The Agile Development of a Novel

January 17, 2021

Everyone has read a novel and used software, but how many people really know how they're produced? It may surprise many (also within the two disciplines) to learn that the process of writing a book and that of writing software have quite a lot of similarities. The similarities are so profound, in fact, that tools and techniques used within one practice can be adapted and applied to the other to improve the process.

In the next paragraphs, I'll give a crash course on the different stages of software development and novel writing, underlining the parallels. I'll also demonstrate some of the enhancements I've been able to make by utilizing learnings from both worlds.

Getting Started

Before you actually start writing your story or your code, you need to set up your work environment and come up with a very high-level plan for what you want to create.

The Development Environment

It begins with the tools of the trade. Somehow authors and developers have to take the ideas in their heads and put them on paper (so to speak). Whether you're writing code, poetry, or prose, in the end, they're just words, and in their most basic state, they can be represented plainly without any formatting or special technology.

Just Text

Both novels and software can be written in a simple text editor like notepad. Authors and developers tend to want more power than that, however, so at some point more advanced tools typically come into play. For authors, it usually comes in the form of a word processor which provides helpful features like spell-/grammar-checkers, advanced formatting, and reviewing tools. For developers, it's an IDE (integrated development environment). An IDE is essentially a word processor for code, providing many features such as automatic code compilation to ensure what you've written is syntactically correct (basically like a spell-checker), auto-completion, and a debugger (tool to help trace problems in an application). Both a word processor and an IDE are collections of tools on top of a basic text editor.

Word Processor and IDE

An additional tool which every good developer should be using is version control software such as Git. VCS allows you to store a record of each change you make to your software and gives you the possibility to revert changes and compare them to older versions. It also allows you to maintain many "branches", which are like works-in-progress that have not yet been merged into the final product. This branching capability and centralized storage make collaboration significantly easier. Because version control software is so powerful and useful, I've leveraged it to store and keep track of changes for all my novels, and it has made my writing much easier (and safer, knowing that I always have a clean copy backed up in the cloud).

The Premise

Once you have your development environment set up, you need a project definition, or if you're an author, a premise. Both authors and coders need an idea, in the beginning perhaps vague like a "what if?", later being expanded into something more refined. Authors often expand upon the premise using outlines or mind maps. Developers often draw flowcharts or architectural diagrams. Both vigorously support the Post-it Note industry.

Scrum Board
Image from Logan Ingalls, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

A common practice when planning a software project is to break it down into "user stories", which are small deliverables written from the perspective of a user (to ensure that each deliverable brings value to a user). For a novel, you would typically begin by planning some of the key events and characters. This is one area where software development and writing differ in my opinion. Good software should be well-planned because every minute spent planning saves an hour of implementation. When writing a novel, however, I find that looser planning is better because it allows for plot and character developments to be born naturally from the flow. Every writer does it differently, however.

Continuous Development

The actual development or writing phase is a continuous process. For software developers practicing agile development, this continuous process is broken down in the form of "sprints" which are two-week (typically) stretches where a team works on a set of user stories they've committed to. For authors, this typically takes the form of chapters.


Typically a development sprint begins with planning. This generally involves looking through the tasks in the backlog with the highest priority, discussing and refining them, and estimating the effort, risks, and complexity. Once the tasks are clear, the team decides which tasks are ready for implementation and how much they can handle. When planning the next segment of a novel, I typically begin with bullet points, outlining the major plot developments I intend to write in the next chapter as well as any specific ideas I might have.

The planning phase may include a period of refinement, where you spend time thinking about the feature (or plot point) and all the edge cases. For software, edge cases would be those special cases that may require additional handling. For example, if the program should save a file, what should it do if a file already exists with the same name? When planning a novel, edge cases could be potential plot holes. Why do the characters behave the way they do, is it believable, and are the details consistent? Sometimes an edge case is complex and difficult to resolve and may require brainstorming, which may, for example, involve drawing diagrams (often the case for software architecture issues) or defining a list of options with pros and cons.

Often the planning phase involves investigation. In development, you often need to spend time learning a new technology, spending hours reading technical documentation, or digging down into existing code or aligning with other teams to understand the pieces which are already in place before you can really estimate the complexity and dependencies involved in a task. Writing a novel often requires minor expertise in many different fields, whether it be history, physics, or simply how to effectively dispose of a body. While writing A Fatal Exception, for instance, I spent a while researching ways to hack a prison’s locking mechanism, and I tried to find blueprints for a Chicago police department. That, in combination with some of the bloody research I did for Epoch, probably puts me on a few NSA watchlists. Since research skills are vital for both writers and engineers, both need to develop skills in finding information and recognizing its trustworthiness.


The implementation or writing phase is probably the most straightforward and the most enjoyable part of both software development and writing. It's in this phase where you really get to flex your creative muscles. This is also the phase which feels the most rewarding. As an artist, this is the part where you really give life to your story. As an engineer, this is the part where you create something which works autonomously.

