Panic, Madness, Joy, and Craftsmanship

I have “finished” the second draft of the novel, “A Shepherd of the Arisa”. I have rewritten, edited, smoothed, and adjusted, each time trying to shape the words into ideas that can become enjoyment and enlightenment in the mind of the reader. I am so familiar with the contents of the novel, that the actual words are masked by what my mind thinks that they should be. I think it is in good shape. My wife has read it and thinks that is in good shape as well. But what do we know?

Accordingly, I have decided to inflict the manuscript on a half-dozen beta readers. I’ve negotiated what I want from them and sent the novel out into the world in various formats for them to read and comment upon. In a less than a month I should have all sorts of actionable suggestions for performing surgery upon the novel. It is more than a little scary. They might come back and tell me that I’ve written rubbish. Then again they might tell me that I’ve been just flat out brilliant. Like I said, it is scary. But scary is often the price for learning something new.

This period of waiting for feedback from the “real world” is what I call the “post deadline funk.” I have scurried around for several weeks trying to get all the various piece parts of the novel in place and brought up to a reasonable level of quality. I have shipped the manuscript. Now I am sitting around waiting for the real world to validate my efforts. I have tasks to accomplish but none of them are particularly meaningful in the absence of a publishable book. This is a fertile time for doubts and misgivings.

This would be the point in a software development project to reflect on how the project unfolded. What worked, what did not work, and where could we improve things? The reflection might be informal, carried out in a local eating-and-drinking establishment. The reflection might be formal, with agendas and minutes, and formal protocols of analysis, carried out in a conference room. The reflection might be ugly, with shouted recriminations and repercussions. The reflection might be peaceful and thoughtful, with reasoned calls for future actions. I have been through all of the various flavors of reflection. They are always about the people, the goals, the process, the tools, the methods, the technology, and the politics.

Particularly the politics.

But this project is “writing a novel” and at this point in the process there is just me in here, word smithing away. I am the project sponsor, the project leader, the architect, the scribe, the quality assurance person, and the “whatever else you can think of” person. The closest thing to politics is the ever-present background hum of self-doubt. Am I doing this the right way? What could I do better? What more should I be doing?

Old habits die hard.

A novel is a big effort. I cannot imagine doing something of this size without reflecting on how well I did it, and seeking better ways to get the work done. I have set out to become a writer of fiction. I want to produce books that entertain people while at the same time make them think about technology and its effects on society and individuals. I want to think out loud.

To be clear, this is not about “making a living” as a writer. I am retired; I had good jobs that paid well. I saved my money and invested. The wife and I are just fine, thank you. This is just as well. Writers do not make much money. I do not expect to make any “serious money” from writing. I do this because I am fascinated with ideas, because I enjoy learning about science and technology, and because I need to have practical goals (such as writing a novel) to be able to “put it all together” in my mind. But, note that if the money does come, I am keeping every dollar of it.

Old habits die hard.

I have always thought of myself as a craftsman. By craftsman, I mean a person who produces works of practical value, who has distinct skills and tools that are applied to produce results, and who strives to improve his or her skills and the mastery of the related tools. I worked to be a craftsman in software development. I now work to be a craftsman in writing. For me, craftsmanship goes beyond being a competent professional; it is about a disciplined passion for quality.

When I worked as a software developer, I read books, listened to podcasts, subscribed to blogs, and wrote articles as part of a continuous effort to understand how to better perform my craft. I created hundreds of prototypes that employed each newness of the moment. I did technical presentations in the local technical community. A day in which I did not learn a new fact or technique was a day wasted. A day in which I did not become a better software developer was a dark and dreary day. After a while, this daily focus on learning and improving, driven by a lingering self-doubt, has become a habit that continues even after the job and the profession have fallen away.

Old habits die hard.

Writing is about “doing something” and “doing” can always be improved. I look at what I have written and try to learn from it. I read webpages dedicated to the craft of writing. I am on a half-dozen email distribution lists concerning writing, publishing, and the related marketing of books. I listen to podcasts on the subject. In general, I think that my consumption makes me a better writer, but all these various sources collectively remind me every day that is so much more that I need to know how to do, if I am to be truly successful in presenting ideas in a form that is attractive to readers.

One of things that I’ve run across in my quest to be a better writer is this notion that there are patterns of how one writes a novel or a short story. Some of these are packaged up with names such as Snowflake and MICE. Others are described as variations on a three act structure. I am sure that if I look, I could find many more of these writing patterns out there in the wilds of the web. I will tell you that I have not looked at any of these in-depth. Why, you ask? Because I am afraid of what I might find. I will come back to this fear after I’ve described a few things about patterns.

As a software developer, I am very familiar with patterns. We have all sorts of patterns in software development. The notion behind design patterns is that if you have a particular kind of problem, there are only a limited number ways to build a solution for that problem that make sense. There are thousands of patterns that have been defined for all sorts of different situations. Each pattern specifies the conditions under which the pattern applies and details the elements to consider when applying the pattern. The pattern does not dictate the technology or the implementation; it suggests a way to think about solving the problem.

Consider the number of different analog clock faces that you might have seen. There are hundreds of them but they all follow the same pattern of how the numbers are arranged around the clock face. The size of clock might be bigger or smaller; the materials from which the clock is constructed might be wood, plastic or metal; the numerals might Arabic, Roman, or even missing; and the colors might be stark black and white or all the colors of the rainbow. All of these things might change but the pattern of the clock is constant and recognizable to a person walking through a room. The design pattern provides a checklist of the aspects that must be taken into account during the design and implementation of clock faces for that recognition to occur.

