11 PM | 31 Mar

Back On Track: Writing Update 3/31/13

When I left off last sprint, I had been forced to go into a different direction with my novel. I had an interesting new idea but had not yet fleshed it out. For the first sprint of the new version of my novel, there were questions to ask. Could I develop a story around this idea? What work from the previous idea could be preserved, and what would would be lost? Could I fully engage myself in the reworked story? Was I on the right path? The answer to those last two questions turned out to be a resounding “yes”!

Before I could start writing, though, I needed to flesh out a story. I started by trying to retrofit ideas from my previous iteration into this one, but I could not find a way that didn’t seem awkward and forced. In the end, exactly NO writing I had done previously will be used in the new novel. None of my planned scenes will be in it as well. None of the names or other research will be relevant. In fact, of the content I’d worked on only one plot device remains – fortunately, the most significant one – and it has been reworked just a bit.

That is the bad news. The good news is, once I let go of the old story, the new story flowed out of me like water out of a cracked dam. I was able to take the skeleton of an idea and turn it into a fully flowing, plotted storyline with a beginning, middle and end, even if it’s not fully fleshed out. Knowing the direction, the words came easily. I have written nearly 8,000 words this sprint, completing the draft and first revision of the prologue and chapter 1. It is easily my most productive sprint so far.

What I have found is that this story is extremely personal for me, in a way the previous one could not have been. It is not dark like the former one; it has no violence, no disturbing imagery. It contains themes and plot devices that coincide closely with many of my chief interests: religion, science, science fiction, human nature and Asperger’s syndrome. It even contains a hint of romance. More importantly to me, I have never read or even heard of any novel remotely like what I’m doing.

I am extremely excited going forward, but I have a lot of work to do. Here are some of the things I need to keep in mind going forward:

  1. It’s great that my novel is so personal, but to be honest, I’m weird, and if it’s presented in too personal a way others will have trouble connecting with the characters.
  2. I have two main characters who are extremely similar. I need to ensure they each have a unique voice. That will take some tricky writing to accomplish.
  3. The science/science fiction elements are quite complicated, but I’m not writing (necessarily) for a science-literate audience. Can I explain things simply enough so that less technical people can follow the plot conventions, even if they don’t completely understand them? Can I do that without sacrificing the “real-ness” of the science fiction elements, as so many other authors do?
  4. The story is told in non-linear fashion, which makes it difficult for many audiences to follow. It is using a fairly unique plot device to deliver history, so perhaps it won’t be as hard to pull off.

Those are just a few of the issues I’ll have to deal with. I’m excited to start chapter 2 next sprint. I hope to have it, plus at least the first draft of chapter 3, done in two weeks. It should be no problem if I can be as productive as I was last sprint.

As far as the previous story  – well, it’s on the shelf for now. Perhaps I’ll revisit it someday. Perhaps I’ll find some new way to deliver the plot that allows me to tell the story more uniquely. Doing things the Agile way may have provided some help here – it’s forced me to organize my information in a way that should be easy to recover in the future.

Back to writing!

 

 

11 PM | 17 Mar

When Plans Go Horribly Wrong: Writing Update 3/17/2013

This sprint was, most definitely, not a good one. There were some huge setbacks in my progress during the last two weeks, and I’ve gone through a range of emotions while dealing with them. I can’t say this is unexpected; in fact, I decided to use Agile partly because I knew there would be problems and I’d have to flexibly deal with them. I did not, however, anticipate issues of this magnitude, and it’s forced some serious re-evaluations of the entire project.

The sprint started off with my first bout of writer’s block. I had completed a scene – the first half of the chapter 2 – and needed to segue to the next scene that would finish it. For the life of me, I could not figure out how. My story had some very dark elements; however, I did not want the book to be overly dark. I had planned segues between dark scenes that would lift the mood and give the reader some respite before heading back into disturbing material. It was in these segues that I was having the most difficulty.

The second problem; I have had a name for my book since the very beginning. When I thought of it, I immediately did searches on Amazon and B&N and was pleased to see that there were no books using the name. However, I decided for some reason to google the term, and found it to be a term for a Mormon phenomenon; my target audience is Christian. I certainly don’t want to alienate Christians from reading my book and disappointing Mormons, so I moved my planned title to “working title” and created a chore to think up a new name.

The third problem, however, was terminal. As I’ve mentioned in earlier blogs, I got the original idea for this book in the mid-to-late 90’s, and had been working it in my mind since then. In the late 2000’s, a book was released that covered very similar territory, and it was a huge hit (selling millions of copies). At the time I was dismayed but felt my story offered a perspective that would offer a unique experience, and could stand on its own without appearing derivative. I had not revisited it since then, and had forgotten much about it. Something told me I needed to re-read it again to make sure that I was still veering clear of its territory, and to my horror, I was coming far closer to its tone than I’d planned. I think that I even inadvertently copied an element from that story. While I don’t think the idea needs to be totally unique, I do feel I need to justify it as a worthwhile venture for people to read. It was harder to justify now.

