Writing fiction after writing computer books

by Simon St. Laurent

After writing a small pile of books on various computer topics and editing a larger one, I'm attempting to write fiction. A few aspects of the writing process are the same, but others are different.

Much like I do for a computer book, I'm doing a lot of research. For this particular book, it's mostly studying religion (which I know far too little about) and 19th-century farming techniques. Once again, I'm carrying a small library with me and I'm using Google to find obscure bits of possibly useful information. It's too easy to get lost in the research and spend forever there, just like it is for a computer book.

The actual writing process is pretty similar - I'm as bursty as usual, churning out a collection of pages only after they've spent a long time percolating in my head. As there's no contract for this book, there's no deadline pressure, which is changing the dynamics of the process. (I think it may actually be easier to avoid procrastinating when I don't a deadline to run up against.)

The differences are probably more revealing. There's not much dialogue in computer books, of course, and I'm trying hard to avoid the kind of explanation that's at the heart of computer book writing. My chapters are much smaller, and there aren't any headlines. The outline structure is implicit and vastly more flexible.

Working without an editor is different, though in my experience fiction editors generally work on a project after the manuscript is complete or largely complete anyway. I'm not publishing to the web, either, so the amount of feedback I'm getting is limited.

The biggest difference, though, is the disappearance of the reality straitjacket. When writing about a product (say, Office 2003 XML) there isn't much I can do to change how the product works. Even in open source, where it's at least plausible to make changes, it's generally not a good idea to write books on a particular patched distribution rather than the main distribution. Even if the lead developer of the project was the author, I don't think it would work that well to be shifting the project to make it fit the book.

In fiction, of course, the world is mine to choose. I'm writing about events in the future, with some connections to today's world and some serious changes. I get to choose the changes. The level of control is appealing, and there are times when I have to avoid enjoying it too much. I still have to return to the world of computer books on a daily basis!

(There is a persistent rumor that many computer books are in fact fiction, but we try very hard to keep that from happening.)

How does your writing style change between fiction and non-fiction?


2004-09-13 06:47:59
Simon, I've written a number of what I would call "good" short stories--mostly when I was in school. Before I started my big non-fiction project for O'Reilly, I had spent about 6 months trying to write a fantasy novel.
As far as that reality straight-jacket goes, I found it a blessing in disguise, because my biggest challenge when writing fiction was holes in the plausability of my story. The reality straight-jacket keeps me moving because it allows me to just expose the facts, interject my personal experience, and get the book written. I had no such luxury when working on a novel.
That said, I can't wait to write some fiction again! Let me know when your manuscript is reader-ready.