The home-builder’s approach to writing

In order to lay out a project plan detailing how to write long-form fiction and non-fiction in less than nine months, we are wise to take lessons from the home-construction industry.

Writing a novel (or a non-fiction book) is a big job. The first draft of projects that are anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 words and more can take months, even years. It takes even longer to refine that draft into a publishable manuscript. In order to make it to the end of such a big task, it's important to have a plan that spells out the journey from idea to finished product.

The challenge in writing longer works is how easy it is to lose momentum. Short-form writing is so much easier to complete. Knocking out a 1,500-word article is a single creative task. The first version can go down in one sitting. The re-write and polish done in a session or two.

In long projects, the work stretches out over a very long timeline. It's common to start off with excellent momentum as you plow headlong into the first draft. I can turn out 1,000 words or more a day in no time when I am hot on a new idea. In theory then, a first draft should take me two to three months. Re-writes and revisions take less time per go-through, so I should be able to pop off a couple of book-length projects a year, right? But, and I think is common to many long-form writers, my current work-in-progress has languished for almost two years due to breaks in momentum (overwhelmed by other work, reach a sticky plot point and have to step out of the flow of writing to solve it), for example.

Picking back up after long delays is unhealthy for a book (or its author). You have to re-insert yourself into the flow of the story, re-pack the various story and character threads in your active, writing brain (the one that sits under your conscious mind and works at the story's problems while you're driving, showering, or doing anything else but writing).

Knowing this is going to happen though, it's important to be prepared for it, to have a plan in place.

What writers can learn from the construction industry

My family and I live in a semi-rural suburban community in the greater Phoenix area. Nestled in an older neighborhood with 300 two-acre horse properties, we had been surrounded by mostly farm fields and open desert since we moved in. But lately, progress has marched our direction in the form of fast-turnaround, tract-home housing neighborhoods.

It's amazing to see these projects at work. Modern home construction, from outside observation, is a remarkably efficient human enterprise. Land is cleared in a matter of days. Wooden frames appear almost overnights. Within a month or two, the first finished model homes are open for sale.

If you've ever had exposure to construction management, you'll know that the efficiencies come from the following of a system that is much like the system it takes to create full-length fiction and non-fiction.

Construction projects are broken down into their elemental parts, working backwards from the finished product. You can't move furniture into a new house until every detail in the interior is finished. The interior can't be finished until the flooring and walls are in place. The walls and flooring can't be finished until the electrical and plumbing and HVAC systems are installed. They can't go into place until the frame is in place. Which can only be erected on a solid foundation. Which has to sit on land that is properly prepared.

This is an over simplification, but you get the point. Efficiency in construction is about managing those layered efforts, bringing in the right crews to construct the right layers in the right order. And within each layer, making sure that materials, plans, and everything else the crew needs to get their piece done as quickly and correctly as possible is in place.

The primary took constriction project managers use is the Gantt chart. Ever seen one? It looks like a color-coded spreadsheet. The timeline of the project runs across the headers. The project elements (the jobs that have to be done) and listed in the columns (in the order they have to happen).

From WikipediaA Gantt chart is a type of bar chart that illustrates a project schedule, named after its inventor, Henry Gantt (1861–1919), who designed such a chart around the years 1910–1915. Modern Gantt charts also show the dependency relationships between activities and current schedule status.

Build your next novel like contractors build a house

Writers can learn a great deal from construction. Have a plan. Break the bigger job into a series of smaller tasks that are needed. Set intermediate deadlines to keep the momentum going.

