Monday, January 11, 2016

Killer robots and the "day job"

Very few fiction writers achieve financial success overnight. This means that most of us have extensive experience with the dreaded "day job". 

Traditionally, the day job of choice for aspiring writers has been something in teaching--usually teaching English. 

A day job in teaching has many advantages for the would-be novelist: Educators have flexible work schedules. When you have the entire summer off, that gives you a big chunk of dedicated, pre-scheduled writing time. 

And if you teach English, your job involves books and literature. So even when you're "at work", you're spending time with something that you love.

Speaking of the "job" aspect:  While the educator certainly has a job to perform, the work environment in education is typically less stressful than average. (This is especially true for college professors.) Educational environments encourage contemplation, which is a big part of the writing process.

I should have gone into teaching. Masochist that I was, however, I majored in Economics and then went into the corporate world. I had to be different. 

I should have known better. Corporate environments are notoriously unfriendly to writer types: the stress, the conformity, the constant business travel. It is no accident that Fortune 500 corporations hire a lot more accounting majors than English literature majors. 

There is also the fact that most writers (myself included) don't like to take orders from other people. We aren't good "team players".

It wasn't all bad. I met some interesting people during my years in the corporate world, and had some valuable experiences. I also learned to apply business principles to my own life, which is a valuable skill for anyone to have. 

For the most part, though, I was the proverbial square peg in the round hole. My chances of rising to the level of senior management were roughly equivalent to my odds of winning the lottery.

However, my long slog through the world of cubicles, boardrooms, and factories (I spent most of my corporate days in the automotive industry) provided some unexpected returns. 

Many of my stories, like "The Vampires of Wallachia", have corporate themes and settings that appeal to non-literary types. I may not have been destined for the corner office, but I did learn about the corporate world from every conceivable angle. (I took business courses at the graduate level, too.) 

I believe that my unique background (as novelists go) shows up in my stories in the form of enhanced realism. I have insights that I simply couldn't have gained if I'd spent my pre-novelist career in the ivory tower of academia, teaching courses on Shakespeare and Modern American Literature. 

For example, my novel Termination Man is set in the automotive industry. While the companies and specific situations are fictional, the book draws extensively from my own experiences. I worked for a large automotive manufacture for 13 years. I spent additional years working for automotive components suppliers. Termination Man is fiction, but it reflects the reality of the automotive industry in many ways. 

Then there is my story "The Robots of Jericho". (Both stories are included in the collection, Hay Moon and Other Stories: Sixteen Modern Tales of Horror and Suspense.) 

"The Robots of Jericho" is a long short story about industrial robots that come to life and go on a homicidal rampage inside a factory. While the premise of the story is fantastic, the setting of the tale is wholly realistic. A lot of mundane details about factories are embedded in this story. I believe that this element of "real life" facilitates the suspension of disbelief that is required for the reader to accept the story's supernatural elements.

The idea for "The Robots of Jericho" occurred to me about five years ago, when I was touring an automotive battery plant in northern Ohio. I was watching the robots move behind the safety cages, and they suddenly reminded me of the raptors in the Jurassic Park films. 
The rest of the story--including its more mundane human conflict--fell into place within a few weeks.  

Hopefully this post will encourage aspiring writers to see the "day job" from a new perspective. The day job is more than just a way to pay your bills until you succeed as a writer. The day job is also a source of story ideas.