Product Backlog Quick Start for Writers

Letter tiles spelling “Writing Lab” on a wooden desktop
Letter tiles spelling “Writing Lab” on a wooden desktop
Original work by author

Previously, I’ve written about replacing outlining with a Product Backlog for writing fiction. I start with a Product Goal. Everything I need to do emerges from it to create my product backlog. In this article, I’ll show you how to jump-start that emergence.

Brainstorm

Once you have a strong product goal, the next step is to brainstorm what you need to do to reach that goal. You should ask yourself:

· What do I need to do right now?

· What might I need to do soon?

· What are the big tasks I might need to do eventually?

Items might include scenes and chapters, research, character sketches, setting descriptions, and revision work.

Don’t worry about identifying every task you’ll ultimately need to do. The road to a completed manuscript is uncertain, and details will emerge over time. Here are a few items from the initial backlog for my current work-in-progress:

· Introduce Hope as a teen in 1987 and show her getting herself into trouble

· Character sketch: Hope’s fiancée in 1999

· Research wedding planning

· Character sketch: Hope’s sister

· Hope finds her sister’s body

· Setting sketch: Hope’s church

· Hope investigates her father’s alibi on the night of the killing

There were more, of course. They ran the gamut in size from short scenes I could write in a day to big research projects and whole sections of the story. Varying levels of granularity are OK! When you get to a piece that’s too big, you can always break it down. For example, the last item in the list above represented several chapters. Breakout product backlog items included scenes, chapters, setting descriptions, and research.

Order

Once you’ve built your “To Do” list, it’s time to put the list in order. What are you going to tackle first, and what can wait until later?

Small items tend to gravitate to the top of the list, like the way peanuts tend to rise to the top of a jar of mixed nuts. But keep in mind that easy doesn’t necessarily mean urgent. If a big, complicated item looks important, you’ll want to break it down into more easily completed chunks. Odds are good that you’ll find that some of the smaller bits you identify can wait, while others are more pressing. For example, “Setting sketch: Hope’s church” broke down to:

· Describe the nave — 1987

· Describe how the nave has changed in 1999

· Sketch the entryway

· Church school layout

· Pastor’s office

The first item rose to the top because I had an early scene set there. The rest sank lower in the backlog because I didn’t expect to write about them until later in the novel. The benefit of waiting was that “Church school layout” ended up not being necessary. A sequence I had vague notions about never materialized. I would have wasted time fleshing out that setting.

Mix Manuscript and Background Information

It can be tempting to front-load your product backlog with all the research and planning you want to do before you start the manuscript. I recommend putting some items that will produce manuscript pages high in your initial backlog. Even if you have a lot of groundwork to do, producing as little as one complete scene in each early sprint provides three benefits:

· You get to know your characters in a way that writing a character sketch doesn’t. You’ll discover whether you want to spend months or years with these people.

· You can get feedback. If readers respond to your characters and your plot the way you envision, great! You have validated your vision. That is powerful motivation when you are struggling. If readers don’t react the way you wanted, you can adapt early, rather than having to fix a lot of problems later.

· You’ll get a better sense of how fast you can write. You’ll start to know, for example, that a scene for you is about 750 words, and that it takes about two hours to write a scene. You can get a pretty good idea of how much you can do each sprint.

As the infrastructure of your novel emerges, you’ll spend more time each sprint producing manuscript pages and less on the mechanics.

Refine

Refinement is a continual process of making sure that upcoming work is small enough to complete within a sprint. You add detail. You break items down into smaller pieces. You change the order of the items, add new items, and even delete items that are no longer needed.

You should spend a little time each sprint on refinement. The exact amount you need will vary. A good rule of thumb is to limit refinement to ten percent of the time you spend working.

I like to have about two sprints’ worth of items ready to go. For me, a “ready” item is small enough that I can complete it in 3–4 writing sessions. I have time for two or three thirty-minute writing sessions per day. That translates into four to six items in a sprint, with about ten items on deck.

Too few ready items can cause you to stall due to lack of clarity about what to do next. Too many ready items means that you might refine work that you end up not doing. You’ll find your own rhythm very quickly.

Why Do It?

Creating and refining a product backlog builds and sustains momentum. Mixing small manuscript items with architectural items in your first sprint gets you started even when you don’t know much about your story. You build your plan and your manuscript simultaneously, inspecting your progress and adapting to what you learn as you go.

Professional Scrum Trainer and fiction writer. Connect with me on Twitter @stfalco or visit samfalco.com

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