Risk Analysis: Choosing My Next Writing Project

sustainable-building-matFULAny writer will tell you that they have more ideas than time. Choosing the next project then becomes a challenge.  From several decades as an engineer, I do a quick-and-dirty risk assessment to choose which of my current candidate projects will yield the best result. (Note: Best Result is a subjective thing and should be defined by the individual writer.)

INTRODUCTION

Risk managers do an initial assessment of the three key factors of project risks: cost, schedule, and technical risks.  As a writer, I’ve re-defined technical as content risk.  In the initial assessment, I determine (or assign a weight) to each risk to determine which I consider more important.  These may shift over time.  As I’m already looking at what I’ll be working this Fall, I need to determine first where I’m willing to take higher risks and what risk I need to drive to zero.  For example, if finishing a project by December 31st has no margin for error, I may decide against a project whose content has high risk challenges. Thus I give schedule the highest weight.  If I decide that cost is the driving factor, then that may force me to set aside projects that would require more financial investment or projects whose audience would be small.  Or, finally, I may decide that content is key, either because it’s a hot trend or something I’m too passionate about to set aside or something I can do in my sleep (and I need the rest!).

For more details about this process, see Risk Management and Issue Management Primer at this site.

MAKE A LIST

For each candidate project,  I quickly move to identify the risks, measure them, mitigate them, and finally to monitor them.

IDENTIFY

For the projects that have survived the initial assessment, I make a list of risks for each, usually in the form of an IF (event)/THEN (consequence) statement. For example, If I cannot resolve the second act issues with Novel Idea #1, then I will not publish the book by December 11th.

MEASURE

For the example above, I would measure the risk as follows. Schedule risk: an estimated 1-5 weeks delay.  I might define a delay of 1-2 weeks as low risk/3-5 weeks as moderate risk.  Cost risk: loss in sales of $25 to $1500.  Again, $25-250 I might consider as low risk, $300-750 as moderate, $800-1500 as high.  So first, I would need to calibrate the cost risk here better. If I have to hire a development editor to fix the problem, the cost may be higher which might help to measure it better.  Content risk: I’ve experience with risks like this in the past, so I would rate not resolving the plot issue in a timely manner as low (less than a 1 in 5 chance.)

Measuring the risks for each candidate project will help identify which project I should select.

MITIGATE

Coming up with options to minimize risk can be challenging.  For the risk identified earlier, I would develop a strategy as follows:

  1. Create a beat sheet for the entire novel.  Seeing how a perceived second act issue can be resolved in the arc of the entire story may turn this risk into an opportunity.
  2. If the beat sheet shows that the resolution is too nebulous or fraught with unworkable plot threads, I may decide to detail the second act further in story boards for each scene: looking to see how each character is involved, how the action develops, how the action and characters create interest, fun, drama, and conflict, and how all that relates to how the book started and where it all needs to converge in the third act.  I may change out some characters here and maybe some plot points, too.
  3. If the first two tactics haven’t beaten the risk down to an acceptable level, I may then brainstorm with a fellow writer.

MONITOR

For the project I’ve selected, I’d review the risks on a weekly basis.  If a risk has risen, I would probably have to come up with a new strategy for it.  I may determine that I will accept the risk, and all its gnarly effects.  I may decide the risk is actually an opportunity, and hope that through finishing the project, I’ve become a better writer.

I find risk assessment helps me approach new projects with confidence.  I hope it helps you, too.

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About mlknowlden

In 2011, I left engineering to write full-time. Between the years 1992 and 2011, I’ve published 14 stories with Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine that have featured the hypochondriac detective Micky Cardex and two stories that did not. The 1998 story “No, Thank You, John” was nominated for a Shamus award. Many of these stories have been included in anthologies and translated in multiple languages. With Neal Shusterman, I’ve also published a science fiction story for the More Amazing Stories anthology (Tor) published in 1998 and co-authored with Neal Shusterman an X-Files Young Adult novel (DARK MATTER) for HarperCollins in 1999 under the name Easton Royce. For Simon & Schuster in July 2012, we published an e-novella UNSTRUNG in Neal's UNWIND world. I have graduate degrees in English and Electrical Engineering.
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6 Responses to Risk Analysis: Choosing My Next Writing Project

  1. Woah. This is the most clinical novel planning process I’ve ever seen. Always interesting to see how the skill-sets of different authors influence their approach. Thanks for sharing. My own process is more influenced by my job as a researcher, so lots of note taking and planning timeless. I haven’t used a gantt chart for anything yet, but I’ve thought about it…

    • mlknowlden says:

      Made me laugh with the gantt chart! Trust me–the talking about risk assessment sounds much more excruciating than it really is. We do this when planning vacations, too. Even the most spontaneous among us does a quick risk assessment (If I take this cruise, then replacing the kitchen flooring will wait a year (cost). If I take my vacation now, I will miss a key business meeting (schedule). If I go rafting with friends this summer instead of seeing my mother, then she will gripe in the Christmas letter about me (technical).)

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Rebecca Lang says:

    I never really thought of writing a novel as a risk management process. I decide what to write based on what I feel like or what other people get excited about. It’s hard for me to think about how much money I’d lose when I’ve yet to make any money at all.

    • mlknowlden says:

      Deciding to write something because it interests you or because you think others will like the subject is still part of your own analysis. As part of your initial assessment, you’ve ranked content higher than cost.

      By the way, I didn’t talk about those who juggle multiple projects at a time. Since the reasons to do so are as unique as the writers themselves, I didn’t want to discuss it. Studies show that multi-taskers finish projects slower than those who do projects sequentially. BUT some writers have multiple contracts for different publishing houses. Some writers bop from one project to another because they cannot or will not finish anything. Some writers work daily on book contracts they don’t particularly enjoy so they can work between paid projects on the ones that would keep them penniless but happy.

      Writers weigh those issues in their hearts, too.

      Thank you for your comments. Persistence is a writer’s greatest gift.

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