It’s interesting how my hobby, writing fiction, and my profession, writing software, often overlap. Especially when it comes to applying aspects of one discipline to the other. The more I allow disciplines that work in one area to cross over into the other, the greater I seem to excel in both.
My latest disciplinary cross-over is timeboxing.
In the development world, timeboxing is a limit you put on a particular task. Let’s say you know something will require research, but you don’t know how much. You timebox that work, do your research, and if it looks like it will take longer, you quit doing the research work and go to the team or project manager, show where you are in your research, and then determine if additional research is needed or if it’s even worth the time.
There are other ways to apply it. You may timebox a particular process and if the process is taking longer than expected, stop work on it until you get clearance to move forward. Sometimes knowing you have two hours to complete something is a really good way to make sure you get crap done.
And yes, writing software is a craft. It is a creative effort. Does timeboxing stifle your creativity? In my experience, it doesn’t. It actually forces me to focus and get work done. If my effort takes longer, I’m accountable to other people for that time. That’s why I’m typing this up on my lunch break. Because I have three hours today to get a task done before Monday.
I like using timeboxing as a tool. It gives me a certain sense of security.
How does timeboxing apply to writing?
Many authors have travelled down the path of writing a short story a week. There are pro and con arguments for the discipline, but in my opinion the pros outweigh the cons, so it’s something I’ve decided to do.
I won’t get into all the pros here, but for me it will do the following:
- Force me to finish projects
- Limit the scope of planning and execution
- Force me to find creative ways to accomplish a somewhat repeatable task
- Force me to develop best practices for multiple aspects of the professional writer’s life and the story crafting process
I can already feel the pushback from other writers now. Isn’t this turning an artistic endeavor into a factory? Doesn’t this take the joy out of the experience? How do you account for critiques, revisions, and writer’s block?
These are all valid observations. There was a point in my writing life where I thought all writing needed to be art. If I produced something, it had better be the best possible thing I could produce. No compromises. Absolute perfection.
If I received any critique other than praise, I was devastated by it. Well, not actually devastated, but I would toss the story out and continue searching for the ideal story shape, the ideal character transformation arc, or the perfect way to create pristine prose.
I never had much confidence in revision, because it would always come back from some other critique group with even more issues. There was a point where I sent a single story through four different workshops, adjusted for each, and finally completed it after six months of work. Six months for a short story [well, novella, but still not a complete book]. The story is still far from perfect. And I’m not even sure it’s much better than the original version of the story.
What I discovered and have come to accept is that every single story is flawed. If you hand a story to someone and specifically ask them to look for flaws, that’s what they’ll do. Rarely do you workshop a story and come away with a sense that your story is complete, publishable, and of incredibly high quality. I imagine that this is why professionals don’t really care about workshops. Sure, they could probably still use the help, but they’ve come to understand that there’s a point in your writing career when the workshop recommended feedback is actually trivial.
It could even hurt.
In other words, you should eventually graduate from workshops. They’re no longer a help, but a waste of your writing time. They could be valuable for other reasons, like maybe you need them for motivation to complete work, maybe you like hanging out with other writers, but if you’re regularly seeing your work published by professional publishing venues, you probably don’t need to attend a workshop.
Does timeboxing take the joy out of the experience? For me it doesn’t. It’s not that I have a short attention span, I have a short interest span. An idea is only shiny for so long. Ideas that I thought were shiny last year, I could pretty much care less about now. It’s one of the reasons short stories are ideal for me right now. I’m a developer and a Scrum Coach in training. I’m not an “author” or a “novelist” or a professional writer by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a hobby. One day I would like it to be more, but I don’t see myself giving up my high paying tech career for writing.
But this doesn’t mean that I can’t practice the discipline of professionals.
So what does timeboxing give me?
A new short story to market each week. This is a big one. Like any business, without a product or service to sell, you’re limited to the amount you can earn. As an artist, you’re limited to the audience you can reach. Getting in the mode of production, where I focus on my “career” instead of “a story”, allows me to focus on what’s important–getting publishable quality work out the door on a regular basis. Proving to editors and magazines that I’m not a one hit wonder. Proving to myself that I can produce under pressure.
It’s also allowed me to burn down my process to the essentials. I will admit I’m a Ivory Tower kind of guy. I’m very into process and theories and ideas and abstractions, but if those things can’t be applied in the real world, you have to throw them out. Writing a story a week allows me to apply my own empirical process. I can see what storycrafting things work and what things do not. I’ve learned that too much pre-planning hurts me. I’ve also learned that if I don’t set certain limits, my stories will keep going. I need to understand my various characters’ motivations, but I don’t necessarily need to know each arc and each decision they’ll make going in.
I had a great experience last night. I was 6k into a story. I saw I needed 4 more long scenes to fit with my planned outline. I decided to revise that then and there. I cut those portions of the outline and thought of way I could end the story in two short scenes. I ended last night with 7.8k words.I think the story is better for it. After my revisions tonight, I hope the whole thing will be back down to the 6k range.
What I’m learning to do is judge how much story I can accomplish in a given timebox. Because I’m not writing the story, but revising and editing as well.
That’s right, unlike many writers, I’m not even giving myself much in the way of cooling off time. Because my revision process involves mostly cutting and rereading what I’ve written multiple times, I generally only need a day to do that. Then I need a few hours for copy edits,to make sure I didn’t miss something obvious.
The story must be out the door by the end of the week. It’s a rule I’m following. This probably seems unnecessarily strict to some writers, but for me it’s a requirement. I need that self-imposed discipline.
My goal in all of this is to start selling to professional magazines. Multiple authors swear that this is the path. Many have applied this discipline and managed it. I believe I understand why. Because it’s more than creating a lot of stories. It’s about sharpening the blade. It’s about learning what is needed in the process and what isn’t to meet your objective. It’s about discovering and using tools, like timeboxing.