- #nostalgia #writing #vim
In my many years in the software development industry, not to mention my many years in the software development education industry, I’ve been continually amazed by the tacit acceptance of the fact that many (most?) software developers are terrible writers. The university programmes don’t require anything beyond a simple English 101 class, and companies simply accept the fact that many of their people are, at best, barely literate. It’s a sad, stupid state of affairs, and I figured I’d take a few minutes to explain why I think it’s a detriment to the industry as a whole.
You see, in my mind, at it’s core, software development is fundamentally an act of communication. Of course, there’s the obvious fact that a developer must take their ideas and communicate them to the computer, which then executes them. But as developers, we must also communicate ideas to our users, through the user interfaces we build. And we must also communicate ideas to other developers through the code itself, not to mention the comments therein (after all, as any developer will tell you, development is as much, if not more, about reading code as it is writing it).
Similarly, writing is, obviously, an act of communication. When a writer writes, their goal is to take amorphous, ephemeral ideas, and turn them into concrete, written words which preserve the essence of those ideas and communicates them to the reader.
Now, in order to communicate complex ideas through written word, one must master some very basic skills:
- The ability to clearly conceptualize an idea and transform it into a more concrete expression.
- The ability to break down that idea into simple parts that can be easily explained.
- The ability to explain those parts in a way the reader can understand.
- The ability to take those parts, now explained, and to synthesize them into a coherent whole.
Does this sound anything at all like software development?
Furthermore, a capable writer pays attention to detail. He is as much concerned with the way an idea is expressed as he is with communicating the idea itself. For example, I could’ve written this entire post in short, terse sentences with no paragraph breaks. But I care as much about how these ideas are communicated as I do about the actual act of communicating them.
Similarly, in the area of software development, while two developers may derive the same solution to a problem, one may choose to write terse, difficult to read code that’s poorly formatted and organized, and consequently difficult to maintain, while the other may produce code that’s precisely the opposite.
By now you can probably guess what I’m getting at. I would surmise that you would find a correlation between developers who are skilled writers, and those who produce code that’s clean, readable, and maintainable. Now, that’s not to say there aren’t exceptions. I’m sure there are many many developers out there that are great writers yet terrible developers, and vice versa. But I would contend that, statistically, you would find a correlation between writing skill and development skill, and at their core, these two disciplines are really very similar.
So why is it that we accept such poor writing skill in the development community? Quite honestly, I’m not sure. I think part of the issue is the fundamental belief that software development is an engineering skill, a process that’s dominated purely by technological problems that must be solved with technological solutions. I suspect it’s also driven by a false dichotomy, the idea that writers are “thinkers” and technologists are “doers”. But I truly believe it needs to change. Meanwhile, the next time I interview someone, I may be tempted to ask them to write a short essay on a topic of my choice…
“… and he just, I dunno, disappeared,” he finished, taking a sip of his coffee, steam rising from the dark surface and condensing on his thick glasses.
“What do you mean, ‘disappeared’,” the man across the table asked, a puzzled frown creasing the dark skin of his forehead as he reached for his own up. “Where did he go? What happened to him? People don’t just disappear, you know.”
“Honestly,” the other man said, putting down his mug, “I don’t know. He just left. Took his coat and his keys, hopped in his car,” he reached over and grabbed the nearly empty sugar dispenser, pouring the remaining contents into his cup as he continued, white granules scattering on the dark surface of the table between them, like islands in a sea, “and left. Never said a word to his friends, his wife, his kids… no one.” The clink of spoon against porcelain punctuated the silence that followed, the dark liquid swirling and eddying in his cup.
“I just don’t understand,” his companion said, taking a sip of his coffee, “How could someone do that? Just up and leave like that? I could never do that,” I think, anyway, a voice in his mind said. The man in the glasses shrugged, himself unsure. “I mean, I talked to Mike, he seemed like such a nice guy. And then he does this? Seems like a dick move to me.”
“Who knows,” the other man said, “maybe he had his reasons. Really, I didn’t know him that well. Did you?” The man across the table shook his head, “See? Heck, no one seemed to. So who knows what happened. For all we know his wife beat him or cheated on him or something. But, whatever happened, he’s gone now, and I’m bettin’ he ain’t comin’ back.”
“Bizarre,” his companion said, his finger tapping against his cup, the rhythmic thumping setting off waves in his coffee. “People just don’t disappear like that!”
So on Wednestday evening, Lenore and I came down with cold symptoms at virtually the exact same time… personally, I blame Lenore. That, or the public transit system. Nothing like a bus packed full of people who like to cough without covering their mouths to spread the germs. Anyway, the end result is that we spent Thursday, Friday, and most of Saturday laid up. It’s been fun. Real fun.
