<antirez>

antirez 125 days ago. 79940 views.
One year ago I paused my programming life and started writing a novel, with the illusion that my new activity was deeply different than the previous one. A river of words later, written but more often rewritten, I’m pretty sure of the contrary: programming big systems and writing novels have many common traits and similar processes.

The most obvious parallel between the two activities is that in both of them you write something. Code is not prose written in a natural language, yet it has a set of fixed rules (a grammar), certain forms that most programmers will understand as natural and others that, while formally correct, will sound hard to grasp.
There is, however, a much deeper connection between the two activities: a good program and a good novel are both the sum of local and global elements that work well. Good code must be composed of well written and readable single statements, but overall the different parts of the program must be orthogonal, designed in a coherent way, and have clean interactions. A good novel must also succeed in the same two scales of the micro and the macro. Sentences must be well written, but the overall structure and relationship between the parts is also crucial.

A less structural link between programming and writing is in the drive you need when approaching one or the other: to succeed you need to make progresses, and to make progresses you have to be consistent. There is extensive agreement on the fact that programs and novels don’t write themselves, yet. Twenty years of writing code helped me immensely with this aspect; I knew that things happen only if you sit every day and write: one day one hundred words, the other day two thousands, but rare is the day I don’t put words on the page. And if you have written code that is not just a “filler” for a bigger system, but a creation of your own, you know that writer block also happens in programming. The only difference is that for most people you are an engineer, hence, if you don’t work, you are lazy. The same laziness, in the case of an artist, will assume the shape of a fascinating part of the creative process.

The differences.

I believe the most sharp difference between writing and programming is that, once written, edited and finalized, a novel remains immutable, mostly. There are several cases of writers returning on their novels after several years, publishing a bug fixed version of it, but this is rare and, even when happens, a one-shot process. Code evolves over time, is targeted by an endless stream of changes, often performed by multiple people. This simple fact has profound effects on the two processes: programmers often believe that the first version of a system can be quite imperfect; after all there will be time to make improvements. On the other hand writers know they have a single bullet for every novel, to the point that writing prose is mostly the act of rewriting. Rewriting sentences, whole chapters, dialogues that sound fake, sometimes two, three, or even ten times.

I believe programming, in this regard, can learn something from writing: when writing the first core of a new system, when the original creator is still alone, isolated, able to do anything, she should pretend that this first core is her only bullet. During the genesis of the system she should rewrite this primitive kernel again and again, in order to find the best possible design. My hypothesis is that this initial design will greatly inform what will happen later: growing organically something that has a good initial structure will result in a better system, even after years of distance from the original creation, and even if the original core was just a tiny faction of the future mass the system would eventually assume.

In case you are interested, a quick update about my sci-fi novel. After many self-reviews I sent the manuscript to my editor, Giulio Mozzi. He will send me the change proposals in a few weeks. I’ll start a new review process informed by his notes, and hopefully finalize the novel in one or two months. Then, finally, I’ll be ready to publish the Italian version. A the same time the finalized novel will be sent to my translator, in the US, and when she ends the translation the English version will be published as well. It’s a long journey, but one that I deeply enjoyed taking.
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