Six impossible things

Multitasking manuscripts

In the two years and a bit that I’ve been producing this blog, I’ve developed a rule of thumb that goes “Any time three people ask me more or less the same question in the same week, it’s probably time to do a post on the topic.” Last weekend, as I said, I was at a convention, so I got lots of material, but this post’s topic came up first and most often.

More specifically, I had a number of people ask “Should I work on one story at a time, or should I work on a bunch of them at once? What do you do?”

Anybody who’s read this blog for more than about a post can probably figure out that my short answer is “You should do what works for you. What works for me is irrelevant.” But the fact that people kept coming up and asking makes me think that more discussion is warranted. (That, or I’m just not convincing when I say “Do what works for you.”)

The longer answer requires consideration of two things: why the writer wants to work on more than one story at a time (or only one), and what the writer needs in order to improve his/her writing. In other words, there still isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer (and is anyone really surprised to hear me say that?), but there are some ways of looking at oneself and one’s work that can aid one in making the initial decision.

First, there’s what the writer wants to do and why. Generally, I meet three kinds of writers who really, really want to be told “Sure, go ahead, start as many projects as you want.” The first kind of writer loves doing the beginning. That’s the fun part; it’s where they get to make up all sorts of cool new stuff, and they don’t have to worry about tying it together. These are the writers who get six to ten chapters in, hit the first big wall, and immediately start a new book. After all, they reason, at least they’re writing something.

The trouble is, these folks clearly know in their hearts that this isn’t working; that’s why they’re asking me this question in the first place. They have seventeen different first-six-chapters scattered around their hard drives…and they’ve never once gotten any further, let alone actually finished something. Why they think I’m going to say “Sure, keep doing that” is beyond me, but that’s evidently what they expect, because they get kind of perturbed when I ask “And is that working for you? No? Then cut it out!”

The second kind of writer who comes to me with this question is the one who is spinning off ideas faster than she/he can keep up with. They want to work on eight projects at once because they’re afraid they’ll lose a brilliant idea if they don’t write it down immediately. They’re all about the “Oooo, shiny!”

This group is a bit harder to sort out, because for some of them, working on multiple projects at once does work. (The definition of “it works” in this context is: these people finish stories on a regular basis, even if they don’t finish absolutely everything they start, and the number of projects they finish keeps growing compared to the number of projects they don’t.) If that sounds like you…then go to your word processor or your “completed works” file and count up how many things you have finished, how many are abandoned, and how many you’re working on right now. If the number of abandoned works is two or more times as many as the number of finished works, you should seriously consider cutting back on your number of projects, because this system may not actually be working quite as well as you think it is.

Those for whom the multiple-project system works well cite the lack of down time as a plus – when they get stuck on one project, they can move on to another while that one is cooking, instead of having to waste days or weeks while they wait for the first project to get un-stuck. This can work well…or it can be distracting. Mileage varies; in this case, one has to be honest with oneself about what is working and what isn’t.

The third group that comes up and asks about this are the ones looking for a second opinion. Somebody told them “You should work on multiple projects! It works great for me!” and they don’t really want to, or else they’ve been told that they shouldn’t ever be working on more than one thing at a time, and they really want to. So first I have to give the “There are no rules except that you have to write and what you write has to work” speech, and then we have to sort out why they don’t want to follow whichever bit of advice they’ve been getting and whether it is or is not a good thing to do for them.

Because the second piece of the decision depends on what the particular, individual writer needs in order to write publishable stuff…and this may very well not be what that writer wants to be doing. As should be obvious from the above discussion, there are quite a few writers who would really like to work on multiple projects, but for whom this is not going to be a particularly fruitful way of proceeding. Also, even writers for whom multiple projects have worked for years and years occasionally find themselves with a book or story that absolutely requires them to focus on it, and only on it. Again, if the hard drive is littered with abandoned starts-of-stories, whatever you’re doing probably isn’t working. Try something else.

And trust your instincts; if you know in your heart that you aren’t being as productive as you’d like, but you keep working the same old way because it’s more fun, then admit it to yourself. You don’t have to do anything about it if you really don’t want to. Honestly, nobody’s making you do any of this.

  1. Thanks for this! I like working on just one project at a time, because then I focus on it and really get to know (in-depth) my characters and their story. I often get distracted by the “Ooh! Shiny!” ideas, but I just try to tell myself sternly, “You are working on a project, and you’ll like finishing it much more than abandoning it, and starting this. Because you know this story is working, and that one probably isn’t.” Those “shiny!” stories are like bubbles to me–bright and shiny and appealing, but if you try to catch them they pop.

