking help from a psychologist but avoiding medication, he embarks on a path of self-discovery. Through a series of darkly humorous flashbacks, he realizes how his own military service—the apparent cause of his current condition—has molded his character and contributed to his academic successes.

While fighting his personal demons and struggling to keep his family together, Ethan must also navigate a series of crises at work—culminating with the dismissal of a foreign student for fabricating lab results. As the departure of his wife and child for Israel leave him with no choice but to up-the-ante in the struggle to control his hypochondria, Ethan comes to realize that his student may have been framed, and he races against time to correct his error.

I completed WHS early this summer, after receiving some tremendous literary and editorial advice from veteran author Jenny Rohn–to whom I am extremely grateful–and who I see joins Henry in immortality on Wikipedia. Then I began the usually arduous process of looking for an agent or publisher. My hope was to break my record of 13 years and perhaps–yes, just perhaps, to find a real publisher.

Imagine my surprise when among my first 20 submissions I found a potentially interested small publisher. True, these days anyone can be a publisher, but this company is owned and run by a professor of English literature. As importantly, Anaphora Literary Press publishes volumes of poetry and literary fiction, and most of its small club of authors are previously published authors, academics, journalists, even award-winning playrights or “generally important people.”

Wasn’t it Woody Allen who once said that he’d never want to join a club that had someone like him as a member?

So why “decisions, decisions…?”

I guess some people are never satisfied–perhaps that’s even more evident with scientists. I remember 2 occurrences in my life that remind me of this situation. 1) As a masters student, I submitted my first ever manuscript to a journal called “Cancer Immunology Immunotherapy.” I had 2 advisers in 2 different departments in 2 different buildings. One had a huge lab, was always traveling, and I’d have to camp out in his outer office late in the evening and ambush him for time. He was the one who worked with me on the manuscript, but I sat and worked mostly in the other lab. What this meant was that I had to make a lot of decisions that were not usually made by Msc. students.

For example, when I submitted the manuscript (yes, me, all by myself), I saw something about “corresponding author.” Not knowing any better, I put myself down. It’s astonishing now to think that the next time I would be “corresponding author” wasn’t until years later when I had my own lab.

Back to the point. When the paper came back it was virtually accepted as is. One reviewer wanted a word changed in the title. That was it. Little did I know that this would rarely if ever be repeated in the course of my career. I showed the letter from the editor to my advisor, and he almost threw it at me. “I knew we should have tried for a better journal,” he said.

My other experience was in a job search, when I was immediately offered a faculty position on my very first interview. I had barely sent out any applications yet. I had no reference–nothing to which I could compare. In this case I passed. Did it turn out to be a wise career choice? I think so, but I have no “control,” no parallel universe for comparison.

Well, let’s finish up. The three of you are up well past your bedtime. To make a long decision short–I signed on the dotted line and had an extra glass of red wine at dinner. Or maybe two–or three. Well who’s counting?

I will keep you all updated–whether you want it or not. And for me, now I can turn my attention to novel #3. You have been warned.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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22 Responses to Decisions, decisions…

  1. Amy Rogers says:

    So you decided to go for it with Anaphora–congratulations. Remember there is no “right” or “wrong” decision, so don’t look back and enjoy the ride! And now you are member of another elite club (in addition to the scientist club, the PhD club, the smaller still university professor club…): published authors. How many people dream, or talk, of writing a novel? You’ve done it–twice–and a perfectly intelligent stranger in the business says your work is good, good enough to invest in.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Thanks, Amy! The age of Publish-on-Demand has really opened up opportunities, both for self-publishing, which used to be a major (and almost always, losing) capital venture, and for the growing number of small presses, often family or individual run. I guess the jury is still out as to whether a non-exclusive contract with a small press is likely: a) to increase the prospects for a big press book deal, b) decrease the chances (even by the author stopping to search), c) have no impact.

      Thanks for all the great advice, and remember to let us non-e-bookers know when Petroplague is on paper!

  2. cromercrox says:

    Good luck – and thanks for the reminder to buy Matter Over Mind. I must say I do envy your marketing cojones – you have sold ten more copies of Matter over Mind than I’ve sold By The Sea.

  3. cromercrox says:

    I meant ten times as many copies. D’oh.

  4. chall says:

    Congratulations! Sounds like quite the fun thing and interesting stories in between then and now.

    (…as the third commentor 😉 who also recognizes the ability to shut out the world while reading…. )

  5. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Congratulations, Steve! That’s great!

    (I bought Matter over Mind, but haven’t read it yet. Sorry).

  6. Steve Caplan says:

    Thanks to Chall and Cath. BTW, there’s even a (comical) scene in M.O.M. where two couples go to a hockey game at the old Maple Leaf Gardens (that was probably before your time…).

  7. Steve Caplan says:

    @Chall If I recall correctly, you hail from Sweden. I am so ‘over-the-hill’, when I went to hockey games in Winnipeg, Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilson and Lar Erik Shoeberg were the heroes…

    • chall says:

      Ah… _that_ old Steve 😉

      Joke aside, at least I remember that Winnipeg had a hockey team once. Sure that counts for something?!

  8. Steve Caplan says:

    Hey children, behave!

    Yes Wpg. apparently now has a team. When I was a wee lad, the General Manager was a guy named John Ferguson. His claim to fame was passing up on taking Wayne Gretzky in the draft, saying he wasn’t “man enough.” Instead, he opted for Jimmy “the man” Mann. Jimmy led the league perenially in three columns: penalty minutes, and number of goals scored against the team while he was in the penalty box, and the worst ratio of goals-for vs goals-against in these rare minutes he actually spent on the ice.

    What makes Wpg. special is that the fans absolutely loved him. Go figure. Winnipeg.

  9. cromercrox says:

    The Canaries are currently above the Gunners in the Premiership table. Treasure it while it lasts.

    • chall says:

      heh – surprise that I would be a fan of that too….. duh. Maybe I should start a “which ever team is my fave is prob. not going to do well this season (either)” ^^

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