Novel Development the Agile Way

As most of my writer friends know, I’ve been struggling with writing a novel. Not writing in general. Goodness knows I write short stories by the dozens. It’s not a lack of talent. I’m an excellent writer who can actually sell short stories. Nor is the problem ideas. I have plenty of ideas for novels. But I start a novel, get 15-20 thousand words in, then stop. And for a long time I’ve been asking myself why. I go to workshop after workshop looking for the thing that will break the logjam and let the novels flow. Today, while I was doing some research at work, I think I found the reason why.

I’ve been trying to develop a novel using Waterfall when I really needed to use Agile.

Half of you are laughing at me right now. The other half are thinking you understood all the individual words in that sentence but have no idea what it means. To sum up while my software developer friends laugh, Waterfall is the nickname for the Systems Development Life Cycle, the traditional approach to creating new software. It has five phases: Analysis, Design, Implementation, Testing  and Deployment. We computer types call it Waterfall because you complete each phase then ‘flow down’ to the next. When you diagram the process, it looks like a waterfall.

And that, now that the rest of you are done laughing, is how I’ve been approaching novels. Start with the idea, create the characters and plot, write the first draft, edit, then send it out to editors and publishers. In other words, Analysis, Design, Implementation, Testing and Deployment. It’s a perfectly legitimate way to write a novel. Lots of people do it that way. Yet, somehow, I get stuck in the implementation phase and never make it to testing or deployment. Since I’ve been writing for over a decade and still haven’t finished a novel, perhaps it’s time to face the fact that Waterfall ain’t workin’ for me.

The epiphany came this afternoon as I was plowing through videos on Agile software development. In a nutshell, Agile focuses on short iterations rather than working the project as a whole. Instead of completing each phase before flowing down to the next, Agile does a quick tour of all five on one small chunk of the project to get you as close to  a working product as you can get. Perhaps not a good product. Definitely not a full-featured product. But something. Then you review the project, pick another chunk, and incorporate that into your product. After several iterations, you’ll get a product that has all the features you need – many of which you hadn’t realized you needed at the beginning.

Agile is all about flexibility. By delivering in small, constant segments you make the whole process easier to complete. In a way, it’s the anti-big picture. Done right, it helps keep you from getting lost in the very big-ness of what you’re creating. It lets you adapt to new conditions and revise your requirements as you go. And I think THAT’S what I needed all along. I need a way to concentrate on the little pieces and keep my engagement in the story through the long haul of writing chapter after chapter. Maybe instead of writing the whole story at once, I should break it down. Incorporate this cool thing first. Then add another cool thing. So on and so forth.

SOOOOO….thus begins my experiment. I’m going to work my novel as if it were an Agile project. YouTube assures me Agile works even with legacy systems, so I don’t have to ditch everything I’ve already written and start over. I just have to do my initial analysis, come up with a Product Backlog wish list, and pick the bits to work on for my first sprint. Then do it again. And again. Until, finally, I have a salable product.

I’ll keep you posted on how this works out. #AgileNovelProject

Tips to Stick to New Year’s Resolutions

It’s time for the New Year and the inevitable New Year’s Resolutions. But every year you make them and every year they’re forgotten by Valentine’s Day. How come we can’t make those good intentions stick?

Professor Peter M. Vishton of William and Mary College proposes it’s because we often work against ourselves. We adopt methods to achieve our goals that run counter to the ways our brains work, increasing the likelihood that we’ll simply give up in frustration. In his lecture series “Outsmart Yourself: Brain Based Strategies for a Better You” Vishton makes some practical suggestions for how to use your brain’s tenancies to help you achieve those goals.

Don’t announce your goals.
While you think you’re more likely to stick to your plan by telling it to others, sharing your goals actually reduces the likelihood of achieving them. When you get positive reinforcement from your friends and family, your brain gets a neurotransmitter reward as if you had already achieved part of the goal, lessening your desire to complete the task. If the feedback is negative, you question your goal which also reduces your desire to achieve it. Either way, sharing hurts your chances of getting it done. It’s better to tell friends and family after you’ve already done it.