Anyway, to alleviate some boredom, I took Wednesday evening to pick up a couple new games for my DS (I actually lost a couple games at one point… but I’d rather not get into that right now. It’s a bit of a sore spot), in order to pass the time. Sure, I could watch TV, but there’s only so much on the PVR to view. Or I could read, though reading requires concentration, and concentration requires a clear head, which is frustrated greatly by a cold. So, I figured, mindless entertainment, that’s where it’s at.
Well, what did I pick up? The following:
- Yoshi’s Island DS
- Mario Kart1
- Mario and Luigi: Partners in Time
Anyway, Yoshi’s Island is a pretty straight-forward port of Yoshi’s Island 2 for the SNES. An excellent platformer. I’ll skip Mario Kart. And then we have PiT, which is a Mario-themed RPG, and another excellent game.
But, what I haven’t done is written much in the last few days. I took Wednesday off for whatever reason. Thursday and Friday I was too sick to even consider sitting down at the computer. And today, I find myself struggling, trying to get back into the story I’m working on. Which is an interesting lesson: writing every day is important for honing one’s skills. But it’s also very important when working on a longer piece, as one can easily lose momentum and fall out of the mood of the piece, or worse, one might lift one’s head up and begin having doubts… maybe it really does suck. Maybe it’s just a stupid idea. Blah blah blah. It’s definitely a challenge.
So, hopefully today or tomorrow, I can try and remedy the situation. Step one, I think, is to read a little more Dickens. He always seems to inspire me.
This would be one of those games I thought I lost. Until, that is, I discovered it in my DS. So if anyone’s looking for a discount copy of Mario Kart DS, gimme a call… ↩
I think I just finished a chapter in the middle of a story. I don’t know how it happened, really… I started writing a few days ago, focusing on this idea that I’ve been making reference to incessantly (or, perhaps tantilizingly? Yeah… didn’t think so), and today, after hitting the 3500 word mark and the end of what I thought was the first chapter, I decided to stop and ask myself how I wanted to progress. Suddenly, as I sat there staring at the monitor, it dawned on me that what I’d just written more correctly belongs in the middle of a larger work… what the heck??
So now I get to start all over, this time at the actual beginning… hopefully, when I reach the middle, things will fit together all nice and neat. Somehow, I doubt it.
If one were to use Orkut or Myspace as a population sample, one might come to conclusion that the bulk of the people in this world are, in fact, functionally illiterate…
It’s too much. To vast. Can I really do this? Am I up to the task? Or am I being too ambitious, simply overestimating what I’m capable of? Honestly, I don’t know. I could abbreviated it, keep it small and contained, avoid letting it grow or get out of hand. But should I? Maybe I should just let it spread out, let it drag me along for the ride…
As an aside, anyone who actually reads this thing (yes, all three of you), may remember that I said this idea I’m currently playing with had been bouncing around in my brain for the last couple months. Well, it turns out I was wrong. I was lying in bed recently when I remembered that, way back when we were still living in our apartment downtown, I was already thinking about getting back into creating writing, and already groping around for interesting ideas. One of these ideas I wrote down in a little text file and squirreled away, after which I subsequently forgot about it. Then, a while back, as I was doing a little virtual house cleaning, I found the file, read through it, dismissed it as the wild ravings of a crazed lunatic, and promptly deleted it.
Well, oddly enough, it was this idea (or, at least the seeds of it), which sprung back into my mind. Which all goes to show that 1) this “writing thing” isn’t such a nutty flight of fancy after all, and 2) it’s better to never throw an idea away… because, even if it’s “bad”, it could become the roots of something “good”.
It’s not my fault. My brother came to town, and I found my free time over the weekend suddenly evaporate. See, Saturday was Dim Sum and Movie Day, and Sunday was Visit The Neglected Grandma Day. Neither provided much opportunity to get some writing in. So, alas, my current piece is hovering at ~7,200 words, and hasn’t moved much since Friday (and I took Thursday as a break).
On the flip side, I think I’m almost done with this one, and while I really doubt it’s anything worth reading, it will soon be my second completed piece of fiction, and hey, that ain’t bad. The biggest problem, at this stage, is the ending. The concept was actually born out of the ending itself, and now that I’m about to get there… I’m not sure I like the ending anymore. But, I’ve decided I’ll just charge ahead and see how things turn out. If I’m right and it sucks, I can always rip it out and try something different. And if I’m wrong, well… that’d be great!
