Outlining Using Agile

Bear with me, peeps.

I realize that writerly types might not be familiar with Agile Software Development.

And I realize that software types might take offense at my attempt to apply their iterative software development methodology to creative writing.

But I’ve been thinking a lot about the benefits of outlining, while realizing that I’m not very (*cough*) good at outlining. Recent events that brought me to this realization:

  • Reading a critique partner’s detailed 10-page outline. The novel was already written, but needed revisions. My reaction to reading this outline: Wow. Now that you have this, writing in all these changes is going to be easy.
  • Attending Claudia Gabel’s amazing lecture on plot at the Novel Writing Retreat at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her example outline (also approximately 10 pages) took us through the three-act novel structure. She advised that we don’t think of the outline as a prison, and reminded us that things will certainly change along the way as we begin to write.
  • Getting some very helpful feedback on a full WIP that still needs some work on the overall character arc and plot. My conclusion: a detailed outline at this stage will keep the big picture in mind before I begin to get bogged down in the details of revision.

So what does all of this have to do with Agile Development?

I know that I personally would not be able to write a juicy, detailed outline just from my original idea. This got me to thinking about Agile, and how I could borrow some of its principles and apply them to outlining:

  • Agile is iterative. It’s not set in stone. Things can change. (*sigh of relief*)
    • For me, this means I start with a “straw man,” a very rough outline. I use the 9-point-plotting technique found on my friend Cyn’s blog: http://cynjay.blogspot.com/2009/02/how-to-write-book.html
    • This also means that with each major milestone (completion of first draft, feedback from beta readers etc.) the original skeleton should be changed and beefed up!
  • Release often. My release cycles look like this:
    • Run idea and 9-step outline by critique group and begin writing.
    • Send chapters to critique partners. First chapters will probably receive multiple rounds of feedback.
    • (Keep updating outline along the way.)
    • Keep writing until draft is complete.
    • (First draft of detailed outline.)
    • Send full draft out for critique.
    • (Update detailed outline.)
    • Major revisions.
    • Send manuscript out to beta readers.
    • (Update detailed outline.)
    • *Final* revisions.
  • Hold daily scrums! As a writer, daily meetings are probably with yourself (or a critique partner if you’re lucky), but I find it’s really important to at least check in with my manuscript every day.
  • Responding to change. What I love about Agile is that if something’s not working, that’s OK. Throw it out. Change it. Embrace change!

I’m about to put this whole outlining plan into action with these WIP revisions I have coming up in April. Anyone else want to give it a go? I’d love to hear reports on if this works for others too!

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5 responses to “Outlining Using Agile

  1. Interesting idea! I really like your suggestion of using the scrum method with your manuscript; I can see that being a useful way of keeping your head in the project even if you don’t have time to physically work on it. Good luck with it!

  2. Great revision walk-through. I end up doing all the major revisions before beta b/c usually the obvious rewrites really stick out at me. And I want to make sure betas can actually follow the storyline!

  3. Haha, good point, Laura! Unfortunately for me, my betas have been coming up with good stuff I missed from having been immersed in the ms! But that’s great if you can come back from betas without huge revisions to do!!

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