"When I performed surgery, I risked my patient’s life. But when a xenotransplant surgeon performs surgery, he’s also risking the lives of his patient’s neighbors down the street!"
Those were the first words the surgeon protagonist in my new medical thriller, The Xeno Solution (Forge, October 2005), whispered in my head -- back in 1995!
Writing a book is often like traversing a mine field – you never know where the bombs are hidden, and when they unexpectedly blow up in your face, you need to be able to change direction, and even replace body parts…
Ten years ago, I was Senior Research Analyst at an internationally-renowned medical think tank where I analyzed new, controversial medical technologies. One of my colleagues was working on "xenotransplantation" – the transplanting of organs (such as kidneys, livers, or hearts) from animals (primarily pigs) into desperately-ill people destined to die without a donated organ. The potential solution was both fascinating and horrifying. Such surgeries could save hundreds of thousands of people every year. It also could ignite a deadly plague by inadvertently transferring animal viruses to people. (Think HIV/AIDS, and now the Avian Flu!) What a quandary for a doctor! For patients! Save yourself but maybe kill your neighbor? This would make a powerful novel!
Despite my excitement at the idea, my own research took over. At the time, I was analyzing high-dose chemotherapy with bone marrow transplants for treating women with breast cancer. In the late 1980s and through the early 90s, this was supposedly the new panacea for medicine. There was only one problem -- the more I analyzed the studies, the poorer the results looked. And the research appeared to be poor quality. Women were dying with treatments that clearly did not work, but were being led to believe otherwise by leading investigators in the field. I was outraged, and decided that my first novel would be about a fake cure for cancer cooked up by doctors who stood to profit before the bubble burst. The xenotransplantation idea was filed away.
Two years later, my novel on the fake cancer cure was ready. Amazingly, without any difficulty, I got a supposedly high-powered agent. He wasted no time in distributing my first baby to his contacts. Every editor rejected the novel. Why? Because they all agreed that such a thing could never happen in medicine. Left with no immediate options (unless I decided to write a novel about a conspiracy between the publishing and medical communities), I put the novel in storage -- but never forgot it.
I started writing a new novel, GermLine, about gene therapy. Fast forward two years -- GermLine was snapped up by my (current) literary agent, and six months later, sold to Forge Books. In the meantime, I went back to that first novel and jazzed it up a bit. Two weeks after sending the newly refurbished manuscript to my agent, headlines around the world reported that the innovative cancer therapy did not work. A key doctor’s research was proven fraudulent, and other studies were corroborating what I’d said five years earlier. Great -- I was vindicated, but my book was officially dead.
So ok -- now was the time to write that novel on xenotransplantation -- the field had gotten hotter than ever. Adapting some of the characters and chase scenes from the cancer novel, I wrote The Xeno Solution in eight months. My agent proudly placed it on my editor’s desk on September 4 -- 2001. And a week later, the world changed.
The release of my first novel, GermLine is delayed -- and so is The Xeno Solution.
Fast-forward again -- to 2004, and we’re ready at last to proceed with The Xeno Solution. As both author and medical professional, I must admit that in the three years since submitting the novel, I found it gratifying that I predicted all the scientific advancements in this new field of medicine (including national databases and "knockout" genes) in my novel. It’s been both scary and exciting.
Ultimately, I guess if I had to reduce this experience to key lessons for beginning writers they’d be: (1) believe in yourself (but hold your ego in check); (2) never throw anything away; (3) don’t be afraid to "retool" and/or adapt what has already been rejected; and (4) be persistent.
From here on out? It all comes down to one thing -- generating sales! Like Billy Joel says, "…But if I go cold, I won’t get sold. I’ll get put in the back in the discount rack, like another can of beans." Let the games begin.