The Fossil Record

Juggling Multiple Writing Projects or I know I put that plot thread around here somewhere…

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We recently sent our revised projects out into the world, and now it’s time to get back to the work of writing (as opposed to revising and submitting). So, now we’re confronted with the quandary of getting reacquainted with the characters and settings and plot points of our other novels-in-progress.

In the September 2012 Writer’s Digest, Pamela Redmond Satran, wrote about the importance — and preferability — of juggling multiple writing projects. But the real question is how — especially for those of us who have full time non-writing jobs or family responsibilities or chronic illnesses.

Our current system for juggling multiple projects is a little ad-hoc, and honestly, not necessarily the most efficient. In general, we each tend to work on only one project at a time — rewriting a novel one month, followed by editing a short story the next month. In between each project, we spend time trying to remember where we left off on our last project and what it was that our characters were going to do next. In the interest of finding a better way to keep engaged and productive on multiple projects, we set out upon a research project to see how other writers tackled this juggling act.

Strategies for picking up that plot thread:

Maintain momentum on multiple projects: Pamela Redmond Satran’s Writer’s Digest article focused on the challenge of balancing time spent on paid nonfiction writing with work on a novel. “In the morning I wrote only fiction, and in the afternoon only nonfiction. To make myself switch, I set an alarm clock for noon. I hated the ringing of that alarm, but I discovered unexpected benefits. Rather than blazing through 20 pages of my novel and then letting it lie fallow for so long that I’d forgotten what my characters were named and what was supposed to happen to them, I now found that the pages started piling up, more slowly but more surely.” What might this look like in practice: Trying this strategy means we would work on multiple active projects each writing day or session — i.e. write a couple pages of a novel and then switch to editing a short story or even another novel — with the goal of maintaining momentum on both pieces.

Keep a novel journal: In a recent blog post, Alexander Chee talked about what blogging has taught him about writing novels. “I keep a journal of my novel that is just about the novel–any ideas, questions, thoughts, lines, even just entries like ‘page 77 is still a problem!’ or ‘return to page 13!’ I make the entry, even if it’s just a few lines, every day of work on it as I close the day’s work, and I also put scraps in there, deleted sections and lines I want to save. …When I return to work the next day, I reread that entry first and I return to where I was and what I was thinking about the more quickly.” What might this look like in practice: Actually, pretty straightforward no matter what your writing goals or constraints. As Chee explains: “The journal I call a ‘workjournal’ and it is a MSWord doc, and each new entry is entered at the top of the first page, a method I learned from blogging actually, so that the most recent entry is visible immediately when I open the doc–the oldest entry is at the end.”

Write something, anything: Piers Anthony, in the October 2011 issue of The Writer, explains his strategy for putting down words even when he can’t find the right ones. “Let’s say I’m stalled on a scene, or even on a paragraph. I can’t figure out how to end it, so I got into brackets: [Here’s my problem: I can’t figure out how to conclude this paragraph without seeming abrupt or stupid. What can I do? Maybe I can figure out something that will make my reader laugh, so he won’t notice that I’m not saying much. How? Maybe a spot of self-parody].” What might this look like in practice: While this strategy doesn’t speak directly to the challenges of working on multiple pieces, it could potentially be useful in helping to brush the cobwebs off a piece that might have been left a little too long dormant. By putting text in brackets, the pressure for it to be perfect — or, let’s face it, even passable — is eliminated, perhaps easing the transition back into writing and expanding on a piece of fiction.

As Margaret Atwood, in a September 2012 interview in The Writer magazine, says when comparing writing advice to diets: “You can read tons and tons about diets. But if you don’t actually follow the advice, all that reading won’t make any difference.”

Over the coming weeks and months, we’ll be giving these strategies — and any others we come across — a shot and reporting back on what worked for us, what didn’t, and why.

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