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What would you say if, just two years shy of retirement, your husband wanted to leave his job to become a full-time writer, something at which he'd never been terribly successful?

When Berea author Jim Tomlinson's wife, Gin Petty, faced that situation in 1999, there was no debate.

"Jim's heart was with his writing," she said. "I'd watched him struggle, trying to balance that with an engineering job, and it was actually a relief when he decided to leave."

The career change appears to have been a good move for Tomlinson.

His second book, Nothing Like an Ocean, hit stores last week, and he'll sign and discuss it Friday at Joseph-Beth Booksellers. His first book, Things Kept, Things Left Behind, was published in 2006 after winning the prestigious Iowa Short Fiction Award. Both received gushing reviews in Kentucky and nationwide.

For much of his life, the 67-year-old Illinois native worked at Texas Instruments plants, first in Rhode Island and later in Versailles.

Quitting engineering to write was the second time the two professions came into conflict in a major life decision. In high school, Tomlinson applied to the journalism and engineering programs at the University of Illinois. He was accepted to both, but he chose engineering.

"This was back in 1960, with Russia and the space race," Tomlinson said. "The patriotic thing to do was to become an engineer and help us beat the Russians to the moon. That was the glamour thing to do at the time."

He enjoyed engineering, but a major push to outsource manufacturing jobs in the late 1990s forced him to re-evaluate his decision.

"The handwriting was on the wall as far as I could see," he said.

As he predicted, about a year after he left, the Versailles plant closed.

"A lot of the people I worked with ... are now in Singapore, Malaysia, Ireland, wherever," he said. "That just wasn't something I wanted to do."

Becoming a full-time writer did not equal early retirement for Tomlinson. Writing would not be a leisure activity. It was an honest-to-goodness career change, and it required an education, networking, creativity and persistence.

Tomlinson enrolled in several writing classes and workshops throughout Kentucky. Through grants and fellowships from the Kentucky Arts Council, he studied with published authors including Crystal Wilkinson, Richard Bausch, Chris Holbrook, George Ella Lyon and Robert Olen Butler, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his short-story collection A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain.

Another mentor, well-regarded Kentucky writer Silas House, praised Tomlinson.

"What made Jim stand out as a student was that he knew how to tell a story in a specific voice, loaded with emotion and clarity," he said. "That's the test of a true writer, and he had it from day one. He also listened intently, always hungry to learn more.

"Jim had a writer's instinct that he trusted, but he was also always willing to gain new knowledge."

Homework consisted of reading, reading and more reading. Tomlinson always enjoyed fiction, but to further his new career, reading had to evolve beyond a leisure activity.

"There's a saying among writers that writing is a conversation, and part of that conversation is listening to what other writers are doing," Tomlinson said.

With the same degree of focus he used as an engineer in deconstructing competitors' products, he would analyze several short stories a day to see what their authors were doing successfully. He estimates that he spends three to four hours reading for every hour of writing.

As with any other job, breaking into the writing business is all about knowing the right people. Tomlinson moved from Versailles to Berea after leaving Texas Instruments specifically to be in the middle of the thriving arts town.

"Writing is a community, especially in Kentucky," he said. "It's a fairly open community, so getting to know ... writers in the area who are actively working at writing is tremendously important."

Lastly, Tomlinson's success took a hearty helping of stick-to-it-iveness. That meant refusing to be discouraged after dozens of rejection letters, revising each story 15 to 30 times, and making submission after submission to magazines, agents and contests.

For those looking to replicate Tomlinson's success, the author has some advice:

"First, reading is key," he said. "Find those writers whose work speaks to you and read their books. Second, try to enjoy the process of writing itself, the daily activity of sitting down and doing it, because there are no guarantees of what else might come from it."

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