Agile writing, or how to write a book in two months
If you've ever worked at a tech company before, you've probably heard the word "agile" thrown around.
Agile methodology. Agile software development. Scrum. Kanban. Continuous delivery. Agile agile agile.
Bah! I left all of that behind when I quit my job as a program manager in September.
Or so I thought.
Actually, I had unwittingly adopted it for my writing process, and it's what allowed me to go from typing my first sentence to publishing my first book in just two months.
Agile works, betches!
What is agile?
From the agile manifesto, agile means valuing:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan
Practically speaking, it means iterating quickly: you build a minimum viable product, get feedback from real users, address the most critical issues based on that feedback, and get the new product back in front of customers as quickly as possible. Rinse and repeat, in periodic cycles called sprints.
The most critical part of that was get feedback from real users. As a writer, sometimes the tendency is to just work on something until it's perfect. NO. Don't do that. Just get eyes on it and improve.
That's exactly what I did to get Crushing on You out the door.
I wrote the first full draft (my minimum viable product) in three weeks. It was skeletal in detail, but the full plot was there. At that point, I forced my husband to read it, and he tore it apart in a couple days with his new-age-sensitive, design-driven brain.
"What were the character's motivations? Would they really react that way?" "Do you really need to use the phrase salty sac?" -Hard-hitting questions from my critical husband
After tweaking the plot based on his questioning, I added flesh to the story (sexy flesh) and really tried to dial up the attention to details. Whenever any seemingly random factoid about someone was introduced, I tried to figure out how it would affect things down the road, or how it could be incorporated further into the story or future books. I got it to the point where I wouldn't be totally ashamed to show it to people who weren't married to me.
It was a lot of work, but I did the first round of revisions all in the span of one week, writing for about 12 hours a day, everyday. I was obsessed.
And I realized, wow, I can write really fast, especially when I have feedback from a reader to help guide my efforts.
That's about when I assembled my team, and went full agile (end of week 4).
Romance readers read voraciously, but they're usually pretty shy about their preferences. I was pleasantly surprised to learn during the course of my writing that a few of my friends were also romance readers, and so I enlisted their help, as well as the help of some friends who read a lot (but not romance), to review / edit my book...in two week sprints.
I created a survey, gave them comment access to a Google Docs version of my book, and asked them to read the entire book and get comments to me within one week, so that I could in turn spend one week editing.
Yes, one week. My lovely friends toiled through an early draft of my first novel in only 4-10 hours each, and gave me the feedback that I requested by the end of week 5.
Armed with their comments, I created a list of issues (tickets, if you will) to address, and ordered them based on priority / impact, and then tackled them one by one. And by having so many pairs of eyes on the book, I was able to identify issues that were actually issues, not just individual preferences.
For example, several people mentioned that my first-draft beginning was too slow, both romance readers and non-romance readers. The beginning is so critical to hooking new readers and setting up the rest of the book that I knew I had to tackle it first. Meanwhile, a couple of people said that the sex scenes were a bit much, but I could ignore those comments (sorry-not-sorry!) because they were from non-romance readers, and therefore, people who did not fall within the core target audience.
I was able to spend a full week editing, specifically working to fix the most critical issues so that I could improve the book most effectively.
By the end of week 6, I was able to get the book out for a second round of review. A few people from the first round and a few new readers were given another week to read the new draft (which was 15,000 words longer than the first) and give me feedback.
After the second round of review (end of week 7), I once again made a list of issues based on their comments and systematically revised the book.
And now I'm sitting here, typing this blog post, in the middle of week 8, a few days before my book is to be born.
Sprints 1+2: (week 1-3): Worked on MVP (minimum viable product), then feedback from husband + revision for round 1 of review (week 4)
Sprint 3: Round 1 of review (week 5) + revision (week 6)
Sprint 4: Round 2 of review (week 7) + revision (week 8)
Here's how the manifesto shaped up for me:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools -> Google Docs was nice because it offered flexibility in terms of how people gave me feedback. Some people liked commenting throughout, others preferred commenting at the end, and I could restrict access to ensure that the deadline was adhered to! And some people just sent emails or got coffee with me instead.
Working software over comprehensive documentation -> I considered writing down my rationale for why characters are how they are or do what they do, but ultimately, for books this short, I realized that it doesn't matter. Whatever my readers tell me (this makes sense, that doesn't) will tell me all I need to know in terms of believability. I did take minimal notes, though, for the most important drivers and details, especially for plotting out the next two books. But comprehensive documentation? Pfft.
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation -> I set some ground rules about reading my book, but mostly I just got the book out in front of people. While I tried to get readers to adhere to my deadlines, I did give extensions every so often, when I thought that the feedback they could offer was worth it. I treated my readers as collaborators, and considered their feedback carefully, even when their suggestions did not mesh well with my plans.
Responding to change over following a plan -> I had an original idea for the plot and how to paint the characters, but adjusted based on the feedback that I got instead of sticking 100% to my own vision of how the book should be. It's still very much my book, though, and I couldn't be happier with out it turned out!
If you've been sitting on a manuscript for a while and aren't sure how to improve it, I highly recommend trying this method. Get your book out there, and enlist your friends to help! It worked really well for me.
Though maybe only because I have amazing friends ❤️
P.S. This process worked for me, but it might not work for you. Don't take this as advice for how everyone should publish. For some works or some authors, going slower is definitely better. There are a ton of great reads out there about the pros and cons of self-publishing versus traditional publishing, or about finding a copy editor who works well with you and won't break the bank. BUT, if you’re just looking to quickly improve your manuscript before tackling those bigger questions around the publication process, consider giving agile a try.