Meanwhile, I’ve been fiddling around with an idea that’s been bouncing around in my brain for the last couple months. It’s more situational, so rather than worrying about building a story back from an interesting ending, I need to worry about coming up with an interesting ending to what I think is a compelling storyline. I’m not as yet sure how I’ll handle this, but maybe the answer is just to start writing and see where the concept takes me.
I’ve only been doing this whole “writing” thing for about two weeks now, so I can’t say I have the experience to have any useful opinions about the craft, but recently I learned an interesting little lesson about one of my own tendencies as a writer: I tend to get irrationally attached to the things I’ve created. Whether it’s a whole piece or just a single sentence, I get attached, and by that I mean I’m unwilling to just throw it away. Now, that’s not to say I’m unwilling to throw what I perceive as bad stuff away (this blog entry’s continued existence notwithstanding), but if I think something is good, or even just average, I have difficulty getting rid of it.
This tendency caused me trouble late last week while working on my latest little project (~5000 words and climbing!). See, I’d written, oh, three or four hundred words of dialog and exposition between a few characters, and the next day, as I sat down before the keyboard, I found it extremely difficult to build up the motivation to write. Suddenly I was worried. Have I lost interest in this idea? Is this a case of that oh-so-dreaded condition, “writer’s block”? What’s going on?
Then it dawned on me: while the bit I’d written the day before was, from a technical standpoint, decent (well, to me, anyway), it was, from a plot development standpoint, basically superfluous. Worse, it wasn’t clear how I was going to move on from the situation without boring
- any potential readers, and
Fortunately, this was a very easy problem to fix: highlight, delete. Boom, nearly an hour’s worth of work gone. Was it a little painful throwing all that material away? Sure. But sometimes, you just gotta make the hard decisions.
Anyway, for any potential writers who give a damn about the things I’m learning as I go along, here’s what I was forced to ask myself:
- Is this passage interesting? And note, if you’re forcing yourself to write it, imagine what someone will go through while trying to read it.
- Does this passage advance the plot in a meaningful way?
- Does this passage tell the reader anything new or interesting about the characters or setting?
In my case, the answer to all three questions was “no”, so into the trash it went.
Sure, it may be a small milestone, but my first piece of (very) short fiction is now complete! Or, at least, the very first, very rough draft is complete. At a little over 8800 words, or nearly 12 pages, it is, I think, the longest bit of creative writing I’ve ever put together. Yeah, I know, that’s not very big (a novella ranges between ~17,000 and ~40,000 words, though technically, it apparently qualifies as a Novelette), especially considering I expect to cut a good 800 words out during the rewrite phase, but given that it’s my first serious crack at creative writing, I’m pretty happy with it, despite the distinct lack of originality it represents (who needs originality, anyway, I ask you?).
So now what? Simple: it goes in the vault. The idea, here, is that once a piece is complete, you set it aside for a while in order to gain some distance from it. Then, when you go back to edit the thing, you can do so with a fresh perspective on the work. And once the rewrite is complete, only then do you kick your baby out of the nest, hoping against hope that it’ll flap it’s wings a little and avoid crashing and burning too badly.
Meanwhile, tomorrow I’ll get started on my next idea. It’s been rolling around in the back of my mind for the last week, so I’m kind of excited to pull it out of the cellar that is my hindbrain and see what it looks like in the light of day. Hopefully it ain’t too ugly…
Well, here marks the end of the first week of my great writing experiment. As a recap, in case you can’t be bothered to scroll down two posts to read about it for yourself, I’m currently attempting to write at least 1,000 words per day (crappy or otherwise), minus a break day (which, last week, was on the Wednesday). Note, this does not, unfortunately, include my blog entries, which don’t really qualify as “fiction” per say (or “interesting” or “entertaining”, for that matter).
Anyway, so far, I think things have gone pretty well. At this point, the biggest failure has been my writing schedule, which suffered from a need to bank hours for a trip (which, as it turns out, was aborted for reasons I’m not going to bother getting in to here), meaning I wasn’t arriving home until quarter to six, and not finishing my writing until nearly eight, depending on how slow the words were coming. Additionally, my Saturday writing got postponed to today, thanks to a busy day out and about (BTW, Zodiac
==pretty decent movie). But other than those minor hiccups, I think I can declare week 1 of the great writing project a, as Borat would say, Great Success!
Of course, I’m not implying anything regarding the quality of the work so far produced. As far as I know, it’s nearly 6100 words (soon to be 7100) of complete and utter crap. But, hey, at least it’s my crap, right? Then again, I’m not sure Lenore will be so cognizant of that silver lining when I foist this monstrosity on her.
