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Prince of Planning – Part 1: The Art of Managing Your Writing Project
By Helen Treharne

In addition to holding down a full time job, blogging, writing my first book and generally “living”, I’ve also been undertaking a project management qualification with my employer.

PRINCE2 (an acronym for PRojects IN Controlled Environments) is a process-based method for project management, used extensively in both the public and private sector. I am by no means an expert, having only completed the foundation level training, but I have to say I’ve learned some surprisingly useful lessons.

Needless to say, that my knowledge will benefit me immensely in my organization, where project management techniques such as Prince or Agile are used to effectively implement and manage change.

The surprising lesson has been somewhat less obvious – it has unquestionably influenced my approach to my next writing project.

As I’ve said previously, I’m in the final throes of my first novel, “Relative Strangers”, which is what I’m increasingly referring to as a vampire-family drama/thriller. I say this as although it fits many of the traditional supernatural frameworks (vampires, threat of death, suspense etc), it is also the story of a young woman (23 to me is young!) discovering the harsh realities of the world around her, and also her place in the world and in her own family. Anyway, I digress. The important thing to note is that this is the first book in a series. Therefore, while I tie up the loose ends and finish editing the first book, I’m already looking to the future and preparations for the next one.

Preparation is the key word here and those of you who read my blog will know that I did absolutely no planning for this first book. I’ve learned some valuable lessons from this and one of them is about planning your writing project. Today, I want to focus on the type of top level planning which is probably essential when writing a series – and in hindsight, probably any piece of work!

PRINCE2 essentially adopts a product based approach to planning and controlling a piece of work. This is one of the principles I want to focus on today, with a nod to a few of the other Prince2 principles which I think are most relevant over the coming weeks.

Product-based Planning Approach

As I noted earlier, this has probably been the biggest lesson which I’ve learned from my project management training and the one which I’m choosing to adopt most literally.

A key element in Prince2 is the importance of focusing on what you want to produce (i.e. the end result) when planning a piece or work, rather than initially focusing on the component steps. Traditionally, when planning, it’s very easy to just pull together a list of all the activities which must be completed.

For example, think about preparing for your summer holiday. This isn’t the best example but I’m figuring that most of you will have gone on a holiday at some point. Many of you may have the same approach my husband would have, which is primarily opening the suitcase and grabbing whichever clothes are clean and ironed, and sticking them in a bag. The toilet bag will go in without even checking that it has the right things in place of that none of the contents are running low. If you are more like me, you might put together a long list of tasks which need to be undertaken such as booking parking at the airport, packing your clothes, booking a pet sitter. However in doing so, you run the risk of scoping your “project” incorrectly.

Ultimately, you want to make sure that your preparations for your holiday allow you to have the best possible holiday. Therefore, one should ask what needs to delivered for the holiday to be a success. The first step would be to define what a successful holiday would look like. This could be a feeling of relaxation, seeing a range of sights, going out for meals etc… anything you want. The second step would be to identify what “products” or elements need to be created to achieve that.

An important element of your holiday, for example, may be to minimize the stress or intrusion of home life. That may include a raft of other preparations such as contingency planning for emergencies such as getting a travel first aid kit, getting some maps of the local area before you travel (thereby avoiding the need to go online and run up your mobile phone bill or risk viewing a stressful email), catching up with relatives to make sure they’re prepared for your absence or finishing chores in good time before you leave. Again, things that aren’t on your usual holiday list.

Of course, it would be much easier to give you a business example (eg. When organizing a conference you may have one product based around getting people there, another around ensuring the material is relevant and well received, another around internal communications etc), but hopefully you get the idea.

In terms of writing, this approach is definitely one which I will use for my next novel. In my first book, I very much opened my notebook and started writing, an approach which definitely garnered benefits, as I’ve previously mentioned. However, I’ve found myself having to go back and pick through my work to prepare for the next book. I’ve also struggled with editing and direction on occasion. In some ways, the completion of my book with well rounded characters has been luck rather than judgment, particularly given the range of locations and “voices” involved.

These are the important “products” which need to be produced for the next novel, and I have Prince2 to thank for helping me see this:

  • Characters – this means expanding on those already in the series and ensuring that their future actions are believe. I need to ask what my characters need, how do they make decisions, what do they “look like” (figuratively and literally”)? What are their back stories? How do I best convey them?
  • Locations – ones which move the story forward, do they need to mean something? I’ll be asking what locations would best serve the story and how do I get my characters “there”. Where will my inspirations come from? Are there places I need to go? Are real places referenced and if so do I need to do research?

  • Plot – admittedly this is the key one. What story do I want to tell? Where do I want it to end? Do I know? Will it lead onto the next book or it will be self contained? Is it consistent with character and previous events – how do I ensure it is? What events from the first book do I want to reference?

There are of course lots of other elements or “products” which I will need to plan for as the work progresses, such as getting a final book published (eg. Graphic design, proof reading etc), but these will all come in time.

So what’s next? Well an important element of Prince2 is that of planning in manageable stages, and only planning in detail to a point that it’s realistic. This is something which I’m going to be covering in my next blog post… So pop back in then for Part 2.

Helen Treharne is a professional writer. You can read more from her on her blog, and you can follow her on Twitter.

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