What It Isn’t

Like probably everyone here, I cross-pollinate a lot. Since I’m working again (yay!) testing software and in my alleged spare time at work building an automation framework so that the one and only tester (me) can keep up with the ten programmers at least a little bit, that tends to be where my mind goes when I think about how writing works for me.

Except it doesn’t. Writing software isn’t much like writing fiction. Software specifications and particularly schedules are a different story.

Software has to be very structured – you can’t just charge in and do stuff and expect it all to work out at the end. At least, I can’t. With the framework I’m building I’m doing things at a slow crawl. Make a change, check it, make sure everything works, rinse and repeat. Slow, methodical. Plotter-like, at least on the surface. I’ve got to keep the whole picture in my head and remember which widget attaches to what doodad (yes, yes, highly technical terminology there).

Writing, which is largely happening during my lunch break, longhand, and getting transcribed and expanded on later, does not work that way for me. For starters I’m about as extreme a pantser as it gets. I may have a vague idea where something is supposed to end up and I usually know where I am at the moment, but anything in between is up for grabs. Sometimes I don’t know what I’m going to write next until the words appear in front of me. Which, incidentally, is even stranger when the words are emerging in your handwriting (of course it’s strange. How the heck am I writing with someone else’s handwriting… oh never mind). My method there is to read over the last few pages, pick up the pen, and go. Stuff comes out of the pen. (Who said ink? Congratulations, Captain Obvious. You out-obvioused me). Sometimes it’s even good stuff. It’s never the stuff I think is going to come out of there. Never.

So writing fiction isn’t like writing software. It isn’t like testing, either, because with that there’s some standard that says “this is what should happen”. Sure, sometimes the values of “should” can get really interesting and “meaning of ‘is'”-like, but there’s usually something the poor tester can call as a standard. (The application made my computer explode in my face. No, that isn’t an undocumented feature. Do you really think users are going to want exploding computers? Yes, I’m exaggerating. No, not that much.) It’s also not like testing in that writers don’t have to be tactful or nice to their characters. In fact it’s better not to. Sparing the characters or being nice to them makes boring books.

Ah, yes. The dirty little secret. Even at the extremes of pantser-ism there are definite conscious inputs that can force a misbehaving story to start talking to you again. It’s the “let’s drop another mountain” school of plotting, but it also works to break loose a pantsed story that’s gone and blocked itself on you. The method is simple. You don’t know what’s supposed to happen next. You try to write something and nothing comes out. You stare blankly at the page or the screen and nothing happens.

You know where you are right now. So the simplest way to break out is to add a corpse or an attack. By the time your characters have dealt with the body or defended themselves, they’ll usually have gotten over whatever grudge stopped them talking to you and you’ll be back in the swing of it.

I can guarantee you that never works in software development or software testing. Compilers don’t like being attacked, and they really don’t like corpses. Trust me on this. Even goat blood from the mandatory sacrifices to the arcane dark gods of the computer systems can cause issues (sacrifice virtual goats. It’s safer and gets better results).

Writing fiction isn’t methodical. It’s not easy. It’s not as simple as it looks. And it certainly isn’t just a case of taking the words running through your head and putting them on paper or computer. Trust me on this one: I start with the words in my head. The words that happen on the page are always different, and usually end up being better.

23 comments

    1. Oh, quite. Of course, it never takes me long to have developers hiding when they see me with a smile.

      1. Why would that be Kate? When I was a developer, I wanted to find “where” my programs broke. Not that they did of course. [Wink]

        Seriously, I don’t think much of developers who feared testers. I always attempted to develop programs that wouldn’t break (especially when I’d be the person woke up at 2 am when they broke). Since I’m human, I could make mistakes in my programming.

        1. Oh, it’s usually because the smile is the prelude to “hey, there’s something really interesting going on” which invariably means a long frustrating bug-hunt to track down one of those weird quasi-intermittent bugs my personal chaos magnet is so good at surfacing.

