Sunday, February 9, 2014

Working on Multiple Projects

Think about your life for a moment, specifically, about chores and housework. You need to do dishes, laundry, vacuum, and probably a bunch of other things, right? Well, what’s the best way to do that? You don’t load the dishes into the dishwasher and wait until they’re finished before you start your vacuuming. You don’t sort your laundry, then clean the bedroom, then load the washing machine. If you want to get the most done in the least time, you’ll start the dishwasher, start the laundry, and then do other things while waiting for the machines to run their cycles. You’re multitasking, and your tasks are overlapping. Basically, what I’m saying is that in some situations, it’s counterproductive to do one thing start to finish before working on something else. Chores are just an example. To a certain degree, writing is the same way.

I’m not saying that there is some magical machine I have that does my writing for me. That would, in theory, be awesome. But so much of the author-voice would be lost. It would be like a drum machine. So no, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m talking about working on multiple projects at once. For the purposes of this post, let’s say it takes three months to plan a novel, nine months to write it and a year to do some serious edits and a couple drafts. So for our purposes, it takes two years to finish a novel. So you’ll be able to put out a novel every other year. You might get tired of writing that one novel for two years straight before you can move on to another project. And if you’re working on a multi-book series, you’re looking at a very very long time working with only that world, plot, and those characters before you’ll ever be able to work on something else.

So how are you supposed to work on multiple projects at once? Well, I’m sure there are lots of methods, but this is how I tend to do things. I look at writing in three main stages: planning, writing, and revising. At any given time, I’ve got one project in each stage of the writing process. As of right now, I’m on my third draft of “Criminal from Birth” (revision), I’m writing “In the Name of Chaos”, and I’m planning (outlining and world-building) “The Extra Son”. Revision is really intense for me (but I’m learning to do it better), so I can only do it in short bursts. But I still want to be creative, even when I don’t have it in me to edit. So I’ll write. Or I’ll outline. Basically, what I’m saying is that I am constantly working on something, moving several projects forward at the same time. Sure, it may take longer to finish one piece as a whole, but I’ll be turning out more faster.

So let’s look back at my time figuring from earlier. Before, working solely on one project, I was saying it takes two years to do a project from start to finish. Working on multiple projects, since your attention is split up, let’s say it takes a year to plan and write the first draft, a year to revise, and a year to do final edits. (These figures are really bad, but I’m simplifying here.) By this figuring, it will take three years to finish a project. But the extended time to get through the process is just because you’re not focusing solely on that one project. So if you started a project in January 2014, you can expect to be finished in January 2017. But your next project is already waiting for its final drafts, and that only takes a year. Instead of starting from scratch then and waiting two years to get from start to finish, you only need that one year to put finishing touches on your next project. So your next project will be out in January 2018 rather than having to wait until January 2019. You’ll get another book out sooner. The project you were planning gets bumped up to being written, and you can refresh your mind by starting another project.

Just to make things a little more understandable, here’s how your productivity looks. We’ll just say you’re starting all brand new projects in 01/2014, using the time to do each part of the process from before. And for comparison, I’ll show how things look in reference to to the other way, focusing on one project at a time. We’ll just call the projects P1, P2, and P3, and so on. Of course, we have to take into consideration that starting brand new projects means you don’t have anything to put into the writing or editing stages right away. So until we actually get past the initial initial stages of the first project, both sides will look similar for a bit, but you’ll soon see more productivity on the Multiple Projects side, and more things will get turned out. I hope this makes sense.

So let me break this down a little. Sure, it takes longer to get through each step of the process when you’re working on multiple projects, but you’re actually getting more done. In six years, working one project from start to finish, you’ve managed to put out three novels, and you have not yet begun working on the fourth. If you’ve got a project in each stage of the process, however, and you’re working on them all at once, in six years, you’ve actually put out FOUR novels, and you’ll be ready to put out another one in a year. And another the year after that. And one the year after that. The more time goes on, the further ahead of Only-Working-One-Project Guy you’ll get!

Sure, there are a lot of other factors to take into consideration. Take me, for example. I’ve got a project I’ve been working on for almost six years now that isn’t finished. A portion of my writing time goes to writing these articles and writing book reviews. I put out short stories. I try (poorly) to manage my website, and I’m trying (even more poorly) to start a podcast. I read, and that takes time away from writing. So does exercising. And those productivity figures, 1 year to write a first draft, 1 year to revise, and 1 year to do final edits? Yeah, I so don’t fit into those numbers. Those were for the purposes of the example. I write much faster than I revise, and I plan and outline much faster than I write.

