Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Why I Am Now Writing Fiction - 2

Some of non-fiction books have been directed specifically at people in the information technology (IT) business. Some have not. Generally, the ones that have sold best and longest have been the ones not so specifically directed at IT people (The Psychology of Computer Programming is the exception, but think of An Introduction to General Systems Thinking, The Secrets of Consulting, Are Your Lights On, What Did You Say?, Weinberg on Writing, even Exploring Requirements and Becoming a Technical Leader). In other words, my audience is larger than just IT folk.

I no longer write books for the money, but I do like my books to sell because I like to think people are reading them and learning how to be happy. I was upset when the IT market declined during the bubble burst, because my books declined along with the rest.

One of my happiness lessons says, "It doesn't pay to remain upset for too long, and I can usually think my way out of useless emotions." Applying this lesson, I figured out that there are still lots of smart, talented people out there, in addition to the many remaining IT folk. They were the people for whom I've always written, and as long as I made my novels general enough and appealing enough, there would never be a shortage or readers.

Well, there's no limit to how appealing a story can be. All I had to do was learn the craft.

Sending Messages

"If you want to send a message, go to western union." Attributed to Ernest Hemmingway, Harry Crews, Sam Goldwyn, David Lynch, "they," "oft-quoted sentiment," "old Hollywood saying," "old saw,"

It was good advice for novelists, script writers, children's writers, and actors, but not for me. My whole purpose in writing is to send messages about how to be happy though smart. I would have to take this advice as a caution, rather than a prohibition. I would have to make my messages interesting, embedding them in compelling incidents that would be worth reading even if you didn't care about the messages they contained.

My novels carry messages that are fiction in one sense, but non-fiction in another, more important sense. Every incident is based on one or many incidents I have observed in the hi-tech world over more than half a century. That's the non-fiction. But the specifics of each incident—the technology, in particular—have been changed. That's the fiction. The people's names and appearance are changed, as are the settings in which they operate (fiction), but their personalities, aspirations, character flaws, and behavior are the same (non-fiction).

Experience is the best teacher, which is why my classes have always been experiential, based on simulations of reality. I want my novels to do the same. My goal is to make reading one of my novels like having the experiences of the characters, compressing, say, six months of experience into six hours of reading—fun and interesting reading.

Problem Solving

What makes fiction fun and interesting to me, and to my audience of smart people? Some audiences are transported by long, detailed descriptions of exotic settings. Others adore romantic encounters, horrible crimes, or supernatural phenomena. My audience, the smart people, might enjoy these features of a novel, but deep down, when they love is problem solving.

In my novels, as in my life, my characters engage in at least four types of problem-solving:

1. Technical problems: making stuff work.

2. Personal problems: coping with their own emotions and mental limitations as they try to make stuff work.

3. Interpersonal problems: dealing with people who may be envious of their success, dedicated to their failure, attempting to inflict help, elevating them to godlike status, stealing their creations, working other agendas, or simply blundering around in a way that impedes their progress.

4. Global problems: coping with the intended and unintended effects of their successes and failures.

Most non-fiction technical books concentrate on (1), and that was true of my earliest books, starting half a century ago. As I tired of books becoming obsolete through the advance of technology, I began to look for the deeper human issues underlying the technical problems. My novels are merely the next step in that process. The first one—The Aremac Project—is due out any day now. I hope you let me know if I'm getting a few messages across to you, but most of all, if you enjoy the experience.