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From Project Management to Writing and Back Again: Planning Your Story

I’m one of those people for whom my chosen professions have been largely instinctive for me.

For example, project management is something I literally fell into while working for a mortgage company out in Southern California. I was hired as a Business Analyst and as the months went by, realized I was doing way more than just analyzing. Slowly I started to think, huh, this seems like it should have a name, all this stuff I’m doing. Lo and behold, investigating the tasks I was doing revealed that I was performing the function of a project manager (PM), and all without a lick of training for it.

It intrigued me, and I wound up with a Masters Degree in Project Management…without ever cracking open a textbook. I can’t really explain how or why I know what to do. Who knows, maybe I was a PM in a past life or something. All I know is that, aside from some of the buzz words (that clique-like language every group of people creates to try and make what they do sound more important than it is – I wrote a blog post on this once), I’ve always been able to just do project management without giving it a second thought.

For me, it’s pretty much the same with all aspects of writing. From things as basic as spelling, to structuring a sentence properly (when required), to knowing when and how to ‘break the rules’ for the sake of what or how you’re writing…all the way to coming up with plots and characters and worlds, it’s never something I had to study.

All the way through elementary, junior high and high school, I aced every spelling and grammar and English test. I read voraciously as a child, spending every moment of every day that I could with my nose buried in a book. I whiled my youth away with everything from “The Chronicles of Narnia” to all of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. From the novelizations of “Murder, She Wrote,” “Knight Rider” and “Star Trek,” to the books written by Judy Blume.

And that was just for fun. I was also, as most of us are, exposed to the ‘classics’ like Shakespeare and George Orwell’s “1984.” “War and Peace” and “The Red Badge of Courage.” Tons of poetry, too. I’ll never forget my one high school English teacher who thought poetry was the epitome of everything awesome in the world. How she rolled and simultaneously softened the ‘s’ sounds in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s name.

For all the years I have spent writing – from my childhood days where it was taking pencil to spiral notebook paper all the way to the ridiculous amounts of fan fiction I’ve typed out on the computer and put out there on the internet for the world to see – the one thing I never ever did, and actually scoffed at, was ‘plan’ the story. Well, that pretty much ended as soon as I turned my eye to the world of writing professionally, and nobody’s more shocked about how I do things now than I am!

When I first had the idea for “TAKERS,” I wrote it up as a one-page treatment and showed it to my now-publisher. She’s also my editor, and she showed it to my second editor. They both thought it had a lot of promise. I therefore thought about it some more, and within the space of a few hours, had completed bullet-point outlines for the first three books in what I now believe is going to become a full-blown series.

That was the first time I’d ever actually written an outline…or plotted anything out in any way whatsoever…for something I was intending to write. Normally, I just start out with an idea, or maybe have an ending in mind that I want to get to. Many times, I will literally sit down in front of the computer and start typing, having no idea what I’m even working on, where it’s coming from or where it’s going. Next thing you know, I’ve got a forty-thousand word story on my hands.

But when it came to inventing a whole new universe – which is what I did with “TAKERS” – I found that in order to get it straight in my head, I had to do those bullet-point outlines. And then I tackled my first movie screenplay, and as only I can do, took ‘planning’ to a whole new level of crazy.

“The Healer” started out to be a novel. As I have mentioned in previous blog posts, I’d gotten halfway through it already when the muses (damn them) decided that it wasn’t supposed to be a novel at all, but rather, a movie. And so I was suddenly faced with having to write a feature-length screenplay, when up to that point I’d never written anything but TV show spec scripts. (My Boston Legal spec scripts seriously kicked ass, if I do say so myself!)

And because “The Healer” is complex in how it moves back and forth between past and present, between one lead character’s world and the other’s, it was just something I realized I couldn’t go charging into with blind faith that I’d have all my ducks in a row.

So I started out with a bullet point outline, but quickly saw that it wasn’t going to be nearly enough. I guess I must be a more visual person (funny, for a person who uses words to paint pictures), because I suddenly could see in my mind’s eye, the story of “The Healer” in diagram form. That’s when the project manager side of me kicked in.