          Even the best programmers get a bit gun-shy after a few too many of those.

      1. I’m with you on that one Pam. I don’t WANT to know how my subconscious comes up with these things.

      2. Um, can we assume that your subconscious does not write about itself in the third person? Or is one of these comments direct from your subconscious? Just wondering who is tapping the keys over there 🙂

        1. I dunno any more. Too many Characters running around in my head.

          The silent Puppet Master hides among them. Or maybe the Characters are my subconscious. Or maybe I’ve got voluntary (and controlled, honest!) multiple personality syndrome. Or maybe “I” am a thin, egotistical skin on a very deep and weird being. Ah. Maybe “I” am the game avatar, and all the rest is the real me, leaking around the VR immersion experience . . .

          Mike! Don’t you know better than to send a writer off into a creative geyser of ideas? I have too many books underway already!

          1. That will be 10 cents please. This idea provided by the Passahanock, NJ, Idea Bank. Exciting Writers’ Muses For Decades! Over 10 Billion Ideas sold! Subscribe soon, memberships are limited.

            I swear, I was asleep when all this happened. But if it sells, I’ll be thrilled to be mentioned in the acknowledgements 🙂 Just don’t blame me if it garners rejections, okay?

            1. Here you go. Ten cents worth of . . . something. So . . . should Mike Nouther be a good guy or a bad guy? I have a vague idea about the protagonist, but not name yet.

              “Listen to me John. Listen to me!”
              Tel was yelling. I could hear the sirens in the background, funny how the sound was fading, when they ought to be getting closer. Christ, shot by a penny-ante hopped up . . .
              “Listen to me! John! I know you’re dying but pay attention! You are going to be waking in a dangerous place. Listen, damnit!”
              It almost sounded like he was crying. Mentor, partner, friend . . . Tel never cried. Tel was a complete hard-ass. Best cop ever.
              “John! Paeon!”
              Tunnel vision. I could see him look frantically over his shoulder.
              “Our bay has been breached, Paeon. You have to wake up fast. When the lid of the cryo unseals, you have seconds, seconds to get to the emergency pod. Take the corridor to the right, twenty feet, then it is on the left. The corridor is just past the foot of the cryo. Turn right. Walk twenty feet. Feel to the left. It’ll probably be dark.”
              Dying is weird. So very very weird. Tel was making no sense whatsoever and I couldn’t even tell him something traditionally sappy, like tell Cara I love her. The tunnel shrunk closed and disappeared.

              The blackness was nice and peaceful, until the noise started. The flashing lights. The one bright light I focused on. Pain slashed suddenly through my body, I could feel my back arch. I sucked in air, and screamed. Tried to scream. It was more of a choked gasp, something was in my throat, down my throat, being pulled out of my throat. I tried to move, but it was all slow motion, my limbs balky and hard, stiff, that horrible dream state were you need to run and can barely force a step forward. But I could hear my heart. My pulse thundered in my ears. I sucked in another breath; even my lungs were stiff and resistant. I was cold. And the air quality stank. Well the air stank. Musty human odors, bedding overdue for a wash, dirty laundry in the corner. Bachelor smells from before I met Cara. And cold. With chemicals. A face mask over my face and mouth withdrew. I blinked and saw nothing but lights in the darkness. I tried to look around. ER? No, it wouldn’t be dark. ICU, nighttime? Or had I been in a coma for years? Some long term facility . . . I tried to shake my head, wake all the way up.
              I reached out, pawed for something, anything, freedom. Hit a solid sheet of glass or plastic or something, inches from my face. The lights were behind it. I clawed, frantic. Coffins don’t have lights, coffins don’t have lights . . . A lever. Oh thank god, a lever. I pulled it with panicked strength.
              A ripping sound, like unsealing a can, popping a soda . . . an apt analogy as I was sucked out of my coffin and only my scrambling, spastic grip on the lever kept me from hitting the floor like the gelatin stuff I was covered with, or maybe whipping off down a dark corridor as all sounds faded and the last of my breath was sucked out . . .
              Corridor. I shoved myself to the foot of the coffin and turned right. No lights down there. My chest heaved, I was gasping but there was no air. One step, two. Hurry! twenty feet was . . . another step, another. Hand out to the left wall. Another step, a seam, a handle.
              I jerked it, was knocked off my feet as the door whipped sideways with a blast of air. I crawled through the door. Saw a blinking red light and lunged for it. Pressed. No sound, but a quiver I felt through my hand. A roar.

