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« Competition Report - 1 | Main | All in the Mind? »

Time for another Competition

Time for another competition, I think.

The question is:

“In SuperFocus, how would you handle the project of writing an historical novel and getting it published?”

Assume you are already established as an historical novelist.

Same rules as before:

1) Answers in the Comments to this post

2) All answers will be removed on an ongoing basis, except for the best five.

3) The competition will go on for as long as the judge (me) feels like it.

4) The best answer will be published as a guest blog post.

5) The judge’s decision is final.

Reader Comments (5)

I think I'll have a go at this seeing only one persons so far made any attempt to answer the question. Mark you can leave this bit out when you make it the winning entry on the blog ha ha.

So the question is how to handle the project of writing an historical novel and getting it published. I dont think Mark wastes words so I guess all the bits of that are significant. Theres two main bits, writing it and getting it published. Marks made it clear that youve already got established so getting it published wont include finding an agent and publisher. Youve already got those so all you have to do is write a proposal and perhaps a specimen chapter.

But why did he say historical novel? I guess its because a historical novel requires research. At least it would if I wrote it because I know nothing about history but even if I did I think Id need to research it a lot because you need all the period detail and everything because otherewise youll get all the so so clever people writing in and complaining that Julius Cesar woulnt of used that type of sword or whatever.

So theres three big projects here which need to be controlled. Researching, Writing a Proposal and Writing the Book itself. But you wouldnt write the book itself until youd got a contract and the research would go on all the time Id think.

So Id start off with researching. Thats a long continuous project but Id keep it in column 1 for overview and have a task list in evernote or something to keep track of all the little things Id want to research, like J. Cesars sword. Those could all be separate tasks.

Then writing the proposal would need some concentrated effort and so Id keep it in Column 2 and really get a move on with writing it because everything depends on it, and of course there'd be lots of small tasks like arrnaging lunch with my agent to discuss my masterpiece. Oh Meryl that sounds so wonderful, you are such a genius, etc etc.

Finally once Id got all that sorted out Id have a contract and a deadline (and hopefully an advance with lots of zeros in it, I should be so lucky). So Ive got to keep myself working. I can do that by working every day at the same time which wouldnt use SF of course, or I could make it a column 2 taks, but I think I wouldn't put the whole book in column 2 but break it down intdo smaller tasks. Thered be a lot of plotting and stuff as well as the writing and I expect Id need to rewrite everything hundreds of times not literally hundreds of course.

So thats my answer. Wheres the prize?
March 18, 2011 at 23:46 | Registered CommenterMeryl
Let's say the novel I'm writing is about Shakespeare. My implementation would separate the fiction chores from the research chores from the selling/marketing chores (and any other chores that might arise).

I would rely on a calendar to prompt me to write the fiction. For most other tasks, I could use SF.

First, I'd probably start a separate notebook or file to hold all my notes and reference material on characters, scenes, etc that bubble up in my imagination about the novel.

Then, I'd set aside a specific time period daily in my calendar to work on the fiction side of the novel. This would become, in the parlance of "Do It Tomorrow," the "current initiative." This is where I wrestle with character, motivation, plot, dialogue, etc.

Which comes first, the research or the story? Since I'm an establishing historical novelist, let's say I already know certain basics: what was the typical food/drink during the Elizabethan era, how big were the rooms, how heavy or scratchy were the clothes, how were the theatrical companies organized, what were the political crises boiling during that time? But I may need to know more about certain specifics that I didn't need to know in my previous novels. Those questions are great SF Column 1 tasks -- as I research them and find the answers, I note them in my project file.

Any research questions that never get answered may prove to be just hard questions, or ill-defined, or maybe even unimportant given how the story is progressing. SF's dismissal rules would force me to confront these issues and get clarity on them.

SF would become the perfect place to remind me to check whether the library has this or that book or article, so I could answer these questions.

I'd probably set myself a time period to do the background research and reading, and then set a start date to begin actually writing scenes, outlining, etc. I would not put this into SF per se; I find greater comfort in allotting time in the calendar to do this work.

However, during the writing, research questions would inevitably pop up: What would Shakespeare have eaten for Christmas dinner? Did they even celebrate Christmas in his time? Would there have been occasions where he and Christopher Marlowe would have been seen together at the same time in the same place? These become critical questions that would go into the C1 column as I was writing the scene. (Actually, I'd probably just write the questions IN ALL CAPS in the middle of the scene so as not to interrupt my writing flow. I'd then go back after my writing session to transcribe these questions into SF.)

