Sunday, 20 January 2008

Please stop the fiction

I have an unhealthy dislike of the current trend towards "fictional" example 'based' essays.
You know the type...
It was Monday and I struggled into the office out of the pouring rain and before I'd even sat down, let alone think about getting a cup of coffee and reading the latest Dilbert gag, Jane walked up to me and said "We have been looking for you for half an hour, there has been a new release, we only have 20 minutes to test all the software and we have 27000 tests to run manually - what are we going to do?"
Then the author goes on to extricate the characters from the situation gracefully and easily so that we can learn a lesson.

I've done it myself, I'm not proud of it, probably no-one read the little bit of fictional dialogue that I put in a conference paper, but I've done it. And I think it was wrong. I'm even kind of embarrassed by the few short pieces of 'real' fiction that have been published in the 'real' world. Fortunately few people read those.
I don't think I'd mind so much if the writer was a published fiction writer, but even then I'd have doubts. I'm currently working my way through a hefty chunk of David Morrell's back catalogue. I find much to admire in David Morrell's fiction - I have some of his books set aside as 'exemplar' action novels for study when I start writing fiction again, but I have a 50-50 hit rate with David Morrell - I like about half of the books of his I read, and half I don't and they go to the Charity Shop.
I'm fairly picky when it comes to fiction. If I think it is bad, I stop reading, I don't like to waste my time with junk fiction. I don't read computer mags, and books, to read fiction. So how many articles in computer literature do I have to skip now? It feels like a lot.
So aside from the 'bad' fiction what other 'reasons' can I harangue you with?
There was one section of the Harvard Business Review that I consistently did not like. The fictional 'based on a true story' case study, and I think they use a professional writer to produce it.
I feel like a single point is being strung out for too many pages. If you are paid by the word then pages mean money. Hey, I have written fiction - dialogue is an easy page filler and that means money spinner. If I'm trying to pad to push the page count - I default to dialogue, I can up the page count in minutes with a good stream of verbage.
It is too easy for the protagonists - I probably read too much action fiction but there are never any twists in these articles. It always reads too much like a romance novel - where is the action? the drama? the pulp? I never get to read text like this...
Jane hadn't noticed the tired bags under my eyes - I didn't get much sleep last night on account of the neighbours next door shooting stray cats with their M-16's. And they were lousy shots. The clatter of shells hitting a trash can sounds pretty loud at 3am - I wasn't feeling in a mood to panic. But I was grouchy. I guess I might have had a tendency to overreact. "Which environment is it loaded on?"
"Forget it, it doesn't matter". I left her staring at the back of my head as I walked into the machine room. Let me see. P37... P37... ah heck. I started pulling the servers off the wall one by one. I'd bring down the test environment sooner or later. I wasn't thinking straight. I hadn't had my morning coffee yet. I'll call this a denial of service attack and write it up as part of the test completion report - at least this would buy me some time so I could get my coffee and read Dilbert.
I stopped short when I pulled the last server to the ground. I slammed my hand to my sweaty forehead suddenly realising what I had done.
No Server = No Internet. I could kiss the latest Dilbert gag goodbye - at least until the server boys managed to bring the environments back up.
I walked off to get some coffee shaking my head and trying to catch my breath, thinking about how stupid I could be at times.
See - fiction - bad Idea. I promise I'll stop. But to me the 'fiction' trend in the mags (and books) looks like continuing. And the worst of it?... based on the popularity of the style I think it is just me that doesn't like it.
So some pleas, rather than a lesson...If you have to write a fiction kind of thing then:
  • could you try different genres? Horror, or Action?
  • Or try and write a comic or a cartoon? (I like comics)
  • Or use a metaphor instead
But please no fiction.
No servers were harmed in the making of this blog post. All names are fictional and are not intended to represent real people. This blog post was for entertainment purposes only, do not copy the actions in this blog post, they were not done in a real environment.

1 comment:

  1. But aren't your Evil Tester comics -- which I love, by the way -- using fiction to teach a lesson? (And are there comics in your book? Is there something for analysts/architects/programmers in your book, or is it just for Evil Testers?)

    I have a strong interest in your opinion. I found your site after a guy on Twitter saw my UML comic,, and asked if Evil Tester there was based on yours. (He's not, but clearly great minds think alike, and I'll be adding an update that says you were there first.) Having read several posts, I like your common sense and your experience and skill when it comes to testing. I want lots of Evil Testers attacking my code.

    Because my strip uses fictional characters to teach software design, I'm curious if your dislike extends to comics. I also have a nearly completed book on requirements analysis. The remaining chapter is a "how do you use this" chapter, that pretty much exactly fits the mold of what you hate. If you can convince me that fiction in tech books is bad, I can cut that chapter, and finally finish the book!

    So I have a real interest in your opinions here. I hope you can find time to respond.

    Hi Martin,

    Thanks for the comment.

    Own*My*Petard*Hoisted. :)

    I never actually made a connection between fiction and comics. I love comics. The two seem so entirely different that I fully endorse and encourage teaching through comics.

    I love the Asiapac english translations for the Chinese Wisdom classics "The Art of War" and Lao Tzu. And I still read far too many comics, although I now get them out of the library rather than blowing my entire income on the addictive thin papery things.

    My biggest issue with fiction - I can't stand, what I consider, badly written fiction, and I find the point the writer tries to make gets strung out for too long.

    Comics try to make their point quickly with fewer words. Ramming home the message with a dose of humour and the unexpected.

    As for your book... Remember that I am the exception. Everyone else I meet seems to love fiction in books. Management fables seem to fly off the shelf. Better Software seems to have "fictionally" illustrated articles every month. Goldratt made a fortune spinning out his principles of constraint into a novel.

    I would say:

    If you can write it well.

    If it could pass as 'real' fiction.

    If the message behind what you have to say comes across better as fiction than in 3 bullet points illustrated by real life examples.

    Then go for it.

    Ignore me. I'll just skim the chapter, ransacking it for goodness, ignoring your carefully crafted prose, and scanning for stick men illustrations.

    Seriously. Write it the way that works for you. Ignore me. Ignore everyone else. You know what message you need to convey. You decide how best to convey it.

    And for any connoisseur of Stick Man comics - check out Matt Feazell with his wonderful Cynicalman comics. I remember picking up an original edition of the tiny (and I think self published) AntiSocial Man back in the early 90s.