Writing is like Programming

Typing

I’m coming to the realization that writing is like computer programming. A lot like programming, in fact.

Like writing fiction, writing a program requires you start somewhere. Some programmers start by designing their program. This means laying out what the screen will look like, how it will store its data, the structure of the internal objects, etc etc. Others cobble together enough to make it go and display something even vaguely like what is wanted. Then bits are added until it starts resembling the original vision. Strictly following the former approach and you don’t have anything that will work until quite late in the process. But it should work quite closely to what was intended, if the design works. On the other hand, strictly following the latter approach and you get a program that has an organically grown feel. Experiments are easier with the latter approach, but a lot of code will probably be re-written before the end.

Writers should recognise these two approachs. The former is called a “planner” and the latter is called a “pantser”. Programmers call them “top-down” and “bottom-up”.

Me, I tend to be a “bottom-up” programmer. Of course, I still need a structure in the program and it either has to be developed along the way, or it has to be kept quite literally in my head until it can express itself as I code. It frequently changes along the way. I know how to do this when coding: I’ve been doing it for years. And there usually comes a point when some serious planning has to be done because it doesn’t fit in my head anymore.

Writing is both different and very similar. My first NaNoWriMo attempt was, not surprisingly, very much a “pantsing” attempt. I still don’t really know how I got to 35,000 words. But that’s where I got stuck because it suddenly needed planning and I didn’t know how to do that.

Some of my early programs were absolutely pointless as end programs. They didn’t do anything interesting or useful. Except that they taught me about programming. Many of them were on my home computer, plugged into the TV with a casette recorder for storage. Many of them were me trying out some language structure just to see what I could do with it.

Early stories should be like that. Many many many long published authors have numerous works that will never ever see the light of day because they are, frankly, unrefined excrement. I have stories that I used to think were brilliant – except they’re not because I’ve had friends tell me why they aren’t. I shudder to think what my sole NaNoWriMo novel will look like to me in a few years time.

The learning curve to writing is steeper and longer than I realized. But the alternative to climbing it is to not climb it at all.

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