Friday, June 02, 2006

Ask Mr. Writing Person: Love, Technically

In this week's Ask Mr. Writing Person, we learn how to informalize long, ponderous passages, and discover what Alan Cox hides in his beard. [Ed: Linux fanboy larvae?] Joining us is Crith Smith from Berserkeley, California. We're branching out a bit by addressing his questions about a technical book he's working on. Here's Crith:

Q. Thanks for taking time to talk to me. I'm writing a book on the Lisp programming language--

A. Oh, I love Lisp. I feel so warm and safe inside all those parentheses. By the way, even if you publish this you'll still be an illiterate Philistine until you publish a work of fiction.

Q. I know. I plan to follow up with a romance novel.

A. Well, that is the usual next step after a Lisp book.

Q. Is it?

A. Sure--just ask Paul Graham. Anyway, I have a lot of clever advice on how to write them. My techniques are so flexible that you might even be able to turn your Lisp book into a romance novel in a future revision. I always thought Lisp was a bit kinky anyway.

Q. Um, I have a few questions, and I hope you don't mind that the subject is outside your area--

A. Is your name really "Crith?"

Q. Yes.

A. How unfortunate. You should know, grasshopper, that nothing related to writing is outside my area of expertise. What's your first question?

Q. Um.... what should I call this book?

A. What have you come up with so far?

Q. Just Lisp.

A. Well, that's a bit bare, isn't it? I mean, it needs more words. As it is, if one goes wrong, the whole title is messed up. You should never have a single point of failure in a title like that.

Q. Okay...

A. You know, it's currently in vogue to make your readers feel like utter imbeciles for having to read your book.

Q. Too bad Lisp for Dummies would get me sued.

A. That's way too mild anyway, grasshopper. I'm thinking more along the lines of, You're a Complete and Utter Imbecile If You Have to Read This Book on Lisp with the subtitle something like, I hope nobody catches you. It's awfully clever, it's easy to remember, and it has tons of words, so if one goes wrong people can still understand what it means. Tell me, do you have a long, scraggly beard and wild hair?

Q. Um, yeah.

A. Like Richard Stallman?

Q. Something like that.

A. Is that a thing among Lisp hackers? Ah, well, never mind, because I have a grand vision! Imagine... your great hoary face on the cover of the book, with the book title in a cartoon callout... and the subtitle in a thought balloon!


Q. Um...

A. "By Crith Smith." How very, very unfortunate.

Q. You get used to it.

A. I'm sure. Do you have another question for me?

Q. Yeah. Why is Richard Stallman giving birth on the cover of my book?

A. Actually, I think someone caught him on the GNU/Toilet. Do you have a real question?

Q. Um... yeah. I've got a problem with diction level. I'd like my book to sound informal, but it just doesn't right now.

A. Give us an example of what you're talking about.

Q. Sure. This is from an introductory chapter:

Lisp is accepting of most identifiers accepted by other common programming languages. Implementations vary, but all accept a sequence of letters, digits, and extended characters that do not begin with a number.

A. May I wake up now? Ha ha.

Q. Ha ha.

A. One of the best ways to informalize a ponderous passage like that is to employ adenoidal sloppilism, which is Latin for "there's a gopher in my habit." It works like this:

"Lisp is accepting of most identifiers accepted by other common programming languages. Implementations vary, but all accept a sequence of letters, digits, and extended characters that do not begin with a number," said Fabio.

Q. Fabio?

A. We'll get to that in a minute.

Q. That doesn't seem less formal to me.

A. It is, a little. We need two speakers to make it really informal. Like this:

"Lisp is accepting of most identifiers accepted by other common programming languages," said Yvonne.

"Implementations vary," said Fabio, "but all accept a sequence of letters, digits, and extended characters that do not begin with a number."


Q. Oh, yes, that's much better.

A. Isn't it? And you could probably fix up your whole book in an hour. How good are you at writing women?

Q. I'm not very good at it. I'll have to ask my wife...

A. Oh! I didn't see your wife come in. Is she hiding in your beard?

Q. She's not here.

A. I heard that Alan Cox's wife hides in his beard when she doesn't want to be seen.

Q. Does she?

A. Oh, sure. But we need to get back on topic. Try not to get us off again, okay?

Q. I didn't--

A. So now you've got a little give-and-take for each concept rather than a straight dump. As a bonus, you'll probably add 50% or more to your book's length.

Q. Yeah, I need that. I've only got 90 pages.

A. That's it?

Q. Well, the writing is very compact, as you saw.

A. Alright, so with dialogue instead of dumps, you get 130-140 pages. This clearly isn't long enough for anyone to take it seriously. Have you changed the font size? Jiggled the margins?

Q. It's already at 20 point font with 2 inch margins.

A. My, my. It looks as if you need my genius after all. Here's my brilliant plan. Remember how I said you might be able to turn a future revision into a romance novel? Why don't you do that now, and publish your book on the Lisp programming language with Harlequin?

Q. Harlequin?

A. Certainly. They'll publish anything that's properly sopped.

Q. Will that work?

A. Of course! All you have to do is insert random romantic encounters at maddeningly regular intervals. Didn't you read my earlier treatise on the subject?

Q. I did, but I didn't think it applied to technical--

A. Puh-shaw! Your imagination is as wild as a sleeping nun's. Let's take your previous passage and add some steam:

"Lisp is accepting of most identifiers accepted by other common programming languages," said Yvonne.

"Implementations vary," said Fabio, "but all accept a sequence of letters, digits, and extended charact--what are you doing?"

Yvonne had taken off her horn-rimmed glasses and was in the middle of removing her smart suit jacket. "It's 4:13," she intoned with more than a bare hint of seduction, as she struggled with the sleeves.

Fabio took Yvonne down with a running tackle...


... and we fade to black, because this is a family friendly column. Do this to your dialogue every 17 pages or so.

Q. I feel weird inside.

A. That happens a lot around me. You'll get used to it. Now, this technique could add anywhere from 60 to 400 pages, depending on how long you drag out the encounters.

Q. Won't I lose the reader's interest in the actual subject matter?

A. What makes you think they'll read your book to learn Lisp?

Q. That's what my book is on.

A. Not anymore it's not. The Lisp parts only exist for sexual tension.

Q. I never thought I'd start writing a book on Lisp and end up with a romance novel.

A. It's happened to better authors than you, young Philistine. Much better authors. Just ask Paul Graham.

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