The exact steps and the timeline goals are for you to work out. For me (since this is a letter to myself), writing a novel breaks down to the following steps/timelines:

  • Story idea and initial outline - two weeks. Not everyone is a planner when it comes to writing fiction. Some people have the amazing ability to just write their way through a first draft. I need a plan. It starts with a two-week budget for outlining the next book-length project. I start with the basics of the story - the main characters, the settings, the major story line. Then I break that into thirds (setup, climax, the middle bit). Then I plot out the scenes (about 100 total). I then write paragraph or two-length beats of the action in the scenes as a guide to follow when writing.
  • First draft - 12 weeks. How fast this goes depends on how many words per day and how many days per week you can give it. I'm good for 1,500-2,500 words a day (when I have an outline to follow). I can write 5-6 days most weeks (work and life depending). Which means, a 100-scene first draft of about 80,000 words should take me less than 90-days to complete. The goal here is to get the first draft out in one creative push. The better you're able to hold momentum during the first-draft, the more likely you are to finish.
  • Re-write (1) - six weeks. In my experience, it takes about half as much time to read through, mark-up, and execute changes to a first draft to get a complete second draft. I make lots of notes of things I wants to fix, change, and improve, and only make the edits after I've read through and marked up the entire story. I print my manuscript for this edit because I find it's easier to read/edit on paper than on screen.
  • Re-write (2) - four weeks. You might need only two or three revisions. You might need more. The point here is to predict the phases of production you need to complete your book and stay focused on one intermediate goal at a time.  At some point, you'll have your best draft, something you can pass on to a few readers for feedback.
  • Final draft - two weeks. Taking my final notes, and notes from the reader(s), you should be able to produce a best draft. Only then is it time for professional editing. Paying a professional editor to critique and revise your manuscript can be expensive, so you want to make sure I have my best-possible draft ready.
  • Editor - four weeks. I plan to write another article about the different types of editors available (there are several), but if you're serious about producing professional work, you need professional guidance. Editors work on contract and you have to book your window with them in advance. If you did not plan this deadline to deliver your final draft to an editor in advance, your project could grind to a halt when your story goes to the editor. Book your editor as soon as you know you're going to have a first draft, a couple of months before you'd be ready to submit.
  • Cover, copy, marketing - the same four weeks. While your manuscript is with an editor, take the time to get your marketing materials and cover done. I'l write more about this in another post, but there are numerous freelancers available to hire for cover creation. The book will also need blurbs for the back of the cover, copy for the listing pages, or your website . The book will need a dedication page, acknowledgements, references (if non-fiction), newsletter subscription page, a list of your other works, etc. Get all these things done while your edit is underway. Schedule them here so you don't slow your writing down earlier in the book obsessing about things that don't matter until. And, if you're publishing through a traditional route, this is the time to dial in your query, synopsis, and cover letter.
  • Copy edit - two weeks. Whether you use a third party of do this yourself, someone needs to go through every sentence of the book carefully and find the last stinking remnants of misspellings, double words, missing punctuation, before you dare say the book is ready. Try reading your book aloud to spot imperfections. Read each paragraph in reverse order, from the back of the book to the front of the book. Find whatever trick and tip you can to make sure you leave no mistakes in the manuscript before publishing.
  • Publish and promote. Whether you publish independently through the various mediums available, or pursue traditional publishing, stop fiddling with the book and switch your brain into selling mode. Then immediately start your next project.

Completing a book-length project (for me) is, in theory, a thirty-six to forty-week project. Somehow, I've managed to stretch the current work-in-progress to out over two years by allowing my momentum to break in the middle of this workflow! To finish, I need build out this novel-production plan (Gantt chart) once more, identify where in the process I am with the current work, and re-insert myself into the production flow.

How about you? Do you have a production plan that you follow for writing your long-form work (fiction or non-fiction)? How different is it from this? What am I missing that you include? What do I include that is helpful to you?


Stop being a chicken and be a writer

I have dreamed of being a writer my whole life. Clouded by fear, I put all kinds barriers in the way of that dream. To get through my fear and actually start putting my writing out into the world, I only needed to embrace the barriers I had put in place to stop me. 

Learn to be the writer in all areas of your life

Writers sometimes hear a Universal whisper that says that that there is no time to write because we have to work (or errands, or chores, or endless-list-of-anything-but-writing). And when we don’t make time to write, the voice says we’re never going to get anywhere with our writing. And when we do write, the voice calls us an imposter and says the work is not good enough.

