How Not to ____________.

Those of you who are patiently (or not so patiently) waiting for me to finish the Renewal story are most likely aware that I’ve been spending the last few years becoming an expert UAV (drone) builder. The reasons I was willing to invest so much in the process are many – and probably worth another blog post at some point. This post is about why, as of last Friday, the UAV industry is on the back burner and writing is once again my primary focus.

To explain how writing works for me is a near impossible task. I think of it in a set of concentric rings of focus. At the center is an idea, that core focus that makes me think a story is worth telling. The idea generally nags me for a while before the outer rings begin to congeal. Surrounding that idea are the characters who are affected by the implications of that idea. At the beginning, these characters are sketches, roles that form in response to the conditions of my story. They are like that first impression when you meet someone new. You don’t really know them until you spend some time with them. From the writer’s perspective, it’s the same process. I don’t really know them until I write them. They frequently surprise me as I continually ask the question, “What would this person do with this situation?”

Outside the ring of characters is the plot. What happens? I understand that many writers painstakingly work the plot before they put it on paper. I don’t. I know where I’m heading. I have a notion of the major events in the story. I know where the story will end, but I don’t always know how I’ll get there until a situation arises and I once again ask the question of how my characters will deal with it.

What about setting? Setting breaks my concentric ring model completely. It’s a function of the core idea (since I work in speculative fiction) and the plot which demands the reference and tone to make the actions (hopefully) make sense.

These things are relatively easy for me, and quite a bit of it has been accomplished even under the yoke of my time in the drone trenches. But…

Outside of these relatively easy parts are the components of the ring I refer to as ‘story management.’ Editing, from typos and grammatical mistakes, up through using the wrong names, to general story structure and the continuity of multiple timelines… These things are hard. These are the parts that make me want to move the story from a computer monitor to an entire room full of whiteboards where I can draw squiggly lines all over the place. This is the part that has fallen on its face for the past few years.

Given the lack of output, you may be surprised to know that not a day has passed without me facing off against that failing, without me wanting to sit down and just write. It’s in there, and there’s no cure.

Despite my best efforts, I have discovered that it is extremely difficult to be a very technical drone builder by day and handler of story by night. It may be the problem of switching mental gears, or it may be the simple mental exhaustion that comes with solving technical problems all day and then trying to dredge up enough juice to be creative in an entirely different way.

Now, who do you have to thank for this much larger sifting of gears? You can thank my wife, who has never let up on the pressure to finish Decay. You can thank my editor, Connie, for her perseverance and patience. You can thank yourselves for the encouragement and occasional nudges. I hear and very much appreciate all of it.

The timing, however, you can credit entirely to the owner of my most recent UAV employer. If he weren’t the peak example of how not to run a business, I would have hung in to the completion of at least the current model of UAV that has taken up all my time and energy since November. A long string of behavior that at best could be called inappropriate and at worst, fully sociopathic, has finally overcome my generally helpful nature and has driven me out the door.

We’ve probably all had those bosses. You know, the ones who ask the impossible without knowing enough to understand why. The ones who never listen because they have done it a million times in their heads and believe that reality works the same way. The ones who ignore good suggestions and then later come up with the same idea as if they had laid it like a golden egg. The ones who take personal credit for every success and look to blame everyone and everything else for the failures they spun from whole cloth.  The ones who start with the vaguest of requirements and then show up at the end with some fundamental piece that requires repeating weeks of work, and then gets angry because no one could read their mind. The ones who, when a disagreement arises, don’t bother to discuss the actual problem, but immediately resort to insults and character assassination as if that has ever been a way to get anyone to change their position. The ones who make endless promises to employees and break them without a thought. The ones who do the exact same thing to customers and then look puzzled when no one believes a word they say. The ones who regard people as entirely replaceable cogs in the machine of their own making and then can’t understand why they don’t earn any respect in return. We’ve all seen it, but finding all of it in one person… Now that’s rare.

