Thursday, April 24, 2014

Writing, Biology and the Value of Failure

Posted by: A. J. Larrieu
My debut novel came out a few weeks ago, and one of the most common questions I’ve gotten is this: What’s a biologist doing writing urban fantasy and paranormal romance? I know it sounds weird, but there are more science-types writing fiction than you might think. Jennifer McQuiston is a historical romance writer as well as an infectious disease researcher. Stephanie Laurens also writes historical romance, and she has a former career as a cancer biologist. Diana Gabaldon is another biology Ph.D. who writes… one’s pinned Outlander to a specific genre yet, so I won’t be the one to try. Jeffe Kennedy, another Here Be Magic member who writes fantasy and erotic romance, has a background in neurobiology. And I’m sure there are plenty more out there.

So, what’s up with all these biologists writing fiction? The truth is, I don’t think biology and writing are as different as they seem. Biological systems are complex and mysterious, and every time we try to pin them down and understand them, they slip away again, offering some new piece of data that throws all of our previous ideas out the window. They’re like the best kinds of stories that way, full of surprises.

That’s the good side of things. The other way biology and writing are similar is that they’re both full of failure.

I've never failed as often or as completely as I did when I was in graduate school in biology. Biology is like the Baskin Robbins of failure—31 flavors and then some. Experiments don’t work. Sometimes those experiments take days, weeks, months or even years to set up and perform. Sometimes they work, but they give you the opposite answer from the one you wanted, an answer that means your paper won’t be published or your grant won’t be renewed. And when an experiment does work? You spend years running all the controls and follow-up studies, write a paper about it and submit it to a scientific journal, only to be rejected. You present your data to your colleagues, only to be shot down in an auditorium full of your peers. Biology is full to the brim with more kinds of failure than I ever knew existed.

I don’t have to tell the writers out there that this sounds awfully familiar. And all you can do is keep working and hope for a stroke of luck.

But, it was useful training to go through all that failure as a biologist. It made the inevitable rejections of the publishing industry a little easier to take, but it also helped me to understand the value of failure. We tend to think of failure as something to avoid, something inarguably negative. But failure and creativity go hand in hand. The most exciting ideas are the ones that are on the edge of what’s possible—whether that’s in the world or in your head. There are failures of execution—the times I just didn’t do my work carefully enough—but there are also failures of exploration—the times when a failure was necessary to lead me to some shiny, brand new question I hadn’t known existed. Learning how to fail—and how to recognize the good kind of failure—helped me learn where the interesting things are, where the edges of our understanding are. Where the good stuff is.

Even though it still kinda sucks.

What do you think the value of failure is?

A.J. Larrieu is a biophysicist by day and a paranormal fiction author by night. Her most recent release, Twisted Miracles, is the first in a new urban fantasy series set in New Orleans. Find out more at


  1. Excellent post, AJ - and, no surprise, I totally agree. Graduate school definitely thickened my skin and prepped me for the world of writing-related rejections! I've always liked the idea of failure as a way to correct course. Only by deviating and feeling that slap, can we be sure that we're on the correct path to the goal. :-)

    1. It's useful, right? It can help you correct course or open up new doors. Highly underrated. (And may I say, your comment was spoken like a true BDSM erotic writer ;)

    2. heh. a little corrective punishment never hurt anybody... much ;-)


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