What THE MARTIAN Taught Me About Project Management (#IWSG, #NANO)

Work the problem in front of you.

That’s it.

Wait, what? You showed up for a blog post and want me to elaborate?

Oh, very well. *rolls up sleeves*

So I dragged the D.S. (Darling Spouse) to go see The Martian for our anniversary last week. Granted, I didn’t have to drag very hard. He hadn’t heard of it, or the story behind it, but naturally being a nerd AND a writer (a lethal combination when debating the merits of a movie or TV show we both watch), I had. I haven’t read the book yet, but I was interested to see the culmination of Andy Weir’s hard work.

Be that as it may, I showed him the trailer, and he was immediately compelled to see it. He wants to work for NASA one day, hopefully in time for the next Mars mission, so he was pretty into it from the word “go” and I hardly had to shove him into the car at all. He was even wearing pants, so bonus.

First, let me just say it’s really difficult to do a Man versus Nature conflict story well these days, and well enough to keep a mainstream audience’s attention. Hemingway did it well, as did London. But…I had to read both Hemingway and London in school. Repeatedly. And I hated it. But I can still appreciate the craft involved to pull something like that off.

(Just to keep score, there are generally three conflict types in story–Character versus Character, Character versus Self, and Character versus Nature. The best stories tend to have 2 out of 3–3/3 is going overboard, I think.)

Here you had a team at NASA trying to bring an astronaut stranded at Mars home. There, you had said astronaut fighting to survive on Mars long enough to be rescued. The antagonist (the source of the conflict) was Mars.

On both sides, there are what might be considered insurmountable, overwhelming odds. We like Mark Watney, we like the NASA team, we want them to succeed, and but have no Earthly (or Marsly, as the case may be) idea how they might accomplish such a thing.

Both parties approached the issue by–you guessed it–focusing on the problem in front of them, and worrying about the rest when the appropriate time came.

This brings me to NANO (National Novel Writing Month). So you’ve got 50,000 words to write this month. Sounds like a lot, right? If you’ve never done it before, it looks especially gruesome. Hopefully, you’ve done your homework ahead of time–figuring out your characters, getting comfortable with story structure, getting at least a list of milestones down so you have a map and, therefore, A Clue as to What Happens Next.

I’ve got a little bit more of a challenge this month, however. In order to keep my production schedule on track, I need to draft a 30,000 words this month, in addition to the 45,000 words to complete the first half of the fantasy novel I’m working on. That’s 75,000 words, y’all.

Looks pretty insurmountable, right? And just a mite overwhelming, maybe?

So I took a page out of The Martian‘s protagonist’s book (heh), and scienced the ever-loving shizzle out of this problem.

In other words, I did The Math.

First of all, I know what my stories and charactrs are about, what makes them tick, my main story points, and how to get from point to point (yay, story structure!). I figured all that out before I started drafting, and got myself reeeeeeeal comfy in both worlds.

Then, for my novella, I broke the story out into scenes to make sure I had the proper pacing in place, and then compiled scene sequences into chapters (using a 3-scene/chapter structure). For the novel, did the exact opposite–I wrote a chapter list, and then broke each chapter into three scenes (beginning, middle, and end).

Then I tackled the word count. I calculated the number of words I needed to write each week, and calculated a daily average. The daily average then got split between the two projects. So now I have something that looks like this:

Monthly Goal         75,000
Weekly Goal         18,750
Daily Goal           2,679

That means I need to draft approximately 1,000 words a day on my novella, and 1,500 words a day on my novel.

Suddenly, the problem I had (epic word count), doesn’t look so insurmountable.

I can easily type 1,000 words in an hour (and at about 30 wpm, no less). That means that in as little as 2 hours a day this month, I can have my daily goal completed. Keep it up long enough, and it becomes routine–hardly painful as all. Certainly not as painful as being shoved into a car by one’s overly-excited spouse on Movie Day, pants or no. Two days into NANO, and I’m already 9% complete with my overall goal.

Notice I didn’t mention anything about whether the words I wrote were good or not, or whether or not I can get it published, or editing/revising what I wrote the day before. That all comes in post production, once the book is actually done. That’s what this is about: finishing the story. All the rest can (and should) come later. No words are wasted if you’re practicing your craft, and learning from it.

So there you have it. Work the problem in front of you. Focus on the task at hand. And, by inches and degrees, you’ll succeed in accomplishing the seemingly impossible–and it will make you MIGHTY.

Happy NANO-ing, y’all!

Or, for the Martians out there: NANO, NANO!


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