Get rid of a bad habit by logging it in a notebook.
While most often used for trying to build good habits, logging is more useful for defeating bad ones. Write it down in a notebook every time you indulge in the undesired behavior – just the date, time and/or a short note. First, logging makes you aware of how much you’re actually doing that thing you don’t want to do. Second, logging builds self-discipline by making you take action every time you do it, even though that action is just writing it down. Most people notice they reduce the frequency of their bad habit without taking any further actions. Pair logging with even a minor lifestyle change and you improve your chances of kicking that habit all together.

Encourage a good habit by associating it with something positive.
Our unconscious minds constantly make associations. The key to encouraging a good habit is to ensure those associations are positive. Pair a desired behavior with a pleasurable experience – exercise with a friend, eat your healthy snack listening to your favorite music, go to bed early with your favorite book. Before long you’ll want to indulge in your good habit, because your unconscious mind tells you it’s pleasurable. This pleasant association will also make your good habit harder to break and easier to restart if it’s disrupted.

Reduce procrastination by doing nothing.
If you’re feeling unmotivated, give yourself permission to sit quietly for 20 minutes before starting a task you’re dreading. It’s counter-intuitive, but a conscious delay for a short period of time makes it easier to get started. You’re also much more likely to work productively on that task after the break. Since you sat quietly instead of distracting yourself with busy work, you’ll resist the temptation to fill the rest of the day with those less important tasks and ignore the more important, but less enjoyable one you really needed to complete.

I’m Not Likable, I’m Sympathetic

In a great writing seminar, one of the mentors told me that your main character must be likable or sympathetic. It helps if they’re both, but they don’t work if that aren’t at least one or the other. Your readers can’t connect with them if they aren’t. But I’ve found that as an author, you have to be likable. Period. Sympathetic doesn’t cut it.

All the marketing advice for authors is essentially trying to get people to like you. Your work isn’t nearly as important as whether those potential readers make a connection with you. Write your blog posts, do your book signings, maintain an active Twitter account – just keep reminding people that hey, they like you! Which presents a real problem for me.

You see, I’m sympathetic.

I listen to self-help books and the first thing I notice is I don’t think like most other people. My reactions are usually on the extreme ends of the “normal behavior” bell curve. That happens when you’ve lived differently. For instance, logging your food is supposed to help you eat better. Uh-uh. Not me. Last time I started logging my food I found myself binge eating. Logging my food made me artificially hyper-aware of it, triggering old fears. I felt I couldn’t eat enough. I gained ten pounds on my company’s weight loss program before I quit.

All of which makes a great story. But it also makes me the kind of person people tell stories about, not the one they tell stories to. They sympathize. Yet that same set of stories that make me so damned sympathetic also make me unrelateble. So while I may be the subject of a great story to tell at a party, I’m not likely to be invited to the party. People don’t really like me.

The main way I have of relating to other people is through my writing. Yet, the fact that I’m not likable means people aren’t very likely to read it. Marketing, for the most part, doesn’t help. The books stay unread because I’m not the life of the party. The blog post I labor over gets hits in the single digits. That short story an editor liked enough to buy vanishes into the black hole, never to be heard about again. I live the irony that the way I communicate my emotions to other humans produces such a resounding silence.

While my life may be unique, I can’t imagine my problem is. An author has to be likable. What about us, the sympathetic? How do we market a book, or a blog, or a short story in a world where likable trumps everything? Now I get why the internet is full of trolls. If you can’t be likable, you can be the villain. Then at least you know someone is listening.

Alternate Uses for Scrivener

I’m avoiding working on my novel again. So, I’m posting this thought I had on my blog instead.

As writers, a lot of us use Scrivener to organize, create and publish our novels. There’s tons of advice out there on how to use this nifty tool for just that purpose. However, the bulk of my writing is short stories, which brings a different set of struggles. As I was searching for markets where I could submit, I stumbled on the handy idea of using Scrivener to compile a list of my stories.

It worked. I could categorize them by status, keep text notes of where and when they’d been submitted, add copies of contracts, paste in advice from editors and see with a quick glance what I have ready that might fit a particular market – all without disrupting the files or folders where the text is actually stored. That prompted me to think what other, non-traditional ways Scrivener might be useful to us writers. So I took to Google and the Scrivener message boards and culled a few for you.

