1. Build your backlog. When contemplating an novel, take what’s going on in your head and put it on paper. It doesn’t have to be in any kind of order. If you start with characters, then add “character profile for whatshisname” to your list. If it’s a particular scene, beginning, middle or end of your novel, then summarize it with a phrase and add it to the list. This is called building your backlog.
2. Estimate how much backlog item will take. If it is too large — such as, “Chapter 1,” and doesn’t specifiy what actually goes into “Chapter 1” — then it is too big for a sprint backlog item. You need to start breaking it down by visualizing some scene that are going to go into chapter. 1. Make sure your cards are small enough that they can be completed within one or two sittings. My goal is to complete roughly 500 words per backlog item.
3. Groom your list. After you have about 10 items, then prioritize them. This is called grooming. The priority can be based on what’s most important to you. If getting that scene out of your brain and into a written form before you lose it is crucial, then make that scene the first thing you work on. If developing a character’s quirks, motives and background is most important, then make it No. 1. The idea is to organize these chunks of work by priority, with the goal of visualizing moving from the conceptual stage of the process into reality. Transform story concepts into reality.
4. Set up your kanban board. Use an online tool like Trello, and build your columns, which are meant to hold your stacks of work in various stages of completion. In Trello, these are called “Lists.” My columns are “To Do,” “Writing in progress,” “Research,” “Edit” and “Done.”
5. Make the “cards” that will fill up your lists, based the backlog you created in #1. Put all of these in “To Do” (unless you have some that are already started, then put those in the appropriate list.)
6. As soon as you begin working something in your To Do list, immediately move it into the “Writing in Progress” or “Research” lists. As you get a first draft done of the item, then move it to “Done.” I suggest that your first pass at writing a novel be focused on completing a first draft as quickly as possible. While there is an “Edit” list, I see this as being for very minor cleaning up or building transitions within a nearly finished backlog item. Cards shouldn’t languish in the “Edit” column. Address their issues and move them into “Done” quickly. Then begin working on the next item off the top of the To Do list.
7. I’ve saved the Kanban board for last, but not because it’s the least important. To me, it’s the most important. The kanban board allows me the visualize the progress I’ve made through a graphic representation. This is always niggling in the back of my mind, reminding me of what needs done.
I learned how to use one of these at my day job as a software developer — maybe it’s the specter of my boss spying at our team’s kanban board and making mental notes about each member’s progress. But whatever it is, I’m mindful of what is still in the “To Do” column.
The kanban board gives me a way to monitor how well I’m doing on my novel by breaking each scene, plot point, piece of research and character profiles into “chunks of work” that I call “cards” (based on the idea of the old 5×7 index card system some writers use).
The Japanese word “kanban” translates roughly as “signboard” or “billboard.”The first use of kanban can be traced to Taiichi Ohno’s development of the Toyota Production System and Lean manufacturing. He developed kanban to quickly communicate to all workers how much work was being done, what state it was in, and how it was being accomplished.