Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Project management

This week is another of those where all your contributors are thinking similar things. This post is a perfect lead-on from what Rachel had to say yesterday, because we're struggling with an identical problem- an inability to get words on the page while simultaneously wrangling the small people in our lives. Like Rachel, I just can't concentrate while my daughter is around- and since she's only 17 months old, she's always around. So, I've been thinking on this recently, and I had a little epiphany this week. For me, it's not so much about finding/ making the time to write as it is about the process of what to tackle when I actually do get that rare time.

So- Jen has regaled you with her legal knowledge, and now it's my turn to lay out a few lessons from the line of work I’ve been in for the last six years- project management.

I took a small sidestep out of ordinary archaeology work when I was employed at a small consultancy business back in 2004. The workload was heavy, and in order to keep things under control, staff were given project management responsibility over their own work. I’d had little to do with project management principles while studying or in any previous employment, and initially I was a tad bamboozled. What was the difference between a milestone and an objective? What about a goal and an aim?

But very quickly, I realized I’d been using PM principles since the first homework assignment I’d had to finish for high school. It’s very simple, really. You want to get something done, so you look at what steps are necessary, how long they’ll take, and what might get in the way. You make a realistic assessment of what you can achieve in a given time, and if you follow all the steps, in theory you ought to have a finished project on your hands within a specific timeframe.

At work, this is something I excel at. I can juggle dozens of projects, staff, budgets, you name it. I can meet deadlines without breaking a sweat. As the work comes in, the work gets done.
So why, why, why am I having so much trouble with the biggest single project I’ve ever undertaken- my writing?

I think it’s because I’ve failed to view it as a project, and as a result I’ve failed to utilize one of the best tools of the project management trade: the SMART approach to goal-setting.

Here’s what SMART means:


The idea is, you take your project. In this case, it’s writing a novel called BETWEEN THE LINES. You can start with a deadline and fit your milestones into that framework, but since at this point I’m unclear about how long it’ll take me (except for the fact that it will never, ever be finished if I keep going like this), I need to start instead with what I need to do to get it done, and then I’ll tie in some timeframes after I’ve got those milestones.

So. I have my project. I have my long-term goal: to finish writing BETWEEN THE LINES and submit it to an agent for representation, and publication.

What has to happen between what I have now (a complete but unusable first draft, and an extensive outline for the next) and where I’m heading (a fabulous, Booker Prize-winning first novel by outstanding new Australian author Claire Gregory)?

The answer is, obviously, just write. All the project planning in the world won’t change the fact that to get a finished book, you must get words on the page.

But at the moment, “just write” goes a little like this for me. I sit down with my laptop, and I open up my writing file. I read through what I wrote last time. It looks good. I’m inspired. I think I know where I want to go next. I raise my hands to type aaaaand… another pair of little hands pops up and starts hammering my keyboard. The result looks a little like this:


And it’s not going to win a Booker prize.

I detach my daughter from the keyboard, find her something more entertaining to play with, and go back. I re-read what I’d just read earlier. It’s still good. But this time I can hear the child off in the other room, bothering the dog. The dog’s in a bad mood and she’s growly. I have to go rescue the kid before she gets her face removed, so I go do that, kick the dog out, and give up on writing for the day. At this point in time all I can focus on is finger-painting, anyway. My concentration is shot.

Later that evening, the husband is home. I go into the study and close the door, looking for a little peace and quiet. It’s nice and quiet in there, but I also have to remove a veritable archaeological deposit of paperwork, laundry, books, confiscated toys, you name it, off the desk before I can even sit down. It’s serving as a junk room at the moment.

Once I’ve done that, I open up the file, re-read the previous stuff. It doesn’t seem quite as brilliant on the third read through, but it’ll do. I lift my hands to type, aaaand… BAM BAM BAM! I close my eyes and curse whoever taught my daughter to bang on doors for attention. It was probably me. Dad comes and removes her, but she knows her mama is locked away in there, and she wants in. She throws a big fussy tantrum, which I try to ignore, but really- my head is just not in 1914 right now. It’s listening to the battle royale in the hallway.

I give up for now. Half an hour later, she’s asleep in bed, and I have time to… write? Nope. I have time to sit on the couch and take a breath for the first time that day. I get to have a rare conversation with my husband. I get to have a glass of wine and watch an episode of Bones. And then I get to go collapse in bed and sleep. Precious, precious sleep. I don’t want to write. I’m too tired.

So, what’s the solution to this fairly significant problem? I know that if I get some time to sit and write in peace, I have a very fast work-rate. I can crank out 2500 words in three hours, no problem.

There's no point fighting this internal battle every day, getting nowhere. The solution is simple- I need to set aside three hours each week, not in the evening, and go somewhere else to write. The library is my best bet. I figured that out last year, and I still haven’t done it yet. Why? Because last year I set myself the task of “go to the library to write”, and I didn’t make it SMART.

A SMART version of the same goal would be:

Write at the library from 3pm to 6pm each Saturday.