Microsoft Visio, for those unfamiliar with it, is a piece of software you can use to create everything from flowcharts to maps. Floor plans to network diagrams, and everything in between. As both a business analyst and project manager, I’ve generally used Visio just for flowcharts myself. But I found in visualizing the scenes for “The Healer,” it was coming to me in the standard and familiar form of rectangles starting at either top corner of the page and working their way down to a point so that the diagram wound up looking like a huge letter V.

The structure of “The Healer” is very different. It’s definitely non-linear, and it starts in both the long-ago past and the right-now present, for two different characters. Slowly the events of the past and the events of the present converge – as do the characters – to a single climactic moment, and then suddenly the V shape flips upside-down, and further events occur after that big moment that lead us through strange happenings to an eventual conclusion.

Which means that my diagram wound up looking like a bumpy hourglass.

That was the very first time I had ever so completely, so thoroughly, plotted out anything I was intending to write. I did the same thing with my second screenplay, “Fractured,” because I have discovered that I apparently have a style all my own when it comes to movies I’m writing, and that this style demands a diagram so I can keep the flipping from past scenes to present scenes in their proper order.

Now, “Fractured” wasn’t so complicated that it turned into an hourglass shape like the first screenplay’s diagram, but it was definitely a big V, with a few little straggling shapes hovering around the outskirts of the culmination of the main character’s past and present converging.

And it worked like magic for me. So much so that when I started hunkering down to plot out “TAKERS II,” while I already had the bullet-point outline I’d originally created when I developed the concept for the series, I realized I’d gotten so used to working with my Visio diagrams for the two screenplays I’d completed since finishing “TAKERS,” that I actually needed one for this second book.

“Holy cow, I’ve created a monster within my own mind,” I lamented.

And while the new Visio diagram for “TAKERS II” looks like a red Trix rabbit and a blue Trix rabbit were fruitful and multiplied all over the page, the fact is that I’m now so dependent on having this thing, that I can’t fathom writing my second book without it there to help guide my thoughts, and remind me of all the things I need to make sure I address that are leftover questions from the first book.

To my sheer horror, I’ve become the thing I used to think was silly: a writer who plans what she’s going to write in advance. All I can say is O.M.G.

I know that over the years, as I’ve watched, listened to and read about authors of both novels and screenplays talk about how they work, I’ve internalized a lot of their methods as simple givens. For example, some writers use standard outlines like I remember learning how to do in elementary school. Other writers hand-draw things out on napkins or pieces of paper.

And many, many writers use the index card method, where each index card represents a scene, perhaps…or maybe a thought or idea…or a chapter. There are many different ways to use index cards, and it usually culminates in the index cards being lined up on a wall linearly to help guide the writer through their story.

What I’m doing now, really, with my Visio diagrams, is nothing more than an electronic version of using index cards. Each rectangle in my diagram represents something I might put on an index card if I were doing things that way. Only thing is, the way my diagrams look, I’d wind up using two complete walls of a room and I don’t think anyone makes a corkboard quite that big.

Plus, I’ve never been a big fan of paper or hard copies of stuff. Which is why I am perfectly content to have my books published as eBooks and have no real desire to see paperback or hard-cover copies of them mass-produced. Besides, with all these big bookstores going out of business, I really and truly believe electronic books are the wave of the future and am happy to ride that wave.

All that aside, I want to apologize for my thought crimes of the past, in which I mentally tongue-clucked at the painstaking ways authors plotted, planned and diagrammed their books and screenplays out. I don’t know why I never needed to before – maybe because I was generally writing in other peoples’ previously-created universes rather than making up ones of my own – but I now completely understand why authors have done this for ages.

I am now quite married to the sometimes very detailed Visio diagrams that I feel compelled to create for whatever original story I’m about to write. And I am proud to say that I think this may mean I’ve started down the road of becoming a professional writer at last.