I said I’m revising “Criminal from Birth” right now, right? Well, while I was doing my second draft of it, I wrote the first draft of “The Secret Keeper”. It’s waiting for its second draft. I’m into my third draft of Criminal right now. I’m writing a novelette, and (as of the time I’m actually writing this article) I’m about a week away from NaNoWriMo 2013, which will mean another finished first draft. And I’ve whipped out about half a dozen or more preliminary outlines for projects that just need a little focused attention to get them ready to write. By the time I’m actually finished with this last draft of Criminal and I’m ready to start sending it out to agents/publishers, and the revision slot of my workload opens up, I’ll have about three projects (maybe more) that are ready to fill that slot. And each time my writing slot opens, I’ve got a bunch of projects I’m ready to actually write. Honestly, I’ve only recently— recently like, the beginning of 2013— started actually working this way. That’s why I’m having such a lag getting books out there. I haven’t really found the right flow yet, and revising just takes time for me, mostly because I’m not practiced at it yet. And because I actually wrote the first draft of Criminal back in 2010, it needed a LOT of work. I’m getting better at writing better first drafts (something else that comes with practice), so hopefully in the future, the editing process will streamline, and I’ll be able to work through my backlog of projects better. Plus, every project is a different length, so some will take longer to write and edit, and some won’t. That’s basic logic.

I’d say one of the biggest draws of working this way— besides getting more done faster— is being able to step away from projects to work on others. It’s so easy to get bogged down by a story world, or a plot, or to have a character give you so much trouble that you just need to ignore him for a while. When you’re only focusing on one project, stepping away like that means you’re not writing at all. When you have other projects, it just means you can take some time and work on something else. Brain bogged down by editing? Work on the world-building or character development on the project you’re outlining. Sick of outlining or somehow found a huge block of time to work? Whip out the first draft you’re working on and write! So your project starts and finishes won’t look as pretty on a timeline as the little chart I made up there. You’re at least getting things done. And you’re not wearing out your brain doing it.

But how do you manage each stage? How do you actually work on three projects at once? I try to make a point of working, at least a little, on each project every day. Even if it’s just opening the file, looking at it, and going, “Nope. I don’t have the brain for it today.” If I can’t think to work on one project, maybe I can on another. Sometimes, I just want to write. Sometimes, I look at Criminal and think, “Wow, I haven’t edited it in a few days. I need to!” and then I revise a chapter, and that’s my work for the day. If I get a big chunk done on one project, it’s okay if I don’t look at the others. Or if I only spend a half-hour with every project and don’t get any major progress done on them all, but I do push each one forward a little, then that’s still work getting done. That’s one thing I am still trying to finagle, figuring out my best times to do each thing. I know I write better in the morning. However, the morning is about the only time I get a big uninterrupted chunk of time to work, and it’s easier for me to edit in big chunks than in smaller increments. Then again, I haven’t really tried editing in the evenings, when I’m tired and about to go to bed. I need to do that and see if my post-dayjob brain is better at revisions. Maybe it will be because all the writing is out of my system. Maybe it won’t be because editing is so much more concentrated. I don’t know.

The point to this whole post is that you need to figure things out for yourself. I say this in almost every post, but it stays true. I’m not you. You’re definitely not me. The world can only handle one of me. That’s why I don’t have a twin. What works for me writing, well, that may not work for you. You might be the type to work on one project and work it so fast that you can put out like five books a year just working one at a time. If so, I salute you! You may be like me, an endurance writer. Just keep plugging away, and everything will get finished. I don’t know. I’m still learning what is the best for me. But working multiple projects seems to be working. Give it a try. If it doesn’t work for you, that’s fine! There’s no right or wrong way to work on your projects. The point is, you’re working on them.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I found this post extremely interesting because I wanted to know how other people deal with these things. For once, I cannot outline. Two, I cannot do only one thing at a time. That stresses me out. I love being efficient and I need balance.

    „Just“ writing on the same book from beginning to end of the first draft would not be enough for me. On top of that, I have a short attention span and I need to mix things up to sustain my interest with a project.
    My most efficient and most successful NaNoWriMo for me so far was the one where I had my last exam in law school at the end of November. I hit 50K on Nov 17, finished the book a week later and passed the exam with a B. Whenever I was sick of writing, I studied. When I was fed up with studying, I wrote.

    I need to do something creative to balance out work which can be creative but is very different use of brain power.

    There is no plan how to do more than one thing at a time for me, I only know that I have to. At the moment, I’m writing on short stories (I always am doing that for my podcast), I’m finishing the first draft of a novel, I’m writing on my dissertation and some smaller projects. Once the draft is done I’ll go into the first round of editing, which I know I’ll hate. So not only is my attention not going to be there, I don’t like it much to begin with. As a consequence, I need even MORE other things to balance it out. I have already planned a photo project and a non-fiction book, working on the cover art and many things more to make editing more bearable. Then I’m always trying to learn more, doing different online courses etc to make sure there is also always stuff going into my brain and not just out of it.

    After that, I’m glad I can outsource some of the more tedious tasks whilst I’m going into casting the voices for the podiobook.

    I wish I had your discipline because I’m bouncing around a lot. Every once in a while I even finish things, but really I’m just flying from flower to flower until they are done. Or something, I’m not a biologist.

    Really, if I’m in the zone with one project, I latch onto it for as long as it works because that’s when stuff seriously get’s done and I’ll take as much concentration and motivation as i can get :) …

    And now I have to do something else so that’s it :D