Or, if the matter was urgent enough, I would write the question into Column 2, as subsequent scenes may hinge on the research I dig up. If the question is big and important enough, then continual work on the problem via C2 rules would bring some kind of closure.

So, I would suggest using SF as a way to track research tasks related to the story's background and setting, but I'd trust the actual writing of scenes to my calendar. Researching and writing would happen alongside each other. I could, I suppose, include a recurring C2 task as "Write for 2 hours," but I believe that sort of commitment belongs outside of SF.

SF could also be a place to hold the housekeeping notes related to the project -- print out 50 pages for the next writers group meeting, send current draft to my first readers, etc. Also, the business of marketing and selling the novel would be ideal for SF: such tasks as research agents, draft proposal letters, research ebook formats, contacting bookstores to set up readings, etc. I could write all these tasks down as I think of them, but trust my intuition to let me know when they're ready to be worked. They may have to be dismissed if they arise too early in the process; that's OK, they can always be reviewed and rescued later.

Meanwhile, engaged in the years of slogging needed to write such an important book, I would use SF to handle all of the other tasks that need to be tracked and completed in my life alongside the novel -- balance the checkbook, vacuum the house, call Mom, buy birthday card, etc. These will take on various levels of importance or urgency, as they always do even when not writing a blockbuster historical pot-boiler.

Another way of doing this same work would be to include a subset of novel-specific tasks in my project file, in SF format, with my primary SF notebook simply holding pointers to the file, such as "Novel research?" or "Start novel edit on March 3?". Or even just "Novel," and that would send me to my project file for my SF tasklist waiting for me to attack it.
March 20, 2011 at 2:10 | Registered CommenterMike Brown
Writing a historical novel would pose a challenge to any time or project management system. It requires dedicated and continuous work for six months to a year; it requires at least three sub projects—research, writing and publication—which have to be tackled more or less in parallel but which also have dependencies I have meet; it requires focus and doesn't work well, when you have other things on your mind. The common wisdom is to set aside a couple of hours each day for a project like this, effectively moving it outside your usual time management system. We could also keep the project as an unfinished task in Superfocus, ensuring continuous work and switching to our project task list whenever we work on »finish novel«. But what about a tighter integration with the system? What difficulties would arise and what potential benefits could we gain?

Let us say I am already established as author for historical novels. The abstract time-line is clear: I want a contract for the book first, then I research, then writing, finally revisions and participation in the publishing process. In practice, the phases are less clearly separated. Obviously I want some ideas before I call my agent (or write to the publisher), preferably an outline, an abstract and maybe even the first chapter. Research is a notoriously time-eating enterprise. I have to start writing soon or I can get stuck in research forever. On the other hand, often it is the process of writing that tells me what I have to research. Also, I do not what to keep the revisions to the very last, as reading (and revising) what I wrote the previous day helps me to ease into writing itself. Writing paragraphs and even chapters are not independent tasks, they depend on each others and I have to keep track of what I have already written. I need an outline to guide my research and an even more detailed outline if I want to finish the novel in a reasonable time-frame. Finally, I do want to keep in touch with the publisher; nothing is worse than an impeding deadline by an anonymous institution.

Writing a historical novel is a complex undertaking. We have to consider carefully what to put into Superfocus, when to put it in and how to phrase the task. Superfocus distinguishes between normal tasks in the left column and urgent/unfinished tasks in the right column, where urgent means more or less »right now«. Normal tasks wait for them to stand out. This can take time, so we want to have rather large chunks as unfinished tasks in the right column. As long as a task is unfinished we have to work on it regularly, usually several times a day. But grinding away on a never ending task is unsatisfying, so we'd like each chunk to take no longer than one or two weeks. We also do not want more than one unfinished novel-related task in the right column. Not only would that slow down completion, it would also distract us. Writing is a creative undertaking and it should occupy our mind even when we are not physically writing. There is only one thing you can think about when you first wake up, when you take a shower or when you go for a walk. We want to be very prejudiced on what that is. While we are writing our novel, we want to get anything else out of our way. That means any opportunity to dismiss should not be feared but embraced any any task brought to the right column as unfinished should be carefully considered (we should only finish the bare minimum). No doubt, some project planning is required outside Superfocus. This is only to be expected. As long as we use Superfocus with prejudice, as long as we do not overload Superfocus with other major projects, we should be find. As long as we always keep one novel related sub project unfinished, the dismissal process should purge anything non-essential. There will be lots of tasks that are not time critical and can be put into the left column: many of the organisational tasks, some research, some writing ideas. Some of them will get dismissed. No harm there, no novel will be perfect and you might always have tried to do too much at once. Superfocus will teach you a sustainable pace.

