story: the programmer (outline)

Tuesday, October 8, 2002

Outline for What Is It You Want to Say?


I. Programming introduction to rightness

Brian is programming. He shares his thoughts on it, explaining the rule of reason, the quest for perfection in the form of rightness. He lives alone, working from the confines of his Brooklyn apartment, blocks from where he grew up, but not remembering the neighborhood or finding anything familiar or soothing in it. Yes, we can go with that. He’s not married. He’s trapped inside, trapped in that he won’t leave until he finds it; comes to terms with the rightness. There’s more to him, but that’s where he focuses—that’s what he accepts as his “real” life. Everything else is window dressing. Exceptions to the rule, distractions from what he should be doing.

A. Internal dialogue

We need some dialogue here, a foil, if you will. Where will that come from? He is working alone. Perhaps in his mind he speaks with people; no, in his mind he speaks with himself. You never know whom he’s talking to. You assume there is somewhere in there with him, but there’s not. He’s a bit insane in this way, but no more so than any other person. His thoughts and conversation are overlapping. Sometimes he thinks it, other time he converses it. We never know for sure whether he’s talking to himself—no reason to have a Fight Club realization. That doesn’t seem to be necessary. Leave it always hanging out there, the question.

B. Interlude: the monitor – in search of approval

Where does it go from there? Good question. He discusses with the other why he’s doing this to himself. What is he getting out of it? This is the first transition. He now recollects about somewhere else. He is discussing his childhood—the need to impress others, find that rightness, that perfection in the approval of others. This time it’s the assembly monitor. This is you, you know, you’re talking about, right? So what? She’s dreadful, but she offers approval and power. No, forget the power. Let’s leave that out. She offers approval, and, at the worst, terror. It’s formless, meaningless terror, but in its true form it’s still terror. What does this tell you about Brian? What is the theme of this story? Where is it going? It’s going to introduce us to him. Show us where he’s coming from, why he acts like he does. It is the beginning of his hopes for approval, his hopes for selling the completed program.

1. I want them to feel it. I want them to know what it feels like to succeed, or dream of succeeding. I want them to know this feeling because at the end we’re going to give it to Brian (after the heroism we speak about later). We’re going to give him the success and he’s going to be empty. Terribly empty with it. That is where we’re heading, David. Brian is going to achieve his goal and he’s going to find that he’s just as empty as he was all along. The goal is not the endpoint. It is the work-toward-a-to that is important. I like it. I like the way it joins with the quest for rightness. The quest is the answer, not the rightness. That’s the theme I want to share. The quest for rightness is the goal.

III. Phone conversation with ex

Now we move on to the first phone conversation with his ex—Jeannette. This is where we introduce what he’s doing. Why he stays home so much, what he’s after. This also introduces us to Brian’s fucked up social skills (sound familiar?). He does love her, but he knows he’s not willing to make sacrifices, not willing to put everything down and focus on “getting the girl.” He leaves off with her later in the evening, returning briefly to his computer, before crashing for the night. I want lots of crashing. The desire is there. The obsession is there. There needs to be more, but I’m not sure what.

III. Family

Here’s the introduction to his family. His parents, both dead, and his sister and her family. We don’t need to disclose everything here. He deals with his family. Now you’re getting somewhere. This is where the interaction comes in. Which family member? It’s his sister, Miranda, her husband, and a pair of fucked up children—not twins, just a pair, around eight and ten. Where do they live? They’re well-to-do, living in an upscale neighborhood—upper East Side, raising their children in a wanna-be WASP household, complete with nanny, black Jamaican, of course.

Okay, now you’re getting somewhere. What happens to the family? Nothing. They’re just going through the motions and Brian feels obliged to visit them at least once every two weeks. The parents shouldn’t have gotten divorced a while ago, but for the “kids’ sake” they stay together, fucking the kids up even more (if that’s possible).

IV. Return to Programming

He’s back now. He empties his mind of all thoughts and continues to program. He’s there for days, working on it. Seeking the perfection, finding it, grasping it, losing it. This is interlude II.

A. We need to explain something else here. Something about Brian that effects why he’s doing what he’s doing. We’ve already spoken about the need for approval. This is probably where we should bring up his father. Brian’s father, a late blooming executive sold-out at the right time and left his children (Brian and Miranda—Miranda being the married one) a sizeable estate, which they divided rather unevenly at Brian’s insistence (something Miranda has never forgotten, and the reason she nags him to visit often to share with Brian what should have been partly his).

Brian wants to prove his worth to his dead father. He has never visited him, but discusses (almost therapist-like) with his imaginary friend his interactions with his father. There’s bicycling, a race between the two of them. Brian losing, often, until he’s older. Then his father halting their races, their bike rides. He begins to work more often, spend less time with his son, no time with his daughter. This will have to be expanded, but it’s a good start.

V. Heroism

I’m back after a bit of a hiatus. I’ve been thinking about the story a bit. What I’m moving toward now is that Brian ends up a hero. The heroism puts his life into perspective, changing the way he relates to his family and his plans at becoming a multimillionaire (even though he doesn’t need it, he does want to be better than his father, who made it as a successful shoe salesman—he owned a chain of shoe stores. Female shoe stores, to be exact—ala Al Bundy). The choice that’s involved here is whether he performs the heroic act. It has to be a conscious decision, it can’t be something that he’s forced into.

What I have been able to think of, as of yet, is what the heroic act is. Initial thoughts involve a robbery or a hold-up, but neither of them have what I’m looking for. He needs to risk his life (a conscious risk—he could play it safe and not get involved) and change the outcome of an awful event. I want emotions like in that meteor movie with Bruce Willis (good job, David, asking for emotions from a movie). While it’s not self-sacrifice, the choice is made as if it is. Now let’s get back to the outline.

