Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Lessons from the Corporate World: Project Management for Writers

Guest Post By Angel Luis Colón

Holly's note: Don't let Angel Colón's gritty writing fool you: he's one of the nicest guys around. I asked him to write this post because I think he's a writer to watch. As he explains below, he's only been serious about his writing for a few years, but he's managed to pack a big punch in that time. I figured we could all learn something from him.

I’ve got a little secret: writing as a career? I’ve only been serious about it for three years now. Well, less than three years really.

Now, let’s backtrack. I always WANTED to be a writer. I studied Journalism and Creative Writing in College (according to my BA, I might even be a journalist). I’ve been a voracious reader since I can remember. I also spent a lot of my 20’s impressing people with my lofty ambitions and all the epics of epicness locked inside my amazing brain. That wasn’t enough, though.

It wasn’t that I didn’t have some level of skill—I could write. Hell, I could write FAST—scary fast. There were even people that looked at words I’d put on paper and said, “Oh, this is good,” with minimal surprise in their voice.

Unfortunately, to paraphrase the great teacher, John Kimble, I lacked discipline.

I may live my life by his example more than I realize
So what changed? What helped me move forward and gain external successes (meaning publications and other fun writing gigs)? What keeps me working to grab at the next set of rungs on the never-ending ladder?

Well, a lot really. I got serious about being a better writer, about being published and grabbing any and all opportunities I could. But, that all didn’t just happen. It didn’t click into place until I realized I could actually apply the career that paid my bills to the career that stoked my ego.

Mind = BLOWN.

A lot of writers have a day job, that’s no secret. We toil at our computers and notebooks when we’re not toiling at company-owned computers and notebooks. It is what it is. By day, I’m a pretty buttoned up guy who sold his soul to the corporate hole years ago.

I’m a Project/Program Manager. It’s boring. It’s also an incredibly useful field to be in when you’re a writer. Why? Because it demands a level of discipline and goal-setting skills that are built to make things effectively happen. And when I say goals, I don’t mean ‘get published’ or ‘dethrone JK Rowling in one on one combat’ (have you seen her with a katana? Unstoppable). That’s not how managing a project works.

Projects have tangible end goals, but they never actually end. There are always opportunities for improvement and never a time to ignore your work.

Now, I’m not the biggest fan of one size fits all writing advice. I prefer to pick at advice like a carrion bird and apply it in a way that makes sense to me.

In some circles of Project Management we have a little something called DMAIC. Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control. Exciting right? But it’s surprisingly applicable to your writing career.

Here’s a little example (and mind you, I play fast and loose because, like I said before, this is how I make it work for me):

Define: This is your goal, let’s keep this bite-sized and use one I try to stick to.
Write, on average, 9-12 short stories this year (a spread goal gives us room to work with, hard goals are too rigid and muck up process easily. Always best to have a lower and higher limit).

That’s a lofty one, but it’s accomplishable.

Now next:
Measure: Let’s check what we’ve done in the past and what we’re capable of. Last year, we wrote 7 short stories over 12 months.
Okay, great we would need two more stories to hit our lower limit. What was our output, word count, etc? Can we do better?
600 words a day – maybe we can push to 700/800.

Analyze: I know my numbers, but can I enhance or repeat?
Maybe I can talk with my wife (a ‘key stakeholder’) and get an extra half hour to write each day.
Or I can fit it into my commute or lunch.
How do my weekends look?
Has my work quality suffered when I overdid it? When have I burned out before? Maybe we can keep a journal and see how many words we do on consecutive days. When do the words peter off?

We have all that in order. We’ve decided to talk things over with the spouse.

Improve: The spouse can give us more time (yay!)
It’s only fifteen minutes. (boo!)
But I have some free weekends coming up, let’s take Sundays and try to keep out of commitments as much as we can until we’re at a place we feel our output is up to snuff.
Wait, crap, where do I fit my editing time?
This is when we pilot our methods as well. What’s tough during Improve is that you may need to hop back to prior steps. Refining process is deeply, deeply important and you’ll find the extra work will help in the long term.

So it all worked out. We’re in a rhythm and we’ve written a few stories.

We’re in:
Control: This is when process is launched and going.
But I hit a wall. The holidays AND writer’s block have snuck up on me.

And that’s why it’s a Control phase. We’re never really “done." There are a lot of reasons beyond not having time too. We’re still learning, networking, exploring. Maybe there are classes we want to take, maybe there’s a novel burning a hole into our head. Nothing is necessarily an obstacle—just an opportunity for improvement. Being disciplined doesn’t mean there isn’t room to bend or change whatever doesn’t work.

And here’s the deal: none of this equals external success. That’s a whole lot of other factors that people literally write volumes on. Still, internal success can sure as hell help to push you towards external success more often. I’ve found that my writing career has blossomed when I’ve found discipline and placed my priority on those internal successes. Maybe you will too.

Also, bribe people with cookies/alcohol—OFTEN.

BIO: Angel Luis Colón is the author of THE FURY OF BLACKY JAGUAR. His fiction has been shortlisted for the Derringer and has won an award or two. His nonfiction has appeared in The LA Review of Books, The Life Sentence, and My Bookish Ways. He’s also an editor at Shotgun Honey, home of some of the finest hardboiled flash fiction on the Internet. Find out more at or ignore him on Twitter under the handle @GoshDarnMyLife.

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