So far so good. While the early morning writing session ensures that you find time to write every day, keeping writing as an unfinished task in Superfocus should do the same. You will need to spend large blocks of time on your writing. You cannot write a novel or any kind of longer text ten minutes a time. Superfocus cannot make you do that—and in fact it encourages a »little and often« approach. Even that can work, if you intersperse writing with watering your plants or starting the dish washer. But you don’t want even to think about doing your taxes or answering that obnoxious e-mail. We can use Superfocus, but we also have to bend it a little. We have to make novel-related tasks »stand out« in the morning and other tasks that we want to get out of our way in the afternoon.

So why use Superfocus at all? Setting aside time for one's main project works. If you spend, say, four hours every morning on your project, you will finish it. You might want, however, to stick with Superfocus for a couple of reasons. First of all, if it worked for you previously; never change something that works. Secondly, because you might not have four hours available each morning. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, because the fact that simply throwing your project at Superfocus might not work can be a good thing. You have to think about how you handle your tasks and how to make work what is important for you work. No »system« can do that for you. Superfocus is a constraint. When writing, one fear is nothingness: the empty page. The other is infinity: all you could possibly write and research. Any system that limits the infinity and provides clear instructions for the next step will be helpful.

Writing a historical novel provides lots of challenges I have not even touched. In fact, little is specific to historical novels. Pretty much the same would apply to any other kind of novel, a dissertation, a monograph, even an article for a journal. And not only writing: preparing a class, re-evaluating your scholarly base or giving a talk pose the same questions. So do practical problems: Building your own boat would require research, building and tackling legal/organisational matters. If you have troubles pursuing your project, simply filling two columns in a notebook Superfocus-style will unlikely be the solution. But it can provide you with instant feedback on what is working and what is not. Only Superfocus? Of course not. But don't waste time searching for the perfect system. Don't think about that. Think about your novel.
March 21, 2011 at 21:13 | Unregistered CommenterOlaf B
Using SuperFocus to Write an Historical Novel

[I have taken perhaps an unorthodox approach, focusing on my relationship with the project rather than the pure mechanics of writing tasks in SuperFocus' columns. I narrate how this relationship pulls the project along and drives the SuperFocus mechanics, because I personally find this to be the missing link, the hard part, the part that gives rise to our forum threads. SuperFocus' bare mechanics are nearly trivial, with any subtleties hiding beneath the deceptively simple terms "urgent" and "unfinished," and in the way one's other systems support (or fail to support) our two columns. I hope you find this approach sufficiently interesting to put up with all the extra words, as editing for length is not one of my top skills, or even one of my bottom skills. ;->]

Day One

Now I've done it. I've gone and read a bit on mathematics in the ancient world—for sheer curiosity—and I cannot stop thinking about them: the mystical Pythagoras, the hapless Hippasus, and an entire cult of bean-fearing number worshippers crazed enough to kill—or at least to consider it—for the square root of two.

But that's just the beginning. As math develops, for thousands of years, the delirium never ceases. We have deep mysticism, political strife, high-stakes conspiracy, even heresy! And all in the name of ... Math? Isn't math supposed to be cut and dried? Learn the system, get the answer; follow the logic, reach the proof? No, really not. Not at all.

I wish more people appreciated this. Certainly, it ought to change the way we teach our children. I've always thought math was taught completely backwards in school; all tools and process and memorizing before you even know what anything *really* means, and by the time it gets good, most students are so lost and bored that they've quit the topic. But it's no good just talking about the square root of two—what is that anyway? People won't listen unless it engages them. Unless, unless ...

Unless there's a story to it!

Day Two

SuperFocus Column One ("C1"): "Pythagorean cult story."

Day Three

Traversing SuperFocus pages as usual, doing odds and ends and finishing a few projects in C2. I pass "Pythagorean cult story" several times. It does not even remotely stand out—so big, so unknown, so possibly stupid. So curious. I think about it all day.

Days Four, Five, Six


Day Seven

Pythagoras is under my thumb. There he is in C1 right now, and as my thumb sweeps over, he and his cult have stood out. I am excited! All yesterday, I wanted this to happen, but it just wouldn't. Such a choppy, reactive day, never that feeling of safety to settle down and think speculative thoughts. The turning point was that final phone call to the insurance company about the declined credit card (funny how much that family booking to Mexico ate through the credit limit) and their rule about lapsed premiums; with that licked for good, C1 suddenly felt downright peaceful.