Which is awesome- it’s specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-limited. But it’s enough- it’s not a goal in and of itself. It’s a contributing step in the larger goal, and it needs to be framed by something more specific. Which is this:

  1. Complete all 1914- 1920 scenes (c. 30000 words) by May 31st, 2010
  2. Complete all 1920- 1939 scenes (c. 15000 words) by July 31st, 2010
  3. Complete all Jared 1940 scenes (c. 15000 words) by September 30th, 2010
  4. Complete all Bill 1940 scenes (c. 40000 words) by March 31st, 2011
  5. Complete revision of draft and query letter by June 30th, 2011, ready for submission to agents.

There. Nice, solid, specific, time-limited goals.

I’m going to back it up with a process for each of those sections- tasks that I need to undertake within each quarter.

First, a quick plan of the scenes I need to write.
Second, within each scene, a quick plan of what’s going to happen.
Third, time to write. One chapter each week should achieve the above plan.

And I’m not going to threaten myself with what I’ll do if I miss these- if I miss the first one, I’ll assess and review the rest based on what I’m able to manage, and I’ll extend the timeframes if necessary. I’m not going to give myself incentives or punishments. I’m not quitting smoking here- I’m undertaking a project that I created, and the only person it matters to directly is me.

The most important question of all when it comes to writing is, why do you want to do this?

If the answer is just to see if you can, or because you love the process, then you don’t need to set strict goals for yourself. The enjoyment is in the process.

But if the answer is because you want to see your work published, then you need to set yourself some concrete goals and treat this as more than a hobby. Not necessarily as a job- but absolutely as a project that requires strong management.

For the longest time, I was writing solely because I enjoyed it, and though I did want to finish the story, I didn’t really care about the end of the process. But these days, my priorities have shifted. As the story evolves and grows, I know more and more that I want to see it in print. I feel like what I have to say is worth sharing. And that means I have a new goal which, combined with some extreme challenges in my life (namely: a toddler), needs clearly set steps and timeframes to complete.

Last of all- I know there are those of you out there who’ll be having a heart attack at the idea of subjecting your creative process to such rigorous planning. But when it comes to actually putting words on the page, that’s where the magic happens. No amount of planning can influence what you write. The purpose of the planning is simply to bulldoze your way to having enough time to write, and making sure that limited time is maximized to create a real direction. And if you’re not heading towards a goal, then you’re just idling in the car park.

A saying that has always resonated with me is this: if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.

It’s time for a change.


  1. THANK YOU Claire!
    It's easy to repeat all this stuff to myself, to talk about goals, and steps and getting up at 5 am... but having had the day off yesterday and having cranked out 1500 words just by dint off Butt in Chair, well, it's time for me to map out the rest of this year in SMART.

    My goal is to finish the first draft by the end of the summer and to query agents for the other novel at the same time. Jo Bourne started her first draft last summer at the same time as I did and she's already completed Draft No. 1 (granted, writing is now her full time job but that's no excuse). If I keep going at this rate, I'll have two novels and no agents and it'll be five years on and I'll still be blogging about word counts.
    No More!
    Off to print your post and write my own deadlines over the top of it.
    Good luck!

  2. Okey doke, Deniz- I'm going to put on my project manager hat here and ask you this:

    (First, though 1500 words= awesome! Well done :))

    Let's get more specific/ measurable/ time-limited here. Start with the easiest of the three:

    What constitutes the end of summer for you? Put a date on that, baby.

    Next, what do you have left to do to finish this first draft? I read on your blog recently that you're over 30,000 words, right? So how many are you aiming for? And is there a way you can split them (like I have) to give yourself quarterly or even monthly milestones so you can keep track of your progress? This can be tailored to suit the chunkster, by the way, by keeping the focus on number of words instead of specific sections or chapters if that doesn't suit you.

    Separate goal: Querying agents for the other novel. What steps do you need to take first? Do you need to revise your query letter? How are you going to approach this round? Are you going to send all your letters out at once, or in smaller batches, or one at a time? This is the kind of stuff you need to include in your plan- don't make "query agents" your final goal- it's the overall goal, but it's too nebulous to be of any use. Instead, pick smaller milestones:

    1. Revise query letter
    2. Get feedback on query letter from writing buddies
    3. Create a plan of attack

    And so on and so on. Wherever you can, be specific, use measurable milestones. If you decide to aim for a finished novel at the end of the summer and you need 50,000 more words for that, then you might pick 10,000 words a month as a reasonable target- and at the end of month one, you'll have an idea of whether that really *is* reasonable, because you'll either make it or you won't. And if you don't, it's time to revise those milestones and aim lower.

    Personally, I think aiming too high is a major factor in my own problems with getting things done- I'm always failing the goals I set myself because they're not achievable to start with. That gets me down, and mentally I convince myself I can't win.

    Good luck!

  3. Woo! This is exactly what I set out to do! I'm afraid I didn't specify too much what I was going to tackle agent-wise - for now "send to agents" in my list merely means to send it to the possible agents I've been collecting the names of in emails back and forth to myself. If they reject me, then I'll have to start looking for more.
    Until then, see my blog! I posted my SMART process there!