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Out With the ‘F’ Words : The Technical Aspects of Maralys Wills’ O.C.-Set Thriller Have Been Praised but She Says De-Feminizing the Work Was What Made It Publishable

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a woman writing in what is predominantly a man’s genre, Maralys Wills knew her techno-thriller about a psychopathic computer genius sabotaging a line of computer-piloted airplanes would have to appeal to male readers. Publishing house editors praised the technical aspects of Wills’ Orange County-set novel.

But after several rejections and an equal number of rewrites, she couldn’t understand why it still wasn’t selling.

So Wills, whose writing credits include four romance novels, gave the manuscript to a friend, “one of the most masculine men I know: A man’s man all the way. I said, ‘You read a lot of these; what’s wrong with it?’ ”

He spotted the problem immediately: It was too feminine. When Wills said she wasn’t sure what he meant, the friend reread the manuscript, marking the margins with the letter B for boring, W for wordy and F for feminine.

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“When I got the manuscript back, there were almost no Bs or Ws, but it was littered with Fs,” said Wills, 64.

“He’d say things like, ‘Men don’t say, “Let’s leave now.” They say, “Let’s shove off.’ ” And he said men don’t talk in complete sentences, and he’d slash words in my dialogue for the male point of view. I got into a habit of listening to men talk, and he was right.”

Wills also rewrote the sex scenes--"He said they were too romantic"--and reworked the attitudes of the pilots whose planes are experiencing potentially fatal trouble: “I had to make the cockpit scenes tighter, removing all real elements of fear and make the pilots more hard-bitten.”

Wills describes this de-feminizing process as “getting rid of all the ‘F’ words.”

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“I’m sure that made all the difference,” said Wills, who sold her book shortly thereafter. “In fact, one of the editors who rejected it early on said to me, ‘You’ve really changed this book. If I hadn’t known it was written by a woman, I’d have thought it was written by a man.’ ”

The hero of “Scatterpath” (Lyford Books; $19.95) is air safety investigator Alan Wilcox, who begins keeping track of a series of strange glitches cropping up on airplanes controlled by computers: planes briefly going into unexpected holding patterns and cockpit warning lights coming on for no reason.

When the incidents become more serious--planes going into unexpected rolls and brake systems failing--and directed at one line of computer-piloted aircraft, Wilcox begins to suspect sabotage. Putting his job, marriage and the well-being of one of his children on the line, the single-minded investigator sets out to find out what is behind this mysterious series of mishaps.

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Kirkus Reviews praises “Scatterpath"--the term used to describe the lay of debris after an aircraft hits the ground--for its “chillingly authentic asides on air crashes . . . dead-on command of black box and procedural detail.”

The New York Times Book Review calls it “exciting, down-to-the-wire stuff, well told by Ms. Wills, a competent writer who has apparently done her homework. Her cockpit sequences all but put the reader at the controls.”

Wills’ inspiration for writing her first techno-thriller came in 1988 after reading a newspaper headline that said arson investigators were going to begin determining the cause of a high-rise fire in downtown Los Angeles.

“I wondered how they could possibly do that when everything has been burned up,” she said, recalling thinking that that would make a great premise for a novel.

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Wills said she’s not that interested in fire, but she has been interested in aviation since two of her sons began hang-gliding 20 years ago: She chronicled her sons’ fascination with the sport--and their deaths in separate hang-gliding accidents--in her 1992 book “Higher Than Eagles: The Tragedy and Triumph of an American Family.”

After reading about the arson investigators, Wills wondered: Is it possible to sabotage a line of aircraft so that nobody--not even an investigator--knew what was going on?

To find out, she talked to Jeff Rich, one of five field investigators for the western regional office of the National Transportation Safety Board.

“That was about the luckiest call of my life,” she said. “Jeff Rich was a gold mine of information and helpfulness.”

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Wills made an appointment to meet with Rich, finding him sitting in “the smallest, overcrowded, most unimpressive little office” in a big government building in Hawthorne.

And in this tiny office, she said, “was stored all the material he’d accumulated over numerous investigations--every surface was covered with boxes and orange crates of airplane parts and files. There wasn’t a place to sit down or an inch to move.”

Despite the investigators’ cramped quarters, she said, “I noticed a very strong esprit de corps and a great sense of pride that with minimum government funding and government help they are able to to do such real and important work.”

Wills said the air safety investigators “are all extremely knowledgeable.

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“Most of them are pilots and they have expertise in six or seven major areas such as weather conditions, human physiology and the ins and outs of drug behavior in human bodies. They also have an expertise in basic airplane construction, including not only the structural parts but the workings of the engines in a great number of aircraft. And they have to understand human psychology because there’s a lot of cockpit psychology that enters in crashes.”

Wills said she learned that Rich, the role model for the novel’s Alan Wilcox, and his fellow investigators are “virtually slaves” who, when they’re on call “have to go immediately when called. They stop dinner, lunch, whatever they’re doing and just go, and yet they’re so dedicated. They love what they’re doing.”

In talking to Rich, Wills said, he conceded that there are very few ways to sabotage a plane that a good investigator couldn’t immediately figure out.

But, yes, he told her, it would be theoretically possible if you could get a mad computer genius to foul up the computer software. But it would only be possible on what are called fly-by-wire planes, those planes that are fully computerized and the pilot has little to do except monitor the computerized readouts.

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Wills said that with the fly-by-wire planes, “the pilots really just oversee what’s going on. The danger is they have so little to do that they can become inattentive to the requirements of flying a plane if something does go wrong with the computer systems.”

Wills said that unexplainable computer glitches do occasionally occur on partially automated aircraft--a plane, for example, may briefly go into a holding pattern for no apparent reason. But so far, she said, none of the reported incidents has had serious consequences.

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Currently, she said, the only fully computer-controlled aircraft is the French-made Airbus, which a number of airline companies have purchased. And except for an Airbus that crashed during takeoff at an air show in France due to a failure in the computerized system, she said, problems have only been small glitches that haven’t become more serious.

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Wills concedes that it’s theoretically possible but highly unlikely that the airline sabotage scheme in her novel could really become a formula for disaster.

“The person involved in this sort of thing would have to know so much about both computers and aircraft function,” she said. “Plus, he would have to be a computer genius--and crazy--and would have to have access to the software systems. So it would be almost impossible for all those factors to coincide at once.”

Wills said she worked closely with Rich, to whom she has dedicated her novel, for 1 1/2 years while writing “Scatterpath.”

She knew where she was going with the story, she said, but she’d call up Rich and say, “Jeff I need a crash in Las Vegas. Tell me about the runway, why it could be a problem in Las Vegas. He gave me the scenarios that could indicate something wrong with the computer system but would cause a minor crash.”

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Wills said she compares the process of tapping Rich’s expertise “to unexpectedly finding yourself at the controls of an aircraft and being talked through it from the ground. Jeff Rich talked me through these sequences and scenarios exactly like that. I couldn’t have done it alone.”

Wills, who became a full-time writer in 1980 with her first nonfiction book, “Manbirds: Hang Gliders and Hang Gliding,” said she had never thought about writing a thriller before “Scatterpath.”

But she just may have found her niche: She’s now working on two medical thrillers.

This time, however, she doesn’t have to go far for technical advice: Her lawyer husband, Bob, defends doctors in medical malpractice cases, and son Chris is an orthopedic surgeon.

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