BATTLE PLAN Part Four: Implementing Your Plan

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Hi all! Today we embark on Part Four of my four part post series based on my experience with military planning called Conquering the Page: Creating Your Own Fiction Writer's Battle Plan.

In Part One, the Drill Sergeant yelled at us for a few minutes, gave us the overview and an inspirational movie. Part Two kicked off the process of defining your writing mission and identifying associated goals. Part Three assisted us in identifying all the other associated writing tasks that will be part of the Battle Plan--BP for short--and also helped each of us decide if we were a General of a Foot Soldier.

As we embark on Part Four, here's what you'll need:

1) Your writing goals (up to three).
2) Your BP worksheet with writing tasks divided into strategic or tactical level categories.
3) A calendar or scheduling program (like MS Outlook or Google Calendar)--a paper calendar works fine too--your preference.

Building Your Battle Plan.  The question before us is this: how do we take the writing task list we've already created and convert it to a BP?

The answer relates to one ingredient in our writing process we have not yet discussed: time.  Time is such a critical part of a BP--in fact it is the one ingredient that makes a task list into a plan--that I now give you not one, not two, but three quotes on time to get us started (you know I love those quotes):
"You may delay, but time will not."    ~~Benjamin Franklin
"Time is what keeps everything from happening at once."    ~~John Archibald Wheeler
"Time is an equal opportunity employer.  Each human being has exactly the same number of hours and minutes every day.  Rich people can't buy more hours.  Scientists can't invent new minutes.  And you can't save time to spend it on another day."    ~~Denis Waitely
Time is the only element of the BP that is not negotiable.  Each of us gets no more or less per day than any other, so a big part of devising the BP is choosing the best use of our hours, days and weeks to accomplish goals in a way that fits our lifestyle.


The single worst enemy of your writing is real life--all the other things you have to do on a daily basis that decrease the time you available to perfect your craft.  It is therefore extremely important to understand how long the different tasks in our writing routine take; how long do I need to draft a query letter?  How much time should I spend commenting on blogs?  The road to publishing is made up of tens, maybe hundreds of smaller tasks, and organizing these tasks in a meaningful way will make the trip more efficient and less stressful.  Thus, the next step in constructing a BP is to arrange writing tasks over time in an organized way to best meet our writing goals.

Time Budgeting.  If you're like me, your list of writing tasks is extremely long--so long, in fact, that it should be pretty obvious at first blush that you can't do them all at the same time--or even during the same week.  The trick then is to come up with a way to organize all these varied activities over time.

The first step is to work out some time budgeting.  This process is a lot like balancing the checkbook or calorie counting for you fitness gurus out there.  Take a look at your list of tactical tasks.  For each task on our list, estimate the amount of time you believe you'll need to accomplish it, then write that number down beside your task.  You might write "read 25 pages of fiction--30 minutes".  Keep it simple: fifteen minute increments should work fine.  

Some of your tasks will be easy to budget.  You probably have a pretty good idea how long 500 words of first draft writing takes, for example.  Others may be more difficult, like plotting and scene development.  Jot down your best guess.  If you think it takes you six hours to develop a query letter, then so be it.   As you sketch out these times, don't get hung up on getting it exactly right.  Remember, a good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow.  We'll talk later about how to refine these numbers.

Stages.  Once you've assigned times to your tactical level tasks, the next step is to begin to organize them into a schedule on a calendar.  As I said before, you likely can't do all the tasks in the same day or same week even, so we need to begin to focus our efforts on the tasks that need doing now in a way that makes sense.

Here's where your strategic tasks and your goals become important.  Ask yourself: "Where am I in my writing process?"  I'll use myself as an example.  I am currently in the skills development stage (I recently came of a multi-year hiatus from writing), and my plan calls for starting the initial draft of a first novel in April.  You could look at the two periods I've described ("skills development" and "first draft development") as stages, and when you do that, you can see that certain tactical level tasks immediately align with the stages in question, and other tasks don't belong.

So, during my skills development stage (note: this is what I am calling the stage.  Name your stages in a way that works for you), I am doing a lot of fiction reading for craft, reading how-to books, conducting fiction exercises, etc.  Other tasks such a query letter development and plotting and scene development don't really fit this stage--so I do not currently do them, but I will put them into future stages when their accomplishment is appropriate.

In this way, we can identify the tasks we should be working on now and those we will accomplish at a later date.  Once we've identified the "now" tasks, and since we know how long each task should take, we can begin to fit them into our days and weeks in a common sense way. 

Think of it like an assembly line for a tank or jeep.  Certain of the parts have a set manufacturing time.  Once the manufacturing is complete, then they must be shipped to the construction site, which also takes time.  Then the parts need to be bolted and welded together, until we have the basic chassis sitting there in front of us.  Slap on a coat of paint.  Fuel her up.  Provide ammo and food supplies for her crew.  Take her for a test drive.  Tweak her until she's running like a Swiss watch.  All these processes take time, and they have to be done in a certain order--can't start painting right off the bat, for example.

Only after putting our writing tasks in proper order and after summing the time required for each activity together will we know the total investment in time needed before we can be published.   

Homework.  Here's where we get down to brass tacks: actually building your BP.  Today we'll set up the general structure; Parts Five and Six will discuss the process of judging how well our BP works. 

