In 10 Steps: Scrum Your Novel to completion

By Karla Tipton
Author of Rings of Passage and Dangerous Reflections

Your phone beeps at you. Expecting an email, you look at the screen only to find there’s yet another nag message reminding you that some phone app needs a software update.

How is it even possible for these companies to churn out updates every few days?

A kanban board to manage novel writing
A kanban board helps manage your novel project

One word: Scrum. It’s a rugby term for a very minimalist project management technique that falls under the “Agile” methodology.  Nearly all software companies have switched to Agile to produce their rapid-fire software releases.

Unlike many project management techniques, this one really works. I know it’s effective because when I’m not writing novels, I’m working on a software development team that uses Scrum.

What’s developing software got to do with writing? Read on.

One day a couple of months ago, I began a new novel. As I struggled to organize scenes into chapters, develop characters, and figure out what I needed to research, something obvious struck me:

Why not use Scrum to get my novel done?

In the weeks that followed my epiphany, I developed a method that required minimal prep and allowed me to produce a chapter per week. Through the use of Scrum, and a key component called a “kanban board,” I watched my word count grow. This progress kept me engaged, allowed me to gain momentum, and to really dig in, gaining insight into what my novel was all about and where it might be heading — simply because I worked on it a little bit every day.

This “beta test” of the Scrum Your Novel method is documented in the section of the website titled My Daily Standups. Here you can read about my successes, failures, impediments, false starts and new beginnings.

Writing a novel is messy, just like life. That’s what Agile, and Scrum, is all about: reality. Why it works better than most methods is because you and reality are working together to get the job done.

Scrum Your Novel is a no-nonsense approach to managing the writing of your novel to completion.

It’s based on the concept of carrying on work at a steady-but-not-breakneck pace, undertaking work without a clear plan, striving towards attainable short-term goals, and then repeating the process towards another set of goals until the project is done.

What a perfect description of novel writing.

Whether your writing style is as a “plotter” or a “pantser” (flying by the seat of your pants, like me), if you stick with Scrum Your Novel, you will finish your book.

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month)? Try scrumming it.

Scrum Your Novel in 10 Steps

1. Start with a plot idea. Build this sentence around it to create your elevator pitch: [WHO] has to [WHAT] on [WHERE] during [WHEN] because if they don’t [HOW], [WHY] will happen. This helps you focus on the central idea of the story.

2. With this central idea in mind, brainstorm three scenes and three primary characters you most want to write about. These are the things that stoke your desire for writing this story. Keep it brief. Use the chapter plot and character templates to document these.

3. Consider any initial research you must do, and fill out a research sheet for each topic. But don’t use research as an excuse to put off doing step #2.

4. Get a whiteboard, some sticky notes and a pen for your kanban board. Or create an account on Trello (or another site that offers a free “kanban” board, such as https://www.seenowdo.com/ , http://scrumblr.ca/, http://www.taskjunction.com/ or http://scrumtool.me/). A kanban board is where you track your progress. I found Trello to be the most straightforward, allowing for a quick start without a lot of fuss.

5. Create a kanban board using your novel’s title, and then build the following “lists” for that board: To Do, Writing In Progress, Edit, Research, and Done. See detailed instructions here.

6. Prioritize each of the cards created in steps #1 through #3 above. Put the most important at the top of the To Do list.

7. Decide what daily rate of writing you will always be able to achieve in a sitting. It can be a couple of sentences, a few paragraphs or a word count, such as 500 words. If the worst happened, and you couldn’t get to a computer, how much would  you be able to write in longhand on a legal pad during  your lunch break at your day job?  It is crucial to get this estimate right. If you continually struggle to meet your daily quota because you’ve estimated too high, or postpone your writing session because you’ve only got 10 minutes, you will fail for a few days, and then give up. Scrum builds discipline to work on your novel, but it has t be done daily.

8. Set a writing goal that can be achieved in a week. Each week is called a “sprint.” Just like when you were in grade school and did the 20-yard dash, work as hard as you can for a short time and concentrate on reaching your goal. Even if it’s just a half hour, block out time for writing every day and focus strictly on one project – no distractions, no knocking off early, no nothing until you reach your daily goal. Every sprint should result in a recognizable chunk of work (for instance, a chapter).

