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  • Sarah Stewart

How I Used Agile Processes and Principles When Writing My First Novel

If dig into my LinkedIn page just a bit, you’ll see that I’m not only an Agile Coach, Consultant, and Project Manager, but also a published fantasy novelist. I co-wrote a novel with my spouse in 2017 that was published in late 2018.

And yes, we’re still married, and have written many, many more pieces together since. And yes, we both take Agile so seriously that we actually applied several Agile techniques and concepts when we wrote our book. Here’s a rundown.


Worked from a Backlog


Before we started the body of the novel (I’d written the first chapter of it) I developed a high level outline of the book, similar to the “epic” level of an Agile project backlog. As we progressed, I’d detail out the next few chapters as a bulleted list of events and developments that needed to take place, like at a User Story level. Then we’d write the chapters based on those bullets.


As we progressed through the novel and discovered things, the story changed. For example, around chapter 20 I realized that the character needed to be in a dramatically different location to reach the ending I needed. It shifted the “epics” significantly, resulting in about 15 more chapters that I wasn’t originally planning for. (Which in the long run was good, since otherwise the novel wouldn’t have been long enough for publication).


Doing Daily Standup


With only two of us working on the project together we didn’t need much of a formal standup (we each had a pretty good idea what the other one did yesterday), but standup was a great way to organize each day. What do we plan to do today and where are we blocked?


And reviewing what we finished “yesterday” often helped too, as more often as not, it made us feel better. “I only wrote 300 words yesterday, but I also mowed the lawn and went to your mom’s place to fix her emergency plumbing problem, which ate almost the whole day. Okay, 300 words isn’t bad, all things considered!”


Used a Kanban Board


While our backlog outline lived in an ever-changing document, our next 1-3 chapters and the scenes for them lived on a Kanban board. Each chapter was like a User Story and each scene like a task. We’d move sticky notes for scenes from “Writing” to “Editing” to “Complete” columns.


We used WIP limits to make sure that we were never more than 2 chapters written before they were edited, so we could always share our most recent versions of the book in a good state.


That isn’t to say we didn’t go back and edit earlier chapters. We definitely did, as the story occasionally changed to contradict stuff, or required reordering things. We even threw out things that didn’t work. However, we still kept almost everything solid and reviewable.


Iterative Releases with Frequent Feedback


We had beta readers, and eventually our publisher, review chapters as we finished them to catch typos and inconsistencies to give us general feedback on story. We shared with our beta readers about once per month and with our publisher every 10 chapters or so.


Note: Soliciting for feedback didn’t always mean we received it when we expected it or wanted it. Feedback came in when it came in (And you need to leave your ego at the door when you get it!).


Pair “Programming”


Really it was “Pair Writing” not programming, but we used the same technique: two people at one computer, sharing a keyboard between them. One would type while the other watched and commented, occasionally taking up a keyboard and driving, switching back and forth. We projected everything onto our TV in the living room.


This wasn’t our only technique with new material (often one person did the initial writing on their own) but nearly all our detailing, editing, and revising, was done this way. We also used this technique when talking out new scenes we weren’t certain about, or whenever we hit writer’s block. Pair Writing is an incredible way to avoid writer’s block when writing a novel!


Had a Working Agreement


I’ve been asked many times how we successfully kept our marriage in one piece doing this. First, we were really open and honest with each other and constantly communicated. But second, I attribute a lot to the Working Agreement that we established fairly early in the process.


Our Working Agreement went something like this:


1. The story must fit preexisting in-universe rules, both the setting’s history and style and the rules for the tabletop game that the setting runs in. Our novel is a tie-in book for a Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) setting (Yes, if you hadn’t figured it out by now, I’m a major geek. Surprised?) That meant not only being consistent with a huge body of Scarred Lands lore, but also aligning to the rules and limitations of Dungeon and Dragons. I drove Fran nuts when I argued that “No, Eochaid cannot ‘leap on the serpent, stabbing and stabbing with his dagger.’ He only gets two attacks per round!”


Yes, I know that sounds picky, even pedantic. But I like challenges, and one the biggest we set for ourselves was this. While we absolutely wanted the story to flow and seamlessly draw the reader into events and emotions, we also wanted to tell a story that could actually happen at a table, and also to tell one that didn’t feel like someone narrating a D&D game. Or even require the readers to know D&D (or even high fantasy). It was a tough one, but based on some of our reviews, we managed it! Our readers, some of whom weren’t gamers or avid readers of fantasy say they clearly imagined Eochaid’s world, which made me very proud.


2. I (Sarah) was the “Product Owner.” The overall story was based on my vision and direction, and I had the final say when we ran into a conflict. 3. While I always had the final say, either of us could disagree on any point they had a problem with, though we had to make a thoughtful case for our reasoning. I wasn’t allowed to just say “Because I said so.” We agreed to let one another fully express ideas and the reasoning behind them before we made a final decision. While “Because that’s my character, and he wouldn’t do that!” is a valid base reason, it was fair to explain why the character wouldn’t do it. “Okay, you’re right,” happened a lot, and our writing turned out better for it each time.


4. We could highlight problem areas to revisit later. Nothing was final until we both (and eventually our publisher) signed off on it. If one of us said “This feels off to me, but I don’t know why yet,” we’d highlight the section make a margin note to revisit it later. More often than not, when we revisited it the person with the issue could explain their concern and we could make a productive change. 5. Certain people “owned” certain areas. The other could write it, but the “owner” could change things to fit their vision. For example, I owned all the protagonist’s dialog. Fran could write it, but I could rewrite it in his “proper voice” without argument. Fran owned descriptive text. I could write descriptive text, but Fran could revise it extensively if she thought it merited it. While I still had the “final say” as product owner, I respected where she was stronger. 6. Respect each other. This was the biggest element, by far, in our Working Agreement. Writing a novel together can be ego-busting, especially when one person (Fran, in this case) has a lot more writing experience than the other person. It’s crushing to get a ton of edits on your work. It also makes you a better writer. I have beaten passive voice into the ground because of what I’ve learned from Fran. The ego issues go two ways, too. I write significantly faster than Fran and can produce more words, more quickly, but I had to respect that that isn’t her style and let her work at her own pace. She writes slowly but her writing’s clean, whereas mine (sometimes) needs more editing afterward. And we both made mistakes. A lot of mistakes. And made each other cry more than once. But then we would listen, apologize, inevitably hug, and try to avoid the mistake. And we would almost certainly do whatever it was again (which is why we stopped promising not to), but each time we hurt each other we became more aware of the other person’s needs in the process. I can’t say things are perfect now (we’ve only been writing together for four years), but we’ve gotten pretty good at it. We’ve eliminated some of our old mistakes. Others we still make, but less often, and we catch them more quickly and with less hurt feelings between us. And each project we do together, as much as it’s a strain, is also a real pleasure, because we’ve built up trust, a library of great tools and techniques, and confidence that the mistakes we make will teach us how to do better with each iteration.


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