Why I Create a Magna Carta for Everything

National Novel Writing Month — NaNoWriMo — is here. I am not going to talk about it. While I wish everyone participating in the event well, I am blessed to be working full-time as a writer. There’s no need for me to carve time out of my busy day to find the time to make word count. I do still have to find the time to do other things, because time is always a precious and finite resource. This means I need to prioritize. One of the tools I used comes right out of the NaNoWriMo playbook. Allow me to explain why I create a magna carta for everything.

A Magna Carta for Everything

A magna carta is one of the tools that Chris Baty explains in his book No Plot? No Problem!, the “bible” of NaNoWriMo.┬áLet’s not put on airs here. A magna carta is just a glorified “pros and cons” list. He suggests, before starting your novel, making two lists. One is for all of the things you love about novels, the genre you’ve chosen to work in, and so on. Refer to the list often, and make sure you include those things in your writing. The other list is the stuff you hate. Don’t do those things. Easy enough, right?

The Pros and Cons of the Blacklist

The second list is essentially a blacklist. If you hate the science fiction trope of humans falling in love with aliens, then don’t have a human fall in love with an alien in your book. This seems obvious, right? Why even make the second list? If you don’t like brussels spouts, you don’t need to make a second grocery list to remind yourself not to buy brussels spouts! You don’t make a to-do list, and a second list of things you don’t need to get done that day.

Well, except when you do. If you’re having someone over for dinner, and they have food allergies, you might make a list of things to avoid. If I’m doing the laundry I might make a not to not do the towels, because I’m planning to do a whole load of that sort of stuff later. Right now, I have a list of things to not clean in the kitchen (the utility closet and my spice cabinet), because dealing with those are separate projects entirely.

The Pros and Cons of the Whitelist

The first list is more than a simple to-do list. It’s a wish list. For NaNoWriMo it’s not fixed that you have to include those elements. But if you’re hung up on a plot point, you can look at the list and realize that yeah, you can pull in one of those things to fix your problem. Cool! You don’t have to, but if you can, go for it!

For those into Getting Things Done, I view the first list as a sort of “someday/maybe” reference. It’s not the core work — until it is. For some projects, it’s the details, the bonus features, the things I want to add if I have the time and resources. It’s the treat to get at the grocery store if it’s in season and available, or if there’s money in the budget after buying staples. It’s the thing you want to work on if there’s time left in the day after doing all of the things that have to be done. It’s aspirational.

Know What You Want

Any project I work on that requires a project plan gets a magna carta developed for it. Anything project that gets a spread in my bullet journal gets a magna carta written into that spread. It’s not about what the purpose of the project is, what the deliverables are, what the end product is supposed to be. It’s often about what I want out of it. That might be to learn a new skill. It could be to develop a better working relationship with a teammate. There have been times when it’s been to avoid working with a certain person or department, and finding ways to work that accomplish that. It creates clarify for me about why I’m invested, and what my expectations are. That’s why the tool is invaluable to me.

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