The voice can be overwhelming. It can get in the way of progress. It can bring whole projects to a grinding halt. The temptation when when the voice overwhelms all progress is to blame all the things the Universe puts in our way. Blame the job, blame the family, blame politics, blame Facebook.

Or maybe we try to ignore the voice. Neither of those things work. The only way to defeat the voice is to create a new voice. Instead of a hiss sniping away at your dream, learn to turn on a voice that is constantly asking the question in all aspects of your life of how you can be the writer right now, in this moment.

Panic attack in a room full of successful people

A few weeks ago, I attended an interesting conference for work. I found great value in the seminars and educational sessions. I made connections that were important to the work I do in the communications-technology space. But I felt a bit disconnected, a feeling I couldn’t at first, put my finger on.

The day opened with a general presentation in a large meeting space. The audience numbered a thousand or more. There was a main stage with three jumbo screens. There were videos, lighting, and professional sound.

Presentations by the host company spoke to their growth and success. A half-dozen speakers opined on the future trajectory of the industry, and about how we should engage in conversations with customers about Customer Experience as a means to connect with them around the technologies we sell.

The audience was into it. The speakers, one after the other, seemed genuine and proud and intelligent and focused. I was absorbing it all. Then one of the speakers opened his talk with a profession of ‘love’ for this business. “I love this business,” he said with reverent enthusiasm. “Don’t you love it?” The affluent and successful crowd cheered and clapped. I looked around. My colleagues eyes were bright, their smiles broad, their attention(the ones not tapping away on their smartphones that is) were connected with the speaker. I panicked.

I feel good about the work I do in this industry, but the word ‘love’ was threw me. I don’t ‘love’ the business. I bring value to the company I work for in this business. I apply one-hundred percent of my energy and effort to the work. When I am engaged with a customer, I bring integrity and skill and value to the relationship. But I do all that for money. For security. Because they pay me.

Not for love.

That panic didn’t come up in me because I couldn’t believe that someone could truly and honestly dedicate their precious lifetime to the sale and support of communications technology. The panic was cynicism was at myself for making the compromise to occupying a seat within a community that is not, on its surface, the one I want to make my life from.

How to survive a relationship when you don’t love the same things

The industry I work in is not at fault here. I admire the people I encounter there. There are a lot of driven, independent, successful people in the communications-service business, men and women who’ve enjoy great comfort and pleasure in life because of the work they do. Allowing me to participate and take a slice of the pie is a gift and lets me exchange my talents and time in exchange for the money they control.

The role I play (as a consultant) is that of product-knowledge specialist, sales engineer, and a member of the marketing team. It’s a custom-designed job. They use for me for the things I am best suited for. And I appreciate them for it.

The role though, is the compromise I make with myself. I sold myself into this amalgamation of responsibilities, exchanging my precious time and life energy in exchange for money. And when boiled down to its essence like that, I am not entirely proud of myself. Because...

… I want to make something of my life with writing. I want to Be a writer. But I make these choices about life that, I sometimes feel, box me out of the pursuit of writing as my life’s work. If I get self-critical about it, I take these jobs (and take on debt and other barriers to the pursuit of writing) as a way to put a wall between me and the risk of actually pushing through on that dream. The voice in my head also ways that being a writer means being a fiction writer. And being a fiction writer is only valuable if your fiction is commercially or critical successful.

So there I am, at this conference, conflicted because the job I had sold myself into put me in a place which did not align with my greatest ambitions. How do I turn this around? How do I live the life I’m living, honor the obligations I have now, and be a writer? I said, out loud (in my head) that I was so grateful to be where I was, but I was open to how I could live my life as a writer first.

Being the writer in all areas of your life

Then one of the speakers put three book covers on the screen. He said “These are the thought leaders in our industry.” He said that these books, all business books making the argument that improving Customer Experience was the best way for the industry to focus its technology, was the aspirational knowledge we all needed to gain. Writers were setting the pace and tone of the future. Writers were the gifted and celebrated leaders in our space. In my space. Right up there on screen. In front of the entire audience. Writer’s efforts being held up as the highest work in the industry.

