At 70 words per minute, no one can hear you scream…

I’m writing a series of fantasy novels.

At the beginning of October, I finally reached the chapter halfway through the second book which I’d been looking forward to writing for a long while. I sat on the train, pen poised above the PDA, waiting for the words to come. They trickled in, slowly, but no matter what I wrote it felt dry, stilted and uncomfortable. The meeting between two of the main characters was intentionally awkward, but so, unfortunately, was the dialogue, the thought-stream and the flow of action throughout.

Finally, on Tuesday evening, I started rewriting the chapter from the point of view of another character, hidden and uninvolved in the conversation. Suddenly everything came clear. Six pages in two days is something of a record for me. Six pages in three months is not so good.

It struck me, thinking about it this morning, that efficient programming is all about reducing the gaps between those flashes of inspiration when code flows naturally, makes sense, feels clean and maintainable and not awkward to manage. Ward Cunningham said “our product is understanding” (a quote mailed to me by a colleague from this video). It takes one person a while to come to an understanding. It takes two people working alone the same length of time; neither of them can write anything until this happens. Put two people together, and understanding is reached much more quickly. Yes, both of them could take their understanding away and do some typing, but really, it’s much more efficient to just get the typing done and move on to the next inspiration gap together.

Like fiction, you can write code over and over again, but you’ll end up throwing 90% of it away if doesn’t actually do what it was meant to. If you find your code is stilted and awkward, the best thing to do is to look at it from a different point of view and try again. Ideally, get someone else to give you that point of view. Best of all, grab someone to pair with.

Unfortunately this doesn’t work with fiction, where you as the author are trying to give understanding of your story to others, who have none. Fortunately I have a number of characters on whom I can call for inspiration. So, if you occasionally see me sitting in a dark corner mumbling to myself, you now know why. I am my own pair.

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