[GUEST POST] Karen Sandler on How Software Engineering Helped Her Be a Better Writer

Karen Sandler Karen Sandler is the genre-conflicted author of romance, mystery, and science fiction novels. AWAKENING, the follow-on to TANKBORN in her Tankborn trilogy, was recently released. The series will conclude with REVOLUTION in Spring 2014. Besides copious amounts of dark chocolate, Karen loves horseback riding and folk dancing.

How Software Engineering Helped Me Be a Better Writer

by Karen Sandler

I’m one of those authors who wanted to be a writer from a very young age. The light bulb came on in 4th grade when I wrote a four-line poem about a pony named Tony. I’m not sure what clicked in my feverishly imaginative nine-year-old brain that made being a writer the brass ring to reach for, but it was set in stone from that point on.

Oddly enough, I was a practical kid, and I understood that writers usually had to do something else for money while they wrote stuff. In college, I took a meandering path through my majors. Started with chemistry, got overwhelmed by the number of pre-reqs, wimped out and majored in English (apologies to the English majors out there). Then I discovered that math, which I’d struggled with in high school, was actually pretty fun. So when I transferred from community college to a four-year university, I majored in English and minored in math.

But English turned out to be crazy easy for me. I got A’s taking naps in class (well, not really). So I switched the major to math and the minor to English. Then I discovered physics and I abandoned English all together. My eventual BA was in math, with a minor in physics.

I ended up spending 14+ years as a software engineer, on the Space Shuttle project and later on communications satellites. This was fairly early in the IT industry (mid-70’s). We were all using giant IBM and CDC mainframes with a dumb terminal interface. Punch cards were actually involved occasionally (ask your grandfather what those are). I would modify existing legacy programs, or write new code, sometimes large-scale, sometimes minor subroutines.

You might think all this tech focus would have squelched the creative, writer side of my brain. Or that it would be a major effort to switch from that mathy left-brain thought process to the right-brain language and story process.

Not so much. As it turns out, because of all those years as a software engineer, I developed into a very left-brain writer. Before I write word one of my first chapter, I outline my characters within an inch of their fictional lives. I write a detailed synopsis. While I’m writing, I take copious notes, and in the case of the Tankborn trilogy, every bit of world-building I did ended up in a Word file for later reference. I drew a map, created a governmental system, a calendar, an historical backstory for the planet, a description of flora and fauna.

I approach plot as a problem-solving exercise. My character needs to discover X information. Which discovery method will have the most impact for the reader? Hearing about it from another character? Coming across it on the computer? Stumbling onto that crucial key in the middle of an action sequence? I might try one solution, realize it doesn’t work and change it in the re-write.

An example of this is in Revolution, the third book of the Tankborn trilogy. There was some information revealed to the heroine, Kayla, that started a ticking clock. After finishing the draft, I had one of those eureka moments when I realized that the ticking clock was set far too early in the book (just past the half-way point). I knew the payoff would be well towards the end, and the urgency of the ticking clock would be lost by then (not to mention, the “bomb” would have long exploded). My problem-solving brain churned out a solution-swap the ticking clock with another, less time-sensitive revelation that was just past the three-quarter mark. That way, Kayla isn’t forced to twiddle her thumbs for pages and pages before she’s able to defuse the “bomb.”

There are certainly times when inspiration pours the words on the page. But more often than not, that right-brain creativity is interwoven on the technical structure that I learned as a software engineer. It might seem alien to those seat-of-the-pants writers out there, but it still works great for me, 20+ books later.

2 thoughts on “[GUEST POST] Karen Sandler on How Software Engineering Helped Her Be a Better Writer”

  1. Hm. Well. Maybe it did and maybe it didn’t. Based on the titles of the article, it’s hard to tell. ;)

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