Thursday, March 1, 2012

Becoming a Writer

Most software projects have testers. These are the people who get paid to break my code and report problems for me to fix. Without them, my work is a lot harder.

Over the years, I've worked with many people who made the transition from tester to programmer. It seems like a good fit: both of us work with software, we speak the same "language", and we're both detail oriented and have technical expertise.

But it isn't an easy transition. There's one hurdle that I see many people struggle with. You see, testers and programmers have a different view of software.

A tester knows what the program is supposed to do, and they know lots of ways to break it. They know what they are looking for, then perform tests to verify there's nothing wrong.

Programming is different. No longer are there right and wrong answers. There are often many right answers--many different ways to make the software work. Answers that all appear correct to the user, but they each come with a different set of limitations. In fact, there are even wrong answers that will still appear to work correctly for now, but will come back to bite you later.

It's no longer a black-and-white world. It's not whether something passes or fails. It's about more than that.

What's interesting is that I see a similar transition when my friends who are readers become writers. As a reader, we get into the story, the characters, the setting, the writing. We can spot when an author makes mistakes like plot holes or confusing story lines or bad grammar. A well-written story feels like it is inevitable. "Of course he'd make that decision," we say to ourselves even though the decision surprised us.

But as a writer, there isn't anything inevitable about a story even though many beginning writers think so. I used to think so, too. You feel like the story is driving you. Once you are done, you bristle when someone gives you negative feedback. You struggle with how to tweak your story without ruining it.

Well, let me tell you. There are no right answers anymore. There are many ways to tell your story once you get to the heart of it. You an cut out whole characters, change locations, have people make different choices, introduce any conflict you want at any time or take it out again. And you can still have your story.

Once I realized this, I wasn't just telling a story, I was crafting a story. I could experiment. If the changes didn't work, I'd put it back the way it was. I started looking at other stories, not just for entertainment, but so I could see how the masters crafted their scenes, flowed their dialog, and built their settings.

It's a different way to look at story, but for a writer it's much more useful.

Here's an experiment for you. In your current story, go back to a previous scene and change something major. Have a character get hurt so they can't have that conversation or can't accomplish their goal right then. Or put a different character into the scene and watch what happens. For me, the story re-flows around the change all the way to the end. I can then decide which path to take.

Have fun. Experiment. And keep writing.

* I went searching for a picture that would show that "there's more than one path you can take." I think Mike Fleming captured it with this one. I like it. If you like it too, you can check out his work on Flickr.


linda said...

Wow, great analogy! I think I have more of a tester mentality too -- I find editing easier than writing a first draft. Thanks for sharing your tips for experimenting!

John Waverly said...

Linda, the cool thing about freely experimenting is that it makes my first draft a lot easier. Sure, I have to make decisions as the story moves, and those decision may be "wrong". But I can change any or all of them later.

Good luck and keep writing.

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