…You Might Be a Project Manager (With Apologies to Jeff Foxworthy)

  • If you think someone asking, “When can you have this done by?” requires a Microsoft Project Schedule and a consultation with your online calendar before you can even begin to respond, you might be a project manager.
  • If your child asks you for extra help with their homework, and your answer is, “I’m sorry, but Mommy doesn’t have enough resources to cover scope creep,” you might be a project manager.
  • If the only way you can outline your next novel or screenplay is by creating a Microsoft Visio diagram, you might be a project manager. (That would be me.)
  • If your next family get-together requires a meeting invitation with a PowerPoint presentation attached, you might be a project manager.
  • If you handle finding out which movie your friends want to go see Friday night by sending out Microsoft Outlook voting emails with the choices Approve or Reject and a firm deadline for responding, you might be a project manager.
  • If you know more about how to manage scope, schedule, budget and resources than the contractor renovating your house, you might be a project manager.
  • If you can successfully implement a five million dollar project, but find the prospect of balancing your meager checkbook intimidating, you might be a project manager.

But here’s the most important one, and all kidding aside:

  • If you have ever had to do something that required even a two-step plan to accomplish, you ARE a project manager.

No, really, I’m not joking with that. Trust me, I’ve been a so-called “professional Project Manager” for over eight years now, and even have a Masters Degree of Project Management. No, really, I do! Colorado Technical University’s where it’s from. It means I get to put the letters MPM behind my name if I want to try and make myself seem more important than I really am.

Hence why you never see those letters behind my name. So why’d I get the degree? I don’t know. It seemed like a good idea at the time (back in 2004/05).

I found it highly amusing last night when I was speaking with my publisher about the timeline for my next two novels (which will be “TAKERS II” and “TAKERS III”) and my next two feature-length screenplays, that I was automatically planning out the timeline in my head, including estimating how long tasks would take to complete, analyzing dependencies and constraints (my writing time vs. my two editors’ availability, desired release dates, etc.), determining whether any up-front costs would be required and the implementation plan for each of those deliverables.

There, I just used a whole bunch of project management buzz words. Now, let’s talk to each other like normal human beings.

At its simplest, project management is nothing more than trying to figure out how to do something with the best possible chance for success. I am probably pissing off a whole community of project managers because they tend to take themselves way too seriously as a whole, but I’m a no-nonsense sort of person, and here’s what my no-nonsense wants to tell you: it’s not rocket science.

I can prove it. Know how? I never cracked a textbook open during my Masters degree program, yet aced it, top o’ the heap. Why? Well, mostly because the principles of project management are intuitive for me, much like writing is. Do I know how to break apart a single sentence and identify precisely what word is which technical grammar term? Oh, dear Lord, no, nor do I ever care to, thanks much. Can I tell you what a noun is? Yeah, that I can do. Can I tell you the first thing about the origins of the word onomatopoeia or what that even means? Sure, if I look it up on Google.

What I can do well, is slap a whole bunch of words on a page that actually do stick together and sound fairly decent, most of the time. This reminds me of a quote from Hawaii Five-0 that makes me howl because it’s just priceless. I love the writers of that show. They crack me up. One of these days I have got to interview them.

This is from the Season 1, Episode 7 entitled “Ho’apono.” Starring Alex O’Loughlin as McGarrett and Scott Caan as Danno, for those who don’t know.

Danny “Danno” Williams: Okay… Let’s say I am you, and you are the bad guy here. I would know that all the ways onto the ship are visible somehow. So, how would you outsmart yourself and get yourself onto that ship without yourself seeing yourself?
Steve McGarrett: Okay, was that an actual question, or were you just throwing words together and hoping they made sense?

I’m with Steve on this one. As much as groups of people like to get together and try to make what they do for a living sound ever-so-important and ever-so-difficult and this-is-why-you-should-pay-me-the-big-bucks-because-I’m-smarter-than-you-are-with-my-jargon…well, that’s not me. I don’t throw words together just hoping they make sense (unlike Danny, apparently).

So when I say to you that you are probably just as much a project manager as I am, let me ask you some questions that will also serve as examples of how and why I think that’s the case.