It took me about three days to walk through the stages of grief.  At first, I thought I could just alter the story to avoid the areas that were too similar and concentrate on those elements that were unique. Well yes, maybe, but the problem is the areas of similarity were what made the character believable. I could not get my main character to where I needed him to be without going through where the other book’s main character went first. To accomplish what I wanted to do, it would require fundamental changes to the plot, main character, and even some of the scenes that I loved, and this would make the story fundamentally different.

 

So, I finally accepted this new reality and set my mind to reconsidering the story from the ground up. And I think I may have ended up putting together what may even be a better story than my original idea. It has most of the key, unique elements of the original. It does, however, follow a different path that is less dark, eliminates most of the disturbing imagery, and might actually even be a bit funny. I am constructing this story now; hopefully, I’ll have a solid plan after this next sprint and even some writing progress.

I am not giving up on the original idea. I have detailed notes and I may very well revisit it again in the future to see if I can find a unique way to present it. But, for now, it’s on the shelf.

Lessons learned:

 

  1. Make sure you do a Google search, at least, when coming up with a name or idea.
  2. Be familiar with popular literature in your field that is similar to your work.
  3. Don’t give up hope if you find you aren’t as innovative as you might think.

Back to the drawing board, but I’m still excited. I still want to have my first novel finished by the end of the year, and that goal is definitely not out of reach.

12 PM | 07 Mar

They danced

The mother danced with her son, and all was right and good.

She was my first and only love, the best of who I am and can be.  He was my precious boy, lean and beautiful and vital. It was the day of my birth, my celebration, and I reveled in the joy of a moment that surpassed time itself to hang like glowing stars in the heavens. They danced and spun, and not even the finest meal had filled me so fully and satisfied me so completely.

Our lives are defined by our experiences. It had not been so long ago that fear had been our taskmaster, and death had sent his henchmen forth to threaten our happiness. For the mother, so tiny a speck, so insignificant a spot, so deadly. We walked through days in stunned silence, guided by those who knew best, not understanding how close we had come to grievous loss until the threat was over. She would live, but life had changed. We were no longer immortal, immune from the pains this world can bring. When would death strike again? Were we being given a second chance, or an opportunity to say goodbye? Life was suddenly tenuous.

That experience only made the next more real. Another speck, this time on the boy. We tried to be strong. We could not. I fell to my knees, weeping, begging God to spare him. Thankfully, the boy was strong. He has always been strong. He was very young but perceptive; he knew something was terribly wrong. I swelled with pride as he faced everything with bravery. In the end, he was going to be fine. Again, we had been given a second chance.

There are moments in life that live, forever, in our hearts. Moments when God Himself comes down, shining, to shine a spotlight on the precious gifts that He has given. Grab those moments, cherish them, hold onto them. They will be sustenance when times are hard, validation when times are good. I do not fear death. I am thankful for the time I have with those I love. I am filled.

The mother still dances with the boy. As long as I live, they will step and whirl, in rhythm to my heart’s beat. And my soul will be well.

06 PM | 02 Mar

Writing Progress 3/2/13: Going to dark places

Well, it’s been two weeks since my last writing update, and I’m hopelessly behind getting part 3 of my Agile series completed. I do still plan on completing it, but am not sure when; thankfully, it’s my novel writing that is pushing it back.

A part of the Agile process is a “Sprint Retrospective”, where you look back at the last iteration to discuss what went right, what went wrong, and how things might be improved in the future. I plan on using these writing updates for that purpose; at the end of each 2-week sprint I will gather my thoughts and update my loyal fans (Hi mom!) on my progress.

I left the end of last sprint almost finished with chapter 1, having written about 5000 words total. This sprint, I finished chapter 1, reworked the prologue, and find myself about a third of the way through chapter 2. I have written around 2500 words this sprint; half as much as last time, but to be honest, the writing tasks were far more difficult. More on that later. I also thought up, spec’d out and created tasks for a few new scenes for later consideration. Finally, I identified new chores – writing related – that I need to work on to make my writing time go more smoothly.