  2. And then there is the “sometimes needs to work multiple projects, sometimes absolutely mustn’t” writer. I know at least one of those. 😉

    I do go off on too many complete tangents. But sometimes I need to go off on one briefly, to avoid getting into the habit of block when the main project’s going nowhere. These days I channel that a bit better, by doing stuff in a different mode – poetry, song, rambling – but generally the same setting, so at very least I get some new sidelights on the main world. The mode-change also leavens any sense of plodding.

    The other thing about poems and songs – and presumably pictures and craftings, for those with such skills – is that they’re much more finite, and whilst not obviously useful in terms of publication, do have the excellent property of getting quickly finished.

    I still chase after the shiny too much, though.

  3. My advice for a person with a stack of half-finished stuff: sit down and re-read them. At the end of which, something have jumped out at you — or perhaps not, in which case, you’ve lost a few hours, probably a lot less than you spent writing.

    I also took up outlining to help with this. A stack of half-finished outlines doesn’t matter, because it showed the idea had no staying power.

  4. I definitely have a lot of the ‘ooh, shiny!’ ideas, and occasionally I bubble over with them. I probably have over a hundred stories with 5 or so pages written (and all my comic book projects seem to peter out at 3pp). I have recently realized (in the last few years) that if I really want to finish a story, I have to focus on it exclusively. (As I am doing right now. 60,000 words since the end of May!) And when I’m really focusing like that, I don’t want to work on anything else, even if I think I ought to.

    Once I’ve got a draft, I can start thinking about other things again. Editing is really a different process and I don’t need that obsessive focus. (Part of the obsessiveness is the -oh sh*t, i only have a little time before school starts again and I’ll be TAing!- which is actually wonderful motivation for getting things done.) So when I’m in the editing stages I can also be in the ‘create, create, create’ mode. And then, when I’m ready for something new, I go back to those 5-page files and see if any of them can be watered and sprouted into a real project.

    But working on multiple projects all in the writing stage always ends with stories being abandoned in the culvert by the side of the road. And if, say, they are serialized fanfics, you end up with a lot of irritated readers.

  5. This post is a perfect example of why I love your blog. You never try to tell anyone what they *have to* do – it’s all about choice and what works best for each person at various points in their lives.

    I have two projects on the go – one writing and one editing. That works for me right now. Who knows how long it will, but I’m enjoying it while it does. 😉

  6. Thanks yet again for your wonderful blog and your patience.

    I think maybe our early school experiences give many of us the idea that if we just find out what The Rules are and follow them, then we’ll get an A. (A is for Agent, B is for Book?)This is reinforced by the large number of how-to-write books which do hand down rules.

    I envy those who can juggle multiple projects, but juggling writing plus the rest of my life seems to be about all I can manage.

  7. You always have such a wonderfully reasonable approach to things. Thank you.

  8. I like to write a bunch of things at once, but usually its a case of me having one main project that I’m editing, and one or two other stories in the creative stage so I don’t burn out.

    It’s not a perfect system, and I may need to change eventually, but so far it seems to work for me.

  9. I find that two (at the most three) projects going at once works really well for me, mainly for the reason you already mentioned – if I get stuck in a rut with one, I can switch gears and move to the other, and then back again. Usually once I get to a certain point with one or the other, I find myself focusing exclusively on that one just to get it done. And I often feel guilty, like if I were a more “serious” writer I would only work on one project at a time, so thank you for emphasizing the “if it works for you ignore everyone else” approach!

  10. I really love your blog and have been lurking for a while; I just wanted to say that entries like this are really helpful for me. I’m eighteen and have been writing for most of my life, but I still get really overpowered by how I “should” be writing and what I “should” be doing and whether, if I don’t do those things, it makes me less of a writer…

    I love your emphasis on everyone doing things differently and explanations on what you’ve seen work for different people. Really amazing advice, thank you so much.

    • Louise – I can work on two or three projects at once if they are at completely different stages in the process: Doing editorial revisions, for instance, does not usually get much in the way of coming up with Chapter 3 of the Next Thing (except in terms of using up available time, which is always a difficulty). But trying to write the opening chapters of two different books at once has never worked for me; like you, one of them takes off and takes over. But that’s just how I work; switching off works fine for other people. So I’d be lying if I told everyone that the only way to do it is the way I do it.

      Libby – There is only one “should” or “have to” when it comes to writing: You have to write. How, when, where, with what tools, in what order…none of that is universal. And I’ve seen too many would-be writers get hung up, like you, on what they “should” be doing, as if the process is more important than the product. If for some reason, you still have trouble getting yourself to believe this, try doing what writers do best: Lie. When someone tells you that you “should” write everything by hand first, or that you “have to” work every night at 2 a.m., tell them that’s what you do. If they’ve just caught you doing something else, tell them that this isn’t how you “normally” work, it’s just an emergency make-do. Trust me, they’ll never know the difference unless you tell them. And if they can’t tell, why does it matter?

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