This same relationship of pattern to implementation applies to the architecture for buildings, the design of software, the plans for automobiles, and the writing of novels. The names might be different but the concept is unchanging.

Learning design patterns is not without peril: you begin to see design patterns in everything. You get caught up in the search for the perfect design pattern, leading to severe “paralysis by analysis.” Everything but the most simple of software systems can and will involve a dozen different design patterns. If the integration of these patterns is done right, the result is a smoothly operating piece of software. If the integration is not done right, the result is complexity and confusion. There is a seductive madness to all of this. This is a way to improve. More is better! Right?

After a while, similar to other shiny new things, the glow of design patterns fades. The craftsman absorbs a relatively small number of patterns that fit together properly and begins to use these patterns instinctively. The result is not fancy or perfect; it does not explicitly use every pattern that it might, but it is certainly functional and delivered within budget and schedule constraints. This particular flavor of “improvement madness” recedes and makes an opening for the next.

Writing also has what I think of as design patterns. Consume enough material about “how to write” and the patterns emerge: milieu, idea, character, event, denouement, and evolving change within the protagonist. Essential structural elements within the patterns guide, but do not dictate how the author arranges the elements of the novel. As with software, these design patterns occur at all levels of detail: syntax, selection of words, paragraph structure, scene layout, the organization of chapters, and the overall structure of the novel. There are patterns that describe the rules for action, description, dialogue, language, emotion, and a whole list of things that I have not learned about yet.

The amount of “help for the writer” that is available is a problem. There are different sources advocating different ways of doing the same thing. Each pattern takes time to learn, to apply, and to evaluate, sucking up more time to untangle concepts, master techniques, and assess applicability. There are the choices that must be made in the absence of complete and clear information. There is always the fear that any given choice is the wrong one. And then there are the choices that you do not know about. Is there is a new and better technique over that hill or around the next bend in the river. This is the siren song: the new and shiny must be better than what we have right now. Right?

Old habits die hard.

The sign says, this way to “The Spiral of Madness.” I have been here before, many times for many different improvements. I understand that the situation calls for discipline. Some newness might nourish the goodness of the work. More might crush it under the wheels of repeated “let’s start over so that we can use the best”. Always, the best is the enemy of the good (enough). There is a time to try new things and there is a time to avert one’s eyes and keep one’s hands in one’s pockets. But it is hard to know what the right thing to do is.

My strategy in applying these patterns in my writing has been to concentrate upon the patterns for lower-level details. How to structure sentences. How to organize the sentences of the paragraph to convey the message to the reader effectively and efficiently. How to tie the end of a chapter to its successor to engage the reader. But I’ve made almost no effort to implement the patterns for higher-level details.

Old habits die hard.

Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Mastery is not achieved by floating along without challenging the current way of doing things. There is a pressure to think about what I am doing, about what I am trying to accomplish, and about how satisfying the results of my efforts are. I cannot be satisfied until I understand the reasons behind the actions that produce the good results. I want to make those good results happen again and again. I need to learn how to do that. I accept that I will never understand everything but that does not exempt me from having to try.

But still I hold back applying the more encompassing patterns. Why? The answer is fear. It is one thing to rewrite a sentence to be more forceful, or to rewrite a paragraph to be better organized. It is quite another thing to realize that the book that you have just written does not follow any of the prescribed patterns. I am already unsure of what I am doing; knowing that “experts” are casting aspersions on my work amplifies my uncertainly to raging doubt.

Am I wrong to avoid such knowledge? I am struggling enough with becoming a writer without submitting to repeated kicks to my head by those who would “help me become a better writer.” At some point, I have to stop fiddling and start shipping. At some point I just have to declare the novel to be done.

In my defense, I did follow what I thought was a fairly organized process. I made an outline of the chapters and of the scenes that I wanted. I kept track of the status of the various chapters in my spreadsheet: outlined, written, and revised. I thought through the plot and dialog of each chapter before writing the words. Even though I was ignorant of all these various writing design patterns, I still wrote a story which I would want to read as a reader.

So here I am in the lull between the act and the consequence. In many of the software development projects that I have done, there is that point which I call the “moment of panic”. You and the project sponsor emerge from the low-land clouds surrounding the mountain. The sponsor points at the summit and shouts through the background of constant wind, “That is where I want to go!” Your mind says, “Well, maybe.” Your gut screams, “No way in hell!” But your mouth says, “Sure! If the resources and the desire are there, we can do this!” You have committed to finding a way to the top before you even know if it is possible. In other words, if you are not panicking, you do not understand what is going on.

Right now, with respect to the publication and marketing of this novel, I’m very close to that point of panic. I have a list of all the things I’m supposed to do to get this novel out into the world. I know that I’m certainly missing items from the list and misunderstanding other items on the list. The list is daunting.

I am 70 as I write this. The list of advantages of being 70 over being, say, 30 is not lengthy. One of those advantages is that I have been here before. I very likely will be here again in the future. I know that the only way to get through this is to “play through the panic.” I know how to ask questions. I know how to find answers. I know how to learn. I make no claims that the process will be easy. I make no claims that the process will guarantee success. But I also know that if I don’t play the game, I am guaranteed to fail.

This all sounds painful, but there is a joy in all of this. Working through the steps of the puzzle, devising answers to the questions, advancing toward a goal, and, finally, relishing the solution. At least for a while. At least until the next puzzle. This is the circle of my life, with a distinct emphasis on living.

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