Monday, March 11, 2013

A Different Kind of Writing

I hated English in high school. Middle school, too. Oh, and "Language Arts" as we called it when I was even younger. To be perfectly honest, I still don't know what a verb is. I know what a verb does, but point me at a sentence and ask me to pick out the verb and I'm going to struggle. I can get easy ones, and easy nouns as well, but ask me about adjectives and adverbs and I find myself recalling the jingles from Schoolhouse Rock and working from there!

There are a few reasons I have this trouble. For one, I was pretty much blind through 6th and 7th grades. At that age image and appearance are everything and no way I was getting glasses. I'd seen other kids crucified for wearing glasses and dang if it was going to be me. But I couldn't see the chalkboard. When the teacher was diagramming all those sentences it was all just a blur to me. I didn't even copy down the homework most of the time. Memorizing the eye chart helped beat the crude screeners at school and kept me out of the optometrists office. Eventually an adult at church found me out at a Wednesday night bowling league. The jig was up though it was nice to be finally able to see. I got razzed a bit but it didn't change my fortunes with the girls at all. I was still dismal.

I said there are a few reasons and here's the other one. My brain doesn't work that way. Period.

However, my dad always said that writing was important. I didn't know what he meant at the time, but having become a writer myself, I now wish I'd gone to glasses a bit earlier. Perhaps diagramming those sentences at school would have made a tad more sense. but then again, my brain doesn't work that way, obviously. Which is why I became a rocket scientist.

I'm not going to go into how I wound up writing and loving it, but I can go into how being a rocket scientist really helped my ability to write novels. Much of what I did, and still do from time to time, involved developing mathematical models of aerospace systems, like missiles and aircraft and satellites, and translating those equations into computer simulations. These simulations could be hundreds or thousands of lines long and contain dozens of separate variables and modules and subroutines. It is critical to hold all of this in your hear and how it relates to the overall structure of the program.

Sound a bit like writing a novel? It is. Characters, setting, and plot all require us to hold a lot of interrelated information in our heads so we can complete the story and have it make sense. Then, when we have to "go back in" and make changes, we must remember everywhere that change then effects the story. Just like in code. Sure, there are a lot of things about writing a novel that have nothing to do with computer programming, like lines of tension, drama, and character development, but I got plenty of that working for the DOD as well. Talk about characters!

I'm now starting a bit different part of my professional career. Having done the simulation thing for a long time now, I've found a way to combine my two loves; writing and technology. I'm writing proposals. The government and the Department of Defense release a lot of RFP's or Request for Proposal. When they need something built, everything from a new jet fighter to a redesign of the Army's shovel, the contract it out. Companies spend a lot of money writing proposals, competing with other companies, to prove they are the ones that can do it the best. It isn't writing novels, but just as coding helped me in my novel writing, novel writing has helped me in proposals.

One of the things that was hardest to get through my head when I began writing, besides nouns and verbs, was the idea of audience. I would write stuff that I thought was cool, and my friends thought so, but it didn't really have an "audience" as we writers understand it. Everything from word choice, to plot complexity, to characters define your audience. I'd finished three novels before it finally dawned on me: yes, I'm writing for me, but not just for me. If I want to share my ideas, I have to express them in a way that draws in an audience.

So, when I began writing proposals, I immediately thought of my audience. While I strongly feel that our team is the best for the job, I needed to make sure the people reviewing this proposal realize that. So I ask: Who is going to be reviewing this proposal? What are their problems? What kinds of programs have they funded in the past? Have previous contractors done a bad job? How are we different and, more importantly, better than the competition? They are the same questions we ask about characters, setting, and plot as we develop a story for a specific market.

It was some time before I realized I was doing this and the surprise was pleasant. As a result of this kind of thinking, I feel we are shaping what is ultimately going to be a winning bid that's going to result in my client receiving about a $70,000,000 contract. I was also quite surprised when I realized that I was really enjoying this! It is, in fact, a great complimentary 'day job' to my 'night job' of writing. I get to hone my ability to string together words, focus on audience, hold a lot of variables in my head, and work on something with a beginning and an ending.

Sure, it's a much different kind of writing, and I don't like it as much as writing novels, but there is something that I really enjoy about it... Getting Paid To Do It!

Until next time,

John C. Brewer is the author of Multiplayer an MMOG YA SF novel, and The Silla Project, a North Korean nuclear romance. You can learn more about him and what he is doing at his website,

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