East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Coding & Writing or, last night as we compared scars…

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I was talking about code, last night.
Code as in HTML, BASIC, COBOL, that sort of stuff.
Fact is, an ebook is basically a glorified HTML file – you can code it with an ASCII notebook.
You need the text, and a set of HTML tags.

As it usually happens, old code-monkeys slip in the classic mode of that scene from Jaws, where Brody, Quint and Hooper compare scars.


Stories about static pages coded on the fly, physics simulation on old 5.1/4 floppy disks, ASCII tables and so on. And of course the discussion soon turned to “these kids today” that can do wonders with their big softwares, WYSIWYG graphical interfaces and whatnot, but when the going gets rough, they can’t get their hands on the code.
And my friend Hell (no, it’s not really his name) commented

It’s just like writing.

And you know – he’s right.

31a0-XDd94L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_There’s an interesting book, out there, called Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style.
It was written by Virginia Tufte, and it illustrates how the basic structure of the phrase can not only convey meaning, but also define the style of a text, and of a writer.
And if it sounds complicated – well, yes, it is not that straightforward, and it’s the sort of thing one learns by reading.
By reading an awful lot.

This kind of attention to the phrase is akin to the work a programmer does on the raw code, without an interface.
Of course this is a loose parallel, but really…

There’s a lot of writing instruction available out there – handbooks, of variable quality, price and availability; blogs and forums, where you can find expert or not-so-expert opinion; places like TV Tropes, where the discreet elements of narrative are disassembled and classified.

Tropes, like the ones described in TV Tropes, and ready-made structures, like the Three Acts Structure, are what amounts, to me, to “Object Programming” in writing.
And there’s nothing wrong in working with discreet blocks of narrative – but knowing what’s going on inside those blocks is damn useful.
Because when things don’t work, the solution is not necessarily to be found at object level.
Maybe the solution is inside the objects.

htmlAnd when it comes to narratives, to look inside the objects we need to have a certain degree of experience with phrases, words, syntax.
We must know when the rhythm is right, we must be able to perceive when the words don’t sound right.
And that comes from reading – a lot, far and wide.
Paying attention.
And it also comes from writing – again, a lot, trying out different word-strings, listening to what we are writing.

Just like with code, maybe we’ll never use our low-level skills. Maybe the structure, the tropes and the basic rules one finds in every handbook will be enough to write our story and debug it.
But when the going gets rough – and it will – it’s by looking at the code that we can make the thing work at the higher levels.

Is there a writing equivalent of a WYSIWYG software, of a programming interface?
Is there something in what we do that distances us from what we are actually writing,making our life easier but also taking away from our full, in-depth control of what we are writing?
I think a certain way of intending genres and subgenres can work that way.

It’s sword & sorcery, it’s supposed to work like that!

I normally feel a slow cold shiver when I read beginners – it’s usually beginners – say

I’m working on my novel, which is sort of a weird bizarro fantasy noir with horror undertones and a strong manga influence

It feels wrong, to me.
It’s like the story is not being plotted, or outlined, but assembled from pre-cooked layers.
Like the guy did not read enough, read only in a limited field, and basically caught the general features, but forgot to look in depth at the words.
Because like that chap said, it’s all about getting the words right.

But who knows, maybe it’s just me, still surfing on the old code-monkeys vibe of last night.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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