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What writing novels and code have in common

  • Christian Riesen

I write a lot. While working at Liip, that writing comes in form of code, considering I'm a developer, but also includes documentation, comments, tickets and more. Knowing how to write is a skill that is very beneficial for me to have at my job. But it doesn't end there.

I also write stories. Long stories. Books you could call them. Writing those kinds of things has a long history for me, but what prompted me to write this post was the connections between my writing at work and in my free time: An event that is happening each November.

Welcome to NaNoWriMo

For a while now the National Novel Writing Month, or short NaNoWriMo, has transcended the national moniker and has gone international. In various places all over the globe, people come together with the goal to write at least 50'000 words, or about the size of a novel, in the 30 days of November. In Switzerland, the Zürich chapter meets each Saturday in the Liip arena. Together we sit, write and talk about the process and issues of writing. It's a community built around the principle of motivating and encouraging the participants to write.

The problem with doing NaNoWriMo is of course time and motivation. To reach those 50'000 words, I need to write 1'667 words each day to just barely make it. Some days I write more, some less. A lot less. My worst day for this year is 189 words so far and my best 5'604. So how can I even possibly reach the goal?

Struggeling together makes it easier to reach our goals

A challenge of words

That number of words is daunting to say the least. It's a challenge, one I can rise to. The problem I've seen with those I talked to is that the notion of what written words mean is differing from the one that is in line with the spirit of the event. It doesn't mean to write finished novel words, which you could take and print the moment you have written them, but to create the very first and very rough draft. If I don't like a wording of the sentence I was just writing, I hit enter and write it again, differently, then move on. Mangled a sentence that just doesn't work? Hit enter and try again. All the words count. The backspace, delete, arrow keys and the mouse don't really exist during this phase. I might read up a couple lines above to write the next bit, but that's it. If my characters need to somehow exit the building and leave, while I don't know how exactly that should happen, then that's all I write and keep on moving forward.

The editor mindset stays in a box during November, this is purely an unadulterated word vomit. As many words, as fast as I can type.

Nobody will ever see the text that I produce during NaNoWriMo. That is just a draft. I have to edit it anyways, no matter how precise I make this first draft, editing will be needed. So why should I worry about all the details while writing the draft? I make it as messy as the prose and ideas flow from my mind. I know I have to edit it. I know there are repetitions, horrible grammar, spelling mistakes and many more sins that I will hide with editing passes, yes, multiple. During November editing just slows me down though.

Meet up, write-in

The meetings, called write-ins, help with adding words, but the majority I have to add outside of those meetings. And at the end of the month I have a lot of words, which will need editing.

Writing together in the Liip Arena

All of this mad dash for the words has an actual purpose. The push for so many words, for ignoring the editor in myself, drives towards a more specific goal, getting to the end of the story I intend to write. You see, if I start editing in between, I will start to find changes to later parts that affect earlier ones. So I go back and edit the early parts and that also changes later parts, so I end up in a death spiral of never getting done and just keep on changing the story. By disabling the entire editing process and just put words on the page, like steps on the pavement in a marathon, I actually get to the end. With the end reached, I now have an overview of the entire story and can make changes to the whole work, but much better informed.

This experience translates well into my writing at Liip. Even down to code. For me it has given me a mantra of "Make it work, then make it pretty". This was something that I knew before, but couldn't put into concise words until I participated for the first time in NaNoWriMo. The extreme of working forward to the goal, then go and clean up has expedited a lot of my coding work. If I had to make each step perfect before taking the next, I'd throw away long polished writing and code all the time, instead of throwing away quick and dirty drafts. It doesn't mean that every code I write, while I write, is a horrible mess, it just means that I embrace that mess while finding the content or solution. Once I comprehend the final solution, then I can make it into something even better.

Participate in NaNoWriMo

The diverse and welcoming community around NaNoWriMo has motivated me to write not one book, but an entire serie of them. At the moment of this posting, I wrote 3 books worth of first drafts, each one over 100'000 words long and have done about 70% of the edits on the first of these books. Without the community I would have been stuck in a repetitive cycle of edits and never gotten to the end of the story in book 1, let alone add 2 more to that.

Write with the swiss wrimos

Everyone is welcome to join us at the Liip arena, between 13:00 and 16:00 on the Saturdays in November and write your own things, be it novel, poems or a dissertation. Putting down the words and reaching the end counts. Editing is for later.


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