              I awoke on the floor. Cold. Naked. A dried layer of purple . . . stuff. All over me.
              I shoved back against the nearest wall. Bare metal wall, bare metal cube. Ten feet or so, each direction. I peeled off a dried purple smear. “What is this crap?”
              “Vacuum dried cryo gel. Welcome back aboard the Atlantis, Lieutenant Paeon.”

                  1. Yeah! Let’s hear more about John, Tel, Cara, and the vacuum dried cryo gel. And the good ship Atlantis, her extended mission to go… Will this be available in a director’s cut on DVD, or just go direct to YouTube?

                    Nouther sounds like a small-time crook, don’t you think? All right, maybe he’s got morals, but… whatever works for you, okay?

                    1. OK, he’s a small-time crook in the VR. When he finally wakes up in the ship . . . we’ll see which side he’s on.

                      Welcome back aboard the Atlantis, Lieutenant Paeon.”
                      Paeon. That’s what Tel was calling me, when I was shot . . . Dying. I looked around and couldn’t see anyone. “My name is John Dwight Marshall. I’m a cop. Sacramento Municipal . . . Where is this and who are you?” The ceiling was glowing all over, no sign of a seam, no sign of a speaker or microphone.
                      “This is the Interstellar ship Atlantis. I am the ship’s AI. Your confusion is normal for the first few days after an unscheduled awakening. May I brief you, sir?”
                      “As near death experiences go, this is a beaut. Go for it.”
                      “The Atlantis was in braking maneuvers, approaching a planetary system with two worlds in the life zone. One of the shuttles engaged in terraforming work crashed on approach to the shuttle hangers. Its fuel pod was ruptured, the ensuing explosion breached the inward wall, damaged the Plasma channel wall. Automatic safety machinery sealed the forward three quarters of the ship and discontinuous areas of the aft quarter.
                      “The colony personnel are in cryo with minimal failures. No colonists were lost in the emergency. Crew casualties are high. 243 on board personnel were lost either immediately or due to injuries or life support failures. The Supply Shuttle was recalled, and the crew of three assisted in repairs to get the plasma engines on line. The engines worked sporadically, and managed to slow the Atlantis past capture velocity before failing catastrophically. The failure was anticipated, the engines blast vented safely.

                      “Three rounds of solar sails have settled the Atlantis into an orbit that comes near the outer of the two planets being terraformed. Status of planet Alpha: Acceptable. 58% probability of successful colonization. Recommendation—delay colonization for improved odds. Status of planet Beta: Marginal. Colonization is not recommended at this time.
                      “End of status update.”
                      John leaned his head back against the wall. “Right. So . . . why am I so convinced that I’m a Sac City Cop. On Earth.”