  1. The aforementioned status and submission tracker: While novelists might find it easier to track this with the novel, us short story writers find this tracking process difficult. After all, novelists vary rarely have 15-25 novels waiting in the wings to be placed. I set up a single Scrivener Project to handle this. I created folders called “Incomplete”, “Complete” and “Sold”, then created text files for each story. The text files have a short synopsis and notes that might help place it (themes, character types, etc.) Once the story is finished I move it from “Incomplete” to “Complete” then start a sub-text file with any notes I have on possible markets, submissions/rejections or other thoughts. Once I’ve sold a story, I move it to the “Sold” folder and create a new sub-text file with details of the sale. When I start looking at markets, I can quickly see what I have. Or, if I thought of a particular story, I can see pretty fast if it’s available and if I’ve already sent it to that market before. Yes, I use Duotrope for this as well, but I find having a well-organized list helps me more than having to run a search through a database and poke through multiple levels to cross-check the story and the market submissions. Duotrope is better for quickly seeing what’s out for consideration and finding the market details. Scrivener lets me see the other end of the pipeline, what i’m working on and what’s not sold yet.
  2. Research Binder: While this should be obvious, since there’s a section for research right there in the default outline, people rarely think to use it for JUST research. But a fantasy or science fiction novel might require far more research than you want attached to the main project, not to mention the non-fiction (or even non-writing) uses for a well-organized research file. Since Scrivener allows you to place lots of types of objects into the project, you can create quite the data store.  Pictures, URLs, PDFs, text notes – if you’re using the same research data over and over again, Scrivener provides a great way to organize, categorize and search it without having to recreate your research files or folders every time. The best part is you can set it up the way it makes sense to you. Wanna file genetic engineering under D for DNA? Scrivener doesn’t care.
  3. World Building: A lot of writers don’t write just one novel in their world. They write multiple novels. And all we writers know how hard it is to remember the layout of the King’s palace that our character saw once three books ago. Or the political structure of that kingdom to the south that you created for the last book, but didn’t end up using. You can use Scrivener to hold all your details across books. You can even create a custom world building template for when you need a new world. AND, if you ever collaborate with someone, this world building file will keep the both of you referencing things consistently.
  4. Commonplace Book: Yeah, I hadn’t heard the term either, but a commonplace book is a collection of quotes, thoughts and other things that strike you. So really, it’s kind of an inspiration book. The Scrivener board I stole this from had a huge debate about whether it was appropriate to do this using cut and paste, since they seemed the think the point was to connect with the words by writing them down, but I think that doesn’t really matter. I hear things all the time that I like, or see memes I find interesting for one reason or another, and I think it’s a wonderful idea to put them into a file for inspiration. Not everyone wants to paw through a hand-written book when they’re searching for that thing to spark their creativity. And not everyone wants a haphazard list of quotes arranged only in the order you found them in. I think Scrivener would let you interact with the contents, more easily rearrange them according to your mood or inspiration. Who said your inspirations had to stay in the same order?

I like the thought of taking a tool, especially one as flexible as Scrivener, and utilizing it in creative ways. I also like the idea that you don’t need to use a whole bunch of different tools to help you work towards the same goal.

Speaking of goals, that novel isn’t going to write itself. I suppose I should stop distracting myself and actually get started for the day. Back to the traditional use of Scrivener! It’s still good for that, I suppose.


Pitfalls of Loving Your Job

I love my job. I don’t mean my “writing” job that I do at home after my day job. I mean I love my plain, old work-a-day job. And I’m coming to discover that’s a problem. I know, right? Aren’t we supposed to do what we love? None of the meme-ified Hallmark sentiments hint at a downside, but they sure are there. I wasn’t prepared for what having an actual, full-on  career would do to me.

I find myself tempted to define myself by my job. I love it, I work hard at it, and I spend at least 40 hours a week doing it. My work successes are personal successes. But my work failures (or even mild setbacks) are also personal. It’s hard to roll with the punches when I feel them like a physical pain in my gut. Things won’t always go right and I feel those downturns reflect on me as a person – there’s no such thing as “it’s just business” for me.

