A Noveling I Go…

Agile seems to be working so far, even though the new process occasionally melts my brain. Specifically, User Stories.

A user story is Agile’s way of breaking down your work into easy-to-handle bits. There’s a couple of different conventions for how a user story is structured, but they all essentially include a name, a description, and some criteria for when it’s complete. However, with a creative endeavor like a novel, it’s not as easy to quantify these things as it seems at first.

I kind of cheated, since I already use short names to label my scenes/chapters – a word or phrase that feels evocative of the scene. Once I realized that was enough for a user story name, I was good. But the description became a bit more complex. It I felt I’d sucked all the fun out of the writing process as I detailed what plot point I had to hit, which character points should be highlighted. So mechanical.

At first. But here was where I had to hit myself over the head with a clue-by-four. Duh. This is Agile. I don’t have to stick precisely to the listed points, and the format of Agile allows me to change upcoming scenes to adapt to any changes I make along the way. A blend of plotting and pantsing.

OK, I know I wasn’t married to the outline before this, but I got stuck, you know? I’d stop because I was unhappy with the outline, but didn’t really know what I should put in its place. Or I’d obsessively changing the outline to explore a new concept, stopping the writing dead in its tracks. Or any other number of distractions I’d engineer to keep me from moving along. The Agile structure seems to be keeping me writing, while freeing me from the plodding feeling that always plagued me before. No, Ericka, leave Facebook alone and just finish this one thing…

I finished my Act One. All the chapters written, though still in a bit of a rough form, they are at least presentable. I developed the user stories for Act Two and plan on starting those tonight. I’m still struggling with how to properly format my completion criteria. Scenes are as long as they are, after all. But I’ve been assured that it’s all right for me to simply loosely hit my listed points and call that “done” as long as I go and clean up the grammar, spelling and minor continuity issues before putting the draft to bed. That way I’ve created my “Minimum Viable Product” (MVP), a sacred Agile concept that you have something complete to show for your efforts.

I’ve been told MVP is the secret genius of Agile. A series of small accomplishments to motivate you to finish the next user story, and the next, instead of having to wait until the end to get the golden feel-good glow of a job well done. I’ll admit I like the discrete stages I’m working through: a bit of worldbuilding, some character work, story-mapping into scenes until I have a list of scenes to write for the next act. Rinse and repeat for the next iteration. How many acts will it be? I don’t know, and that’s OK.

I’ve had a few people suggest that this isn’t any different than “normal” writing methods and I could do it without all the Agile rigmarole. But I LIKE the Agile rigmarole. It’s organization without the rigidity. Enough stops to reassess my work without drawing me completely out of the flow. Enough accomplishments to make me feel there’s progress, not just more of the same. Enough flexibility that I know what I can decide later, instead of trying to lay it all out before I even know what I’m doing.

In short, it’s a system. I suppose to truly be Agile I’d have to publish Act One soon and get all the lovely joys of “Oh, my God it’s OUT THERE for people to read.” but as my SMEs (Subject Matter Experts) have pointed out, serialization requires a backlog so your readers don’t forget you waiting for the next installment. I’m not George R.R. Martin; I can’t get away with making people wait. So I move on.

It feels good to have something done.

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