Is Your Writing Agile?

I’m not a disciplined writer, I know that much about myself. I write when the mood takes me, and I write about the thing that is in my head when I am in the mood. I don’t know why it happens that way. It may just be a particular confluence of chemicals in my brain. The reality is that I write when I’m ready to write, and I write about whatever I’m thinking about at that time.

The challenge for me, for many years, has been how to convert that spontaneity into something with a structure and direction so that it can be a coherent piece of work when it is eventually completed.

Writing is the simplest thing in the world to do, at least on paper (boom, tish). In practice, in order for it to be more than merely stringing together a series of words, it needs an approach by the writer that converts it into a whole that is enjoyable to read. Consciously or not, every writer worth a sprinkle of salt is applying a technique that converts their thoughts, experience, dreams and ideas into a written sequence that can be converted back into emotions, feelings, thoughts and ideas in the head and heart of the reader.

In recent years I’ve found a useful framework for the way in which I write. This framework is used in software development. I should point out before I go any further that I’m not a software developer by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve played a number of roles in custom software development, including project management. The framework I’m talking about is Agile software development.

It’s a rich topic but I’m only going to go into as much detail as is relevant to writing, since much of it is focused on how teams collaborate and produce working software. It’s also an evolving field in which views differ on what constitutes an Agile approach. It does have some organizational techniques and concepts that can be applied to writing, though, and I plan to discuss those I’ve adopted to help me turn my writing into coherent stories.

The first concepts I’m going to explore are those of incremental and iterative development. I’m going to use some gross simplifications here, so if you are a software developer, kindly grit your teeth.

In Agile software development, the broad outlines of the project are known, along with the goals and objectives. The detail and the pieces that are built at any given time, however, are done as the project moves along. This allows for flexibility in design and is intended to help deliver high quality working software without the limitations posed by traditional “waterfall” development in which the entire project is scoped before you start.

You might use both an incremental and an iterative approach within the framework of Agile development. Here’s how they differ:

  • In the incremental approach you build what you want a detailed piece at a time, connecting the completed pieces together.
  • In the iterative approach you know the general outline of what you want to do and you sort out and adapt the detail as you go. You start out expecting to make changes.

A good analogy, put together by Jeff Patton in his Agile Product Design Blog, is to think about painting the Mona Lisa.

If you were going to paint the Mona Lisa incrementally you’d complete detailed sections of the painting, adding blocks of completed work as you went along. To do this you’d have to know what you wanted to do in each increment, including what detail was going into the painting and how the blocks were going to fit together (I’m pretty sure this wasn’t how Leonardo da Vinci worked, but bear with me for the sake of the illustration).

If you were going to paint her iteratively you’d start out painting an outline of a Renaissance woman in a summer landscape, bare hands in the foreground. You’d put the details together along the way, and you’d figure out as you went if they were working or not. If you decided later that you wanted to set the painting in winter you could start roughing in the snow and put gloves on her hands.

In the incremental approach you would already have completed part of the painting as a summer scene and it would take much more work to redo. You might even have to start over. Or you could just go nuts with frustration and scribble over her hands like the Monty Python spoof in the Papperbok (or was it the Big Red Book?).

Anyway, it’s not a perfect analogy but an iterative approach to writing allows for the plot details and other elements to evolve as you go. A carefully scripted and meticulously planned story that is written incrementally is, in my view, more difficult to change later.

My current case in point – a near-future London crime story called Dark Streets that I’m finishing up – started life several years ago as a series of short stories. My original template was Michael G. Coney’s Friends Come In Boxes, a book of interconnected short stories written in the 70’s. Coney’s book is a thought-provoking collection that uses the short story form to take a look at an idea from various different angles.

As I wrote the characters and the individual stories for Dark Streets I saw a way that they could be combined into one novel-length narrative. My approach to writing – jumping from one story to another as the mood took me – meant that I hadn’t worked out all the details of each story ahead of time. It allowed me to rework them into connected chapters as part of  a longer tale with multiple threads.

