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« SF Tips - #7: Tasks that are both urgent and unfinished | Main | Competition Report - 2 »

Case Study: Superfocus for Writing an Historical Novel

This is a guest post by Mike Brown, the winner of the competition for the best answer to the question “In SuperFocus, how would you handle the project of writing an historical novel and getting it published?”

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.

Reader Comments (3)

Thanks Mike for a very (very!) helpful post. Your line about dismissal was fabulous. I often have tasks that are quite important, but too early in their process to be worked on, so your line ("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.") really struck a chord. I also like your alternate method that you mentioned at the end (separate project file/book in SF format). I'm doing my SF electronically and I plan to implement this idea. All ideas still go into the master SF list, but some will be moved to their project list as they come up. This will keep the whole picture of a project together and resolve the problem of: no I'm not ready to do such and such task, but am ready to work on another part of it (which is on another page somewhere in SF).

Mark: Even though you had few responses, this was a great idea. I think that the large and long-term nature of the project helped to better demonstrate how to work the system and the openness and flexibility of it. Trusting it now feels within my reach.
March 24, 2011 at 20:11 | Unregistered CommenterMaureen
Mike, congratulations on your winning entry!

I like the way you covered different planning modes: blocked calendar time for writing, C1/C2 for pending research, intuitive-directed marketing tasks, etc. I am still adjusting to the fluidity and flexibility of SF—I still too easily revert to a to-do list mentality, as if I have to slog through as many C1's as possible before turning a page, or forgetting that I don't have to *finish* a task to cross it off! It is nice to have an illustration of the SF process all in one read showing the various ways that things can unfold.

One thing I noticed: when I read your approach of blocking out writing time, my first thought was, "that's fine for him, but I want to keep as much as possible inside my 'system'," meaning that I would want the writing to show up in C2 while the calendar only shows appointments. Then I realized, there's really no difference between (a) writing for two hours "outside the system" (using the calendar) vs. (b) entering "write book" in C2 and then writing "for as long as you feel like," which in this case is two hours. In the C2 case, you do get one more item entered and crossed out, and possibly one more page turn. But still, you are mentally reserving that time as "urgent for writing," as if it were blocked on the calendar. Whether this entails a "today list" sort of thing or you just have it in mind naturally, it has the same effect.

So it merely comes down to the personal preference of whether you want to see that sort of item on your calendar. Accommodating those varying preferences is one more benefit of the system's simplicity and flexibility.
March 25, 2011 at 7:27 | Unregistered CommenterBernie
Mike, I meant to add:

Thanks for the example (near the end) of a project containing its own separate SF list. I will definitely try that with one of my bigger projects that is coming up. Seems to me, this is a great way to handle projects with lots of tasks of varying sizes and "energies" and effort levels. Otherwise, when we think of "work on project X," there's too much, and when we try to plan it purely rationally, we run into the same old problems that SF was created to solve in the first place.

This solves the concern some have voiced of wanting to see their project's tasks all in one view, rather than scattered throughout the main list among everything else going on in life.

The more I think about this, the more I want to try it.
March 25, 2011 at 7:35 | Unregistered CommenterBernie

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