For starters, today we're only going to worry about two stages--the one you're in and the one that comes next; eventually you'll want to build the plan as far out into the future as you can manage, with as many stages as you require to reach your most distant goals.  Here's what you do:
  • Get out a piece of paper (or do it on the computer if you prefer) and make two headings: one for the stage that you think you're in, and one for the next stage.
  • Under the current stage heading, copy down all the tasks you believe apply to that stage, with associated times.
  • Do the same for the next stage.
  • Now break out your calendar (or calendar program--I use Google Calendar) and start placing tasks as necessary for each day and week.  Do this for all activities until complete.
  • So, for example, if we want to write a 100,000 word first draft and we write 500 words an hour, then it will take us 200 hours to complete.  If we are able to write two hours a day, six days a week, then we should be able to complete a first draft in a little less than 17 weeks, or around four months.  So we would place a two hour block on our calendar for each of our writing days until we cover the allotted time.  Next, we'd pencil in time for research, for example.
  • As an aside, it is also helpful to put many of our other routine non-writing tasks on the Calendar which allows us to see the various time conflicts we have in our schedule.  If we have to make an early morning run to the airport and we write in the mornings, for example, we will have to move our writing slot or account for the lost production.  Keeping track of how our schedule conforms to reality will be extremely important when we discuss improvising and assessing our BP in the last two posts.
  • Once you've done that for each of your tasks you can begin to get a feel for when this stage will end and when the next stage will begin.  Using the above example, if the first draft writing was the longest task in terms of calendar time, then one could begin to think about the next stage (revising, for example) in about four months.
  • Also, if you begin to plug all your tasks in over the week, you can see that it can fill up pretty quick.  This is why I compare this process to balancing a checkbook.  You will likely have a sense of "where do I get the time I need to do all this stuff?"  This is when you need to get creative.  Maybe one kind of task gets done on Mondays.  Maybe we accomplish a different task the next day.  Maybe what you build is more like a two week cycle than a one week cycle--keep playing with it until you figure out what looks right for you.  The key is to schedule all current stage tasks and then reach some conclusions about how long it will take in daily, weekly, and monthly time to get to the next gate.
  • After you've completed this process for the current stage, take a walk through the next stage as well.
Once you're done, give yourself a round of applause.  You now have a true BP in your hands and, I hope, some sense of how your writing process will go in the future.  But our work isn't done yet.  Next week, we'll discuss how to manage the plan "in the wild" once you've built it--these last two posts will perhaps be most critical to the future success of your BP. 

Next Wednesday will be Part Five: Improvising For Battle Plan Success.  Make sure to check back, and thanks for stopping by.

8 bolts from the blue:

Dolly said...

Great post. I started something akin to battleplan yesterday. Finally got fed up of procrastinating and fumbling over editing that a new battle plan is in place, with targets and all :-)

insidethewritersstudio said...

What an interesting approach. I wonder if my husband (Army pilot) would come up with something like this if he were a writer...

Jon Paul said...

Dolly--That's great news! I am still constantly amazed at how having a plan helps keep the stress at a manageable level.

Writersstudio--Most of this comes from the (far too many!) staff tours I've done--and the military planning process. Frankly I would rather have been flying a helicopter than a desk, but what's that old saying about "when life gives you lemons...?"

Thanks guys for stopping by and commenting.

Liza said...

Hey JP. Can't say I've designed a formal plan, but as a result of these posts, I identified my goal, and have started implementing the steps I need to get there. Thank you.

Travener said...

Please tell me you're not mapping anything out in Pentagonese-PowerPoint.

Christine H said...

I find any sort of plan impossible to follow. If you can make it work for you, Kudos!!! I was going to get a lot done during Spring Break, and came down with a virus/tonsillitis which made me totally exhausted. Plus I had to take an antibiotic every six hours so that ruined my sleep. I spent my days guzzling caffeine and trying desperately to just do the minimum family tasks. Writing was out of the question.

The only way I can get work done is just to be flexible, and trust that if the Creator means for me to finish my book, He'll help me find the time in my days.

It just never fails that something happens... the dog gets out and has to be chased through the neighborhood, a dog or child throws up, etc.
I find that although fifteen minutes might be okay later in the revising process, it takes a good twenty minutes for me just to be able to really "get into the groove" when working on a first or second draft. So I need at least forty minutes to get even a few hundred good words out. Otherwise, I'd be better washing the dishes or something else constructive.

But I really take my hat off to all of you who can make this kind of structured thing work.

I really liked the drill sargeant. I miss him! I need him to help me get off my butt and exercise. Can I rent him?

Jon Paul said...

Liza--Good to hear! Happy you're moving forward.

Travener--Dude! You totally stole my plan--and the other critical ingredient that I hadn't talked about yet: the power in Powerpoint!

Seriously.

OK. Not seriously. :D

Christine--Yeah, I run into that as well. This whole return from Iraq thing has not gone as I thought it might, but I've still managed to be productive.

Stick around for Parts Five and Six because this very problem is exactly what we're going to tackle.

Thanks all for reading and for commenting!

Mrs. Hardy said...

It's kind of like fighting a war within a war, isn't it?

- Christine H. (this is my teacher alias)

Waddaya wanna say?

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