It may be surprising to hear that one of the greatest difficulties facing both authors and programmers is naming things. You wouldn't believe how much thought a developer will put into how to name a variable or service or function. We hold meetings with twenty participants to come up with naming conventions (which can be important but can also be taken too far). You couldn't guess how many meetings and discussions I've participated in to decide whether to use camelCase, PascalCase, or snake_case for naming.

For authors, the situation is no better when naming your characters, places, organizations, alien races, or the actual book itself. In fact, it may be even more difficult in some regards. Since it's a creative process and not a technical one, there are no universal conventions or best practices that should be followed when naming things. I've spent days looking at lists of random things like mythological gods, astronomical bodies, flowers, you name it, and then verifying that nobody else already used the name for something similar, just to come up with the name of a character which will only appear in one chapter.

One thing that sets a good developer or writer apart from a bad one is the practice of documentation. This ought to be part of the implementation phase for every engineer and author, but for many, it's a much-despised and overlooked task. Good documentation allows others to understand what you've built as a developer (and saves you from answering dumb questions later). As a writer, documentation comes in the form of notes like character bios, timelines, and glossaries. Such notes are essential for keeping consistency across your book. You don't want to describe Dr. Perrywinkle as a middle-aged blonde man with glasses in chapter one and suddenly say he's a twenty-something with a mohawk in chapter eight. Good notes are critical for science fiction, fantasy, and mystery in particular.

Quality Assurance (QA)

After a round of writing code or prose, and often still during the writing phase, a round of quality assurance is done. This involves testing the code to ensure it works as defined in the specification and testing for regression (i.e. failure in already existing components as a result of new changes). In software, this includes executing automated tests within the code and performing manual testing in your local development environment. As an author, this phase includes proofreading your own work-in-progress and referencing your notes to ensure consistency and the absence of potential plot holes.

When you do find a plot hole, it can take a lot of thought and re-planning to fix it, and sometimes requires a lot of effort to locate the optimal place to resolve it. This process is similar to debugging when a bug or issue is identified in the code. Self-editing usually brings you back to the planning phase for a while, whereas debugging requires reading code, logs, stack traces, and using special software (e.g. a debugger) to step through the program one line at a time during its execution.

A good developer never merges large changes to the master branch without first putting them through a code review process. In this process, teammates who are familiar with the codebase (and sometimes fresh eyes from outside the team) are invited to view the changes and can leave comments to suggest improvements and identify errors before the code ever reaches production. Typically this process is done using "pull requests" (also sometimes called merge requests) in a VCS like Git. For an author, the review process can take the form of peer proofreading. For example, my wife always reads the rough draft of a new chapter before I move on to the next one to help identify plot issues, events that ruin a character, or inconsistencies. The further along you are when an issue is identified, the more complicated it is to repair, so finding problems early is essential for both code and writing.

Release Phase

Once you've finished your first draft, it's time to begin the dreaded editing process. Although for software development the most time should generally be spent on the planning phase, for novel writing it's clearly the editing segment. This process involves one or more rounds of self-editing the entire book followed by a review from an editor. Similar to the code review from other developers, an editorial review can incorporate sophisticated reviewing software (for example the tools provided by Microsoft Word) to mark issues, suggest changes, and to make comments. Similarly for developers, when you've merged your code, you begin a type of high-level review called acceptance and regression testing. This is the phase where the stakeholders verify that the feature works as they wanted, and a quality assurance engineer or manual tester executes their automated or manual tests to simulate real user behavior. Whether you're a developer or an author, be nice to your QA guy, because he or she can save you a lot of pain.

Once the manuscript is ready, an author (or a special designer when you have a bigger publisher) needs to format the book. This formatting is how it goes from looking like this:

Unformatted Novel

To this:

Formatted Novel

Paperback design work includes: font selection, margin setting, page numbering and headings, table of contents, hyphenating words to ensure consistent spacing, and adjusting the text to avoid having pages with just a few dangling words. This effort is often doubled when special considerations need to be made for the ebook version.

It's also at this point when the cover needs to be designed. The cover of the book depends on the page size and the page count (which affects the thickness of the spine). Not only do you need a good image with catchy and legible fonts properly sized and placed, but you also need to consider how the colors will appear in print (which is often darker and with lower resolution).

In software development, when the feature is user-facing, designs should ideally be ready already before the implementation, but in this phase, the designer will review the final product to ensure all the visual and usability requirements they planned have been met. This review may uncover new usability issues that were not planned for in the initial mockups and may lead back to the implementation phase again.

Finally, once the software or novel is complete, it's time to deploy it to production (or package and ship a binary depending on the type of software). For a novel, it's time to publish. I've omitted out all the tiresome steps where authors search for an agent and then contact publishers and editors, etc. Assuming you already have a publisher or are self-publishing, it's time to upload or send all your documents and graphics and get it out to the public.

The story doesn't end here, however. Countless hours will (or should) be spent monitoring the performance of your application or novel using whatever reporting tools are available, be it logs, graphs, tracing, user ratings, etc., and adjusting and improving where necessary.

Whether you create software or weave stories, an artist's work is never finished. As soon as one product or novel is live, it's already time to begin planning for the next.