Fiction vs. Software

I attended a terrific presentation during PPWC 2016, entitled A Novel in 90 Days by Johnny Worthen. Excellent presentation. In this Johnny combined (albeit perhaps not entirely knowingly) industrial-grade project management concepts with cognitive theory to model writing as a sustainable occupation.

What I noted here was a great many parallels with software projects. For instance:

  • Tracking Progress: Johnny wants you to track word count delivered during the month of actual writing. This felt much like the concept of Earned Value Tracking that I learned from IDesign. It’s also part and parcel with motivation.
  • Planning vs. Pantsing: Johnny is definitely not a pantser, he’s more of a planner. But, he allocates a month for pre-writing: outlining, plot/character/setting development, maybe writing bits and pieces. So this is the area where the pantser can play. But ultimately it needs to come together into focused writing time, where you actually get the words out. At that point the pantsing is done and the planning needs to be good enough that the story comes together quickly. Compare this with a well-run software project, with a “fuzzy front end” where informal discussions turn into serious plans, architecture forms, the project gets outlined, budgeted, and implemented.
  • Knowing vs. breaking rules: If memory serves, at various points Johnny mentioned knowing rules of writing sufficient to know how and when to break them. This is a universal law, in fact. Across domains you find that you start not knowing, and needing rules to set the foundation for further learning. Then you begin to break out of them a little, learning the ins and outs, and you can break them at times. And, at the final stage of mastery, you transcend the rules entirely. At this point you know, in your soul, how to function effectively. It applies in writing, in software, in martial arts, in driving a car. Everywhere. The Japanese call this concept Shu-Ha-Ri. Martin Fowler discusses it here, even referencing Alistair Cockburn’s page on it, which I have previously referenced myself.
  • Setting deadlines: Why is it so important to set deadlines? Johnny insists on it. He arbitrarily uses the same deadline and page count as NaNoWriMo, but in general, why the deadlines at all? Because of Parkinson’s Law–work always expands to fill the available time. Gold-plating in software, which adds unnecessary complexity. Over-writing in fiction, possibly with unnecessary plot lines etc. Tracking progress and setting deadlines are all about treating writing as an occupation, and holding yourself accountable.

I’ve always felt that writing had many things in common with software. Both offer outlets for creativity as well as planning. Both involve complicated logistics, whether a character’s story, or an end user’s story interacting with the software. They are both accessible to novices yet rewarding to masters. Both will make you bang your head against the wall in frustration, and many would tell you that you have to be both crazy and dedicated (possibly in that order) to do either. And my understanding of software has grown to new levels of maturity thanks to the IDesign courses. But only in this presentation did I see the same level of maturity applied to writing itself.

I imagine pantsers will cringe reading this, worry about losing the romance, the art that is writing, and cite authors like Stephen King. Look, if that’s how you work best, great. But if you find yourself getting lost, not knowing how to proceed, suffering writer’s block, having to backtrack and rewrite huge amounts of a book, suffering motivation issues, etc., then consider the alternative. Maybe you need some of this. If not–well, maybe you’ve transcended such rules.