- You know, the second 1,000 was a lot harder than the first…
You find yourself in a dark forest, the thick canopy above creating a perpetual twilight. Looking around, you see trees marching off into the infinite distance, their trunks standing in a sea of thick underbrush, the rough bark covered in dark moss and lichen. Here, there is no sense of place or time, no sense of direction or distance. You stand immobilized, trying to decide what to do next, unable to make a decision.
Eventually, you realize you can’t stay here forever. Surveying the immediate vicinity, you see the brush and ivy make some areas nearly impassable. Finally, you choose a direction, picking your way carefully lest you twist your ankle on some hidden rock or divot in the terrain. Some time later, though how long is impossible to say, you find a small stream, the clear water trickling musically in the deep silence. Thirsty, you drink, the water cold and refreshing, and as you crouch there, the dark rocks of the bank slippery beneath your feet, you resolve to follow the stream, hoping it will lead you out of this place.
How long you walked like that, it’s impossible to say. But eventually, after what seems like many hours, the forest ahead of you starts to change, the brush seeming to thin, occasional bursts of light breaking through the trees above. Soon, you catch a glimpse of the edge of the forest, it’s green leaves shining in bright sunlight, and you break into a run. Careless, you trip and stumble, barely catching yourself on the trunk of a nearby tree, the bark cutting deep scratches into your palms. And suddenly you are in the open. Before you a hill slopes down into a great open plain, tall grasses marching endlessly into the distance, their blades swaying rhythmically. Turning your face skyward, you see the sun directly overhead, the sky clear and unmarred.
As the minutes pass, the initial excitement fades, and you begin to realize that you have no more idea of where you are now than you did before. Ahead of you, the plain fades into blue obscurity, the horizon an unbroken line with no feature to recommend one direction over another. In the back of your mind, you discover a small part of you regrets leaving the forest; at least there, the dark trees and thick plants meant you had few choices to make. But here your options are limitless. Overwhelmed, you sit in the deep, warm grass. What now?
<table/note a> a: In case you were curious, this would be my attempt at describing where I am in the piece I’m currently working on. Why didn’t I just stay in the damned forest? —-
As I mentioned in my previous post, one of the most important bits of advice given to anyone interested in writing is that it’s vital to write as much as possible. After all, how else does one improve at a craft than by practicing it? Furthermore, if one is really serious about improving, it’s important to set some hard, achievable goal which can be used to goad oneself into action. And so it is that I’ve decided to take on the challenge outlined in King’s book: to write 1,000 words a day.
Now, part of me thinks it’s a little premature to announce this here. And I will freely admit that this is quite an ambitious goal (though, what’s the point of a goal if it isn’t at least a little ambitious?). “What if this is just another passing fancy?” a little voice in the back of my head whispers. “What if you get bored or frustrated and just give up?” Well, what better way to strengthen my weak will than to back it up with a public declaration?
Of course, the biggest challenge the past few days has been finding the right time to do this. On a poorer day, it takes me around two hours to pound out 1,000 words (not necessarily good words, mind you, but words nonetheless), and so I need a block of time that would otherwise be unoccupied. I’m also of the belief that it’s important to pick a consistent time of day, so that this becomes a habit (and also helps my brain switch gears from daytime layabout to evening fiction-hack). Fortunately, the two hours after we get home, between 4:15 and 6:00, should work pretty well. We usually spend that time idle in front of the TV, anyway, so at least I’ll be getting something useful (to me, anyway) done.
But as always, one of the biggest difficulties is finding ideas. Fortunately, in “On Writing”, King outlines a simple little scenario and challenges the reader to hack out a story based on it, and so I’ve chosen that as my first project, mainly as an exercise to just get some words on paper. And at 3,100 words, I think it’s making some decent progress. Of course, I have no idea how long it’ll be once it’s finished, and I will freely admit that it’s no Pulitzer Prize winning piece of work, but it’s something, and it’s mine.
Meanwhile, I’ve discovered another difficulty which I hadn’t anticipated: coming up with new, interesting ideas while working on another piece. This morning, while standing half-conscious in the shower (which, as it happens, is where I often come up with my best ideas, whether they be stories or programming solutions), I suddenly had what I think is an interesting idea for a short story. But, of course, being in the middle of something already, it’s necessary for me to set this idea aside for the moment and focus on the piece at hand, something which is much harder than I had anticipated.
As a bit of an aside, no, I haven’t made any progress assembling Jory’s friggin’ baby blanket. I made an attempt to sew the thing together, one day, but was unhappy with the seam I constructed, and so I’ve since felt rather discouraged. On the other hand, I really do need to sit down and just finish it, so I can dispense with all these little red doilie-esque pieces that are laying about our house.