I take out my favorite clipboard and fountain pen, and I think for a long time without writing anything.

Day Eight

Pythagoras is in C2 this morning, the aftermath of yesterday's silent brainstorm. After crossing him out last night, I could have written him at the end of C1 again, but my C2 had only a few very little items in it, minor reactive loose ends. In fact, its lack of a big project may have been the very reason Pythagoras stood out. Now he stands out again, and I am thinking that I had a dream last night in which he played the electric guitar while crazy fans tried to throw themselves on stage.

My new file folder labeled "Pythagoras" is in the rack on my desk. I filed it in the front of the rack, because that's where I file everything. Since the rack was nearly full, I removed the two files that had "bubbled" their way to the back—the two that hadn't been touched for the longest—and returned them to the filing cabinet. One file in, two files out: it keeps me ahead of the game.

In the file is my blank piece of paper. It goes onto the clipboard, and this time I write immediately. I jot notes and draw stick figures, scribble mind maps and list Greek names. I write lots of questions and only a few answers. What sort of girl would Hippasus go out with?

Then with horror, I realize it has been three hours. Panicked, I take emergency action: check my watch against my "today list," remind myself how long I have before my son's lacrosse practice, gauge the rest of C2 plus the day's exercise routine—and am I cooking tonight? But thank goodness, it is still the same easy day that greeted me three hours ago, and it's only 11 am.

Sufficiently jolted for now, I cross Pythagoras out of C2. This has been a very auspicious start, and I don't think I have an obvious next step right now, as additional brainstorms threaten to become more storm than brain. Pythagoras moves into C1 again on a crisp, mostly empty page, beneath "cats getting fat?"

Moving Along

The "wild idea" phase continues in a series of sprints. Each sprint begins when Pythagoras rises up from C1, and that folder comes back out. I generate more and more pages, and the story's embryo acquires a little nesting spot in my mind, where it continues to grow and kick even when I am downloading bank statements or teaching my son to put wax on his braces. Some of these sprints begin and end in C1, but other times, when I am forced to stop early despite solid momentum and throngs of buzzing thoughts, I push Pythagoras into C2, where he may sprint along for another page or two or three before resting again in C1.

As for other projects and tasks, I have learned to rotate them through C2 so as to work "little and often" on a single featured project at a time, using something like Mark Forster's "current initiative" but letting C2 direct exactly when it will get worked on. A several-day project may be permitted to monopolize C2 for its entire lifespan, but if it is going to take much longer, it will need to let other projects move along too. I keep a "top project" list, something like Mark Forster's "3T" method, reminding me of those priorities and giving me a visual place to reshuffle them as necessary—but as I am not committed to working on all of them *right now*, these reminders do not live in C2. For now, Pythagoras does not tend to be on the "top project" list, because he is standing out just fine in C1 and provides a welcome break from such things as my income tax return.

The Plot Thickens

It has been a few weeks, and as I pick up that folder, I discover that my story has developed a plot, and I have developed specific attitudes toward most of the characters. My folder has become quite structured, with sticky notes functioning as section tabs at the edges of pages, and I am spending more and more time searching for certain thoughts and phrases when I want to add a detail. Red question marks pepper my pages, and each one creates a small pang such as, "Ugh, I still need to research that, before I can commit to this scene where he makes an escape tether out of her dress ..."

There is no denying it: I now have a "project."

C1 receives a new task: "Pythagoras - make binder, go digital." On its first few standouts, I do tiny things like finding a spare three-ring binder or creating a computer folder called "Pythagoras story." Later, I find myself envisioning processes that feel like must-finish chunks, such as finding all my red question marks and entering them on a task list in my computer. These chunky processes go into C2 whenever I must pause in the middle. Otherwise, each joins C1 as I think of them, if they are ready to be done any time now. Some of my tasks are for later, after certain things have fallen into place, and I enter them into the computer task list instead of SuperFocus. And Pythagoras now enjoys a spot on my "top project" list.

Naturally, C1 also carries "review Pythag proj lists, add to SF." This task tends to stand out when my project feels ragged or lacking direction. It is normally done and reentered after a single half-hour session, but sometimes the binder and computer files feel like a bog of outdated information, or I feel I ought to refactor a few categories, etc., or I simply scapegoat the project folder for my lack of creative progress. In those cases, my project planning goes into C2—and bumps a "top project" item—until I feel like I have finished a meaningful chunk of work on it.

