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Monday, February 16, 2015

Writing Productivity Tip: Defeat the Goliath

I remember the first time I used a real microscope. It was part of an old high school kit, with prepared slides with a three-lens magnification range, and had probably belonged to my uncle. It reminded me of horn-rimmed glasses and lettermen jackets and Richie Cunningham’s DeSoto, all sorts of ancient things that didn’t fit into the then-modern 80s.

But, man, did that thing blow my mind. It even came with a box of blank slides and cover slips so you could prepare your own specimens. If something was small enough to fit under that glass, it went under. I would examine each specimen and marvel at all its tiny parts, pretending to be a scientist, feeling like a giant.

The microscope wasn’t just a nifty gadget—it was an important learning tool. Not because it foreshadowed the microbiology classes I’d take in college (mmm, I can still remember the smell of the culture room. Yummy. *makes retching sound*) but because it taught me a subtle but important aspect of management: everything, no matter how big, is made up of tiny parts, and sometimes tiny parts are easier to manage than one great big part.

That concept is the basis for the way I manage big tasks in every aspect of my life, from my day job to my duties as a domestic deity. There is always something that needs doing, and I will be the first to admit that I might push off the big stuff in favor of smaller things. Facing a big, complex task (like Clean the Basement) is like facing a giant on the field of battle.

It reminds me of the ancient story of David and Goliath—a boy faced a giant on the field of battle, armed with only a slingshot and a handful of stones. One stone at a time, David brought that giant down.

Trouble is...goliaths are scary and I’m no David.

Facing Off Against a Giant

My writing life is no different. Books are big things. Completing a Novel is a goliath task when you step back and take it in as a whole. It’s nothing short of a formidable opponent.

But when you zoom in on the process and look at all the separate steps that go into it—writing, editing, revising, and so on—you can see the building blocks comprising that process.

Individual building blocks are manageable things. You can’t lift a brick house, but you can pick it up one loose brick at a time.

And that’s how David defeated Goliath, right? One stone at a time.

When I was writing my first novel, I only had one task: Write the Story. I wasn’t editing a separate book, or promoting an earlier release, or expanding a platform. My first novel was a hobby book and, spared the then-unknown distractions of marketing and promotion, I simply reveled in the experience of creating a world of characters and plots and intrigue and things with sharp teeth that hide in the shadows.

All I did was Write the Story. It was one task, and a very manageable one.

Now, my writing process isn’t so simple. Writing my current book has been a completely different experience. My main task is to Complete the New Novel. But that’s not the only thing on my to-do list.

I have a backlist that needs constant promoting. Halfway through writing the second draft I got a little distracted and produced two ebooks (and a print book. Whoops.) I ran blog tours and promotions and sales and messed around in Photoshop to design book covers and Facebook banners and even revamped my newsletter template.

When I look back at all that, I think: what a schedule! Each task on that list is a goliath in itself, with the top of the list being Complete the Novel.

Why didn’t I run away from it all? Because I did it one stone at a time. (Thankfully, those tiny stones pile up really fast.)

Defeat your Goliath

If you’ve never tried to deconstruct a goliath task before, I suggest you start with a list of projects you want to accomplish, then break each one down in outline form.

1) The Big Project (such as Complete the Novel)
     a through z to the nth power) All the steps that go into completing it.

My current WIP outline looks something like:


1) The Heartbeat Thief manuscript
     a) Complete first draft
     b) Edit first draft
          1) Write chapter summary and look for plot holes
          2) Examine timeline for continuity
          3) Historical reference fact check
               a) Clothing/language
               b) Vehicles/tech
               c) Events
     c)  Enter revisions
     d). Edit second draft
          1) Spell check, typo scan
          2) Grammar check
          3) Format checks (em dashes, italics)
     e) Enter revisions
     f) Read through
     g) Make tiny revisions as necessary
     h) Send to first Beta readers
     i) enter revisions if warranted
     j) Repeat a-i and send to next beta reader

And that’s just the manuscript part. Number two is the cover, number three is formatting, number four is marketing plan, and so on.

Everything on that list is just a tiny part of what goes into the goliath sitting at the top of the list. THE PROJECT: Complete the Novel.

The Victor Emerges

I will complete that novel. I will get it done, line by line, part by part, one bullet point at a time. Breaking my big projects down like this keeps a project manageable, and keeps me moving forward. I complete a small task, I cross it off, and I’m ready to move on.

It also lets me celebrate little victories at the time. Each time I check a line off, I accomplish something. I’m a firm believer in encouragement and praise and having a cupcake for a job well done. I think most people are, too, but my philosophy of task deconstruction means lots of cupcakes along the way instead of a ten pound cake at the very end.

A goliath cake doesn’t get eaten all in one sitting, but a dozen cupcakes can be eaten, one by one, spread out over time. That's what makes the victory attainable—and so very sweet.

Ash Krafton is a speculative fiction writer who, despite having a Time Turner under her couch and three different sonic screwdrivers in her purse, still encounters difficulty with time management. She's the author of the urban fantasy trilogy The Books of the Demimonde as well as WORDS THAT BIND. She also writes for YA and NA audiences under the pen name AJ Krafton. THE HEARTBEAT THIEF, her Victorian dark fantasy inspired by Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”, is now available.


Rochelle Deans said...

This is exactly what I needed to read today, Ash. I have a million things on my to do list and they're all piling up into a Goliath that seems so impossible to tackle that I've been awake for an hour and just messed around online.

I guess it's time to make my list and start crossing things off, stone by stone.

Brenda Hyde said...

I appreciate you sharing your outline. I remember in Senior English many, many years ago, learning to do outlines for term papers. The paper seemed impossible to finish until it was broken down into the outline. It's funny how I loved to outline then, but forgot how to apply it NOW. Your post is helping me remember:)

Wendy said...

Good advice for life, too--which then gives us more time for writing! Thanks for sharing the post, Ashton.

Robyn Campbell said...

Great post, Ash. Love that we're all in this together. It helps to remember the novel doesn't have to/won't be finished in one day. The little steps will take us to the end. If we look at the goliath, we might never finish.

Trudy said...

I needed this today. I am revising again but I never bothered with an outline of what to do. I'm going to take a break and make one. I know it will help me focus better

Ash Krafton | @ashkrafton said...

I'm glad everyone found this useful..

This is the only way I can get through big jobs. The weirdest thing is... I can't outline a story :)

I think I point-plotted a romance once (because, really, if you miss a single romance plot point, your book is toast), but that was it. Everything else I do is totally pantsed.

Serena S. said...

Maybe I was a little naive but I didn't know you have to do ALL that just for a manuscript! Thanks for the post, very interesting.