What’s Past Is Backstory

Most of the time I’m converting lessons from business to writing. This time, I’m taking a piece of writing advice to apply to business.

Part of my job is reviewing documents that are going out to the users. Today, as I reviewed yet another watching-paint-dry user guide, I was desperately trying to think of something, ANYTHING, that would make basic user instructions sound less – dry. I mean, no one expects user instructions to be scintillating. Yet I couldn’t help but feel there had to be something better than the plodding list I was reading, even though there wasn’t really anything wrong I could point at.

As I started my review in earnest, I looked over the glossary of terms. I, of course, knew all those terms already. I debated if the given definition matched my understanding of those items garnered from months of use of the product – and that’s when it hit me. Why was I reading a list of definitions before I learned anything else?

A glossary is backstory.

You see, it’s common for beginning writers to shove backstory into their first chapter. “But the reader needs to know this first,” the writers say, usually with raised voices. They are positive if the readers aren’t data dumped 500 years of international history they simply won’t understand why the main character is squatting in a foxhole in the first scene. Except the reader doesn’t really need to know the entire geo-political situation to get that the character is a solider in a war. They’ll find out about those 500 years leading up to that foxhole later, when they have context to hang it on, not to mention a reason to care.

Business writing, I realized, is full of backstory. I can’t count the number of trainings I’ve taken that start with a history lesson on how the thing I’m studying came to be. Or sets of instructions that begin with a glossary of terms I didn’t know, or have a reason to care about yet. I won’t even start on the emails rehashing an entire intra-office saga before getting to the point. What’s worse, organizational style guides act as a sort of corporate raising of the voice, encouraging writers to load up on the backstory because it makes things “clearer.”

It’s human nature. When we tell a story, we want to start with the first thing that happened. But stories can’t all start at the beginning of time and cover every detail contributing to the current situation. Somewhere along the line, we have to leave a few things out. That’s where the art comes in – deciding what the reader needs to know right now, and what they can discover later.

Why can’t good story structure be a part of business communications? It would certainly spice up the work day to get emails that first pose a dilemma, then lead you to the proposed solution. It’d be easier if definitions of new terms grew organically out of the places in the guide where you needed them. I like to craft emails full of boring dates and instructions into thematic narratives, if only to relieve my own tedium while writing the stupid things. Well that, and it gives me an excuse to use the word Padawan at work.

Perhaps business communications can’t all become high-fantasy novels, full of noble quests, or mystery novels, with clues peppered through email chains to a triumphant reveal.  The next memo across my desk definitely won’t be a riveting space opera. But couldn’t we at least stop front loading the backstory?

Overcoming Inertia

Inertia – it’s not just for physics anymore.

I’m having a bit of trouble with inertia. Had a bad week at work, and once I came to a mental stop after all the effort of the week, I found that I couldn’t get going again, not even to do things I liked. I was meant to do some writing this weekend. Yeah, that didn’t happen. Yet.

A mind at rest tends to stay at rest, but just as in physics, one in motion also tends to stay in motion. But the real trick is expending the energy to get back into motion. Mostly to motivate myself I’ve collected a few tidbits I picked up from various sources to apply to getting back on the writing horse.

Lessons from Depression: I need to remember my body is an instrument for writing as much as my pen. I find it too easy to neglect myself. Forget to eat. Take a shower. Brush my hair. But taking care of my body will make it easier to gear up my mental energy for another task. (P.S. Ericka, this also works if you’ve been working too long. You don’t do your best work with an instrument in less-than-optimal condition.)

Lessons from Psychology: I need to find the minimum enjoyable task. Instead of being overwhelmed into inaction, I can pick the smallest amount of work I can stand to do and just do that. Reduce my expectations and it’ll reduce the start-up energy required to overcome my inertia.

Lessons from Agile: Shoot for the minimum viable product. I need to direct my energy toward a task that matters, rather than wasting time on tasks that need to be done, but aren’t directly contributing to completing my work. While it may feel good to complete something, ANYTHING, unimportant organization or background tasks waste energy that could go toward getting the important parts done.

Lessons from Housecleaning: I can’t clean the whole house at once. On the same note, I can’t write the whole book at once. It’s like trying to clean the kitchen, and the living room, and the bathroom simultaneously. Focus on one room and resist the urge “pick up a few things” while I’m moving an item from one room to another.

Maybe the most important is to remember to do the thing I like. Treating my creative work like a chore is the fastest way to turn it into one. Sure, I’ll have the write the parts I don’t like as much eventually, but staring down that boring scene I feel no desire to write isn’t going to get me to write it any faster. Or better. Or give me anything other than a mediocre result.

All right. Back away from the blog post, Ericka. Any more self-pep-talk and you’re just wasting energy that could be going towards writing your novel.





Is the Trunk So Bad?

I was reading submission guidelines recently, and ran across the instruction “don’t send us your trunk stories.”