Click. I got it, the reason I was there, how I fit into the world, how I could serve this community.

My problem was not that I have created a world where I don’t get to be a writer because of my obligations and my choices. My problem is that I am not waking up in the morning and looking at the world I operate in and saying “How can I be the writer in this space.”

Looking at the communications-technology community and saying “I am the writer here” opens up ideas about content to create (I am writing an essay on Customer Experience already) and stories to tell (company stories, personal journeys, long-form explorations into the concepts that this community wants to work in). It makes me think of copywriting and ghostwriting. It makes me think of writing for the trade publications, of creating white papers and eBooks. It makes me think that by getting known as the writer in this community, that I can help leading-edge thinkers get their innovations across. It makes me want to be open to how this community could use a writer, rather than being a frustrated writer feeling outside of this community.

The result of the epiphany is that I found a space of acceptance. To be a writer means to Be a writer in all areas of your life. Unbox that one-dimensional idea you have about what a ‘writer’ is. Shake the idea that ‘writer’ means only a certain thing and just start being a ‘writer’ at every opportunity, in every space. Write and share. Write and share. Do it well. Get known for it. Whatever comes of it will follow.

What writing journey are you on?

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We Need You! (to become a cycling official)

The number of active cycling officials is dwindling. If it drops any further, the race calendar will have to shrink. Some races will cease to exist altogether. Are you willing to be part of the solution?

Could you, should you, take the USAC Officials exam?

There is an ecosystem to local cycling. Promoters (and their organizing collectives), God-bless them, work long, long hours, take incredible risks in securing permits, to give racers a safe, clearly-defined battlefield to compete on. They do this for little (sometimes even no) financial reward.

Timing companies, registrations services, and sponsors provide valuable services and support. Volunteers give their time and energy to help promoters make races possible. And the racers themselves! Oh, how we would all not exist without the racers.

Officials are just one part of the ecosystem, but vital. We are the mandatory, on-the-ground resource for the sanctioning body. That sanction ensures liability insurance is available to protect promoters and racers. It gives competitors rules under which the races happen and a path to greater and greater personal achievement.

We need new officials in Arizona (and, as I’m hearing from my colleagues, in many other active cycling communities across the country). Despite there being a good core of experienced, talented officials in my home region, there are only a couple of us who are active (take the regular, every-other-weekend local race assignments during crit and ‘cross seasons).

Local races need two officials, yet for two of the last three races, I have been the only person available. Working a race alone is not only the opposite of fun, it is unsustainable. We need backup to get the results right (as close to right as possible on the first posting), to keep the event on schedule, to be available to help riders with challenges, to manage accidents and incidents. And, maybe I speak only for myself here, we would also like the time and freedom to encourage and coach and promote the sport within the rider community we serve.

The rewards that come with sometimes long, stressful assignments

What can I say to you so you’d step up, take the exam, and become an official? Should I paint a dark picture of what happens if the sport has no officials (promoters would have to hire from out-of-state which would add travel and time costs that would simply bury smaller events)? Or should I spin officiating as some kind of pious and smugly rewarding pursuit?

Neither of those arguments do the role justice. The truth is that although the days can be long and tense, the work sometimes tedious and monotonous, officiating bike races...

