The Writer’s Life (With a Day Job)

PERIGEE [per-i-jee]: noun, Astronomy: The point in the orbit of a heavenly body or an artificial satellite at which it is nearest to the earth.

Like so many writers, I started a novel because it was something I wanted to read. Something that no one else was writing.

Perigee began almost seven years ago as a budding desire to write began to overcome me. Lots of disjointed ideas had been competing for space inside my head, but nothing would sit still long enough to take root.

Around this time, SpaceShip One became the first privately-owned vehicle to fly a man into space. To a geek like me, this was cool beyond words. It also came at a time when I had rediscovered my childhood interest in spaceflight and was steeping myself in both its history and technicalities.

Not long after that, Richard Branson founded Virgin Galactic, the world’s first “spaceline”. I was around-the-bend excited at the prospect.

Why? It’s not like I can afford a ticket.

True enough. But recall that I work in aviation and have a fair amount of expertise in some of the skill sets he’ll eventually (hopefully) need in larger numbers. When Branson described his long-term business goals, I was even more psyched. That is, he’d eventually like to start suborbital city-to-city service: imagine Sydney to LA in two hours at Mach 6, above the atmosphere.

Sounds nutty, until you remember that enough people were willing to pony up $200,000 per ticket for a 15-minute hop into space. Enough for Branson to contract for a whole fleet of SpaceShip Two’s. I’d wager his customers would be willing to pay at least that much for a longer ride that actually, you know, took them somewhere. I’d further be willing to bet that if it could be made routine enough, my own employer would be interested. Maybe not this decade, but certainly in my lifetime.

So, as an operations guy, I got to thinking…what would that kind of service look like? It’d have to run pretty much like an airline. Much better service, mind you – we’re not talking Southwest peanuts here – but still. And for the same reasons, I naturally started to wonder what kinds of things could go wrong up there (we do that a lot in this business).

Quite a bit, as it turns out. And that’s when a couple of ideas finally took root. Pretty soon, they coalesced into a storyline and began to flow.

Namely, what happens if something that wasn’t designed to go into orbit…goes into orbit? That would make for a bad day for a lot of people. Could you rescue them? Could the bird survive re-entry at those speeds (because being “in space” and “in orbit” can mean vastly different things). It would also provide lots of opportunities for dramatic interaction between the people stranded up there.

Now, I’m a fan of authors like Tom Clancy because he gets the tech right and builds interesting stories around it. Michael Crichton’s just-on-the-edge-of-possible stories were especially intriguing for the same reasons, and that’s the limited range of sci-fi that I prefer. While I enjoy watching Star Trek, I’d rather not read about how the Enterprise was saved from disaster at the last minute because, once again, Geordi reversed the polarity of the warp core. That’s too easy. Hell, you’d think by now he’d have installed an “emergency polarity-reversal” switch.

Anybody can make up scientific-sounding flapdoodle with no grounding in reality. I wanted my work to be believable. Doable. No “Easy Buttons”. So there would be much to learn. In the meantime, I started the book anyway because it didn’t make sense to wait for every question to be answered. I had a clear idea of how it would begin and how the action would be set up; learning how to solve Tsiolkovsky’s rocket equation would have to wait.

By now, you’re asking  “where does that day job come in?” As luck would have it, I ended up in an engineering-related job which was exactly where I wanted to be. The company sent me away to school for a few weeks at a time, and paid for me to take Calculus in between. It was awesome, the high point of my non-writing career so far. But it also left me with little time and even less motivation to write.

If you’re really happy with your day job, it can be harder to devote several hours a week to the keyboard. Especially if you have a family with small children. Writing is fun, but it’s also work that takes time. I can bang out a nonfiction magazine article in 45-minute chunks over a week or two. A novel doesn’t work like that: for it to be any good at all, you have to immerse yourself into an alternate reality of your own creation. But fortunately, I’d at least been keeping a notebook and wrote down every random thought about Perigee. And there were lots of ’em. They started waking me up at night, in fact. That’s when you know it’s time to do something, when either God or your own head just won’t leave you alone. You decide which is which.

About that time, a blessing in disguise came along: our computer died, taking 80-some pages of my manuscript with it. I was thinking the book needed a re-boot anyway, and ended up with what I think is a really kick-@$$ first chapter. And that gave me the momentum to dive back in and finish the dadgum thing.

What an experience, to finally jump head-first into a world I’d created. Every writer has to find his own groove, and when you do, magic happens. Characters began speaking in their own voices, plot threads worked themselves out…a tremendous amount of work, but remarkably easy, if that makes sense. Once it got going, I was just along for the ride. After about a year of dedicated effort, my first novel was finally complete.

Good for you, Hemingway. Now what?

NEXT: Agents!!! (and not “The Matrix” kind, either)

3 Replies to “The Writer’s Life (With a Day Job)”

  1. I wish you well on your novel! As a writer myself, who is now currently employed and has an internship, I’m finding it hard to squeeze in time for writing too. I’m finding it quite annoying. As a person who loves to write and who feels like I will explode if I don’t, I’m finding it hard to deal with. But I need some income. So I completely understand what you are going through!

    Hope your writing is coming along well!

    I’ll appreciate it if you checked out my blog it’s about me trying to become a successful published author.

  2. Exciting! I can’t wait to see your book in print. My husband is into Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton, however, I get lost in the fancy jargon that they (and now you) have researched so well.

    I am a new writer – and by that I mean brand new. I have only been writing journals, short stories for family, and work related manuals. Now I am charting a new course into fiction writing. My first work is swinging around in my head and I am trying to fit it all into the plot line I have laid out. The good news is that at a point in my life where I can take some time to write. Wish me luck!!!

    I am following your postings – wishing you luck on your search for the perfect publisher!

    1. Thanks for the support, ya’ll. One of the things I’m doing with the second draft is to whittle down a lot of the jargon. The challenge is keeping enough in to give it that air of realism without making it too “inside baseball.”

      The best analogy I can find to writing a novel is construction. I’ve done a fair amount of magazine writing in the past, but finishing a novel is like building a mansion when the only thing you’ve built before is dollhouses.

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