Spanners and screwdrivers at the ready

Work is ongoing a-plenty on the latest novel, codenamed Project PK4. By now I’m starting to see a pattern in how I work, and this is useful in a number of ways.

  • I can stop worrying that I haven’t written any scenes of a particular work-in-progress.
  • I can get going with the specific part of the pattern I’m in, such as gathering information, or working out what has to happen in such-and-such an order.
  • I can play around with tools to help me at that particular stage.

For example, I wrote about the use of kanban for writers a little while ago. Kanban is only one tool in a project manager’s toolkit, and as every story is a project, it makes sense to see what else is in amongst the spanners and screwdrivers.

Things like:

  1. Schedule: both for the time you have available to write, and the internal story what-happens-now.
  2. Work Breakdown Structure: your expected wordcount, and the time you have available for writing all those ittybitty words.
  3. Resources: your time and knowledge; your characters and storyline.

That’s three parts to get started with, each one split in two to cover details internal to the story, and external. OnResearching my latest novel!e thing you generally can’t do as a writer (unless you’re James Patterson) is “outsource” (ack! ack! phtooey!) the work…

Maybe some time in the future I’ll be so organised this will be second nature, but for now it’s comforting to know that no, I haven’t got writer’s block, I just haven’t got the next story in the right shape to get started.

I think there’s a difference.

 

There was a wee bit of chaos

Ladies & Gentlemen, an allegory from the Day Job…

When I took up my first job in the corporate world, I was involved in a disastrous recruitment campaign that lasted nearly a year. At the end of the process, the whole team agreed on a number of things:

1. The campaign had not gone professionally.Spot the cow! Joseph Ritson (1752–1803), antiquary Engraving by James Sayers, published in 1803 Gallery: National Portrait Gallery, London

2. It happened, but it wasn’t managed.

3. Only through hard work and overtime had we grabbed back the initiative and completed the campaign, loose ends and all.

4. There was a wee bit of chaos.

Not what one expects from a major high-street company with billions of spondulicks on its balance sheet and a household name recognised across the nation.

So my boss and I, we sat down and analysed the whole process:

  • Volume of work.
  • Time to do it.
  • An IT system before Windows.
  • Only me, too, while everyone else was on the road.

We sat down and I typed a completed application form into the non-Windows system, stopwatch ticking. Worked out how many I could do in an hour before I had to take a break. Worked out how many hours I’d need at that pace to enter 2,000 applications.

Even worked out how long it would take me to print off, sign and fold 1,800 rejection letters and stuff them into envelopes. (I wore a groove in my thumbnail folding the flippin’ things.)

We worked out when we needed to start each phase of the process, and how long it would take.

Where we could start early, to free up contingency time for those things most likely to overrun, because they would, and leave room in the timetable for catching up. Space for dealing with circumstances beyond anyone’s control.Letter opener and hand

When we needed to have 2,000 envelopes on order for those rejection letters, and how many we might lose to someone else “borrowing” a few dozen. A couple of boxes of paper, too, with the embossed header and the HR Director’s name and the company logo because these things matter.

And how we would cope if things went horribly wrong, maybe with the pre-Windows IT system or something beyond our control.

Did I mention this campaign’s deadline was 31 December?

That’s right, just when the rest of the world was painting the town red at the office Xmas party, me and my boss were frantically typing application forms into an ancient computer system before the holiday season shut down the building.

But we did it, and had a few days off, and then the application forms were sifted and the rejection letters sent out and the interviews scheduled.An ice-skating scene, as seen in a print titled

In late January.

I ended up fielding phone calls from Senior Managers stranded in snowbound airports, needing a hotel and a cancelled flight and a whole host of rescheduled interviews. Usually at five o’clock, just as I was going home.

Did I panic?

No.

Not me in the snowbound airport, was it? And I had contingencies built into the process from start to end.

(Did I mention we won an award for this?)

Because we’d done the process analysis, and had productivity data from the Campaign Gone Wrong, I could forecast – anticipate – how long I needed to catch up, how many people I needed to help me, and what I could delay doing until I’d dealt with the emergency.

Estimate, with accuracy, the best use of my time and resources.

Do you have to muck up to learn that?

No, you can do it while working successfully.

It’s the best way, BTW. Less panic at snowbound airports.

Fewer sackings, too.

But you have to do the process at least once before you understand – really, deeply understand – everything involved.

A bit like writing a novel.

Published in: on July 9, 2014 at 12:00 am  Comments Off on There was a wee bit of chaos  
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A Hundred Tales of Kanban for Writers

Way back when Dean Wesley Smith started his 2011 Writing Challenge, I threw myself into writing a bunch of short stories, mostly to back up my Cuckoo Club novels.

I was reminded of this recently by a post over on The Daring Novelist, when Camille LaGuire blogged about What’s Next on her writing schedule as part of a ROW80 update. Once I’d started my reply I realised it would be unbecoming of me to take over her comments section with the details and decided it really ought to be a blog post of its own.

Blogging’s like that. So here’s my words on the subject of writing a bundle of short stories.

I began to build a list of possible short stories by filling a page with titles – hand-written, very small, one per line and I think I stopped at a hundred. I did it in my spare spare time – waiting for a takeaway, or in a cafe while waiting for a friend to arrive for coffee, or while my PC booted up. Any five minutes or so when I couldn’t dig out inspiration much beyond a handful of words.

The titles which appealed especially I transferred to a five-by-ten table and began to work out which theme the title suggested. This involved coloured pencils and subtitles and lots of footnotes. Lots of fun.

Those that REALLY appealed got written.

Out of that exercise I got the stories I’ve written as Vita Tugwell – including the novels – and about a dozen of the Tales from the Cuckoo Club Archives.

The latest of these, Carter’s Loss, will be published as an ebook across all the usual resources (Amazon, Apple, Kobo, Smashwords, Xinxii, etc.) when I’ve given it the once-over and added a few zingy bits. Or maybe a McGuffin.

I’ve got nearly eighty titles left on the list.

Some of those, I suspect, will never be anything more than a neat title, and others will veer off into a new series of novels or novellas (hint: two at least, very promising conjectures both). Some of them were simply titles that provided a link to the next title in the list as I pulled them out of my imagination. They were cheesy, but essential, and the goal was to come up with a hundred titles for short stories.

Sorted.

And then…

I read a post over on InkPunks titled Getting a Handle on Your Short Story Queue.  The post talks about a technique called kanban, which I’d never heard of before – it’s a project management process for visualising progress of project tasks and phases.

Fab.

I won’t go into it here, as the explanation over on InkPunks is so clear.

Kanban example from inkpunks.com

Kanban example from inkpunks.com

Anyhow, I transferred all my writing projects to a spreadsheet mock-up of the kanban process, with suitable phases and tasks according to my style of writing.

Now I can see how many of the hundred titles are lined up for actual word production, and how many stories will never get past the first assessment stage (i.e. I can’t see how or why I might write a story about That, whatever That might be).

Using the kanban process lets you see what’s next in the queue for writing – and move things around if you don’t feel ready to write a novel, right now, but might have the juice for a short horror story or a teeny paranormal romance novelette (no, I’m still waiting for the inspirational moonlight to strike me on that one too, hehehe).

It’s a good feeling of anticipation when you move a project into the Production phase.

And it’s a tremendous feeling of accomplishment when you move that project – that novel, short story, novella, novelette or non-fiction volume – into the phase marked “Complete”.

So you can start on the next.