However, for those concerned readers, no, I don’t think my writing goal will interrupt with the progress of the blanket. For one, I’m not making any progress anyway, so unless I start actively unraveling the thing during moments of blind frustration, I fail to see how things could get any worse. And for another, I tend to knit later in the evening while watching TV, anyway, so it should all work out nicely. I hope.
First, The Bits
Well, I must apologize for my last entry. As is, I think, fairly evident, the truth of the matter is that I hacked out that little fragment more out of a sense of duty than a real desire to write. It’s an excellent example of a simple truth: if you’re not in the mood to write, it’s probably best not to.
Second, it would appear that some people feel they were rather under-represented in my (decidedly mechanical) tale of our vacation. So, in an effort to remedy the situation and avoid any chance of future retribution, let me say a big thank-you to Michelle and Jeff and their lovely children for hosting us during the Alabama leg of our trip. Michelle is one of Lenore’s friends, whom she met duh duh duuuuh online! Yes, I know! For all we knew, we were walking into some sort of bizarre, Deliverance-esque nightmare. But, luckily, things seemed to turn out alright. And I didn’t even have to squeal like a piggy.
Anyway, I know I had a great time, and I’m fairly sure Lenore did, too. Although, Alex, I’m gonna get you for giving me this cold! So thanks again for putting up with us. Southern hospitality truly is alive and well!
If it hasn’t been evident, in the past year or so I’ve started making small forays back into the world of writing after a break of, oh, thirteen or fourteen years. You see, back in junior high, I took a course on creative writing and produced a long, decidedly derivative fantasy piece involving some quest for a magic crystal or somesuch. This was, I suspect, around the time I was reading the Belgariad and the Mallorean, so I suppose that’s not entirely surprising. Anyway, I quite enjoyed the process, but it didn’t take long before I was side-tracked into the world of computers. This was probably inevitable as, aside from a natural aptitude, I also had a very encouraging computer teacher and a not-so-encouraging creative writing teacher.
But after a hiatus of over a decade, I’ve found myself drawn back to writing and storytelling. This is, I think, in no small measure a result of increasing boredom with programming and computing which has almost certainly been exacerbated by a, shall we say, less than stimulating work environment (yes, I could remedy this situation… but I’m lazy, damnit!). I also happen to have a history of searching for new creative outlets, as anyone who knows me can attest. Programming, guiter, cooking, knitting, they’re all ways in which I am empowered to create.
The problem is, in the end, they are all limited in their way. The simple fact is, I’m not a terribly good guitar player, as much as I enjoy making noise with my old Yamaha. Nor am I a particularly good cook (competant, yes… but good? No). Knitting, while enjoyable when I’m not in the mood to think too hard, is too restricted (do I really want to make another pair of socks?) And so I find myself drawn back to writing. Of course, that’s not to say I’m actually any good at writing, either, but I do enjoy the process.
Anyway, as if by divine inspiration, a couple of years ago my sister Rheanne bought me a book by Stephen King entitled “On Writing”. To be honest, I’m not sure she really knew what she bought, purchasing the book based entirely on my clear enjoyment of King’s work (you need only look at my bookshelf to see I’m a fan). And at the time I was somewhat bemused by the gift. I had, to some degree, moved on to other authors, and why would I want to read a memoir about Stephen King, anyway? So, to the basement it went where, I’m ashamed to admit, it ended up in a garage sale box.
Well, as it happens, last night I was musing about the process of writing. As I was considering the thought of creative writing classes, I suddenly remembered the book my sister had bought me. So I raced downstairs and dug it out of the box it was in, and promptly chewed through three quarters of it, finishing the rest this morning.
In short, I found the book inspiring. King spends the first half of the book detailing his early life, showing the events which lead to the development of one of the most prolific authors of our time. The second half is then spent on the process of writing itself. It begins with basic guidelines that everyone has heard from time to time (e.g., avoid adverbs). He then goes on to issues of description and dialog composition, advice on plot and thematic development (King’s approach is situational, allowing the plot and theme to evolve as the characters interact, rather than relying on premeditation), pacing, and a variety of other topics. Eventually, he even covers how to find an agent and get published. And to top it off, the end of the book includes a section where King presents an unedited excerpt of his tale ‘1408’, followed up by an edited version and explanations for the various changes. In my opinion, this section alone is worth the price of the book.
But what I most enjoyed about the book is the simple, down-to-earth approach King takes. In an industry full of high-brow critics and literary posers, King’s book is simple, honest, permissive, and encouraging.
It’s just a shame that, apparently, there isn’t some magic trick for finding good ideas. Because I could really use some help there…