                      “The virtual reality world building program is to maintain your sanity in what would otherwise be a sensory deprivation experience. With supplies limited and Life Support compromised, all colonists are being maintained in hibernation. All crew are wakened at the end of every third VR Life, to continue repairs.”
                      “All crew? What happened to these . . . wait . . . I’m, I’m . . . ” a weird thought squirted away and disappeared. John panted, shoved himself up and looked around the empty room.
                      “You are a member of the crew, Lieutenant Paeon. You were the commander of the supply shuttle.”
                      “But.” John waved toward the hatch. “We were in vacuum, why?”
                      “There was a third incident. A collision with an asteroid. The crew bays were . . . damaged.”
                      “How many of the crew are still alive? Frozen or whatever.”
                      “Eighteen.”
                      “Umm. I think I was shot in the chest, not the head. However, this game is much better than being dead, so lets run with this. Eighteen crew members. How many frozen?”
                      “None. Freezing damages tissues. Seventeen members of the crew are in medical hibernation, just above the freezing point of human tissue.”
                      “And I’m awake.”
                      “Yes.”
                      “Umm, and every time one of the crew dies in the real world . . . I mean, the virtual reality game, they wake up, pop open the coffin and die in the vacuum?”
                      “You are the second crew member to survive awakening. Commander Telamonian was the first.”
                      “What, Tel didn’t fix the whole problem?”
                      “The Commander repaired the major, local breach and serviced the hibernation chambers. He replaced several critical power runs and had built access almost to the main forward section when he was required to return to hibernation himself.”
                      “What requires a return to hibernation?”
                      “Lack of sustenance.”
                      “Food? Are you saying there is no food here?”
                      “Yes. This limits crew excursions to about seven days. In hibernation, IV sustenance is provided and the body is replenished.”
                      “So, yours truly, the dumb cop has seven days to repair a space ship?”
                      “Complete repairs are not necessary in the time limits. Priority should be given to locating and sealing the small leaks in the crew hibernation bay to prevent the loss of additional personnel. Second priority should be completing construction of the tube access to the forward area.”
                      “Right.” John suppressed a desire to giggle hysterically. “Interesting place, Hell. I think I like this game. So, first I need a space suit . . . ”

                      The computer, the Ship’s AI, rather, gave him detailed directions. Guided him step by step. And kept telling him that his hysterics were a normal and expected part of his rude awakening.
                      “So, so, sitting here thinking that, One, this is like taping and plastering wallboard and that, Two, Tel is a really horrible welder and I’m going to tell him so when I get back to Earth, is normal?”
                      “Yes.”
                      “Wait, how did Tel know about this? Shouldn’t he have been as immersed as I am? Was?”
                      “Commander Tel has Administrative Authority.”
                      “Can I have it too?”
                      “No. You are insufficiently mentally stable to have that authority.”
                      “Damn.” He shuffled over and started on the next seam. All the leaks were marked with purple streaks, where the gel that hadn’t stuck to him had been sucked out with the small amount of air in the coffin. Handy, that. Another thought struck. “Why are these welds breaking?”
                      “Age and flexing. The Atlantis’s close approaches to the second planet flexes the frame slightly.”
                      “Age? How long ago did Tel do these?”
                      “Six hundred and thirty two years, using the Game measurement of time, which has been shifted to coincide with the orbital period of the second planet.”
                      “Ship, you’re really fucked, aren’t you?”
                      “That is a biological function outside my capabilities.”

                    2. WordPress won’t let me reply direct, so… Looks good! Now, put up the next thrilling episode “over there” with a subscription button so we can all follow along 🙂

  1. Ah, those hunts can be “interesting” especially when the developer is modifying an existing program.

    It’s amazing how many problems can found (that existed before) when testing is done for an unrelated change. [Smile]

    1. Oh, yes.

      Developers everywhere cringe when a tester says “Hm. That’s funny…”

  2. Years ago, I took part in testing some software that the company I was working for at the time was creating. Their testing methodology was so scripted (the actions of the tester, not actual code scripting) that it was almost pointless (“Follow this EXACT series of steps. Does it do what the paper says it should do?” ). My misgivings were borne out later, when it hit actual human users (not just human, but children through young adults – the breakiest of breakers).

    For myself, besides giving experienced testers a chance to go through all the features of something, I like to give it to random people and say, “Here. Break it, and tell me how you broke it.”

    1. Yes, if experienced breakers can’t break it, give it to an amateur who barely knows how to find the power switch on a computer. Not only will they find the really odd breaks (I hit /shift/ /ctrl/ and /Q/ at the same time while it was booting and everything froze up, how do I get my computer to work again?) but they will inform you of all the non-user friendly aspects that people who work with computers everyday don’t notice, because they know how computers work.

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