Q&A: On Writing

What do you try to accomplish in your writing?

The first thing, I guess, is to write something I would like to read. I like books that make me think and feel. I like books that are emotionally and intellectually honest, that tell a good story, but also strive for depth. I like to see the author’s heart in their work, and to get a sense of the flavor of their mind. So I try to put all that in my work.

How would you describe your writing style?

At the sentence level, I would say it’s journalistic. Journalism focuses primarily on the questions of who, what, when, why, where, and how. For me, the substance of a story and its characters are in those questions.

Some writers practice a more florid style, evoking emotion and meaning through rich description and metaphor. The ones who are really good at that are justly revered as masters. But there are few masters, and lots of writers who lard their prose with pointless description and clichés, which are metaphors that have lost their meaning through overuse.

I look at writing the same way I look at cooking. If you have really good ingredients, your job is to let their flavor and texture come through. They can stand on their own. You don’t do that by smothering them in sauces and spices. Bad ingredients need smothering to distract you from the fact that they’re bad. Bad stories often employ lots of adverbs, adjectives, metaphors, and similes for the same reason.

If you’re willing to do the hard work of getting to the heart of a scene, a character, or an event, you find yourself using mostly nouns and verbs. The story has a stronger impact when you put it in concrete terms.

When did you start writing?

When I was a kid, around seven or so, I used to write episodes of my favorite TV shows. At fourteen, I started writing fake news stories. The kind of stuff you see in The Onion.

I attended a Jesuit high school in Washington, DC, and we spent an entire year writing sentences. We had a workbook called Links to Forceful Writing that was full of exercises where you’d have to arrange a set of ideas into a single sentence. And then rearrange it, again and again and again, changing conjunctions, swapping out dependent and independent clauses.

I learned from that not only the mechanics of writing, but also how little variations in sentence structure can shift the focus of the reader’s attention and affect their ability to absorb detail.

We spent an entire year arranging and rearranging sentences. I don’t know if any school does anything like that today, or if the standardized tests even allow teachers to take the time to do that kind of teaching. But I credit my ability to think deeply to the Jesuits, and my ability to write clearly to Anne Obenchain’s Forceful Writing workbook.

In college and grad school, I studied English and American literature. Later, I taught myself to write software, which is what I do professionally. I put writing aside for many years, knowing I’d come back to it. When I finally did, I was surprised at how much the practice of software development helped me in the practice of writing.

How did developing software help you as a writer?

Big software projects, like novels, are too sprawling and complex to tackle all at once. You have to break them down into smaller, more manageable pieces. You write the pieces, and then you put them back together to make the whole.

Much of the art of writing, both software and literature, lies in figuring out how to break the whole into parts. Which pieces do I need? How do I know they’ll fit together when they’re done?

The pieces you need are the ones you can actually write. If you write in short bursts, you need chapters you can write in a single sitting. As for fitting them back together… well, the reader actually does most of that work. Just give them the right cues when you make transitions. Help them get grounded in time and place before you lay another scene on them.

There’s a saying in the software world that your source code represents your best understand of the problem at the time it was written. That saying implies that your understanding improves as time goes on. It does. That’s why existing software is constantly being rewritten.

The same is true of writing. Your first draft represents your best understanding of what you’re trying to say. As soon as you get that out, you understand a little more clearly what you’re trying to do, and you rewrite.

Rewriting is probably the hardest part of the process, but years of writing software helped me get comfortable with it. It helped me understand when I’m forcing things and when I should walk away. It helped my understand the rewards of patience. I got used to the practice of spending a year or more on a single project, just to get all the pieces right.

In software, you have to be able to keep track of how numerous details fit into the big picture. And those details change all the time.

After you’ve been writing software for many years, you get so adept at managing all the pieces, you can do it in your head. You wind up working out a lot of design issues while you’re walking or biking or showering or cleaning the house.

For fiction, I do all the essential writing in my head, because it’s so easy to rearrange things there, and I don’t have to commit to any of it. It’s all open for revision, and I can try it a thousand different ways before I set it down on paper. By the time I sit down to write, I know the core of what I want to say.

I also write out of order. In software, your program might need to read a configuration file as soon as it starts up, then connect to the internet and perform a handful of other tasks. But you don’t write the program in the order that it executes. You identify the essential operations, and you write those first.

It’s the same with fiction. Certain chapters and scenes are essential. They’re the turning points in the story, or the parts that reveal character. When I understand them, I write them. Those scenes require inspiration. You can’t force them. So whichever part I’m inspired about is the one I work on.

The bulk of fiction writing, though, is like brick laying, and it just requires a lot of patience. When people read a really good book, they tend to think of the author as this brilliant architect. But remember that the architect just drew a picture of the building. The guy with the trowel and the mortar and the aching back and the calloused hands actually built it. That’s the writer.

What are you working on these days?

The final edits to Impala. I’m interested to see what readers think of that one. It’s funny how you can work on something for a year and have no idea how people are going to receive it.