Engineers really can write

J.B. Rivard was on the blog in 2017 giving his view on what makes historical fiction tick. He’s back today to share the career he had before becoming an author.

What sort of career did you have before becoming a writer?

My years at Mishawaka High School (Mishawaka, Indiana) were supposed to prepare me for college. But then the North Koreans invaded the South. I was drafted, and opted to serve in the U.S. Navy. I was trained in and then taught radio navigation to cadets trying to earn their wings as Navy pilots.

After the war, I finished college with an engineering degree that enabled me to join the technical staff of Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Early on at the Labs I served on a radar crew during Operation Dominic’s test explosions of nuclear weapons off the island of Kiritimati (then known as Christmas) in the central Pacific Ocean. Afterwards my job evolved into research on the safety aspects of nuclear reactors, operational power plants as well as advanced concepts employing, for example, sodium-cooled fast reactors.

Was there a triggering event that prompted you to begin writing?

Not really. During my years at the Labs, the bulk of my work resulted in written reports and technical papers, some of which are still listed on Google Scholar. My almost-daily assignment was stating my findings, technical to be sure, in language that might be understood by my bosses and their bosses at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Washington, D.C.—not an easy task, but one that saw my syntactical abilities tested. After twenty-five years of this often-stressful work, I retired with the title Distinguished Member of the Technical Staff (DMTS).

Seeking broader experience, I created and ran an etching workshop for several years, then moved to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico where I worked as civics and political reporter for the South Jetty newspaper and as a ‘stringer’ writing features for WorkBoat, a New Orleans maritime publication. During this period I also served briefly as a mate on a charter fishing boat and crewed on “Bearcat,” a 65-ft workboat serving offshore drilling rigs and other maritime needs.

Do you now write full time or part time?

In 1990 my late wife read the beginnings of a short story and declared I ‘must’ turn it into a novel. Despite assuring her I didn’t have the needed patience, I soon began writing long-form fiction. For that decade following 1990, I struggled through a number of novels, none of which were better than adequate, and several of which were never finished.

Except for periods devoted to artwork and time spent in nautical activities, most of the past 27 years have been occupied writing—as an employee, freelancing, or speculatively.

Early in the 21st century I was inspired to write an historical novel of Chicago, or as I hoped at the time, THE Chicago novel. After four drafts, I considered The Heedless Spring publishable, but agents were massively indifferent. By 2010, I’d shelved the book and turned to writing music and pop songs.

In 2014, however, Anya Carlson read the Heedless manuscript and said I could do better. I planned a total rewrite without changing the thrust of the story, remedying what I thought were the novel’s weaknesses, including its first-person narration. The rewrite resulted in 2016’s Illusions of Magic: Love and Intrigue in 1933 Chicago, which I also illustrated.

Currently I write a bimonthly blog on the website  I am also working on another illustrated novel in a different genre.

What parts of the writing career do you enjoy the most/the least?

To me, writing is a very satisfying challenge, with the accent on ‘challenge.’ I also thoroughly enjoy my ability to illustrate my writing.

Unfortunately, although this is the age of the indie author with almost unlimited publishing opportunities, it is also the age of volcanic overproduction of unedited books. Whatever the merits of one’s thoughtfully-conceived, lovingly-written and carefully-edited novel, securing readers for it within this mountainous glut is daunting. Illusions of Magic has earned positive editorial reviews, yet its readership is sparse. What the digital revolution has not changed is that powerhouse publishers are still able to sink millions supporting their selections along the road to massive readership and recognition.

What parts of your former career do you miss/not miss?

Success in technological work largely results from aptitude, study, application, and the high quality of the resulting work product. At the Labs it was not forbiddingly difficult to attain ‘expert’ status, garnering kudos and presenting results throughout the U.S. and overseas at seminars, think tanks and before government bureaucrats.

It’s not the same in the creative arts. In any quest for recognition, whether in writing, painting, poetry, etc., excellence of the product is necessary, but woefully insufficient. One’s efforts are as likely to be ignored as to be honored.

On the other hand, each day I’m excited to attack my latest project—a satisfying emotion that was often absent in my previous, high-tech worlds.

Do you have any regrets?

I think many more readers would enjoy my Illusions novel, but knowledge of its existence, not to say merit, is not widespread. I don’t regret the writing and publishing, but this deficiency is disappointing.

What advice would you offer other second-career writers?

Thanks to improved health, longer lifespans and increased affluence, second- and even third-careers are now common. In considering novel writing, careful consideration should be accorded the path: seeking agents/publishers vs self-publishing. Neither path is simple, easy or lacking in pitfalls for the unwary tyro. If recognition is the goal of a follow-on career, I would not advise choosing novel-writing. A better choice would be an alternative where reaching a nexus between effort and reward is more straightforward. However, if the ability to choose your topic and treatment, and the freedom to pursue them are absolutely paramount, a career as a novelist is very hard to beat.

Many thanks for sharing your story, J.B. I remember when my husband studied engineering, he took a class on technical writing. The implication at the time was that engineers struggled to write well – you’re definitely an exception.

Illusions of Magic: Love and Intrigue in 1933 Chicago by J.B. Rivard

The withering of vaudeville was bad enough in 1933. Because of the Great Depression, bookings for stage magician Nick Zetner disappeared. With his marriage cracking under the strain, Nick reluctantly accepts a devious banker’s deal: He earns a generous reward if he retrieves photos stolen during a break-in at the bank. Along the way, a love he thought he’d forever lost reappears. Despite his skill in the arts of magic, penetrating the realm of the thieves grows increasingly perilous, especially when it endangers his newfound romance.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

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Meet M.K.Tod

The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

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