Applying a development methodology to storytelling
I write software. I have been a developer on games, databases, distributed queues, web browsers/servers, proxies, voice over ip clients/servers, VNC clients, and even a search engine. However, in my spare time, I write stories.
With both my books, I followed some of the principles of the Agile development process:
- Maintaining working a copy. From day one, I started with a one page summary of the story, and then, rather than start at chapter one and write to the end, I wrote sketches of each chapter all the way to the end. When I say "sketch", I don't mean that I pulled out Crayons. I wrote brief summaries for each chapter that summed up the action, the motivations, and the plot. Then each pass through the manuscript, I would flesh each of those sketches out more. At any point, you could read my story from start to finish and know what was going to happen. Were each of the half-dozen phases as dramatic, funny, or exciting as the final product? No. However, it was complete and told a story.
- Iterate. I chose short two week periods that I set goals for myself on what I would accomplish on the story. Early on, I designed the characters with their motives, yearnings, codes of conduct, and for major characters I established what dilema they would face. Each iteration, I fleshed out different aspects of the story and brought it closer to completion.
- Simplicity. Rather than focus on every possible detail of universe building, I waited to sketch out details until I needed them. I keep spreadsheets and documents with nothing but these universe building details, however I didn't write up anything that I didn't have to use for the current story. Not really the Tolkien way, I'll admit.
- Focus on the customer. With every chapter, I try to pay attention to the entertainment value of the story. Is it funny when it needs to be funny? Sad when it needs to be sad? Exciting? Engaging? I happen to be my first and most critical customer, so the story has to entertain me. I know that I can't please everybody, but I try to be consistent with my work so that people who found my first book entertaining will find my second equally enjoyable.
- Share with the customer. I selected beta readers and let them see the story in its form starting with the first draft that was rich enough to resemble the final product. This was around 45,000 words. The final product, after iterating through, is more than 70,000 words. This aspect of the process was probably not ideal. Stories take a long time to read and tales that resemble sketches lack the same entertainment value that a finished product will have. I'm not certain how I will address this in the future, but I see it as a weakness in my process.
I would say that, with the exception of utilizing beta readers too early in the process, I think that the process has been successful for me. I'm going to continue to refine how I write. I think the strength of starting with a working story and iterating over it to refine a finish product reduces the risk of making major mistakes that require rewriting the whole manuscript. I think the disadvantage is that you have to know when to call it done because you could spend your whole life polishing.