Observations:

  • The first chapter consists mostly of dialog and setting up the plot devices that will be used throughout the rest of the book. The second chapter begins the meat, though; action, multiple settings and complicated descriptions. This writing is far more difficult.
  • I find myself grasping for the words to describe the things in my head. I have tried online sources such as thesaurus.com and VisuWords, but have not yet found a good source for exploring word choices. One chore I’ve set for next sprint is to identify tools to help with words and phrasing.
  • Describing things that exist only in your head is HARD. My novel contains elements of the supernatural, demanding descriptions of visual phenomena that are unique (as far as I know). It took four tries to get the first paragraph of chapter 2 to express the vision in my head correctly. Out of my five hours of writing this week, more than two hours were spent devising those 200 words.
  • My book goes into some pretty dark places; I had to write a scene of cruelty and violence this week that is totally against my nature. My stomach churned and I almost felt like crying while writing the scene, and that shocked me., as I am not an overtly emotional person. I even tried to soften it up at times, but it made the scene less real; became obvious to me that I could not go halfway. The destination that I’m guiding the reader to – which is intended to be glorious – will lose its effect if the reader does not travel through the darkness. You must experience the pain to fully grasp the intended joy. I am nervous because this is only the first such scene I must write, and definitely not the darkest one.
  • There is a constant need to “invent” things such as settings and characters. I have been going back through my own experience for this. I am worried about describing places or people that actually exist; the last thing I want to do is offend somebody. The strategy I’m using is to merge characteristics from two or more things to make them unique. For example, one extremely unpleasant character was constructed using attributes from three people from my past, none of whom is unpleasant. If I finish this book and somebody thinks a character is them, two things: 1) it might be a little, and 2) it’s not you!

I’m not sure how much writing I’ll get done in the next two weeks. I’ve allocated 10 hours per two weeks so far; I worked about 10 hours the first spring and 6 hours this sprint (so far, I may not be done for the day). I won’t ascribe an official velocity – the amount of time I am able to finish per sprint on average – until after the next two sprints. I’m hoping I’ll discover a better rhythm by then.

02 PM | 17 Feb

My writing progress

I have not yet written the third part of my “Writing Fiction with Agile” series, and may not for another week. I’ve chosen a tool and will likely use it to illustrate the principles I spoke of in parts one and two; however, I’m hoping to find a tool that I can better tune to my needs. I’ve evaluated three software solutions so far, but all have proven less apt than the original.

As far as writing my novel is going, I am happy to report success! I was able to get into the “writing zone” this weekend and spent 6 hours writing about 5,000 words. I am almost done with chapter 1; it will obviously need some rework and editing, but I am very pleased with the overall structure and content.

The big question is, has Agile helped me? I spent part of my first sprint putting my ideas into my selected software tool (Pivotal Tracker), estimating the time of each task, and prioritizing the work. I’ve noticed some benefits already:

  1. I had an idea of what I wanted to do with chapter 1, but it was incomplete. By breaking my work down into smaller tasks, I was able to identify another, previously unrelated, scene that fit well here. With a little rework I was able to use it to completely flesh out the chapter. I might have never noticed this connection otherwise.
  2. By breaking out small, non-writing tasks as chores, I was able to take the time to focus on them and get them done. There were three main characters and I had not decided on a name for any of them. I set up a task to find a name for each, and with 20-30 minutes of focused effort on each, I was able to come up with names that are meaningful and I’m pleased with.
  3. By prioritizing my stories, I found I was able to focus better on the task at hand. There are scenes that I am excited to write; I’d often find that I’d flit from one scene to another as I was thinking through the story, preventing me from focusing on getting one single task done. After prioritizing I found it easy to make myself think about completion of the immediate goal and put those other scenes on the back burner.

All in all, I’d say that Agile methodologies have been valuable. The goal is to get my writing done, and as long as they encourage and motivate me to do that, I will stick with them.

12 AM | 11 Feb

Writing Fiction with Agile methodology, part 2

In my previous post I spoke of my desire to be a writer, and my trouble with fitting writing into my schedule. I presented Agile methodology as a possible solution to this problem. I will attempt to explain myself here more fully.

First, though, I want to stress that I understand that no tool is going to get a novel written. In the end, if I am successful it will be because I sat down and wrote it. What this tool might help me with is to break up my writing tasks into smaller, more manageable pieces; when I have time, whether it be an hour or many hours, I will be able to find work that needs to get done that can be completed in that time frame. The trick will be to break each major task out into discrete pieces, and document each piece enough so that I can complete the work when necessary. As I complete more and more tasks I will be able to build paragraphs and chapters from those pieces, and eventually piece the entire book together. By breaking down tasks this way I will be able to identify things I can do in smaller increments of time – an hour here and there. Tasks that can be started and finished discretely with lesser need to be in full-on “writing mode”. At least, that is the plan.

It should also be noted that I’m only utilizing a small subset of Agile methodology. It is designed for larger-scale projects among groups of teams, and most of its particulars have little relevance to my problem.

To start: Agile methodology defines its individual tasks as “epics” and ‘stories”. An epic is a large picture issue, such as a new product feature, while a story represents a sub-task contained by the epic. A story can be a “feature”, meaning a new piece of functionality; a “chore”, meaning rework or refactoring of existing functionality; or “bug”, a problem with existing functionality that needs to be fixed.

