Monday, April 11, 2011

PPW Conference Countdown: Managing Creative Projects by Deb Courtney

We all know prolific writers who crank out 5k words in a sitting, or who effortlessly hit 50K words during NaNoWriMo, or, worse still, draft a manuscript a year.  We know them, and they all know who they are.  This article is not for them.  It’s for the rest of us who can’t for the life of us figure out how they manage said feats. 
Those prolific writers don’t have access to some magic formula which eludes the rest of us, nor are they simply better people.  What they do have is an inborn or learned skill that allows them to manage projects in a more efficient manner than the rest of us, and the ability to meet their goals through self-discipline.  While I can’t help you with the latter (sorry, that’s up to you), I can assist with the former, by teaching you principles from a business discipline called Project Management.
It is much as it sounds – a process by which projects get managed, from idea to completion, and it can be applied across all sorts of different types of projects, from making cupcakes, to launching major software development initiatives for multinational corporations.
And also to creative endeavors.
Out of more than 20 years experience managing a variety of project types, I can say there are three deceptively simple areas in any project which, if not handled correctly, can set projects up to not meet their goals.  For Creative Projects, I like to think in terms of not meeting goals rather than in terms of failure, because failure sounds so definite and final.  I call these areas ‘deceptively simple’ because they sound simple, but are actually multi-faceted and pretty complex. 
For creative projects, unlike for major software launches, the creative person always has the option to re-tool and adjust their approach (unless you are under an external deadline which is another issue altogether).
The first of the three areas are related to Timeline.
Problem:  Setting  Long or Unrealistic Timelines
Projects have completion dates.  This is what sets them apart from our normal daily routine.  Projects have a finite duration, and an end goal.  We cause problems for ourselves in several ways in this area, by:
a)      Setting no completion goal whatsoever.  If you start a novel and plan to finish it when you get around to it, don’t be surprised when you are staring at page 60 of your manuscript 5 years later. 
Solution:  Set a completion goal date.
b)      Setting arbitrary completion dates for a creative project without any understanding of the  actual level of effort. How much do you plan to write – 80,000 words?  100,000 words? How long are typical, marketable manuscripts in your genre?
Solution:  have a goal for length.  You can change it later if you need to, but know in general terms how long projects like yours usually are.
c)      Not understanding how long it will take in actual effort to accomplish a goal.  For instance, writing at a rate of 1000 words an hour you need 80 hours to write 80,000 words.  But you can’t count on having 80 continuous hours – otherwise we’d all have already mastered the art of writing a novel in two weeks.
Also you can’t assume that your productivity remains at 1000 words an hour by the second or third continuous hour of writing  
Solution:  Figure out how much you can write in a given chunk of time.  This allows you to relate the word count goal to a specific level of effort on your part in real time.
d)     Poorly estimating the amount of time you actually have to dedicate to your project.  This will almost always be different than the time you imagine you will have or the time you would like to have. In high tech, project managers expect about 5 hours a day of actual programming from developers even though they are at work for 8.  It RARELY happens that you can spend all the time you have available on the major task you want to complete; other things almost always interrupt. 
Solution: Set a minimum realistic goal for each writing session based on how much of your available time you will likely ACTUALLY spend writing.  ASSUME INTERRUPTIONS WILL HAPPEN
e)      Having no end goal (beyond Write Novel.)  By this I mean that many people start out with a vague idea for a book and when asked to articulate it can’t get much beyond “I want to write a novel about a person in these circumstances that ends up this way”. 
While I am not a fan of outlining your novel in massive detail personally, this falls under the category of Poor or No Requirements; (which will be addressed in Part 2 of this series).  It’s hard to finish something by a specific date if you aren’t really certain what in fact you want to have at the end of the allotted timeframe. 
Solution:  Set an end goal with some specifics, like an 88,000 word YA urban fantasy novel in which your incredibly awesome teen zombie has overcome a variety of obstacles and changed the world’s view of zombies, and is on the cusp of winning voting rights for all zombies in the United States.
If you have specific questions, feel free to email them to me at, or catch me at Pikes Peak Writers Conference, where I will be leading a session on Project Management for Writers.

Deb Courtney has a degree in fiction from the University of South Florida, has published several short stories, and has written freelance for such publications as The Tampa Tribune and Tampa Bay Business Journal. She is a frequent speaker at Pikes Peak Writers events.

She lives in the foothills in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where she has a winter view of Pikes Peak (which is to say she can see it only when all the leaves are off the trees). She shares her home with a driving-age teen, two cross-eyed slightly brain-damaged felines, and likely has squirrels in her attic. And that's not a euphemism.

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