Mayday! Mayday! My Schedule Exploded!

The problem I had with this month’s topic is that there are so many places in writing where you hit obstacles, unseen dangers, etc. that it was hard to choose just one. So I grabbed the problem that’s attacking me right now…falling behind my schedule.

I’m generally pretty good about making my deadlines. I allow myself a generous amount of time, and I’m usually fairly disciplined about getting it done. But every now and then a revision will be particularly tricky, and/or LIFE will get in the way of writing. (Hate it when that happens.) And I used to beat myself up about it, but then I went to a workshop hosted by a professional project manager—her day job was helping companies plan out complex projects—and she knew that many of her professional techniques also applied to writing. There was a lot of it that was interesting, but a several things she said were particularly striking—and they’ve really helped me cope with “mayday” situations.

1) When scheduling any project, a professional project manager figures out how much time they think a project will realistically take…and then adds 30% to their estimate. Because life will intervene in your project. Some supplier will miss their delivery date, or your chief programmer will get pregnant and quit, or, or, or… She said the pros know that the unforeseen will happen, and they factor that into their planning. It’s OK for things to go wrong. It’s expected. And it’s not your fault when they do.

2) There are three factors that every project rests on, like the legs of a three-legged stool: Scope—what you want to accomplish. Budget—in business, this is the number of people you can hire to work on the project as well as material costs. For writers “budget” is the amount of your time you can put into the project. And finally, Time—which is the deadline when you want your project to be complete. These three factors are what anything that goes wrong is going to demolish. And when it does, when one of your “legs” breaks, you must adjust the other legs to compensate. If your scope is suddenly enlarged—say you have to do more rewrites than you thought you would—then you’ll either have to put in more working hours every day or extend your deadline. If your working hours budget suddenly contracts, because some family emergency keeps you from being able to put in the time you’d planned on, then you’ll either have to reduce the scope of your project or extend the deadline. And if for some reason your deadline gets shortened (what, that contest closes at the first of the month? I thought it was the 30th!) then you’ll have to either shrink the scope or increase the hours you’re putting in.

This rule about adjusting the other factors, to cope when any one of them changes, is inflexible. You can’t just say that you’ll work “smarter” or “harder” and somehow it will get done. Scope, for a writer, generally can’t be decreased. You can’t write three quarters of your novel, and call it good enough. You can’t skip revisions, because for a writer, quality is everything. So when things go haywire, you’ll probably have to adjust either the number of hours you put in, or extend the deadline. And most of us don’t have that many spare hours, either.

3) Which brings us to “Rebaselining.” There’s probably a technical definition of rebaselining, but the gist of it is that when your project plan blows up, for whatever reason, you step back and create a new plan, based on the new parameters you’re looking at. And that new plan now becomes the plan. The old plan should be jettisoned without guilt, remorse, or beating yourself up about being a bad, undisciplined writer. In business you’d have to fill out forms, describing what went wrong, how the parameters of the problem have changed, etc. For a writer it’s more a matter of getting over it, and then moving onward. And without giving yourself grief over it.

Needless to say, for most of us this is easier said than done—particularly if you’re the kind of person who prides herself on being fairly disciplined about writing. (Ahem.) But beating yourself up because LIFE happened is an unproductive wasted of time and energy. So I’m going to look at that rewrite which turned out to be trickier than I expected (expanded scope) and the family stuff that suddenly took a chunk out of my writing time (budget problems, too) and simply say that the new deadline for that revision is now late May to early June. (Late May, plus 30%.) Because realistically, that’s when it’s going to be done. And it will get done faster and easier if I’m not beating myself up about it.

Hilari writes SF and fantasy for kids and teens. And she’d post some covers here, if her schedule hadn’t exploded.

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9 thoughts on “Mayday! Mayday! My Schedule Exploded!

  1. I always love your posts. LOVE REBASELINING! No guilt!! Just take the new plan and run with it. 🙂 Thanks for the insight, bringing business terms to a very hard-to-pin-down writer’s world.

  2. In my case I should add 50% to my deadline as I always underestimate how much time something will take. And it takes me longer and longer to do the same amount of work the older I get. Nothing works as fast as youth.

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