Mastermind

Taking a break from the fight series to talk about process a bit—partly because process fascinates me, partly because I had a bit of an epiphany today, but mostly because I’m bogged down on my fight entry this week.

Stephanie Kong and I have been exchanging “Mastermind” emails since January (her terminology, I’m not sure where she picked it up), where we tell each other what we’re hoping to accomplish in the upcoming week and what we actually accomplished in the previous week. This has been incredibly helpful because it forces me to:

  • Plan my week in detail
  • Track my time
  • Be accountable to someone else

It’s amazing how easy it is to deceive yourself about what you’re actually doing or how hard you’re working towards your goals. Our “Mastermind” system deals with that surprisingly effectively. [1] It also gives me a weekly boost from sharing my accomplishments on projects that aren’t quite finished, and is a great source of actual data on my writing process.

Here’s last week’s entry as an example:

GOALS FOR THIS WEEK (Mar 7 – Mar 13)
Blog post (3 hours)
Revise play (3 hours)
Three pitches for game company (1 hour)
IF project for SpringThing (8 hours – get to playable beta)
Flash piece (3 hours – this is ambitious)
TOTAL – 18 hours

Unfortunately, I had a rough week. As I mentioned, I got bogged down on the next entry in the Writing the Fight series. I realized I didn’t have quite as firm a grasp on the material as I thought, which was discouraging. I’m going to have to rethink it a bit, and it’s going to take longer than I estimated. I also lost about three hours work on the interactive fiction project from a computer crash. I managed to recreate the lost material, in fact I improved it in the process, but still. Plus I had a couple of days where I just wasn’t feeling it. I clocked just 10.5 hours of writing, didn’t finish my blog post, didn’t get the game to beta, and didn’t even start the flash piece. The frustrating thing is that if I’d just put in the time, I probably would have hit all my goals.

As I sat down to email Stephanie about my unimpressive progress, I realized that this “disappointing” week would still kick the ass of most of my 2018 weeks. I completed the final revisions on a full-length play (with Stephanie), got the interactive fiction project to a playable alpha (in a new programming language), and the game company loved two of my pitches and hired me to write one of them. That’s a good week, and the fact that I was initially disappointed is a testament to what a productivity boost the Mastermind process has been.

Here are the things that I have actually finished (i.e. put out in the world in some way) this year:

  • Twelve (12) episodes for a web series (in production)
  • Eleven (11) blog articles, including five in the Writing the Fight series
  • Five (5) episodes for another web series (in pre-production)
  • Two (2) short stories (out on submission)
  • One (1) non-fiction article on recreational mathematics (out on submission)
  • One (1) sketch for a new sketch comedy troupe

Plus the fourth draft of the non-fiction book, and the second and third drafts of the full-length play I’m writing with Stephanie Kong. That’s a lot of stuff (compare with Year in Review), and it’s only March. 

Additional observations: from the data I’ve collected so far, I’ve discovered I’m much more likely to knock off short tasks for easy wins and that anything I schedule for more than six hours a week tends to underperform. Four to five distinct projects a week (in various stages) is typical for me. The fewest so far is three, the most is six.

Working on multiple shorter projects simultaneously allows me to switch between them for an energy boost. There’s a trade-off here in terms of loss of context, but as long as I return to a particular project every day until it’s done, it’s not too bad. In particular, I’ve found that I do best on short stories and blog posts working on them an hour a day till they’re finished, rather than trying to knock them out in a single session or two. It reduces the panic of staring down an empty page if I tell myself I’m just going to put in an hour and then move on to something else. And I usually return the next day with a fresh perspective and more enthusiasm.

Finishing the second draft of my second novel is still on the docket for this year, and I’m wondering how this approach is going to work, or not, with a project I’m estimating at 280 hours, especially since I’m committed to writing a blog entry every week and a short story every month. My current thinking is to just schedule it chapter by chapter (six hours for a 1,500 word chapter) around my other projects and see how that plays out.

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2 thoughts on “Mastermind

  1. Wow, Tony, incredible progress for mid March. What are the games? Monopoly, or World of Warcraft?

    What I love about your writing is not only the technical excellence but that you take the scenes to fresh places.

    Keep your momentum!

    Like

  2. Thanks, Karin! The “game” is actually an interactive fiction piece–text-based with an emphasis on story, but with some puzzle elements. Looking forward to it.

    Like

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