The structure of my novel is of a present-time dialog intercut by scenes from the two main character’s lives. Each character’s scenes build that individual’s overall storyline. The scenes are not necessarily told in linear fashion, but in a logical progression. Each scene will be complete in and of itself but will either present or build on vital information for/from other scenes. There is also a character who acts as a semi-narrator, moving the plot forward in the segues in-between scenes.

I will map these ideas into fiction writing by defining them as follows:

  • Epic: I will define at least four epics, two being a single character’s storyline and a third to represent the segue scenes connecting those scenes. I will also write an epic to represent the research that needs to be done to make my characters, plot and scenes believable.
  • Feature: this refers to an individual, unwritten scene within an epic.
  • Chore: this will refer to tasks such as researching a topic or going over a chapter or story that has been edited.
  • Bug: this refers to the editing of existing content when I feel it is not yet up to par. I will also use them to refer to other rework issues, such as continuity issues or where a scene’s worthiness needs to be re-evaluated.

Also a part of Agile is the estimation of the time required to complete each story. This is usually done by taking some number system – say 1, 2, 3, 5, and 8, and rating each story one of those numbers. The actual time each represents depends on the length of a sprint (I’m setting mine to 1 week) and the discretion of the project manager. For this project, I’m going to enable 8 possible settings – the numbers 1 through 8 – where each represents an hour of my time.

Ideas for features, bugs and chores will be placed in a queue called the “icebox” initially. When I decide that they are actual tasks that I want to complete, they will be moved into the “backlog”. Projects that are to be worked on in the immediate time frame will be placed in the “current issue” queue.

Finally, I will define each sprint (iterative time frame for planning) as a period of two weeks. I will decide at the beginning of each sprint how many points I can complete in the next two weeks based on my knowledge of my schedule during that time. Based on that number, I will move items from the backlog into the current issue queue for me to focus on. Of course, if I find that I can do more than planned I can always pull stories from the backlog.

At this point, all of the information above is fairly theoretical. Next post, I choose a software tool to manage these stories, and discuss how I will use that tool.

 

03 AM | 04 Feb

Writing Fiction with Agile methodology, part 1

I have a novel burning inside me.

When I was a kid, there were two things I loved: computers and books. I think I loved both for the same reason; they presented worlds in which I could immerse myself, and blank sheets of paper onto which I could enforce my creative will. In the end, I chose the route of computers. It suited my talents more naturally, and honestly, paid a lot better.

However, I have found that the urge to write has never really left me. An idea for a story will hit me, and I will work out character and plot. I find myself create worlds in my mind during long commutes or downtime. In particular, one story came to me about 15 years ago. It was raw and incomplete. I tried to write it out immediately as a short story and it was horrible. The difference with this idea is that it never has left me; I might go weeks or months without thinking about it, but it always comes back. Over the years I have taken that kernel of an idea and fleshed it out. It sits nearly complete in my mind. I’ve written a prologue I love, an epilogue I like, and a few sparse chapters that need work. I know that if I don’t finish this thought, turn it into a completed story, that I will always regret it.

Why haven’t I completed it yet? Well, as I’m certain most budding writers with non-writing careers find, life gets in the way. I have a wife and children that need my engagement and my time. I have a demanding career that has often required extended periods of 60 to 80-hour work weeks. I am often worn out at the end of the day. I have other demands such as church activities, house repairs and yard work, and all sorts of other responsibilities that eat up my time. It is difficult to string more than 1-2 hours of free time together.

And that is the problem. I find that if I don’t have 4 or more hours of guaranteed uninterrupted time that I end up not being motivated to write. A novel is a huge task; when I look at all the work that needs to get done, it is intimidating. I feel I can’t accomplish much in short, 1-2 hour chunks. Which is too bad, because it is all I really have.

When thinking about this problem last week, I realized that this is very similar to the problems I’ve encountered in my career as a software developer. There is a lot of work to do.  When I look at the big picture, it becomes difficult to decide what needs to get done when there are conflicting priorities. Often, I find myself working on tasks that no longer make sense, but that have been in planning for a long time. Often, I fail to work on tasks that have long-term benefit, instead focusing on smaller, incremental tasks that are being drive by constantly shifting requirements. This matches well to my life, where I do not focus on how I could productively use small chunks of time but end up wasting them by watching TV or browsing the internet.

In the software world, there is a project management methodology for effectively dealing with this problem called Agile. It contains a series of short, iterative periods called sprints, where work for each sprint is prioritized a the beginning of that sprint based on what the team believes they are capable of accomplishing. The beauty of Agile is that it responds to unpredictability well; it allows a project to progress while allowing the prioritization of tasks to be fluid. It offers a great way to plan a product while at the same time not stifle creativity or commit to requirements that may change.

How is this relevant to writing fiction? After all, there will be no “team” writing this book outside of myself. As there is no client or customer, there are no shifting requirements other than those I choose to shift myself. I will address this in my next post.