  • Is a way to give back to the sport, to be of service to the racers, the promoters, the sponsors, and everyone else involved in the sport. Cycling has been an important part of my adult life. It has given me a healthy and fit lifestyle. It has challenged me to compete. It has given me work and income. It brings me mental wellbeing. Cycling gives a lot. I officiate as a way to give back.
  • Is a way to be part of the scene if racing is not your thing. I crashed badly in a crit in 2010 and did some physical and mental damage that means I don’t want to race crits anymore. But I wanted to be around racing. Officiating is a great way to be at every race, to see the action from the best position, and to immerse yourself in the race itself, all without the risks of actually racing.
  • Allows me to act as a guardian of a sport we all love. Cycling works as a sport because there are rules; a structure and format to the competition. Being an official allows you to support racers by acting as the independent voice at events for the rules.
  • Enables me to make a difference in the future of cycling. One of the best parts of officiating is helping junior riders live out their cycling goals. Without the local crit, ‘cross and MTB racing scenes, these kids would not really have cycling on their radars. Knowing what the sport does for me personally, I would not be able to live with myself if I let the door to cycling close on junior riders by not helping to to make opportunities for them to race and develop.
  • Let’s me support local shops and clubs that hold events that would not exist without us. Cycling thrives when all of its constituents thrive. Racing is one of the ways cycling brings new people to the sport, and one of the ways the business community of cycling can interact with riders. Officiating allows me to play a part in enabling riders and the business of cycling to come together in the real world.

Take the USAC Official Exam

It’s not hard to become an official. There is an online course that gives you the basics. USAC also offers occasional classroom sessions. The cost is minimal (and under some circumstances free for first-time officials). I and many of my colleagues are ready to mentor you into your first season; to teach you what the course material touches on, but does not adequately cover. And there is a technical team at USA Cycling ready to give you opportunities to grow and develop (to ultimately work at national-level events, to gain additional certifications that add variety to the kinds of races you can work, and to offer you courses and seminars so you can elevate up the officiating ranks).

You’ll begin as a C-level official. For your first few races, you’ll be paired with someone with more experience until you’re ready to take a leadership role. You are paid (nominally, but enough to legitimize your presence as a professional) to work races. And you get to say no to any race assignment offered to you.

So here is my plea. Everything is in place and ready for you to get started as an official. The sport needs you. My colleagues and I are ready to help you through the process. Contact me if you have questions. All we need is for you to raise your hand.

What do you say?

- Steve Medcroft


A Love Affair with the White Tanks Library

Going analog for my next read, I re-discovered what has to be one of the best public buildings in the state of Arizona; the White Tanks Library.

I recently finished a book on my Kindle. Sensitive to my near-constant cycle of reading/buying/reading/buying, and maybe just looking for a different experience for a minute, I went to the library for my next read instead. It is a good library. Because of the layout, I was able to choose quickly. I always seem to choose quickly.

When you first enter the  White Tanks Library, there are a couple of display shelves featuring new editions. I always start here. I want to see what’s new, the latest best-selling fiction, new ideas in the non-fiction space. Within a minute, I had selected two books and checked out. Not in a hurry to head hone, I took a few minutes to ponder the building I was in and was amazed at how much of a gift this place is to those of us lucky enough to enjoy it.

Sitting on an isolated lot at the very edge of a county park, the White Tanks Library is a marvelous building to look at. Interestingly shaped, modern, clad in a slightly green pebbled treatment, with winding entry walks and a shaded courtyard just before the main doors, it is a compliment to desert that surrounds it.

The broad, pressed-earth and gravel walkways, the pebble-embedded concrete walls, the colored cladding and awnings, all reflect the natural surroundings. The parking spaces and walkways intertwine with protected patches of unchanged desert. As a visitor, you feel like you are walking into something that grew up out of the landscape, not something that was built on top of it. Outside the building, you'll find a Desert Tortoise enclosure as well as an outdoor amphitheater, and a trail entrance into the county-maintained park itself.

Inside, the building is shaped like a Japanese folding fan, with a broad curved rear wall that faces the White Tanks Park and a narrow entryway at the front. To protect the line of that back wall, all the busy space of the building is at front; meeting rooms, the bookstore, bathrooms, activity rooms, staff offices, as well as an amazing nature center with displays of reptiles and snakes found in the park. Even the sorting center is tucked into the front of the building.

Extending out from the library's infrastructure are working spaces; librarian’s desks, the children’s apparatus, the private workrooms for patrons, computer desks, etc.

