Sara O'Connor: The comforts of coding, or not

Sara O'Connor: The comforts of coding, or not

Editor's Note: It was in her article for us here at The FutureBook -- Why I'm leaving publishing for tech -- that Sara O'Connor announced her exit from Hot Key Books and a 13-year career in children's books. She is training to become a Web developer, convinced, as she wrote then, that publishers are too slow to embrace the hands-on potentials of digital: "How long will it take for a big publisher to have a c.e.o. who understands code?" In this update from her new life, O'Connor explores the uncertainty of transition and asks, in retrospect, her work with authors: "How much of being a writer is learning to deal with being uncomfortable?" -- Porter Anderson


This week I learned that I am going to be uncomfortable for the rest of my life.

In the first two weeks of my four-week “pre-course” at Makers Academy, I learned the basics of how to use my terminal, which is that scary thing that actually controls the programs on your computer (see below), and how to use Github, the place where developers store code for collaboration (like Blinkbox Books!).

These were fiddly but eminently learnable.

The second two weeks, I started the Ruby programming language, mostly the Hard Way, but also In Twenty Minutes which was more like In An Hour and a Half for me, and monk-style complete with Mr Miyagi quotes if my code worked.

Ruby is, I am assured, also eminently learnable, but not by me in the space of two weeks.

Confession: I cannot get a single thing to validate in session 2 of Ruby Kickstarter, nor on CodeWars.

Tuesday was the first day of the full-time course and, in a series of big-picture lectures, the education team at Makers assured me that in a week or two’s time, I’ll look back and laugh breezily about the things I can’t do now.

But right now I feel so uncomfortable!

Apparently, this feeling of “I’ve got no idea how to make this work” will be with me for the next twenty years.

It’s the total opposite of my working life in publishing. As an editor, pitching a project to the team, I had to be absolutely certain I knew how to make it work. I can’t imagine standing up in an acquisition meeting and saying, “Let’s spend thousands of pounds on this book that I have no idea how to make work.”

And when working with an author, I couldn’t say, “Goodness me, what a mess! I’ve got no idea how to even begin to fix this!” I was able to draw on my experience and suggest a few things to try.

But now, with no experience to draw from, I’m constantly on the back foot.

At least one thing feels familiar -- so many concepts for writing good code correlate to good writing and editing.

We start with characters -- they just call them “user stories”. We look at their behaviour and their interaction with each other and the objects in their world. We have to start with the big picture before we can worry about the smaller parts. Keep to essentials, avoid repetition, be precise and disciplined.

I’m thinking back to all the workshops I’ve given to writers over the years and can hear me saying:

  • "Does that really need to be there?"
  • "Summarise what you are trying to do in two lines."
  • "Is the world you are creating filled with too much jargon, too much backstory?"

So now I am wondering how much of being a writer is learning to deal with being uncomfortable?

I’m looking forward to being as diligent and determined as I know those students who attended my classes were, learning to craft something beautiful. 


Main image - Shutterstock: Eldar Nurkovic