  • Have you ever had to get a 2-year old up in the morning, and get Her Royal Highness bathed, fed, dressed and safely to day care all before the time you have to be at work?
    • I will bet you a McDonald’s large coffee that fathers and mothers familiar with the ‘joy’ that this process can bring are nodding vigorously over the difficulties inherent in such a daunting undertaking. And they do it daily.
  • Have you ever had to take a trip somewhere by car, boat/ship, airplane, helicopter or any other means?
    • Where are you going? What’s the best method of transportation? How do you secure that transportation? Do you have to borrow or rent a car? Buy an airline ticket? Book passage on freighter? Wait, you have to book passage on a freighter? Call me next time, that sounds like fun.
    • Do you need to pack clothes? Toiletries? Food? Something to drink? Is anyone coming with you? What do they need to have brought with them? Do you need a book or two? Your Kindle? A magazine? Your laptop? Your iPad? iPhone? Blackberry? Android? (No, not Lt. Commander Data, ST:TNG fans.)
  • Have you ever written a story, book, script, screenplay, poem?
    • What’s your subject matter? What genre are you writing in? Who are your characters? What are their personalities? What is your story about? What do you want to happen? Where is it set? If it’s a poem, is it going to rhyme?
    • Indie filmmakers are kick-ass project managers, by the way. Especially if it’s a movie they wrote, they are producing, they are directing and, sometimes, they are even starring in. I cannot imagine what it takes to pull something like that off, and yet so many people do!

Let’s get back to something no quite so entertainment industry-related.

  • Have you got more than one child, and they all have to be at different fields on Saturday at the same time for different sports games/practices?
    • In this case, I would seriously consider looking into getting you and your family vehicle cloned.
  • Do you have two essays to complete, a mid-term to study for, five chapters in a textbook to get through and a documentary you have to watch all by Monday morning…and it’s Friday night?
    • Students everywhere, don’t despair…college isn’t nearly as hard as real life. Enjoy the pretend stress as much as you can before you get to the real stuff!

I could go on forever with examples, but I won’t because you’re probably already bored. Suffice it to say that while I will tell folks yes, I am a project manager, and yes, I have been a project manager for several years and have those silly letters that I can stick after my name to boot, the fact is that we are all project managers.

Just like we are all writers.

These days the term ‘writing’ is used much more loosely in that we’re technically ‘typing’ more often than we are actually sitting down with pen or pencil and writing. I get a cramp in my hand penning a single sentence fifteen times, so no, longhand and notebooks and I don’t get along too well.

But just like we can all manage projects on some level, so, too, can we all write on some level. Ever written a note in a Christmas card? Ever typed an email to a friend? Ever posted something to LiveJournal or Facebook? Ever left a comment on someone’s blog? (hint, hint)

Then you’re a writer.

Are you a novelist? Well, I don’t know, have you ever written a novel?

Are you a screenwriter? Not unless you’ve actually sat down and written a screenplay of some sort, whether good or bad.

Are you a poet? (Roses are red, violets are blue, this doesn’t count, but it’s writing, too.)

My point is that while I’ll happily sit here and give myself all sorts of names and titles like project manager, journalist, screenwriter and novelist, the fact is that I’m stuffing myself into predefined definitions because it’s the only way I can get taken seriously in any of those professions.

I’m not a snob because I’ve got a book published. I’m still just me. I will never become pretentious or unavailable to listen to what people who spend their precious time paying attention to anything I say or do want to tell me, good or bad. I may be busy as hell sometimes, and so it might take me a while to respond.

But no matter how busy I get, I will never forget that I’m just a normal Jane/Joe like the majority of the rest of the world’s human beings, and that I am a one-time cubicle dweller myself who’s had to work for Corporate America (and Corporate Canada, while we’re at it), too.

(Why do you think I want to make writing my full-time job??? Hello.)

I’ll leave you with one final thought:

If you think that because your job gives you the ability to:

  • tell other people where to go;
  • how to get there;
  • what to do when they get there, and
  • crack the whip when they don’t do what you told them to, then

you might be a project manager.

But consider this: while the fact is that the job description I just gave is definitely for a project manager, it’s also exactly the same for a mother, father or a BDSM dominatrix.

If you’re wondering how many risks I might be taking treating such serious subject matters with this much irreverence, then you’re either a project manager or you’ve been in the business too long, my friend.

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    The book series "Takers," the screenplays contained on the "Screenplays" page and the screenplays discussed and contained on this website are copyright Chris Davis. Novels are published by Plotfish Press, and screenplays are registered with the Writers Guild of America (WGA) West.
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