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As I charge forward more or less on A School Of Many Futures, I find myself feeling constrained at times. I have these awful moments of feeling trapped in my work, weighed down.

You may recognize a similar experience in writing my first novel, where I talked about how Big Rocks, ideas I was afraid to abandon. This is a similar feeling, but more distributed, not quite as bad as last time. So what happened?

The more I looked it over the more I realized that this time around there were less big constraints, but a kind of feeling of being confined. It wasn’t that I was attached to anything particularly, but more that as I wrote I’d wonder if I should change something, or redo something. Every change made me worry more about six little things, and I wasn’t sure how to respond.

So in true Steve Fashion I decided to analyze what was going on and apply (you got it) Agile methods.

I had a pretty good book outline, created iteratively (I applied a mix of my own methods, Agile, and the Snowflake Method that is slowly evolving into my own method). I had my arcs thought out, from big pictures to character trends, and it felt very “alive.” I could have written the thing as I plotted it and had and a decent book.

But as you know, writing always reveals changes and new trends and flaws. Even nonfiction results in discoveries, and fiction writing usually involves all sorts of surprises and inspirations. Writing is engaging and you don’t just find flaws – you find new ideas. Those still produced discomfort as I had to change things – but I wasn’t butting up against Big Rocks, more . . . the whole plot in general.

So Agile to the rescule.

A plot is essentially a backlog – which in most Agile practices is a prioritized list of “stuff to do.” In Agile practices you keep a backlog and take the most important things off the top and do them. At the time, you’re always reshuffling and modifying the backlog as you find things out.

There was my answer. I had “over-structured” the backlog, with scenes and elements locked down and I wasn’t willing to change or reshuffle them. I had them broken down pretty good (thus no Big Rocks), but I wasn’t ready to make changes. I was clinging to a structure, not parts of the structure.

So what I did was Deplot the novel, making the plot outline “lighter” and easier to shuffle and modify. Here’s what I did.

  1. As I had plotted the novel interatively, I had outlines of it at different levels. I took “one step back” from my master outline to an outline of arcs paced to chapters. Imagine a spreadsheet that has chapters listed horizontally, arcs vertically, and rough ideas of what happens for each arc in each chapter.
  2. I treated each chapter as a collection of elements to include, but did not plot individual scenes. I used my old full outline as a guide for ideas, but it was mostly “get from A to B within this chapter.”
  3. As I wrote a chapter, I would make notes on other chapters to look at in a second pass, and as things changed, I’d make notes and modify my various arcs.
  4. I made sure the scenes fulfilled certain purposes and arcs, and reviewed how well they did their job.

This was liberating. Last novel I escaped my “Big Rocks,” being dragged down by giant plot chunks I refused to modify. This novel I was stuck stepping on little plot bits here and wasn’t willing to reorder my big pile of small parts.

So simply, I deplotted my book. I made my goals a bit more abstract. I gave myself room.

This was really liberating. I started writing a lot faster. I had a good note system to review. I rethought major arcs easily. All I had to do was step back a bit more.

The big takeaway here, I think, is that you may indeed need detailed ideas and plans to write. But there’s a level of asking how much you need to plot out the order and sequence and elements. In my case I found that the book was best broken into chapters with arcs, and that would contain elements of other arcs – but as I wrote I’d find the best way and took notes on other insights for later.

So when you plot out your books and lay out your books, ask yourself when you stop defining the level of detail of your work. Leave yourself the room for discovery that you need. It may differ between different books (my nonfiction works far differently) but find what works for you when.

There are other insights to discuss later, but this is one I wanted to address.

P.S. An additional note, I also found certain scenes and elements were very definitely not changing when I stepped back – not so much Big Rocks but things that just felt “right.” When blocked I wrote them out of order to get my mind going – these were things that were “just right” and I probably ought to explore them more.

Steven Savage