Most people in my writing circle know that I am a former project manager. “Former” because when you’re a project manager most coworkers think that you are evil, sent from Hell to destroy their workday happiness with demands for goals and deadlines and high-quality products that don’t enrage customers and Call Center Managers and lead to an endless backlog of bug fixes and feature requests.
Last year, I happily cast off my Project Manager job and let my PMP certification expire in favor of a kinder, gentler occupation. Still, my project management ways come back like a curse. Case in point: I offered to project manage my friend and Novel Incubator/writing mentee, who is also named Kelly.*
The word ‘mentee’ makes me think of manatees, which are lovable creatures. Like many writers, they are also slow-moving creatures. Maybe this is why I offered to help her out with completing her next big revision. More likely, we were drunk on Prosecco and cupcakes at the time I made the offer and she accepted.
I think possibly she regrets agreeing because once we got sober, I embraced my role fully and began to speak in Project Management tongues like a woman possessed of forgotten job role power.
What’s your goal?
The number one tip I have for all writers is to have a goal. Without goals, you’re liable to end up on the sofa all day eating Cheetos and watching back-to-back episodes of America’s Top Model. I speak from experience. This is what happens when you write as a hobby. But if you want to publish one day, it helps to think of writing as a part-time job — ideally, one that you love. Most jobs require employees to meet goals. Let’s begin.
Here are some As Seen on the Internet writer goals:
- I will become a famous author.
- I will become a millionaire.
- I will change lives.
Here is what I will do to these goals:
I will become a famous author. I will become a millionaire. I will change lives.
Kelly, you’re so mean. Why are you dashing my dreams?**
Because these goals are not SMART goals, which are:
You know what goal is SMART? Finishing your book. So what’s a great goal?
- Finish the book
Only one goal? Yep. One goal allows you to focus. And by “finish,” I mean, however many drafts it takes to get it out into the world. Once it’s out into the world, the project is complete. Technically, then it becomes a product, which requires care and maintenance and other tasks until the product is killed. But let’s stick to priorities: finish the book.
Do you hate me yet? Yeah, yeah. I’m used to it.
What’s your deadline?
Many writers have start dates but neglect to think about an end date, which is why their drafts languish for years either on their laptops or in drawers. At some point, if you want to get your book into the hands of readers — either by traditional, independent, or self-published means — consider creating a deadline. Otherwise, feel free to stop reading now.
I can’t give you a deadline. There are too many variables, including my day job, my kids, my spouse, my TV shows…
Excuses, excuses. Here’s how you pick a deadline:
- Remember your goal: Finish the book.
- Focus on the next right thing, not all of the things. The first page? The first paragraph? The first draft? The first revision, or second or third or so on? The point: It doesn’t matter. Pick something that is specific, achievable, relevant, etc. You don’t have to do it all. But do something.
- Open a calendar, any calendar.
- Pick a SPECIFIC date.
My mentee picked Dec 15, 2015 to finish a big revision. Why? Because it’s the end of the year. But she also knows that she won’t be able to focus on writing over the holidays. Basically, she threw a dart at the calendar and said, “That’ll do.” And she’s right. Because…
Perfect is the enemy of good
If you spend too much time trying to make a perfect schedule or a perfect novel or perfect blog post (ahem), you’ll become so focused on the mechanics of writing instead of actually writing or revising that you’ll either burn out, frustrate yourself, or quit. That would be bad because your goal is to Finish the Book.
That’s easy for you to say, Kelly. You don’t have the pressure of [insert excuse].
This happens a lot with both project managers and with writers. People think if only they had this or that software, they could do their jobs much, much better. While that may be true, most of the time the person is procrastinating. Come on. You know it’s true. Books need words. To make words, you need a basic word processing tool. Without words, there is no book. Make the words.
Meet your deadlines. Or there will be consequences!
Imagine if you told your boss, “Sorry, I couldn’t meet that deadline. I’ll get to it whenever. I have to go meet my friends for 10 cent wings and brewskis.”
But this is not work. I have actual work to do.
True. In your writing life vs. work life, where’d you be put on probation, demoted, or probably fired, the stakes aren’t as high. Novelists mostly work alone, so you don’t have the pressure of affecting someone else down the assembly line. (Note: If your deadline affects other people and you miss your deadline, you will be shot.***) But we’re treating this like a part-time job, remember? And there should be consequences if you don’t meet your deadlines, meaningful consequences.
For me: I celebrate every single writing task that I complete because I made the effort. That makes me a winner for trying, regardless of the eventual outcome. And then I get cupcakes and flowers. Hooray for me!
For my mentee, the consequence of not meeting deadlines: No more dog training. This pains her because her dogs are her life and training calms the “farm” (her family of four pets and one husband).
To stay on track, my mentee created several smaller deadlines to meet before Dec 15 to ensure that she stays on track. Those include completing a draft, sending it off to her writing group for critiques, incorporating changes, possibly getting more feedback, and so on. Why? Because otherwise she might slack off until December and then panic.
Did you talk to the users?
This, my friends, is the downfall of many an IT project. Why? Because the best and the brightest behind those great ideas either didn’t build in enough time to talk to the users of their products or they decided that the users didn’t provide any value.
Don’t do this. Users will always find the bugs. If you’re lucky, they’ll tell you instead of complaining about it on social media or to their friends who might have bought your product but now will not.
I don’t have time for beta readers. I made a decision to send out my query on this date. And you told me not to miss deadlines.
Embrace the failure, and readjust your deadline.
Novelist: What’s your product? A book. Who are your users? Readers. Neglect your beta readers at your own risk. Think that an agent or a reader won’t notice that plot hole or the overall ugly? They will. They will always find the ugly. ALWAYS.
Where to find a personal project manager
If you’re unable to find your own personal project manager, find someone to share your goal and deadlines with, someone who can keep you on track. This could be your friend or your writing group or your permanent drinking partner. Or you can sign up for something like CampNaNoWriMo, where for one month, you can focus on the act of writing on a deadline — for FREE. Don’t listen to all those NaNoWriMo haters. It’s a great tool to build good writing habits.
My job as my mentee’s personal Project Manager is to keep her on task so she can meet her goal. Eventually, she will share her Google calender with me once she figures out how to do that (remember: software = procrastination. LOLOL.). But for now, I have a general idea of her deadlines and what she hopes to accomplish and check in with her on them. Most of the time, she comes clean about missing deadlines before I have a chance to ask. I have effectively struck fear into her heart, which means I am a great Project Manager.****
As for my mentee, she will continue to plug away, and I will continue to harass her as much as possible. Next month, she plans to write about what the personal project management experience has been like for her. If all goes well, she will feel well on her way to finishing her book without feeling a strong desire to kill me in the process. We’ll see.
*Kelly the Mentee and Kelly the Project Manager/Mentor agreed that using both of our names might get confusing, so we decided that it was okay to refer to her throughout as “mentee.” But our friends are welcome to continue calling us The Kellys.
**These italicized reactions are not from my mentee. My mentee is wonderful and smart, and I’m not even lying.
***In my imagination. And you will never be trusted with a deadline again.
**** No, this is terrible. Don’t believe this.