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