November 8, 2022

Engineering Fiction?

Writing fiction is one of those things I’ve always fantasized after. Not for glory or riches, to be sure. (Not that I’d say no, to be equally sure.) But just to create wonderful stories that do for others what great stories do for me.

It’s always eluded me though. As I’ve said more than a couple (hundred) times, I give great vignette. But the practice of putting things together into a larger whole eludes me entirely. A part of the problem, if not most of it, is that I try to think it all through from beginning to end from the start, including not only the stories, subplots, characters and settings, but all the allusions and fun little metaphorical devices and allegories I’d not be able to stop myself from including along the way, in whatever ham-fisted way I’d end up doing it.

I was thinking about the sheer impossibility of such an approach this evening, while writing about my first intended topic (250 words that took me two hours before being no doubt permanently relegated to the half-assed bin of “things I’ll totally get back to some day half past never” before starting this) and something occurred to me, in my shame for the very first time.

I’ve been writing software for 45 years. Granted the first few of those years was pretty damned stupid. But whatever. In a thousand years it would never occur to me to try and actually cobble together a piece of software out of whole cloth in my head and then code it up from a blank editor and have any expectation that my original plan was going to do anything but derail spectacularly with in the first 50 to 100 lines of code.

No. What I’d do is draw out some big diagrams with a very few boxes, then selectively drill all the way down on one aspect or another. Now, decades of experience has familiarized me sufficiently with the way software systems work that, once I have a big diagram on a white board I can generally sniff out what might be likely to have a problem. Armed with such knowledge I can dive straight for the pain points and try to work those out.

But even that can sometimes be deceiving, as I can get that wrong. Well, no big deal, happens all the damned time. Then I just take the Sterling Archer approach of just coding up the easy stuff and waiting to see what ACTUALLY becomes an issue and dealing with it once it hits me in the face, not bothering to worry about things before they actually become a problem. (See, there really are some incredibly valuable life lessons that can be learned from cartoons.)

So why don’t I at least take a shot at writing fiction the same way?

And don’t get all fucking “ackshually” on me. I know the metaphor of building a complex system falls apart. All metaphors do or they wouldn’t be metaphors.

Ideas like componentization and compartmentalization, library management and particularly Design Patterns, even down to some of the more severe examples of the late 90s Patterns frenzy (some other than I would call them excesses), Pattern Languages just seem like they’d translate just about perfectly. Not the patterns themselves, of course. But the very concept maps about perfectly. After all, the whole Design Pattern movement was translated wholesale out of some really great writing from the architect Christopher Alexander. If you’ve got any interest in the organic design of systems I’d highly recommend giving his work a deep dive. Brilliant guy.

Take things like Jungian style myth forms, plot structure, character interactions and the role of settings. Most of what can be looked at behind the scenes of a literary work seems to me to abstract in the same way with strangely easy analogs.

Well okay. So what does that mean? What would “writing fiction like I write software” look like?

The first thing that springs to mind is to have libraries of components and techniques available. Certainly in narrative as in software, very little can just come off the shelf rather than serve as a template or blueprint. So I’m not really talking in terms of dropping things in or creating some system that permutes a library of known concepts for me.

But to have a library of characters with which I’m intimately familiar. Well, sure I know buckets of people and have read hundreds if not thousands of novels. Not the same thing. I’d need to really break them down and create dossiers of varying degrees of depth depending on the intended breadth and depth of an individual character’s utility.

Well why not do the same thing with settings? The places a character haunts or remembers. But again they would have to exist in some greater depth than what simply appears in the work. In order for an object to be well utilized the author needs to know more about it than is revealed to the reader (says the expert who’s never finished a narrative anything over here. Gimme some rope.)

I think the idea has some legs.

And it’s as likely as not that some of the ideas for stories kicking around in my head will both spawn entries into these little catalogs and that the fleshing out of some of those entries will in turn spawn skeletal structures and threads of narrative on their own, wispy as they might be, trailing off into the unlit expanses of my imagination.

I’ve got this overwhelming sense that I just need to get the first one done, blaze a single small trail and that will be enough to get me rolling, if at a snail’s pace. It’s funny because I feel an embarrassment of beginnerdom that I generally don’t get when starting something new, perhaps because I’ve got so much in my mind riding on it.

But that’s half the fun. I just have to resign myself to the fact that I’m going to produce a whole lot of words that just suck completely.

Not like I’ve been doing that for the better part of a million words, you know…here.