TITLE: Refactoring Everywhere: In Code and In Text AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: July 16, 2012 3:02 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Charlie Stross is a sci-fi writer. Some of my friends have recommended his fiction, but I've not read any. In Writing a novel in Scrivener: lessons learned, he, well, describes what he has learned writing novels using Scrivener, an app for writers well known in the Mac OS X world.
I've used it before on several novels, notably ones where the plot got so gnarly and tangled up that I badly needed a tool for refactoring plot strands, but the novel I've finished, "Neptune's Brood", is the first one that was written from start to finish in Scrivener... ... It doesn't completely replace the word processor in my workflow, but it relegates it to a markup and proofing tool rather than being a central element of the process of creating a book. And that's about as major a change as the author's job has undergone since WYSIWYG word processing came along in the late 80s.... My suspicion is that if this sort of tool spreads, the long-term result may be better structured novels with fewer dangling plot threads and internal inconsistencies. But time will tell.
Stross's lessons don't all revolve around refactoring, but being able to manage and manipulate the structure of the evolving novel seems central to his satisfaction. I've read a lot of novels that seemed like they could have used a little refactoring. I always figured it was just me. The experience of writing anything in long form can probably be improved by a good refactoring tool. I know I find myself doing some pretty large refactorings when I'm working on the set of lecture notes for a course. Programmers and computer scientists have the advantage of being more comfortable writing text in code, using tools such as LaTex and Scribble, or homegrown systems. My sense, though, is that fewer programmers use tools like this, at least at full power, than might benefit from doing so. Like Stross, I have a predisposition against using tools with proprietary data formats. I've never lost data stored in plaintext to version creep or application obsolescence. I do use apps such as VoodooPad for specific tasks, though I am keenly aware of the exit strategy (export to text or RTFD ) and the pain trade-off at exit (the more VoodooPad docs I create, the more docs I have to remember to export before losing access to the app). One of the things I like most about MacJournal is that it's nothing but a veneer over a set of Unix directories and RTF documents. The flip side is that it can't do for me nearly what Scrivener can do. Thinking about a prose writing tool that supports refactoring raises an obvious question: what sort of refactoring operations might it provide automatically? Some of the standard code refactorings might have natural analogues in writing, such as Extract Chapter or Inline Digression. Thinking about automated support for refactoring raises another obvious question, the importance of which is surely as clear to novelists as to software developers: Where are the unit tests? How will we know we haven't broken the story? I'm not being facetious. The biggest fear I have when I refactor a module of a course I teach is that I will break something somewhere down the line in the course. Your advice is welcome! -----