9. Keep a “daily standup” journal in a Word document or free journal site such as Livejournal. After your writing is done for the day, jot down a couple of sentences in your journal about what you worked on, what you plan to work on tomorrow, and if there are any impediments or “blockers.” If there is a blocker, deal with it first thing the next day to prevent it from becoming an excuse not to write.

10. After every sprint concludes, assess your progress toward your goal of finishing a novel, and plan for the next sprint by repeating steps #1 through #3.

Good luck! I look forward to reading your novel.

Please post a comment if this method works for you. And if it doesn’t, I want to know that, too.

7 thoughts on “In 10 Steps: Scrum Your Novel to completion

  1. Great idea – I like the way it forces me to get on with things rather than procrastinate and worry about them. Thanks!

  2. THIS IS GREAT ADVICE, THANKS for sharing this! I WORK AS A SCRUM PRODUCT OWNER AND WRITE AS A HOBBY. SCRUM IS DEFINITELY A GOOD WAY TO SET ACHIEVABLE GOALS AND KEEP TRACK OF PROGRESS, AND HELPS ME FOCUS ON ONE SCENE AT A TIME. ALSO, IT FEELS GREAT TO MOVE THAT FINAL CARD TO THE “DONE” COLUMN AT THE END OF YOUR SPRINT AND REALIZE YOU ARE THAT MUCH CLOSER TO FINISHING THE BEST NOVEL EVER WRITTEN.

    I DO WONDER IF SCRUM CAN ALSO HELP FIGURING OUT IF YOU ARE WRITING THE BEST NOVEL EVER – WHEN USING SCRUM IN SOFTWARE DEVELOPMENT, ESTABLISHING A GOOD USER FEEDBACK LOOP IS VITAL. DO YOU HAVE ANY THOUGHTS ON OR EXPERIENCE WITH THIS?

    1. It’s gratifying to know that you think Scrum is applicable to novel writing. As far as creating a user feedback look. I think if you were a member of a critique group of writers who all used this method, and had a shared kanban board, there could be tasks for reading and critiquing each other’s work as you write each scene. What a great idea, I hadn’t thought of that before. Thanks so much for commenting. It really helps.

  3. YES, GREAT IDEA, THANKS! I THOUGHT ABOUT IT SOME MORE AND I THINK A/B TESTING COULD WORK TOO – PITCH TWO OR MORE PLOT IDEAS AND SEE WHICH GETS THE BEST FEEDBACK. OR TAKING IT EVEN FURTHER, START WRITING A NOVEL BY WRITING A SHORT SUMMARY OR BLURB AND GETTING FEEDBACK TO SEE IF THE IDEA BEHIND THE NOVEL IS GOING TO WORK OR NEEDS REFINEMENT.

    PS – SORRY FOR THE ALL-CAPS, THIS COMMENT BOX SEEMS TO INSIST I SHOUT. EVERYTHING I TYPE OR PASTE IS CHANGED TO UPPER CASE.

    1. How very odd about the comment box insisting on all caps. As you can see, it’s not happening to me. Thanks for more good ideas, about the A/B idea. Those short summaries are sometimes called an “elevator pitch,” named because writers try to pitch them to agents or publishers while riding in the elevator at writer’s conferences. It’s an interesting idea to test them out in a Scrum version of a critique group. Food for thought.

  4. Oh no, the all!caps comment box of doom… 🙁

    I find a variant of the agile board to be *awesome* for scene planning. It’s like an easy-to-organize mind map that combines a place to generate and gather ideas with to do/done categories and offers an ability to quickly move cards between decks. It’s also more legible than my handwritten ones. xD I use Trello for this, and I wish I had discovered that approach sooner. 😛 I also work for an IT company that uses Scrum to manage projects, so for once, my day job was good for something ;]

    1. Yes, using an agile board is surprisingly effective for planning scenes. Thanks for your input. It’s nice to know that I’m on the right track here. Sorry I took so long to reply. I’ve just started a new job and life has been a little chaotic.

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