GROW, Systems Thinking and writing a novel

GROW stands for Goal, Reality, Options, Way forward.

As a coach, I frequently use GROW as a method of helping people move forward. Find the Goal, examine the Reality and all the resources available, look at Options for getting closer then pick one or more as a Way Forward.

As part of this, I encourage coaches and participants to think of how they’ll know they’ve achieved the goal. What are you going to see? If I reach that goal in a different way, will it achieve your aims, or is there another context that we haven’t considered yet? (Anyone into BDD, ATDD or acceptance criteria generally will find this familiar!)

I also use this technique on myself, to help me achieve the things I want to. And, for ever such a long time, I’ve wanted to write a novel. November is National Novel Writing month; it seems an appropriate time to kick-start this. Also, I just ran a coaching session in which I encouraged others to go for their dreams. It seems a little hypocritical not to have a go myself!

So, I’m going to try and use the GROW framework on myself, as well as some other techniques I’ve picked up from IT, and see if I can apply it successfully to writing a book.

First step: Work out what my goal looks like once I’ve achieved it

I already have a couple of chapters which I originally wrote as short stories, and which turn out to have some threads of a larger story running through them, so I’m a little bit ahead of the game. That’s a good thing, since NaNoWriMo value “quantity over quality”, and that’s not enough for me.

I don’t just want to write a novel. I want it published. And I don’t want to have to pay some vanity publisher either. I want someone else to find my novel so wonderful that they’re prepared to pay me to publish it. There’s my Goal – my first paycheck as a writer!

Next: Examine my reality as objectively as possible

I can look at my reality with limited objectivity. I’m a poet. People have paid me for my poetry, and the last time I sent a book off I got some excellent feedback. So I have good writing skills, and particularly I know how to impart an emotional context into a scene in a vivid, descriptive way, thanks to all the practice I’ve had with haiku.

Now for the downside of my reality. What do the best fantasy novels have?

  • A great plot
  • Detailed, vivd descriptions
  • Believable characters
  • An unexpected ending.

I’ve got the characters and the vivid descriptions. I’m just missing the plot and the ending – all I have are the first two short stories. So I’m going to do what all the best writers do – steal someone else’s plot!

This won’t be a problem, since the plot won’t be recognisable once I’ve adapted it to my characters and world, and also because experience tells me the characters rarely like to stick to the details of a plot, given half a chance to escape. It will, however, get me writing, which one Way Forward.

True objectivity is of course impossible

There are plenty of books out there which teach us that we’re blind to our own reality. Probably I think I’m a better writer than I actually am. The subjects I’m writing about might not be enthusiastically embraced by a traditional fantasy fiction audience. Indeed, the stuff in my head may be completely incomprehensible to other people.

Systems Thinking tells us to get balancing feedback

Another book tells me that my mental model is distorted. I like to be told I’m good at what I do. This is called reinforcing feedback. This will make me feel better, and help me to justify all the strange and inexplicable things which keep me from being successful. It will also stop me from actually being successful!

I can get balancing feedback in an Agile way – deliver iteratively to someone, preferably more than one, and see what they think. Amongst my resources are a number of friends who enjoy fantasy fiction. I’ll try and corner one or two of them at the party I’m going to this weekend. It would be useful for me to have the first two chapters printed out so I can take advantage of any good will coming my way. There’s my second Way Forward.

This approach won’t automatically make me successful…

…but hopefully it will help me fail faster, if I’m going to. Will let you know how it works out!

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4 Responses to GROW, Systems Thinking and writing a novel

  1. Rick Umali says:

    Good luck with your goal of writing the novel! I enjoy reading the ThoughtWorks blogs.

  2. Sean Miller says:

    As one software developer with a literary bent to another, (a) thank you for reminding me of NaNoWriMo, which I had forgotten about and hadn’t expected to be reminded of in the ThoughtWorks blogs, and (b) if you’d like another beta reader (who after eleven years of Anglo-Saxon Norse and Celtic probably has an equally different but interested take on fantasy fiction), please let me know!

  3. liz says:

    Sean, I might just take you up on that! Thank you!

  4. Portia Tung says:

    Hi Liz,

    What a great blog entry! Chris Matts and Dan North mention you lots in passing, so I hope we can bump into each other at XPDay London or another Agile event.

    – Portia

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