The next concentric ring to this highly-functional building are the stacks. Fanned across the heart of main library chamber, and organized in bookstore categorization (which is hard to get used to for a Dewey-trained library nerd like me), shelving and display units filled with books, periodicals, and digital media follow the curve of the room.

The real treat to the White Tanks Library though is the back wall. A brilliant decision that honors the park adjacent to the library. The back wall is one, long, panoramic, curved window. No matter where you stand or sit in the library, you have a view into the park.

The stacks end five feet from the windows and nothing else is allowed to get in the way of the expansive view. It is like an IMAX theater experience; a surround-sound view of the thriving Sonoran Desert landscape, backed by the copper-colored White Tank Mountains. The building is so ideally situated that the terrain curves up and away from the view, like it’s really a diorama, or a carefully curated display like the famous Neanderthal man exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The placement is such that from inside the library, almost no distracting elements of the park (roads, trails, or shelters) are in the view.

The windows perfectly frame a Western view. That means sunsets, which can be spectacular in the desert even on the most mundane of days.

The White Tanks Library was designed by Arizona-based DWL Architects & Planners and is a living testament to their ability to imagine a building that honors its surroundings, is designed to have minimal environmental impact, and is practical enough to be constructed in a challenging environment.

If you ever get the chance, I encourage you to pay a visit to the White Tanks Library. If you're a lover of libraries, of nature, or of architecture, I promise you'll be impressed.


PASSO Jacket – for Whatever Winter Throws at You

Designed in collaboration with former UCI world champion Lizzie Deignan, Santini’s PASSO jacket for women offers uncompromising protection for winter training.

Our Highly-Technical Women's Winter Jacket

In cycling, we race from spring to fall (unless you’re a die-hard cyclo-cross racer, then hats off to you), so our wardrobe of cycling kit is dominated by short-sleeve jerseys, bib shorts, and speedsuits. But to be competitive, you have to arrive at the first race of the season in shape and ready to push. Which means training through winter for you, and the production of the best winter cycling kits for Santini.

To perfect our women’s winter clothing line, we recruited Trek Factory team pro rider and Santini collaborator and Ambassador Lizzie Deignan. She and the Santini design team came up with a range of cold-weather riding gear. The flagship piece from the collaboration is our PASSO winter jacket for women.

The PASSO jacket is a cold-and-wet protective shell that will keep you on the road during less-than-ideal winter training days. Pro-level technical and tailored to the female body, the PASSO is “…quite an usual jacket,” says Deignan. “It has all the functionality of a high performance jersey, but also has a feminine, fashion-forward fit. And I love the fact that although it is a flattering black, it is also visible as it has a high visibility logo and stripe.”

Deignan has a lot of experience training in bad weather. “I was born and grew up in Otley in Yorkshire,” she told us recently. “My parents still live there and my husband Philip and I have a house in Harrogate (nearby).” Deignan says she trains in Yorkshire often. “The weather can be so harsh with biting winds, rain that can appear from nowhere, and much colder temperatures than in Monaco (Deignan’s home during the racing season). Growing up training on those Yorkshire roads inspired me to help design this jacket.”

Leveraging Windstopper's Pedigree

Built with Windstopper fabric (300 GR/M2), Lizzie’s PASSO jacket for women is designed for temperatures as low as 5 degrees Celsius, as well as offers protection from wind and rain. The PASSO is performance fit and features inserts in reflective pixel fabric on the neck and cuffs as well as two zippered rear pockets. The PASSO jacket complements the rest of our Lizzie x Santini winter collection (CORAL long-sleeve jerseys, bib tights, and lightweight jacket).

A former UCI Road World Champion, Commonwealth Champion, five-time British National Champion, Olympic Road Race Silver Medalist, and twice winner of the UCI Women's Road World Cup, Lizzie Deignan is signed to the Trek Factory Team in 2019. She is married to professional cyclist Philip Deignan. Lizzie recommends the PASSO for cold winter rides with only a thermal base layer underneath.

The complete Lizzie X Santini collection of winter cycling kit for women is available now.

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