Saturday, 25 January 2014

Aiming for elegance

Here's a revelation for you. I used to be a computer programmer.

Okay, probably not the most earth shattering news you've ever heard. You've probably already got the sense that I'm a bit on the geeky side, from the posts here and possibly my books as well.

Bottom line is, I was never very good at it. My brain didn't quite work in that sort of way, and as things got more complicated, and especially as technology and associated methodologies got more complicated (don't even start me on object-oriented programming) I pretty much bailed out. Luckily, I did manage to find other stuff I was better at, and have managed to forge a subsequent non-programming career.

But there is one concept I have taken from my brief stint as a programmer. One idea that I've actually found to have relevance to my writing, and that I try to apply to every story I create.

That concept is elegance.

It's a big thing in programmer-land (or at least it was back when I was in residence - it's possible things have changed since then). I'll try to explain it...elegantly. Consider that any computer program is designed to solve a particular problem. It's likely that there are multiple ways this problem could be solved. But a good programmer always seeks to find the most elegant solution - the one that solves it as neatly and cleanly as possible, using the least and most efficient code.

That's an approach I definitely take to my storytelling. As I've mentioned before, I tend to see storytelling as aligned with problem solving. I create problems for myself, i.e. challenges for my characters, and then try to work out how I (they) can solve them. Maybe there are multiple ways I could solve my storytelling problem, but I always strive for the most elegant way.

So what features describe elegance in storytelling. I see some of the key elements as:
  • using as few words as possible - finding the simplest way to tell the story
  • writing descriptions that ring - not too wordy but making an impression on the reader
  • writing dialogue that sings  - helping to move the plot along while revealing character at the same time.
It's an ambition I'm not sure I always achieve, but it seems like a good thing to work towards. Hopefully I'll get there in the end.
Have a great, and elegant, week. 


  1. I also used to be a programmer although I tended to refer to myself as a database designer since I worked solely with Access and Sage. I loved it and I do understand what you mean about elegance. The programming that I’m the fondest of is the stuff I used to do on the ZX Spectrum. What I loved about that was being able to cram as much as possible into 48K. I mean, seriously, 48K! We talk in terms of terabytes now. But you can do a lot with 48K and a bit of imagination. I designed an entire graphic adventure for the Spectrum and what I was most proud of was that the map it generated was unique every time. Every time you sat down to play it was a new experience. I remember spending days—literally days—trying to write half a dozen lines of machine code to turn the light behind a rectangular box on and off. Nowadays be have bloatware and that just disappoints me.

    Poems especially (for me at least) are little machines—that’s what William Carlos Williams called them—and the whole point to a machine is to cram all its functions into a confined space. You can’t keep adding and adding. Too many newbies don’t know how to compress. Which is why we get books that are ten- or twenty-thousand words too long. I’m a big fan of the novella. I’ve only ever written on but even my novels are on the short side, all bar one which at 90,000 words I think of as an epic and I never want to write another book that long. There’s rarely the need frankly. Say what you have to say and get off the page. That’s my motto. So here I am getting off the page.

    1. Hi Jim. I guess I'd better say thanks for the comment, then follow your advice and get off the page.