VI. Back to his sister’s

VII. Success in programming

VIII. Phone call with ex

VIV. Programming discussion, interlude III—realization of rightness


Pick a topic and write on it. Who cares how it comes out? It’s just something to start on and practice with. Something you know. How about a computer programmer (you know something about those, don’t you) who is finishing his project? He finds the final bug, fixes it, and then kills himself. There’s a happy topic.

Plan it out: Brian sits in front of computer compiling program. He thinks things. The program has bugs. He starts squashing them, one by one. Flash to something else, his wife coming home. She attempts to distract him, tempt him from his work. He rebuffs her. She can’t understand it, refuses to accept it.

Still working with the programmer story, let’s figure out how it goes. Brian is working on the program and what happens to him. You have him reminiscing back—thinking of his past. I don’t want to go there. I’d prefer to relate to his past by looking at where he is and the things that are happening to him. What does he do besides work? I imagine he’s as boring as you are. Probably. But let’s make him a bit more interesting. (This, by the way, is where creativity comes out.) What type of person is he and what does he do?How about a runner? Okay, he runs around the park. Does he run with other people? Sure. He meets a group of hackers to run. What’s the purpose of those runs? Who knows, but he does it.

Okay, now Brian is running and programming. What else? He still talks to his imaginary friend. Keep going. He flies on airplanes—no, that’s what you’re currently doing. Think outside of present experiences. If that’s the case, maybe he shouldn’t be running. Maybe. Let’s stay with running. What else is he doing?

Brian also talks to his ex-girlfriend on the phone rather frequently, sharing in phone-sex and the usual banter. None of this should take away from his driven goal of making it. It’s not the money—let’s assume Brian has done rather well by his inheritance.

What else is going on in Brian’s life? It seems rather full now. What we need is something to happen to him during his programming—doesn’t have to be too exciting, just something. He’s running, visiting his sister, programming, talking programming and philosophy with his imaginary friend…what could go on in his life that would be interesting? Death? No. How about someone trying to buy him out? That could be it. What would they be offering? He could just ignore them. That shouldn’t cause any conflict. What could cause conflict is incentive to sell-out. Why does he need the money? He doesn’t. That takes away that angle. What other angles are there? An old partner is the one who wants to buy him out? Nah. Wife’s dead? Children? No. Something he owns is breaking down? Nope. Hmmm. Something to do with his girlfriend? Okay. Go with it. He has his ex-girlfriend on the phone all the time. Does he also go on dates with a girl near where he lives (Brooklyn)? Where’s the conflict there?

Getting back to the conflict. He has a girlfriend who is cheating on him? No. We have to go away from that; it would take away too much time from his programming. Okay. If not a girlfriend then what? How about something to do with his niece and nephew? What? I’ll be back later.

(Old—not necessary any more. Who cares what he’s programming? He just is—he’s riding the wave, thinking it’s something that he wants, needs. It’s not.)

III. The actual program (do we really need this?)

We return to the computer screen now. How do you want to portray these bugs? I need an actual program to work on. Something that will revolutionize something or other. Brian has to feel like he’s the first person to do it. It has to push him forward, the knowledge that there are others out there doing similar things; he has to be first! Let’s go back a bit. Instead of thinking of future programs (which, of course, would be nice), why don’t we work with what is out there and give him the idea of what will be developed. It’s easier and better, in some ways. Let’s see where it brings us. What is something that’s revolutionary? Something that changed the way we work. A protocol? I need something sexier. Something I could have done if I had the time, the ability, the foresight. What is that? A program—word processor, spreadsheet, operating system? Something more important, but simpler. A browser! The internet browser before there was an internet. That is what he’s working on. That is what he sees in front of him. He sees hyperlinks. He sees windows opening anew. Brian is a visionary. He sees the universities using it to share course information. He doesn’t foresee the entire scope; he doesn’t see the business applications. But he does know that it is the future of sharing information. Bingo. He just doesn’t know what it needs. Its part programming effort, part server design, and part ingenuity. That’s where he comes out of it. It’s the ingenuity that he needs, and that’s what he develops across this story.

You need to do some research on how the internet browser came about. Stick that in with this story. A historical fiction, if you will. Similar to that comic book story you enjoyed. That’s where you are heading. I like it. Now, go get some lunch.

After researching Mosaic, I’ve come to the conclusion that the author of the Internet Browser is not where I want to head. The problem is that they were working on mainframes and not with PCs. I just finished lunch. Now I’m sitting in a comfy chair, listening to some strange people. Strange people rule!

B. Communications – scrabble I?

Maybe his next flashback should relate to communication. A book report gone astray—no, it relates to the books that he fell in love with—fantasy novels. Nah. Maybe it relates to Scrabble. I don’t know much about it, but I can learn and use it. His mastery of a game against his mother, his father having left already. Where does this go? What does this teach? Scrabble becomes a common plot element throughout the book. It relates to the quest for rightness, similar to chess. The way to look forward and see the future, see the pieces fall into place in the right way.

New outline: The basis of the new story is the ultimate struggle of a man when he finds his fiancé is deathly ill. His ultimate decision is to leave her for another woman during the final stages of her disease. Where do we start from, then? We could go through the courtship, into the relationship, finally ending up with the decision point, and then into the conclusion. The real question I have for you is whether you actually have the experience to speak of this type of story. How are you going to describe the relationship? This could be a rather short story, if you’d prefer. I think I’d like that. About 4000 words or so.

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