I started at this company in August last year. Within the first few days, I could see the fundamentals of the problem. The entire engineering function of the company was being run by a handful of student engineers. Some of them were quite talented, but talent never beats experience. They were prone to design things that were impossible to build without teleporting screws into locations that couldn’t be reached. Parts that did not quite fit were common, and none of them were designed with cost or manufacturability in mind. There were parts that had no understanding of material characteristics involved even though they had already been proven to break in any kind of flight operations.

The same group of students had spec’ed all of the tooling for the manufacture of the UAV in question, and without exception, every tool was inadequate for the job. One was sitting on a base that was crooked. One ran on software that literally yielded random results. One lacked the basic travel to cut the foam parts we needed… You get the idea. I rebuilt most of them to make them at least serviceable, but to this day, one of the key tools has never successfully finished a part. Guess who did all the work on that one. Yet that same clever individual still believes that machine is only a week away from full functionality, and demands that parts be designed that only that machine can make. Oh, for some magic…

Then there were the fundamentals. I knew that the design, as it stood, would not fly well, if at all. I pointed it out, of course, along with the reasons why. By the end of November, after kludging the whole aircraft together, we finally attempted to fly the thing, and it flopped like a dying fish.

At that point, the design was given to me. A week later, we were told that there was no money for payroll and two of us quit. I decided to hang in, mostly out of loyalty to the guy who hired me, the guy who has the unfortunate task of dealing most directly with the owner. We worked through a very poor holiday season, spending more time working on the faulty tooling than on the actual aircraft. There was a little respite in pay in January, but the full back pay didn’t come until after my design successfully flew, and very well I might add.

During this whole time, I was becoming quite familiar with the owner’s foibles, but I’m inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt until they cross the line. That line came with the influx of enough money to finally make up the back pay. In anticipation of that money, we had agreed, I thought, on a plan to solve a number of problems that were slowing us down and making the development much more difficult than necessary.

Well, none of those problems were solved because the owner decided to buy himself a BMW with cash. He also proceeded to buy a string of other toys that, while possible to claim were part of the development process, were completely unrelated to the problems at hand. That’s when I concluded – correctly I think – that no matter what he said, he had proven that he was only in it for himself. On the way in to work that day, my boss and I had jokingly asked what we would do if he bought a BMW over the weekend. Obviously, we saw it coming. “Quit,” was my answer. But, again out of loyalty to my boss, I didn’t quit.

Fast forward to last Friday, and completely ignoring the mindless shrieking hissy fit that occurred somewhere in the last month, the owner came to tell me that once again, I would not be paid on time. I looked across the room at the the two very expensive, yet completely unsuitable computers – the ones I had expressly told him would not do the job, no matter how sexy they were – and pointed out that they represented a month’s worth of my pay. It flashed instantly into another shrieking fit of insulting attempts to define my character by a man who has none of his own. It ended with me holding onto the arms of my chair in a desperate attempt not to commit violence. Full on seeing red, followed by the hands-shaking descent from as much adrenalin as I can muster. I’m pretty sure I almost popped a couple of stents from my less than stellar heart.

I had cleverly forgotten my phone that day, so I used the email to text thing to get my wife to come collect me. The angina didn’t let up until we were driving away.

Life’s too short.

As always, I end up looking at it from some point outside of myself. Although, some piece of my former employer will most likely end up aggravating some of you as a character in a novel, for now, I look at the whole episode as an excellent example of how not to run a business, how not to treat the people who work for you, how not to be a decent human being, and if evidence suggests, how not to get laid – ever.

For myself, I’ll try to remember my own lesson: How not to be a writer.


1 thought on “How Not to ____________.”

  1. Sorry to hear about that miserable experience Jim. I can totally relate though your former boss must have attended the same management training as my former Fire Chief cause the sound like two peas in a pod. He would totally berate his good medics and Emts for resting during the day when they ran calls all night while his favorite ass kissers refused too. He cared more about waxed ambulances than fully stocked ambulance and maintained equipment. The only people who got to go to training were those who kisses his ass.

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