Sometimes it’s hard to roll with the pats on the back, too. Since I love my job, I want to share it with everybody.  Yet everybody hears me crowing about things that sound suspiciously like work. Dull, boring work. And for those who aren’t my co-workers, I’m pretty sure it comes out sounding like “blah, blah, blah, tech stuff I heard mentioned on the news once, blah, blah, blah.” I’m that guy talking about TPS report at a party. Not that I get invited to parties after I trot out the exciting TPS report discussion.

And since I don’t get invited to parties, I have time on my hands. What do I want to do with that time? Work. I want to develop new ADA compliant interactive e-learning methods. I want to update the registration log for more accurate class attendance reporting. I google javascript for fun. Even my hobbies resemble work. Think writing is fun? Sure is. But it’s also work. Time consuming, meticulous, detailed work.

Come to think of it, no one likes it when I talk about writing at a party, either.

So I don’t need to get a life. Apparently, I have one. What I need is to step away from the keyboard and stop having such a good life for a few hours. Maybe watch some TV, or go see a movie. OK, go see a movie that isn’t part of the franchise that defined my childhood. Or I could go see the new Star Wars movie again. Yes – I should go see Rogue One again! If I promise to talk about Rogue One, then can I be invited to a party?

Nope. Spoilers.

I guess it’s back to work.


World Building Politics

I’ve been reading The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics, which has totally changed my perceptions about politics. Of course the first thing I thought of was the most recent US Presidential election. It makes perfect sense now. But the second thing I thought of was how useful this is for worldbuilding in novels.

The premise is this: leaders always do what’s in the best interest of keeping them, personally, in power. Forget about greater good, serving constituencies or creating value for shareholders, instead think about who got them into power and who is keeping them there. The authors cite three main groups that affect a leader’s ability to stay in power:

  • Essentials – Essentials are the people that leader absolutely requires to maintain his/her position. Leaders have to provide benefits to their essential backers. If they don’t, or if the benefits don’t have sufficient value, they quickly find themselves overthrown as their backers withdraw support. The more democratic a society, the larger this group of essentials will be.
  • Influentials – Influentials are others with power who need to be pacified in order for the leader to maintain power. Leaders have to use a combination of tactics from rewards to negotiation to threats to keep these infuentials from accumulating enough power of their own to threaten the leaders’ power base. The more democratic a society, the more fluid this group is and the more diverse the incentives a leader needs to gain their compliance.
  • Interchangables – Interchangables are ‘the people’, who make up the majority but individually have little to no power or influence. However, collectively these interchangables need to be kept passive, or a leader risks a widespread grass-roots revolt. This is where public policies come in. If a leader’s people feel well-cared for, they aren’t likely to organize in the numbers required to remove that leader from power. The more democratic a society, the more influence this collective of interchagables has on a leader, since the popular vote plays a big role in who ultimately is selected to hold political office.

So, you want to create a realistic political system? Or corporation? Or even powerful family group? Start by identifying the leaders. Then ask yourself who their essential backers are and what those backers want from their leader to keep providing support. Identify what the consequences would be if the leader became unwilling, or unable, to provide the things their backers want.

Once you know that, the other two groups and their relative importance becomes clear. Influentials are going to be the high-level allies and opposition, what they want and how the leader has to help or hinder them to maintain control. Your interchangables will be everyone else, and their content or discontent with their current circumstances will determine how likely they are organize against the leader or back a different leader in a bid for control.

The book goes into far more detail about how these forces work on the world stage and in board rooms for multi-million dollar corporations. It’s a fascinating read. What we often see as corruption is rooted in a leader’s fundamental need to reward essentials and control influentials. I highly recommend the chapter on international aid. Here’s a hint – it has nothing to do with helping people, but that doesn’t necessarily mean aid money is a bad idea. Often, it’s very good politics.



Obligatory First Post

leia-hairI just started my blog – so here’s the obligatory first post! Full of exclamation points and and excited proclamations of hope for the wonderfulness that will be my new blog!

I promise that this post will have a complete lack of true content of any kind. To prove it, I’m going to demonstrate that I have no understanding of hashtags by adding a few random ones to the end of this post that have nothing to do with anything I’ve written here.

#excited;  #exclamationpoints; #randomstuff; #nocluewhattodowiththisblog