The Hustle

The day comes when I have enough to contact my favorite publisher. I always dread this part, even though I now have a personal contact who encourages my email anytime about anything. We're on a first-name basis, but I have no idea whether he hates math. I am pretty sure he appreciates time travel and sex, though, so maybe he won't mind that an ancient time-traveling cult is not 100% historical, or that I have had to entirely invent Hippasus' sex life. Worst case, I remind myself, there are other publishers.

Writing up my proposal proves stunningly difficult, which is stunningly typical for me, even at this stage of my career. I second-guess myself like a fourteen-year-old, generate seven different versions of my pitch, and I *cannot* keep the cover letter to one page! SuperFocus feels at once a necessity and a nuisance, like a hammer with which I keep banging my thumb. C1 gives me new life when I am flagging from overexposure to the process, yet I begin to use it to avoid things that are only halfway done and really needed to keep up their momentum. C2 pushes me through some key milestones, but by mindlessly copying "cover letter" into C2 a few too many times, when I don't really know what I'm trying to do with it, I run my SuperFocus into the ground and fail to turn a page for several days.

Then, in a fit of anxiety, I do an emergency scan through my snail-mail inbox and find that I have nearly missed a breakfast talk which I'd wanted to attend. The RSVP is past, but I think they'll be able to fit me in. This would never have happened if I'd kept turning those pages!

After a bare-minimum scan, I resist the urge to completely empty the inbox then and there, and I go immediately to rescue my SuperFocus list. C2 is purged of clutter—things whose objective or process was less clear to me than I'd thought when I wrote them down—and I address them by adding "rethink XYZ" tasks to C1. I also reshuffle my "top three" list so it can resume feeding C2-driven "current initiatives" effectively.

But before I put another top project into C2, I speed through the list, doing only or two of the most blatant standouts per page, dismissing pages without a care in the world, even dismissing poor Pythagoras several times! A drastic measure perhaps, but it lets me regain that feeling of trust, of smooth, glitch-free operation, and to know that I am not letting anybody else down or sacrificing other key goals. A review the next day resurrects dismissed Pythagoras items promptly, and they are much improved in their new skin.

The Rest

Alas, my favorite publisher did not pick up the story, but a "plan B" contact was quite happy with it. As I began to turn out overly long chapters of prose, each chapter became a mini-project, tracked in the binder and visualized on a chart: chapters listed down the left and stages of writing and editing across the top (editing *for length* got its own special column). This became a great tool for entering tasks into SuperFocus and being sure that each got followed up.

As before, each task fell into one of a few categories:
1. simple, short tasks whose completion and process happen to be intuitively clear to me from a brief reminder jotted in C1;
2. things as in (1) that took longer than I thought but did not develop complications—I copied them to C2 to take a break and finished them in another session or two;
3. things that I knew were trouble from the very beginning, that demanded "project management" and regular followup—I gave these a dedicated spot in my binder and/or computer files, and I used C1 tasks to trigger maintenance and task generation;
4. things that were extremely unclear to me when first written—I started them off in C1 and allowed them to gain clarity and to be broken down after several exposures, after which they spun off into one or more sub-projects consisting of the above.

And I continued to stay on top of the rest of my life by feeding C2 from the "top project" list, promptly troubleshooting my C2 load whenever trouble arose. At last, the final chapter was written, edited, polished, cut to one third its original length, and I heard the magic words from my editor: "That does it, thanks. We'll take it from here." Thank you, SuperFocus!
March 22, 2011 at 0:29 | Unregistered CommenterBernie
“In SuperFocus, how would you handle the project of writing an historical novel and getting it published?”

1. I would use a separate SuperFocus notebook for the project.

2. Initially, I would now go into brainstorming mode, listing anything and everything in Column 1 (C1) re all my ideas - including research, writing, publishing, etc... This may take several C1 pages. New ideas or project-related tasks go at the end of C1.

3. After that, I will now use the best part of SuperFocus - trust the system and yourself. I would go through C1, doing what stands out. If it is unfinished, it goes to Column 2 (2) of the next page. Recurring tasks are added at the end of C1.

4. Urgent project-specific tasks are entered in C2 of the current page.

5. For interruptions, put a "Doing something else" task in the same place. You should put something like "Get back to Project X" on your regular SuperFocus notebook.

Wow! To me, this has been great exercise in my understanding and use of SuperFocus. :)
March 22, 2011 at 2:53 | Registered CommenterJonathan Susara
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