I found it liberating to work with the expectation that I’d have to make changes later. Now I was making mistakes on purpose! It didn’t have to be fully thought through or perfectly done the first time around. If I had the framework and the characters and the rough plot, that was enough.

Now, it is more effort, and if you write in a carefully thought out and structured way you might find appalling the idea of the additional rework. The bottom line is that it works for me, and finding a conceptual framework that fits my natural style makes me at least feel more organized, even if the reality may be that I’m just as undisciplined as ever.

Why Self-publish? Why Do Anything Else?

Self-publishing is big news at the moment, and with good reason.

The changes that have taken place over the last decade, and especially in the last year, have made the act of self-publishing almost free. The tools that are available – again at essentially no cost – allow individual writers to publish and make their work available in forms that look just as professional as established publishing companies.

With hard work, an ounce or two of common sense, and the ability to write something worth reading, anyone can reach out into the world and see if there’s an audience for what they have to say.

For me personally it’s become the answer to all the excuses I’ve used over the years to not complete and polish my writing to a level where it might be worthwhile for someone else to read it.

If there was ever any doubt in my mind that we are really at the tipping point of the gathering revolution in publishing, it’s a couple of pieces posted online in the last month.

Both are by Hugh Howey, the current big story on self-publishing success. I can’t frame it any better than he has, so I encourage you to take a few minutes and read his Advice To Aspiring Authors on his blog, and a piece published today in Salon: Self Publishing Is The Future And Great For Aspiring Authors.

The latter is such patent common sense that it can’t fail to attract pages of indignant commentary.

Dystopias – the future is being written

Dark Streets and Shadow Paths? Ok, so it’s not the happiest title in the world for a blog, and it’s all a bit probably-going-to-rain. This isn’t intended to be a Gloomy Patch of the Hundred Acre Wood but it is intended to be a place that looks at the future with a skeptical eye, and the streets of London, a place I know well, seemed like a good place to start if I wanted to contemplate a dystopic future.

Why dystopias in the first place? Well, I’ve always found them attractive. There’s something oddly compelling about the way they take our present concerns or worst imaginings and project them on to a usually-not-so-distant future.  Of course, I’m not alone in this. You only have to look at the success of so much recent popular fiction in this genre. ‘The Hunger Games’ and now the new bestseller ‘Wool‘, both deal with hyperbolically unattractive futures in which entire populations are living in a world of many external controls and few personal options.

I think they’re attractive to readers because future dystopias are a way of seeing the present in extremis, and they are particularly appealing during times of rapid and significant social and cultural change. They allow us to look at the worries of today and think about the consequences that we may have to live with tomorrow. They give us a place to voice our concerns about the future that we may inherit.

And why is that future always so gloomy? It is almost a sine qua non of fiction about future societies that it be dark and gloomy. Otherwise, where’s the entertainment value? The only people who write about the future as a brighter, happier place are company CEO’s and politicians, and we all know how much fun it is to read company prospectuses and political speeches. And so, Dark Streets, it is.

My own views on the future are coloured by the rapid advances in technology that we are seeing, many of them made in the last couple of decades. Like many of my generation I am living in a period when much of the technology that existed before I was born and that I grew up with has become obsolete. More than that, we are living in a period when technologies appear for the first time and become obsolete in the space of years. It is the societal impact of those technologies that interests me, and the possible future paths that are already being charted.

So what do my future dystopias look like? They have varied shapes., but the first one that I’ll be self-publishing is a short story about a world of information and prediction, of what can happen when the entire population of the planet is fully connected and everything that can be known about that population is known.

As well as that, I’m close to completing the umpteenth redraft of a novel-length story of London in the near future. It started as a collection of short stories, and evolved into a more complete story almost by accident, but the city was always the focus.

In a comment attributed to William Gibson he is reported to have said: “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed”. If he did indeed say that, he’s right, and the place where it is most concentrated and where it first comes out of the shadows is in the city.