After a small detour where my brain imagined story ideas about trunks (car trunks, elephant trunks, steamer trunks, swim trunks…the list keeps going, folks) I brought it back around to what the submission guidelines were really saying: don’t send us your old stories that didn’t sell before. Then I thought: what a load of crock.

I think I could classify almost every story I’ve sold as a trunk story. Most of them went through enough rejections to gain that classification; my latest sale sat for a long time before the submission guidelines for a magazine inspired me to dust it off and send it out. The editor for that magazine inspired me further with a request for a rewrite on the end. If anything qualified as a trunk story, that one did.

I’ll admit I struggled with the decision. Heck, my first reaction upon dusting off this particular story was: what a piece of junk. I still loved the idea, but I’d grown enough as a writer to recognize it wasn’t my best work. OK – it wasn’t even on the top 10 list. I put in hours reworking it with my newer, greater writing skill set. It looked, and felt, a LOT better when I was finished.

So why are editors extorting me not to send them trunk stories? I think the key is the rework. When I got the editor comments back and she didn’t like the ending, my first reaction was to come to its defense. Of course my ending was perfect! She simply wasn’t getting the nuances of the five pages of epilogue I’d left in. How could an audience grasp the fine emotional gradations without the subplot about the little boy?

All of which was nonsense. She was perfectly right – the ending was too long, the point buried in a meandering scene with too many characters and not enough action. I rewrote it, too. But I think the aversion to so-called trunk stories stems from that emotional desire to defend our work instead of admitting its faults. It’s not the age of the story that’s the problem, it’s the emotional attachment to our characters, our plot lines, our ridiculous prose that we labored so hard to produce. We just don’t have the heart to transform those labors of love with cold, emotionless logic.

I was right not to leave the story in my metaphorical trunk. Forget about the trunk. What the editors are really saying is get over yourself and send us the good stuff. And I say you can’t truly love your own work if you aren’t willing to tear it apart and rebuild it stronger, faster, better. You don’t get the Bionic Story without cutting into its skin and upgrading the essential organs.

Look out, editors. I’m sending you my trunk stories. (Lee Majors not included.)

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.

A Crisis of Management

Agile Novel Management has revealed some…unexpected things.

First, I’m not going this alone. I’d thought I would be and help stepped in from unexpected directions. I have professional help. No, not a therapist – though that may become a writing expense before this is all over. I’ll tell you that part in a minute. No, a friend who is a professional Scrum Master offered to pilot this project with me. He’d been wondering for a while how to apply Agile to normal life and figured my novel would make a fertile test ground. I also found another writer interested in trying out the Agile Way. He’s looking for a way to get his finished as well, and thought this sounded like an interesting method.

SOOOOOOO…the first thing I learned is how little I actually know about Agile. I jumped into this with the cozy cushion of Dunning-Kruger below me, only to notice after I leaped I had NO IDEA what waited for me on the way down. I haven’t even gotten to actual writing work yet. The first steps for Agile involve establishing the parameters for your project. And – I made stunning realization number one.

I never would have thought of myself as indecisive. Yet here I am, wavering on literally every decision that needs to be made. Do I self-publish as a serial? I was set on that, until I talked with some friends who thought I was short-changing myself if I didn’t give traditional publishing a try. Picked the book, until another friend told me she liked one of my other ideas better, and I thought of a couple of more and ….well, you get the picture.

I keep trying to leave my options open. But while Agile is about flexibility, even Agile can’t magically allow me to have it both ways. Perhaps I’ve discovered why I couldn’t get a novel written earlier. I’ve been shying away from commitment. All those of you who know me may gasp appropriately. I know. I couldn’t believe it, either. If there’s one thing I can so, it’s make a decision. Yet here I am, waffling. Why?

Queue stunning realization number two. I’m afraid. Insert another shocked gasp here. Me? I blaze trails for everyone else to follow. And that, I think, is part of my problem. A friend recently reminded me that most people don’t have a passion in life, and don’t know how to relate to someone who does. I write to give expression to my emotions, to share them with other people. I’m afraid that I will pour all my passion into this project and no one will read it.

It’s not an unrealistic fear. Any author will tell you marketing a novel is harder than writing one. I am a published author, and yet very few people I know have ever actually read any of the stories I got published. I find it hard to have conversations with people, because it feels like people avoid talking to me. How am I supposed to succeed marketing my novel when I can barely get people to say good morning after I’ve said it first? I know no one notices me unless I’m standing right in front of them. They look away and poof! forget I exist. I don’t even have family members I can guilt into buying my book. No, really. Don’t tell my relatives I’m writing a book. They might find me, then I’d have to get a restraining order….

Stunning realizations one and two stem from the same deep-seated issue. I’m avoiding committing because I don’t know what will make people like my book. I know, I know, I should write what I want and not care what other people want. But I already know that if I write it, they WON’T come. And what’s the point of writing a novel if no one reads it?

Agile’s forcing me to face my emotions head-on. I must admit, that wasn’t what I was expecting when I started. Most writers would tell you they need therapy, and that’s why they write. Apparently I need therapy to write a business plan.

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

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.